Haunting the Capitalist Plaza: Making Sense of Vapourwave

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Lindsheaven Virtual Plaza – Daily Night Euphoria. Source.

The resonance is a tinny vintage, anachronistic; tinselled with eighties synths and a vocal sample that never quite begins. That baggy voice, normally soft as milk, becomes jagged, inhuman. Creepily crystallised. Your aunty’s favourite easy-listening is stripped of all coherence and synthesis; the tacky detritus of Steve Wright’s Sunday Lovesongs repackaged for an ersatz world of sulphurous sunsets and crumbling metropolises imploding like the plastic dust of an Arizonan dead mall. Back to the dark desert highway, purple-skied and dripped in molten neon. This isn’t what you’d enjoy on a leisurely car trip to the drive through…Or is it?

Listen to : : :

death’s dynamic shroud.wmv // I’m at the point in the level where the road narrows, curves, swirls upside down. Death is imminent. You can see the gloved fingers slipping a compact disc into the slot of a monster, borrowed straight from the architectures of Digimon. I’m thinking: Elizabeth Fraser’s sweetly haunting soprano (imagine being ghosted by the purest aural distillation of beauty); the chilled techno-ambience resurrected from the nineties. There’s heartbreak ahead. If you jump too far—and you will, won’t you—the space around you will glitch. There you’ll be, suspended in the space twinkles. An empty swimming pool. Climb into the cracks. Why is everything so gleaming, so white? I’m obsessed with getting back to matter. The music restores the filth, the glitch. There’s a vast acceleration of beautiful colour. The soprano grows warped, the orb-like contortions are glowing off kilter, off rhythm. The seven lumps of Galaxy chocolate I’ve just eaten melt sticky bits of sugar in my mouth, refuse to dissolve. They’ll coat my teeth like that.

Vapourwave coats your teeth. God knows how or why you should define it. It’s like cheap candy, utterly sugary but filled with mysterious ingredients, mystic chemicals from another dimension. One minute I’m being instructed about the start of a sequence (it’s the eerie echoes of a sci-fi style video game)- – – loading loading loading  – –  – and then trap style beats come bouncing slowly in, delayed as if strained through some outpouring of weird gravity. There’s a purity to some of it, which feels more like an original composition; the ambient atmosphere of something along the lines of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works…There’s a sense of distortion, disorientation. Hyperreal landscapes lit in luminous pinks and purples. What’s that gleam, is it rain? Tokyo on a postcard, dipped in cross-processing chemicals, in violet acid. Then you’ve got a vague array of p a r a d i s e lighting up the screen. Palms and sand and cerulean sea.

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As soon as you get attached to a sample, you’re away. Rarely does the beat resolve. You’re like, totally always stuck on the pre-beat. To the point that human expression becomes a technological fault, a beep, a burp. Sometimes it sounds like waves are being pulsed through your brain, blurred in a malfunction of some tacky machinery cooked up for a pulp movie of the nineties. Do scanners really look like that? Coated in rhinestones, bathed in pink. Some of it’s dreamier. Arpeggios of bell-scented keyboards (what do bells smell like? Not musty old church bells, but the sonorous chimes of noughties computers). Arpeggios climbing and climbing, dissolving, rising. A pop melody shining through. I’m in a rainforest of futurist skyscrapers, cloud-surrounded, everything drenched in pastel-hued pixels. It’s so serene. 

Vapourwave. What a joke, an internet meme. Didn’t it die a couple of years ago?

I’m so confused. What is this monstrosity that’s eked itself into my life like a viral code luxuriating in my brain? At once disdainfully ironic, crass, tacky as hell; but also painfully sincere, nostalgic, full of a misplaced longing. The metamodern paradox of postmodern irony and modernist authenticity cooking up an endless loop of misplaced longing. I find myself thirsty for shopping malls from the seventies, for grotesque cups of Diet Pepsi, for the glossy pop of the eighties and the apocalyptic reveries of the nineties. I’m drifting through a city stripped of its glitz and left with patches of bright matte colour, refusing to reflect the glass through which dreams have appeared and got lost. I remember polishing a CD with the back of my sleeve, watching the lines of rainbows beam. Slotting it into a computer that hummed and whirred at my touch. I remember when technology felt somehow homely. 

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Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe. Source.

That comforting little Windows XP flourish, how friendly it was compared to the blasé boom of Apple’s triumphant C chord. Glitch, glitch, glitch. I pick the pixels out with my fingertips. The eerie keyed chords of MACINTOSH PLUS’ 地理 fill me with a sinister sense of urgency. It’s an entropic catastrophe of dissonance.

At the heart of vapourwave is a tension between the sweet and disturbing, between satisfyingly vacuous muzak and dissonant, deliberate glitching. This is related to its deterritorialising impulse, by which I mean (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari lingo), the way it extracts and recontextualises some element of a thing, then placing it elsewhere in a different environment. Vapourwave is a sort of bulimic, abject, rhizomatic discourse. It gorges on the symbols of late capitalism (the glossy muzak and soft rock of the eighties, international brands like Nike or Microsoft, the aesthetics of corporate advertising and so on) and then expels them in a gross reinterpretation that seems to purge them of their original, seamless facade. It might be useful here to mention that sociologist/criminologist Jock Young (2007) once described late modernity as a ‘bulimic society’, where we are all (internationally) included in the dreamlike semiotics of the rich through the opulence and availability of global branding, advertising and popular culture, but increasingly we are structurally excluded from the means which would allow us to achieve such dizzying heights ourselves. This social anomie is jarringly rendered in vapourwave’s shameless embrace of corporate culture; at once poking fun at it but also monumentalising it in an ambiguous way. It’s by no means a didactic movement, but as Grafton Tanner tends to argue in his excellent book Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (2016), it’s symptomatic of its times. The very poetics of vapourwave reflect the uneasy experience of being unable to escape the system, the uncanny effects of our perpetual cultural nostalgia—the celebration and denigration of late capitalist modernity and all its forms of post (post (post) post).

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Outside of their usual contexts, corporate and commercial visuals (the vapourwave a e s t h e t i c) seem absurd, funny, strange, alienating. It hollows out the imagined ‘core’ of the brand and replaces it with a sort of free-floating lack of functionality, a disembodied eeriness. Chuck a logo in with a pastel-hued painting of palms and corny dolphins lifted from a SNES game and there you have it. Old Apple logos might be hovering over a pixellated ocean, waiting to plunge inexorably. Not only the aesthetics, but also the music itself, creates this sense of fragmented capitalism. Tanner talks briefly about the relevance of Derrida’s idea of hauntology to understanding the politics of vapourwave and this seems to me very astute. It’s the idea that the future is irrevocably haunted by the past; that culture and politics are also spooked with spectres from the past—from communism (Derrida’s book is called Spectres of Marx) to old technologies. It’s the idea that things are always-already obsolete, that there’s a sense of being itself as displaced and never quite fully present. It’s an ontology of difference, deferral, doubling, of objects which become ‘a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint”’ (Derrida 1994). Derrida’s gloss on Marx’s analysis of the commodity-table gives us a sense on the ghostliness of consumer objects:

For example — and here is where the table comes on stage — the wood remains wooden when it is made into a table: it is then “an ordinary, sensuous thing [ein ordindäres, sinnliches Ding]”. It is quite different when it becomes a commodity, when the curtain goes up on the market and the table plays actor and character at the same time, when the commodity-table, says Marx, comes on stage (auftritt), begins to walk around and to put itself forward as a market value. Coup de theatre: the ordinary, sensuous thing is transfigured (verwandelt sich), it becomes someone, it assumes a figure. This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing, a sensuous non-sensuous thing, sensuous but non-sensuous, sensuously supersensible (verwandelt er sich in ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding). The ghostly schema now appears indispensable. The commodity is a “thing” without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and odourless); but this transcendence is not altogether spiritual, it retains that bodiless body which we have recognised as making the difference between spectre and spirit. What surpasses the senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body that it nevertheless lacks or that remains inaccessible to us.

(Derrida 1994)

Vapourwave, of course, exploits this ‘ghostly schema’ of consumer objects. ‘Woody and headstrong denseness’, the sheer materiality of the thing is ordinarily supplanted by its mystical, transcendent value as a commodified good or brand. When we think of Nike trainers, rarely do we care for their actual material structure; usually it is the symbolic resonance of the brand that captures us. In Vapourwave, materiality comes back, vicious and strange. Fredric Jameson laments the way that postmodernism presents us with a meaningless concatenation of cultural nostalgia, often without context—BuzzFeed’s noughties nostalgia lists perhaps being a case in point. Vapourwave takes this ‘out of context’ randomness and runs with it. Art objects, textures, corporate iconography and screen-saturated colours combine in a collage of irony and contrasts. The mishmash quality of the vapourwave aesthetic lends it to easy manipulation and re-creation. This is the DIY ethic of the movement, its impulse towards constant theft, the cut and paste fun of sampling, the wilful shredding of distortion which creates a contemporary rendering of William Burroughs’ literary cut-up method or the random-making ‘recipes’ of Dada poetry, as described by Tristan Tzara.

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Vapourwave Collage (note the hashtags on the link). Source.

Now, the effects of this mixed-bag of internet treats aren’t just weird and humorous, but weird also in an unsettling way. The samples become points of focus in a manner that strips away the normal cultural values of the original song; the easy soft-rock of the eighties becomes haunted with lo-fi feedback and interruption, compression and echoes. It sounds like it’s being heard through a cave or the underwater atrium of an abandoned mall, after the apocalypse. One of vapourwave’s most prominent releases to this day remains Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011) and on this record the production warps its soul music with a surrealist synth-driven dreamscape, in which R&B beats become slow and trippy and human voices are dehumanised into drawls and robotic calls. Often a sample starts but never resolves its line, constantly stumbling over itself. Tempos are spliced and no song follows conventional structure, but instead runs on repetitions, overlaps, interruptions; completely jarring changes in rhythm and key with no transition. Funk and soul from the eighties are no longer smooth and satisfying radio filler, but are turned inside out, their inherent weirdness exposed. Some of the highlights include ‘It’s Your Move’ by Diana Ross and ‘You Need a Hero’ by Pages. The effect of listening to this album is sort of like pushing a shopping cart round a supermarket and gazing around in wonder at the saturated pastels, the pointless products, the detritus of cluttered consumer madness. Glitches, twinkles, the beats of unsteady feet. Random tannoy announcements like a call from some parallel universe, the underground, the flickers of the internet ether.

