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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.

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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 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 cops who 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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9781526113030

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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Gagarina

Gagarina

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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Wayfarer

Footpath

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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