Thursday 29 December 2022


Laurie Penny is, to my mind, a good writer. And their recent article, ‘There Are Lots Of Ways To Tell A Story’, is worth looking at. You can read it now, if you want. I’ll wait here…

…okay, done? Penny may well be smarter than me. (Not flattery, just a low bar.) But I’ve a perspective they don’t. I am part of “the last generation of that demographic to reach adulthood before social media”, the age where I’ve experienced the world without and then with the net. And from that perspective this is my way of telling the story…

First, we should always make clear that if more people are getting to say stuff, the problem for the Right isn’t what they say but that they get to say it. The only things they should be permitted to say are applications to join the in-group, professions of loyalty to our great nation, to the Royal family and so on. (Well, you know, the white Royals.) With the caveat that acceptance of such professions can only be provisional, the test reapplicable at any time. Difference alone is not seen as an inherent problem, provided there is social hierarchy to manage it. It’s threats to their hierarchy which antagonises them.

By comparison, in the segregated Southern states, no-on ever questioned black people’s right to vote. That was constitutionally guaranteed. It was just a matter of denying black people’s ability to vote, that was all. And the appearance of fairness without the messy real-world ramifications, surely that was best. But then some bolshy troublemakers tried to give those theoretical rights real-world consequences, boorish oafs with the effrontery to make us say the quiet part out loud.

Hence the common conceit that “freedom of speech” is when they speak, and “cancel culture” is when we imagine we then get a turn. It’s no good pointing this out to them and expecting them to change. It’s not a twist of logic they’ve concocted to serve their ends. It’s what they honestly think, and they genuinely don’t see why it should be a problem. This is what makes them our enemies.

Circling closer to the point, people can over-estimate the importance of the net. (It’s slightly unclear how much Penny’s piece is personal recollections, and how much intended as analysis of general trends.) Everything new and unfamiliar can get loaded onto it, the way my parents’ generation fretted over that funny pop music. The rise of social media came about with as many push factors (the decline of the high street, of the local pub etc.) as there were pull.

But the elephant in the room is neoliberalism. With organised labour defeated, society was reduced to an agglomeration of individuals, where everyone’s just in it for themselves. The atomised world of social media, with it’s endless formalised and fruitless debates, came to provide a handy form to match this content. But it’s not causal, things would have gone this way without it.

The drift from Right to Far Right is of course largely down to the paranoid feeling among the privileged that their privilege may be under threat. Privilege so hard-wired into their world-view they perceive any questioning of it as oppression. 

But it’s also due to a fantasy of belonging. In a way, they have won too much, even for them. They sense at some level that their victory has come at a cost, so in a world they own almost outright they become nostalgic for before. We can all be alike again, just like it all used to be, once we get the unlike back in their place, just like it all used to be. So, not for the first time, they blame the consequences of their actions on us.

There’s an argument which, these days, seems to constantly need making. If anti-fascists fight back against fascists, yes both may well be fighting, but that doesn’t make them equivalent. The anti-fascists are still anti-fascists, that’s why they’re opposing the fascists, and that does make a bit of a difference really. To understand something, you need to recognise it has a content as well as a form.

Yet it’s equally true, and at times just as necessary, to say things have a form as well as a content. And products of technology are a classic example. There’s the absurd, reactionary and widespread notion that technology is politically neutral, that it comes off some conveyor belt called ‘progress’ in a linear fashion. So responses to it can only be binary, an all-embracing yes to product upgrades one and all, or a desire to go off and live in a teepee.

To take an obvious example, a society powered by renewable energy could work from a decentralised network. It doesn’t absolutely have to, of course, but it could do. Whereas a nuclear-powered society definitely could not. And strangely enough, nuclear power is given far greater funding, is subject to far less regulatory control, than renewable energy. If I say I prefer the path of renewable energy, I am not being ‘anti-technology’, I’m favouring one type of technology above another.

But the notion that technology is politically neutral at the point of innovation, that it starts to have political effects only when its put in place, is scarcely any less reactionary. Technology is always scoped out, invested in. There’s no automatic correlation between investment and result, but only investment can lead to result.

And there’s a history in radical thought of assuming one mode of production will simply supplant another, reshape the society it comes into contact with and capitalism will go the way of Windows 95. In 1935 the great radical thinker Walter Benjamin wrote the classic ‘The Work Of Art In the Era Of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he argued…

“The film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.”

