Archives for the month of: May, 2011

A short text written for a new exhibition at the Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia entitled The Bravery of Being Out of Range. It’s been a pleasure to meet the gallery’s founders, Mohammed Hafiz and Hamza Serafi, the latter of whom I have interviewed for the forthcoming Edge of Arabia book.


So, it’s like this. Right now, you’re everywhere. Every. Where. Not here, neither there, nor hither, thither. Not even in some space between the two extremes (as though there are only two ends to a line).  You’re outside the inside, outside of outside, but for reasons unknown, you are trapped. You feel “nothing much.”

You claim, however, that you hear it all. Your ears are “on fire.” In fact your doctor says you have labyrinthitis. You don’t know what this is—lab-ee-rin-th-eye-tus— so your doctor looks it up on his computer, an old cranky thing with keys that clatter and a screen that bows the way an arrow bows through endless time. Your symptoms are Google-able.

You absorb the news. “There is a labyrinth in my head?” This worries you—not because head-space is at a premium, and labyrinths can be colossal, but because lately, you have felt lost in a labyrinth that starts with your own computer screen and… Anyway, it ends … well, does it end? Are you waiting for it to end? If you’re everywhere is it only because everywhere you are looks like everywhere else you could be?

You told the doctor about a recurring dream, and he—his name being Carla Jung (WTF!)—tells you that other peoples’ dreams are boring. But, he adds, the daydreams of a repressed nation are not! You disregard his disdain and explain that in this dream you are nowhere. Literally, no-where*.

You think you have a body because how else could you think without one, huh, but, this body isn’t positioned anywhere, it doesn’t touch the ground, because there is no ground to touch, no gravity to rainbow, just infinity to jest.

You are no-where, Prince of Pale Disappearance. Already, Carla has been sent into a trash TV numbness. You are beyond the horizon of Jersey Shore and Sunset Beach, Huffington Jazeera, Explorer Safari, male and fe-Mail, Inboxes, Outboxes, Oprah endorsed amnesia and abuse, The Book of Steve Jobs, PINGS! triiiiiings, Quranic ring-tones and toned down voices in the “Quiet Zone” (imagine, shhh, imagine). Can you now feel restive rest, rolling, riding on an invisible ocean?

You can.

Only then to wake up, shivering, sweating like Robert De Niro neck-deep in method character, because in your dream that does away with the labyrinth and the labours of being everywhere at once, you have just died. It’s like this: Boredom has killed you.

* “If you think of thirty-seven people—those people are real, I mean every one of them has a face of his own, a family, he lives on his own particular street. Why, if you sell, say two thousand copies [of your book], it is the same thing as if you had sold nothing at all because two thousand is too vast—I mean, for the imagination to grasp.” Jorge Luis Borges,

Werner Herzog, again, at the edge of the world. This time 35,000 years ‘before present’ (the term archeologists designate the now with), deep into the otherworldly, pre-worldy, post-worldly interiors of the Chauvet caves in France. Let me be clear: it is really one of the best films I have seen in years. It does weird things with your eyes, and that is only partly because it’s in 3D.

My hunch is this: that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is actually a museum. Of the very best kind. That goes back to the perennial Wunderkammer all the way forward to the Unreliable Narrators in our favourite ethnographic museums of the 19th and 20th centuries. In an interview, Herzog has said that he does not dream. Which goes some way in explaining his obsession with the dreams that are ‘stored’ in the Chauvet caves as well as all the dreams that its discovery has elicited from those intimately involved in its decoding and preservation.

Of course, the caves’ nominal content is innately impressive (oldest discovered ‘wall art’ – which include Marey-esque bison, lions, horses, and one rogue female sex, appropriately out of reach and only just partially in sight). The gooey, crystalline, amorphous, coagulated surfaces depict material deposits that could be landscapes of alien planets as much as nano-photography of our own entrails. The universe ultimately doesn’t have a scale.

But it’s how Herzog tells the story, how he takes us excavating – through the earth, through time before time – and then sends us back out, often on a radio controlled disembodied camera that is unruly and unpolished and – importantly – digital technologically but undigital in its CGI-ness (compare this with the disembodied “camera” in David Fincher’s Panic Room). There’s how Herzog speaks with – and through – the archeologists and specialists who literally hear the caves’ heart beating. Included is one ardent perfumer who topologises the surfaces by smell.

