A 1991 Omnibus documentary that I’ve finally got round to watching and wanted to post a.s.a.p. I read Libra about ten years ago but have only recently got the bug for the rest. It’s good to hear Delillo spell it out.
A 1991 Omnibus documentary that I’ve finally got round to watching and wanted to post a.s.a.p. I read Libra about ten years ago but have only recently got the bug for the rest. It’s good to hear Delillo spell it out.
In a bid to be more active here I’m going to start posting quotations. I’m getting up to my elbows in Modernism, and this from H.D. is worth sharing for its anger at the degraded status of the poet. Paydirt in the last two lines of this section.
So we reveal our status
with twin-horns, disk, erect serpent,
though these or the double-plume or lotus
are, you now tell us, trivial
poets are useless,
more than that,
we, authentic relic,
bearers of secret wisdom,
of the inner band
of the sanctuaries’ initiate,
are not only ‘non-utilitarian’,
we are ‘pathetic’:
this is the new heresy;
but if you do not even understand what words say,
how can you expect to pass judgment
on what words conceal?
H.D., The Walls do Not Fall, p.14 of Trilogy (Carcanet Press: Cheadle, 1973)
I had tremendous fun sitting in the chair at a Contemporary Fiction Seminar event in conversation with my old friend and former colleague, crime novelist and Sounds and Melody Maker journalist Cathi Unsworth, and I hope this comes across in the video below. We covered quite a lot of ground talking at music selected to respond to Cathi’s work, but also hopefully addressing some broader concerns of the pop music and contemporary literature brief. I particularly enjoyed playing Nick Cave’s version of Stagger Lee in almost its entirety – still sends a shiver down the spine!
I’m very excited to be giving a paper at the Weird Conference a week on Friday. I’m going to speak about formal innovations in Weird fiction related to the spatial imaginary of the period, a kind of reversioning of Joseph Frank’s seminal essay ‘Spatial Form in Modern Literature’ as ‘Higher Spatial Form in Weird Literature’ that hopes to disturb Modernist border policing in an appropriately oozing and weird fashion.
To whet appetite, here’s Roger Luckhurst’s freewheeling and thought-provoking plenary from last year’s Weird Council with some urgent advice around 13 mins 40 seconds:
Tacita Dean’s film JG, opening today at the Frith Street Gallery, was inspired by a correspondence with J.G. Ballard shortly before his death from cancer in 2009. Dean was interested in the connections between Ballard’s short story ‘The Voices of Time’ (1960) and Robert Smithson’s masterpiece, Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500 ft earthwork built into the Salt Lake in Utah. Ballard urged Dean to ‘treat [Spiral Jetty] as a mystery that your film will solve.’ I’ve not been able to make it in to see the film yet but Ballard’s papers are archived at the British Library so I spent some of yesterday nosing around in them.
I’m attempting to hawk around paying print outlets a piece based on that archival cratedigging, so won’t post it here until next week, but here’s some useful contextualising material. Ballard sent Dean the text of his short piece ‘Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist’ (printed on the back of a proof page from Millennium People). This is published in Conley, Brian, and Joe Amrhein, Robert Smithson: A Collection of Writings on Robert Smithson on the Occasion of the Installation of ‘Dead Tree’ at Pierogi 2000 (Brooklyn, NY: Pierogi 2000, 1997) but is nowhere online, so with apologies to the publishers, here it is:
What cargo might have berthed at the Spiral Jetty? And what strange caravel could have emerged from the saline mists of this remote lake and chosen to dock at this mysterious harbour? One can only imagine the craft captained by a rare navigator, a minotaur obsessed by inexplicable geometries, who had commissioned Smithson to serve as his architect and devise this labyrinth in the guise of a cargo terminal.
But what was the cargo? Time appears to have stopped in Utah, during a geological ellipsis that has lasted for hundreds of millions of years. I assume that that cargo was a clock, though one of a very special kind. So many of Smithson’s monuments seem to be a patent amalgam of clock, labyrinth and cargo terminal. What time was about to be told, and what even stranger cargo would have landed here?
The Amarillo Ramp I take to be both jetty and runway, a proto-labyrinth that Smithson hoped would launch him from the cramping limits of time and space into a richer and more complex realm.
Fifty thousands years from now our descendants will be mystified by the empty swimming pools of an abandoned southern California and Cote d’Azur, lying in the dust like primitive time machines or the altar of some geometry obsessed religion. I see Smithson’s monuments belonging in the same category, artefacts intended to serve as machines that will suddenly switch themselves on and begin to generate a more complex time and space. All his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves.
