Monday, August 30, 2010

Time Travel (3): New Zealand in 1973

Fresh air, magnificent scenery and outdoor activities are the feature attractions of New Zealand. It’s not a big country but for sheer variety it’s hard to beat. As soon as you reach New Zealand, you quickly see that its reputation for being ‘clean and green’ is well deserved. Visitors who come expecting a pristine, green, well-organised little country are not disappointed.

Thus the atrocious beginning of the Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand that Justine and I purchased shortly after landing at Auckland airport in late 1997. It described the New Zealand of the travel brochures, of landscapes barely touched by history or civilization except in the form of an eager and helpful services industry in charge of packaging all of this nature and making it available to the tourist. I had never set foot in the place, but I knew scenic, well-organised New Zealand chiefly as a fiction, a marketing construct, brilliantly satirized by Lee Tamahori in the opening sequence of Once Were Warriors – which we had seen back home, dubbed into Italian, a couple of years earlier. But aside from Justine's stories and family photos, my main source of information about New Zealand was neither film nor guidebook, but rather the writings of Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield; writings in which nature featured prominently, but as a vehicle of social, psychological and historical meanings, more intensely than but otherwise not entirely unlike the countryside of my own maternal ancestors, or the mountains where my parents used to hike before my sister and I were born. Landscapes that weren't urban, but that were nonetheless indelibly marked by human intervention, if only under the guise of storytelling.

These days the guidebooks on the market – Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Fodor's, Eyewitness – all follow the same pattern: a quick historical background, information on how to get there (that is to say, here) and then the region-by-region, centre-by-centre breakdown of the things to see and do, chiefly in the outdoors department, always striving above all else to be up to date, detailed, accurate. It is a reassuringly practical approach, and perfectly attuned to the needs of today's international tourist, who can afford to visit the country for as little as two weeks – international travel being as affordable as it is – and in that time could not be expected to acquire much more than a series of snapshots, and not just of our scenery, either. Here's the highly cringeworthy paragraph on 'Maori Culture' from the introduction of Fodor's See It New Zealand, 3rd edition:
A big draw for visitors is the vibrant culture of New Zealand's first inhabitants, the Maori. After their culture was suppressed throughout the 19th century, Maori society enjoyed a renaissance towards the end of the 1970s. Language, art and kapa haka (performance arts) are thriving. The most popular place for visitors to experience these is Rotorua.

It was at the beginning of this year that I came into possession – thanks to an especially thoughtful friend – of Maurice Shadbolt’s Shell Guide to New Zealand, the first of its kind. It was originally published in 1968, although mine is the revised edition of 1973. I am fond of those dates because they straddle our birth years, Justine’s and mine. It is the New Zealand in which she was born, and that I didn’t know existed; a New Zealand that, it seems to me, is often damned with faint praise: attached to an egalitarianism that could no longer be sustained, cohesive but stifling, monocultural, insular yet still reliant on Britain’s appetite for its exports. The Māori renaissance had yet to take place, or the Waitangi Tribunal created; the Springbok Tour of ‘81 had yet to form a new generation of political activists, and the Homosexual Law Reform Act was over a decade away, as were the Rogernomes and their cohorts, with their dreams of putting the 'new' back in New Zealand. It was not so much a time of transition as a time before, the country that contemporary New Zealand gets most often compared to, and in generally favourable terms. Whatever our current predicaments, we shouldn’t wish to return to that.

There is probably a lot of truth in those sentiments, but I for one wouldn’t mind a return to their guidebooks.

A very helpful Air New Zealand employee informed me today that in the 1960s a return air trip to Europe cost 21 times the average weekly wage, versus 2.8 times today. So to the extent that The Shell Guide to New Zealand was conceived with the overseas visitor in mind at all, it would have been a thoughtful model tourist, interested not so much in the snapshot as in the protracted experience of a long stay, if not a relocation; somebody who wanted – in Shadbolt’s words – to ‘comprehend New Zealand’. And who wouldn’t mind doing the work of reading, for apart from the brief ‘Gazzetteer’ sections at the end of each regional chapter, the Shell Guide is impervious to skimming, and reads almost like a novel.

But before moving on to what this almost-novel is about, the time traveller must account, as always, for the things that aren’t there: most conspicuously of all, there is not a single occurrence in the guide of the word 'Kiwi' to mean 'New Zealander', nor the fruit for that matter, which goes by that name only amongst Asians and Americans, we are informed, and remains Chinese gooseberry to the locals, for whom it’s just an export amongst many, slotting behind the tamarillo at the end of a long list. And so too the bird is a native species unworthy of treatment more special than the others. Just as strikingly, the only outdoor activities cited in the book are tramping, golf, fishing and skiing – no rafting, kayaking or paragliding, and certainly no bungy jumping. There is no Te Papa in Wellington, and in fact precious few museums up and down the country (but the Govett-Brewster gallery had opened in New Plymouth in time for the 1973 edition, and was already listed as ‘superb’). The capital features an aquarium, but Auckland and Napier do not. And while the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute would have existed, you could still walk up to Pohutu as part of your tour of Whakarewarewa. The single most substantial absence however has to be the Pasifika influence, in Auckland as much as elsewhere, although Shadbolt notes the upsurge of immigrants from the Islands alongside the further weakening of the ties with mother England.

