The Pessimist's Charter

In revitalising this blog I undoubtedly have rather instrumental motivations but I would be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that the naive romantic writer in me is making his latest bid for approval. Yes, I want to get into a cycle of practice that becomes second nature, the regular production of words hopefully leading to improvements in quality. Of course, one also has to own the hubris of thinking one has something worthwhile to say. Maybe, maybe not. But the very process of organising thoughts and exploring ideas through the written form can, all at once, be developmental, cathartic, confessional and anchoring; a form of stabilising the wispy strands of thought. Added to this on some level is just the romantic, narcissistic pretension to be able to see oneself a writer. To do this, really, one has to write.

The thought of blogging, however, provokes two diametrically opposed concerns: on the one hand, that most blogs are merely random bursts of subjective diatribe which one could just as easily express on a cheap A4 notepad with the nearest biro and file in a desk draw under the unmarked title of “ramblings no one needs to see”. On the other hand, blogs that define a clear subject or theme as the focus often strike me as somewhat limiting and even cynically calculated; a kind of PR exercise for a hobby or fan obsession with the aim to capture and cultivate a specific audience. So, in attempting to come up with a name and identifying focus for this blog I find myself thwarted by equivocation and high-mindedness.

Writing these reflections and reviewing previous posts, it occurs to me that there is an underlying pessimism in the voice emanating from the page. In all honesty this does chime with a self-conception (and, occasionally, with others’ judgements) of my character. However, I think, over the years, that a mellowing has occurred. The infernal final 18 months of PhD study marked the zenith of an acute period of ill-tempered self-righteousness (I apologise to anyone who knew me during that time). If I have a slightly sunnier disposition today, it might be a combination of better life circumstances or even the conscious adoption of positive thinking derived from mantras that seem to pervade today’s culture. But in the end I always retreat to the firmer ground of pragmatism, realism and maybe be even a kind of existential fatalism.

So, it strikes me that this inherent pessimism could be the fuel of my writing. I immediately weighed-up the disadvantages of this: it will certainly be read as an egregious example of entitled first-word, navel-gazing. Or, even worse, the resurfacing of sullen teenage angst to which the parental refrain “don’t be such a misery guts” is imprinted on my psyche. However, thinking about the possibility of embracing nihilistic tendencies, flavoured with a little knowing irony, might offer a malleable enough framework for me to proceed with a writing project that has some kind of direction. At some point, while jotting some speculative notes, the title The Pessimist’s Charter flashed into my brain. I immediately googled it to find that the title belongs to no blog, novel or Morrissey-esque album. The first hit in the search, amusingly enough to me, was for a Bloomsbury article entitled In Defence of Charter Schools; not a subject that will ally any of my morose proclivities.

A little more research revealed that take-up rates for pessimism are apparently on the up-swing. Bulgarians historically are associated with pessimism, to the point that it has become a national stereotype. But statistically, the rest of Europe seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, perhaps out of Johnny-come-lately economic and political ennui. Being a pessimist puts one in lofty philosophical company. Schopenhauer in particular enjoyed the arch tools of a fatalistic tendency, building a fairly comprehensive schema through the base method of pointing out everything that could go wrong before it actually does. Nietzsche, of course, riffed with abandon on the tragedy of human existence, but he at least attempted to fashion a kind “pessimism of strength”, affirming the potential liberation of the self if one accepts inevitability of annihilation. Easier said than done. It’s hard to keep smiling when shit overwhelms the fan to point where it short circuits and explodes.

The existentialists of course loved a moan so long as it was accompanied by alcohol and sex. This is a position with which I can empathise, but I’m not sure I can base the blog on such a methodology. Camus’ notion of the absurd is ripe for a 2.0 reboot in these oh-so-interesting times. In fact, it also seems that pessimism has its good points. “Defensive pessimism” – taking negative thoughts and channelling them as strategy for dealing with a feeling or situation – can have positive effects on productivity and health. This is the difference, I guess, between thinking “things are likely to go wrong, so what’s the point” and “things are likely to go wrong, so how can I deal with that”. I reckon I have moved from the first position to the second over the years, and it certainly chimes in terms of my penchant for planning.

So, in committing to The Pessimist’s Charter (I am tentatively giving myself the challenge of two posts per month) I don’t intend to dive headlong into the quicksand of cynicism, or whinge melancholically in a self-consciously taciturn style, but neither am I out to deliver sage bon mots on “better productivity” or “mindful happiness, my way” (not without a heavy dose of irony anyway). My faintly high-minded approach is simply to write truthfully and honestly with the hope of igniting a few flickers of insight along the way. But if such an outcome fails to materialise, and is beyond the limits of my ability, not to worry, that is exactly what I expect.

Further reading

Why Pessimists Have Reasons to Be Cheerful by Oliver Burkeman

Pessimism Runs Rampant

More Sleep, Less Tweet: Some Podcast Inspired Resolutions

So, another New Year comes and goes. A time when aspiration meets regret and we dust off the cobwebs of conviction steeling ourselves for the possibility of rebirth, aiming to become that shining beacon of accomplishment we know is buried deep down somewhere. Or something like that. I am, actually, in favour of little self-reflection, and if a declaration of future intent helps solidify one’s resolve, so much the better. In late summer of 2003, after my father died of cancer, and I decided to stop smoking. I felt that I needed a few months to psychologically prepare, so it was obvious to cement to January 1st in my mind as the inception date of this new, nicotine-free me (still working as a waiter in those days, I couldn’t face the thought of serving multitudinous Christmas revellers without the crutch of nicotine).

The morning after NYE, I ditched any left over cigarettes, threw out all the other smoking accoutrements, washed all the clothes and bed linen I owned (which wasn’t that much to be fair), and tentatively entered the fraternity of ex-smokers. Because I had made a conscious decision months earlier, giving myself time to get used to the idea, quitting was not as difficult as I had anticipated. More than the smoking itself, it was the ritualised practice that was difficult to break. What to do with your hands was an unexpected problem to have to deal with. Rather fortuitously, this particular New Year coincided with the ban on smoking in public places. As a lame teenager, smoking represented for me an entry point into a modicum of previously inaccessible ‘coolness’ and had therefore taken on a social dimension in my mind. The thought of traipsing outside into the cold, wet January nights did not appeal, and I could never imagine Bogey or 007 ever doing that. So I managed to quit and, subsequently, despite the cliché and arbitrariness, I’ve always used New Year to deliberate on new goals and personal changes for the better.

This year some recent podcast listening has been influential in my thought process. Hearing others articulate on concerns I have had in mind seems to have imbued them with a measure of validity. Here are a mere two proclivities which I will endeavour to take forward in all good faith.

1. Take Sleep Seriously

Being an insomniac I felt a rush of solidarity listening The Blind Boy Podcast of Jan 2. The inimitable, fruity brogue of the enigmatic Rubberbandits frontman deconstructs how sleep is often ignored in favour of diet, exercise, meditation etc, as the vital ingredients to wellbeing and productivity. Blindboy excoriates ubiquitous use of his mobile phone; the central culprit of a disrupted sleep patterns, and defines a personal mandate to “take sleep seriously’. The podcast has become required listening as a heady mixture of soliloquy, history and profanity. Other titbits in this episode include why it’s better to focus on the process of exercise not the outcome, and how creativity can be all consuming in both positive and negative ways. The bon mot though is injunction to “be realistic with your resolutions. Don’t be taking ten on, because we set ourselves up with resolutions and we can’t do them. Then in February you feel like a prick”. Sound advice in my book.

