(Thinking about how much I love Jhudora…)
(chocolate melts at high temperature
(stay cool everyone
(Thinking about how much I love Jhudora…)
(chocolate melts at high temperature
(stay cool everyone
[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]
I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.
A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.
My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staring, she says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.
It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.
In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.
For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.
Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.
I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the City, a record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.
In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.
Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.
I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.
Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.
I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.
Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.
Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.
The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.
Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.
In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?
I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.
Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.
(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)
I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.
I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.
As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.
Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,
comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.
Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.
Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.
An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.
Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.
Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.
The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’. The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.
She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.
Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.
There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.
Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:
Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.
Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.
The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:
lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.
Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:
If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.
Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.
Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.
To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.
This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.
We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.
If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’? She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.
There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.
All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’
Recently, Tesco finally put up the price of their Everyday Value Milk Chocolate from 30p to 45p. This struck me with the crushing blow of sentiments lost. I have been referring to 30p Chocolate as my lifeline for years. I will likely continue to do so even as its cost creeps inevitably upwards. Will it still be the same object, even if its very ontological condition in my life has shifted alongside its price? Has the signifier been cleaved from the sign? What cruelty is performed by numbers.
I feel like now I must sever my personal connection to this chocolate. It’s no longer the thing it was. The rising price has changed its substance somehow. Do I detect a hint of bitterness through that thin and sugary bite? A hint of bitterness where once the cheapness alone made it extra sweet? Are our senses wired to the market?
I lament to a friend and he says, god, remember when it was 15p? 15p indeed, and we used to buy 15p bottles of 2litre lemonade too. I’d take my £1 pocket money and come out with a veritable feast of cheap delights. 30p cans of energy juice that made your nerves rattle and your heart skip beats, juddering against your chest. In abandoned skateparks, we’d sit on the ramps and down our fizzy juice, watching sunsets bleed over bleak skylines. A certain formula for pleasure was in our blood. An ineloquent mix of sugar and caffeine. The promise of an evening, materialising its risk at the crisp edges of our skin. People cracking boards against concrete. Let’s light cigarettes, finding nourishment in smoke and the rhythm of each other’s breathing.
At university the old cheap chocolate made a resurgence in my life. Like most students, exhaustion is often the order of the day. If you put me in the sweets aisle, before row after row of chocolate, my brain will seize up. All those colours, wrappers, brands. I don’t have the wherewithal to choose. Milk or plain? Nut or fruit? Do I splash out for something lush, expansive, indulgent (Toblerone) or take a risk of something saccharine (Cadbury), or a shaken attempt at reaching for what’s on offer? I lust after chocolate-coated brazils, the perfect nirvana of anything Lindt, the kind of dark ecological chocolate (something truffle, fairtrade) I am reminded of when reading Morton’s Dark Ecology.
When paralysed thus, I pick the cheap stuff. It’s never done me wrong. A simple blend of sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk; various fats, masses and emulsifiers. Apparently no E numbers, or traces of artificial flavourings. I am eating the aura of chocolate, its elementary shadow; a taster of what chocolate could be. It fills, momentarily, a gap.
I have taken it to festivals and found it liquidated in the sun. I have bought stacks at once, hoarded it in my desk drawer, waiting for the next essay to raise its ugly head. I have peeled wrappers open on a break at work, three pieces to tide me over another afternoon of serving fish & chips to impatient strangers. I have devoured whole bars at once, seduced by the distracting glow of a screen.
What now? Can I still buy it at 45p?
Is there a choice?
A good person would use this as a turning point from which to go vegan.
I’ll have to work harder for my tips or something.
It’ll never be the same. At 45p it connotes WWII, Lit courses bracketed by historical dates, records I could never afford to buy.
I like a good zero.
I wish they’d at least make the bar fatter, thicker, richer.
Maybe one day I can conjure real illusions: the imaginary object; luxuriant, ersatz, ethereal chocolate.
You can bet each bite costs a fair portion of aura.
Every time a price goes up I lose a chunk of my childhood.
