Further to Outlandish

Some afterthoughts on the recent ‘Onlandish Inlandish Outlandish’ essay

My re-viewing of ‘Solaris’ was a lockdown choice at a point where I had finished Netflix. Both versions of the film have preoccupied me for years and this time round I continued to appreciate the suggestion that bereavement or loss can generate an intense yearning that may induce hallucination and this apparition, from the point of view of the bereaved subject, is real. The psychology of this phenomenon is long understood and is used to explain the fact that a great range of experiences that are preposterous to some are credible to others. The psychologised interpretation is benign to the degree that it is implied that the subject is the passive witness to the unusual phenomena: the subject is ‘seeing things’ but the things are actuated by psychological operations that cannot be detected by the subject.

The psychology is partially explanatory but the physiology is entirely mysterious: a very strong desire can somehow reconfigure perception to a degree whereby everyday perception is overridden. What are the neurochemical pathways and subsequent optical modifications involved here? I have no idea.

If it is the case that desire can never be satisfied then it may also be the case that this state of affairs is sufficiently destabilising to warrant banishment from consciousness. But there is always leakage. And this may contribute to the incubation of magical thinking wherein not only will desire be satisfied but the mind will strive to give material existence to whatever is desired.

It is at points like this that I tend to introduce a raft of examples that would give context to my claims. The examples in this instance would be of the many types of magicality that persist in a post-magical world. Rather than retread that territory and then fail to return to the starting point I will just submit my view that the ultimate objective of all thought is to give material existence to its figments. May all my dreams come true. I would like a big cake. Ah – there it is! I would like more trees in my road. Ah – see how shady they are!

Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish

I wrote a novel in 1988, called ‘A Diet of Holes’. It featured a man the objects in whose dreams would appear on the pillow beside him in the morning. Initially it was just pound coins but it escalated to the point where cascades of random items would pile up around his sleeping form.

I interviewed the prolific science fiction writer Michael Moorcock for something or other some years ago and was keen to ask him about his four-book series ‘The Dancers at the End of Time’ in which a group of eccentric immortals uses power rings to conjure into existence just about anything that takes their fancy. I wondered if he did not find this device so flexible that it would neutralise any event that took place in the fictions. How were you able to get round that? I enquired. He stiffened very slightly and replied, crisply, “Experience.”

¶¶¶¶¶¶

Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish

“He’ll never die – he costs too much.” I said this to myself but I was imagining that I was saying it to my daughters. Neither of them was present at the time. I was referring to the possible fate of George Clooney who, only halfway through ‘The Midnight Sky’ on Netflix, was attempting to retrieve a suitcase of vital technology from a cabin module that was rapidly sinking beneath a wasteland of melting Antarctic ice. It was a well designed jeopardy, almost too well designed. If he got the case he would drown in icy water for sure, thereby abandoning the eight year old girl who was accompanying him on their fraught pilgrimage from one frozen place to another. But, of course, he didn’t perish and he saved the tech. I mean, he was also the director and you don’t kill off your lead, especially when it’s you.

I imagined I was George Clooney directing the scene where he loses the little girl in the snow storm that cut visibility to a couple of meters and wolves were circling and George has this rifle apparently made of bone like the guy had in Cronenberg’s ‘Existenz’ (1999). I remember the gun more than the rest of that film possibly because the rendering of the various VR worlds was quite lame, as if Cronenberg, for once in a career full of cysts, gristle and bursting body parts, had climbed on the wagon a little late. The gun was bone so you could smuggle it through metal detectors. It shot teeth.

First of all I would equip the young actress with a tracking device concealed beneath her anorak then I would provide three runners with tracker receivers and radios and despatch them in a crescent around the girl but just outside the visibility range. Before each shot, one of the assistants, stationed by the camera, would do a radio check in the course of which each runner would confirm that they have a tracker signal from the actress.

That’s not quite right. It would be me, as the director, not an assistant, calling the radio check. The reason is I feel fatherly towards girls of that age because my daughters were once that age. I felt and feel fatherly at all their ages, I should add.

After each shot I would tell the runners to converge on the actress to see she was bearing up okay. There would be a chaperone there anyway but they would stay behind the camera.

The thing is, however, that at no point in the scene I’m referring to are the girl and Clooney visible at the same time. Clooney runs about in the snow storm shouting at wolves then realises he can no longer see the girl. So the girl could spend that time in her trailer, keeping warm, along with the chaperone. At no point does she walk out of shot into the swirling white-out.

But that’s how I would do it, anyway. In the film the little girl only speaks about six words but when I, in my role as George Clooney, go on Graham Norton with her to promote the film, Caolinn Springall, who is 7, would prove to be charmingly and unstoppably chatty, much to the benign amusement of the host and assembled guests. From time to time I would be seen smiling fondly, paternally and with a hint of proud surprise. I’m not sure how you pronounce her first name but obviously I would have found out in the course of the casting.