2. Internet use can be both positive and negative. Recognise and manage the difference between the two.

As you may have gathered, the theme of my resolution though process has much to do with the myriad effects of the Internet, and particularly social media, on both our understanding of knowledge and our very way of being. In flouncy academic terms the epistemology and ontology of the always culture is playing havoc with any centred sense of selfhood. Podcasts Talking Politics episode on Facebook, Episode #145 of The Waking Up Podcast (The Information War) and The Intelligence Squared podcast with Tristan Harris and Helen Lewis all discuss many aspect of the malaise, from the undermining of democracy, to the crisis of trust in information, to the very hate filled cesspool of social media discourse. But this technology is not going anywhere and, in many ways, it has had hugely positive impact. I certainly don’t want to advocated a 21st century wave of luddism. Yet I, along with many others I suspect, have reached a tipping point where the need to take ownership of the virtual life seems imperative. The tech companies are not going to do it for us (not anytime some). So, some modified behaviours I am going to put into practice include: notice when I am mindless scrolling Social Media with no actual purpose; don’t unthinkingly and without reading share social media posts; don’t let corporate algorithms dictate my culture intake; seek the provenance of what one reads online as much as possible; be ruthless in carving out specific times in the work day for emailing; turn the damn things off now and again.

Happy New Year!

The Sound of Text

I am a frustrated, unrealised and self-conscious writer. It is not a skill that was ever preternaturally abundant to me. If I have any ability whatsoever, it has evolved through slow, moderate improvement accrued within the context of studying and working in the University. The academy itself, and specifically the humanities as a field in which the majority of my writing is situated, has had its pros and cons for improving one’s writing. Completing a 90,000 word PhD certainly instilled the discipline required to write (although that level of discipline I have been unable to match since), and my PhD supervisor was thankfully rigorous in exposing the tumultuous number of flaws I produced during the process. But I was also undoubtedly influenced by the pretentions of French poststructuralist prolix: why use 10 concise and clear words when 100 can shield the reader from what you really mean? Even now, my inability to easily write flowing sentences and a quite profound ineptitude in proofreading my own work, provide a constant battle against stilted mediocrity and flagrant over-elaboration.

I realise this might seem like rather navel-gazey self-effacement, but bear with me. My entry into the medium of podcasting over the last few years has reframed the way I think about communication and its attendant relationships to meaning and knowledge. At the forefront of my attention of late has been the intricate interrelationship between writing and speech, particularly the underlying assumption that the written text stands as the de facto architecture upon which objective knowledge is anchored, and that words materialised through sound serve to animate meaning.

The kind of unscripted dialectical conversation employed as the basis of my podcast - The Cinematologists – and many others; along with process of editing where one gets to listen over and over to the idiosyncrasies of speech – its texture, intonation, repetition, speculation, contradiction, stuttering – has exposed a messiness that has made me wonder whether the software that connects thought and speech has a fundamental glitch. I recently used an online transcription service to transpose some of my unscripted speeches and conversations; the horror of reading this raw text with its litany of ‘inaccuracies’, immediately demanded a desire to perform ruthless syntactic surgery.

This is the tyrannical finality of the written text. It is no wonder that the printing press is as central a tenet to modernity, as scientific rationality, the capitalist system or the nation state. Written text not only provides the indexical notation for speech, but the very architecture upon which the systems knowledge we take for granted are based. Yet the spoken word goes back far earlier as the underpinning of communication, and knowledge transfer. Through podcasting as a process in which the sonic mechanisms of speech are unveiled, one comes to comprehend how much the spoken word carries a contingency, a conditionality, where thought is mediated but is imbued with a malleability and flexibility that the listener is inculcated to acknowledge. Unlike any unedited indexical notation (like a written speech transcript), the sounding of the words, along with all the attendant acoustic shaping (voice emphasis, speech patterns, pauses, repetitions etc etc), intrinsically affects the articulation of meaning.

It is fascinating how when a subject starts to preoccupy one’s mind, it seems to pop up serendipitously. Not in any way connected to podcasting directly, my recent reading has unearthed commentaries that muse upon the relationship between spoken word and written text. James Meek’s extensive review (entitled The Club and the Mob) of former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s new book Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, surveys the historical and conceptual malady of contemporary journalism in the digital age. In a section contemplating the experience of waking up to the news of Princess Diana’s death, Meek touches on the early utopian potential the Internet might have on the future of news dissemination in its revolutionising of immediacy and reliance on textuality:

There were two things that were encouraging for the papers about how the news happened to reach me as an individual that morning. The first was that a newspaper was actually breaking news: news in the most traditional sense, news that the most cerebral editorial writer at The New York Times and the most feral chequebook merchant at the Mail could agree was news. News of the rare kind that makes people call someone they know and say ‘Hey, did you hear…?’ was – for me at least – not being broken by a voice on the radio or TV declaring ‘We interrupt this broadcast to bring you…’ but in written form. Without realising it, I was seeing the rebirth of text as the natural purveyor of immediacy, a status that seems natural now in the age of Twitter and news alerts pushed to your phone, but in 1997 had, for generations been ceded to the oral.

The review reflects at length on the effects of digital decimation and the collapse of the traditional infrastructure of journalism, from a business and socio-cultural perspective. But here Meek intimates that the earliest reactions to the internet posited how journalism could benefit from the textual basis of online communication. If print journalism could adapt to new digital platforms, a more dispersed form of audience engagement, and attendant transformations in the conceptual mechanism of publication, then the future was rosey. In the 20th century, television and radio dominated print journalism precisely because of the speed of dissemination of information, as much as the fact of their reliance on the spoken word as the essential mode of communication. Yet the digital era has instigated an ease and immediacy of textual correspondence that redefined to only journalism but our everyday discourse. Think about the effect that texting had on the use of the traditional phone call and you can anecdotally get a sense of (before we even mention social media) how the digital technology has, almost surreptitiously, made writing rather than speaking the default mediatory mechanism.

Podcasting’s paradox: it is absolutely reliant on the digital infrastructure yet is returns primacy to speech, has make me think about how orality and aurality are not merely carriers; speech (like text) shouldn’t be understood as a kind of bridge that facilitates the unhindered, neutral  transformation of information. The very mode of communication plays a role in shaping the intention, effect and, in the end, the meaning of the message. I’m pretty sure something like that has been said before somewhere. Reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running I came across a passage that eloquently muses on writing versus speaking when giving a public talk, and the complication/simplification of having to use his second language:

When I’m in Japan I rarely have to speak in front of people. I don’t give any talks. In English, though, I’ve given a number of talks, and I expect that, if the opportunity arises, I’ll give more in the future. It’s strange, but when I have to speak in front of an audience, I find it more comfortable to use my far from perfect English than Japanese. I think this is because when I have to speak seriously about something I’m overcome with the feeling of being swallowed up in a sea of words. There’s an infinite number of choices for me, an infinite number of possibilities. As a writer, Japanese and I have a tight relationship. So if I’m going to speak in front of an undefined large group of people, I grow confused and frustrated when faced by that teeming ocean of words.

With Japanese, I want to cling, as much as I can, to the act of sitting alone at my desk and writing. On this home ground of writing I can catch hold of words and context effectively, just the way I want to, and turn them into something concrete. That’s my job, after all. But once I try to actually think about things I was sure I’d pinned down, I feel very keenly that something – something very important – has spilled out and escaped. And I just can’t accept that sort of disorienting estrangement.

