Amateur Vigour

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Recognitions
Peter Brown. Shot by Ned. 1967. Oil on canvas, 137 x 107 cm.

While news of the death of the novel―or of the book, for that matter―may seem no better than clickbait, the time is nigh to ask what next. In its Western variant, the novel built momentum over hundreds of years to become the dominant literary form of the twentieth century; its popularity and penetration dependent on―and responsive to―sometimes vertiginous phase shifts in media, means, markets. In this sense, its history also reads like a (living) fossil of the modern era, from mechanisation to globalisation, from the expansion of literacy to the invention of intimacy.

Given the scope, speed and scale of transformations and disruptions we are currently faced with―many of which the pandemic will consolidate or heighten―it would be remiss of us not to imagine new literary forms coagulating within our lifetimes.

And if the precondition for new forms is, indeed, platforms

Following the increased concentration of publishing and distribution; a handful of small, aggressively independent presses are now scouting for talent not in the koi-pond of MFA or residency programs but on social media, where it can be found at its most adventurous and unembellished. Business models vary but are central in the push towards autonomy these presses share. They are not manifesto factories, but agile enterprises that are [re]s[e]izing the means of production by taking everything, from their submission software to their bookmaking, into their hands; the way others microbrew beer or cure ham. Nor are these the zines of the nineties: the DIY book has at last hit its stride as a fine art, with objects as impressive as those issued by almost any major house―and better copy editing. The writers championed by these presses are, furthermore, early explorers in peerlessness, encouraged to pursue marginal practices that might be otherwise untenable by one-man editorial orchestras who aren’t tastemakers―a role best reserved for establishment reviewers―but craftsmen and colleagues themselves.

There are precedents, naturally, in presses like Adelphi, or magazines like Sur, with one significant and telling difference: the elective affinities at work here are more exclusively literary than anytime before. These are not groups of friends with similar backgrounds who meet periodically at a café or who attended the same universities. We’re not in Bloomsbury anymore. By and large, these are cadres of strangers from all walks of life―Twitter mutuals―more eclectic in their outputs than entire university departments.

Defamiliarisation is not in the product, but part of the process.  


Elderblog Sutra: 11

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Elderblog Sutra

When I started the blogchain experiment in January 2019, I had in mind a metaphor of a new system of tunnels under an old landscape of skyscrapers, creating a feel of what I called infratextuality. The decade’s worth of archives from the Rust Age (2007-12) and Snowflake Age (2013-18) would be the skyscrapers. The blogchains would be the tunnels, weaving a subterranean connective layer through the themes. In the process, ribbonfarm would age gracefully into an elderblog.

In recent months, I’ve shifted to a new metaphor: angkorwatificaction, after Angkor Wat, with its ruined-and-somewhat-restored temple complex intertwingled with wild plant life reasserting itself.

Image credit: Velvetscape.com

Applied to a blog, angkorwatification is a sort of textual equivalent of rewilding. You have a base layer of traditional blog posts that is essentially complete in the sense of having created, over time, an idea space with a clear identity, and a more or less deliberately conceived architecture to it. And you have a secondary organic growth layer that is patiently but relentlessly rewilding the first, inorganic one. That second layer also emerges from the mind of the blogger of course, but does so via surrender to brain entropy rather than via writerly intentions disciplining the flow of words. I’ve seen some other old sites undergo angkorwatification. Some seem to happily surrender to it like I am doing, others seem to fight it, like I won’t.

A related mental model is that of marine life colonizing sunken shipwrecks, forming artificial reefs. Deliberately contrived blog posts, like ships, have a design lifespan. If you scuttle them in the right locations when they start to feel old, new life can grow on the rusting hulks. It’s kinda fun to think of my archives as the sunken shipwreck of my own dead thoughts.

Memento mori. Not entirely though. It’s not ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s life to life. Language is a living force, and writing must necessarily deaden it in the pursuit of specific intentions. To abandon specific intentions is to surrender to the living force. Perhaps an elderblog, like a talkative child, should be a somewhat embarrassing social presence. Abandon gravitas in order to be more alive, for longer.

I like this metaphor better than my original towers-and-tunnels metaphor, because the way I’m writing here now is more like tree roots weaving inexorably through fragile human architecture than any sort of planned infratextual tunnel construction. The spires of the temple complex still represent the same thing: old style blog posts. Catchy headlines, meme-worthy core ideas, viral-intent writing. The sort of thing that, for a decade, ruled the web at large, and this site specifically.

