Category Archives: Uncategorized

Sweat Themes: Turned-type and Upside-down Poetry

Crossing the cliuewau: poetry with material, typographical swerve

Table of Discontents

Not, it must be admitted, about indexes, but I recently wrote a blog piece for another site about an Oulipo-style writing exercise I’d done. In a nutshell, I wanted to see how much turned-type errors (letters which accidentally get spilled onto the floor then reinserted upside-down during printing) could alter the meaning of a work if we assumed that they were a lot more virulent than they probably are. To this end, I wrote a computer programme to determine how many of the words used by Shakespeare could form other valid words if one or more of their letters were flipped upside down (e.g. map can become mad, etc.). The next step was to try to write something that used as many of these words as possible, and which would be thematically coherent in one sense with the words one way up, and in another if they were flipped.

The…

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‘A hierarchy of tone, style and content’

May 29, 2015 5:45 pm

A chilling debut, told in the voice of the hoaxer who led Yorkshire police on a wild goose chase

Mark Blacklock’s first novel is an audacious exercise in mimicry. Yet it is an utterly appropriate one, too: through a series of letters, witness statements and assorted official documents, Blacklock assumes the voice of one of Britain’s most notorious hoaxers, John Humble, aka “Wearside Jack”, the man who assumed the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper.In 1979, Humble sent a tape recording to Chief Constable George Oldfield, the man leading the hunt for the serial killer who, over the previous 10 years, had murdered 10 women and assaulted several others throughout the north of England. Played at a televised press conference, the tape — a two-minute low-fi recording of Humble taunting Oldfield — had the makings of a breakthrough in the Yorkshire Ripper case: “I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.” Dialect specialists pinned the accent down to the Castletown area of Sunderland, in Wearside, northeast England. A wild goose chase ensued, with more than 40,000 Sunderland-born suspects interviewed.

This was a gift to the actual Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, a West Yorkshireman who was questioned nine times before his eventual arrest in 1981. He said that after hearing the tape he felt “safe” — safe enough to murder three more women as detectives looked elsewhere. The hunt plagued Oldfield. Burnt out, he suffered a heart attack. He never returned to the case, and died in 1985.

But what of Humble? Before sending the tape, the hoaxer had also sent three letters purporting to come from the Ripper, two addressed to Oldfield and one to the Daily Mirror newspaper. When West Yorkshire Police decided to review the case in 2005, DNA advances linked Humble to one of the envelopes he had licked. Detectives found him, alcoholic and unemployed, living with his brother on the Ford Estate in Sunderland. The living conditions were described as “squalid”. In 2006, Humble, then 50, received an eight-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice; he had apparently been inspired by a library book he had borrowed (and never returned) about the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper.

Blacklock, who also hails from Sunderland, portrays Humble as a classic unreliable narrator. Sly, yet not entirely unsympathetic, he pesters the ghost of Oldfield from his prison cell in Leeds with a batch of letters that are a compelling mess of bad grammar, rambling reveals and local dialect.

Blacklock has the voice down pat, with the same insidiously familiar tone as Humble’s tape or his original letters: “Thing is George there was a time that summer everyone was listening to my voice I was listening to my voice you couldn’t not listen to my voice it was playing everywhere wasn’t it.” A picture emerges not only of prison life, but also of the lonely, thwarted existence that led to it.

Then there are other more obviously fictional pieces: poems, two stream-of-consciousness monologues from a younger Humble and a lurid horror story titled “Yours Sincerely, Jack the Ripper”, purportedly written by Robert Blake. This, presumably, is a variation on Robert Psycho Bloch’s 1943 story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”. Blacklock deftly captures the trashy popular mythologising of the original Ripper murders; his yarn tellingly ends with the words “I’m Jack” — a pulp-fiction endorsement for Humble the fantasist.Fleshing the story out further are the numerous official documents interspersed among Humble’s one-way dispatches: police transcripts, housing association letters, graphology reports, newspaper cuttings. Some are taken straight from real-life sources, although not necessarily relating to Humble; others have been written by Blacklock. All of them, though, are orderly, businesslike and serious, unlike Humble’s wayward outpourings. The contrast — a hierarchy of tone, style and content — magnifies Humble’s lonely position on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.

I’m Jack doesn’t have the intensity of Gordon Burn’s immersive 1984 take on the life of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, or of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, which have the Yorkshire Ripper investigation as their background. Its tone is more mischievous, with a vein of dark, crafty humour — though the overall effect is sombre. Blacklock’s Humble is impossible to like; yet by the end it is almost impossible not to feel sorry for him.

I’m Jack, by Mark Blacklock, Granta, RRP£12.99, 240 pages

Austin Collings is the author of ‘The Myth of Brilliant Summers’ (Pariah Press)

Island Hopping; or, an Essay upon Several Projections

Some images and audio from last Thursday evening’s ‘Think Tank’, part of Tom McCarthy’s installation at the ICA as part of fig-2. With many thanks to Tom and Fatoş Üstek for inviting me to participate, my co-panellists Clémentine Deliss and Alfie Spencer and all those who attended. The text of my talk is below – we were limited to 15 minutes, the same amount of time U. has in which to give his interesting but ultimately baffling conference presentation in Satin Island. I hope to ‘archipelagise’ this at some point and to fill out the elisions.

©Sylvain_Deleu_Fig2_T_McCarthy_Think_Tank

©Sylvain_Deleu_Fig2_T_McCarthy_Think_Tank

©Sylvain_Deleu_Fig2_T_McCarthy_Think_Tank

©Sylvain_Deleu_Fig2_T_McCarthy_Think_Tank

As the representative of the literary point of our triangle, I’m going to offer some readings; perhaps reading is the term under which our distinct operations might find common ground. These will be in a hybrid mode, part literary history, part in response to theoretical writing, and in the spirit of our engagement I’ve gone to anthropological thinkers: hopefully anthropological thinkers amenable to literature. I hope the nature of the engagement with corporate culture will become apparent.

I’m grateful that Tom invited me to “fail interestingly” in attempting this triangulation, although, somewhat like U., I became anxious that I might be unable to do even that. In my desperation I went to Marc Augé’s Anthropology of Supermodernity, which may be familiar to some here. There I found two images that resonated particularly powerfully in terms of Satin Island. Augé’s remark that for an anthropologist ‘the ideal vantage point is the deck of a ship putting to sea’ which put me in mind of Satin Island’s closing scene. And his final sentence, a call for an ethnology of solitude.

So I’m going to be alighting not directly upon Satin Island but upon other islands. I realised that material I was looking at in a different context might offer a useful model for thinking our triangle and an ethnology of an earlier form of solitude. Specifically:

Robinson_Cruose_1719_1st_edition

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates

How so? Well, Robinson Crusoe is frequently thought of as a pioneer of the realist novel. Crusoe himself is often read as an archetypal homo economicus, an exemplary liberal capitalist at the birth of liberal capitalism – an impression enhanced by the frequency with which his island has been used as a model by political economists. Certainly, Crusoe is a capitalist: a sailor first, but very soon a trader, a merchant, a plantation owner, and a slaver; a corporatist. He experiences a series of encounters with ethnic others – North Africans, West Africans, native central Americans – and in this he is, perhaps, also an anthropologist avant la lettre.

So Crusoe emerges from the nexus of the flourishing of global trade and the ‘present tense’ encounter with alien cultures accelerated by improvements in cartography.

crusoe_map

The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published later in 1719 to monopolise on the popularity of the first story, included a map of his routes: the trade routes of the period, essentially, but perhaps not so far from the routes taken by Levi Strauss 250 years later. My crash course in cartography identifies that as an azimuthal stereographic projection map, by the way. Stereographic projection maintains angles between meridians but area becomes distorted. Perhaps we can return to the distortions of maps later, a subject I know is of interest to Tom.

Crusoe also emerges in the context of an information boom: a local, English language boom, provoked by the repeal of the copyright acts in 1695. Crusoe may well be a liberal capitalist, but I’d like to suggest that he participates in this field as a processor of information.

As Karl Marx wrote of him in Das Kapital:

having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, [he] commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him.

We should note well that ledger. For the nineteenth century scholar Mary Poovey, double-entry book-keeping is a significant textual staging post in a new epistemological mode that insists upon abstraction and quantification; the purification, following Bruno Latour, of nature from society. As a book-keeper Crusoe is a participant in this emergent, modern subjectivity: master of a nature he reduces to information.

For Michel de Certeau, another interested reader of Crusoe, this same epistemological shift is characterised as the establishment of a scriptural economy. For De Certeau, Crusoe masters the island, nature, a blank space, and also the blank space of the page, in his ledgers and his journal.

De Certeau reads the first sign of the other – the footprints on the beach – as the rupture of wild, untamed orality into Crusoe’s ordered space. This is highly suggestive.

Tables and lists abound. Information is processed, yes, but so too is information’s other – noise – established. In his Essay on Several Projects, published at the beginning of the 18th century, Defoe made a number of claims that might interest us here. He declared the 18th century to be the projecting age, and gave the true definition of a project as ‘a vast undertaking, too big to be managed.’

He also had something to say on spoken English: he favoured a plain style, and described words without sense as ‘Noise, which any brute can make as well as we and birds much better.’ Many readers of Crusoe have remarked upon his first companion on the island, his parrot Poll, who repeats his name back to him. But it’s not just Poll. Crusoe catches and tames two further parrots, which he also teaches his name. He makes corporate the production of noise. He sets up his own feedback loop, one in which the signifier of his subjectivity is made into, in Defoe’s own words, noise.

