J G Ballard: Autopsies of the New Millennium, MACBA. A review from 2009

A review of the Ballard exhibition in Barcelona. Published in The Art Book, Vol. 16 No. 2 (May 2009).


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A keynote talk from 2013

As this blog has more or less dried up recently, I’ve decided to post some old papers and talks, while I’m preparing a new set of posts on recent work in progress. Here’s the text, more or less as delivered, of a keynote talk I did for the North – South conference in York in 2013 – more or less the last official thing I did as an employed academic.

‘North of Cold … Sepulchral South’: Telepoetic Imaginings, or, Five theses on thinking North and South …

One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-Going Zax.
And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped. There they stood.
Foot to foot. Face to face.
“Look here, now!” the North-Going Zax said, “I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I’m a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!”

Dr Seuss’s Zax, North-going and South-going, each unidirectional and, in conflict, immoveable, stake their claims to their directions as territories. Their ludicrous impasse, the absolute blocking of each other’s ‘right’ of ‘way’, embodies some of what I want to explore today. I’d like to pose a few questions about the relations between our ideas of North and South, and our experiences of movement and direction, of rights, of possession and dispossession, of claiming imagined territory in and through the act of imagining the territory.

North-going and south-going: Dr Seuss’s Zax offer a fable of intransigence and its consequences, a moral tale about the absolute insistence of difference; but North and South, aesthetically represented, seem rather more fluid. In art and writing we experience, sometimes, an endless and doubled movement both towards and away from (to move northward, on a globe, is only to escape the pull of the south until it’s rediscovered beyond the most northerly point, and vice versa); we encounter a directionality or alignment organized by the poetics of place and emplacement. North and South both imply in their simple connotations some kind of determinate and stable identity – of position, climate, mood and temperature – that can only exist within this differentiation, which is also a deferment, an identity or emplacement imagined, and always incomplete in its imagining. ‘I always go North’, says the North-Going Zax … this movement and its insistence will be a key theme here.

I want to explore an art-work, some poems, and a prose passage, and to suggest in doing so five theses about how we might understand our representations of North and South as experiences in process, incomplete imaginings, as imagined destinations towards which we might endlessly be moving, and ownership of which we repeatedly claim; and how these incomplete spaces have been constructed in, and enacted by the formal patternings of, places and movements that exist only as ceaselessly fluid, unfixed, ideas – and also as ideologies.

The desire to ‘fix’ these ideas, to pin them down (almost literally, with poles and sticks and rods, as we’ll see), indicates their fluid force. It’s a desire that implies that without such firm locating, we feel somehow dispossessed of our imaginings, disoriented, even ‘lost’. Sarah Maguire, one of the poets I’ll discuss shortly, writes of Robert Frost’s famous assertion that ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’, suggesting ‘that we take ‘lost in translation’ in the sense that Sister Sledge meant ‘lost in music’, an interpretation of Frost’s spoilsport aphorism’, she continues, ‘I’d strongly endorse: it seems to me to be far nearer the truth.’ (Sarah Maguire, ‘Translation’, Poetry Review 52 (2004), p. 59.)

So, THESIS 1: North is always only northwards; south is always only southwards …

Whatever Maguire’s ‘truth’ might be and however nearer to it we might move, we can be ‘lost’ not only in translation or in music, but also within fictional versions of our own contradictory experiences of geo-orientation, narratives in which our North-going and South-going movements always bump up against and mobilize new and surprising imaginary constructions of north and south as partners and counterweights, opposites and complements. Any claim of ownership of a direction involves the reification of that direction into territory, space, place – into an ever-deferred, imaginary, experience of arrival as belonging. The continual interplay of north and south, as we travel towards and away from them, constructs alignments and orientations, pointings and facings, insisting that we render this mobile directional difference in oppositions and linear metaphors.

This talk will circulate around some examples of movements northwards in writing, in works that suggest, but also question, the kind of aligned orientation apparently insisted upon in, for example, this piece, an installation by Richard Long entitled, conveniently, North South.

Exhibited in 2011 at the Haunch of Venison in London, Long’s work comprises a line of dark slate shards standing more or less upright, bisecting a circle of white stones. The whole piece comprises a flat but deeply textured sphere, offering a vision of a grandly geographical aesthetic intervention, an embodied idea of polar alignment. ‘The idea really is’, Long writes of his work, ‘that the line of the slate axis is north-south, so it is about the magnetic field of the earth. In other words, if this work was put up anywhere else, the direction of the line would always be the same.’

Magnetic and electrical fields, like these lines of force visible as a product of magnetism, or visualized as the Earth’s magnetic poles, establish patterns clearly similar to the structure of Long’s North South. Long’s piece is about the desire to sustain consistency of unidirectionality in a vision of a sustained pointing that, like that of the compass, reassures through the inevitable consistency of its alignment, but always indicates to the viewer an elsewhere, a different space beyond itself.

In this sense Long’s North South is a kind of map; its form evokes the structure of older maps, like this 19th Century German depiction of the ancient Greek geocentric universe imagined by Anaximander.

North South imagines its polarity as a fixed experience, and, in doing so, embeds within that experience a set of metaphors for those structures by which human life is organized. The piece is structured by apparently simple oppositions encoding visible, geometric, and tactile difference – black and white, linear and circular, stone and slate, horizontal and vertical. It represents a differentiated world, and the tensions between its multiple planes of significance generate its semantic force.

The gallery-viewer can circumnavigate the piece and experience the sudden awareness of one’s planetary positionality, a sense of almost Wordsworthian mobile situatedness as if we too are ‘rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course / with rocks and stones and trees’. The piece momentarily evokes a mobile and global grandeur from a patterned arrangement of rocks, taking on the effect of a pointing, an insistent gesture of orientation towards something vaguely imputed but precisely indicated, existing somewhere beyond the immediate frame of the work. This trope of indexicality becomes, in turn, allusion, the gesture towards a larger structure of which the work becomes, momentarily, a part.

