The limits of my language are not the limits of my world

Viewed from space, political borders are totally arbitrary. Why draw borders around a nation state, as opposed to a city state? Is someone who moves from Leeds to London to find a job not an economic migrant?

On Earth, of course, there are reasons, explanations. The historical passage from the city state to the nation state, for all its entrenchment in the domineering ideals of conquering elites, also depends on the construction of a common identity, the overcoming of the narcissism of small differences. One can envisage a community independent of an exploitative elite, history notwithstanding.

European history is a bloody mess. Yet European culture is an intricate web of exchange.

Is the identity of the nation not shallow compared to the identity of the continent? Is the insistence on drawing political borders at the national, rather than the supranational level, not a decision based on a contingent sense of identity? And how do we know that this sense isn’t flimsy and artificial, forcing separations where one could find unity in diversity? How do we know when it isn’t basically racism?

Some say that language is fundamental.

Yet there are languages without nation states, nation states without single languages. And languages can be learned.

Learning foreign languages, more than anything else I’ve done, shows the contingency of my mother tongue. When faced with idiomatic difficulties of German or Russian or Italian, I realize how far I am from really existing in any of these languages like I exist in English. I see that they have a world just as rich and strange as English, and that English, to a non-native, appears just so to them.

Yet I still read and understand and translate. And in doing so, I don’t feel separate and isolated within English, as if English should be cut off and given a realm of its own. No. I feel that both English and German are absurd – that the absurdity of being born within a particular language, cast within a particular set of conventions, is the same absurdity as being born. A contingency of existence. And to build anything on such a contingency would be absurd.

When, as an undergraduate, I spent a summer in Montpellier to improve my French, I went to a language school that gave out binders emblazoned with a Camus quotation: “Ma patrie, c’est la langue française.” I doubt the binder did justice to the conundrum of Camus’s Franco-Algerian identity, but what he meant by this was quite profound: that the nation state isn’t defined by language; rather, language precedes it totally, on an existential level. Belonging to a nation state is an absurdity.

In the light of what has just happened, all I can say is this:

My country is the English language. An isolationist UK is not a country to which I can belong.


Posted in Brexit, EU, language, languages, sad | 9 Comments

The Totality of Facts

In 2013 I attended the European Quizzing Championship in Liverpool and wrote a piece about it. The original was so long and misshapen it took me two years to get around to editing it. I finally did, and it’s up at The Point:

It’s the first day of the 2013 European Quizzing Championships in Liverpool and I’m sitting next to Jesse Honey—English national team member, winner of the game show Mastermind and the 2012 World Quizzing Champion. I’m going to mark Honey’s answers and he, ridiculously, will mark mine.

Honey keeps telling people he’ll be giving up quizzing. Family and job won’t allow him the time he wants to spend on it.

No one believes him.

Read more.

Posted in aesthetic experience, Berlin, criticism, cultural memory, David Markson, essay, ethics, Frances Yates, memory, philosophy, quizzing, Uncategorized, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

Trolling the New College of the Humanities

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Ana Lily Amirpour, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (2015): Redacted Facebook rant

It’s all surface. Every shot is pure style, but not in a good way. It’s got the logic of a music video: simply an excuse for letting cool images float around. Yes, you can talk about that kind of language being interesting, going back to Un Chien Andalou, etc., and for sure cinema is about making dream-like spaces you can float in. But it’s impossible to connect to the images Amirpour creates at all – it’s like there’s a barrier of self-conscious coolness around them, a kind of Leidenfrost effect generated by the density of artschool posturing. It’s the kind of coolness you find in advertising. Lots of adverts are way more cinematographically complex than the programmes they’re inserted into – but at the same time, they’re instrumentalizing that imagery purely to make an object desirable, so they’re uniform (like pornography is uniform). Adverts look like filmschool graduates want an excuse to indulge their snazzy editing and trickshot skills. This is 100 minutes of that: a cinematography showreel, not a film.

Now, I love gorgeous cinematography, formalist films, extreme stylization, etc. Conservative narrative cinema often bores me. Film is the only medium that has only ever been essentially modernist. To see people try and reduce it back to a sedate form of realism betrays everything interesting about it. So when it comes to film, I’m heavily invested in technique. But Fellini or Antonioni or someone intoxicates you with their images and at the same time has something going on beneath them. They’re like a good bottle of wine after a hearty dinner. This is a bucket of WKD on an empty stomach. Literally every shot irritated me. There’s not a single one that gets beyond collage. It’s the Tarantino spirit – a kid playing with his toys – yet lacking his dialogue or occasional charm. The general atmosphere is No Wave / Jarmusch, but with the worst kind of hipster pretentiousness instead of the grit.

Fans queue for a private screening in Williamsburg.