(Actually, I have one more: there is no mention in the guide of a local film industry. That’s probably because John O’Shea’s Runaway was the only New Zealand feature film of the 1960s, after his Broken Barrier had been the only one of the previous decade. I am always quietly staggered by this statistic. On the plus side: no bloody Lord of the Rings or Middle Earth tours.)

Auckland, by Garth Tapper

The Shell Guide begins with an historical introduction, too, but it sets a very different tone:
The visitor might be tempted to see this shore as innocent of history; he would be wrong. Wrong, that is, unless he excludes the struggle of a restless land to find shape, within some final skin; wrong unless he excludes the eccentricities of creation, of flora and fauna, upon these isolated islands; and above all wrong if he imagines the human occupation of the country, relatively so recent, to be a simple story.
And so the separate treatment of each region is an answer to just that call, the telling of a far from simple story: seventeen essays in which history is woven into the slow-moving journey from Northland to Southland.

As a history book, the Shell Guide may not reflect the best scholarship available to us, or even back then for that matter, and is bound to contain several errors that escape my scrutiny, but is immensely readable and made more fascinating by its itinerant structure: it is history as exploration. Besides as always I am fascinated by layman interrogations of the past from within another past, which often expose the ideological orientations prevalent at the time. In Shadbolt’s case, the narrative is mediated by the not unappealing figure of the enlightened and compassionate Pākehā writer who seeks to comprehend and emulate, rather than romanticise or subsume, the experience of true, or at any rate truer, indigeneity, in pursuit of a contemporary native inflection. It is a stance that in Shadbolt is both self-conscious and explicit, as is his convinction that it is the artist, more so than the historian or the politician, who is best qualified to capture the true spirit of the nation. Thus his frequent appeal in the text to the work of several leading literary figures – Pākehā, in the main: Glover, Mansfield, Baxter, Curnow – and the commissioning of the seventeen paintings, one for each chapter, that are one of the most notable features of the book and yet also lack that first person Māori voice that the Guide so frequently evokes but fails to provide. A further reminder, perhaps, that the renaissance had yet to come.

Wanganui-Manawatu, by Juliet Peter

The Guide must be praised nonetheless, and vigorously, for attempting to do what no contemporary guidebook any longer does, that is to say explore the complex relationship between culture and nature, history and landscape. Consider how unlikely it would be to see a chapter in a Lonely Planet guide begin with these words: ‘To travel out of Auckland along the busy, noisy Great South Road is to travel a route bought with slaughter and suffering: bought, in fact, by war’; or compare the narrowly folkloristic function of Māori legends in today’s guides (nearly always in the form of framed asides, visually separated from the useful text) with Shadbolt’s recourse to Haunui-a-Nanaia’s progress to explain the geography of the Manawatu, which reminds us in the bargain of the mnemonic function of poetry and storytelling in our oral prehistories. The following passage in the East Coast chapter encapsulates the books’s perspective perhaps more succinctly than any other:
The road through the Urewera demands time, but then so does the Urewera. What distinguishes the entire region for the visitor is Maori life, tradition and culture, and its often violent and always fascinating post-European history which began with the gunfire of Captain Cook in Poverty Bay. Physical delights are here in plenty: the region swallows thousands of visitors every summer, yet is never really crowded. But the experience of the East Coast-Urewera is all the richer if the visitor comes prepared: then this dramatic region, from long and dazzling rugged shore to forested back country, takes on mood and meaning.

Living in Wellington, one feels sometimes at the mercy of geology, and not without reason. But it pays to remember that none of our landscapes are entirely determined by physical forces, and that the value of our resorts does not reside solely in their attractiveness to the visitor. There is, almost everywhere you look, a layered history full of mood and meaning, for those who know how to read it. I'm not quite there yet.

Otago, by Colin McCahon

With many thanks to Keri for the book.

At the end of last year Robyn Gallagher embarked on a tour of the South Island using the
Shell Guide. She chronicled it in a series of nine posts that begins here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Liveblogging the Apocalypse (5): Gram-Negative

Therein lies the difference between trivialising past calamities and trivialising future ones.

(Philip Challinor
, Faut-il brûler la terre?)

