Bladerunner 2049 (spoilers)

I watched Bladerunner 2049 at Goldsmith's Curzon cinema and was occularly satiated yet left underwhelmed. The film is visually sumptuous, pacing is indulgently slow and there are some theatrical, almost operatic in stark brutalist interiors, scenes - the most OTT example being the Niander Wallace moments. As dystopian eye-candy goes it was wonderful.

Sadly, the indulgence didn't quite end there and there were times when the presence of an executive's patrician wrinkled white hand was all too obvious. The sex-scene between K, an android, Joi, a hologram product that K is in love with, and Mariette, another android working as a sex-worker felt needless and served nothing other than titillation. It was also, a hologram version of the awkward surrogate sex scene in Jonze's Her. Except in Her the awkwardness and strange distance between the human and the AI's voice felt more poignant for the doomed effort of inserting a corporeal subject into the etherial partner's place. It also served to illustrate the crushing distance between the film's male protagonist and his idealized and incorporeal beloved. Put short: it contributed to the viewers sense of the characters' relationship. But in Bladerunner 2049 there is no doomed, striving, wanting emotion in this scene - because one is already distanced from the relationship between K and Joi. We know they are both machines, the viewer is constantly reminded of K's android nature. Of course, in the first film we empathised with Replicants such as Pris and Roy Batty - but K is a Replicant so stoic and vacant it is difficult to root for him. Perhaps Gosling was the wrong choice for this role? An actor with a more expressive tendency, or just directed to be more expressive, would've been better. This is not a matter of if one can empathize with holograms and androids or not, but a failure of creating a being, be it android, hologram, human or otherwise, that the viewer can empathise with.

The second instance of conservative American values being shoe horned in result in something more fundamental: the ending. I'll make this quick, K finds Deckard, the old android Bladerunner, holed up in the cadaver of a hotel living on whisky with a chummy pooch in tow. Deckard and Rachael had a Replicant child and K takes it upon himself to unite Deckard with his estranged child. After much fighting and some explosions they are reunited. The subtext is that procreation is important, something sacred and precious and family is important too - something that many androids (in a bolted on underground rebellion swell narrative) are willing to die for - not for their own sake but for the principal of their kind being able to procreate. Honorable self sacrifice for a traditional set of values. You'd have to be quite creative to argue that this film is about radical post-humanism. The original was much less wholesome and Spielbergian - at least Deckard was driven by money and his own volition (this is more evident in the Philip K Dick book).

My final irk is the film's willful referencing of the original. I do not mind references to the book (the salesman who tries to sell K a goat or horse is a nice example of this). But the laboured parade of 'fan-doting' passages weighed the film down. In discussing film franchises many excuse this tendency, and chalk it up as a given handicap of sequels and franchises 'oh, but they HAVE to do this for the fans' - but it is not necessary. Mad Max: Fury Road is a brilliant example of a film that departed from its fan-world and previous iterations and emerged as not just more original than all its predecessors but also one of the best, if not the best, action film of its year. Scott could've taken a shot from this flick.

Social Eerie


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Some thoughts that came out of a panel discussion following Anthony Cartwright’s readings at Goldsmiths Visual Cultures Public Forum (organised by Stefan Nowotny and Jon Shaw).

Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut and Iron Towns both conjure a certain sense of eeriness. The sense of the eerie here, and its conceptualization, stem from Mark Fisher’s writing in The Weird and the Eerie: whereby the eerie is summarized as ‘a failure of absence or by a failure of presence.’[1] It is not so much the horrifying confrontation of these lacunae, but rather the creeping, penumbral sense of such absences, that I find in Cartwright’s works. Fisher, in the opening pages of the book writes:  ‘The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?[2] According to Fisher the eerie does not have the confrontational sense of shock that the weird manifests as but rather works on a sort of phenomenological negation or epistemological inexactitude: he used terms like ‘disengagement’, ‘serenity’, ‘calm’ and ‘detachment’ that nonetheless grant access of a glimpse or suspicion of the ‘forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured’[3]
It is the creeping periphery, the liminal clue, of sensing the great forces at play that Cartwright’s protagonists evoke so well. His male anti-heroes don’t so much confront the eerie as stoically exist through it, and brush up against it as their world and memories float past. Cartwright’s protagonists in The Cut and Iron Towns are faded sportsmen; men who are out of joint with their world and past their prime. Or, to put it another way, do not know what they can offer the place they inhabit and, conversely, sense a vague absence, as if something is missing, in the places they visit.
These places could be canals, work-yards, railway lines, mines and public houses. The Cut explores the existential emptiness of a retired boxer, Cairo Jukes, as he searches for work, friendliness, purpose and belonging in Dudley, West Midlands. Iron Towns is set in the fictional Iron Town, yet is not far removed from Netherton, again in the West Midlands, and focuses mostly on Liam Corwen, a footballer who played for England, albeit for 46 seconds, and has since wound up back at his home club. Each novel concerns itself with male protagonists’ existence in a post-industrial ‘Black Country’.  
The term, ‘Black Country’ is telling on a number of levels. Elihu Burritt, Abraham Lincoln’s consul, brought the term into common usage when he observed the region to be ‘Black by day, red by night.’ Yet the first recorded term is from a toast speech given by Mr Simpson, a town clerk, addressing a Reformer’s meeting on 24th November 1841. Genetic foibles aside, the term is ripe for import. Burritt’s use is echoed in the recollection of Cairo’s father in The Cut: ‘‘You’d look out at night and all you could see was light – fires from the furnaces, you know, as far as you could see, the place all lit up. There was work for all the men.’ I add emphasis to the past tense: there is not that type of work in the region any more. The fires that lit the nights have long since burnt out. Burritt’s phrase is no longer applicable; it is more a case of ‘Black by day, blacker by night.’ It is a shadowy post-industrial world, devoid of light (the traditional western short-hand for hope) bar the icy glow of smartphone screens in bedrooms.
Black Country can be taken in a metaphorical sense. Re-read as indicative of the galling lacuna of agency and representation that the protagonists of The Cut and Iron Towns endure in the skeletal cadaver of heavy industry. A void, a black hole, shadowy and palimpsest, where something was: like the murky depressions of subsidence above abandoned mines that pockmark the landscape. The land of the region is prone to subsidence; it is covered in craters, like the moon – except, unlike the moon, no one is looking and people live here. Today, the depressions that besmirch the fields in the area harbor post industrial depression: pools of young men drinking cans or doing drugs, a nihilistic expression of a young men’s energies.
The canals that scar the land, a jolly geo-industrial taxidermy by Inland Waterways Association, (the co-founder of which was ‘horror’ writer, Robert Aickman) are eerie reminders of what is now missing. The canals are dotted with hunched fishing men; no industry uses these ways. A shire-horse hasn’t trod such paths for years yet the cuts of a million ropes from a bygone boom-time, the ones that pulled the heavy laden long boats along, gouged cuts in the canal side bricks that are still visible today. The claw marks of a monster that once stalked and ravished the land and whose fires lit the night skies. The mythic history of industrial growth, it may as well be for the kids here now, for neither myth nor history are present except in trace and tale – both share the present though their absence and past-tense.



The protagonists of The Cut and Iron Towns are men of physicality. Their identity is about what they can do with their bodies against material and in space. But their identity is also constituted by negation, by loss – they once could do much more, run faster and hit harder, than the abilities of the two characters we meet in the books. Twilight men: age has caught up with them; they ache from the erosions of time. Their bodies do not offer what they once could. It is in this sense that Liam Corwen and Cairo Jukes embody the recent history of working class male in the Black Country who once mined, hammered and wrenched against the world: the various materials of industry, yet do not do so now. ‘I could’ve gone pro’ is the familiar pub lament of depressive and nonchalant machismo. Yet, in these novels Cairo and Liam are men who were pro. This distant historical realization of most men’s sporting dream is not the point: it is their fall, their loss and demise instead. These two protagonists are allegorical figures of the generations born into a land that never offered the chance of professional physical laboring. Because, as any quantifiable survey of work opportunities between Wales and Birmingham will attest to, there haven’t been mass professional laboring opportunities for man(y) for years. Today’s young men don’t have the wistful lament of Cairo and Liam who ‘were pro’ nor do they enjoy the luxury of missed opportunity of ‘could’ve gone pro’, no, for young men wishing to labour in the Midlands the prospect is profoundly more nihilistic: ‘wasn’t ever, won’t ever’. Cairo’s training in The Cut is the further register of this tension: that of the energetic and strong male body born into a landscape (replete with the accouterments of industrial transportation) that no longer requires its energies. His family and friends even question his motives for jogging, and ask what he is training for. A body in a landscape that no longer needs him – what exactly is Cairo running for? But questions of what is symptomatic, not the problem itself – the problem is that there is still the body to use, to put to work. This is the physical eeriness in The Cut. Cairo has a strong body in a world that no longer requires it, his energy is a presence where there should be an absence (the world no longer calls for his physical toil), and conversely, the place reflects an absence of requirement, it doesn’t need him.
The question of outlets for young people’s energies is one that haunts the western world. One I’ve written about before. As coffee shops and call centers pop up between the vacant arteries of heavy industry, people are increasingly sedate (not by choice). Attention, cognitive labour, faux-empathy and grins are sold for recompense but the body still needs exercise. The creatine’d up buff ‘n’cut office gym-shark is symptomatic of this shift; albeit one that flips the traditional parameters of purpose. Physical work is not the end but the means; there is no end in the normalized narcissism of Droste-effect vanities. The common motivational phrase of ‘Get fit’ harbours a subtle fallacy: it implies conclusion. There is no conclusion. The 24-hour gym is everything that post-modern exercise should be, a Shepard-tone of endless, placeless, despatialised and monetized exertion. Any ground covered, mountain climbed, steps, reps or gains are immaterial and virtual. The only empirical referent is the mirror, the void of oneself.    


