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)

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.



Speeding and Braking Talk: Part 2 'Human Buffering'

Human Buffering.

An accelerated and compressed version of this was delivered at The Speeding and Braking: Navigating Accleration conference organised by SARU at Goldsmiths College University of London on 14/05/2016.

Part 1 here


Let's return to Berardi consider a particular dynamic that our accelerated speech is symptomatic of. Increased syllabic intensity is a symptom of the pressures and demands or semiocapitalism. We can consider this connection, between semiocapitalism and voice in terms of two key Berardian ideas. The infosphere and the psychosphere – or two use two other Berardian terms cyberspace and cybertime. The infosphere and cyberspace are ever expanding, getting faster, denser, more complex and detailed. The exponential growth of data capacities, corresponding to Moore’s Law seem limitless. Cyberspace and the Infosphere never cease exploding. But our engagement, that is cybertime (how long we can distractedly look at the internet) and psychosphere (our collective psychological capacities) are not boundless like the infosphere and cyberspace. We have our limit.

Our speed limit is manifested in multiple ways. In terms of cognition and the absorbtion of text we now look at our endless email rather than reading them. “Did you read the email?” is a common question, precisely because no one actually reads email anymore. We no longer engage deeply with music – we download discographies that go unlistened or flit randomly through YouTube videos or streaming services. In terms of voice, whilst we may attempt to speak faster and faster, our brain cannot keep up. We say um, err, use vapid filler words and phrases. Everyone has some vocal manifestation of a speed limit a stutter, a pause, a gestural tick, a familiar embellishment of phrase: “y’know”.

More specifically, when we cannot keep up, we might croak. Our voice is reduced to vocal fry. As our syntax overrides our respiration, as our finite brains struggle with a cognitive-motor-syllabic pile up we croak, drawling the gravelly phonic register of our human buffering. Although vocal fry is defined as using the lowest register of the voice (a croaky, creaky, sort of sound) I feel that in practice it is an affect that comes into to hide our cognitive buffering and braking of our syllabic delivery. This is particularly noticeable in the youtube example.

“Women exhibiting a low-pitched, creaky voice known as "vocal fry" are considered less competent, educated, trustworthy, attractive and hirable, according to research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

“The researchers conducted an experiment using 800 online listeners split evenly between men and women. The listeners were randomly assigned to listen to either seven male voices or seven female voices that alternated between vocal fry and normal tones of voice. The listeners were then asked to judge the examples for competence, education, trustworthiness and attractiveness. The experiment found a strong aversion to voices exhibiting vocal fry, particularly among women. “

There is a heavy gender bias here, a hypocritical bias too. The male voices with exactly the same vocal affect were not received as negatively as the female voices containing the same method of speech braking (the vocal fry). As the video points out, this has a strong implication for career prospects. Many hiring decisions are based on initial impressions. Women who possess an identical vocal affect to their male counterpart are regarded in a grossly negative manner. This is inequality and normative bias revealing itself in the way voices and our braking methods are heard and interpreted. In essence the method of braking syllabic delivery and the ways we affect our voice to slow down our delivery under the pressures of semiocapitalism are arbitrary in terms of prejudice – prejudice can be applied retroactively to any affect or braking method with no logic other than it’s prejudice: there is no right way to speak or delay one’s speech, only supposedly, right forms of speaker who can employ affects to positive effect that when used by another would be regarded negatively. Further to this I’d suggest that the discriminatory gender bias in terms of the American vocal fry is another subtle form of women being persecuted for any form of control over their own bodies: don’t brake, keep up honey.

In Britain there is a very prevalent vocal fry associated with a certain class and a certain geographic area: the charming Home Counties croak of the masculine vocal fry – “Yah”. Again, there is normative prejudice inherent in this. The affect that imbues the speaker baritone privilege in one instance may sully another with common coarseness of voice in another. Prejudice follows no logic other than its own, vocal traits are arbitrary. We can also see similar double standards with other cognitive-syllabic braking methods. We can regard the class distinction between the charming Oxbridge debating society stutter (heard on Radio 4, HIGNFY, Question Time) and other stutters in the same way. One seems granted authority and gravitas, whereas the other is regarded as a speech impediment, an inability to speak. In the same sense we can consider the use of filler words to buy time. Politicans, who relentlessly parrot empty phraseology as testament to Burroughs’ claim, are seemingly allowed filler phrases like ‘robust’ and ‘now look here now’ whereas other phrases that serve exactly the same cognitive motor-syllabic deceleration purpose, may be taken up as less authoritative, informed or capable. Filler terms such as ‘um’, ‘you know’, ‘well I think’, ‘to be honest’ etc are seldom granted the same privilege as patrician stutters or elite-class parroting.