Springtime, 2012; first spring in the city. Living on Hillhead Street, with the cat, Miller, who used to mill around and curl his sleepy tail round your ankles at lunchtime, purring at the sun. It was sunny all through April and May. Early mornings in the library, level eight and nine with the light flooding the windows warming and pure, a dish of sun butter melting over sandstone buildings. The best seats, the computer screen a dull mist of unimportant philosophies. Walks along the Kelvin, tangles of fern and wild garlic and the solitaries who wander, sometimes stumbling, always clutching a spliff or a bottle of Bell’s or Buckfast. Coughing their pearls of greenish spit into the river. Summer of the Olympics, no care at all, sugar rush of coke and chocolate buttons and long evenings staring insomniac out of a tiny dorm window. The Decemberists, or Conor Oberst’s croon in the wanderings out to town, to the station or the Necropolis. Smell of cigarettes wafting from rooms below. So far, but not so far, from home. The red glow of the sun at dusk, the silhouettes of house plants, the sound of footsteps.
How old am I here? I’m somewhere in England, awake early as usual from sleeping on the floor, stripping away the remnants of another dream about chocolate. A dream about chocolate? Oh wait, it’s Easter. The very word Easter sounds confectionary; like ‘viscount’ – a name recalling the little minty biscuit I used to have in my packed lunches – Easter connotes the crack of a thick chocolate shell, a glut of pastel colours, the consuming of cuteness. Maybe I’m seven. My mum is away in Brighton for the day and comes back with two beanie babies: a fluffy yellow chick and a pale blue bunny. Maybe I’m seventeen, walking out to Kildoon monument just to see the lambs in the fields and hope for a happier existence. You know, that’s Easter too.
Those who condemn reckless consumerism bewail the fact that Easter has forgotten its true message: the sacrifice of Christ, the promise of rebirth. It is a solemn hope that perhaps may only be touched by those with faith; it bears the risk of becoming kitsch in the Easter Story worksheets we used to cut out at school with those zigzag scissors. You know, ‘assemble the story of Jesus and the tomb’, where pupils tended more to desecrate Christ with bunny ears more than celebrating his existence. I remember as a child going to church on Easter Sunday and falling into the soft ambience of everyone’s prayer and the familiar stories about The Stone that Rolled and Jesus’s last day and all the other things that have slipped from my brain. I remember being given a Creme Egg by the priest on the way out and thinking he had handed me something precious and holy – but later eating it anyway. Did I feel guilty, biting into this symbol of the blood and sweat and sacrifice of Christ? The problem is, consumerism is good at assuaging such guilt with feelings of pleasure. Everyone’s doing it; everybody’s merry. And after the church ceremony I remember late afternoons watching a certain family member fall asleep after a generous glass of sherry…
Is it wrong that we value booze and chocolate eggs more than the faith and the story? Perhaps…but there is a certain gratitude in the exchange of happiness, the sweet serotonin glow of too much chocolate and a long Sunday afternoon spent with one’s family.
How did we used to spend our Easter Sundays? Painting boiled eggs and rolling them down the hill at Miller Park. Fighting with my brother over who got to lick the bowl of melted chocolate, leftover from making crispy cakes. A walk to another park, somewhere in Burgess Hill or Milton Keynes, watching our dog do long jumps over a river filled with old trollies and sofas. Munching fizzy belts and trying to do loop-the-loops on the swing, never feeling sick but still exhilarated (I wouldn’t mind doing all that now, but I’d probably vomit rainbows). These were the good old, carefree Easters.
When you hit fifteen, suddenly the Easter holidays are all about studying (or they are in theory). The endless, six am days spent copying diagrams for Biology or churning out practice essays for Modern Studies, or falling asleep in the sun with a Computing textbook over my head. Cooking some complex casserole in the evening and doing the washing up afterwards while my brother messes about with his playlist of ‘doing dishes’ music (or maybe it was the other way round; I always had the better iPod). The Easter of first year where I had a weekend down in Suffolk for my Grandpa’s 90th birthday, and got so excited about staying in the countryside that I went for a walk every morning at 7am, just to glimpse the pretty English fields and flowers. Oh, and the postman I accidentally saw peeing in the river – but that’s another story. The Easter afternoon where I laboured over a terrible wee screenplay for Advanced Higher English; or the one I spent laid up watching crappy old films because I had the house to myself for a week and it seemed a waste to bother with ceremony. That was, incidentally, a very good week: I watched three series of Mad Men back to back and walked up a hill and got my hair dyed and wrote about twenty practice essays for my uni exams. There is great productivity to be had in solitude.
The things I love most about Easter are basically the things I love about spring. As all the songs and hymns might sing, there is a simple joy to seeing the first daffodils and blossoms and lambs in the fields. Seeing everything through the spectrum of pastel colours, wearing lavender jumpers and polishing my nails mint green. At uni, I was too stingy to buy Easter flowers, so I would walk all the way along the Kelvin (halfway to Milngavie) just to find loose daffodils to purloin from their ungraceful state, where they were scattered along the path by wayward children.
Back at school, Easter signalled the season of study leave; of long lunchtimes sitting on the hill gossiping while people were screaming at their football behind us. Bunnies are also very cool. I think I believed in the Easter Bunny more than I believed in Santa Clause. Maybe it’s the animal factor; there’s something creepy and alluring about anything anthropomorphic, reminding us of the fragility of our status as humans. The Easter Bunny, moreover, gets less visual representation than Santa in popular culture, leaving the onus on the child’s imagination to conjure what he (or maybe she; or should Easter Bunnies even have a gender?) looks like. One upon a time, my Easter Bunny was soft and probably adorned with buttons and ribbon, juggling a multitude of eggs with his paws and vanishing without trace at dawn (unlike Santa who takes his fill from a mince pie and carrot). Now, I can’t help but think of the horrifying rabbit, Frank, from Donnie Darko. The one that appears either as a schizophrenic vision or some weird spirit guide from the near-possible-present-future. Maybe that’s growing up; realising the terror in your favourite childhood memories. Pulling the latent darkness out of cultural myths and fairy tales. Still, there’s a pleasure in that too.
So yeah, today I won’t be doing much for Easter. I can hear the church bells ring for the morning service, and there are a few birds tentatively weaving their melody into the stiff Sunday silence. As far as I know, there aren’t any lambs in Glasgow, and that lovely lecturer who used to praise heavily the wonders of ‘curved chocolate’ is sadly retired. Today I will have to drag myself out of bed at some point to fall back into the world of studying, swapping festive joy for Johnson’s Rasselas, and juvenile pleasures for The Bell Jar. The only chocolate I have in the flat might be Tesco’s 30p Value, but secretly I’ll be celebrating Easter, if only in nostalgia.
It’s that little thing at the back of every undergraduate arts student’s mind: the dreaded dissertation. You find yourself at a Fresher’s Fair in the grand halls of some ancient university, poring over a prospectus for your dream course. There’s that word ‘Assessment’ and then, if you follow down the page, the words ‘Senior Honours’ and ‘Dissertation’. The percentage, length and allotted time period will vary between universities and courses. From my experience, it seems English Literature is fairly unique in its allocation of just one semester to complete your 8-10,000 word dissertation. Most other people I’ve spoken to tend to get two semesters, from September to March/April, to write their academic ‘masterpiece’.
Well, it’s not really a masterpiece, is it? It’s basically just several essays woven into an extended argument. Sounds simple enough. The trick is, they all say, to find a topic you really love and stick with it – if you manage that, then writing and researching will be a breeze. For some people, this part is easy. They’ve been waiting their entire degree to write about queer tropes in Medieval dream visions, the gender politics of Harry Potter, or, as Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood prepares to write her thesis on in The Bell Jar, twin motifs in Finnegans Wake. For others, picking a topic is perhaps the hardest bit. I fell into the latter category. The advice we are always given is read as much as you can. Devour everything. Make notes, talk to lecturers. So in my junior honours year, I picked the courses that I suspected would be most up my street: American Literature 1900-Present, Modern Literature 1890-1945, Modern Literature 1945-Present and Literary Theory. All courses I would highly recommend to anyone in second/third year thinking ahead to picking next year’s honour’s courses. I suppose the whole time I was tracing vague themes that threaded themselves through my favourite books on these courses: textual effects of the uncanny, pastoral modes, madness, poststructuralist subjectivity, psychoanalysis, psychogeography, as much Derrida as I could even slightly get my head around.
