Monday, 16 August 2010

Of space and time

I've been reading Fredric Jameson's "The End of Temporality":

Jameson is truly the Master, a model of the cultural critic at the turn of the millennium, as well as a writer who demonstrates that subtle and sophisticated thought will never be easy to read but has no reason being utterly impenetrable (cf Bhabha, Butler and the rest).

He notes that modernism foregrounded the theme of time (Woolf, Bergson) and postmodernism, space. Well, what about digimodernism, one might ask? This is akin to some of the pairings in Ihab Hassan's famous list of binaries where the qualities of modernism were placed over against the characteristics of postmodernism. If within a thematic there are logically only two possibilities, and modernism is clearly over, and postmodernism clearly followed it, does this mean that the more recent moment will be with us forever, there being no other options?

I would reply that digimodernism does not choose to focus on either time or space in this manner, but that it combines and enmeshes two relatively new definitions of both. "Real time" and "cyberspace" are the twin axes of digimodernism. The digimodern appears at the intersection of the two. It's not so much a matter of choosing one term or the other, but first redefining then superimposing them.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

New article on "post-postmodernism"

Here's the link to an article I've published today in today's "Times Higher Educational Supplement":

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


I've just come back from a few days in Paris, where I lived from 1990 to 1999. It can be hard to discuss one's perceptions of foreign places, because there's no other subject on which confirmation bias more acutely skews and finally devastates any attempt at rational debate. People build up from the culture around them a set of assumptions and beliefs about other countries or cities or peoples over a period of years or decades; they then go and visit the actual foreign place for a couple of days, and in practice don't have time to do much more than note confirmations of those stereotypes. The dominant English myth of France and Paris is overwhelmingly positive, to the degree that it constitutes what Orwell described as "transferred nationalism": considering France/Paris the flower of civilisation, culture, sophistication and beauty, the English tend to be fervent patriots for another country. They also tend to have a lower opinion of French politicians and their policies, but then French nationalists who are actually French share this bifurcation between a worship of "France" and a hatred of its current political elite. It's integral to the Francophilia that prevails in England that it should consider itself radical and non-conformist, proudly and individualistically going against the supposed grain of English Francophobia. In practice, England is absolutely packed wall to wall with Francophiles, each of whom fondly imagines him/herself a fearless rebel. This is reinforced by a tendency of the British media only to report on European news when there is violence involved (avalanches, train wrecks, terrorism, riots), or when it can be contrasted with Britain as a stick to hit the latter with. So we hear a lot about France's "cafe culture" as a superior alternative to British binge drinking; but we don't hear that road deaths in France are far higher than in Britain largely due to a greater social tolerance of drunk driving. As I found in the 1990s, anyone telling the English things about France that don't fit into their preconceived myths of a sub-Channel paradise is taking their life in their hands (figuratively speaking, on the whole).

Still, this is my blog, and I'd like to mention a few perceptions I had of Paris when I visited it this month. For one thing, I noticed that Parisians were considerably fatter than in the 1990s and much less well dressed. The first of these can be attributed to the recent and worldwide wave of obesity which, though it may have struck America and Britain hardest, will necessarily also hit everywhere else to the extent that it's caused by economic pressures. The second may be due to the globalisation of fashion standardising dress worldwide and thereby eliminating any local advantage; it wouldn't then be so much that the quality of Parisian style had relatively declined, as that it had become much the same as the dress anywhere else. The point here is that economic globalisation has changed Paris too; this is not Paris as mythical paradise but as another place in the same world (it has far more CCTV now, too).