Once I try to put together a talk in a foreign language, though, inevitably my linguistic choices and possibilities are limited: much as I love reading books in English, speaking in English is definitely not my forte. But that makes me feel all the more comfortable giving a speech. I just think, It’s a foreign language, so what’re you going to do? This was a fascinating discovery for me. Naturally it takes a lot of time to prepare. Before I get up on stage I have to memorize a thirty- or forty-minute talk in English. If you just read a written speech as is, the whole thing will feel lifeless to the audience. I have to choose words that are easy to pronounce so people can understand me, and remember to get the audience to laugh to put them at ease. I have to convey to those listening a sense of who I am. Even if it’s just for a short time, I have to get the audience on my side if I want them to listen to me. And in order to do that I have to practice the speech over and over, which takes a lot of effort. But there’s also the payoff that comes with a new challenge. (pp100-101)

As an academic whose day to day life revolves around speaking in front of an audience, several things struck me here. Firstly, the feeling of being confused and frustrated when public speaking, “as though lost in a sea of words” is all too nauseatingly familiar. When delivering lectures and in podcasting, there is nothing worse than the feeling that you are ‘flailing’ in the search for words. However, listening intently to my own, and many others’ speech patterns while editing, one realises that the messiness of speech, its disorderly materialisation through sound, is what gives the words a human vitality.

 This links to Murakami’s further assertion that speeches delivered by simply reading a written text are “lifeless”. A point I wholeheartedly agree with, and anyone who spends any time at academic conferences will also be painfully aware. In a sense it is difficult to criticise speakers for preparing a set text as it provides a kind of life raft in the ocean of potential words in which is so easy to get lost. (* I realise there is a whole strand of enquiry around dramatized scripts that complicates these claims but I’m affording myself the ability to sidestep that right now).

Another wrinkle to this relates to the insights in a quite brilliant chapter in Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. A final, achingly poignant memoir of the celebrated polemicist’s final years ravaged by cancer, Hitchens reveals the anxiety of being robbed by the disease of his trademark voice. It relates to the notion that the authorial voice takes on an interlinked meaning, both literal and symbolic, when one considers the voice as sound, the voice as style, and voice as essence of self. For Hitch this has multiple layers of portentous significance:

In some ways, I tell myself, I could hobble along by communicating only in writing. But this really only because of my age. If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could have ever achieved much on the page. I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of The Guardian (son of the author of The Uses of Literacy), who about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write “more like the way you talk.” At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of  being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Saifre used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice. (pp49-50)

 As always Hitchens’ insights are fascinating, but this idea of the voice as a tool for the sonic materialisation of thought, being the rudiment of the writerly voice on the page, sutures speech and writing in a way that seems, again, pertinent to the praxis of podcasting. The command: “find your own voice” conceptualises the notion that text has to hold within it the implication of speech and having this in mind when writing or speaking, would potentially improve the practice of both. Certainly, this allusion the symbiotic relationship between writing and talking is something I have proselytised to my own students, usually as a mere mechanism for improving sentence structure and ironing out typos. But the aspiration of finding one’s voice as essence of the self on the page and in the ear is of more profound important. At the end of Mortality, Hitchens’ wife Carole Blue touchingly eulogises, among many other things, his ‘perfect voice’. Anyone who has listened to his speeches and debates (and I urge you to go to YouTube and do so) will know that this sentiment derives from more than mere loyal romanticism. The man could really talk, and write. In appreciating the intricate symbiosis between the spoken and written word, one might aspire to a better understanding and deployment of both.

Myself and my Cinematologists co-host discuss writing on our latest bonus discussion available on our Patreon Page.

 

 

 

Post-truth, or the endgame of postmodernism

Liberal self-flagellation brought about by 2016s geo-political upheavals has taken a variety of different forms but the effects of the so-called post-truth culture have become the signature discontent. This discourse has multiple levels relating ostensibly to the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump. These events, along with other populist movements in West, have shaken the foundation of the social democratic consensus. The rise of ‘outsiders’ like Trump suggest that fact-based credibility is no longer required as a basis for political support. In this context, it is fascinating to see how post-truth anxieties have emerged from philosophical debates concerning the media, its role in a functioning democracy and its ubiquitous integration into our everyday lives. There is a sudden urgency in questioning the construction, dissemination and optimisation of information and knowledge in an era of transformative media. Yet, as an academic in the humanities, it is striking to me how post-truth discourse is evocative of familiar concerns connected the concept of postmodermism.

Postmodern thought interrogates how communications technology has altered not only what we know, but how knowledge is constructed, how we connect to one another, and our relationship to social structures. A central parameter of the digital revolution has been the acceleration in the access to, and flow of, information. The Internet’s utopian promise of a global public sphere however, with networked citizens capable of critical thinking, is a long way from being realised. Indeed, critics might posit that instead the result has been the emergence of a mass of confused, depressed, distracted cultural dupes? The liberal malaise of post-truth discourse is, in one sense, the uncomfortable realisation that citizens are still spectacularly ill-equipped to be able to adequately participate in democracy. You can take your pick as to the simultaneously amusing and terrifying revelations regarding the limits of knowledge  – two of my personal favourites are that 40% of Florida Republican voters think Hillary Clinton is literally a demon and “what is the EU?” was one of the most googled questions the day after Brexit.

It is highly reductive to blame a democratic deficit solely on the media particularly when one considers intricate and longstanding educational, economic, social, cultural and religious factors that influence political awareness and engagement. Furthermore, there have always been apocalyptic pronouncements about the effect of every new technology that comes along. However, the post-truth discourse comprises various angles of critique related to the media: changes in the dynamics of news consumption; the exclusionary effects of social media bubble; the ideological functioning of news organisations; the effect algorithmic formulas dictating information consumption and the mistrust of experts. The idealised democratic role as the fourth estate have come into sharp focus since the election. In a recent New Yorker article on Obama’s reaction to the Trump victory the President laments: 

“the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

Obama summarises post-truth concerns regarding the legitimacy of information, but importantly, the lack of consequences for stating untruths, and the subsequent quicksand into which rational debate sinks, are also alluded to. In the same piece Obama advisor David Simas suggests that social media gives “a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable”. This points to the eco-chamber effect of social media and, along with ugly right-wing populist rhetoric, underlies  the attack on political correctness, the rise of so-called ‘alt-right’ and the spike in incidents of xenophobia and racism. Hillary Clinton, in statement after the election, highlighted the potential of fake news to have ‘real world consequences’. The specific denunciation of fake news, even suggesting governmental intervention, is pointed in providing the democrats with a convenient focus of criticism and mechanism for shift the blame. Along with the potential freedom of speech issues this suggests a lack of self-awareness as to the mood of the electorate, the short-comings of the democratic campaign, Clinton’s problems as a candidate in this populist climate.

Yet, social media, its interactive functionality, its editorialising effect and, of course, its increasing status as a primary site of news dissemination, is destabilising the gate-keeping role of news media. Social media feeds do not differentiate between ‘traditional’ news sources and, shall we say, those with a looser application of journalistic principles, or outright fake news. This is complicated further by the fact that there are different forms of fake news. The Onion, NewsThump, Jonathan Pie, the The Borowitz report are meant to be understood as fake news, satirically sending up the hypocrisies of mainstream news construction. Other sites such as AmericanNews, NationalReport & Newswatch33 create fake stories with different levels of ideological intent. The wholesale production of fake news sites designed to destabilise the Clinton campaign shows how fake news was directly used as political weopon. This is not to mention the significant role that Fox news has played packaging news a partisan infotainment with questionable concern for factualityThat right-wing offence mongers and conspiratorial bottom feeders Brietbart are now inveigled into to the White house is as depressing reflection of the post-truth discourse. An incident like Pizzagate may be a one off flash of rank idiocy but reflects an increasingly ambiguous space the media occupies in the relationship between individuals and knowledge.