There are many forms of how our speed limit is manifested when our neuro-vocal abilities fall short of the accelerating demands media-saturated semiocapitalism. We all have our speed limit. Recognizing how deeply the contemporary environment affects our bodies and minds is important. But so too is recognising the politically ingrained hypocrisies that surround the different ways we brake, buffer, hesitate and pause.


Berardi, F, 2009. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation. Minor Compositions. London.
Jukes, I, 2010. Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape (The 21st Century Fluency Series). Corwin
Karpf, A. 2007. The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent. Bloomsbury. London.
Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. Penguin Books. London Zizek, S. 2008 ‘Language, violence and non-violence.’ International Journal of Zizek Studies 2 (3), 307-316

Speeding and Braking Talk: Part 1 'Life is short: Talk Fast'

Life is short: Talk Fast. 

An accelerated and compressed version of this was delivered at The Speeding and Braking: Navigating Accleration conference organised by SARU at Goldsmiths College University of London on 14/05/2016.


Voice is a partial register not just of who we are but how we are. It reflects, in part, our experience, our trauma, the environment we live in and how we engage – or are required to engage. This is not to suggest that voice is at all analogous to us or where we have been or who we are – we cannot reduce facets of voice to history, class, race or gender – but voice hints at the pressures we face in an oblique manner. If we are unwell our voice may be hoarse. We may stutter when nervous or if we’ve had too much caffeine. We might slur our speech when intoxicated and slow speech is a symptom of depression. Voice alludes partially to both our corporeal state and our neurological state.

When we speak we are asking our minds and bodies to do something virtuosic. Not only do we master dexterous and complex acrobatics and contortions of our tongue, glottis lips and teeth but we also time our breath to the sentences we utter. As Pinker notes: “Syntax overrides carbon dioxide: we suppress the delicately tuned feedback loop that controls our breathing rate to regulate oxygen intake, and instead we time our exhalations to the length of the phrase or sentence we intend to utter.” (Pinker, 1994, p.164). Strange, that even our respiratory rhythm, that automatic inhale and exhale that sounds softly in our slumber, doesn’t take precedence of language. The only other activity that trumps respiratory needs is swimming underwater – but during this activity we are, sometimes painfully, aware of our respiratory need. It is odd how little we notice speech overtaking the most basic needs of our body: breath. Without thinking our urge to communicate, to gesture, usurps our need for air. And isn’t there something romantic about the body dying for its voice? Recall the straining apoplectic rock-star or the self-sacrificing siren of the stage offering generous self-annihilation for voice, for our sadistic ears. Voice is a profound crux of how our bodies are subjected to what Zizek calls “the torture house of language”.

Given that voice is traumatic already, given that we already let it usurp our need for air and requisition parts of our body made for respiration and nourishment for the sake of speech, why do we persist in speaking faster and faster? In Precarious Rhapsody Berardi references a study by Richard Robin:

"Evidence suggests that globalisation has produced faster speech emission rates in areas of the world where the Western mode of transmission of signs has come to replace traditional and authoritarian ones. For instance, in the ex-Soviet Union the speed of transmission measured in syllables per second has almost doubled since the fall of the communist regime: from three to almost six syllables per second. ; similar findings reached the same conclusions in the Middle East and China’ (Robin, 1991: 403)." [1]

The import from this study is clear: there is a relationship of syllabic speed to capitalism. The pressures of competition and production are reflected in the speed of speech. More specifically, the accelerating demands of semiocapitalism that exploit our communicative and cognitative capabilities, is reflected in our voices… in syllabic speed. The business of talking faster…

I remember being particularly thrilled watching American TV on Channel 4 in the late 90’s and early 00’s. I’d come home from school or college and, gawping at the quick fire, gag-a-second, energetic and snappy sitcoms I’d feel a distinct sense of speed. Everyone seemed to talk so fast. The prim, vaguely New York, dialects of the characters seemed like syllabic machine guns. The immediacy of the retorts, the dialogue’s unrelenting pace sounded out in stark contrast to the familiar monosyllabic plodding of Coronation Street, Eastenders, Porridge or Only Fools and Horses.