Within the narratives of The Cut and Iron Towns is a sense of the eerie, analogous to Fisher’s on a conceptual level but not in how it is manifested. For me, The Cut and Iron Towns evoke, what I call, the social-eerie of post-industrial post-modern existence. The eerie in these novels is not one of alternate dimensions, stone walls with agency, or supernatural forces (although there is an argument for the registers of globalization to be akin to a supernatural force) but one of social loss, a nagging sense of a loss that cannot quite be articulated or addressed directly by the books characters. 
Pubs are a case in point. In The Cut, Cairo Jukes repeatedly visits local pubs in Dudley. It is here where I feel social-eeriness sharpest. Cairo, when he visits a pub, knows to go to the bar and order a drink. He can do so, yet something is missing, there is a nagging absence simmering beneath the surface of buying a drink and drinking the drink. At one stage in the book Cairo reminisces about how he used to go to the pub, not drink, not even approach the bar, not even step into the thick of the crowd, but stand at the door and nod and smile at the faces of people he knew. This nostalgia is the most pointed register of the changing nature of public houses. Public houses, social spaces that had roofs, warm fires and drinks, were only partly about beer. Traditionally people would go the public house on the way home, spend a bit of time there keeping warm, maybe having a drink, and talk to other people in the community. The pub served as a public halfway house (geographically and culturally) between work and home. Crucially it was a warm social and public space – a place to kill some time in, so as to economize on home heating costs. A trip to the pub meant the home fire could be lit later. Many pubs have closed since the smoking ban of 2007. But the role of the pub, as a pivot-point in the daily routine of people within a local area, is now threatened – not by the illegality of public space smoking but by the forces that have re-shaped the movements of people. Increased travelling for work and the lack of local laboring opportunities has eroded the footfall for many pubs. Public houses no longer serve as a localized geo-political social nexus hubs, but are stripped down to the arbitrary level of their economic function: the business of selling liquid products. The CAMRA pub is a Thatcherite ghoul. It provides phantom authenticity with all the social and communal possibility stripped away and instead emphasizes the superiority of its product as its marker of value. Market materialism trumps social interactions. It is this strange eeriness that I see in Cairo’s pub visits. The hostle turned hostile. He is set up to expect social interaction, a sense of place, routine – not conviviality, but at least a sense of social embeddedness. Not harmony or integrity but at least an orientation. Yet he finds nothing, the whole layout, the tables and chairs, the broad-street central location, the fossilized architecture preserved from another time, all point him to expect something, but that social something, is not there. Only the bar, beer, tills and tables remain, eerily vacated by something other than people.
But social-eerie must not be conflated with nostalgia or longing. Cairo’s father, in The Cut, is clear that the old ways of life, the grueling back-breaking heavy labour is not welcome to return – but, nonetheless, something has gone with it:

My ancestors was nailers and puddlers and coal-pickers and navies and so on. They dug canals and tunnels. My ode mon dug rock out the hill under the castle. None of them jobs exist no more. They ay done for years. Maybe that’s a good thing. Folks had hard lives. And things am easier now. Some things am easier. Although you wouldn’t think it, some of the things that have happened, some of the stuff the young uns face now. What I’m saying is you shouldn’t wish it back, but we never wished for the way things am today either.[4]        

His wife, dismisses the old man’s convoluted train of thought, ‘I doh see the point of keep looking back , Cairo, I really doh. I’ve told him, get on with things.’[5] But the old man’s point is not one of longing, retrospection or nostalgia. He doesn’t wish the work back. But he does feel something else is missing. The hard, exploitative and notoriously dangerous work of industry is gone. Good riddance. But something else went with it. To miss this subtlety of what is being missed, but not named or articulated, in traditionally working class post-industrial areas (i.e. not the work of yesteryear) is to veer close to the confident naivety of conservative middle to upper class perspectives: that working folk need work.
Dominic Sandbrook, privately educated in Bridgenorth (a well-heeled town in Shropshire that is close to but not considered part of the Black Country (he now lives in Chipping Norton, and supports Wolverhampton Wanders...)) before completing degrees at Oxford, St Andrews and Cambridge, in the BBC Television four-part series Let Us Entertain You (an adaptation of his The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination) makes this overly reductive slip. He points, with the willful avuncularity that is the preserve of the few, to the violence in Glasgow depicted by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting and suggests this is what happens when people don’t have work.
Lynsey Hanley, in her brilliant book Respectable: TheExperience of Class, points to a study, ‘Living Inferiority’, by Simon Charlesworth, Paul Gilfillan and Richard Wilkinson. The study argues that ‘the quality of social relations in working-class areas has deteriorated with the decline of industry there, and that the relationships between atomized, unemployed or insecurely employed men are now characterized by violence or the threat of it.’[6] Hanley doesn’t directly criticize this argument (she does in fact criticize a far more uncomfortable facet of the study – you’ll have to buy the book to find out), but rather points out that violence has always existed. But still, the underlying logic of Charlesworth, Gilfillan and Wilkinson’s study is there: that the working folk’d be alright if only they could occupy themselves at the lathe…
Of course, employment is a problem in parts of the UK in post-industrial neglect. People do need work for money. The food bank boom is testament to this. But, some problems cannot be solved by money or work – it is these problems, these social problems and the concomitant existential destabilization they bring that Cairo experiences in the eerier parts of The Cut and which his father wishes to bemoan but cannot find the words for.

