Reading: Julia Bock, Axel Völcker — Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook

(Full Disclosure: Kerber Verlag wanted me so much to review this, they chased me down and sent one boxed up via registered post. I also pestered them via email, which is the real truth.)

Wedding. Repping the best Ortsteil and Kiez in Berlin. My home for most of the time I’ve lived here, where I first landed, where I got my mobile phone number, where I made art (when I was disposed to do that), where I still call home, even as I live in the beating heart of gentrification, between Graefe Kiez and Südstern. I will fight anyone who says Wedding isn’t echt Berlin, who says, “Oh, but you must go to Charlottenburg for the real Berlin”, like Wedding isn’t — we all know what you really mean. Marzahn-Hellersdorf might be on the up, but Wedding bleibt. If only it could ditch its uncool neighbour Mitte.

I see a book on Twitter (via Weddingweiser) called Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook and I know it will be mine, and I know I can’t be throwing down mad Euros on every book I see when my reading list is … even Paul in my favourite bookshop won’t touch its full extent without bribes. It’s got Helvetica Neue for the title and Communist Red endsheets, ’cos Volksrepublik Roter Wedding also bleibt — or at least that’s what the best pub in Germany tells me. I haven’t read it; I’m reading it. I read it. One of those usual non-review reviews.

A story of Wedding: When I first was living in Berlin, and I’d answer the question, “Where are you living?” the regular reply to that, by locals who’d been in the city for years, would be, “Oh Wedding. Be careful. It’s rough.” or other variations on the Wrong Side of the Tracks line — it’s outside the Ring, so yeah, wrong side. So I believed them, and exited U-Pankestraße with some apprehension, ’cos it was like being up Sydney Rd in Melbourne on a Friday night before that got gentrified. But then I noticed no one stared or got in my face or even gave a shit I was walking up Badstraße, and that ‘rough’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘not really Berlin’ meant Turkish and immigrant and working class, and about as much home in a city as I’ll ever find.

Another Wedding story: There’s a street off Badstr. called Buttmannstraße. Yes, really, Buttmann. I laughed. We all laugh, we of the former Empire’s colonies, ’cos we all have toilets for brains. I have a dear friend who lives for many years in Buttmannstr. The best pub in the world used to be on Buttmannstr. There should be a superhero called Superbuttmann. Obviously it’d be a porno, like Flesh Gordon, or Sex Trek, or Buttman vs. Superbuttmann. Buttmannstr. is the street that ‘brings down the neighbourhood’, where you see the hard fist of gentrification, forced evictions, police doing high-rotation patrols, rents doubling, locals with nowhere to go, who’ve called Wedding their home from the time it was the arse-end of Berlin, getting the boot.

Buttmannstr. officially isn’t in Wedding. The 2001 Bezirksgebietsreform hewed off the eastern half and renamed it Gesundbrunnen. Everyone still calls it Wedding; it’s going to take more than an administrative ‘reform’ to change that. Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch properly takes Wedding in its former fullness, from Bornholmer Brücke (otherwise known as Böse Brücke) — where East and West Berlin first opened on November 9th, 1989 — all the way west to the edge of Flughafen Tegel. Wedding, where Marlene Dietrich performed when Buttmannstr. was the Queen of north Berlin.

I turn through the pages and sections, portraits of retired workers propping up their local bar, of parents and their children, portraits of Wedding-ers at home, and there’s Anna and Wolfgang Dumkow, in their beautiful Wiesenburg apartment, surrounded by art, looking unfathomably stylish. Each of the eighteen chapters or parts is by a different photographer from Ostkreuz-Agentur (skewed about 2:1 men:women ratio, yes, youse all know me, I count), so each chapter is a story, separate from the others, telling a particular theme without being beholden to an overarching narrative or curatorial aesthetic. Yes, it’s about Wedding, but it is not attempting a comprehensive or definitive appraisal; it is a moment shaped by the suburb’s past and its impending future.