The thing is, however, that at the end of the film she disappears anyway. Not in the snow or anything but because she is a figment of George Clooney’s imagination that he had conjured in order to get him through the chill task of taking tech from one frozenarse installation to another. Which, again, is lame. Seen it all before. So when he nearly loses her in the snow storm and almost falls into deathly sleep in the snow it’s control over the figment that he is losing rather than someone’s real daughter.
If you want to do this figment stuff and not be lazy then you could pick up some tips from George Clooney, who plays Chris Kelvin in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ (2003) and encounters, to his initial delight and astonishment, on board an orbiting space station, his dead wife Rheya, played by Natascha McElhone whom I saw walking along in Brick Lane once but did not approach in order to assert that “I love what you do”. The stark uncanniness of the situation doesn’t stop Kelvin from becoming increasingly enchanted by the figment, which is generated by incomprehensible forces radiating from the water-covered planet around which Kelvin’s space craft is orbiting.
If Soderbergh’s work was overly legible, a view held by some, then a more substantially credentialed, elusive and earlier version of Stanislaw Lem’s original novel was made by Tarkovsky in 1972. At almost twice the length it drifts in and out of the ponderous but it got there 20 years earlier and has fuelled my thinking on the figment ever since. Lem, I was amused to discover, thought both versions sucked. He “never really liked Tarkovsky’s version” and despite never actually seeing Soderbergh’s film wrote “…to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space”. (Wikipedia re both versions.) Kelvin gets over his astonishment and finds that if you fire your figment into deep space in a capsule in order to annihilate her she will reappear a few hours later as if nothing had happened. Which, in a sense, is very much the case. The haunted Kelvin then decides that getting back the wife who had, in the real world, committed suicide ten years ago, could be quite agreeable, especially if you can overlook the fact that you know perfectly well she is a figment, somehow condensed from the probings of an intelligent planet into your unconscious while you sleep.

Rheya, however, develops a tentative autonomy which takes the form of a frustrated introversion:

I do remember doing things but I don’t remember being there. I don’t remember experiencing those things…These strange thoughts keep coming into my mind and I don’t know where they’re coming from.

Strip out the genre trappings and ‘Solaris’ becomes a treatise on invasive, unwanted, unwelcome thoughts, experienced by many and, I would venture to say, all people. The especially perturbed hosts to these invaders may on occasion report to doctors and therapists who might, it is hoped, help to dispel or at least cauterise the vile inbursting outbursts. In the absence of sage counselling some of the sufferers from unwanted thoughts will feel colonised. The thoughts are so unlike them that they must be disowned, at which point a question of relocation arises. The thoughts are not a sign of madness. The thoughts are demonic. The thoughts are messages from those we have angered or betrayed. They are beamed by extra-terrestrials, they come from God. Such thoughts, experienced as alien and inescapable marauders, may be thought of as symptomatic of the inhabiting of a culture in which a proliferation of fragments exerts an attritional pressure on unitary identity. As the shell grows ever thinner so it becomes crazed, in the ceramicist’s sense of being covered in fine cracks. Traffic flows both ways: from the outside to the inside and vice versa. Rheya, located in Kelvin, not beside him, is experienced by him as a person in the world. She, however, becomes the receptacle for Kelvin’s recollections of her past. They aren’t her memories, they couldn’t be. They’re what Kelvin unconsciously injects into his phantasmal mannequin. Although she’s not real, Rheya presents as the porous and benighted emissary of a burgeoning crazedness. Ideally, from Kelvin’s point of view, she wouldn’t be so fussy – she would embrace his memories of her as if they were her own and the couple could resume their relationship, presumably at a point before she committed suicide. It occurs to me that all Kelvin has to do is remember her remembering that all her memories are her own. Problem solved. But perhaps Kelvin isn’t psychopathic enough to go the whole hog. In Kelvin’s case, there is an urgency born of protracted and perhaps uncompleted mourning. There is nothing he would like better than for his wife to rise from the dead. He knows it’s mad. But he will overlook this. His wife, however, in her capacity as a figment, acquires qualities that no figment should or could. She starts to think for herself. Rheya’s acquisition of what we are initially asked to regard as independent thought prompts a consideration of the Tibetan tulpa – the ultimate expression of expression or, if you prefer, the ultimate extension of the logic of expression. The early scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism advise that a holy person could envisage another living thing, perhaps human or humanoid or homunculus, and then, over a long period, intensify that act of imagining to the point where they might become familiar with every detailed physical aspect of that being and then push and push and finally endow that vivid vision with actual materiality, so that you could touch it, talk with it, have it as a companion, recognise that it is a true tulpa, or in current parlance a ‘thoughtform’. In the parlance of sceptics, an ‘imaginary friend’. If such activities strain credulity then their cultural power, and the power of their western ilk, endures and will be found to inform many everyday adventures in books, films and fictions; all sorts of actors and characters in those works; many varieties of vision, delusion and hallucination; any number of hauntings, enchantments and abductions; myriad yearnings, longings and cravings and pinings and mournings. Countless conjurations and invocations can be regarded as having as their engine an embedded, ancient, insistent and unstanchable conviction – a wish, really –  that proper cogitation can be actualised – it is a process of manufacture, one that might feature birth or resurrection or replication. In your dreams. So Rheya sits on the end of the bed and tells Kelvin about her troubling mental life. Only a while ago she had no mental life: her thoughts were channelled into her spectral yet material being by an unthoughtful Kelvin who didn’t know he was doing it. She was a bewitching prosthetic serving to actuate a bereaved husband’s attempt to forestall closure. She also has, of course, a prophylactic function, that of deferring Kelvin’s knowledge of the fact that the dead don’t come back. If Kelvin gets too close to her she may slip back inside him and undo the whole charade. If he doesn’t get close enough to her he runs the risk of becoming overly objective and effectively killing her off.      
That a pallid, enervated person could be in any way attractive is puzzling. Is death warmed up your idea of fun? Most would say no. On the other hand the withholding of emotion and emotional expression has long been found irresistible in many quarters. In ‘Ex Machina’ (Garland, 2014) Caleb, (Domhnall Gleeson), finds himself drawn to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female robot equipped with sophisticated AI. Ava’s designer is using Caleb in an elaborate Turing test that dispenses with the non-visibility of the artificial intelligence and instead confronts Caleb with complete evidence of its artificiality.   .
Ava: Would you like to know how old I am? Caleb: Sure. Ava: I’m one. Caleb: One what? One year or one day? Ava: One. As is the way in guy-fucks-robot movies, fascination is steadily supplanted by ruminations on acquisition and enslavement. These latter are not made explicit. Deckard (Harrison Ford), for example, in ‘Blade Runner’ (Scott, 1982), never says of the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) “I’ve always wanted to fuck a robot.” Caleb never says to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the millionaire scientist who made Ava the woman she isn’t, “She’s so like the real thing, I really want to fuck her.” (Nathan is already fucking Kyoko, an early model with less advanced sentience than Ava.) At the level of plot the male leads are increasingly drawn to the humanoids but somehow we are led to empathise with the men on the basis that, well, these gadgets are lovely to look at and will always listen uncritically to what I have to say. And you can keep them in a clean, dry cupboard.
 