Lightning strikes of viral attention can strike the spires of Angkor Wat as surely as they can skyscrapers, but the metaphor of an encroaching forest suggests something different than a system of tunnels. Where a tunnel system respects and attempts to preserve the landscape it weaves through, an encroaching forest does not. Roots can weave through cracks in the architecture, topple spires, and crumble walls. The idea of encroaching forests also suggests an abandonment of the base layer to its fate, which I like. The encroaching forest is neither friendly, nor hostile. It just follows its own ungoverned, more alive logic, casually destroying the old structure where it resists, leaving it alone where it doesn’t.

This year, though I’ve written a few old-style posts, including a big hit (Internet of Beefs), my expectations of them have been different. I have no interest in capturing the flash floods of attention by doubling down on the themes that attract them. I am now thinking primarily in terms of elder games, late style, and César Aira’s strange idea that art — and ribbonfarm remains at heart an art project — is not something that should be done well.

Much of my polished writing energy has been diverted to Breaking Smart and Art of Gig. So ribbonfarm is being reclaimed slowly by what for me is not so much a new style, but a newly public style. I now find myself treating this blog the way I treat my private notebooks, as a sort of scrapbook space. The stuff that feels truest to this new mode is my Captain’s Log blogchain with its numbered parts, and my book review live reads, pulled in from Twitter.

In trying to situate this process within what I’ve dubbed A Text Renaissance, it strikes me that angkorwatification is the evil twin of what many are starting to call digital gardening. Instead of a mindful and effortful curation of a slightly intimate space built from scratch, angkorwatification is a sort of letting-go; a surrender to the natural entropic forces that begin to emerge in a brain that has aged enough, and accumulated enough memories, both internally, and externally in blog-like prosthetic spaces. It is of course, only an option available to elderblogs. You can’t surrender territories to rewilding processes that you never attempted to civilize to begin with.

There is something wonderfully liberating about viewing ribbonfarm in this creative-destructive way, as a space slowly going to ruin under the onslaught of an encroaching forest. The first 11 years (2007-18) saw the construction of what strikes me in retrospect as a rather high modernist, premium-mediocre textual space, hustling for its share of the viral attention economy. In 2019, I began reversing course tentatively, with blogchains. In 2020, I think I’ve embraced this trajectory completely. What will this blog look like as angkorwatification progresses? I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out.

To Attack and Dethrone Gods

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Recognitions
Still of Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, 1968.

Borges was introduced to the original terrorist somewhere between Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Schwob. He had no face and a name like a resonance chamber: Herostratus, arsonist of the second Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; punished with Oblivion, redeemed by Spectacle.

His subsistence, despite his damnatio memoriae, means Spectacle is not beholden to its Debordian trappings ―commodity fetishism, the mass media, etc― but rooted in the fundamental problem of representation, and so of art-world-historical interest. And as mundane as the Herostratian claim to infamy may seem today, it also took stock of change in the epochal temperature. To cite Debord himself: “[t]he growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, [and] derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, is expressed by the destruction of God.” Herostratus’ arson ushered in a new and outré aesthetic limit-experience, and it is interesting that legend has it Alexander was born on that very night.

The terrorist organisation as we know it ―cast as the asymmetric shadow of the modern state on a cellular level― lays no claim to the Herostratuses of the world, who are after attributions more exclusive to the State ―or, indeed, God― than the means of production. To become as the State, or like God, is to seize and control the means of destruction, no matter how fleetingly. To “attack and dethrone God” is to pay off an entire world’s accursed share.

The society of the spectacle decorates the serial killer with the benefit of Method, but it is the Herostratian terrorist who has κόσμος. He is destruction as the herald of a new world order. He may look like Descartes or like Terence Stamp in Teorema, but for his act to be effective and to ―maybe― resonate within collective, folk, historic or genetic memory, it must be unrepeatable and unforgettable. Therein his nod to Spectacle: the Herostratian knows that, more so than beauty, terror has aura.  

Two days ago, social media was ablaze with reports of “baby witches” hexing the Moon. The implications of their assault on not just Artemis, but the Thing-In-Itself, are occult and even philosophical, but they are not artistic, or historic, or spectacular. This attempted deicide was borne not from irreversible knowledge, but from a dearth of knowledge so profound as to be irreversible. As a charge on the Debordian House of Representatives, it didn’t even nick Representation.

Notes — Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman

My second deep dive pandemic read is Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman, covering the history of the United States’ industrial mobilization for World War 2. There is a good deal of resemblance between the mobilization to beat Covid (and coming soon: climate) and WW2 mobilization, so it’s a good history to have in your back pocket for the next decade.

