Composed mentally on Friday, when I knew I’d be working from home this week. The atmosphere in London, such as I experienced it, was odd. It felt like the week just gone was a transitional week. Still a large amount of business as usual going into work, on high streets, on public transport etc. Trains and tubes beginning to drain out slightly. A few face masks. Becoming more aware of coughing – both yourself and others. By the end of the week though you sensed people preparing for a change the following week.
At work we’ve had very good scenario planning in place, with an isolation room and protective gear (face mask, gloves) if required. Our operational area got closed off, and for that final afternoon it was just three of us – the head of global operations, our finance guy and me. There was a strange feeling as I packed up all my stuff – we suggested opening a bottle of wine but in the end settled going for a valedictory pint in a deserted pub.
Victoria station much quieter than normal on that Friday. My housemate and I went to the local pub for what felt like might be the last time for a while. It was interesting to see that the pubs that day, and on Saturday, were rammed. Although it’s hard to judge the feeling I would not say it was one of bravura – though I did hear some Aussies saying they didn’t care if they got it (yes, that’s not the point) – more a mood of ‘this is the last time we’ll be together for a while’. As if we were going out before leaving a place that had kept us together – yes, that’s what it reminded me of: when I and the other teachers, after a year in Poland, went out drinking together for the final time.
I had been saying all week, that the mixture of early spring weather and the knowledge that I wouldn’t be going into work for a while made me feel demob happy. I felt it was slightly inaccurate to say that – after all work will continue. The phrase was more exact than I perhaps realised though, as the sense in the pub that Friday evening was of an army in a foreign land being demobilised. People with whom you had been thrown together unlikely to be seen again.*
This is perhaps over-dramatic. This will pass, and the huge majority of us will survive it, though probably not without knowing someone who is more closely affected. But I’m describing only the sense of things.
It is the uncertainty of the duration of this period that is unsettling. A recognition that we are entering a period, from which when we emerge, things will not be the same any more.
*(This feeling for me was only emphasised by a strong personal sense of the possibility of permanent parting from a deep love)
A year or so ago I wrote something prompted by reading a 2017 piece by Claire Dederer about the art of ‘Monstrous Men’. The piece focused on Woody Allen, but moved on to talk about the complicity of accusation – how it is a denial of one’s own monstrosity – and how she herself, as a writer who withdrew her time and attention from those she loved, was also in some way ‘monstrous’.
I thought it was too much to place all writing in the same space as the sexually predatory crimes of Monstrous Men, Woody Allen included, but it did make me want to talk about some writers, all of whom I liked very much, all of whom were women, who deal with the need to share writing and love – love partly in the form of the demands of child-rearing – and in doing so shared something of a similar methodology and voice. To the extent it can be called a ‘voice’ (it would be a disservices to constrain to one voice these different writers), it is the sound of the negation of the dominant, dogmatic male line of argument, the assertion of what is true and what is not true, over a course of a project which is the exclusion of doubt.
This tweet from Jay Owens reminded me I had that unfinished piece sitting in my drafts, but the bit about Dederer was not really relevant to it, so I’ve removed it from here.
I have however taken a quote from her essay as the jumping-off point.
But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.
…There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
There were a couple of other things in the essay that prompted the thoughts that lead to writing this. One has already been quoted, her reference to Cyril Connolly’s malign phrase, ‘The pram in the hallway’ (‘There is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hallway’). The other, connected, is this:
Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.
These questions, that reference, immediately brought to mind two books: The Last Samurai by Helen deWitt, and Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. Both deal, in different but linked ways, with writing and motherhood.
They’re both wonderful books. They show the capacity for interruption that having a child brings. They use it, are defined by it – by the impossibility of single-minded exclusive and exclusionary focus, which ‘the pram in the hallway’ says art requires. And they don’t just deal with it, they are formally shaped by it. In The Last Samurai there are continual, often quite long digressions of nested interruptions. The interruptions themselves become the content, before the original, interrupted voice, resumes. In this sense they are not interruptions, there is no main thread that is being disrupted. The demanding voice of Ludo (the narrator Sibylla’s child) is as much the book as is the narration. It is a partnership. In a sense it is a handing over of voices.
