stop making sense

Earlier this year, or perhaps late last year, a correspondent, one of my boon companions from my undergraduate years, asked me where Marx went wrong. It wasn’t that broad a question in the asking but over time and consideration it became a question to that effect. And having turned the question into a double or nothing, use it or lose it, scenario I’ve spent a good many of my quiet moments throughout this year trying to construct something like an answer. My correspondent had his own answer, that Marx was wrong because he failed to anticipate the growth, impact and power of consumer choice and spending of the working class.

I think this understates what Marx got wrong. What he got wrong, to my mind, is that he understood people as being determined by their social and economic circumstances. The whole class based analysis enacts a deterministic structure and systematizes the possibilities of human existence by limiting the scope of that existence. Marx allows for no otherness: there is nothing outside the economy. And having made the world so neat and tidy and straight the conclusion that by arranging x and y in such and such a manner will result in the Revolution after which justice prevails, ceteris paribus, is a comforting basis on which to proceed through the uncertain ethics of being part of a vast repressive apparatus and, perchance, mitigate a little of that repression and its consequential harms.

The whole box and dice is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the working class are disempowered because they are working class, the bourgeoisie are powerful because they are the  bourgeoisie, and no-one can escape the prison house of structure-superstructure. Materiality is a very small world, and by making it so orderly it is rendered but a suggestion of the complexity of being here now (or not yet, or not anymore) and the wonder that should rightly produce. The materiality Marx places at the centre of his analysis is the same terrible narrowness that capitalism similarly imposes. Marx has not misrecognised that capitalism is all about the material but in both contexts the material is nothing more than sepia-toned obfuscation, a function of reductionism. Increasingly, I am no longer willing to speak of the world in manageable bite sized chunks, nor to affect some gesture of mitigation, as these rationalisations feel more and more like doing an injustice. The impost of a discursive poverty.

As these reflections might imply my head has been in a dark place for some time now. It’s hard to say what shape this darkness takes, if shape is what it has. I’ve waited a good long time for the darkness to lift, to fade up to a dawn. But it hasn’t. It’s also hard to say why this isn’t just depression of the usual kind and with which I am familiar, however this is not like that. When I’m depressed I can’t bear to look around, I don’t want to see or be seen. I just want erasure. Presently, that is not where I’m at, rather I am frantically looking around for orientation but cannot locate an horizon, there are dark clouds and dark earth and dark light. There are only moments of distinction between from which I might half-step, half-stumble toward something. I am patient with this, I am practised at waiting. And, as I stand at this particular bus stop in the rain, I have been trying to make sense of things but for a little while now I’ve thought that this was a mistake.

I think that making sense of things is the impost of that poverty of view, it makes things smaller, makes them manageable and discreet. The rationality of the conduct of human affairs is nothing but chancellery, a veil thrown over a field of thought and action so complex that nothing, no discourse, will ever  garner sufficiently robust explicatory force to deliver justice to the producers of that complexity. Charles Bowden, who died recently, remarked in podcast that to live a moral life was an irrational act, that morality isn’t rational. I didn’t get this when I first heard it but now I am beginning to see its wisdom. To believe in the order of things is to look at the world as a snow globe, and you can make that work, it’s all structure and superstructure. But maybe it would be better, maybe it’d be more caring, to not impose order and not construct models of that order. Maybe if I stop trying to follow a rational path I will see an horizon of my own making.

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that chill divine

Somewhat to my surprise INXS are having another moment in the sun. They are everywhere. A miniseries in the classic Australian 10BA style, a number one greatest hits package, and a tribute band (INEXCESS) endlessly touring the holiday spot RSLs. They’re getting picked for up ad tv ad soundtracks (South Australian tourism, NRMA, John Lewis). Plus, of course, that strange dotted line connection to Peaches Geldof. I suppose that in a lot of ways it’s about time. Those who fronted up to early and mid-eighties gigs must be in their fifties these days, and well positioned in terms of disposable income. And those youngsters who sat at home watching INXS on Countdown are in their forties, and probably similarly well positioned.

