Friday Trem: Drill Here Fore Seismics

The title was taken from a graffito on an abandoned petrol station in Leicester. Who the author was and what they meant by it I never found out, but this was before anyone very much had heard of fracking.

The most obvious influence on this one is Radiohead’s Kid A, in its more tranquil moments.

Neovores and educators

There’s a difference between the kind of mental map you have of a new area of knowledge when you’re learning it quickly for your own use, and the kind of map that people make between them when trying to make new knowledge part of their shared practice. Neovores – people who consume novelty, who are early-adopters of the latest thing – throw together skeletal outlines of new knowledge that are just sufficient to orientate their pursuit of further newness. Their way of learning is optimised for moving quickly towards cool stuff that is just out of reach, new tricks which will afford them greater mastery. Consolidation and communication come later.

The great guitarist Shawn Lane referred to his own way of attacking seemingly-impossible high-speed licks as “transcendental technique”: you couldn’t reach it by learning the rudiments and then working up to the fancy stuff, you had to make a sort of leap into semi-competence at a new level and then consolidate from there. Lane wasn’t at all a sloppy player, but he was prepared to accept sloppiness and approximation on the path to technical mastery. His approach was in flagrant defiance of the classical teacher’s wisdom, which emphasises careful development and rigorous practice at each level of technique in order to avoid locking in bad habits. (For what it’s worth, I think you really do have to do it the classical teacher’s way if you want to play Bach; but maybe you have to do it Lane’s way if you want to play Lane).

Neovores can seem freakishly clever to more patient learners, partly because of their speed of advance and partly because when you ask them to explain what they’ve learned they often make it sound completely incomprehensible. But the reason why it sounds incomprehensible isn’t that it’s simply too difficult for ordinary mortals to understand; it’s that they’re trying to transmit verbally mental constructs that are almost completely devoid of the affordances that characterise social knowledge-artifacts. Social knowledge-artifacts are optimised for transmission and retention: they come adorned with metaphors and mnemonics, and have typically been “tried out” on many people. Having passed through multiple frames of reference, they may carry traces of many different standpoints and pragmatic/experiential settings. Such constructs aren’t terribly interesting to neovores, since they represent the already-tried, the crystallisation of experiment; but they’re often incredibly rich and many-faceted, and repay attention of a kind that the neovore’s brittle cognitive scaffolding is not built to withstand.

Educators are not only those who maintain and transmit the stock of social knowledge-artifacts, but equally importantly are those who socialise new knowledge, who find ways to get what the neovores have in their heads into the heads of everybody else. There’s a line in one of my Half Cocks poems about “Transcendental technique, now taught in magazines”, which refers to this process – an exemplary educator in the field of snazzy electric guitar-playing is the brilliant Guthrie Govan, whose encyclopaedic technical fluency comes from years of treating the work of Shawn Lane and countless others with patient respect and curiosity: learning how to do what they somehow figured out how to do, and teaching it to others. Educators proceed as if, in the words of the Codebar “effective teacher guide”, beginners – themselves included – have “no knowledge but infinite intelligence”. This doesn’t mean that we’re all unrealised super-geniuses, but that the barriers to understanding people first encounter on trying to learn something new are usually due to a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of cognitive capacity. The neovore often finds it frustrating that others don’t understand the things they do, but seem rather to lag behind gormlessly complaining that it’s all too unfamiliar and difficult. But it’s up to the educator to make something humanly and lastingly useful out of whatever’s at the end of that ladder into the clouds, and that requires a different sort of creativity and skill. The best learners are those who have learned to be both.

Monday Poem: Homage to Douglas Clark

A landslide of hooves – first distant
and then up-close. The ear strains
after reminiscence or is punctured
by voices, snatches of uncouth song.

The inner life belongs to Genghis Khan.
Manners and love are things of circumstance –
not substance. The women melt away,
grow solid elsewhere, leave behind their names.
Cats come and go, frisking their way through poems.

