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Recurrent Unconsidered Joy: A review of Hidden Valleys by Justin Barton

Cal Revely-Calder.

Hidden Valleys by Justin Barton

Justin Barton, Hidden Valleys: Haunted by the Future (Zero Books, 2015)

In British non-fiction there’s been a trend, of late, for books that involve men going for walks and thinking about things. Often these things are to do with history, cultural memory and landscapes; the walkers make their way through bits of Norfolk (Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places), or Yorkshire (Simon Armitage, Walking Home), trying to feel their way into the crevices of an island supremely indifferent to their walking and thinking. (There are plenty of photographs of an unhappy Armitage, in particular, who repeated the trial down in the South, and seems to have a mystical gift for attracting rain.) One interesting aspect of these rural travellers’ work is the way in which their stylised narration erudite, measured, occasionally dreamlike – differs from that of their contemporaries in the city: say, Iain Sinclair on these shores, or Frédéric Gros abroad. Those writers inhabit the urban world like it’s a frantic bestiary of the mind, in a register alchemically bound to the spark and drive of city-living. Everything becomes infected by style. Sinclair is the cardinal example of this: his sentences are instantly recognisable, and if anything, over time his books have become (weirdly) more like themselves than ever, as if drunk on their own spirit. But it was always there, even back in 1997’s Lights Out for the Territory: “Walks are permitted only on agreed paths. The ancient gates, energy sluices, have been replaced by tawdry plastic barriers. … Poisoned weather, sick skies, confused humans.” Gros is more mysterious, metaphysical; in A Philosophy of Walking he writes: “The urban stroller doesn’t put in an appearance at the fullness of Essence, he just lays himself open to scattered visual impacts. The walker is fulfilled in an abyss of fusion.” Different styles, but these city-voices share a love of self-display, corrupted by the sheer immediacy of what’s around them. Go back to the rural walkers: by contrast, their prose speaks with less surety, more hesitation, an inclination to pause. Armitage in the Pennines: “Standing among them, the only person in a vast and empty landscape, I feel both utterly insignificant and intensely scrutinised at the same time.”

Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys involves a large amount of country wandering, too, though with more precarity than the Armitages and MacFarlanes are currently enduring. During Barton’s teenage years, he and his mother travelled the country from hotel to hostel, town to village, against the sour backdrop of familial strife and a contested will. His investment in the landscape, then, was everything but professional: picking up paperbacks on the high street and retreating to hotel rooms to devour them, he was only just discovering what literature meant to him. There’s something refreshingly unguarded about how Hidden Valleys presents itself, one part memoir and one part philosophy (to be crude); it’s a book about time, grounded in 1978 and radiating towards what Barton continually calls “the Future”, or something like “a free non-transcendence dreaming or perspective – a free oneiric-abstract perceiving of the world”. Roughly speaking, it charts a moment in his life, and in the wider popular culture, where the moment comes for an opening-up of perceptions, towards greater “energy” and “lucidity”. The need, now as then, is that “the oneiric entrapment-worlds of territorial and religious allegiances have to be left behind in the direction of the planet, and in the direction of becomings”: since this didn’t come to pass in 1978, or (yet) in subsequent years, the book acts as a retrospective on what didn’t happen, a curiously hopeful memorial to hope deferred. Still, no loss. “The vital thing is to point out that the Future has been alongside all along, and a way of doing this is to see towards the Future by looking through the doorway of a particular time.”

Hidden Valleys’ two main aspects, the personal and the speculative, are brought into relation by their attitudes towards what’s been lost and what might be coming. The core problem here stems from the parting of these aspects into sections which are rarely woven together. The tone swings widely between poles, characterised on the one hand by sentences like the one glossing “Future” above, and then by flat descriptions of his home-life with his mother: “I recurrently felt acutely frustrated by being trapped on this bizarre parental bus, but I also enjoyed the travelling and the countryside and the hotels.” Barton, then, usually avoids the electrified (Sinclair) or the languorous (Armitage) by either using a thick style spattered with bits of Deleuze and Guattari, or avoiding anything conspicuously stylish. Polarised voices are true enough to Barton, to go by his publisher: he’s described as “a philosopher and writer”, as if those things might be separate enough to demand different names. The two sides of Hidden Valleys could, yes, be grouped under “writing” and “philosophy”, as loose ways to differentiate them, though that puts unwanted stress on the quality of Barton’s writing per se, which is by turns obscure and workmanlike, and rarely skilled enough to manage both.

This might sound uncharitable, but Hidden Valleys asks for it, including, besides its shaky prose, a number of literary forays in their entirety. For instance, this, from a lengthy poem:

Two days later I cycle off down the valley
Bright with sheer youngness,
The youngness that is the recurrent unconsidered joy
Of a wide now and dreamed astonishing futures.
And if I had known that it was all true
But that I was a fabric of illusions about when I would reach
These places, and their surface details,
I would not have cared at all.
But the last illusion within such exuberance
Is that it does not matter.