Deckard: Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were going to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran; you remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody? Remember the spider that lived outside your window? Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there’s a big egg in it. The egg hatched…

RachaelThe egg hatched…

DeckardYeah…

Rachael…and a hundred baby spiders came out… and they ate her.

DeckardImplants. Those aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s. They’re Tyrell’s niece’s.

Deckard[he sees that she’s deeply hurt by the implication]  O.K., bad joke… I made a bad joke. You’re not a replicant. Go home, O.K.? No, really – I’m sorry, go home.

Valerie Solanas, in the SCUM Manifesto (1968), observed that a man will ‘swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.’ This may partially explain the malleability of romantic lead Caleb. Several areas of Ava’s body are attractive, it must be said, but you can see through her lower trunk to the room on the other side. In that trunk-space are cables, actuators and artificial muscles. You couldn’t say that you didn’t know what you were getting. The ‘friendly pussy’ is not in evidence but Ava has a pretty face and, in terms of contours if not contents, a beach body. She cannot, however, be compared to the replicant Rachael in Blade Runner who is entirely organic with no artificial parts other than her suite of other people’s memories. But Ava does not share Rachael’s melancholy and, although Caleb doesn’t quite get this, Ava understands that he needs to be understood. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is content to overlook the fact that everything Rachael remembers derives from the niece of her designer and drives off with her in a flying car at the end of the movie. Caleb falls in love, notwithstanding the anatomical cut-away aspects of Ava’s limbs and midriff.

The inscrutable woman possessed of an elusive, even absent, interiority is, when constituted in a particular way in either arthouse or horror films, always a figment. In ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (Resnais, 1961) most of the cast lack the conventional signs of interiority and it’s nothing to do with bad acting. They gaze into the middle distance, move very few facial muscles and are immaculately groomed. Their passions and objectives are unreadable. If we were to declare that they are impenetrable then we would be saying, at the risk of stating the obvious, that they cannot be penetrated. And this, in turn, makes them both challenging and attractive. If it could also be said that they seem half-dead then we might wish to revitalise them. There are limits to this: if it is clear that the person is, for example, very ill, in the medical sense, then there will be no charm attached to the situation. That sort of illness is simply not good enough. It’s too specific. Tuberculosis maybe, but nothing that involves rot. Zombies are undeniably riveting but the brides of Dracula are also enticing.

The film elegantly considers a three-line premise: a man, ‘X’, (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a woman, ‘A’, (Delphine Seyrig) at a magnificent hotel and tells her that they met a year ago in Marienbad, where they had an affair and agreed to meet a year later. A denies ever meeting or knowing X. He tries to convince her but is consistently rejected.

