Monday, August 27, 2012

Forecasts of the Past

What follows is the speech I gave at Victoria University and posted on Overland last Friday for the launch of Dougal McNeill’s Forecasts of the Past. I reproduce it here mostly because I am keen to expose a few more potential readers to a very fine book, but also because Dougal’s work has helped me better understand some of the things I have been trying to do on this blog. Regular transmission will resume next week with an anniversary post.


I hope we timed this right. The idea was to have this post come up on Overland to coincide – ideally, but hopefully literally – with my launching Dougal McNeill’s new book, Forecasts of the Past, in what used to be called the staff club at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. I would like this to be (have been) the case because I see our connection with this blog, that university and each other as mapping a broader set of relationships and concerns.

A blog is a place that isn’t really a place. A university is a place that is actually a place (with a few exceptions) but also serves as a nexus of knowledge and knowledge professionals that are abstracted from the territory in a number of complex ways. I would argue for instance that people like Dougal and I have been trained to think of ourselves as academic free agents, speaking the world’s closest thing to a universal language and claiming the prerogative to apply for work wherever English or its literature is taught.

In the era of globalisation, the peculiar characteristics and interests of the academic free agent have come to be neatly aligned with theories about economics, society, politics and the arts. In literature, we are told that every contemporary text can or ought to be able to consumed at any set of coordinates on the planet by virtue of the capacity of technologies both old and new to deliver them everywhere at once. This ubiquity of texts and digital cultural artefacts is one of the most immediate ways in which globalisation is apprehended and understood, leading to the diffuse belief that we live in a sort of universal postcolonial of uncertain geography.

In a passage from Hardt and Negri quoted by Dougal in the book, the empire is described as ‘a kind of smooth space across which subjectivities glide without substantial resistance or conflict’. It is tempting to see the blogosphere as one such space, and the space where academic articles and books circulate as another. We can certainly train ourselves to see them that way, and act in ways that will make those spaces smoother for us as well as for our readers, and easier to glide across. Or we can resist the description. We can act and write and read in ways that run counter to the bias of the digital medium and global institutions towards immediacy, transparency, displacement, homogenisation, and conversely highlight discontinuities, asymmetries, inequalities and above all what Dougal calls ‘the dense specificities of lived political legacies and situations’. Make that smooth space rough again.

The central contention of Forecasts of the Past is that a contemporary literary realism is not only possible but also desirable and ultimately necessary. The framing is both a dialogue with and a departure from the work of Fredric Jameson – who, in spite of having declared realism exhausted, no longer able to represent the world we live in, has made a number of suggestive remarks over the years concerning its possible revival. This is the task taken up by the book: to expand on these suggestions and explore the possibilities and limitations of contemporary realism; to respond to the challenge that the alleged ‘end of history’ poses for this most time- and history-bound of forms; to argue from a classical Marxist perspective for the uses of realism and the necessity to produce, access and study a literature capable of sending back ‘reliable information’ (the phrase is Jameson’s) about the world we live in.

David Peace, James Kelman, Kerstin Hensel, Pat Barker, Maurice Gee: these are the authors in Dougal’s meticulous catalogue, whose works allow him to explore what Raymond Williams has called the ‘working class fiction of fully developed class relations’; the challenges of representing the neoliberal city; the new guise of the realist historical novel; and finally what realism in the age of globalisation might mean and look like. The picture that emerges throughout these close readings is by necessity not one of a hegemonic genre, as realism was when the bourgeoisie went through its revolutionary phase, or by fiat under Stalinism; but rather of an ‘embattled, residual-emergent, ‘minor’ oppositional form.’ A realism that lurks through the fissures and cracks of late capitalism and yet is capable of producing useful, working models for thought and political action.

Dougal and I used to share an office at Victoria. That’s how we met, nearly ten years ago. He was doing his Masters on Brecht, and I was writing a PhD on memory and digital media. Consequently, predictably, we occupied that office a little differently: he with a lot of books, and I with very few. Most of my readings were electronic and the shape of that knowledge organised my thinking as well. His research seemed steeped in realism and traditional scholarship, whilst mine seemed at home with globalisation. What I later (much later) came to realise is that we were working on the same problems, and posing ourselves and the texts that we studied very similar questions about time, meaning, memory and politics. Even searching for the same answers, I suspect. We were just doing it from opposite directions.

