Archive for November, 2012

Entering The Desert

November 15, 2012

Stone Tape
I tend to instinctively turn towards some kind of ghost story at this time of year. A number of factors compel me to do this; darkness, childhood memories of BBC programming, the recent revival of festive spirits in the shape of M R James remakes, or pastiches by Mark Gatiss. The usual sort of stuff that is cited as hauntological influence. I’m still turning towards these things as Christmas approaches again (inexorably, indefinitely) It’s a different kind of ghost that interests me at the end of this year though, namely my own. This ghost has emerged, as with most things that end up on here, at the confluence of a number of threads – or ‘partial connections’ as Margaret Strathern would term it – so I felt it appropriate to try and work through some of these knots, and see what comes out of it. This is spurred on, in no small way, by the increasing unease I’ve been experiencing in the last few months, which I think is mentioned in some sort of sense at the conclusion of this entry. So rather than trees, and rocks, and the other things I tend to talk about (when I might be talking about something else instead), this is sort of about my PhD, which is entering a final phase it would seem. An opening caveat – as with Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, this can be read in a randomised order. It is a brief attempt of mine at an exegesis of whatever it is I am doing .

So there is a ghost. This ghost might be uncertainty; it is the first explanation to come to mind. When I finish my PhD, which will be September of next year – it will have taken four years in total, so this might be the ‘end game’ – I am perhaps leaving the environment I am used to, potentially the friends and colleagues I have spend a large amount of time working with. I finish a few months before the end of the REF and this makes my job prospects somewhat hazy. The REF is, in a badly defined nutshell, a ‘process of expert review’, whereby Universities are assessed to see whether or not they are competent or not and whether they deserve research funding. To this end, new employees moving in to work in HE are sort of vetted to see how much use or damage they will do in terms of the REF outcome. It is a strange process – one which I clearly know very little about so please don’t take anything I say at face value – and one that seems to lead to some crappier Universities employing academics with good ‘REFability’ over others. To some extent, exciting new potential is out the window (not that I represent this). I am not an internationally recognized academic. No-one cites my work. I do not have several publications out to enable people to do this. The outcome of this is that I am unlikely to be able to find work when I finish in 2013, even if I do get published, and will have to wait until jobs come up in 2014. This is not ideal, but it also doesn’t really fill me with dread. What it has made me do is look at alternatives to academia in terms of employment. I’m not doing this with any real vigour, but as a sort of time passing exercise. Temporal considerations, as ever, are crucial here: the event, my finishing, is still far away despite my assessment of ‘end game’. I am judging this in terms of how long it will take me to write my thesis in to a viable shape. It has a form, but I need to get the insides in a fit shape. I am looking forward to doing this, which doesn’t fit the ‘uncertainty bill’ to well. In distancing myself from the end point (aside from terming it as such – without ever really engaging with that) I am presenting myself with a binary between solidity and fluidity. The tangible world of where I am, and the horror of the real world where anything I’ve learnt could be of no demonstrable value. This is terrifying and exciting. My ghost doesn’t know what to do.

I offered up a talk at the Music and Meaning Symposium last week, built around a journal article I wrote over the summer which looked at the notion of archives in relation to hauntological musicians, explored via a number of Deleuzian theoretical constructs. I used, in the article, some ‘classic’ examples including Belbury Poly (in terms of ‘radioactive fossils’), Burial (in terms of ‘deterritorialization’) and The Caretaker (in terms of ’empty-time’). The talk, which built on one I delivered at a conference in April, used different examples so as to a) avoid me repeating material and b) allow me to focus on one particular aspect of Deleuze, namely ‘sheets of past’ – adapted from Bergson in Cinema II: The Time-Image. My central argument in this case is that Deleuze’s interpretation of film and image can also be applied to sound, particularly the process of artefact construction in hauntological music. Any way, for the Symposium talk I used The Advisory Circle and William Basinski as examples. Basinski’s process involves mining his own archive for source material, and then stacking sheets of past, though the artist does not specifically acknowledge this (his own archive – his memory of the original work – the process of transferring it (and it collapsing in the case of Disintegration) – creating new work from the old – presenting that work to others, at which point it leaves the author’s control and becomes the audience’s artefact, the object of interpretation).

