James Holden on Heidegger & Light, at Writing Technologies. Please do leave a comment here, or email me, if you have a position on this.
Looks good, I’ll read this today. The expansion of the concept of technology from Gadgetry to Heidegger’s tool-system strikes me as a very good start.
I think the Light/Badiou comparison – evental sites and all that – might be a fruitful one. I’m reading a lot of Badiou at the moment, but I haven’t really quite got the grip on him required. I wonder what someone like Nina Power would make of that connection? (Could always ask her on facebook; or she might read this, I suppose…)
I don’t really have a ‘position’ on this for I do not know Heidegger well enough to make any sort of judgement about how the philosopher is represented by Holden here. My only thoughts were that the piece was too short, and not sufficiently systematic to work as an academic offering (“just what is the internal importance really of the oft-repeated term ‘technology fiction'”, I kept asking myself). There are some fruitful juxtapositions or speculations (I sat up more in my seat when Holden placed greater focus than I had given to the shadow operators – I guess this was also intended to work as a pun – which I had felt were rather whimsical characters) but I couldn’t fundamentally feel the weight of the conclusion for a closer appreciation of ‘Light’ the novel.
In the end, the phrase “Being up to your neck in what you are” probably does more justice to that particular human condition than either ‘being here’ or ‘being there’.
For me, the essay exhibits the plasticity of any text rich in signifiers. As a symbol, “light” bears cargo from a great many discourses, and you could no doubt find traces of them all inscribed in the narrative, according to preference. Holden maps the book through Heidegger; I’d interpret it through Gnosticism, and the Neo-Platonic language Holden draws on.
Perhaps I’m cued by “CotH,” but it seems surprising that Holden fails to interpret “sparks in everything” as a specifically Gnostic formulation; that he doesn’t recognise Sprake’s name as a deliberate, malformed anagram of that formulation, tipping us off about the futility of his alleged magic (“The Gnostics were wrong”); nor that Kearney’s story is a (literalised) ascent from kenomic bewilderment and brutality to enlightenment and absorption by the Absolute – gnosis in its strict, transcendental sense.
I’d be interested to see Holden’s reading of “Light” and “Nova Swing,” too: as sequels, as counterparts.- and if all this shapes what you’re writing now.
As a tangential PS, Heidegger’s thoughts on transparency are one of the starting-points for this recent study of glass and its rhetoric – the allure of breaking shop windows, “Bleak House” as the anti-Crystal Palace, and much else:
I found the article interesting, if slightly disjointed and inconclusive: it meandered, and I often felt connections to the novel were being grasped at a little desperately, then let go of again very quickly. Maybe it would have been more coherent if he’d limited the discussion to the allegory of the cave – I’ve not read Heidegger, but, beyond the discussion on Dasein, I was left thinking little had actually been said beyond ‘light is a metaphor for understanding’, and I’m not sure I need 10 pages of analysis to understand that ‘sparks in everything’ might refer to half-glimpsed truths and ideas.
That’s (painfully obviously) a low-brow interpretation. And I also need to give Light a second reading. I loved it, but raced through it knowing I was missing hundreds of extra connections and meanings. One impression I took away was that it was good to surf for the sheer thrill of it, rather than to get from A to B, and I suppose the article fits with that.
Incidentally: by sheer coincidence, I re-read the Plato yesterday, and I’m currently wearing a t-shirt with a horse’s skull on it.
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I’d never drawn any direct connections between Light and Heidegger before. But another author I appreciate a lot, Walker Percy, drew direct connections between his own work and Heidegger. See this interview snippet for e.g.:
“Interviewer: Freud defines anxiety as the product of intrapsychical conflict. Skinner defines it as a learned behavior. In Zen philosophy, anxiety is an evil to be removed. Heidegger, on the other hand, defines anxiety as ontological, in that it tells us about our humanness. It is for him not a by-product or a learned behavior or something to be avoided. To which of these definitions do you most closely subscribe?
Walker Percy: Check Heidegger. I would agree with him that we do a lot better treating anxiety (some forms, at least) as a kind of beckoning of the self to a self rather than as a symptom of illness. This is why in writing novels I often find that it works to turn things upside-down and to set forth a character -say, a woman with severe free-floating anxiety – as more interesting, more hopeful, possessing greater possibilities than, say, another perfectly adjusted symptom-free woman. To say this is to say a good deal more than that illness is more interesting than health.”