We kept in touch when Dougal left first for Melbourne, to work on the PhD that later became this book, then for Japan. And I was happy when he started blogging, because I knew he was going to be really good at it, and even more so when he and his wife Shomi moved back to Wellington and he got a job at Victoria. That we were both invited to write for Overland was a further welcome development, an opportunity to work together. It just had to be someplace else.

I wanted to speak in both places today, at a university and on ‘our’ blog, and in a transition that I hope will be perceived as anything but ‘smooth’, to acknowledge that when I first read the draft of Dougal’s book, it suggested ways of thinking about what I had been trying to do with my own writing but whose full political import I hadn’t grasped until that moment. The need to cultivate an incredulity towards the myth of a smooth globalisation and the dominant narratives of internet time and space, as well as to document the systematic occlusion of class and class relations and recover the collective and personal histories that are excluded by the dominant forms of representation of our time: these are urgent tasks and constitute the key demand that this book makes on its readers.

The political in Dougal’s work isn’t so much a dimension as the organising principle, the very structure of the thing; and in this respect Forecasts of the Past is also, like the realism it advocates, a most useful model for thought and (critical) action. In the best tradition of letting the book speak for itself, I leave you to read a brief extract from the concluding chapter that will illustrate to this point better than I can.

I am proud and delighted to launch Dougal McNeill’s Forecasts of the Past.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Man on the Roof

It’s as if he had forgotten he was the leader of the Labour party. It’s as if a Tory mole had swapped the speech he was going to give but he went ahead and read it anyway.

How many times might you have played this little game? This is a familiar story because it happens everywhere, all the time. It is the story of a great and continuing political shift, of centre-left parties buying into conservative orthodoxy throughout the Western liberal democratic universe. Adopting the language, the strategies, the tics of their traditional opponents. Losing the ability to decline social-democratic ideals except as a ritualistic preamble, or to huffily reaffirm that of course theirs is the party of the working people, the oppressed minorities, the welfare state. Or, in the most extreme cases, reimagining neoliberalism as the condition for socialism: a new equality based on the removal of safety nets and of all barriers to the circulation and accumulation of capital.

Douglas, Blair, Clinton: they were the first generation, brash and self-assured. Now, twenty years later: the exhausted groans of third-way politics.

When David Shearer woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found that he had forgotten he was the leader of the Labour Party. He didn’t forget that he was a politician altogether, or he wouldn’t have reached the Auckland headquarters of Grey Power in time for his scheduled appearance. He just forgot which party had elected him leader. All this could have been prevented had he resorted to tattooing, like the guy in Memento. YOU ARE THE LEADER OF THE LABOUR PARTY. THESE ARE THE THINGS YOU STAND FOR. But one always gets these ideas when it’s too late. The point is that nobody reminded David Shearer and so when he got to his meeting with Grey Power he said this:
Last year before the election, I was chatting to a guy in my electorate who had just got home from work. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped and pointed across the road to his neighbour.
He said: “see that guy over there, he’s on a sickness benefit, yet he’s up there painting the roof of his house. That’s not bloody fair. Do you guys support him?”
From what he told me, he was right, it wasn’t bloody fair, and I said so. I have little tolerance for people who don’t pull their weight.
This isn’t so much speaking like a Tory as living in a Tory world; a world in which the reluctant allegiance to a barebones welfare state is undercut by professing that – at all times and regardless of circumstances – fewer people should be on it, and holding that we should always be suspicious of beneficiaries, always on the lookout for their missteps. It isn’t bloody fair. This is the New Zealand I emigrated to in the late Nineties when, under the National government led by Jenny Shipley, the state television channels ran ads like this one.

Hence the sense both of déjà vu and of amnesia: for this is the same logic that infuses Shearer’s anecdote and fuels the sense of grievance of the ordinary, everyday person, the standard euphemisms that politicians use nowadays when they mean to say: normal people.

Living in a Tory world is another name for capitalist realism, and so we should at least entertain the possibility that David Shearer hadn’t actually forgotten that he was the leader of the Labour party that day upon waking, but chose rather to make his speech about benefit bludgers because he wanted to occupy that political ground on behalf of his party. I know, it seems further-fetched, but let’s explore the proposition. Let’s suppose that the speech was part of a strategy aimed at giving Labour an electoral advantage, as well as a platform from which to articulate its social policies.

