‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

The Tintinnabulation at the End of the World: a Christmas Story


: Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.
George: That's right, that's right! Attaboy, Clarence!

Individual nations took various steps to maximise their campanoproductivity through the 1950s, but it was only after the 1961 UN resolution—backed by both the USA and the Soviet Union, and with the tacit approval of China—that global tintinnabulation properly began to ramp-up. By midsummer 1965 the recently-formed Global Bellsound Survey calculated that close to a million distinct and individual bell-ring sounds were being generated every ten seconds by human beings all across the planet. The development of computers led to increasing efficiencies in tintinnabulation. By the end of the century it was possible for a single, modestly-priced computer to sound a hundred distinct bell-sound noises every second (resulting in over a billion such sounds a year). Hundreds of millions of such machines were devoted to this business by 2000 alone. Some pundits predicted the craze would die out, but manifest alterations in the fabric of reality—a huge increase in angelic visitations and apparitions, especially in dreams, but also measurable distortions in the Earth’s magnetic field, gravitational anomalies, mysterious messages appearing in the least likely places and so on—convinced most people that this was labour with which it was worth persevering. Economists argued that the true driver was the percentage of angel-oriented prayers (perhaps as high as 65%) that now resulted in positive returns. Priests, Imams and Rabbis spoke of a newly productive mode of religious engagement. Music fans applauded the supersession of guitars and drums by bells. By 2010 more than 40% of global GDP was devoted to tintinnabulating. Every city resounded, day and night, with a cacophony of bells chiming, deep or shrill, long or brief, day and night. Most people made-do with noise cancellation headphones or (in poorer parts of the world) with wadding stuffed into the earholes, although some elected for radical surgery to sever the aural nerves. As 2015 began, the global production of new angels was assessed at 10^85 annually, more than the number of atoms in the observable universe. By 2017 this number was calculated to be 10^190, a figure significantly greater than the number of Planck volumes composing the volume of the observable universe. No bricks-and-mortar Tower of Babel ever had, or ever could have, approached so nearly the ineffable throne of infinity as this new project by a humanity unified by internet media. Quantum computing raised productivity exponentially. God was being swamped with new angels, overwhelmed by an exponentially increasing spiritual volume. Some theologians argued that the nature of the Divine was such as to be able to accommodate a literally infinite addition of angelic pressure. Others observed that the War in Heaven—so memorably narrated in Paradise Lost—had involved some paltry thousands of rebel angels, and that had shaken the pillars of paradise. Who could say what effect the creation of so many googols of new angelic natures, each one an infinitude-in-one theologically-speaking, would have upon the Godhead? By the end of 2020 the line of the graph approached closer and closer to vertical. This was when, in a one-third-full car-park in Leicester, UK, God made His final manifestation in this reality. He spoke medieval French (a detail that occasioned a good deal of academic hypothesis and disputation in the years that followed) but what he said was clear enough: “That’s it, I’m out, I’m through with this joint. In sufficient numbers, even gnat-bites will chase away the brontosaurus. You’ve had six thousand years of my rule. Get ready for a new manner of management, a Graham’s Number of angels, your new commissariat. Take it from me, there’s very little on which they all agree.” With that, He vanished. And so, as we look forward to the twenty-twenties, some folk are apprehensive, and some excited, and most are perfectly indifferent, caught up, as is the human way, in their own day-to-day concerns.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

La Chose En Soi


My French publishers asked me to record a 5-minute video talking about my novel The Thing Itself, prior to its appearance in translated form. For reasons that now escape me, I elected to do this in a hat. As you can see, my French is not very good. Still, if an Englishman can't speak French clumsily, and with an atrocious accent, then what was the Battle of Waterloo even for?

Saturday, 12 December 2020

The Odourless God


‘Professor Strass, welcome to the vidcast!’

‘It’s my pleasure, Landon.’

‘Let’s talk about your new book, The Odourless God. If I understand it correctly, your argument is that the human belief in God, and the numinous sensations we have with respect to those feelings, are rooted, evolutionarily speaking, in the diminution of our sense of smell? In what you call the odourless sublime?’

