I am at a comforting impasse with Meredith (novel). Something like the top of a hyperbole, where, after following a tangent for some time now with the book (basically just writing out images I found titillating without quite reasoning their trajectory), certain attractors inherent in what is already committed to the journey so far, have bowed the tangent into a curve which I can now see possibly terminating somewhere, at some mark ahead. It’s the first time the novel, though still very difficult to write, seems manageable to me. I think I at last know what it’s “about”.
From now on, too, the unfinished book is public. It would be great to get a following during the writing of its second half, because I think the theme of becoming, and personification as a process of “agent insinuation” by a contingent world, would be emphasised if it were possible and part of the writing to see the book becoming.
The writing is performed and publicised in the following ways:
- The Ghost Writing page, the entire working novel as a live Google doc with universal “commenting” rights for anyone who visits it
- An Anomaline Twitter account, predominantly used to notify followers (of which there is currently only 1; my dad) when I am online and writing, so that it is possible to see words appearing live on the document
- An Anomaline YouTube channel, where my readings of chapters are uploaded for listening.
Of course, in publishing, titles are given, videos are recorded; even though there is nothing that is said or written in these recordings that is safe from editing. Even Anomaline is a working title, and all chapters are by no means guaranteed a spot in the book. Even so, all is published, all is accessible.
This premature publication serves the purpose of the experiment in which, on the one hand, the entire book attempts to validate the sort of agencies occupied by its anti-person characters (ghosts, lines, dreams, libraries, automatons, holograms, AIs; no ‘people’ in the traditional sense), and on the other, exposing the material coming-to-be of their textual intelligence. But the publicising and exposing process may also encourage publishers to take notice and trust the writing enough to consider printing it, as they are able to follow all its ins and outs and see that there is no shyness about that.
Goals ahead with Meredith:
- Write out the remaining story without much regard for finesse. Get the ideas down, and work up to the idea that Meredith, along with all her anti-person counterparts, inhabits and experiences the world by insinuation. Whatever attributes she holds are the outlines of shapes carved out by the world of meanings inherited from a very human-influenced earth. Humanity and culture is treated as a natural phenomenon and organic layer of complexity from which meanings continue to beget meanings, without even the help of humans. Her home is an incubator, but much like the mineral hydrovents on ocean floors that cradled the first glimmers of life billions of years ago, it was not an intended incubator; more, an opportunistic nest. Nobody made Meredith, she was insinuated (in + sinuate > in + curve/bend; a wavy line). Meredith is literary condensation. A line, a unit of a cultural insinuation.
- Thicken the story with adventure, smoothen the arc by adding chapters here and there and in between. Adding stories in which it becomes intuitive to the reader that Meredith is taking on characters and qualities. Dealing with memories that are not her own (she starts as an amnesiac we think, but realise that she fundamentally has no memories of her own; that way she can become a conduit for others). Elaborating on the agency of other non-persons in the novel (writing some chapters with the absence of Meredith?).
- Tidy up novel, take on board comments, explore logic and scientific accuracy, and proofread
- Promote the novel by putting it forward to publishers in the state it’s already in and have them engage in the process.
Here’s what I’ve been reading this month, some quotes and some thoughts about it.
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa (1912-35)
“My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.
And I, I myself, am the centre that exists only because the geometry of the abyss demands it; I am the nothing around which all this spins, I exist so that it can spin, I am a centre that exists only because every circle has one. I, I myself, am the well in which the walls have fallen away to leave only viscous slime. I am the centre of everything surrounded by the great nothing.” – pg. 9.
Reminds me of Douglas Hofstadter on epiphenomena, in his I am a Strange Loop.
“May I always be blessed with the monotony, the dull sameness of identical days, my indistinguishable todays and yesterdays, so that I may enjoy with an open heart the fly that distracts me, drifting randomly past my eyes, the gust of laughter that wafts volubly up from the street somewhere down below, the sense of vast freedom when the office closes for the night, and the infinite rest of my days off.
Because I am nothing, I can imagine myself to be anything. If I were somebody, I wouldn’t be able to.” – pg. 20
“My old aunt passes the infinite evenings playing patience. These confessions of my feelings are my game of patience. I don’t interpret them, the way some read cards to know the future. I don’t scrutinize them because in games of patience the cards have no value in themselves. I unwind myself like a length of multicoloured yarn, or make cat’s cradles out of myself, like the ones children weave around stiff fingers and pass from one to the other. Taking care that my thumb doesn’t miss the vital loop I turn it over to reveal a different pattern. Then I start again.” – pg. 24
“I exist unconsciously and I’ll die unwillingly” – pg. 33
“We generally give to our ideas about the unknown the colour of our notions about what we do know: if we call death a sleep it’s because it has the appearance of sleep; if we call death new life, it’s because it seems different from life. (…) Civilisation consists in giving an inappropriate name to something and then dreaming what results from that. And in fact the false name and the true dream do create a new reality. The object really does become other, because we have made it so. We manufacture realities.” – pg. 53
Reminds me of Douglas Hofstadter on analogies.