I’m not going to get into the speech in any great detail, or restate the abundantly obvious, as it wouldn’t add anything to what’s already been said. What was surprising to me – and heartening – was in fact how many people voiced their anger. Entire networks that had up to that point either actively supported Shearer’s centrist line or maintained a degree of public discipline turned aggressively onto the leader. There were renunciations and denunciations, as well as much calm and dispassionate analysis. Most damningly of all, the speech was unanimously exposed as a cynical ploy: a dishonest attempt at triangulation from a leadership that, nine months into its tenure, has comprehensively failed to define itself or articulate an alternative and bold political vision for the nation. What this failure might suggest is to what extent Labour misjudged the political moment when it chose an inexperienced leader whose best, whose only idea seems to be to enact a soft version of Blairism, but also that third-way political strategy has become too transparent to be feasible. Nobody buys the stuff anymore. So in this instance, whilst there may be a broad support in the country for the odious welfare reforms enacted by National, the Labour Party finds itself unable to plug into that sentiment without coming unstuck at its core.

What remains is a disconnect whose depth is truly difficult to measure. After linking to one of the harshest responses to the speech, I had the following brief exchange with deputy leader Grant Robertson:

Twitter is not a platform that favours the most constructive forms of engagement, but I think Robertson’s line of defence is worth commenting upon. Firstly, there is the personal story: I was out helping constituents on the sickness benefit, therefore the criticism levelled at me is misplaced. Secondly, there is the collective goal: that Labour be returned to power so that it can make life better for people on the sickness benefit. (That one such beneficiary just told him in no uncertain terms where he can stick his help doesn’t seem to trouble Mr Robertson at this time.) Finally, there is the appeal to shared values and common experience: You know it's not what I think. To which the obvious question is: How? What kind of confidence can I or anybody else have in a leadership who adopts the most strident conservative rhetoric on welfare yet presumes to demand that their progressive credentials not be questioned? Why, on what grounds is it expected of us that we continue to believe? Where, for that matter, is the political content that might enable us to begin to collect evidence one way or the other – in the form of what policy, what clearly stated opposition, what alternative project or proposal?

We may say nasty things but we are nice people. In fact to say nasty things is part of our burden, for this is how politics work. Perhaps that is the rationale. I don’t know and frankly I wouldn’t care if I weren’t of the opinion that the country can ill afford for Labour to go down this morally and politically bankrupt road again. How many failures are these people allowed, and do they ever ask themselves: what if we lose? What then of the beneficiaries we bashed because it worked for five minutes in the Nineties and we hoped that it might work again, somehow? The utterly self-serving cynicism of it.

Still there is that man on the roof, who may or may not be real. Does it matter? I think so, and plan to continue to pursue the matter. Questions would follow one way or the other, about process and strategy and politics’ ultimate referent: is it a statistical construct? A product of myth? Or is it that other subject, the citizen, in whom nobody any longer seems to believe? There may be answers yet to some of these questions lurking in the collective unconscious of our political class, but in the meantime I would excuse the man on the roof, whether real or imagined, if he too were to mutter: it isn’t bloody fair.

ADDENDUM: David Shearer's response.

Radio One's Aaron Hawkins has asked David Shearer about the veracity of his anecdote in this interview (from 5 minutes 20 seconds). I've transcribed the relevant segment below.

The response, muddled as it is, largely speaks for itself, so I'm not going to comment at great length. Mr Shearer is clearly not interested in whether or not what his informant told him is true. He claims to be innocently telling an anecdote about how people perceive fairness (with the implication that the very many people who responded to his telling of the anecdote, and that he has studiously refused to engage with - myself included - aren't representative in the sense that this particularly zealous citizen was). He likens talking to the beneficiary before proceeding to make dubious insinuations about him to the public to holding "a police investigation". He even has the gall to lament that deserving beneficiaries end up being tarred with the same brush - by people like, you know, David Shearer.

I'm not a member of the Labour party, so it's not my place to ask Mr Shearer to resign the leadership and get out of the way of the people in his party who are trying to make positive changes in this country.

Here's the transcript then.