Reading Smithson’s vivid writings, I feel he sensed all this. As he stands on the Spiral Jetty he resembles Daedalus inspecting the ground plan of the labyrinth, working out the freight capacity of his cargo terminal, to be measured in the units of a neurological deep time. He seems unsure whether the cargo has been delivered.
His last flight fits into the myth, though for reasons of his own he chose the wrong runway, meeting the fate intended for his son. But his monuments endure in our minds, the ground plans of heroic psychological edifices that will one day erect themselves and whose shadows we can already see from the corners of our eyes.
I’d also like to draw attention to Eric Saxon’s MA thesis which is a nice piece of scholarship on precisely this relationship; and Smithson’s essay ‘Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space’ (1966, sadly a bit difficult to read in this form). There’s also a really solid article by Andrew Frost at ballardian.com. Suffice to say there is much to be read and thought around this relationship.
Depicted on the canvas is a thing. The painterly language of a still-life tells us that it is an object: it is placed on some kind of rectilinear plinth, presenting a sharply defined corner to us. There is nothing in the background but colour – a depthless black or white, perhaps a queasy green or brown, an elegant purple. There, however, our certainties begin to fail us. What this thing ‘is’ is not certain. Ivan Seal paints many of them. He has referred to them in the past as ‘hand-eye parasites’: should we assume that by this he means things that assume control of his ‘hand-eye’ co-ordination to make themselves exist
Such an object might be a bit like a distorted mass of skulls on spikes, a model of a ballerina, a fan of sectioned wood, a lump of agate, a box, a giant fabric balloon, a woodwork block with a chisel resting on it, a lump of clay sectioned with wire. It may be a vase of blooms, overdaubed, overflowing their container. It may be a branch adorned with hanging objects. It may be some kind of watch, but not a watch that has surely ever been worn, its wrist-strap is stretched, strange, somehow snakelike, perhaps reverting to the animal that gave up its skin. The strangeness of the objects, the fact that they don’t quite correlate with anything in the real world, is what they are about. They speak to us stylistically of classical painting – and their technical composition is, to this untrained eye, seriously impressive – but their content speaks of something altogether different.
I first encountered Ivan Seal’s paintings on the album covers of Leyland Kirby and The Caretaker records, three of which have just been re-released on vinyl. I chased down the tail-end of his first show at the Carl Freedman Gallery on Charlotte Road a couple of years back. I’ve just been to see the new show at the same gallery and spoke to Ivan in situ. His work has expanded, in all dimensions – the thickly impastoed oils now emerge yet further from the surfaces of the canvas, giving objects that were once sculptural again a sculptural feel.
Like his friend Jim Kirby, also from Stockport, Seal now lives in Berlin (although Seal reports that Kirby is moving to Poland) and like his friend he has worked with sound: before returning to painting five or so years ago, in fact, sound art was the form his practice typically took. There is a kinship between Seal’s painting and Kirby’s sound work that makes sense of their coupling in Leyland Kirby and Caretaker releases. The objects Seal paints are remembered from his childhood. He has not seen them for decades but they are dredged up from memory and return distorted, mutated, accreted. He does these memories great service to remake them as vivid, lurid things, but they can never be what they were. They have been changed in his head, changed by time. We realise that mental deposits are not eroded like environmental forms, or degraded like discarded metal; the cerebral equivalents of frost-shattering and rust do not destroy so much as translate. Colours are shifted, edges are blurred, shadows are cast at impossible angles and lines are drawn into thin air. References have been accrued: Bacon directly referenced in one piece. The objects have become steeped in the solution of the unconscious mind, doused in the fluid of dream.
Seal’s painting seems particularly timely to me. Philosophy is very interested in Kant right now, even if that interest is in stealing his fire, in revolving the Copernican revolution a quarter-turn again, taking the subject away from the centre of the picture. I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not going to begin to attempt to engage in that particular discourse, but what I would say is that Seal’s things seem to work in similar territory, to work at the difference between gedachtnis and erinnerung, between, very broadly, active and passive remembering. I’m going to go to Howard Caygill’s admirable A Kant Dictionary as my first port of call for all things Kant (admirable, because he guides you through the massive volume of extremely difficult work by single word themes – simply and effectively – thereby making it unnecessary to dredge through the Critique of Pure Reason first-hand – hey, this is a blog-post, right?)
Here is Caygill’s entry on Kant’s take on the memory:
Memory is defined as the ‘faculty of visualising the past intentionally’ which, along with the ‘faculty of visualising something as future’, serves to associate ‘ideas of the past and future condition of the subject with the present’ (A §34). Together, both memory and prevision are important for ‘linking together perceptions in time’ and connecting ‘in a coherent experience what is no more with what does not yet exist, by means of what is present’ (ibid.). It can thus be seen to play a significant role in the problem of identity, and more particularly, in the character of synthesis. Memory is implied in two of the three syntheses of the ‘transcendental faculty of imagination’ presented in the deduction of CPR: in the ‘synthesis of apprehension’ where it informs the consistency of appearances, and in the ‘synthesis of recognition’ where it is implied in the continuity of the consciousness of appearances. (Bloomsbury, 1995, 290-291)
Clearly, temporality is crucial to the experience of memory for Kant, and memory to the imagination, which in Kant’s thought was more literally a process of making mental images. Seal’s work seems to disrupt some of the assumptions about the temporalities of memory and to insert assorted spanners into the idea of a consistency of appearances. The things that emerge on the canvas are not recognisable in any sensible sense. In a perhaps slightly tangential way, Seal’s work perhaps has a kinship with Richard Long’s, about whom we talked briefly: there is evidently a very different approach to practice, but there is the same attention to the experience of time, the same ability to condense that sticky stuff onto a canvas.
Seal’s painting also seems to shift some of the agency onto the things he paints, to distance the composing subjectivity from the finished work. He gives his painting titles using a random text generator, a next generation Bourroughsian cut-up machine. This is more coherent than it might seem at first glance – there is also a disturbance of temporality in the text that we discern more clearly if we call it linearity, the way in which one word – or letter – follows another in a line of text. It also makes each thing more sui generis – the act of titling has been delegated to a machine and each thing on each canvas has become more independent of the subjectivity that put it there when it gains a name like ‘triltry konte’ or ‘pervaalfet deatpetchsplobasmag (drunk in a car no. 678 )’. A press release was also produced in the cut-up style.
I could happily spraff on about this painting for pages because I love it but if I did I might miss the chance to recommend the show while it’s still on. It was was recently given a seal of approval (please don’t even think of that as a pun) by the Contemporary Art Society’s Paul Hobson who has this week been appointed director of Modern Art Oxford.
The media line is that she was “divisive”, and that seems to remain the case, as folk disagree about whether to respect her or to celebrate her death, or even whether to respect the rights of those who want to respect her or the rights of those who want to celebrate her death. Greater agreement is to be found among politicians, who recognise the politically numinous and, by-and-large, respect that, if nothing else. The irony is that one of the few distinct classes left after Thatcher – apart from the ‘underclass’ of her direct creation – is the political class, an isolated cadre of intellectually lithe control-freaks, ego-maniacs and affect-engineers.
The most interesting piece I’ve read came from Russell Brand, of all people, someone I’m not accustomed to much enjoying. Describing a sighting of the late Thatcher in her late-period dotage and loneliness tending the plants in Temple, he comes across as some deviant, near-future naturalist, a spotter of almost-extinct species. His story reminded me of Gordon Burn’s encounter with Thatcher in Battersea Park at the beginning of Born Yesterday (if I leant my copy to anyone reading this I’d love it back!):
Where does she go in between all the times she is not being ‘Margaret Thatcher’? The answer, sometimes, it seems, is here, where the short, purposeful steps of her performance self are allowed to dwindle into the short, tentative steps of pensionerdom and widowhood and she is allowed time away from the big emphatic colours she uses to identify herself for the cameras – her blazons. (Faber and Faber (2008) pp. 17-18)
Burn, in his fiction and hybrid writing, was something of a geologist of morbidity, digging down into the cultural weirdness surrounding death through the strata of celebrity. His nearly-dead Thatcher was a suspended premonition of what we now have. He recognised Thatcher as exerting a powerful pull in the imaginary realm, the social unconscious that finds coprolalic vent in the tabloid press. So too did Iain Sinclair, whose portrayal of the Widow in Downriver routes into fever-dream to find appropriate voice:
One morning … the newspapers loud with her praise, the Sun in its heaven, banked television monitors floating a cerulean image-wash, soothing and silent, streamlets of broken Wedgwood crockery, satellite bin lids flinging back some small reflection of the blue virtue she had copyrighted, filmy underwear of sky goddesses, clouds of unknowing … the Widow rose from her stiff pillows – bald as Mussolini – and felt the twitch start in her left eyelid. She ordained the immediate extermination of this muscular anarchy, this palace revolt: but without success. She buzzed for the valet of the bedchamber, a smiler in hornrims. He entered the presence with a deferential smirk, hands behind back (like a defeated Argie conscript), bowing from the hip: he was half a stone overweight, creaking with starch and greedy for preferment. He disconnected the ‘sleep-learning’ gizmo, the tapes that fed the Widow her Japanese humour, taught the finer points of cheating atstud poker, and provided an adequate form forecast to the current camel-racing season. She was a brand leader, she did not sleep. ‘A’ brand leader? The leader, the longest-serving politico-spiritual Papa Boss not yet given the wax treatment, and planted in a glass box to receive the mercifully filtered kisses of a grateful populace. (Penguin (2004) p. 285; Paladin (1991))
Wax treatment, yes: but there’s to be no glass box. Sinclair’s vision has the feel of detournement, the blighted writer reclaiming his psychic territory and wreaking satiric revenge: he, too, has her defined by death; steeped in sleep; producer of skies. Thatcher summons this visionary mode, her powerful psychic pull requiring something far more lucid than realism. A response of this order closes David Peace’s GB84, a single-page prose poem equal parts Blake and Marx:
Here where she stands at the gates at the head of her tribe and waits – Triumphant on the mountains of our skulls. Up to her hems in the rivers of our blood – A wreath in one hand. The other between her legs – Her two little princes dancing by their necks from her apron strings, and she looks down at the long march of labour halted here before her and says, Awake! Awake! This is England, Your England – and the Year is Zero. (Faber and Faber (2004) p. 462)
Note that hand between the legs. There have been any number of quotes remembering Thatcher’s sexual power, and doubtless this is astonishing to the young and repulsive to those who self-identify as left-wing. John Snow recalled her rustling tights, a particularly fetishistic response; all and sundry have quote Francois Mitterand’s remark that she had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula; Ian McEwan trotted out some Christopher Hitchens anecdote, which is all the McEwan crowd are good for these days.
There’s a stand-out source to turn to for the good juice on Thatcher’s powerful sexual allure: as Iain Sinclair remarked in interview to Tim Chapman, “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”
‘What I Believe’, first published in French in Science Fiction #1 in January 1984 (French readers, famously, got Crash-era Ballard rather more readily than we Brits), and later republished in Interzone that summer, places her firmly in the Ballard pantheon, posing her in various frames and snapshots, as if a character in The Atrocity Exhibition:
I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel, in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel, watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.
(If you’re unsure about the confusion the sexuality of Thatcher causes among younger readers, check out this piece on Dazed Digital that reads ‘What I Believe’ as tongue-in-cheek and lists it as an ‘anti-Thatcher moment’)
Ballard has been asked to expand on this in interview a number of times. Survival Research’s Mark Pauline procured a particularly rich response in 1986:
JGB: I’ve always admired her enormously. I always found her extremely mysterious and attractive at the same time. I think she exerts a powerful sexual spell, and I’m not alone. I think there are a lot of men who find themselves driven to distraction by the mystery of Margaret Thatcher. She’s remarkable. I think she taps all sorts of extreme responses on the part of, certainly, men in the population at large.
MP: How do you think she fits in with the whole English historical tendency to have female rulers?
JGB: I think she exemplifies that. She taps very deep levels of response. There are elements of La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the merciless muse, in her. Also the archetype of the–
JGB: Yes, the Medusa. She taps a large number of deep responses which people express in present-day terms. She’s the nanny, she’s the headmistress, and she’s school-marmy as well. I think her appeal goes far beyond . . . it’s a very ambiguous appeal. She represents all these sort of half-stages–half-conscious, primordial forces . . . that she certainly tapped.
As ever, Ballard is an expert analyst of the cultural condition. He is listening carefully to what the analysand has to say, and what’s coming through is that they want to be fucked by Thatcher.
The excellent Extreme Metaphors interviews book, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, reveals the extent of Ballard’s infatuation/interest and its maturation (go straight to the index, something we might have picked up from Jim himself). Thatcher is discussed on several pages from the 80s through to his final years (Ballard’s a fan of cruise missiles, a proponent of the Falklands action, and a supporter of her economic policies – this, despite being anti-monarchist, anti-Lords, anti-public school. Libertarians would like to claim him, but we might be more secure identifying him as a denier of political binaries. Certainly, he’s more interested in how politics works in the psychological register than in the ideological.)
For those whose livelihoods and communities were devastated by her political decisions, she might be the embodiment of evil, a single individual on whom to heap blame for destruction. If we join Ballard and analyse from a different perspective we might note that she embodied something that has remained more culturally potent than ideology: the adman’s understanding of the libidinal forces that really drive us. She had a domineering sexual hook. She fucked us and a great number of us asked her to do it again. And again.
Her most quoted phrase – her epitaph – is a piece of sexual advice, a coital warning. This lady’s not for turning. Quite. You’ll have to look into those eyes if you want congress. There’ll be no beast of two backs with Thatcher. In fact, perhaps you should be the one to turn.
All images are borrowed from NASA and ESA:
Responding to a tweet by Tom Hunter @clarkeaward.