Parts of the film, formally speaking, could work on the National Geographic channel. But that’s just the bare bones of it. In the same way that the Chauvet caves mark an interzone between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, in formal terms, Herzog’s film starts out as documentary and then builds up into a sort of pulsing montage of images of images, light and its absence – having invoked earlier on, Plato’s Timaeus through a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with three versions of himself.

Herzog sees the fore-coming of cinema in the dynamic drawings of animals. Later on, in a weird, warm pool that forms the excess thermal energy of a nuclear power station close by, Herzog introduces us to two albino alligators who mirror each other. They look like they’re made of chalk or white chocolate. Just the kind of thing that would become the centre-piece of a 16th century Wunderkammer (except it’d be nailed to the ceiling).

We know animals run all the way through Herzog’s films (dancing chicken, monkeys, bears, depressed, loner penguins) – most recently with the deviant use of “Lizard-Cam” in his Bad Lieutenant remake (thus eeking out Nicholas Cage’s latent lizard traits). But this is profoundly different, isn’t it, to the David Attenborough school of animal gazing? For Herzog, there is nothing sweet or benign about animals, as though they harbour some kind of default innocence that man crushes by being man. Herzog enumerated in very clear terms what he thought of the jungle where Fitzcarraldo was being (torturously) made:

Do animals dream?

To be human is already to not be non-human. Or, simultaneously, to be non-human too. To sort of agitatedly flicker between ontologies – which is of course not ever really “a choice”. You’re condemned to be both and enjoy the delusion that you are only ever one (human, all too non-human). Here, Zizek is onto something. So, I’ll let him have the last, spluttering word.

Go watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 39, Jorge Luis Borges.


Then a book like the little volume called Everness would be a good book for someone to read about your work?


I think it is. Besides, the lady who wrote it is a close friend of mine. I found that word inRoget’s Thesaurus. Then I thought that word was invented by Bishop Wilkins, who invented an artificial language.


You’ve written about that.


Yes, I wrote about Wilkins. But he also invented a wonderful word that strangely enough has never been used by English poets—an awful word, really, a terrible word. Everness, of course, is better than eternity because eternity is rather worn now. Ever-r-ness is far better than the German Ewigkeit, the same word. But he also created a beautiful word, a word that’s a poem in itself, full of hopelessness, sadness, and despair: the word neverness. A beautiful word, no? He invented it, and I don’t know why the poets left it lying about and never used it.


Have you used it?


No, no, never. I used everness, but neverness is very beautiful. There is something hopeless about it, no? And there is no word with the same meaning in any other language, or in English. You might say impossibility, but that’s very tame for neverness: the Saxon ending in –ness. Neverness. Keats uses nothingness: “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink”; but nothingness, I think, is weaker than neverness. You have in Spanish nadería—many similar words—but nothing like neverness. So if you’re a poet, you should use that word. It’s a pity for that word to be lost in the pages of a dictionary. I don’t think it’s ever been used. It may have been used by some theologian; it might. I suppose Jonathan Edwards would have enjoyed that kind of word or Sir Thomas Browne, perhaps, and Shakespeare, of course, because he was very fond of words.

There are some firsts you wish would never have happened.

You strove to be the tallest, the biggest, the most. You spent billions on superlatives and on the people that broadcast those superlatives with other superlatives. You were obsessed with being Number 1 in the world. So you made The World out of sand and then left it to sink back into the sea. You are littered with accidental ruins. You are Dubai.

In the brochures that boast about the pyramids of Giza or the palace of Versailles, you are not presented with the body counts behind the wonders. You do not gaze upon human ingenuity, its aweing perplexities, its elegant poise, so that you can access histories of systematized indenture, suppression, and gratutitous servitude because that was then, and this is now. Part of the contract you, we, all have with the terrifying beauty of the past is what lies in its innards: naturalised horror. You are a tourist.

You scaled down the Burj’s gridded facade, harnessed, insured for millions.

Your mission was impossible made possible. You are Tom Cruise.