What suddenly seem like prescient questions of how information is consumed, processed and utilised have been at the forefront of postmodernist thought since the term was coined. The concept of the postmodern, apart from striking fear into the hearts of humanities undergrads everywhere, came to the fore in the latter half of the 20th century deployed as malleable term to describe and analyse transformations and challenges to the assumed certainties in socio-political organisation and cultural practice. Critics of the term decry its rhetorical convolutions, lack of empirical grounding and pseudo-intellectual vagaries yet there hardly any field that has not undergone some form postmodern interrogation. Although postmodernism has never gone away, through the 2000s its theoretical slipperiness became somewhat passé and in the aftermath of 9/11, the war on terror and then the financial crash such cerebral abstractions may have appeared to push the limits self-indulgence. 

Postmodernism, to me, was always a philosophical tool for thinking about the ways in which human experience and cultural expression were not just influenced, but fundamentally reconfigured, primarily by computerised communications technology. The emergence of the internet, social media, the political and economic tumult of past few years, and the consequence for global society and individual experience, all have various reference points in seminal postmodern writing: Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”; Barthes and Foucault on the “death of the author”; McLuhan’s “the global village”; Baudrillard’s “simulation and hyperreality” reflect elements of post-truth discourse, particularly in relation to the mediation of society. Indeed Trump, the narcissistic reality TV star with the itchy twitter finger, is ripe to be discussed through the prism of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

A central element of postmodern theorisation relates to the bombardment of media images which has the effect of annihilating criteria with which to discern the value or veracity of what one consumes. Truth is decoupled from any concrete foundation and becomes merely the dominant ideological claim in a given context. As a result, the individual becomes increasingly alienated from a clear sense of personal identity and objective knowledge. Although, I have been, and remain, ambivalent about postmodernism (to the point of oscillating between thinking it is vitally prescient and pretentious anti-philosophy), it is striking how the tenets of post-truth discourse are recycling unease about mediation and the collapse of a tangible sense of the truth. In the aftermath of the US election Trump ‘surrogate’ Scottie Nell Hughes, the ‘news director’ of the ‘tea party news network’ delivered the ultimate postmodern statement: “There’s no such thing as facts” (sic). Such a statement suggest there is no longer a battle over a binary position of what is true or false, real or unreal; instead individualised subjectivity is the benchmark criteria by which knowledge is defined. In the cynical swamp that is realpolitick every utterance is assumed to be an ideological gambit.

Speaking as someone who spends a large portion of their life and work online, and has unwittingly shared a misleading meme and fallen for a fake news story, it difficult not to be concerned about the diminishing criteria by which truth can be defined in our mediated society. The democratising potential of social media may have unwittingly revealed fundamental flaws in democracy. As the legacy of postmodern critique suggests the pre-internet era was not a moral utopia of political or journalistic virtue. Indeed, like the politicians who are bemoaning the corrosive influence of fake news, it’s convenient for the traditional media to blame the phenomena when their own contribution to the misinformation and the status of Trump should be accounted for. We may however, have somewhat lost control of the personal and social extension of ourselves that mediated technology provides. In this regard Marshall McLuhan’s maxim “The Medium is the Message” seems prescient as ever. The content of fake news is less important than understanding we are engaging on a platform that obliterates the distinction from fake and real. The stupidity and offensiveness of Trump’s 3am tweets are less important than the fact that there exists a platform by which the traditional media, as a conduit between state and citizen, can be bypassed. And there is something deeply worrying in the realisation that the next leader of the free world is not even interested in the aspiration to truth. In one sense, we are only just coming to terms with this, but in another it the culmination of the postmodern condition.

Maron and the Radio/Podcast Antagonism

As a podcast producer and an academic interested in podcasting from a research perspective watching episode 10, season 2 of the Netflix comedy Maron entitled ‘Radio Cowboy', I was struck by how the show riffed on many of the conceptual debates around the definition and status of the medium. The episode cleverly explores the hierarchical animosity between purveyors of 'old' and 'new' platforms in an uncertain media landscape. Maron is based on an exaggerated version of Marc Maron's own life as a comedian and host of the highly successful podcast WFT with scenes being shot in Marc's famed garage, showing his trademark confessional monologues and conversational interviews. This episode, however,  directly comments upon the technological, social and cultural distinctions between podcasting and radio which are tied to Maron's insecurities as a central figure in podcasting's expansion as a influential medium.

The episode begins with Maron being ‘interviewed' on a stereotypically low-brow morning talk show with the obnoxious hosts wasting no time in disparaging the podcast as a form:

Presenter 1: In addition to Marc being a comic, he is also the host of a popular podcast.

Presenter 2: Hold on, there's no such thing as a popular podcast

Maron: ohhh, zing, sorry but I actually got a pretty good listener base and you know I used to do radio but I prefer podcasting. A lot more freedom.

Presenter 1: So you prefer not to make money?

This opening exchange rehearses familiar criticisms concerning low levels of distribution and the lack of a viable economic infrastructure. Maron's defensive repost regarding the freedom that podcasting offers is illustrated immediately as the second presenter awkwardly segues into incongruous and awkward advertising bit. In an allusion to the amateur, DIY sensibility of podcasting the radio presenters then joke about Marc producing his show from his garage.  This first scene ends with, Maron launching into a rant about radio's obsolescence:

Maron: You guys can goof all you want but you are making fart noises on the Titanic. You think anybody is entertained by this? Maybe before there were choices, but you are losing listeners every day. This isn't interesting, it's not engaging. This is a hostage situation for people who don't have a smartphone. And your format restrictions are ridiculous. Why do you feel compelled to give out the time every 5 minutes? All cars have the time. All computer screens have the time on them. There are clocks everywhere. Yet with OCD precision you are always compelled to give out the time. It's horrendous.

 Presenter 2: It's 8:25.

Clearly, this encounter seeks to highlight, as a basis for the comedy, many of the sideswipes that Maron has obviously heard time and again regarding podcasting's status compared to its established rival. As a podcast producer and researcher, such criticisms are very familiar particularly the difficulties concerning economic self-sufficiency. Indeed, economic viability is the great unanswered question at heart of debates around the digital revolution. However, the counter-arguments around creative and intellectual freedom for both producers and listeners define its appeal along with the sense that podcasting still possesses an aura of dissenting, edginess.

Maron's disdain for radio is tempered however when, while channel surfing in his car, he comes across an inventively funny late-night mock talk show. Marc is so impressed that goes down to the station and befriends the host Bill Shepard (Phil Hendrie). The two immediately hit it off as Maron recognises the host as a virtuoso of the live broadcast, someone who can create an entertaining, multi-layered conversation using only his voice. Shepard introduces Maron to some of his ‘Radio Cowboy' friends who all lament the way that corporate radio has treated them, yet they still torment Maron about his defection to podcasting. Interestingly, the central objection is the lack of liveness, which Shepard and his colleagues see as the fundamental ingredient that gives radio its identity and its relevance. The sense of connection and interactivity with the audience underpins radio's immediacy and what in academic parlance is called co-presence: the intimacy that the listener experiences knowing that what they are hearing is happening in real time.

The response is from Maron is that podcasting’s interactivity with its audience has to be integrated with the creative use of social media. Undoubtedly, in the internet era broadcast radio also utilises the likes of Facebook and Twitter to reach its audience but it is not integral to the building of, and relationship to, the audience in the way that podcasting is. This epitomises the liminal nature of the podcast in that it operates in an "in-between" space, reliant on the cross-platform, networked infrastructure of the internet while also drawing upon many of the traditional, formal aspects of radio. Indeed, it is interesting how this serialised television comedy, available through an online streaming service, and drawing upon the podcast in a visual and narrative sense, exemplifies visual/audio/networked trans-mediation.