Tanner’s Babbling Corpse usefully makes a connection between the dehumanisation of human voices in vapourwave music and contemporary philosophical movements such as speculative realism and object-orientated ontology. Both movements share the fundamental rejection of correlationism (the dominant, anthropocentric idea in Western philosophy that views reality only in relation to and projection from the human perspective). Instead, they turn to the world experience of the nonhuman, the sentient and foreign perspective of matter and objects. They expose the contrived nature of our distinction between self and world, showing how we are world, entangled in a way that is inextricable and disturbing (Timothy Morton, for instance, points to the crustaceans that live in our eyelashes or the bacteria in our gut as examples of how we are the environment, rather than self-complete and separate beings). Vapourwave in some way manages to evoke this weird world of objects, at a level only barely accessible to humans. Its use of glitches and looped samples disrupts the ordering of people and things. As Tanner puts it,

Glitches interrupt our expectations while deceiving and annoying us. They undermine our notion of what the machine is supposed to do for us, not without us. In this way, our electronic machines take on lives of their own and appear capable of functioning perfectly well without humans – a complete transcendence into other-worldly sentience.

 (2016: 11)

We might consider this in relation to Martin Heidegger’s (2008) idea that we only notice a tool as a thing when it stops working. A broken hammer suddenly becomes a strange entity in its own right, rather than just one chain link in the process of a means to an end. Chuck Persons Eccojams Vol. 1, for starters. The very name: Eccojams. It implies the jams are a product of this Other: the ecco, ecology, echo…The title derives from an old Sega Megadrive game called Ecco the Dolphin, an action adventure game which featured dreamy music and a very minimalist gameplay narrative. You made Ecco sing to attract and interact with other objects and cetaceans; you could evoke echolocation in order to unfold a map of your oceanic surroundings; you could call to special crystals (glyphs) which in various ways controlled Ecco’s access to different levels. There is a beautiful otherworldliness to this game, and not just because Ecco ends up at the City of Atlantis. It’s created its own mythology, and the emphasis on song (like The Legend of Zelda’s ocarina melodies, which initiate effects in the game) opens up the possibilities for a nonhuman conscious or logic. Music, perhaps more than language, has effects on nonhuman consciousness. At a certain pitch, it can shatter a glass, or cause buildings to rumble with bass. It opens up its own logic of cause and effect.

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Hauntology, in a sense, is about being stuck on the loop of the end of history.  Technology constantly dislocates our awareness of time and space, so that linearity is replaced with instancy, repetition and reiteration, the constant recycling of former styles and events. Repetition is uncanny partly because, as Freud argues in ‘The Uncanny’, it’s the structure of the unconscious. When we notice repetition, we notice how our whole psyches are built on the compulsion to repeat even that which is most traumatic to us. It also violates our sense of identity and experience as singular and unique (an idea that liberal democracy and consumer capitalism likes to perpetuate). Identical twins are uncanny for this reason, as is deja vu. We feel that the normal order of time and space has been distorted (this is of course made explicit in films like Donnie Darko, which deal with parallel universe theorems). Repetition is also uncanny because it suggests that things we thought were unique to a moment, imbued with their apparent transience, are actually lingering and potentially eternal. It’s unsettling to have the buried constantly disinterred and broken out into the open present. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) is a novel which explores the logic of repetition in relation to a trauma narrative in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with re-enacting events to the point of absurdity and violent conclusion. It’s that overlap of the real, where dreamlike remembrance meets actual performed repetition, that is the orgasmic satisfaction of the psyche.

Listening to vapourwave enacts this perfectly. We might start to recognise the songs from which these samples were drawn, but our recognition is distorted along with the samples themselves. The past floats uncannily into the future. Eccojams Vol. 1 drops its tinkling beats on a loop and the vocals from eighties ballads are stripped of their velvet and become mournful, minor, distorted. Inhuman, odd. There’s a sense in which our contemporary experience of reality in the face of apocalypse and pathological nostalgia is both dark and sweet. Morton’s branch of object-orientated ontology, dark ecology, perfectly captures this experience (in fact, in Dark Ecology (2016) he describes the process of dealing with this ‘grief’ as sharing the structure of a ‘dark ecological chocolate’). Vapourwave is at times incredibly saccharine, mapping itself through the cheerfully smooth loops of Muzak; but it is also jarring, dissonant, deeply unsettling. It takes dirty club techno, the complex tempos of intelligent dance music, and puts them through the cheap production of the GarageBand blender. Vocals echo like a broken tannoy machine. Vapourwave, as both visual and musical aesthetic, fundamentally opens an aural space in which past, present and future become a haunting echo chamber of one another. No longer is this the mere surface play of postmodern collage, but instead it’s the material manifestation of a specific cultural hauntology. As Tanner puts it, hauntology ‘is unlike Jameson’s pastiche in that it complicates the past (specifically, the past’s image of the future) in order to call attention to capitalism’s destructive nature as a subjugating force that only fools others into thinking it came to eradicate “history”’ (2016: 35-36). Capitalism is hollowed out, its signature brands become lost echoes in a vaguely recognisable, a hypnotically attractive yet alarming vision of our near-present future; blended with the figures of mall culture, the colours of early aughts internet webspaces and the abyssal possibilities of a Tumblr scroll.

I’m interested in how vapourwave re-enacts a different form of consciousness and how this might be ecological, even though the movement’s only obvious engagement with Nature as Such is through the proliferation of palms and potted plants that drift incongruously as consumer goods through some of its artwork. To get at its ecological sweetness, it’s like cracking open a crystal to see its lattice parameters (what a beautiful phrase), the places where the material cleaves (its lines of weakness), its cubic structure. The interplay between structure and embedded weakness is what motivates vapourwave; it contains its own failure, the undeveloped samples, the way a tiny snatch of a song is unfolded into a tranquil sequence of soporific, nonsensical sound. This is not music with a coherent logic. You look for lines and trends and vague traces of structure, but a song will become something more fluid and fragmented. Vapourwave’s material metaphors cannot be coherent; it’s at once free-floating, vaporous, seeping, gelatinous, oozing, splitting, cracking, choking, pulsing, dissolving. Hard matter, soft matter, chemical, vapour, waves and glitches and tiny explosions.

Sometimes, the structure is completely frustrating. On Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, for example, the slowed-down, reverb-heavy sample from Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ repeats endlessly and never resolves itself into the next line: ‘another year and then we’ll be happy / just one more year and then we’ll be happy’. The twinkle signifies the glimpse of a transition and there’s a blip of the ‘b’ which should resolve into ‘but you’re crying, you’re crying now’ and yet here never does. Instead the song becomes an endless loop of implied futurity, the future conditional, ‘we’ll be happy’ that doesn’t get to complete itself but instead hangs. We’re taken out of time and left in this limbo. Here, the repetition isn’t soothing, it’s unsettling—mesmerising in a disturbing way. We question our longing for the song to resolve and before we have a chance it’s skipped to the next track. So we go back, search out the original version. Is it satisfying? Listening to Raferty’s original now feels weird in a way it didn’t before. It’s like this lost artefact from the past, spliced across the future ether rendered by Person’s eerie and hypnagogic album. While ‘Baker Street’ implies a specific place, now it’s thoroughly displaced, an effect of the internet’s rhizomatic possibilities.

As Morton puts it, ‘in order to have environmental awareness, one must be aware of space as more than just a vacuum. One must start taking note of, taking care of, one’s world’ (2002: 54). Ambient poetics disturb our assumed distinction between inside/outside, self/other; they show how we are entangled in a shared space of coexistence (Morton 2002: 54). Ambient music, in its sensuousness, its borrowing from the world—for example, by using samples of music concrète and field recordings from both nature and urban spaces—embeds us inside an environment in a way that is at once comforting and disturbing. It literally surrounds our senses. Brian Eno famously sets out a manifesto for ambient music by describing ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint’, and ‘whereas conventional background music [i.e. Muzak] is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty […] from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. […] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think’. As Morton puts it, ambient music as figured by Eno deconstructs the ‘opposition between foreground and background, or more precisely, between figure and ground’. In this sense, ‘ambience could be shown to resist the reification of space in capitalism’, ‘at once fill[ing] and overspill[ing] the ideological frame intended for it by the social structure in which it emerged’ (Morton 2001).

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Abandoned mall / / Source.

Think of it this way: could you get away with playing vapourwave in a mall or a supermarket or diner? Sure, it would ‘fill’ the space in one sense, but also exceed it, rendering all our cultural and material associations with this space uncanny and distorted. It would become a sci-fi space, a space displaced into the future. We would be inhabiting a doubled world, a doubled temporality. I tried playing Floral Shoppe in the restaurant where I work once (obviously when there were no customers) and the effect was actually very comforting. I felt like I wasn’t trapped in the familiar twenty-something existential limbo and instead inhabiting a plane of dreamlike contemplation, like the Rainbow Road level on MarioKart: Double Dash. I close my eyes and the scratched wooden floor spills out into a highway of colour; the tables I’m bumping against are bright yellow stars and fragments of unknown matter. I’m back in the supermarket, trolleys wheeling away from me and products falling off the shelf. I open my eyes and there’s the mirror and a reflection of someone that might be me, wearing a uniform, the chairs and tables flashing around me like holograms. I’m not exactly sure where that association sprung from (it’s been a long time since I’ve turned on the old GameCube), but I guess that’s the free associative impact of the music itself.

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Rainbow Road / / Source.

Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), vapourwave is about an experience of travel and movement without necessarily describing that movement itself. Crucially, the emphasis is on slowing down, on dwelling in a moment; a moment which is looped, repeated, pondered over, exhausted, reflected on. ‘I undertook to subject my life to a severe examination that would order it for the rest of my days in such a way as I wished to find it at the time of my death’ (Rousseau 2011: 24). Vapourwave subjects the e v e r y t h i n g of capitalist late modernity to such self-reflexive inner scrutiny. This scrutiny enacts a slowing down of perception, a sense of looking around and absorbing one’s place in the environment. Through an uncanny distortion, doubling back and becoming the environment. Vapourwave allows us to adopt both a blasé and a highly perceptive attitude to the ad-saturated world in which we exist; the metropolis of the internet becoming some great labyrinth in which we linger at every turn, mesmerised by the neon palms swaying in time to the untimely music, to cans of diet coke and the universal resonance of that bold tick logo. Everything surrounds and coagulates, connects.