That seems like something that can be brought to bear on the characters of Light. Holden seemed to tiptoe around the “beckoning of the self to a self” issue but never actually articulate it. It may just be that this aspect of Heidegger is compatable with more Gnostic readings though.
I agree, little was concluded, and I wonder if any Heidegger connections (or even the proposal of them) actually obstruct the experience of the reading in their attempt to illumine. Light, for me, has to exist before such an analysis, as a pattern of mere implications: the rivets of a key to a door that’s gone missing. Or a quick succession of strategically placed punches to the soul.
what do you make of it, Mike(JH)?
It’s a reading. I’m not unsympathetic to it (not that I have any right to be sympathetic or unsympathetic, since the book now belongs as much to James Holden as it belongs to me); & it will send me back to Heidegger & phenomenology in general. (“Phenomenology”! The very word is like a bell tolling me etc etc.) But I’m more interested in other people’s views than my own: for instance I felt a very savage delight in Dave’s quote from Walker Percy, which so sums up my own position–also Dave’s sly, “That seems like something that can be brought to bear on the characters of Light.”
Well, you’re allowed to virulently disagree with someone else’s reading, just without the authority of authorship. But as a reader…
George Steiner is very good on Heidegger. (The former started cropping up everywhere in my reading – in my version of the Old Testement, on Heidegger, on language, and now in The Portage of AH To San Cristobal…) I really want to read Graham Harman on Heidegger, though. And Heidegger himself, once I can afford his Selected writing. (£17.99 from the Sussex Uni bookshop? No.)
Well I read it, but I’m not sure I’m much the wiser. I tend to come at light (and perhaps “Light” too) from more of a physics angle.
Hmmm, Plato’s cave – never been happy with that one; I’m with David Hume and Aristotle – perception comes before ideas. The whole “emerging from the cave” thing makes me think of Chinese Ed coming out of his VR tank more than anything. But maybe that’s too obvious.
The article did draw my attention to something I missed when reading the book – that early mention of it apparently snowing, raining and sleeting at the same time. This would seem to suggest simultaneous presence of phenomena that we normally consider mutually exclusive. I guess this is a clever foreshadowing of the “everything is possible” physics of the Kefahuchi Tract.
The shadow operators were one of my favourite aspects of “Light”. I suppose I never looked for any deep metaphorical significance for them; just liked the idea of these disembodied AIs, something like super-advanced cellular automata using exotic particles as a substrate.
MJH: Off-topic, for which apologies. All this has prompted me to begin re-reading “Light”. Apart from the knock-on-the-head pleasure of the uncanny appositeness of almost every turn of phrase, which still gets me drawing breath, I was wondering about your writing technique as a result. The image of Brian Tate slowing down the “Kielpinski space – of an ion-pair” had me wondering – how do you deliberately go about, which I imagine is the case, decelerating the psyche, the built-up sense-impressions, the trains of thought enough to get at them descriptively? The reader (me) can recognize and appreciate the ticker-tape depiction of what is ever only usually only half-perceived or guessed at, since the underlying events are too complex to be steadily or reliably observed. The process of getting that precise one-at-a-time correspondence with internal states must involve some kind of sustained staking out?
Hi MikeM. The simple–if a little evasive–answer is that I’m not sure any more.
When I began trying to do it, I was very aware of the process, because it was a struggle. Now I’m like some old guy turning wooden chair legs in 1692. Those foot-peddled, bow-driven lathes were insanely difficult to handle, but after forty years…
A less evasive answer might be that I’m used to doing something similar to my own processes, often from a quite dissociated position. Not very healthy, don’t try it at home.
The technical answer is that, of course, that’s not what’s being done at all. In fact it’s the opposite: I don’t slow anything down & examine it & then describe it. I build it up, in layers, so that you can have the sensation of examining it. I’m helped in that by not believing in “characterisation”, ie the rationalisation of fictional events by “motive”.
Is that what you meant ? Anyway, if it is, all of that & more.
MJH, I don’t know what I had imagined would be the answer,to be honest but:
“I build it up, in layers, so that you can have the sensation of examining it. ”
was the knockout punch!