After his encounter with Shepard and the other 'radio cowboys' Maron records a monologue in which he reconsiders the merits of radio broadcasting and how it taught him to "talk solo" and "riff out", skills that allowed to become perhaps the first podcast star. Also, Shepard grudging compliments Maron as a pioneer and states he is envious of his independence from the corporate machinery that compromised his own career and the art of radio. Maron is, at the end of the day, a comedy, but its writing draws astutely on hierarchical enmities between those invested in competing notions media success and status and pointedly foregrounds how ‘liveness' is at the root of the conceptual distinction between podcasting and radio. But is also rightly asserts that the two forms are deeply interconnected by the same fundamental DNA.

High-Rise: Audacious Masterpiece or Underwhelming Mess? (some spoilers)

So I finally got to see Ben Wheatley's adaptation of High-Rise which I had been anticipating for some time (see blog of December 31). I have to say however, that I left the theatre in an state of ambivalence. In many ways the form in which Ballard's difficult novel has been translated to the screen should have really immersed and provoked me, yet I couldn't help feeling that the film was actually less than the sum of its parts.

On a positive note, one cannot help but be impressed by the visual audacity. Evoking a tone which amalgamated 70s kitsch, modernist brutalism and baroque fantasy, the beauty of the images, many of which are aesthetically mesmerising, imbues the social break-down with a ironic and sickening aura. Certain shots are slowed down almost to allow full contemplation of the beauty/horror, but this is counterposed with a lot of heavy editing between different scenes and characters. Wheatley plays with the visual metaphor of child's kaleidoscope both in specific framings and within the editing structure, which alludes to the drug fueled hedonism. There is a randomness to the collage of images, which on the one hand, reflects the chaos of societal disintegration, however for me it came at the expense of a build-up of any real tension.

As the film progressed, with all aspects of structural rule collapsing, the editing becomes more frenzied; and whereas one can see and understand that the director is fusing content with form here, the effect bordered on becoming incoherent and tiresome. Furthermore, obsession with individual images and overwrought editing led to an underdevelopment of the 'character' of the building itself; the brutalist architecture, the ultra-striated spaces, the cold uniformity of interiors, all could have been evoked much more centrally as the underpinning to the social hierarchy and, in turn, the cause of the social disintegration. The film's relentless cultivation of its form and style ended up getting in the way of a more allegorical exploration, which I was craving.

It is certainly the case that my familiarity with the book, and hence my preconceived expectations, were influencing me and perhaps in a negative way. The film doesn't attempt to answer obvious questions that I had when reading the book, i.e. why doesn't Laing just leave? Indeed, I think Wheatley's production design is aimed at offsetting such instrumental questions, and watching the film with a realist mindset is a non-starter. But that's fine. My memory of reading the text was of the nuanced yet prescient allusions to the influence of spatial organisation on behaviour, class distinctions, the inherent inequalities of capitalism, the narcissism of the modern subject, media and notion of spectacle, and the encroachment of technology on the human condition. Ballard was able to strike a balance between portentousness and satire, between intellectual substance and stylistic flair. This balance was, to me, somewhat uneven in the film. The social allegory was overwhelmed, rather than enhanced, by the film's aesthetics. Indeed, I wondered what those who hadn't read Ballard's novel would get this through the film. In the end I felt that, as with many adaptations, High-Rise might have worked better if it had taken the novel as a reference point rather than attempting to be so faithful.

My reaction to the cast, or perhaps more accurately the characterisation, added to my somewhat exasperated reaction. Tom Hiddlestone was very good as Laing showing a sense of uncertainty in negotiating the social mores of his new surroundings: how immersion within and detachment from the unfolding situation was a comment on human adaptability and survival. The problem was, both visually and in terms of his approach to the role, he seemed be in a different film from everyone else. All the other actors were embodying a louche 1970s sensibility that went way over the top at times. James Purefoy and Luke Evans was a particular offender in this regard, but in all fairness this was perhaps more of an issue overall direction and tone. The film occasionally falls into the campy territory of BBC nostalgia trip Life on Mars (even before Keely Hawes turns up).  

These moments undermined a sense of real darkness and savage political bite that I wanted the film to have. It is clear that High-Rise is very much indebted to A Clockwork Orange and the production design, soundtrack and cinematography also reminded me somewhat Nicolas Winding-Refn's Bronson. Visually, High-Rise can definitely compare but it is doesn't go as far as those films in terms of barbaric ruthlessness, cruel yet knowing humour or, particularly in terms of Kubrick classic, cultural pertinence.

The film has certainly had a polarising effect.  In reading other reviews there seems to be not much grey area between explicit praise and utter rejection. There were at least 6 walkouts in the screening I was in. I wonder whether this was anything to do with the postmortem face peeling, the dog roasting, the sexual violence, or whether they thought the film just didn't go anywhere,  all of which could be true. It's kind of how I felt.  My overarching sense, however, was of a film in which the obsession with surface and style choked the fundamental thematic and political underpinning. Because of this, it played as a visually stunning yet curiously dissatisfying retro mash-up which lacked the allegorical weight I really wanted it to possess.

 

In Anticipation of High-Rise

Ballard.jpg

One of the positive outcomes of a bout of Christmas Eve manflu is that it affords the opportunity to lie in bed and tackle a novel from cover to cover. J.G. Ballard's dystopian science-fiction novel High-Rise sat on my 'to read' shelf expectantly for some time and I was determined get to the book before the release of Ben Wheatley's film adaptation in March this year. First published in 1975 High-Rise is a terse and brutal tale of the breakdown of social organisation within the confines of a huge, self-contained luxury apartment building. Rather than a singular sinister force enacting power through surveillance and control however, the book deconstructs the mechanisms of social propriety with the interior of the tower providing both a microcosm of ingrained yet precarious social hierarchies and an arena that frames and amplifies the resultant carnage.

As in most effective sci-fi, the ideas highlighted in the book have an allegorical prescience that still registers even though its tone and setting place it within the 1970s. Certainly there is a pointed critique of an alienated existence resulting from the functional architectural trends of the mid 20th century, along with prophetic allusions to the beginnings of a total saturation of image based culture. It is the interrelationship between physical space and social class that is perhaps the central concern. Ballard sets up the implicit habitus of the three protagonists through their differing positionings within the physical space of the building and, concomitantly, specific social groupings. There is somewhat of an inevitability of the familiar class distinction becoming aligned with the lower, middle and upper sections of the High-Rise. What I found particularly ingenious was the way even the mechanics of the class system disintegrate, firstly into feudally factions and then into a pure and savage individualism. Each apartment, corridor staircase and concorse become symbolic and material battlegrounds in a fight for personal survival. These thematic developments take on a blackly ironic prescience when one thinks of the seemingly inexorable force of neoliberal ideology today. 

There are many obvious comparisons with the dystopian fiction of Orwell, Huxley, Phillip K. Dick. The spectres of Joseph Conrad and William Golding are also apposite with the allusions to the precariousness of civil society and the latent primitivism of the human condition. Knowing a film adaptation has been completed and is shortly to be released, one is drawn into envisaging the cinematic possibilities. Certainly there is a Battle Royal/Hunger Games element to the gladiatorial violence and at times when reading the book one can envisage a more conspiracy/paranoia slant, a la The Conversation or The Parallax view, that plays with the incongruousness of 70s high-life chic with the rigid, utilitarian and oppressive aura of the high-rise tower. The production design possibilities even offer the promise of a more experimental visual approach, something that might be as uniquely memorable as A Clockwork Orange, Brazil, Gattaca or Snowpiercer.

