Monday, May 31, 2010

The World Is Leaking

It flows out of a gash, a wound in the earth’s crust, at the rate of ten million litres per day. But it’s not the planet’s blood - it is ours. There goes our cheap energy; there goes the fuel of industry and Western affluence. When we can put it in barrels or push it through a pipeline, it give us life but when it spills out, it becomes a poison capable of destroying all life. The world is leaking.

There is a camera mounted on a remote deep sea vessel operated by the MSV Skandi Neptune, and the feed is on the Web so you can sit at your computer and watch the oil flow out. If you do it on this page, rather than the one provided by BP, you’ll also see the estimate of the gallons leaked thus far tick over on a nifty counter. It is all incredibly sophisticated and smart. Except of course they cheat, as I did just now: I wrote ten million litres but it's not as if there’s a gauge down there, I’m just rounding the average of the conflicting estimates to the nearest million. However that clock is a powerful image: it counts forward to measure the damage, and it reminds us at the same time of the millennial clocks counting down to a symbolically charged moment in time: perhaps to the end of the world.

So it’s only natural that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should have generated its own apocalyptic fantasy.

Toxic Oil Spill Rains Warned Could Destroy North America

A dire report prepared for President Medvedev by Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources is warning today that the British Petroleum (BP) oil and gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico is about to become the worst environmental catastrophe in all of human history threatening the entire eastern half of the North American continent with “total destruction”.


The dispersal agent Corexit 9500 is a solvent originally developed by Exxon and now manufactured by the Nalco Holding Company of Naperville, Illinois that is four times more toxic than oil (oil is toxic at 11 ppm (parts per million), Corexit 9500 at only 2.61ppm). In a report written by Anita George-Ares and James R. Clark for Exxon Biomedical Sciences, Inc. titled “Acute Aquatic Toxicity of Three Corexit Products: An Overview” Corexit 9500 was found to be one of the most toxic dispersal agents ever developed. Even worse, according to this report, with higher water temperatures, like those now occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, its toxicity grows.


[S]hould a Katrina like tropical hurricane form in the Gulf of Mexico while tens of millions of gallons of Corexit 9500 are sitting on, or near, its surface the resulting “toxic rain” falling upon the North American continent could “theoretically” destroy all microbial life to any depth it reaches resulting in an “unimaginable environmental catastrophe” destroying all life forms from the “bottom of the evolutionary chart to the top”.

If you enter excerpts of this article into Google, you’ll find it reproduced verbatim on several sites, including a blog entitled News and Prophecy that also happens to include a countdown clock - to the next trillion of the United States debt. (We are at thirteen, by the way.) Most of these sites will point you to the same source for the piece, The European Union Times. And when you open that page, which replicates the design of more distinguished publications, it might briefly seem legit, but then as soon as you investigate its most unusual sections - say, Survival, right next to Entertainment - you’ll discover it’s actually a white supremacist site (hence the absence of links to it in this post). However that’s still not the actual source of the piece, which comes rather from,

a more overtly millenarist site - as the banner illustrates - where it is preceded by items such as ‘Battle Begins For Throne of This World: The Return of the Einherjar Warriors’. As far as I can tell, the article is simply made up, citing as its sole source a report by Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources, but without an actual link to anything other than the ministry’s homepage, and giving Corexit 9500 the same awesome powers of nanothermite. This however doesn’t make it less interesting, both for the manner in which it has been circulated - with successive cross-posters replacing the original source with a less immediately suspect site - and for its language and content. Think about it: attempts to resolve a catastrophic oil spill trigger the risk of a far greater catastrophe. Does it sound like the remedies to the financial crisis? And that last piece of the quotation, destroying all life forms from the “bottom of the evolutionary chart to the top” is straight out of Cormac McCarthy. Why should humans die last, if not in order to have to suffer and reflect until the bitterest of ends on the product of their folly?

Toxic rains, an ashen world: it really could be the unspecified catastrophic event that prefaces McCarthy’s The Road. Post-apocalyptic fiction is traditionally about imagining new and occasionally utopian societies as much as anything else, but it’s also something of an irritating misnomer, inasmuch as there can't be anything 'after' the apocalypse. Truer to the label on the package, neither the novel nor John Hillcoat's film adaptation of The Road offer the prospect of a future, however uncertain or remote. Although a measure of temporary comfort is afforded to the younger protagonist at the end of the narrative, humanity is conclusively doomed. Yet somehow the story is still told by means of a film and a novel that exist in a world of logic and sense, and that in our pre-apocalyptic world can be even bought and sold. Like in the paradox of those stories told in the first-person by a character who dies at the end, it’s as if it was assumed by tacit convention that the last thing that will abandon us is the capacity - which is also a need - to tell, show, describe, and then to dutifully consume such accounts. Even if by then it will be utterly incongruous to do so.