And Wedding is a strange, unremarkable suburb, there’s scant imposing or singular architecture, the streets are a mix of congested thoroughfares banked by post-war Neubau — like all of Berlin, it’s missing teeth, more so than other districts, having been one of the main industry districts, and on the receiving end of heavy bombardment — of Kiez and Viertel with names like Afrikanisches Viertel (memorialising Germany’s colonial history), Brüsseler Kiez, tree-lined residential side-streets broken by old factories, and on two sides bounded by massive railway lines and the Westhafen canal port. There’s history here that’s uniquely Berlin and Wedding, but little of this remains immediately evident. In its absence, it’s one of the quieter parts of Berlin, where people carry on ordinary lives — even if they are artists.

So I’m reading this book and part of me is delighted to see my home represented like this, and part of me wonders why this book exists at all. Perhaps because Julia Boek and Axel Völcker also delight in this rather mundane cul-de-sac. But who’s it for, then? Wedding doesn’t have the punk and techno history of Kreuzberg, certainly not the cataclysmic history of Potsdamer Platz, Bowie and Iggy Pop didn’t live in Wedding, if there’s a suburb of Berlin which history seemed to have passed by, it’s Wedding.

It’s a suburb worth considering though. Barely 50% are of German origin — I have no idea what that means, I suppose germano-German, white German, though these kind of demographic descriptors slide into insalubrious fantasies of nationhood and ethnicity — almost 1 in 5 are Turkish German, and more than 1 in 20 Afro-German. It’s been a suburb of migration for its entire history, and only in the last few years has it been the site of the gentrification-type migration. One of the photo essays is called Black Wedding, a group of Cameroon-Germans who export cars, church on Sunday, family portraits at home and in the park. Another is of empty mosques. The introduction tells us Wedding has the greatest number of Mosques of any district in Berlin.

I’m going to jump into criticism here, all staccato like. My first criticism comes back to the imbalanced ratio of men to women photographers. I think here of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, where she says, “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.” She also talks about — and I can’t find the quote here — the artlessness and naïvety of the amateur as more natural, more real, and therefore an essentialist resistance to the artificiality of the professional photographer. I was thinking of this looking at some of the essays, street photography shot without looking through the lens, as though this method in itself conferred a higher value to the work. I just thought they looked kinda crap, and had images in my head of tourist bros one-hand running and gunning their multi-thousand euro DSLRs, taking without asking. I contrast this with the family portraits, where the photographer set up an impromptu studio in a paediatric clinic, and asked her subjects, “What is your greatest wish?” And the answer so often was, “A better life for my children.” Asking and receiving. This is the Wedding I recognise, and when Mutti Merkel and other lost white Germans clamour multiculturalism and integration have failed, I say, this is Germany, and these are Germans.

There’s a photo in one of the empty mosques series where you can see a sliver of curtain. These spaces are absent of people, but were they not, then the absence would be women. Behind that curtain, that’s where the women go. An absence doubled. There are portraits of the Imam at the end, all male, by the photographer, also male. How a man can move through these spaces and streets — if they can at all — is very different from a woman. It’s like the reportage on Afghanistan I’ve been reading for years, only half told because of this absence. I feel tired and embarrassed to endlessly, year after year, book after book, movie, TV show, exhibition, cycling, motorsport, always, always hammering and banging on about representation. Fucking women. Where the fuck are we? Is one woman for every two men equality? Does 30% somehow read as half? And what does it mean that in a suburb where half the locals aren’t “of German origin” that almost all the photographers have hella German names? If I ask myself, “Do I spend too much time thinking about and asking these questions,” is it because they don’t?

Is this book harmless?

