It seems that we live in weird fiction. A mysterious deadly virus, totalitarian government measures, scientists in every news, open surveillance by mobile phones and drones, democratic institutions suspended, clandestine gatherings, transgressions, seals wondering on beaches and dolphins swimming in harbors... Countries scramble to respond by introducing dictatorship in Hungary, by nationalizing hospitals in Spain, by drinking bleach in the USA. If it’s not inappropriate to ask, what is lacking for a good book?’
It’s hard to relate to it as a good _book_, reality having been televisual for some time. It has been noted, particularly on the left, that as the scriptwriter of political reality have been getting been lazy, out of ideas, floundering, insultingly on-the-nose, with little respect for the intelligence of their viewers, reliant on shark-jumping cheap thrills and unrealistic narrative. Our leaders have become increasingly pantomime villains. We don’t live in an era of subtlety but of bombast and melodrama. To that extent, the introduction of a world-shaking cataclysm is exactly the kind of hacky, desperate plot twists that we should expect from an ageing series. That said, it’s an obvious point that sometimes out of rote pulp elements, unexpectedly rich cultural artefacts can emerge. I’m sure it _is_, in your words, inappropriate to ask, and glib to answer, what would improve this qua narrative, given the mass death, misery and emerging authoritarianism. That - of course - is the starting point, including for rage. That said, we are, as humans, aestheticising animals, and there is no contradiction between our (inevitable) aesthetic approach to reality, and treating it with all due political seriousness. For my part, like so many, it is the wildlife elements of this story that I would like to see extended. There is unexpected beauty therein, and London feels quite reconfigured by these first, fleeting introductions of the ‘city taken over by animals’ trope. Also, there is something to be written about the aeroplane-less skies. Perhaps weird fiction, perhaps poetry, whatever - but having spent nearly 50 years of my life with planes overhead and their growl as a baseline sound - a bass line - their lack is one of the most affecting things I have experienced.
Some words seem to re-enter our vocabulary and some seem to lose traction. We obviously talk about care and health now, solidarity is dubious as it is proclaimed but not exercised on the international level, economy seems to be a victim but not an answer, all governments hope for a vaccine. Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran writes that hope is futile and impotent to mobilize, the world rather needs secular faith in the human because it gives a reason to be and to act. What are the words that you find important?
Nothing, I think, that would surprise you. ‘Rage’ and ‘disgust’, certainly. I co-edit the political and cultural journal Salvage (www.salvage.zone, and in print), and one of the words to which we repeatedly return, and in which we find great resources for understanding our political yearning, is the not-quite-translatable-into-English German word Sehnsucht. That I find unendingly important. ‘Love’, of course, but that (should?) go without saying, and is in any case so degraded that it is hard to deploy. A corollary word that looms large for me is ‘hate’. There is a machismo and an ‘edgelord’ attitude which glories in contrarianism, and I definitely don’t want to fall prey to that: hate is a frightening force, and not one to be celebrated. It is, however, in my opinion, both inevitable and politically necessary, and - with appropriate and necessary curating and corralling, which is a crucial caveat, asking the questions of what you hate, how you hate it how you might overcome it - hate can be a politically vital force for emancipation, and a word the guilt and stigma of which should be eradicated.
The world seems to be standing on a historical precipice, a bifurcation. You masterfully describe this kind of atmosphere in October. Can any parallels be drawn between these two times, apart from the obvious beginning of the century?
