Friday, September 06, 2013

This Future of Yours, When's It Going to Arrive?

(Or, Some More Trains, In an Attempt to Get Somewhere)

In Sally Potter's adaptation of Orlando, the future arrives as a train:

Or rather, in the disjunction between the Romantic hero on a white horse, and the train that blows the steam that mists the shot. It could be a moral painting titled "It's Later than You Think." A few scenes later, Shelmerdine the Romantic hero rides off to take ship for America to foment revolution and create a better future. Evicted, pregnant, abandoned, not to mention legally dead, Orlando asks him wryly, "This future of yours, when's it going to arrive?"

Orlando's question recurs to me frequently when reading anything futurological, whether science fiction or political theory, with its ecstatic promises and equally ecstatic displacements and evasions. In an alternate draft of the screenplay, Potter had Orlando tell Shelmerdine "The future is in my body!" It's literally true in the sense that she is pregnant (and that she is a time traveller), but it's not an essentialist statement. The body is where the future will take place, every second. Whatever the utopia or apocalypse, it will be bodies going through it: labouring, loving, evolving.

Maya Borg's beautiful film Future My Love, which tells the story of the end of the filmmaker's relationship interwoven through a history of the Venus Project and other failed futurological utopias, gets this exactly. It asks what we do with imagined futures - at the end of a relationship, but also at a given point in time looking back at past fantasies of the future moment that is our present - that have not come to pass. When a future is past, what does it have to offer? 

As does Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love series, with its crucial attention to what most science fiction (and indeed, realist fiction) ignores: utilities in the time of revolution. As Paul Graham Raven says, as writers, we need to talk about infrastructure. As he explains in the article, infrastructure fiction is a manifesto for attention to how our lives function in relation and through connection, and the labour that is expended to ensure that. Infrastructure is the great secret, the ultimate conspiracy, both in terms of the invisibility of its labour, and the power that accrues to and flows through it. 

Trains are a powerful symbol of this: prior to the railroad, a network of ships, horse-drawn vehicles and shanks' pony provided transport. These made their way according to a very vague and relative timetable, largely circadian (ie: the coach will be here around sunset). It was only with the advent of the railroad and its precision timetables that clock time was systematised and regularised, whereas previously individual towns set their clocks according to the sun. Jay Griffiths' Pip Pip details industrial capital's delinkage of time from personal/collective experience of the natural world, and its effect on our embodiment and consciousness. National water provision was a plank of industrial development: it has improved living standards (in tandem with better understanding of biological agents of disease), but has created its own problems, including massive wastage from ageing infrastructure that's too embedded to repair, as well as mass exposure to industrial pollution - as well as the more profound transformation of water into a commodity.

Similarly, other aspects of infrastructure gradually remove both our relation to, and any responsibility for, our bodies' place in the world. Quite literally, someone else deals with our shit: both the sanitation and construction workers who build and staff sewage treatment plants (and the vast administrative staff), and those whose water is polluted by sewage leaks or flushed plastic. Infrastructure allows most of us to wash our hands of many of the basic aspects of being alive, what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life. Even if we work in infrastructure or utilities, whether as engineers or helpline operators, Fordism has guaranteed that we can only access the limited amount of information necessary to the task at hand. Outsourcing, privatisation and automation together have fragmented knowledge of infrastructure, while consolidating corporate control over the power it offers (and carries).

Worker-run factories, renationalised utilities (particularly water and minerals), local internets, and other attempts to place hands directly on infrastructure in times of political change. To me, this isn't just a story about control of the means of production, to use Marx' term, but the means of relation - to each other, and to the world. It's a taking of responsibility for the community's wellbeing; and in community, I include all of the living world. Existing infrastructure may be the single greatest problem in engaging people in ecopolitics, although it is also a flashpoint for community organising (particularly around energy and water). It obscures both the power and the responsibilities. 

