‘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.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Dialectics of Plague


I've been thinking, for obvious reasons, about plague and its representation in literature. One broad-brush sense I have (it could stand, really, being rather more thoroughly unpacked and investigated, I know) is that there's a shift in the way literature figures plague around the end of the eighteenth-century. Boccaccio's Decameron is a plague book, but not only is its emphasis not on the disease itself, the stories it collects as diversions for its quarantined nobles are overwhelmingly light-hearted, satirical contes, comic tales and love-stories, with the occasion nice clean tragedy intermixed. Fast-forward to Byron, Shelley, Polidori and Mary Godwin socially isolated in the Villa Diodati in 1816, and the stories they come up with are all Gothic and Ghostly-ghastly. Conceivably this reflects the fact that the Black Death was so horrible that the last thing people wanted was to be reminded of it, whereas the plagues of modernity, whilst still ghastly (TB, cholera, typhus and typhoid fever between them killed hundreds of millions across 19th-century Europe) are more diluted by a larger population, less concentrated in specific bursts and more a matter of background noise. (Until now, at any rate.)

Whatever the reason there has been, I think, a shift in tone. Holbien's famous Danse Macabre woodcuts from the early 16th-century are grisly, yes, but also witty, even hilarious. Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) is ponderously gloomy, its dramatis personae all poseurs, its plotting an improbable emulsion of aristo soap-opera and war. The story is set in a late-21st-century England more-or-less indistinguishable from England in 1800. Shelley's three main character are cyphers for herself and her friends: Lionel Verney, the Last Man himself, is a gender-swapped Mary; Adrian, Earl of Windsor (son of the last King of England) is Percy Bysshe Shelley; and the charismatic and passionate young nobleman Lord Raymond (who becomes Lord Protector of England as the plague continues to cull the population) is Lord Byron. As the population thins, Verney and friends flee Britain in the hope of escaping contagion. A vain hope: they die on the way or drown in a shipwreck, all except Verney who swims ashore at Ravenna with the knowledge that he is the last human being alive. The novel ends with him walking to Rome, his only company a sheepdog he picks up on the way. There he contemplates spending the rest of his life roaming the now empty world:
A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer, and that I would become. A hope of amelioration always attends on change of place, which would even lighten the burthen of my life ... Tiber, the road which is spread by nature's own hand, threading her continent, was at my feet, and many a boat was tethered to the banks. I would with a few books, provisions, and my dog, embark in one of these and float down the current of the stream into the sea; and then, keeping near land, I would coast the beauteous shores and sunny promontories of the blue Mediterranean ...Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN.
There were loads of ‘Last Man’ poems and stories at the start of the nineteenth-century (Shelley's was far from the first; de Grainville's Dernier Homme (1805) was the first big hit of, and prototype for, this particular vogue). Part of the appeal of this kind of story, evidently, is its peculiar blend of melancholy exhilaration. The deal here is the thrill of a guilt-struck but liberated loneliness: tragic finality combined with all sorts of spacious possibilities, the whole world our oyster, unrestricted by other people. D H Lawrence drifts into this kind of (it seems to me, antihuman and repellent) fantasy in Women in Love, when Birkin asks Gudrun: ‘don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?’ This vision may be beautiful to Birkin, the death of everybody: but it's only beautiful if, in some phantasmic way, we are there to observe it, if our consciousness escapes the collective extinction-event to wander, Verney-like, through the new pristineness.

There's something interestingly dialectical going on with this, I think. When we fantastise about the End of the World—as we very often do, as we have been doing since St John's Revelation—it makes us simultaneously guilty (we're projecting the deaths of billions, after all; we're doing that) and liberated: freed, precisely, from everybody else, from the myriad forces and obstacles that prevent us from being free, the whole civilisation-and-its-discontents kit & kaboodle. For this reason I'd argue the prototype of the Last Man figure is Cain, at once the father of guilt and the first great liberated wanderer of the earth.

Byron was particularly fascinated by the figure of Cain. His closet drama Cain (1821) styles the first murderer as, surprise-surprise, a Byronic hero.



Adam Phillips's ‘Byron on the Run’ essay (in his In Writing: Essays on Literature volume) has interesting things to say about this:
Byronic heroes are always haunted by shameful secrets, but Byron is always as interested in whether (and how) people can hide things as he is in what they are hiding. We can only be governed by people who claim to know us, and so we must be able to hide things from themselves and others, as in what is hidden. We can be governed only by people who claim to know us, Byron seems to assume, and so we must be able to obscure ourselves; to hide things not only from from other people but from ourselves. Indeed, Byron sometimes intimates that the original Cain—who clearly fascinated him for obvious and unobvious reasons, as his mother's only child—may just have had to be excessively ingenious at isolating himself. That stigma can be a perverse form of privacy. That transgression is a quest for solitude. That it gives one a life (and a death) of one’s own. [Phillips, 87]
Mary Shelley's Last Man, striding out into a world picked clean (just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up) is essentially Cain stepping out into an empty world. Both are inheriting arenas of tainted freedom, tainted because absolute, purchased with death. The end of things and the beginning of things become, in this knot of guilt and liberation, the same. And if Phillips is right, then this is, in an important sense, a dream of the perfection of privacy.

As an ace in card games can be high or low, this solitary figure can stand either for the last or the first man. But this isn't some Zen koan, in which the end of things and the beginning of things are the same thing. This is, rather, about apocalypse as privacy. We've been misreading the celebrated Marvellian couplet as lament, when it's actually a kind of celebration:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
The context for Phillips' argument is the idea that, through 1816, under Shelley’s influence Byron tried to ‘transform himself into a nature poet of the Wordsworthian variety’, but that he failed in this project. In retrospect: duh. ‘Soon realising,’ Phillips says, ‘he couldn’t “find solace for his acute unhappiness in landscape”, he began to see what kind of poet he wanted to be by realising what kind of poetry he distrusted. Shelley, it seems, had radically misunderstood the kind of poet Byron was. He was neither transformable nor in any way Wordsworthian.’ Instead of opening himself to the outward, Byron sought to preserve a sanctum of private individuality from the crush of everything else.
‘I only go out,’ he had written in his journal in 1813, ‘to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.’ It was after he left England in 1816 that he began to realise that the very idea of privacy – or a secret inner self, like the idea of a God – was under threat, or even that it might be, to use his preferred word, cant. All life was becoming public life; you needed something to hide in order to have somewhere to hide. What MacCarthy calls Byron’s ‘pathological desire for privacy’ was his growing acknowledgment that there may be no such thing, or at least that it might need to be reinvented. Privacy might mean whatever no one, including yourself, ever knows about you. [Phillips, 89]
This, perhaps, is the dialectical force of the Last Man trope: the phantasmic externalisation of that suspicious, subconsciously entertained, that the only way to ensure that no one ever knows about you is to eliminate everyone. Of course this leaves the dangerous supplement of you yourself, still lingering-on after the collective extinction.

Is this dialectical? I'm reminded of the rhetorical question Jameson, with his characteristically ponderous levity, poses in his Valences of the Dialectic book: ‘is the dialectic wicked, or just incomprehensible?’ I'm not being entirely flippant in suggesting there's something apocalyptic in the antithesis component of that celebrated, opaque conceptual machine: that this negating omega will, by virtue of its negation, magically emerge synthesised as a new alpha. The rabbit tugged, with such a flourish, from the top hat of history. And that's the point, I suppose (it's Hegel-and-Marx-101 of course): the dialectic can only appear in time. All these eschatological fantasies of last men and ends of history begin from the impossible, travel-faster-than-the-speed-of-light premise of time stopping, of time finding a resting point from which bourgeois individualism can (impossibly) take stock without being continually eroded by the ablating flow of history. History, of course, is other people, and the appeal of this apocalyptic dream is not only that its lonely harmony, but that it tacitly validates the notion that such a harmony is worth even the price of everybody else in the universe dying. I'm going to quote some Adorno now, so brace yourself:
Dialectical thinking acquires its character through its movement in and through the extremes: development as discontinuity. But it too arises from the experience of an antagonistic society; it does not originate in some mere conceptual schema. The history of an unreconciled epoch cannot be a history of harmonious development; it is only ideology, denying its antagonistic character, that makes it harmonious. [Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies (trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen; MIT 1993), 82]
An Adorno-apocalypse would be the redeeming negativity that engages the remorseless and destructive positivity of advance industrial capitalist society. Or, to be a little more crass: maybe Lukács's ‘aspiration to totality’, his desire to grasp human experience as a whole, collectively and historically, becomes radically simplified when the whole of human experience is one person, and history has cancelled all its myriad terms out, like a mathematical equation, to leave as remainder only a timeless now. According to Jameson, what is crucial in any programme of Utopian imagination is always its form rather than the content: ‘what is important in a Utopia is not what can be positively imagined and proposed, but rather what is not imaginable and not conceivable’ [Jameson, Valences, 413]. What is more unimaginable than our own death? What else are these end-of-the-world apocalyptic fantastikas but attempts to body-forth this unimaginable by projecting our individual mortality upon the widescreen of the world?

This, I suspect, is what makes Zombie Apocalypses, specifically, so ghastly. The world has ended, but instead of the one-dimensional harmony of last man solitude the landscape is still filled up with people: people from whom has been subtracted all the positive potential of interpersonal interaction, but who retain all the abilities real people have to obstruct, threaten and overwhelm. The worst of both worlds! This may be why I prefer the Mathesonian I Am Legend version of the zombie myth (all three of the movie adaptations of this peerless fable are excellent, each in a different way: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston in The Omega Man (1971) and yes even Will Smith's 2007 I Am Legend) to, say, The Walking Dead, graphic novel or TV serial, and notwithstanding how enormously successful that latter has been. I'm not knocking the show, although it does revert to a kind-of brutalist soap opera, characters pairing off and fighting one another against a dark background of zombies to keep the tension from flagging if the plotlines flag. The show's shambling ‘walkers’ could be swapped-out for any other kind of threat, really. Better to style your zombie story as a Last Man tale. Mind you, I have to concede that the three Mathieson-adaptation movies I mention also dilute the novel's effectiveness by introducing a possible ‘cure’ for zombism and holding out a Zion-style haven of surviving human community. The book is better, because the better version is the more extreme one.

This, also, is dialectical, I think. If what we're articulating, in howsoever veiled a form, with these myths of the end of the world is not only our relation to our individual mortality, but our complicated and troubled orientation towards otherness as such—other people, for instance—then the iteration cannot be one of compromise. The cool thing about zombies is that we cannot make treaties with them. If the whole world dies, mortality and other people have both reached their ne plus ultra. And that's the proper way to figure the problematic. One last quotation from Adorno:
For Hegel mediation is never a compromise beween extremes, as, since Kierkegaard, a deadly misunderstanding has depicted it as being; instead, mediation takes place in and through the extremes, in the extremes themselves. This is the radical aspect of Hegel, which is incompatible with any advocacy of moderation. Hegel shows that the fundamental ontological contents that traditional philosophy hoped to distill are not ideas discretely set off from one another; rather, each of them requires its opposite, and the relationship of all of them to one another is one of process. [Adorno, 9-10]
There's a similar dialectical tension in the way Coronavirus has presented Shelley's Last Man fantasy of perfect mobility with a reality of lockdown and house-arrest. And here we are.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Viral Phenomenologies: Update