Weekend Gloss: Arthuriana

Of the two parts of this, the second is I think the better. The poem’s quite old now, and I made a single change to it in posting it here: replacing “ichor” with “blood” (Geoffrey Hill uses “ichor” in a similar context in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and it seemed too direct a borrowing – although given that the whole thing’s a Geoffrey Hill Tribute Act number, I’m not sure whether this wasn’t a misplaced scruple).

The first part comes in equivocally: “the mythos is as you find it” could read any number of ways. One way of approaching the Arthurian mythos is to find it all a bit silly, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail certainly does. But there’s also the sense that the mythos is in some sense there, waiting to be found or rediscovered, and that its perennial availability for rediscovery is precisely its way of being there. It “is” “as you find it”, for each and every “you” that might come across it. Of course this notion is built into the mythos itself, with Arthur and his knights asleep in Avalon awaiting the moment of need when they must re-awaken. This is a bit of a late addition to the story (attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth), a kind of self-mythologising appendix; but it feeds into all kinds of things from That Hideous Strength (which recalls Merlin from the grave to combat a particularly nasty rebel-Oyarsa infestation) to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And of course it’s directly implied in the title (itself taken from Malory) of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a tremendous and, by the end, wrenchingly-sad meditation on war, power and governance. (I owe White, amongst other things, the observation that his Lancelot was “probably sadistic, or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle”).

For my children’s generation, their Arthur is probably the boneheaded crypto-homophobic jock portrayed in the BBC’s Merlin – an excellent series, but one which like so many contemporary “re-imaginings” plays subversively with material with which its intended audience cannot be presumed to be familiar (cf Sherlock). My Arthur, I think, is this one:

Re-watching it now, I’m very struck by how the tone of its closing minutes coincides with what I was envisaging and aiming for in the second part of Arthuriana: that late-70s BBC eerieness must have struck deep (although I would have been only 5 when this first aired – it must surely have been an early-80s repeat?). The shift across the two parts of the poem from bathos (“spurs snagging in damp bracken”) to pathos (“the barge drifts / with its burden”, an unconscious borrowing from Eliot’s The Waste Land – “The barges drift / With the turning tide”) accords with how I feel about the myth, I think: the Pythons made great fun of its chauvinistic brutality and face-saving nationalism, but even Monty Python And The Holy Grail can’t entirely withhold dignity from its subject.