And so we sit and we look at the oil spill feed, mesmerized, and watch the number of gallons climb nonsensically (for what does it mean?); we learn about procedures such as top-kill, we hear of the appearance of another plume - perhaps even bigger than the first - due to a chemical used in the failed attempts to contain the spill; and we churn out fictions about toxic rains and nuclear solutions. Like in The Road, like in Armageddon. In the meantime the planet continues to bleed, leaking BP's share price and reputation, leaking the global GDP, accelerating our descent into the age of scarcity at the rate of ten million litres of crude per day.

That it’s all so neatly packaged and mediated is also utterly incongruous. And not just because there are no web cams to document the decades-long devastation in the Niger delta, no real-time meters accounting for its human and environmental cost, which is several orders of magnitude greater than the one occurring in the Gulf of Mexico; but also and principally because the deployment of all these sophisticated instruments of description presupposes and in fact constitutes a citizenry on this side of the screen which is already resigned to the coming apocalypse, and is prepared to follow it as one would a sporting event: with a live feed and real-time statistics, but above all the feeling of being intimately invested in the outcome and yet totally powerless to influence it.

This resigned passivity of course has no basis in anything resembling an objective reality. There is nothing natural, outside of history or the social contract, about the dominion of transnational corporations over the policy-making of elected officials, just as there is nothing natural about capitalism and its workings, or the state itself. It’s that we have given up thinking of political alternatives to the point that even our post-apocalyptic imagination has become atrophied, as if all that was left to do really was to tell the end of the story.

On the subject of peak oil and peak capitalism, this essay by Richard Wolff for The Oil Drum has a certain succinct clarity of purpose.

I didn't quite manage to mention Peter Ward's highly relevant The Medea Hypothesis, usefully reviewed here by Steven Shaviro.

Mark Fisher’s review of The Road for Film Quarterly makes some of the points I made here except, you know, better.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber wrote this: "This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with the economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Educating Rosie

Lyn Childs, one of the interviewees in Connie Field’s documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, has explained more succinctly than anybody else I have come across the origins of Rosie.
When we first got into the war, the country wasn’t prepared. They needed all the heads they could get, and they drafted them all. And as the manpower in the country was getting pulled into the service, all of the industries were wide open. So they decided, ‘Well, we better let some of those blacks come in.’ Then after the source of men dried up, they began to let women come in. It wasn’t a struggle to do it, it was just plain necessity. The doors were opened.
That is how in 1943 Ms Childs, an African-American woman, found employment as a welder in the San Francisco shipyard. As she goes on to explain
[w]e’d never had the opportunity to do that kind of work. Do you think that if you did domestic work all of your life, where you’d cleaned somebody’s toilets and did all the cooking for some lazy character who were sitting on top, and you finally get a chance where you can get a dignified job, you wouldn’t fly through the door?

However this is not the picture of the vast new contingent of female factory workers that was being presented through the media at the time. First of all, the women on the posters and in the newsreels – and who became collectively known as Rosie the Riveter from one of the songs that celebrated them – were unfailingly white. Secondly, and no less importantly, they hailed from the middle class. If they already had jobs at all, they would be as floor managers in a fashion store, not as waitresses or chambermaids, but mostly they were housewives or brides to be, first-time workers whom the propaganda reels urged to join the ‘invisible army’ as a temporary sacrifice, just like going to war was a sacrifice for the soldiers; not to get a better, more dignified job, much less gain long-term financial independence. Yet long before the image on the J. Howard Miller poster above and on the Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post were reclaimed by the women’s movement, many of them had developed a sense of themselves as belonging to a new generation of women: skilled workers who – in the words of another of Field’s informants, Lola Weixel – could contribute after the conflict to the reconstruction of the cities, ‘do all the good and beautiful things for America, because Fascism was destroyed’.

But America had different ideas, and just as quickly and meticulously as the image of virtuous Rosie was constructed, it was deconstructed. Suddenly the women in overalls depicted in the reels started being asked by the man off screen if they had plans to continue working after the war. ‘I should say not. When my husband comes back, I shall be busy at home,’ replied one. ‘My job belongs to some soldier. When he comes back, he can have it,’ said another. Women belonged in the home, and jobs didn’t belong to women. Suddenly too the children for whom the work recruitment trailers had promised largely non-existent childcare provisions became victims of neglect due to the selfish career pursuits of their mothers, and the very fabric of modern marriage and society had come under threat. It’s all rather neatly condensed in the following 100-second reel segment, which culminates in the staggering musings of Marynia F. Farnham, MD.