Of course, much of this has to do with the way American shows are created. They tend to have more words to fit into a show from the outset – more jokes to fit in, so to speak. British shows tend to be written by fewer people (often one or two writers) whereas it is much more typical for American shows to be written by small army of hyper-caffeinated hotshot scriptwriters. A good example of this is The Gilmore Girls – a show known for its fast-paced dialogue. Ken Honeywell comments that this is, in part, the result of how long the script for each episode is – much longer than the average show script: “while scripts for most TV shows of that length are 40 – 50 pages long, Gilmore girls scripts were known to hit 80 pages.”[2]

Frasier too, has, fast speech as a direct result of increasing communicative content being crammed into a finite timeslot. But for Frasier it was not due to the script being long. Frasier has had accelerated syllabic intensities as a direct result of from market forces. Karpf references an article by Aaron Barnhart: “Speeded-up Frasier Gives KSMO extra Ad-time”. That describes how once a Kansas TV station sped up Frasier episodes to fit more adverts into the slot: “American television now routinely speeds up sitcoms and compresses speech in order to fit in more ads. If ‘Frasier’ seems to talk faster on one affiliate station than on another that’s probably because he is talking faster – the station has accelerated the episode.” (Karpf, 2007, p.44)

Gilmore Girls, Frasier, Friends, Will and Grace, The Big Bang Theory, Sex and the City and shows similar are manifestations of the Richard Robin study cited by Berardi in a dramatic microcosm. Syllabic speed is intensified, accelerated, as a result of the requirement to fit more and more content within a finite timeframe. Increasing densities of content, more and more communicative semiotics are forcibly compressed within a finite time-frame as a result of late capitalism. The pressures of providing ever snappier and exciting sitcom content or the simple technological acceleration of the video playback in order to fit additional advertisements result in fast talking.

Of course, in life we do not need to worry about when the credits come up. But we are pressed for time. We need to communicate in ever-faster ways, with more people, about more complex topics – but the day is still only so long. We have, perhaps felt this pressure whilst giving a presentation or during an interview – we talk faster in the hope of getting more in. But there is another dynamic behind accelerated syllabic delivery. It is, to half-quote Burroughs, connected to how “language is a virus”. When we are speaking to each another our speed and rhythms fall into synchronicity. If the other is speaking quickly we quicken our pace too.

We do this for many reasons but mostly it is a subconscious, pre-perceptual, action. We mirror and mimic the speech rate of the other more than we realise. A large part of speech is neuro-motorlogical. Speech is, in a sense, neurologically rooted in gesture and the neural mirroring that occurs as a consequence of hearing or seeing gestures has firm evidence. For example, when we see a smile our brains mirror the neurological protocols for when we smile, hence why you should always smile on dating profiles – not because grinning, alone, into a webcam is a fun or happy task but because the hopeful viewer of our smile will experience the neurological protocols concomitant to their own smile: happiness. We should smile at the camera so that the other, through no conscious contemplation but on a sub-conscious level, feel the feelings connected to their own smile. We should smile in the hope of emotionally affecting the other. Disgust is a similarly contagious gesture and one of neuroscience’s strongest evidencing of neural mirroring. When we see another vomit we often feel nauseous too. Likewise, and especially because language speaking and cognition is intrinsically gesture based in neurological terms, when we speak to someone we tend to fall into a similar tempo without realising it. If someone lists numbers as we are trying to count, either out-loud or without speaking, we lose count. The degree to which the other’s voice and the language it carries gets under our skin and into our heads cannot be overstated. Syllabic acceleration is contagious on the basis of subconscious neural mirroring across temporalities in order to maximize communicative efficiency. We tend to match our speech rates to the other.

Similar tempos of speech are more easily cognized. As we listen we look ahead and map out a future rate of delivery. Falling into tempo with the other is as much a part of syllabic gesture mirroring as it is about out temporal and rhythmic attentions of listening manifesting itself through our own vocal delivery in response. In a sense, if the other speaks at the same rate as us then cognizing efficiency is maximized. Easy listening. “We think people who speak in a similar tempo to our own are more competent and more attractive than those who go slower” (Karpf, 2007, p.43) As we speed up, others will do so too – not just as a pre-perceptual affect of neurological mirroring but because we tend to talk more to people we engage deeply with. So, in turn, we expose ourselves to others who have similarly accelerated speech and, of course, mirror, mimic and respond with similar rapidity.

