The Enormous Room

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Recently I took part in the Anglia Ruskin conference, J. G. Ballard and the Sciences. Organised by Jeanette Baxter and featuring Christopher Priest, Fay Ballard and a range of excellent international speakers, the event was a really successful investigation of the intersections between Ballard's writing and parallel fields of investigation. I spoke about Ballard and sensory deprivation, a topic I've been interested in for a while. It was good to outline these ideas and also to reflect further on some of my recent experiences in floatation tanks: I'm all in favour of experimenting on the self, as it were. My thanks to Jeanette Baxter for including me on the programme. A big shout out should also go to the good people at Cambridge's Art of Float: if you want to experience the type of things John C. Lily and Paddy Chayefsky were talking about, check them out.
I've added my abstract for the talk below. The title comes from e.e. cummings' account of imprisonment, The Enormous Room (1922), a useful point of comparison with Ballard's 'The Enormous Space' (1989).

The Enormous Room: J.G. Ballard and Sensory Deprivation

In The Drowned World (1962), the ecological regression of the natural landscape to a Neo-Triassic state prompts a similar “archeopsychic” shift in human psychology. Consistent with Ballard’s other post-apocalyptic scenarios, access to these “ghostly deltas” of inner space is welcomed by the novel’s characters, particularly the biologist Robert Kerans.
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For John Baxter the “neuronic odyssey” of The Drowned World echoes the work of neurophysiologist John C. Lilly who, from 1954 onwards, conducted a series of sensory deprivation experiments using enclosed floatation tanks. As Lilly would go on to describe in The Centre of the Cyclone (1972) sensory deprivation prompted “mystical states” and allegedly enabled him to undergo a regressive anamnesis that permitted access to deep genetic memory. Lilly’s work paralleled that of psychologist Donald Hebb at Canada’s McGill University. Commissioned by the US Air Force, Hebb used dark, sound-proof isolation chambers to simulate the withdrawal of sensory stimuli from test subjects. Colin Wilson’s novel The Black Room (1971) drew on the McGill experiments whilst Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States (1978) took the visionary aspects of Lilly’s work as its basis.
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In the case of Ballard, language and imagery redolent of this field of post-war experimentation appears across his career, not just in The Drowned World but also short stories such as ‘Manhole ’69’ (1957), ‘The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon’ (1964) and ‘The Enormous Space’ (1989). In each case the lack of sensory stimuli results in experiences of spatial, psychological and temporal expansion.  

After unpacking the link between Ballard’s texts and the surrounding context of sensory deprivation, I wish to mark out his thematic difference from the likes of Lilly, Wilson and Chayefsky et al. While they variously connect the experimental process to the discovery of a foundational human essence, Ballard’s narratives plot movements towards the dissolution, negation and reformation of human identity. In examining this representation of men in the process of disappearing, this paper uses the literature of sensory deprivation to interpret Ballard’s predilection for terminal identities framed as transformative states.

Night Time

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I was happy to have been able to speak at the recent conference At Home With Horror?: Terror on the Small Screen held at the University of Kent, 27th-29th October, 2017. I spoke about late-night television, dream-states and nostalgia. The paper allowed me to outline some ideas I've had for a while, in particular material that was sparking by a productive trawl of you tube for liminal television clips and other bits of forgotten VHS footage. Abstract below. My thanks to Katerina Flint-Nicol and Ann-Marie Fleming for organising such an interesting event.


Night Time: The Hauntological Horror of Television After Dark

When the major channels would go off the air you could […] pick up strange, other channels and you would see strange things […] That was really the core, the crystal at the centre of this movie, my experience with that, thinking: what if the images that you pulled up were really quite extreme, disturbing, possibly illegal? What would you do, how would you respond to that?

                                          ---David Cronenberg on the genesis of Videodrome (1983).