A formidable text to unpack, I think you’ll agree. But it’s not my intention to point and laugh at the crude propaganda, rather to argue that things in fact haven’t progressed much further. There is much still that is crude about contemporary ideas regarding women in the workplace, and the contradictions are just as glaring. Writes Nina Power:
When people talk about the 'feminization of labor', then, their discourse is often double-edged. The phrase is at once descriptive (work is generally more precarious and communication-based, as women's jobs tended to be in the past) and an expression of resentment ('women have stolen proper men's jobs! It's their fault - somehow - that we don't have any proper industry anymore!').

Nowhere is this tension, this simultaneous pull in two opposite directions more evident than in the figure of the working mother. While the message in the United States in the immediate post-War period was that such a creature could not by rights exist

Western societies have since become much more comfortable with extracting from women both the labour and the children, and without having to provide very much at all by way of provisions or compensation. We simply ask that they be both things at once – the feminine nuclear wife and the hard(nosed) worker, the tender mother and the ambitious career-seeker. Of course there is no inherent contradiction between any of those terms: what constitutes anti-progress is that this modern-day Rosie - just like her predecessor - is presented not as a possibility open to women but rather as a demand put on women.

‘juggling kids and career while standing on her head’

Enter SuperMom, the action figure. This brilliant creation from the team at Happy Worker ‘magically creates extra hours each day juggling kids, schedules, chores and career’. Her ‘eight accessories of mommy might’ include an interchangeable calm or frazzled head, a ‘super-long to do list’ and naturally a baby, whose mood can also be changed between ‘little angel’ or ‘mini monster’. Available in three different ethnicities (‘while each cultural version has unique mom and baby paint detailing, all share the same packaging with Caucasian pictures’), SuperMom
[navigates] jungles of toys and mountains of kiddie stuff, [...] prepares tasty-yet-healthy snacks, tames dust bunnies and banishes stubborn stains. With an invisible third arm and a never ending pursuit of work / life balance she can help with a school project and answer an all-important business call while wrist deep in dirty diapers.
Oh, and by the way: she cannot sit down, which, as the makers quite appropriately point out, is actually a feature.

What’s happening here? Is this a humorous send-up, or is it in fact integral to the indoctrination of the modern woman? If the material that accompanies SuperMom doesn’t read like a piece of propaganda, if you think it’s much too light-hearted, firstly I’d respond that so was Rosie’s song, and so were many of the reels in which she starred, but I’d also suggest that what might have occurred is simply a rhetorical shift in the kinds of texts that we invest with constructing our social realities. We no longer model our behaviour based on the instructional videos issued by government agencies, by and large; but maybe we take our cues (also) from comic strips, action figures, glossy magazines, always feeling that we are subjects capable of evaluating autonomously the truth value of their statements, which is likely how the original audiences of those World War II newsreels felt about themselves. But ironic distancing is not the same as safeguarding one’s autonomous judgment, as standing outside of a text – if there was even such a place. So the problem remains of how to get past the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes from getting the joke; how to substitute the inexorable logic, the perfect interplay of signs and meanings (‘SuperMom’s mood is usually determined by her children’s’) with a gesture of defiance, or the call for some sort of action, as opposed to just another piece of analysis, another blog post for like-minded people to nod at.

I don’t know how to do that. Well, obviously! I tend – perhaps because of my topic of interest – to search my memory and the past for political projects, instead of looking forward to them, and I tell myself that there is a place for that kind of work. But at the same time I feel a growing sense of impatience, when I read, say, about SuperMom or watch the new ad for the Sienna SE. Impatience at myself, for wanting to deconstruct these texts, for almost physically needing to do it, and impatience at them, for being so perfectly maddeningly clever and wrong. And I seek solace in gestures, writings or images capable of pushing back. Today, it’s in the extraordinary clarity and strength of the women interviewed by Connie Field, so glorious even in defeat; in the energy of Nina Power’s book; and in the frescoes of the chapel of San Precario, a place where to pause and contemplate what work has become, what we have allowed it to become. And there I find a rather different image of the working mother.

