Friday 31 January 2020

Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena

I had the pleasure of listening to Hisham Matar discuss his new memoir A Month in Siena this week at Daunt Books. One thing he said has stayed with me: everything I have done that matters starts with a stutter.

A quote from A Month in Siena:

"I have a confidence in the physical presence of things - much more than in intellectual abstractions. I believe an object in a room can exact an influence that is not contingent on whether the inhabitants of that room engage with it or even pay it the slightest attention. Montaigne was right in believing that the mere presence of his books around him had an effect on his mind and character, that their patient availability made certain thoughts and modes of thinking possible or more likely. I had no doubt it was the same for the museum guards at the Pinacoteca."

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Healing of the Man Born Blind (1307/8-11)

Thursday 30 January 2020

Literacy Pirates (formal Hackney Pirates) volunteering

Excited to have had my first session today at the Hackney ship! Really great and important work supporting students with reading and writing skills in a year-long after school programme.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Why some forms of technology give us the creeps - A talk by Aaron Balick at the Freud Museum

Last week I attended a talk by Dr Aaron Balick at the Freud Museum on "Understanding the uncanny valley and other tech-based heebie jeebies" as part of their event series The Uncanny: A Centenary. There were some drawings by Hans Bellmer on the wall (not the one below).

The uncanny valley graph

Some notes and thoughts:

- We talk about the uncanny quality of humanoid robots because they resemble humans but are not. What do we do in the face of humans that are becoming more and more the product of algorithms and influence that determine our actions? Will we then start considering the human as uncanny as a result of it having become less human than it used to be?
- The liminal/edge space or uncanny space between targeted advertising being an influencer or manipulator
- Targeted advertising is often most uncanny when it blunders and thus when you notice it starkly (thing theory and objects declaring agency/uncanny when it is no longer functional)
- The deep fake
- PARO therapeutic robot (seal that responds to human touch and gesture)

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Some thoughts on activism

I've been thinking a lot lately about activism and the different ways in which people engage with the world in order to mobilise change. I've been asking the question: what counts as activism? Is it attending protests, signing petitions? What else? What is the most impactful political act a person can do? Or, is the simultaneous acts of different methods and pursuits (some more direct than others, some depending on the number of bodies that show up, others on changing legislation) complimentary in fighting for social equality?

This has come to my attention in the work I do at Teach First and my colleagues' stories of why they chose this career and their journeys. A colleague shared with the Teach First Women's Network the concept that women are more likely to "live in the margins of their own lives", which she told us is a Jewish concept stemming from writing in the margins of sacred texts and living by those notes or morals. What she meant by this is that women often live through the lives of others, often taking care of others and the next generation. While this can be a strength, it is also necessary to turn inward and live deliberately as the main narrative in one's life. This same colleague started a free school upon hearing the news that the school in her local town would be shutting down.

I have also been thinking about actively engaging in societal changes and activism through the books I have been reading lately.

Sarah Schulman's novel, People in Touble, originally published in 1990, is a response to the devastating AIDS crisis New York City, the experience of a community watching huge numbers of their friends and lovers die, and their fight in the face of being ignored by the government's action because of their homosexuality, and thus, marginalised status in society. An excerpt:

Schulman also poses the question of how much does art really help us be politically engaged, or is it rather an excuse to feel politically engaged and make political art without having to be present and really act politically.

I have just started the book Human Acts by Han Kang about the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in 1980. A question she repeatedly asks has to do with differentiating between a living body and a corpse, and that intangible moment in between when one becomes the other. When describing the heaps of dead bodies that need to be navigated, moved and identified, she also talks about the spirit or soul and wonders if it lingers beside its former home, looking down at its body alongside the bereaved. A boy contends with his shame for running away upon becoming aware of an active shooting, as his friend is shot dead by the military.  

While the boy's instance was an adrenaline response to survive, I'm curious about questions of complacency and the ways in which no action ultimately reinforces and supports oppressors and anti-democratic or brutal regimes. To what extent are we prepared to do nothing to preserve our own safety and comfort? And to what extent must we sacrifice our own safety and comfort to ensure that everyone be permitted this same stability. 

Friday 10 January 2020

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders's magical realist, historical novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, drives its plot by way of anecdotal snippets at times taken from documentary texts describing personal observations of the President at the time of the death of his young son Willie, and at times from his fictional congregation of ghosts who find themselves trapped in a purgatory crypt. In this bardo space, which acts as an existential and literal space between life and death, the ghosts, among which is the little Willie Lincoln, feel haunted by their own "sick-box" (coffin) and seem unaware or in denial about their death status, finding small bits of hope that they might return to their old lives and loved ones rather than acknowledge or seek the next stage in their journey in the afterlife.

The style of narration is highly experimental, so that there is no single protagonist but several key narrators who provide short descriptions of actions, events or personal histories. These fragments are shared with the reader by way of a collaborative storytelling on behalf of the ghosts or through the documentary quotes sutured together by Saunders to give a multi-perspective, often contradictory assessment of Lincoln's mourning process, a party he hosted just before Willie's death, and Lincoln's treatment of the ongoing Civil War. In fact, Lincoln features very little in the book and is not (directly) one of the speakers. His thoughts are only revealed when one of the ghosts "steps inside" his body, inhabiting it in some sort of way — in one instance, grown men occupy Lincoln's body so that they are nearly held by him, as if they themselves were Willie seeking comfort from his father —at which point they are able to access Lincoln's thoughts pertaining to his grief.

Interestingly, the contradictory narratives are most striking in the documentary text, where critics and writers from the time don't seem to reach many consensuses on real events and it becomes difficult for the reader to extract truth. In one moment, Saunders has collected descriptions of the moon by guests attending party at the White House, where it is reported to have been big, small, full, crescent, bright, non-existent, high, close, blue, green, yellow, yellow-red. These moments are reminiscent for me of a moment in Max Porter's novel Lanny, where village members gossip about their speculations regarding Lanny's disappearance, each with their own self-convinced theory.

In this respect, the ghosts seem to be more on the same page than the living, progressing the plot not only by describing their experience, but by working with the information previously given by their companions, disclosing their unique perspective. As such, just as they inhabit Lincoln and reveal his innermost thoughts, so too does the reader inhabit each of these departed characters, becoming familiar with a voice before its source is revealed in smaller font at the end of that particular contribution.

For these reasons, Lincoln in the Bardo is formally experimental, pushing the limits of the novel and combining fact and fiction to fashion a combined, (mostly) coherent narrative albeit at times with varying takes on even the slightest detail. It is, in this way, a tribute to the subjectivity of experience and truth, and the ways in which we each live and absorb the world within our very own magical realist minds, determined so subjectively by our distinct and personal perception and experience. 

Monday 6 January 2020