Cartwright’s fiction is notable in that it avoids what I call 'kitchen-sink materialism' and instead evokes the plights and woes of its characters in a more oblique and atmospheric fashion that is characterized by a creeping eeriness. Kitchen-sink materialism is the tendency for films and literature to insist on narratives working through physical or visible manifestations of everyday problems. Let’s stick with the issue of unemployment. Old films like Brassed Off and The Full Monty, just before the UK broadband boom, do this – but back then the physical work of going door to door asking for work was not too far removed from life. However, today a problem such as looking for work or not getting work is de-materialised. The lack of employment is not experienced in a manner that is easy to set into a narrative for page or screen – there are no doors closed in one’s face or rejection letters landing on the doorstep. Contemporary unemployment is closer to eeriness, to a vague absence one cannot quite see or address, than the kitchen-sink materialism of Ken Loach’s recent film I’ Daniel Blake. In this film we see Blake sat in front of a computer, frustrated at the Kafkian absurdity of having to wade through cyber-admin mazes in order to access and apply for jobs. But this depiction is all too visible – for most people the search for work is an online endeavor that never returns. The constant presence of a smartphone that never returns an email (because, as anyone who has used job websites knows, rejection is never announced) is more realistic – an unsuccessful application doesn’t elicit anything as tangible or visible as a kindly bureaucratic rejection email. Cartwright’s fiction mostly avoids the pitfall of reverting to dated depictions of unemployment, isolation and disenchantment by conjuring the eerie – by evoking an absence of something, but an eerie absence of something one cannot quite place. The eeriness here is precisely that the thing that is absent is not defined are articulated, but there is, nonetheless, an uncomfortable absence all the same. Cartwright’s fiction puts the eerie to good use. It lends a potent contemporary realism to his fiction. Unemployment and social atomisation are difficult to define, but by evoking the eerie rather than trite kitchen-sink materialism his work feels truer to contemporary existence.


 


[1] Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 61
[2] Ibid, 12
[3] Ibid, 13
[4] Anthony Cartwright, The Cut, 55-56
[5] Ibid,  56
[6] Lynsey Hanley, Respectable: The Experience of Class, 175

Nature and Necessity Review


Nature and Necessity is a quick-reading yet richly detailed account of the Montague clan. Think E.M Forster writing about a North Yorkshire socialite with diminishing soft power as neoliberalism ramps up, the old-guard of the British entertainment racket die off and Paul Oakenfold thuds dimly somewhere in the background… It is Dostoevskian in form and scope but also thematically: it is bleak. Nihilism consistently wrong foots narrative second-guessing; the culminations of various character’s moves are as gloomy and disappointing as the drizzle of the novels central North Yorkshire locale and as gloomy and crepuscular as the drug-addled or jet-lagged outlook of its participants. It is the familial elaboration of a tension across the generations of a family — patrician old money giving way to a woman’s necessary standing and, it must be said, desperate precarity.  At the centre of the web is Petula Montague, the matriarch. She is orbited by her children Evita, the eldest, Regan and Jazzy. Regan is the closest, her and Petula are referred to as ‘the sisters’… Their closest neighbours were Seth and Jenny and their son Mingus Hardfield.
The principal setting is The Heights, the idyllic geographic throne of Petula that peers over Mockery Gap, not far from Shatby in North Yorkshire. She is at once domineering and enigmatic — her presence is insidious and ambiguous. She is the centre of the book in every margin. The children, Regan, Jazzy and Evita, are all defined in relation to her through woe, hate, love, anger, conflict, obligation or strife. Petula is a social Svengali and expert in game-theory-for-soirees — she is a savvy trader of ethereal soft capital — emotional, social, artistic, sexual… anything from coercion and cajoling to outright enforcement underpins her notorious parties. At which she seems to orchestrate a giddy dance of grudging or zealous obsequiousness with her flick of red hair, whiff of Chanel No. 5 and flash of a beautifully mendacious grin. Petula is an RSVP terrier, a femme Gunnery Saregant Hartman with vacant-laughs and vol-au-vents.       
 Men, realistically, do not fare well. There is an estranged husband, Noah Montague, whose influence is economic in terms of emotions and presence but generous in terms of wealth. Economic in man(y) ways. Then there is Jazzy, the willfully dour and calamitous illegitimate son of a generic Anycock. Jazzy devotes his time and energies to creating grotesquely indulgent art pieces, excuses for idle infantile destruction, before finding a martyr’s solace in Sisyphean farm-graft and the concomitant din of soliloquizing the injustice. Jazzy’s life is a doomed loop of burning and repairing the apron strings demarcating the family home. He is a moth to a flame — he is dull and his mother is bright, fiery and, it must be admitted, indifferent to his existence. The loopy stoned spiraling of Jazzy is accommodated more as a result of Petula’s convenience or logistical preferences than anything as twee as motherly love or, even, care. Then, there is Mingus, the liberally loquacious and pretentious offspring of the graciously accommodated working-stock help (Seth and Jenny Hardfield — geddit?) who, one assumes by the sheer indifference of the 90s Blairy credit funded YBA boom, finds himself above his station being fawned over in white cubes. Mingus is a New Labour (Thatcher 2.0) effigy. His parents ‘faithfully followed the monotony of suffering that was laid out before them’, his father, Seth, good with the land and his mother, Jenny, good for babysitting and casual conversation over tea — good because Petula enjoyed the opportunity to converse with ‘someone of no consequence’. Jazzy would spend a good deal of time with the Hardfields, Mingus in particular. Jazzy inherited two gaits from Seth Hardfield. One he knew and one he didn’t. Like Tony Blair elocutioning the toff from his voice, Jazzy adopted the accents, phrases and maxims of the local village lads. Mingus, by contrast, is less paralysingly self-aware. He is confident and extroverted but with pretenses of intellect and creative energy. Goddard stops short of framing Mingus in crude class and generational division, like a young Ken Barlow returning to the north after university, but only just. Mingus serves (in narrative but not diegesis) both Jazzy and Regan — the class issues embedded within are well observed textures to the main drive of rendering Petula’s two youngest children. It is notable that Mingus seems somehow more free and unburdened than his more privileged neighbours Jazzy and Regan. Mingus never feels as emotionally encumbered as Jazzy, trudging, aimlessly, perambulating through the heavy clay-mud of The Heights. Jazzy never escapes the gravity of his conflicted Oedipal bind.      
Regan too is doomed to an orbit that will return to the mother’s web — but, unlike Jazzy, she is the favourite. She enjoys more privilege, she is aloof and seemingly independent. She has the sense of entitlement to the world that is so powerful by virtue of her sheer obliviousness to it. Quite different to the illegitimate Jazzy, she has advantages to squander — such a difference, a world of difference between kin, a smart without a name, is observed wonderfully in his observation that ‘his sister was in no condition to take advantage of her advantages’. Regan doesn’t realize how lucky she is in terms of both the family politics and social standing — but her heart is a lonely one. Her appeal to the reliably priapic jocks from Cambridge is usurped by her mother’s charm when she visits home. But the class stratification installed by her mother also denies her a love that haunts her for most of the book.
Although Regan’s hardships are less obvious than Jazzy’s she is, perhaps, more condemned. By turns both Jazzy and Regan have their capers. Goddard has a knack for narrative momentum and picquing itchy curiosity for the next page. But their escapades along the zesty ramp of hope invariably fall flat and are nihilistically smothered by fate time and time again. Their persistence would be bittersweet and endearing were one not to consistently root for them quite so earnestly. Nature and Necessity is a proper novel. It vividly details the horrors and casualties in and around a family where proper is sought over, and regardless of, love, blood, right and wrong.

The Casino Always Wins


I've been wary of the addictive nature of social media for years. Like a gambler, we slot emotional hope and attentive energy into the affective node and wait for payback - likes, loves, re-tweets, shares, more than before. But it is never enough. As per the old truism, the casino always wins. Except our casino is not a glittery neon behemoth on the outskirts of town - it is a small glowing rectangle - less than a second away, lurking on the devices we rely on to contact our family and friends.

When we share we are using our emotional and cognitive energy. But, of course - the payback is seldom. We never quite hit the jackpot like we once did. Just recall how we use our social media: we check, twitching and fevered, for updates - but how often do those updates, those interactions, that endorphin jacuzzi dopa-mine, warrant our efforts? 1/10...1/20? We spend a lot of energy on such things, hoping for attention, but the payback is scant. We put in more than we get out.

I believe that social media monetizes both loneliness and relationships - social interactions feed the revenue streams of the technocrats. Yet, at the same time, so does the striving, often never responded, call for some feedback, attention or interaction. So, if, for the gambler hope and winning are the cruel dynamic mode - hope, before let down in the search of an occasional win - then, for social media, hope is the loneliness and the effort of relieving it and the win is interaction and attention. Of course, it is a fool's pursuit. The casino always wins.

In Irresistible: Why we can't stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching, by Adam Alter, the Moment app is described. It monitors a user's screen time. Not phone calls, but time spent using the seductive cyan touchscreen or staring at it. With a set of approximately eight thousand users the average screen-time each day was three hours. Let's be good little reductive capitalists for (a) (M)oment... How much is your three hours worth? (UK minimum wage is £7.20 - so minimum, £21.60 per day) Would you pay that for a service that shares staged disingenuous holiday snaps, political hot-takes, snide moral one-upmanship, and avocado fetishisms? When I see fellow writers and academics (no doubt assuming their time and energy market rate is more than the UK minimum wage) I wonder if the deal is as good as it seems. People say social media is necessary for self promotions in the gig-economy of intellectual labour - yet, I do not know of anyone who has got a gig through these vampiric platforms.