In the end, my dissertation interest fell on technology, as I was seduced by a very strange novel on my 1945-Present course: Tom McCarthy’s C. In a way, it’s an encyclopaedic novel which picks up on all of my favourite themes. A novel which, at the level of both form and content, weaves together questions of modernity, the avant-garde, wireless technology and theories of networked society and subjectivity. It’s a novel haunted by the flickering presences of insects, war, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Ballard, Marinetti; a novel which inhales and exhales as many intertexts as it can possibly breathe in. A novel which disturbs with its themes of incest and violence, its lack of a strong sense of humanist ‘character’, but enlightens with mini-lectures on entomology, Egyptian history, the workings of various technologies. There are also bouts of dark humour that keep you sane throughout the narrative, along with its beautifully crafted imagery. McCarthy cleverly invokes the emergent technological communications of the early twentieth century to comment on our present condition in a world saturated with wireless signals and the ever-present dominion of the Internet, which is not really external to us but rather an inherent web through which we live our daily lives and experience our desires.
We had to submit our dissertation prospectus right after our exam period in May of this year. That was a stressful time; even though these prospectuses aren’t binding, it’s still difficult to come up with a semi-logical argument and assemblage of texts when your brain is still fried from months of exam revision. Still, it’s good that we were forced to think about it early. I spent the first couple of months of summer rereading my primary texts and thinking about some ideas I wanted to develop. By August, once I’d returned from seeing family in England, I suddenly hit panic station. In a month or so, I’d be returning to uni and then it would be a matter of weeks before the deadline. I thought of all the things that might threaten my ability to complete the deadline in that time. Being called for Jury service, work, deadlines for my other course that semester (Modern American Women’s Writing), a freak spell of perishing weather, my laptop dying, losing my pen-drive, falling into the dark pits of writer’s block or depression – the worries dragged on. Thankfully, these things either didn’t happen, or only happened to a perfectly manageable degree. In fact, it turned out to be possibly my favourite semester at uni.
You see, there’s something very rewarding and liberating in being charged with your own project. There are no specific guidelines for your particular topic: aside from the annotated bibliography and the final submission, you set your own deadlines; you decide the scope of your topic, the texts you want to read; you aren’t harrowed by the prospect of a final exam which may necessitate the memorising of quotes from every last piece you find yourself reading. Of course, it varies from supervisor to supervisor your experience of all these things. They are there to give you advice, to offer you ideas for further reading, but everyone goes about it in different ways.
So throughout August and September, while we were being blessed with an unusually bright summer, I found myself in the pits of the library almost every day, trying to get my head around all the theory I was planning to use. I read countless journal articles, chapters from monographs, books on or by the likes of Freud, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Friedrich Kittler and Bernard Stiegler. Interviews with all my chosen authors. I jotted down pages and pages of notes, filling up a little sparkly notebook I’d bought to encourage me to get started early. My bibliography was already totting up nicely with tons of references. I was putting together a plan. It felt good, to feel motivated enough to work this hard.