In short, the argument is that the mass medium of film leads inherently to more contemplative, and hence more critical audiences. And this will be true across the arts. And I’m going to suggest it didn’t work out that way.

The angle’s seductive partly because it offers victory. Though it isn’t and can never be part of our thinking that some kind of cavalry will ride in to our rescue, we either liberate ourselves or we are not liberated. But also, and more saliently for here, because at first sight it seems materialist. We don’t need to wait for people to just change their minds one day, according to arbitrary and subjective processes. Our minds are after all shaped by real-world encounters, so different encounters will re-shape them. 

But this is at best a vulgar materialism, as mechanistic as the film projector. Marx criticised it from the start…

“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating.”

Or, at another point, “If man is formed by circumstances, then we must humanise the circumstances.”

And the net gives us a particular twist on this. It sprang, more or less, from academia and initially followed those principles. It wasn’t set up with the idea that we’d learn what it felt like to be autistic or gender-fluid or convey any other subjective form of experience. But it was set up to spread the free flow of information, so we could learn when the fall of Rome had been, and at the press of a button. At the time academia was generally thought of as something higher-minded than the tawdry world of commerce, something to benefit society not just stimulate the economy.

I can remember that era, where people would exult over the ‘digital Wild West’. And me pointing out that it was the Wild West which became modern corporate America. And them telling me I didn’t understand how the next worked. Which perhaps I didn’t. But I did, on the other hand, understand how capitalism worked.

The net was set up to be decentralised, so information could be spread rather than corralled. But in it’s early days capitalism enclosed the commons, evicting those who lived on them, sometimes burning out those who didn’t leave quickly enough. It changed the principles the commons were run by, by a combination of money and force. (Inasmuch as they’re different things.)

Similarly, the digital commons of the internet have now been divided up into a series of enclosures, with Musk, Zuckerberg et al as the landlords. They may be willing to de-padlock and grant you admittance but on their terms, and demanding registration if not remuneration. Banning, or digital exile, has become by fiat of digital landlords. In some ways it’s a benefit that Musk is such a gormless blowhard, because he fails so badly at disguising this. And this was precisely the case with enclosed land back then, it was only ever the undesirables they wanted to keep out.

There was no perfect past, of course. Back in 2005 Brighton’s (since defunct) radical info news-sheet ’Rough Music’ had their website under threat. Some antagonist was persistently going to their ISP to claim they broke it’s terms of service. Which, rather than spend time and money investigating, would normally just close them down. But they could, and did, respond by going to a new ISP, in a continuing game of cat and mouth.

Whereas more recently, the radical news site It’s Going Down was banned from Twitter by Musk. (At the same time he brought back Trump, and other far right nuts. This is of course what “free speech absolutism” normally means.) They had already been banned from Facebook, in 2020. True, they still have their own website. But with the way the modern internet works, that’s like being allowed to open a shop provided its not on the high street.

And significantly this enclosing of the digital commons has come hand-in-hand with a new enclosing of the physical commons. Here in Brighton the main shopping centre, Churchill Square, is officially private property. You can be ordered out of it at any time, with no reason given, and no right of redress.

Meanwhile… I have no direct contact with academia, but I’m told from those that do that it has also become run by the principles of neoliberalism, with tenure a bygone word, where journals are profit-gouging, where targets for publishing research are set, where it’s understood research should be benefiting “the market” in some way.

We have freedom of speech, officially sanctified. But the ground we stand on, as soon as they stop liking what we say, they’ll try to take from under us.

Saturday 17 December 2022


The Hope and Ruin, Brighton
Fri 9th Dec

’Star Trek’, it seems, was wrong. You can change the laws of physics. It just takes you five years. At least that’s the length of time it’s been since I last saw the Physics House Band, and they do now sound quite different. In the intervening time, they’ve lost a bass player. There’s literallya space mid-stage where he stood. Which has changed their chemistry…. No, wait, that ruins the metaphor.

The guitarist now goes in for more power riffs. Which is actually a pretty smart solution to losing a bass player. The traditional rock-sound distinction is that the bass will play the beat and the guitar the melody, while a riff just lumbers in and does away with all that.

They’ve also replaced the bass with more saxophone. I’m not sure how that works, but it has. As the guitar rips into riffs the sax plays squalls above it. Which sounds counter-intuitive but works well. Think of a ballerina pirouetting around atop a Howitzer tank. Or something like that, anyway. When they do this it works very, very well. However… 

They have often tended to peaks-and-valleys dynamics, something they npw do much more. And it was these sections which didn’t work for me. As the record shows I’ve been uneven in my response to this band. Which I suspect is more down to my subjective responses than their ability to do things right. And I found my response had become more uneven than it had been before.

A lot of music I like has no forward momentum, such as the minimalism of Reich or Glass. It can be fun to screw with time that way, to write numbers which effectively stop clocks. But if the music’s not moving, in any conventional sense, you have to like it where you are. And the view from these valleys simply didn’t do it for me.

Bands need to move on, and they’re not under any obligation to take you with them when they do. But I guess myself and the Physics House Band have now parted ways.

Saturday 10 December 2022


The Real Surreal

If you wanted a central image to separate this ’Alice’, by Surrealist Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, from more standard adaptations, take a central one – the White Rabbit himself. Rabbits can lend themselves to cuteness, they’re sometimes given to children as pets. But this is quite pointedly a stuffed rabbit, a taxidermy exhibit, with frequent references to its spilling sawdust innards and regular close-ups of its sharp chomping teeth.

It’s too easy to contrast him against the fluffy Disney version, so let’s instead use the gentleman in fur of Tenniel’s original illustration. This version isn’t something I’d be following down any holes, looking more like something more from an anxiety dream than Wonderland. (A word notably missing from Svankmajer’s title.) We might want to ask, where would such a critter come from?

If Svankmajer was a Surrealist, Lewis Carroll was often cited by that movement as a precursor. He was name-checked by Breton, the movement’s self-appointed Pope; made the subject of a 1931 essay by Louis Aragon; his Alice was twice painted by Max Ernst (if not terribly recognisably), and Carroll’s own drawings were even included in their 1936 New York exhibition. 

But were they finding a fellow traveller or press-ganging him into their service? To me the best take on ’Alice’ remains Mark Fisher’s. Beneath all the clean pinafores and innocence of youth lies an absurdist work, “the precursor of Kafka”. Which is precisely why it appeals to children...

“There is the feeling that Wonderland is Alice's world alone, yet she has no place in it. She is always late, in the way, misunderstanding what ought to be obvious… The adult world as seen by children is, precisely, a Nonsense world, incomprehensibly inconsistent, arbitrary and authoritarian, full of bizarre rituals.”

It’s vital, I think, to understand that at least the majority of the characters she encounters are stand-in adults. While the ever-analysed White Rabbit doesn’t really stand for any thing, not even Alice’s curiosity. The whole point of him is that he can’t be caught up with. Forever just out of reach, the elusive nature of answers.

And Absurdist isn’t the same thing as Surreal. A Surrealist Wonderland would be thrilling and transformative but also dangerous and destructive. While Carroll’s is ultimately confounding, sinister and incomprehensible. And this brings risk of appropriation. The same way the later hippie generation appropriated Alice into a reductive metaphor for drugs.

Wells famously stripped his film version of Kafka’s ’The Trial’ (1962) of any of the standard period detail. Similarly Svankmajer doesn’t de-Victorianise ’Alice’ so much as domesticate it down, strip it of any Technicolour Oz-like grandeur. For example, turning the famous fall down the rabbit hole into a descending lift. The majority of the film was shot in his own house.

Though there’s a bigger difference. The now-famous book Alice’s sister reads, as we all know, has no pictures or conversation in it. While the book Alice appears in is full to bursting with both. It’s stuffed with wordplay, while the film is (typically for Svankmajer) largely silent. But those visual symbols, occupy much the same place as words did for Carroll.

And much of Carroll’s approach is to treat nonsense consistently. If there is such a thing as Mock Turtle soup, it follows there must be a Mock Turtle to make it from. And the film follows similar lines. The White Rabbit is stuffed with sawdust, so when he eats he swallows more of the stuff.

A World Of Symbols

The film opens pretty much like the book - the summer’s day, the riverbank, the accompanying adult/older sister (it scarcely matters which), the book without pictures or illustration. The only addition is to show Alice diffidently tossing stones in the river, as if to alleviate her boredom. But then, when so many scenes from the book don’t make the screen, we get a Svankmajer invention - Alice effectively duplicating all this in her room. The toys and other items around her then become the cast list for the film. As Caryn James of the New York Times has said, it’s “a world of symbols come alive.”