Those of us in this position, we’ve got cash to spend and a fairly limited array of nostalgic items to (re-)buy. Sure, we could buy World Series Cricket coloured shirts, or Newtown Jets jerseys, or Datsun 180Bs, or Bob’s a Bottler tshirts, or Neighbours dvds, or endless books about The Dismissal or mutually assured destruction. But these exotic specimens of eighties paraphernalia aren’t going to satisfy. They don’t add up to much except the fetishes quietly formed by teenagers in fibro boxes surrounded by dead couch grass and Christmas bushes. Australian suburban grotesques. For nostalgia to really work you’ve got to share it, It’s got to be something already shared. The thing that is obviously shared in this case is absence. Michael Hutchence is dead and so is the thing that might be nostalgised.

Since that day in 1997 INXS have been something I couldn’t bear to look at too closely. They continued in a hapless and embarrassing sort of way: Jon Stevens, Jimmy Barnes, JD Fortune, reality tv, all that shit. I couldn’t watch, I couldn’t listen. Didn’t want to, it wasn’t real, they weren’t really INXS without Michael Hutchence. Not to say I gave away those hoarded LPs, or that I didn’t buy that terrible Michael Hutchence album, or that I didn’t buy the two disc collection The Years 1979 – 1997. I kept my LPs (from Shabooh Shoobah to Kick) and I found myself unable to resist attractively packaged compilations, of which there have been at least half a dozen (mysteriously). Similarly I still find Michael Hutchence a figure I can stare at for quite a long time.

A long time ago I stood in Selinas at Coogee and watched him perform, as close to me as my cubicle buddy is here right now (we will fight like thissss, he spat at me leaning on a marshall stack). I was a believer before that night but I knew as we tucked into hot dogs, and walked back toward Clovelly to find the car, that I would always believe, that I just loved what they, and what he, did. I just loved it. I didn’t care about ordinary new albums, angled toward competition with Nirvana or Oasis. I didn’t care about Kylie or Paula Yates or Bob Geldof. I didn’t care about gossip or celebrity. I didn’t care about crappy music videos or chart success. I didn’t care about remixes or new packaging or rereleased on CD versions. I had those classic LPs and big speakers, what more could I ask for?

Then he died. I cried. That’s some complicated wanking. I remember Dr Sternlove rolling her eyes as I tried to figure out why I was crying. And over the last seventeen years at various points I’ve thought about INXS and why it felt like they mattered so much to me. And the answer is obvious now, as forty something with disposable income, it was the end of loving some distant other without irony being present. Michael Hutchence was a rock star I loved, without a comprehension of the distance elided by my hands holding those records. The space was incomprehensible, and then, behind the door of Room 524 at the Ritz-Carlton, there it was, the distance.

A dead love is all about the irony.

 

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moving on

Bruce played Darkness on the Edge of Town in its entirety back in February, at the concert I’ve already written about. I haven’t really stopped thinking about it. Helen Razer and the Melbourne crowd got Born to Run and if you’re interested she accurately and effectively maps out the despair and love that Bruce sells: the charm and the faff of those baroque seventies and early eighties, the before time. It’s an excellent review and probably nothing more need be said. But me, I’ve kept on thinking about ‘Racing in the Street’, obsessing in an offhand sort of way, to see if it manifests some resemblances to the life I’m living, to the despair and love I know. There’s a pleasure in picking the song apart, the de-rendering of the product into its constituent raw materials, and thinking about the craft required for such precisely emotive assembly.

There’s not much outcome from this process. You hear a flash of Motown, an echo of Martha Reeves; you hear the dextrous gurgle of uber-professional musicians underplaying the overblown romanticism of a contradictory narrative in which women become pictures of Dorian Gray; you hear aphoristic masculinity nurtured and celebrated through proxy combat; and you hear longing, layer upon layer of indeterminate longing, longings that might just be satisfied through robust action, and the struggle for that satisfaction given absolution in the same gesture. The passion of the joust is supposed to be a crucible. That the true man might be revealed as his unguarded, known and loveworthy soul. There’s also the beauty of the thing, which I admire with croon and swoon. But it’s not much for a couple of months of rumination.