Here too we find that tension, that literal pull in two opposite directions, but this time without without the illusion that those obligations can in fact be successfully mediated, or that the choice – your baby and your job – is a meaningful one if it’s not accompanied by profound changes in the way we do things, in work itself. And that’s a good way to begin to look forward: by starting again to formulate demands.

Connie Field's The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (which is also where the YouTube segment comes from) is now available on DVD through the link on the title - whereas Amazon will tell you it's out of print.

Nina Power. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester: 0 Books, 2009. The book was reviewed by Dougal here.

This just came to hand: Visualising the 100-hour week of the 1947 housewife, by the redoubtable Mr Ptak.

(And before somebody points it out, I'm aware that technically the J. Howard Miller poster at the top of the post is not of Rosie.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Happy Worker

Another example comes from founder Katherine Hudson of the Brady Corporation who described her company’s introduction of a fun culture through her own experiences of how humour can alleviate bad spells of redundancies and changes implemented.

(Carolyn Hunter)

The Happy Worker Mask designed by the folks at comes with ‘3-step instructions for instant happiness’:
1. Cut along dotted line
2. For ear handles, punch 2 holes and thread rubber band through.
3. Put your Happy Worker mask on and be a happy worker!

Immediately, one is struck by how smart the concept is, how subtly it plays with notions of fulfilment and pleasure in the contemporary workplace, as well as with the mandatory enthusiasm that the professional world demands of most of us at all times. Wearing this mask can be a concise yet powerful statement, along the following lines: I am not happy here, and there is nothing I can do to change that, but I can pretend to be happy – indeed, it is expected of me. So I put on my happy face, but signal at the same time that it is just that: a mask. For this day only, it’s a literal mask, and who knows, underneath it I might allow myself to form a genuine smile; but that smile is not for you to see.

This is, or could be, a joke at the expense of the workplace, the boss, work itself; it is even possible to imagine scenarios in which the mask could be worn as an act of defiance. But it’s probably not the spirit in which it was conceived: if you visit the Happy Worker’s website you quickly realise that there is no explicit critical value in what they do, quite the opposite: everything – the ideas, the products, the services – is marketed to companies as adjunct, useful lubricant to the smooth working of the postmodern workplace: a workplace that is comfortable with the exploitation of labour, people and ideas; with chronic job insecurity: with the lack of prospects and chances of fulfilment. Above all, a workplace that is comfortable, very comfortable, with worker unhappiness, and has stopped pretending that it can be meaningfully alleviated, let alone put an end to. How else do you explain this little instant comic:

Before purchasing one of the company’s Office Toys and Amusements

…and after.

This time the joke is solely at the expense of the worker, whose attempts to ‘personalise’ his cubicle with a bunch of figurines and a smiley-face poster are as transparent as they are pathetic: a series of conformist gestures made to fill an empty space – between the daily grind and one’s hopes and ambitions – whose true gaping breadth would be far too painful to acknowledge.

Yet there is naturally a lot of money to be made by catering to these gestures. Not all of the action figures for the modern cubicle are as clever and delicious to deconstruct as the Happy Worker’s, but if the proliferation of dedicated websites is any indication, they sell quite well. So much so that I wonder if it’s time that we talked more often about an infantilisation of work – rather than just its feminisation – and from a more critical perspective than in the study of business practices alone. In other words, not in terms of whether it’s effective and can make a company more profitable, but rather of what it says about the dominant conceptions of work and society. And here I should declare right away that I don’t regard this infantilisation as a sign that work practices are necessarily being dumbed down, as some critics would have it. There is nothing inherently dumb about the role-playing that goes on in team-building exercises – or at least not dumber than more traditional forms of corporate induction – and you can pack quite a bit of meaning into some of those plastic figurines. I’m more concerned about what the conflation of play and work says about agency and control. Children may live wonderfully creative and imaginative lives, but they rarely seize control or are put in charge of things; their naïve wisdom may be quite effective at exposing the contradictions of the adult world, but we’re still the ones who tell them when it’s time to go to bed. An infantilised workforce doesn’t organise; it is innovative and full of ideas, but incapable of articulating demands or staging an effective rebellion.

An infantilised workforce is also easily placated: with sweets, the odd unscheduled recreational moment and, above all, toys. Don’t think action figures: think gadgets; think the company iPad or iPhone; think the multimedia entertainment that can be packed into your average work commute. And think of where these electronic toys are made, and by whom.