My thesis, now it is starting to come together, is effectively mirroring this process. I am working with my own archive of materials, which often seems new and unfamiliar contrary to what I expected. It offers a peculiar series of juxtapositions, between things I have worked on for a long time, things I do not remember working on, and new ideas, all coming together to form a conglomeration of loose ties, half-held explanations, tacit understanding, dazzling stupidity. In doing this I am increasingly making myself central to my own work. It is a process of unknowing, pulling apart my old approaches in which I assumed a correct way of doing things. This, I now know, was the wrong way of doing things (C Wright Mills taught us that the blind adherence to specific methods often is), but the new processes still create a sense of unease. Perhaps the ghost is this specific feeling, the sizeable contradiction of making a move that has actually made me more engaged in my material while simultaneously destabilising everything. It could be characterised as a crisis, but I think this too is wrong, which is why I turned to ‘the ghost’. There is nothing inherently threatening about it. It is just there, alerting me to its presence, characterised by periods of ridiculous action, but also conversely a dearth of action. I move through fragments of the last few years, returning to bits and pieces, destroying others, trying to see where things emerge from the gloom: ‘An invitation to recollect’ I think Deleuze calls it.

From the bedroom window, the other morning, I watched the tabby cat that sits on our wall catch a squirrel. There was a terrible energy to it, even with the window closed, even though this is the most natural thing for an animal (not this specific case, but the constant struggle, the proximity to death in everyday existence). The squirrel pretty much sat there, underneath the cat, presumably petrified, while the cat looked about in a kind of fuzz about what it had done, what it was going to do next. The squirrel managed to break free though, and threw itself from the top of our shed in to next door’s wall. It disappeared from sight; both mine and the cat’s. It was somewhere down there, making an unholy shrieking noise, scattering birds from adjoining gardens, the ones that hadn’t seen the cat in the first place that is. After a minute, it re-emerged, having seemingly ‘checked its exits’, and proceeded to bound across the wall to the nunnery screaming all the way. The cat, now disinterested, had relocated to a plant pot on the neighbours wall, and drank the stagnant water out of it. Later in the day I raked up the leaves that had fallen from the two maples in my garden; this revealed a number of worms, which the dunnocks spent the afternoon attempting to pull apart.

I have been married for just over a year. Next year I am thirty years old. All the stages of life are scratched in to some temporal fabric, marking us like the insides of a tree. As an anniversary gift, a friend gave us three maps in a frame. One map showed the place where I met my wife, another where we got engaged, another where we were married. Our relationship became spatially signified, geographically fixing temporal activity, the sheets of our past cartographically represented. This obviously speaks to my love of maps, but also to what Deleuze describes part way through Cinema II; the unravelling of Charles Foster Kane’s life through the time-images of his personal archivist, the objects he has collected, the bombast and spectacle of his political career such as it was. I hung the maps on the bedroom wall. The back of the frame had two hooks, so the frame could be arranged portrait or landscape; I opted for the former. In doing so, I noticed that the maps were forced to be displayed in a variety of ‘incorrect’ tessellations. None of them had north at the top, or indeed related to each other in orientation. I wondered for a moment about taking the backing off and rearranging them, but realised instead that each time I look at the maps, I am forced to reconsider the space. Although I am familiar with the events and the setting, the representation pushes me to re-place the icons in my head, to question – albeit briefly – how I recall moving through the spaces, how my memories have created these spaces (to use space here in the way De Certeau suggests in the first volume of Everyday Life ). The actual geography represented in the image is nothing, it is an empty place, a way of looking at an arrangement of objects rather than the distinct arenas we create by peopling spaces.

Nostalghia again
Perhaps the ghost is certainty. My environment has been largely identical for the last three/four years and while I am happy in the lack of change in terms of my home life (which is filled with things and people I love), my presence in my working environment feels increasingly fraught though I am unable to pinpoint what the change is necessarily. Perhaps my concern comes from an increasing awareness of my inability to maintain a tangible persona in company. Regardless of if this is true objectively, my own interpretation and experience is that the actual person I am is someone who enjoys their own company, whose interests in books and music and writing do not necessarily involve other people (with the exception of one, obviously). This is a relatively massive personal failing, and one which is not ideal considering I am potentially entering a profession where presentability is increasingly important (not necessarily at York, where ideas and thinking are, for the most part, the most vibrant and vital aspect of the discipline). So perhaps the ghost is more about who I am and what I project. But then it would be difficult to differentiate between which version is the ghost and which is reality, and that would be a whole kind of existential nightmare to sort out. Plus I think that over many years I have come to terms with the idea that, as everyone has to, I need to fulfil numerous contextualized roles. Is this the certainty issue, that the maintenance of distinct (or not) personae is such a constant that I need to codify the actual elements of my personality? The fact I have written any of this says otherwise.

Derrida, in Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance suggests that:

‘to be haunted by a ghost is to remember something that you’ve never lived through. For memory is the past that has never taken the form of the present.’

The ghost is certainty and uncertainty. The questions I have posed are not something I can answer, and certainly not something I can work through in public. Ha. There are expectations for how we present ourselves, what we discuss, where we go. I think it is important however to live all these contradictions, to create new and subjective hypocrisies if only to demonstrate how complex things are, how things hang together for a second, and then drift away in to the evening.


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