And so they did it. They capped the well. The world is no longer leaking, at least not from that particular orifice, at least not for now, and beside the tangible damage – for the environment, the wildlife, the livelihoods – we can now survey the metaphorical spillage: more disjointed horror stories festering in the fissures between journalism, science and sanity, a whole new vocabulary of destruction: life that disappears 'from the bottom of the evolutionary chart to the top' – the subject of the last instalment in this series – and since then the stupendously worded prospect of a 'world killing event', care of Helium's Terrence Aym.
The bottom line: BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling operation may have triggered an irreversible, cascading geological Apocalypse that will culminate with the first mass extinction of life on Earth in many millions of years…

The ante is as upped as it gets – destruction on a planetary scale would occur within six months ­­­– the evidence just as scant as in the case of Sorcha Faal's North America is doomed hypothesis, and yet this new article has proved a great deal more persuasive and popular, garnering over 46,000 'likes' on Facebook, the attention of several media organizations and an ordinate number of retweets, including, again, several journalists – perhaps most infamously of all, Roger Ebert. You'd think that a person of the trade would begin by checking the sources, starting from the author of the piece himself. Stumbling upon his page on the Proclaiming the Truth website, then, they would be forced to take a couple of steps back and carefully consider the situation, trace the citations, that sort of thing. Even take time to notice that not a single one of Aym’s direct claims concerning how the situation in the Gulf of Mexico could trigger an apocalypse references any ‘experts’ other than himself.

But the demands of going to air and linking to things apparently are too pressing, and so the story spread, even among professionals who should have known better. And just like in the case of Sorcha Faal, whose page rings all sorts of nutter alarm bells and pushed the seeders to link to a more legitimate-looking repost, the chief virtue of Aym’s piece seems to have been its appearing on a site that resembles a vehicle for the divulgation of serious science, so long as you’re absolutely determined not to scratch the surface. Helium (motto: ‘Where knowledge rules’) is in fact a community of Web writers: not qualified, not peer-reviewed, not nothing.
At Helium, we believe that everyone can contribute what they know to share with millions of readers around the globe. […] At Helium, great writing rises to the top. And great writing reaps great rewards.

But wait: this isn’t great writing. Shrewd enough, I suppose. But well-communicated and popular doesn’t equal true. And at least one of Aym’s key propositions – that the end would come within six months – is inconsistent with the article’s own appeal to the Permian mass-extinction event, which took millennia to unfold. Aym simply made that crucial part up, and the medium instantly rewarded him: with the desperate urgency of the message came the hits, the links and the ‘likes’, and thus the claim to knowledge.

We still have eyes on the ocean floor where the Deepwater Horizon is buried, in fact they have multiplied and there are now as many nine simultaneous windows onto not much happening at all. Sometimes a mechanical arm will come into view and grab a metal cable. Sometimes one of the robotic components will initiate a piston-like movement lasting several minutes. But aside from that, there is nothing going on. Not right in that very spot. Elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico we know that there are over 27,000 abandoned oil wells that, according to an AP investigation, nobody, – not one company, not one government – is currently monitoring. The oldest were abandoned in the 1940s, and we can only speculate on the state of their closures. It is quite possibly that several of them are leaking as we speak, just as sealed wells on land do (the sealing procedures are much the same). Meanwhile, in northern Siberia,
[p]rodigious plumes of planet-warming methane are bubbling from sediments across a broad region of Arctic seafloor previously thought to be sealed by permafrost.
It turns out that the underwater permafrost beneath which massive carbon deposits are trapped is a lot less hardy than its variety above the surface, where the temperatures are colder, and so the methane is bursting through the cracks in the form of, yes, giant earth farts. (Cheers, Robyn.)

The world is still leaking, just more slowly. The methane won’t kill us in six months, but it will accelerate global warming – which will in turn accelerate the leaking. There just isn’t a timetable. Will our world end in 2012, as the ancient Mayans prophesised, the bottom line of Columbia Pictures foremost in their minds? It is doubtful. Prince Charles claimed in March last year that we had 100 months to get our act together. Then in May he said that we had 'less than 100 months'. That would be 98, Your Unelected Highness. Is it so hard to keep track? And what happens when we get to zero months, in June of 2017? Is he going to turn around and inform us that we are in fact screwed?

It’s not going to happen like that. Forget the Book of John, or a nuclear holocaust. It is far more likely to be a drawn out affair, with more than one root cause. Like the elderly, we might fall prey to several afflictions at once. And here’s the latest one, which comes with its own timetable: a world without antibiotics, in ten years.

Introducing New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, a new resistance factor that renders Gram-negative bacteria immune to most and eventually all known antibiotics. (It looks nothing like the picture above, by the way, I’m not even sure if NDM-1 has a look. That’s Chlamydia, as a matter of fact. So pretty.) As Maryn McKenna explains:
In writing about resistant bacteria, it's difficult to avoid overusing superlatives — but this resistance mechanism has spread widely, been transported globally, and brings common bacteria up to the brink of untreatable. It already has been found in India and Pakistan, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the US, and has been distributed not just by travel but specifically by medical tourism. It has the potential to become an extremely serious global threat.