In August 1987, the British commercial television network ITV launched Night Network, a limited weekend schedule which extended the closedown time from 12.30 to 3am. After the experiment proved successful, ITV tasked its regional stations to develop similar programming as an attempt to generate 24-hour broadcasting. Granada, ITV’s service for North West England began Night Time in September 1988, an overnight (12-6am) service which continued until June 1995.

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As is indicated by archive footage viewable on You Tube and TV Ark, Night Time eschewed ‘family’ viewing and instead catered to an adult, culturally aware audience via a diet of American sports, confrontational chat shows, cult television and genre films, frequently horror. The visual language of horror was also incorporated into Night Time’s ‘ident’, continuity and promotional material. A typical trailer montage would combine quick-fire clips of Peter Cushing, Kenneth Johnson’s V (1983-1985) and Marius Constant’s theme music from The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). In keeping with the tone of the latter, Night Time knowingly framed its programming as an intercepted or otherwise interrupting broadcast from somewhere other; a type of Videodrome signal that appeared in the space between the nightly news and TV-am (1983-1992).

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In Haunted Media (2000), Jeffrey Sconce argued that “the premise of the ‘haunted TV’” central to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) speaks of a residual fear; one that exceeds the boundaries of the cinema because the television set continues to “loom as a gateway to oblivion” back in the viewer’s domestic sphere. Much the same could be said of Paul Golding’s Pulse (1988), a suburban horror film shown on Night Time in the mid-1990s. Contemporary horror films maintain a televisual fixation but for the likes of Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, 2012) and Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow,2012) the connection lies at the ambiguous level of tone, ambience and influence rather than representation. When asked about their references points neither cite a specific example but speak instead of a nostalgic ambience of unseen films and half-remembered, late-night television.  With these and other examples in mind, this paper will use the graphics, content and format of the Night Time strand to consider the residual influence of horror cinema when consumed as post-midnight television. It will attempt to outline a type of ‘hypnagogic’ horror spectatorship that can be compared to the “hauntological confluence” recently mapped by Mark Fisher (and others) in relation to contemporary electronic music. 


Kerouac's Ghosts

Event poster

Along with comrade Malcolm Guite I've been involved in organising this event featuring the Beat scholar Gerald Nicosia. See below for further details. All Welcome.


Kerouac's Ghosts: An Evening With Gerald Nicosia
Wednesday 27th September,
4pm Faculty of English;
8pm Cambridge Unitarian Hall.

Two events, two venues across one evening.

Join Gerald Nicosia author, poet, biographer and acclaimed Beat scholar for a specially curated evening consisting of a lecture presentation and a live poetry reading.

Gerald Nicosia is the author of Memory Babe, the classic biography of Jack Kerouac. He is a reviewer, literary critic, interviewer and accomplished poet. He has represented and edited the writings of Jan Kerouac and Home to War, his history of the Vietnam Veterans Movement was picked as one of the "best books" of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times, and was nominated for best non-fiction of 2001 by the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association.

Presented and curated by Malcolm Guite and James Riley.


Lecture: The Old Hobo Saint of Camel Trails.

A lecture by Gerald Nicosia on Jack Kerouac's spirituality.

"Kerouac was called a Catholic, a Buddhist, an existentialist, and other things like "beatnik," and I examine each of those categories in turn and determine that he really fits in to none of them. My conclusion is that JK's spirituality was a different creature entirely, a very unique spirituality that was founded in his early life experiences"

GR06/7, Faculty of English, 9 West Road Cambridge. All Welcome.


8pm (doors from 7.30pm).

Poetry Reading: The Ghost of Kerouac.

Gerald Nicosia will perform his new poem 'The Ghost of Kerouac'.

With support from Riprap Quartet, Malcolm Guite and Evie Salmon & James Riley.