Little Labors formally represents the capacity for interruption of thought and concentration differently. It is a short book comprising very short entries on having a child and being a writer. The suggestion is that the form has been imposed by the demands, the responsibilities of having a child. Yes they are little entries, but they are undoubtedly labors, because of the presence of a child. The labors are also those of the child. The entire book seems to me an explicit riposte to the pram in the hallway point of view. This was represented beautifully in a passage that was excerpted as ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men,’ in The New Yorker:
I now envy men, but for just one thing. What thing? It is true that at the moment the baby is beating a small wooden cutting board against the ground, that the cutting board had at one point had on it an apricot I had sliced into tiny bits for her, she has since sat on some, and smashed some into the ground, she has taken a lengthy interest in my wallet, she has held the supermarket-discount-points card at a distance, then put it in her mouth, then held it at a distance away again, she has not yet learned to crawl but can drag herself across the floor to the edge of a set of stairs I am hoping to keep her from exploring further, she has gathered fuzz from the shag rug here at this rental cabin that has been obtained as a luxuriously imagined Room of One’s Own, she has been interested in having her hand inside of my mouth, and has not been interested in lying down, she is now trying to pull herself up along a ledge and is now trapped in a position from which she can discover no out and so requires rescue by the large being (me) who is always with her, later she needs rescue simply from being on her stomach, and so in brief moments, between these activities, I have one-third of an associative thought, about that story “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa in which a woman’s sister is pregnant and very nauseous throughout the pregnancy and the narrator begins making grapefruit jam for her nauseous sister, and the sister loves it, it’s the only thing she can bear to eat, and so the narrator keeps making it even though she read a sign at the grocery store that the grapefruit was not safe, and so she believes she has ruined the baby … but really I’m insufficiently upset about not being able to think, and then the baby falls asleep. She sleeps on her back, slightly tossed to the side, with both arms in the same direction, like she’s in a boat I can’t see. Her breathing in this moment is making her glow like an amulet. I had been talking about gender envy. The one thing I envy. The first gender-envy thoughts I have had really in my entire life started maybe not immediately following the arrival of the puma in my apartment, but shortly after, when the puma spent a lot of time spinning a wooden cookie on a rod, or maybe shortly after that, when I took her for her first swim in a pool and she persisted uncomplainingly even as it began to rain. The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that their romantic partner doesn’t know about.
Little Labors – Rivka Galchen
For a man the pram in the hall is a potential enemy of art, for a mother it must form a part of it.
For me Rivka Galchen and Helen deWitt give a new voice to literature. It is a non-dogmatic voice, it is humorous and vulnerable open (edit: ‘vulnerable’ was poor choice of word); because it is open to interruption it is stronger than a voice which is not open to interruption. And by ‘interruption’ I mean anything that might swerve the argument, the focus, the single-mindedness, the dogma, the ‘this is the way it is’-ness, the dominant interpretation or narrative, the power.
Anything that might baffle the paradigm, to use the translated words of Roland Barthes in The Neutral.
It isn’t really interruption as such – it is the fabric of thought and discovery.
This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay on approaching and exploring the ideas and acts of translation, mainly but not at all solely through the act of translating Roland Barthes’ late lectures. In one section she writes about one part of the Barthes lecture course she translated.
In this digressive, excursive teaching, the practice was never to be exhaustive or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalising theory, an ultimate grand idea. Instead to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of a small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, as Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be stimulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life?
[He then cites works which he proposes to look at]
The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I’ll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. Like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I’ll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.
This Little Art – Kate Briggs
Although here this method is being used to understand what a community allowing for something like solitude with regular interruptions might look like, to look for examples and reference points, the method he describes is itself perhaps also the method by which this community might be achieved.