Thanks for the insights. I’ve wondered. Marveled and envied, to be honest 🙂 Just finished rereading Light too, realized this time that I’ve read very few if any other novels, SF or other wherin so much good stuff- characterization, setting, a wealth of ideas, the workings of things- was so densely packed, and yet the writing is such easy reading. A pleasure, and instructive about the craft. Looking forward to reacquainting with Vic and Liv and those notebooks next.
Mmn. Just reread what you said about characterization, rationalization of fictional events by motive. Blew right past that the first time, or I’d probably have tried to think of a better word.
Still can’t, though. Hard, that, some mornings 🙂
I’ve always hoped to produce characters, but without “characterising” them, ie ticking the boxes of a pre-planned trait paradigm. I never ask, “Would X or Y do this ? Is in in their ‘character’?” because that is a fatuous question, appropriate only to Agatha Christie readers & Hollywood scriptwriters. Instead I encourage them to do actions. In the case of “realistic” characters, those actions are based on real-world events & exchanges from my notebooks; but these real events are bolted on to one another intuitively–the logic of them is poetic & emotional. I have a compulsive interest in certain real-world people–key figures in periods of my life–which returns in characters like Choe Ashton, the Sprakes & Anna Kearney.
In the case of non-mimetic characters, I let my intuition range broadly. I have no idea how a completely invented “person” in a “world” like Viriconium might be expected to “think or “feel”; what their “motives” might be: because I cannot see into their world. But they can do actions. In real life, when we interpret “character”, all we do is assemble peoples’ actions into a story that suits our own motives–motives which, if you pay attention to Thomas Metzinger & others, simply don’t exist except as hindsight rationales for biologically determined behaviour of our own. I think one of the big indicators of difference between JRR Tolkien & Mervyn Peake is that Peake had some innate understanding of that. All of Tolkien’s characters are driven by the big predictable Western trait paradigms, derived & filled from two or three thousand years of naturalised ideology. Peake’s characters are closer to being fallen. They’re macabre, complex, self-contradictory, self-defeating, like people in the spoiled, unsimplified world.
Some of my livelier characters are made by compiling real-world observations of “disordered” behaviour along what you might call a political axis. Much of the “characterisation” in the Viriconium stories, for instance, came from not being able to see the difference between the individual rituals devised by “insane” people & the cultural rituals supported as focal behaviour by whole societies. Most ritual is completely barking. Thus, to a degree (other things were being done too), Mammy Vooley’s court, where ritual is exactly the same kind of political glue as you saw in Edwardian England. Rituals are like hats; you only have to blink a couple of times to realise that all hats–secular, religious, “practical”, whatever–are barking mad. There is no such thing as a sane hat.
Other characters are parodic or metafictional–they’re assembled for purposes of literary comment. But I guess whether they’re metafictional, mimetic or surreal, they’re always anchored by those Heideggeran/phenomenological concerns to do with “being there” or not.
I love being here, wherever that is.
Mike, thanks much for this. Good stuff, lots of it, and all useful. For whatever it’s worth- Re-examining lately what I’ve learned over the years about making drawings and how some of those things may translate more than I’d realized to fiction. One challenge I’ve struggled with as an artist has been the compulsion to overpolish. Killed a lot of drawings, overpolishing. Obviously eliminating inconsistencies is needful to a point, especially in the small tight formats I work in for the most part. But taking that too far, making values or textures too uniform bleeds both those kinds of contrasts out of a piece, and an image’s contrasts are its heart and life. I’ve come to see most of what attracts or works for me in terms of contrast: An edgy interesting place comprised mostly of stone and sky or stone and water; the pacing of two long sentences setting up, punctuated by a short one. All about the contrasts between characteristics of elements. But realizing lately there’s a lot more to examine in those terms, like- as you mentioned- what sometimes seem inconsistencies of characterization. Seeing those things that seem, as you said, self-contradictory, as another kind of contrast, and opportunity to maximize potential value. Not saying any of this very well, and all baby steps still. But then, that’s another lesson from the drawing: I expect I’ll always feel as thought I’m just beginning again, and that’s no bad thing. Apologies for rambling, and again, thanks for taking the time to lay out these approaches and elements of process so clearly. I’ll be making use.
“I can’t believe that,” Liv Hula said. Immediately she was tidying up inside, planning to stay back inside herself away from the fact of it. But Irene kept repeating in her disorganized way, “He’s dead this time, that’s all,” which made it hard to dissociate.
-is so good.
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