Monday, October 17, 2005


A fascinating feature in the Sunday Times by Bryan Appleyard, asking whether we're on the brink of a new dark age, and suggesting that the pace of innovation has slowed - so that after 2 centuries of progress, we shouldn't now take this for granted. In some ways, this seems absurd - haven't we seen such an astonishing revolution in computing over the last 2 decades for instance? What about innovations in treatment for cancer, HIV etc? But we're also in a world that seems not to have changed that much - except by degree. To take a simple, perhaps banal example, the Video recorder certainly "changed lives" - or at least leisure time - by allowing to timeshift recordings, watch films more than once. Yet DVDs and hard disk recorders are merely improving what we have already got. The innovation - storable moving images - is distant. In some cases, you could argue that digitisation is not even an improvement - e.g. compare teletext with digital interactive text, the older technology is faster, with a bigger page size. We are, I guess, used to exagerrating the importance of the presence in many ways, or failing to see it in historical context, and our westernised conception of things probably doesn't help. I think its an interesting debate, though "inventions" seem only part of it; what about innovation in the arts and ideas? With historical hindsight we can see that Darwin, Freud and Marx were the forerunners of certain ways of thinking that clearly were different than what had gone before. Look at the "range" of disciplines that now abound compared even with a dozen years ago. Art - literature in particular - seems best able to articulate the scope of human innovation. The romantic consciousness, seeing fit subjects not in God but in God's creations, whether the Lake District or a nightingale, was one such innovation; modernism was another. It's fair to say, as well, that certain arts, are technologically driven. Machine musics like house music and hip hop would have been unthinkable without synthesizers and other purely electronic instruments, just the same way that rock and roll could only happen once Les Paul had amplified the guitar. Innovation, for me, is where there clearly was nothing the same before. It would be difficult to find a house record prior to 1986, or a hip hop record before 1979 - yet prototypes existed for both (the O'Jays "I Love Music", Kraftwerk's "Trance Europe Express" the Last Poets, War). Similarly where are the first person novels that explore consciousness prior to the 20th century? It is there in Knut Hamsun's "Hunger" from the late 19th, but rarely elsewhere. Certain events or discoveries change things. But whether printing press, or electricity is more important for the "form" of the art as opposed to the "idea" is a debate in itself. Does the "photograph" have more of a claim to "realism" than Turner's paintings of the elements or Stubbs' horses? And if we are in a dark age, or approaching one (and we're likely to be well into it before we know it), then it is the arts that will be the best barometer; and here it doesn't look that good. Has poetry revitalised itself since modernism? Has the novel? Where is the innovation that we once - if not took for granted, at least saw as a way to distinguish the generations. Language certainly re-invents its components, and there are grammars and vocabularies nowadays that would have been somewhat inconceivable in the poetry of a hundred years ago. (Linton Kwesi Johnson's Inglan is a bitch for instance.) Most modernist poetry, even when it sought solace in the past, has a form and feel and voice to it that could only have come out of the electric age. But what of now? Saturated by art, its all availabe to everyone, its possible to wonder, yes, where are the greats, where are the innovations? There's clearly something in the "post-modern", and in the type of post-ironic fictions of Eggars, Foster Wallace and Moody, (in the age of television, nothing is real, everything is fractured through its simulacrum, irony therefore is everywhere, and no longer possible), but it might be the last days of Rome - an Augustan parody; a mock heroic of the dying Western literate classes. Yet, just as you go further down that road...away from the centre, something new, unusual might appear at the edge of vision. A review in the Guardian sparked my attention. 437 pages of doggedly cut-up text turned into a novel with a thousand fonts or more. This is potentially a 3D literature for the future - not merely an academic parlour game, or an experiment in the labs of the OuLiPo -- the name was familiar of course from those "lost consonants" Graham Rawle's been peppering the paper with for years. But a novel? I await its arrival with bated breath.

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