This aesthetic dwelling is crucial for ecology because it forces a recognition of the world which we are and in which we live, a recognition that notices patterns of interconnectedness and coexistence. For Gregory Bateson (2016), aesthetics means ‘responsiveness to the pattern which connects. The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern’; both cities and their parts form part of this pattern, of the patterned aesthetic of vapourwave. The metropolis, the mall, the fountain plaza, the computer screen, the window of a building, the burnished, pixellated sunset. All are the environs of sound and vision, the movement between figure and ground, the deconstruction of synecdoche. The part and the whole are constantly supplementing each other (the song, the sample; the symbolism, the surface aesthetic). It’s a bewildering, shape-shifting experience. It forces us to take notice of our world. There’s something about vapourwave which always suggests to me a sort of endless highway, where the vehicles move as if through some viscous substance that drags the experience of time and space. Our perception becomes blurred and starry, with blips of unconsciousness and moments of epiphanic reverie. Things around us fade or glow. The radio rumbles in the darkest cavity of our chest. Am I even breathing? I don’t feel human. Is this freedom?

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Alongside this dwelling is a certain playfulness of a way unique to vapourwave. James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) might be the classic here. It blends together the inane and cornily flourishing samples from Muzak with automated audio speech stolen from corporate contexts and sound effects from everyday tech life—the message-send swoop, a mouse click, laptop crashing sounds and start-up tunes. The result is something that might reflect Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as ‘eclecticism’, the ‘degree zero of contemporary general culture [where] one listens to reggae, watches Westerns, eats MacDonald’s for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothing in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games’ (2004: 76). This eclecticism is made playfully manifest in Ferraro’s lively, atmospheric and at times downright trippy record, where twinkles of commercially-drenched, techy synths give way to stuttering keyboards, ringtone effects and twirls of familiar message noises which become maddeningly synced with finger clicks and conversations between robotic voices. A CONUNDRUM article argues that ‘since vapourwave functions namely as commentary, it loops, pitch-shifts and “screws” the utopia of the virtual plaza, creating a harsh, grating sound in away that brings each muzak sample’s faults to the forefront of the track’. This is certainly true of Ferraro, but I’d also suggest that vapourwave is more than mere commentary; Ferraro especially revels in the silliness of corporate culture (check out ‘Pixarnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell’, with its drink slurping sound effects and jingly, kids tv-worthy melody), at the same time as revealing its peculiar utopian unreality, a world of shimmering sound and holograms. There’s a self-consciously affective and pleasurable aspect to the music. Sometimes it sounds like the demonstration music on an art channel, to the point where I’m expecting some beautiful, sellotaped creation to materialise with every musical flourish.

On the other hand, there’s the total weirdness of ‘Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi’, which takes us through a scintillatingly bizarre encounter with a ‘touchscreen waiter’ who explains the ordering process at a sushi restaurant—apparently in Times Square, with Gordon Ramsay as chef—to the backdrop of exuberant synths and glitchy effects which sound like a Windows 95 laptop gone haywire, or merely said customer making her selections from the menu software. The result is to render a future where restaurants and coffeehouses are devoid of human interaction, becoming impersonal encounters with creepily enthusiastic machine waiters (creepy not just because they’d put me out of a job). The contrast between this manic happiness, this constant focus on choice, with the maddening music is to create a deep sense of unease, to reveal the artifice of such utopian tech constructions. Do we really have a choice? Is life being boiled down to a series of computer menus? Is the future bound to the unsettling intonations of such robotic encounters? I can’t help but escape into the absurdity of the music and try to forget this hauntological disaster is always-already constantly happening…

The comparatively meditative ‘Bags’ weaves its entrancing ambience from an early Windows startup theme, dipping into sonorous caverns of sparkling synths and lifting for air bubbles and irregular, incongruous finger clicks. I am reminded here of a beautiful essay by Steven Connor on the magic of objects, specifically here bags: ‘because they are in essence such fleshly or bodily things, bags enact as nothing else does our sense of the relation between inside and outside. We are creatures who find it easy and pleasurable to imagine living on the inside of another body’. There’s an amniotic vibe to Ferarro’s ‘Bags’; the swaying, dreamy pace that makes us feel as though we are inside those palms, or encased within a glossy plastic number, bouncing away against some glamorous knee. Just as humans have a sort of supplementary, life-giving association with bags, we also have this relationship with the plazas of capitalism and the affective world they render. Ferarro has said that he conceived of Far Side Virtual as a series of ringtones, a musical form which inherently suggests consumer transience, tackiness, kitsch, the whims of passing fashions (not least because the polyphonic presets change with each phone upgrade). He’s also said that he loves the idea of the album being ‘performed b a Philharmonic Orchestra […] Imagining an orchestra given X-Box controllers instead of mallets, iPhones instead of violins, ring tones instead of Tubular bells, Starbucks cups instead of cymbals. All streamed online, viewable on a megascreen in Times Square’. That’s what’s special about vapourwave: its commitment to the endurance of art and the a e s t h e t i c alongside an ambiguous relationship with the ephemerality of corporate kitsch. The artistic rearrangement of these samples, alongside their visual presentation and marketing as alt music through sites like Bandcamp, completely reterritorialises their original framework of meaning.

There’s a sense in which this music—with its self-conscious materiality, the recognisably tacky mattering of its samples, its embrace of the ambient disruption of foreground and background—is inherently committed to some kind of hauntological ecological project, the kind advocated by Tim Morton’s dark ecological poetics. As Ferarro himself says of his album, it’s a ‘rubbery plastic symphony for global warming, dedicated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Vapourwave recycles culture, proliferates both beauty and trash, endlessly parodies itself and its references. It renders explicitly what Marc Augé calls the ‘non-places’ of supermodernity: the anonymous malls, airports, offices and stations where cultures blend and collide and become foreign places of blank existence, of non-place, of disembodied temporality and physical and social experience. Places emptied out of cultural specificity. Places where one might eat Japanese sushi in a New York airport restaurant, concocted by a holographic rendition of a grumpy English chef and served by a robot developed and programmed by a Chinese tech company. Vapourwave is melancholy and strangely displaced. The frequent use of anonymity by many of its prominent artists (Xavier, for example, is responsible for more than just Macintosh Plus), alongside the Eastern characters for song titles, creates again a dehumanised, uncanny and culturally displaced understanding of identity. It weaves an almost Orientalist mystery through its art, so that we can’t quite geographically place the origins and players of this musical movement. It’s all about dissemination, reappropriation, the instancy of recycled production; but it’s also about slowing down to notice the flaws inherent in our everyday, consumer lives. The heavily sampled, rhizomatic nature of vapourwave forces you to become a more active consumer of both music and other forms of material pleasure, from picking your morning coffee to choosing your desktop screensaver. Perhaps it’s this recognition that gives vapourwave the vague trace of disruptive impulse; the way it strips away the uneasy pleasures and pink mist of the late capitalist plaza and replaces it with a mystique that haunts us back from the future. Objects and humans withdraw from our grasp and we are left with the surface detritus of crushed coke cans, defunct MacBooks, coffee cups and robot voices stuck on repeat, cleaning the floor of the mall to a vicious gleam that threatens to bounce back like a screen and remind us that we haven’t left the room at all – we’re still on the internet, chasing our dreams.

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Bibliography

Augé, Marc, 2009. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso).

Bateson, Gregory, 2016. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Available at: http://www.oikos.org/mind&nature.htm. [Accessed 22.1.17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx. Extracts available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/derrida2.htm [Accessed 22.1.17].

Eno, Brian, 1978. ’Music for Airports liner notes’. Available at: http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/MFA-txt.html [Accessed 22.1.17].

Freud, Sigmund, 2003. The Uncanny, trans. by David McLintock, (London: Penguin).

Heidegger, Martin, 2008. Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (New York: Harper Perennial).

Jameson, Fredric, 1991. Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press).

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, 2004. Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2001. ‘“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as an Ambient Poem; a Study of a Dialectical Image; with Some Remarks on Coleridge and Wordsworth’, https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/ecology/morton/morton.html

Morton, Timothy, 2002. ‘Why Ambient Poetics? Outline for a Depthless Ecology’, The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 52-56.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 2011. Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. by Russell Goulbourne, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics).

Tanner, Grafton, 2016. Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (Winchester: Zero Books).

Young, Jock, 2007. The Vertigo of Late Modernity (London: SAGE).

Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

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(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)

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In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics

(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).

In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?

What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.

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Screencap: Netflix

The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.

However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.

Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.

With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.

What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.

My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutes such taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.

One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?

Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.

Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.

Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.

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Screen cap: Netflix

In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.

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Spilt blood…Screen cap: Netflix

Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.

(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)

The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.

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Screen cap: Netflix

At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.

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Screen cap: Netflix

As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.

The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy… Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17). The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.

At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.

Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).

On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.

While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.

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Jonathan’s photography. Screen cap: Netflix

Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series, photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:

Photography is a mode of tekhnē – a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.

(Dick and Wolfreys 260)

There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.

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Laura Palmer’s homecoming photo from Twin Peaks

Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights. 

Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:

Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.

(Derrida 1989: 61)

In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.

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Phantasmagoria…Screen cap: Netflix

At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.

What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:

[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]

(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).

There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.

I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:

The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.

(McCarthy 2010: 78)

Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:

As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.

(McCarthy, Tom 2012)

Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…

There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?

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Facing the limits of space-time…Ashes to Ashes. Image source: jimcofer.com

In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.

Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:

The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’

 (Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)

What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:

Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.

(Bridges 2016)

Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.

 (Kristeva 1982: 1)

Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).

Bridges, Elizabeth, 2016. ‘The Perils of Childhood – Stranger Things, Season 1’ <http://uncannyvalley.us/2016/07/stranger-things-season-1/&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1798. The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/sites/default/RCOldSite/www/rchs/reader/rime4.html> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Connor, Stephen, 2006. ‘Her Light Materials’ <http://stevenconnor.com/phantasmagoria.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Creed, Barbara, 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1982. ‘Différance’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 3-27.

Derrida, Jacques, 1989. The Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida by Mark Lewis and Andreas Payne, trans. by Jean-Luc Svoboda (Public, 2).

Derrida, Jacques, 2002. ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), trans. by David Wills, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 369-418.

Dick, Maria-Daniella and Julian Wolfreys, 2015. The Derrida Wordbook (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Kristeva, Julia, 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press).

McCarthy, Tom, 2010. C (London: Vintage).

McCarthy, Tom,  2012b. Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, [Kindle edition; accessed: 23.8.14] (London: Vintage Digital).