From the short snippet of the film I have watched, along with the fantastic poster by Jay Shaw (right), the film looks to be part of what seems like the current cultural obsession with nostalgia and retro. It not only looks to be set in the 1970s but mimics the formal aesthetics of that cinematic era. I'm wondering as to whether this approach will yield anything more than a flat pastiche. On reading the novel I thought that a film adaptation could potentially be more reflective of present concerns about economics, technology, identitiy politics and cultural geography. The proof, as always will be in the watching. Ben Wheatley is undoubtedly a promising choice as director. His horror credentials - with Down Terrace and Kill List - demonstrate a skill for creating tension building scenarios and gut-churning outcomes and his latest feature A Field in England possesses visual narrative and flair. These creative elements all bode well in a turn to dystopian fiction and the hope for me is that High-Rise Joins Under the Skin and Ex_Machina as part of a highly accomplished cycle of British inflected, 'hard' Science-Fiction. 

On what a blockbuster should be: Mad Max: Fury Road

I don't like contemporary blockbusters. Or more accurately I don't like the contemporary blockbuster machine or the films it produces. The franchising of vapid, comic book worlds reliant on weightless CGI, overwrought with incomprehensible plotting and undramatic drama, and populated by superficial ciphers for the most egregious stereotypes. Perhaps most of all I hate the unquestioning fandom, not that fans don’t criticise (my word they do) but the belief that such opinions carry a weight that somehow transcends their economic obedience is, for me, at best naïve, at worst, cultural dupery in the extreme.  Fans, in investing in the trans-media universe, which may once have been considered the realm of geeky outsider, have helped entrench the new mainstream corporate hegemony. In this context ‘creativity’ has the patented framework of videogame repetition, ‘uniqueness’ is sandblasted by the laser precision of digital effects forging a ‘reality’ without any danger of the ‘real’. Critical judgement reflects this sanguine narrowness with the apologetically harmless 3 star review extolling the ‘great action sequences’ and bemoaning ‘lack of character development’. Thankfully, perhaps even accidentally within this environment, Mad Max: Fury Road restores faith in possibility that an overwhelming, viscerally cinematic experience is still possible.

But hold on isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road a remake/reboot of an existing franchise? Technically yes. But it’s a film that succeeds spectacularly by rejecting prevalent mantras that afflict the majority of its contemporaries. Firstly, it creates a world that is preposterous yet wholy believable in its own terms. It does this by almost entirely foregoing pseudo-technical exposition, which almost always creates gaping plot holes, and stripping the narrative to its minimalist requirements. Instead, intricate subtleties of visual storytelling create layers of meaning, which are not definitively explained but build an immersive, believable cinematic fabric. The post-apocalyptic milieu is beautifully grotesque reducing ‘civilisation’ to a barbaric, sickening totalitarian machine within which humanity is barely recognisable.  It is at once disturbingly alien and unerringly familiar but the film requires the viewer to work to actively bridge the gap. Mad Max is bursting with the quality most mainstream blockbusters lack: imagination.

The action is quite simply incredible. This is primarily because it retains the weight of live  filming while appropriately amalgamating CGI via the increasingly lost art of good editing. Unlike the obfuscatory visuals of many action films the frenetic pace does not hamper the ability so see what is going on. In a clear allusion to Mad Max 2 the action centres largely around the chase of huge truck which metaphorically becomes the lifeboat to freedom. A pursuing army of customised vehicles look like pieces of industrial artwork which come to life as monsters without any need to ‘transform’. The action thus treads the fine balance of being totally ridiculous while retaining believability in the boundaries of its own world. Furthermore, there is a self-awareness here, and welcome lack of pious, Nolanesque darkness. Case in point is the riotously over-the-top flame throwing guitar player, accompanied by a phalanx of drummers mounted of on the back of one of the trucks, who had the audience in uproar but actually served a purpose in inserting a diegetic sound accompaniment to the chase sequences.

In amongst the visual mayhem there is a full sense of cinematic subtlety and intellectual awareness. The film manages to simultaneously sit in linear progression with the previous Mad Max films, retaining certain stylistic and thematic motifs, while unashamedly rebooting for the uninitiated viewer. The film’s central section slows to allow a painterly depiction of the empty desert symbolising the human frailty and battle for survival. These sections are as mesmerising as any of the action sequences and serve to build camaraderie between the central protagonists and empathy in the audience. An underlying feminist sensibility emerges that actually takes one by surprise. There are cues of gendered spectatorship, which set up traditional representational expectations, but these are pointedly undercut in a way that sits coherently within the story. Central to this is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa whose represents the central journey of the film while Tom Hardy, the eponymous Max of the title, remains is a psychologically anchored in his own personal hell. Not to mention how the film reinvents motherhood as the underpinning to a violent action bad-assery. 

There are some of the problems seemingly inherent to the contemporary mainstream blockbuster. The action sequences (and therefore the film as a whole) goes on too long, the ending is the patented sentimental celebration with the potential for a sequel left open. Tom Hardy is stoically monosyllabic, which is fine, but when he does speak his accent is Russell Crowe level unfathomable. Yet the film epitomises what blockbuster cinema can and should be, using cinematic visual language to transport you to another world, but one which is self-contained in its own textual boundaries. Mad Max: Fury Road gives you the space and the credit to be able to actively engage with its aesthetics and themes and it does't assume you are a naive consumer or a cultural infant. 

100 sci-fi films better than Interstellar

I was recently challenged on twitter to name 100 Sci-Fi films better than Interstellar. Anyone who knows me will know that I think it is a hugely over-rated film in many ways. So here is the list, in no particular order: 

1.                             2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2.                             Solaris (1972)

3.                             Primer (2004)

4.                             Gattaca (1997)

5.                             Rollerball (1975)

6.                             Alien (1979)

7.                             Aliens (1986)

8.                             The Terminator (1984)

9.                             The Terminal Man (1974)

10.                          Contact (1997)

11.                          Her (2013)

12.                          Under the Skin (2013)

13.                          A Clockwork Orange (1971)

14.                          Alphaville (1965)

15.                          Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977)

16.                          Metropolis (1927)

17.                          Blade Runner (1982)

18.                          The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

19.                          The Thing (1982)

20.                          They Live (1988)

21.                          The Stepford Wives (1975)

22.                          Planet of the Apes (1968)

23.                          Destination Moon (1950)

24.                          The Black Hole (1979)

25.                          The Matrix (1999)

26.                          1984 (1984)

27.                          Silent Running (1971)

28.                          Westworld (1973)

29.                          Akira (1988)

30.                          Mad Max (1979)

31.                          Logan’s Run (1976)

32.                          Equilibrium (2002)

33.                          The Truman Show (1998)

34.                          Stalker (1979)

35.                          Existenz (1999)

36.                          Moon (2009)

37.                          La Jetee (1962)

38.                          Jurassic Park (1993)

39.                          Waking Life (2001)

40.                          Super 8  (2011)

41.                          Gravity (2013)

42.                          Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

43.                          Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

44.                          Soylent Green (1973)

45.                          Robocop (1987)

46.                          Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982

47.                          The Fly (1986)

48.                          Twelve Monkeys (1995)

49.                          Minority Report (2002)

50.                          Children of Men (2006)

51.                          District 9 (2009)

52.                          Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

53.                          Sleeper (1973)

54.                          Escape from New York (1981)

55.                          Sleep Dealer (2008)

56.                          Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

57.                          Inception (2010)

58.                          Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

59.                          Abre los Ojos (1997)

60.                          Scanners (1981)

61.                          Wall-E (2008)

62.                          Cosmopolis (2012)

63.                          Dark Star (1974)

64.                          Donnie Darko (2001)

65.                          Brazil (1985)

66.                          AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

67.                          Time After Time (1979)

68.                          Upstream Colour (2013)

69.                          Melancholia (2011)

70.                          Another Earth (2011)

71.                          THX-1138 (1971)

72.                          Starship Troopers (1997)

73.                          The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

74.                          Outland (1981)

75.                          Back to the Future (1986)

76.                          Starman (1984)

77.                          Seconds (1966)

78.                          City of Lost Children (1995)

79.                          La Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

80.                          Videodrome (1983)

81.                          Chronicle (2012)

82.                          Dreamscape (1984)

83.                          When Worlds Collide (1951)

84.                          Source Code (2011)

85.                          Battle Royale (2000)

86.                          Coherence (2013)

87.                          ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

88.                          Repo man (1984)

89.                          Ex Machina (2015)

90.                          Ghosts in the Shell (2006)

91.                          Snowpiercer (2013)

92.                          Timecrimes (2007)

93.                          The Abyss (1989)

94.                          Pi (1998)

95.                          War of the Worlds (1953)

96.                          Altered States (1980)

97.                          A Scanner Darkly (2006)

98.                          V for Vendetta (2005)

99.                          The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

100.                      The Omega Man (1971)

6 Días en Mexico

Día 6

My last entry of 6 Días in Mexico is being written on Día 7, on the train back to Cornwall from Heathrow airport. The flight back from Mexico City was very busy but thankfully shorter than the 13 hours it took to travel out. However, getting stuck at Plymouth because of a broken down train on the line somewhere in Cornwall meant I was put in a taxi to finish the trip. Another triumph for First Great Western.

Friday evening when I gave my talk at Kosmica things couldn’t have gone better. The final day took place in the Laboratorio Arte Alemeda which was a gallery with several spaces all being used by Kosmica. The main area had a stage set up in the corner with seating for about 150 people and a projector set up on the side for the presentations. Because of yesterday’s cancellation there was a full programme of short films, music, and academic talks. Once I got set up I was feeling pretty confident but was still a little concerned that my emphasis on the nuances of language and imagery to create gendered meaning might be a little esoteric. I need not have worried. The audience all seemed very engaged getting the underlying irony I attempt to assert. Some interesting questions were asked about how shifts in social context could affect identity politics in the future and various people came up afterwards to ask further questions and chat. In general everyone was in credibly generous and even thanked me just for turning up.

Going to Kosmica has only instilled my own interest in the necessity of academic public engagement and given me further inspiration and ideas about how I might do that in the future. I fancy cutting together a 20minute film on the history of Sci-Fi and narrating to it while it plays. The academic presentation is such a rigid structure a times and I think it can be utilised in a more creative way. Once my talk was done I could then relax and enjoy the rest of the evening. I had gotten to know some of the other speakers over the week and it was great to see such interesting and diverse work being discussed in one forum. I had no idea that there was such an intensely passionate space art community who are doing some extra-ordinary work that is actually integrated with both the American and Russian space programmes. I felt I had to apologise for the fact that all I know about space comes from films and books – however that was the point of my talk so it’s ok. At dinner afterwards I got a chance to speak with everyone properly as I had been somewhat anti-social in the previous days with the other work commitments I was focusing on. I was glad I got to know Nahum, the conference organiser, over the last few days. A talented and charismatic guy who has done some amazing work in the past as well as curating huge events all over the world. He would be great to get down to Falmouth for a guest lecture. The group were talking about holding Kosmica in Montreal next year – it would be really great to attend out in Canada and perhaps even try to indulge in some kind of artistically inspired talk.

Even though Saturday had been late I still got up early determined to have a full day before flying back in the evening. It was a beautiful morning and I walked out once again to Centro Historico but stopped off in the Jardin de Santiago and read some more of The Underdogs thinking that the tranquillity of the warm sunshine belied the revolutionary tale of Mexico and the protests that permeated the street only two days earlier. On a more superficial level it was nice to enjoy the weather before coming back to Blighty. I had lunch with Carrie Paterson who is an American artist and publisher who, the previous night, presented a paper on using scents to help astronauts cope psychologically with space travel. She had a really interesting background and I was flattered that she wanted me to contribute a piece to one of the magazines she publishes in the States. Such dialogues are often the most enjoyable parts of conferences – moving away from the structure of the conference itself and finding out what makes people tick. We had a long debate about the tension between the work one wants to do and the work one has to do. Both academics and artists have to trade off between the two and thinking about this made me realise that I am in a fortunate position right now where the trade off is working for me.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the liminal space between melancholia (from having to leave) and contentment (to be able to return home). Hotel lobbies and airport lounges somehow seem to psychologically amplify these feelings – they are spaces of transition where you are essentially killing time before moving on. The week has been really enlightening, enjoyable, particularly productive in terms of speaking in front of a different kind of audience at Kosmica and with the unforeseen diversion into Mexican politics. Hopefully, I will be back in Mexico at some point to further soak up the fascinating culture and society.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 5 - 4pm

Last day of the conference. Last night was cancelled because of the protests so all the talks have been moved to Friday in one marathon session. Luckily for me I am on early. Will be good to get it done and then relax for the rest of the evening. I am a little worried about the amount of text I have on my presentation. It’s a bit of a no no to try and make your audience read slides however I am talking about the gendered use of language so it is somewhat necessary. With most of the audience having English as a second language I'm also concerned that people won't really get the gist. Irony and subtly are somewhat difficult to translate. Hopefully the video and images will help.

I interviewed two students this morning - Jorge and Gabriel - about the protests. They both study journalism and were very erudite and interesting. It was somewhat depressing to hear them speak not only of a total lack of hope in politics but also in their own futures. In many ways they echoed concerns for so many young people around the world about how governments and corporations are serving their own interests and not providing a framework for future generations to thrive. It was interesting to hear them talk in such scathing terms about journalism and the media. I tried to talk to them about the possibility of independent media and what it could offer but surprisingly they said they didn’t really know how to use social media and new platforms. I just hope their future is better than the one they envisage.

One thing that is immediately obvious about Mexico is the bizarre organisation of traffic. The city is as scary as Athens when it comes to mad drivers and I’ve already witnessed two actual accidents and countless other near misses. However, there is a completely insane system where the traffic police, and there are a lot of the them, directing traffic using extravagent arm gestures and whistle blasts but this is completely at odds with the traffic lights system which they seem to totally ignore. So it all makes for a kind of live action Death Race 2000 as a pedestrian you have absolutely no idea what is going on and have to hope you don't have a particularly high points value. In order to negotiate this I take my cues from other people as they cross that I’ve not selected someone with an overt deathwish.

Tinkering about with my presentation again now. Not sure how tonight is going to go but I feel prepared at least. Been a long week waiting to go on so will be nice to relax and enjoy the evening afterwards.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 4 – 9pm

Got up very early to do the podcast. Although I think my contribution had limited success due to the intermittent Internet. Our guest speaker on climate change new his stuff and the we really got into the details of the issue in the aftermath of Obama accord with the Chinese. Because I kept breaking up on Skype I don’t think my impressions of the political situation came over that well. Hopefully I can rectify that next week. Spent the rest of the morning working on my presentation for Kosmica’s final evening. Did a lot of tweaking but I think it’s finally looking like I want it to. Some more work required tomorrow but I'm not far off. It’s good enough that I will be able to relax tonight. Had dinner this evening with Nahum the organiser of the conference, Carrie, Rob and Nicola who are all speaking. Interesting evening in which discussion moved easily across subjects. The main topic of conversation, of course, which was happening as we ate. The police presence in Mexico City generally is very high but walking to the restaurant there were cops everywhere. I've seen more guns this wee than I have in my entire life. I went into a 7/11 to buy some water the other day and the security guard had a 3ft shot gun. It's not scary as such but unnerving when you're not used to seeing that.