NDM-1 is not a bacterium itself, but spreads ‘within a single bacterial generation to organisms that have never experienced the drug they are acquiring defenses against,’ supercharging the ordinary evolutionary process that has allowed bacteria over the last couple of decades to pull ahead of antibiotics research. And if bacteria win that particular war, as they seem on the verge of doing, it will reverse many of the advances of Twentieth Century medicine: transplant surgery will no longer be possible, many forms of ordinary surgery will become far more dangerous, TB will become incurable and pneumonia will start to take care once again of our ageing population.

Like last year’s Swine Flu, NDM-1 thrives not just on globalisation, but more specifically on our uneven development: just replace the mega pig farms run by US companies in Mexico with the hospitals of India where the poorer citizens of richer countries go looking for affordable treatments. Those are the incubators. The Indian authorities have bristled at the suggestion that their country might be the epicentre of this particular threat, going as far as to alleging a pharma conspiracy against their medical tourism industry, but the reality is that the geography of these events is not to be traced on an ordinary map of the world: it follows capital and human flows on which no elected governments or state institutions can exercise any control. There is no culture or society in which these threats spread either. Just humanity as a biological medium, an anonymous seething multitude – kind of what bacteria look like to us, if you think about it.

Should we really be faced with a world without antibiotics inside of ten years, it will be something novel: the first true sign perhaps of our progress unravelling. Even in approaching disaster and the possible if not likely end the species, we have so far been moving steadily forward; and to the extent that we have been able to imagine a world without technology, it has been in our utterly misnomed post-apocalyptic fantasies, where it dawned after a sudden and traumatic rupture. But if a technology itself ceased to work, and in the normal course of business, it would have quite a different psychological import. You could not imagine cars or computers becoming unusable, not like that: there will always be forms of energy available to somebody, somewhere. And what about a spade, or the wheel? No, if antibiotics no longer worked it would be more as if language ceased to mean things, or arithmetic no longer added up. And it would reverse the course of time. No more timetables, no more apocalyptic ultimatums, no more genies that can’t be put back in the bottle. It seems optimistic to think that this would give us a different, more useful perspective on the measures to be taken, but if nothing else it might expand our arid imaginings of the end.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Found Objects

I am very pleased that Studiolum took the time to respond to my review of Poemas del río Wang, and that he considered some of my suggestions on how to read his blog fitting to its design. Learning that one of the conscious models behind Río Wang is Alberto Savinio’s Nuova enciclopedia was a source of particular delight: there is so much that one could write about the digital form based on that stated affinity – a Master’s thesis’ worth perhaps. But in good time. So long as I have started to explore blogs as native digital forms, and speculate on which particular exemplars may be better suited to improving our media ecology, I want to turn my attention this week to a blog that is in several respects the opposite of Río Wang, at least on the surface.

From the Phase IV (1974) series, posted by Dolly Dolly at Found Objects

The idea for Found Objects came earlier this year to Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism and the blog k-punk. In both the book and the blog – the latter, just the other day – Mark makes the point that ‘screen culture is connective, not reflective’, and that one of the consequences of our wired lifestyles is a ‘twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus’. Sadly this is a debate that is framed more often by the likes of Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ and more recently of The Shallows, which – along with every other human in possession of a keyboard – I intend at some point to review. At any rate, without addressing either version of that viewpoint explicitly, I offered Río Wang to my readers last week as a model for a vision of cyberspace that is predicated precisely on creating the space and time for reflection, without repudiating any of the key aspects of digital textuality, but rather embracing them fully.

Río Wang stands out from the majority of blogs in a couple of respects that matter especially to what I want to discuss today: it rarely indulges in the quick, throwaway post, choosing a slow and very deliberate, considered approach, as if following a larger design (I don’t want to call it slow blogging without attempting to define what it means, which is not for today); and, in spite of its formidable armoury of images, it very rarely dumps them on the reader without exposition or analysis. You may wish to compare this with the very popular and in many respects admirable Bibliodyssey, of which I have, sadly, tired: there are only so many beautiful sets of pictures from rare and exquisitely illustrated sixteenth century tracts that I can gaze admiringly at before a jaded weariness sets in. Bibliodyssey strives generally to give basic information and context about all of these found treasures, but without an analytical and critical framework it’s just another one of those wonderful places on the Web – Strange Maps and How to Be a Retronaut seem to have become everyone’s favourites these days – that makes you go ‘Oh, cool!’ every single time. But more and more often these days I just click away. The twitch is setting in.

Having premised all this, you may think I would shudder at Found Objects’ tagline: 'hauntological dumping ground'. So I need to explain why it is that I don’t.