Morton, Timothy, 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics

Morton, Timothy, 2010a. ‘Hyperobjects are Viscous’, Ecology Without Nature <http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/hyperobjects-are-viscous.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Morton, Timothy, 2010b. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Posthumanities) (University of Minnesota Press).

Sconce, Jeffrey, 2000. Haunted Media: Electronic presence from Telegraphy to Television (London: Duke University Press).

Shelley, Mary, 2009 [1818 edition]. Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics).

Warner, Marina, 2006. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watts, Peter, ‘The Things’, Clarkesworld Magazine <http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Woolf, Virginia, 1921. ‘Henry James’ Ghost Stories’, The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1040, 22nd December, pp. 849-50.

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Screen cap: Netflix

The Melancholy of Lana Del Rey

Source: Vogue Australia
Source: Vogue Australia

 I even enjoy dying in the character who is dying.

— Franz Kafka

Every time I close my eyes,
It’s like a dark paradise

There’s something apocalyptic about a Blood Moon. The sense of waste and transient beauty, light and life shedding away. The moon takes its thirty-year delayed menstruation; red cloud wisps over its shining face like clots of blood being pulled across a pool of silver. Somewhere out there, lovers are lying in lush paradise, staring up at this white eye opened by god; far away, drowned in stars. A voice swirls like smoke over soft, shimmery guitar. It’s the eclipse, sometime about now, then, yesterday, and I am or I was listening to Lana Del Rey.

Honeymoon, then going back to Dark Paradise. Insomnia in the space between night and day; between one universe and another, always afloat in claustrophobia. Returning to this song again and again, its repetition, invoking the familiar sadness and masochism that Lana dreamt up only a few years ago, you’re surrounded by an eternal world of neon palms, boulevards dripped in milky dusk, the sickly excess of tequila sunrise against soaring choruses and stripped-back lyrics. In a way, you fall or sink into Lana Del Rey’s music. Like Kubla Kahn, the eponymous Chinese emperor of Coleridge’s opium-provoked fragment poem, you are sucked dreamily into the sultry visual world of dark objects, consumer heaven, the young and beautiful place of honeydew where you are invited to drink ‘the milk of paradise’. Lana’s swooning melodies charm over time, drawing you into an atmosphere of narcotised darkness which evokes a silent movie – even as the interplay between sound and image is as crucial a set of semiotics as anything Roland Barthes might analyse. You could fall back into the darkness, be seduced by the languid timeless sigh which slides over memories, nostalgia for lost evenings, red dresses and cigarettes, lost girls pressed up against bad boys in clubs, feeling like their whole existence is just a vision, propelling their electric bodies on and on as if in tune to Freud’s death drive.

Much of Lana’s music is about desire: the kind of desire that doesn’t leave you cut-up on the kitchen floor in crude emotion (a la Natalie Imbruglia, ‘Torn’), but passes through that place in the heart of culture that falls into absence and darkness. The secret hollow of modernity. It makes sense that she sung the sultry standout track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation, ‘Young and Beautiful’. Del Rey’s America is so Art Deco, from the typeface of her new album, to her obsession with cars and jazz and girls called Carmen, the fragile magic of Hollywood glamour which often bleeds at the seams. Lana returns to that dull wound and picks at it, indifferently, till it’s fresh again – a more ethereal thing that transcends the rotting body of America’s culture. Sex, violence, money, power, charisma; they all blur together in Lana’s fixated, addictive lyrics. In her performance, she already knows the irrelevance of authenticity; it makes her internet-immune, a kind of perfect. Nobody can critique her, because she’s always one step ahead. Despite the success of Lady Gaga, who wears her gender performativity on her sleeve, American culture remains obsessed with the cult of authenticity. Lana has been attacked for ‘making up’ the stories portrayed in her songs, the easy-love lifestyle she presents; for having plastic surgery and performing under an alias that nods more to Hollywood mythology than the girl-next-door vibes of her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Remember James Frey, the ‘man who rewrote his life’ and was subsequently attacked by Oprah when she discovered he’d fabricated and exaggerated a hefty chunk of his memoir of drug addiction? Lana, like James Frey, like Hemingway, is interested in the interplay between real life and fantasy, performance and authenticity; importantly, however, she shows how real life is itself played out and realised through the lens of mediated fantasy. Her songs betray a Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication, simulacra and simulations, updated for an age where the past is showered with the longed-for shroud of Hollywood glamour, where the present is fragmented, split across the Internet (where Lana first made her success, sensation).

***

Isn’t it lovely when somebody makes albums that really feel like art? From Born to Die’s glamorous sadness draped in an American flag, to the monochrome somnolence of Ultraviolence (produced, appropriately, by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), each of Lana Del Rey’s records captures a persona, but one which shifts and gathers nuance in the filters of crooning choruses and soft guitars, the distinctive colour charts of an album cover. Born to Die: pastel blues and palm trees, red lips and smoky eyes; the glossy, time-travelling Americana of her short film Tropico (2013), whose flashy symbolism mixes purity with moral pollution, the Garden of Eden with unicorns and gangsters. Ultraviolence: black and white, the spare sex of sorrow. Her latest offering, Honeymoon, sinks deliciously a familiar aura of daydreams, heartache and a sense of mesmerising stasis captured in Lana’s recital of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which evokes an abstracted and absent conception of time, slipping away into endlessly echoing, impossible memory…

Footfalls echo in the memory. Sound effects; quiet sirens, the soft familiar crackle of static, reminding us of the temporal duration, the space of presence that opens up with each play of the song, then closes again in silence – but always there, always there waiting in possibility, for the next click, the next play. Down the passage which we did not take. 

In the album sleeve, the white printed lyrics to ‘High By the Beach’ flicker and disappear in the yellow-gold light of a glossy photo depicting a tree-lined avenue. Lana Del Rey songs always paint little vignettes of stories, but her characters frequently disappear from view, their situations dreamlike, slanted towards death but never reaching conclusion. Like any avant-garde novel worth its salt, Lana Del Rey’s music often bears a slightly creepy, unsettling quality, a sense of never being quite finished, a sense of repetition, frustration and surrealist reality. While she can master a good pop tune, Lana never gives us that self-satisfied pomp and narrative closure of a Taylor Swift song; there is an almost uncanny quality to her musical arrangements: the drifting melodies, tinges of trip hop, strings, rippling snares and minimal beats. Literary references abound: from that iconic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Tropico, to the album title Ultraviolence (alluding to the random acts of ‘ultra-violence which the teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange is addicted to) and all that sinister seduction of ‘Carmen’: ‘It’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, in a nod to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In ‘Ride’ she references the sexual plight of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, drifting through life by ‘relying on the kindness of strangers’; in a way, Blanche is a perfect Lana Del Rey heroine. Not only is she a ‘fallen woman’ but she is also an alcoholic, guzzling bourbon and symbolically-charged cherry soda (My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola, / My eyes are wide like cherry pies – ‘Cola’), and longs to die in a most extravagant way, conflicted by her desire for purity and her sexual appetite: first, she will eat an ‘unwashed grape’ (the poisoned fruit of Eden, the rotten core of carnal pleasure) then be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!’.

Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan's film adapation of Streetcar
Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan’s film adapation of Streetcar

***

My baby lives in shades of blue
Blue eyes and jazz and attitude

Well New Orleans – the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire – is a city rich enough in jazz and attitude, especially in the 1940s. In a way, all of Del Rey’s characters are caught up on the deathward drive of streetcars named desire, only her streetcars have morphed into getaway vehicles and limousines, or else the rides of suburban rockstars: I spend my whole life driving in cars with boys / Riding around town, drinking in the white noise. The white noise? The ever-present static reality of radio and television, life flickering on amidst its background hum and rush. It’s an edgier version of Lorde’s ‘400 Luxe’, a delicate, pulsing tribute to the romance of small-town time wasting on roads where the houses don’t change:

We’re never done with killing time
Can I kill it with you?
Till our veins run red and…blue
We come around here all the time
Got a lot to not do, let me kill it with you

You pick me up and take me home again
Head out the window again
We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain
You drape your wrist over the steering wheel
Moses can drive from here
We might be hollow, but we’re brave

On the subject of heroines, Lana is constantly critiqued for her portrayal of women; namely, her ensemble of doomed and lovelorn characters who lavish over their hopeless agony and fail to resist the anonymous bad boys which recur in her songs. Yet there is an irony to this critique, because critics seem to forget that it is a woman who is pulling the strings over all these puppets. Lana slips in and out of her roles as easily as she slips between haunting, orchestral notes. She is always in control, her voice brilliant as smoky quartz crystal, even as she sings about being out of control. There is a litheness to her performance that indicates the strength of her fiction: Lana is like a novelist, fabricating a shadow world which shows up the underbelly of American culture, from its Golden Age of 1950s glamour to the fractured present, where alcohol and club culture meet the melting pixel pot of the Internet. I wish I was dead already, she can say in a Guardian interview, incanting it like a spell, letting Twitter fall on its knees with spits and stirs of protest and loathing. Prostitutes, gangsters, trailer trash alcoholics. These people, these liminal figures on the margins of society – stereotypes, yes, but vivid ones nonetheless – are the lifeblood of Lana’s music and as she renders them, they have emotional depth, a soulless soul, unlike hiphop’s deadpan delivery of gangster vocabulary. As her voice swells to a pitch we realise that Lana has already dismissed something as ‘crude’ as identity politics, embracing instead the freedom land of the seventies, free because America, land of opportunity (for white women, at least) had then opened up a new lifestyle, a new kind of being. There is power in being a sad girl, nasal and depressed but somehow free, as in the paean to glamorous dishevelment, ‘Cruel World’ (from Ultraviolence):  I like my candy and your heroin, / And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone. / Put my little red party dress on, / Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy … ‘Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free, / You’re dancing circles around me. There’s that cliché of Americana: being young and wild and free – think of Bruce Springsteen’s celebration of wild youth – and again, Lana places her voice in the hullabaloo of this tornado of deathly ecstasy, making herself the static one in the centre, languishing over her candy and heroine while everyone else dances circles around her.

05

***

‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’ — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. 

Hiphop melancholia, narco-swing, vintage pop; whatever you wanna call it, Lana always kinda slips the net. Its her characters, her musical and metaphorical landscapes that draw you in. In a way, her songs are just as literary as any old poem.