More relevantly to the subject of this blog, the most startling perception I had was that the material substance of Paris, its architecture and look, had not changed at all. In Oxford where I live buildings are constantly being torn down and areas redeveloped; I was in London twice last summer and both times noticed how vastly different it looked to when I lived there in 1986-89, both through redevelopment and through cultural and social change. Paris, on the contrary, looked, at least in its centre, exactly the way it did when I arrived there 20 years ago; it seemed to be set in aspic. Many French expatriates I know would link this to the conservatism they now think typifies the country. The rhythm of change in France tends to be either non-existent or brutal, and just as central Paris was mostly and traumatically invented by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s, and just as it was revolutionised culturally in the 1950s-70s by the mass displacement of the white working-class (the people seen in Doisneau's photos and pre-war films) out of the city into the suburbs, and just as the city is periodically subjected to grandiose Presidential building projects, so Paris seems incapable of any kind of gradual evolution. Either total overhaul, or stagnation. And while Paris is certainly beautiful enough already not to need drastic reshaping, it looked to my eye shabby, dilapidated, in desperate need of some kind of rejuvenation.

Why does this matter for digimodernism? Because Paris was the undisputed home of modernism, and the slightly disputed home of postmodernism (it certainly provided the latter's theorists - see the Ecole Normale above - though most of the cultural and social developments were better exemplifed in America or Japan). In the late 19th century, when Haussmann's Paris was dazzlingly new, it provided the perfect backdrop for an all-new art; in the interwar years and even in the 1950s-60s the city offered museums full of the old culture while embodying an instance of the modern overthrowing the past which funnelled into revolutions of all kinds. Today, Paris seems like yesterday's city, a feeling reinforced by the post-1997 movement of hundreds of thousands of young French people to London and England as well as by the corresponding shift of so many middle-aged and elderly English people to France - demographic shift over the past ten years has constructed England as the location of energy and enterprise and France, to put it rudely, as the home of the clapped out.

Where then is digimodernism's home? It may well not have one; or rather, it may be integral to digimodernism that physical location is of minor importance. The epitome of this might be the message board, with its pseudonymous contributors posting their views via computers across the planet. Textually digimodernism is everywhere and nowhere, and it has no geographical centre. Visiting the capital of the 19th century (in Benjamin's description) and of most of the 20th brought this home very vividly.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Alan speaks

I'm giving a talk at the University of Gloucestershire next week on postmodernism, digimodernism and related subjects. Here's the poster:

Religion, Philosophy and Ethics
Research Seminars
Semester 2, 2010

Dr Alan Kirby ‘The Arguable Death of Postmodernism, and Beyond?’
5.30 on Thursday 25th February
Francis Close Hall in room TC006b
All Welcome
Alan Kirby holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Exeter. He is a writer and researcher in twentieth-century literature and culture. He has published on subjects including Stephen Poliakoff, John Fowles, spy fiction, and James Joyce. He currently lives in Oxford. Digimodernism (2009) is his most recent book available from Continuum

Thursday, 21 January 2010

One culture? Snow melts away

I withdrew Two Cultures by C. P. Snow (left) from the library the other day. I was curious about a book (originally lecture) I'd heard so much about in my lifetime, especially during 2009 which was the fiftieth anniversary of its first publication. Reading it, though, was a cringe-inducing experience: it's basically a mind-numbingly simple contention, undeveloped and unsupported, voiced in a breezily vapid, implicitly exclusive, we're-all-at-Cambridge tone. His contention is that Britain's world-class scientists don't know much about the arts, and Britain's most sophisticated arts specialists don't know much about science, and this is a bad thing. Why this should be a bad thing, he doesn't say. It doesn't seem to occur to Snow that mastering nuclear physics or the history of the middle ages is such an immense and difficult task that it leaves no time for certain other pursuits. In the late 1950s and 1960s, as Terry Eagleton says, Oxbridge scholars still employed people to enter the room they were sitting in and turn a switch located next to their ankles; had Snow known that a time would soon come when many academics would do their own laundry, he might have despaired. You wonder also what he thought about the state of the average academic's marriage or the quality of his/her child-rearing. Instead, he seems to assume that academics have virtually infinite amounts of time on their hands, and that if they don't bury themselves in intellectual pursuits outside their specialism then this is due only to a silly and, for some reason, harmful prejudice of theirs.