First things first: The term hauntology has its origins in Spectres of Marx, where Jacques Derrida used it to describe how Marxism survived as a ghostly, haunting presence after its death at the hand of history, but Fisher has given it a rather different remit, built over time in his writings at k-punk. Quite appropriately, you won't find a textbook definition there, but rather a series of analyses in which the fundamental traits of hauntology are gradually teased out (I'd commend to you in particular this masterful post on Kubrick's The Shining and this one on the Ghost Box label). As a result of this indeterminacy, you'll probably find that there are as many notions of hauntology as there are contributors to Found Objects (that is to say forty-five, and counting).

A fascio from the Identity Card of my great-grandmother, issued in 1938. Not posted at Found Objects.

While I realise that it is probably more literally-minded than most, my personal take on what an hauntological object is goes something like this.

There are no photographs of my maternal grandfather at a Fascist rally, nor did he preserve a copy of his Party membership card. However I know for a fact that both of them would have existed and it's quite easy to imagine what they looked like. Indeed looking at any one image of a public gathering in that area and from that period I could make a mental substitution, or even locate a stand-in that looks sufficiently like him, and put my grandfather in the scene without doing a major disservice to truth. Equally I could take his regular identity card from that era, scan somebody else’s Party card, transfer his photo from the former into the latter and create an artefact that, whilst forged, recreates a moment in the historical past whose documentary traces my family has erased. False memories of actual pasts, or real memories of pasts that failed to eventuate – like a letter that never reached its destination, or the promotional materials for a film that never got distributed – are hauntological, in that we can sense and sometimes even measure the gap between their truth and their untruth. They are not quite there, but they are not quite not-there either. Furthermore, and crucially for my understanding of all of this, the precisely shaped space left empty by my grandfather's Fascist Party membership card is also hauntological, a space defined by a concrete and meaningful absence. (To put it more simply: I know exactly where it is that we would keep it, but it’s not there, and its not being there is a presence of sorts.)

I'm sure you can see how this critical term would be essential to a proper understanding of mediated memory, and I will talk soon about the lamentable under-development of this dimension in memory studies. But hauntology does not refer simply to the past: we are also haunted by the futures that we no longer imagine. It is chiefly in this respect that Derrida's lesson in the otherwise largely dated Spectres of Marx remains most valuable, for Socialism is one such future. But so are the past futures of science fiction, of Futurism, of architecture and design, of science proper. John Ptak's brilliant blog Science Books is an acute and at times seemingly near-exhaustive catalogue of many of these branches of hauntology. At Found Objects thus far the main reservoir has been popular culture: music, film, television, comics, publishing, narrative fiction, advertising, a gallery of the self-explanatory mixed with the truly eclectic and surprising. And not all of the objects are found, either, some are original creations or remixes, such as this musical piece care of Unmann-Wittering or this short film by Dolly Dolly.

A frame from Dolly Dolly’s Ether. Reminiscent of Decasia but decidedly more haunting.

True to the dumping ground label, the posts on Found Objects to date are rarely accompanied by explanations. It is the objects, the ghosts themselves that enter into a conversation. For my only contribution thus far, for instance, I was rather uncannily led by a sign for Scarab Close to the place where I wrote last year about lost objects, and Found Magazine. All that remained to do was post (dump) the image and cover my tracks by not linking to where my scarab came from. I saw, for once, no place for reasoned argument, and besides that argument was, again, far too literally-minded to account for the spectral conversation, and too laden for the speed at which this conversation takes place.

That is something else: last Friday alone there were eighteen posts on Found Objects. There really is no time for saying ‘Oh, cool!’, or to get twitchy. It is a thing that moves, that buzzes. It reminds me a little of the road in Falling Out of Cars, except I am not sure if meaning is being lost or found. But it is the road itself, or if you prefer the track, that is becoming densely symbolic, a thing to think with: about cyberspace, about textuality and materiality, about history, culture, memory, time.

And then there are the contributors, for whom I might just have to dust off again the idea of authoriety. Whose blog is Found Objects? Is ours a research unit of sorts, or does it aspire to be? Could the project evolve along the lines of Hacking the Academy, with a book or in performance? Does Found Objects need a hashtag, and if it found one, could it cease to be a blog and just be out there, germinating in places that we cannot foresee, speaking other languages? If in fact the project has a limitation at this moment it is what I’d otherwise think of as a virtue: its being so predominantly (although not quite exclusively) of one place – for let’s face it, you’re not always going to feel terribly haunted unless you are British. But that too could change, and quickly.

There is a sense then in which Found Objects is a spectral double to Poemas del río Wang – as fast as the other is slow, proceeding by free association instead of studious reflection, speaking in a melange of voices instead of few carefully inflected and highly distinctive ones. But they both work, and do the work of mapping for us cyberspace not as it is, but as it could be. We need to value that.

Future Alarm. Posted by Mark.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Poemas del río Wang

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a proper blog review, something that goes beyond the occasional succinct praise of or brief engagement with somebody else’s work. Those acts of course are a fundamental aspect of the activity of blogging and the life of a blog, just like the comments (or lack thereof) are always integral to a post. However the idea of treating a blog as a proper object of review has some peculiar implications.

For one thing, a reviewer is supposed to have extensive knowledge of the subject of the review. If it’s a book or series of books, you’d better have read it and if it’s a film, you’d better have seen it at least once. But how do you even read a blog? I mean all of it? You could follow the King of Hearts’ Advice to the White Rabbit and ‘begin at the beginning, go on until you reach the end, then stop,’ but that’s not how blogs are typically approached. We generally come to them in medias res, through recommendations or a Web search or a blogroll, and even if we like what we see and make a point of coming back, we rarely go back to the beginning. (Mileage may vary, but I think I'm right about this.) Besides, it’s rarely illuminating. As I have argued before, even to the extent that it resembles a book, a blog is a text that one approaches from the last page, which sits on top of the other ones; but if you suppose that each post is a page, then the image you’re looking for is not (necessarily) that of a ream sitting on a table that you can leaf through backwards or turn over and start from the beginning. Perhaps the pages are scattered throughout the room. Perhaps some of them are bound together, according to criteria that may seem arbitrary, while others have been hidden or discarded. Perhaps some of the pages aren’t even written in a language that you understand.

No, a blog is a textual labyrinth out of Borges, like in ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’, or ‘Death and the Compass’.
I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometres from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometres from A and B and halfway between them. The wait for me at D, two kilometres from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy.

But old habits die hard, and so in preparing to review Poemas del río Wang I went right back to the beginning. I wanted to make sure I’d cover all my bases and not get lost in the labyrinth, I suppose. It is a testament to how good this blog is that it gives pleasure even when approached by that dull route, in the way of a school assignment. It is also remarkable that it seems to have come to life already formed, its voice already found. But I know from having visited it regularly for nearly a year now that it gives much more joy in its natural unfolding, at its natural pace, when you have the leisure to follow its internal labyrinthine convolutions and external detours into other blogs, libraries or whole song repertoires. As for that initial encounter, occasioned by an exceptional post on the possibility that the Italian partisan song Bella Ciao may have klezmer roots, I must credit Stephen Judd, who may just be the Web’s model reader, the steersman of the ‘cyber’ metaphor. And I really owe him this acknowledgment because engaging with Río Wang requires the full array of reading skills that the Web at once fosters and demands.

Where does one begin to explain Poemas del río Wang? It is based in Hungary, Mallorca and a China that is largely of the mind, with frequent forays in Turkey, Iran and especially the Soviet Union. Every post is written in at least two languages – English and Hungarian – and some are in Spanish, Catalan and Italian. Other languages, such as Russian, Persian and Chinese, are extensively discussed. These few coordinates go some way towards telling you what the blog is about: places and languages, history and culture. Interestingly, English is not the first language of any of the authors, but serves quite self-consciously as a lingua franca, the code that enables the people in the rest of the world to communicate not just or even primarily with the Anglo world, but rather with each other. Yet Río Wang also resists this move, not just by going out in at least one other language, but also by switching back to native or at any rate more fluent tongues whenever possible, and especially in the comments.

In this respect I must comment briefly on the authors’ decision to run two separate sites that mirror each other. Seeing as it is my day job, I know how much effort it takes to translate texts of that length and complexity, even if you’ve written them yourself; to say nothing of the fact that many of the posts are about the act of translation itself, in both a cultural and a linguistic sense. Consider also how the two sites presuppose and in fact constitute two likely quite separate readerships, with different communities of commenters but also different kinds of knowledge. When I write about Italy for this blog, I am conscious that I must explain it; the mode of address and the kinds of things that I say about home would be different if the same post were to go out both in English and in Italian. So it’s not just a matter of the work that the translation demands, but also the intelligent weaving of those stories so that they can be rendered as native texts in (at least) two languages.

An image gallery from Český Krumlov

What Río Wang is in no small part about, then, is the very possibility of translation, which is not a given at all latitudes, and most especially in the Anglo sphere, where theoretical misgivings often give way to a discomfiting monoculturalism. Here by the sharpest of contrasts is one of the authors, Studiolum, on Russian:
I already at the age of seven loved Russian, the strange letters, the romantic illustrations of the cheap brochures of fables sold in the Gorkiy bookshop, the world of the floppy-eared bear Misha, Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena, but most of all that curious alchemy by which I was able, by coupling foreign words and affixes, to tell the same like in Hungarian but in a different way, that ever since has fascinated me in each language again and again. But am I allowed to learn the language of the occupiers in a good faith?

I turned with my doubts to my father who told me that Russian was not only the language of the Soviet army, but that of Tolstoy and Dostoevski as well. With this approval I happily threw myself into the study of Russian. And thanks to this, I have since then discovered that Russian is not only the language of these great authors, but that of small people as well, and not only of Russians but, in an odd way, of many different people from Bulgaria to Beijing and from Poland to Iran, organized into a kind of a community by virtue of this intermediary language. And in this way it is also mine.

It was the very familiar that took me to Río WangBella Ciao is sung nightly in this household, alarming as that may sound – but I stayed for the unfamiliar. The post that more than any other sealed my long-term loyalty was this piece on Moscow’s Muromtsev dacha, in which one can find the sense for the historical and the contemporary, the sensibility and the capacity to assemble and present the most extraordinary images that distinguish the blog. This last point cannot be over-emphasised, for Río Wang is visually sumptuous, and a true test of what can be achieved in the medium: I converted a number of friends simply by linking to this set of images from Petrograd, or this post on Tarkovsky’s Polaroids, which are spectacular, but look at how simply yet perfectly laid out this older post on Rodin’s statues in Mallorca is. And it’s all done with Blogger’s template.

I point this out also because with the release of the iPad there has been a lot of talk about portable devices as the future of current print publications, and about how finally magazines will be laid out properly, and be as nice to look at and usable digitally as they are in print. But Río Wang shows us we’re already there, and flips the question on its head: if it’s true that some established blogs, perhaps even the majority of them, could be quite easily thought of as regular columns in existing print publications, where would you fit Río Wang in the old paradigm? Would it be a glossy magazine? Perhaps. But how would you distribute it? How would it reach the territorially dispersed community that it currently serves, and in the idioms that it insists to speak? Where is not just the economic, but also the conceptual space in which such a publication could exist outside of the Web?

In seeking subjects for future blog reviews, I’ll be looking at whether and in what ways they move us towards a native digital form. Whilst paying homage to an eighth century Chinese poet, and seeking to recreate the space for concentration and reflection of a Renaissance study, Poemas del río Wang does just that.

The Borges quotation comes from p. 156 of the 1998 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Andrew Hurley. In every other edition, it's the last page of 'Death and the Compass', which was originally published in Artifices.

It was the latest entry in Agata Pyzik's blog that got me thinking about some of the issues I discussed in the post.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Unmaking of Pinocchio

Puppets never grow. They are born puppets, they live puppets and they die puppets.

(The blue-haired fairy)

When Walt Disney set about adapting Pinocchio for his second animated feature, he struck problems. Six months or so into the project, he discovered that what he had was an impossible sell: the story of a petulant, unlovable puppet that no audience could possibly warm to. Always the realist, he assembled his staff and informed them of the need for a sharp change of course. The puppet had to be transformed, in order to have a life on the screen at all; he had to be a sympathetic character before he could be a good boy. The result was – at least for lovers of Carlo Collodi’s original story – the utterly dismaying Pinocchio of 1940, a film that, much like Burton’s Alice of 2010, represents almost in every single detail a betrayal of its source. Beginning with the protagonist, who in Collodi’s serialised book was capricious, selfish, lazy and dishonest, traits that were more than a match for his occasional desire to do well by old, cantankerous Geppetto – himself hardly a paragon of lovability. Add to this that the original cricket gets squashed by Pinocchio with a wooden mallet in chapter four, two pages after making its first appearance, and that the blue-haired fairy, latterly Pinocchio’s sister and mother, debuts as a terrifying ghost wholly indifferent to the puppet’s fate, and you’ll get a sense of the breadth and depth of Walt’s troubles. How do you make an animated feature sure to be loved by millions out of such material?

There remains, granted, the small detail that Collodi’s Pinocchio had in fact succeeded in becoming a classic in its native Italy, and was a book that still spoke to children and adults half a century after its publication. That it had managed that, in spite of being resolutely impervious to crowd-pleasing, one could perhaps attribute to its wonderful invention, which is likely also the secret of the stubborn success of Carroll’s largely unsympathetic Alice. Neither book has ceased to this day to be relevant, nor to be read and loved. But, while we still wait for a film version of Alice that achieves worldwide iconic status, Disney likely rightly perceived that Pinocchio couldn’t be sold to a global audience like that.

Italian Gothic: Pinocchio swings from a tree in view of the house where the blue-haired fairy was murdered, from the Jonathan Cape edition of Pinocchio illustrated by Roberto Innocenti

And so now we have two Pinocchios: Disney’s saccharine-dripping, visually gorgeous film, which is all about the transformative power of deeply-felt desires and the will to succeed; and Collodi’s bleak and pessimistic fable, which is about the primacy of need: the need to be clothed and to eat – first and foremost – to which are subordinated the need to get an education and to work, that is to say, to comply with society’s demands. Not because it is the key to fulfilment and happiness, but simply because the individuals who don’t – as both the short-lived cricket and the sometime despotic fairy remark at different junctures in the book – generally end up ‘either in hospital or in jail’.