Luckily, I managed to keep the momentum up throughout the semester. I wrote the dissertation originally split into three large chapters, the first two comparing various texts and the third focusing on C. It was easy to write (early mornings in the library or in bed) with my personal harsh deadlines always in mind. If I finished the thing early, I could breathe easy again. Fuelled on green tea and Dairy Milk chocolate, I got most of my dissertation written by Reading Week (mid-way through term). The problem was, my word count had gotten waaaaaay out of hand. I thought this was okay; just write now, edit later. But it’s kind of impossible to cut out as many words as I had. I tried rewriting the middle chapter over Reading Week and all I succeeded in was cutting the odd paragraph and making my prose sound better; there was still some serious trimming to be done. I went to my supervisor and pleaded my word count woes. Her excellent advice was to pick one – just one – chapter and stick with that. Now that’s a terrifying thought when you’ve just spent four months researching and writing on four primary texts that you’re no longer going to use. Nevertheless, it was something I had to do; I felt that to condense my argument as it was would jeopardise the quality of my analysis. Maybe one day I’ll go back and re-work my discarded material for a Masters. It’s a thing we all have to go through as Lit students, getting the balance between variety and depth. Fitting in both theory and close reading. In the end, I chose my third chapter on C and completely rewrote it with smaller chapters. Time will tell if that worked out okay.
Sometimes I think back to the process of dissertation writing we went through in sixth year at school, writing our Advanced Higher dissertations. Admittedly, they were half the size: English Lit at 4500 words, Modern Studies at 5000. You got all year to write them and in theory, there were more opportunities for help. Still, although I worked consistently throughout the year on both, there was still that last-minute panic dash to sort out small things: referencing problems, formatting issues, those evil little things that you think will be okay but come back to bite you. I remember the day before the Modern Studies one was to be handed in, my teacher phoned my mobile to tell me he just opened it to read and noticed that there were footnotes missing, or just floating around my document. So I had to get the bus back from college and traipse into the school that night at six o’clock to fix it. Similarly, last Tuesday night I found myself at five to six (and I needed to be somewhere else at six) in a tizzy at the library, surrounded by heaps of messed up paper and broken hopes. I thought I’d finished it, proofread it fifteen times (and got others to proofread it) but reading it again I was still finding things that had mysteriously disappeared, moved, or simply needed replacing. The bibliography giving me the wrong page numbers. Queue a mad dash from my computer to the library printers (over and over) as I kept replacing the mistake-ridden pages. This day was perhaps the most stressful in five months of working on the dissertation. No kidding, give yourself as much time as possible for formatting and proofreading. Word processors will be the death of me.
Maybe this is all hyperbole; after all, I got my dissertation in over a week early. What a great feeling, although it’s only now that it’s hitting me. It’s hard to grasp how much of your mind is occupied by your dissertation until you’ve done one yourself. Until you’ve handed it in. Even now, I still get names and references flashing through my mind and I worry did I put that in the bibliography? did I remember to mention this theory? where did that quote go? It’s really difficult to let it go.
Nonetheless, it’s not all fear and stress. In the end, I loved my topic and can really see myself going back to it, rewriting and expanding it in the future. Your dissertation is one of the most satisfying pieces of work you’ll ever produce at uni. Scrolling through the finished document, it feels good to see all that prose stretched out over many pages, and know that it’s all yours. You wrote it. You should be proud of that, no matter what mark you get. Sure, there will be times when you want to hide under your bed or a desk in the library and cry, when you want to fling your books out the window or delete every last silly word you have written, but in the end you have to break through the pain and just get it written. Accept it and let it go. If you get writer’s block, spend ten minutes free writing on anything at all that’s irrelevant to your dissertation. The weird person sitting opposite you in the library, for example. This should help to get your ‘writer’s flow’ back. Moreover, chocolate helps (indeed proves invaluable), as does a supportive friend (and/or flatmate). There’s a warm sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ amongst fourth year English students, particularly as the dissertation is such a lonesome project, so it helps to talk to someone about your ideas. Also, obviously, as everyone always says, a good topic makes for a good dissertation. But either way, it will be okay. You have to learn to be good with timekeeping, to narrow your argument and find ways of connecting and condensing it. All very useful skills for any kind of future critical writing you might engage with. And out of all the stress, the feeling of finishing your dissertation makes all the hard work worth it. So to anyone who has any kind of dissertation to write either this year or next, I say don’t dread it, but look forward to it.