At the same time as the adult Western workforce in the services sector is infantilised, the not yet or barely adult workforce in the rest of the world is made to work the night shift, way past their bedtime. The image above is of operators falling asleep on the job at the KYE systems factory of Dongguan, China, in a unit dedicated to the manufacturing of Microsoft computer accessories.
The mostly female workers, aged 18 to 25, work from 7.45am to 10.55pm, sometimes with 1,000 workers crammed into one 105ft by 105ft room.

They are not allowed to talk or listen to music, are forced to eat substandard meals from the factory cafeterias, have no bathroom breaks during their shifts and must clean the toilets as discipline, according to the [National Labour Committee].

The workers also sleep on site, in factory dormitories, with 14 workers to a room.

They must buy their own mattresses and bedding, or else sleep on 28in-wide plywood boards. They 'shower' with a sponge and a bucket.

And many of the workers, because they are young women, are regularly sexually harassed, the NLC claimed.

The organisation said that one worker was even fined for losing his finger while operating a hole punch press.

This is not the life of children. There is no pretence that these workers could be regaled with happy masks or figurines, and besides assembly line work doesn’t lend itself to being infantilised. On the contrary, think about it: the dormitory, the discipline, the toilet-cleaning, the harassment – the overt model here is army life, the very thing that was once supposed to ‘make a man out of you’. Different social and labour conditions, as well as different levels of assimilation of the principles of capitalism, demand different instruments of control.

So on the one hand, as we have seen, there is the displacement of work: the artful concealment of the toil that goes into making the things that we use, with the added political benefit of Western resentment towards Asians who steal our manufacturing jobs, as opposed to the Western companies that ship them there, and elsewhere. (It wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Happy Worker's figures are made in China, now, would it? A quick look at the travels of Geekman will confirm this hunch.) And on the other hand, back home, there is the equally as artful dissimulation, the pretence that work isn’t work: it’s play, it’s socialising, it’s fun: it blends with your free time, thanks in no small part to the constant humming of electronic gadgets, which are the soundtrack to both.

It is at this time that you look again at the Happy Worker Mask, and realise that it’s like the grin of the Cheshire Cat: just hovering there, the last thing that you see of the worker in the act of disappearing. There, he is gone now, but he looked so very happy.

The quote at the top of the post comes from Carolyn Hunter's Infantilising Work - Play and Humour in 'Fun' Organisations

Monday, May 10, 2010

'Elephant in the Room' Turns Out to Be Actual Elephant

They didn’t have dental records back then

At banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

This episode - reproduced here in Frances Yates’ famous retelling - hails originally from book II of Cicero’s De Oratore. But if this is really the seminal moment in the ancient invention of a systematic art of memory, it suggests a bleak motive. Should the lesson be that memory is the art of identifying human remains, of naming that which is dead?

And now, an engram from our sponsors

I have 391 memories. In Evernote, that is. The software’s motto is “Remember everything”. One of the fans of the Evernote group on Facebook took it a step further: ‘Evernote IS my memory’. I duly recorded this on my Evernote account, along with a reminder to tip my hat to Jake and a link to Gordon Bell's alarming dictum ‘I am data’. I needn’t have bothered with that last item, as it turns out, since Bell’s book Total Recall pops up regularly in the corner of the interface reserved for paid advertisements.

Evernote is my memory, and it cuts to commercials. It also has a size limit. If you try to remember more than 40 MB of stuff over a month, you have to go premium and pay a subscription.

Although my main interest in it is how it advertises itself, and I’d much rather recommend Zotero, Evernote really is quite useful. However I find that I get lazy with it and when I do it defies its own purpose. More and more often these days when I receive a recommendation or discover a new interesting page or site on the Web I no longer even bother to give it a preliminary skimming - I quickly tag it and dump it into Evernote for future consideration. The more the list grows, the further back this future time gets pushed. The other problem with this deferral strategy is that by not even reading those entries once, I never allow them to enter the brain, which is where the brewing and the marinating and the slow cooking for the purposes of these writings take place.

When I die I’ll leave my children thousands of these memories, and if they so desire they’ll be able to synch them with their own.

On being enraptured admiring art masterpieces

In other respects I don’t totally lack in discipline. In fact over the years I have developed a reasonably effective memory system. It started during my PhD, when I discovered that I did of some of my best work during the long walks I took to get away from the block-inducing computer screen. At those times I needed to remember either some key phrases, or a logical succession of paragraphs, or a particular connection between different ideas. Writing this down on a notebook instantly killed the creative process, whereas creating mnemonic pathways did just the opposite. But the risk of discovering that everything was forgotten by the time I got back to the computer was ever present. Eventually I learned to create helpful mental vignettes, very much like in a rebus.

