Wednesday, February 28, 2024

"A mighty, contagious absence"

The number of obituaries, tributes, backhanded compliments and overt smears in the corporate news media following the death of John Pilger reveal the state of journalism in our time. [1] Can you name one living Anglophone journalist whose loss would prompt such widespread notice? That the obvious one, who had worked with The Guardian and New York Times to expose the biggest stories of our time, is held without charge in a high-security prison and close to death without outrage let alone industrial action from his colleagues, should be evidence enough of a profound shift in news media culture. [2] Those who walk in John Pilger's footsteps are now to be found working independently, funded by public appeals, and often, like Julian Assange, frequently denied the label of journalist by those appropriating its authority. [3]

The Media is the Enemy on a bottle bank

The shift has not been limited to journalism, as dissent from prominent artists has become rare, with only an 80-year-old musician and an 87-year-old filmmaker paying the price for publicly challenging the political narrative. [4] Novelists have escaped censure. Twenty years ago, with characteristically bitter passion, Pilger lamented the silence of writers over contemporary political events, comparing it to the noise and organisation of their forerunners in 1935. He wanted them to be outspoken in public and producing works that "illuminate...the shadows of rapacious power". He wished for public utterance and the production of novels as imaginative reportage, citing among others Timothy Mo's novel The Redundancy of Courage set in East Timor during the western-backed genocide about which Pilger made one of his most harrowing documentary (not mentioned in the ITV news obituary, the network on which it was broadcast). He complains that instead of dissent from writers appearing in the newspapers, "Column after column is devoted to the Martin Amis cult: he who ... sneers at the great anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations". Twenty years on only the quality of the cult writer has changed, with JK Rowling leading the sneers at a "solipsistic personality cult" when opposition to rapacious power threatens to be successful. [5] Other genre novelists – John le Carré, Fay Weldon, Frederick Forsyth, Tony Parsons and William Boyd – also wished to distance themselves from opposition, and perhaps slightly higher taxes.

The pitiful literary horizon onto which this sextet opens emphasises how diminished the calibre of public-facing writers is compared to 1935, with film and television dominating public consciousness and which is itself, as James Meek describes, rapacious power in action. This suggests literature needs a form that is not a storyboard, one that goes in the opposite direction and opens an entirely new and different space, only what hope is there if even an experimental writer presented as doing precisely this joins in with the rest? [6]

John Pilger's lament has stayed with me over the years as a sometimes distant, sometimes insistent hammering on the door, disturbing the hallowed silence of this empty church. What, after all, is the point of sitting here with all these books of prayer? If Pilger challenges the responsibilities of the author by dismissing the distinction between what's inside and what's outside, between novels and journalism, he does so with ease, as easily as submission to a story. Except the experience of one is very different to the experience of the other: the first is an encounter with the noise of both a particular time in everyday language, with an empirical outside investigated by a particular person or organisation that implicitly contains evidence of its truth and value and which, if done properly, provokes a sense of urgency for action in the world, while the second is an encounter with the outside of time, aside from experience, an encounter with something that has not happened, will not happen, and will not happen over and over again, and for which the writer has no responsibility to provide evidence for its truth or value, provoking in its audience an unfocusable need and so a unique presence in our lives – a perennial absence beyond our lives – and so the interminable anxieties it generates about its meaning, authority and place in society. [7]  

If his article is not quite a manifesto, Pilger inadvertently reminds us that these anxieties constitutes a fundamental part of the experience of literature, which lately has led to a manifesto expressing similar concerns. 

Vomit on concrete, England 2023

In Counterblast! (a manifesto for poetry), her final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Alice Oswald claims that "whatever keeps mattering makes a form" and so poetry must be "like the spirals of the inner ear shaped by sound, or a stoop shaped by shyness". What keeps mattering for her is the profusion of the world and she proposes a poetry that alters the imagination by immersion in "the deep grammar of the situated self among other selves", with simile being poetry's form of profusion. Homer is her prime example: "we would like to discover the inmost manifesto of Homer, meaning the mattering which makes his fall and claim it as our own". This is "a manifesto of likeness", she says: "We like this word 'like'. It is a stitch between things". The Greek word for stitchwork is rhapsody, with simile – similarity – stitching the world together, and she opposes rhapsody to lyric poetry: "We declare that modernism with all its isms was essentially a lyric voice because it described the problem of perception rather than the profusion of being." She reads the first stanza of TS Eliot's poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night ending in the lines "Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium" and describes the similes as "hallucinations" rather than stitches revealing "not other selves but the poet's own self over and over". [8]