A – What room? I’ve never been in any room with you. X – But you don’t want to remember. You’re afraid.
One view of this protracted enigma sees X as a gaslighting pest. It is even possible, but unlikely, that it is his persistence that drives A to the distraction that makes her remote and undemonstrative. It is hard not to see her putting up with him by politely minimising her transactional presence. The guests at the hotel are all similarly dazed, however, which weakens the gaslighter proposition. A’s protestations may genuinely indicate either an impaired memory or a condition in which the hotel is a place of pervasive entrancement akin to that in the Hotel California where “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!” If these circumstances are the case then the film becomes a study of a kind of psychic refuge in which memory can be allowed to deteriorate in order to facilitate the management of multitudes that are malign as distinct from enriching. A side effect of this strategy might be the intermittent emergence of invasive thoughts. Rheya, A, Ava and Rachael have differing degrees of embodiment and autonomy but you can imagine their being imagined rather than actually enfleshed. They are tulpas and if you get it right they will let you do any sex thing you want. You can even use them as arm-candy that will not assert, at the end of the day, that they are tired. What’s not to crave? Certainly in the films cited the men, especially Caleb, are variously thwarted or have to work hard but those are just trappings. At the conclusion of a feature-length tease you can boil off the plot and character stuff and go full Tibetan. Implicit in this formula is that the duration of a feature film, say 100 minutes, is all you need to make your dreams come true. Granted, this is to mix up levels but it’s quicker than meditating in a cave. Mira, the cyborg female in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017) has a shell that is realistically fleshlike, encasing robotic limbs and inner organs but driven by her own human brain. She has, in fact, full human lineage but as a result of extensive physical damage sustained in a cyberterrorist attack she is used as a platform for an innovative cyborg attack model that employs a human brain rather than artificial intelligence. In common with her more passive aforementioned sisters her condition is an outcome of the dreams of men.
 
     

Conveniently for all who would wish to take advantage of her, Mira, like Rheya and A and Rachael, has an imperfect memory. She tells her cyborg colleague that

It feels like there’s always this thick fog over my memory…I don’t remember much. Just fragments. Bits and pieces.

In order that troubling thoughts about predatory necrophilic masculinism do not contaminate an engagement with the generally science fictional nature of cyborg narratives, a slow tease strategy is often deployed wherein the foregrounding of a fascination with robotics and replicants enables the connoisseurial savouring of futurescapes while suppressing darker ruminations.

This have your cake but critique it strategy is seen to good effect in the 1975 and 2004 versions of ‘The Stepford Wives’. Both versions indict the capture, commodification and sexual enslavement of compliant wives by their spouses yet both feature protracted episodes during which the accessibility of an ever ready fuckpiece is seen to be even more gratifying than a fast car.

The older version, directed by Bryan Forbes, at 115 minutes, plays the tease at length and holds off the stabbing of newly robotised and erstwhile dissident Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) by her disillusioned non-robotised friend Joanna (Katharine Ross) until the 98th minute, while the lighter, less sedate 93 minute Frank Oz (2004) version places the first significant robot Wife malfunction at just under 25 minutes.

These incidents precipitate random, repetitive, deranged and unwifely behaviour as the ladies’ circuits buzz, spark and burn out. The covert celebration of the advantages of wifely docility is muffled by plotting which clearly signals that all will not be well and, it should be said, is brought to an abrupt conclusion with a satisying and comedic critique of the imperial males.

The erotics, the enslavement and mastery, the themes of futurephobic anxiety and incomplete recall characterise many cyborg/replicant movies but it is the amnesia that has a special currency. In the course of the current (April 2021) covid-19 national lockdown, memory malfunction, attention deficit, ‘brain fog’ and confusion have been widely reported in the UK and beyond by those who have had to endure their own or unusually limited company for the last several months. The lack of incident (for those without covid), the flattened psychic topography, the smoothing of time have all exposed a simultaneously restless and listless populace to the usual atomised attention-seeking cultural radiation that is pretty much the weather in the mediated world but is currently adulterated by the natural inclination of our own attention to register as much activity as possible. This otherwise vital aptitude, when deprived of any hierarchies of importance to attend to, will hop and hop and hop from one thing to the next then the next then the next.

The term ‘attention deficit’ is slightly confusing insofar as it is the ability to pay sustained attention that is compromised, not the amount of attention that is available. In our waking hours attention is ever present. It needs somewhere to go, however, and will go there willy-nilly.

It seems likely that in such conditions the identification of events that merit recollection is undermined by the proliferation of countless incidents of apparently equal importance. Amnesia prevails as well as an attendant anxiety precipitated by our falling prey to thoughts and responses that are usually held in check by matters that genuinely do require our full attention.