Before dinner at 5pm I walked down to the paseo de la reforma to see the protests streaming past and it was an impressive sight. Very nosey and passionate but peaceful. 30,000 people walking from different parts were congregating on one of the main squares called the Zocalo. I felt somewhat uncomfortable however voyeuristically observing such an event in a passive detached way, like I was intruding on something that I lack the knowledge to fully comprehend. Dyan from the conference has put me in touch with two journalism students and I'm interviewing them tomorrow for the podcast so I’m hoping they can express in some way the importance for them of what is going. I’m kind of disappointed that I haven’t been able to do more exploring while I have been here but it just hasn’t been that kind of trip. But this to me is more enjoyable that simply sight-seeing.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 3 - 11:40 pm

A long but incredibly productive day. Lots going on here which I didn’t anticipate. Mexico is in the grip of political turmoil and there is a general strike and a mass student protest happen tomorrow. 43 student teachers were kidnapped in the South of the country and the public outcry has brought into focus the high levels of political corruption going with public officials being arrested for connections with drug cartels. The government still doesn’t know where the missing people are and the President of Mexico is under pressure to resign. This seemed like a great 'story' to cover while I’m here for the Three Muckrakers Podcast and UK progressive. One of the organisers of the conference has put me in touch with a university lecturer who is going to try and get some of the student protestors to give me an interview. I've spent the day setting that up as well as preparing for the podcast and for my conference talk. Turns out that the free wifi offered by the multitude of Starbucks in Mexico City has been a real saviour. Neoliberal, corporate capitalism has come to my rescue. In between bouts of writing I walked up to the Centro historical to look around. Kosmica tonight was a fun event, which took the form of an interactive history of drinking in space complete with several shots of vodka for the audience and an installation of vaporised whisky. At the end everyone was gearing up to go crazy, but with my 8 am call time for the podcast recording I made a feeble retreat back to the hotel. You know you’re a grown up when you take pleasure in the fact that work is a higher priority than fun.

6 Días en Mexico

Día 2 – 12:37am

Funny that the turbulence of the flight is somehow in keeping with my chosen movie: Master and Commander. An odd interrelationship of air and sea travel is creating something akin to a sensory, interactive experience. The wine might also be assisting.

4am (in London) / 10:00pm in Mexico City

According to the flight map we are flying over the wonderfully named Labrador City, Canada. Just put my watch back 6 hours to account for the time difference. That was the closest to time travel I will ever get. Still 5 ½ hours to go to Mexico City. Long haul is an appropriate phrase. At least the time lapse will give me a few more hours of sleep upon arrival.

5am - Mexico City Airport

The zombie hours. As far as 12-hour flights go that wasn’t too bad but I still feel like my brain is operating with a three second delay and my body is protesting in new and imaginative ways. It was pretty quiet going through immigration and I met a couple of people – Rob and Sam – also going to the conference so didn’t have to worry about finding out where to go. We were met by Miriam, one of the conference organisers, but before going off to the hotel we had try and find a way to get Sam’s industrial size chemical vaporiser into a old and uncooperative Renault. He is doing some kind of space-themed cocktail show, which better be bloody good. Doing the krypton factor at 5:30am was not on my agenda. However we managed to solve the puzzle and were soon off the Hotel. Upon arrival all three of us made a hasty exit to our rooms without much fanfare. Sleep time.

8:30am

Couldn’t sleep so went down to breakfast. The Hotel Maria Cristina is a very old fashioned Mexican place with lots of wood panelling and semi-impressionist pictures of rural vistas and/or earnest farmers cultivating the land. There is a small terraced garden to the side, which at this moment is being cut into sections by columns of light created in the early morning sunshine. The hotel is populated by austere looking staff. Aged female cleaners look particularly aggrieved shuffling silently with their mops of doom.  Breakfast in the hotel is not great, soft toast and weak coffee. The waiter doesn’t respond well to my attempts at overt politeness. I’ll go out in future. My lethargy is going to prevent me doing any writing or prep for the conference so I’m going for a walk.

2pm

I bought a book: The Underdogs by Marino Azuela. It is described as the seminal text of the Mexican revolution. If I’m going to read about Mexico, may as go straight to the heart of its modern birth. Found it in a beautiful little book shop with a café situated on a raised section in the centre. Lot’s books in English, which had no discernable rhyme or reason as to why they were there. On the second floor there were many old Mexican tomes on law, politics and history. I get the feeling that this is something of an intellectual hangout – I may come back again to try and enact some cleverness. I proceeded to walk down the Paseo de la Reforma to the Parque Chapultepec some 30 minutes West. There I accidentally discover the Museo de Arte Moderno which I decide to enter after paying the spectacularly cheap fee of 26 pesos (£1.20). The museo has an entrance building, with cafe and gift shop, that leads to a garden of sculptures in many different styles. On the far side is the main building. Two large circular galleries with a connecting section between. This year is the museo’s 50th anniversary and there is a retrospective of the work of its founder and designer Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, a genius architect who is responsible for many of Mexicos contemporary buildings. There are also works by Diego Reviera, José Orozco and Frida Kahlo including The Two Fridas, one of her most famous and disturbing pieces. I hope to see some more of Mexico’s art before the week is out. Walking back I feel the tiredness catching up with me so after a quick and uneventful food stop I head back to the hotel to crash for a few hours before the first night of the conference.

10pm

Kosmica is being held in the Centro de Cultura Digital which is set down under the main street and is marked by a towering monolith brightly lit with fluorescent gold and white. There are several art pieces set up around the main space and seating is at the far end facing a screen and in front is where speakers will sit. Tonights talks are about experimental films inspired by or directly about space, a particularly interesting one is called Afronauts by a filmmaker called Francis Bodomo. The fact that the event is in Spanish and English gives a very distinctive atmosphere and the audience seems to comprise of mainly Mexican students or artists. It makes me think that I should include some Spanish into my presentation, if only to try and get the audience on my side. I feel once again that my inability to speak Spanish is something that I really regret and walking back to the hotel afterward I resolve to change this starting with Friday's talk. 

6 Dias en Mexico

Dia 1 – 8:45pm

A couple of days ago I realised that I know absolutely nothing about Mexico, besides the elementary. Another depressing example of the monumental totality of what I don’t know. However, my invitation to the Kosmica conference - on the cultural and artistic evocations of space travel – has afforded me the opportunity to visit the country for the first time. Such occasions always inspire a renewal of the lifelong project of trying to make up for my lack of education but in a fashion that is integrated in the cultural experience of place. My first task in this endeavour is to buy a book by a Mexican author. Perhaps Carlos Fuentes who I have never read. The literary evocations of a nation, used as a canvas for a specific story, imbue a sense of the identity of a country and its people more than any travel guide could.  Nonsensically, I didn’t buy an appropriate book before the start of my trip and airport bookstores seem to exist solely for the purpose of furthering the readership Ken Follett and James Patterson, or offer the salacious ghost-written inanities of some celebrity or other.  I hope to get something suitable when I am there. Perhaps finding a book in Mexico is more in keeping with my aim of soaking up the aura, although my inexcusably lamentable Spanish prevents me from reading in the appropriate language. This will be the first task of día uno. In the meantime this is the first entry of what I intend as sporadic account of 6 días en Mexico. Writing as I am now during the dead time airport hours I’m not sure of the form this ‘diary’ will take. I will just write and see what comes out. Ok, Gate 7. Time to fly.