Closed Circuit Literature
By Richard Marshall.
Stephen Barber, Cities of Oblivion, Future Fiction, 2009
If a writer is confronted by the profound wickedness of infernal and atrocious arts which are so numerous that to enumerate them would fill a volume and to describe them would fill many volumes and where these arts are almost unknown, relating to the abuses of correspondences, abuses of certain orderings, abuses of communication and the influx of thoughts and affections, even appetites, abuses of operations of phantasies, developing certain projections out of themselves, by which they become present in a different place from that in which they are bodily present, and finally to pretences, persuasions and lies, if a writer, then, is confronted by such and in turn confronts them, then we are going to ask: what happens to such a writer? This question is one profoundly raised by all of Barber’s work. What we want to know is: how does he survive? I once dreamt that he worked in a dream state, under hypnosis, like Herzog’s actors in Heart of Glass. In such a state he sat in crimson-draped rooms with large steam-driven machines with various pipes and radiators that ran out through orange loam into brightly lit cafés filled with naked, life-sized hideously-deformed dolls drinking soil ferociously. Out of this somnambulistic hell Barber recounts his subject matter. Barber is the great vivesector of the pornographic presence lodged within our contemporary realm.
In Barber’s brilliant The Vanishing Map (2006) we are confronted with the city of Linz and the decision, taken in the 1970’s by the city fathers, of turning it into a ‘digital city.’ Linz was the city Hitler intended to accord ‘ the status of the mystical location of Europe’s birth.’ High above the River Danube on Frieburg Hill ‘… he had planned to build his retirement home, to which he would withdraw, after his work had been accomplished, Europe utterly subjugated to him, to wait death… From the mid 1930’s, he drew innumerable plans for that retirement home, incorporating the existing tower into his designs… and pored endlessly over them in he spring months of 1945, in the last moment of his life, as the Soviet army advanced towards him.’
Plans for the ‘digital city’ didn’t recollect Hitler’s vision. Rather, it looked to become a city ‘embedded forever in immediacy and into the contemporary.’ Barber summarises the digital dream as resulting in the ‘world’s first digital arts centre, Ars electronica, five stories high and made of concrete,’ and comments on how ‘For a time, it functioned in isolation from the rest of the city, its still-arcane exhibitions focusing on ways in which digital technologies could overhaul and reactivate the obsolete human species and its means of perception.’ Later, in the 1990’s, the rest of the city began to install its own pixellated contraptions ‘… so that from the surrounding hills, the entire city at night now appeared as a skeletal arrangement, is spine and limbs cohered and illuminated by digital images, its throat formed by Hitler’s bridge, and its tilted skull taking the shape of the Ars Electronica centre, glowing in the darkness like an obvious time bomb.’ Barber is given a ‘digital tour’ of Europe within this centre, a tour that crashes before it reaches its destined end. The crash of the digital tour is a conceit that Barber works up into this new work with the assuredness of an immaculate charmer evoked out of the sublime digression of Oppenheim’s Le Dejeuner en forrure, elegant yet subversive, as if Barber was working as some dark genii smelling out the heinous scents of deceitfully captivated minds like dogs sniffing out wild beasts in forests.
Barber’s finely tuned historico-sanatorium mentality presents a chemical formula for the city whose three constituent particles are ‘… the digital city, the banal city of well-functioning, corporate mundanity, and the never-built city of looted grandeur and genocidal power that had been designed to form the pivotal site of Europe.’ It is from Hitler’s room in Linz’s Wolfinger Hotel that Barber returns again and again to the urgent hysteria of the hallucinatory panic that is the ethical and aesthetic spinal column of all his work. Which city is the real city? Which history is the more truthful? Which dream is the city’s? Who is the city? Where is the city? Where do they go? And where does history come from, where does it go? Which is its favourite technology? Is history just a demon in the attic? Is it Orson Wells or Alfred Hitchcock commissioning our summary expulsion from the digitally-tainted megalopolis or au contraire? Etc.