Riprap are Kevin Flanagan (saxophones), Dave Gordon (piano), Andrew Brown (bass) and Russ Morgan (drums/percussion). They take their inspiration from the Beat Poets, with their freewheeling lateral association, Miles Davis and his open-ended forms (which always had a solid street-informed rhythmic drive), and Kerouac's idea of a 'Holy Goof' (spiritual trickster). http://www.kevinflanagan.net/riprap-quartet/

Malcolm Guite is an English poet, singer-songwriter, Anglican priest, and academic. Guite is the author of five books of poetry, including two chapbooks and three full-length collections, as well as several books on Christian faith and theology. Guite performs as a singer and guitarist fronting the Cambridgeshire-based blues, rhythm and blues, and rock band Mystery Train. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/

Evie Salmon and James Riley work across multiple faculties at the University of Cambridge. They co-direct The Alchemical Landscape, an ongoing research and public engagement project looking at occulture and geography. During the Gerald Nicosia evening they will present 'Dust': a speculative investigation into the afterlife of two lost recordings by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Spoken word, archival murmurings and dead formats.

Unitarian Hall, 5 Emmanuel Road, Cambridge.

All Welcome, donations accepted.




Anita Pallenberg: Not the photograph mentioned below.

The film-maker handed me a photograph.

“Do you know who that is?”

I did, but I knew the film-maker well enough to say “No”.

“Anita Pallenberg” he said, before falling silent. “A dangerous woman,” he added finally.

The pause was for my benefit. It was an invitation for me to speculate as to why an unpublished, private snapshot of Anita Pallenberg would be languishing in an envelope amongst all his other papers.

Considering the sheer volume of personal files in the archive, the answer was pretty obvious. It wasn’t just the heavy air that made the room of documents feel like Bluebeard’s Castle.

The film-maker got to know the Rolling Stones around the same time that Pallenberg had entered the band’s bubble via Brian Jones. Later, when the film-maker was shooting promo-clips featuring Jones out of his mind on drugs, Pallenberg was at the start of an often-toxic relationship with Keith Richards. The film-maker then crossed paths with Donald Cammell just as he was about to shoot Performance (1970) featuring Pallenberg as Pherber. The trail, such as it is, becomes harder to trace at the end of the decade, but when the Stones decamped to the south of France to make Exile on Main Street (1972) an extended entourage followed them. Richards and Pallenberg established a headquarters at the villa Nellcôte, in Villefranche-sur-Mer and in-between attempts to make the album, the area became a focal point for the wealthy, wandering demi-monde who had previously bunkered down in late-60s Mayfair. The film-maker had been moving through the area around the same time working on a series of projects, some connected to the Rolling Stones, some not.

So then, it’s likely he knew Pallenberg or at least that’s what he wanted me to think. But why would he also want me to think she was ‘dangerous’? A lot of people used to tell me the film-maker was ‘dangerous’. What was it about her or, what was it she could do that he could find so threatening?

Pallenberg has always been cast as the sorceress in the drama-cum-soap opera that is the history of the Rolling Stones: a kind of sixties Medea who emanates a black radiance from the centre of the band’s solipsistic world. In the soft edges between the Stones camp and Performance, Pallenberg is the one who seems to have acted the least. We're led to believe that what you see on screen - all the mindgames, the dark psychedelia and the weird rituals -  is how she was in real life. Various Stones biographers have pictured Pallenberg casting magickal spells, discussing witchcraft with Kenneth Anger and of course, there’s the trail of (usually drug-related) human wreckage that seemed to follow in her wake. That said, most of the personalities that made up the Stones’ circle could be described in such terms. So what if Pallenberg sung back-up vocals on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’? They were all into the dark stuff.

It’s OK for the men of the piece to be ‘dangerous’. We expect that. However, it’s different for the women. Pallenberg was an actress and a successful model before she met Jones and Richards. Thereafter she morphed into the essential sixties accessory: the rock star girlfriend. To call her ‘dangerous’ seems to name all the things that she did which didn’t fit into the boundaries of that role, i.e. independence, opinions, ideas and such like. When not called a ‘witch’, Pallenberg is also tagged as a ‘muse’, that’s to say she’s someone that men wrote about or someone who otherwise facilitated men in the production of their work. In later life she was approached to write an autobiography, but all the publishers wanted was the inside story of the Rolling Stones: another book about the men she used to hang out with. The autobiography never appeared, not because she was unable to do it, but because she didn’t want to do it on those terms. When asked, inevitably, to explain herself she refused. Maybe this is why she was 'dangerous'. Pallenberg was more interested in living her life rather than turning it into work with the unquestioning assumption that everyone else would want to see it.  