As with my previous deep dive, on Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, this is just a cleaned-up version of my livetweeting as I read the book. As with that book, this one too benefits from a lot of Wikipedia side-trails, and I’ve linked a bunch of them.

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The Venus Effect

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Recognitions
Diego Velázquez. Rokeby Venus, c. 1647–51. 122 × 177 cm. National Gallery, London.

Velázquez’s Venus is perhaps the most naked on record: with nothing but her lovechild, Cupid, to hold up a mirror to her difuse reflection (deflection?), she lacks most of the mythic giveaways of her traditional representations. She is unlandscaped, unjewelled and unmyrtled. She can’t be [M]arsed. If not for the luxuriant fabrics she is recumbent on, or for that fleshly tongue of curtain, her room is as featureless as Cupid’s left leg, which is as faded as her face. Seen glancingly, she is the picture of a modern, mortal woman: an adaptation that, to some extent, accounts for her survival into our time.  

An icon in a history of iconoclasm, she first materialised in the private rooms of Felipe IV, to join two other mirror-carrying Venuses by Titian and Rubens. Though female nudes were rare and heavily policed in the Baroque Spanish court, Velázquez ―as court painter― was as heavily protected; his Venus admired by the king and by some of the realm’s most powerful courtiers, who ensured she didn’t succumb to hazard or censors.

This Venus is not self-absorbed, but considerate of the efforts required to protect her. She shows us her backside but not her pudendum, unlike her more brazen revision as Goya’s Nude Maja. Her gaze is averted from the viewer, but complicit with that of the painter. By hook and by crook, she made it to England, where she took on her Rokeby title and garnered the devotion of another king, Edward VII, who secured her position in London’s National Gallery.  

In Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich has Matisse retorting to criticism on the proportions of one of his portraits by saying: “This is not a woman, this is a painting.” The Rokeby Venus is neither.

In 1914, Mary Richardson, a British suffragette out for symbolic blood, took a meat cleaver to Venus, slashing her seven times from neck to rump. She was upset by the painting’s allure, and claimed she meant to “destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history” to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Befitting her stature and nature, the goddess was restored. In addition to spending six months in prison ―the maximum sentence for defacing a work of art― Ms. Richardson became an early model for a very different mirroring of womankind: the angry feminist as frenemy of the eternal feminine.

Notes: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

I just finished the heaviest read so far in my pandemic reads list, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the 14th century, loosely an account of the European experience of the Black Death. It is a 784-page monster and I read it in 15-30 minute chunks at bedtime over 68 days, while live-tweeting it.

I was going to try and reshape my live-tweeting into an actual longform review/summary, but people seemed to like the live/fresh feel of the livetweeting, so I decided to just clean up and post the thread here as notes, with some light editing, linking, and addition of a few post-twitter [editorial additions]. This is also a book that benefits from a lot of Wikipedia bunnytrailing on the side, and I found myself doing a lot of reading about characters and events mentioned in passing. I’ve linked a selection of those to these notes.

Aside: if you like this format, let me know. I have a bunch of threads on Twitter that are probably suitable for this sort of light-touch blogification.

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Mansionism 1: Building-Milieu Fit

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Mansionism

In politically turbulent times, when it is not clear which way the arc of history will bend, it is useful to reframe the question of political futures in terms of built-environment futures. Instead of asking, what kind of milieu will we inhabit, you ask the potentially easier question, what sort of built environment will we inhabit? You then try to infer the future of the milieu from that. The question can also be asked in more specific ways, such as what sorts of futures contain mansions? Besides allowing you to focus materially on what you likely really care about, such questions allow you to finesse more fraught political questions.

Loosely speaking, the reframe turns a scenario-planning question into a design-fiction question. The underlying hypothesis is that the medium is the message. If you can forecast something about the medium, you can forecast something about the message. Here, the medium is the built environment, and the message is the range of milieus that might thrive or wither within it. This gives us the idea of a building-milieu fit (BMF), by analogy to the product-market-fit idea used in the startup world.

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Two Spooks

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Recognitions

It may or may not be true that there are no extant photographs of Johann C. Schmidt, aka Max Stirner. The ones I may know of lack the auratic power of the two penetrating character sketches Friedrich Engels did of him: the first, a remarkable, vulpine profile he drew from memory for John Henry Mackay, Stirner’s biographer, near the end of his life; the other, a dramatic standing portrait of the author of The Ego and Its Own, smoking calmly behind a toppled chair in a riotous group sketch of Die Freien done sometime around 1842. This is the source code of the Stirner meme.