As Ben Luke noted in the London Evening Standard, ‘This is characteristic of Long: the physical earthiness of the stone is obvious, but he also alludes to the invisible geographical forces that govern our experience on the planet’. (Ben Luke, London Evening Standard, 27 May 2011, http://www.standard.co.uk/arts/richard-long–landscape-artist-7425087.html  (accessed 11 June 2013)). Long’s North South works, then via allusion to an implied sensation of ‘invisible’ forces: it embodies those forces, imagining their materialization in the substances on which they act, recreating their natural effects as imagined semantic fields.

Which leads to THESIS 2: North and South are words to describe the imagined places towards which we are ever departing, to which we sail, to which we are ever saying farewell.

My title, ‘North of Cold, Sepulchral South’, is taken from the second stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Farewell to Florida’, a poem of liquid northerly departure and return that, not insignificantly, opens his 1935 collection Ideas of Order.

The palms were hot (Stevens writes)
As if I lived in ashen ground, as if
The leaves in which the wind kept up its sound
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South,
Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea,
Her home, not mine, in the ever-freshened Keys,
Her days, her oceanic nights, calling
For music, for whisperings from the reefs.
How content I shall be in the North to which I sail
And to feel sure and to forget the bleaching sand …

Structured like Long’s work around a series of oppositions – land and sea, hot and cold, masculine and feminine – this complex and powerful poem of home and homelessness navigates what Harold Bloom calls ‘a trope of pathos, a synecdoche for desire and not desire itself’. (Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), pp. 110-1.) Its symbolic journey northward, incomplete at the poem’s end, always in process, offers a vision of half-refused escape, of compromised freedom charged with the pain of erotic loss, repudiated desire (‘I loved her once!’), and nostalgic resentment.

Stevens partly rewrites Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, a poem Bloom elsewhere suggests concerns ‘the ordeal of despair’. (Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1971), p. 113.) The conjunction of these two poems suggests a North-by-Northwest madness of conflicting post-Romantic urges. North, South, West … a strange geometry of disorientation, of migrating winds and whisperings, of leaves and leavings, permeates Stevens’ poem, which likewise expresses a despairing ordeal, a masculine trauma of removal and erotic deprivation, a displacement, desired and resented, into the ‘violent’ Northern male life of the mind. This imagined North is reified, slightly desperately, as the destiny of an escape from a feminized, fertile, summery South and from a constraining female mind; ‘a renunciation’, critic Tony Sharpe argues, ‘of feminine southern comfort, for a masculine north imaged as cold, turbulent, and metropolitan’. (Tony Sharpe, Wallace Stevens: A Literary Life(Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 141.)

Most obviously in this poem about moving northward, the movement (constructed as a departure: ‘Farewell to Florida’) figures the double-orientation – the de- and re-territorialization, as Deleuze and Guattari would put it – of desire, of a possessive and dispossessing orientation. The poem inscribes this in the act of looking-back upon an irretrievable past that belongs to somewhere else and to the Other, and in looking forward to the end of a journey which seems also to be some sort of return, a return to a dispossessed sense of self.

It’s a movement fatally bound by the polarity it seeks to transcend, and thus potentially an endless movement trapped within its own circularity: ‘Go on through the darkness’, implores the narrator in the first stanza, only to repeat the appeal in the poem’s final lines: ‘carry me / To the cold, go on, high ship, plunge on’, a formally circular movement contrasting with the linearity asserted by ‘plunge on’. This poem’s imagined ending in a putative North is a continuation of its failure to evade the South in which it locates its own death.

‘Farewell to Florida’s ‘idea of order’ can be biographically located in the poet’s explorations of self-translation, as Helen Vendler’s 2003 essay on Stevens suggests:

“When in 1922 Stevens comes to organize his long Browningesque autobiography in verse, The Comedian as the Letter C, he does so by means of successive geographic hypotheses, each contradicting the former. Should the poet remain in Bordeaux, within the European tradition? or translate himself to the Yucatan, where the new world is the savage landscape discovered by Columbus and the conquistadors? Or move to North America’s placid and warm English- settled southern states? Stevens eventually decides for the last of these, […] Later, in 1936, affected by the failure of his marriage and the shock of the Depression, Stevens will write the elegiac Farewell to Florida, declaring that he must now seek his fate in the North: ‘‘My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime’’.” Helen Vendler, ‘Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions’, Representations81:1 (Winter 2003), pp. 103-4.)

Such ‘translations’ and ‘movements’ repeat Sarah Maguire’s point about being ‘lost in translation’; Vendler reads ‘Farewell to Florida’ as ‘elegiac’, a poem mourning both loss and being lost.

The words Stevens uses are of course crucial. His ‘North of cold’ is monosyllabic, a modified place, the genitive ‘of’ reinforcing the mutual possession of ‘My’. ‘Of’ places ‘North’ syntactically first, its qualities ensuing from its firm initial statement, the whole phrase a set of three monosyllabic words implying simplicity, the obviousness of hard fact that the ownership seems to confirm.

‘Sepulchral South’ implies, in contrast, an emotive state of mind, a condition of memory and, for the male narrator, emotional shock; ‘South’ is a state qualified by a polysyllabic Latinate word evoking a particularly Christian sense of mortality, a deathlike mood to describe a place of death (the past, the lost South), into which the ‘wind’ from the North ‘whistled’. ‘The North to which I sail’ implies a definite but distanced location, an object – implicitly a different kind of death, the death to come – towards which this poem moves, that then blurs like ‘the bleaching sand’. It is, in the final stanza, a north that is ‘leafless and lies in a wintry slime’. Whatever ‘death’ the South may embody, the North seems to echo in its wintriness: in the poem of departure, ‘Farewell’ is a wish and a warning, ‘North’ and ‘South’ distant origins and destinations that become destinies.

THESIS 3: we can only imagine North and South from a distance, and that distance might be our way of locating one in relation to the other, of forgetting one in imagining the other …

Vendler’s ‘geographic hypotheses’ characterize Stevens’ uses of the kinds of imagination signified by the other key theoretical term in my title, ‘telepoetic imaginings’. Telepoetic describes the imagining and poetic making of versions of distant places or features. The term is Jacques Derrida’s, coined in The Politics of Friendship, and exploits the homonymic relation between tele meaning ‘afar’, distant in place and in time, and implying telos, ending: tele/telos, with poeisis, making: the making or imagining of the distant in time and space, and the making or imagining of an ending or of bringing (or moving) to an end, to the ends of the Earth, perhaps.