Combined with which, throughout the film only Alice is played by an actor. Everyone and everything else is portrayed by puppetry or stop-motion. Plus, while the book is written in the third person, she narrates the film. As she also provides the dialogue, she’s both omnipotent narrator and lost intruder. And she makes little attempt to provide voices for others, they simply speak with her voice.

All of which is like child’s play, an attempt to make sense of the wilder world using toys as diminutive props. Alice spies on the bizarre happenings, but her face is stoic. Which upholds the central irony, that this world is made by Alice’s imagination yet she remains uncomprehending of it. Basic functions, such as opening drawers, work for other characters but not her. That deadpan scrutinising look, the “what can this be about”, is familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with children.

That emphasis on drawers, often using them as portals, may be because adults often try to keep children out of them, storing not-for-play objects in them. (One is shown containing scissors).

We’ve seen before two Surrealist devices as least as common as dreams, both of which come up here. One’s the single often-youthful explorer of a huge, multi-roomed house, as in the painting of Dorothea Tanning. The other’s the charged object. Which simply animates well.

Child animism is, at root, the presumption that all objects have their own life. And behind much of Svankmajer is an audaciously simple idea, that stop-motion animation is a perfect means to convey this. You can even take the object the child sees and bring it to life, or at least a kind of life. How easily an old sock and some false teeth can turn into a Caterpillar! What often seem the medium’s limitations, its jerky quality, its sense of animate unreality, suddenly transform into advantages.

‘Uncanny valley’ is used to describe the awkward interchange between cartoony symbols and realism, between a smiley face and a photo-realist portrait. And there’s something equally neither/nor at work here. It all seems to slip and slide, elude any categories we try to give it.

Much has been written about how CGI ‘smoothness’ is the special effect of neoliberalism, a spectacle which creates a disjunction between ‘realism’ and the real. In such an era, to see extemporising being foregrounded, pointedly showing false teeth attaching to a sock to make up a Caterpillar like giving away a magic trick, feels like being a thirsty person who’s fallen on water.

One of the more ambiguous cases for the child, and interestingly one we tend to push on them, is automata. Things that move, surely they must live. And both the Mad Hatter and March Hare are portrayed by automata. One has a wind-up key in his back, the other very visible strings. Their repetitive chatter and behaviour becomes like the stock dialogue of wind-up toys.

But unlike most adaptations this isn’t aimed at children. (Alice even makes a gag of this in her introduction.) Which raises the question, if this is all about child perspective, why tell us? When we mostly gave up on socks being sentient a while ago. The answer’s in something else Alice tells us in her introduction - “Close your eyes, otherwise you won’t see anything”.

Like many Surrealist phrases, this might seem an invitation to dream, dream dream your days away. But these dreams are not sweet. It’s more an injunction to close our eyes against the things we have decided we know, to shut out the consensus reality we have built. Svankmajer has said his practice was to keep hold of the way he saw the world when he was seven. (We already looked at his earlier short ‘The Flat’, which has a similar character-vs-objects duality yet with an adult protagonist.)

The Three Alices 

But at the same time as a look back to child psychology this a film about the changes brought by adolescence. Alice doesn’t just change size, she’s always awkwardly the wrong size for her world, too big or too small. (Though some of this occurs in the book I don’t think it was Carroll’s original intention.)

If we say many images are sexually suggestive, we don’t need to find too precise analogies. The soon-pierced clingfilm lid of the jam jar could represent a hymen, for example. But the drawing pin then found in the jam just conveys the general sense that sex is ‘dangerous’. After all, you suggest to get away from saying. (Needless to say, when the actor is a child this skirts dodgy territory. But overall it stays the right side of the line.)

Perhaps as one way of reconciling these themes, the size-shifting makes Alice seem almost three different characters – Regular Alice, Big Alice and Little Alice. This last one is (in another Svankmajer invention) represented by a doll and is most integrated into Wonderland, obeying the White Rabbit which Regular Alice chases. Unlike Little Alice, the existence of Regular Alice is forever contingent, yet in this strange world has nothing to pin that contingency on.

Big Alice is stuck in a room (see up top), but in a narrative flip then defends it against a siege by the White Rabbit and assorted creatures of Wonderland. It’s as if it’s become her body, which she safeguards against violation. When she’s attacked the imagery strongly suggests sexual assault, skull teeth tugging at her skirt.

”Say What You’re Supposed To Say” 

Carroll refers to his lead’s “good-natured anxiety”. And accounts of the film often refer to Alice’s passivity, how she wanders a world she finds no way to engage with. Yet this disregards Big Alice, and the final trial scene where Regular Alice effectively transforms into Big Alice. While other scenes see bigger changes, the changes made here seem most significant.

In the book it’s the Knave who’s placed on trial. But the focus is more on the absurd and chaotic nature of the proceedings. It’s a trial run by those with no notion of how a trial runs, and no intention of admitting it, so such details become ambiguous. Alice starts growing inadvertently, which gives her the gumption to challenge proceedings.

In the film it’s her who’s the accused, with the whole trial based around nailing her, the jury essentially a jeering mob. Literally given a script to read (an admission and plea for mercy) and told “say what you’re supposed to say” she refuses, and mocks the court by eating one of the tarts, the very thing she’s accused of. She adopts a cheeky grim, as familiar on a child’s face as the deadpan curiosity, yet the first time we see it. She shakes her head and in that motion briefly becomes the creatures of Wonderland, as if she’s come to realise where they’re from.

In this scene everything is brought to a head, which turns out to be her head. She overcomes Wonderland by realising, at the very same time it’s been a strange and foreign world, it has been part of her all along. Her very last line, about cutting the White Rabbit’s head off next time, suggests the old Alice who hopelessly followed him is gone, that her adventures have crowned her the Queen of her own imagination. That’s Surreal, that is.

Much of Svankmajer’s appeal is that he isn’t a modern film-maker who’s been influenced by Surrealism, he’s simply a Surrealist artist. And if he could make a film as fully Surrealist as this in the Eighties, surely someone could make one now. (Okay the accursed marketisation of film funding works against this. But that’s an external constraint, not a creative one. It’s not impossible for an artist today to think as a Surrealist, the way it would be with say a Constructivist.)

And Surrealist versions of Alice always work best when transforming the original explicitly. There’s a reason, after all, adaptations are called adaptations, not transpositions. If we wanted to get back to the book we could just read the book. The original Czech title was ’Something From Alice’, stating quite explicitly it was never intended as a straightforward adaptation from page to screen. 

But the last thing it does is take an innocent Victorian children's tale and messes with its skirts. It would be truer to say it takes a dark Absurdist drama and finds it a happy ending.

Saturday 3 December 2022

NOT A PROPER REVIEW AT ALL OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM’S ‘HIEROGLYPHS - UNLOCKING ANCIENT EGYPT’ EXHIBITION fact it teatures precisely one exhibit, a relief from the Karnak Temple, which depicts the defeat of the Libyans, photographed by my good self which characteristic ineptitude. 

The two figures are the sort of thing we expect to see in Ancient Egyptian art, standard hieratic profile view. Yet that rearing horse deominates the image. And more importantly both sets of its legs are doubled. The motion effect which adds to the sense of it rearing up mid battle.

It’s an effect mostly associated with Futurist art of the early twentieth century, for example Boccioni’s ’The Charge of the Lancers’ (1915, above). This image looks more eye-popping because the effect is used more extensively. In fact everything seems to lead out from the body of that horse, enhanced by the dark-to-pale colour gradation.

While at Karnak Temple the effect is never used anywhere else. It’s perhaps not clearly visible in my hurried photo, but it’s not used on those falling and feeling figures, which are all kept integral. Yet they’re such a jumble, you have to scrutinise the work quite hard to realise they’re not. (An effect possibly heightened by the contrast between them and the neat columns of hieroglyphs.) The whirlygig blur of battle looks very much the intended effect.

Art from this era is usually almost anti-dynamic, it’s impassive, ritualistic. To quote Wikipedia: “Artworks served an essentially functional purpose that was bound with religion and ideology. To render a subject in art was to give it permanence. Therefore, ancient Egyptian art portrayed an idealized, unrealistic view of the world. There was no significant tradition of individual artistic expression since art served a wider and cosmic purpose of maintaining order… It is also very conservative: the art style changed very little over time.” In short, it exists to say ”this is so”.

Here, not so much. A more dynamic art suggests a more volatile world. So how to explain this multi-legged horse? Options include

i) “A useful reminder not to over-generalise over the culture of an ancient civilisation, especially one which went on for so many centuries.”

ii) “It’s interesting, but you can’t extrapolate that much from a single example. For all we know popular reaction could have been befuddlement, and the artist firmly told to count the number of horse’s legs the next time.”

iii) “The answer’s obvious. A Futurist artist had a time machine, duh.”

iv) “Shut up Gavin, no-one cares about this sort of thing apart from you.”