Accommodating rather than dictating individual rhythms; this was a notion that came to Barthes when seeing from his window a mother dragging a child along:
In the lecture course titled How to Live Together, the fact that we can go too fast, or indeed too slow, for other people, for the person we are supposed to be accompanying, or is supposed to be keeping company with us, the person you are hoping will stay with you, your listener, your reader, the child you are trying to walk to school, is the central issue: the lecture course’s crystallizing theme. A theme embodied by the sight of a mother glimpsed from Barthes’s window, walking out of step with her son. Too fast. Dragging him along by the hand (so that he is forced to run to keep up). This fact and lived theme of what Barthes calls disrhythmy, and the power dynamics that are in play, and the disturbances it can cause. The question of the lectures, then, will be how to find a way of walking (being, living, also reading, writing and thinking) together that might somehow take account of our different rhythms, not through enforced synchronicity, but allowing for them: you read faster than I do, you get up earlier than I do, and eat later, you race ahead while I walk more slowly, and yet still (in this fantasy that Barthes is hoping to simulate in life) we’ll find ways of coming together, points in the day for companionship, offsetting, modulating, interrupting our competing desire for solitude.
This Little Art – Kate Briggs
Disrhythmy, for Barthes, is caused by different idiorrhythms. Of course, the thing with a baby is that its idiorrhythm must be yours, as a mother. It wants something now. Its not interested in a Barthes chequerboard that allows for accommodation. But writing and composing in that way as a method, a method of accommodating that id as a writer, but also of asking ideas, the paragraphs and words on the page, and the reader themselves, to accommodate it as well.
This is not a group of writers, but they do refer to one another – Rivka Galchen to Helen deWitt’s The Last Samurai because…
..it takes so many pages into the main section before you recognize the narrator’s gender as female, and then so many pages more before you realize that the narrator of that section is a mother, in fact a single mother, who is trying to develop herself as a scholar and who tries to solve the problem of presenting a male role model to her son
Kate Briggs to Maggie Nelson’s section on policing mouth-exploring in This Little Art:
When my youngest son was a baby I had a bright hot technicolour dream that was the picture of him choking. This had the effect of elevating my adequate policing to the levels of nervous (paranoid?) surveillance. I’d hand him a slice of squashy ripe pear at lunch-time and watch as he’d try manoeuvring it delightedly into his mouth. Then suddenly doubt the size of it, the consistency of it, and to his great distress, whisk it away (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! – don’t cry: I’ll cube it! Let me mash it!).
Looking back, I think what troubled me the most was the thought (the thought and also the reality) that the smallest lapse in my attention, even (even and especially) with respect to the most ordinary everyday things – eating a pear for lunch, sitting out among the dry leaves in the garden – could have consequences on this other, life-or-death scale. The stakes felt everywhere and for that period of time almost unbearably high.
She also insists, via Galchen’s Little Labors, on seeing ‘little’ as meaning ‘small’ not ‘minor’. If we are to allow this sort of writing to have equal worth, we must allow for its smallness. The fact that accomplishing a brief paragraph of thought may be a form of labour, and may need to be accomplished in small periods of time between distractions. Allowing thoughts and observations to be placed on a square and to relate to the things next to them, not in a tightly ordered narrative argument that says if this is true then this must be true, but to communicate, to be suggestive. A series of partnerships, reader and author, both contributing, author and the people and things that demand their time.
A voice to accommodate distraction and disjunction, whether it’s Galchen’s brief chapters and little labors, Maggie Nelson’s stanzas of thought, the cadences of a child’s insatiable desire for learning in The Last Samurai, perhaps these make way for a new way of writing and reading.
On one of the long afternoons that has since bled into the one long afternoon of Iggy’s infancy, I watch him pause on all fours at the threshold to our backyard, as he contemplates which scraggly oak leaf to scrunch toward first with his dogged army crawl. His soft little tongue, always whitened in the centre from milk, nudges out of his mouth in gentle anticipation, a turtle bobbing out of its shell. I want to pause here, maybe forever, and hail the brief moment before I have to jump into action, before I must become the one who eliminates the inappropriate object, or, if I’m too late, who must harvest it from his mouth.
You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone once adequately policed your mouth-exploring. In the fact of this fact, Winnicott holds the relatively unsentimental position that we don’t owe these people (often women, but by no means always) anything. But we do owe ourselves “an intellectual recognition of the fact that at first we were (psychologically) absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely. Luckily we were met by ordinary devotion.