Sandwiched in-between Black Wedding, Artists, and In the Mecca of Berlin, is Gentrification of Wedding. Rent has more than doubled since I first arrived, pushing tripled. People let out rooms for a week what I would pay for a whole apartment for a month. And it’s on their coffee tables this book is more properly at home, irrespective of how the artists involved might want to hold a middle finger at them. As artists, we serve as the shock troops of gentrification, softening up the area before the front arrives. And when it does — which for Wedding is now — we’re pushed out and on to the next place. When I lived in Uferhallen, I photographed it constantly. I loved that I could be there, a former tram and bus depot in the middle of the city, now half turning to fields every summer, foxes and wildlife moving in. So I understand how Julia Bock and Axel Völcker could also feel the same about their Wedding, and want to share this. Yet once shared, it becomes commodity, serves interests other than, and in the present climate opposed to, the Wedding they call home.

Moving abruptly onto my other criticism, then. The English translations are a little shaky, a little word-for-word literal from German.

Like an anthology of short stories, some photographers I like, others I don’t, others leave me indifferent. This is both an affinity with a visual aesthetic as well as with what this makes explicit about how they see the world. If I flick through the pages, does it give me a feeling for Wedding? There are a number of photographers who remove entirely people from the milieu. Is this an intentional theme, or a habit of the photographers of the agency? A lot of them work for press, and there’s a strong thread of reportage in their work. I recognise people and places, and recognise Wedding, yet simultaneously, I see very little of Wedding here. I see photographers who use Wedding as an abrasive to rub up against, but it could be anywhere, Kreuzberg, Hamburg, Düsseldorf — the architecture often gives it away as German, but it could easily be Footscray or any of the other poor suburbs I’ve seen go through what Wedding presently is. They photograph Wedding but do not see it, they level it out, and some of the work is frankly lazy and pedestrian. Others, like Dorothee Deiss — I keep coming back to her photographs in the paediatric clinic — could go anywhere, her studio portraits against a plain background would always look like the place they came from. I would be far less critical were all the photographers to have her sensitivity and skill.

I show it to my Wedding friends though, “Hey, look at what I got, it’s our Kiez!” strange book for an odd ’burb.

Julia Bock, Axel Völcker — Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook
Julia Bock, Axel Völcker — Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook

Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

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The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by …

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by Muslim Duma deputies immediately after the February revolution, was fast approaching — but before this, on 23 April, delegates gathered in Kazan in Tatarstan for the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress. There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of Sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab. Contributions came from a range of political and religious positions, from socialists like Zulaykha Rahmanqulova and the twenty-two-year-old poet Zahida Burnasheva, as well as from the religious scholars Fatima Latifiya and Labiba Huseynova, an expert on Islamic law.

Delegates debated whether Quranic injunctions were historically specific. Even many proponents of trans-historical orthodoxy interpreted the texts to insist, against conservative voices, that women had the right to attend mosque, or that polygyny was only permitted — a crucial caveat — if it was “just”; that is, with the permission of the first wife. Unsatisfied when the gathering approved that progressive–traditionalist position on plural marriage, the feminists and socialists mandated three of their number, including Burnasheva, to attend the All-Russian Muslim Conference in Moscow the next month, to put their alternative case against polygyny.

The conference passed ten principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. The centre of gravity of the discussions was clearly Jadidist, or further left. A symptom of tremulous times.

October: the story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville

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LADA — All The Books I Looked At

I’m doing this as a memory. I went to LADA, spent the afternoon in their Study Room, trawled hundreds of books and pulled out a few, spent minutes or tens of looking and reading. Also a memory. I am reminded of my own history in biographies or documents of people and groups I think of only infrequently, which at one time were all I thought of. Or others I know about and have never read, or have circulated around me, or are entirely new. The books are arranged chronologically, in the order they were purchased in. Of all the possible arrangements, this is my favourite. It tells you something about the book that it doesn’t and can’t tell you itself.

These are the books I looked at and read a little of. In chronological order — mine going from first to last, and LADA’s going backwards in time from most recently acquired to about halfway through their collection. Some I like; others I don’t. I am still wondering what they tell me about me.

