Dying Culture

There was a chunk from a recent Technoccult newsletter that I had considered sharing in nothing here. It would have been too large a quote, especially after I had a chance to add whatever commentary to it I felt necessary. But it’s still something I want to talk about, so… blog post.

Writing in Technoccult, Damien Williams says:

The majority of the people who want to pin [mass shootings] as “Mental Illness” are just out to reinforce all the structurally ableist notions we have about mentally ill people, including the fact that it makes it, once again, the personal “failings” of a single individual, rather than the systemic, cultural failures that incite, inspire, reinforce, and encourage these men toward these actions. Our attitudes towards violence, and about who a “valid recipient” of that violence is. Our attitudes about who “really deserves” what—food, shelter, cultural resources, access to another person’s body—and what is or isn’t okay to do about either a) someone “taking” what they “don’t deserve” or b) not being “given” what we “do deserve.”

If you are raised and trained, every day, by, let’s call it 85% of the people and cultural products you consume, much of which has built directly into it a disincentive to take seriously any opposing position, then is it reasonable to mark as “mental illness” the following of that education to one of its logical conclusions? And, if so, then doesn’t that make the whole culture sick?

Because I think, quite seriously, the whole culture might be sick.

And I think, looking back, there is a crux, a particular point of inflection, when every piece of pre- and peri-millennial possibility—every attitude or technological hope, each mythic future potentiality— feels like it was inverted at its moment of highest vulnerability, right as the Millennium™ was waking up… And i think, if we’re honest, it feels like we’ve never fully recovered.

Like we’ve just gotten progressively meaner, and harder, and more afraid, and more paranoid, and more spitefully willing to fuck ourselves into oblivion to prove some kind of point.

I don’t know how to fight an illness of the collective cultural consciousness. I know how to promote the culture I want to catch on—the plays, the comics, the TV, the music, the illustrations, the films, the poetry, the paintings, the stories and essays. I know how to spread those far and wide and shout about them from the rooftops. But I don’t know how to heal or carve out the hate, the fear, the nihilism, the frustrated and entitled rage that says “It’s All Their Fault And You Should Kill Them.”

When I’m just one person, who writes and talks. When I’m not wealthy and my rooftops aren’t that high and my voice and lungs are, quite frankly, tired from shouting. When I don’t even know anymore whose ear to whisper in, or whose eye to catch that might actually be able to do some good at a broader and deeper reach than I have. Is it you? I kind of hope so.

If you’re reading this, you can do this, and I really hope you will. Promote culture you want to see. Build communities of compassion and exploration of the possibilities of what we can do and how we can live. Be loud, be brave, be ready.

Because we need each other now, as much as or more than ever.

And after I put that in our shared newsletter doc, Austin pointed me at this piece by Darren Allen:

What passes for culture is not culture — the wild — but cultivation — domestication; the covering of the unnatural inner life of men and women with superficially stimulating effects, dead knowledge divested of its living core and the economically and socially profitable pretense of art:

To be cultivated means: to hide from oneself how wretched and base one is, how rapacious in going for what one wants, how insatiable in heaping it up, how shameless and selfish in enjoying it.

Culture is dead, for the same reasons that nature is. Everything that can be said about the death of nature, everything we know about why it is happening — the insensitivity, cowardice and greed that lead to its destruction — along with everything we know about the effects of an unnatural life on human beings — the confusion, misery and corruption that result from being estranged from the wild; all this applies to culture also. Culture is supposed, like nature, to produce true human beings. That is its purpose — or can be said to be. Really nature and culture have no purpose, they are ends to themselves; there is no ‘why’ to them, yet this is the inevitable result of their ‘what’ — the genius of mankind which, because nature and culture are dead, is dead also.

Look around you now at the stunted men and women in your town — good people sometimes, even brimming with potential, but so drastically reduced; limited, cut-off from life, half-dead and, in many cases, quite insane. Look at how many geniuses surround you — real human geniuses I mean, not the fantastic automatons that can win fifty games of chess simultaneously or play the piano with their feet; I mean miraculously beautiful and utterly unique people, able to ‘hit the mark that no-one can see’. Not too many of those. They are as easy to find as eagles and tigers, and for much the same reason. There is no habitat for them, no sustenance, no society that recognises them, no ecosystem for them to fit into. The entire point of education, work, law, politics and the propaganda of the world is to destroy — or at best ignore — them. When they do appear, they seem like eagles and tigers — terrifying, out of place or a cause for titillating excitement. Freaks.