Living geraniums become the touchstone for the manifesto as Alice Oswald sees the culmination of the modernists' dead flower in "the genre of the artificial geranium" in which poetry is created by a computer. She examines a poem created in ChatGPT using her instruction "to write a poem about an eagle and a hare in the style of Shakespeare", which you can hear from 38:30 below. After commenting favourably on the algorithm's choice of meter she notes how the poem's images are impressionistic "whereas as a poet sees sharply before summoning words". It is impressionistic "because it is not situated". The presence or absence behind the words is her primary concern:

Each time the algorithm uses the word 'I', it does not mean the same situated self that we mean and this difference spreads through the grammar, altering first the meaning of 'we' and then the meaning of 'this' and then the meaning of 'that' and then the meaning of 'near' and then the meaning of 'love' and then the meaning of 'death' and then the meaning of 'with' and then the meaning of 'like', and so on and so on until the poem reveals its mighty contagious absence in that final line. Each meeting fated, each parting brief in life's great stage infernal, which is a malicious demon's manifesto with no understanding of actuality. [9]

Why is each parting brief? Is it because AI operates in unextended space in which parting has no meaning. Does that imply that death doesn't exist and is that why the hare is gambolling in fear. Is death brief, in which case please decide whether this is a poem about fate or resurrection and adapt the form accordingly since the gambolling rhyming heptameter implies constraint but this poem implies no awareness of constraint because it is not about things which are, since things which are must suffer the constraints of place. But in the genre of the artificial geranium there is no place and therefore no point of view, no topological self, no resistant other, no matter and therefore no mattering and therefore no meaning, no death, no flesh, no weight, no love, no life.

The curious thing with this complaint is that in citing Homer as the manifesto's poetic hero it follows the reasons Socrates gives for rejecting the recitation of poetry as a means of truth-telling and is as such a danger to civil society. Alice Oswald's questions for the AI poem receive the same replies as Socrates:

The fact is, Phaedrus, that writing involves a similar disadvantage to painting. The productions of painting look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence. The same holds true of written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again. [10]

Socrates is happy that younger people with their "modern sophistication" are no longer satisfied with messages from "an oak or a rock", which were the earliest forms taken by the oracle at Dodona, and prefer a living, speaking person who can answer back once they have spoken. A footnote tells us that rustling of an oak's leaves were interpreted by priests or priestesses as sacred enlightenment. As daft as this may appear to us now, we can see the reverend recitation of poetry as modern-day rustling, returning the same answers over and over with literary critics and professors of poetry as priests and priestesses processing its meaning and value. [11] 

The crucial element of AI poetry is the human input for the program to produce a poem. As we have seen, Alice Oswald specified it must be "in the style" of Shakespeare; that is, like Shakespeare. But perhaps its likeness did not satisfy for this reason. While some elements are familiar, others are not, giving the impression of AI's resistance to needs and human control. When we talk about a poem or play that Shakespeare has produced, we call it a work, but there is no work in AI, or, rather, there is the work of absence, and so two-and-a-half thousand years later, Alice Oswald remains alongside Socrates midway between ancient and modern worlds, between the sacred and the secular, because a mighty, contagious outside opens in poetry. [12] Our humanist horror arises at the AI poem's disobedient likeness to something other than human, to that which is not, or to what is situated elsewhere, and its failure to be a resource for exploitation (King Leopold's Nongo). What if, however, in sutbly altering the meaning of words, by unworking meaning word by word, AI poetry reveals the possibility of another actuality, or at least that the actuality of which it is accused of having no understanding is the malicious demon?

The threat of AI literature may also be its potential by failing to act like Paul Celan's Gegenwort, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop as "a word against the grain" but more generally as a 'counterword', and yet also failing to be enough like Shakespeare, et al., so at the same time to act as one. Celan's example is spoken by Lucile in Büchner's play Danton’s Death, who, upon seeing her husband led to scaffold, cries "Long live the king!" not only guaranteeing her own execution but spoken when the king is already dead. For Celan, her cry "is the word that cuts the 'string,' the word that no longer bows down before 'the bystanders and old war-horses of history'. It is an act of freedom. It is a step." Stephen Dowden widens its meaning as a word "against exhausted narrative ploys and poetic forms, against inherited cultural complicity in the horrors of the twentieth century" [13]

It is perhaps then notable that when Celan's friend Hubert Hoppert visited him in Paris in 1966 and read some of Celan's recently published poems and commented that they were "indescribably abstract" and "imponderably spiritual" [14], Celan's responded:

I'm glad that you say 'abstract;' and 'spiritual' is also fitting. I hope that the information in my verse is spiritual. [...] Formerly, in Vienna, I experimented with psychic mediums of communication. I was playing hide and seek behind the metaphors. Today, after twenty years of conflict between inner and outer worlds, I have banished the word 'like' from my workshop. One of my poems, 'Speech-Grille,' became the title of an entire collection of poems. Do you know what a 'grille' can be? In that book I used, for a nearly final time, 'like' in the following four lines.