For those of you who might not know, a rebus is a pictorial puzzle consisting of letters and images that must be combined to form a series of words or a phrase. Shirley Carran’s banner at the top of this page is in fact a very simple rebus (unlike the Bert Warter artwork I had originally chosen). But a rebus can be a lot more complex than that, as the legendary Italian puzzle magazine La Settimana Enigmistica illustrates on a weekly basis. Here’s an example.

(La Settimana Enigmistica puzzle #607157, first published on 12 May 2001. Click here to enlarge.)

The key to this rebus is 10, 9, 10, 1, 4, meaning that the solution is a five-word sentence in which each word is of the stated length. It’s actually an easy one: the A is placed on the Eastern direction of the compass (est), both R and MM (sia…sia) sit on a map of Iran, D is next to a goose (oca), L floats on the Po River (for the unmistakable profile of the Mole Antonelliana indicates that the city in the background is Turin); R is an old man (avo) in the act of giving () a doll to the little girl and finally R rests on a cup of tea ( – the label says Ceylon, so you know it’s not coffee).

Hence: estAsiaRsiaMMirandocapoLavoRIdaRte, that is to say Estasiarsi ammirando capolavori d’arte – ‘To be enraptured admiring art masterpieces’.

The fundamental characteristic of rebuses of this kind is that none of the images resemble any part of the solution: in this instance, there is nobody being enraptured admiring art in the picture. Now I’m not that much of a purist (in fact I’m a pretty poor solver of rebuses), but in my little mnemonic vignettes I use sometimes an image of the thing I need to remember – say, a piece of chess for the game of chess –, sometimes an image that points to an alternative meaning of a word – say, a very hot day with the sun at its zenith for Jeff Noon – and sometimes I break a phrase into syllables like in a proper a rebus. The key, as the ancient Roman rhetoricians taught us, is to make the images as vivid and detailed as possible, and to link them together in order to produce a redundancy. Perhaps you’ll forget the old man and his doll, but you won’t forget the two maps of Iran, or the other way around. Either way, recalling part of a sentence or concept will help you remember the rest.

The most valuable aspect of this method is that it allows me to compose a rough draft of, say, an entire essay or blog post without having to sit down at my desk, where the rather more slow-going and mechanical act of actual writing would be much more likely to throw up blocks in my way before I’ve had time to come up with the whole argument. Given the time constraints that life puts on my blogging, I’m more indebted than ever to this technique.

Some things I need help with

I started my doctoral thesis in 2002, when Usenet was still going quite strong. So in the early going, when I was gathering my primary sources, I was able to simply pick some newsgroups and ask film or mainstream literature or science-fiction enthusiasts to help me compile my lists. This was invaluable, but by the time I got to acknowledge it in the finished manuscript I did so with some sadness, for those groups had become but a shadow of their former gloriously chaotic, periodically troll-infested yet still vital and useful selves.

Every now and again I’d still like to be able to compile such lists. For instance, I’d like to write about the film trope whereby the protagonist burns or otherwise disposes of mementoes of his or (less frequently) her beloved. It happens in The Road, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Memento. But where else? And where does one ask a question like that these days?

(A couple more tropes I’d like to explore: sole copies of book manuscripts that are lost or destroyed; characters in action films having to wait for the progress bar on a computer reaching the end before they can make their exit and escape the bad guys who are closing in on them.)

More and more, I also think I should learn some coding. This is really not realistic. But I’d like to know more ways to break out of the blogger template, or at least to be aware of what is possible to do. For instance: take this sentence. I wonder exactly how many of you saw the phrase ‘take this sentence’, and how many a string of webding characters?

Results will vary, that much I know, but I also wish I knew how to force the display of one set or characters or the other by the remote browsers. If it’s even possible. Graphical presentation is crucial to conveying meaning, and in some respects the Web increases our awareness of this, but it also and more fundamentally promotes the separation of form and content. I’d like to take some of that control back from time to time.

Another thing, trickier still I’m sure: further to last week’s post and Noon’s idea of a library in which the books’ contents disappear in the act of reading, I wonder if it would be possible to make it work on the Web. Could a web page be constructed so that its text disappears when the user scrolls down the page?

…and one thing I no longer need help with

After a friend posted the following image on Facebook, I made repeated attempts over several months to find its source.

