Here is the News!

So, it would appear self-publishing columns are like buses. I seem to have acquired two of them.

Passle is a fabulous platform for knowledge-based professionals (I think that means people who sit at desks in manager-speak). I’m running the self-publishing stream on it – you can follow it here. Right now, I’m running a series, posted on Thursday, offering a very abbreviated but I hope useful and thought-provoking digest of my book Self-publish With Integrity (which you can buy for Kindle here).

spi cover draft 10

And I have the incredible privilege of being the new News Editor for the Alliance of Independent Authors, which means I will be posting the “This Week’s Self-publishing News” column every Friday. You can read the first one here. If you have any self-publishing news, do let me know by emailing me at eightcutsgallery@gmail.com I’m particularly looking for stories that don’t have a US/UK slant so I can do justice to ALLi’s global audience.

If you’d like to keep in touch, do sign up here and I’ll send you occasional utterly non-spammy and, I hope, mildly interesting updates.

International Women’s Day

Because deconstructing patriarchy is for 365 (or, in some cases 366) days of the year, I am using International Women’s Day simply to shout out to some amazing people who would enrich everyone’s lives. Whatever your thing, you’ll find women here smashing it out of the park. Of course, this list is far from exhaustive.

Literature

Pankhearst are part literary collective, part cultural icon, part raised middle finger. Everyone involved is amazing – scoop up everything on their website and check out all of the individuals involved. Their collection of fem noir Riding in Cars With Girls is absurdly good.

riding-in-cars-with-girls-manic-readers

Film

American-Mary_Poster-SC

American Mary is one of the most important films of the decade. A glorious celebration of body autonomy and the beauty of a life lived on the outside of constrictive structures, it is brought to you by the wonderful Soska Sisters.

Performance

Sabina England is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. Actor/director/poet/playwright/fiction writer/activist/comedian. Hard to know where to start with her work, but this wonderful video of her performance piece Deaf Brown Gurl is as good a place as any.

Photography

Veronika von Volkova takes incredible atmospheric cityscapes whose emotion bleeds from the lens. Also, the model in this image, Katelan Foisy, is an artist/publisher/writer/commentator you should really check out.

vv pic

Music

Louisa Roach, aka She Drew The Gun, is one of the many wonderful artists I discovered when she emailed me out of the blue a few years ago. This is a truly remarkable thing. She’s also about to go on tour. Make sure to catch her.

Sport

Anna Frost is a one of the world’s greatest ultra runners. She is also an advocate for mental health and an ambassador for Sisu Girls, a wonderful organisation of role models for girls across the globe.

Sisu

Meaning and Difference

eg

I am working on a beautifully newly edited version of Evie and Guy. One of the things I’m doing is excising a lot of the excruciatingly explanatory text. It has raised a lot of questions. I want to outline one of them here. For those who don’t know, Evie and Guy is written only in numbers – I take two whole lives, and for each list the time, date and duration of every act of masturbation. The reader is given the space to create meaning and, indeed, full narrative, from this list.

The way we create meaning out of very simple presentations of patterns seems related to the notion of difference. Which is to say, when we start to create a narrative from a list such as that in Evie and Guy, we begin by looking for differences. This means that as authors, knowing this tendency, we will often exaggerate. I wanted to present everyday lives. I wanted not to exaggerate. Which led to the question – does meaning function like time, in the sense that it requires difference? Could we find meaning in a life that was an endless repetition? And how much repetition is needed in order for meaning to grow? And at what stage does difference become so great that you no longer discern meaning in the differentiation from a norm but see only randomness?

I don’t think so. Because unlike the pre-rippled non-white-noise of un-time space, there are still asymmetries in the endless repetition of life, because whilst my Monday is like my Tuesday is like my Wednesday, those repetitive days remain Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – they are framed by worlds that differ, so that repetition within those different frames may be symptomatic of something very deep – noble, defiant, optimistic, expectant.

But even beyond that, even were the world frozen, there remains a mind behind that repetition and as readers we want to know why? Repetition that is absolute can feel almost more significant than variation.

Say you read.

Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

Do you begin to see meaning? How deep do you question those numbers? Then say you see
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

or

Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 9 9 9 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

or
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 6 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Monday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 6 1 1 1
Tuesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Wednesday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Thursday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Friday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Saturday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Sunday 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

Now there is clearly something you look to. But does this feel like you are generating meaning, or simply responding to something very artificial? Is the author’s hand writ too large in creating differences that aren’t as they occur in life, thus alienating the reader, but not the kind of fruitful alienation of the purely blank?

At the moment these are little more than thoughts. They are of interest to Evie and Guy but really become pertinent with some of the things I am working on. Because I don’t just want to make readers think about how meaning is generated from symbols. I want to draw them into narratives at the same time. And I am not sure how either can happen with, say, a text that is purely repetition. But it feels like a non-landscape that needs exploring.

Thank you for listening – by the time text hits page, I promise my thoughts will be more than just questions, and where there are just questions, they will be more forensically-formed!

Elevator Pitch

Tomorrow I will be giving a talk about the future of art. This afternoon I am wondering whether my beautifully crafted words might not be rendered ersatz.

I have just spent my lunch hour in Oxford’s Gloucester Green, standing in an unmoving queue of people waiting to spend an indeterminate amount of time in a lift with Shia LaBeouf in the old Laserquest building. And I wonder how much I have seen of the future in that brief time. He is here for 24 hours. You can watch al of it, live, in that video above. Most of the time you will see closed lift doors. And hear strangely echoing chatter.

In the space of that hour I was approached three times by passers by asking “what’s going on?”, one of them expressing with almost palpable rut, “Whenever I see a line I have to ask.” “Shia LaBoeuf is in an elevator,” I responded. One guy laughed. The man with the rut smiled and said, “Well good luck to you.” I think he had the whole thing nailed. And probably the contemporary art world on a wider, deeper level. The third guy, an American, said, “cool,” and joined the end of the queue.

The composition of the queue was what you might expect. All about 20. Almost all white. A lot of excited men in skinny jeans with extensive amounts of product enhancing the hair on various parts of their heads. One woman wore a top hat and a dress that proclaimed “Smoke meth and hail Satan.” Many of the crowd were drinking beer and hailing their mates on their iPhones. The queue was highly intersectional. It intersected the taxi rank, and a series of irate but resigned taxi drivers crawled through the space like they’d seen it all before. They, too, had the whole thing nailed. Groups took it in turns to guard their places while some of their number went for more beer. One had been to his flat and brought back his laptop. He and his group were going to watch The Martian while they waited. But they couldn’t get their connection to work so he went to Sainsbury’s for a bag of ham and mustard sandwiches instead.

At one point a woman bounded down from the front of the queue. “I’m at the front and I’ve been waiting three hours!” She proclaimed. “And I started up there” – pointing to a couple of metres ahead of where we were. “You’ll be at least seven hours! I’ll sell you my place for £20!” I wondered if she had remembered to leave a friend guarding their valuable spot because the one place she wasn’t, at that moment, was at the front of the queue. No one bit, though a guy in front of me nodded in approval after she’d gone, full of admiration for the entrepreneurial spirit, although I couldn’t shake the voice of Theo Paphitis in my head as he admonished, “For that much of my kids’ inheritance, I want considerably more equity.”

The enterprise continued. The group in front of me spotted a stack of chairs outside the Italian restaurant opposite and one of them decamped 5 of them to the queue. Ten minutes later a rather unimpressed member of the waiting staff came over and demanded them back. At least the space the loss of comfort created made everyone feel the queue had moved. By this stage my mind had succumbed to the overwhelming clamour of capitalism and my only thought was, “she’d have been better taking a notebook and getting orders for coffee.” I wouldn’t pay £20 to get seven hours closer to Shia LaBeouf but I’d have paid double the odds for an espresso.

My thoughts were disturbed by a ripple of applause. Members of the two groups in front peeled off like wildebeest stripped off the pack by hunters. A minute  later they were back, wide-eyed and panting, proclaiming the lift doors had opened and they’d seen Shia LaBeouf. Which, as the whole thing was being streamed live to their smartphones made me realise there is something about the psychology of physical encounter, and the mathematics of a crowd that digital will never take from us, and I broke off the queue myself to head back, thinking maybe there’s something to say about the future of art after all.

If you would like to receive updates about events, new books, and the occasional tidbit of interest, AND get a free ecopy of my poetry pamphlet “I cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry” please subscribe to my totally non-spammy, only-issued-when-there’s-something-to-say newsletter by clicking here. Thanks!

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

It is precisely moments like this that confirm my belief that should audiences ever be subjected to Dan Holloway – the Biopic, it will be Samuel L Jackson, Pulp Fiction Period, whose face lowers out of the screen at them.

OK, whilst I feel a little bad because it’s very brave to stick your head above the parapet and these are actually far better than most exemplars, I don’t feel too bad because if you’re a writer who sticks a hand up and says “I’m doing something good over here,” then I think it’s bundled in with your Ordnance Survey that it’s OK for a critic with a genuine concern for the literary landscape to go, “I’m not so sure you are.”

Less Than Zero

(Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis, which begins with my favourite opening line, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” – a line that basically gives a social history of America on the verge of the Reagan era in a single sentence)

So here’s the thing. Opening lines. Every writer knows what “My opening line’s had 137 times as much time spent on it as any other line-itis” feels like. but we also know, in our heart of cliched hearts, there’s a reason for that. And that reason is there are LOTS of books out there and readers don’t have time to “give us a chance” by spending minutes on the opening chapters, pages, or even paragraphs of every book in the store. Of course this doesn’t mean we should all sausage ourselves into a particular kind of opening, and of course there are other ways to get word of mouth going about a book that needs time to breathe but

1. writing opening lines is a hugely valued skill

and

2. if you profess to possess that skill, it’s probably good if you understand what the skilful bit of it involves.

Which brings me to this. There’s a really great post on Writer’s Digest about how to create a killer opening line. It’s here. Check it out. I know anything that says “there are x number of ways you can do y” is always incomplete and a bit naff, but there are great points, and the real thing is the opening sentences cited as examples are truly stellar. And they all do the one thing an opening sentence has to do (with the caveat always “if this is your genre/thing”) – they make you absolutely content to leave aside every other book ever written because you JUST HAVE to know where this is going. They range from the Bell Jar’s breathtaking “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” to the enigmatic insistence of “I am an invisible man.”

The matter becomes fuel for my righteous anger only when this new post enters the fray. In it, writers are asked to give examples of their opening sentences and use the categories of the Writer’s Digest post to explain why they think they work. We have 21 opening lines. Three of them are good (“I was twenty-one years old when I sold my baby” is very good [Songbird by Julia Bell]. “Ilo Sungila felt he could see all of war-torn Mozambique from the hilltop of his new agricultural supply store.” [Seeking the Light of Justice by Barry Nadel] is really very good, a couple of ersatz words away from being superb). Many of them feature somewhat too many full stops to be considered a line.

But the real issue is this – it is worrying that there are so many writers, all of them writers who are, or who are touted as, at the pinnacle of the profession, who really don’t have a Scooby Doo about what how great opening lines work. When people talk about the importance of editing, it’s all too common for them to mean proofreading, if you’re lucky the kind of line editing that makes sure your character leaves the room in the same shirt she walked in wearing. But I am NEVER going to see how clean and consistent your text is if you don’t work with the kind of editor who calls out your generic, formulaic, more than a little muddled, “what do you even mean cadence and rhythm I’m a writer not a walking thesaurus” opening and doesn’t just suggest you change it but stands over you guarding the key to your coffee jar till you change it.

If this is the state writing finds itself in then I genuinely want to hold my head in my hands and sob. These are not bad sentences. But most of them really are bad *opening* sentences, and they’re bad opening sentences because the explanations of why the writers think they work shows that the writers understand neither the psychology (bluntly, you need to persuade the reader that there is no chance that in the entire of the rest of the bookstore and all the libraries in all the world they will find anything they’d rather spend the next few hours of the life with than the following pages of your book) nor the technique (see the original article) of what makes a good opening line good. The rationales given for these sentences all focus on what the sentence means TO THE WRITER. And sorry if I missed that class, but isn’t writing an opening line about grabbing THE READER.

You see, that’s where the magic happens. It happens when you, as a reader, feel like the author has trepanned you with their words, shone a light inside your skull and buried a mind control device deep inside there. Like any craft, the key to getting it right is starting by reverse engineering. And writers are all to wont to fail because we have this egotistical thing whereby we think what we’re reverse engineering is the writing. Of course the writing matters, and how the sentence is put together is key to getting it perfect, but what you’re reversing isn’t a sentence some writer has banged out on a keyboard. What you need to reverse engineer is a mind control device.

And that is why getting your opening line right begins not with your writing but your reading.

 

(Disclaimer – I am permitting myself to feel something other than just being a grumpy snark because I once won an opening line competition [“It’s nearly midnight and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.” if you want a giggle] that had over 1000 entries. Admittedly, that doesn’t make me much more than a grumpy snark.)

The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized

Text of my talk at Turl Street Arts Festival, 20 February 2016 in their The Future of Art panel – please come, it will be amazing (It’s at Lincoln College at 11.30). And if that sounds good, check out all the other amazing events on next week here. The idea for this talk has been brewing for a long time, and forms the basis of a proposal I have been constructing for some time for a TV documentary called “The Descent of Unreason.”

 

DSC01439

(l-r Ankita Sexena, me, Leo Mercer)

Edited to add the powerpoint – you can download it here – It makes a somewhat surreal experience viewing it with no context, especially the sequence “Because Hegel – picture of Johnny Cash – Because Hegel”

The Revolution Will Not be Digitized

When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t expect to have become a beetle. But the tl;dr would be that maybe:

  • Fan fiction is the one part of the internet worth thinking about because it reminds us that stories are essentially wikis, endlessly adaptable and owned by no one.
  • Where the hell are all the books written from 3rd person POV in singular they?
  • The only redeeming feature of our contemporary mess is that we are moving towards a consensus on basic minimum income that will finally free people to create art

And the day after that? Well, I’d say it’s looking decidedly “forecast for beetle somewhere from moderate to holy Kafka!”

In 1843 Soren Kierkegaard declared Mozart’s Don Giovanni to be the pinnacle of Western artistic achievement

Because Hegel.

In 2002 a bunch millennials breastfed on Francis Fukuyama declared Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt to be the greatest music video ever made

Because Hegel.

In the intervening century and a half the rot that long ago planted itself inside our cultural marrow briefly surfaced like a festering pustule. It broke the skin spectacularly when Wagner first unleashed the Tristan chord before the final deflated capsule of Trent Reznor’s dissonant masterpiece was sucked out by Cash’s perfectly progressing melody.

This coincides with a decisive shift in our digital direction, the point at which digital ceased to be a platform for delivering the directives of human fiat and began to commodify human thought to serve an established neoliberal structure epitomised by the notion of the end of history. The digital revolution is over, and it has been lost. And if we continue looking to it for the future of culture, that too will be lost to us irrevocably. We will be carried along in a vacuous flow of zero viscosity. Of finely crafted harmonies, perfectly resolved structures, and uplifting, life-affirming cliché. The exquisite pus of resistance, discord, and diversity will be flushed out by an antibiotic of Hegelian ubershit.

But it needn’t be this way. I want to make three predictions that at the same time are a manifesto for a cultural black ops mission to break creativity out of its neoliberal holding cell.

  • The future is offline
  • Copyright is dead
  • Voice is power

In a moment I want to show why this future can be a great thing. First, let me show you I’m not completely an optimist. Far from it. Let me make three more general predictions about the world in the next hundred years.

  • Hegemonies will get more hegemonic
  • Libertarianism will become (even) less intersectional
  • The climate is fucked

So what does this mean? Basically, the first two are flip sides of each other. They are the result of the simple process whereby digital amplifies what it starts with. And what it starts with is an unequal world in which power belongs to groups who woke up and found themselves on the right side of history. Both the structures of power, our hegemonies, and the kickbacks against them, libertarianism, amplify the same frequency – those who flourish in a world like the one we have right now get to flourish more. Those who don’t, don’t. So whether you never got to that private school because you lived in a house where your parents had no books and you couldn’t concentrate on homework because you were too cold or too frightened or simply never told it mattered, or whether you need the kind of support to live your life that those freedom loving neighbours are too busy hacktivising to provide you with – you’re equally fucked.

The final point matters. And it matters because at some point every one of us who actually cares that the climate is screwed and that it’s too late to unscrew it will have to choose one of three things. What do we want to save?

  • The planet, including as many different species not criminally culpable for its current screwed-overness as possible?
  • Humanity? Or whatever tiny fraction thereof it might be possible to save.
  • Or the tiny post-apocalyptic rump who may one day get the chance to start over from next to nothing?

Whichever answer we give, we can’t set out to do that from within existing power structures, or by kicking against them. Because hegemonies will become more hegemonic and Libertarianism will become less intersectional, and all our problems will only become more problematic. Digital is not disruptive. It is the opposite of disruptive, it is the great enabler of the status quo.

What would my answer be? I am naturally drawn to the first, because I think, basically, screw humanity. But I am also aware that the planet will probably be OK. It will survive without us. In fact, once we are gone life will do very well. Different from how it is now. But successful. Maybe it is because I am imbued with the swell of post-apocalyptic culture, or maybe because I see the perpetuation of hope as the fundamental duty of the arts, but I am drawn to the third option. So much so, that I have written about how we might go about achieving it in my current book, The Alice Room. I call the endeavour The University of Lost Causes.

So what do we do? Well, for one like I say, the digital revolution is done. And we lost. But there will be another revolution, because there always is, and when that happens we have to be the ones to own it. We need to stop looking to digital to save us, and be ready.

In the meantime, if we as disruptors, dissenters, not those who speak for the outsider but who are the outsider, are to create on the one hand a cultural force ready to take up the arms of the new revolution and on the other a legacy of discordancy, diversity, and creative non-conformity in all its avatars, a library of hope for those who come after, we need to come back to the three things I started with

  • The future is offline
  • Copyright is dead
  • Voice is power

The future is offline. There are three premises to this. The first is simple, and my fellow Oxford rabblerousing cultural gobshite Andie Berryman put it a lot better than I could “The streets are the only place that are new to kids, they will inhabit it, cos too many of us oldies are online.” Second, offline is the only place you can express yourself and choose who’s watching you. It is the only place to mobilise. Encoded street art, whole networks of offline digital dead drops, stories passed on in basements – these are the means by which we will make the mainstream an outsider to art. Third, communities built offline matter. They can happen anywhere, and they can be facilitated digitally but art is the glue that binds them through an expression of common intent, and it is in the practice of art and the values it embodies that we build communities – in basements and garages and abandoned warehouses, under brutalist bridges and on dark forested hilltops. And it is these communities built in this way that will create the great repositories of hope for those who come after.

Copyright is dead. Culture is not owned, and that includes by its creators. The power of art is its ability to focus communities, change lives, alter minds, reach out in the middle of the night and say, “here, take your fingers off the blade and put them in in my hand.” The value of art for its creators lies in its embodiment of our voices, in the spread of our concerns, in the nurturing of our dreams and the fostering of our communities.

Voice is power. The flux and reflux of hegemony and libertarianism amplify the voices of those who start from positions of privilege. Their structures ensure that the flow of voices is not heard equally and because voice is the embodiment of who we are, it is how our presence is felt within the world, the disparities that exist now will only grow if we seek to address imbalances in the system from within that system. Those on the margins must be heard and it is the duty of all who create culture to ensure that happens, and that it happens in ways that are not safe or contained but challenging, disconnecting, iconoclastic. Culture must become truly diverse, from its core outwards. Or die.

Culture is not a smooth inexorable progress. Humanity is not making smooth inexorable progress. The next revolution will not be a revolution of the spirit. It will not be transhumanist. It will be technological, because it always is. And in the name of culture we need to be ready to seize and deploy it in an act of overwhelming iconoclastic totality. The culture of the future needs to refill itself from the wellspring of toxicity. Culture must not be a bed of pebbles smoothed into flawless beauty by an endless flow of hegemony and libertarianism. Culture must be cutting, damaging, disturbing, refusenik, against linearity and its parameters, aesthetics, and inevitability.

So please:

Get ready

Go offline

Tear down copyright

Amplify and enable the voices of all who aren’t heard

And fuck Hegel.

 

(with thanks, of course, for the title to the late, great Gil Scott-Heron)

Into the Unknown

friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is one of the few works of art we can call iconic in both the figurative and the literal sense. The divine spirit of progress brought down from a Hellenic-Germanic pantheon and made almost flesh, we see its likeness everywhere from the “hero shots” of anonymous urban explorers to the silhouetted figures on the covers of thrillers to Stephen Hawking in his splendid solitude on the cover of A Brief History of Time.

As a society, we are having to do a lot of processing of deaths we find problematic at the moment. The arguments about the tears shed for Bowie are inevitable. So, too, are the arguments that will follow the death of explorer Henry Worsley, where the questions will be “why?” and “how could he?” (I will leave aside here the not so subtle sexism that accompanies the death of extreme adventurers, which outs itself in the order of the questions – were this Henrietta Worsley, “Howe could she?” would surely have preceded “why?”).

What I want to argue here (and thanks due to the poet Judi Sutherland whose questions sent me down this line) is that just as Bowie and Worsley are, essentially, the same, and Friedrich’s wanderer stands for the pursuit of intellectual perfection as much as the quest through physical peril, so extreme sports and Modernism are alternative manifestations of the same urge.

I’ve pondered at length on extreme physical endeavour before, most notably when musing on the fact that so many  of the most instantly recognisable practitioners in different fields (David Belle and Sebastien Foucan in parkour, Alain Robert in climbing, tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and one of the main figures of my childhood, Jacques Cousteau) are French, but what has become clearer this past day is just how entwined the intellectual and the physical are. It is more than simply that these physical outlets are manifestations of a spiritual outlook (though they are).

Modernism within the arts combines two essential features that the Wanderer represents – the need to push at the limits of definition; and the belief that such exploration is possible. Woolf, Schoenberg, Joyce, Picasso – each has taken an artform and addressed it with a certainty that, in our Postmodern times in which we know where railroad tracks disappearing over the horizon ultimately take us, epitomises arrogance and egoism, declaring, “This is not all there is. It cannot be. It will not be.” And each proceeded to demonstrate that they were, indeed, right. This is exactly the kind of certainty that drove the rise of the manifesto – we can do more, but only if we do this! The creative intellect was there to be stretched to its breaking point and rebuilt better.

And extreme sport meets the physical landscape with exactly the same certainties. I can do more than this, proclaims the base jumper, ultra runner, free diver. Climber. And they make it happen by an act of what seems to be pure will. This is the same arrogant offspring of Romanticism (the relation to nature in both is fascinating but a subject for another day) that gave us Modernism.

This parallel genealogy is interesting but the real point of it is this. My sense is that our ambivalence towards extreme physical endeavour is borne of the same suspicion that makes society inimical to Modernism, suspicious of intellectual endeavour and openly hostile to the manifesto. And that antipathy goes back to the common root. To Romanticism. Romanticism is where we find the seeds of an ideological architecture that is hard to defend – it stands for a form of progress that easily aligns itself with supremacism, it stands for binaries, it stands for a belief in the kind of betterment that means the inexorable spreading of the strong at the expense of the weak. It is exactly the metanarrative that needs deconstructing.

It is this need for a deconstruction of Romanticism which has made me avoid using the term exploration. Explorers are, just as the Wanderer is, the embodiment of Romanticism. They stand for those things I outlined above that objectify and homogenise and perpetuate the notion that there is something external to us (and by us I mean largely Western white males) that needs to be brought within our compass and mapped to our coordinates.

But Modernism goes beyond this. Modernism seeks not to break something external to us beneath our will. It seeks rather to break the very notion of the self, to ask what more each human being can be. And in this we are brought back to parkour and the philosophy of the free climber and endurance runner whose arrogance is not the arrogance of egoism but the arrogance of one who knows that humanity has to be something more than it is and is prepared to break themselves to bring that about.

My feeling is that the same anti-intellectualism that laughs of Modernist efforts to make the novel do more, to break the poetic form or change the way we construct narrative is the same force that shudders not in disbelief at the why of the extreme adventurer but in fear. A fear driven not in the face of privilege but in preservation of it. A fear driven by a deep seated wish that humanity doesn’t attempt to be something more because being just what it is suits people just fine. And against that fear adventurers of the mind and the body are always needed, pushing themselves to do what the comfortable classes find unacceptable.

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