Stirner casts one of the longer trickster shadows in modern political philosophy, his variegated reputation built on little more than an opaque biography, a yet more opaque essay and a historic, if circuitously occluded, difference of opinion on its merits by two more notable contemporaries. To exaggerate, but only slightly, Stirner was to Marx and Engels what Judge Schreber was to Freud and Jung: the forked foreshadowing of their future theoretical endeavours, the haunt their funhouses were later built around as partial efforts at containment.

The existence of a Stirner meme speaks to this hauntological capacity, especially as it relates less to Stirner’s ontology of egoism than to his subordinate notion of “spooks”, the eidetic non-entities that preclude egoist ownness. At its best, it seems to operate as an identifier for a contemporary Union of Egoists, a makeshift, voluntary, sovereign coalition of non-aligned “spookbusters” and well-read trolls.  

Even in its stark and sharklike graphic language, the Stirner is in dialectic contrast to another famous, black-outline cartoon meme: the gormless Wojack or “feels guy”, who lacks self-possession and is beholden to the spooks of sentiment, morality, appetition, political commitments, identitarian leanings and every sort of yearning-to-belong.

Though both have been subject to the usual memetic distortions, the Stirners have gained apotropaic, maybe even exorcistic traction, while the Wojack has become the figurehead of NPCs, a spook-unto-himself, incapable of self-rule. And while the Stirner is, of course, a perverse, self-parodying spook by merely representing ―rather than enacting― ownness, the Wojack flags the iterations of its absence. In Internet parlance, the Stirner is in a relation of ownership with the surrounding world; the Wojack is [p]owned.

Two spooks are fighting inside you. Take, and ye shall be given, goads the Stirner. The Wojack has only two choices: submit, or be dragged.  

A Spectre Is Haunting The West

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Recognitions

A tiger was reported loose in Oakland on the night of May 31. The report was false, yes, but it hardly mattered because―as is rarely the case with fake news―it had vision. In short, the report was false but the tiger was Real. To cite @aesthetikeit, here was a “symbol of the aimless and violent spirit of history” made Presence, if not Flesh, for the death and rebirth of American Cities.

Nor was this the only apparition of wildlife to take place during the riots: there was talk of lion eidolons in Minneapolis and suppositious hippos in Chicago. And is it a coincidence that so much of this rampant phantasmatic fauna is consistently not Western and, indeed, predominantly African? I think not. On April 9, I wrote in lapsuslima.com that: “The uncurbed vertigo of world events […] does not belong to the uncanny, with its homely and domestic connotations, but to the prodigious.” I expressed surprise at the continued dearth in apparitions. All in due course: they arrived with the riots, in a classical return of the repressed.

And now, for fearful symmetry: the fourth Parisian scene in the second edition of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil―a peerless testament to life and time during great urban metamorphoses―is a poem called “The Swan.” If the ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ are a manner of Ulysses prior to Ulysses, “The Swan” is an object of vertiginous compersion: an utterly contemporary reconciliation of the mythic and pathetic, held in place and opened up for operation in a chiasmic net.

The place is Paris during Hausmann’s transformations; as it was carved into its lauded and beloved modern form, under imperial auspices, to ward off contagion―and the building of barricades. Here Andromache, the epic exile and widow of ages, shares the stage with the titular swan-out-of-water, a bird that is majestic in its element but piteous outside it. There is also “the negress,” a figure clearly modelled after Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s Haitian and adored “mistress of mistresses,” described as “wan and phthisical / Tramping the mud, and with her haggard eyes / Seeking beyond the mighty walls of fog / The absent palm-trees of proud Africa.”

But there’s no going back for her. The year is 1861. In Paris, Baudelaire, the melancholy father of modernité, is already drawing attention to the literal consumption of black lives by Western polities. Across the Atlantic, the United States erupts in Civil War.

“The swan stares on at the slur.” Daily Record. June 5, 2020.

MJD 59,004

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiments. In an interview last year, James Mattis described America as “this great big experiment of ours.” I made a 2×2 to think about this. America falls in the Grand Design Experiments quadrant. The x-axis is self-explanatory, the y-axis is ordinary versus extraordinary in the sense of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I wrote about this before in Extraordinary Laboratories.

As an experiment, America is a set of extraordinary (and not coincidentally, exceptionalist) claims about the nature of government.

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