In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores what happens when infrastructure is overwhelmed by a natural or man-made disaster, and communities are required to find solutions to maintain bare life. She finds that resilience and inventiveness emerge, that people – while often grief-stricken, and frequently disease-stricken – are not passive victims of circumstance, or nostalgists at a loss without state/corporate provision. Alternate systems spring up, not only providing utility, but shared purpose and a renewed sense of interconnections. New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina has provided (and I suspect will continue to provide) US artists with examples and a backdrop for experimenting with such stories: David Simons' series Treme uses the serial form to explore exactly the connectivity created by rebuilding, with the city's musicians as both a focal point for narrative engagement, and vibrant examples of contingent, collaborative community (and in season 3, about how fast entrenched interests return to take over and, yes, "monetize" this reconstruction).

I wonder if the disintegration of infrastructure, and return of the possibility of relation, is part of the attraction of dystopian, post-apocalyptic fictions? Too frequently, however, post-apocalyptic fiction presents another fantasy, that of totalitarian control, rather than engaging with this less apparently dynamic question. Perhaps a novel about making the trains run – or getting rid of them and finding a replacement – doesn't have the appeal of one about mediagenic young people fighting it out for the amusement of the upper classes. But perhaps the kind of negotiations and relations that might emerge from such an infrastructure fiction offer an intriguing new kind of futurology, along the lines of this new collaborative writing project: one that recognises that all futures are the present for their inhabitants, that bare life is the continuum that does not change, and that the only story we can tell is one we make together.

Monday, September 02, 2013

In Train: On Middles

Maybe it's reading several Thomas the Tank Engine books to my friend's train-loving daughter (probably not, though, given the monotonous classism and sexism and plots) - or maybe a few long journeys this summer - but I seem to have falled in love with trains. Trains as vehicle of the metaphor of narrative, but also trains as insignias or symbols of a certain moment of modernity.

In my last post, I ended by thinking about the audio recording technology as disruptive of older narrative forms and models of self -- the inner voice made outer, memory turned magnetic. Writing science fiction, I'm intrigued by how realist fiction records and explains (or not) technological innovation, scientific experiment and social debate in its moment, how the coming of change appears when embedded in lived history. Too often, science fiction reads like an issue of Which? magazine, analysing and advertising shiny, with souped-up Basil Expositions giving the skinny to characters who should either a) already have the know-how, or b) don't need it. How to present technological, social, cultural and other imaginings to the reader without PowerPointing them over the head?

Which is where the trains come in. Three novels I've read in the past week, written throughout the twentieth century, all feature trains as metaphors for both modernity and modernism. There's plenty of fun and thought-provoking material out there about trains and film, but I hadn't given much thought to trains in books. Of course, they provide an ideal setting for locked-room mysteries in both media, but I'm more intrigued by a different narrative effect -- what could be loosely called, one thing after another, a loosening of cause-and-effect, as opposed to the forceful, fateful forward motion associated with the train in cinema.

Poetics maven Al Filreis posted this quotation from Gertrude Stein today on Facebook:
I think one naturally is impressed by anything having a beginning a middle and an ending when emerging from adolescence.... American writing has been an escaping not an escaping but an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another thing of anything have a beginning and a middle and an ending."
Particularly intriguing because the first of my train books (not books read on trains: I keep Don Quixote for that -- and three years on, I'm still stuck in Book Two) was Willa Cather's My Antonia, which I'd somehow failed to read despite many Women's Lit classes (and the amazing fact that there was a 1995 TV movie starring Neil Patrick Harris as Jim Burden and Elina Lowensohn as Antonia: yes, Doogie Howser MD + Sofia from Amateur, with Eve Marie Saint and Jason Robards as the elder Burdens. The mind does boggle).

My Antonia is a novel about beginnings, middles and endings, "an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another," a deceptively simple paratactic style in which each chapter focuses on a single incident, moving forwards in time. Each incident has its beginning (often in a previous chapter), its middle - generally an incident of strong emotion or sensation, presented with incredible directness to the reader - and its ending, often faced with or brought about by social strictures that limit the interactions and passionate feeling of the adolescent Jim and Antonia.