Monoidal FizzBuzz In Scala

I am truly sorry…


Theses on Tumblrism

  1. Tumblrism is a phenomenon awaiting its concept. It has been endlessly denounced, mocked and vilified – but do any of its enemies know what it really is? Tumblrism is not an occult practice: it does not hide a secret identity, or emanate from a hidden cause. Everything there is to know about it is there, out in the open. Tumblrism is nothing other than what it gives to be read: not as a sign of the times, but as a signature. It is not a code, but an idiom. The character of an idiom is better grasped through pastiche than through interpretation. Here, however, we will attempt an interpretation.
  2. Tumblrism is flanked by two other contemporary discourses, with which it is engaged in relationships of mutually determining antagonism. On the one side, the discourse of the troll (exemplified by 4chan); on the other, the discourse of the grown-up (mainstream and “serious” media and politics, for which tumblrism is somehow a pressing concern despite its alleged non-seriousness). Where the troll is sociopathic, nihilistic, base and vile, the tumblrist is committed, hopeful and – in spite of every avowed deviance of identity and behaviour – strangely pure. Where the grown-up is civil, sensible, restrained and rational, the tumblrist is passionate, sensual, effusive and in a hurry.
  3. Tumblrism is often mocked for its preoccupation with the minutiae of identity: pronouns, orientations, body shapes, disorders, allergies, fandoms. Tumblrists’ lengthy and sometimes comically exhaustive catalogues of predicates are reminiscent of the geek code block, a protocol whereby an earlier generation, its tongue still firmly in its cheek, codified and publicised their enthusiasms and particularities. Just as the geek code was a code for geeks, which signified first and foremost the user’s geekery, so the tumblr-identity-sidebar is a code for tumblrists, which establishes first and foremost the user’s visibility within the world that tumblrism composes.
  4. Tumblrism’s world is a world in which something like social justice is possible. It is both an escape from, and the utopian critique of, a world in which social justice is impossible, and can only appear between quotation marks – as “social justice”. This world derides “social justice warriors” as angry inadequates, impotently confronting forces vastly and obliteratingly greater than themselves. If the discourse of the grown-up is a discourse of accommodation – getting over yourself, surrendering the imperatives and compensations of narcissism, learning to live with what cannot conceivably be changed – then the discourse of tumblrism is one of unappeasable dysphoria. The tumblrist is not at home in the world, but seeks to construct a secondary world – a Rivendell, or Sunnydale – in which it is possible to live.
  5. The discourse of the troll is also one of rejection of the world, but this rejection takes the form of a direct attack on the social bond. The troll cannot hope to wound the powerful, and so turns on the weak, violating a fundamental (if hypocritically espoused) precept of good and decent behaviour. The tumblrist will always “punch up”, or failing that sideways; the troll invariably “punches down”. For the troll, the universal law of society is that the strong bully the weak: it is a lie that the weak are valued and protected, and the troll’s jouissance is that of the one who exposes the lie. While the tumblrist constructs fantasies with they maintain with an often savage defensiveness, even and sometimes especially against those who might be thought to be allies or collaborators in the work of world-making, the troll tears into the flesh of fantasy in the hope of exposing the social-darwinist skeleton that it adorns. But the troll is no less a fantasist than the tumblrist: as Lacan says, les non-dupes errent.
  6. Tumblrism has, and perhaps even to some extent is, a problem with tone. Treated as if it were a disease by the discourse of the grown-up, it rightly rejects as controlling and condescending the demand of the grown-ups that it moderate its language, speak more pleasingly and temperately, slow down and think through what it is saying (since its utterance is already, and immediately, its thinking – a kind of irrepressible thinking-out-loud, which prioritises emotional expression and personal authenticity over communicative rationality or argumentative coherence). But its rejection tout court of “tone-policing” leaves it without any auto-immune mechanism, any way of guiding its own discursive practice towards the goods that it professes. There have been one or two attempts to diagnose and resolve the “horizontal hostility” facilitated by an unrestrained “call-out culture”, but restraint is not really tumblrism’s style. If tumblrism is characterized by a failure, or explicit refusal, to distinguish between externally-imposed constraint and internal self-discipline, this is no doubt because it recognises that the latter is often merely the “interiorisation” of the former: the cop in the head, who must be disposed of.
  7. We have said nothing about trauma, about oppression and suffering, which are ostensibly the proximate causes of tumblrism. To treat it merely as a configuration of language, as we have done so far, is to neglect the very lived experience on which the discourse rests, and to which it anxiously and repeatedly refers. To be guilty of such neglect is to expose one’s privilege – the only thing it is possible to be guilty of in tumblrism’s scrupulously non-judgemental utopia. Suffering authenticates, and to be relieved of or preserved from suffering is to be inauthentic, a weeper of white tears. We would do well at this point to disclose some episode of hard-living, to give our “theses” – so prim, so undeservedly knowing – the flavour of genuine anguish. Instead we have resorted to a defensive irony, costive and self-pleasuring, which like the plural first-person pronoun we favour shields us from exposure while betraying us utterly.
  8. If we have a bone to pick with tumblrism, it no doubt comes down to this: tumblrism promotes, distinguishes and exalts the authentically human, whose signature is the lyric cry: the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. Or, emotion recollected in emotion: “I am shaking so hard with rage right now, I can barely type”. This is rhetoric. Its effect is to stigmatise – to use one of its own terms of art – those who are unwilling or unable to “humanise” themselves in this way, assimilating them to that wholly evil creation from which tumblrism offers a place of respite. Tumblrism rests on a Manichean division between the warm and the cold, the passionate and the dispassionate, those who feel – and share their feelings appropriately, employing the modish jargon as if Virtue itself were born yesterday – and those who unfeelingly perpetuate the cold logic of a fallen world. We find ourselves inexorably on the wrong side of that division, yet (unsurprisingly) unconvinced of the moral superiority, the richer and more deserving humanity, of those who place themselves on its right side.