#AmReading: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

 

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‘Give grief a chance’, the text seems to say. Five chapters in, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking presents a generative exploration of mourning whose writing combines an impersonal detachment with an underlying layer of devastation. It investigates how one comes to terms with grief, its memoir form offering Didion the chance to engage in both her journalistic style and a personal reflection. Its inward journey begs the question: who is the memoir for?

In her own memoir, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson courts the concept of writing to no one. In this case, the memoir form denotes a dispersal, an expression of self which retains an intensity of relations. These intensities do not fade (or else a reader would be left with nothing) but remains in a kind of reverberation, undirected, taken up by the reader. Nelson’s ‘auto-theory’ approach mirrors this concept well, but Didion’s approach is directed, its agenda set out from the beginning. This memoir is for her; the writing is for the writer. She relays the events of her husband’s death like a report, a camera unfolding on a scene. The text retells the extraordinary through the lens of the ordinary. Didion muses on these eruptions of catastrophe, noting, ‘confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred’. The distancing of reflection posits Didion at a double removal; that of the grieving individual looking back, and that of the writer whose memoir reports the effects of the disaster.

The Didion we receive is thus a shadowy figure, conveying a frame by frame retelling of events. The journalistic style creates a veil of detachment, a common feature of her other works:

 

As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

 

As the first few chapters progress, the polish intermittently loses its impenetrable sheen. The veil is there to be punched through, injecting the text with pulses of emotional strain or outbursts of grief. The detached report struggles against its self-censorship; reading through literature on mourning she laments the distancing from death brought on by modernity; the hiddenness of grief as something no longer seen openly. The text presents this hiding of grief as a fabric, the ripples of grief combing across it, disturbing its flatness. Didion writes, ‘[g]rief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life’. As a text of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking structures itself around these waves, moving back and forwards around John’s death, between factual accounts and moments of realisation which interrupt the factual narrative. Grief invades the text rather than pervades it, its fluctuations often brief but impactful. Its irruptions are deftly handled and relatable, as seen in Didion’s approach to John’s autopsy:

 

In fact I wanted to be in the room when they did it (I had watched those other autopsies with John, I owed him his own, it was fixed in my mind at that moment that he would be in the room if I were on the table) but I did not trust myself to rationally present the point so I did not ask.

 

The clinical process, the opening up of a person, is relayed as a possibility which cannot be fulfilled; Didion separates her explanation with parentheses, shutting it off from the rest of the text as though fearful that its limitation will be judged harshly. The literal dismantling of one’s body accompanies the dismantling of rational speech as Didion relates her own relational inability. Awareness of the grief process intervenes, as though it dictates what must be seen and not seen. Level-headed journalistic style and fluctuations of grief butt heads as Didion’s desire to learn more appears to contradict her knowledge of mourning tradition.

The text itself is suspicious of these waves of grief, of anything fluid, anything that is not solid or static. The normal, the rational, manifests as concrete things. Retaining John’s shoes, carrying ID with her in order to ease her identification in the event of her own untimely death, Didion overtly attempts to not only put the blue back into the sky behind the falling plane, but ensure that the sky will remain blue at all times. Her awareness of the pointlessness of normality at such a time of grief foregrounds the prevalence of detachment, a façade which only further betrays the waves of grief bubbling underneath. As Emmet Rensin says, ‘[t]his, at bottom, is what terrifies. The mourner who asks, Why am I so preoccupied with the normal? is asking, really, Is this normal now?’. The waves of grief move this platform of normalcy along the text, bursting through at intervals. Images of water recur throughout, returning at the end of Chapter Five as Didion evokes the River Styx, drawing on its function as both an avenue of transportation and as a barrier, separating us from our loved ones. Grief moves, and the text, even in its first five chapters alone, is moving too.

Horizon: Zero Dawn and the New Human Narrative

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*Spoilers for Horizon: Zero Dawn follow*

Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world does something other games rarely do. The overgrown post-post-apocalyptic setting is nothing new; in fact, it is already on its way to trope status. What makes Horizon: Zero Dawn’s world so engaging is that it is the setting for a narrative in which its depiction of the human is saddled with new, hybridised meaning.