Culture may be dependent on nature, which is to say, on an expiring wasteland, it may be forced into unnatural channels, like this machine you are reading these words on, and it may be at its last gasp. But — it only takes two of us to nourish it. Two people can keep the flame lit. I don’t mean passing on book recommendations and sending copper disks into time-capsules, I mean passing on the spirit of mankind, the instinct that seeks above all its own uniqueness, or genius. It only takes two people to love that, to recognise its reflection in great art and wild nature and to be courageous enough to make sacrifices for it — to suffer for it — for culture to live. And those two people are me, and thee.

I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Fisher lately. Largely that’s because I’m slowly going through the massive tome that is K-Punk, but also I’ve read Capitalist Realism and The Eerie and the Weird recently, and the cultural sickness/death that Damien and Darren talk about is definitely something both explicitly and implicitly detailed in Fisher’s writing. Following the history of late 20th Century pop and dance music he can expertly detail the cultural shifts away from the new, the futuristic, the forward-looking, and the political, and (being Mark Fisher) he ties this into the neoliberal “End of History” – this flattening of culture in music, film, etc, as the broader sociopolitical culture insists that we have reached our peak.

And it’s hard to argue. You don’t need to look too far to see the cultural saturation of nostalgia and pastiche. From our politics (though, really, that’s fauxstalgia), to T-shirt designs on Instagram littered with imagery from 80s and 90s cinema, to some of the biggest shows of the moment – The Walking Dead (a “prestige” rehash of all the zombie stories we’ve already seen), and Stranger Things (pure, weaponised 80s nostalgia). Hell, Lovecraft is a perfect example of this. I think there’s plenty of great stuff coming out of Lovecraft-response fiction (Providence, The Ballad of Black Tom, A Song for Quiet, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, etc), and plenty of people are doing interesting things around Lovecraft and philosophy, but this is still a widespread (sub/counter-)cultural obsession with stories that were written 90 years ago.

(Or maybe I’m being too harsh with that last example. I think there is value in revisiting products from the past if you can do it without nostalgia – do it with a critical eye and a sense of creating something worthwhile. I think that’s why the Lovecraft response works – he was “just” a pulp writer at the time, and was thus largely overlooked, so there still remains facets of his work worth interrogating.

So, rehashing and referencing some of the biggest cultural products of a previous era (*ahem* Stranger Things and Spielberg) can feel creatively bankrupt, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go back to the overlooked and under-valued works from that same era. It’s like looking to the past and seeing what could have been – where could our culture be now if something different had risen to the top? What might we be creating and consuming today if things had gone differently?)

I was saying just the other day that I can’t remember the last time I was shocked by a novel that was truly new. I know the truly new is out there, but it’s coming from writers and artists who are marginalised and are having to release their work on their own or through minor markets. So much of what’s released today fits into that comfortable zone  – the same but different. And I don’t know how much of this is purely down to marketing having warped all our minds. It might be reductive, but the best elevator pitch is “It’s like X, but Y!”, and this has trickled down into how we talk about art, and undoubtedly how we think about the art we’re creating. (I’m not immune to this. As original and personal as I like to think my work is, it’s not hard to draw comparisons).

But recently I’ve found a few shards of the new. I’ve come across the writing of Elytron Frass (in Creeper and elsewhere), which is weird and fucked-up, and mind-bending in the best sort of way. And I found the music of MY DISCO, who simply need to be seen live to be comprehended (links here and here). And in the space of gaming there are countless talented developers creating truly bizarre and/or deeply personal works of art – The Cat Lady comes to mind, which I recently started and found stunning in its sense of singular purpose in the way it explores depression, suicide, and responsibility through the lens of a nightmarish afterlife. I plan to return to it soon and write about it in more detail – that’s how impressed I was.

With any of these examples I could be reductive if I wanted to, and draw comparisons to other works or other artists, but for obvious reasons (it’s right there in the word) this simply diminishes the work, flattening them into something palatable instead of letting them stand on their own weird feet. I need to avoid this impulse. If a work of art deserves nothing but comparison, then make comparisons, but if it contains that spark of the new and the weird, let it be.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not even sure of the question. But I agree with Damien that our culture is sick. Our precarious worklives, the way our agency and freedoms are slowly being stripped away from us due to “threats” of “terrorism” and the ubiquity of surveillance apparatus, the flood of social/media outrage keeping us agitated – all of it works to ensure that we are too tired and/or depressed to create or consume anything that is truly new. We need the familiar because it is all we have the energy to digest.