‘Part of the complexity of ‘Farewell to Florida’ is the poem’s refusal to reconcile its end with the realization of its imagined destiny, a refusal that characterizes the telepoetic imagination. Stevens himself expresses something of its force when, in ‘Imagination as Value’, he discusses ‘the power of the mind over external objects’: he’s referring to interpretive power over art objects, but adduces imagination as ‘the only clue to reality’. (Wallace Stevens, ‘Imagination as Value’, in Collected Poetry and Prose(Washington: Library of America, 1997), pp. 726-7.)

Telepoesis invites, Derrida suggests, the sense of ‘that which renders absolute, perfect, completed, accomplished, finished’ and simultaneously what he calls ‘a poetics of distance at one remove’, ‘a speaking to distance and the far-removed’. (Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (translated by George Collins) (London: Verso Books, 2005), p. 32.) As Peter Davidson notes, ‘Everyone carries their own idea of North [and, we must add, South] within them.’ (Peter Davidson, The Idea of North (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), pp. 9, 209).Discussing Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Show Saturday’, Davidson invokes the telepoetic imagining of what he calls ‘the quotidian north’: ‘The sense [in Larkin’s poem] of endings (of summer, of the show) is balanced against the idea of the unity that it [the village show] represents as a source of sustenance through the bad months …’. (Davidson, The Idea of North, p. 8). Imagined unities and endings, imagined futures and destinies characterize the telepoetic possibility of imagining-at-a-distance.

The ambiguities of Stevens’ poem works hard to situate and desituate the reader, exploiting many of the relational constructions of ‘North’ (and, of course, of ‘South’) that Davidson has so carefully considered. Stevens offers us ‘a north which moves continually out of reach, receding towards the polar night’. Such an idea of North is something towards which the mind moves. Stevens’s northerly telepoetic mind, ‘a mind of winter’, as he puts it in ‘The Snow Man’, muddies the conventional ascription of associative qualities. It counterpoints ‘North’ with ‘cold’ and ‘South’ with ‘sepulchral’, and ‘North’ and ‘South’ with each other.

The narrative voice is displaced from the ‘South’, which is gendered as ‘Her home, not mine’, a possessiveness signifying dispossession and the being-possessed of the narrator. The voice aspires to a ‘North’ from which ‘the wind kept up its sound’ as ‘the leaves … whistled’. The poem’s sensory range offers a kind of sonic allegory of reading, a scrutiny of the ‘whistles’ and ‘whisperings’ of natural phenomena for traces of the sirenic music of poetic desire, the ‘calling’ of ‘her oceanic nights’. Stevens’ valediction mourns the inauguration of visions of ‘South’ and of a Southern past as kinds of monumental death, as the irresistible, located, seductions of mortality.

This allegory evokes for me a much shorter, more famous line of poetic reading and migration:

“I read, much of the night, and go South in winter.”

Stevens inverts, expands, and adumbrates the sentiments of Eliot’s Marie, at the start of The Waste Land, a female Gerontion reminiscing in old age of her youth, and by implication connecting ‘North’ with the ‘night’ of ‘winter’ and ‘South’ with escaping it for warmth and light, offering her version of Stevens’ displaced ‘Return’ to the Southern climate of Florida. Where Eliot’s Marie simply ‘reads’, but imagines the South from the distanced North, Stevens’s protagonist actively interprets the soundscapes of his environment for signifiers and similes, markers of likeness and significance – ‘as if, as if’, he repeats – that will both validate and annul his desire, replacing it with ‘the bleaching sand’, imagining North and South from the ‘seas’ between them.

‘North’ and ‘South’ are object-places towards which these poetic protagonists move, either actively in search of habit-breaking relief, or passively, in regular, passionless habit. Less places or geographies than directions or even trajectories, their telepoetic constructions mark, in such problematic modernist texts, both destinies and origins (and destinies as origins, the destined ‘North’ as origin of the ‘wind’ and ‘cold’ possessed by and possessing Stevens’ departing narrator).

‘North’ and ‘South’ imply momentary alignments within what Rosi Braidotti has called the ‘web-like, scattered and polycentred’ global economy. (Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), p. 31.) They offer orientations ostensibly neutral of any significance other than the absolute symmetries of geometrical patterning; but they also orient the global surface upon which, nevertheless, they are inscribed and invested with powerful cultural significance. After all, as the 1980 Report of the Independent Commission on Development Issues, entitled NORTH SOUTH, noted, ‘in general terms, and although neither is a uniform or permanent grouping, ‘North’ and ‘South’ are broadly synonymous with ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘developed’ and ‘developing’.’ (NORTH SOUTH: A Programme For Survival, pp. 22-3.)

In modern geo-political terms, then, Stevens’ narrator moves from ‘poor’ to ‘rich’, while Eliot’s Marie takes the reverse journey: the two poems offer alternative migrations between polar positions. In each case it’s the movement that is important. Neither ‘North’ nor ‘South’ is located in itself, but each resides in the imagined end of a planned trajectory. Nevertheless there is still direction in Marie’s ‘going South in winter’ and in Stevens’ ‘North to which I sail’: movement has some kind of end in sight, a directionality evident in the nebulous purpose of movement-towards which we readers must telepoetically imagine, and which is concretised only in the forceful associations trailing the words ‘North’ and ‘South’.

THESIS 4: our imagined Norths and Souths are always only texts, encoding in landscapes and climates the immense narratives of our desires.

‘Farewell to Florida’ presents the experiences of North and South in terms of a personalised mythology, an internal epic of migration Northwards to escape that devouring feminine South, even as the poem dwells almost lasciviously on its seductive stance. I want to counter this seduction by examining another poetic journey Northwards. Sarah Maguire’s ‘Travelling Northward’ opens her debut collection of 1997, The Invisible Mender, inaugurating the multiple poetic journeys of that collection.