Hawkins: To quote a famous Labour politician, 'I've been thinking' about this constituent of yours in Mt Albert that you have used to illustrate fairness and responsibility to society, this sickness beneficiary who's up painting his roof, and I have to ask on behalf of Giovanni Tiso, who has been campaigning now bilingually to get a straight answer from you for ten days now. Did that actually happen? Is that a true anecdote from your time... [Shearer interrupts]

Shearer: Yeah, yeah, I was going around the streets before the last election, knocked on a guy's door, he walked out on the lawn with me and pointed over and said this guy supposedly - I think he said he had a bad back or a bad something or other - and the point was, I mean, wasn't actually... whether this guy was right or not I don't know, but the point is, what I was trying to make is the point about fairness and the way New Zealanders feel about fairness. They don't want... this guy in particular said look I'm working hard, I pay my taxes, I'm doing all the right things and this guy - in his opinion, and that's what I said in my thing - is ripping the system off. Now I don't care if you're a millionaire not paying his taxes or somebody on the benefit who shouldn't be getting one. The way that New Zealanders see that is that it's not fair when somebody is not doing the right thing. That's the point of what I was saying.

Hawkins: So you don't know if it's true, at no point did you go talk to the beneficiary in question?

Shearer: No, the point was Aaron - the point was how people perceive others not playing by the rules, that's all I was saying. So I mean that's a story - the account of this guy, if what he was telling me is true, but I didn't do a police investigation on somebody, but the point was how do people perceive others, and I think overwhelmingly in New Zealand we don't like people who are not playing by the rules, in a sense not adhering to what I call the social contract.

Hawkins: I don't think it's the equivalent of a police enquiry to simply fact-check an anecdote that you are going to turn into a political platform.

Shearer: It's not a political platform, the whole point of it as I keep saying to you is illustrating how people feel about others. That was all it was saying. It was somebody relating something to me and I was relating that on. It is about how people feel about others not playing by the rules. And we have a very highly developed sense for that in New Zealand, for good or for bad, and I actually think it's good. But what does happen is that if people have that perception it means that everybody who legitimately receives a benefit - and overwhelmingly New Zealanders support that as well - they actually get tarred with the same brush. It's really important that we make sure that the system works well and that people have confidence in it.

Hawkins: Isn't that what Paula Bennett was doing, using a couple of examples of people not playing by the rules and not playing fairly within the welfare system to show up its flaws?

Shearer: Well what she did was she went into the Ministry, pulled out people's private information and using her privileged position as a Minister and then put them into the news media because they happened to disagree with it. I think it's a quantifiably mega-jump more than what I was talking about.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Lion and the Kiwi

To sell a nation, or rather the idea of a nation. To increase the flow of people and capital from the Motherland. This was the intent of Progressive New Zealand, a book commissioned by the Dominion Advisory Council to Christchurch publisher Andrews, Baty and Co. ahead of the Empire Exhibition held in London in 1924.

Call it imperial modernism: a faith in the capacity to engineer progress not solely via the rational application of the soundest principles of government and enterprise – which alone would be insufficient – but also by virtue of the nation’s belonging to the most advanced civilization on Earth. New Zealand becomes therefore the mirror of the Motherland, that ‘Brighter Britain of the South’ onto which the prospective colonist and the imperial administrator could project ideas of renewal both personal and collective.

By analogy with later state-sponsored efforts we have encountered before, the book – and this post – could have been entitled This Is New Zealand, British Empire Edition, since, like the Asian Edition and the American Edition produced six decades later by Sheffield House, Progressive New Zealand is a national text tailored to a foreign audience, speaking to, pleading to an Other against which the national character is to be defined. But what is unique to this earlier text is that the majority of the New Zealand population at the time was in fact of British descent, including a large proportion of first generation immigrants. Here the branding of New Zealand for the benefit and as a function of the intended British audience doubles therefore as the strengthening and deepening of the roots of the colonisers.

What the exercise requires first of all is that the very notion of indigeneity be suppressed, and so Progressive New Zealand – all 244 pages of it – makes almost no mention of Māori. A single two-page section is devoted specifically to the nation’s first inhabitants, but with the chief purpose of dismissing the existence of a native problem.
New Zealand is, perhaps, the only country in the world where settlement has been achieved by Europeans on land previously held by non-European people without the making of a racial problem as a perpetual worry for the new regime.
In this section the authors inform us that the ultimate outcome of colonisation was ‘not to make life harder for the Maoris [sic] but much easier,’ and practically in the same breath that the indigenous population had dwindled at the time of print to a mere 55,000 souls, ‘including half-castes’.