I entered into Google a dozen of so variations of Masaccio and McDonalds and expulsion from paradise, but to no avail. As it happens, I spoke to my friend again and she gave me more information and I was able to finally locate the source just last night. Still: does anybody know if there’s a way to search for a picture by finding a file match? Are the headers of JPEG files indexed anywhere? Assuming the image wasn’t modified since its was downloaded from the Web, could exact file size be used as a search criterion?

(There is, of course, the fascinating world of Query By Image Content, whereby some day you could ask a search engine to locate, say, all paintings in a certain collection featuring hats. It’s all very rudimentary still, but I like from time to time to have a little play with the QBIC engine at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, which hasn’t really improved at all in the last several years. I take perverse comfort in that.)

Two books are up

I have scanned and uploaded to a free filesharing service the books About Dustmen (from this post) and USSR – The People’s Well-Being (from this post). They’re both long since out of print and each download will set you back 25 MB or so.

Comment is sacred

And finally: of all my favourite blogs, there are just three that don’t allow comments. I see the thinking behind that decision: sometimes it’s just untenable, the extra thing you cannot devote yourself to. Mark Fisher intimated once that he wrote Capitalist Realism in the time he would otherwise have spent reading and answering blog comments, and if that’s true then I’m glad he made that choice. In my case however I’ve lost count of the occasions in which the comments to this blog have been far more exciting and valuable than the post that originated them. I’m very proud of that, and full of appreciation of the time and thought expended by the commenters, and I think I ought to say it more often. I also wish I could somehow demand from time to time that people catch up with the discussion on the previous week’s post before they even considered reading the new one. Perhaps if I introduced homework and tests?

On the subject of cherished contributions, I have updated Harvest Bird’s Compendium. As always, an utterly pleasant task.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Falling Out of Cars

'Nothing can be trusted. That's the worst of it. Nothing can be saved, nothing retrieved. Nothing can be stated, nothing mapped out. Nothing can be fixed. Where then shall we go from here?'

A sickness that spreads between people but whose effects take place in the pathway between a transmitting device and its receiver. A slow, drawn out, worn out apocalypse in which the world ceases to produce meaning and grinds to a semiotic halt. A book that is only eight years old and already out of print.

I can’t get my head around the last part. Jeff Noon’s Falling Out of Cars came out early in the life of my dissertation and I had it down as a paradigm-shifting novel, the kind of work that creates its own sub-genre. Yet I learnt some time later that it wasn't going to be published in the United States, while in its native Britain it died the slow death of the novel of ideas whose ideas don’t quite catch on. But how? It seemed so relevant to me, so precisely symptomatic of the anxieties that fester in the crevices of our marvellous technologies of communication and memory. That others failed to feel the same way felt like a foreboding, too: surely my dissertation was headed in the same direction, the path of the unread.

‘When the words disappear, where do they go?’

A contagion that spreads between people but affects symbols and ideas, language and machines. The game of chess can no longer be played - not because people have forgotten how, but because it has lost all sense of its rules. The very coastline of the country has started to fray, ‘like a cloth, unraveling.’ Everywhere in the space between symbols and understanding there is noise. Literal noise: a buzzing and a crackling and popping, and then a blurring and a mist that make the outline of letters and images harder and harder to make out. Computers and cars get sick and die. Clocks no longer tell the time. Telephones connect you to random conversations or are plagued by a permanent static. Mirrors are the most diseased of all, and have to be hidden or covered so that the sick won’t be driven mad looking at their own mutated reflection.

We're losing ourselves. We're losing all the traces, all the moments of the world, one by one.
I have to keep writing.

Jeff Noon’s web page was last updated in February of 2008. The latest entry in his personal diary reveals that as of April 2005 he was working on a screenplay for Falling Out of Cars. Provisional title: The Noise. I assume nothing came of it, which is a terrible shame. I try to imagine what the score would sound like. (There is somewhere out there a recording of Noon reading his penultimate novel to date, Needle in the Groove, with soundtrack by the great David Toop.) Then he was involved with other writers in a work of experimental Web fiction entitled 217 Babel St. Ongoing, perhaps, it’s hard to say. Cobralingus came and went. Perhaps his writing world unravelled too, or the remarkable thread that linked all of his novels has become all entangled: the sexualised transmission of information (nymphomation); computer viruses crossing over into the human bloodstream; mirrors and feathers that record dreams; Lewis Carroll, Borges, Edgar Allan Poe - maybe it all became a horrible tangled mess.