It is the horror that Barber contends with, the blank, stupefying reality of genocidal power that draws him again and again into the shimmering, luminous dark of the strange, insane landscapes that lie almost in frozen, forgotten scripts somewhere within the genetic code of the great cities. In Cities Of Oblivion the narrator watches the image where ‘The genial black-clad man watched film images of his own arrival by motorcade in another, vaster, and still-populated, city, whose great avenues were lined by thousands, if not millions, of cheering people, waving black flags.’ And out of this, what does he see? ‘I concluded that the occasion was that of a victory parade for the successful accomplishment of his mission to evacuate and nullify the city in which he now remained, alone, and that those cheering citizens were anticipating, in elation, their own forcible depopulation.’ The essential shallowness of the cliché of an image within an image is given depth and brought back to life by the skewered erroneous commentary of the central voice; it is the horror of recognition that flashes across the reader in this and numerous other moments of the book, relaying the possibilities of madness in the corrosive error of the false witness. Barber’s narrator is not just not trustworthy but is positively incapable of witnessing anything. He can merely look.
The sub-title of the earlier The Vanishing Map is ‘A Journey From LA to Tokyo To the Heart of Europe’ and in it we are taken through the subconscious terror politics of the last century, fearfully glimpsing in almost dream clearness the erasing histories of places being overlaid with forgetfulness. This is Barber’s great theme and the questions roll out from it but not as cold, clinical moments of the academy braced by donnish fervours but more as surrealist meditations on the oblivion of memory, power and that disquieting melancholy of surveillance performed as Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnes le az d’eclairage et la chute d’eau of 1948-9, a near grey/flesh stone/skin mystery balanced in the ‘engulfing space that displayed the Nibelungenbrucke and Powstancow Bridges, the Noworolski and Oswiecim station cafes, and innumerable Soviet war memorials, all of those sites intersecting with one another, their forms extending infinitely outwards from the surface of Odaiba Island.’ Images seep into his eyes from his digital camera, small, discreet, confounding images that reify privacy as a metaphor of deleted pasts.
It’s a glum cliché of our times that we live in a surveillance culture. There are supposedly more CCTV cameras in England per person than anywhere else in the world. Yet there is a creepy sense that nothing is revealed, that all this looking is besides the point, that what is being seen is just a distraction. Or rather, the image is the problem, that in the capturing digitally distilled pixels and substituting them for reality there is nothing but a corrosive loss being instantiated. The digitalised semblances are not of anything at all but just work as a way into a deforming forgetfulness. Borges at one point slyly suggested that a photograph destroys the memory by disconnecting the process from its intent; we remember the picture and then the remembrance of the remembrance of the picture and then on, ad infinitum, unbearably losing whatever we were trying to capture in the picture in the first instance. And perhaps even the notion of a ‘first instance’ becomes, in the light of this, absurdly optimistic, as if Dali’s great Lenin painting ‘The Enigma of Wlliam Tell’ could ever be decomposed into the elements and references of Lenin any more easier than its arse.
So, the unbearable truths of the last century are being overwritten by the deluge of irrelevant images, the flood of tv and film and digital paraphernalia that conceal rather than reveal. The metaphysics of the eye is the contemporary metaphysics whose ramifications were explicitly sketched by Bataille and is one written out in the longhand of central European understanding and cinematic necrophilia. As for me, reading this wonderful, melancholic and meditative dreamtime-essay the atmosphere is best conjured by Sir Alec Guiness in the BBC’s John Le Carré dramas. His Smiley is owl eyed, probing and defined by cold war geography. His whole face is an eye, or rather two large eyes behind preposterously large walnut rimmed Curry and Paxton spectacles, eyes which know and conceal and grant gifts.