Cather writes from a powerful sense of America-as-adolescent-nation (albeit one whose great indigenous antiquity she explored in In the Professor's House), and the railroad is one emblem of this: in the Prologue, we learn that Jim Burden is now a railroad man, not one of the plutocrats who built it, but a time-and-motion man, travelling the railroads to assess them. On the train in the couse of business, he bumps into an old acquaintance from his home town, to whom he later delivers the memoir that forms the body of the novel. So the book opens with a direct link between Jim and the train - and the story does, too, as Jim's earliest memory of Antonia begins on a train. Jim is travelling from Virginia, where he was born and his parents have both died, to his grandparents in Nebraska, and Antonia and her family are making the final part of their journey from Bohemia.

Jim and Antonia don't meet on the train: he hears about her from the conductor, but is too shy to see her. Instead, they share a night-time ride in the back of a cart to their homesteads. Later, Antonia falls in love with a train conductor and Jim, ever-fastidious and painfully aware of social divisions, sets aside his feelings for her. The train conductor done her wrong, and at the very end of the book, Jim returns by train and buggy to visit her and her insuperable number of children. As I type this, a disturbing equation arises between Antonia (female principle) as fertile land and men as the railroad who "open her up." Antonia, born in the "old country," becomes both a replacement for and symbol of the indigenous Americans displaced by the settlers in Nebraska.

As Rebecca Solnit discusses in River of Shadows, her biography of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who worked for railroad baron Leland Stanford, the railroad was instrumental in "opening up" the West, perpetuating displacement and genocide. Many workers - white, Chinese and Native American - died during the building of the railroad, and it destroyed some small communities when it bypassed them. Part of its symbolism, then, is modernity as brutality. But there is also an almost erotic tenderness, a tremulousness, in Jim's relation to the railway, something that undercuts that easy equation. The train is, literally, the engine of the novel, but there are few train journeys between the first and final chapters. People travel by horse and cart, or on foot. And yet it's the train that is suffused with Jim's nostalgia for Antonia, as much as is the landscape, and the train that offers the one-thing-after-the-next structure to the novel. As a railroad man, Jim doesn't travel from A to B, but rather takes linear journeys in a circular and repetitive fashion."An existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding the other thing" cuts against the cut-and-thrust the railroad seems to claim for itself, and for the "manifest destiny" of American modernity.

The railroad manifests similarly in Intizar Husain's Basti, as an ambivalent marker of the coming of modernity under the shadow of empire. It both connects and disconnects what will become India and Pakistan in the course of the novel, as it connects and disconnects Zakir, the narrator's, past memories from his present.

Falling between Cather's and Husain's novels - and without the nostalgic framework of either - the train means something quite different to American poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose novel Savage Coast, just republished by the Feminist Press, is based on her own experiences in Spain in 1935. Helen, an American activist travelling to the People's Olympiad, gets stuck on a train between the Spanish border and Barcelona during the General Strike that followed the Popular Front's prevention of a Fascist coup in Catalonia. As the train sits in a small town, it becomes a model League of Nations - generous and querulous, full of shifting alliances around a noble core. The stopped train is a powerful symbol of withheld force (paralleling the Popular Front and its soldiers, mainly seen raising fists in solidarity rather than in action) and a reframing of the narrative of industry and/as "progress" -- later in the book, we learn that the PF is planning to nationalise the American motor car factories around Barcelona.

Once the novel leaves the train for Barcelona, it becomes more diffuse, although quite moving in its portrayal of confused days and heady nights of political tumult: I imagine you could change the street names, add some mobile phones, and present it as written in Istanbul this year, or Cairo three years ago. Forward motion is both demanded (political change) and impossible (Helen and her friends remain tourists, the plot dictated by the vagaries of consuls and rescue ships), a state that the stilled train symbolised perfectly, not least by holding together its ill-assorted community. Stopped, the train is all middle: beginning and ending are suspended, as the passengers worry at half-translated broadcasts, rumours and contrasting accounts from the townspeople. Incipit, says Peter when they reach Barcelona -- but there's something about the calm before, the dreaming of revolution and the way the exigencies of the stopped train bring the events and emotions into the body, that is truly radical. "An escaping not an escaping": a staying still and expanding. That ever-busy little striver Thomas could learn a lot from Rukeyser.