In the book, too, the writer/narrator is troubled: made sick by the disease that had already claimed her young daughter ('Angela died in a tank. A tank of water. Isolated. They say her own heartbeat killed her, the rhythms of it. A terrible music. She drowned. She drowned in herself.'), she tries to keep a faithful diary, a record, as if that was the key to start making sense of herself once again. But the diary, which is to say the novel, doesn’t hang together; it, too, is diseased, riddled with mistakes and erasures, incoherent, feverish.
[…] all the words crawling around the paper, merging together, separating, and all the time losing themselves before my eyes, my cold staring eyes. Even the pages I had been working on just a short while before, they too were cast in this strange manner, and lost. The story, lost. Only here and there amongst the pages would a few lines of text emerge clearly from the black, smoky mess of ink, words I could not recognize as my own. Some other person had taken over the writing of the book. And then I bent my head a little, and brought the book closer, towards my face. There it was, on the edge of silence, a gentle fizzing sound. The book was making a noise.

When I first read Falling Out of Cars, sensitised as I was to reflections on culture and writing technologies and how we keep our personal and collective histories safe, I found it a mine of arresting images and ideas that seemed to both validate and challenge my thinking. There is the top floor of the Museum of Fragile Things, lined with books whose words vanish as soon as they are read; there is the electronic spellchecker gone mad, frantically searching through every possible combination of letters for tiny fragments of meaning, but finding nothing more coherent than 'your pyramids shall'; and then of course there is the road, that everyplace of apocalyptic literature and film, except here it doesn’t connect places but rather meander - always seemingly somewhere outside of London - and the characters don’t find themselves but rather lose themselves in it, like in that forest in Through the Looking-Glass that makes you forget who you are.

John Hillcoat's The Road.

It is along this road that the effects of the virus are made visible not in the form of chaos and destruction but the cars abandoned by drivers who no longer trusted themselves, or the measures taken to keep information at bay.
Only the most important road signs could be seen, and these limited to half a dozen basic symbols. LEFT, RIGHT, GO, STOP, YES, NO. Very few of the stores had proper names to them. They were called things like BUTCHER, or else BAKER, or even PRODUCT. There was more than one shop called, quite simply, SHOP.

It’s at this point, 39 pages into the book, seven years or so after my first reading of it and newly sensitised to an altogether different set of issues, that it struck me: the sickness that Noon is describing is not a form of amnesia. It’s autism. The rote social gestures, the pieced together conversations - remembered, ‘not created there and then’ - the people avoiding each other’s stare; and above all the perception of that noise, the hypersensitivity, what Poe in The Fall of the House of Usher calls ‘a morbid acuteness of the senses’. Textbook symptoms, yet strictly metaphorical, pointing to the notion of autism as cultural condition, a collective adverse reaction to the hypermediation of every aspect of our working and social lives.

(I am not, to be very clear, suggesting that this cultural hypothesis should have a direct bearing on our understanding of clinical autism and its causes, remedies and possibilities; rather that the sometimes irritating, facile flurry of interest in the latter, its sudden and sustained mass cultural appeal, may be due in part to a growing if not altogether explicit awareness that autism invests aspects of the self that are laid bare and made more vulnerable by the manner in which we live.)

If the sickness of Falling Out of Cars is autism, then it is a bleak diagnosis, a harrowing account of its effects on the self and on the fabric of our affective lives. But there is also a hopefulness of sorts in the attempt to inhabit the condition, to give it a sympathetic poetic description: not just of the constant and paralysing assault on the senses, but also of the countermeasures, of the coping mechanisms, and even of the possibility to sense and understand the world in a radically different way. So in the end the little ray of light that peers out of the story is not Tupelo, the girl who is immune to the virus and whose genes may contain the key to a vaccine, but the children who are ‘learning to live with the noise’, finding new languages and gestures to make sense of their changed world and transform that noise into a legitimate and natural source of meaning. It is in that brief moment that Falling Out of Cars becomes counter-apocalyptic, speculating that humanity might develop a new native language in which to state a new set of relationships between technology, work, the environment and society. It is a daring leap of the imagination, and a far too relevant message to find in an out-of-print book.


Which leads me tiptoeing into an awed coda, in the form of what are quite possibly the most extraordinary and challenging eight minutes on the Web. Amanda Baggs, In My Language. You must watch this.

I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and feel – I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books, and fail to do them to the wrong things, or else people doubt that I am a thinking being. And since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much, they doubt that I’m a real person as well.

Jeff Noon. Falling Out of Cars. London: Doubleday, 2002. The page numbers for the quotations are available upon request. The final extract is from In My Language (and here the hat tip goes, I think, to Russell.)