 

§§§§§

Double Bubble

I’m not so interested in people’s meals or holidays or pets but I do find Facebook a useful location for small-scale publishing of images, text and text & image work. If I ever get to large-scale, I’ll let you know. I would say my readership is currently manageable. I do not anticipate engaging an intern. At least not for the next ten years or so.

Despite my deep reservations about digital enslavement, from the point of view of the producer of clickables and from that of the consumer of the bait whose subsequent clicks reinforce the compulsions of the producer, causing the latter to feel both fulfilled, albeit for a few minutes, and incrementally anxietised, I feel held in thrall as soon as I publish.

It wears off quite quickly though. If I get likes I tend to revisit my work and admire it. Sometimes I admire it again with every subsequent click. If I get very few or no likes I often conclude, reasonably enough, that the product was insufficiently communicative. Sometimes I conclude that it wasn’t any good. Then I withdraw it.

The piece below created scarcely a ripple. I know that this is because it went too far. Not in an interesting way, however. The piece contains too much information. It is not legible.

I posted it a few days ago:

One couple of chinos my dear lady Peter said to the barrister at the counter point. Anything on top? the chirpy reply to this question. The parrot cocked its head to one side. Strictly speaking there should not be any sort of animal in this sort of establishment. The lady laid out the casual garments on the zinc. Peter liked what he saw. Pleased to see the french fly he said to her. Well it is important to have reliable closure one does not want zipper gape said the lady. I should say not! He quipped. Would you like a negroni with that she wondered? Well I would not have thought of it but now you mention it you have stirred a need yes please. I will.

I like it when a piece has more than one level of coherence. When it can mean two or three things at once. Sometimes these things are separate and discernible, sometimes they coalesce then separate again. This is an ideal, though, exemplified perhaps in the quotation at the foot of this post.

A cappuccino is close to a cup of chino: a café and a clothes shop have fused.

The barrister and a barista have the same pronunciation, almost: the barista is usually seen behind a counter and the barrister serves at the bar and, in refuting an argument, will make a counter point: a court of law has fused with the café and the clothes shop.

In asking ‘Anything on top?’ the barista refers probably to chocolate powder. But in a café and in a clothes shop goods are laid on top of counters for collection or inspection. In a bar they may be laid on zinc.

The head-cocking parrot is a novelistic, scene-setting incidental. An inducement to picture the picture.

Some of my trousers have a french fly. Extra buttoning is required but the tailoring device works well and can be reassuring.

Given that he is in a bar fused with a café fused with a clothes shop Peter sees no reason to decline the negroni offer. I went to a vintage clothes shop in Lisbon with my younger daughter and while she perused the racks I had a coffee with a glass of ginjinha the dark red, sour cherry liqueur served at most Portuguese bars. In the same shop. My daughter was happy and I was very content.

So far, so legible. Maybe. At this point we have a gewgaw that may be a source of harmless, frothy fun. But then I took a reckless swerve off what was already a perfectly capacious piste. What if the french fly were an aspect of fly fishing? And to what extent might it fuse with the bracing fusion of gin, campari and red vermouth that is the negroni? What if, indeed, there were rocks tumblers (a variant on the whisky glass) that actually bore the imagery of fly fishing?

Of course there were. Several types, courtesy, as usual, of Google Images. And the best were to be found in a boxed set of four, each engraved with a hooked and feathered fishing fly. Each nestling in a bed of crepuscular green satin.

And that was where it went south. The tumbler set was indeed enigmatic. But not in a good way. You could just about make out the engraved fly. Flawed to a fault. Illegible. Irritating.

This morning I deleted it from Facebook, having moved it first to the gated community of Strength Weekly.

I am more than comfortable with this though:

 

 

 

Impossible as it may be to fathom as an obscure totality, even at the level of a page, particles of immanent sense will stand out from the dark foil against which they are set, in turn to suggest connections with others, and still others, until – not necessarily in linear order – out of a web of items drawn together by association, a knot of coherent nonsense will begin to emerge; and upon this coherent nonsense, as upon the shards of a recollected dream, some interpretation will have to be practiced in order to discover an underlying sense.

Bishop, J.  James Joyce’s Book of the Dark p.22. 1986 (re Finnegans Wake)

But now and again coherence, as applied to nonsense, proves to be evasive.