Your brother died in December. You have been working for Arabtec since 2000. This morning, as the sun shone like yesterday and tomorrow, you climbed to the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifah, and you fell – for reasons no one may ever know – to land on the 108th floor, 16 floors below where tourists come to gaze down at Dubai, upon its accidental ruins, and onto the World as it sinks back into the sea. You, Athiraman Kanan, were 38 years old, from Tamil Nadu.

Superlatives and firsts bring with them their shadow superlatives, their anti-firsts. Invention, accident. Disaster, destiny. In the country of first things.

At last, you say, I am the first.

When I wrote this in December 2009 (for Tank), it felt a little less quaint than it does now. But I (think I) hold on to its principles. If not entirely what happened afterwards. Though something of substance is embedded in this finely staged interview-performance-thingy.  Warhol could not have put it any better: “I want to be relevant and irrelevant at the same time.”


“Periodically, a new pop persona appears from nowhere and provides answers to questions that until then your unconscious hadn’t even known were conceivable. This was how I felt upon first seeing, and hearing, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, also known as Lady Gaga. Yes, she of the endless parade of kooky, sculptural peroxide-blonde wigs and spangly stage outfits that mirror her eccentric, passive-aggressive offstage person- ality. She of the array of face-covering acces- sories that make Taliban-sanctioned burkas seem liberal. The woman who has made being a pop star about being heroic and unreal again. Lady Gaga is ridiculously ridiculous, but always the good ridiculous, the meaningful one, the one that denotes value and substance as opposed to cheap novelty. Fireworks infamously erupted from Lady Gaga’s Madonna-referencing conical bra at the MuchMusic Video Awards in 2009, a silly pyrotechnic metaphor mingling maternal and sexual emissions.

Gaga’s ridiculous rhetoric – often delivered with a kind of deadpan Warholian drawl – invokes Bob Dylan’s thorny insouciance from the 1960s, as well as Salvador Dali’s refusal to be anything other than surreal. She’s difficult and self-aggrandising one moment and girly sweet the next, but goes out of her way to champion gay rights in public appearances. Gaga tows the critical fine line beloved of pop, between being a serious artist and a ludicrous loon (even her dad calls her “loony,” lovingly). She is the current manifestation of a persistently contemporary phenomenon: seeing true authenticity in the most over-the-top behaviour. And, other than the grotesqueries of megalomaniacal dictators, pop is where this kind of hyper-ridiculous authenticity can matter the most.

It is true; I have been roused by Lady Gaga’s warbling and wobbling. Not only in the predictable way you might expect a partially clad, gyrating blondshell to arouse me (and Gaga is famously bisexual, so appreciation needn’t be limited to straight guys only), but also in the manner of a rousing manifesto. Lady Gaga makes me wonder why I still adore pop music so fervently. The easy answer is that it’s the seduction of the superficial sheen, that old escapist oblivion. i believe, however, that this only partly explains the pull. What if it’s really to do with pop’s uniquely enduring depth as a cultural medium? What if pop ought to be consumed on its own silly, garrulous terms? only on this basis can we experience the inimitable kind of freedom that it promises us.

Lady Gaga is currently at the frontier of pop. If she is such a brazen construct, it is only because pop has always meant the most to us when it is as explicitly constructed as possible, and therefore utterly unlike our humdrum lives. Gaga is an astute student of pop with higher aspirations to enter its pantheon. She has written songs for Britney and the Pussycat dolls; her name is taken from a Queen track; I even heard a Boney M. reference in “Bad Romance.” Gaga’s tracks are polished pieces of pop perfection, muscularly produced and musically evoking the best of the worst in pounding Europop. Her lyrics, when decipherable, are oddball ensembles of erotica and celebrity, knowingly aimed at a generation that measures fame by whether you’ve got a celebrity sex-tape out online.

Madonna told Rolling Stone that she sees “[her]self in Lady Gaga.” But which Madonna? And which Lady Gaga? Of course the greatest pop stars are always “Many and One,” flouting Neo’s monotheistic logic in The Matrix, and instead inhabiting successive bodies and souls that are reincarnated with each new album. What if pop is capitalism’s most beautiful frontier and Lady Gaga proves it? She has said, “What I’m best at is my pop-cultural-art-performance quality – I know what’s coming next. I’ve got that intuition… I marinate on this vision.”