But both Damien and Darren end on a positive note – a call to community. And if you read the nothing here newsletter you know I’m all about community too – it’s happening slowly, but we’re definitely building a network of interesting thinkers and creators through the newsletter and through Oh Nothing Press.

There’s still a chance that we can cure the culture in our own worlds and lives – start interesting conversations, suggest interesting art and philosophy that can help change our thinking, avoid social media and the mainstream and the homogeneous culture it’s trying to shove down our throats. Share the things you love, and challenge yourself to create things that might be different – different to what you might normally do, different to what your peers are doing. Simply make an effort. We can’t all be the eagle-tiger geniuses who can reinvigorate a dying culture, but we can be the sorts of people on the look-out – we can be searching and scouring for something to break through the malaise so that when it comes we can embrace it.

We need to understand our cultural history, yes, but we can’t get lost in it. We can’t lose ourselves in endlessly rehashing old milieus. We need to strive for something more than that.

Ditch Better Have My Diggers

There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.

Philip K. Dick – VALIS

[Full Disclosure: My first idea for a title of this post was “I got 99 Problems, but a Ditch Ain’t One (Because I’ve Already Been Digging It)”. I am a terrible human.]

It’s been a while since I posted any writing advice or resources, so let me rectify that now. Near the end of last year I got onto Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace‘s podcast Ditch Diggers.  Now, whilst I’m sure there are a hundred podcasts out there related to writing, the thing I like about Ditch Diggers is the way they aproach writing as a job – a job that you should be paid for.

Amongst some writers and readers, there seems to be an expectation that you should only ever create something for the love of it. Now, I see where they’re coming from, because a mercenary approach to art is how we end up with awful film novelisations, tired tie-ins, lacklustre (or downright terrible) film remakes. But on the flip-side, one day I would like to write for a living – so, until we get Universal Basic Income, that means considering the financial aspect of writing – and also, if I create something that has value, why shouldn’t I expect to be paid?

Or, in other words, Fuck You, Pay Me.

I opened with that quote (or maybe paraphrase?) from VALIS to illustrate a point about the merit and beauty of art versus the reality of making a living. That is to say: of course I want to write stories and books that resonate with people, that contain a single line that could heal a person, but I’m not there yet, and I might never get there. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t publish. And that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get paid while I continue honing my skills in whatever form or genre I choose to write in.

Anyway, Ditch Diggers. Subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts from, and if you go back through the archives, might I recommend:

  • Episode 36 with Cassandra Khaw
  • Episode 34 with Kameron Hurley
  • Episode 26, which is largely a discussion between Kameron and her agent – Hannah Bowman.

2015 – Year in Review

I figured I might as well have a look at my writing practice for this year. That’s how my brain works – constant analyses, devouring statistics, looking for ways to hone itself to a sharp, fleshy blade.

In 2014 my writing practice was all about quantity. I aimed for a thousand words a day, 5 days a week, and five hundred words a day on the weekend. I only took time off to edit or when my mind-spiders had spun a particularly thick web. Between a couple of novels and a fair number of short stories, I guess I wrote about 150k words, but because my aim was for quantity, I ended up with a lot of aborted projects that had a lot of words and little potential, stories that were way too long for what they were trying to do, a lot of things that needed to be fixed in editing.

In 2015, I don’t know that I ever had a set idea of what I was going to do differently in my writing practice. The one thing I knew I needed to do was start submitting more stories, get myself used to rejection, develop a thick skin and keep on working regardless. And so to submit stories you need to write stories, and this year I’ve finished twenty stories, ranging from a 250 word flash piece to a 30,000 word novella.

This year, I wrote a lot of action-oriented stories, which was sort of an unintended side-effect of me wanting to work more on plotting (and when you think of plotting you tend to think of action, and explosions, and things being propelled forward). I feel like in 2016 I’m going to have to try and set a rule for myself in regards to main characters – no soldiers, no cops, no criminals. Maybe even a ‘no guns’ rule. Because I feel like if I can take what I’ve been slowly learning about plot and combine that with the more contemplative and emotive stuff I’ve written previously, then I might start to get there (where ‘there’ is having stories people want to publish).

