“Darling, why do you work?” my Grandmother once asked me. A very good question. A very good question indeed. This was when I was twenty and I had no good answer for her.
So I stopped working (not that I had ever done very much) and decided to devote my time to observational research into that which coincides, collides, coalesces, constellates, or helps me learn how strange things really are; or might get. I simply insist that there is more. Thirteen years on and my understanding is sketchy at best, embryonic, but I have hope – where one’s mind goes, so it grows… You never know, one day I might generate a critical mass that makes me dematerialise with joy.
On top of a pile of things on my desk I have a newspaper clipping from the New Zealand Herald back in May about a court-case proceeding against a group of West Auckland gang members and associates charged with the large-scale manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine. That in itself was not remarkable – it’s a bull market – but it was the character of the supposed ring leader that caught my attention. The jury listened to 600 hours of transcribed telephone calls recorded in his living-room, and on this tape they heard him call himself a time-traveller. Moreover, he later stated to Police, “We can liken ourselves to all types of beasts. You can liken me to the kingfish.”
Research to me is a jewel, but it is another man’s delinquency. How could any different outcome but delinquency be expected from calling someone Dorothy? From then on it was all yellow brick roads through poppy fields. Dorothy was also the name of my great aunt, known as Totty, the youngest of a family of fading aristocrats. She gassed herself in Napier as an elderly lady tired of looking after her invalid husband. Dorothy used to cast spells, was part of an illegal Mah Jong school, and pioneered “wee resties”, a daily habit I would like to see become a cultural treasure. But what care have I when I am entertaining a most enjoyable suspicion that even the way we experience time is changeable. Considering topics like this is surely a more interesting occupation than, for example, tedious old real estate.
Capitalism, it is convincingly argued see, for example, Negri’s Time for Revolution I. altered the fabric of the time of life so that it merely became time-as-measure. But how can one study time? Such a study requires time itself, so it becomes a tautology of the order of subjects like neurology and how it studies the brain with a brain; or photography that addresses itself as trope; or eating jellied tongues. Perhaps, I am venturing, the greatest advances in the study of time are being made by those society writes off, namely criminals. Maybe by virtue of eschewing dead labour (jobs, conventional decorum, being excited and hypervigilant, hyperassociative states are available. I have a distinct feeling that these states provide a certain potential for temporal plasticity.
Negri himself was labelled a criminal and jailed by the Italian (modern Roman) government as a consequence of direct political action. I would hasten to add at this point that I do not wish to be associated with the general bourgeois (if you will forgive the use of Marxist terms by one committed to genteel poverty) fascination with crime. I have taken pains to cultivate actual involvement with works of crime in an affectionate and empathetic manner. In the mainstream, the public tends to glorify crime, and thrill at the works of art that picture it. But paradoxically, criminals themselves are despised. I take seriously the traitor Jean Genet’s request that artists not take crime and use it as ornament.
Yesterday (or should I say ‘yesterday’?) I noticed a newsprint poster in a wire cage outside a dairy saying ‘drugs case collapses’ and I wondered if this meant the proceedings against the men I had been reading about. Perhaps the chaos generated by the group had rendered processing them impossible. Or perhaps time travel had played a part in this evasion of the so-called Operation Flower. If so, how had it worked? The first thing that comes to mind as I ponder time manipulation is a site-spell involving drawing a kingfish with an Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music pencil on the back of a detective’s business card and putting it in a German hardware store’s plastic bag with the store’s squirrel mascot on it and then tying it to an elm tree in winter in which an escaped caged bird had been sighted.
I construct spells automatically, following obediently as I do the tenets of Pure Psychic Automatism. More considered models for time machines have of course been provided by physicists, and latterly, theorists]. But they are not the only ones to have done so. Embracing cryptofetishism as a form – the yin-yang complement to ficto-criticism – Auckland artist Daniel Malone put forward his “12 models for time travel” in Log Illustrated in 2000. The most compelling of these to me was his 12th: “A silk handkerchief is folded in half six times and a lit cigarette used to burn a hole through every surface resulting in 32 holes.” I especially like the silk handkerchief component to Malone’s model as it is a dandifying accessory. I like to imagine our time-traveller with one. He then would correspond with both of Baudelaire’s modern types – “criminals and dandies”.
If time-travel indeed has something to do with speed, perhaps there is a burgeoning time-travel movement here in New Zealand – long a country of pioneers of gutter drugs, as substances like methamphetamine are known by virtue of being manufactured at home in makeshift labs. It appears we are a nation of people with fairly plain tastes and tolerance for all sorts of crudeness and neglect, as evidenced in our architecture. Take the police stations in our main centres, for example. Their design is prefabricated in style at best, except the newish one in Dunedin with its unfortunate neo-Nazi stylings. When I look at this building, or buildings like it, I think of the Sylvia Plath poem “Every Woman Loves a Fascist”.