Isn’t this ability to reinvent yourself while staying the same person not only one of the key qualities of the legacy of both David Bowie and Madonna, but also the core logic of how capitalism replenishes demand by the constant supersession of one ideal consumer good with the next, better, must-have?


The more I disassemble Lady Gaga into her constituent pop compounds, the more i see bits of capitalism. I’m muttering to myself that such admissions are, even for a staunch non-Marxist, a little shameful. But as Slavoj Zizek recently conceded, Marx too was obsessed with capitalism. So…
There are Lady Gaga’s WIGS. Blonde one day, black the next; Edo-era silhouettes, then Donatella Versace tributes. Pop feasts on stereotypes, on regurgitating and then under- mining them when it thinks you’re bored with their predictability. So blonde can be bimbette and then blonde can be nuclear scientist. Gaga is recuperating the symbolism of blonde from its many past debasements and at the same time celebrating the stealth potential it gives a woman (just when you expect her to be stupid and submissive, she’ll murder you, as happens in two of Gaga’s videos: “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.”) Gaga wears wigs as if to say, “I dare to not even pretend to be real because the real is the province of the banal!” In case you’re wondering, Gaga is a natural brunette.

There is Lady Gaga as GYNOID, known more commonly as a “fembot.” Gaga continues a long and estimable list of cyborg femmes fatales that begins with Olympia in E. T. A. Hoffman’s story “The Sandman” (1816) and continues through Maria in Metropolis (1927) and Rachel in Blade Runner (1982). Gaga is pop starlet as Bride of Frankenstein, real Realdoll (a life-size sex doll with a PVC skeleton and silicone flesh), the feverish fabrication of Man and Industry taking on God as the only giver of life. Gynoids were likely modernity’s answer to male frustration at increased female emancipation, most perfectly portrayed in The Stepford Wives. in her video for “Paparazzi,” Gaga is thrown off the top of a building by a scheming, gold-digging, sex-tape-authoring scumbag (her boyfriend) and becomes a bandaged, hobbling, crutch-dependent quasi-zombie kept alive only by the marvel of modern medicine.

There is Gaga’s SEXINESS. In 1990, Camille Paglia wrote a celebrated article in the New York Times championing Madonna as, “Finally, a real Feminist.” call it third- wave feminism or anti-feminism, but today’s pop sirens fit just as neatly into the economy of sexualised commodity fetish as Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot once did, except they are now more likely to have a say over how they appear in front of the camera. Pop has always objectified its protagonists’ bodies, but in a way that upholds the best bits of secular free choice without invoking the dark shadow of, say, the more disturbing realities of the globalised sex industry.

There is Lady Gaga’s FUTURISM. Granted, the exaggerated, spacey outfits often feel lifted from 1970s sci-fi (think Logan’s Run with a better budget), but I do think that pop is a portrait of the present, and nothing is more “now” than the projections of the future every era elicits. if there were no future in a capitalist society, there would be no need to spend money on research and development, which in turn produces new things that make yesterday’s things feel crappy and outdated. Without the future we wouldn’t want things as much as we do.

There are Lady Gaga’s VISORS. Belonging to a futurist proclivity, visors suffice when simple sunglasses will not, and everyone from Kanye West to Rihanna will vouch for eyewear that actually occludes sight, while turning its blind subject into that bloke off Star Trek with wraparound plastic vision and Delphic soothsaying skills. Visors are worn in laboratories. Lady Gaga’s laboratory is pop and she’s testing new and weird things out – on us.


That’s the question New York magazine asked, and I’d like to think that somewhere amidst the feathers and rehearsed frippery, Gaga is consciously espousing this simple article of faith: that pop can only really thrive on its own heroic and fantastical terms in democracies, and thus, by extension, in free-market economies. Totalitarian regimes may, despite their best prohibitive efforts, nurture powerful and lasting literature, poetry or visual art, usually produced in precise defiance to the surrounding illiberal conditions. But rarely do dictatorships deliver great pop stars – like Gaga – that make grown women faint or young teenage boys sweat and swoon with pleasure. There’s something in the urgent thrill of the knowingly disposable here-and-now, the fuel of capitalism, that is also present in the pounding force at the heart of pop, at the frontier presently straddled, legs akimbo, by Lady Gaga. If I don’t let her have the last word, she’ll probably poison me. “It’s all about everything altogether – performance art, pop performance art, fashion. For me,” she says, “It’s everything coming. I want the imagery to be so strong that fans will want to eat and taste and lick every part.””

An old man. Inexorably nearing expiry. Hoary, aged, holding on, barely. To what? He doesn’t know. Not exactly. Not in any true sense of what it means to ‘know’ something with all the conditions of one’s own body, alive. A body that has been reduced to shuffling along the floor. Feet captive to forces he can no longer name. Sometimes he forgets his name. So, he listens. Avidly. To voices. On tapes. The crackle of magnetic spools.

Krapp listens to a retrospective of Krapp. Chronologically. Through time marked by voice. His own. His last tapes.


How do the two current images of Osama bin Laden (ObL) put forward by the American authorities not cancel each other out? Is contradiction now the very kernel of ideology? Clearly so. Or, opaquely more. On the one hand, ObL’s this still-active, evil master-mind, holed up in a fortress like mansion, “plotting mayhem.” On the other, he’s this washed-up, has-been from the old part of the 21st century, “…wrapped in an old blanket watching himself on TV, like an aging actor imagining a comeback.” i.e. He’s basically Beckett’s anti-hero from Krapp’s Last Tape. One of his sons, Omar, “described his father as constantly listening to the BBC.” Occasionally, “[ObL] commented on the writings of Noam Chomsky, the leftist professor at M.I.T.” Which might go some way to explain Chomsky’s latest side-winding semi-coherent splurge. Just.


I’m quoting lines from this article in the New York Times (May 8, 2011). I’d urge you to read it, as its tone, its adjectives, its strange attendance to even stranger details seems to capture the ambivalence of how exactly to portray Bin Laden in the war that’s left now that he has (corporeally) died: The War with Words and Images (WwWaI)

The writers of this piece take a pulpy pleasure in itemising imagined quotidian life:

“[Bin Laden’s] once-large entourage of Arab bodyguards was down to one trusted Pakistani courier and the courier’s brother, who also had the job of buying goats, sheep and Coca-Cola for the household… He did not do chores or tend to the cows and water buffalo on the south side of the compound like the other men.”

Chided for failing in his farming duties. Did he not read his Heidegger? Great galoshes! Yet another subtext is summarily invoked. Another one familiar to Beckettians.


The dull drudgery of domestic banishment.

“[what emerges about bin Laden is] …a portrait of an isolated man, perhaps a little bored, presiding over family life while plotting mayhem—still desperate to be heard, intent on outsize influence, musing in his handwritten notebooks about killing more Americans.”

Delusions of former grandeur cave in. The article, in fact, goes on to suggest, through the opinion of Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, that boredom may well have been ObL’s downfall:

“There was no escape route, no tunnels, not even false rooms in the house in which to hide,” Reed said. “It makes you wonder: at what point did that extra degree of vigilance [ObL] had get dulled by routine?”

Boredom and narcissism. Power and impotence. Howard Hughes hideaway, who seldom slept and spent nights watching old movies aired on the channel. Occasionally Hughes would nod off and miss parts of the film in which he appeared. So, he bought the station so that he can have chunks he missed rebroadcast.

Oh, Krapp.

TAPE: “Here I end this reel. Box–(pause)–three, spool–(pause)–five. (Pause.) Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

“There is no such thing as adventure, there is no such thing as romance. There is only trouble and desire.”

Simple Men (1992) by Hal Hartley.

I adore this. It’s lame, it lilts, it’s built upon leaden acting but picks out how lumpy life is before it’s smoothed out to become a story.

The phone rings. I never pick it up. It’s always people selling you stuff and I find it hard to forget they’re humans with feelings and insecurities so I can’t just say, “Fuck off!” and hang up.

So I picked it up. I thought maybe it was my mother.

Me [politely]: “Hello.”