Were I like you. Were you like me.
Did we not stand
under one tradewind?
We are strangers.

That was my farewell to the treacherous 'like'. I stand at another point in time and space than my reader – who can only understand me 'from afar,' cannot get hold of me, can only grasp the grille bars between us.

Celan's poetry faces the same accusations directed at AI poetry because it is the epitome of its inverse [15]. However, the example of his counterpoetry may help us to see the exploitable value of literature produced by artificial intelligence in its example of likeness. Another word for likeness is genre. Everything produced by AI depends on the example of what already exists fed into its program. When Amazon limited an account holder's uploads of AI-produced novels to three a day, it only emphasised the conveyor-belt nature of book production, appealing always to likeness, mascerating everything into easily digestible pulp. Even reviews of a novel seeking escape from such inheritance claws it back with likenesses. The world becomes trapped by the rapacious power of likeness. The end of genre is the daybreak of literature. What keeps mattering is the absence of another world; a mighty, contagious need for that which is not.



[1] Media Lens addresses an example of the latter in a tribute in keeping with Pilger's critical legacy. Select the back arrow on your browser to return to the main body above.

[2] Look at what his ex-colleagues said instead. Clues about how and why can be found this article on what happened at The Guardian post Snowden, and then there's Peter Oborne on the rise of client journalism, but it is also as simple as regular groupthink as demonstrated in the Asch Conformity Experiment

This infects the entire British media class: for many years I listened to the Kermode & Mayo film review podcast then hosted by BBC Radio, and one day among the various titles was XY Chelsea about the US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. In the first 15 seconds of his review Kermode states that Manning "released classified information that were then released in unredacted form on Wikileaks". In fact it was The Guardian that released the passwords, as a Wikileaks editorial explains. Kermode was the chief film critic for The Guardian's sister paper at the time. The comment would be forgivable were it not for Kermode's outburst that XY Chelsea is not a film about Julian Assange "much as he wants to be the centre of every story". This wasn't the first time the presenters had made impromptu digs at Assange, but none as bitter. So in order to be the centre of every story did Assange expose himself "to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture"? These are the words of Nils Melzer, at the time the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. I emailed the show with this information and quotation but, of course, I didn't receive a reply and I didn't hear any correction on the podcast as, after all those years, I unsubscribed.

Read Chris Hedges' hair-raising summary of the facts behind the prosecution of Julian Assange before his final appeal against extradition. 

[3] Glenn Greenwald is an "online influencer", while Seymour Hersh, who in the New Yorker exposed the massacre at My Lai in 1969 and torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as soon as he reported how the Nord Stream pipeline was sabotaged, suddenly became that epitome of vanity and irrelevance, "a blogger". In the UK, Craig Murray, who as a UK Ambassador blew the whistle on intelligence gained through torture, has been denied membership of the NUJ and was gaoled for reporting the case for the defence in the trial of Alex Salmond while those in the mainstream who he says did more or less the same were left alone. (Salmond was acquitted; there was a jury, unlike in Murray's trial). And, as with others outside of the club, such as Kit Klarenberg and Tony Greenstein, Murray has been detained under the Terrorism Act. 

Incidentally, the tweet below that followed expulsion of the son of a rabbi from the Labour Party was for me the first indication of Sir Keir Starmer's perfidy.

The Labour Files documentary series has provided ample confirmation since, though it doesn't end there.

In addition to those mentioned above, for commentary and investigations, I recommend following the work of among others Chris Hedges, Aaron Maté, Mark Curtis, Matt Kennard, Abby Martin, Alan MacLeod, Peter Oborne, Jonathan Cook, and frontline reporter Eva Karene Bartlett.