The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
Absolutely dependent. That absolutely dependence relies on the attention of the person who may also be writing the words you are reading. And therefore our intellectual recognition of that fact should perhaps be allowing the interruptions, relishing the tone of voice and type of writing that allows for them. It may also mean reconfiguring what ‘good’ is, so that Dederer’s question “Is your motherhood making you a less good writer?” – with all the demands on time and concentration and emotion – is not somehow determined by the editorial rejection of that voice: the little, the associative, the interrupted.
I’m going to try (once again) to write a bit more here. It will necessarily largely be stringing beads on the thread of the week, and I’ll need to work harder at writing better than comes naturally, but it is with the intention of plugging recent experiences into the wider set of more permanent feelings and thoughts.
Saturdays have become my day for catching up on bookmarked articles and things of interest held in abeyance during the week, so that’s also the time I’m likeliest to post.
Sometimes a song has a line or moment in it which seems to catch something about a moment now, or of another place, without it being clear why:
Pete Hammill’s Sitting Targets reaches a typical point of anguish, with the lines:
And I’m losing control of my body, and I’m running scared. Oh, remember the black and white movie, A positional state of affairs, Of the fashionable interest in moving, Just to prove that we’re there.
(In fact it is apparently, ‘We’re left with a black and white movie, a positional state of affairs, An obsessional interest in moving, just to prove that we’re there’ which is clearly right on a re-listen. but the line that’s been in my head has been that ‘of the fashionable interest in moving’.)
This is a propulsive song about escape, from an emotional trauma only defined by the terms of its escape.
If we’d been stuck just a few hours more I’d have cracked up, I’d say. No, you never can tell when it’s coming; It’s so hard getting out of the way;
It is something impending that has brought about the crisis – and with the road and car the means of escape it would be wrong to say somethingcoming down the road. It is more something that looms, something unavoidable, but out of sight, something which makes you feel like a sitting target. Target for what is the question implied by the title. I tend to feel that all art of mid-sixties to early 80s should be assumed in some way to be characterised by anxieties of possible sudden nuclear annihilation, and there is obviously existential fear here, but also there is a sense of the claustrophobia of your home environment, of society and time closing in.
Oh you never can tell how it’s going, No you never can see how it’s been, But to stay sitting targets is surely No better than living a dream.
So that set of lines, which kept on surfacing in my head, work against the rest of the song, and critique the urge for escape – the motion is out of control, it is required for a sense of self and of agency, otherwise unavailable to someone staying in the same place.
That this song plays into a deep-seated set of my own anxieties – staying in one place, continuous building on something being an exclusion of other possibilities, ultimately stemming I think from fears of death – is certainly one part of why this song appeals to me generally.
But its point of specific application right now – the thing that caused it to snag on a hook – is harder to define. I find myself circling around the notion that ‘Of a fashionable interest in moving’ is suggestive of psychosomatic mechanisms at play in society at the moment – the need to express internal stresses in other forms.
A trick that Hammill pulls off quite well across his albums I think is to locate these particular moments of emotional agon into social/historical/scientific spaces, which allows for this sort of application.
It is surely not the motion aspect of the song though – a decade of Tory government now using policy as a way of rhetorically realising an apparently expressed desire for a permafrosted 1945-1948 country means it must be more the threat of stasis implied by the idea of sitting targets.
Perhaps it also links into anxieties I have about the debates taking place on the left – the need and indeed the opportunity to reframe for the future, of the possibilities of the new communities that will form, that are forming, identified in their literary expressions by John Self at the end of his piece on the Brexit novel (a phenomenon to which I am totally indifferent, unless it’s written by a John Lanchester of course). The song seems to warn of the need to avoid the stasis born of fear, and inutile movement for movement’s sake, which is not in itself progressive, but an escape.
As I say, I am fully aware these are, in proper Pete Hammill fashion, personal anxieties mapping onto the social and political space.
The other day, I had a good example of one sort of liminal thinking that goes on when you’re not actually doing any proper thinking, and which for quite long periods seems to do the duty of proper thinking.
I’ve been reading Crashed, Adam Tooze’s… I guess ‘monumental’ is the only word?… history of the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences. On the tube going into work I read this sentence:
In the general crisis of legitimacy in 2010–2011 there was no Archimedean point. There was no place to stand above the fray.
Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (p. 398). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Although the general importance of the point about a crisis of legitimacy and the undermining of technocratic principles was of interest, the phrase ‘Archimedean point’ burned vividly and resulted in a tessellation of thoughts and references unfolding back out across recent experience.
This phrase describing the notional point of distance from the Earth one would need to stand to lever (move or weigh) it, is used in a Richard Eberhart 1947 poem ‘Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God’s Revelation’ – Kierkegaard.
That poem contains a line that had been much in my head over the emotional landscape of last couple of years:
All the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers
But the line is not as such Eberhart’s, exactly. It is in fact, as Hill makes clear, a line from a Søren Kierkegaard journal entry of 1837, translated by Alexander Dru for an English selection of the journals published in 1938. And in fact the original translation is ‘All the flowers of my heart turn to ice flowers’. In the original Swedish:
Enhver mit Hjertes Blomst bliver til en Iisblomst
This is translated in the Indiana University Press edition of the complete Journals (by Edna and Howard Hong), as Every flower of my heart turns into a frost flower. That’s an odd choice. Iisblomst seems better represented both in terms of image and rhythm by ‘ice flower’. And regardless the form ‘all the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers’ had become symbolic to me of the emotional landscape I had been inhabiting.
I had in fact already been reminded of it very recently reading a good piece on Petrarch in the London Review of Books.
A series of puns in Canzoniere 239 begins conventionally with ‘dolce l’aura al tempo novo’ (‘the sweet breeze in springtime’); then becomes rather weirder, ‘col bue zoppo andrem cacciando l’aura’ (‘with a lame ox we will go hunting the breeze’); and finally arrives at one of those lines of pure lyric dynamite that lurk throughout the collection: ‘in rete accolgo l’aura e ’n ghiaccio i fiori’ (‘in a net I gather the breeze and in the ice flowers’).
Nicholl, Charles. “On the Sixth Day.” Rev. of Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer, by Christopher Celenza. London Review of Books 41.3 (2019): 23-26. 9 Mar. 2019 <https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n03/charles-nicholl/on-the-sixth-day>.
‘Ice flowers’ as a fragment of this significant emotional symbol caused me to look up from the article and stare out of the window for a while. This meant that I didn’t notice what I should have noticed, even with my rudimentary Italian, and supposed better English poetic parsing, that ‘ice flowers’ is not here a noun phrase. I must have noticed something was amiss because I haplessly reverse logicked it and decided I quite liked the odd way – disconcerting, slightly haunting – ‘ice flowers’ didn’t have a referent, unless perhaps it was breeze.
‘In a net I gather the breeze and in the ice, flowers’ is the meaning, and no matter the fluidity of the original medieval Italian, probably needs that comma.
But I do not think I would have noticed the phrase had that comma, that small humanist innovation just post-dating Petrarch, been present.
Woolgathering. Carding the wool of language and thought. The processing that takes place beneath thought. An underground emotional shuttling of data and information around our hidden frames of reference, from digitally recorded lectures (incomplete), to translation decisions and the poetry of language, and half-noticed phrases leaping by association to others. From the tube in March 2019, through to the Eurozone Crisis of 2010-2012, to a notional point in the cosmos from which you can shift the Earth itself, posited by a 3rd Century BC Sicilian, to Geoffrey Hill in Oxford in 2012, to Eberhart in Boston in 1947 working at his wife’s father’s floor wax company in the aftermath of the war, to the graduate Kierkegaard in Copenhagen 1837 at the beginnings of his relationship with Regine Olsen, to the publishing almost a century later of Alexander Dru’s 1938 translation, to my front room a couple of weeks beforehand reading the LRB, then whirling back to trecento Italy, and Petrarch’s infatuation for ‘Laura’, the path strewn, like breadcrumbs in the forest, with the flowers of the heart.
[This too-lyrical ending was not how I had intended to finish this – I got carried away and decided to let it stand, on the suggested basis that in one view, no matter the cognitive and neurochemical processes, the vehicle for these transactions is feeling and emotion.