  • Pina Bausch — The Biography, Marion Meyer (trans: Penny Black)
  • my body, the buddhist, Deborah Hay
  • Precarious Lives — Waiting and Hope in Iran, Shahram Khosravi
  • A Field Guide for Female Interrogators, Coco Fusco
  • Integration Impossible? The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić, Pamela Allara and Manuela Bojadzijev
  • Guerilla Aspies — A Neurotypical Society Infiltration Manual, Paul Wady
  • Leigh Bowery — The Life And Times Of An Icon, Sue Tilley
  • Black Artists In British Art, A History Since The 1950s, Eddie Chambers
  • Test Dept: Total State Machine, eds. Alexei Monroe and Peter Webb
  • Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Gerardo Mosquera, Helaine Posner
  • Thee Psychick Bible : Thee Apocryphal Scriptures ov Genesis Breyer P-Orrige and Thee Third Mind ov Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
  • Jan Fabre: Stigmata. Actions & Performances 1976-2013, Germano Celant
  • Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, eds. Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean
  • Femininity, Time and Feminist Art, Clare Johnson
  • The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott
  • The Shit of God: Diamanda Galás, Diamanda Galás and Clive Barker
  • Jan Fabre: I Am A Mistake. seven works for the theatre, ed. Frank Hentschker
  • Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam
  • Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, ed. Judith Rudakoff
  • That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, ed. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
  • Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s, Lydia Yee and Philip Ursprung
  • Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, Imogen Tyler
  • Are We There Yet? Study Room Guide on Live Art and Feminism, Live Art Development Agency
  • The Incorrigibles, Perspectives on Disability Visual Arts in the 20th and 21st Centuries, eds. Adrian Plant and Tanya Raabe-Webber
  • Queer Dramaturgies: International Perspectives on Where Performance Leads Queer, eds. Alyson Campbell and Stephen Farrier
LADA — All The Books I Looked At
LADA — All The Books I Looked At

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I chose to be a queer girl because it’s way more f…

I chose to be a queer girl because it’s way more fun than the alternatives. I was tired of feeling trapped in a straightjacket. I like being able to have lovers of more than one gender, and I get a kick out of cutting a feminine swathe through the world.

[…]

Why does it matter whether my perversity was a choice or ordained for me? Partly because it feels like I’m bucking the trend in maintream queer culture.

“Choice cuts”, in That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, Charlie Anders

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Too many anxieties? Get on the bike. Insecure? Ge…

Too many anxieties? Get on the bike.
Insecure? Get on the bike.
Hunting for male approval? Get on the bike.
Get on the bike. Get on the bike. Get on the bike. Get on the bike. Get on the bike. Get on the bike. Get on the bike.
It becomes my mantra.
I name the bike. Beelzebub. Every day I will get up on it and ride out my demons.

Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, Nina Arsenault

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So much life force from inside me seems to come fr…

So much life force from inside me seems to come from my genitals. So much sensation. Sensation that is distinctly in male shape. This fucks up my ability to be in the moment but also feels like an enlivening force within me. Do I need to learn to accept my male genitals? To be comfortable with them?

I don’t know if I should look to escape the sensation of being male to lose more inner life (how much more?) or risk it all? To be a doll? Would I objectify myself into an automaton? Would I be happier like that? Is that what I really want?

Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, Nina Arsenault

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LADA — Live Art Development Agency

I went to LADA today, Live Art Development Agency over in Hackney Wick beside a canal, all factories going down and gentrification going up. I had lunch with Meghan, @churlishmeg that is. We talked art and performance and London and stuff, she showed me around LADA, and it was brilliant. I spent the afternoon in the Study Room, making it about halfway through their glorious collection of live art. I didn’t even get to the performance documentation stuff. Totally worth being in London for this.

LADA Live Art Development Agency — Study Room
LADA Live Art Development Agency — Study Room

Reading: Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.

Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.

Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.

As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.

Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.

I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.

The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.

Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.

One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.

A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.

Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference. It’s dead fucking sexy.

As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.

One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.

Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction
Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

Reading: Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).

I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.

So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.

I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.

For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.

Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.

It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.

But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.

Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.

Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself