Head Dust



I have been given several suitcases of old clothes. I have spent some time sorting through them. I will keep the clothes that suit me, even if they don’t fit me (my body changes from time to time, after all) and I will keep the clothes that fit me, even if they don’t suit me (fashions change, and at least they could keep me warm). But if I am looking for something to wear, I want something that both suits me and fits me. If I keep one item in two for its fit and one item in two because it suits me, I will wear only one item in four but I will keep three items in four. If I add another criterion, well-madeness for example, with the same odds, I will wear only one item in eight but will keep seven items in eight. The more criteria I have, the fewer clothes I wear and the bigger wardrobe I need. I am a very fussy person and I have a lot of criteria.



I have learned to ride a bicycle just like you but unlike you I cannot ride a bicycle. I am unable to ride merely because I have a better imagination than you. Unlike you I can imagine being unable to ride.


I have another shirt but I always wear this shirt. I do not like this shirt. It is ugly. I like my other shirt. I am wearing this shirt to keep my other shirt from getting dirty. This shirt is dirty. The collar and the cuffs are especially dirty. But there’s no point in washing it. Once this shirt was clean and new and ugly and I put it on and I fastened the buttons and I tucked it in and I wore it. Eventually it got dirty on the collar and the cuffs. I took it off and washed it. It became clean but not as clean as it had been before I had worn it. I wore it again. It got dirty on the collar and the cuffs. Because it had not been so clean it took less time to get dirty. I washed it again and it became clean but not as clean as it had become the first time that I washed it. I wore it again. It got dirty on the collar and the cuffs of course but because it had not been so clean it took even less time to get dirty. I washed it again. I wore it again. Each time I wore it it got dirty more quickly. I washed it more and more frequently. It got to the point that I could hardly fasten all the buttons before the shirt had to come off and go into the wash. It got to the point that I had to choose either to wash the shirt continuously without wearing it or wear the shirt continuously without washing it. As an unwearable shirt is no use to me I chose to wear the shirt continuously. I have not washed it since. It is not quite true to say that an unwearable shirt is no use to me. I have after all my other shirt. In my opinion my other shirt is beautiful. Maybe even very beautiful if this could be said of shirts. Of course I never wear it. It has never been worn. I never wear it for the reasons outlined above. Maybe there will come a day when I can wear my shirt without it getting dirty. Not even on the collar and the cuffs. I am saving my shirt for that day. I don’t think I will live to see such a day. So much the better. I will wear my dirty ugly shirt and save the other. Maybe my very beautiful shirt doesn’t fit me or maybe it doesn’t suit me. Maybe others would scorn it. No matter. I will never find out. So long as I never wear it I preserve the perfection of that shirt. And the shirt I do wear? It is ugly. It is filthy. It has attained an indeterminate colour. Except that is for the collar and the cuffs. The collar and the cuffs have attained a colour of their own. A colour unrelated to the colour the shirt used to be. Whatever that was. I’ve forgotten. When others scorn this shirt I am pleased. I am not so unlike them after all.


There is no death. There is only loss. Death cannot be experienced; it is not a phenomenon. We postulate death from an observation of inanimate meat. We contrast our observation of inanimate meat with our memory of the prior animation of that meat. Our experience of the loss of animation of that meat is exactly that: an experience of loss. It is not an experience of death for there is no death. There is only loss. One’s own passing from a state of animated meat to a state of inanimate meat is not an experience: it is a loss of experience, a cessation of experience and nothing more. Death is not a force, it is not a state, it is not a process or a transition or a doorway. Death is not anything. There is no death.

Memory is that which makes us aware of loss. Memory is the residuum of loss. Memory concerns itself only with loss. Loss is constant and universal. Loss is time’s organ. The idea of death is the idea we have when memory loses the ability to conceive of further loss, when memory is unreplenished, when the possibility for loss is exhausted. What we call death is loss’s horizon. But there is no death. Beyond loss’s horizon memory itself begins to be lost. Death is nothing. There is only loss. Only forgetting persists beyond here.

Diary entry for 13 June 1932
Translated by Digory Trench, 2010


Imagine the perplexity of a man outside time and space, who has lost his watch, and his measuring rod, and his tuning fork. I believe, Sir, that it is indeed this state which constitutes death.
(Alfred Jarry - Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, 'Pataphysician)
We have the misfortune to be born aliens in a world we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. We come sliding and greasy from one world to the next, naked and useless in our dirty little envelopes of skin. How we got ourselves trapped in these sausages is anybody’s guess, but if we ever knew the reason you may be sure we have forgotten it by the time we get here.
What are we like, we who slip from the mother ship as if sucked out by the space that surrounds us? We do not know. Or rather, we are not really like anything. That comes later. We are born but partly formed (or, if complete, we are very imperfect): blind, deaf, dumb; without nose, hands, feet or tongue; senseless, voiceless, utterly lost and alone. If it were not for the Wonders of Science we would be forever unaware of the world which surrounds us and presses its stimuli upon us. Soon after birth we are whisked away to the hospital basements where green- and white-clad doctors covertly attach a set of prosthetic devices to our rudimental selves, connect the wires, test the circuits, and then return us to our plastic tanks before our absence has been noticed.
How different we are now! No-one comments on our strangeness, but for us the world is sudden and strong. Our senses are how the world chooses to present itself to us. We are awash in stimuli mediated for us by our artificial sensors. We flex our prostheses and wonder for what uses they have been designed. Why these auxiliary components and not others? Why this small bundle of awareness and not all the rest that we are unequipped to reach? We do not pause to consider these stupid questions but bend our efforts towards learning to make use of what we have.

WRITING ABOUT NOT WRITING #2: On the Problem of Detail

When we read fiction we assume that each detail is evidence of the author’s intention. We assume that the author must be using the detail to communicate something that is beyond the detail and that this something is somehow conveyed by the detail or by the accumulation of details (perhaps through metaphor, emotional suggestion or exemplary didaction [1]). If the detail were there only to give evidence of the suchness of itself, merely to describe something which does not exist, it would not be very interesting (and the author’s motives or sanity would perhaps be suspect). In fiction, detail is meaning’s paydirt. [2]

But in actuality (sometimes misleadingly called ‘reality’) we know that details carry no intrinsic meaning, that the contents of the world in which we live are not put there in order to be evidence of the intention of someone beyond them. When our deep ancestors began to think of things as entities they could isolate conceptually and interact with usefully, they accorded them an immanence, a will, a capriciousness or generosity which they sought to influence by practices that became habituated as magic. As the power to control the actual became more concentrated, immanence gave way to transcendence: the details of actuality became a message from a god or gods, a ‘text’, which could be ‘read’ by those who wielded the perceived ability to do so. But of course, it is we who have projected meaning onto the world, just as it is we who differentiate entities in that which is without entities, so either I must say “it is sunny because I am happy” and treat all details as evidence of my own mentality (the tendency towards this extreme is surprisingly widespread, although it is incompatible with sanity if I live in a world that contains more than one mind), or I must say “I am happy because it is sunny” and recognise that the sunniness does not depend on me (though the idea of sunniness might), that the sunniness is not a message from anyone beyond this world, that the sunniness is not an expression of the benignity of the weather or the world towards me, but that sunniness is without meaning or message or emotional colour: it just is.

We accept (most of us) that we live in a world without transcendent control or intrinsic meaning, but why do we still have transcendent literature? Isn’t this regressive? How can we tolerate fictional worlds in which the characters and events are entirely at the whim and mercy of an author? What is the use of a world in which the characters are seen to live and act as if unaware of the author who in fact controls every detail of their lives? [3]

In the world of the fictional character the author and the reader do not exist, and a particular set of details are true. In the world of the author and the reader, the character and the set of details are recognised as fictitious, and yet the world of the fictional character is contained within the world of the author and the reader, and so the world in which the set of details are true and in which the author and the reader do not exist is able to be experienced by the author and the reader [4]. In their little game of “as if” the author and the reader have a dual consciousness, both immersing themselves and observing that into which they cannot be immersed.

Perhaps we should recognise that any idea we have of our world (‘actuality’ with all its ‘entities’) is also a game of “as if” and that there is something about consciousness which makes us both authors and readers of the world as we think it to be. Perhaps fiction is important to us partly because it exercises that dual consciousness which is appropriate to our existence in a world which we must both observe without being immersed and also be immersed, in which we are entities in a world of entities but must live as if the blind-cane tentativeness of our consciousness were not part of the story.

[1] Neologism for the sake of precision.
[2] Detail does some other things too of course, like calibrate textual time against narrative time, but we'll talk about that some other day perhaps.
[3] If the characters became aware or their fictional nature, or if they came to belive in the author, their world would have begun to collapse.
[4] "There are other worlds, but they are all in this one" - Paul Eluard.


Are you frustrated at not being able to read your i-Pad outdoors or in bright light? Every problem brings its solution and in this case the solution is the i-Hood, a striking velour-touch ‘technohood’ available in four colours and niftily folding into a toggle pouch. Although designed specifically to fit the i-Pad, the i-Hood can be used to shield a wide range of electronic devices, not only from bright light but also from prying eyes and other intrusions. The i-Hood envelops both the head and the device and creates a sealed ‘bio-electronic corridor’ between the two. “We found that users who were more isolated from the distractions of their actual environment had a greatly enhanced experience of their electronic environment,” says Arne Apps, creative director of i-Saw Technologies, the company that developed the i-Hood. “The i-Hood enables the user to completely enter the world of their desires as defined by the applications they have purchased. Apart from eating and excreting, the user is liberated from the troublesome interface with the actual, an interface which, studies have found, often makes people feel awkward, frustrated and dissatisfied. The interface with the actual is deeply disempowering for most people; the electronic interface is at least superficially empowering - I know which I would choose.” If used outdoors, the i-Hood has the added benefit of protecting the user’s face from the effects of the ozone depletion partially caused by the manufacture, transportation and ultimate disposal of the electronic devices it is designed to shield. Apps says the i-Hood will be available world-wide by the end of the month.



Once I was an archaeologist. I learned that the deeper in the ground something is, the older it is (generally speaking). The past is downwards, down towards the centre of the earth, the unreachable core, the beginning of time. Our earthly moments are temporally concentric spheres laid down each over the last. The present lies on the surface of the globe, and the future out into the atmosphere.
Perhaps we want to escape time. Perhaps we are anxious of our mortality. We want to fly above the surface/present and assert our existence in the future/heights. But the inevitable return to earth is the future’s inescapable nostalgia for the present, a force indistinguishable from gravity. The past is always pulling at us, but we can experience what it is like to exist in the future by flying, or, to a lesser extent, by jumping.



Narrative is potentised by telling; plot is potentised by withholding. These dual time-streams flow through most fiction, and indeed through ‘actual’ lives (or at least through our ‘reading’ of these lives).
Our lives have never been so narrated. We cannot walk down the street or go into a shop or call in at a party without narrating it on our cellphones or txting it to someone else. Later we have to blog it all or facebook it all all over again (and look: we took some narrative snapshots too, didn’t we?). We are being smothered by narrative. Nothing is withheld. Smothered? Rather, we are being crippled by the narrative of stepping forward.

If nothing is withheld, what has happened to the plot?



I am going to meet Sylvia Steel at the hard-to-find Richard Famous Gallery, where her new exhibition Mats opened last week. I am a little late. To get into the gallery I have to walk through a shallow tray filled with compressed earth, and then onto a beige mat, now quite thoroughly soiled by the feet of other visitors. About a dozen worn and dirty mats of varying sizes hang on the white walls of the asymmetrical space. I introduce myself to the woman sitting on a sofa in the little niche but it turns out not to be Sylvia Steel. She has hardly finished rolling her eyes when Steel arrives. The other woman (Steel later refers to her as “Bad Penny”) surrenders the sofa, and after a little small-talk I turn on the recording device.

AS: How did you get the idea for Mats?
SS: There is a corner dairy near where I live. One day I was waiting at the counter and I looked down and saw the most incredibly worn and dirty mat…
AS: Is that mat in the exhibition?
SS: Yes, it’s the first one you see when you come in. Anyway, I looked down and saw this incredibly worn and, I must say, rather dirty mat, and I thought how so many people have been standing on the mat - but not seeing it - when they have been waiting to get something they wanted from the counter. The rather sordid mat was the locale in which they were intent on their desires. I thought, maybe there is some sort of perpendicularity between desire and actuality.
AS: We are focused on what is ahead of us and don’t look down at where we actually are?
SS: Yes. Our attention is on the desired thing or destination – now I’m talking about the entrance mats, too – and not on the dirty mat, the here-and-now, the dirty mat where everyone else who had the same desire also stood or walked. There is a – I don’t know – a communality, I suppose, between all the people who walk on the mat and dirty it and wear it out when approaching the same desire, or similar desires. The dirt and wear is the only cumulative mark of the community of that specific desire.
AS: Do you think we all have basically the same desires?
SS: Well, yes, I do, mostly, but that’s not what this is about. What I’m interested in is the communities created by various specific desires and evidenced by the cumulative trace of this community.
AS: The dirt and the wear?
SS: That’s it.
AS: Do you think we are aware of these communities of desire?
SS: Mostly not. We don’t think about it. We are intent on our own desires, that is, on ourselves, and we are usually separated from the other desirers by the passage of time.
AS: We can’t all be standing on the same spot at the same time.
SS: Yes. And the gaze is to the front, towards the thing or destination desired, towards what is not yet. The gaze is to the front and not downwards – perpendicular – towards the actual present location of the desirer in the spot dirtied by the desires of others.
AS: Do you think people would be resistant to seeing this?
SS: Yes! Our whole culture is predicated on avoiding looking at this. We have even evolved eyes that are not only on our fronts but right near the top of our bodies, bodies which have evolved an upright stance precisely to cast our attention out in front – we are frighteningly aspirational animals – and not down and below. To look down and below we have to bend our bodies forwards, which undoes our structural evolution, if you like. We are mentally and physically programmed to deny the dirt, but, of course, the dirt is where we are, and what we are.
AS: And the wear too?
SS: Absolutely. We are even more wear than dirt.
AS: Do you think all this, this looking up and away, is a bad thing?
SS: I’m not really interested in making judgements about it, more in observing it. I must say though, I am strongly drawn to wear and dirt and what they mean and how they connect us is different ways. I think a lot of our problems are caused by aspirational behaviours, but then, a lot of what I enjoy and think is worthwhile is the result of exactly these sorts of aspirational behaviours. Ambivalence sharpens my observation, perhaps…
AS: Tell me about the other mats in the exhibition. Where did they come from?
SS: Well, first I got the mat from the corner dairy. I offered the owner another mat the same, a new one, for the worn and dirty one, and he accepted.
AS: So you went the streets crying ‘New mats for old’?
SS: Well, yes, that’s basically it. I’ve got mats from a bank, an art gallery, the municipal baths, a creche, an airport, three shops, a sleazy stairwell, a couple of private homes, my own front doormat…
AS: Did you have any trouble?
SS: Some refusals. I got strange looks pretty much everywhere, but if you tell people you’re doing something as art you can get away with just about anything. I didn’t tell them I was going to label the mats with their origins in the exhibition, so there might yet be a bit of trouble. Only if I get noticed though, which is unlikely.
AS: Tell me about the photographs in the catalogue.
SS: There are photographs of what you would be seeing if you were standing on the mats and, of course, not looking at the mats. The photographs are the horizons of desires, if you like. At first I was going to put the photographs on the floor of the gallery, about where you would stand to look at the mats, a simple inversion of the perpendicular arrangement of the pair, to encourage the viewer to consider the relationship between the two, between where we stand and what we desire, but it just didn’t seem to work in the gallery, I don’t know, it seemed too forced, perhaps, so I just had them in the catalogue in small alongside the documentation of the mats themselves.
AS: And the works are for sale!
SS: Yes. They weren’t going to be for sale, and Richard [Famous] was teasing me about this so I thought I will make them for sale - they’re very well priced too, I might say - and maybe someone will buy one and put it on their floor and it won’t be art any more, just a dirt old mat…
AS: And begin to accumulate the dirt and wear of new desires?
SS: Yes! The trace of old desires overlaid or augmented or obliterated by the new. It’s worth thinking about!


(A consideration of Otto's and Inga's adventures first described in Andy Clark's and David J. Chalmers's paper 'The Extended Mind' (1998). A review by Jerry Fodor of Clark's Supersizing the Mind (Oxford, 2008) appeared on 12.2.2009 in London Review of Books 31:3)

Otto wants to go to the museum. He has the address written in his notebook, which he cutely calls his 'external memory' and therefore considers is part of his mind. He wants to go to the museum with his friend Toto, and it is in fact Toto who looks in the notebook and retrieves the address from Otto's memory. They aren't too worried about just whose mind the notebook is and they set off together. They see a road sign which says 'To the Museum'. Otto is very pleased that this sign is part of his mind too, reminding him of the way to the museum, and soon he recognises the museum, just as he remembered it (after all it is part of his mind). The museum is Otto's external memory of it, reminding him what it is like. In addition, because the museum is there to want to go to, in Toto's external mind there is no distinction between the want and the thing that is wanted, for the want is stored in the thing. So Otto and Toto (if a distinction can be made between them) conclude that everything is mind (mind that thinks itself, perhaps), even though by making a universal statement they (literally) drain it of all meaning, making the idea of mind (as distinct from something else) a nonsense.

Inga also wants to go to the museum. She has the address in her 'internal memory', but her friend Agnes, who also wants to go to the museum, can't access it and has to ask Inga. As they walk along, consult a map, see the road sign, see the address written on the museum gate and then see the museum itself. Inga realises that her memory of the museum's address belongs more to the museum, supposing it actually exists, than to the part of her that is conscious of the address and of the memory of the address (if such a distinction can in fact be made). Following her Contracted Mind Thesis (CMT) Inga smallifies her mind to a nonextensive and contentless awareness moving (presumably) through a universe of impressions where there are only secondary distinctions between the address and the memory of it, between the museum and the memory of it, between Agnes and Inga's feelings for Agnes, between what is seen and the sight of it. It's all 'out there', thinks Inga, whatever it is is beyond me. My mind is my awareness only, not what I am aware of. Inga has gone as far as Otto, but in the other direction. Poor Inga! Well, at least she is left with a mind of her own, even if she is more lonely.



I know you are shy, so I do not look at you. I just rest my hand on you and look at something else. My hand rests softly on you, so that I may guide your little dance with the minimum of force, my hand on your small back. Who would have thought that one so small and shy as you would know my wishes so completely, would be sensitive to every tremble of my finger, would command for me the world I cannot reach? I shield you, but from what? From my glance, from the glance of others? Between my fingers I glance at you, at your colourless colour, at the lines that define your buttocks upon which my fingers rest, at your tail – so long a tail that I cannot see its end though I look in its direction. If I remove my hand will you run away? No: you need me. I know you need me to guide you, to give you life, to make the ball in your belly roll. And I need you. I need you to know my thoughts, to exert my will, to join me to the world beyond. You are shy. I do not look at you, but before my eye I see your little hand, your little arrow, your little I, moving as my hand moves you.


A review of REALITY HUNGER, A manifesto, by David Shields (Knopf/Hamish Hamilton)

When I was eighteen years old and thought that the world could be improved I kept an exercise book in which I wrote down passages that I found to be inspiring or at least inspired from authors I came across in my reading. Sometimes I even added a line or two of my own. People have always done this. Such things have even been published. Edifying compilations such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations were popular in Victorian times, but much earlier, before the idea of the ‘author’ became sacrosanct, and before the technologies of printing fixed texts as definitive, much of literature was generated in this way, snippets of diverse origin agglomerating perhaps around the name of the compiler or seeder of the work (we shall never know, for example, how many of Aesop’s Fables were composed by someone called Aesop). Ex-novelist David Shields has done much the same thing with his ‘manifesto’ Reality Hunger, 617 numbered shards of opinion and nice phrasing, many of which seem sort of familiar until you realise that Shields is not the first person to have expressed these thoughts in exactly these words; most of the book consists of quotations from anyone from Burroughs to Barthes, from Plutarch to Picasso, from Thoreau to Joyce, but without the attributions that would allow a reader to read further should anything take their fancy. It took the hard word of Shields’ publisher’s lawyers to persuade him to acknowledge the quotes (at the end of the book in tiny print on pages that Shields asks us to cut out and destroy) because, for Shields, anything that exists belongs to all of us: “Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”

If Shields is correct and individual authorship and personal intellectual property are fallacious or at least outmoded concepts, and if all cultural expressions are the product and property of the whole swarm of us working together like a community of digitally interlinked insects (the internet perhaps providing the structure of the supra-organism), then the idea of the individual per se is a fallacious or outmoded concept also, and the name “David Shields” on the cover of the book is not only a joke on the idea of authorship but a joke on the idea of identity too (he would, presumably, be pleased if I were to reprint Reality Hunger verbatim with my name on the cover in place of his). There is something to be said for thinking of culture as the primary organism, pulsing and mutating, self-consuming and evolving, and us individuals as merely the monitors upon which culture fleetingly displays aspects of itself, but David Shields doesn’t seem to be the man to say it in any clear sort of way. In any case, it is the irresolvable tension between our communalising and individualising instincts that underlies and impels all cultural innovation.

Like Shields, I am excited by the possibility of taking existing works apart and putting them together in ways that produce new works that release some of the unseen potential dormant in the originals, but for all Shields’ celebration of collage as a hip creative enterprise in literature and other cultural production, his book is not like a collage at all, more like a scrapbook of discreet snippets, and he displays none of the hacking, blending and ‘mashing’ that can make the re-use of cultural flotsam so creative. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a blending of Jane Austen with genre cliché), or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or Ronald Johnson’s erasures of Milton in Radi os, or the rigors of the Oulipo or Kathy Acker provide examples that are altogether more innovative in their fiddling with literary genetics. What strikes me when I read these, and what struck me in my own involvement in a literary hacking project (see http://radicalediting.blogspot.com/), is their supple exploration and vitalisation of the basic elements of fiction (character, plot, narrative), elements that Shields, in the central but least consistently developed part of his thesis, vehemently dismisses.

Shields’ intent in Reality Hunger was “to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, though just what this ‘reality’ consists of and (more interestingly) what it excludes are ambiguously sketched at best. What are the key components of this ‘movement’ for which Shields is the wannabe Confucius? “A deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional”. Shields is bored with the novel, he is fed up with the made up, he wants more immediacy, less artifice, more pace, he wants to be a ‘wisdom junkie’, he wants to feel really alive, he longs to escape his jaded state in the arms of the lyric essay or the memoir. Shields is against fiction (at least in the way it is generally understood). Like some fuming Calvinist he preaches against the “veil of ‘let’s pretend’” and the “never-never lands of the imagination”, though he defends James Frey’s fabrications in A Million Little Pieces as “merely a device to get a point across”. “There are no facts, only art”, says Shields (channelling Emerson, rather confusedly). He spends half the time denigrating fiction in favour of non-fiction, and the other half blurring the distinction between them. The more I read of Reality Hunger, the more uninteresting and unconvincing it became.

“The world exists. Why recreate it?” asks Shields (or someone). “What I want is the real world, with all its hard edges, but the real world fully imagined and fully written, not merely reported”. I really don’t know what Shields means by ‘reality’, but certainly any attempt to gain a conceptual foothold on whatever actuality impresses itself upon us involves the making up of verbal models that we call ‘stories’, which may be fictional or non-fictional (if we want to draw the distinction). Narrative, which Shields rejects as irrelevant to something he calls ‘the human condition’, is just a verbal model of change. Well, yes, identity may be less certain than we think it is, and yes, our ideas of agency and time may be limited and limiting, but I would assert that fiction provides some of the best tools for exploring the possibility of more flexible models.

When Shields says “there is more to be pondered in the grain and texture of life than traditional fiction allows”, he fails to see that fiction (even ‘traditional’ fiction (whatever he means by that)) exists precisely to allow us to ponder such grain and texture. Fiction allows us to have a wider and more varied range of experiences than we could ever have or want to have in actuality, and to draw benefits from these surrogate experiences just as we draw them from actual experiences. Fiction allows us to be someone else temporarily, gaining us empathy, understanding and flexibility without commitment or risk. Fiction allows us to become both more individual and more connected, to share our differences, to gain understanding even where knowledge is impossible. Fiction enhances the diversity and viability of the cultural gene pool to meet circumstances that are challenging or changing.

Yes, there is a lot of uninspired and uninspiring fiction around, but there is a lot of uninspired and uninspiring memoir and lyric essay around too. If we see Reality Hunger as an impassioned if ultimately confused call for relevance, excitement and innovation in literature and the other arts, then David Shields has made a challenge that deserves to be met.
(26 March 2010)


"Ultimately, it does not matter whether the Suriv-Suriv exist or not; what matters is whether or not they are valid."
- Ludo Neizvestny (introduction to the second edition of Rachel Alter’s The Road Has No Shadow)

Of all the strange activities practised by humans, a species for whom the practice of strange activities is so characteristic as to be almost an identifying trait, the reading of fiction is perhaps the strangest.

What are we doing when we do it? What happens to us when we use the micromuscles of our eyes to drag our attention along line after line and page after page of permuted sequences of the same limited collection of marks (dark ink peppering pale paper, mutable crystals on a glass screen, black fire written on white fire, or whatever)? Someone has caused the artefact which assumes our attention to be inoculated with something that authorises the arrangement of the marks but cannot be isolated even with the aid of a mass spectrometer, an electron microscope or a pair of digital tweezers. But there is something we catch from text if we are susceptible to it, something that springs from somewhere, somehow, if we can read, some insidious thing, something that for convenience we could call story [1] .

It is a common error to think that something new can be put in to your mind by reading, to think that reading is just one of the many ways in which new information can enter the mind through the senses. Although it is true that we use our eyes to receive the stimuli necessary for reading, we are only able to read stimuli with which we are already familiar. Reading is possible only if we are seeing what we already know. If we come across something new, something we do not recognise, we are unable to read it.

Nothing new enters the mind when reading, and yet reading is the most profound way we have of having new experience. This new experience (new ideas, new feelings, new information, new understanding) can only come from elements that pre-exist in the reader’s mind [2] . Reading can only stimulate pre-existing elements into consciousness and combine these elements into new experience. Rather than providing input, reading provokes associations. The text passes over the reader’s mind like a harrow, snagging stuff from below the surface (stuff with verbal hooks corresponding to the verbal hooks of the harrow, or stuff sufficiently entangled with the stuff that has the verbal hooks), exposing new patterns in pre-existing material. The story is what lies exposed to consciousness after the text has passed over the mind.

Reading can provide nothing that, in theory, could not be achieved purely through imagination or reflection, though this realisation is less interesting than it may seem. There is an infinitude of possible ways in which pre-existing mental elements may be associated, almost all of them worthless, and our lives are too short to experience more than a tiny few of them. You could say that each of us has every possible story inside us in potentia, but this is no more profound than saying that every possible story exists in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (if only we could get the words in the right order). Reading allows the private contents of the reader’s mind to be selected and arranged from without. Nothing new enters through the eyes, the only external connection pertinent to reading [3] , and yet the reader’s mind is connected, by reading, to a putative other mind we speculatively call the author’s. The words are all we have, yet as we get the words in the right order we get so much more than the words. We get a specific experience induced by the author purely through the sequencing of these familiar patterns of contrasting tone. All the elements of text must be familiar to us for us to read them, but their sequence, and our cumulative response to them as we follow that sequence, is what enables the unfamiliar experience we have called story. Text is its own measure of time, and to read is to submit to a fixed supplementary external measure of time [4] . Reading requires that our experiential time be calibrated by another: the author.

The author is implied by the text. Someone has caused the text to be sequenced so that it selects and draws into consciousness (and thus into time) the elements of story. The same circuits in the brain are activated whether we do or perceive something, imagine (or remember) doing or perceiving it, or read about doing or perceiving it. The particularity (or otherwise) of that thing, and our consciousness of it, are neurologically the same in each case. When we perceive something, our sense organs receive a mass of stimuli from whatever it is we perceive. But the sense organs perceive no differentiated entities; they cannot be said to perceive at all: they receive indiscriminately the kinds of input for which they have evolved an aptitude. There are no differentiated entities in actuality: the thingness of things is merely an aspect of a story we tell ourselves, an instinctual grammatical construction prerequisite to conscious thought [5] . Before we receive it into consciousness, we automatically filter, separate, select, group, entify and label the input until it is small enough and tidy enough for us to perceive something of what we call actuality without being overwhelmed by what it is really like [6] . When we imagine (or remember) something, the details coalesce from the multifarious contents of our mind, selected by that function which bundles our awareness (intentionally or unintentionally, deliberately or helplessly), a function we may be fundamentally certain of even though we cannot be certain what (if anything) performs it [7] . When we read about something, the filtering, separating, selecting, grouping, entifying and labelling of the actual or fictive reality we are reading about has already been done for us by the author. The author has a unique position: the author uses the text to select the details of our awareness for us, the kind of thing that we usually like to think is very personal to ourselves. The author is the reader’s second self.

The reader surrenders to this surrogate self in order to achieve new experience from their own mind. The experience is one of the infinitude of possible inherent stories, but selected and given authority by another. The reader achieves an experience correlative with the experience of that other, the author. Authority is the quality an author provides to the story effected by their text. Text implies a commonality of experience among all possible readers (including all possible future readers): a potentially infinite corroboration.

Using text as a means of authorising experience is significantly more effective than other methods, such as film, which attempt to communicate through the senses. The images induced in reading come from the reader’s mind by personal response to the text and are more likely to provide the experience intended by the author than the supplementary actuality constructed by a film director and then subjected by the viewer to the same filtering, separating, selecting, grouping, entifying and labelling process as other external stimuli. Reading is an entirely internal process, so when, for instance, an author describes a character as “beautiful”, all possible readers experience the same pattern of neurological excitement, regardless of how different their individual ideas of “beautiful” may be. The film director cannot be sure that all viewers will find their chosen actor to be “beautiful”, and in desperation usually employs cliché [8] to attempt to invoke a similar response from as wide a swathe of similar viewers as possible [9] . As a means of authorising experience, film retains many of the impediments of unprocessed actuality because it still requires processing to attain the consciousness of the viewer, and because it necessarily includes an often vast amount of extraneous detail which the viewer may fix upon in unpredictable and unauthorised ways [10] .

The difference between actuality and text is primarily one of exclusion. All the details in text are clues to what the text is ‘about’ (the authorised experience). Actuality has an infinity of details that are not clues to what actuality is ‘about’ because actuality is not ‘about’ anything (actuality is unauthorised, though we are the authors of our experience of it). When we read a text we receive exactly and only the clues that provide us with the experience that the author wishes us to have. We may agglomerate more details to our experience of the text but this is beyond the business of reading. The question of whether or not Pip in Great Expectations has all the fingers on his left hand cannot be answered by reading. If we imagine him having all his fingers we are indulging in an act of projection just as unauthorised as if we imagine him not having all his fingers. This kind of projection is not reading, though we probably all indulge in it to some extent as we read. Really, the text is all we have.

If we read a text about matters of fact we may seek further details from actuality itself or from other texts or other authorities. A text about matters of fact can be endlessly supplemented, verified and doubted. It can be false. The ‘actual’ is inherently uncertain [11] . With fiction there is no actual referent to which the text refers. There is only the text. Fiction cannot be false because it does not pretend to be true. Fiction has a certainty that matters of fact can never achieve.

Fiction is a system of references without referents, a system of non-truths that aren’t lies, a mode of knowledge that is concerned neither with matters of fact nor with abstract and self-evident nonreferential truths (if there are indeed such things). Fiction is concerned with how our references relate to each other rather than with how they relate to supposed actual referents. Fiction calibrates and develops experiences and correlates them across a reading population, providing experiential consistency despite individual difference. By surrendering, temporarily, the patterning of our experience to a surrogate external authority, we can know what it is like to be someone else, and gain the empathy, understanding and flexibility which deepen and enhance our interactions with others, provide us with contexts for novel actual experiences, and allow us to project our intentions with subtlety and precision. Reading fiction multiplies possibilities and allows us to test them without commitment or risk. The surrogate experiences provided by reading fiction allow us to accrue many more, and more varied, experiences than we could ever have, or would ever want to have, in actuality [12] , and to draw benefits from these surrogate experiences just as we draw them from actual experiences. When we read fiction we ingrain patterns of comprehension which we apply to actuality as well, benefiting both the individual reader and the rest of the species with whom the individual is enmeshed by reading.

The reader’s experience is a shared experience in a way that other experiences are not. Fiction is an especially human faculty that allows both the individual and the species a fluid and opportunistic interplay with social and other environments that are new, changing or complex. Fiction has developed out of the need to not only quickly adapt to such environments but also adapt those environments to ourselves by narrating our possible interactions with them in precise and communicable ways. Fiction is an engine of narrative mutation that compresses aeons of divergent possibility between the pages of accessible supplementary time. When we read fiction we are enhancing the diversity of the cultural genome as it jigs about in the evolutionary mill. Reading fiction, perhaps the strangest of our strange practices but perhaps also one of our most central, allows us to absorb much of the impact of time upon our species. Fiction postpones our extinction.
(July 2009)

[1] What I mean by story is the basic grammatical relation between our idea of things (space) and our idea of action (time).
[2] For the purposes of this essay we shall employ the standard ‘hamper’ model of conceptually extensive personal minds without assuming it to be anything other than a useful thinking-tool.
[3] For Braille readers this neutral connection is provided through the fingertips. Of course, something similar to all this occurs when we listen to spoken words, but spoken words are temporally and qualitatively bound to the actual in a way that ‘input-neutral’ text is not.
[4] We might call this ‘narrative’.
[5] If we reach out (or in) to our world in a grammatical way, what else could we end up with but story?
[6] You could say that we are the unconscious authors of whatever we are aware of, and the conscious readers. You could almost even also say that we perceive only entities that already lie within our minds, provoked into consciousness by recognised learned patterns of stimuli, but we will not pursue this because this essay is about how reading (particularly reading fiction) is different from other sorts of things, not about how it is in fact the same.
[7] Verbs are certain; nouns are always uncertain. Nouns are just convenient shorthand for commonly associated adjectives. The so-called ‘self’ cannot be a noun for it has no determining adjectives; it can only be a verb.
[8] More romantically called ‘archetype’.
[9] Is the assumption of a clichéed viewer a necessary condescension of film-making, or just a prevalent laziness? Designers of so-called ‘virtual realities’ in the so-called ‘new media’ seem even more dependent on the propagation of clichés in their attempt to evoke specific experiences in their receivers. Reading allows experience to be communicated without cliché because it does not depend on trying to force its way through the entifying and labelling filters with which a viewer processes sensory input. Reading’s reality is usefully pre-packaged. The author does not depend upon the (unpredictable, unreliable) reader to do this for them. Across a population, experience is likely to be more similar in readers than in viewers, where the extraneous particulars all come from outside the viewer’s mind and the viewer must make of them what they will.
[10] The authority of film lies primarily in its manipulation of experiential time.
[11] This essay concerns matters of fact (albeit in a conjectural way). In writing it I have struggled with different uncertainties, insecurities and vulnerabilities from the uncertainties, insecurities and vulnerabilities I struggle with when writing fiction. Who am I to assert matters of fact merely on my own authority? Matters of fact seem to require a certain degree of belief, which I am not sure I am capable of, whereas fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, which seems to me a far preferable approach (and not just to fiction).
[12] Fiction relieves us of exactly as much as it gives us.


Marduk spoke the word, and the garment was destroyed. Again he spoke the word, and the garment was re-made. When the gods beheld the power of his word, they all rejoiced.
(Enuma Elish)

There is a game I like to play, which I call Doublebabelfish. If you would like to try it, take a piece of text (any author will do) and paste it into the originating box at the automated translation site babelfish.altavista.com. Choose a language (any language will do; you don’t need to understand it), and instruct the site to translate the text. Copy the resultant and paste it into the originating box. Then instruct the site to translate the text into its original language and compare this final text with the original text. The texts will not be the same. They may be similar or wildly different. You will be amused (this is better than Facebook; you don’t even need any friends). You may be impressed by some of the ‘innovations’ in the new text. Just where, however, did the differences come from? Do they reveal something intrinsic about the conceptual topography of the intermediary language you chose (the medium through which the text passed)? Or about the interfaces between these two languages (their refractory indices, if you like)? Or merely about the limitations of automated translation, or of the dictionaries it uses, or of the compilers of the dictionaries it uses? Just what is revealed? Try another language. Compare the results.

LIKE: An experiment in interpretation* plays a very similar game. Curator Stella Chrysostomou has somehow persuaded one writer and nine makers to translate an original object not only between languages but between media: from object to words (by Bill Manhire); and from these words back into objects (by Fran Allison, Andrea Daly, Peter Deckers, Caroline Gore, Gavin Hitchings, Karl Fritsch, Erik Kuiper, Sean O’Connor and Lisa Walker). We can compare the nine resultants with the original and with each other. They are not the same. They are similar or wildly different. You will be amused. You may be impressed by some of the ‘innovations’ in the new objects. Just where, however, did the differences come from?

Chrysostomou’s version of the game is more dangerous than mine: the translators are not dispassionate machines (though they were instructed to attempt objectivity), but a writer and nine object makers whose professional identity is marked by distinctive personal innovation. How accurate can a translation be? What positive or negative value do we place on innovation? Is all innovation nothing but a willed or unwilled replicative error? As our continued organic and cultural persistence on this earth becomes increasingly uncertain, do artists become more and more desperately innovative (not an attribute positively valued in art until the modern era), attempting mutation after mutation of the cultural genome in the hopes of triggering the evolutionary quantum necessary for our survival? The percentage of genetic mutations that may be considered beneficial to an organism is infinitesimally small.

All art, and every act of memory and of communication, is a translation. Something is lost: the original, the experience, the past; and across the cultural synapse something is created: the replica, the replacement, the memory, the simulacrum simultaneously obliterating and recreating the original in the present. Actuality is translated into virtuality and, if rephysicalised, back into actuality. We expect the resultant to be an ‘accurate’ translation (even – particularly? – if we have no access to the original); but also, paradoxically, to be ‘innovative’. What is going on?

All art, from cave paintings to watercolour landscapes to minimalist abstraction, is an effacement of actual experience. The actual, the other, the unmediated threatens us, threatens our fragile identities, threatens the fragile illusory world of identities we think of ourselves as inhabiting, so we translate the other into our own language, into the nebulous system of conceptual resonances which is both as personal and as communal as we are ourselves. We create a replacement for the other, an ersatz entity or pseudo-entity which bears the indelible trace of the translator and manifests the cultural processes by which they attempted to translate unassimilable experience into assimilable pseudo-experience. Of course the so-called pseudo-experience is itself an experience of a kind, and we respond to it just as our bodies respond to pseudo-disease in the form of a vaccine. Art inoculates us against the threat inherent in the experience it replaces.

Of course, if the replacement is the result of translation into a system of cultural resonances (a ‘language’) foreign to us, or if willed or unwilled ‘innovations’ taint the objective perfection of the simulacrum, the replacement stimulates experience rather than pseudo-experience to the extent that the otherness or innovation is manifest. We experience unease because we experience. If what we call culture is largely a mechanism to efface experience and provide release from awareness of the actual, art which stimulates experience is a failure (in terms of the tradition) if the innovations are unwilled, or is subversive (hurrah!(?)) if the innovations are willed. Aesthetics assail us when our anaesthetics fail.

In these uneasy simulacra tainted by innovation, where do the innovations come from? We don’t know what the unconscious is. It is an unknowable unknown about which, by definition, nothing can be said. We cannot say either that it is personal or that it is universal. We cannot even say that it exists in the way we usually understand existence. We posit it as the source of ‘creative’ innovation, as a tohu-bohu of dissolved psychic elements oscillating between post-conscious and pre-conscious poles, as a sea of endless mutation which periodically throws forth a golden fish (or monster). The conscious mind of an artist is a translating valve, or a filter, which allows into the cultural genome only those mutations which are useful and viable, and suppresses the infinitude of the rest. Art fails when it allows useless and nonviable innovation, and also when it suppresses the useful and viable mutations necessary for cultural evolution.

So, what about the willed or unwilled ‘innovations’ evident in the work of this one writer and these nine makers? LIKE, like Doublebabelfish, asked its subjects to attempt ‘uncreative’ objective translations (as if such a thing were possible), but this is an experiment rather than a test. How ‘successful’ were the participants? What value do we place on ‘failure’ to conform, on ‘failure’ to translate experience into its replica? What value do we place on distinctive personal innovation, and how suppressible is it? What trace of ourselves do we leave in everything we do?

Look at LIKE. The resultant objects are not the same. Just where, however, did the differences come from?

13 March 2008

*(This essay was first published as the introduction for the catalogue LIKE, an experiment in interpretation (Icebox, 2008). Visit the webpages for this exhibition at www.icebox.org.nz)


The human mind is a restless thing, always seeking new contact with the world around it. This world - strange, familiar, alluring, repellent - both nourishes and threatens the mind with an apparently infinite flux of content. The mind, desperate to maintain itself by annexing its surroundings, cannot cease its attempts to make sense of whatever it is aware of, for only in sense can the mind find rest. Once sense has been made, the mind is relieved of the need to be aware of the particularities of its object, and, as the mind passes on to new morsels, the assimilated object is left somehow less actual, less immediate, less individual. The rational impulse is to move from aesthetic (sensory) stimuli to anaesthetic (non-sensory) ends. Art may enhance or subvert this process.

Within the great flux of content that constitutes its world, the mind supposes the existence of other minds, other minds with whom it seeks to make contact so as to share the rational systems which make sense of the world and relieve the itch of sensing. In its efforts to communicate, to make sense to other minds, the mind appropriates and manipulates the content of the flux in such a way that meaning is transmitted from one mind to another. The elements of the flux involved is such transmission, be they sound, mark or object, become the elements of a language.

18 June 2002
(First published as the introductory essay to the catalogue 'Mekingsansa, an exhibition of conceptual jewellery' (Inkscape, 2002))