The metaphysics is easier to understand when thought of as a mythological zoology, as the great Czech poet Holub knew when he wrote of ‘Goddesses, gods, fear and Twiggy have very large eyes…./Cyclopses, olms, informers and the angels of the Apocalypse have very small eyes. But a lot of them.’ Assume ours is the culture of large eyes. Then our past has excessively small eyes, and therefore what we find ourselves constrained by in this scheme is a present of nothing and a past with the Apocalypse squatting inside it. Barber’s poetic, hypnotic and precise prose is accomplished and taut in the same way that the immunologist Holub’s poetry is. And there it is, grey and traumatised, the shocking ash of sadness, of provocative melancholia. It is urn burial, the ashes of cities, ashes of ourselves in a cold winter light, detourned readings of Cancer Ward, The Expelled’s ‘memory is killing’, Augustines’ conceit of memory as the belly of the mind, MacBeth read by dissidents in a Czech flat, where tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’s triadic mantra performs a terrifying metamorphis in the 70’s gloom, ‘signifying nothing’, sucking light in rather than expelling it, as if every room was a Hopper Nighthawks bar, Weegee lurking outside with his flash-bulb, finding the open mouthed corpses .
Barber is one of just a handful of contemporary British writers of prose fiction who are consistently worth reading – JG Ballard, Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair and Jeremy Reed are others – and this new piece is as exhilarating and disquieting as anything he has produced. Yet it’s in a register that recalls that of The Vanishing Map rather than the Sadian orgiastical ecstasy of last year’s completed trilogy, and though situated ostensibly in a Tokyo sex bar it has the meditative atmosphere that discerns the obliteration of memory, the failure of the image and the mythology of persistence that recalls the expelling momentum of that earlier, terrifyingly brooding work. For make no mistake, Barber is yet again beginning another unsettling obsessional excursion in to the very nexus of our oblivion.
The fertility of his involuntary memory sets up a conflict and thus a drama between the digital collusion with unreality and the suspicion that there is a possible identity beyond the constituents of such digitalised recall. It is the suspicion that I am not my memory, that I might be identified even when all memories are gone, the Beckettian horror of the persistence of consciousness beyond corporeal and psychologcal unity. Imagining a world of digital collapse he recounts with nerveless sureity the mysterious element of inattention that might restore a reality unbetrayed by ocular perversion. The enormous clarity of the narrative, its cool, slow detonating flow of meditative force creeps into the reader and offers a fugitive salvation. It is a blasted landscape burning out of a woman’s retinas, one that is presented through a cunning double loop martian game of making the familiar strange, then familiar and then all strange again.
It is Ballardian in that the form is a kind of science fiction or cyberpunk using that familiar, hollowed out, repetitive, scary clarity of unfussy prose, a style that allows the reader to work alongside the narrator with the signs that the conceit evacuates, signs which nevertheless are barely interpretable and which retain their mysteriousness even after a kind of closure is offered. There is a weirdly satisfactory fun to be had guessing who the strange figures are – Lynch-like names such as ‘the genial black-clad man’ and ‘the shaven headed man’ are both precise and vague in the manner of a Twin Peaks nightmare; we recall the ‘one armed man’ and ‘The log lady’ – and identifying the events the narrator struggles to understand. Barber’s humour in the names that are made resurgent and made to transfix the lost cities into some sort of translated sense is a dead-pan, gallows humour that freezes the smile into a silent scream. History is sucked out, denuded of a fixed point like the ‘mind-blurring alleyways of Shinjuku’ and as in a Chris Marker film it is through the element of a cannibal cinema eating itself as it eats the world that the belly of memory is restored into a weird and fat itinery spoken, after the annihilation of time, in the last person. (Probably an auto-sodomised cephalopodic James Stewart plastic doll when all is done and dusted.)