Still, however vacuous and worthless the original piece is (and its fame and success ram home really how bankrupt British post-war intellectual life was), it sparked off thoughts related to digimodernism. Snow divides up the world into factual and fictive domains: the former is epitomized for him by the physical sciences and the latter by literature. He wants chemists to read Dickens and literature dons to know about Boyle's law. It might be argued, from a digimodernist perspective, that this separation, this gulf, has been healed under the auspices of digital technology. You might say that our sense of the actual world beyond us is derived from and generated by blogs and Wikipedia and Facebook and Twitter, while our fiction is dominated by videogames and videogame-derived CGI or post-CGI films like Avatar. Television and radio are reformulated in the direction of Web 2.0; narrative is reshaped according to the modes of the Internet. This unity of fact and fiction under digitization is, from one angle, the whole argument of Digimodernism.

In this case, the intellectual areas regarded by Snow as central would be marginalized in favour of the digital or the digitized. You might expect to see universities closing down their Chemistry or Physics departments from lack of take up, along with their classics or modern languages or classical music or theology departments. Literature would increasingly be studied in the form of film or videogames or television or the Web. The campus would turn away from the physical sciences and the pre-digital humanities, and embrace instead subjects like media studies, IT, Web development...

It's obvious that something of this sort has happened and is happening. It might be premature though to talk of a new unified culture emerging under digitization, not least because its fictions, at least so far, are so comparatively weak. For Snow, fiction means David Copperfield; for digitization, it means Grand Theft Auto. But if the digimodernist hypothesis is correct, this is broadly the path we're heading along.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Capital Flyte

I've been watching the 1981 ITV serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I've never seen it, though I've always loved ITV's Brass which was made in 1983 and is to a certain extent a parody of it (and much more). It's probably just as well I didn't see it when it was first screened as I probably would never have applied to Oxford if I had. In fact, it pulls off the odd trick of giving a pretty good sense of the feel of life as an Oxford undergraduate, while at the same time profoundly misrepresenting what the university is really like. It suggests that Oxford is a beautiful, peaceful place populated by aristocrats with a mental age of five, and this is only about 15% of the truth. The majority of Oxford students are serious, hard-working, hard-drinking, emotionally repressed, distant, very ordinary, and very clever young people almost all situated toward the bottom of the autistic spectrum. Being amongst them is hugely stimulating and enriching, but there's also a constant sense of pressure and intellectual stress. Oxford itself institutionally is just weird, like nowhere else on earth.

It's an apposite time to be watching this adaptation, for two reasons. Trivially, the critics of The Guardian have just named it the greatest British TV drama of all time, and the world's second greatest (after The Sopranos). I think this is insanely overrating it, but that's not my focus here. Politically, it's interesting to watch it as Britain edges ever closer to a government composed almost entirely, like one of Sebastian Flyte's luncheon parties, of Old Etonians. I did my finals in 1988 in the same room as David Cameron, and remember meeting Boris Johnson (or rather hearing his then-stupefying accent) in 1984. A quarter of a century later they stand on the brink of running the country. The oddity is, though, that this serial could not possibly be made by British television today; while politically the Flyte tribe is poised for power, culturally it has never been more marginal.

The question is about the relationship between political factors and cultural production. How do films, TV programmes, books etc. reflect the political context of their time? When it was first screened, Brideshead Revisited was held, with Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and The Jewel in the Crown, to exemplify a nostalgic-repressive Thatcherite-Conservative agenda to roll Britain back to pre-war days, to undo the Attlee government's revolutions and re-establish the imperialistic, class-ridden and individualist values and politics of the 1920s and 30s. The serial gladly embraces a superannuated poshness: cut-glass accents, campy speech patterns, mincing gait and precious poses, in-references to a tiny and exclusive milieu, and an assumption of immense and unearned privilege. It was easy to see this in 1981 - especially since the source novel is bathed in nostalgia for a lost golden age - as the television embodiment of a Tory desire to return to the days when Britain was "great", whether Victorian or pre-Welfare state.