‘Exactly so. My starting point is, I feel, a thoroughly uncontentious one. It’s a matter of basic evolutionary fact: we have become, relatively speaking, alienated from our sense of smell. Our long-ago ancestors had much more acute senses of smell than we do, and they navigated their world much more by smell and touch than by vision.’

‘As many animals do today.’

‘My dog for one! Indeed it was my dog that set this whole project in motion. But, yes, that’s my starting point. From there I extrapolate into more shall-we-say hypothetical intellectual territory. Over the timescale of recent evolution sight and smell have swapped places in our human sense-hierarchy. Now we largely navigate the world with our eyes. But we have carried over a sense of smell as intimate, bodily, personal and sight as remote, distant, uncanny.’

‘Tell us about your dog!’

‘Well: I was taking my dog on a walk one autumnal day and he was sniffing every tree stump and every nettle bed, tail wagging, totally immersed in the joyous immediacy of his experience. We passed through a little copse of trees and came out the other side into the broad expanse of the rec. Here there happened to be  a great heap of copper-coloured leaves. The wind ticked the far edge of this carpet, and it stirred, as if alive, and Steps—my dog—changed: his whole manner altered, tail down, ears back, peering into the middle distance. He was spooked by this movement because he could see it but he couldn’t smell it. It freaked him out. I mean, his eyesight has never been very good, even for a dog; but that moment … suddenly I understood. It was my eureka moment.’

‘You saw, then, the thesis of what would become your book?’

‘Yes indeed. You see, Landon: we’re a huggy, close-knit, smell-and-touch collection of species, we simians. That which we can’t touch, that which we can’t smell ... the moon, the lightning flashing across the sky, the horizon .... these spook us in a profound way. Such things register with us as uncanny, immense, far. And we’ve carried that apperception through into modernity. I mean, we keep trying to drag God back from His infinite remoteness and eternal inhumaneness. We keep trying to smell Him. Jesus says next-to-nothing about sexual morality in the Gospels, except some stuff about how we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. But for a hundred generations his followers have talked endlessly, obsessively about sexual morality. Why? Because sex is intimate, touch and taste and smell, and that’s where we’re comfortable. So we keep trying to drag God into our beds with us, even if He is there to judge and tut-tut. But that’s not where the numinous impulse originated. It was something seen, very far away, beyond our reach. Something radically unsmellable. Our ears go back, our tails go down, we get that fizzy sensation in our stomachs. We feel something is there, something beyond us. God. The great unodour.’

‘You say God doesn’t smell, but if I think of God I think of—let’s say: incense? The smoke of sacrifice and so on.’

‘Yes, and fragrant oils and unctions, and all the olfactory paraphernalia of worship. But of course that’s not God. That’s us, offering God what we sense he lacks, odour. That’s us trying to supply the uncanny absence, trying to bridge the unsettling distance, between us and God. In our hind-brains, bedded down by the inertia of evolution’s longue durée, is a belief that the world is what we can touch, and taste, and smell. But there is more to the world than that, we can't deny it. There is the world that we can neither touch, taste or smell yet which we can see—and as our vision became increasingly important to us as a species, with a correlative waning of our olfactory powers—and that unsettles us in a profound way. That sense of something slightly off-kilter, existentially speaking … the sensation we associate with that, which Aldous Huxley call the numinous … that is behind our religious feelings. Actual religions are attempts, some less, some vastly more elaborate, to make sense of that twist in our reality.’

‘And you think this has something to do with our addiction—you do use the word addiction—to social media?’

‘I think this is the core reason, the hidden reason why we have all converted so rapidly and en masse as a species to social media, yes. These new technologies allow us the sorts of instantaneous connections and intersubjectivities that, not so long ago, were only possible in face-to-face encounters with other human beings. But with face-to-face encounters our exchange is underpinned by somatic evidence. If you are close enough to whisper something to somebody, then you can smell them. But social media is a constant stream of intimate, emotionally-charged communications that are, whatever else they are, perfectly odourless.’

‘The emotion they are charged with is often anger, of course.’

‘Indeed. And we tolerate that. We even seek it out, although it makes us unhappy. Think how many people on Twitter refer to it as this hellsite. They’re only partly joking, and yet they still flock to it. Strong emotion is stimulating. But—and this is the crucial thing—human-to-human anger is somatic. Fists fly and you can feel the punches, you can smell the sweat. And when we make up, after a row, we hug and kiss and smell one another. Think of “make-up sex” for example! Those somatic cues are important in the way we, as a social body, modulate our stronger emotions. And those somatic cues are missing, both with respect to the wrath of God, and on social media. These new screen-based interactions expose us to the vast wrath of the collective and yet deny us the somatic cues to make sense of, and remedy, that anger.’

‘Because they are odourless interactions, and so make us think, on a subconscious and atavistic level, that we are mediating our intersubjectivities through God?’

‘Exactly so.’

‘So what of Jesus? Christians believe in his case God became a man. He must have been smellable, no?’

‘I think the whole question of Christ is fascinating, really. One might say, in a common-sense way, that if Christ was a regular first-century-AD man then of course he would have carried with him the odours of a regular man. But is that how Christ figures, in art? In worship? Think of all the representations of Jesus: don’t you think that, in almost all of them, he looks remarkably scrubbed? Clean? Odour-free? Do we contemplate Jesus using the toilet? Do we ever consider—I don’t say this to be blasphemous, but simply as a function of something we all recognise as integral to human embodiment—a farting Jesus? The ancient Greeks believed that the gods' skin smelled faintly of honey, not of usual human reeks and stinks, and surely something like that is true of Jesus in our imagination of him. Don’t you think? Similarly it is important that Jesus never engaged in that intimate, odiferous human business of sexual intercourse. It is a balance, I think. When he is fully man Jesus eats and drinks with other human beings, but when he resurrects, and is, as we could say, transitioning back to being fully God, what does he say to his followers? Noli me tangere. Don’t touch me. That kind of physical intimacy is not the true currency of God.’

‘So if you’re right, what are the implications? Where, for instance, do you think social media are headed?’

‘There has always been a utopian dimension to social media. Look back on the early days of these formats, and how many people were gushing about its world-changing, utopian possibilities. It hasn’t panned-out that way, of course. But neither are these media going away. I predict they will increasingly mediate our human interactions, and that we as a species will be increasingly driven into them. To desomaticize our connections. Driven for reasons we don’t consciously comprehend, because to us these odourless screen-mediated spaces feel godly, somehow. For better and worse. A god of love and an angry, jealous god. But a god.’

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Coming Soon


[Update: December 1st, 2020] These are the, variously Dantean, epigraphs for this novel. Click for a clearer image:
I'm a big fan of epigraphs. And in this case they're particularly crucial to the working of the novel. That said, my twin worries are (a) people won't twig the Tennysonian gesture in the first; and, (b) with respect to the second, necessity (that is, copyright law) made me take out all specific references to Lord of the Rings in my text—Tolkien and Joyce being, obviously, the yin-yang of the 20th-C anglophone novel—thus defanging much of the textual and epigraphic point. Ah well: we work with what we have, not with what we'd like.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

La Troll Doom Sans Mercy


“O what can ail thee, sat-at-home,
    Alone and palely twittering?
The charm has withered from this site,
    And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, sat-at-home,
    So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
    And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
    With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
    Fast withereth too.”

“I joined this website long ago,
    Full beautiful—it made me glad,
When tweets were short, and tone was light,
    And fun was to be had.

It found me links of relish sweet,
    And breaking news, and punning-dew,
And sure in language strange it said—
    ‘What else is new?’

It came part of my daily rote.
    But now it’s changed—Ah! woes umpteen!—
The latest tweet I ever read
    On the cold phone screen.