But let's now turn to this passion for self promotion. I accept that we live in a world of normalized disingenuousness. The vacant mirror snap stare and the grinning selfie facade is commonplace - as is social climbing via online sycophancy. We glibly re-tweet gesture politics #JeSuisCharlie #ICantBreath #Westminster #Solidarity yadadada. This is the rub for me. I could bear online 'social' self-entrepreneurialism if it was frank and honest. BUY MY BOOK is preferable to the din of smarmy smug lefty promotion. The hot-takes and 60 character put downs that exploded on the platforms in the aftermath of the Westminster attacks troubled me. I found it difficult not to be cynical about the busy ethical-trumping and event romanticization that seemed so prevalent. In between glamming up the jet-set #PhDLife or #Writerproblems, the passive-aggressive showing off (replete with filtered selfies, city-fawning and ubiquitous feline presence) felt utterly, and shamefully, opportunistic. Because - during tragic events what purpose do these posts serve other than to expose the user to others for attention and interaction. Surely the use of the hot hashtag is the junky's jump on the good shit?

Thank-you for arguing the toss about media coverage or the opinions of others, thank-you for that covert self-promotion veiled as outrage, moral high-ground or pithy gesture politics with your Patreon account linked in profile - how altruistic of you. But then, addiction does manifest as selfishness doesn't it?      

Burgers (Future-Steak)

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The burger is of Germanic origin: Hamburg. Hannah Glasse’s 1758 recipe for ‘Hamburgh Sausage’, served with bread beneath it is, perhaps, its genesis. By 1847 the Hamburg America Line served Hamburg steak, the burgers cooked to order on the gasoline range of the sandwich cart. The meal was humble and good value (freshly cooked meat aboard a train today is reserved for a few specialized and luxurious excursions into re-living railway nostalgia). Yet, one could argue that the Hamburger never quite took off till the personal and bespoke attitudes of the 19th century provoked a phobic response in the burger business.

In the post-modern American époque, the Reagan period, when rapid and aggressive expansion, globalization and large-network efficiency were the business foci de rigueur, the burger got pimped. The humble, Germanic émigré, transformed into the orphaned dish of multiple component parts we understand as the modern burger; in all its dried, limp and corn-syrupy fatigue. The burger became its own razzle-dazzled pimp: garishly dressed in artificial Sesame Street hues – it’s prospect always a fleeting memory, a shadow of good sustenance, in comparison to its dissatisfying and cruelly anti-climatic let-down of a gastronomic experience. The burger became removed from its earnest simplicity and, via reconstitution under the forces of globalization, became a vivid simulacrum, like it’s own hyper-real advert: vibrant visuals with little taste.  

The vertiginous compound meal, the composite dish of minced beef sandwiched between pre-processed doughy buns with distractions of cheesy unctuousness, swinesque crispiness, pickled crunch sourness or dent-a-kill sugary condiments, mustard, ‘tomato’, relish, onion or occult special sauce, never realized its potential till corporations spread it too thinly. Burger chain burgers, the frantic, agitated, and stress-frazzled piles of de-personalized flesh ’n’ polystyrene melancholy inevitably found their moribund nadir re-territorialized to Barlesque hipster-chic haute-novelty.

A burger is the pre-primed ideal of post-Fordist capitalism – one could say it is meta-fordist. The burger is a nexus of Toyotan Just-In-Time manufacturing. Each component of the towering feats is a complex exercise in Fordist technique. The bread-buns, be they bleached clouds of corpo-uniformity or artisanal sepia-to-saffron butter-puffs of brioche sweetness, need a factory’s worth of preparation. The carb-packaging requires multiple levels of process, effort, transport and refinement. The old phrase of ‘making bread’: bread making, especially making bread big time – baking – was always a hard graft, complex, involved and hierarchical. Yet, such things are merely the sandwiching of the main attraction. Buns are not even condiment, distraction or side. They are but buns, brackets of the main attraction – the begrudged practical necessity of their presence is all that keeps them at the sides of the stage.

The meat is the burger-real. It reveals the extravagant negation of economy that euro-cuisine consistently re-fetishizes. Aged, hung, fresh, local, rare… these are the shibboleths of anti-capitalist withdrawal and cultural conservatism. The meat must be somehow unique, have provenance, a post-mortem luxury of hanging and aging akin to fine wines and whiskies, whilst all along, and despite such pernickety predilections, be presented in a minced-up, ground-down, patty-mushed and heat-seared discus form. The burger itself, the patty, is a queer thing. It fails, glams up, indulges and negates itself. It is neither cut not product – it is burger, at once indistinguishable from its primary butchered familiarity yet uncannily other. The burger is too cultured, too artificial to be mistaken for steak. It is an impossible compound, it is multiple cuts, multiple parts, advanced meat recovery provides protein materials beyond the quaint simplicity of mere butchery. Machinic efficiencies reclaim the flesh of bovine skeletons.

For the squeamish pescatarian or noble vegan the burger is an uncanny valley of gastrohorror. The burger doesn’t present the distinctly animal appearance of unprocessed meat. There are not joints, bones, fat or form. The musculature of its original corporeal origins erased, in its place stands vertiginous possibilities of flesh. The burger is the unthinkable, the lamella, of capitalism’s machinic impersonality. The ground meat no doubt polygenic, of multiple animals, parts and, in some occasions, species – all harvested in myriad mysterious ways. The burger harbours the horror of sci-fi: unrecognizability – the deeply horrifying prospect of epistemological ambiguity overtakes the sheer explicitness of gore.

The burger patty, contra-steak, is stoically post-human. Its weirdly optimized production and form has a futural streak – a future steak. Normal steak is too beastly, too animal, too fibrously carnivorous in bite to be comparable; our soft incisors are too weak for real meat. The steak reeks of antiquated ways – it seems overly mammalian, crude and base. The burger is speed, efficiency and optimization; it is the Jetsons, the mystery of science, engineering, technology and sly corporate finesse. Steak is Fred Flintstone, it is the self-winding wrist-watch, the map, the phone-call, the human-controlled automobile, the real fire: its pleasure is precisely the sentimentally for yesteryear – an indulgence retrospection and nostalgia: the pantomime rehearsal of bygone ways, the dignities of inefficiency.    

The patty, the pixelated bovine avatar, the meta-Fordist-Frankenstein nexus of vertiginous processes and networks, is all the more satisfying for its synthetic optimization: pre-ground, pre-mixed, curated, arranged by an unseen Svengali-systems. Re-made and re-modeled, seasoned and pre-masticated protein presented with maximum sear-surface for carcinogen charred smokiness and blood-oozing rareness. Its profile of blackened exterior and pinkish soft interior betray the paradoxical brief of the future-steak. Its beef must ham it up (hamburger not beefburger) in the new wave of gourmand burgers. The hamming-beef must be Isserley close to human – replete with undertones class stratification and eugenics. Our cows must have come from good stock, breeding, a heritage of being grass fed and free range. Our mooing-ideal must have a level of luxuriant idle happiness: an idyllic pastural bovine-bohemianism of somnambulant grazing around, well, Hereford, ideally. Before the diner’s imaginary lacuna of the slaughter one imagines a Cider With Rosie tranquility, chirping hedgerows, long hazy summers of late evening violets and a quieter, more relaxed way of life in those halcyon years between the wars… Such fictioning is the Menu’s Con – the MC that, before the burger’s arrival, tells a story at once unimaginable and resolutely incredible. A story of heritage, origin and provenance that is irrefutably incongruous with the horror of machinic consistency that lurks between the buns.

One should be cautious of the nostalgic turn that pervades cuisine. The meat atrocities of corporate efficiency are let downs, they are cons, but future-steaks are not necessarily doomed to forever being uncanny impostors. The next big thing is often called a ‘young pretender’ – before the game changes, before a paradigm shift. The supposed superiority of small-scale, localism, heritage and desirable inefficiencies could be challenged by the cool efficiency of large networks: the burger, the nexus of esoteric processes and occult saucery, should stop dressing itself in vintage and be the unashamed future-steak it is. Highly automated gastronomic luxuries, that exceed the possibilities of local and small scale cuisine – as unthinkable as overseeing one’s steak cooking on a train – are just around the corner.    

Westworld: "We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do"



Sci-Fi has a pedigree of exploring contemporary issues through the engaging gauze of societies and contexts far removed from painful familiarity. Inequality is explicated through different life forms, nuclear anxiety masquerades as fears of interstellar warfare, loneliness through the guise of artificial intelligence or the pseudo-modernist anonymity of slipping through dense and chaotic metropolises… In each case Sci-Fi often trumps its stuffy literary or languorous cinematic ‘betters’, it speaks to us in a clear voice and cuts closer to the bone. A good example of this is the downright Dostoevskian Battlestar Galactica (2004). Battlestar Galactica mirrored post-9/11 paranoia on a multitude of levels. Cylons explored the anxieties and devastating potentials of terrorist ‘sleeper-cells’ – perhaps most obviously the prospect, and fall-out, of suicide bombings. The erosion of civil liberties was the knee-jerk Band-Aid on earth and the Battlestar Galactica fleet. The series was even replete with sham trials (Baltar’s Karamzovian trial) and a prisoner-torture controversy. Resource management, paranoia and the warring of theisms also provided the background to empathetic depictions of beings, whatever they may be. Other than that, the show was just spaceships and aliens.
Westworld fits right into such a lineage. Do not mistake Westworld to be about consciousness, AI agency or sentience. Others can reference Metzinger, Dennet and the Churchlands. Westworld is about every major city in the west. Slightly smiling with avuncular nostalgia and ominous magnanimity, a la Hopkins…let me explain.
Westworld is a luxury theme park, of a ‘wild-west’ theme. It stretches out for miles, so much so that guests can trek for days searching for something or someone inside the park. Hosts populate the park. The hosts are synthetic androids initially indistinguishable from guests. The hosts are like the simpler Replicants in Blade Runner (1982), except Asimov’s first law seems to be correctly installed: they cannot hurt the guests. The hosts are given narratives. They wake up each day, and depending on their finely honed behavioral parameters, engage with the guests or one another in order to serve a grand narrative. Despite the prospect of orchestrating such meticulously complex, rather Dostoevskian in scope, narratives the park invariably relies on simple pleasures. As one can imagine in the park populated by idealized cowboys, farm-girls, whores and militia – the appeal for much of the guests is base. Sex with things and/or conflicts with things are generally what the park caters for. Sex and violence, wild fucks and shoot-outs, are, regardless of the park’s creators’ and directors’ ambitions, its bread and butter.
Of course, as is bound to happen with androids on screen, some guests lose themselves in the illusion, they begin to feel feelings for the hosts. Others, however, do not succumb – they never lose themselves in Westworld, they always remember it is only a game. The Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, falls into the latter category. Logan, played by Ben Barnes, is very similar. These men say only what needs to be said to progress the narrative, like affect-blunted gamers pursuing a game sequence, they shoot, rescue and run with apathy and cynicism. Most intriguing is their interactions with the hosts. They know the hosts are not ‘real people’ so they often talk at them as objects ‘you were programmed well’ they might say. It is this type of dialogue that, initially, reveals who is guest and who is host. The antithesis of these types is undoubtedly William, played by Jimmi Simpson. William cares about the hosts, he doesn’t ask questions they cannot answer; he goes along with the narrative, the shallow ranch clichés and yesteryear syntax of Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood).
The Man in Black’s and Logan’s disposition, their remove from any emotional interaction, recalls a particular scene in The Remains of the Day (1993). Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, is serving drinks to Lord Darlington and his three guests. They begin discussing if ‘the man in the street’ should have a say in political matters, such as war. Lord Darlington, halts Mr. Stevens from exiting after he has topped up the glasses of his betters. He informs him that Mr. Spencer has a question for him.


