Chimeras

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Playing a symphony on board the station above the new world, the man leans hard towards the old sounds, places his cheek against the cold speaker. Even as the vessel flings forward through a stream of detritus – bows of dead satellites, many-ton compacted cubes of trash – and the view out is brilliant, his mind stays on the Rachmaninoff, on Van Cliburn.

Number Two, as far back as he can remember, has been punctuated by the soft tick of the breathing machines, the chirp of the signal from the base. Backed by thick static. He can’t remember the last time he heard the whole symphony without the sounds of the machines; the static is part of the symphony and it is its own music.

Technoromanticism: the notion that technology can expand our imagination, deepen our capacity to feel, sharpen our individual genius, offer us a billion more ways to be, towards the general end of Good, or ____.

Our cognitive capacities evolve alongside technology such that the human is what seems most new. Instance: in the course of 48 hours, I will hear the voices of dozens of people scattered throughout the world, in the Netherlands, in Australia, in the cold world and equatorial world. Their conversations cross-pollinate. I accumulate too much knowledge about disparate events and countries and their histories. I read too much, way too quickly. But in incremental steps, I can feel my perception changing. My conversation skills double over; I develop odd tics in speech. These patterns compound and turn in on themselves.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, still one of my favorite essays, Donna Haraway wrote:

“We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”

Though she was discussing the cyborg as protest conceit, and as a lens through which to discuss issues in feminism (“I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”), her suggestion of the cyborg as a provocation, as the face of the surreal, is still potent.

We move back and forth nonchalantly between the strange and inhuman and uncanny (the virtual, the digital, the electronic futures), all products of human ingenuity, to the quotidian, banal, ho-hum needy flesh.

What exactly happens in this fluid movement between the inhuman and the human, between technology and tactile, lived reality? It would seem the digital’s promise is pretty singular: to illuminate us to ourselves, to hold a mirror up to us, like the best art.

I’d also want to suggest that the movement brings hope. When I am confronted by the uncanny, I feel renewed and joyful; I can see our potential more clearly. I’m forced to articulate what I’m confronting and how I define myself against it.

Anecdote: If a machine that looked, spoke and processed like me sat down across my desk from me, I would immediately be overcome by a sense of my Self-ness. I’d remember all the people who have made my life, how their words shaped me. I’d remember the hundred thousand struggles and phases I slogged through to get to where I am.

Two: the movement back and forth between the strange and the familiar makes me more appreciative of human warmth. Put in anecdote: I don’t (can’t) see too many people when consumed by research and writing. When I emerge, and they arrive in my field of view, they strike me as magical. The face of an old friend is shocking after I’ve been in tunnel vision for weeks. When I read too many social media updates, even, hearing someone tell a simple story to my face feels nothing short of miraculous.

There are poetic reservoirs in this: the voice of someone you love will always be the subject of poetry. When I hear your voice for the first time, I feel I almost know you. I feel the thrill of a recognizable voice, a loved voice, as visceral, in my spine and gut. (This isn’t to say we can’t write compelling fiction about the melody of voices filtered through phones, speakers and computers…)

The movement between the digital uncanny and the familiar also makes us more aware of time. As we become more integrated with our gadgets and networks, time can feel like it is accelerating, hurtling us along. People go to sleep with their phones, and all time is work. Work begins the moment you get up. Talking to a friend, I feel time passing in the “right” way. I am more appreciative of taking time with others. Lingering, puzzling, dawdling.

Body collapses against the screen, falls asleep in its glow and warm hum. It is not a far leap to the dream of total omniscience and power offered by Lain, by Shodan, by network hive intelligences working in union. To the fusion of flesh and wire. When our power is bankrupted in the physical, it is not a leap at all to see why people seek power where they can.

The collapse of the boat doesn’t mean our bodies won’t be saved. Even when there is nothing left, nothing to share, no cities, no infrastructure — we’ll still be compelled by the same aesthetic, emotional and immaterial needs, the old pull to express, the need to share some part of oneself. So many films about the end of civilization are just about love. Watch people fall in love against the backdrop of world wars, undead risings, supreme alien races taking back their homes. Yes, then, if you were the last person on earth.

Your thoughts on the space between cyborg and goddess?

The Party Is Never Over

“And raving is everywhere you’re not
And everything you’re not”

-From On and On and On, by Ryan Kuo

If you were born at a certain time, you missed the rave years. All that is left is misplaced nostalgia for those of us not lucky enough to be in England at the right time, or in Detroit at the right time. James Leyland Kirby’s recent The Death Of Rave tracks, in which he breaks down rave mega-hits into ambient soundscapes, speaks to this bittersweet nostalgia.The Boomkat reviewer describes today’s young “producers infatuated with that intangible, rose-tinted perspective of rave filtered back thru youtube videos and magpie aesthetes who impose an ersatz spirit onto pallid imitations.” Harsh.

But the aesthetic is pretty real, and it speaks to the capacity of electronic music to collapse our sense of time. I’m nostalgic for warehouse parties I never went to; I listen to Chicago house tracks from 1991 like I wasn’t actually just eight years old and listening to Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album on a sickening number of rotations. My friends and I put on acid tracks in the car and we may get caught up in many hour-long conversations about how amazing they are, the windows vibrating tinny and quick. But we never put on sounds from our real roots: trance and progressive and tribal house. Sasha, Sander Kleinenberg, Danny Tenaglia. Renaissance compilations, tapes of John Peel interviews. Maybe we need another ten years to revisit them.

At the core of that rose-tinted backwards glance, there’s a definitive feeling of never having listened to the right sounds at the time they were happening, changing people and helping them become who they are now. I have a disgusting amount of music on three computers compiled over a decade that says nothing about the actual places I’ve been, where I’ve lived, what I’ve known. The music I listen to speaks to the past that I wish I had, the present I wish I had, the future I hope to have. Taken together, it builds a world of limitless potential I can only inhabit in my head.

There’s a lot of compelling discussion right now around being haunted by sounds from a specific time; namely, what is it about rave culture that makes us feel so damn nostalgic? Rightly, many connect it to the affective, the emotional resonance that house music has – tied up with joy, celebration, possibility, love, and of course, PLUR.

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There was supposedly some magic time when you could go to these parties, listen to amazing house music, feel connected to thousands of people purely by virtue of loving the same DJs, and Life was real and whole, somehow, in ways we can only replicate now.

There are clubs you should have been at – Vinyl, Twilo; there are festivals you only can read about; there are people you should have always been listening to – Underground Resistance, Carl Craig, and on and on. In place of those experiences, you can at least master the obscure discographies that formed the soundtrack of those times.

Of course, this perfect time in which perfect ravers raved perfectly never existed for anyone.

And right now, we’re in that time of Life being real and whole. For any number of reasons, we’re divided against the possibility of embracing this. Years from now, we’ll look back at now, at the shows we’re going to now, the musical experiences we’re having, and be able to explain it all better. Maybe our desire to have a lifestyle to be nostalgic about will be significant to us then. But now, it just hurts the heart.

At MIT earlier this summer, artist Ryan Kuo presented his work: game-art installations that offered up gorgeous walls of distorted noise in overwhelming waves, moves to eliminate avatars and try to break the barrier of the screen. The most moving piece, for me, was a video, On and On and On, an edited clip of warehouse footage from a rave in Doncaster in 1992. It is a must-see. Here’s a screenshot:

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Ryan slowed down the original footage, and overlay his own reflections on the video, along with a piano loop that’s possibly cut from  a joy track.

The dancers, wide-eyed and off their gourds, tell the hapless, dreamy Youtube viewer:

“Your problem is
you were too young to be with us
Ten years old,
Living across an ocean,
Buried among the mountains
In a valley scorned by motorways
Where it was quiet.
You never thought about coming here
Where the music is playing on without you…”

 I remember a friend once telling me, in a cab home from a set, “One day, you’ll get over this music,” and I remember telling her, “I really won’t. I never will!” That was nine years ago, and even then, I knew any amount of time could pass, and I never would be over it or any of the experiences I’ve had. Some thoughts have a certain sound.

On a related note, there’s a new page on my site for Music, where I’ll be placing pieces, playlists and reviews coming out over the course of the next months. The first listed is a playlist for Rhizome, which I wrote with DeForrest Brown, Jr., who has become my invaluable writing partner.

Next post: on music and accelerationism.

Rough Trade

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Perfectionism is a massive hurdle to creative work. The same impulse that is essential to editing, that moves you to check each line, fix up your prose, cut out every junky, nonsensical, messy bit, is the same drive that erases everything thorny and difficult.

In the impulse to perfect, smooth out and tidy up is a very seductive illusion of control. It’s an illusion, that you can control how anyone might read your work, how they might perceive you, or what your words will even say to them. Perfectionism throttles bravery.

The risk of all this effort at control is, of course, that your work can come off, at least to yourself, as a bit phony. You, the maker, know that you’re not saying what you want to say. I can read old work and see where I’ve turned away, where I didn’t push hard enough or at all. Coasted.

People can tell when you’re phony. They smell phoniness on a person like dogs smell fear. Sometimes you are so cloaked in layers of protection that you can’t discern your own truth. You can’t describe your struggle because you can’t look at it in the face, because so much seems to hinge on keeping yourself protected and protecting others. You walk around the truth in endless circles.

I used to avoid writing on here, and limited the blog to putting up posts that introduced articles and linked elsewhere. I felt everything that goes up with my name attached needed to be polished to the point of being unassailable, researched and fact-checked to death.

I erased old writing because it wasn’t good enough, or didn’t reflect what I thought I was capable of. I had the same bad habit on social media – posting and erasing, writing comments that really expressed how I felt, then erasing them. I was applying the same kind of thinking I’d taken to academic work and school to creative writing,

A fellow writer told me a story yesterday about filling out his thesis defense form:

The form asked for a list of influences, and it said “Texts Only.” So of course, half my list was other media. [My advisor] was perplexed at why I put the Velvet Underground as an influence. He asked what about them had influenced my work, and I said that they taught me you didn’t have to know how to play your instrument properly to make visionary music.

In other words, they are great because there is no polish whatsoever. There is something else.

I really love this. The “something else,” I think, is what everyone creating is trying to get at either obliquely or directly. The stumbling, falling, scraping and failing doesn’t need to be hidden. It’s better if it is in plain sight, printed, up online, up for you to see. I added some work from 2004 – 2009 up under the Archives section of the site yesterday, which is O.K. work, but doesn’t represent “me.” But that was me, then, and though not perfect, represents efforts and attempts.

I’d like to push where I usually would take out the eraser, and keep building on the gravelly, uneven foundation. Researching hypergraphia (the compulsive need to write) yesterday, I learned that some people feel compelled write after severe trauma and difficult childhoods, because it made them “feel like they had a soul.” And the soul is rough and uneven and breaking itself ever over, so true work would reflect that roughness and mess.

Telling the truth about yourself – that you might struggle daily, that you are afraid of the future, that you are lost in the past – is much harder than saying, I am fine. Everything is great, and I’m doing so well. The page is the one place you might feel safe telling the truth.

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Nostalgia Mining

Certain songs take on colossal, completely disproportionate significance for me, giving me an inordinate amount of happiness no matter how many times played, no matter the time of day. The Borderlands opening theme song, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” is one of them. I’m playing it right now.

It isn’t a particularly great song, not one I’d glom onto if I heard it at random on the radio. The song is important for me because it is associated with an experience, a time, and a certain group of people. That potent combination must have activated some neon green and blue switches in my brain; each time this song is played, I’m instantly, deeply elated on a cell level.

I’m taken back to a blissful summer four years ago, when I was in the best touch with what were then some very dear friends around the world. I had no responsibility save playing Borderlands, digging through reminiscences of a few horror titles, and reviewing them in a massive 10,000-word essay. I still wore a black Interpol sweatshirt and I was still vegan, so I was filled with an abundance of truly suspect, nervous energy. The friends were in Australia, California, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. We talked about everything under the sun, synced up our sleep schedules for competition and completion.

In retrospect, the model wasn’t sustainable if you have real responsibilities and a real job and on and yawn. But the fantasy of having that free space was enough, once-filled. And the prospect of finding payment, and stellar editors, to write about what I love, was the joyous part. I remember feeling that it really is this easy and it could always be this easy. Just write about what you love! Just do what you love. Platitudes on platitudes, made real for the first time in my working life. Just find what makes you feel all the sharp, crystalline, deep and heartbreaking feels. Describe this to other people. This came easily. This didn’t feel tortured.

What the world of Pandora meant would be covered diligently on every tech and industry website, from its style to its mechanics to its characters. But what the feeling of being in Pandora meant for a person and what it felt like to be with others in that world: this was another set of concerns altogether.

There was a brick ton of significance in those sensations, which drive a gazillion-dollar industry. The affective elements of play, the feeling and memory of sharing a third place with others: yes, all these tenuous, impossible-to-pin emotions make for serious experience and serious capital.

Nostalgia for the virtual is created quickly, almost instantly. You know intuitively, from the opening sequence, whether the experience of a title will change you in some fundamental way. Trying to explain this nostalgia has pushed my explication abilities to the limit. Articulating why the maligned medium can move one as much as Anna Karenina or a Tarkovsky film, has been the best kind of challenge, to think very carefully on why we spend our free time in the ways we do.

To that end, last fall, I published some more pieces on feeling and not feeling for Kill Screen, including this review of Grant Theft Auto V, without a doubt one of the pieces I’ve worked hardest on to date. I was excited to find it highly circulated, and the feedback, from reviewers, industry professionals and fans, the most intense and personally fruitful. I was thrilled to hear the essay was included by the talented poet, writer and language lecturer R.A. Villanueva in his syllabus for his classes taught at NYU Polytechnic: Writing the Essay: Poly and The Advanced College Essay: Poly. I wrote a short follow-up piece on the process of taking selfies within games, a piece that was named a Voices feature on All Things Digital.

Finally, this past spring, I took on Matt and Trey’s critique of the whole ridiculous culture of nostalgia, perfectly sent up in the South Park game.

As a nice close here, I’ll offer up Leigh Alexander, one of my absolute favorite thinkers on interactive media. She wrote a devastating and lovely short fiction piece, The Unearthing, on the Atari Dig, obsessive fandom and the predictable commodification of this nostalgia.

No game experience has quite come close to that summer with friends in the rocky byways and underpasses of Borderlands. Chasing that nostalgia down for an even more meaningful and sense-whole experience may just be the point of continuing to play. I know I’m always hoping the next world will light up my brain’s switchboard in the same way.

Arcane Process

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Many writers I know wonder most of the time about what other writers, both young and experienced, are doing. The whole process can seem arcane and magical, like you need to find a key locked in a silver box to master it. One day, you will find it. The reality seems closer to a vertical wall that you have to clamber up with a death grip on each hold.

Every writer has a different process. I’ve been hearing advice about how to “really engage” in the process for some time now. Wake at dawn; work after you return from work; clear all distractions; start nothing without getting your junk pages out. No: work at a normal job for six months, then take six months to indulge your creative work, so you don’t go completely mad. Or: it either comes to you or it doesn’t, and you just need to wait. It turns out to be grotesquely  hard to do what you do well.

One writer I know stays up until five or six in the morning, sleeps until three, wakes, drinks an entire pot of coffee, then works in a manic frenzy until he has to sleep. Another writes a diligent two pages a day, every day. You have to put on your clothes; you have to write. One very successful lady I know can’t go to sleep without writing. Another, I’ve heard, lives alone in a house on an island and doesn’t see people for days and days and talks to the postmaster once a week. She Skypes with her parents on Fridays, if at all.

The rule seems to be is that there is no singular formula, because there are no rules. That’s a gem from one of my favorite fiction writers, who told our class, “Art has no rules.” (That mantra still gives me courage to write what I’m not ready yet to write).

She also told us that she was the slowest writer with the worst process, and that we shouldn’t listen to any of her advice.

Depictions of writers don’t help clarify the mystery at all. The solipsism of writers writing about writing aside, who better to get insight about the dark arts from? The unwilling heroes are usually suffering writers’ block and trapped in Los Angeles, a nightmare of a city for writers, who, if we’re trading on stereotypes, tend to avoid sunlight, surface, and people.

In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman is a sweaty trainwreck of a screenwriter, flopping backwards onto his bed, in thrall to his terrible internal voice telling him he can’t do anything right. Barton Fink’s Fink, a lauded playwright, holes up in a creepy hotel room where the wallpaper is peeling to finish his script, and is in real danger of becoming a permanent Looney Tune:

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When they finally break through the eighteenth wall of suffering, they both produce works of genius in long stretches of manic creation. This sequence is pulled off with gusto: they sweat over their typewriters, then emerge triumphant. They slam down two hundred pages, bound by a binder clip, on their agents’ desks. Their eyes start out happily from pink-grey concentric rings.

Today’s depictions of writers are no different. Take Hank Moody, the rock-star novelist in the sordid Californication, who lives the life he thinks artists lead: completely miserable, soaked in  booze, acting out violently. When not wallowing, he looks like this:

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In season one’s end, sick of himself, he sits and produces a novel in under a couple of weeks.

The process is torture, but nothing else feels better once you are all in. I feel most like myself when writing. When I feel the worst, it makes me feel the best. And it is both a constant trap and a flight out of here to better, truer places.

Last fall, I got to overcome my nerves about public speaking by reading a story I spent the previous summer on. The story, “Cardinal,” was for the fall issue of Conjunctions, one of my favorite magazines. The theme was “A Menagerie,” and the editors sought out writing about animals of all kinds, along with our relationships to animals.

I got to read “Cardinal” at a salon hosted by the lovely and most talented Christine An – an artist, writer, and comedian based in Cambridge. There was a question and answer session, and people seemed interested in how I got the idea for the story, which is about a little boy with attention deficit disorder, his teacher, and a cardinal. One lady asked how long it had taken to write, and I told her, technically, five years.

But the core image it hinged on – a bright red cardinal in the trees above snow – was actually from my childhood in Virginia. So, the material was from a lifetime. I spent a lot of summers bird-watching from a kitchen window and I befriended a few cardinals by imitating their chirp. It was as weird as it sounds. The boy was loosely based on a student in the Presbyterian school my mom worked at in Washington, D.C., in the early Aughts, and on another troublemaker from middle school.

Ten years later, living in New Haven across from a shuttered arts charter, I saw a cardinal in the snow. I also saw two mounted cardinals, male and female at the natural history museum on Whitney Avenue. They’re in the photo up top. I wrote a rough draft.

The story didn’t take took root, though, until I saw a friend’s eerie Facebook cover picture, of an Emergency sign at a hospital. The metaphor of a cardinal as emergency, and a final sentence for the story, came through. The image of brilliant red against snow, of an animal in unabashed color, without camouflage, stayed with me, and I held that in my head and resolved to build around it somehow.

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Each of the images in the story took from some singular experience in the years after: listening to tapes of birds from Cornell’s Ornithology Lab; watching a documentary about attention deficit disorders; talking to someone with anxiety and depression issues and hearing about their roller coaster experience with medication; going to a Tom Sachs exhibit based on the Mars landing; my own experience of teaching.

And then there was the cobbling: I wrote four other stories in between that year and now, toggling back and forth between their different drafts, taking scenes from one and dropping them in another. This all made for twenty or so single-spaced pages that needed to be broken apart, line by line, last summer.

So, without the five years of wandering, picking out images from experiences I had no control over, I would have no story to tell. So I’ve come to this being my process: living and observing, and hoping it all comes together, somehow, on the page. This is not very encouraging as there are no magic key solutions; but, it is also, very good, because it means life is long and full of gifts, the arcane process being the best gift.