Those, at any rate, aren’t who we are, for the continuing purpose of colonisation is to promote ‘growth in the white population of New Zealand’, more specifically the sturdy mix of Britons who in the space of a mere eight decades forged the new nation after the likeness of the old. And this is where New Zealand stands in 1924, at a sort of bucolic colonial crossroads: pristine, vastly under-developed yet rich with opportunities for the prospective settler, predominantly in the area of farming. A country that had yet to be wholly parcelled out, whose vast unoccupied territories and seemingly unlimited prospects of urban growth were offered as the opportunity to draw Britain from scratch, a chance of a do-over. Thus the contradiction in the book between a tentative outline of the traits and states of mind of what would later go by the name of Pākehā culture, on the one hand, and the never quite suppressed desire to outdo the British at being British, on the other. After all, the authors remind us, didn’t Edward Prince of Wales, upon visiting the nation in 1921, have this to say:
New Zealand is one of the greatest monuments of British civilization in the world, and I have felt from end to end of the Dominion that there is nowhere a British people more set in British traditions, or more true to British form.

The political and economic proposition to the Motherland, put simply, was as follows: greater economic investment in the country – in the form of loans and mutual commercial undertakings – would enable the Dominion to continue to absorb new settlers and provide a relief valve for British unemployment. Visually, the relationship looked something like this:

The curious alliance of the lion and the kiwi, as captured in the full-page advertisement for shipping firm H.D. Robertson & Polson. The lion is powerful, assured. The kiwi ruffled but rugged, as befits the contemporary military iconography from which the metonymical association with the country and its inhabitants derives. The martial connotations aren’t casual, for one of the points of national pride most assiduously remarked in the book are the feats of the New Zealand military in defence of the empire, the precursor to the responsible global citizen role that is reprised to this day. Then as much as now, this was parlayed directly into international loans and trade agreements around the negotiating tables. It’s what cemented the country’s role within a strategic alliance whose economic and military objectives were tightly aligned.

Once you had sold the idea of the nation, you had to sell the nation, and New Zealand at this time marketed itself as an exporter of primary products and importer of the nearly all raw materials and manufactured goods not directly connected with agriculture. A country that couldn’t quite afford to mine its own coal and found it cheaper to buy it overseas. A country that, most of all, sought to import people. ‘To every man of intelligence who is blessed with health and is energetic, success should be certain,’ read the message to the publisher of the Minister of Labour. Women domestics (so long as they undertook not to get married for at least one year) and young labourers were also in demand. Another key attraction and selling point, to the entrepreneur and the investor alike, came in the form of ‘liberal provisions for industrial peace’, meaning the strike-preventing measures included in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. This is 1924, remember: fears of workers thinking revolutionary thoughts were decidedly more than academic. And perhaps it is symptomatic that the section on industrial relations is illustrated by the photograph of a luncheon and social room without any workers in it.

This was New Zealand at the threshold of progress: a nation ruled by land-owners and farmers, with a subaltern and disciplined manufacturing sector. It chose therefore to imagine a road to modernity that didn’t depend on the acceleration of industry, but rather on becoming an even bigger and more efficient farm, on being an even larger exporter of butter, cheese, frozen lamb, wool (‘the clothing of civilisation’), as if this prosperity would then translate back into progress of its own accord, obeying an unwritten and frictionless law of capital. The liberal use of statistics throughout the book – a hallmark of the genre – conceals in this instance the missing design so often lamented by WB Sutch: the inability to think of present New Zealand and future New Zealand as something other than the Empire’s farm; the unwillingness to change that economic proposition, therefore to imagine what progress might look like, other than ‘more of this’.

Nearly a century on, there isn’t much of a discursive space left in which to even form the phrase ‘progressive New Zealand’ anymore and so the book becomes also the catalogue of a lost vocabulary. ‘New Zealand’s flourishing gelatine industry is a very good example of the modern process of winning wealth from waste,’ say the authors, and you catch a glimpse of what it must have felt like to conceive of the land in those terms, as a source of unlimited and self-renewing bounty. Other wonderful details in the text – such as the fact that out of the first New Zealand shipment of eggs to Britain, in 1923, only two out of 547,680 turned out to be broken – sound improbably, comically hopeful, because the mastery of logistical problems is no longer something to be greatly impressed by or to build a sense of collective pride around.

I’m not suggesting we should feel any great longing for those simpler times, merely noting again how books of this kind expose our own myths of nationhood and narratives of aspiration and achievement, as well as horizons that are in several respects just as narrow as they were back then. The challenge, as always, is to write a new book.