[4] Roger Waters and Ken Loach. In my teenage years, I was a fan of Pink Floyd to the point of nerdily cataloguing my LP and bootleg collection and typing up attempts at music criticism. Many years later and after I had moved on, I heard a song by them whose title I didn't recognise and to which I exclaimed "What the hell is this crap?!". It turned out to be post-Roger-Waters Pink Floyd – a velvet glove limp without its iron fist. I realised then why it was Pink Floyd of the 1970s, especially Dogs, appealed to me above all. The recent claims that the theatrical performance of The Wall in which a fictional rock star becomes a demogogue, a performance I saw live on June 16th, 1981 and that has toured the world without controversy since, meant that Waters himself was promoting fascism and should be banned from live performance would be hilarious if it weren't so disturbing in what it revealed about the powerful people who made them and the solemnity with which they were reported.

[5] She's right, of course, as we must regret the luring of millions into a cult of infantilising fantasy and wish fulfilment.

[6] From an interview in The New Statesman:

Even if it is presented as an alternative, Eimear McBride's novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a prime example of what Rachael Allen diagnoses as an issue in the publishing industry in her superb essay Difficult and Bad: an industry dominated by a middle-class patting itself on the back for its patronage of writers who may otherwise be dismissed as inaccessible but in reality gain industry traction because of its promotion of identity politics, a virtue-hoarding disguise for privileging their class interests. The novel's publisher may be independent but its director worked at The Guardian for many years and conformed to its offensive on Corbyn's mildly social-democratic programme.

For a hugely enjoyable satire on the centrists' favoured writers, I highly recommend Ellis Sharp's novel Concrete Impressions, reviewed here by The Modern Novel.

[7] In my earliest days of reading, attracted by elevated titles, I borrowed a library copy of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory in the 1984 translation by C. Lenhardt and was very taken with a passage preceded by Adorno's observation that reason subsumes suffering under concepts but can never express it: "Therefore, even when it is understood, suffering remains mute and inconsequential":

What recommends itself, then, is the idea that art may be the only remaining medium of truth in age of incomprehensible terror and suffering. As the real world grows dark, the irrationality of art is becoming rational, especially at a time when art is radically tenebrous itself. What the enemies of modern art, endowed with a greater sensitivity than its timid apologists, call the negativity of modern art, is the epitome of all that has been repressed by the established culture. That is indeed the direction in which modern art is moving. By cathecting the repressed, art internalises the repressing principle, i.e. the unredeemed condition of the world, instead of merely airing futile protests against it. Art identifies and expresses that condition, thus anticipating its overcoming. It is this, and not the photographic rendition of the unredeemed state or a false sense of beatitude, that defines the position of authentic modern art towards a gloomy objectivity. Everything else is worthless mawkishness.

I understand that Lenhardt's translation is considered problematic and Robert Hullot-Kentor's 1997 version includes references to Hegel and Brecht featured nowhere above. Compare the final sentences: 

That art enunciates the disaster by identifying with it anticipates its enervation; this, not any photograph of the disaster or false happiness, defines the attitude of authentic contemporary art to a radically darkened objectivity; the sweetness of any other gives itself the lie.

This version leaves me cold. The passage's said faithlessness to the original may also anticipate an overcoming, which in turn suggests a value in theory beyond rational understanding.

[8] Which will be news to those who think Joyce's Ulysses is the key modernist novel. It isn't – it has other qualities – so perhaps she's right. Either way, we declare this is another example of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of modernism endemic in English-speaking literary circles. Cf. an alternative understanding.

[9] Mention of a malicious demon suggests Alice Oswald imagines the threat of Gnosticism behind AI poetry. I've written about this in relation to the novel.

[10] Plato's Phraedrus, translated by Walter Hamilton (Penguin Classics, 1973). Socrates goes on to say "once a thing is committed to writing it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers", a sentiment echoed much later by Lichtenberg in his famous line: "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, don't expect an apostle to peer out."

[11] Judi Dench's performance of a Shakespeare sonnet on a chat show is a fine albeit cringeworthy example.

[12] According to Massimo Recalcati's account, this distrust of absence finds its culmination in God, by way of Christ:

From Jesus’ perspective, there is, in effect, no possible truth without its testimony. That means that the truth of the Word consists in its incarnation alone. It’s the radical ethical hermeneutics of Christianity: the letter without testimony is a dead letter; without heart—without desire—the meaning of the Law can’t be understood.

[13] In Thomas Bernhard's Afterlives. This is cited in Lars Iyer's The Opposite Direction: Taubes, Bernhard and the Gnostic Imaginary in which he suggests a rewrite of Beckett's famous lines: "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" to "nothing to say in this world, nothing to express in this world, no means of expression in this world – nothing, except the obligation of the counterword, the questioning of what is and what is not complicit with the horrors".

[14] In Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France.

[15] Notably from Clive James.


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