As with ‘Farewell to Florida’ we’re dealing with readerly initiations into poetic mythologies: each poem stands at the opening of its respective collection, establishing the movement Northwards as an insistent symbolic pressure in the subsequent poems. Maguire’s ‘Travelling Northward’ is, on first reading, a radically different poem performing radically different things – its journey, for starters, is clearly external and material, a physically onerous train journey upwards across the winter-bound north-eastern districts of America.

This poem of observation and commentary works hard to dissociate its lyric voice from the world it encounters. The tone refuses the internally focused agitation of Stevens, but articulates instead an all-too-familiar, almost wearied, narrative of Western socio-economic and historical decline through a series of images and synecdoches of post-industrial poverty and dispossession.

Maguire exploits the same geographical movement as Stevens, to markedly different effect, and the interpretative force of her poem contrasts dramatically with the possessive rhetoric foregrounded by Stevens. Maguire’s massive act of possession is to claim a kind of international kinship through the recognition that the American North-East is kin to the Northern recession-bound landscapes of England. ‘Travelling Northwards’ is effectively an extended simile, to be contrasted with Stevens’ symbolic text.

Maguire, a London poet whose familiar out-of-placeness on a train moving across the north-eastern USA is the overt lyric theme of ‘Travelling Northwards’, is (as we’ve noted) also a significant contemporary theorist of poetic translation, and this poem explores a kind of translation of experience into telepoesis: an imagining of destination as movement itself, the continual present of ‘travelling Northwards’ without end which is also a kind of return home, a movement through and amongst the world it observes, without ever locating itself within that world. Instead the poem reifies the world as text, its ‘cold-occluded signposts’ no longer indicators of direction, destination, or destiny, but instead eloquent signifiers of the blankness of socio-economic loss, and implicitly of subjective disorientation.

This poem’s allegory of reading situates interpretative force firmly with the narrating voice, as it experiences the exotic and the familiar (‘like any train / I’ve ever taken anywhere’) in counterbalancing waves of intensity. The object of ideological analysis appears in the third stanza, with its disdain for the effects of ‘voodoo economics’ inscribed into the landscapes we read with the narrator. This gives the poem its political edge as it maps a narrative of economic shrinkage and distillation ‘from metropolis to detritus’ – from urban complexity to rubble.

The action of moving Northwards is, in this poem, also the movement, in stanza 5, ‘into darkness’; the now familiar disorientation encountered in the northerly drift of contemporary writing is pinned by those ‘cold-occluded signposts’. ‘Occlusion’ is of course the poem’s rhetorical strategy: a closing-off, the bounding of experience by ‘the rigid grid’ or ‘futuristic blueprint’ of New York City, even as movement is sustained in the journey Northwards away from such a space.

Such networks of restricted movement and perception are balanced by the poem’s switch to historical and evolutionary scales, themselves also ‘seemingly tracked and planned’ like the railway lines. Finding its momentary locations by historical analogy and couching its socio-economic critique within a poetics of alienation – ‘I don’t know where I am’, the narrator insists, ‘I read the signs but don’t know where I am’ – ‘Travelling Northwards’ demands a symbolic reading that’s affirmed by Maguire’s allusions to Northern Irish poetry.

Most obvious is the phrase ‘new weather’ at the head of the seventh stanza, almost at the poem’s halfway point: ‘to plot this journey to new weather’ – echoing the title of Armagh poet Paul Muldoon’s debut collection published in 1973. There several other echoes of Muldoon’s book in Maguire’s collection – for example, the ‘drumlins’ in his short poem ‘Macha’ appear in Maguire’s long poem ‘Tidemarks’, which also alludes to Seamus Heaney’s poems ‘Bone Dreams’ (‘I dream of schist and basalt’) and ‘Bog Queen’ (‘glaciers and slow moraines’), both crucial poems in his 1975 collection North. Heaney, of course, was born in Castledawson in Derry, and explored throughout his work his complex relations to the historical and political division of Ireland into North and South.

‘Travelling Northwards’ thus becomes an allegory of reading in another way, as it telepoetically imagines the late 20th century American landscape through the tropes and images deployed by two key northern Irish poets whose own relations to the imagining of ‘North’, as well as their contributions to the poetic imagining of north-south relations in Ireland, have been profoundly influential.

The first poem of Muldoon’s New Weather offers a convenient segue here into the questions of polarity raised by ideas of North and South, and by Maguire’s concerns in ‘Travelling Northwards’ with the history of electricity. Entitled ‘The Electric Orchard’ (the title he wanted for this collection but which was rejected by his editors at Faber), (See ‘The Q&A: Paul Muldoon’, with Ariel Ramchandani, in The Economist, at http://moreintelligentlife.co.uk/blog/ariel-ramchandani/qa-paul-muldoon-poet-editor), Muldoon’s poem, which I’ll very briefly touch on, is one of the coded reference points of Maguire’s ‘Travelling Northwards’. It shares her poem’s concern with electricity as a symbolization of geographical direction and of polarity, and thus of all those differences of class, wealth, and identity, embedded in our imaginings of North and South.

Muldoon presents an allegory of American colonization as a version of the Fall dynamised by the magical knowledge symbolized by electricity, through which the territorialisation of the world is enacted, the domestication and, eventually, possession and juridical inscription of the land and its law – defined by the construction of ‘legislation’ against ‘trespassers’. This is a process of enforcement in which legal ‘prosecution’ is rhyme-echoed in the establishment of ‘electrocution’ at the poem’s end, a violent but also empowering metaphor of ‘falling, the end of innocence’.

Ivan Philips writes that this ‘is the poetry of a strange frontier-land where trees are pylons and the savage artifice of barbed wire imitates a natural thorn bush’ (Ivan Philips, ‘In the Electric Orchard: Technology, Literacy, and the Innocence of Experience in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon’, p. 9 (at academia.edu)) – that is, the ‘strange frontier-land’ of Muldoon’s mythologized America and, more broadly, of the telepoetically imagined North, a land of savagery ruled by the unnamed God of thunder and electrical storms – Thor, a name offering, of course, a near anagram of North.

The ‘frontier-land’ constructed by Muldoon’s telepoetic, or even tele-poelectric, imagination, is a figure of the immense Muldoonian imagination itself, which Seamus Heaney describes as ‘arbitrary and contrary: it delights in its own fictions and has a right to them.’ (Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London: Faber, 1980) p.213). Again possession and ‘rights’ emerge prominently within literary discourses around North and South. Telepoetic imagining becomes, in Stevens and Muldoon, a claiming of rights which, in Maguire, is repudiated by her poem’s lament for dispossession, which it replaces by incomplete movement, an interminable journeying northwards in which mobility itself comes to signify the orientation that the poem records.

And thus, my final THESIS, number 5: we can never actually locate North or South with any certainty; they are mobile, indeterminate imaginings …

My final text comes from EL Doctorow’s novel Ragtime of 1974, which offers a sequence where Father (the family members are named by their relations) accompanies the American explorer Robert Peary on his 1909 quest for the North Pole, his own attempt at ‘the verification of a principle’ of northerliness:

“Now the sun shone brightly, the sky was clear [writes Doctorow]; there was a full moon in the blue sky and the great ice thighs of the earth heaved and shuddered and rose toward the moon. At midmorning of April 9, Peary called a halt. He ordered Henson to build a snow shield to protect him while he took his observations. Peary lay on his stomach and with a pan of mercury and a sextant, some paper and a pencil, he calculated his position. It did not satisfy him. He walked further along the floe and took another sighting. This did not satisfy him. All day long Peary shuffled back and forth over the ice, a mile one way, two miles another, and made his observations. No one observation satisfied him. He would walk a few steps due north and find himself going due south. On this watery planet the sliding sea refused to be fixed. He couldn’t find the exact place to say this spot, here, is the North Pole. Nevertheless there was no question that they were there. All the observations together indicated that. Give three cheers, my boy, he told Henson. And let’s fly the flag. Henson and the Esquimos cheered loudly but could not be heard in the howling wind. The flag snapped and rippled. Peary posed Henson and the Eskimos in front of the flag and took their picture. It shows five stubby figures wrapped in furs, the flag set in a paleocrystic peak behind them that might suggest a real physical Pole. Because of the light the faces are indistinguishable, seen only as black blanks framed by caribou fur.” (emphasis added) (EL Doctorow, Ragtime (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 67-8.)

Here’s the photograph Doctorow describes, an image oddly reminiscent of the final lines of Maguire’s poem: ‘a group of cold men / pressed together’. This passage inscribes the movement, displacement, disorientation and uncertainty characterising literary journeys northwards, from Frankenstein onwards. It allegorises the experience of reading Ragtime itself, a deliberately slippery novel in which Doctorow constructs a narrative without a fixed centre or clear linear narrative sequence around which we might orient ourselves.

He offers instead multiple competing pseudo-histories, a ‘sliding sea’ of conflicting yet interconnected narratives of variable, and repeatedly questionable, ontological status, in which the polar quest of Peary and Father – a quest to conquer territory and geography – is just one narrative version of the trajectory of modern desire and its (literal, in this case) polarisation. Peary’s ‘Shuffling back and forth across the ice’ while ‘calculating’ and ‘making observations’ offers a version of the telepoetic imagination at work, both seeking and assuming an idea of North and of polar certainty within which to locate itself even as it fails to locate that idea, and attaching itself instead to an ideology with its lines of force, the absolutely located illusion of ‘this spot, here’ which, in the imagining of North and South, is always an elsewhere.

As the caption to this photograph reveals, Peary’s North Pole, apparently several miles short of the ‘actual’ Pole, is always already telepoetically figured, structured by a fantasy of possession.

‘Mine at last’, wrote Peary in his diary entry describing this moment; this act of appropriation repeats the now familiar trope of ‘ownership’, of possession, connected to the finding of the North. Peary constructs, and, importantly, takes possession of an imagined place bearing little relation to geographical reality, but conforming to the colonial demand symbolized by the flag and the territory. The ‘watery planet’ of Ragtime mimics, in form and metaphor, apparently at its most northerly points, the fluid, uncontainable Southern-ness and the ‘slimy’ Northern-ness, polarities that so devour the narrator of ‘Farewell to Florida’.

North and South, then, remain somewhere beyond their ostensible inscriptions in these texts; outside the grasp of experience yet constantly imagined, represented as movements, trajectories, directions of alignment, spatialisations of conceptual bundles of experience, perception and idea, effects of tropes and metaphors.

North and South survive beyond attempts to possess them, and return instead to possess the telepoetic imaginings that they invoke – North is always only northwards; south is always only southwards … North and South are words to describe the imagined places towards which we are ever departing, to which we sail, to which we are ever saying farewell … we can only imagine North and South from a distance, and that distance might be our way of locating one in relation to the other, of forgetting one in imagining the other … our imagined Norths and Souths are always only texts, encoding in landscapes and climates the immense narratives of our desires … we can never actually locate North or South with any certainty; they are mobile, indeterminate imaginings ….

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Pam Jackson 1947-2017

To Warriston Crematorium today to pay respects to my former tutor, Pam Jackson, who passed away earlier this month. I hadn’t known until this summer that she was living in Edinburgh. We last crossed paths briefly (a quick chat in the queue at lunch) around 2001, when I went for a job interview (unsuccessful!) at Edge Hill, where I’d been an undergraduate between 1984 and 1987. Pam was my seminar tutor in the first year, and again for an option course on Literary Criticism in the third year. I was taught by many great tutors at Edge Hill. Pam was the first of them, and retrospectively the most significant. It’s only with hindsight that I can really appreciate how influential her seminars, and in particular her highly personal choice of texts, were on my subsequent career. We studied modern and contemporary British writing on that first-year course – Harold Pinter (No Man’s Land, a strange play, and we watched the TV film with Gielgud and Richardson), Iris Murdoch (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine), War poetry, some modernist poetry (I remember Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot – the latter’s “still centre of the turning world” and adapted lines from Julian of Norwich crowned today’s funeral ceremony). Pam added a personal choice to the list of texts that year, novels by Emma Tennant. She presented us with eclectic texts, from a wider historical range, for analysis – a comparison of a passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its source text, Brooke’s translation of Bandello, a section from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a chunk from a critical book on Emily Dickinson. This somewhat idiosyncratic range of texts was to be the bedrock of much of what I did over the next couple of decades. A few years later, at Sheffield, I tentatively began a PhD on Emma Tennant, switching after a year (and after an evening in Ormskirk drinking with Chris Baldick and harvesting advice) to Angela Carter, a change I never regretted despite still liking Tennant’s weird version of mid-70s magical realism in Alice Fell, Queen of Stones, Hotel de Dream, etc. I also started teaching a first-year Practical Criticism course, putting into very amateur practice a little of what I’d been taught years before.