As I say in the book, it is too cheap either to draw trite analogies (which has been one of the Left’s favourite pastimes for far too long) and to insist on a radical firewall between the two (which has been one resource of the Right). Of course the political specificities are such that any process of political translation at that level can only be approached with great care and work. At a much more abstract - though nonetheless important - level, I would say for me the two parallels that return to me repeatedly, considering October (qua Event) and the politics of now - and, indeed, of pretty much every fraught political moment of which I can think - are around dignity and around liberalism. On the first, the category of ‘dignity’ - and now that I mention it, that’s another word that is important to me - is obviously vague and protean. That doesn’t, however, mean that it is useless. The longer I live, the more I learn, the more I see ‘dignity’ as a desideratum driving radical political action. Certainly in the Russian case in 1917, that was perfectly explicit. And it can even pull against, and be more radical than, more immediate bread-and-butter issues. The example I use all the time are the marches, in 1917, of Russian restaurant workers and waiters, carrying placards denouncing tips as a ‘degrading practice’. Dignity outweighed income, here. And on liberalism, a regrettable lesson that seems to recur throughout history is that when the chips are down, when the situation is dire, when one chooses one side or other of the barricade, liberalism as a social force, let alone its institutions and its organisations, will always choose reaction over radical change. It may do so regretfully, it may do so with tears in its eyes (though, too, it may not), but if the choice is binary, that is how it will go. At the cost, potentially, of much blood. It’s important to stress the distinction between liberalism as a current and individual liberals, some of the latter of whom will indeed break from their tradition and take the side of emancipation - very often, in fact, out of fidelity to the very liberal ideals that it becomes increasingly clear actually-existing liberalism cannot and will not deliver. I am extremely interested in - and often moved by - such examples of liberals who end up supporting, even being part of, radical moments. But such a break at an organisational, institutional, level, does not occur. Which is why liberalism may in various situations be worked with, but why, as situations grow more dire, it cannot ultimately be trusted.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tatyana Tolstoya’s Slynx and her vision of post-literate society robbed of memory and of what late Mark Fisher called flattening of time in culture of the 21st century quoting Berardi’s "slow cancellation of the future”. How do you see contemporary culture, particularly literature in the decadent neoliberalism and emerging neo-feudalism hit by the virus?
It’s of course far too soon to judge with any confidence, and to be honest this question is simply too big to be answered in a short form. At a very simple level, it is abundantly clear that we will soon be awash with a great wave of ‘covidlit’, and that much - probably most - of it will be, as a friend said to me, ‘contemptible’. That is, it will be rote and insular and smug. In the early days of the pandemic, another friend of mine said to me, ‘I’m sorry to make things even worse, but you do realise that [I will withhold the name of the lionised literary author they supplied] is working on a novel about this even as we speak?’ The paradoxes and metaphors write themselves: isolation yet connection, loneliness yet community, and so on. There will be stories about couples thrown together into close-quartered isolation and yet, in one of those lumpen paradoxes asked to do a lot of heavy lifting in ‘LitFic’, find themselves lonelier than ever. Etc etc etc. It’s a vinegary kind of fun to be snarky about this inevitable stuff, and there will doubtless be some very good work, too. But this is mostly at the level of content: what will happen at the level of form is more interesting to me, and, as yet, far harder to gauge.
Talking about the beginning of the century, another interest of yours lies there – surrealism. In the Days of New Paris you put it into action to fight Nazis. It’s not to claim that arts and literature can bring about social change, but I am guessing you still believe in their agency since you still write. What would that agency be?’
I have no idea. It’s pretty much always a mistake to think you control the way people feel about anything you write, but I must admit to having been slightly crestfallen to learn that - whether they agree with me or are furious with me for suggesting it, and minimising real political danger - some people thought The Last Days of New Paris was evidence that I ‘believe’ that ‘art’ can defeat ‘fascism’, or that what makes Nazism so dangerous is that it has tended to lead to bad art, or whatever. (In fact, the image of ‘good art’ fighting ‘bad Nazis’ struck me as perhaps fun precisely because it is so absurd, so literalising of a metaphor, and being so literal, an ironising of it even as it thoroughgoingly used it. One of the things that fantasy can do quite well, I think, is play with that ironising and literalising relationship to metaphor which I would suggest implies some degree of scepticism, whether regretful or not, more than of ‘agreement'.) Of course authorial intention isn’t everything, isn’t even very much, and should not ever be inoculation of a work. I hope not, but perhaps it is a terrible book with appalling politics. However, what I can say is that if it is, it is not because I think any such things to be true, because I don’t. And to suggest otherwise seems to me predicated on a reductive narrowing of the meaning of cultural artefacts to their content, read in the most literal way possible. It would be facile to suggest that this is unimportant, or beyond criticism. It is, however, only one , and I would suggest not the most fundamental, level. And we all know this at a simple level - we don’t doubt that an atheist could write a powerful piece with a protagonist who is an angel, for example. This is related to the question about the importance of ‘representation’. I think such representation is indeed very important, and that the progress we have made in those spheres is exactly that - progress. I do, however, chafe against the notion, implied or explicit, that that is the sole or even most important way to judge art, aesthetically and/or politically. And very often the narrow focus on such ‘content-level’ issues of representation, for example, obscure a lot of other issues that may require slightly - though often only very slightly! - more digging.