And naturally, inevitably, it is Disney’s utterly unfaithful Pinocchio that most people outside of Italy, and many inside of it, know and remember. In a piece for the London Review of Books, Bee Wilson has gone as far as to argue that Disney’s version ‘restored the story from an irony-laden parody to a true fairy tale,’ as if that made it somehow more authentic (and more valuable), although there is probably some truth in her claim that the film contributes to the continuing success of the book. Be that as it may, I want to talk about that warmth today, that lovability.

When John Lasseter and his colleagues at Pixar set about making their first animated feature, they struck the exact same trouble that had beleaguered old Walt: two years into production, whilst presenting an early draft to Disney’s producers, they came to the realisation that their central character, Woody the Sheriff, was a sarcastic and unlovable brat. ‘A thundering arsehole’ were co-screenwriter Joss Whedon’s actual words. And so again the work of animation was halted, the production team regrouped and a major rewrite ensued, to ensure that Woody would be warmed to and therefore that the film could succeed. And in this case too I have little doubt that it was the smart thing to do; besides, there was no fidelity to be compromised in the process, no book to betray, unless one were somehow inclined to regard Pinocchio as an implicit ur-text, the ghost of puppets past haunting Woody from beyond the grave.

Then again, why not? Perhaps the remarkably similar story of the two films suggests precisely that Woody had to smooth the same character flaws that made Collodi’s Pinocchio an impossible sell: an intractable pig-headedness, a fierce determination not to comply or listen to his master’s voice. We’ll never know, insofar as there is no script for the film that never was. But we do know that Woody’s eventual incarnation is quite the opposite of Collodi’s creature, chiefly in that he knows the purpose for which he was made and embraces it fully. He spends in fact the best part of the film teaching Buzz what it means to be a toy, and that it’s a higher calling than saving the universe, which is Buzz’s factory-set delusion.

In order to fulfil this calling, as we saw two weeks ago, a toy relinquishes its agency to the child and becomes completely passive and quite literally spineless – the transition when a person appears on the scene is marked in the anthropomorphic toys by their flopping over on the spot. But this is no automatic reflex, or absolute law of toy nature, as demonstrated at the end of the film when Woody commandeers a group of toys to rebel against Sid, Andy’s sadistic neighbour, and in the process breaks that cardinal rule simply by choosing to remain animated in full view of the child. By contrast, as Wilson writes, Collodi’s Pinocchio
is wilful before he has even been carved. As a log of wood, his voice shouts out that the hatchet hurts him and the plane tickles his tummy. When Geppetto makes him into a puppet, all his attempts to establish mastery over the wood are mocked: Pinocchio kicks Geppetto, steals his wig and laughs at him.

What a thundering arsehole. But then how much of the warm, loveable nature of Disney’s Pinocchio and of Woody is in fact a function of their meekness, of their absolute and freely-given compliance? And to what extent is this subjugation a function of the transition from the book to the screen?

When Jessica Rabbit quipped that she wasn’t a bad person, she was just drawn that way, she illuminated what makes cartoon characters so ontologically peculiar. A cartoon is not just written, it is also drawn. Every minute aspect of their being has to be crafted, and then manipulated so as to fit the design. A cartoon lead needs to be able to show a range of emotions that was never demanded of Gregory Peck, or Keanu Reeves. Nor is it as easy as describing those emotions in words; they need to be shown. And when cartoons go digital, the degree of command over those virtual bodies becomes a measurable variable with which to conceptualise the artist’s role even more tightly as a form of total and ultra-precise control. So for instance we are told that in the first Toy Story Woody ‘was operated by 723 motion controls, including 212 for his face and 58 for his mouth’.

Those are quite a number of strings on the old puppet, I think you’ll agree. And perhaps even by Pixar’s brilliant standards of putting the artistry at the service of storytelling, it is simply impossible in that environment, where every single gesture has to be carefully computed and modelled, to conceive of a rebellious lead pulling the story in dark, foreboding places, eschewing his directives or refusing to be loved.

And so we find ourselves again, as we did after Avatar and Alice, contemplating that familiar paradox at the heart of contemporary cinema, namely how to the staggering expansion of its capacity to represent form – in flawless CGI and the fulness of 3D – corresponds an even further narrowing of the available range of meanings. The puppets must be always obedient and lovable; the fictions must be always comforting and warm. Or else we'll have to stop everything and rewrite the entire bloody script.

Carlo Collodi. Pinocchio. Translated by E. Harden. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988.
Bee Wilson. 'No Strings'. London Review of Books Vol. 31 No. 1 · 1 January 2009.
'Toy Story: The Inside Buzz'. Entertainment Weekly No. 304, 8 December 1995.

With many thanks to Dougal for his help with the sources.