There's a lot of vagueness about the Virus, of course, and a great deal we don't know. My university closed its doors to face-to-face teaching halfway through the 17th March. I was in work that day: gave an hour-long 10-o'clock lecture to a room containing about a third of its usual audience and then scurried back to run an office hour. I received the official shut-down email before my 12 noon seminar (I went down to let the students know, but only one solitary individual had actually turned up; the rest had received the same email as me and wisely absented themselves). The thing is, assuming Coronavirus arrived in the UK mid-Jan, which I understand is the most likely date, and factoring-in that my university has a large cohort of international students, it is as close to certain as makes no odds that I have been exposed to Covid-19. Of course I don't physically touch my students (yeah yeah, laugh it up fuzzball), but I do touch many doorhandles and other surfaces they have touched, and I only started obsessively washing my hands, and taking the necessary pains to keep my wandering fingers from exploring my face, at some point in March. So long story short: yikes.

I worry in the ways that we all worry, but with the added considerations that I'm a fiftysomething geezer in poor respiratory health (I don't smoke, but I've had lifelong and occasionally acute asthma), so it seems to me I really don't want to be getting this bug. I mean, obviously I don't want anyone in my family getting this bug, but my wife is a fair bit younger and in much better health than I am, and our kids are, well, kids and it seems they are less at risk for that reason. My asthma is pretty well controlled by modern drugs, but my lungs are not strong. So far, and touch wood, I don't seem to have picked it up. This coming Tuesday will be 14 days since my last trip into work, and whilst that's not an absolute cut-off (14 days incubation is, so far as I can see, a guess by the medical authorities, although an informed and conservative one; plus, in the last week and a half I have been out twice for groceries) I'll start to breath a little easier [hah!] if we reach that deadline without me succumbing.

But wait: what if I've had the virus already and happened to be one of the nonsymptomatic ones? Or what if the virus is waiting, like a sniper, until the lockdown eases and then it bags me? Impossible to know, either way of course. That's part of the insidiousness of pandemics: the way their reality trades in probabilities, not certainties, and for whatever evolutionary or other reason, we are not well fitted-up to calculate and process a world of probabilities. We prefer the lineaments of a world where striking this white billiard ball to hit that red billiard ball will cause that red billiard ball to shoot off in that direction. This isn't how viruses present, phenomenologically.

Still, roll-on Tuesday. I don't mean to sound like I'm bragging, but the home lockdown doesn't bother me. Or hasn't yet. It's early days I know, and saying so is probably a hostage to fortune, but: relieved from the obligation to go out, staying inside a house in which there are tens of thousands of books to read ... this is very far from being Alcatraz, for me. It's going harder on my more extravert and gregarious wife, who I fear is starting to feel the walls closing in, somewhat. And our two kids (one eighteen, the other twelve) are bouncing around more than a little. What can I say? We have their best interests at heart. In the words of Fauxlip Larkin:
They lock you down, your mum and dad.
They really mean to, and they do.
They stop you seeing all your mates
And stop those mates from seeing you.

But they are locked down in their turn
By governmental dictats from
A P.M. with a soppy gurn
And experts looking dour and glum.

We're in this for the long haul, guys,
All isolating, each to each.
Stay inside, healthy, cool and wise,
And don’t go popping down the beach.
I'm well aware we're better off than many. We're in a house and the house has a garden; I'm still on salary; there are, as I say, tens of thousands of books here. We're all in the same boat, nationally (globally, indeed) and there's nothing special about me. Unless I get the bug and it kills me, in which case I will have the unappealing distinction that our collective mortality shines, darkly and always individually, upon us all sooner or later. But here's hoping: the second one.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

How Many Did Justinian Kill?


A trillion. You read that right.

Hard to keep your hands clean when running a large empire over many decades, of course. But did Justinian the Great, Byzantine emperor, really kill so many? Here's the relevant bit from chapter 18 of the Anekdota, or ‘Secret History’, of Procopius:
And that he was no human being, but, as has been suggested, some manner of demon in human form, one might infer by making an estimate of the magnitude of the ills which he inflicted upon mankind. For it is in the degree by which a man's deeds are surpassingly great that the power of the doer becomes evident. Now to state exactly the number of those who were destroyed by him would never be possible, I think, for anyone soever, or for God. For one might more quickly, I think, count all grains of sand than the vast number whom this Emperor destroyed. But making an approximate estimate of the extent of territory which has become to be destitute of inhabitants, I should say that a trillion people perished.
That's the 1935 Loeb translation. The translator/editor, H. B. Dewing, notes that the Greek translated as a trillion is literally ‘a myriad myriad of myriads’, adding ‘the “cube of ten thousand” is not the language of exact computation, and Procopius is trying to make out a strong case against Justinian.’ No shit. A trillion is the number a kid reaches for when he wants to emphasise the magnitude of a given thing.

But let's imagine it was true. How might we frame it, as history or (better) as fiction? A planet vastly more populous than it is, even in the overcrowded twenty-first century; a world in which humans live cheek by jowl, perhaps because, as with the Biblical patriarchs, people live hideously elongated lives. And here comes Justinian, to cull the overcrowding, to reduce human lifespans to their present levels and sweep away billions upon billions into the afterlife. No wonder the Eastern Orthodox Church made him a saint.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

O lux mentis! o lucens veritas!

Saint Augustine (glossing John 1:5), cropping up unexpectedly in Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’:
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.
Although actually, if I come to think of it: maybe not so unexpectedly after all.