Crying tears of gold, like lemonade. Here we are on ‘Ultraviolence’, drowning in violins and vats of sadness, relishing the salt taste and thinking of the ocean. The ocean haunts Honeymoon too. It’s there in the California blues, the ‘blue nail polish’ that’s her ‘favourite colour’ and ‘favourite tone of song’ in ‘The Blackest Day’, the sultry ice cream gleam of ‘Salvatore’ which glides in and out of languid Italian and consumable nouns (cacciatore, limousines), perhaps like a narcotised, Sinatra-style swing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘By the Way’ (the bit where they seem to throw a demented grocery list at you). Shady blue, summer rain, sparkling lights; it’s a beautiful snowflake of a song, catching its glitter in the strings and the la-da-da-da-daaaas which fall around you, soft and sad yet somehow delectable. The ocean is the darling of the suicidal American woman: it is the world’s womb, the waves that embrace desire, the space of endless multitude, escape from restrictive culture. In ‘Dark Paradise’, the singer is lying in the ocean singing your song – is this a meta statement, one persona talking back to the distant maker? All of Lana’s heroines are looking for that dark paradise; that refrain, But I wish I was dead. Think of Edna in Kate Chopin’s 1899 (later banned) novel of sexual awakening, The Awakening: Chopin’s impressionistic purple prose isn’t so far from the poetic melodrama of Lana’s lovelorn world: ‘The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude’. Chopin’s onomatopoeic prose chimes with Lana’s frequent use of sound effects, from the Fourth of July fireworks which open ‘National Anthem’ to the glitchy blips of ‘Video Games’ and twinkling bird sounds of the Hollywood hills in ‘Is This Happiness’…Expressions of desire flicker with the imagined bliss of paradise.

Source: https://unlockingkeyes.files.wordpress.com

In the conclusion to The Awakening, Edna steps out into the ocean, never to return, remembering as the horizon catches her eyes the sounds and scents of her childhood: the simple ‘hum of bees’ and ‘musky odour of pinks’ which fill the air narcotically. Walking into the ocean as Lana’s heroine writhes on her bed and balcony, longing to just get high by the beach, longing for that preserved moment of perfect stasis, the endless waves, the endless boulevard leading to a distant horizon of fathomless dark glass, tall buildings rising up amidst pink flamingoes like surrealist paintings. Haze of smoke, daytime closing.

***

There is a passage from Don DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana (1971) which David Foster Wallace happened to underline in his copy of the book:

“David, I truly love you and hate you. I love you because you’re a beautiful thing and a good boy. You’re more innocent than a field mouse and I don’t believe you have any evil in you, if that’s possible. And I hate you because you’re sick. Illness at a certain point inspires pity. Beyond that point it becomes hateful. It becomes very much like a personal insult. One wishes to destroy the sickness by destroying the patient. You’re such a lovable cliché, my love, and I do hope you’re found the centre of your sin”.

A ‘lovable cliché’: the sort of thing Lana embraces, makes raw and coats in her voice of smoke and silk. The antithesis of beauty and disgust, love and hate; how our attempts to disinfect the one from the other are doomed to fail. Culture is a contradiction. In Americana, the protagonist David Bell is a TV executive who finds himself deeply apathetic, despite being attractive, sharp and popular with the ladies. He frequently articulates his experiences, his life at large, as if they were a film. He becomes obsessed with finding meaning, embarking on a Kerouac-esque quest at getting to the nitty-gritty of America’s heart of darkness, but this documentary gets messed up in his attempts to re-stage and re-enact events from his past. I guess it’s true that the novel is all about unattainable desire, whether this is desire for meaning, personal fulfilment or something more carnal – the search for the centre of your sin which could easily be a Lana lyric. What’s more, this pathological fixation of DeLillo’s David Bell to some extent parallels Del Rey’s obsession with the silver screen version of America; the photography of Honeymoon’s cover even resembles a sexier version of the Penguin cover for Americana:

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Lanadelreycapa

While Del Rey’s female characters languish in their statically trapped daydreams of love and violence and Hollywood glamour, DeLillo’s version of Americana is largely embodied in the road myth and its cult of masculinity:

There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands….Men hold this motel firmly in their hearts; here flows the dream of the confluence of travel and sex.

This kind of commentary permeates the book, often arriving at a kind of religious, anthropological rapture which lacks the self-consciousness of DeLillo’s later novel White Noise, but provides a rambling cultural landmark that paves the way towards the sort of position Del Rey occupies in the mainstream. The Beats, protesting consumerism even as they gorged on apple pie; Bret Easton Ellis, with his deeply despairing coterie of psychopathic, serial-killer yuppies and sexually-violent, chronically-bored L.A teenagers; Lana Del Rey, voicing the glorious wastage of our postmodern wasteland, our beaten bodies and minds, voicing her vision through scenes of sun-drenched nostalgia which evoke a beautiful and terrible America, made glossy and pure through stars and stripes, a delicate riff; drifts of strings, jazz, Instagram filters. That golden period where love suffuses with the candy-flavoured stuff of daydreams, movies: Honeymoon. The whole album renders a narrow reality of the past and present: it’s pastel-shaded afternoons lost to the call of the ocean, sad ballads of frustrated love (I lost myself when I lost you), electro blues; it’s The Blackest Day, with Billie Holliday, palm trees and prescription pills, throwing up the lilac and cinnamon-scented ash of society’s ills – emotional debris, disconnection, slowing tempos, the hullabaloo of static thrills.

Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com
Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future: A Year in Review

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How are you meant to review a year when the year itself isn’t quite over? You try and think of it as a block of time: a chunk of events lumped together to form some kind of history. You’re always reaching out for connections, trying to box things and label them as such. This was the year I got divorced and found my freedom; the year I graduated and stepped onto my career path to success; the year I lost someone dear to me and found solace in a new hobby. The movies have it all mapped out for us, the way we’re supposed to review the events in our lives. Facebook, Flickr and other social networks that we rely on help us with this theatre of memory, by archiving everything together in chains of photograph albums and status updates. Events are strung together in relation to chronology and names and computer-configured faces; what happened to who, who was tagged where, who liked this and who got married and who had a baby and who got promoted. Every element of time is rendered orderly, linear. Compartmentalised to make us all competitive, individual, empathetic, jealous. We’re moving on a straight line towards goals, achievements – more notches to add to our timeline.

But what end are we moving to? A timeline cannot flow on indefinitely; or can it? Surely it’s meant to document an A to B, a fixed period in time with all the events this period contains (contained). Life, as we commonly think of it, is a series of events strung together only by their relationship to the future, to development and change. We hate stasis; we love drama. Really, as Freud put it, what we desire is death.

Desire, however, isn’t quite as simple as this. Freud, as Deleuze and Guattari argued, ignores the basic tenants of capitalism. The need for more, more, more which arises not solely out of some psychoanalytic lack, but out of production itself. The act of purchase, the mesmerising experience of lifting up some pretty snow globe and spinning it in one’s hand and thinking I would like to buy that. The flicker of a giggle as we take it home, imagining how our new product is going to enhance the life that fills our fragile hours. Fill a room and create new topographies of mental space. For everything we see disrupts our schemas of reality, even if only slightly. The snow swirls up and covers the landscape and for that moment we are free from the chaos around us.

What we are looking for is T. S. Eliot’s ‘still point in the turning world’: that perfect moment where we are at peace with ourselves, where we see through to the present itself amidst all the churning miasma of the world we exist in. The wars and media images, the headlines and celebrity photographs and radio crackle and dance music beating and phones ringing and Blackberries bleeping and all the million signals that flicker in our brain as we gaze into a computer screen. For we are multiple, divided, networked creatures, always-already caught up in swarms of information. Time is not a static archive, but a rhizome of interconnected possibilities that flash and shift and click in our minds.

And what’s more, events in time always come back. The logic of the return. Write a sentence and press the Enter key. We aren’t just running forward into the bright light at the end of some metaphorical tunnel. We follow our lives in a loop. Spilling over and retracing our steps. Think, for example, of a book: meaning is made not from a linear plot, but from the intricate play of signifiers and motifs which weave a melody of meaning throughout the narrative, linking the past and present with a possible production of future. That old New Critical interplay between Fabula and syuzhet.

Real life too. Wars return and people die in the same way, as if re-enacting the past in some big-budget film, tracing archives of pain that carve out a bitterness in history. We stand in the mirror at roughly the same times each morning and perform the same routine. Routine, like it or not, structures our whole mentalities. That’s why culture is formed on the basis of habit and ritual. Religion falls in here too. Are we always waiting, as Yeats suggested, for the Second Coming? The ‘revelation’ that is always ‘at hand’, ‘surely’? Let’s circle back to the start – of the twentieth century, to be specific. Freud says our personalities are determined by the first few years of our lives. Our anxieties now repeat the biological functioning of our infant bodies. Are we so caught up in ourselves that we cannot think beyond our bodies?

***

What does it mean to be in simultaneous temporalities? I write this sitting by my newly-decorated Christmas tree, in the living room where I spent almost every Christmas of my life since the age of three. The smell of pine and the reflection of fairy lights through the window lighting up the pampas grass in the garden. Everything wondrous and dark. Remembering lying on the floor after a day in town drinking Jack Daniels and shivering cold on the bus and listening to Muse’s ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ and dreaming of another night so unlike this. The frozen park in November with the roundabout and fireworks and the tall black shadows of the distant trees. Now the steady showering of rain at the window, spraying like glitter under the orange lamp light. Once there were family members sitting where I sit now, all laughing and ripping open presents and drinking sherry. My dog Bella climbing over everything, whining and wreaking havoc with the whip of her tail. I slip through all these memories until they feed my present. I cannot focus on one thing alone. I feel like I am several people at once. I am no longer singular. No longer a statistical person.

What happens when you are no longer one person? There is a politics to this. There are the people that believe in return and repetition. People whose whole religion is based around recurrent events and cyclical time. The solstices of Paganism, then the spiritual systems of the Mayans and Aztecs. This contrasts with the Judaeo-Christian vision of linear time, which starts with Creation and ends with the Second Coming. But what if this Second Coming was always coming? To come? Since the present is contaminated with the future (unconsciously or not, the things we think and do are always shadowed somehow by some possibility to-come), doesn’t this render the idea of ‘the present’ almost impossible? Do we slip into the spirals of Yeats’ gyre and Derrida’s spectrality?

Are we on a road or an ocean? A stream or a snowball?