So I find myself here wondering what I’ve been thinking about for three months. I’ve been playing Bruce over and over: in the car, in the kitchen, at work, over the pc speakers right now. And the answer is simple, I’ve been thinking about myself. What it has come to mean to me, racing in the street as a trope, is the passion for life blind to all else, a passion for my life, passionate me. A passion is not without cost I cannot help but know, a me whose being implies cost to others. Wanting this, not wanting this, has sent me deep into a pointless hall of mirrors. Second guessing myself at every turn, I’ve wondered if I’ve not gone racing in the street enough, or maybe too much. Or maybe I did and I faked it, and an untrue guardedness is revealed, maybe I’m unmasked as a fake racer. A true fake. Or maybe I went racing in the street and I lost and I can’t make it matter. Or maybe I didn’t do it and I don’t know why, and so I told everyone I was racing in the street.

So fuck it, it’s a song and it’s not about me.

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a sense of north

I’ve been to a couple of gigs lately, Don Walker and Bruce Springsteen. Both were supporting new albums that no-one is really that fussed about. Bruce played in front of one hundred thousand or so, and charged a couple of hundred dollars plus. Don played in front of about eighty and cost thirty eight dollars, including booking fee. Both practiced old school musicianship and valued the tight intensity of playing with other musicians. Bruce was lifted high and was carried across the mosh pit on a thousand adoring hands. Don got on his hands and knees, plugging and unplugging cables, trying to fix his sustain pedal. Both inserted happily self-deprecating anecdotes to mollify the gap between the staged and seated. Bruce provided chorus after chorus, taking the power back from loneliness as we all sang along. Don offered wan wisecracks and muttered that tomorrow it was supposed to be a sunny day. It would be true to say that Bruce used his celebrity and Don used his anti-celebrity for roughly the same purpose, to suggest that hope and love are redemptive no matter the injustice of circumstances.

Nothing much was surprising about either gig; I got what I went for. Sputnik, who accompanied me to both, saw other things. Mostly me offering up something akin to faith, me in the role of a believer.  Me in the congregation. This is not something she sees all that often. I am cautious and reticent and contingent. Especially about big things. The world. People. Physics. Truth. Justice. Complexity is a maze of blind corners, and I’ve learned that my navigations of them aren’t entirely accurate. And as a nervous self-doubting navigator of complexity, a navigator faintly aware that there is every chance I’m wrong, I’ve got to come up with something to keep moving, some shifting and malleable sense of where north might be. This sense is the central hook of Bruce and Don. Their characters, especially their many flawed and incomplete blokes of a certain age, are bannermen for this sense of north: hope as a bulwark and rampart. A rhetorical defence against self doubt and the likelihood of error, the terror of error. Or that everything’s already too far gone to fix now.

I quoted Henry Giroux on hope some months ago, in another post, about how hope expands the space of possible. And it does, it says we’re not done yet and good may come. It says the future is an available space for projection of getting better, being better. Better selves, better others, better relations, better care. Better resistance, better dissent, better struggle. Better management of the almost complete inconsequentiality of our surprising presence.

Then, on twitter, an admirable fellow blogger  (@HallyMk1) made the point that”we over-stress hope as whatever. courage is the thing. courage is an act of love. it presages hope.” Almost immediately I thought he was right, but then as a navigator in the maze I wasn’t sure. Hope, courage, love, redemption. I’ve been thinking about these a lot, pretty much since November last year: in waiting rooms and at traffic lights, in the dark of night and as I watch the cricket on the telly. I thought about them as I sang and swayed my way through Bruce and Don. I saw and heard them all around me. OK cool, I thought, good stuff all around. These good things will be sustaining, these good things will make it better. My bulwark and my ramparts seemed in good shape I figured. But over the summer they were all drawn down on pretty hard. Thrown down like stakes in card game I didn’t want to play and suspected couldn’t win.

Thing kept pressing against my head, all that good stuff: it was not enough.

Hope, courage, love, redemption. Not enough.

Resistance, dissent, struggle. Not enough.

Bruce and Don. Not enough.

Better. Not enough.

So what do you with that in the sweaty early morn? At what point does the failure of rhetoric to salve the friction of being represent my failure as a person? At what point does the failure of courage and hope reveal the obvious terror they were designed to obscure? And in the clear sighted face of that terror how do you not just stop? Call it quits. Finito. Line ‘em up bartender and let me go until there’s no more. How? Head to some Walden’s Pond and make my apologies? Just join a crusty crew and let the currents take me where they might? Take a shopping trolley into the misty uncertainties of being off the grid? Or the opposite and get myself a herringbone suit and another couple of mortgages and just be the Sararīman I’ve fought so hard against becoming? Get myself an Audi or one of those nice Renaults, a few trophies for the sale of my conscience?

And where can I do that anyway? Are consciences rolled out like wares at a flea market, on blanket over concrete, for fanciers to acquire? Or swapped, briefcase for briefcase, in undercover shopping mall carparks. Or delivered by uniformed parcel people, signed for on little signature tablets with a plastic stylus, upon receipt of a direct deposit. But in the early morn, when kidneys and livers are busy at work, I’m too paralysed by terror to ever think that I could pull any of this off, one way or the other. There’s just me in my head. And there’s just the world out there. And there’s not a resolution. No teleology of transcendence. No big unity. Not enough.

So what do you do? Fantasy seems the obvious path. And so I have been reading a lot about Leninism. Since Dr Sternlove got cancer I’ve spent a lot of time in plastic hospital chairs reading Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest and coming to the conclusion that the Bolshevik project was a cult. Party. And like most cults there was a fair bit of hope, courage, love, and redemption involved in manufacturing the faithfulness that is required for a seventy year regime. That faith was fantastic, in both its sincere and faux manifestations. People believed, some still do. They had faith that the proper arrangement of things, materiality, could be provided through the investment of hope, courage, love, and redemption in the rhetorical frames of managing that arrangement of things. Even reading those critical works I saw lots that I admired, lots that made one feel loving toward the Russian Revolution. Even knowing that the twenty million were waiting their turn. And it’s not like the faith that the Bolshevik cult used is substantively different from the faith of late capitalism. After all the market is just a mechanism for the arrangement of things, what was sought through the Leninist state is much the same as is sought today: utopia through things. Sweating into my plastic chair over summer it didn’t seem to me that either system was any good. Cult after cult for making better. And looking at the effectiveness of these cults, especially the ongoing enterprises, seems to me that they’re not much more than tools to make ourselves feel better about shit knowing it won’t make much difference in the long run.

The world is too big for personal sacrifice to matter at all. Join any cult you like, they’ve only the weight of words for mass. Just like Bruce and Don, they’re there to mitigate whatever soul disquiet might come upon us if we allow it do so. I reckon I’ve allowed a bit too much in lately. But now it’s here. That ripple on a pond not made by the hands of men. Yeah. That one. What’s going to be adequate handling of that? It’d have to be a damn fine cult to get me to check my baggage, even supposing I could. It’s more likely that I’ll be in the crowds of blokes at gigs where these troubled narratives are rendered a show, a performance. An enormous ritual theatre of unease ameliorating the angst of the members of a cult so vast no one even knows they belong. Classic Debordian outcome I suppose, the only way out of the spectacle is to acknowledge membership of the cult, accept its inadequate absolution, to play along until suddenly redundant, and slip away from spectatorship.

Maybe I was doing that when Sputnik watched me at the gigs, heard me sing along and raise my fist in timely emphasis.  Maybe. More likely I’ll take any comfort I can find, any foxhole is a good foxhole. Inadequate absolution is better than none. Even a temporary and anonymous solidarity is better than none. I kind of think that knowing that this is false consciousness, is a form of paying attention. A form of moral bricolage: scrounging the proper combination of bits and piece to make a life courageous and hopeful which, while not really making things better, tends an idea of space where that might become possible in some other incomplete present.

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the old park

There were two direct routes down to the river from our place on Dooral St. One, the Dairy Road, was mostly bitumen but was gated at the dairy. So you had to jump the fence into the paddock and leave your bike behind. Then stride confidently toward the river, not thinking of the snakes. Which we did, pretty much because it would have been super-cool to actually see a snake in the bushes and also because the heat was an incredible incentive to get to the shade fast. There was a good rope swing down there into a deep hole in the river and, when the river was strong, a hip-high sandy billabong to splash and lounge in. But no-one liked leaving the bikes behind and by the time you got back to them you were in need of another swim.