Horizon presents a civilisation ostensibly knocked back thousands of years, yet strands of modernity and postmodernity remain in the vocabularies of its inhabitants, their crafting and building materials, and their linguistic structure. The game’s societies (the hierarchical structures of human tribes, how they cohere or do not cohere with each other, how their settlements are lived in) are not a simple regression. As in every video game apocalypse, the remnants of the previous world remain. Language has remained intact, though its signifying structures have shifted in certain aspects, and the technology of late-capitalism is hybridised with the weaponry of the prehistoric hunter-gatherer. The material phenomena in the game world imply this hybridity everywhere you look, most obviously in the machines which populate it.

The machines, for the most part, are animals. Their insertion into the game world creates a constructed ecosystem which complicates the relationship between human and animal. The late great John Berger illustrates this relationship well when he claims that ‘[t]o suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises’. Here, Berger notes the secondary nature of the animal as material; its primary significance was as an atavistic marker of wider spiritual concepts. The machines fulfil the same function, but their signifying matter has shifted to messengers of a post-industrial machinic warfare. Flesh and bone animals are present in Horizon’s world, but the boars and foxes and rabbits which sparsely populate the environment fulfil only the second, material function, as resources for the game’s crafting and bartering.

The machine-animals, however, are both material and promise. In envisaging Aloy as simply hunter-gatherer we not only diminish her heroic status in the game’s science-fiction narrative, but also project 19th-century attitudes forward, furthering the spectative aspect of the human/animal relationship (that nature is a force to be dominated, appropriated, and finally only contemplated), and eliding the wider significance of the machines. Their zoomorphic form is in fact anomalous to the human/animal distancing Berger outlines when he describes the historical division which separated man and beast:

 

The decisive theoretical break came with Descartes. Descartes internalized, within man, the dualism implicit in the human relation to animals. In dividing absolutely body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics and, since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of a machine.

 

On the surface, the machine animals thus present the ultimate concrete manifestation of this mind/body dualism which has dominated (and hindered) much of Western thought. The machines’ ‘soullessness’ distances them from the human, their alienation from ecological normativity exemplified by their uncanny animal forms. Those machines least resembling animals, Ted Faro’s Corruptors, Deathbringers, and Metal Devils, typify the machinic mode of existence since they serve only to aid in annihilation. Their distancing, however, doubles back on itself, since their design is wholly human. The machine animals (Sawtooths, Stormrulers, Grazers, etc), designed by the artificial intelligence GAIA and her industrial node HEPHAESTUS, present a hybridised form blending purpose, design and time period. As the threat from humans grows, the machines are designed in ever more varied and dangerous forms; as dinosaurs and prehistoric birds. The animal and the war machine blend together as a means of making earth fit for natural life forms to inhabit it and as a means of defence against the post-collapse human tribes. The well-trod binary of human vs nature is complicated and hybridised as nature becomes a hybrid itself.

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This new intertwining of human and nature is both a step forward and a step back, and neither step is wholly positive or negative. This new relationship springs from a system of intelligent design produced by an autonomous machine. GAIA, the game tells us, is a multi-faceted AI designed to see, feel, know, and do more than humanity ever could. She strives iteratively for perfection, designing new forms of machine life to a degree of utility humans cannot achieve. Why, then, are her designs so familiar? Leaving the meta commentary on the limitations of game designers aside, it is simply because Gaia’s origins as a human-designed algorithm make her new ecosystems always inherently flawed. The machine animals her HEPHAESTUS node creates will never achieve true perfection (always unknowable and unattainable), since they will always carry the trace of the human which makes a utopian vision seem impossible. The Enlightenment-influenced distancing between the human and the new machine animal begins to weave itself together; the human appears now in the animal, as the animal has always appeared in the human.