Capitalism and heteronormativity set out a life plan for us. Find a mate, get married, reproduce, recreate the system. Work, earn money, pay your way. Consume. These are all instrumental processes which work towards goals. Inside these events we make our own histories, certainly, and there is a degree of creativity and fulfillment. We aren’t just pawns. But this isn’t the whole story. Here comes in Judith Halberstam’s queer temporality. What happens to the temporal experience of those who do not follow this conventional route to eventual death? Who fill their lives with more entangled possibilities which are fraught with uncertainties and questions rather than fixed narratives and clear answers…

Remembering his lover’s death from AIDS, Mark Doty says: ‘all my life I’ve lived with a future which constantly diminishes but never vanishes’. The looming possibility of a non-future, a future without hope or action or life, shifts the focus back to the present. Gone are the regular goals of ‘making a living’, ‘providing for the future’, ‘putting something away’ for one’s children. The next generation are often invoked in political discourse. Global warming is dangerous because it will spoil the world for the children of the future. Non-heterosexual relationships are supposedly dangerous because they don’t follow the capitalist ethic of (re)production in the strict sense. Atheists threaten the idea of progression because they do not believe in a future beyond. The list goes on. Sometimes we are unaware of how important time is to politics. If we ‘queer’ time by questioning the validity of its conventional Western linear conception, what kinds of lives can we live in our present political realities? How can we change – perhaps even revolutionise – the system. There’s the old doctrine of Hedonism – live out your pleasures in the present with a general disregard for others and the future. But the present isn’t inherently selfish. It’s a place where people can come together and change things, without being bound to the very isolated narratives of old age and death.

Drugs, jobs, relationships and illness all alter our experience of time: slowing it down, speeding it up, blurring it, erasing memory, making us fearful for the future. As these things become less stable and more unpredictable, how will this affect the future?

Will we have a future, or will it be a series of presents? Can we really look to the future?

Maybe the answer is in science fiction.Think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), which explores the concept of anarchist politics through ideas of simultaneous temporality and cyclical return. Revolution and repetition are in operation at the level of both form and content: story and narrative, narrative and story. Time revolves in curious ways around and between two planets, just as a moon revolves around the Earth…but what does the Earth do when you are on the moon? Einstein’s relativity comes to disrupt the easy narrative of linear time, even at the level of science…

Maybe the answer is also in our own experience. Think of a memory. Any memory you have: the first time you rode your bike, the time you fell over while dancing drunkenly on a beach in the freezing winter, the time you lost your first pet to the grovelling paws of death. All these memories do not stand alone in our minds like a physical photograph stuck and labelled in an album; but are rather bloated and blurred with the original anticipation of the event itself, and of the aftermath – the events which have happened since and in turn coloured the original. Repetition is not static but transformative. Moreover, human beings revel in repetition. The simple pleasures of revisiting an event, even if just to experience the same emotions again as they recur in a faded form like a polaroid misted by the breath of time. Maybe that’s why people have children, so they can do the things they miss doing as a kid. And as Fredric Jameson points out, in the postmodern condition of consumer capitalism, nostalgia becomes an industry itself, shaping culture from advertising to film and literature. As our lives get more complicated, faster, information-saturated – we return to an idealised, rosy history that is often removed from any genuine meaning.

***

I always find Henri Bergon’s work fascinating, when I can get my head around it. He was writing around the same time as William James, the psychologist that first coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’, which is still widely used today to describe the workings of our minds but also how these workings are depicted in certain kinds of literature. Yet a stream has linear connotations, assuming that our mind is always ‘in flow’ – moving forwards and never stopping or growing, just streaming onwards. Bergson, however, figured consciousness as an experience of ‘duration’. Think of any moment, any moment as it happens. As soon as you think of it, with a milli-gasp of a second, it’s gone again. Time is always shifting and never static or complete. While science might attempt to chart time in a linear, measured fashion with clocks and calendars and equations, in our psychological experience; time does not easily fix itself to such points. It can only be grasped by imaginative intuition; it is always fallible and contingent, never the same as each moment reconfigures the last, endlessly shifting our experience of the world and ourselves: ‘my mental state’, as Bergon puts it, ‘as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing – rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow’. And so where does that lead us, if not to the icy abyss of our certain deaths?

Well, for one thing, it actually confirms that we are not mechanical beings, destined to follow the path that time lies out for us. Sure, we will probably all die. But importantly, if Bergson’s theory works, we have free will; imagination plays a significant role in determining our relationship to the past and future. The moment is always an evolution, and this gives us a kind of freedom.

There are, of course, a multiplicity of links between return, recurrence, rupture and revolution. The breaking free of history as history is understood in a linear manner, read from front to back like a traditional book.

Literature has a long history of delving into irregular conceptions of time. An example might include Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), in which an unnamed protagonist decides to reconstruct a series of memories after coming into a large sum of money following a mysterious accident. These reconstructions are performed down to the smallest of details: the expression on an old lady’s face as she takes out the bin, the cats that prowl the rooftops, a crack in the wall, the pattern of floor tiles, the sound of liver frying in the flat below. What follows is a topography of static memory, caught in the narrator’s imaginative present. Time loses its linear quality as the past plays out in ‘real time’ with the narrator switching his memory scape into ‘on mode’, hiring ‘re-enactors’ to perform the roles of the people in his memory. And yet an amnesia and aporia haunts the narrative, as we are never quite sure where these memories originally came from; whether they even belong to the narrator. With a book like this, we lose the certainties of the traditional realist novel and the linear movement which often ended so finally with the closure of marriage or death – the first promising reproduction and progression, the latter an ultimate extinction that ends the line. There is something about the novel form in general that links it irrevocably to time; it is not contained in a performative moment like poetry, but must be read over a series of hours or days or even weeks. We physically must turn the page. Days pass in the novel, or maybe they don’t, as in the one-day novels of Woolf and Joyce (Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses). Novels often concern themselves with memory and futurity; the sheer arrangement of sentences on a page, moreover, takes us through time. Time flows as we read. We make connections and go back again; we are at once linear and circular as we exist as minds in a novel.

But we are now in the era of the great hypertext, which denies all paths to origin in its networks of complex code and multiple nodes. The Internet exists largely in a state of simultaneity, connecting various presents from around the globe. And yet, like Bergsonian duration, it resists a static conception of time; everything about a webpage is always changing as new file paths are forged, different visitors leave their online traces, new links and reposts alter the original location. Life is a labyrinth, but we would do well to forget thinking about what lies at the end. Maybe we should focus on the here and now, and give ourselves the freedom to transform the present.

***

And this year? Well, this year started with a parting: losing my most beloved pet to death. All life is a natural cycle though, as the year ended with two new births in our family. On New Years Day 2014, I went for a walk to refresh my head from working the night before. A man stepped out of the 24 hour newsagent with a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and cracked open the screw top to a dream of futurity that ended in drunken oblivion. I feel this is somehow fitting.

Most of my months passed in the library with the seductive glow of the computer stopping me from doing much other than reading and essay writing. I fulfilled both of my somewhat humble resolutions to a) do more creative writing and b) grow my hair down to my hips. I passed my exams and spent my 21st birthday hanging upside down at the park. Went to Dublin and even got a bit tanned and kind of liked Guinness. Saw Little Comets twice, first at Cabaret Voltaire and then Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh. Spent quite a bit of free time in Edinburgh actually; explored the Botanic Gardens and the beach at Portobello and went for walks at Dean Village. Listened to lots of Belle & Sebastien, Manic Street Preachers, the new Bright Eyes album and a heap of other stuff. Bagged an iPod classic before Apple stopped doing them. Had one of my best Wickerman Festivals and ate coffee granules for the first time. In August I went down to England to see family and ended up at Stepney Green, going ‘back to the ancestors’. Drank a lot of ginger tea and did some yoga. Went to Loch Lomond. Averaged about a kilo of chocolate a week, mostly Dairy Milk. Got a blog article put up on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed which was lovely. Went through the referendum and came out a little deflated but unscathed. Also enjoyed the spirit of the Commonwealth Games, even if I couldn’t really give a toss about sport. Saw an amazing sunset on Ayr beach, all alcopop pinks and oranges burning and sinking into the silver sea. Wrote three times my dissertation then another proper word-count-conscious dissertation and didn’t go completely insane. Served Alasdair Gray some brandy and a few months later . Started playing trombone again. Enjoyed one sip of red wine and dyed my hair strawberry copper. Went to a conference call to Peter Singer. Changed my favourite study space in the library…

Yep, as you can probably tell, my 2014 hasn’t been exciting by most people’s standards. But you know, it was a very good year overall. God knows where I’ll be a year from now, having graduated and moved out and hopefully made some provisions for the future. But even if I haven’t, even if it seems that not much has changed, what does it matter when everything dissolves in a series of moments? 😉

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Some Reading:

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution.

Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets.

McCarthy, Tom, Remainder.

Halberstam, Judith, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.

Inception: Dreams and (Dis)illusion

source: http://oeaf.blogspot.co.uk/2012_05_01_archive.html
source: http://oeaf.blogspot.co.uk/2012_05_01_archive.html

Inception is a film that begs itself to be watched twice. Following what appears to be a complex dual narrative of both emotional turmoil and psycho-political manipulation, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster success turns on an exploration of the implications of the very personal act of dreaming being appropriated externally as a powerful means of mind-control. Yet whilst the film indulges in Hollywood-acknowledged action scenes – from a gravity-defying fight sequence in a surreal hotel corridor to a car tipping off a motorway bridge – it also diverges from the traditional narrative style of mainstream movies. With the seemingly complicated premise of dream-stealing intertwined with the intimate personal journey of the main character Cobb (played by DiCaprio), the film’s exposition is unravelled in an on-going fashion and so we are plunged straight into the action. The main storyline centres on a deal that Cobb strikes with Saito, a powerful global businessman who proposes that in order to use his influence to let Cobb return to the USA (Saito can eliminate false extradition charges held against Cobb), Cobb must perform the task of inception – a task that takes him and his colleagues deep within three dream-layers in order to manipulate another man’s mind. What is interesting about the film is not necessarily its deceptively confusing plot but the way it is told – the story itself – and the techniques the film employs by meshing the genres of sci-fi, psychological thriller, film noir and heist in order to raise questions about narrative seduction, dreams and the power of the unconscious.

While many heist films unveil their major technical premise at once, as a character explicates the details of the mission to his/her colleagues, Inception works in a fashion that Kristen Thompson calls ‘continous exposition’. In this sense, the aim of Cobb’s team of dream-thieves, as well as the physical laws that govern the practice of dream architecture and inception (the implanting of an idea into another’s mind so that they imagine it to be of their own creation), are revealed gradually throughout the film and during scenes of both explanation and action. The character Ariadne takes her name from the Greek heroine Ariadne, who falls in love with Athenian hero Theseus and helps guide him with a ball of string though the Cretan Labyrinth in order to assist him in locating and slaying the Minotaur. Similarly, Inception’s Ariadne plays a key role in not only helping Cobb to disentangle the repressed emotions regarding his dead wife which continue to haunt him and disrupt his dream work, but also as a pupil of the dream-workers she learns and responds to the workings of the dream-world, thus illuminating the film audience with the features, possibilities and ontology of dreaming through her character.

This gradual unravelling of exposition plays a fundamental role in the seductive quality of Inception’s narrative. Talking about the task of exposition, Nolan explains:

“Exposition is such a massive demand […] It’s something you have to just try and imbue in the relationships of the characters. You never want to find yourself in a scene where characters are passively receiving information in some way, because you don’t want the audience passively receiving information. You want them engaged with that dramatization.”

It is this engagement with understanding, this active involvement in working out the enigma, the puzzle, which makes the film so gripping. Rather than spoon-feeding the audience a fully-blown detailed account of the principles of mind-control, Nolan reveals slowly the inner workings of the machine of dreaming. Information seeps out of the action as characters exchange advice and teachings, and as things do or do not go to plan we are often left to extract our own conclusions about how the laws of dreaming work. This mode of exposition is thus fundamentally tied to the events of the film itself, rather than an intrinsic system of depth which can be quickly absorbed and applied to the film as a whole; the labyrinthine revealing of secrets and mysterious truths refracts from storylines and action across to the revelation of Cobb’s unconscious traumas, so that the audience find themselves caught in a play of possibility and information that moves as swiftly as the characters as they set out on their complicated mission.

I suggest this fast-moving, yet richly-layered form of narrative is highly seductive in its ability to lure viewers in to the depths of the film in a way that relies on the vivid exchange of surfaces, visuals and meaning. Seduction, as Baudrillard (2001) identifies, is fundamentally an ability ‘to deny things their truth and turn it into a game, the pure play of appearances’. One way in which a narrative can seduce, then, is by denying its audience fixed answers, a technique which enables the endless ‘play’ of possible meanings. This draws us in so that we play an active role in the ‘game’ of interpretation, a technique of seduction which seems very appropriate given the often vague and mysterious nature of dreams themselves.

In Inception, there are a lot of deliberate ambiguities, and things that are revealed to be not quite what they initially seemed to be. For example, the question of what is a dream and what is reality. This is a problem that we learn Cobb suffers with, and it is one that is well documented in literary and film history. Whether from overuse of psychadelic drugs, or some form of mental pathology, there have for decades been characters portrayed as losing their grip on the thin line that separates reality and fantasy, dream-world and actual experience. Examples that spring to mind are A Beautiful Mind and Black Swan, which both offer provoking depictions of schizophrenia. Psychosis is also a difficulty that Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, has fought with. Mal and Cobb spent a great deal of time in ‘Limbo’, a world of endless pure subconscious creation that is formed in an on-going fashion by those that occupy it. It seems by definition to be an abyss of the mind, a place to be trapped in ceaseless possibility – lost in one’s own creative, expansive subconsciousness. You enter Limbo when your physical body is heavily sedated, and either you are killed in a dream or at a complex dream level (in the film, level 3) when you fall asleep. It’s a strange and vicious concept that has a dark allure to it – the suggestion that perhaps when people enter comas their minds are elsewhere, trapped, unable to get back to reality.

When Mal and Cobb finally make it out of Limbo, Mal soon loses the ability to distinguish this real world from the world they fashioned in their dreams. Eventually we learn that this is because Cobb only managed to get himself and Mal out of Limbo by planting through inception in Mal’s mind the idea that the world (at that point, Limbo) was not real – persuading them to commit suicide in order to be kicked out back to reality. Yet the idea that the world was not real grew like a parasite and tormented Mal until she could not accept even reality as reality. She thought she was still dreaming: that her children were just projections of her consciousness, that the physical environment was just a fabrication of memory and imagination. To remedy this perpetual state of insecurity, she decides to kill herself by jumping from their high-floor apartment into the abyss below.

I think this form of suicide poses interesting questions about the nature of consiousness and our self-awareness within the world. To what extent do we really know that this environment that seems so solid and familiar is in fact real and actual? We know what it feels like when we are dreaming: time is sped up, often fragmented (an issue dealt with in Inception, where there is a mathematical formula that encompasses the disjunction between time spent asleep and time in reality, where one can dream for 50 years but be asleep for merely three hours), we wake up when we die or when there is some sort of ‘kick’, which might be something like loud music or physical pain – a jolt that wakes us up. Yet although it seems easy to distinguish dreams and reality, how do we know that there is just one ‘reality’, or that our notion of reality is just an elaborately designed, prolonged dream? It’s a problem that was posed a long time ago by René Descartes, who suggested a form of radical scepticism about the nature of reality. Descartes proposed that all our conscious experience could merely be a dream-state, manipulated by an all-powerful and omniscient ‘Evil Demon’, who could control everything we do and everything around us. This is the famous ‘brain in a vat’ philosophical problem that has been explored in films like The Matrix, and becomes evermore salient as virtual reality and technology advances to provide evermore realistic and vividly detailed artificial environments. What it comes down to is the fact that we really cannot know (or can we?) the metaphysical nature of the world: our knowledge leads merely to a non-passé, or an abyss (like the one Mal plunges into), an endless recursion to the possibility of multiple imagined or experienced realities.

And who are we to judge that the world in the film is reality? What if Mal, in leaping from the metropolis to the dark void below, really did escape to a higher level of consciousness, a real world? The film cuts rapidly in and out of the different dream levels inhabited by the characters in their mission to conduct inception on Fischer, a businessman (to persuade him to break up his father’s monopolying empire – maybe someone should try and do this to a young Murdoch). This technique not only disorientates the audience and imbues the film with a surreal quality but it also highlights how our perception is fleeting, rapid, built up of impressions. Reality, then, is very subjective, and the distinction between psychological reality, the durational experience of time and physical reality with linear clock time. Nolan seems to want to emphasise this ambiguity of experience and reality with the ending, which closes on the image of the only anchor an individual possesses to reality – the totem: a small token whose unique, personalised weight, balance and appearance enables its owner to discover whether they are in their own waking/dreaming reality or another person’s dream – if they are in another’s dream the totem will feel strange. Cobb’s totem is a kind of spinning top, which is set to topple over if he is awake and to continue spinning if dreaming. At the ending, Nolan shows Cobb’s totem both spinning but also provocatively starting to topple. This means we do not know if the film closes with a conventional happy ending, with Cobb finally reunited with his children (mission accomplished) or whether he is simply dreaming about the event.

In the hope of drawing some line between dreams and reality, it is useful to consider the concept of the ‘kick’ featured in Inception. It’s interesting when real-life stimuli enter our dream-world: for example, in the film Cobb is thrown into a bath of water and in his dream water floods in through the windows. The ‘kick’ designed to withdraw the characters from the triple layers of dreams they are in is a piece of music, which resonates throughout each level like an uncanny scent or breath of memory – not just the physical stimuli of sound. I have had many dreams where I am drowning and can’t breathe – the pain physically sears up in my chest, but when I wake up I realise I’m somehow suffocating myself with my pillow! Not only is there some psychoanalytic value in studying what makes us wake up from dreams (hello, Freud), but the concept of the ‘kick’ raises intriguing questions about where mind and body collide, and how much of consciousness is interwoven with all those nerves and neurons to our physical form. Certainly this very phenomenon refutes the now very-dated but religiously popular form of Cartesian ‘dualism’ which proposed the mind and body were distinct forms of matter, so that when the body dies the soul remains and can go to heaven or hell. If mind and body are different materials, then how can they interact so intimately?

On the question of psychoanalysis, the film borrows heavily from Freudian ideas about the interplay between and the role and nature of dreams and the unconscious. The characters in Inception spend a great deal of their time lucidly fabricating dream-worlds and occupying the dream-worlds of others, as well as switching between dreams and reality, that it is no wonder that many of them suffer a mild psychosis whereby the distinction begins to break down. Freud himself deemed psychosis a ‘disturbance in the relation between the ego and the external world’.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud posited that our dreams contained symbols transmitted from the underworld of our unconscious, symbols that represented repressed desires and wishes (usually sexual) that are too uncomfortable or psychologically painful (due to the effects of oppressive socialisation) for us to admit consciously. He says: ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’. So a dream where you steal your dad’s hat could have awkward Oedipal consequnces, as Freud thought that hats were often representations of genetalia. The possibility that you have sexual feelings for a parent is painful to acknowledge consciously due to society’s incest taboo, so instead this desire reveals itself only in dreams.

The consequences of psychoanalysis seem quite profound in unsettling our conventional idea of reality. If so much of our perception of reality seems to be subconscious, this makes it difficult to assume that there is a clear, objective definition of a singular reality, since everyone is driven by multiple interlocking wishes. The central emotional plot of Inception is a psychoanalytic one, as well as a conventional Hollywood drama of a distraught father who misses his dead wife and would risk the life of himself and his team for a chance to see his children again. Dr. Stephen Diamond makes the interesting point that Cobb’s unresolved guilt and anxiety regarding his involvement in manipulating Mal’s psychological state and (somewhat inadvertedly) causing her suicide is projected symbolically in the form of Mal herself, as Cobb’s ‘negative anima’. Mal haunts many of the dreams Cobb creates and makes it difficult for him to do his job properly, as her shadow-like and disruptive figure keeps reappearing in times of crisis. Ariadne, ever the guiding light, at one point takes up the role of psychoanalyst and tells Cobb that the only way Mal is going to go away is if he lets her go – if he resolves his inner conflicts with his memory of Mal.