So mostly we went down to the Old Park. It was a crook in the river, fish all around (mostly carp in those days) and in the lee of whatever modest heights there might have been to the north where the hot winds begin. Shady river forest, gums that filled the horizon. It was a great place to mess about: in boats and on bikes; in trees and over rocks. I loved it, it was so accessible: a couple of blocks from our place you went down Walgett St all the way to the old pump-house. Even on my over-engineered Rep-co BMX I could be down there maybe ten, twelve minutes, in the water in fifteen. There was a little jetty, out over the river, connected to the pump-house from which you could jump, certain of a giddy little thrill as it was a bit higher than expected, once you were in mid-air.

The road continued down along beside the river in a north westerly direction – it petered out into a pair of tyre ruts and then it faded into something else, a suggestion that people used to travel that way, noted by the consistent distance between trees of roughly the same age. An avenue through and around the dips and hollows of the riverside. It wasn’t straight nor even but there was clearly a way there. Lots of ways, as the tracks and paths criss-crossed each other all over the place leading from one hollow to another, one billabong to another, one prime river spot to another. And a thousand little tracks from the trees to everywhere.

The Old Park was clearly old, the pump-house had the architecture of a Longues-sur-Mer bunker facing out over Omaha beach, but even a kid on a bike could see this was an awesome place. A vast park with a thousand camping spots by the water, spots to wash and play, spots to rest in the deep shade of the river gums, spots to get love and watch the sunset across the plains to the south, places to kill food and barbecue. It seems clear to me now that it was a town. It was a gathering place, a significant one. Just upstream from the fish traps where the river gets flat and broad. But at the time I loved it as a playground. It was a vast happy maze of BMX jumps and swimming spots. The people you saw were mostly kids, and blokes in land cruisers, fishing. I didn’t see the absent people.

When the big floods came in 1983 we were cut off by road for a fair while. It was really pretty cool, helicopters used the school oval as its base and every couple of hours, for a week or so, it would land and take off to carry lucerne and groceries and medical supplies to the cut off farms along the swollen rivers. We watched from our classroom windows, and envied those who got a ride. After ten days we got care packages, at school we stood in a line and each received a showbag with soap and pencils and sweets. As the waters slowly receded I would ride down Walgett St as far as the water would allow, to see how high it was I guess. I would look across the elbow of river as one vast lake, noticeably studded with high points, little islands of gums and dirt.

After the floods receded they left behind great puddles of dense mud as the silt brought by river settled, especially in the billabongs. Once my family went to a barbecue down in the park. There were maybe five families, it might have been a scout thing I guess, and when we arrive everyone is standing around this billabong looking at this sheep. The sheep is up to its neck in mud and bleating madly, crazily. And my Dad goes to the car and gets a rope. He wades into the mud and ties the rope around the sheep’s hind leg. He carries the rope back to the riverbank and all the blokes pull out this panicked sheep. My Dad has got mud on his glasses and everything about him is muddy and he can’t get his glasses clean. He looks at me. I can’t understand what it’s doing here, he says.

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mortality trumps utopia

I’ve been thinking a lot about utopias. It started with Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil. It’s a great read: part political thriller, part personal travelogue and part geo-historical exploration. It’s beautifully written, as are all Robb’s books (Midnight in Sicily is especially good), and you can feel the years’ worth of labour involved in making it a coherent whole, as well as the long hours fustigating for the right words and the right order. He thinks about Brazil deeply: considering the food on his plate, the buses he rides, the people he meets, the wind and rain and sun, the forest and mountains in the distance, the papers and the TV. His narrative is dense enough to suggest the complexity of time and place –though not so dense as to obscure what he has to say.

But the thing that grabbed me was his long exploration of Canudos and the war that led to its destruction. I had read Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World and considered it a good novel but hadn’t twigged that it was referencing a real thing, somewhat to my embarrassment. Similarly I had read a couple of references to Canudos but not chased them down: Zizek, Laclau, Susanna Hecht, and some travel writers who’ve wandered through Brazil. So over the last months of 2013 I began to read about Canudos, rather pleased with myself for still pursuing new things to know.