Augustine's third exposition of Psalm 103, there.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

On "Silent Spring"s Silences


Carson's titular silence is that of the birds, of course, their song stifled by pesticides: either they have been killed directly by the poisons we are pumping into the environment, or they have been starved by the fact that our poisons have killed off all the insects, their food, indiscriminately. Carson's 1962 book, very influential on subsequent culture and society, remains a powerful read today. It didn't create ‘eco-criticism’ or ‘Environmentalism’ from whole cloth, but its enormous success certainly added momentum to what, in the 60s, they called ‘ecology’. Carson's skill as a writer leavens what might, in other hands, have been a merely drily factual, or (worse) a hectoring or preachy, work; to read Silent Spring is potently to feel how polluting industrial pesticides can be. Nor do I wish to position myself as someone, as it might be, in opposition to environmentalism. That is, honestly, the last place I wish to go, down amongst the scums and bums of climate-change denial and anti-environmentalism. DDT was backed by wads of big-business money, no question; and its indiscriminate use had, as Carson demonstrates, a range of deleterious consequences. Her work was one factor that led to the creation of the American EPA, and the worldwide banning of DDT. Carson argues for alternate modes of pest control in our farming, and talks about the possibilities of biological controls, but actually what has happened is that other pesticides have been developed. Most farmers use them unless they are producing that luxury good, ‘organic food’, for which some affluent consumers are prepared to pay a premium. Not everyone sees the banning of DDT as an unallowed good, mind:



That uptick, on the right side of that graph? That's mosquitos bouncing back, after many years of being rather well controlled by DDT. Nowadays 300 million people get malaria annually and about a million die, the vast majority of these (80% and up) being children under the age of 5. Their voices, we might say, are doubly silenced, by being the children of the globally poorest, and by being dead. Eight hundred thousand dead children. It's the sort of statistic that numbs the brain. It shouldn't though; it ought to set the brain on fire.

Here is Carson's rather finely-written opening chapter:
1. A Fable for Tomorrow

THERE WAS ONCE a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler's eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns. Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example— where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs— the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit. The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

. . . This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet everyone of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know. What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain.
What this is, as a piece of prose, and in a word, is: pastoral. It takes its place in the long traditional of framing the countryside as an idealised, small-scale, inviting (‘a checkerboard of fields’; white clouds like ‘bloom’ in the blue sky; ‘shady pools where trout lay’) and above all authentic location. It was in the 1950s-60s that the global population shifted from more people living in ‘the countryside’ than in cities to the other way about, but you wouldn't get any sense of that from Carson. We get no sense that foxes are predominantly suburban animals nowadays, or that nature flourishes in metropolises in a thousand ways. I suppose it's that the city is not clean, in the sense that Carson values cleanness. I mean, urban living is clean, according to some important salients of that complicated term (it's a much more efficient mode of human habitus, for instance) but it's not uncluttered, spacious, unhurried, untechnological. It's not, in Carson's tacit reckoning, aboriginal: ‘so it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.’ Ah, the autochthonic farmers of America! It's not as if there were any other folk living in this spotless land before these settler housebuilders and barn-raisers arrived, after all. It's not as though a whole congeries of people, living not according to pastoral-agrarian but rather hunter-gatherer logics, were almost entirely obliterated by the gun and the smallpox germ: a deeply unclean business, here wholly occluded. So we might say: one of the silences in Silent Spring is the voice of the Native American, a figure nowhere mentioned in the volume.

Pastoral, as a mode, has a long a complicated history, from the more stylised and conventional idylls of classical antiquity, and their Renaissance and 18th-century imitation in poetry and painting (and, in the case of potemkin villages or Marie-Antoinette-esque cosplay, in real-life), through the reappraisal of pastoral as a more strenuous but spiritually beautiful mode of life in Wordsworth and his 19th-century imitators. By the 1960s countercultural ideas and hippy naturalism intertwined with art, both pop and narrative, that celebrated a small-scale agrarian life in specific opposition to the horrors of the machine and technology. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (published earlier, but a book that broke through into the mainstream in the 1960s with cheap paperback publication), pastoral in the same anti-machine, small-c-conservative manner, is similarly a hymn to spacious rural environments uncontaminated by, well, by inhabitants. Think how low-density the populations of Middle Earth are! Much quieter than the real world. There is a clamour in reality, but it is at least a human clamour; the noise of traffic is humans getting about, the city din is people being people, and although none of that has any place in Carson's vision of a deer silently padding across a mist-wreathed field, it seems to me a marvellous thing in its own right. I suppose I'm suggesting that Carson's silence possesses a complex valence, a thing to be deplored where the birds are concerned but, dialectally, celebrated on a human scale. I suppose I'm suggesting I don't agree.

Another anti-machine writer who saw a second-wind, a new vogue, in the 1960s and 1970s was D H Lawrence, and he too fundamentally disliked the mess that he took people to be. He liked individuals; he just disliked people in the mass, and his environmentalist vision was even more Year Zero than Carson's: “Don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?” Me? No. As it happens, no I don't: I find it a totalitarian and indeed sociopathic thought. But perhaps that is just me.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Rudyard Kipling, "If And Only If"


Iff you can keep two premises in view
In every proposition, and not bodge it,
Iff you can carefully derive the true
Via both sides of biconditional logic;
Iff you can frame precisely all you state,
Distinguish logic from the vulgar fable,
Step cleanly through the XNOR gate
Lay placemats on your P ↔ Q truth-table;

Iff it's both necessary and sufficient
That you out-logic all your math-opponents;
Iff their old inference proves inefficient
Beside your à-la-mode, dense modus podens;
Iff you unpack the statement “P iff Q”
As “if P, then it's Q” and “if Q, P”,
or as “if not-P, then not-Q” linked to
The “if P, then Q” prior necessity;

Iff you draw Euler digrams to show
How logical relationships obtain,
Not caring that you bore both friend and foe
With such mathematical legerdemain;
Iff you define the unforgiving minute
As sixty seconds squeezed of all their fun,
Yours is the Math and everything that’s in it!
And—one thing more—you’re on your own, my son.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Thoughts: Time Travel and Cinema



1: Embodiment

Movies embody ‘time’ materially and formally. They show the unfolding of events in motion across time, such that it's really not possible to talk about their movement without acknowledging the extent to which time is the key axis of their manifold visualities. We might be tempted to invoke the contrast between ‘static pictures’, like Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, and moving pictures like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I suppose this seems straightforward enough. But of course as soon as we do that, we find ourselves tempted to blur this distinction by pointing to images that imply or suggest movement, like Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed (1844):



... or the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge from the later century—



... or perhaps Monet’s haystacks, painted at different times of day and (when exhibited together) marking a procession of light effects through dawn or dusk.



This makes a kind of sense, since motion pictures themselves are nothing more than a string of Muybridge static images—which is to say, they only imply or suggest movement, rather than actually embodying it. Our own eyes’ persistence of vision does the actual work. This in turn suggests that the temporality of movies is based on a kind of misalignment with respect to the time in which we actually live. As to whether this latter is a succession of distinct temporal quanta, linked together by a sort of existential persistence of perception, or a seamless plenum, is a difficult metaphysical question beyond the scope of these ponderings. But I’m wondering about a different perspective on this matter. [I don't want to bog down with lots of specific Deleuzian minutiae, but this is by way of me trying to think outside the conceptual frame of Deleuze's Cinema books.]

Take paintings, for starters. It seems to me that they actually do register the passage of time in their material form, just as a spool of film or sequence of digital data does. It’s just that they do so on a much, much longer timescale—a suprahuman scale, in fact. This kind of thing:



These cracks are one iteration the semiotic of time, signifiers of time's passage. We read them that way. Such pictures move, over the longue durée, not in terms of limbs flailing and smiles widening, but in terms of the picture itself shifting, darkening, cracking and complexifying its texture.

The parallel with cinema is less vulgarly textual (although faded colour prints, crackles and blotches and so on do of course record this mode of temporal passage) than it is formal in other ways. The most obvious case here is 'black and white'. When Spielberg shoots Schindler's List in B&W he's doing so in order to code ‘historicity’ into every shot of the movie. We could say: this is a pretty facile strategy (and Spielberg is of course far from the only director to do this kind of thing): films actually made in the 1940s were (mostly) shot in black and white; by shooting this 1990s film in black and white the process apes the decades in which it is set. The problem here, I suppose, is that Spielberg doesn't wholly inhabit this logic: shoot in small format rather than widescreen, shoot with grainier film, copy the stagier framing and editing strategies of 1940s cinema. But that's deliberate: the black-and-whiteness of the film is a kind of temporalising code. That this is true is made manifest by the ‘girl in the red coat’ sequence, where the colour cuts across our suspension of temporal disbelief. The otherwise unnamed girl is us, is modernity itself; the heritage that Nazism tried to eradicate; a fact echoed in the movie's (in colour) coda, when actual Schindlerjuden survivors place rocks on Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. Colour here equates with: our present, the film's futurity. Time travel happens on the level of form.

This connects with ideas of pastiche, of course. It's possible to ‘frame’ Georges Méliès (as Scorsese does in his rather dull Hugo, 2011) in a modern day movie that restages the past. But it is also possible to inhabit the idiom of Méliès, as this notable Smashing Pumpkins video does:


Colour here is the least of it: directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris use a colour palate that recalls the colourized early movie prints; but they do more with the jerky frame-rate and mannered acting and staging than with mere ‘black and white’-ness ever could. I like especially that the song's title and repeating lyric stresses a romantic intensity of ‘nowness’.

The point, I suppose, is that time is a formal code as much as it is an (as it might be) medium, Kantian mode of apperception, element in the equations of physicists and so on. Motion pictures present as still pictures put into motion, but time travel in movies means the devolution of motion as such back into the still picture. Let me try and explain what I mean.


2: Permamence and Impermanence



I appreciate this looks like a rather peculiar question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: would you say that ‘time travel’ has to do with permanence, or impermanence? We might say: the former, either because the very fact of being able to travel in time (‘fact’ in the thought-experiment we are conducting) speaks to some mode of subsisting architecture of temporality, permanent in the way that the house through which we walk is permanent. The permanence of the house is what enables the transience of the walk. Or else, perhaps, we might say: time travel shores up all the stuff that might otherwise be impermanent: if an object, an action, a person is doomed to transience, the existence of time travel would enable us to avert death, resurrect the fallen and so on.

But I wonder. ‘Time’, the necessary medium of any time travel, is the idiom of impermanence; and movies, which stage their narratives in motion across time, embody this impermanent logic. The static figures on the side of Keats's 'Grecian Urn' are in a different state (indeed, the whole point of the poem is to contrast this perfect but unconsummatable stasis with the fleeting joys of sorrowful life). It's this cusp, I think, that is the really important one: I mean the cusp between images in motion and images in stasis. The first give us the kinetic dynamism of the movies, a dynamism unrestrained by the actual arrow of time, and which can run its footage backwards or forwards, can slow down or speed up the passage of time and so on. The second, though, have an aura that film lacks, precisely because they stand outside of the entropic logic of movies. [I could say something more about that, if only to try and defend the use of so modish and oft-misused a word as ‘entropy’; but I don't really have time, here and now. In a nutshell, then: a film can be watched, and then can of course be re-watched, but the re-watch is lossy in ways that tend to overwhelm what is gained. Gains can be detail and the comfort of familiarity; but loss necessarily includes the initial immediacy and punch, the potency of visual surprise, the stuff that actually goes to the heart of the matter.]

I need to be careful that this post doesn't congeal into a series of notations towards a conceptual shorthand that will make sense only to me. So let me put it this way: the ‘time travel film’ (a large and varied body of texts) very often uses the still photograph as crucial visual rebus. In Back to the Future, for instance, a still photograph represents the authentic 'baseline' reality that jonbar-point-style mucking about threatens, with individuals literally fading out of the photographic artifact before our very eyes.



In the Terminator movie, it is a photograph of Sarah Connor that future-warrior Kyle has somehow obtained, that motivates his actions and so the narrative loop of the whole film—he falls in love with the image in the still, goes back in time to find her and impregnates her with the future world saviour.



The image at the top of this post suggests where I'm going with this: Marker's La Jetée (composed almost entirely, of course, out of a string of ‘still photograph’ images) seems to me one of the most significant of all time travel movies, and not just because it has been so often imitated and remade: to the most obvious case of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995) we can add music videos by Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Isis and Panda Bear; short films like La puppé (2003) or Lucy Benson's 2011 ‘homage to La Jetée’; and more broadly to works like The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and if we stretch it a little to the whole genre of time loop and time paradox movies up to Looper, including let us not forget Back to the Future and Terminator.







This ‘time loop‘’ structure takes its cue from written science fiction, of course. By the 1950s and 60s hundreds of ‘time travel’ stories had been written, effectively codifying the parameters of the conceit. These cluster around two main varieties of temporal paradox that time travel, were it actually possible, might generate—what we might call the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ (or productive and destructive) archetype.
1: the ‘time loop’ paradox, whereby it might be possible for me to go back and become my own ancestor, or even my own parent.

2: the so-called ‘grandparent paradox’ (if I went back in time and killed my grandparents, my parents would never be born, so I would never be born; but then I wouldn’t exist to be able to go back in time and kill my grandparents, in which case they would exist and I would have been born able to go back in time and kill …’ And so on.
The key texts as far as this first paradox is concerned are two Robert Heinlein short stories; ‘By His Bootstraps’ (1941) and ‘—All You Zombies—’ (1958). In the latter the contortions of a temporally dislocated plot result in the main character impregnating a sex-change earlier version of himself who thus gives birth to himself. This is, we could say, a kind of limit case of ‘control’: the ultimate male fantasy of perfect self-reliance and self-containment, bare existence itself created out of the self unsullied by interaction with others. That there is something claustrophobic and even psychopathological about this fantasy hasn’t stopped it becoming a staple of the genre. Cinema has been particularly taken with the structural neatness of this loopy trope: Groundhog Day (1993), Donnie Darko (2001), Déjà Vu (2006), Source Code (2011) Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and the aptly named Looper (2012) all rehearse this structure.

A paradox naturally invites attempts at solution, and this one has most commonly been ‘solved’ in fiction with the possibility that travelling back in time results in an alternate reality or ‘time line’ branching off from the moment of one’s arrival. An influential and much-parodied version of this is Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), where a time travelling big game hunter travelling back to on a licensed Tyrannosaurus Rex hunt accidentally steps on a butterfly, such that when he returns to his own time finds everything different. This is a premise that has informed thousands of SF stories and films, in various ways; but we can say, a little more precisely, that the trope almost always posits the 'alternate timeline' only in order to fit-in bridges, doorways, paths, connections—in a word, loops—between the 'baseline' reality and our own. The point is rarely simply to present a version of history in which things are variously different; the point is much more often to reflect upon our own course of history by gifting a hero the chance to 'change' the future in a practical sense.

You may feel I am overplaying the significance of La Jetée a little. It could be. I’d say there are good grounds for identifying two main vogues for ‘time travel cinema’ (despite the more or less continuous presence of time travel films and TV serials throughout the postwar period): one in the 1960s and the other in the 1980s. Let’s take the 60s first, and argue that La Jetée, which construes time travel as into the past (with one brief excursion into the future), embodies the loopy ‘negative’ pole; the other, much more commercially successful movie is George Pal’s adaptation of Wells’s cornerstone time-travel story, The Time Machine (1960), mostly concerned with the 'positive' journey into the future. Interestingly, though forward-looking in the content of its narrative, this film took as much pleasure in the fixtures and fittings of its (by the 60s) quaintly retro Edwardian clothes and props as in its sciencefictional future. BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits.

The 1980s resurgence in time-travel cinema was occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in nostalgia but high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers. Both, in other words, look back to the Wellsian logic of the Edwardian machine, although with different emphases.

The aspect that needs explanation, I think, is the reason the ‘loop’ and ‘paradox’ conceits of time travel as a genre are realised in these movies in ways that give a visual pride of place to still photography. To dwell on La Jetée (1963) is set after a devastating third world war. A prisoner (Davos Hanich) is sent decades back in time to pre-war Paris, where he uncovers the truth behind a memory he has been obsessively rehearsing from his own childhood—standing with a woman (Hélène Chatelain) on the observation pier or ‘jetty’ of Orly Airport and seeing a man die. The film is composed almost wholly out of black and white still-images, a mode that resists the ‘temporal’ fluidity of conventional cinema, and also invokes the memorious habit of consulting still photos of one’s own past—because this is a film about childhood memory and trauma working itself out, on a global scale, in adulthood. The key to the memory (the dying man the child saw is that same child as a time-travelling adult) is a surprisingly resonant semiotic knot. It speaks to the way our anticipation of our death folds back into our past; time travel figures as a kind of feedback loop.

Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) plays the future-built humanoid robot of the movie’s title, sent back in time by a malign, intelligent computer system to kill a woman called Sarah Connor who, in 1980s LA, will give birth to the child John Connor who will grow up to defeat the computer system in its global war against humankind. Future humanity sends one of their own to protect Sarah Connor, and the movie strings together a series of exciting set-pieces in which this future-human fights the Schwarzenegger future-robot. The twist is that the future-human and Sarah Connor fall in love; he is John Connor’s by-his-bootstraps father, and by attempting to snuff-out the threat of Sarah Connor the wicked ‘Skynet’ computer system is actually guaranteeing the birth of the very man it was trying to prevent. His love was kindled by a photograph of the young Sarah that he carried with him through the future wastelands, and which he brings back. As with La Jetée the narrative loop has a pleasing symmetry to it, and it flatters our (human) sensibilities to think that ‘Chronology’, howsoever it is messed-about-with, will eventually shake down into a timeline in which human beings win. The first film is about implacability. Future-soldier Kyle Reese describes the Terminator to its target, Sarah Connor: ‘it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’ This draws its imaginative heft from the cultural traditions of momenti mori—the ‘true form’ of the Terminator, stripped of its ersatz human fleshly covering, is that of a chromium skeleton complete with grinning death’s head. The implacability of death used to figure in human culture as a feature of the natural world, through plague, famine and old age. Now it is embodied by a man-made device, as if we actually are terrified of the future because of what we will make of it. But as cinema the Terminator (and to an even greater degree in Terminator 2) construes motion—the characters must constantly move on, the film is one long chase sequence in which the implacable agent of time travel continually and relentlessly pursues the human characters. It has something of the same forceful kinetic momentum that made Speed such a hit. This, we might think, is at the very other end of the conceptual spectrum from the still photograph.

The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.

Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.

There is in other words a kind of existential conservatism to the cinematic time-travel story, something that links back to its own form. Several critics have explored the analogues between the formal qualities of cinematic representation and time travel. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered.

We can see this if we step back to the early history of the mode, and watch a film like René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1925), a 35-minute silent picture released in anglophone countries under the title The Crazy Ray. A man wakes one morning, at the top of the Eiffel tower, to discover that most (though not all) of the population of Paris have been frozen in place. Though not specifically a time travel narrative, its ludic exploitation of the possibilities of the camera’s eye: the same machine that creates the illusion of movement can stop it, slow it down, speed it up and reverse it. The relationship between the La Jetée-esque still photograph and the kinetic always-in-motion of the Terminator films is embodied in the interaction of moving and frozen Parisians in this delightful film. It is, of course, a movie about movies, as all the best time travel films are. We start the history of time-travel in the 1890s with H G Wells; but it is no co-incidence that this is also the decade when motion pictures themselves begin as a serious form of art. There are metaphorical, as well as actual, points of comparison between photons and tachyons.

Which brings me back to the initial question. The 'loop' that I posited might guarantee permanence turns out to be a short-circuit pathway leading only to death. This seems to be because the loop is a backward-looking topography, linking the 'present' (whenever that is, for the movie) with the past. The loop is always a tangle, and the nature of the motion of these moving pictures always draws that tangle into a tight knot. Time travel into the future is different, but rather less popular. I suppose this is because 'time travel to the future' tropes prophecy (itself notoriously unreliable), prediction, planning and so on; variously arid and intellectual exercises, in most cases. But 'time travel into the past' tropes memory, and memory, in its tyranny as well as its pliability and intermittency, always haunts the now. Is constitutive of the now. All stories are the story of the man, or woman, marked by the frozen moment of his/her childhood; and the secret truth of time travel is the this mark, this static visualisation of the deep past, is actually our own death.



The momento mori is as much a memorious as morbid, after all.



Now I'm willing to concede that this style of lucubration tempts the writer into the cod-profundity of flat paradox. We can't actually remember our own death, and the images that haunt us from our youth are not of our own dying. But they are, by their very nature, of our own passing, and passage is the grammar of the motion picture. ‘Passage’ in this sense of moving on, moving through, of time passing and actors passing and the film passing through the gate (or the digitally coiled line of data passes beneath its reader) is what film is, in one sense. We love film because it passes, and we recognise as Keats did before us the pathological element in our urge to hold on to moment as stasis. Man is in love and loves what vanishes, as Yeats once said; and his own gloss on this assertion (What more is there to say?) implies that understanding this horizons other understandings. Back in the fourteenth century Yoshida Kenko expressed this sense that without the pathos of passage the world would be powerful to move us. In his Essays in Idleness he wrote: ‘if man were to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.’ Kenko saw loopishness (he would never have deployed so ungainly a word of course) as the veritable reality: ‘truth is the beginning of anything and its end are alike touching.’ But what the loop guarantees is not permanence, but rather a kind of saving transience.

I suppose that's what the still photograph ‘means’. It reifies memory, and therefore visualises precisely the impermanence of things, the impossibility of fully recapturing the past and therefore of time travel. The photo in Back to the Future fades; the photograph in Terminator burns; the photographs in La Jetée draw the protagonist only back to his death.


3: Memories



Thinking about the relationship between still photographs and motion pictures, with particular reference to time travel cinema, I had turned Vivian Sobchack's argument in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992) concerning the peculiar existential potency of the still image. This is where I had got to before consulting Sobchack:

1. Cinema is itself not only a time-defined but a time-travel-ish idiom. As its inherent obviousness implies, this is an observation very far from being original to me. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered. Film can realise a counter-clock world. Film also has at least two methods of slowing time down: one by filming at a much higher rate, such that the footage projected back at the normal rate creates a sense of fluid and graceful slowness which in turn can bring to light things (the bumblebee's wing action, the bullet emerging from the muzzle amongst pleats and folds of smoke like a white paper rose) hidden from the normally observant eye. But another way of slowing film is simply to slow it down, a jerkier process which eventually reveals the constituent images out of which the original footage is composed. The end-point for this strategy might indeed be a movie like La Jetée; which we can read, if we choose, not as a string of still photographs so much as a monstrously slowed-down, temporally retarded motion picture.

2. Accordingly, it should not surprise us that there have been so many and such popular examples of time travel cinema. A thumbnail history of this form brings out two main phases. Despite the popularity of H G Wells' 1895 novella, it is not until 1960 that a film text is made that resonates in a broader sense. This is George Pal's technicolour film of The Time Machine, There are, of course, earlier examples of time travel cinema: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was filmed twice (dir Emmett J Flynn, 1921 and Tay Garnett 1949); and there are such movies as Time Flies (Walter Forde, 1944) in which an actor uses a professor's time machine to travel back to Elizabethan England, and Fiddlers Three (Harry Watt, 1944) in which two sailors and a WREN visit Stonehenge and find themselves back in Ancient Rome. But these are all very minor film texts; I'd be amazed if you've heard of, et alone seen, them. Pal's Time Machine was a different matter: not only was it a hit in its own time, and an enduring film with a broad cultural penetration, it also inaugurated a particular mode of 1960s time travel story. . BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits. The US production The Time Travelers (dir Ib Melchior, 1964) though little known inspired the short-running but much syndicated US TV Show The Time Tunnel (1966-67). More enduring were the various Planet of the Apes movies from 1968 to 1971. What these texts share is a strange construal of the future (often the far future) in the habiliments of the past.

The mode went rather out of fashion in the 1970s, but came back in a big way in the 1980s, occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in future-set nostalgia but instead high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers.

The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.

Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.

3. Since the 80s there have been a number of often interesting time travel movies, but I don't think there has been a text or franchise with quiet the cultural impact of resonance of these. A few—let's say Groundhog Day (1993); Bill and Ted (1989); Donnie Darko (2001); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)—made a splash. Others have cult followings: the goofily ribald Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) or the clever but ultimately over-intricate thriller Looper (2012). But none of these titles have the cultural importance of those 1980s blockbusters. It would be only mildly distorting to see these twin peaks in the conceptual landscape of the Time Travel movie as expressing broader cultural concerns in concentrated form. Of many things that occur to me, a couple: these are films that construe the future in terms of the past, either by travelling to a future that is in some sense a version of the past (back to an ancient Greek idyll with the Eloi, or back to an alt-evolutionary deep past where the apes speak), or else by conceiving the future in terms of its threat to the present, as with the Terminator franchise. A commitment to the past, as with (say) the Beatles dressing in Edwardian clobber to front up Sgt Pepper, or Rod Sterling's splendid three piece suit, or Doctor Who's old world English eccentricity and dress -- this is the antithesis to the thesis of futurism, modernism, concrete, the white heat of technology. That's the dialectic these films work out, and the interesting this is how many of them go into the future in order to the return to the past. Which is precisely the arc of La Jetée. Funny how I keep coming back to that movie.



4. Finally, for now (and following on from 3., obviously enough) is the way the still photograph is so crucial an icon of this mode of film.





What's this about? It has something to do with memory, I'd say (obviously enough); and something to do with an implicit connection with an ideal baseline and an extra-temporal baseline. And so to Sobchack, whose Merleau-Ponty inspired phenomenological readings of film seemed so startling and original back in the 80s and 90s after decades of deconstructive and post-Freudian heterodox orthodoxies of interpretation. This is what The Address of the Eye has to say about the still photograph.
In the still photograph time and space are abstractions. Although the image still has a presence, it neither partakes of nor describes the present. Indeed, the photograph’s fascination is that it is a figure of transcendental time made available against the ground of a lived and finite temporality. Although included in our experience of the present, the photograph transcends both our immediate present and our lived experience of temporality because it exists for us as never engaged in the activity of becoming. Although it announces the possibility of becoming, it never presents itself as the coming into being of being. It is a presence without past, present future. Thus, when we experience the “timelessness” that a photograph confers on its subject matter, we are experiencing the photograph’s compelling emptiness; it exists as the possibility of temporality, but is a vacancy within it. This temporal vacancy, this lack of finitude, affects the space of the still photograph. It is peculiarly flattened. … The lack of depth and dimension in the still photograph seems less a function of the phenomenal thickness of the subjects and objects that it displays than of the temporal hole it opens within the world in which we gaze at it. [59-60]
She goes on to discuss La Jetée specifically:
On the other hand, although necessarily dependent upon the possibility of temporality that the still photograph announces but does not fulfil, the motion picture is not a transcendental structure. If the photograph is a “hole” in temporality and announces a vacancy, then the motion picture in its motion sufficiently fills up that vacancy and inaugurates a fullness. The images of a film exist in the world as a temporal flow, within finitude and situation. Indeed, the fascination of the film is that it does not transcend out lived-experience of temporality, but rather than it seems to partake of it, to share it. Unlike the still photograph, the film exists for us as always the act of becoming. Thus, although made almost entirely using still photographs rather than live action, a film such as La Jetée (1962) nonetheless projects temporality and an existential becoming, even as it foregrounds the transcendental and atemporal potentiality of the photograph and its non-becoming. It is this explicit dialectic between the transcendental moment and existence as momentum that gives La Jetée its power and peculiar significance, providing both its structure and its theme and explicitly representing the dialectical impulse of all film. [60-61]
I don't want to make too facile a point, but this ‘transcendence’ from time is what time travel actualises as a narrative shift or imaginative conceit. We ought not to be surprised that still photos have this special place in such stories. I'm on the edge of declaring that Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn is the first true time travel story—which it sort-of is, I suppose.