This extract isn’t dramatically worse than, say, the poetry of Adam Foulds or Sean Borodale, the kind of stuff which is either priestly-solemn about the power of line-endings, or admirably deaf to them. But Barton doesn’t need to trade on his poetic abilities, so you wonder why these poems made it into the final book. Turning itself around and around through verse, autobiography, philosophical speculation, and even his e-mails to friends, Hidden Valleys rarely gives off a sense of self-possession; what its disparate sections could use is either a total dismemberment, into something more like Walter Benjamin’s clipped, fugitive fragments, or a finely-woven, continuous texture, where the whole thing finds a form and then weaves into it the different voices-within-a-voice that Barton so wants to deploy. As it is, by dividing the “philosopher” from the “writer”, his formal splinters show the limitations of incoherence more than its possibilities.

Justin Barton

What’s curious about this is that Barton evidently cares about literature, which was the spark that lit his youthful interest in “becomings” and “futures”. His central argument is that something called “modernism”, best understood as a kind of mode rather than a historically-specific cluster of authors and texts, has at times flourished here and there in English culture, displaying the attitude towards Futurity which he himself adores. Each instance of this mode has anticipated and recalled other moments of modernist blossom; a gossamer web of time is strung between these points. It’s unclear whether he means “modernism” in a merely literary sense, but the relation of literature to everything else isn’t clear either; some sort of totalising worldview seems to be implied, or maybe the distinction never came to mind. In literary parlance, the word “modernism” itself has often been a nine-letter weapon of critical repression, binding together disparate writers and artists under an impossibly wide banner; either it’s insidiously misleading – did Auden and Le Corbusier share anything of artistic note? – or it has to be defined in homeopathic dilution, very generally – “between 1910(ish) and 1940(ish), artists stopped doing what was done before, and began doing what wasn’t” the sort of thing which is unfalsifiably true. Barton, to his credit, uses “modernism” to unleash himself from directional time, and describe a kind of historically-inspecific state, the last element in a process of cultural change (where the process still might be – indeed has been – subsequently reversed or occluded), but not something tied to some given decades in some given milieu. It does result, though, in some eccentrically deterministic readings of that process, where there’s no sense that literature is at all separate from its material surroundings, if it’s looking towards the Future; witness the emergence of Shakespeare in the late 16th century:

It can be seen that for the ecumenal power-brokers of the time the situation is very grave. … Elizabeth being represented as a “Virgin Queen” is a vital step in the direction of giving her a good foundation-story for the new church… But the fact that she was a woman born into a curse (through being illegitimate from the viewpoint of Rome) dictated that anything would be used to give a glow of the “transcendental” to her image, including poetry that exalted her by means of allegorical complements [sic], and including outright magical tales. Spenser’s Fairie Queen [sic] is the intermediate state, making possible a very smooth transition. And after that the door is wide open for Shakespeare to create a work involving a Fairy Queen that is not allegorical, but is instead a vital element in an abstract-oneiric beckoning to the Outside consisting of several magical stories at a spectacular level of lightness and power.

Under the usual blend of obscurity (“an abstract-oneiric beckoning to the Outside”) and reckless speed (exactly what are “lightness” or “power” in this context?), this is a vertiginous bit of historicist chatter, but it isn’t literary study in any meaningful sense.

Barton has a knack for making intriguing claims and then never putting the actual literature under any kind of scrutiny; for instance, Brideshead Revisited, “despite its connection to modernism, is an intrinsically catholic [sic] novel”: assuming that “catholic” is a typo for “Catholic” an error of which Hidden Valleys contains dozens – this is swift and glib, pitting the two colossal concepts of Modernism and Catholicism against each other, and deriving a neat opposition for the sake of ignoring the nature of that unexplained “connection”, or, ultimately, sticking the boot into Evelyn Waugh. (He eventually returns to Brideshead and says more, but not for sixty pages; you wonder why the original squib wasn’t rewritten.) Someone out of their comfort-zone might be misled by the strain Barton puts on his links, such as the claim that “Shakespeare went back 2500 years to the time of his major predecessor, Sophocles”, in “the eerie arcadian worlds of the ancient Greeks”; this is bold and striking, but brushes away the fact that Shakespeare almost certainly knew no Greek, that he could only have read a few Athenian tragedies in Latin translation, and that whatever was particularly eerie and Greek about them would have been, at best, heavily filtered. Of the eighteenth century, he writes about matters in reverse: “the new unfettered dreamings were kept in the background by an ongoing puritanical tendency in religion, and by the locked-down ‘enlightenment’ fixation on critique and formal systems.” This isn’t even wrong, because it’s difficult to see any sense in which it’s specific enough to be useful.

Large movements, lofty sweeps. But fast-forward to the Seventies, and what interested the young Justin Barton, rummaging in bookshop discount-bins or tuning into the radio, wasn’t analyses with centuries of depth, but what hung around the bestseller charts, the earthy and the mass-market: Stephen Donaldson, Gerry Rafferty, William Gibson, Ultravox. On these everyday grounds, keeping the reactions and their register personal – so, when he isn’t trying to force an untimeliness – Barton’s best turns of phrase come through: “the songs were hauntedly bright. A brightness haunted by sadness.” Much of the best work coming out of Zero Books has this focus on aborted and abortive futures, traced in the grime of the cultural machine: the EDA Collective and their Everyday Analysis series, for example; or Owen Hatherley’s Uncommon; or, in particular, Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life, which covers Barton’s kind of pop-cultural material with an insistent, sharp-eyed agility. The attention is on what’s been recently lost or gained, what’s still haunting the everyday through its proximity, behind us in time or ahead. Barton collaborated with Fisher, his friend and contemporary, for an audio-essay called On Vanishing Land: accompanied by photographs of dereliction and empty countryside, it was “inspired by the cumulative force of the Eerie that animates this landscape” (as the press notes put it), and featured dark electronic sounds, brooding with the late-Seventies aesthetic of nerves and foreboding. Eerieness is a recurrent theme in Hidden Valleys, too:

Looking back at that year-long phase of living in hotels there is an elusive eerie quality, which primarily has a sunlit-eerie aspect. The eerie is here to be understood primarily as an awareness – however fugitive it might be – of unknown forces that could be either positive or negative, and that are both “out of sight” around you, and could perhaps in some sense be stalking you, or moving closer to you. But the sunlit-eerie is something different, and is to do with the feeling that the transcendentally unknown is there, in front of you, and that this direction is the beginning of the real adventure.

These notions – the eerie, the haunted, the spectral – align Barton with the other members of the Zero collective; much of his terminology is openly indebted to Deleuze and Guattari, such as the notions of “becoming” and, inevitably, the “body without organs”. His work, like Fisher’s, also has an affinity to the writers termed Speculative Realists – Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman – whose positions begin by discarding the Kantian assertion that noumena, those attributes of the world unreachable by phenomenal experience, are forever outside of reasonable discussion; in other words, speculation can in fact function outside the empirical, beyond the orbit of human thought which acted, for Kant, as the limit-point of anything usefully called Philosophy. In Barton’s phrase, “Kantianism overcodes the transcendentally unknown-but-knowable as the unknowable,” which is a clear enough summary. And, as with Speculative Realism, and as with Fisher, Barton’s thought and education can be traced back to Warwick University, the journal Collapse, the mid-Nineties, and figures like the mythical renegade Nick Land, who once wrote that “Kant’s critical philosophy is the most elaborate fit of panic in the history of the Earth”.

A lot more could be made of this large and intricate matrix, a whole constellation of thoughts and thinkers, but suffice to say that it matters, because at every turn Hidden Valleys is suffocated by the voices surrounding it, which are, right now, absolutely present and live, and buzzing for attention. If you’re a reader of this kind of thing (to use a vague phrase, but if you actually are, you’ll get the sense), then everywhere in Barton’s book your focus is pulled up, left suspended in frustration or disjuncture. A chain of distraction blooms and blooms. To pick one such sticking-point, it’s impossible to read “becoming-woman” without registering the strangely apolitical use of gender throughout Barton’s book – a book written about mystical sexuality and the power of womanhood from the point of view of a middle-aged man, remembering his years as an overheated teenage boy. And then, you wonder whether its view on femininity – somewhere between devoted idolatry and preservation in sexual aspic – sits very oddly alongside some other Zero authors: Nina Power, Laurie Penny. The phrase, “becoming-”, is from Deleuze and Guattari (“devenir-”): there’s plenty of work protesting about the gender-politics of their Anti-Oedipe, too, so Barton’s usage only reminds you of their work’s liveliness and punch, while simultaneously drawing him into their flaws.

In the end, Hidden Valleys covers ground that’s everywhere being done somewhere else, and done better. Barton makes forays into geocriticism his “love of the planet”, the rage of winter – but Eugene Thacker does it with greater energy and urgency; the pop-musical analyses are deft, but never as prolonged or engaging as Fisher’s; the list goes on. On several fronts, this book is too gentle and uncommitted, too conflicted about what it wants to be, and, fragmented into different modes that jostle clumsily together, it rarely captures the potential energy of any direction. As one of the latest offerings from one of the most electrifying publishers in Britain, it has several of that stable’s characteristic interests, but it ranges too loosely, and lacks a native panache. Zero are committed to publishing unconventional, speculative essays, “essaying” in the processive sense, making ventures, attempts, forays. But even among their sparky misfires – and there are a few – there’s never enough style or substance to let Hidden Valleys hold its own.

Cal Revely-Calder

Cal Revely-Calder works and writes in Cambridge. He co-edits the experimental poetry/prose magazine Charlatan Works, and is a contributing editor at the Cambridge Humanities Review.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 19th, 2015.