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The Novel’s Nervous Breakdown

Bridget Penney interviewed by Richard Marshall.


3:AM: How aware were you of Wallace Berman‘s Semina series before Stewart Home approached you?

BP: Vaguely aware of it as the name of a small press magazine among others of the 1950s and 60s. I did then do some homework. It’s very interesting, looking at even the brief list I’ve seen of some of the contributors, just how much ground Semina covered in nine issues; publishing work by artists, poets from Black Mountain College and New York, Hollywood actors. I’m impressed by descriptions of the individual issues e.g. No 3 which was printed as a chapbook of Michael McClure’s Peyote Poem because it sounds like Berman was really trying to fit the format to the work rather than the other way round. Reading about how Issue 2 was ‘handset with miscellaneous available type and papers’ and later issues took the form of unbound sheets in folders or portfolios with envelopes inside, I wish I’d been able to see the exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre last year but personal circumstances made it difficult for me to attend.

3:AM: As a setting for your work Index, what was attractive about being involved in this project?

BP: Everything! Though I feel daunted by the use of the name Semina which seems like a hard act to follow. But it’s great to be part of a series showcasing experimental fiction and the three books published so far — Maxi Kim’s One Break, A Thousand Blows and Mark Waugh’s Bubble Entendre being the others — are all very different, which I like. Also I was very pleased at the thought of being published by Book Works because I’d been aware of and admired their books for many years and felt confident that the book would — whatever people thought of its contents — be a beautiful object.

3:AM: You began working on Index 15 years before it was published by Book Works. Did the involvement with Semina take the book off in a different direction from the one you had originally conceived?

BP: The book had deviated from what had been my original conception of it quite a few years previously. I had started work on it in 1992 and several sections were published in magazines, but by 1998 I felt the project had run out of steam and so brought it to a close, completing a version which was really a salvage job, which, after half-hearted efforts to find a publisher for, I decided to bring out under the imprint Invisible Books my partner Paul Holman and I ran at the time. For various reasons that didn’t happen then, but the intention remained. I worked on the text at intervals over the succeeding years but was pretty disheartened with it. As far as I was concerned it was a prime candidate for inclusion in a series where the novel has a nervous breakdown.

The involvement with Semina enabled me to finish Index in a much more satisfactory way than it would have been had I published it myself. Editorial input from Book Works made me re-engage with the text in a way I would never have expected to happen. I re-incorporated material that had been dropped from earlier versions and did a substantial amount of fine tuning — ending up, when I finally thought I’d finished, completely rewriting one section at my partner’s prompting.

3:AM: What was the involvement of Stewart Home in editing the work? Were there ideas you were wanting to use that Stewart didn’t and vice versa, and what kind of a working relationship developed? Presumably he was roughly sympathetic to your approach but you seem very different kinds of writers. I wonder if there were conflicts and whether this led to creative energies?

BP: Stewart has been extremely supportive of my work, for which I am deeply grateful. Index wouldn’t be in print now without his intervention. When I first discussed the presentation of the book with Stewart and Gavin various suggestions were made. I agreed with those I thought were an improvement; those I didn’t like were quietly dropped. When it came to editing the text, Stewart didn’t actually work with me. He did Maxi’s book and Gavin did Index.

The production of the book was, as far as I was concerned, an entirely positive experience. Book Works were fantastic to work with and I say this knowing that the book was something of a pain. It would have helped a lot if I’d bothered to spell-check it first: silly errors were still getting picked up far into the proofing process which wasted everyone’s time. The text I’d sent in was much more of a mess than I’d realised — assembled over a long period of time on typewriters and different word-processing programs, the styling was wildly inconsistent, and sorting out the presentation of the various kinds of quoted and found texts took inordinately long.

Once I had agreed that the presentation needed to be made consistent, Gavin went through the manuscript in painstaking detail and made a lot of very good suggestions, many of which I used. The suggestions I didn’t agree with were also valuable as they set me to thinking of my own ways to resolve the text’s problems. I never felt under any pressure to stop making changes or hurry up. Once the text was finally done, Fraser (who designed the book) spent over four hours with Gavin and me getting the layout of the book exactly how I wanted. I still think it’s incredible they were prepared to do that and I really am most grateful to everyone who was involved in the production of Index.