I looked at the photograph for a while. Pallenberg was smiling. She didn’t look dangerous, she looked friendly, at ease. Then the film-maker took it back. He put the photograph back in its envelope, put the envelope back in a folder and put the folder back on the shelf. One alongside all the others. Without comment he left the room.


SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm

For the past 16 years New York-based photographer, Shannon Taggart has been documenting Spiritualist traditions, séance mediumship and ectoplasmic manifestations. I first met Shannon at the Exploring the Extraordinary conference in York where she delivered a brilliant talk and shared some of her amazing images. I then shared a panel with her at Coney Island where we spoke about different forms of paranormal technology. I was very happy to hear, then, that Shannon is now preparing to publish her images as a large-scale photography book. Please do support this project: it's a great idea, a really necessary book and the material is extremely potent. Quite literally haunting. For more information, see the project page here: https://unbound.com/books/seance-spiritualist.

Here is Shannon's own description of the project:

"Spiritualism, the American-born religion, attempts to demonstrate through the intercession of a medium that death is not the end, but a transition. I first became aware of Spiritualism as a teenager, after my cousin received a reading from a medium who revealed a secret about my grandfather’s death that proved to be true. Since then, I have been deeply curious about how a total stranger could have learned something my family had kept confidential.
In 2001, I began photographing at the place where my grandfather’s message was received: Lily Dale, New York, the town which is home to the world’s largest Spiritualist community. I quickly immersed myself in Lily Dale’s world, receiving readings, experiencing healings, joining in séances, attending a psychic college and sitting in a medium’s cabinet, always with my camera. I expected to spend one summer figuring out the tricks of the Spiritualist trade. Instead, Spiritualism’s mysterious processes, earnest practitioners, surprising cultural history and bizarre photographic past became a resource and an inspiration for my own work. I began a sixteen-year quest to document contemporary Spiritualism and to find and photograph ‘ectoplasm’ – the elusive substance that is said to be both spiritual and material.
Photographing Spiritualism presents a unique challenge: how do you photograph the invisible? Sitting in the charged atmospheres of the séance rooms I encountered, I wondered how to approach the exchange between a veiled presence and a visible body? Technical mistakes led me to explore the inherent imperfections within the photographic process. Unpredictable elements (blur, abstraction, motion, flare) seemed to insinuate, or refer to, the unseen. I began to use conventions that are considered wrong, messy, or ‘tricky’. I crossed the boundary of what is commonly considered unprofessional in the practice of photography: I invited anomaly. In playing with the process, the invisible was automated. My camera rendered some striking synchronicities. The resulting images consider the conjuring power of photography itself. I include these pictures that use photography’s own mechanisms to question spiritual realities: photographs that contain both mechanical and spiritual explanations and require an interpretation.
My book on Spiritualism will merge ethnographic study, journalism and art. I will contextualize Spiritualism’s history and highlight its surprising connections to nineteenth-century social reform, scientific inquiry, artistic practice and popular culture.  Ultimately, this work seeks to amplify the reflexive relationship between Spiritualism and photography and to explore the ideological, material, geographical, historical and metaphysical correspondences between the two. Erik Davis, author of media studies cult classic TechGnosis and expert on the intersection between technology and the religious imagination, will contribute the foreword."


Review Essay

BSJ: The BS Johnson Journal 3I have a review essay in the latest edition of BSJ: The B.S. Johnson Journal. I was happy to read and comment on Sebastian Groes' new book, British Fiction of the Sixties: The Making of the Swinging Decade. It's a good study of the period that features an effective engagement with Guy Debord's work on the spectacle. Amongst other things writing the review allowed me to talk about Steven Soderbergh's  The Limey (1999). Many thanks to Joseph Darlington for inviting me to contribute. Follow this link for details about how to get a copy.