Barber has developed a rich texture to his gleaming prose: the details are ripe, searing and incredible. It is forever 3am, it is forever the eye that offers threat and doom, it is what he sees that is vividly presented as a source of endless fear and anxiety. The insane brouhaha of ocular scum, urban perversions, Berlin, meathooks and Esso signs, cinema crime, stone faces, absent cities, digital crash-landing, ocular deferral, fragmentation, the Skladanowsky Brothers, Brando, Vertico, spiral cities, erasure, A Touch Of Evil, Dietrich and Garbo – the name of horror – a secret dispatch, a conspiracy and an endlessness all presented slowly, unfolding gently like a realised futility, all this reaches into the ventricals of our last century and this new one developing, reaches out in the steady prose to a response of shuddering recognition and deranged panic. The industrial-scale genocide and torture machines of the last hundred years which saw 200 million killed in wars alone have been perpetual elements of Barber’s screams of rebuke. His engagement with the rupture of memory and deviated sensibility outlined in his recent interview with Andrew Stevens is here ambitiously summarised in a collusion between the history of the twentieth century and its dominant art form, cinema. Alongside these are the delayed remembrances not only of Duchamps but also of Hans Bellmer’s illustrations for Histoire de l’oeil of 1928 and poorly defined monochrome frames of 120 Minutes dedicated to the Divine Marquis from April 1966.
But the erased cities are our cities; their erasure is ours too and so the personal, eroticised flesh is also what has been lost in the digital crash. There’s a remarkable, emblematic photograph of 1934 by Hans Bellmer, The Doll. It is a black and white picture of Bellmer’s doll sculpture ‘in papier mache and plaster over an armature of wood and metal.’ It was made in 1933, the year that Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Alyce Mahone, commenting on the spooky image, writes: ‘The mechanism of the doll is apparent in her stomach and right leg, and the mis-en-scene disturbingly confronts the viewer with the image of a battered femme-enfant and Bellmer’s ghost-like male figure ominously staring at the camera.’ Throughout Barber’s story the uncanny threat of the women is a core element, ‘a series of endless anagrams’, as Bellmer described his own creations, that attempt to reveal what is usually hidden. Bellmer and Barber both bring about a speaking relationship between the erotic body and the body politic. For Barber each city represents the body politic and we may imagine him as some latter-day Fustel de Coulanges interrogating the underlying ‘plastic anagram’ of the disappearing memories. Everything is serious. The last century saw up to 120 million people massacred through ethnic cleansing on top of the 200 million plus war casualties. We’re reading this at a time of perpetual war. Liberty has been sacrificed. There’s a sense that we are currently enacting a politics devised out of the Salpetriere Hospital by the raving patients of Jean-Martin Charcot. The lascivious hate that characterises the latest phase of jouissance, Kristeva’s time of ‘oblivion and thunder… where the subject is swallowed up’ is what Barber’s narrative knows, picturing the contemporary as a shared digital nihilism that sleazes over an ever-disappearing reality more efficiently than the death camps themselves. This orgiastic mode is brutally confirmed by the stories emerging from Guantanamo Bay where the photographs of a woman soldier submitting her captives to cruel and obscene treatment show her posing proudly whilst enacting her eroticised, sadistic theatre. Barber’s fiction here has the gnawing twistedness of a suicidal automata responding to such depraved extremity, a surreal respect for the underlying strategies of the underlying strategies rendered into self-threat, self-harm and as such, it is a novel that has the measure of contemporary politics, of ‘extraordinary rendition’ and the like. It is fiction that works in that most honourable, noble and ethical tradition, that of ‘bearing witness’ to the horror of the world. The poet Mandelstam was murdered by the last century in Kolyma, hell’s twin town, for so doing and Barber is reminding us like Holub that ‘And now/the scream turned into speech,/ prepared by/ the vaults of our tombs: Then death will come and it will have your eyes.’ And once the eyes are gone, what then will be known? Barber asks us strange questions, threatens us with Icarus’s self-immolation, leaving behind in the final end ‘bliss and elation.’ It is a book of evocativeness, a miraculous conviction of cinematic irrationality and geo-political convention raised to the art of apocalyptic high tea. Like the bride, we are stripped bare.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Richard Marshall (centre) is former editor of 3:AM and his essay on Stewart Home appeared in its fifth anniversary anthology The Edgier Waters (2006). A story of his features in the forthcoming Love Hotel City (alongside Stephen Barber), edited by Andrew Stevens (also on Future Fiction). He lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 23rd, 2009.