I am presently considering researching the tension between the overdesigned cars of the New Zealand police and their woefully underdesigned uniforms; mainly in terms of an extension of Albert Loos’ Ornament and Crime . i.e, “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects”. I say mainly, as I deviate from Loos somewhat; I am not interested in demonising crime. It is merely my contention that their ridiculously ornamental cars make the police somewhat criminal themselves. I have a friend who thinks that the tyre-track pattern on their cars makes them look like they have been symbolically run-over. By their own denial maybe.
This conflation of police and crime should come as no surprise as, after all, there is no crime without the police. For this reason, it has been argued that the police should stay out of vice, and that governments should quit asking them to. [The great sexologist Wilhelm Reich, in T_he Discovery of the Orgone: the Function of the Orgasm_, wrote that “compulsive morality and pathological sexuality go hand in hand”.) But they can’t stay out of it -the police love crime, we’ve seen their excited eyes. Genet himself, the proud petty criminal, fantasised about policemen for this very reason - he saw his own intense criminal desires mirrored in crime-aroused gendarmes. He surely wrote for the police too when he said “I prepared for my adventure as one arranges a couch or a room for love; I was hot for crime”. (I have also recently discovered that Genet was once arrested and imprisoned for stealing silk handkerchiefs.)
I feel that the neon and pastel excesses of Miami Vice expresses the policeman’s condition best. In each episode we see the cop’s powerlessness over his desire for action and his pain acted out to Phil Collins ballads. These Michael Mann-directed alternative music videos surely spell out how “hot for crime” we are as a people given the popularity of the crap cop show as a genre. Which is why it was weird that I heard a romance novelist say this on the radio yesterday: “People who read romance want romance in their lives. People who read crime fiction want justice. Bunk! They want crime.”
But back to he-who-shall-be-likenedto-a-kingfish. I have been considering, in terms of typography, illuminated first letters, specifically the letter I. They are perfect for getting across the self-centredness what I imagine to be the time-traveller’s sad reality – being an entity hurtling through whatever it is that time-travellers hurtle through. [Speaking of time-travel, one of the strippers at The White House calls herself Delorian. I wish for a polystyrene or cardboard Back to the Future GMC Dalorian as a prop for her. But, illuminations aside, plain writing with no special effects is a mysterious and powerful act of intention in itself. Language is indeed a powerful entity – it wasn’t for nothing that Wittgenstein called schizophrenia “the bewitchment of our intelligence by language”.
Words are the basis of most spells after all; at the very least things can be brought into and out of existence by writing them down - you are welcome to try. The ancients knew this; and it has only been since the Enlightenment that the supposedly unenlightened have been encouraged to write. Literacy may be desirable in terms of the demands of “civilisation” (read global capital). But there have doubtlessly been harmful invocations perpetrated by those unaware of the power of the written word, for example, unwitting art historians. Salvador Dali had specific opinions on this matter – in Dali on Dali he wrote “Instead of writing a history of Art, I am writing the Art of History, since all art historians are ·average cretins with the exception of your humble servant”.
Last night I was out walking in the full moon looking for signs. I am always on the lookout, but the full moon seems to thin the thickness between me and the place or plane from which I receive information. To be clear, they are scrambled messages at best, hardly hard facts. [On a tangent, the other day I noticed on the cardboard box a data projector had been in, that the French term for this piece of equipment is <projecteur des données>. Donnée as in givens, giving, gift, as well as information. A strict French mistress at high school continues to pay off; even if she did make me sit in an oversized cardboard box made for a fridge as punishment for talking. My fondest memory there was using aquarelle pencils and spit to colour in my illustrated edition of Bonjour Tristesse as we read out loud.)
I am presently on the lookout for a new familiar – things are just not working without one. It may take some time, but I am prepared to wait for it to make itself apparent. I am out looking, but I know, deep in my heart of hearts, that it is not the time. A feeling of sadness washed over me as I caught sight of a neon sign on top of an early ‘90s corporate building that spelled out URS, which is French for bear, and which was also one of my nicknames for my dear old dog. I know we are still psychically connected as when writing to a friend to say how sad I was now that she was gone, I got a strong olfactory hallucination of grass-clippings – this is what her paws often smelled of.
Seeing the URS sign reminded me of being out walking by the river in Christchurch and walking past a skip outside someone’s house. I don’t normally look in them, but on this occasion I felt compelled to. On top of things that had been stripped out of a house being renovated was a small brown ceramic bear lying on its back chewing its foot. It had a beautiful egg-shell glaze and upon turning it over I discovered it was Danish studio pottery. Ah, Denmark, land of the midnight sun, paganism, Vikings, liberal post-academic schooling that does not favour marking… All areas of subject concentration, however spurious, are pregnant with possibilities for psychic traction. (Made mental note to use ceramic bear in my next incantation.)
Another thing I noticed out walking in the full moon was something I thought was very sad. There are banners out in Mayoral Drive, by the Auckland City Council, that read “Auckland, a great place to work”. The imperative to work is stronger than ever – indeed poverty and mental health have become moral issues – as people try to protect themselves with cash/asset buffers. From what I can make out, the stress hormones generated by working mean that people are not in the right headspace to receive information from other realms. Work leaves people trapped in the waking world, unable to feel their spirits; it also makes people neglectful friends as Bob Black pointed out in Semiotext(e)America.
Half a block west on Mayoral Drive on the Cook Street corner is the Auckland Central Police Station, an edifice built in an extremely odd style – a combination of the aforementioned disarmingly plain institutional architecture from, I guess, the 1960s, but with odd pagoda-esque flyaway roof stylings. These features are not believably orientalist as the latent racism of the interior spaces makes the decoration look more sarcastic than desirous. What makes this even stranger is that one block over is Greys Avenue, the site of the city’s old Chinatown - a place of gambling and opium dens and, in the 1990s, a century on, the address of several morphine dealers I am told. An odd pile-up of incident indeed, and more so given that apparently 100 milligram tablets are known as “greys” according to one of my sources.
(As an aside, on the subject of the Chinese history of New Zealand, my Great-Aunt Eunice had a secret. As a young woman, her family ran a market garden in what is now residential Epsom. She took one of their Chinese labourers as her lover and installed him in a dirt-floored room beneath their house. I would think of her as I weeded in my parents’ garden in suburban north-west Christchurch, a 1960s suburb under the prevailing wind’s cloud arch. Raspberry canes would still spring up, and the odd Chinese coin would be found harking back to the time when the district was Chinese raspberry farms. What I wouldn’t give for a back-in-time-camera.)
Towards my second book, a real potboiler, I am presently developing a character, a forensic pathologist who I imagine works at the Auckland police station. In contrast to those in TV, she just doesn’t care. She would not follow leads, but instead close up bodies before anyone else noticed anything untoward, and leave work early. Once home, she is a neglectful parent, and does nothing for her community at all. My choice to make this character a woman I think has something to do with how women are supposed to be nurturing, nice, kind, and good. In other words I chose to give her the emancipation to be corrupt.
When I read newspaper accounts of crimes perpetrated by women, I notice measures of societal harshness, prescriptiveness, and suspicion towards my sex. Also a marked lack of interest in the background to crime - e.g. not just the usual sexual abuse, violence, neglect, addiction and other mental illnesses, but more generally how the world drives people crazy and then punishes them most inhospitably for being sick (like in Samuel Butler’s olde novel Erewhon, set in the South Island, a then futuristic place where many societal ideals were reversed). I think that the evil of the self-help industry is one of the things at the stem of these continuing recriminations. And at the root of this industry, in turn, is the American ideal of individual responsibility. It depends on this assertion: “It is your fault, this neurosis.”
Counter to this, in a book about Katherine Mansfield on the subject of writing and madness, I found a readymade haiku: . Her work has been talked about in terms of the fragment as form, or more properly the fragmentation of women’s experience and the attendant “temporal problems”. NB. These cannot be outrun by being a tomboy; instead, like all things we are taught to be afraid of, they should be exploited as possible conditions for timetravel.
Reading about shock treatment in the Listener I thought of my last visit to the site of the old Seacliff mental hospital. Many of the original buildings were gone by this stage, including the huge brick Victorian institution main building. Among the extant buildings was a small one-storey modernist one that contained the remains of a huge mainframe computer. To me, it was an extraordinary processing sculptural presentation: the thing about insanity is that it does not make sense, by definition. However, it does not mean that one does not continue to try and to process the situation.
I was interested in Mansfield’s, and other famous “crazy” women’s stories as a sort of reverse to nostalgia; nostalgia being a warm feeling for something that never happened. I tend to prefer real feelings for something that actually happened. Warm feelings are still possible as evinced by how summer is ete in French, and also the past participle of being. Being based on a true story is so important because “in the midst of this world which has become blurred and ungraspable, the passage of history becomes a primary element” according to Seigfried Kracauer in his 1927 essay “‘The Biography as an Art Form”. He recommended biography in the interests of absolving oneself from
‘‘subjective arbitrariness” as a writer. (This is not to say, however, that the novel has become an artistic genre of the past. It might conceivably be resurrected in a new form appropriate to the confused world, which would mean that confusion itself would acquire an epic form.)
It is difficult indeed for any individual to raise one’s head from the miasma of quotation that is the legacy of photographic thinking, myself most definitely included. One can never really escape the cliché in photography I thought as I took my disposable panoramic camera my mother had given me to take to Venice up to Ponsonby Road to be developed. That is the easy and hard thing about photography – every photograph is a cliché. (Bad karma for soul stealing?)
And sure enough, semantics reflects the situation. According to my secondbest French dictionary cliché verre is an old-fashioned printmaking term and it is this usage that lead to the coining of cliché to mean redundancy and commonplaceness. It was also still in French usage until at least the 1950s as a term for photographic negatives, and the metal casing of a stereotype or electrotype; also for a hackneyed phrase or opinion. But upon further discussion, I think I am of the opinion that photography is always a cliché for reasons other than its process – it has such a very rigorous set of formal conventions.
So, I hear you ask, how do I live? How very American of you. There is no family fortune any longer, so I had to invoke one. I have a decent earn coming in from a couple of ideas I put to work, one of which is an income from my ridiculous first novel called The Futurist. This took the world, if not by storm, by a nice sunny day with light wizard-like clouds. My trick was to make it an unstated assemblage of things people like. Like how most people get really curious about what notes on windscreens say. Or how ears prick when someone we don’t know is arguing. This book reads like a vehicle being driven too fast over rough terrain – flawed, but more-ish; like Ritalin.
Another lucky thing is that I pay no rent as I am a caretaker for a historic building, a big house built by a merchant the century before last. I am sure my favourite room in this building was styled on an opium den. (Curiously, there is a chemist shop in the gully at the bottom of the hill that has, several times now, had very sweet window displays using promotional material from the YSL company for their perfume Opium. I wonder what the people collecting their Methadone think of it. I wonder if they sniff the testers sadly.) Not that this interpretation is a feature of the guided tour that invades my privacy briefly on a daily basis. Members of the public are taken about and shown various details such as the spinster daughter’s bedroom. On its walls are her watercolours of mountaintops attributed to her passion for mountain-climbing.
That she was a lesbian is not part of the tour either, nor was her true love mentioned as an ex-resident of this house. Their ghosts are about and I think of them as Juliet and Juliet and imagine them reaching out to each other as if touching their reflections. Baudrillard said in the late 60s that mirrors needed psycho-sociological analysis as they were, in his opinion, on the way out. Along with the family photograph - both casualties of the surging frontline of the modern he thought. Then came the 1970s and the modern went all spooky, architecture became stoned, and the mirrors were back in a surge of the neo-rococo and Memphis spatial jags.
Mirrors help deny the solidity of space and help affirm existence in the same way that smoking does. And women look in the mirror to practice smiling and check their hair and to perfect appearances, seductions. I think of women I know who vamp it up and imagine them practising tongue-to-lip movements in front of the mirror like Edie Sedgwick in one of Warhol’s films, Outer and Inner Space of 1965. Oh it’s all just a bit much for me. I often find myself, at a certain point in my “work”, usually before the actual analysis, picking leaves up in the garden instead of actually facing the production end of things. I don’t have to do this – we have a gardener.
Out of all of my research areas, the piano is the hardest thing to face. I have an inkling I am from a long line of suicidal witches and witches go to some dark places. They search slowly, but perpetually, for seats of magical power. The grand piano is an obvious example: a black trapdoor with hugely powerful magic potential. Erik Satie, who composed scores for grand piano, often wrote of sorcerers so I guess that he knew this. The Auckland Art Gallery has a Steinway baby grand that they have left alone languishing in their auditorium, but typically, for a museum – consumed by reduced economies and conservatism it has no idea what it can really do. I saw it last week at a seminar and it was obscured by a whiteboard on wheels that had a device attached so one could print it out onto fax paper.
All those dead leaves are making me think about camouflage. Is all life activity just camouflage for the hurtling self one only meets in meditation? Is it all ornament? What is our major language and what are the minor languages? Is the primacy of awake speech over that of sleep artificial and/or useful? Why discriminate against languages of supposed delinquency? Ah, enough tidying. The neighbours’ cats are still worrying me. It is winter and they hardly ever let them in. They sit out there on their wheelie bins in the late afternoon sun by “my” garage (built at the time of the very first cars). None of them will be my new familiar – I know this. None of them are on the programme in the slightest, but it does not stop me wanting to make jersey beds for them there under the eaves.