Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Writing update, life update

I'm absolutely loving this summer. No conferences! No deadlines! (Well, except that I have to rewrite my chapter for Derrida and Antiquity in the next three weeks. But I've had some really useful feedback from Aren and Una, so I'm starting to have some ideas about how to do it.)

It was my birthday in July, and J bought me (among other things) a bottle of Hendricks Gin, to which I have been very partial ever since I bought a bottle for my dad and then one for our good friend K and drank some: gin and tonic has been integral to my self-image this summer, a self-image which I stole from Bridget Jones stealing a self-image from Kathleen Tynan:

I read in an article that Kathleen Tynan, late wife of the late Kenneth, had 'inner poise' and, when writing, was to be found immaculately dressed, sitting at a small table in the centre of the room sipping at a glass of chilled white wine. Kathleen Tynan would not, when late with a press release for Perpetua, lie fully dressed and terrified under the duver, chain-smoking, glugging cold sake out of a beaker and putting on make-up as a hysterical displacement activity. Kathleen Tynan would not allow Daniel Cleaver to sleep with her whenever he felt like it but not be her boyfriend. Nor would she become insensible with drink and be sick. Wish to be like Kathleen Tynan (though not, obviously, dead).

Lately, therefore, whenever things have risked ranging out of control, I have repeated the phrase 'inner poise' and imagined myself wearing white linen and sittng at a table with flowers on it.

No flowers in my study, and obviously I am not wearing white linen (though I have been wearing a grey sleeveless cashmere jumper a lot this summer - I got it for a tenner off Brick Lane market, before you say anything), and the white wine has been replaced by Hendrick's Gin and tonic, with ice, in the beautiful heavy-bottomed tumblers that K got me as a present. But the inner poise is coming along rather nicely.

After comments by Beppie and M on my last writing update, I have been thinking about what 'just writing' consists of. I think the real tipping-point for me, the thing that makes 'just writing' pleasurable rather than painful and scary and vile, is the point where the map and the territory begin to coincide with one another. That's one of the main metaphors I have for thinking about writing, the difference between a map and a journey - the different sense you have of a terrain when you're studying a map and when you're walking through it. So sometimes, when you're planning a piece of writing, you don't know what certain parts of your argument are going to be until you've actually sat down and written them out, word by word and sentence by sentence: you can't understand/draw the map until you know what's in the terrain. But sometimes, when you're in the terrain, you get lost in the unfamiliarity of that way of experiencing space, and you can't see how it relates to the map you have at all, and you wander off and get discouraged, or start worrying about whether you need to redraw the map, or whether you're in the wrong bit of the terrain, or what's going on.

Um. Less metaphorically, that goes a bit like this: I think the two most important things in the process of writing are the relationship between what's written and what's unwritten, and the relationship between the part (the sentence, the paragraph) and the whole (the chapter, the overall argument). When those relationships are off, writing is not 'just writing' but much more a process of rethinking, staring at the screen, going off to read another book, writing-and-crossing-out, playing Minesweeper, doing the washing-up, staring at the screen, going for walks, etc... and all that stuff is necessary to get those relationships right. But when they are right - this is what J calls 'getting the ting' - then, then you can just write, and the more you think about the part, the more you understand the whole; the more you think about the whole, the more you understand the part; the more you think about what to leave unwritten or implicit, the clearer what you write will be.

When I say 'you', obviously, I mean 'me'.

Anyway, this very joyous map/territory synchronicity has been happening for me lately both with The Book and with a long piece of fanfiction I've been writing for mumble years: it's easier to spot with the fiction, where the main sign that everything is coming together is that the harder I think about how to solve narrative problems, the more sense the story makes (when things are going badly, if I think about problems too hard the whole story comes apart and becomes meaningless). Or I try and figure out how to solve one problem and discover that the solution actually also solves another problem that I've been worrying about. It's a period of everything simplifying rather than complexifying, so that each step doesn't lead to ten more possible branches, but rather braids together ten different strands. (Michel Serres writes somewhere about how the dominant mode of knowing in the West is analysis, which means 'untying', and why shouldn't we have a way of knowing that's more like knotting? By which I take him to mean knitting, but that's a whole nother post...)

The same feeling is coming to me with The Book, now, but it's harder to explain exactly how or why. I think it's a feeling that the different currents and strands are braiding themselves together, simplifying into two main lines of argument, which I could (not yet! but soon!) actually explain in an introduction or a book proposal without worrying that they'll come apart if I put them into different words or look at them from a slightly different standpoint. It's... a feeling of the thereness of the material, that I'm working with what the texts want to say rather than against or regardless of it.

And so, in short, hooray. The Book is going to work! And the Giant Fan Story Of Doom might one day be finished!