L.S. Fanning (ed.). Progressive New Zealand: an authentic, comprehensive illustrated work of reference on all aspects of national life of New Zealand. Prepared and produced by arrangement with the Dominion Advisory Council for British Empire Exhibition, London, 1924. Christchurch: Andrews, Baty & Co., 1924.

Big, big thanks to Sam F for sending me a copy of the book. Also, it occurs to me that regular early-in-the-week visitors may not be aware of Harvest Bird’s recent resumption of service. Allow me to rectify.

Finally, the piece on the internet as a technology of surveillance I wrote for The New Inquiry Magazine’s Spies issue is now up on the site. You should still subscribe to the magazine though.

Monday, August 6, 2012

This Is Me, Looking at You

What the portraits have in common is the poor lighting, an unflattering, dull electric glow that falls flatly on the face. Sometimes the background is brighter than the foreground, and you can barely make out the person. Yet taken together these flaws become the coherent, familiar and instantly recognisable set of stylistic features of the quickest, most effective way of telling people: ‘This is me. This is what I look like.’

The webcam portrait isn’t a self-portrait: it’s getting your computer to take your picture. It’s getting a tool used for communication to show people what you look like when you’re sitting in front of your screen.

There are two kinds of webcam portraits: the ones in which the subject is looking into the camera and the ones in which they aren’t.

The webcam portraits in which the subject is looking into the camera appear to be saying: ‘This is me, looking at you’. But in fact this is me, looking at the webcam. You aren’t there. You are on the screen, and the screen itself couldn’t take my picture: it is a one-way surface that might in some cases respond to my touch but is not yet a camera, not yet a mirror.

The other kind of portrait, the one in which the subject isn’t looking into the camera, prompts a slightly different reading. When the subject isn’t looking directly at the painter or the photographer in traditional portraiture, it’s hard to know what they are looking at, absent contextual clues or artful reflections. But if the subject appears to be looking just below the camera in a webcam portrait, it means that they are looking at the computer screen. And if they are looking at the computer screen then they could be looking at practically anything, albeit a particular kind of anything.

Odds are it is the internet, which is not just any text or any medium but a special kind of both. Being on the internet, far more so than watching television or reading a book, means being everywhere at once, and being able to switch from thing to thing, from place to place more or less instantaneously. Yet I would argue that we still commonly understand ‘being on the internet’ as something less than that, and entailing a fairly narrow set of activities and relations. These revolve around the most done things: being on social media, or reading an email; carrying out work-related tasks; reading a news article or item of interest. We have a face for all of these things, and it’s the same face: relaxed yet concentrated, confident, imperturbable; a face that is good for work or leisure.

I stole the portraits in this post from random places on the internet. None of the people in them are personally known to me and I hope they won’t mind. If any of them recognise themselves and tell me that they do, I’ll go and pick somebody else, for we are – all of us – replaceable, anonymous. Every webcam portrait is the image not of a person but of the human/machine interface. In this respect every webcam portrait is functionally identical to any other.

The electric glow on our faces is an index of the present cultural moment, and when all the light in the picture emanates from the screen, the point is made – all too literally – that the subject is being constructed in relation to their computer and illuminated solely by this relationship. Representationally, the person in the picture becomes a function of their machine and more broadly of the dominant technical, cultural and social configurations of our age. Thus the webcam portrait makes visible one of the principal functions of the internet, that of organising and controlling bodies in space.

All this, I feel, is true. And yet, as it is almost always the case when it comes to these matters, one could make the opposite argument, which would go something like this: that electric glimmer isn’t the computer, it’s other people, and the internet is the space in between, so the webcam portrait really is what it claims to be: a picture of me, looking at you. So long as we are both staring at a screen, it might as well be the same screen, a glowing window of see-through soft plastic – or is it a pane of slow glass? – situated anywhere in the virtual non-Euclidean dimension that separates us and at the same time brings us together. The medium has evaporated. There is no artifice.

I like webcam portraits. I like to peer at the backgrounds, catch glimpses of faded posters or cluttered bookshelves in ordinary rooms. I like them but I get a sense that they are less common these days, either because people are becoming more sophisticated about how they present themselves, or because it has become simpler to upload better pictures taken with ordinary digital cameras or smartphones, or a combination of the two. They will go down, perhaps, as one of the self-conscious / unselfconscious things we used to do in the early age of the internet as we laboured to get comfortable in this new skin.