3:AM: In your interview with Home you say that you are very interested in the relationship between text and pictures. You say that Hogarth was an artist who was very useful to you whilst working on Index. Can you say something about your ideas about Hogarth and how in particular you drew from his work? You link him with your interest in cinematic noir texts and comic strips…

BP: Hogarth didn’t admit that anything in the visual arts was beyond his scope and turned his attention to one genre after another; the narrative series which were issued as prints, portraits, ‘conversation pieces’ and history paintings, also writing The Analysis of Beauty in which he set forward his ideas. His work portrayed — and would have been experienced by — many different social groups.

Having been thoroughly put off by encountering Beer Street and Gin Lane in a school history book where they were used in a very obvious way, I didn’t look at him again until I was reading a lot of eighteenth-century texts (which later fed into Index) because many of them were referenced directly e.g. The Beggar’s Opera or indirectly — lowlife criminal biographies such as those contained in the Newgate Calendar — in his work. Once I began paying attention, I found it difficult to stop.

There are two points in particular about his work which engaged me while I was working on Index — though trying to explain them displays the rather large gap between my intentions and the finished book. The first was understanding that his pictures were intended to be read — not just because there’s often quite a bit of text in the prints, though I found that the text acted as a lure because in trying to read it I would be giving the picture the close attention with which I then started to notice other things. In the introduction to The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth advises people to look at objects (either natural or works of art) “by considering them in a systematical, but at the same time familiar way”. Unlike many pictures that were intended to be read with a system of symbolism or iconography that the viewer would have to bring with him or her (thus excluding those who didn’t have that kind of knowledge) all the necessary information is in the picture. When I first look at one of the prints, my overall impression is of restlessness. There are multiple focal points which aren’t easily prioritised. In The Analysis of Beauty he writes “I mean here, and every where indeed, a composed variety, for variety uncomposed, and without design, is confusion and deformity”. The viewer’s eye has to keep moving from one point to the next, making connections and establishing correspondences.

Coming back to things I noticed at the start, my understanding of them has often altered because of a relationship established with something else. What appears to be the obvious message is counterpoised and even undercut within the picture; nothing is anything like as straightforward as it first appears. I like the idea of non-lineal, heuristic reading and I also find it very useful to look at work where text is not the main carrier. I’m quite jealous of visual media because — it seems to me — they can embody what writing is stuck with trying to describe.

The idea of a gaze that has to keep moving to increase its understanding leads almost too neatly on to how Hogarth depicts action and movement in time, which is the second point I wanted to make. His pictures don’t seem like tableaux but interrupted moments with plenty of clues as to how things have arrived at their present state and some idea of how they might continue. It’s obvious in the famous narrative sequences where the idea of the “progress” is embodied, but I find it in all his work; as in the conversation piece A Performance of ‘The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards’ (1732-5) where the woman in the centre of the painting points to the fan she has just dropped and appears to be asking the child to pick it up. Hogarth writes, “It is known that bodies in motion always describe some line or other in the air,” and I really value this in his work. I never have the impression a figure has been arranged in a pose just for visual effect; there is always the understanding that what is recorded is one point in a sequence of movement. He manages to capture movement and the sense of the passage of time by acknowledging that it can’t be fixed. At the time when I was writing Index this was influential on the ideas I had about disrupted narratives; I guess I hoped that if I was thinking of the fragmented scenes as being part of an organic trajectory then that was how they would appear, but I don’t think I was successful.

3:AM: Again in that interview you suggest that your great interest in writing stemmed from trying to find new options for writing, to “open out what I perceived to be traditional forms”. Was this something that stemmed from your perception that traditional forms were not capable of expressing what you wanted to express? Or was it to do with not wanting to repeat? How early on did you feel the urge to contest the traditional modes of writing?

BP: I should have put quote marks round “traditional forms” to indicate more clearly that what I perceived as traditional wasn’t really at all. I was referring to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels — both what might be regarded as classic and genre — which I read when I was growing up They’re part of a relatively modern phenomenon which admittedly is sited within an almost infinitely receding flux of prose narratives. What I would describe more accurately as traditional forms are texts like those included in the Child Ballads and the Shi jing (Book of Songs), many of which, through a long procession of repetition under many different hands have been refined into a notably elegant and powerful conciseness. Those are qualities I rate very highly and I feel I have a long way to go to achieve anything like them in my own writing. That said, there’s no way I’d try to imitate their forms because it just wouldn’t work for me. On the other hand, if I thought I could repeat something well enough for it to be interesting I’d have no problem with doing so. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is something I would love to repeat if I could just work out how…

I guess all cultural workers start with the materials most readily available at the time and what happens after that is a matter of individual practice and some amount of luck. When I started, I had no idea of quite how much better writers such as Unica Zurn and Konrad Bayer had already done some of the things I was attempting. However, once I came across their work I didn’t let that put me off. Maybe I should have done. I find it hardest to deal with my own expectations of how I should write — writing’s quite difficult for me and no sooner have I got comfortable with one approach than I feel I should give it up and find another. Though I’m not worried about repeating other people’s work, since I don’t claim to be original, I am wary that if I don’t change the way I write readers might notice how much I repeat myself.