The film’s mixture of cultures is actually pure US. Amirpour grew up in California and exploits her cultural background for hipster cred. Just like Wes Anderson sticks ‘Champs-Elysées’ at the end of his tiresome Oriental flick, she’s thrown some Persian elements into the mix because it’s cooler that way. That’s really as far as it goes. As with Anderson, the result isn’t any kind of interesting disorientation, just more insubstantial collage. However, I don’t think Anderson gives the impression he’s doing more than cream-puff cinema. That’s what makes him tolerable to me. Whereas this film isn’t about enchanting and entertaining – the kind of naive magic after which Anderson strives. It’s about coolness, about posture. In short, it’s self-regarding wank. She’s reified her parents’ culture, like she’s reified everything else. Amirpour’s Midas-touch produces a hodgepodge of knickknacks slung into an aquarium.

Ultimately, I think the film shows how you can’t really be an aesthete if you’re just a postmodernist. Flaubert’s “livre sur rien” is beautiful and substantial because he understands how irony and citation and subversion actually interlock with life. Pynchon at his best does the same. Or Agnès Varda. They are never just assembling surfaces. And I think for them, as for all true aesthetes, the uselessness of art is a kind of humanistic life-affirmation. This film just tells you how great it is to be cool, not human.

Watch it if you want a toxicology report on our times, preferably via bittorrent.

Posted in Ana Lily Amirpour, bullshit, criticism, film, pointless rants, postmodernism, reviews, Uncategorized, Wes Anderson | Leave a comment


Pursuit and flight are equal, or at least equal in danger. Pursuit has foundered many, and many more have fled themselves completely. Even a god was lost among us.

Daphne’s heels drummed the forest floor. If it wasn’t Cupid who spurred her on, she at least felt an arrow’s sting and quickened her pace. She skipped the roots where Apollo fell. Some say, of course, he was held back, but that resignation was quite his own when, panting, he drew himself up from dead leaves to watch her, a tiny white fleck, float deeper into the grove. The chase began when she was lost to his sight.

Alone, Apollo’s search inspires everything. Daphne comes to him in every woodland sound, she breathes from every tree. Lost for good, she is now everywhere. And so he will climb, sometimes, to lie in her arms, or preen her tresses, or curl his length about her trunk. He tends the forest as a lover, diligent and maniacal. When the arch of a root discloses her foot Apollo throws himself on it with kisses. His lips taste bitter earth and he lies in ecstasy.

Did Daphne transform? For Apollo, there is no question. Yet still she is itinerant. The boughs of yesterday’s embrace today are cold. That knot, in which he saw her face, is now not even a heart. From birch to beech to laurel, Daphne darts, and the god, as best he can, stays in pursuit. He crouches, circumspect, then resumes his dash. He gropes within the bushes. He smells her perfume in a bunch of berries. Every glance reveals a promise.

Virgin always, Daphne watches him. No man treads this forest. If, by whatever errancy, they did, then never would they find a god. Only Daphne knows Apollo now. His bow forgotten, he slinks among the trunks. A moss has taken root upon his back, his lips are perished by the bark’s abrasions. From her quiet vantage, Daphne blooms. Who knows with what emotion she surveys Apollo’s fate: to crawl, doubtfully, between the laurels, silent as the wood from which he is made?

(Chicago, June 2013)

Posted in flotsam/jetsam, scribblings, writing | Leave a comment

Christmas Fugue

I spent Christmas Eve writing a silly fugue. Season’s greetings to you all!

(Subsequently edited to remove as many errors in the counterpoint as possible. The augmented/inverted canon at the end will never “really” work as it throws up too many second inversions and hidden fifths, etc., so I just left it as it is. Otherwise I think I removed most problems besides a couple of unresolved sevenths and incorrect leading tone movements. 侘寂.)

Posted in composing, counterpoint, flotsam/jetsam, fugue, music, scribblings | 1 Comment

Lichtgrenze (Berlin, November 2014)

The Ballonaktion was at its core a symbol of historical forgetting. The Wall was literally made lighter than air. It wasn’t a barrier to be overcome with sledgehammers and bulldozers, but a pure signifier, lashed to reality by the slenderest of threads. The Lichtgrenze was really a kind of photograph – a light-drawing – of the wall. Like a photograph, it was an image constructed with an apparatus fitting it to a particular narrative. And like a photograph, its fate was to be detached from the world, to be the index of an absence. Yet this detachment did not occur when the balloons were released. It was there from the start. The world either side of the Lichtgrenze assumed an air of photographic reality, no different from the screens of a thousand smartphones. It was built in a world of images whose fate long stands settled.

When the Ballonaktion saw the Lichtgrenze ascend to heaven, it left not rubble. Yet its light and lightness had their own physicality: freedom as inevitable as the natural laws of buoyancy. The release of the balloons celebrated an acceptance of fate, not a struggle to direct it. As lightly as the Lichtgrenze appeared, it was gone: the ultimate vanishing act, memorialized in the JPEGs of the dispersing crowd. Life went on, sure of itself, and festive in its certainty. History went on too. But last night it was swept away like a screensaver.

All that is solid melts into air.

Posted in Berlin, cultural memory, dialectical images, end of history, flotsam/jetsam, Fukuyama, scribblings | Leave a comment