23.02.21

 

Flight & Fight

Some of the aeronautical terms used below can be examined in greater and probably more reliable detail by clicking on the links provided.
Back in the early 80s I was writing a TV screenplay about the USAF in East Anglia. I drove, for the purposes of research, to the Duxford Air Show to look at the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird‘ stealth plane, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft which had recently come out of hiding. Having marvelled at the sleek, black, radar-invisible craft parked beside a hangar and guarded by machine-gun toting US airmen in blue grey uniforms with white silk cravats, I was drawn back to the main runway when it was announced that the Harrier jump jet would shortly pay a visit. This is the one that can land by descending vertically and can even hover, using the downward vectored thrust of its movable jet nozzles, while delivering death from above.    
The V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) configuration makes runways, even aircraft carriers, redundant. Air show crowds are pleased by its versatility and its availability for anthropomorphic projection. The latter is apparent in the cries of pleasure that accompanied the fawning behaviour of the jet as it hurtled into view, skidded to a halt in the sky, hovered 30 feet above our heads then dipped its nose up and down several times, as if waving or bowing to us, who were its supreme and fearsome masters. One could imagine, on another day, above another country, the same manoeuvre being seen as a form of taunting.
The Harrier’s dark enchantment is due in part to its special relationship with what is known in aeronautics as relaxed stability. The term describes an aircraft’s tendency to change its attitude and angle of bank of its own accord. If it drifts from its path it will begin to move from side to side in relation to the path, gradually moving further off course with each excursion.  

This can be corrected with controls that influence the three ways a craft can move in the air: pitch, yaw and roll. Pitch refers to an up or down movement of the nose or tail; yaw is a side to side to side movement of the nose and roll (or bank) is said to occur when the plane rotates around its longitudinal axis – the line that passes through the plane from nose to tail. There are two other types of stability: positive stability when the aircraft will maintain its attitude without constant control input and will eventually return to its intended position if its path is disturbed, and neutral stability when the craft will not return to its trimmed setting without control input, but will swing from side to side without moving further and further off course. All of which suggests, reasonably enough, that you don’t want relaxed stability in any aircraft – it should be designed out at the offset. There are, however, situations in which a form of instability is considered highly desirable. Certain military craft are deliberately designed with inherent instability and equipped with flight control computers to compensate. Such craft will instantly lose stability if computer control is suspended. What would appear to be a form of designer recklessness actually brings the great advantages of being able to change direction with minimal intervention of the flight surfaces (the flaps, elevators, rudder etc). Responsiveness is increased and the craft can manoeuvre in dramatic and unpredictable ways. It will confound and frustrate its enemies by tossing itself around in the air.

 

It is hard to resist the thought that these ideas, and the terms in which they are expressed, could be fruitfully applied to certain contemporary social situations. The nature of stability, for example, is not just a matter of personal psychology but an effect of the ideologies that compete to secure a dominant definition of the concept. One man’s stability is another’s death-in-life. In the 60s, for example, stability was what your parents craved and you despised. Their ‘small “c” conservatism’ – a symptom of what was, in part, a widely dispersed postwar posttraumatic stress disorder – made them, in your view at least, unable to change direction without considerable forewarning and persuasion. Your view, consonant with the aeronautical theories with which you were not familiar, was that their stability would lead to their undoing. It had no flexibility insofar as it would guide its adherents further and further into inaction then rigidity. The aeronautical version is much the same: stability is synonymous with the maintaining of a set position but implicit in this condition is its own decay.

Those enchanted by the revolutionary tone of the 60s (including the Editor in Chief of this journal) believed that all this must be put behind them by means of the active pursuit of instability. Where Rimbaud, in 1871, recommended the ‘long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’ and was probably appreciated at the time by a relatively small number of Bohemians and Decadents, the youth of the 60s energetically took up the project in significant numbers. This was not a self-correcting fly-by-wire enterprise – for many it involved a comprehensive cutting loose from constraints, a vigorous immersion in experiences previously insulated by taboo, and an indifference to the straight and narrow.  
This erraticised adventurousness piqued unattended and dormant appetites and prompted the emergence of desires people didn’t know they had. Thus it was, with the passage of time, that those who espoused a new anti-materialism and, to a greater or lesser extent, turned on and/or tuned in and/or dropped out, came to be regarded as excitingly needy by the manufacturers of such goods as clothes, records and posters. The Mad Men themselves, we are beguilingly informed, were able to navigate the haze of their own substance abuse in order to strategise the manufacture of desire for less folksy items such as cigarettes and saloon cars.
Instability, with its basis in relaxed impulse control, acquired a perverse reliability as advertisers refused to see in it a frustrating elusiveness but instead found ways to exploit it as a resource. Timothy Leary, after all, had suggested that ‘To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability (in order) to inform yourself.’ And it sounded good at the time, I have to say. But on the heels of voluntarily induced chaos and vulnerability came a complex of operations that succeeded in commandeering these states and repurposing them in such a way that they served the interests of authority rather than facilitating critical insight into it. ‘Cash from Chaos’, as Malcolm McLaren would observe some years later.
The link between adventurous instability and the adventurer had been weakened, enabling the emergence of a fertile ground for a form of instant messaging. Manoeuvrability was found to be as exploitable as immobility and came to be seen as manipulability. The scene was set in such a way that Guattari would write ‘A certain type of subjectivity, which I would call capitalistic, is poised to overtake the whole planet; an equalised subjectivity, with standardised fantasies and massive consumption of infantilising reassurances. It causes every kind of passivity, degeneration of democratic values, collective racist impulses. Today it is massively secreted by the media, community centres, and alleged cultural institutions.’ Writing in 1985, Guattari uses the phrase ‘is poised to overtake the whole planet’ predictively. In 2014 his acute assertions seem simply descriptive.
A conception of the uses of instability forged within military aeronautics emerged at the same time as the commercial appropriation of 60s open-mindedness (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL made its first flight in 1967 and the Russian equivalent, the Yakovlev Yak-38 strike fighter, in 1971) and became an aspect of an array of counter-intuitive ideas that normalised the production of dissident energies by aligning them with consumerism.

The new instability was characterised by individuals easily knocked off course and prone to erratic behaviour. They were also highly responsive, able to react efficiently to rapid state changes and capable of high-volume decision making in short time periods. Affinities between stock market traders, military personnel and ‘accomplished shoppers’ became apparent, as did a willingness to obey orders.

The latter quality has proved useful when the latent pathology of this malleability is presented as a psychiatric issue. Fortunately the reshaping of psychotherapy under capitalism has produced a treatment based on the issuing of orders rather than a consideration of such tiresome matters as the unconscious. What you do, right, is simply tell the patient to think differently. It’s the patient’s ideas that are the problem. Change them and the patient is relieved of their problem. You have to go at least six times, mind you. These things can’t be done overnight. Cognitive behavioural therapy – why worry when you could be at work not worrying? It’s probably more sophisticated than that, but not a lot more.

So we are all soldiers now. A militarised technology contributes to a militarised psychology in which the unforeseeable is preferred to the reliable. The unforeseeable, apparently patternless, can be patterned. You want fighting men and women who will instantly obey orders, highly defined individuals who are careless, unattached, impetuous and obligated. With their yaws muzzled and their pitches perfected their disorder is a small price to pay for order.

17.12.2013

Plate

I found an alley I hadn’t spotted before and heard sounds of jollity at the end of it. I walked down and round and came upon a primary school fair in full swing. This could only mean one thing: a secondhand book stall. In fact, that particular thing proved to be unremarkable but there was, right next to it, a stall selling beer and wine. For the encouraging schoolyard price of £2 I got a plastic cup of prosecco and dealt with it.

I strolled to the next street and found that it had been closed off and filled with stalls – another fair. But it isn’t a fair. It’s a street food festival where, instead of pleasing variety it’s types of snack on tables. Foods, as far as the eye can see down this packed street. Many cupcakes. Just think, every cupcake is different but not in an interesting way. The cupcake is very easy to make. Six year olds can make them and so can thirty year olds, it would appear. Toddler foods by British bakers. Just how many food stalls do you need before a street event becomes nothing more than the contents of victuallers’ shops moved into the street? At the farmer’s market you can get a rabbit or a swede and take them home. At the restaurant you can get courses. But what if all you could get at Borough Market or Smithfield were dainties? What if the restaurant only had afters on the menu?

How many times can you eat when the only diversion from eating is eating? Could you have lunch several times so as not to waste the opportunity? Surely a fair or a ‘festival’ has more than one type of thing in it. Surely once 90% of the available street-side space has been taken up by over-priced delicacy outlets, room should be made for tray after tray of over-priced jewellery. Ah! On closer inspection it becomes apparent that for every ten food stalls there is a ring and bauble stall whose proprietor will say “This is a very nice piece” to anybody about anything. Anyway, I don’t drive a 4×4 so I’m not really in the target constituency. When I was a boy you could see a pig with two heads. Can’t say fairer than that.

I escaped down a leafy side street, passing a group of people sitting on a low wall in front of a house, chatting in the sun. A boy of about five was playing in the background. I strolled on but flinched then froze as I heard a loud crack behind me.

I swung round and the scene had completely changed. In slow motion the adults on the wall were rising to their feet and gazing in horror at the space where the boy had been. A large sheet of wired glass, broken in several places, was sliding down into the cellar whose access shaft it had been covering. The boy had climbed onto the glass and it had instantly shattered. The glass crunched into the space below. Onto the boy. A big man ran across to the shaft, peered down then lowered himself in. A woman screamed, leaped to her feet and desperately cried “Sam!” over and over. From the shaft the man shouted “He’s okay! He’s okay!” The man emerged holding the boy in his arms. His mother took him. The boy started to cry. It was clear he wasn’t hurt but just beginning to realise what a shocking thing had happened to him. The man stroked his head and murmured something reassuring. It was over. I had tears in my eyes.

Moved by the heroism of the big man, wondering what I would have done if one of my kids had been so shockingly swallowed.

Strolling down another alley, one I knew, I saw a man at a table with a boy on his knee. The boy had just let go of a balloon and was getting ready to wail. The balloon moved in an upward diagonal across my path. It was about three paces ahead. By the time I reached it, maintaining a steady pace, it would be eight feet above my head and somewhat to the right. I became calm and I focused myself. To my left the father was rising slowly. Grasping the balloon was out of the question, only a basket-ball player would be capable of this and there was every possibility he would burst it.