However, the word jumped into my mind when considering this process was ‘cachinnation’, and no matter how much I tried to banish it on the grounds of meaning, it insisted on its relevance. It is the background mocking laughter to our thought, a distant ghost transmission from before Babel, like background radiation, a laughter which gives this blog its name – diasyrmus – and whose sigil is the goat.]
"Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God's Revelation" Kierkegaard
But to reach the Archimedean point Was all my steadfastness; The disjointed times to teach Courage from what is dreadful.
It was the glimpses in the lightning Made me a sage, but made me say No word to make another fight, My own fighting heart full of dismay.
Spirit, soul, and fire are reached! And springs of the mind, like springs of the feet Tell all, all know, nothing wavers there! All the flowers of the heart turn to ice-flowers,
Heaviness of the world prevailing ("The higher we go the more terrible it is") Duplicity of man, heart-hate, The hypocrite, the vain, the whipper, the cheat,
The eternal ape on the leash, Drawing us down to faith, Which the Greeks call divine folly, The tug of laughter and of irony.
Largely indifferent to my hair, I went to cheap barbers most of my life. After an emotional crash a couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to spend money on a haircut, more money than I would usually.
I found a salon – it’s the only word – and although in part this was about asserting a new identity and look to try and do away with the immediate past, I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted, and ended up spending more on the same haircut.
Certainly more than sixpence.
It was a good haircut though. It made me feel a little better and grew out well, and I’ve gone back ever since. In fact I had my haircut there just this morning.
The quality of the haircut has varied according to the person doing it.
But since I found Jay, he is the only one who can cut my hair. Jay is golden.
He is meticulous in his attentions, and carefully formal in how he approaches the different areas of my skull.
He pins up the longer hair on the top of my head with clips, and attends to the sides with his scissors and razor, so that in the mirror, with my widow’s peak pattern baldness growing more evident with every day, I appear like a corrupt or hapless middle-aged character in a Kurosawa film.
And most important of all, apart from a greeting and one or two efficient queries to do with my wishes, he says not a word.
As my haircut is not at all complicated, and in fact rather dull, it is impossible to say whether what I perceive to be the quality of the haircut is perceptible by others, though as in art, I suspect small efforts and details add to an overall effect without being perceived.
Increasingly I feel the value to be one of ritual however. The attentiveness and care, and the returning to an area to clip, cut and lightly grazed until it is satisfactory, is what comprises the value.
Like shoes, haircuts seem to me to have an intrinsic value greater than some other elements of style and presentation.
This is late 19th C bourgeois ideology, and while Wyndham Lewis’ interest is that of the modernist artist bringing formal processes of delineation, division and abstraction to the wild and incoherent Nature of the Romantics, the page in Blast represents an intersection of modernism with that late 19th Century bourgeois/imperial ideology.
(An example of the sort of thing I’ve been posting on LinkedIn. This was originally a fairly lightweight bit of fun, but in fact it opens up a lot of interesting avenues about how the increasingly monopolised and siloed digital spaces – FAANG – seek to work the PRC over the control, aesthetic and exploitation of that online territory, and the vectors of attack and defence.)
This viral Chinese ad for Peppa Pig is wild.
Here’s the explanation. You’ll need an explanation.
It’s doubly interesting because Peppa was actually banned last year or purged according to the NYT.
As with much of Chinese culture it takes a real expert to understand all the cultural subtexts, but it seems that she had been associating with shèhuì rén (社会人). This literally means ‘society people’ but seems to refer to young, jobless slackers. Not sufficiently culturally aligned it seems (or ‘anti establishment’). Friends of mine don’t like her because she perpetuates gender stereotypes, which shows… something anyway.
Someone who does know about Chinese culture has pointed out how much heavy lifting this ad is doing. It’s relocating Peppa from her foreign context into new soil (or muck). It’s very strenuously placing her in an approved socio-political context. And in doing this, by reducing her foreign caché and boosting her state approved credentials, it’s also presumably reducing her desirability for those ‘soceity people’.
All designed to help rehabilitate her in time for the release of Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year.
When I posted this on LinkedIn, I’d kind of missed the important point that this a major example and case study for the sort of work that brands will need to do if they want to be able to distribute effectively in China.