In the third-year Criticism course Pam presented us with a condensed history of critical thought from Plato to deconstruction. For the most part it both baffled and intrigued me, and I ended up studying what was then called Critical Theory for my MA. We had guest lectures from people like Drummond Bone on Coleridge’s metaphysics in Biographia Literaria. We read David Daiches (had she been taught by him? I can’t recall). We worked through some of Norris’s Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, which helped to initiate my long, endlessly enriching struggle with Jacques Derrida’s writings. When I visited Sheffield Uni for my MA interview in the autumn of 1986 I picked up a copy of Vincent B. Leitch’s Deconstructive Criticism from a second-hand bookstall, which Pam then borrowed off me. The exam at the end of this course was demanding, and contained what I still think of as the ideal exam question: ‘“Texts of maximum determinacy tend to be tedious” (Iser). Respond.’I didn’t respond. I wrote instead on Barthes, and on Derrida and difference. Years later, after teaching vast amounts of cultural studies, popular fiction, Modernism, Romanticism, and contemporary fiction and poetry, I ended up meeting Derrida at a conference in Loughborough, taught books and essays by him and Barthes (among many others) on several courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and managed to visit the exhibition of Barthes’ work for A Lover’s Discourse at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris a year or two ago. Again, what Pam had taught me years before remained at some level of intellectual sediment, surfacing periodically when less resilient silt momentarily washed away.


I have an essay I wrote in third year, responding (!) to a quote from Carlyle: “We are all poets when we read a poem well” (hence my not responding to the reader-response question in the exam). Her comment, full of praise, nevertheless focuses quite rightly on my neglect of the issue of what “to read well” might mean. I guess what I learnt most from Pam’s seminars, particularly those first-year ones, was exactly that – how to read well. That is, not simply to consume texts (which is what I did before college, a lot, without any real critical relation to them) but to read them productively, for what I now think of as the pleasure of their difficulty. To begin to appreciate the bewildering, invigorating complexity of the literary across its huge (infinite, surely) range of expression. To understand in some dim, undergraduate way that criticism and literature are inseparable, interdependent, each endlessly defining and redefining the other, and to read each for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so within that understanding. To regard readerly eclecticism, range, and diversity across texts and genres as strengths, rather than to parrot a version of the Leavisian ‘Great Tradition’ line. I’ll not forget those first-year seminars (Wednesday mornings, 9-11, I never missed one), her voice, with its Edinburgh accent (then unplaceable to me, a Hertfordshire council estate and comprehensive school kid living for the first time in Lancashire, surrounded by new accents and dialects), deftly summarizing contexts, carefully placing writers and works in relation to traditions and trends, histories and geographies, inviting and listening carefully to our comments, conveying via questions her own balanced judgments on books and authors (Pinter: “All those pauses, just for effect. But what effect, eh? What effect?” Murdoch: “What do we all make of our first taste of, er, Irish Mudrock?”), and poking gentle but encouraging fun at some of the pretensions of us 18-year-old wanabee critics. And I realize now, writing these last few sentences, that what she taught me was, ultimately, that reading well involves learning a kind of confidence, the kind imparted (thanks to what was, in those days, a loans-free English higher education system) to people like me by people like Pam.

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What’s the Jo(K)e? Or, Deckard’s Hand.

SPOILER ALERT. This post spoils everything.