Even as the way became clear my left hand, the one I am best with, shot, with serpentine certainty, towards that trailing tendril. Smuh! went my fingers around it. We were just about to have a situation there said the father. I smiled. As I made my way away I heard
Who was that man?
No one knows.
Does he seek reward?
No. He seems to be content with just the deed. Soon we will forget him. He will be like tears in rain.
That’s lovely.

At the far end of the alley were piles of used books and fabrics – curtains, doilies, valances and the like. I spotted a pale green towel. I needed one. It’s a very nice one the man there said. It was. It was in terrific condition. The man said it was £2. Apparently, moreover, it was new.

Then I saw Kenneth. There was no mistaking him: the white goatee, the bow tie, the challenging twinkle in his eye. He was a close friend of my father and had died about twenty two years ago. And now there he was in the street. When I was a little boy in the fifties Kenneth used to come round for supper. Unlike the other biochemists he talked about books and music in addition to amino acids and when greeting my mother would kiss her on the cheek, which she found unsettling. She said He’s a bit flamboyant.

Biochemists in the fifties were dour and polite but Kenneth laughed loudly and was strongly opinionated. At a party in his garden, this would be in the early 80s, after he had married my second cousin Doffy, the biochemists were discussing a strange new disease – more of a syndrome at this stage – that patients had been presenting in Los Angeles. It seemed to attack the immune system, was one line of thinking, insofar as the sickness seemed to comprise a number of pathologies at the same time. The people suffering from these odd symptoms were mostly homosexuals, particularly those who regularly visited the bathhouses where men would have sex with other men. The point was, the men were starting to die.

One of the biochemists, a young Italian, had been on a field trip to the bathhouses to talk to some of the men there. He told his colleagues at Kenneth and Doffy’s party that some of the men had as many as twenty sexual partners per night. The biochemists were startled to hear this but instead of disapproving they nodded ruminatively. The young Italian said that the men often used cocaine and amyl nitrite to heighten their sexual experiences. One of the biochemists wondered if their immune systems had been compromised by an assaultive drug diet.

Kenneth was listening to this discussion and said something that I have never forgotten. “Well, if this is going to be some sort of plague then it might solve the population problem. If you look at Africa, immune systems there are under constant attrition. A massive plague would solve a lot of problems.” He wasn’t suggesting that homosexuals might be usefully wiped out, just continentsful of people. It struck me that I might have misread that goatee.

Next door to Pizza Express there was a proper secondhand book shop. An Oxfam, in fact. And there, in the window, right at the bottom of a pile of books stacked spine out, was a book I’d had on the wish list for only a few days. Consonant with my career in the experimental arts I had always maintained a snobbish disdain for the work of Stephen King. “That’s one writer I won’t be reading,” I had thought. But then I read a number of warm reviews for ’11/22/63′, in which the period leading up to the assassination of Kennedy is visited by a traveller from 2011. The New York Times said ‘It all adds up to one of the best time-travel stories since H. G. Wells. King has captured something wonderful. Could it be the bottomlessness of reality? The closer you get to history, the more mysterious it becomes. He has written a deeply romantic and pessimistic book. It’s romantic about the real possibility of love, and pessimistic about everything else.’ (Errol Morris 10/11/2011).

Hefty at 849 pp but a snip at £1. Where better to examine it than Pizza Express? First I read the paper for a bit then I turned my attention to the doorstop in my bag. As I opened the bag I caught sight of an upside down word on the back cover of the book. Something like ‘myos’. Suddenly the room was quiet. The chatter and the bustle just fell away. I flipped the book open and it was in Swedish. I had taken home a Swede. Fuck. No wonder it was cheap. As luck would have it I passed another Oxfam. I told the man what had happened then kindly donated the book to his cause. I said “I don’t suppose you have one in English by any chance?” He said he was afraid not.

Some of the instructors had mixed groups of teenagers and adults but Olly, on this particular morning, the sky sullen but the waves regular, unlike the other day, had some really quite young ones to look after. I was standing out that day, because my ribs hurt so much, but my girls were in there, in another group, doing pretty well, standing up more and more. In Olly’s group there were maybe three small girls and three small boys. Each time one of them launched into a wave Olly would shout encouragement, clap his hands and laugh in celebration. A big, genial Australian, he wore a straw hat in the morning when hanging out the wet suits and now, standing among the breaking waves, had a peaked cap. It can get very tiring falling off or rolling off your board over and over and there’s not much you can do about that. But if you’re a little kid and Olly is your instructor then he will do this excellent thing. There’s a kid just coasted into the shallows, lying flat on his board and Olly wades forward, grasps the board on both sides and picks it up with the kid still on it. He then wades back to the waves, turns the board with the kid on towards the beach and launches him.

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