Dorothy

Dorothy

Dorothy’s Opiates is the name of the real Arcadia 
not to be busted, learning that sleep deprivation is a kind of
spiritual death from a podcast featuring the Nap Ministry
I set off to sleep under three duvets: one is representative 
of snow, the other a sleep mode, the other a body. I write to you
from beneath this slumberous context to wonder why anyone
who ever lived in a single glazed tenement loved the cold.
I can think of reasons: always something to look forward to
such as the crocuses and milder temperatures, the searching of
someone to warm you, wanting to dissolve into their skin
this someone who is never cold like you. I can’t explain this cold
but I can summarise its various sensations, cold as in a kind of disease
that eats your bones from the inside with terrible icicles 
and lives in your back as a demon, cackling from within your kidneys;
a small child dependent on your energy, the cold needs fed.
The cold is in your chest, your throat, your head. 
It throbs in your fingertips until they are red and puffy and burning
like nothing else you have ever felt: imagine every orgasm of your life
summarised and congealed as an opposite evil — pain — and concentrated
in the tips of your fingers, as though a malformed heart had grown 
in each one, beating out of time, each heart individually failing 
at the tips of your fingers until the pain spreads out like a juice
all the way down your fingers, hot, the nerves pulling into your arm
but it is so concentrated at the tips, you can’t really move 
and to hit them against each other is like clanging vegetal matter
against blunt metal, they are thumpy and numb, now the pain 
is melting it becomes a warm sensation of somewhat release
as though only a generalised bruising of the nervous ends 
of all your digits. And by this time I hope I’ll have gotten home
to run them perilously under cold water, bringing them to room temperature
as if they could crack off and crumble into snowflakes of ache
it takes ten minutes or more; after which they will sting 
with the feeling of having been battered. And it will happen again 
the second your blood spikes, you go outside; they may as well 
have been trodden on or run over by a van the way they feel right now.
I ask you sometimes to squeeze my hands so hard it bursts the blue of us.
            Once I knew a worse cold
accordant to body weight this kind of cold is all-consuming for all seasons
of the year, a kind of inverse fire that licks your insides with its ice 
so you feel it as a constant in your sternum, the cold that is eating 
the meat of your ribs so you become a delicate succulent, always with 
sugar on your mind, wanting to be watered. Always watering yourself
fruitlessly
    and feathered of flesh, wilted
as if to float upon a snowdrift and not leave footprints.
                                    Sometimes it is barely to speak 
or, having dry Januaried the masses, some lubricant of society was missing
sorely from our dreams. So we did not dream of touching each other
so much as falling from breezeblocks, frosted, the hard fuck that doesn’t come
bounding down stairwells to greet you at sun-up with cigarettes and coffee,
which you cannot touch, which aggravates your nerves to a passion. 
Nicotine, caffeine, dopamine. The endocrine systems of our dreams 
    are running on empty
and I have fed this day with the manifest boilersuit, as though to fix my own boiler
with mechanical prowess, die in your arms and so on. There are parts of the city
whose arteries confuse to the point of a general surge, desirous of insulation
    and drivers 
arrange the marzipan animals of their dashboard tenderly. 
            Snowfall. The first of the year’s cold drama
gone to pick up a wardrobe through the Narnias of other vinyl records
caught on the loop of the sweltering imaginaries a slice of life, of liquorice.
   Flying by the Vogue Chippy of Cumbernauld Road.
You play loose with it, as if the rain alone would melt 
what meadow remains of the innocence. A summary of the movie
of other Januaries: asking if I am a bad feminist for not liking such-and-such 
a book, the enclave of housing utopias, the sunshine duration of the ad 
for Stella Artois, the scene in All is Forgiven where the drunk kids dance 
to The Raincoats’ version of ‘Lola’. I want to be inebriated 
with chips and cheese on the corner and kissing you darkly
in the overlit takeaway. Anniversary of another fascist coup. 
The cold in blunder, spraying my tongue with Vitamin D, worrying about sleep.
                        ‘Dorothy’ is a song by Kevin Morby
in the video, somebody plays a trumpet underwater. I drape a cardigan
over my daughterhood, pull stories across my knees until I am deep 
in the grass with you, the snow grass, a long sore note, we have pink faces
keeping up with each other’s sleeps, to rotate
in the bed, the powdery dreamscapes gathering form. 
            Dorothy,
Your warm apparition not to be sold or bought, an account 
of the aspirin sunlight, too much, taking the flower pill 
that makes me react as a plant, long stem in your arms 
and coaxed of sap. 
   Calcium is a luxury to those who might keep their flesh self-
sustained and hard and warm. I thought of Kansas and corn 
with the morning yoghurt as a viscid snow, spoonfuls 
of what we are missing to kiss 
goodbye of the freezing streets of Partick, melt in your mouth, 
   the pressure of boilers
adjusted by release, the way our bodies incline to the light
even when it is missing, how I wish you could trade
kisses for calories of actual heat, the truthfeel of one in the morning
stands for baggies of memories
    the prized alacrity of exercise, 
            I insufflate 
                                   the nervous internet.
            If this poem really were sentient, this would be the queue 
for the doctor’s office, which is a location after all, novel
in its banality, after the fact of actually being here, a state of waiting
requiring the mortal presence of your body.
  I stopped asking what a poem can do
when it seemed like I was done typing 
with my fingers searing hot white words like arrows 
tearing the flesh as they wrote, O Dorothy, listening 
   to a band called Trapped in Kansas.
I was born. Wrestling with duvets to change the music sheets
afresh, up close with the soot-covered mountains, 
called to the room with thermometers jammed 
in the hole of the poem, its quavers jostling with old composition,
   bloodstream, organ, snow.
                                             It is safe, it is safe. 