When I wrote Honeymoon With Death, I was relying on what I thought at the time was ‘genre détournment’ — though it now looks more like a tribute band — to get an edge. The stories are pretty conventional in form, though the self-consciously stilted writing and heavy use of quasi-cinematic jump-cutting helps to disguise this. I was fed up by the time I’d finished it, but my efforts to move on were unsatisfactory.

That’s why I became interested in the idea of a device, a built-in difficulty, to put some kind of external restriction on the project. Except what I settled on — the expanding alphabetical index file — was something of a joke. Its main function was to render the process of composition as mundane as possible by making it a kind of filing.


3:AM: How far do you see your work as positioned by gender? Cultural work does seem to be dominated still by men and their obsessions and interests: is raising this a trap or a helpful thing? Reading the new poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy, she seems to find ways in which her gender and sexuality are important: is this true of yourself and your work? How far (if at all) was this something that informed the work on Index and Semina?

BP: I feel there are at least two questions here. I’ll answer the easy one first. Writing Index, the Chevalier D’Eon presented an opportunity to play around with issues of gender. The image of the hermaphrodite is compelling, both threatening and desirable, because it seems to render whole areas of social structures completely pointless while offering the prospect of some sort of ultimate reconciliation.

My knee-jerk reaction to the more difficult question of how far is my work positioned by my gender would be not at all. In fact, if I’m being honest, I guess it is, but no more than by many other elements in my background, and certainly no more than it would be if I had happened to be born a man. Except if I was a man you might not have asked this question, because to answer straightforwardly that my gender was important would have condemned me to some iron john-like limbo at best. I think my prejudices are showing. As a middle-class woman who was given excellent educational opportunities, I am aware that I write from a privileged position. As you’ve given me the opportunity to talk about gender and writing, I’d like to briefly try and address the thorny issue of ‘women’s writing,’ but this is a complex issue and my attempts will necessarily seem crude.

Virginia Woolf, who was preoccupied with the idea of “a woman’s sentence” (which I admit really sets my teeth on edge) because “The weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything from him successfully…” in A Room of One’s Own also wrote “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”. She was actually referring to Kipling here who she evidently thought was trying a bit too hard to write in a manly fashion — which shows, I think, how irreducibly slippery the problem is. When Dorothy Richardson, whom Woolf thought pretty good at “a woman’s sentence” (as indeed she was in her thirteen volume novel sequence Pilgrimage) described Marcel Proust as a “fellow traveller,” I assume she had more in mind than their both being engaged on massive semi-autobiographical fictional projects. I’d be surprised if she’d have used the same phrase of Henry Williamson and his Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Proust’s elegant, reflexive and accumulative style in which silence and absences are significant fits the bill for “a woman’s sentence” perfectly. Late Henry James does as well. So I find the idea that a way in which both men and women were writing should be identified as characteristically feminine odd and unhelpful.

It’s easy for writers to hide or swap their genders by using initials or a pseudonym and there are numerous famous examples who’ve done it for all sorts of social, commercial or personal reasons. Which raises the question about what it is audiences are perceived to expect from male or female writers and why a man’s or woman’s name on the cover when the casual browser picks it up should be regarded as some kind of instant branding. Even when it’s deliberately misleading. I think as soon as you label women’s (or men’s) writing as having certain characteristics, start being prescriptive about how yourself and others write and read, you’re closing the door of your own trap.