One problem - and indeed an absolute glory - here is that one can’t police or predict how art will be received, or how it will inspire. An example I return to quite often is Palestinian activists who, at one point, dressed up as the aliens from the Cameron film Avatar. Loving the film, they used the (pretty obvious, if probably unintentional) analogies between their situation of colonial dispossession and that of the aliens in the movie to make a political point. I salute them. That doesn’t preclude me thinking Avatar is an appalling, and, largely, by reasonable critical standards, a ‘reactionary’ film. That doesn’t mean that ‘I’m right and they were wrong’ - art is polyvalent.
So… agency? Well, at what level? Why must we be reductive in our focus on the content? There are plenty of people whose politics we despise who love excellent art, and who love ‘radical’ art, by ‘radical’ artists. Just as there are leftists - myself included - who love art by the most appalling reactionaries.
As to ‘inspiration’ - again, it is too multivalent and complex to be glib about. I don’t doubt that Ursula le Guin and her fiction have been a political inspiration to me, as to many. I also don’t doubt that Beatrix Potter has been - if in a different way, and at, no doubt, a mediated aesthetic level - also an inspiration. I return to some of her images of, for example, fish and frogs and feel a sort of awe that is, to me, inextricable from a political sublime.
To say, as you do, that I still ‘believe in the agency’ of art and literature because I still write can only mean that I believe literature can have an impact on those who read it - and I do. It doesn’t follow that I believe it can have direct political impact - I believe it *can* have such an impact, but that trying to predict or court it underestimates precisely what makes literature interesting. Which, in turn, doesn’t preclude writing political or explicitly political fiction: only thinking that you get to choose or predict how it will ‘impact’ or inspire - what its agency will be.
In his wonderful book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud speculates that the birth of art might be when a neolithic person blew a raspberry at a predator that had just failed to catch it - that it might be a kind of supererogatory act of human agency and play, an inevitable reflection on more concrete - not necessarily important - concerns. I have no idea if that’s true, of course, and whether it is or not, the specific nature of the kind of society in which art is manifest will be crucial. But I am drawn to the idea that it is an inevitable, necessary, human reflection on reality - and no less important for that. At a self-consciously political level: ‘The superfluous’, as the Surrealists in Paris in the Nazi occupation insisted, ‘presumes the necessary’ - and they were defending the ‘superfluous’, the poetic, from those who suggested it was a frippery, on the basis not that the necessary - political struggle - wasn’t important, but that for them, the former was an outgrowth of the latter.
You are assiduous: ‘It’s not to claim that arts and literature can bring about social change’, you caution, and I agree - though even then I would say perhaps they can, in some cases, insofar as they impact certain people in certain political contexts in certain ways, and not necessarily for the good. So what *is* the agency?