As If It Were Possible, ‘Within Such Limits’… – Jacques Derrida (2002)
In this last chapter of a book that includes papers from a conference dedicated to Derrida’s work, Derrida is invited to respond and give a “last word” to respond to and summarise the conference papers. He begins by acknowledging, admitting, or warning, that it will not and cannot be the last word.
The word “perhaps” presents a modality that unites the possible and the impossible as two conditions that are not opposing, but more like two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, “may happen” presents both hopes and anxieties in awaiting an event. An event is only event if it comes from the future; if it is impossible. Anything that is possible is already in the realm of possibility:
“An event is only possible when it comes from the impossible. It arrives as the coming of the impossible, where a ‘perhaps’ deprives us of all assurance and leaves the future to the future. […] The ‘perhaps’ keeps the question alive, and perhaps ensures its sur-vival [sur-vie]. ” – p. 344
The word “perhaps” does more than apply modesty, limit a scholar’s’ responsibility to what is deemed reasonable to expect of him, and imply his welcoming of future criticism and peer review that his science and democracy demand. It “keeps the question alive”, quite literally opening the door to the future by teasing what may happen. In writing however, one can only work with what’s possible. It will take the acknowledgement of the impossible, the “other”, or the future to determine what the text in fact does, and reveal its impossible consequences now made possible:
“It is like a postcard whose virtual addressee will have to decide whether or not he will receive it and whether it is indeed to him that the card is addressed. The signature is left to the initiative, to the responsibility, to the discretion of the other. To work itself [au travail]. One will sign, if one signs, at the moment of the arrival at destination, not at the origin.”
He is about to “do responding”, to respond as a verb. This takes time and a lot of beating around the bush. Derrida likens his approach to Austin’s talk on “A Plea for Excuses”, which begins with Austin excusing himself for not treating the subject of excuses in the following paper. Although Austin apparently dodges the question, he also does treat it performatively, because his avoidance is an enactment of the subject. Analogously, Derrida confronts his anxiety about responding with a “last word” (after expanding on the various failures that await him in this impossible task) by confessing that he will probably not respond, or rather, respond in a way that is “just beside” the point. As opposed to what? Derrida highlights (like Austin, dodging, shifting, but not side-stepping the issue) that the other option – to respond exactly, directly, head on, absolutely correctly, would not exactly be a response. It seems that a response must necessarily be beside the point, to be at all satisfying as a response. And so, like Austin, he has dodged the question only to reveal a new element to “question” and “response” that is nonetheless familiar:
“Moreover, if one responded without failing the other, if one responded precisely, fully, adequately, if one adjusted the response perfectly to fit the question, the demand or the expectation, would one still be responding? Would anything happen? Would an event arrive? Or only the accomplishment of a program, a calculable operation? To be worthy of this name, must a response not surprise us by some irruptive novelty? And thus by anachronistic dis-adjustment? Must it not respond ‘beside the question [à côté de la question],’ in short? Precisely and right [justement et juste] beside the question? Not just anywhere, or anyhow, or anything, but right and just [juste et justement] beside the question…” – p. 347
To this Derrida compares other “unconditionals”, other acts that, once promised, become destroyed, once turned into conditionals or expectations, become robbed of the realm of impossibility and thereby of their potency and power: forgiveness, gift, love, testimony, hospitality:
“[…] one only forgives the unforgivable. By only forgiving what is already forgivable, one forgives nothing. Consequently, forgiveness is only possible, as such, where, faced with the unforgivable, it seems thus impossible.” – p 349
On the limitations of communication and questioning-responding as criteria for time, events, agency: Derrida thinks of the “possible as impossible” and the “impossible as possible”, as the criteria for time, for events.
“The possibility of this evil (the misunderstanding, the miscomprehension, the mistake) is, in its own way, a chance. It gives time. Thus there must be the il faut of the fault [Il faut donc le ‘il faut’ du défaut], and adequation must remain impossible. But there is nothing negative, ontologically, in this ‘il faut du défaut [there must be fault].’ There must be [il faut], or if one prefers – inadequation must always remain possible for interpretation in general, and the response in turn, to be possible. This is an example of the law that binds the possible to the impossible. An interpretation that was without flaw, a self-comprehension that was completely adequate would not only mark the end of a history exhausted by its very transparency. By prohibiting the future, it would make everything impossible, both the event and the coming of the other, the coming to the other – and thus the response, the ‘yes’ of the response, the ‘yes’ as response.” – p. 360
An idea for a performance
Here’s an idea. I thought of an experimental version I could of the introductory MA 2nd year presentation we made to 1st years.