Monique Wittig’s novel Les Guérillères [translated by David Le Vay, The Women’s Press, 1972] doesn’t seem to appear on obvious lists of nouveaux romans, which is a pity because it’s brilliantly successful at what many of them set out to do. It’s boldly experimental and manages to embody its own theory in a way that makes it intoxicating to read. Wittig (who identified herself as a radical lesbian — not a woman because she perceived “woman” as a socially-constructed identity that she rejected along with “the heterosexual contract”) provides a possible model of how to move forward. Taking the opposite line from Hélène Cixous and ideas of “l’écriture féminine,” she declared in a 1999 interview with Libération (quoted in her obituary by James Kirkup in The Independent, 9 January 2003):

For me, there is no “feminine literature” — it simply does not exist for me. In literature, I do not separate the women from the men. One is a writer, or one is not a writer. One occupies a mental space in which sex is not the determining factor. It’s absolutely necessary to have the freedom of that mental space to work in. Language allows it — it’s a matter of constructing an ideal neutrality that is liberated from sexual definitions.

3:AM: How far is theory important to your work, if at all?

BP: Please consider it a theory-free zone.

3:AM: Index is a text that seems as if it might have expanded forever. You could have repeated the alphabet over and over. Now it is published and finished, how do you view it? Are there things in it that at the time of producing it you hadn’t realised were there? Are there things about it you might change were you to do it again? In particular, you talk to Home about the influence of the internet and I wondered what the new technologies have changed for writing and research generally, especially given someone like yourself who plays with the idea of genuine/forged texts/ideas/voices?

BP: Quite. It could have been my lifetime project (ha!) but I fucked up…

I’m relieved that it’s finished and published — what there is of it is done as well as I was capable of writing but I’m always aware of the fault lines inherent from the start because the original conception was so vague. Sometimes I wish I’d thought of a better title, but, writing at a time when books with fabulous and eccentric titles live in the bestseller lists leading me to fantasise that if Mina Loy’s Lunar Baedeker and Time Tables were republished with the right sort of marketing they could be there too, I quite like the fact that Index is so boring and unnoticeable.

I don’t think there’s anything I hadn’t realised was there — but the one section which speculates about climate change appears to have mutated since I wrote it and looks really clunky. It wasn’t such a mainstream preoccupation fifteen years ago! I did consider removing it, but in the end decided to leave it in to remind myself that texts are capable of warping as the thinking around them changes.

The internet was very useful when I was going over the text before publication — it made it so easy and quick to check endless dates, names and facts — but this was rather against the nature of the original project which had been to some extent aleatory: relying on finding books, reading random slews of printed material, conversations, eavesdropping, the odd thing on TV or radio, just walking around waiting for stuff to accrue. While checking, I found some great material I had no idea existed when I was writing Index. It would have fitted in quite well, if collecting material had been all that it was about, but the idea that anyone who typed in the same phrases would have got pretty much the same result, determined by the PageRank algorithm, took all the fun out of it. There would have been no chance of coming up with the kind of juxtapositions happenstance provided in the physical world.

So far the new technologies have had more influence on how I read than how I write — though the relative ease of researching online has fed into my writing practice. I haven’t engaged with publishing online though there are a lot of things about it which interest me beyond the massive advantages of it appearing practically free and theoretically capable of widespread distribution. The idea that a text doesn’t have to be finished to be published is not new — plenty of novels have been issued in serial form — but the notion of it being almost infinitely extensible is, precisely because it never has to take on a physical identity and the idea of hypertext, not in the form of footnotes at the bottom of the book’s page, but in some other place on the web, extends its virtual presence much further, maybe developing the idea of reading within a text rather than reading through it.

The whole area of voices and identity in computer mediated communication has such massive ramifications I’d just rather concentrate on forged versus genuine. Though forgery’s an important theme in Index I probably wouldn’t have bothered faking texts had I been able to find what I thought I needed elsewhere; that said, it was a lot of fun and allowed me to perpetuate the illusion that I was stepping back from the text and relinquishing authorial control when I was in fact being more manipulative. I don’t know whether the added difficulty of establishing provenance for things which have only a virtual presence will blur the line which is perceived to exist between a genuine item and something which has been identified as a forgery, and whether anyone will even care.


3:AM: I loved the idea that you were using hijacked authorial voices, it seemed to link with the plagiarism movements of Home and the found object aesthetics of say Duchamp. It took me further back to Hazlitt and the way he used to hijack other writers into his reviews. For you, what do you gain as an author by doing this?

BP: A much more interesting book! When I read the texts in their original setting, they were exactly what I wanted. If I had tried to paraphrase, they would have lost that quality. It was much more satisfactory from my point of view just to lift them.