What are the consequences of this human trace for the rest of the game? HADES, the failsafe mechanism, will always be necessary to wipe the slate clean and allow the eco-evolution to begin again, correcting even the most minor anomalies. HADES is introduced as ‘the ultimate killer app’, threading together technocratic dominance and planetwide extinction with alarming ease. Its creator, Travis Tate, is its human equivalent, the father of this ‘badass’ AI weapon modelled on the worst atrocities in history. Recordings in-game show Tate insisting on the inclusion of torture videos in the Apollo Archive, a collection of all the history and knowledge humanity has gained, to be taught to future post-apocalyptic generations.  Tate is every man-baby asshole you’ve ever met online, glorifying death and violence, subjecting others to its displaced effects through a misguided sense of rational superiority.

Small wonder, then, that his project is pure extinction. Concern over whether to censor this violence pervades the Apollo Archive’s in-game development, which shows its creators debating what to include. Where do we draw the line? It draws a sketch of humanity’s origins; its sources of knowledge, and the reasons for its destruction. The hubris of humanity is everywhere in the game world, presented in the traces of the human found in every machine animal, and in the corrupted machines and humans who disrupt the ecology. The remnants of the world’s near total mass extinction reside in recordings and scraps of communication documenting humanity’s struggle against itself. The Apollo Archive’s gamified approach to learning suggests a reification of the technocratic system so troublingly empowered in the 21st century. The Tree of Knowledge proudly presented by the Alpha scientists would, as Deleuze reminds us, simply retrace the structures which always lead to power exercised by the strong over the weak. What hope is there for humanity, the game implicitly asks, when its methods for its own renewal are the very means of its inevitable self-destruction?

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The Apollo Archive’s deletion, Faro’s ‘cultural obliteration’, is a loss, but it is more than a simple denial of historical repetition. A new narrative path opens in which life (social and ecological) can grow in a mode more in line with Ursula LeGuin’s vision for science fiction:

 

If, however, one avoids the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field, not necessarily Promethean or apocalyptic at all, and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one.

 

Horizon does not let scientific and technological superiority alone ensure victory. Aloy is a vision of a new kind of science fiction storytelling in games; one in which our cultural carrier bag has been deliberately emptied, and a new culture can grow. Aloy’s status as outcast at the game’s opening is due to her lack of a mother. Lack of origin is an alienating device in Horizon’s story: the machine animals also are without perceived origin. Even the deletion of the Apollo archive is in effect a deletion of an origin: the future human race becomes motherless. Cold technocracy destroys its base, perpetuating a cycle of destruction, as Sylens realises too late when Aloy presents him with an alternative in which affect and empathy matter more. Aloy is the face of the new cultural carrier bag; the tank-grown child of a scientist’s genetic code and the simulacrum of a goddess. Her origin is thus human displaced a thousand times, a distancing whose removal from late capitalist domination gives it space to choose a different path.

Yet, on every possible path there remains an echo of the human. The ecosystem is the product of a human project, the machine-animals its perpetuator. Berger’s vision of the capitalist appropriation of nature has been realised, but in the world of Horizon there is no capitalism (as we know it). Nature is not subjected to the technological whim; technology is now another manifestation of the natural. The appropriation is thus complete in the rebirth of the world, but it has also set nature free. There is no distancing between man and animal because the boundaries are once again blurred; tiny traces of human and animal experience becomings everywhere. The machine is never truly present; in the face of every Intelligence or machine is the face of the human staring back. The game world’s blank slate is a palimpsest, drawing a new narrative over the faded engravings of the old, though the path of its evolution is no longer foreseeable.

Inaugural Post: A Defence of Not Knowing

I need to start writing more. I say this to myself every day. I take paper from work and jot down ideas, then pile the papers next to my monitor in the hopes that one day they’ll become something. They never do. I like the idea of sitting down and writing all day, then all the next day, and the next, but, like diet and exercise, I’m not able to sustain it. Short bursts and jottings down are all I can manage, and they never accumulate into anything worthwhile. The reason for this blog is to create some kind of synthesis between the goals I feel like I should have and the excuses I make for not getting anywhere.

It is nothing new to be afraid of writing. Chaucer was afraid of writing because he saw it as a challenge to God, whose providence lay in the Word. But that never stopped him from writing. Every writer is scared of having their work out in the world. Who knows what will happen to it out there? The world is a cruel place. What will people say? Late capitalism demands that you ‘put yourself out there’ but when you’re out there you are vulnerable to attack. Why willingly subject yourself to abuse? The nightmare recurs: you finish a piece. You deliver this vital thing which has consumed you for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years, and as soon as it flies the roost its glaring flaws are exposed for all to see. The gaps in your knowledge become ever more apparent; that finished work you saw as a unitary whole is revealed as a patchwork of holes.

Of course, a work is never unitary. Any interaction with a text opens up new possibilities. But you can’t help but take a slight against your work as a slight against yourself. In the school or the university, it’s okay. You’re still learning, you’re meant to be uninformed on this or that, you’re meant to not have read this or that. This gap in your knowledge can fill upon reading this theorist, that writer. Then the world opens up with its terrifying prescience and every other person repeats the same mantra, that this person ‘clearly hasn’t read this or that’. Therefore, why should we listen?

This is why I read a lot. Picking from the ever-growing stockpile of books, some of which will never be read, I work my way through. An illusion of productivity emerges as I attack a Calvino-esque fortress of ‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’; a cluster of fiction and non-fiction, theory, history, sloshing about in my head like an overflowing fish tank. It’s okay, I say. I’m learning. But I wasn’t learning. Reading and reading for months on end ultimately became nothing.

I’m not saying reading isn’t productive. We need to read. How can you write if you don’t know how to read well? But I was reading everything and absorbing nothing; there was no response. And all this time, putting off writing becomes easy as you convince yourself, ‘I still don’t know enough. How can I write about anything when I still don’t know enough? I need to do more research’. But one-sided research gets you nowhere. It’s not enough to read the book. You have to write the response.

The goal is to know more, to understand those feelings and theories and affects which are brought forward when one reads, or watches, or listens. If I want to understand these, I need to write about them. This means showing myself as much as it does showing others; showing the gaps in my knowledge as well as the shapes. The goal is to open a dialectic of sorts, a chilling prospect when one faces a lifetime of concern over avoiding finishing or releasing any writing. In his introduction to The Modernist Papers, Fredric Jameson notes that ‘for good or ill, the dialectic requires you to say everything simultaneously whether you think you can or not’ (p. ix). He’s not being didactic here but rather sharing in an anxiety. It’s a concern that permeates the work. What a terrifying thought! we can all say, Jameson included. What with all the historical context there has ever been. All the shifting planes of modernity, he knows as well as we do that his is a task which is fated to be incomplete as soon as it starts.

At least, that’s my view on it. Others might disagree. The dialectic relies on other voices- a one-sided argument goes nowhere closer to a perceivable truth. We need people to tell us what we’ve missed, what we haven’t read yet. Again, this is nothing new. The academic community (ideally) thrives on being told the shortcomings of its arguments; we’re told over and over that living is a learning experience. Overcoming fear of criticism is always apparent, not a revelation. It’s a realisation we already know. It’s something that just has to be done, and as any writer would tell you, it’s really hard.

In the introduction to Against Interpretation and Other Essays, acclaimed writer and essayist Susan Sontag reflects on her past critical work:

Before I wrote the essays I did not believe many of the ideas espoused in them; when I wrote them, I believed what I wrote; subsequently, I have come to disbelieve some of these same ideas again- but from a new perspective, one that incorporates and is nourished by what is true in the argument of the essays. Writing criticism has proved to be an act of intellectual disburdenment as much as of intellectual self-expression.

Both Sontag’s and Jameson’s introductions relate a concern and an acknowledgement; yes, there is anxiety in writing, concern for change, in one’s own work and in the wider world, but there’s also a liberation. The change is inevitable and exciting. That two introductions are quoted here isn’t a coincidence. In those essay collections, introductions are both retrospective and forward thinking, looking back on an oeuvre of work while also pointing ahead to its presentation.

I would like this introduction to have a similar function. While books are the focus here, this blog will cover all aspects of ostensibly wasting time; films, games, maybe some music. The point is to get somewhere, but not to stay there. This is a nomadic project, with no endpoint, no goal, and no defined methodology. It’s about recovering agency (whatever that means in an era where the unitary, acting subject has become such a troubled concept). Let this be the start of a learning experience. Of course, you don’t know enough. That’s why you have to write it down.