Playlist: September 2020

Darklands

what if she entered  
the sliver of morning and haemorrhage
left for her

on the rooftop, signal
that someone was still coming in caustic shoes

theorising a free continuation 
of handsome disorder, to access the paywall
and free us from pain 

she could breathe here, just 

to feel like getting trains, filming herself 
speak only to speed 
and lag

in practice of relative motion, to feel it

“how all the protests ceased”
but not to look 
was to watch the hard tomatoes soften from green
and the weight 

to glow awhile, orange
and I miss

a strategy of oratory whereby someone has a line 
from beautiful afternoon television, like
“who would buy this house?” 
as if there were choices

next to the undiscovered 
shaven lawn

*

I’ve been having dreams about family
and scaffolds

how she just lay there
literally
until the child began throwing soft toys at her
in the 1990s 

anyone could come to life and be numb

I want to read Graeber’s thesis on magic,
slavery and politics

she didn’t say to me

do you ever feel free, for instance
in fugue state when brushing your teeth 

I’ve been dreaming about ancestors
stuck on trains 
killing rabbits and eating crackers
it was that easy

all season 
complaint of what’s coming, knowing nothing
of photography

when you can’t measure the wind 
by the grass

she had this enormous laughter 

*

dwindling into ambivalence
if this isn’t a dream exposure

and we can’t enter houses

I’ve been trialling sentences, Bernadette Mayer says 
I’m not faulting being periodic but sentences with caps and end marks do seem so bloodless to me

You swing gazelle legs over the actual
You wait in the room for the wine
You pull collectives out of the sink

distracted, I watch through windows
turn on my flash
to lead workshops on trash 
and poetry as finance, like
eons of speculation 
had brought us to nothing but numbers

and the anxious among us, cooking the numbers

I watch her slice an avocado in the dark
and the police van
opened to reveal us
with leaves in our molars, perfect hello
it’s autumn

in the bloodless sentence

dreamt I was tidying the rooms
of siblings

this mad kind of everywhere acid 
I couldn’t clean up 

in the panic of rich, linguistic Monday, you are 
part of the story, too smart for me

the interminable smell of pine resin, kimchi
and menthol gum
yes, just there

in lightness rimming

I made this commitment to sleeping ‘upstairs’

taking pleasure
on my editor’s credit
before the treehouse snapped

*

I can barely listen to music anymore
it’s all error

describing her pain as shooting

when I smashed my thumbs in my eyes
you kept going
it was Jupiter

now

cruising down Alexandra Parade to send you 
the voice message 
of not seeing nightingales, a bathtub
attached to a car
I wish I could touch
between times is when I most feel ‘we
exist’ and just like that
the cornflowers won’t die

and we can’t enter houses

and you end 
with the fresh heat of illusory commute

I could say anything new

in dumb, erotic anonymity 
where all this falls

*

she had lit up the sad remains
of the tree

bound to other seasons, even look good

despite not hearing this live
I like it, finally
summer light on the same

even if we live 

in adrenalised versions of trying to keep warm
on the video call
or wavelength

of audit continuum

she was all 
“it is up to the unassuming […]
to represent reality” 
in The New York Times

and the well-oiled loss of taste

feels the same 
the shadow

years of tax avoidance
edible sundown

*

what if she knew before all of us
doubled in running away with me

I dream all my friends 
attending the burning

“where have you been”

and you could put this to archive

swipe left for the hidden
indentation of nothing happening

20,000 years ago

mostly I worry if she lived in the dream
I had to wake from 

cradling the ersatz animal, sprigs of rosemary 

having clambered reality over again
and knowing you survived the scaffold
GESTURES FOR LIVING AIR
as the art was told
“I just need to check
your temperature” 
a rough kind of festival kiss
that was listening

in the underpasses of everything
prior to millennium 

installs a magical feeling that 
:heart:
you would be at the station

and my bouquet emoji of blood
flowers await.

💐

Fenne Lily – Solipsism

Sylvan Esso – Ring

Gus Dapperton – I’m Just Snacking

Sufjan Stevens – Run Away With Me

Fleet Foxes – I’m Not My Season

Chastity Belt – Ann’s Jam

The Durutti Column – Sketch for Summer

Frog – Photograph

Adrienne Lenker – anything

Tim Heidecker, Weyes Blood – Oh How We Drift Away

Bill Callahan – Sycamore

Gillian Welch – Picasso

Margo Guryan – Why Do I Cry

Norma Tanega – You’re Dead

Elliott Smith – Speed Trials

Kath Bloom, Loren Connors – Tall Grass

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Darklands

Alice Boman – Heartbeat

Edwin Organ – Self Alarm

Broadcast – Echo’s Answer

Cocteau Twins – Aloysius

Yo La Tengo – Bleeding

Perfume Genius – Valley

William Basinski – Tear Vial

Oneohtrix Point Never – Long Road Home

Mining the Light: My Time in Orkney

 

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I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?

I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.

Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.

When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.

The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016)a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.

I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.

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At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.

Places I have been hit by wind:

  • The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
  • The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
  • Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
  • The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
  • On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.

I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.

On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.  

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The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.

I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.

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We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.

I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.

‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.

We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.

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I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.

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On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.

The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.

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Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.

Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.

Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.

Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).

 

Falling through Glass

 

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self-portrait//circa 2008

[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]

I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.

A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.

My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staringshe says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.

It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.

In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.

For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.

Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.

I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the Citya record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.

In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.

Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.

I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.

Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.

 I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.

Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.

Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.

The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.

In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?

I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.

Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.

(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)

I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.

I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.

As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.

Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,

comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.

Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.

‘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.