So, BladeRunner 2049. That was a bit of a ride, wasn’t it?
– Yeah, but … can we talk about the women in this film?
Hold on. I mean, first, everyone’s awestruck, aren’t they, by that astonishing vision of the future, extending and elaborating, supplementing and enhancing Ridley Scott’s famous film, now even more dystopian, dusty, decaying, yet darkly aglow with the magnificence of pure, empty spectacle, flying cars trailing clouds of glory, missiles that arrive and explode with stomach-punching immediacy, immense orange-lit post-nuclear vistas (thanks, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) of collapsed buildings, piles of detritus, broken monuments, like a shattered world (well, a shattered Las Vegas) horrifically reified complete and monstrous within some kind of huge, planetary semi-translucent Trumpian skinjob …
– Yeah, but, the women characters …
And skin, hey, its all about skin, isn’t it. Skinners. Skinjobs. “You construct intricate rituals to enable you to touch the skin of other men”, said that Barbara Kruger piece from, what, 1981 – the year before Scott’s BladeRunner … well there’s a lot of those rituals in the Villeneuve sequel. A lot of punching and grappling and rolling around. A lot of stroking and holding of chins and heads and faces. A lot of self-repairing (glueing one’s own wounds, what better signifier of the essential alienness of the self to itself … self-repair in the smithy of the soul, of which it seems – and the film makes abundantly clear – there’s precious little to go round in this world).
– Yeah, and the women …
And all the literary stuff. It’s a film made out of a burning library. It grabs fragments of text spiralling upwards in the smoke and flames of its imaginary conflagration and uses them relentlessly to authenticate its high-culture credentials through machine-gun barrages of quotes from Nabokov’s Pale Fire and endless allusions to Hamlet. There’s even an “Alas, poor Yorick” moment with Rachael’s skull, and, Ophelia-like, a drowned madwoman –
– Yes, that’s one of the women I wanted to …
– and all the Kafka stuff. Surely it’s Kafka. He’s called K, our heroic replicant who apparently isn’t one (or is he? Oh, how these clever uncertainties become distractions), and later renamed Joe. Joe K. Jo(K)e. It’s a Kafka joke, isn’t it? So we have levels of allusion – to BladeRunner, to literature, to other books and movies (there’s a lot of I am Legend in here, in the monster-hunter who becomes a kind of monster himself). But all this is by the by, the plot after all is so lazy, something about parenthood and how hard it is to manufacture a woman that can have a baby or something, how to produce something that can reproduce, is that it? It’s not important, though, because, the critics scream, this is all about the sheer spectacle (“Watch it on the IMAX!!” scream the critics. “Marvel at the utter bigness of its bigness! Revel in its time! Be amazed, be very amazed!”).
– And then there’s the endless references to the patriarchal tradition of the female corpse …
But wait. Surely it really IS all about that huge dystopian vision, our revelling in the sheer visceral encounter with a possible/probable future where everything is completely capitalist and corporate and actually, unbelievably, more utterly shit, more blatantly corrupt, more obscenely power-centred, more brutally ruthless than our current reality. And boy is it huge. Its deserted cities and desolate landscapes, dry and dusty, all furnace-red and scorched-earth, all near-three hours of them (it’s even hugely long), are nevertheless awash with swathes of grating, deafening synthesised noise, a superbly demonic cathedral-like battering of shrieking tones and body-shaking subauditory bass throbs. Its darkness – the gloom of huge satanic wings flapping across the screen – is punctuated by artificially bright light – weapon-flashes, neon advertising, mere glimmers in the immensity of a sepulchral futurity.
– Yeah, that advertising, did you notice it’s ALL FEMALE BODIES, huge ones, mostly naked ones, a massive spectacle of unreconstructed and barely controlled perverse male voyeurism …
But wait. The film meditates ponderously on birth and death, creation and destruction, production and reproduction (one character almost literally lives out the lament of Beckett’s Hamm – “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”) –
– Yeah, that’s a woman character …
and does so by a narrative twist on its precursor, the death of Rachael, her return as a box of bones, broken, scarred by scalpels, dying in childbirth …
– See what I mean, it’s all about dead women …
What do you mean?
– The film’s entire logic centres (insofar as she’s its symbolic centre, an absent centre that’s also a lost thread, a prematurely dead future like Hicks and Newt at the start of Fincher’s Alien3) on a dead woman who, it seems, has, illegally and apparently technically impossibly, reproduced, dying (oh, the blatant, brutal irony) in the prohibited/impossible act of childbirth (for replicants in this dual world of 2019/2049, everything is/was prohibited, including procreation …). Later in the narrative, she is briefly artificially reconstructed (and hey, we all KNOW she was already, in the earlier movie, artificially CONSTRUCTED, and, ostensibly, spared the four-year life span of the 2019 replicants –  but she seems to have been given exactly that by this film, a corpse, a boxed skeleton buried beneath a tree two years after escaping with Deckard …). The new Rachael is presented to her aged former lover (conspicuously undead, no four-year life-span for this pseudo-replicant Deckard), and immediately shot through that Yoricky skull for having the wrong eye colour (oh, how racism intersects with sexism in this Brave New World – where, after all, are the African Americans in this vision of California, 2049?). Elsewhere in this bloated parable of contemporary misogyny, another woman replicant is born, lasciviously caressed and groped by blind Niander Wallace, this film’s tyrannous Tyrell, and then viciously knifed in the stomach BECAUSE SHE CANNOT REPRODUCE. K’s boss is a woman (a Madame, no less, which tells us much …). She’s shot dead too. By another woman, a murderous replicant, who also literally stamps out of existence K’s love interest, a sentient female hologram called Joi (“a basic pleasure model”, Bryant would have called her, in 2019) who’s been confined/reduced for whatever borderline abusive reasons to a futuristic memory stick. The murderous replicant, agent of Wallace the creator, is of course a woman WHO ALSO CANNOT REPRODUCE (god, all this female failing-to-reproduce, and all this creation-production of women who fail to reproduce, you’d think there was some kind of male anxiety or something somewhere. It’s Frankenstein, but not as we know it). She is strangled and drowned in the sea (la mer – mother – geddit?) by our hero K-Joe. Meanwhile, his cloned sister, the film’s Messiah-substitute, hides, screened from the world, in a sterile tent, officially cursed by immune deficiencies and thus excluded from the social (and, like her analogue JF Sebastian, the off-world). The film’s final shot, its closing symbolic gesture, is not of her, harbinger of a replicant-reproducing future, but of her ageing father’s hand on the isolating screen (which is, of course, also our screen, the film that ostensibly separates us from contamination by the ideological fantasy of the film-world itself) – the father’s hand, a metonymy of a (his, our) replicant-killing present and past. Like the dead hand of Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel, Deckard’s hand – the hand so brutally and pointedly broken by Roy Batty in Scott’s film, in payment for the replicants Deckard has murdered (and let’s remind ourselves, these movies are basically about mercenary cops hired to kill illegal immigrants) – this hand controls this narrative, from the monument of its inception (ha!) to its evasive, handrocentric conclusion. Paternity (“at best a fiction”, Harold Bloom once wrote) determines this film’s pretend-but-not-really obsession with maternity. It insistently overrides the ostensibly mother/daughter-centred narrative (Deckard’s hand performing a huge ideological sleight-of-hand), repeatedly produces and then destroys the feminine (all the while relentlessly consuming through a kind of punitively prolonged handjob its violently sexualised virtuality). Women, of course, lead the vestigial “Revolution” of the Replicants – but that’s part of this film’s imaginary future, not ours, something the father’s hand half points to and half dismisses with a wave. Our ideological poverty – the curse of the Western 21st Century, our repeated failure or deliberate refusal (we have a choice, at least) to imagine a world different from, or better than, less disgracefully misogynist than, less appallingly racist than, our own – is writ large – huge – by this hand as Blade Runner 2049 progresses, reflecting back to us on a gigantic scale the size of our secret prejudices, the violent potentials of our secret fantasies. Mothers, it repeats, are born to die, to be killed, to exist in our visual and ideological field only as real or potential corpses. Fathers … well, they just go on and on, disastrously producing and producing again everything that’s flawed, fucked-up, failed, futile. Deckard’s hand, the hand of the father and the past, replaces in this final image the daughter’s potential future. It holds the key, the digits that code this digitally-created world. Deckard’s hand, the hand of patriarchal power, pulls all the strings in this narrative. And we’re all dealt a dodgy hand from the deck of cards held by this father’s hand.