A presentation about the “necker cube effect”. The cube is positioned in different ways depending how you look at it. You can switch between those ways but not see them at the same time. A presentation on discrepancy and repetition. A prerecorded (scripted) presentation accompanies a live reading of the script. Exposing the mechanics of practice in Vernacular Spectacular; a presentation on presence. Kat does an improvised performance of a character in front of camera (Photo Booth on a laptop?) and an audience, whilst camera feed is projected behind her.
- “Hello, Hello?” Has a ritual with camera, allowing silence to creep in. Settling in. “I’m not sure I really want to do this”. Sits on a chair + solidifies into a ‘presence’.
- An imposing caption appears on top of her image, a message in CAPS, looks like a disclaimer. It is explaining explicitly what I’m trying to do, while I stare speechless into the camera in a room. “Please do not feel offended if she appears to be ignoring you”.
- Text disappears. Sigh. “I guess it’s just you and me”. Or, start getting chatty and onomatopoeic. “Best get on with it”. “I can feel it unfurling on the tip of my tongue”.
- Create a ‘safe word’ that functions as conceptual punctuation and separates segments of telling. Perhaps, “too close to home, too close to home”.
- Change the scene: ask someone to play a tune, someone to switch on a light spotlighting me, get someone to zoom at me
The presentation I will give to first years when the new academic year starts will be about storytelling, becoming, agency, contrivance, illusion, fiction and ultimately, my novel, which is my main current work. (Use Photo Booth + projected feed setup/ look into webcam rather than the audience / my projected self looks into everyone’s eyes / accompany speech with sign language if possible / when showing other images or videos behind Photo Booth, shut your eyes, and pretend you are not there). Here is the first draft of the performance/presentation text:
“I’m sorry. I’m not really good at making eye contact. Hence this setup.
It may even be these awkward shortcomings and the desire to become free and swift and deft, that has spurred me to contrive of an art practice, a practice that simply probes the alternative. If I am too shy to look at you, there is perhaps a way of going about that, and perhaps this very mode of looking at you becomes something of its own. For instance, in this way I am both looking at none of you, and all of you, in the eye.
That’s a trick. That’s a gimmick. And for me my practice has much become a place to test out cheap tricks that question the authenticity of whatever I’m copying, just like the prowess of modern artificial intelligence technologies begin to call into question the unprogrammability of souls and free will.
This summer I missed a flight thanks to a badly timed flu. I lay bedridden watching aeroplanes eloping across the sky from my little bedroom window. So tiny, they came at regular intervals and in predictable trajectories. I imagined opening my mouth and swallowing them whole as they gently fell into my bedroom window.
Being sick or bored is a great way to explore alternative spaces and realities in the most familiar of situations. In such times, one tends to relinquish control, and give up on imposing one’s self on creativity; a process which, in the end, I think is very much a shared affair. New ideas are after all to the credit of all the old ones that go before them, and to the credit of the world around on which its meaning depends relationally. A good use of an MA therefore, might be to treat it like one long 2-year infirmity, like being bored or sick for two years.
When does the work happen? It happens in years of quiet drawings or mutterings, not in decisive moments, entering the studio and saying, ‘now I will make art’; rarely ever does it happen then. Instead, the work is always happening, incrementally, swallowing aeroplanes and dancing in sign language when nobody in the room is deaf. Even here, now, the work is happening. Something’s being worked out.
My favourite shape is a line. To me it is the least self-imposing kind of entity. It exists to take on the shape of anything else. In a drawing, in a sound wave, in a gesture. It is a shape that lets the world in, and can take on the shape of anything else; if an echo could have a shape, it would be a line.
My work here on the MA is a novel featuring a line as its main character. It’s just a bunch of a writing, the novel; writing that is itself constructed from lines of text, but that has become something of a strange laboratory. In the petri dish of the novel, I’ve dropped this character without qualities and watched it develop. She hasn’t actually figured out that she’s a line yet. She thinks she’s a she. She thinks she has a name and a body, because she has inherited a world like ours, so fraught with stories and cultural artefacts and landscapes and tools and systems; all of which seem to suggest something person-like ought to reside there.
Well, I am working out what sort of a thing a line might be in a literary context, as opposed to drawing, or performance, where I’ve also enjoyed a relationship to lines. In all this working out, it is the very ‘working out’ bit that strikes me most – the process of creativity – how at the beginning of the novel I had no idea what was to come, and yet how worlds and agencies seem to have established themselves out of thin air. I’ve been trying to capture this as performance and archaeology, inviting public engagement with this novel in process. I notice that I myself become something of an author-character quite distinct from myself.”