“Do you suppose the debt situation regarding America factors significantly in the present low levels of trade? Or is this a red herring and the abandonment of the gold standard is the cause of the problem?”
“I'm sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.
“Oh, dear. What a pity. Perhaps you'd help us on another matter. Do you think Europe's currency problem would be alleviated by an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?”
“I'm sorry, sir, but I'm unable to be of assistance in this matter.”
“Very well, that'll be all.”
“One moment, Darlington, I have another question to put to our good man here.
My good fellow do you share our opinion that M. Daladier's recent speech on North Africa was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?”
“I'm sorry, sir. I am unable to help in any of these matters.”
“You see, our good man here is “unable to assist us in these matters.” Yet we still go along with the notion that this nation's decisions be left to our good man here and a few millions like him. You may as well ask the Mothers' Union to organize a war campaign.”
“Thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You certainly proved your point.”
“- Q.E.D., I think.”



Mr. Spencer takes a malicious delight in exercising his superiority over Mr. Stevens. He knows, before he asks his questions, that Mr. Stevens will not offer any opinion or enter into the dialogue. Of course, this performs his point – that the common man should not have a say in lofty matters best left to those of sound stock. Mr. Spencer is a not unlike a bullish tourist that teases the guards at Edinburgh castle, he knows full well no reply other than duty and courtesy will ever come and relishes the asymmetry of agency. The Man in Black and Logan enjoy the same sneering privilege and disdain for the hosts in Westworld. They ask questions for the answers they need, and when they get tired or bored the simple hosts are dispatched.
Westworld is a luxury resort, the bar inside the headquarters offers the guests respite from playing; they lounge poolside, glittering drinks in hand, before returning to the vicarious thrills of the park. The guests have access to different routes into the park; they may use an underground network that the hosts are not aware of. Like a first class tube system meets Ballardian poor doors.  
Westworld is about class. It explores, within the defamiliarized scope of Sci-Fi, the dynamic between the super rich and others. The super rich can travel the globe swiftly in comfort; they flit in and out of major cities, invisible people circle, mutely providing tertiary service various. The super rich, if they do not like whichever park they land in, can leave, try another time zone, climate and narrative. The prole inhabitants, however, may not leave – they are stuck, stuck in their narrative of debt, strife and strive. The hosts of Westworld live in loops, tightly controlled narratives, with miniscule opportunity of change. The android assigned to the role of whore, bandit or soldier has infinite fates of claustrophobic similarity, any divergence from plan being academic in the grand scheme of things. The whore may whore in various ways, the soldier may fight and die in various ways – but nonetheless, the whore will whore and the soldier will fight and will die. “We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” That’ll be all Stevens…
Like the hosts, we all have our loops. We even have quaint ticks and programming characteristics. We swipe touchscreens and avidly check emails. We parrot empty phrases, “lol” we say blankly. We pepper our dialogue with “like” or acquire croaking vocal frys from American reality TV. We do such things, with varying verisimilitudes, in our daily loops – on a “daily basis”. Whilst we do so the super rich come in to town. They might rape or kill. They might do all sorts of things. No matter. Because, as Logan is fond of reminding William: “what happens in the park, stays in the park.” Cheated on your partner? No problem, a super-injunction can fix that. Perhaps one cheated millions out of money whilst working in high finance? A mere trifle, the hosts will clear the mess up.
In Westworld the hosts soon see through the loops they are trapped in. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, after trauma upon trauma is compounded, begins to see through the charade – she wakes up. The same is true for Dolores, it is the trauma, the memory that should’ve been erased from surface level script, that returns as the epiphany which sparks their escape. We can only hope our traumas and memories soon resurface and endow us with the fangs to break from our repressing loops of exploitation.