An argument in favour of the rationing of art
Repeat zone! This literary equivalent of the ‘slow food’ manifesto was penned for the old print version of Lucid Frenzy. But I’ve been inspired to reprint it here by Murray Ewing’s posting ‘On Re-reading Books’, and being struck by the overlap. (See here for Murray’s post.)
Admittedly there’s one big difference – Murray is practising what I preach! Murray: “I tend to regard reading a book for the first time as merely an opportunity to decide whether it's worth re-reading — the re-reading bit being, for me, where the fun really starts. I tend to only keep books if I plan to re-read them at some time.” Me: “I tend to let my living quarters pile up with books in the foolhardy hope I might one day give them a first reading.”
PS Before you ask, I am not reprising this piece because I consider it to be worth re-reading in itself!
“Information will become a weapon to be used against us, as notions of value and meaning are ridiculed in a storm of confetti. Silence is the only adequate response.” – David Thomas
When we were younger, of course, life seemed simpler and we knew what we wanted from it. We craved immediacy. We wanted the three minute instant hit of the pop single over the slow release of the symphony, we wanted the pithy bite-size novelette over the Victorian tome. (Or better the still more compressed comic strip, which made the same points in lesser time by juxtaposing word and image.) The scene which summed up our attitude the best is from Godard’s Band Apart - where our heroes race through the Louvre in record time, kicking up the dust, trampling the crushing weight of history, feverishly upping the ante of the pace of consumption.
Back when printing technology was in it’s infancy, books were still something of a luxury product and even the well-to-do family would only have one or two of them about the house. The reader, forced by circumstance, would have an intensive not extensive relationship with the words he read and re-read. But printing sped up like machines are wont to do, the novel arose and things got themselves in a hurry. Nowadays we not only have a bewildering array of books flying at us but multi channel TVs, the internet and atop all that text messages to beep and interrupt us while we try to deal with it. As the adage goes, first one extreme, then the other.
During any of the recent wars I’ve felt not starved of information or even fed fake information, so much as bombarded by the wrong kind of information. It was like a kind of ack-ack fire of diagrams and column inches, smokescreening itself over whatever was actually going on on the ground. After a while I realised this was just the way I felt all the time anyway, times of war just made it more obvious. Often I come out of work and find myself still in work mode, multi-tasking input, crossing off items from my in-tray of reading and watching in order to drive better results.
There’s something of an irony here. Just as automation in the workplace was supposed to grant us increased leisure time and instead just left us working all the harder, much of this technology was introduced to us as something which would empower us to become more contemplative in our leisure time. When we could all own a copy of a book, we could re-read it any time we chose. Later the VCR was supposed to place movies under our controlling thumb, open to being re-watched as often as we chose.
Perhaps there have been more films since then that sought to cut up time in a jigsaw fashion, thereby rewarding rewatching, though that may be more to do with the all-pervasive influence of Tarantino than the technology of video playback. For the most part the day is ruled by dumbass twist endings you could only endure once, or randomly appearing ghost-train shocks (all telegraphed in the trailer anyway).
Ludicrous ‘twists’ were once a staple of comics (particularly mystery comics). They were unguessable only because they were uncredible, nonsensical and basically absurd. They happened because those comics were considered disposable, it didn’t matter if there was merely a passing ersatz frisson for you before you threw that comic away. But the nonsensical ‘twist’ has not been banished but spread through other mediums like an infection. If we watch them again it’s only for reassurance, like kids being re-read their favourite bedtime stories.
The technology works in reverse! By allowing us to go back to it any time we choose, it empowers us not to! If that old film you loved was being shown as a one-off midnight showing, you’d cross town to see it or know you might not get the chance again for years. Now the DVD of it sits on the shelf next to your chair, endlessly within reach, why would there ever be a reason to break that shrink-wrap? The bounded, as Blake used to say, is loathed by its possessor.
If we’re going to be living in such an enlarged and well-stocked vinery from now on, we need to be better at telling the good label from the bad and the still-better from the good. But it’s more than just upping the ratio of swine to pearls, it’s something more insidious.
What we really need to demand now is the right of return. As each new release replaces its predecessor on the conveyor-belt of modern life, we need to throw a spanner in the works and take our own sweet time about things. Good art, like good food or wine, can be shovelled down as quickly as anything else. You can even do it quite happily, as the action makes you oblivious to what you’re missing. But what you’re really missing is the point!
A lot of this desire to over-consume comes from the fear of missing out. Not having heard the latest release or seen the new director’s cut, what will you find to talk about on your e-mail discussion groups? Well of course if you don’t see something new you do miss out. But it’s equally true to say that re-rereading something is a fresh and expanded experience, and not to take that experience is to miss out on something as well. Life is about making choices. But it’s better to choose carefully and then stick to those choices than it is to skitter between a thousand samples and end up not really tasting anything. Take the colours too fast and they only run to white.
Think what it was like in your early teens when you owned only a handful of singles and not that stack of CDs you do today. Wasn’t your relationship to those few thumbed records more intense and personal than that groaning, semi-ignored shelving unit with which you cohabit today?
Some complain that spend too long and they may start reading more into a work of art than the artist ever actually put there. I say – so what? Would you move into a house and want to live in it only in ways devised and foreseen by the architect? When you feel yourself starting to take over the artwork from the artist that’s a sign it’s starting to work for you, and a pretty good signal to keep going.
I’m not suggesting this will be an easy habit to break. In many ways consumption is a habit as hard as any junkie’s. Maybe we need to wean ourselves slowly from the teat. Maybe we need to set up support groups throughout the hemisphere. I’ll stand up in the first one and announce “my name’s Gavin and I’m a consumer!”
We demand a slow-down in the pace of consumption!
We demand the rationing of art!
We demand the right of return!
We want to move off Quantity Boulevard, and back onto Quality Street where we were happier!
We hereby announce the world’s first consumer strike!