The aesthetic of this seems likely in some way designed to meet strict cultural and political rules on what is and isn’t appropriate.
Media distribution platforms and content owners will still struggle though. Despite high ambitions in China, Netflix ended up taking the time-honoured approach when faced with significant cultural and regulatory hurdles, and ended up partnering with a local platform, producing ‘modest‘ revenue. (Stranger Things, Black Mirror: yes; House of Cards: absolutely not).
This hasn’t stopped the likes of Google contorting uncomfortably to try and find a way into to what would be the world’s biggest growth market, the worth of whose data will be seen to be astronomical. It will be interesting watching the heavyweights of surveillance capitalism go up against the heavyweight of the surveillance state. My money’s on the PRC.
There’s a useful article here that covers the specific issues around digital publication in China. Short version – nothing much has changed around foreign interests publishing directly: they can’t. It’s more about trying to reframe publishing to include digital platforms – where “material that would traditionally be published in print form is clearly intended to be included”. However:
The unclear area applies only to new forms of publishing developed solely for the Internet and with no traditional print analog.
As with regulation in my area – accessibility (subtitles, captions, audio description) – regulators are struggling to define the content the rules cover, and the companies to whom it applies. That’s probably a post for another day.
Who made the ad and why did they take the approach they did?
“Besides drawing attention to the movie, what I wanted to do through this trailer was to share the same values that are highlighted in the movie – family, reunion, harmony and love,” its director Zhang Dapeng told local media last month.
And, Who is distributing Peppa in China – who is set to make money here?
And another partial answer from the same article: the film is a joint venture between the British ‘Entertainment One’ and Alibaba. And there’s a shitload of merch.Who made the ad and why did they take the approach they did?
Surveillance capitalism v surveillance state – exploiting a population’s data? (worth thinking about the burglar’s guide to the city – helicopters for LA, cameras for London).
The aesthetic and style of western firms attempting to enter China.
Regulating online – working out what and who does and doesn’t count.
I ‘ve been struggling to find a consistent place to post the stuff I want to put words to.
First, I still read and have plenty of thorts about books and writing, which was what this blog was always for. In fact I’ve been reading more over the last year or so than I have done in a long time. But I’d begun to regard this blog as somewhat essayistic in character – serious treatments with actual conclusions, which held me back from posting stuff where I hadn’t reached my conclusions.
Second, I’ve found quite a lot of my mind is taken up with the topics of work and business, and quite a lot of the time I want to write about that as well.
Those two areas didn’t really co-exist in my mind, so I started to post the work/business stuff on linkedin.
I’ll probably carry on doing that – linkedin is horrible, but as a networking tool which means you don’t have to network it has high value – but it’s a bit constraining. There are things I want to say that don’t feel appropriate for that forum. It’s v much “views expressed here are necessarily those of a representative of my employer”.
Finally, tumblr, of which I was quite fond, feels like its time has passed, and I wanted a place to microblog a bit on lighter cultural encounters.
Why not all in one place? It should help keep the momentum going, and avoids those high barriers to expression such as ‘dunno which platform to post this’. And in fact as soon a I started thinking this way, I realised that these apparently different areas have been converging for a while for me; it was mainly the vector of the motivating input – the prompt – that had separated them out as categories.
stuff prompted by books and words (litblogging – what I always intended any blog I kept to be)
stuff prompted by quotidian writing: business, broadcasting industry, politics &c (the linkedin stuff, but with less worry that someone at work is going to pull me up for talking about business bullshit and full luxury communism)
stuff prompted by what i’ve encountered out and about (tumblr – photos and frivolity)
The notion of the palimpsest has a sort of fame, outside its technical sense, as a minor tool in the armoury of criticism and theory. At its most basic it’s a writing surface that can be cleansed for reuse. Intrinsic in its theoretical meaning is reference to the imperfect scouring of parchment in the early Medieval period for reinscription. Although the method they used erased previous texts by the light of their own time, it left them capable of retrieval by later more sophisticated chemical processes in the more powerful light of the 19th Century, so that future ages found multiple texts all present on a single parchment, waiting to be revealed, nothing lost.