Now a stat breakdown (with special thanks to David Steffen at Diabolical Plots [I promise I’ll donate some money after my first story sale]).

Stories completed: 20
Stories abandoned: 4
Stories in development: 9
Longest story written this year: 30,012 words
Story submissions: 94
Publications submitted to: 60
Most submissions to single publication: 8 submissions to Clarkesworld (sorry Neil)
Stories second-rounded: 3
Stories sold: 0 🙁
Rejections received: 78
Dead letters (or similar): 2
Submissions pending: 13
Highest number of rejections for a single story: 10 (two stories both tied at 10 rejections apiece)
Longest wait for a decision: 176 days
Shortest wait: About 4 hours

It’s not easy, the rejections. I’m sure for some writers they are, or they become that way, but you’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to write, and you’ve got to send the stories out, and when an editor takes a moment to point out what did and didn’t work for them, be grateful, because they are probably dealing with slush piles that could crush a small child… but don’t be grateful in their inboxes because busy. Just send them positive vibes or something).

And you know what? It’s alright to be sad sometimes, it’s alright to get down about the latest rejection, but only if you pick yourself up and try again, try again.

Alright, that’s it from me for now. Happy holidays, happy new year, etcetera, etcetera. Be good to one another, and be good to yourself.

Solarpunk

I’m not convinced that Solarpunk will become the next true movement of SF (I feel like it could easily go the way of Steampunk, becoming more of an aesthetic movement rather than a literary one with sociopolitical importance, but I’ll get into the -punks at some other time [and remind me to tell you how I invented cli-fi years ago, but I called it Ecopunk {but never managed to finish my Ecopunk thriller}]), but this is some very interesting food for thought.

On The Political Dimensions of Solarpunk:

Novelist Bruce Sterling […] says that the future is about “old people in big cities afraid of the sky.” This is inexorable. Barring radical cataclysm, the reasonably inevitable trends of urbanization, an aging populace and climate change will set the stage for life in the coming five decades. If you are a human living in the middle of the 21st century, chances are you will be elderly — or surrounded by the elderly. Chances are you will live in a city. Chances are your community, country and supply chains will be plagued by some combination of extreme weather, rising sea levels and droughts.

These are the facts we must build on and around, whether we are making solarpunk fiction, solarpunk fashion, solarpunk infrastructure, or solarpunk political demands. If solarpunk is to back up its optimism with meaningful solutions, or even meaningful notions, we must consciously consider how to respond to each of these trends.

Read the whole thing, but I’ll warn you now, it’s a long one.

And the above points to this: Notes Towards a Manifesto, which is shorter and shallower, but still interesting, and a better bet if you’re short on time and/or processor cycles.

And if you do want to think about Solarpunk fashion, it’s probably worth reading the below excerpt, taken from Deb Chachra’s Metafoundry Newsletter, about textiles and fashion after our current fashion industry has become so much dust inside so many abandoned sweatshops:

At some point in the 90s, I got my hands on modern synthetic technical textiles for the first time, made of polyester fibres that were now fine enough that the fabrics were soft and comfortable to the touch and could wick moisture. The first item was a Christmas gift, a Polartec fleece headband for running outside in the dead of winter in Toronto. When I went for a run wearing it for the first time, a day or two later, I didn’t think much about how my ears and head were warm and dry, until I got home, took it off, and was amazed to see the beaded moisture on the outside surface. The second item was a wicking polyester t-shirt that I bought for triathlons (and only for triathlons–it was expensive enough for me at the time that I saved it for race days). I could pull it on over a wet swimsuit and get on my bike, without worrying that it’d end up soaked and clammy like all the cotton t-shirts I normally wore to train. When I starting spending time there in the late 90s, I joked that the tech boom in rainy Seattle was facilitated (if not driven) by the rise of Gore-Tex. Since then, I’ve been keeping a close eye on advances in textiles as they move out into the mainstream (for me, that means 100% synthetic workout clothes from REI and the Gap–no more cotton t-shirts, ever–plus a few items from Nau and Outlier, and also amazing microfibre dishtowels). So I predictably absolutely adored this piece in Aeon about how textiles are a technology that has been underappreciated throughout history. A day or so later, a friend commented on the post-apocalyptic clothing in Mad Max: Fury Road and elsewhere, and that sent me down a late night rabbithole.

Given a vaguely-specified Hollywood-style apocalypse, where we ignore how going back a hundred years in technology will make the Black Death (and its associated massive cultural change) look like a day in the office when everyone is at home with the flu, what might clothing look like, say, a decade or two afterwards? If everything is pushed back to the level of handbuilt tech, the biggest issue with clothing is that there won’t be much of a supply chain. No supply chain means that, at least in the short term, the local clothing stocks will be a major determinant of what people wear. Where I live (the northeast US), that means cheap and ubiquitous t-shirts patchworked into everything, for a start–making quilts out of a hundred thousand unneeded t-shirts. Notions (zippers, hooks, buttons etc.) will be cannibalized from worn-out clothes–even cheap zippers bring together out-of-reach precision metallurgy and polymers, and reliable YKK zippers will be sought and prized. Speaking of polymers: Patagonia and North Face and Gore-Tex outerwear will be prized heirlooms, the most valuable garments made of durable, functional and irreplaceable technical synthetics (especially needful in New England winters). No supply chains means no polymers, nor much by way of dyes (most of which are derived from petroleum), which means returning to fibres that can be grown (and grown locally, initially). Plants or animal products like wool, as well as leather (probably not black, though) and fur. This was nicely captured in Mad Max: Fury Road: the Vuvalini of Many Mothers, who gardened, wore handwoven-looking scarves and fabrics in colours consistent with vegetable dyes. No sweatshops on the other side of the world means that the urban hipster hobbies of knitting and sewing are suddenly survival skills, assuming that raw materials can be found (and disposable sewing kits from hotels become immensely valuable for the sharp, strong steel needles). The city of Lowell, just north of where I live, was built in the 1820s as a factory town to manufacture textiles. Many of the canals, some of the water wheels, and a roomful of looms have been preserved as a national historic park. While they could be converted back to water, the timescale of that seems long enough that other technologies might be rebuilt.

This is just off the top of my head–I wonder about needles, about spinning strong but fine threads, about how warm clothes allow mobility in the wintertime. But ultimately, it’s hard not to feel like the idea of a catastrophe as a short sharp shock is an artifact left over from the Cold War and the insanity of concepts like ‘full-scale nuclear war’ and ‘mutual assured destruction’ and ‘nuclear winter’. The catastrophes that loom over us now are all happening in slow-motion: anthropocentric climate change, planetary-scale pollution, peak oil, pandemics (or some combination of all of the above, as occurs in William Gibson’s The Peripheral and referred to, with grim humour, as the Jackpot), which will likely allow at least some evolution in what people wear as they play themselves out. One thing is for sure, though–there’ll be mismatched plastic buttons everywhere, since they need millions of years to decompose, and crafters will be finding stashes of those suckers until the sun goes out.

And finally, I feel as though Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield’s Freakangels might have been the original solarpunk text, without realising it and long before the term was coined. Think about it – it’s set in a flooded world, and follows the exploits of a small group of people struggling to build themselves a sustainable community without help (or interference) from any authority but themselves.

Freakangels

You Are Dust

What then do you think about the label “post-apocalyptic,” a label that’s been applied to your novel? How would you feel if someone recommended your book to a friend as a post-apocalyptic novel?

The issue that I have with “post-apocalyptic” is that it connotes a kind of egocentricity. Even though we pretend it’s very disturbing—it’s hard to think about the apocalypse!—we do it so much. Kathryn Schulz wrote a really good piece about earthquakes in the New Yorker recently where she pointed out that many of our blockbuster movies imagine the end of the world. It can’t be that disturbing if Hollywood is doing it. I don’t believe we’re disturbed by apocalyptic thinking; I think we’re comforted by it because it makes us feel important. We think, If I survived to the end of humanity—we call it the end of the world of course, but the world doesn’t really give a shit whether we’re here or not—if I survived to the end of humanity I would be the pinnacle of our species and I would be important and, yeah, it would be tough, and I’d have to drink my pee or whatever, but I would still be special. And in fact, we’re not special. You and I will just die and go to dust and be forgotten just like everybody else and the world will keep turning. The apocalyptic thinking is really just kind of an egomania or a narcissism that makes us feel more comfortable than our true insignificance. That’s what I would just tell that nice person recommending my book, like, You are dust. [laughs]

– Claire Vaye Watkins in an interview here.