Yeah, but, but, but, I haven’t even started yet, the, the critics are right, aren’t they, just marvel at the spectacle, the sheer sheery sheerness of it all ..

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New exhibition and book, coming in October 2017 at The Photographers’ Gallery and from Manchester University Press.

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We are fallen in mostly broken pieces

Autumn Sky pic1

I imagined the wind moving through all these places, and many more like them: places that were separated from one another by roads and housing, fences and shopping-centres, street-lights and cities, but were joined across space at that time by their wildness in the wind. We are fallen in mostly broken pieces, I thought, but the wild can still return us to ourselves.

            Then I looked back out across the landscape before me: the roads, the railway, the incinerator tower, the woodlands – Mag’s Hill Wood, Nine Wells Wood, Wormwood. The woods were spread out across the land and all were seething.

Wildness was here too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived. It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, some of it was dying. But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.

Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (Granta 2007).

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Gagarina II, or the starry darkness

Image-of-Vostok-1_mission_patch Saucer

It rings in intergalactic space, not even an answering machine. Like he doesn’t exist, that his place of work doesn’t exist – in the MIR station, the Russian cosmonaut who’s been orbiting for the past 107 years, drinking his lukewarm tea from his bubble pack, finding anything and everything a good laugh, he sticks his lips on to the kiss of the lukewarm water, on the swollen sides of the shrinking bubble, as it goes down his oesophagus because of the combined action of sucking and swallowing, thus creating a depressurization of the surface of the liquid. The tea-time cosmonaut glances at the blue planet, he could drink up its oceans, spinning on and on and righting himself, only the earth to look at, or the starry darkness, with neither top nor tail, the big black dragon spitting out flames for nobody …

Marie Darrieussecq, A Brief Stay with the Living (Faber 2003, translated by Ian Monk).

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Oh, no, there’ll be a Space Age some day, perhaps thirty, forty, or even fifty years from now, and when it comes it will be a real Space Age! But it will depend on the development of some new form of propulsion. The main trouble with the present system – all those gigantic rockets sailing up off the launch pads consuming tons of fuel for every foot of altitude – is that it just hasn’t got anything to do with space travel. The number of astronauts who have gone into orbit after the expenditure of this great ocean of rocket fuel is small to the point of being ludicrous. And that sums it all up. You can’t have a real Space Age from which 99.999 per cent of the human race is excluded.

Far more real – and we don’t have to wait fifty years for it – is the invisible Space Age, which exists already; the communications satellites, literally thousands of them, television relay systems, spy satellites, weather satellites. These are all changing our lives in a way that the average person doesn’t yet comprehend. The ability to pass information around from one point in the globe to another in vast quantities and at stupendous speeds, the ability to process information by fantastically powerful computers, the intrusion of electronic data processing in whatever form into all our lives is far, far more significant than all the rocket launches, all the planetary probes, every footprint or tyremark on the lunar surface.

‘The Space Age is Over’: J. G. Ballard, interview with Christopher Evans, 1979, in Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara (eds.) Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 (Fourth Estate, 2012).Gagrina

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What do you do about it? You consider. You begin again, from a different angle: you begin with desire. What would you like to do? What do you enjoy most of all? And is it possible to turn that into a trade? Yes, of course. Someone who enjoys thinking, does everything she can to become a philosopher. Someone who likes writing, does all she can to become an author. But you’re already an author, and you have no philosophical ambitions. Your favourite thing, after writing and thinking, is walking. Surely you must be able to turn that into a trade: a vagabond. A vagrant. A drifter. A wayfarer. There have always been vagrants. But today it’s a trade and a status that’s in the process of dying out. At least in welfare Norway. And you think: someone ought to preserve this trade. Someone ought to shoulder this responsibility. Someone ought to save this freedom, this pride, re-establish this trade and its standing; yes, you will be a wayfarer.

Tomas Espedal, Tramp (Seagull Books, 2010, translated by James Anderson).

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Northern Lights, naked and scabbardless.


“A right valiant and jaunty Chevalier is our hero; going about with his long Toledo perpetually drawn. Rely upon it, he will fight you to the hilt, for his bony blade has never a scabbard. He himself sprang from it at birth; yea, at the very moment he leaped into the Battle of Life; as we mortals ourselves spring all naked and scabbardless into the world. Yet, rather, are we scabbards to our souls. And the drawn soul of genius is more glittering than the drawn cimeter of Saladin. But how many let their steel sleep, till it eat up the scabbard itself, and both corrode to rust-chips. Saw you ever the hillocks of old Spanish anchors, and anchor-stocks of ancient galleons, at the bottom of Callao Bay? The world is full of old Tower armories, and dilapidated Venetian arsenals, and rusty old rapiers. But true warriors polish their good blades by the bright beams of the morning; and gird them on to their brave sirloins; and watch for rust spots as for foes; and by many stout thrusts and stoccadoes keep their metal lustrous and keen, as the spears of the Northern Lights charging over Greenland.”

(Herman Melville, Mardi (1849) chapter 32.)

Mardi was, famously, not a critical success. “We have seldom found our reading faculty so near exhaustion, or our good nature as critics so severely exercised, as in an attempt to get through this new work by the author of the fascinating Typee and Omoo”, wrote George Ripley in the New York Tribune, May 10 1849 – coincidentally the day of the Astor Place Riot in New York, in which 22 people, supporters of American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest, were killed when New York State militia opened fire on a crowd protesting at British actor William Macready’s ‘interpretation’ of Macbeth. The class politics of American culture, also naked and scabbardless. See http://www.shakespeareinamericanlife.org/stage/onstage/yesterday/astor.cfm

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