Pond – Claire-Louise Bennett
I am fascinated by this book, and it strikes a chord with me particularly with its humour and writerly originality. I rarely come across art like this; something I regard to be a gem. It contains incredibly wise insights and is also eccentric and beautifully crafted. I haven’t read anything that impresses me with regard to writing style itself in quite a while, whereas here I love the way words are used so skilfully; this is somebody using language freely and innovatively.
Moreover, the subject matter strikes a chord with me. Pond is a series of shorter texts that together make up an impression of a woman living on her own in a cottage. That’s the only pretext really; solitude. There is barely any dialogue or description of other characters and no other point of view. This rings obvious bells with regard to my own work, and indeed I’ve enjoyed this little journey of reading literature dealing with “inner worlds” and solitary characters, from Huysmans to Bennett. I think Mrs Dalloway which I also read recently also fits into that; although the novel follows many parallel stories, it seems to me that a dominant philosophical point is that Mrs Dalloway (the protagonist) is made up of all these other persons, all this revolving action and these coinciding stories that occur in London around her, and that she is interpolated by and is who she is because of her environment. What diverse approaches to portraiture and solitary characters, and something for me to take away from each I should think.
Bennett talks in video interviews about the life in things, objects… that she finds it difficult to overlook the implicated historical weight of everyday objects. And indeed, every object in her book is like a character, cups of tea and compost heaps feel important when they make an appearance.
She talks about a “woman abstracted”, in that the protagonist, in her isolation, becomes something of a non-person by having no other persons in her vicinity against which her own features could bear any currency. But actually, although these philosophical musings ring true, the character herself has a lot of character. She is delightfully appealing, as a character, and I suspect it is a character with a lot of Claire-Louise Bennett in it. The book’s great, I feel a lot of affinity with the author and am so glad to be excited by a fresh and subtly unconventional writing style that is so witty and funny and accurate.
A Ghost Story (2017)
I’ve been privileged with a lot of great art lately, looking back at this reading list. Ghost Story (directed by David Lowery) too, was an excellent film. I was won over after some hesitation here and there. I was impressed with just in what way it ended up moving me to tears; it was not exactly a film about grief, as I’ve heard it described, as it was in fact surprisingly impersonal. The pacing is unconventional and startling; where we begin immersed in the romantic relationship that ends abruptly with the death of one of the partners, who is then replaced by an archetypal ghost roaming their home covered in a sheet from the morgue, it quickly shifts focus from the remaining partner’s ordeal to the more universal ordeal of death and the mind boggling contents of the history of any place and the people that have passed through it.
The remaining partner quickly moves out of the house and out of the film, leaving the ghost behind who waits eternally for closure. And it is not quite the ghost’s grief either that is the focus, though he is clearly frustrated and pained, like a ghost with “unfinished business”, waiting for the right word from his widowed lover to absolve him and deliver him to perfect peace and non-existence.
Instead he becomes an observer of times to come and times past. The startling depth of a single relationship cut short by death and the profundity of that ending, is then multiplied many times over by leading us through subsequent occupants of the house and their inevitable disappearance. Each disappearance is successfully felt. We might go back in time and watch a family of settlers slowly cook over a fire and huddle under an unforgiving stormy sky, only to find that one morning they appear to have been abruptly and senselessly shot by arrows, all of them. And there is no “tadah!” – end of story, ended lives. Life-ending is not a momentary occurrence, in fact death lasts much longer than life. We watch the bodies slowly decay, they are decaying for years in the untouched landscape. Unreasonable amounts of time pass, as in history, unlike in stories or films, there is no time allotted specifically to significant events, cutting out the endurance of things. We watch the dead bodies disappear and universally speaking it seems there is no moral judgement to lay upon the matter.
We might also jump ahead and find the ghost witnessing the demolition of the house he had waited generations in for the return of his disappeared lover, and again an unreasonable amount of time passes whereby the whole spot where he stood has become a metropolis and he roams high-rise corporate buildings. These events are astonishing. It seems impossible that a family of settlers were shot down by arrows and left to decay most naturally without anybody knowing about it, it seems impossible that a house with just so much history (as pretty much any other house) could be ripped down so effortlessly.
The film really succeeds in capturing the profundity of death, without trivialising it by regarding it from a universal perspective. The multiplicity of annihilated histories does not dilute the intensity of each precious ordeal. To me the film was less about the disappearance of one person or another but the possibility of something disappearing at all as something truly heart-wrenching; in fact any thing imagined to be truly disappearing, no matter how trivial, is frightening, let alone human stories (besides which we know nothing more meaningful, as it was with humans that came the advent of meaning). In this way it very much resonated with my novel’s endeavour to grapple with the enormity and yet delicious detail of history. There is probably even an ulterior motive with writing it; that in being a writer I am doing what I can to fight the Nothing, and that I am doing it by talking about history; brandishing history as a weapon against the dissipation of all energy that threatens to make neither heads or tails of anything, but rather swallow the coin whole, into oblivion.