The ultimate goal of being reunited with his children flickers through the film in the recurring appearance of the boy and girl playing together on the grass with a beam of sunlight. Subtle differences in their appearance occur between the different shots, which suggests perhaps an alteration in Cobb’s memory of them, or the real process of aging they are experiencing – again, a blurring of reality, memory and dreams. In the end, when Cobb finally returns to his children but the camera finishes by focusing on the totem, we are left with the uncanny possiblity that the children may not be real, instead merely (as Mal feared) ghostly projections of Cobb’s unconscious. However, the warmth and joy we gain from seeing this satisfying ending feels real. Does it matter what really happens? I think Nolan employs the ambiguity here to self-reflexively acknowledge the strange status of film as often a vividly realisitc visual projection of reality, portraying visually and auditorily objective reality and also rendering the subjective inner life of individuals. Film can seem all too real, but it is often fictional, and like a dream it is a temporally-compressed representation of reality. When the credits roll and we are suddenly thrust back into our everyday environment, we realise that we have been intensely caught up in this other-world, its visual universe has been painted upon our eyes for the brief time that we have been watching. It has become part of our reality. We probably won’t forget it; we might even dream about it.

Baudrillard, J. (2010) Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer, (Montreal: CTheory Books), Available online: <http://free.art.pl/fotografie/baudrillard/seduction/BAUDRILLARD-SEDUCTION.html> [Accessed 25.01.13].

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy.

Diamond, S. (2010) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201008/inception-art-dream-and-reality

Freud, S. (1899) The Interpretation of Dreams.

Freud, S. (1924) Neurosis and Psychosis.

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/08/12/revisiting-inception/

source: http://vegzetmernokei.blogspot.co.uk/2012_10_01_archive.html
source: http://vegzetmernokei.blogspot.co.uk/2012_10_01_archive.html

‘Be Right Back’… Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Simulacra and the Uncanny

Source: blogs.independent.co.uk
Source: blogs.independent.co.uk

Freud published his essay on the ‘uncanny’ in 1919, almost a hundred years before Brooker’s captivating TV series was created. The essay and its related concept’s influence on film, literature and psychoanalysis has been hugely important. But what exactly is ‘the uncanny’? It is a term inherently bound up with the ‘disturbance of the familiar’, with upsetting conventional definitions and perceptions of reality and truth, of feeling and thought. The creation of uncertainty, unease; the dissonant feeling of being simultaneously repelled and attracted to something. Freud defined the uncanny as a paradoxical sense of unfamiliarity growing out of the familiar; the term in German is ‘Das unheimliche’ – which literally translates to ‘the opposite of what is familiar’.

Black Mirror. Even the title is uncanny. How can a mirror be black, when the necessary function of a mirror is to reflect light, reflect a clear image? Black connotes darkness, murkiness, obscurity – hardly the silvery coating of a looking-glass, reflecting the airy features of a Victorian drawing room, or beaming back the blue sky and clouds from the gleaming ceiling of a city office block.

And yet: paradox. The mirror is subverted, turned away from reality into the black chasm we have created in our ultra-mediated lives. Brooker’s series presents a startlingly chilly vision of a near-future society, one where mirrors no longer reflect back on reality, but on representations of reality. The paradox of the real in Brooker’s dystopian vision is that feeling what is real depends more and more on images of the real, rather than experience itself. The most catastrophic events of the show – I’m thinking the bizarre terror of Episode 1, Series 1 where a Prime Minister is led into having intercourse with a farmyard animal, live on TV to the gawping nation – are caused by an overflow of media messages and images, which impact reality in a hyper-real way. In this world, where real events are simulated first in the media, and then permeate reality, reality itself has become its own obscurity; a mise-en-abyme or hall-of-mirrors effect where we are constantly recording, representing and replaying ourselves in the abyss of cyberspace and media technology. A disturbance of the familiar, certainly: a disturbance of the real.

Over thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard made a similar point in his text Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard argued that reality was being dissolved into a simulacrum. In past ages, signs had a fixed referent to something real. Yet with the explosion of mass-produced goods, the commodity was born. This relates to Marx’s idea of the ‘commodity fetish’: as goods become mass-marketed, no longer are they bought for their ‘use-value’: when a material item, even something as mundane as a bottle of water, becomes a commodity, it ‘changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness’. Value becomes linked to the product itself, rather than the cost of its production. Sign-value replaces use-value. The value of a bottle of water is linked not to its use-function as a quencher of thirst but because of the shape of the bottle, the style of the branding, the allure of the image portrayed in advertising campaigns. In contemporary society, Baudrillard argues, this has escalated to the point whereby signs and reality have become blurred, replacing a relatively simple distinction between signs and signifieds (the advertisement and the real product, for example) with a ‘simulacrum’: ‘the truth that conceals that there is none’. In the entirety of our experience, meaning and reality have become usurped by a hyper-reality of symbols and signs, which point not to a real object, but to more signs – they conceal the relevance of reality to everyday experience. We are then truly living in an unreal world.

Brooker addresses this idea in the opening episode to Series 2, ‘Be Right Back’. It asks: what happens when the effect of reproduction is enacted upon humans? When the human body and individual personality itself is subjected to fetishism; when the self is fragmented into the myriad traces of text it has trailed in its online life? Jacques Derrida defined the trace as ‘the sign of the presence of an absence’: the uncanny occupation of a liminal position between the real and the imaginary, between the sign and the signified – a rift tearing up the easy system of metaphysics, of our knowledge of what exists, and how.

In Brooker’s fiction (fictional, or half-fictional? Genre itself eludes simple definition – the series lingers between dystopia, horror, realism…hyper-realism), it is possible for a woman to order a cyborg replica of her dead husband. At first, she interacts with an online version rather than a corporeal one. Through instant messenger and phone conversations, she literally contacts her dead husband. And yet it is not really her dead husband, or is it? An assemblage of all the data her social-media-obsessed husband left in traces online, his presence is itself a trace: an uncanny ghost voice constructed from dead voices.

This is the uncanny resonance of the title: ‘be right back’. It hauntingly resonates with the much-used phrase familiar to all users of instant messengers, the signal that one’s physical presence will briefly be absent, although they are not fully ‘gone’ – they haven’t logged offline. ‘Be right back’, you say, when you are going to make a cup of coffee, when you change your status; a signal that your face is no longer behind the screen. ‘Be right back’ is that queer sense of presence/absence that seems to rupture ordinary human interaction, where the interlocutors know each other as corporeal figures and not avatars. The avatar is always present, but it is the mark of an absence: the mark of the speaker’s physical absence. When we talk online, there is always a strangeness, a distance, a whiff of the hyper-real; as if we are playing a game, talking to someone who is quite but not quite the person they are.

Source: m.espn.go.com
Source: m.espn.go.com

When the protagonist takes the next step in ordering the robotic facsimile of her beloved deceased, the strangeness is taken to a whole new level. We have the signs of the commodity fetish: delivered in a box, complete with instruction manual and shiny robotic skin. The human body made perfect, made into product. This of course is not itself an innovation: countless sci-fi books and TV series and films have portrayed the human robot, the automaton. What is particularly intriguing is the reproduction of the dead husband’s personality from text. Not handwriting, not speech, but the representation of voice through text.

At times, the robot’s speech is stunted. He tries his best to say the things that ‘Ash’, the former husband, would say. Yet the robot cannot completely replicate the human. ‘Ash’, as the name suggests, is dust, a powdery scattering of human traces, shimmering in the protagonist’s memory, in the character’s online presence, elusive and ethereal. Perpetually present, but not fully there. The mechanical creation cannot assume the body of the deceased; it can only simulate the fragments of his words. The movement of his face, his eyes, or his synthetic limbs will never wholly replicate what once was there. Ash cannot be resurrected, Ash is ash.

The robot’s automatism is primarily recalled when there is a gap between the woman’s memory of her husband and the robot’s personality. The protagonist is painfully reminded of the fact that it is not a real, living thing – not the warm body she once loved, still loves – but a mechanical product. Watching the woman interact with her robotic husband, touching his flawless synthetic skin, listening to the replicated voice of the deceased – at one point even having sex with him – was a disturbing experience. I felt unsettled; certainly I was experiencing the uncanny. The most carnal of human experiences – actual physical contact – simulated by a robot, with another human, completely explodes all notions of the natural by opening up so many strange possibilities.

Yet, as the show reminds us, technology cannot fully replicate reality. It may attempt to deflect our attention from truth – from the truth of death – with its simulations, but there are always points of rupture, where the fabric of the virtual is torn. At one point, the protagonist experiences distress and asks the robot to leave the room when his words don’t match up to her memory: “Ash would have argued” she says.

This uncertainty about the human and the machine haunts throughout Brooker’s award-winning series. How much of our lives has become merely the voices we leave on answer-phones, in text-messages and Facebook statuses? As communication becomes increasingly mediated, do our personalities become more constructed, more performative? With the advantage of anonymity, or the avatar concealment of the face allowed by the internet, people have time to carefully construct their responses, to portray a certain self-image, to play with the unfamiliar. ‘Be Right Back’ highlights the inadequacy of technology to embody – literally – the highly complex, fractured and fluid nature of the human self. Living more and more online, Black Mirror suggests in general, we creep closer and closer to the edge that demarcates our fundamental perceptions – our notions of truth, reality, existence, humanity itself. Brooker says of his show:

Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.’

It is this notion of ‘difference’ that creates the uncanny effect. What is the difference between things? The series poses more questions, perhaps, than it answers. Another uncanny effect. Brooker provides multiple possible realities, and thus renders the future with an inherent sense of what Derrida would call ‘undecidability’. It is not like a conventional dystopia, presenting a single, glaring vision warning of the future; instead, it troubles our expectations, it presents numerous ideas of what the next decade, or tomorrow, may hold. The show holds up a mirror to our society, one that is black – foreboding, sinister – and, fundamentally, refracted into different possible outcomes. Yet it is also a void, in the sense that Black Mirror itself is a fiction, where we may lose our sense of the real – collapsing the ever-familiar world of technology portrayed onscreen with our present everyday lives. It is in this threshold between today and tomorrow, between reality and fiction, that Black Mirror lies. And it is in this threshold that we lose our subjectivity, in the overwhelming threat of our own behaviour and the ghostly online world that could collapse our sense of existence.

Works Cited/further reading:

Baudrillard, J. (2006) Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press.

Bennett, A. and N. Royle (2004) ‘The Uncanny’ in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Harlow: Pearson Education), pp. 34-42.

Black Mirror – Be Right Back [Season 2, Episode 1] by Charlie Brooker.

Felluga, Dino. ‘Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Purdue University. Available at: http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html. Accessed 30/4/13.

The Guardian. (2011). Charlie Brooker: the dark side of our gadget addiction. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror. Last accessed 30/04/13.

Reynolds, J. (2010) ‘Jacques Derrida’. Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH3d. Last accessed 30/04/13.