Using quoted text in Index had a double benefit. The hijacked authorial voices introduced far more variety than there would have been if I’d written everything myself, which was crucial. They are also important structurally. I think the presence of the quoted material running through the book — though initially intended to be disruptive — bestows a weird cohesion on the text which is quite helpful. As the question refers back to other authors I should point out that I learned a lot about incorporating authorial voices from Ezra Pound’s much more accomplished use of them in The Cantos where through long stretches he is assembling his argument by placing other people’s words into the poem’s frame. In contrast, the way Hazlitt drops comments by other writers into his essays as if they’ve just wandered into the room seems an elegant method of delegating responsibility from the author. Both strategies are effective.

The plagiarised texts in Index are relatively few but crediting them would have unbalanced the sections of the book in which they operate. This was a basely pragmatic decision — I’m not claiming my use of plagiarism in this instance as “a strategic weapon for undermining the hegemony of…[capitalist social and property relations]” — Home, Festival of Plagiarism. It was suggested in passing during the production of Index that a key to the found and quoted texts be included, which I would have been happy to do, if it had been pursued. It would possibly have been a mine of misinformation — which probably wouldn’t have put Book Works off as they seem admirably prepared to indulge authors’ jeux d’esprit.

It’s interesting you mention Duchamp in this context. I was going to say that ‘found texts’ tended to be selected for pretty much opposite reasons to his ready-mades — found texts being chosen for some individual quality which the author feels really adds something to his or her own work, whereas Duchamp picked the mass-produced objects for his ready-mades for their complete lack of it. Except then I was reading an interview with Duchamp from 1965 in which he recounts signing a big decorative painting in a New York restaurant, “this readymade wasn’t manufactured, it was made by hand even if by another painter!” Which raises more questions than I’ve answered.

3:AM: You’re part of an avant-garde scene that interrogates and activates new ways of writing, reading, representing things generally. Voicing an alternative to a corrupt society is what drives this undercurrent — is this part of your imperative? Can you say a little about the scene you are involved with and the people you find particularly hooked in to some of the things you are doing?

BP: I think ‘avant garde’ has become a rather problematic term, often used to label work which is perceived as being transgressive and has become commodified for being so, but I accept it’s still useful as a flag of convenience. That said, I’m not sure if I would have considered myself part of any scene even when I was much more involved in the varied aspects of cultural production than I am now, but undercurrent is ok, that’s sufficiently murky!

What has struck me is that it becomes more difficult for an undercurrent “to voice an alternative to a corrupt society” which is already self-flagellating in a very noisy way — finding The Daily Telegraph on side could lead to something of an identity crisis — and maybe the fundamental issues become obscured. Yet the fact that it’s harder to voice alternatives in a situation which is more complex and fragmented than it was perceived as even a few months ago makes it more crucial that it happens effectively. Personally, I’d start with the language that seems to be developing to narrate what’s happening in the economic climate. Over the last nine months the ‘credit crunch’ has evolved its own vernacular; ‘jaw-dropping’ and ‘eye-watering’ have become overused adjectives and statements stuffed with rhetorical devices seem to have replaced rather boring reportage. It’s emotive and involving, and I very much distrust it. It concerns me that at a time when the apparent need for retrenchment could be used to excuse all kinds of intolerant behaviour this language is sitting there, perfectly suited for stirring up and reinforcing prejudices.

I would think 3:AM probably has a better grasp of the particularly interesting things happening at the moment than I do, but I did go to some of the events in the series Existential Territories organised by Book Works at Toynbee Hall recently, which gave artists and writers an interesting context in which to consider the definition of their practice. Most of the people I know involved in cultural work I’ve known for a long time — like my partner, who is a poet, and Stewart and some of the other people whose work Invisible Books published. Since it connects with what’s just been under discussion can I put in a poem by Bill Griffiths, who was most trenchant and exemplary in “voicing an alternative to a corrupt society” through the channels of little press (and latterly the internet) from 1972 until his death two years ago.

Loyal Dilemma

The common world (so Jane sez)
is all maintained by ‘voluntary spies’.
These monitor unevenness in equalities
and propinquity in inequality
for unless there is positional definition,
calibration of action and distinction of entitlements
(upon some moral register)
the war could not proceed.
It would become inexplicable.

from Rousseau and the Wicked
(Invisible Books, London, 1996)

It’s a great shame he’s no longer here.