Given that we mirror and mimic the speech we are exposed to it is important to consider what types of speech we expose ourselves to. A lot of our exposure is technologically afforded. MP3’s with high tempo and frenetic sample based musics blot out the organic babble of the crowd. Social spaces are flooded with the humanly impossibly vocal licks of contemporary electronic popular music. We spend hours watching television programs that contain accelerated syllabic content for laughs or advertisement space. Hyper-spliced, energetically cut and chopped YouTube videos that omit any hesitance, pause or delay from the speaker are a growing online video aesthetic. Today our exposure is as much to post-human, technologically accelerated syllabic intensities as it those within the human remit of syllabic delivery frequencies. The majority of our exposure is not the humdrum organicism of conversation but the accelerated form of media. For the past few generations a synthetic, technological, relationship to voice has been naturalized – the baby monitor, at once transmitting and amplifying the infant’s cry to the mother, is the ubiquitous exemplar of how post-human our cries and hearkening have become. Berardi, referencing Rose Golden, notes this shift: “For the first time in human history, there is a generation that has learnt more words and heard more stories from the televisual machine than from its mother” (Berardi, 2009, p.9 – referencing Rose Golden from 1975).

Of course, the profound influence of the info-blitz is not limited to sound and voice. It does extend to visual information processing. A recently uncovered example of this is the difference in automatic eye movements between digital readers (i.e. post internet generation) and non-digital readers. In short digital reading follows in F shaped eye movement, scanning the first paragraph and taking heed of a subheading but ultimately shifting down quickly and neglecting text on the lower right hand-side of the screen. Google refers to this as “the golden triangle” of attention. “the bottom line is that digital bombardment has changed reading patterns. Increasingly digital readers tend to unconsciously ignore the right side and bottom half of the page and tend to only read content in those areas if they are highly motivated to do so.” (Jukes, 2010, p.28). This is not surprising, consider, following Berardi’s citation of Golden the following in contrast to an individual whose formative years were pre-info blitz:

“by the time they’re 21, the digital generation will have played more than 10,000 hours of video games, sent and received 250,000 emails and text/instant messages, spent 10,000 hours talking on phones, and watched more than 20,000 hours of television and 500,000 commercials (and most assuredly these estimates are on the extreme low side). Almost none of these experiences our parent or we had while we were growing up” (Juke, 2010, p.29)

20,000 hours, at least, of exposure to technologically accelerated and artificially energetic and content dense speech manifests in our increased syllabic deliveries. 500,000 instances of attention being honed on the ultra-quick delivery of terms and conditions closing monologues, again, conditions us for maximized verbal efficiency and ever increased language processing speeds.

But it is not just that we accelerate one another and learn our words from artificially overdriven syllabic media contents. We consume psychotropic stimulants too. The ubiquity of coffee in pre-crash American sitcoms is notable. Friends, Frasier, The Gilmore Girls and many other shows tend to revolve around the semi-sacred importance of consuming coffee. Coffee, has been romanticized in propaganda by the media networks of late capitalism. First coffee of the day is important but so too is meeting for coffee after ‘work’. Similarly many characters, after a date, late at night, offer more sleep denying elixir to one another. Drink up! Be quick and productive in your precarious endeavors! Not only is the organism accelerated by the requirements and interactions of hyper-drive communicative semiocapitalism but also psychotropically accelerated, catalyzed on a chemical level – we caffeinate our minds and bodies to peak-jibbering efficiency.

The contemporary coffee shop (notably pitched as social space but mis-used by many as a solitary and dislocated workstation) is a catalyzing syllabic intensifier – a feedback furnace that accelerates our speech. The contemporary coffee shop is a capitalist hub, it is an engine of biopolitical acceleration in the service of production, a hive of exacerbating speech and neurological mirroring. Increased syllabic intensities, cutting off our breath, overriding respiration are symptomatic of the shows we watch, the coffee we drink and the accelerated others we mirror and mimic.

Part 2 here


Berardi, F, 2009. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation. Minor Compositions. London.
Jukes, I, 2010. Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape (The 21st Century Fluency Series). Corwin
--> Karpf, A. 2007. The Human Voice: The Story of a Remarkable Talent. Bloomsbury. London. Pinker, S. 1994. The Language Instinct. Penguin Books. London
Zizek, S. 2008 ‘Language, violence and non-violence.’ International Journal of Zizek Studies 2 (3), 307-316

[1] Robin 1991: 403 cf Berardi 2009: 112
[2] (last accessed 15/05/2016)
last accessed 15/05/2016.