In other news, my promotion to Lecturer C officially took place on August 1 so today was the first day of my new salary: I have £100 more a month and am celebrating by buying tickets to Dorian Grey at Sadler's Wells. This is my last chance to convince J that ballet can actually be very cool: the first ballet I ever saw, and loved, was the Northern Ballet Theatre's Dracula, which had a fantastic boy-on-boy duet (is it called a pas de deux when it's dancing?) between Jonathan Harker and Dracula, and when the girls came on all skinny and twinkly and dancing unnaturally on their points, this was because they were vampires and thus meant to be skinny and twinkly and unnatural. But then I went to see Romeo and Juliet and discovered that ballet can also be about highly trained men and women working very hard to maintain the illusion that there are vast natural differences between men's and women's bodies, movements, etc, and that is not so much my cup of tea. So I have high hopes for Dorian Grey.

Oh, and I thought of a new and better subtitle for The Book today, so as of now its working title is: Now and Rome: Empire After Earth. Thinking about it, I think this must have arisen from conversations with Una over our extremely joyous weekend at her place a couple of weeks ago, about Carl Schmitt and whether colonizing other planets is the way forward. So: Now and Rome: Empire After Earth. Brought to you by our sponsors, Hendricks Gin.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Looking for Alaska (Spoilers)

(Does anyone know how to put entries behind a spoiler cut/fold in Blogger?)

So we had a bit of spare cash this summer, and a plan to spend the whole summer in the house writing (which I must say the British weather has been co-operating with fully), and we got a stack of books, including a fair bit of American Young Adult fiction that we'd heard of but missed over the last few years. And we were really excited about Looking for Alaska, and I don't even know why, now, because it's not like it doesn't signal THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT AN INTERESTING BOY AND A SYMBOLIC MYSTERIOUS GIRL right there in the title. And so then it arrived, and the blurb was like:

His whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the 'Great Perhaps' (Francois Rabelais, poet) even more. He heads off to... boarding school, and... down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up and utterly fascinating Alaska Young...

and then the final blow to my hopes was delivered by the quote on the back from KLIATT (whatiz?): The spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on.

Well, I say the final blow to my hopes, but then I did read the book, because we'd spent money on it and everything and... oh, I can't believe they're still writing this book. It's the old, old story of boy-reads-too-much-existential-poetry, boy-meets-fucked-up-girl, boy-decides-fucked-up-girl-is-too-much-effort-to-treat-like-a-human-being, fucked-up-girl-dies, boy-is-sadder-and-wiser, for-some-reason-we're-still-supposed-to-care-about-this-boy-whose-story-is-apparently-more-important-than-the-girl's-I-wonder-why-oh-wait-I-forgot-he's-a-boy.*

It's just extraordinary. The girl pretty much tells the boy that her mother died on page 57 (or 'ninety-eight days before' she dies, in the novel's before-and-after structure) - I mean, I understood that that was what she meant, I have no idea why the narrator didn't - and she's obviously really, really fucking unhappy. I mean, for values of 'obviously' and 'really fucking unhappy' that include 'coming into the boy's room completely distraught, in uncontrollable tears, asking for help'. But when she does that, she doesn't explain the full context of everything she's saying (that's right! the distraught sixteen-year-old girl doesn't provide a full glossary and back-story!) and the narrator says: As much as I wanted to understand her ambiguities, the slyness was growing annoying. That's for a value of 'as much as I wanted to understand' that means 'I once asked her what was wrong straight out and she didn't tell me!', and a value of 'slyness' that means that the distraught sixteen-year-old says That's the excuse everyone has always used while not explaining who 'everyone' is. Sly!

And then she gets obscenely drunk and unbelievably distraught and the narrator enables her to go for a drive at three in the morning (advising her not to turn her headlights on) and - omigod - she totally dies! And the narrator is really sad for a while, but in the end he knows that Alaska would forgive him for being such an unbelievable shit, and we have all learned and grown and stuff. I mean, apart from the girl, the girl who is genuinely unhappy and has real problems. She hasn't learned or grown. She's dead. But the boys! The boys who are emotionally safe and from happy homes! They have learned and grown!

Probably my two favourite symptomatic quotes:
She didn't leave me enough to discover her, but she left me enough to rediscover the Great Perhaps.

Which is the main thing, of course. And:

Hank hugged me and said, 'At least it was instant. At least there wasn't any pain.'

I knew he was only trying to help, but he didn't get it. There was pain. A dull endless pain in my gut that wouldn't go away even when I knelt on the stingingly frozen tile of the bathroom, dry-heaving.

I just love that. He didn't get it! I didn't care about Alaska's pain! I cared about MY PAIN!

I was trying to remember why we'd been attracted to this book in the first place, and J. reminded me that we'd been told that Alaska was a feminist, which is kind of cool because very few young women I know seem to be happy with that word (or indeed those politics) at the moment. And indeed Alaska might be a feminist; she uses the words 'objectify' and 'patriarchal'; she uses them more than once. But don't worry! She's not one of those man-hating feminists! She ends her mini-lecture on how mainstream porn is not good for women by reassuring the protagonist that it is nonetheless normal and healthy for him to get turned on by watching men fuck women who appear to be being hurt! She insists that it is sexist to expect women to cook for men, but she does it anyway, whipping up a delicious Thanksgiving dinner in a trailer together with the protagonist's best friend's mother, because boys can't cook! She hangs out only with boys, and only speaks to other women twice in the book: once to accuse another girl at the school of being a bad feminist, and once to get another girl (whom she later tutors in how to give a blow job, again for the protagonist's benefit) to go out with the protagonist! She's a quirky, kooky, cool kind of a feminist, who isn't afraid to smile indulgently when her male friends stare down her tank top, and who knows that these days being opposed to the patriarchy doesn't mean that women can't choose to put their energy into providing emotional, sexual and domestic labour for boys!

This blog post was brought to you by the letter R for Rage.

*This is unfair, actually, as girl-on-girl versions of this story abound, cf The Tulip Touch and Me Without You, but Holden Caulfield comparisons make me unreasonable. Oh! Except for Frank Portman's King Dork, which is excellent, and even has a hilarious critique of the interesting-boy/kooky-girl-out-of-his-league plot into the bargain.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Behold The Sound of the Universe

So I finally and belatedly finished my proposal for a chapter in this book (doesn't it sound great?) and sent it off, and I thought I'd post it here, because I'm all excited about it. I actually want to do readings of the telephone call in 'Father's Day' and the silent clocks in 'The Girl in the Fireplace' too, but they didn't fit into the 500-word proposal thingy--

Behold the Sound of the Universe: Time, Space and Affect in Doctor Who

This paper explores the ways in which Doctor Who uses sound and sound effects to construct space and time on both a cosmic and a subjective-affective level.

Sound in the Western imaginary has long had a privileged relationship to presence: the invention of the phonograph, the gramophone and the telephone (as documented by Friedrich Kittler in Discourse Networks and Film, Gramophone, Typewriter and by Avital Ronell in The Telephone Book) troubled that relationship. Sounds could now be reproduced in the absence of the body which originally produced them, and this – as has been argued by Barbara Engh – profoundly disturbed the ways in which we imagine space and time. Engh writes, for example:

If the phonographic record… bears the mark of the ‘that-has-been’, nevertheless it does so at the expense of the radical dissociation of the utterance from its context. Even if all the [sounds of the past] could be located, these sounds could only be sampled, arranged in a constellation, supplied with a context. (1)

In this paper, I will argue that Doctor Who fully exploits this temporal and spatial uncanniness of synthesized and recorded sound, to two main ends: firstly, sound is used along the lines that Engh sketches, to disrupt linear time and to create a complex interplay between presence and absence; and secondly, sound as a memory trigger is used to explore the affective dimension of television viewing and to comment on the history and timeline of the show itself and of its fandom.

Although sound – in particular, the theme tune and the sound effects produced by the Radiophonic Workshop – has always been crucial to the affective and temporal dimensions of Doctor Who, I will concentrate on New Who in this paper, because its conscious relationship to Old Who - its consciousness of its own temporal position in television and fandom history – allows it to do more complex work with sound.

Through readings of several moments in the first two seasons of New Who, investigating the disjunction between soundtrack and visual imagery, I will show that the brilliantly uncanny sound of the TARDIS functions very much along the lines that Kittler and Engh sketch out. It is both an index of presence in time and space (the TARDIS is materializing here, now), and an aural symbol of the possibility that linear time and space can be overcome (the TARDIS travels in both, instantaneously remapping both space and chronology). I will then go on to a close reading of the second season episode ‘Love and Monsters’, in which the sound of the TARDIS is described as ‘the sound of the universe’ and functions explicitly as the mysterious object of fannish desire. Through this close reading, I will argue that sound is a powerful affective technology in Doctor Who, creating a fragmented, disrupted temporality not only for its fictional universe but, through its function as a memory-trigger, also for its viewers/listeners.

(1) Barbara Engh, ‘After “His Master’s Voice”’, New Formations 38 (Summer 1999), pp.54-63, p.56.


The idea that New Who is talking about its own fandom history when it talks about time and the historical record I owe to some really insightful comments by the brilliant Penny Goodman on the paper I gave at Leeds last May, as well as to discussions of 'Love and Monsters' with the equally brilliant Una and Matthew. I really hope this proposal gets accepted - I've been saying for three or four years now that I'd love to write an entire paper on the sound of the TARDIS, and look! I really might be able to!

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Stuff White People Can Do (And Why Sometimes We Can't)

For International Blog Against Racism Week, I'm linking to a couple sites and articles which might help well-meaning anti-racist white people sharpen their (our) ideas and learn - keep on learning - to decenter the ways we see and think about ourselves, our 'race', and 'race' in general.

A fantastic essay by Sarah Ahmed on the 'non-performativity' (thank you) 'of anti-racism';

Rent-a-Negro, which takes a bit of translation for non-Americans but is unsettling and interesting;

and the website of its creator, Damali Ayo (check out her pdf I Can Fix It: 2000 people were asked for 5 things individual people can do to end
racism. Here are the solutions in our own words.

And finally, of course, a Peggy Macintosh lolcat.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Writing update

The editors of the special issue of Cultural Critique I just wrote the paper for emailed today to let me know that they don't think it needs any revisions before it goes to peer review, hooray and phew, because it was no fun to write and I don't know if I could revise it.

This week I started work on Teh Book again: I'm trying to bash out a completed draft of Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 at the rate of one a week over the next, well, five weeks. Chapter 2 was in fairly good shape when I started, and work went well yesterday and today, so I think that'll be fine. I don't know how coherently I can write about writing it, but here are a few scattered speculations (not on value):

At this stage I just need to write it. But what is this thing called 'just writing'? For me and in this context, I think it means: not obsessing about 'style'; accepting that about 90% of everything that I have thought and read on all the topics and concepts that spiral out from the heart of this book is not going to make it into the book, and letting it go; not going off on new and interesting connections that the close readings throw up; doing more of the work of scene-setting and clarification (this is my hardest thing, I hate doing the work of scene-setting and clarification, it makes me feel vulnerable and banal, vulnerable to being called banal. One of my friends got called banal at a conference recently and, excellently, there was much fall-out and discussion of this in the interstitial spaces of another conference where she and I were together; it's such a catch-all word; anything can be banal; it makes you do the work of doubting yourself without doing any of the work of critique; but it's impossible to defend against).

The nice thing about all of that - particularly the bit about letting 90% of the thinking not appear - is that it makes me realize fully for the first time how much work I really have done on this book. I can walk past all the chapters in my head, brushing my fingers against them, like stones in a stone circle, and I know what is going to be in them: I know what my key words are, and what passages from the literary text are going to be close-read, and although I might not be able to put it in clear and straightforward words every time, I can feel roughly what the shape, the argument, of each chapter is going to be. And that really is a big deal. So I really didn't waste my six months' research leave.

Which is a relief, as you can imagine.

The other thing which is making this bit of the writing go well is that I seem to have achieved the right distance from the material (at last! eight years later!). For the last couple of days, at least, I haven't been too close to it, seeing the unmanageable, unruly, glorious complexity and particularity of every word in every passage I quote; but I also haven't been too far away from it, feeling like every sentence I write bears the unbearable weight of the demand to justify its existence not only in the book but in my life, not only in my life but in the world: to justify itself to everyone everywhere at the same time, from my boss in the Classics department and my ex-supervisor in Cultural Studies to my scary, clever, wonderful, activist theorybitch friends on teh interwebs. It feels like working the material from a distance, like with giant mechanical hands: this is partly, of course, because mostly what I've been doing is shoving already-written sections into place and writing new explanatory, introductory, clarifying or linking sections almost in private, note form, so we'll see how it goes when I have to do more close-up work.

Yesterday, the day I started, J told me I was white all day, white and not-there, like a ghost; printing three old versions of the chapter out and making a tiny skeleton outline of the final version put colour back into my face.

The most exciting thing is that - mostly and so far - I like it. I like my book. I was really scared I wouldn't.

I spent the weekend tidying my study in preparation for starting, and I have a nice, clean, workable work space now, with drawers in a little cabinet for all the different chapters, and a desk-top organizer for pens and articles, and a flat surface for towers of books, and all my little magical objects collected around my computer (the pottery toad I bought at the North Bristol Art Fair last year, the glass coaster with a heart on it that J bought me at a market in Queensland just after we got together in 2003 and she had to go back to Australia, the little pipe-cleaner Deva a good friend of mine from Blake's 7 fandom made me a few years ago, the tiny wombat in a mortarboard that J gave me, the photo of the statue of Wellington in the park in Leeds near the university campus whose boots are always painted red by some helpful street artist, the Judy Horacek card 'kissing with crockery' which J sent me years ago when we weren't living together and when what we most wanted is what we have now; living in the same house, working hard in different rooms, and kissing when we bump into each other from time to time in the kitchen, distracted and not-there, and then going back to work).

Oh! Incidentally, this is International Blog Against Racism Week. So I will be blogging against racism soon, and you should too.