The gist of the Canudos thing is relatively simple. Jon Beasley-Murray provides an excellent little summary on his blog Posthegemony:

Canudos…was a settlement in the dry backlands of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, founded in 1893 by the followers of a charismatic preacher and mystic. Viewed as a threat by a range of authorities, from the local church to (eventually) the national government, it was the object of a series of attempts at military pacification, each of which were fiercely resisted. Despite their portrayal as uncivilized savages, its inhabitants managed to embarrass the nascent Republic (established in 1889) by repelling two expeditionary forces of the Brazilian army until, finally, in October 1897 they were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of men and resources devoted to their extirpation.

This is to say that a four year military action was taken against a village in the bush because it wasn’t following the usual patterns and practices of Brazilian colonial nationalism. Property was communal, resources were collectively managed, national and state laws were ignored, and there was no currency. Unsurprisingly the poor, the landless, the indigent, the indigenous, and former slaves came hither to Canudos.

Zizek, in Live Theory, describes the Canudos as “an outlaw community deep in the Brazilian backlands that was home to prostitutes, freaks, beggars, bandits, and the most wretched of the poor.” This makes it sound pretty cool, like a rather inclusive refugee camp except it was led by a religious nutter, which renders it more reminiscent of Jonestown or Rife’s Raft in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. Perhaps wisely, Zizek choses to focus on Canudos as being a liberated space, as a germ cell for “self-organized societies” and as “an alternative community that thoroughly negates the existing state space.” Zizek even goes a bit further in his fandom, saying that “[e]verything is to be endorsed here, up to the religious ‘fanaticism’.” Zizek uses Canudos to speak of stepping outside culturally, politically, and economically. Canudos in this reading is about making unregulated spaces, a means to avoid relation to the powers that be: “it is as if, in such communities…the defeated ones acquire a space of their own,” a space to become and remain undefeated.

Zizek, as is so often the case, is inclined toward a festive representation of hopelessness because in his worldview liberation is never impossible but always marked by loss. Freedom is always, for Zizek, simultaneously a baptism and a funeral. Further on in Live Theory he says of Canudos: “Utopia existed here for a brief period of time, this is the only way to account for the ‘irrational’ excessive, violence of the destruction of these communities.” The wonder of Canudos is represented, for Zizek, in the fervour of its ending. The success of unregulated spaces is marked by the determination of regulatory authority to reassert itself. Elsewhere Zizek makes the point that “liberation hurts.”

Most of what is known about Canudos and the Canudos War comes from Euclides da Cunha’s astonishing Os Sertões (known in English as Rebellion in the Backlands or Backlands: The Canudos Campaign). Not always the most pleasant of reading and denser than Zizek in parts, da Cunha divides his tale in three parts dealing with the landscape, the people and the war. There’s a fair bit of dodgy social Darwinism and some fairly awkward racial generalisations which have to be taken as markers of context. But they also serve another purpose, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the shape of the land and the past of its inhabitants are really the chains that the community were attempting to break. da Cunha sees that it is not Brazil that the Canudosi seek to escape but the structures that determine who a person is, and who they might become.

Slavery is central to this. The end of slavery in 1888 was the final scene for an institution that had already begun to fade by the early 1870s, but over that fifteen year period maybe 1.5 million men and women were deprived of the employment and sustenance that they had been provided with previously. They sought out both in competitive and cruel labour markets. Unsurprisingly some of those men and women chose to attempt to step outside those rubrics for exchange, to no longer be held as a body in the gaze of property or service. In this light Canudos and Antônio Conselheiro must have appeared as a good a chance as any at stepping outside the economic and moral structures of 1890s Brazil.

A chance taken that didn’t pay off, it turned out. Almost all the inhabitants of Canudos were killed; indeed the Canudos War is often simply referred to as the Canudos massacre. Maybe 150 (out of 15,000 or so) walked away. Antônio Conselheiro died in the early stages of the final siege, after fasting for quite some time, of dysentery. For the Canudosi stepping outside provoked the violent reassertion of their subjectivity, their unliberation, the temporary liberty of their bodies required, structurally, the sovereignty of the state to insist on its primacy. Their bodies, though freed from slavery, remained imprisoned by the sovereignty of the Brazilian republic.