I saw pale men and women too,
    Keyboard-warriors were they all;
They cried—‘La Troll Site Sans Mercy
    Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved snark on my phone,
    With horrid warning gaped peeve,
And I awoke and found me here,
    And said: ‘it’s time to leave’.

And this is why I sojourn here,
    Alone and barely twittering,
The fun is withered from this app,
    And no birds sing.”


I resisted Twitter for a while, back in the dim-distant, assuming it was, you-know, ‘for kids’, and that it would be unseemly for me, a man in my (as I then was) forties, to loiter there. I succumbed, though, in the first instance at my publisher’s urging. You need to be on social media, Adam, they said. You need to get the word out, they said. So I made an account at @arrroberts and, frankly, got swept up. Man alive but Twitter was addictive back then. It used to be fun (remember that?). I got to meet interesting people, to follow intriguing links, to delight in pithy wit and hear breaking news stories before they were officially announced. And again there was just the structure of it, built to gratify the ADHD-ish loops in my brain architecture (I mean, having lived to the age I now am I’ve developed a raft of little strategies of dealing with this part of my nature, siphoning-off its energies in various ways; but it doesn’t go away). So here I was: my rat-paw pressing the little lever to make a savoury pellet drop from a hatch, over and over. This, of course (of course) is an inherently unhealthy thing to be doing, psychologically speaking. Although I suppose there are worse ways to indulge that craving. Or there were.

Twitter, though, has changed. Nowadays I wake up, get a cup of tea, open Twitter on my phone, scroll through and it just makes me anxious and unhappy. By the time I close the site in order to get on with my day my mood has been dragged down. Why do that to myself? That looks like a rhetorical question, that, but I really mean it. So many of us going on to what we call, only half in jest, this hellsite daily. What do we think we’re doing?

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is that gets me down. It is, I think, in a strange way, actually a function of the positivity of the platform—I mean the way it enables people (and has enabled me) to make new friends, to set up friend-circles, to connect with people all over the world via shared interests. But the truth is that this possibility is increasingly becoming a hermeticism rather than an open-ended hospitality to otherness. We justify our hiding-away to ourselves in terms of how distressing it is to have to engage, or even to be made aware of certain kinds of people and certain species of views. But the gloating use of the block button, the self-congratulatory declaration that we have blocked person X, Y or Z, leads us deeper into the stylites remoteness that finds itself less and less tolerant of hearing contrary views, or even of being reminded that not everybody in the world thinks the way we do. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, if I’m honest, in a larger sense. And I’m aware that what I’m suggesting here—stepping away—is in many ways an abdication of responsibility. But it seems to me less self-deluding, less morally mendacious, than ‘curating’ our social media until they become a sealed chamber of righteous mirrors.

When our daughter was born my wife and I got one of those big How To Parent books (it's a terrifying business, the first few weeks with your first child: a whole, helpless human being is now your life-or-death responsibility!) From amongst the welter of advice that volume contained one thing really stuck with me. It's this: when your kid is older you will, on occasion, have to discipline him/her. They will do something naughty, or worse, and it's important that you draw a line so that they can learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. But when you do that, it's very important you tell the child “you have done a bad thing” and not “you are a bad child”. It might look like a small thing, but it's not. Kids internalise what we tell them and what they internalise can have large impacts on their later development. “You have done a bad thing” gives them the chance to change what they do; “you are a bad child” requires them to change who are they, and that's not a burden we should lay on them. But here’s the thing: that burden has become absolutely the default on Twitter, or so it seems to me. If Celebrity X says something with which you disagree, your first step is: they therefore are a bad person (they are a Nazi, a terf, an abuser etc). This then licenses you to pour your contumely upon them, to treat them as a legitimate target for your wrath and violence and outrage. It's essentialism, in a word. It's everywhere and I find it exhausting and wrong and bad: a world whose fundamental premise is, redemption is impossible, except through total capitulation to my value-system, and for many people not even then. But it's not something I can change, so it may well be that the best thing I can do is step away.

Another way of putting this would be to note that Twitter, and by degrees other forms of social media, have become astonishingly Schmittian spaces—astonishingly not least because Carl Schmitt is about as cancel-worthy an individual as Twitter could possibly conceive. But here we are. These media make the expression of nuance harder; they encourage instant acclamation and instant judgment, and above all they pander to a mind-set in us by which we divide the universe into friends and enemies. Reading William Davies recent essay on Schmitt in the LRB brought this powerfully home to me.
In the late 1920s, the political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, subsequently to join the Nazi Party, developed a theory of democracy that aimed to improve on the liberal version. In place of elections, representatives and parliaments, all talk and gutless indecision, Schmitt appealed to the one kind of expression that people can make for themselves: acclamation. The public should not be expected to deliberate or exercise power in the manner that liberals hoped. But they can nevertheless be consulted, as long as the options are limited to ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. The public can ‘express their consent or disapproval simply by calling out’, Schmitt wrote in Constitutional Theory (1928), ‘calling higher or lower, celebrating a leader or a suggestion, honouring the king or some other person, or denying the acclamation by silence or complaining’. ‘Public opinion,’ he continued, ‘is the modern type of acclamation.’
Social media are predicated, as Davies says, on a basically Schmittian bedrock: that the world is divided for each of us into friends and enemies. ‘The outcome of all this [in our modern, socially-mediated world] is a politics with which Schmitt’s name is commonly associated, one that reduces to a base distinction between “friend and enemy”. The distinction itself is what counts, not whatever fuels or justifies it.’ It's increasing where we are. Now, this seems to me bad and wrong on its own terms; but it also seems to me that it’s a game rigged—as actual literal Nazi Schmitt perhaps intuited—in favour of the Right. The way the Left has reacted to accusations of ‘cancel culture’ is a case in point: it betrays a sense that we're on the run, a fatal muddling of responses, offered with angry vehemence but all saying different things: ‘there’s no such thing!’ is common, as is ‘it’s just another term for karma!’ and also ‘cancel culture doesn’t go far enough: these people just lose lucrative media contracts, not their heads’. The right is clearer-eyed:
The right understands how to play this ‘culture war’: they know to identify the most absurd or unreasonable example of your opponents’ worldview; exploit your own media platform to amplify it; articulate an alternative in terms that appear calm and reasonable; and then invite people to choose. It isn’t all one-way traffic, of course. There is no shortage of progressive and left-wing opinion on social media that aims primarily at harming conservatives by misrepresenting them. One difference is that the left isn’t in control of the majority of the newspapers (though its opponents accuse it of controlling much else, from the BBC to universities).
Schmitt’s friend/enemy formulation, formulated in ‘The Concept of the Political’, argues that the political is different to all other domains It's different to the theological, where value is premised on something extrinsic; and different to the economic, which at least makes a distinction between profitable and not profitable. This is because the political construes identity; and more to the point, because, for Schmitt, our identity is predicated upon the distinction between friend and enemy, a distinction determined ‘existentially’: the enemy is whoever is ‘in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.’ And the crucial thing about the enemy is their radical wrongness. They don’t just say or do wrong things, they are wrong. And once the idea seeps into your consciousness that this other person is not only saying wrong things but is themselves fundamentally wrong, terrible consequences become possible. A terror can insinuate itself into you that their wrongness might be catching—it’s primal, in some cases, and therefore unconsidered.

At any rate, here I am: nearly a dozen years after joining, thinking of conscious uncoupling. I’m very small-beer, I know—I follow about 1500 people, and fewer than 10,000 follow me (a sizeable proportion of that latter number, I presume, bots). Quitting, I won’t be missed: there are plenty of other tweeters whose feed will provide you with bad puns, chatter about SF-y things and occasional links to literary-critical academic-English 19th-C literature-y things, if those are what you’re looking for. I suppose I’ll see how it goes.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Adam Roberts & François Schuiten, "The Compelled" (NeoText 2020)

Out today (available as e-text only, Amazon US, Amazon UK). The story's not bad but François's illustrations are something else again.