3:AM: Ian Jack in the Guardian the other day wrote that it’s increasingly difficult to get a big book deal and live off book sales. This seems to suggest that the connection between the arts and commerce is entering a new — perhaps more positive — relationship. What do you feel about the current state of books and the arts generally? Is it a good time at the moment for the kind of experimental and transgressive work you do?

BP: Ian Jack’s article holds to the line of a curious narrative about the publishing industry which appears to have been developing in the press over the last 6-8 months and echoes what has happened in the financial sector. There’s a feeling that people who have been paid too much money for what they do will no longer be paid it, and that is a Good Thing… (I find this new puritanism emotionally satisfying which makes me distrust it.) The next bit of this narrative strikes me as wildly romantic; suggesting that if writers know they can’t make any money by writing crap they’ll be driven to write interesting books instead while doing their day jobs and a new golden age will emerge. I simply don’t believe in this equation. Not that I have the background to comment with any authority on what’s going on, but it seems to me that the connection between the arts and commerce is just becoming more chaotic.

In this context I was fascinated by the Arts Council’s press release of 24 April announcing £44.5 million of initiatives to sustain the arts through the recession. Dame Liz Forgan concluded: “The real challenge for the arts sector is not to ask ‘what is the government going to do to help us?’ but ‘what can we do to help the country weather and recover from this downturn?’” I was particularly intrigued by the announcement of the Town Centres Initiative, creating a fund “to which artists can apply for grants to help them carry out artistic activities in empty shops”. I’m not really cynical about this at all. I think it’s very imaginative of the Arts Council to be sustaining commercially unviable work with the avowed intention of contributing to the economic recovery and it’s great that these shops which aren’t needed for selling things at the moment are being put to good use. When the economy was doing well and retail space was at a premium, it was very hard to get spaces to foregather. Lots of people will get an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise had and hopefully some interesting work should emerge — though I think artists taking on the empty shops should be careful that they do not find themselves being used as window dressing, to provide a simulacrum of meaningful activity in commercial centres which might otherwise look embarrassingly dead.

It’s always a good time to experiment. And it’s certainly interesting being a writer who attempts to be transgressive at a time when some perceptions of what’s socially acceptable appear to be in flux. Though I feel that ‘transgressive’ just as much as ‘avant-garde’ is a word where the context of use needs to be absolutely clear. It’s not a synonym for being shocking or outrageous without actually risking much. In my view transgression starts with trying to work out where the boundaries that matter are, then finding an intelligent place to push.

3:AM: I loved the way you play with interactions between real characters and fictional ones, that hinterland, as you call it, in which real historical and famous people could abandon their usual roles and become someone else. It’s like a brilliant kid’s game — like, what would happen if Obama met with Superman and so on. Was it fun producing Index?

BP: I’m relieved they didn’t seem too hackneyed since such interactions are a standard trope of historical fiction. It was great fun thinking about it beforehand; much more problematic when I started to write.

3:AM: Finally, Stewart Home loves a good Scotch. What’s your favourite drink and who would you recommend we should be reading and getting involved with at the moment?

BP: Coffee is my fuel. But not instant. And it has to be pretty strong, but not taste burnt or of pencil-sharpenings and never ever have any kind of weird syrup added. Apart from that, I’m not fussy.

I feel I’ve already gone on at length about creative writing I like so I’d recommend a book about the history of science Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman (Instruments of the Imagination, Princeton University Press, 1995) which I first read a couple of years ago. Specifically it deals with the effect scientific innovations (starting with Athanasius Kircher’s Sunflower Clock in the 17th century) have had on the consciousness of people encountering them either as users or spectators and the ways in which they have responded. The meticulous clarity of this book is a great antidote to the woolly way in which I’ve been trying to discuss the effect of new technologies on my writing.

Also, I have been watching Gazwrx, the films of Jeff Keen which the BFI brought out as a 4-disc set earlier this year. So far I’ve seen the first couple of discs containing his films from the 1960s and 70s. Most of them are brilliant and I am abashed not to have known his work before. Cardboard masks and guns that look like they’ve been liberated from cartoons with written sound effects, collage, incredible animations with toys (often being set on fire), people frolicking in chalk pits, eating, acting like they’ve just wandered in from some fevered silent melodrama and taking their clothes off (again). All of this cut together, often split screen, at a speed which feels like it’s scarring your eyeballs but is exhilarating!

[See also Richard Marshall’s review of Index.]


Richard Marshall rocks!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 31st, 2009.