Indeed, once you start reading the novel in informational terms intriguing details begin to present themselves. In one fit of paranoia, Crusoe digs an escape route from his cave that emerges in his own garden. He fashions himself a physical, spatial loop around which he crawls. And then there’s my favourite informational table: the list of the ways in which 23 cannibals are killed. All of whose bodies are buried on the beach, and about whom no more is said. Crusoe and Friday make a record of their slaughter, and then make the island into a vast tomb. I wonder if these curiosities don’t express an anxiety in the text about the modern liberal subject’s attempt to process information, a return of repressed noise insistent within processes of purification.

Versions of the story – Robinsonades – have proliferated. It’s a particularly noisy text. I’d like to embark briefly on a curiously overlooked Robinsonade as a staging post on the way to Satin Island.

ConcreteIsland

J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island. A triangular island, no less, closed off by the thundering traffic of the Westway, and into which the architect Robert Maitland plunges in crashing his Jaguar. The triangular model is also extended to the structure of his social relations with the two other inhabitants of the island, a pre-literate tramp called Proctor and a prostitute, Jane Sheppard. Alfie, I suspect that Maitland is corporate culture in this triangle; Clementine, why not have Proctor for anthropology and I’ll take Jane Sheppard for literature.

I’d like to draw attention to a couple of details: the three sleep in the crypt of a church that is sealed into this overdetermined space, a space teeming with multiple presents, a surrealist assemblage of times that reflects the disordered state of Maitland’s psyche.

Concrete Island is consciously modelled on Crusoe – Maitland creates an island ‘estate’ from the ruins of his Jag – and sets the model for Ballard’s late fictions of enclosed communities in which psychopathologies are let run riot. Of particular interest is the chapter in which Maitland pretends to teach Proctor to write, has him copy out messages requesting help in the hope of attracting the attention of passing motorists under the pretence of teaching him how to write his name.

“He began to scrawl the letters across the concrete with both hands. Each word he started in the centre, moving outwards to left and right.

‘Again, Proctor!’ Maitland shouted above the roar of a truck climbing the feeder road. In his excitement the tramp was garbling the letters together into an indecipherable mass.”

Maitland’s scriptural machine – another human subject – produces noise where signal should be. Indeed, Maitland wants noise. Proctor simply gives him the wrong kind.

What do these examples tell us about literature’s relationship to capitalism and to anthropology? Perhaps the distinction was always bogus, another purification that can’t be repressed. Literature offers itself as a site for speculative anthropology; it can reach from the here and the now into the there and the then, the where and the when; it won’t bring back facts, or real encounters, but it can select its objects with freedom and model systems of relations that are yet to come into being. Corporate culture perhaps already does this on our behalf. It surely, as was the case with Crusoe, describes new terrains.

I want to offer a new form of projection as a possibility for the future relationship of literature, anthropology and corporate culture. In fact, it’s a hybrid of two types of projection. Triangulation, as a method for measuring space, was superseded by satellite imagery in the 1980s. Essentially, one point of the triangle has been cast into orbit. In truth, triangulation originated in the stars, and so it has returned, with force.

post_google1

In Postcards from Google earth the artist Clement Valla documents anomalies in the satellite imagery produced by Google. Essentially, these are artefacts produced by the hybrid of algorithms used by Google for marrying the planar photographic imagery generated by its satellites and the complicated topology of the surface of the earth. In truth, the failing is perceptual – we read depth cues in the photographs that the algos don’t. Yet. Google call this the Universal Texture. These images seem to me fulfil the wilder aims of the cubists, to visualise two distinct spatial perspectives in the same plane. We might also think these with De Certeau, as a totalizing representation of space achieved from a godlike perspective.

post_google2

I wonder if this form of noise, produced through a corporation processing impossible volumes of information, doesn’t map a new projective landscape into which literature and anthropology might strike, into which we might follow De Certeau’s calls to return to street street level. To what new islands might these roads take us? And more importantly, what kinds of subjects might inhabit them?

I’m Jack

 

Harland Miller, The Consquence of a Failed Illusion (West Yorkshire Police Public Information Campaign), 2009

Harland Miller, The Consquence of a Failed Illusion (West Yorkshire Police Public Information Campaign), 2009

Something weird this way comes

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:

JG supplements

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.

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Ivan Seal at Carl Freedman Gallery

IS529Depicted 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.

IS519Like 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.IS514

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)

IS528Clearly, 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.IS525 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.

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The Future Christ: a found photo-story

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All images are borrowed from NASA and ESA:

http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/photogallery/photogallery.html

http://spaceinimages.esa.int/Images

Responding to a tweet by Tom Hunter @clarkeaward.

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