Male voice (politely): “Hello? Hello?”


Male voice (angrily, like the girl from The Exorcist): “Fuck off!”

[Phone hangs up]

I am pretty sure it wasn’t my mother.

Page long sentences that sort of rivulet and regress the way thinking does; the way a tape recorder placed on the inside of your head might very well sound after just 30 seconds of live capture. I want to call it ‘Beckettian’ but that would be a) pretentious and b) just plain wrong, because Beckett’s interior monologues shield themselves away from life-lived into life-told-to-oneself. DFW on the other hand places characters, therefore us, and himself, in the jaggedy, jumpy, dumb poetics of information overload and meaning underload. Here is Jonathan Raban saying it much better than I can and taking up a lot more digital ink with it.

Phew! That was a very a) pretentious way of saying that I am liking The Pale King the way I liked Padgett Powell’s wonderful novel, The Interrogative Mood?

Damn mistaken obviating obfuscation. Oh.

Don’t you love this picture? What do you love the most? Obama’s extra-loose fit bomber jacket (de riguer for any Commander-in-Chief)? Hilary Clinton trying not to throw up? Just how small this room is, and, why couldn’t they have gotten something roomier (with enough seats for everyone) to witness the assassination of America’s Enemy Number 1, Osama Bin Laden?

Fine details, all. But, the one I want to draw attention to is the technological means through which this room full of people are able to watch another room full of people (some of whom are about to die grusomely) all the way, live from Abbottabad. The Navy Seals we are told were wired up with cameras. What they saw, Obama, Biden, Clinton et al saw.

In real time.

In first person POV.

On a screen.

I haven’t been a computer games’ player for decades now (Angry Birds doesn’t count: Chuckie Egg did), but I’ve seen enough of today’s cinematic, hyper-real offerings to know that first person POV is the subjectivity par excellence of ultra-violent games playing. It’s the locus of exporting those morally dubious parts of your consciousness (xenophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Teutonic, etc), so that  all kinds of politically incorrect irritations can be normalized and – hey! – libidinally exorcized. After all, it’s “just a game” – the blood isn’t even red paint but red pixels.

I then remembered an advert from around 2004 for this game:

Bombing the crap out of the Tora Bora caves had not yet yielded the desired, symbolic kill. I remember on that poster, by the Eurostar in Waterloo, Osama Bin Laden was loudly pronounced Enemy Number 1. Fear not! What the US army and CIA couldn’t ( / wouldn’t) achieve in real life was handed over to owners of the XBox and Playstation for a modest sum. In these parallel Wars on Terror, OBL has probably been killed a million times or more, in first person POV, on millions of screens all over the world. This is all the more likely when certain gaming cheats instruct you to: “When playing on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border mission, pause the game to enter the following code: Circle, circle, circle, square, square, square, R1, to make every other bad guy look like Bin Laden.” Osama meets John Malcovich on the shores of irreality…

There is some mediatic symmetry to the birth and death of the first decade of the 21st century (2001 – 2011; although arguably another shorter version exists too: 9/11/01 – Global Economic Crisis 2008).

Bin Laden had planes (Modern Symbol No.1) fly into skyscrapers (Modern Symbol No. 2) ensuring this act of destruction not only be transmitted live, but be recorded for eternal playback (Modern Symbol Medium No.1). Nearly a decade later, Obama gave the OK to send troops in to Bin Laden’s compound and watched the incident as though it were the final-final game of ‘America’s 10 Most Wanted’ – at last, reality caught up with the fantasised version of events gezillions of kids (and kidults) had already enjoyed years ago. This act of vengeful destruction – the killing of America’s Most Unwanted Modern Symbol – is now also enshrined onto videotape/avi/mp4, therefore, it must be true, right? History can believe it happened. Closure. But what about that pesky corpse? As I write, the American authorities can not decide whether or not images of Bin Laden’s gun-blasted head should be released. However, no such hesitance was even mooted with regards to the immediate fate of his dead body.

The ocean that absorbed the stateless corpse also absorbed its symbolic, material excess. The ocean thus returns Bin Laden to the realm of the already-dead and the spectrally virtual.  Read the rest of this entry »