However, the serial could only have been made the way it was in a television landscape that Thatcher hated and set out, ultimately successfully, to dismantle. It's Reithian: it makes the good popular; it educates and entertains at the same time. Its financing relies on the monopoly position of the BBC and ITV: untold sums of money were thrown at it, enabling it to become, at 11 hours or two minutes per page, proportionately the longest TV adaptation ever made, and saturating every shot with props from Sothebys and famous and expensive actors (Gielgud and Olivier in cameos!). Various stately homes and Oxford colleges, Venice, Gozo and life aboard the QE2 are all lavishly and lovingly recorded. Nowadays there would not be ten per cent of the funding for such an adaptation, which would be one third of its length, mostly studio-shot, and cast TV actors unknown outside Britain.

Thatcher herself, it turned out, hated the Flyte set as much as any member of the Attlee government had. She turned the Conservative party inside out, marginalizing the aristocrats and the public schoolboys and promoting men, as Martin Amis said, with names like Keith and Norman - she was very keen on Jews, unlike Waugh's creations. The one character in Brideshead Revisited who would have thrived in Thatcher's Conservative Party and indeed her Britain is Rex Mottram, the Canadian whom Waugh treats as a sort of half-human joke. She had no time at all for the Anthony Blanches of her party, and spent her first few years as Prime Minister sacking them.

Thirty years on, Britain is turning back to the Etonians and landed gentry who ran and owned the country in the 1930s, and whom Thatcher ruthlessly sidelined. Since Thatcher broke the monopoly of the BBC and ITV and opened the TV landscape to market forces and infinite numbers of channels, it no longer has a TV industry financially capable of producing something so opulent and sumptuous as the 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited. But culturally too tastes have shifted. The habits and destinies of the upper-middle-class and aristocracy are no longer assumed to be interesting and valuable in themselves; solemn and tireless fidelity to a source novel (even one that is very good, and great in parts) and to a vanished historical era is no longer considered by adaptors as a worthwhile goal. A couple of years ago Waugh's novel was adapted for the cinema by people who elected to show Charles and Sebastian as an explicitly gay couple.

This is a complex pattern of associations. I am now, like Cameron and Johnson, of the age of Charles Ryder at the start of his reminiscences, and also inclined to look back at my time at Oxford, a time which was equally that of the filming of Brideshead Revisited. As a TV production fetishizing the aristocracy, a literary novel, and cultural production untouched by the market, the serial reflects the values of the interwar years actually overthrown by the dominant politics of its own time. And while the social descendants of the serial wait in the wings to take political control once again of a country they have never ceased to own, so they have been driven off the cultural radar except in their historical guise. British TV today is cash-oriented and middle-class or below if contemporary; aesthetes and those from higher social positions appear in the distant past, and then with little concern for accuracy. This all suggests that cultural production reflects political contexts ambiguously and in more complicated ways than we sometimes like to imagine. There is a lesson there for any historical attempt to understand culture.

Friday, 8 January 2010


There's yet another take on the world after postmodernity/the culture after postmodernism. After digimodernism, performatism, complexism, hypermodernity and the altermodern comes... automodernity. Robert Samuels has just published New Media, Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory after Postmodernism: Automodernity from Zizek to Laclau . Obviously I haven't read it yet; Amazon has this to say about it:

This book argues that we have moved into a new cultural period, automodernity, which represents a social, psychological, and technological reaction to postmodernity. In fact, by showing how individual autonomy is now being generated through technological and cultural automation, Samuels posits that we must rethink modernity and postmodernity. Part of this rethinking entails stressing how the progressive political aspects of postmodernism need to be separated from the aesthetic consumption of differences in automoderntiy. Choosing culturally relevant studies of The Matrix, Grand Theft Auto, Eminem and Jurassic Park, he interprets these medias through the lens of eminent theorists like Slavoj Zizek, Frederic Jameson, and Henry Jenkins. Ultimately, he argues that what defines postmodernity is the stress on social construction, secular humanism, and progressive social movements that challenge the universality and neutrality of modern reason.

Another one for the reading pile, I think.