Far too often, for me, the conversation about art and politics implies or assumes a ‘political agency’ to art which is reductive and, at least aspirationally, unidirectional. I simply don’t think it works that way. It doesn’t mean art and literature aren’t important and can’t be transformative. Political critique and reading of literature is one thing, and can be brilliantly illuminating, and, indeed, itself inspiring. But the common iteration of that, particularly on the left, is, I think, frightened of precisely the kind of polyvalence and surplus that can make powerful art powerful. In fact, I would suggest that I accord them more respect in acknowledging that the ways by which their ‘agency’ acts on the world are too various, too multifaceted, too inextricable from all the other strands of reality, to predict let alone to instrumentalise with any rigour. Which is why when people, especially people on the left, talk about ‘the political agency’ or ‘political effects’ or ‘political power’ of art, I think it is almost always in unhelpful ways.
As a bare minimum - and it is a highly inadequate minimum, I’m aware - maybe we can say that art is not meaningless, not mere vapour, and that both out of respect for it and out of rigorous appreciation of the limits intrinsic to its nature, we have to acknowledge that its ‘agency’ is in the most literal and exact sense possible, overdetermined, and never parsable in the final instant. The lonely hour of literature’s ‘agency’ never quite comes - it is, rather, always already there.
In his Dictionary of the Undoing John Freeman attempts to restore the words that have been abused or mistreated by the American society. Given your interest in language, are you interested in its restorative power, its transgressions, or something else?’
I think to moot any such thing in the abstract will not get us very far. Certainly language and how it works is fascinating and politically vital. But I don’t know that I would understand what ‘the restorative power of language’, for example, might mean. Not in the abstract, in any case. Even the word ‘hate’, as I’ve outlined it above. I’ve suggested that there might, for some, be a political efficacy to a cautious rehabilitation of that most verboten emotion and word. And I stand by that. But it would be at best meaningless, at worst dangerous, to suggest any such thing in the abstract. Hate does not equal hate does not equal hate. How the word ‘hate’ ‘restores’ or ‘transgresses’, to use your term, in the mouth of an articulate and charismatic fascist and how it might do so in that of a thoughtful socialist are fundamentally distinct dynamics.
Cities are your darling. The Days of New Paris feature the city as a maze, London’s Overthrow portrays the city as a living organism, in The Scar we find a floating city made of ships, just to mention a few. You remain utterly fascinated with their "monstrocity”. Are cities our quotidian monsters?’
I hope you will forgive me evading this question, not by not answering it, but by answering it too readily. That is to say… Sure? I mean, yes, maybe? And/but also no?
This gets at the nature of metaphor. Which - unlike, for me, allegory - is precisely interesting and powerful in that it goes on all the way down. And that is particularly clear in those categories - like monster, and like, indeed, city - that explicitly riff off and work by means of their clamourous polyvalence and fecundity and their sheer brimmingness. They are very full. So cities are our quotidian monsters, but it’s in the nature of cities that, qua metaphor (which, whatever else they are, they always also are) they are our any- and everything else, too. Contrariwise, cities are our quotidian monsters, but it is in the nature of monsters that any- and everything might be our quotidian monsters, too. Not only is there no master code by which such metaphors might ‘finally’ be solved, it would be appalling and deadening if there were.
Ultimately, everything can mean anything. The questions are always how well, how interestingly, how stably, how unstably, how fecundly, how provocatively, how productively, how beautifully, how uglily, and so on and so on ad infinitum, is a thing also another thing, quotidian or no?
This fascination becomes explicit in The City and the City, which has a particular resonance to it when read in post-socialist countries like Croatia. The combo of disorientation and mundanity raises the question of how we construct meaning of the world around us. Even more explicitly you address this question in The Embassytown. Can fiction give any answers? Or rather, do we need answers or questions from fiction?
I suspect you know what I will say to this, and I suspect you may agree. Fiction can give answers, and it can - to my mind generally more interestingly - give questions. What I suspect it cannot do is either of those things with any ‘finality’. Nor do I think we would want it to. That simply isn’t what it is for. Indeed, though I love the answers and love more the questions that fiction raises, that fiction that I love most I often do so because I do not understand what it is raising. It brings something up with great urgency and power - but whether it is an answer, a question, or something else altogether, let alone what answer or question, I cannot say. And it is precisely because I can’t say that I can’t leave the work alone.