Bodies aren’t free, hence the pain of liberation. As I thought about Canudos and Zizek and slavery and sovereignty my mind wandered to William Gibson, and the Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive). Back in the early nineties I had loved the Sprawl trilogy, loving its energies and counter energies, but I was also struck by its descriptions of the body as meat. So I got the now pretty ancient paperbacks down from the bookshelf and got to reading them again. The gist of the trilogy is a search for sentience by an artificial intelligence, to be completely unbodied, untethered to hardware. The artificial intelligence seeks to be all consciousness, as well all consciousnesses.

This is a neat transcendental pathway, liberation from the custody of the body. (Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, is described as having “a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh… The body was meat” and when Case is deprived of his cyberspace life he “fell into the prison of his own flesh.”) The trilogy follows this pathway as the characters attempt to follow the artificial intelligence toward disembodiment and replicates the multiple, contradictory, and free selves that the artificial intelligence has become having transcended hardware, bodily containers. Ultimately there is no transcendence for the characters, they remain meat and the meat is always subject. Liberation, the making of unregulated spaces and selves, not only hurts but must ultimately be temporary.

A utopia has a cost which transgresses its utopianism. Imprisoned in the fragile container we are subject to the constraints of the materiality of that container. Utopias are pretty clearly wishful thinking, a weekend away, maybe a long-weekend away. Mortality trumps utopia, everytime.

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57 channels

Bodies have been central lately: their vulnerability, their fallibility, their messy awkwardness, their ichorous instability, their lack of durability, their strange capacity to harm their owner. I have been thinking a lot about this. But mostly I’ve been answering my phone. It goes beep (more like chirrup, chirrup, to get onomatopoeic) an awful lot these days and my basic misanthropic settings have been messed with severely. SMS, email, voicemails, DMs, and the rest of the 57 channels all go chirrup, chirrup with frightening regularity, day after day, as enquiries are made about the status of the body.

All these conversations, such as they are, tend toward a corporeal agathism framed by a worried horror. What all these conversations require of me is to engage on the basis of a coherent and predictable narrative, to speak from knowledge and make it comprehensible. I have endeavoured to do this but the more I have done so, the more I recognise that everything I say is disingenuous. I have information, some information (though a long way from all the information, or enough information) and the body can be represented through that information, but the information isn’t the body.

The body is material, and it doesn’t matter if the narratologically-tamed information I provide is positive or negative because it doesn’t affect the body. Affecting the body is an intimate thing but none of my conversations about the body are actually intimate. They approximate intimacy, a zooming motion of closeness unavoidably mediated by and through the 57 channels, as well as my haphazard narratives. It’ll do, for the purposes of keeping people advised, but I have been struck by the presumption of intimacy that instantaneous communication allows.

The medical professionals are in a different movie: they aren’t texting one another about the body they treat, they are writing to each other in nicely addressed envelopes, with stamps. For a while I thought this was cute: all that Messrs, Sir, Doctor, and Mister is very retro, like the little watches that nurses pin to their tunics. But now I think this is a construction of distance. The professionalism of medical professionals is produced by this distance, designed to deny the intimacy of their actions. Medical professionals affect the body intimately but in order to do so they must stand apart: they aren’t doing a favour, and they aren’t helping out. They maintain a practice of formal civility so that it doesn’t matter that they saw what bodies don’t display, socially. In my conversations, on the 57 channels, this distance is not there. The body is framed as social display, a status bar for the self. In this way the social has begun to overwhelm the civil. The civil is cast aside as an uncool formalism, fusty stuffiness.

The decentredness of all this, the 57 channels, arises from the separation of the court from courtesy. Without a central authority from which the codes of propriety trickle down in a neatly coherent structure (base-superstructure, I guess) it is no big deal to merge immediacy with access and see no distance between any of us within this particular information economy, a flat earth of collegiality. There are lots of cheerleaders for this sort of universal franchise, democratisation and all that, citizens of communication. But I don’t buy it. The distance matters. The distance is a practice of respect for otherness, for the particularity of others. Facebook friends, followers, contacts, leads: these are collections of people to be spoken of as accoutrements of digital lifestyle. I don’t dig it. It’s really a kind of accrual: inputs that can be journaled to some greater ledger of personal acclaim, another context in which proliferation is seen as progress and vanity as virtue. You don’t need to be Evgeny Morozov to know this is bollocks.

 

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