Mark Fisher

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I was very saddened yesterday to hear of the untimely death of the writer, lecturer and theorist Mark Fisher. I started reading Fisher's work some years ago by way of his excellent blog k-punk. Then came his books for Zero: Capitalist Realism (2009) and Ghosts of My Life (2014), to say nothing of his numerous articles, essays and posts in between. His just published book, The Weird and The Eerie looks set to be just as penetrating and provocative.

Lots of tributes have surfaced in the last day, rightly so. Fisher's writing was incisive, committed and most of all accessible. I drew on it in my own research and often included it in my seminar teaching. That I remember these as successful sessions has little to do with my abilities but a lot to do with the quality of the material. Complex ideas were offered with clarity and without reduction; autobiographical elements were instructive, not indulgent; the handling of popular culture was exemplary. As regards the latter I'd recommend his essay on Basic Instinct 2 to anyone with an interest in the functional links between criticism, theory, value and interpretation. Reading Capitalist Realism, you very quickly got the sense that at the crux of Fisher's writing lay concentrated praxis, and this was the key to its vitality. Capitalist Realism was a call for applied theory, the work of thought marshaled to the task of negotiating, navigating and negating the acceleration of contemporary life.

During a late night drive some time ago I found myself fiddling with the radio. Out of the static of phone-ins and muzak suddenly came talk of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault. Arch-Conservative Roger Scruton was holding forth on the poverty of 'theory' as if it was a coherent, homogeneous species of writing. As you'd expect it was all very well put but it essentially boiled down to the same set of classic arguments resurrected from the frontline of the theory wars (circa 1980): an intolerance for difficulty and something of a refusal to entertain the use-value of interrogating one's tools. Fisher was the interlocutor. Carefully, calmly he unravelled each of  Scruton's arguments. And, yes, he also dealt with the inevitable: he could explain Lacan's ideas. Andy Sharp put it perfectly when I mentioned the programme afterwards: Fisher wanted to be the new Colin Wilson, a public intellectual who wasn't afraid to think through 'weird' material  (the Lovecraftian implication is intentional) and who opened ideas to the audience rather than explaining why they couldn't possibly hope to understand them.

I didn't know Fisher personally - I met him on two very brief occasions, had some e-mail contact and  hoped to invite him to speak in the near future. Not much to warrant a testimony at a time of very real grief for his family and friends. But if its not too presumptuous I'd like to note, with gratitude and admiration, that his writing had - and continues to have - a very big influence on my own work. No doubt I'm joining  a chorus of other bloggers, writers, theory-heads, hauntologists and the like  in marking this loss and offering these sentiments. Fisher often painted a very bleak picture in his writing: uncompromising systems, svelte surfaces, inhuman velocity, work that dissolves and the dissolution of work. There was very little hope because the worldview offered was so horribly accurate. But by the same token the perspective was far from nihilistic. There were no easy answers (precisely because there was no alternative) but the call nonetheless was one of action. Coming away from Capitalist Realism and heading out onto the next motorway you felt courage enough to think in the face of such horror.


More Manson

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'We'll call you if he dies'

Last week I awoke to a series of e-mails about Charles Manson. He had been taken to hospital amid reports of rapidly declining health. I found myself being approached for my opinion on this turn of events by a number of media outlets. At one point I had a phone conversation with a radio producer in a very hectic sounding newsroom. They were interested in doing an interview with me about Manson but it became clear that for the next news cycle they were after something of a memorial piece rather than a commentary on how things currently stood.

It felt slightly odd to be linked to Manson's health, however tenuously. It brought to mind Kurt Anderson's Turn of the Century (1999) and the brief media furore that erupts in the novel when it's announced that Manson has been released.

In the end I was happy to write some texts and was grateful for the interest shown. A short opinion piece for The i appeared on Saturday in both the print and the online editions: