Why we’re post-fact

Peter Pomerantsev writing for Granta.
GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Milwaukee

In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, we look back to Granta magazine’s revision of why we’re a post-truth society. Words by Peter Pomerantsev:

As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.

How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.

Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.

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Svetlana Alexievich quits ‘shameful’ Russian PEN

Paula Erizanu for the Guardian
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The Nobel Prize winning author joins 30 other writers in leaving the Russian PEN organisation after the expulsion of jailed journalist Sergey Parkhomenko. Paula Erizanu writes for the Guardian:

Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has quit the Russian PEN centre to protest against the expulsion of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko, joining 30 other writers including novelist Boris Akunin and poet Lev Rubinstein leaving the organisation.

Alexievich, who withdrew from the organisation on 11 January, wrote in a statement: “My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.”

Thirty writers have now left Russian PEN, with many publishing their withdrawal letters online. Akunin – one of Russia’s most widely read contemporary authors of detective fiction – withdrew the day before Alexievich. Akunin said that he felt Russian PEN did not stand for freedom of speech, that it failed to defend persecuted writers and therefore has “nothing in common” with the global network of PEN centres. There are 145 PEN centres in more than 100 countries, working with the core mission “to defend and promote freedom of expression, and to remove barriers to literature”.

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To Hull and Back

Alan Taylor writing for the Scottish Review of Books.
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In the Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor writes about Hull, the UK’s 2017 city of culture, and once home to Philip Larkin.

Hull is the UK’s 2017 “City of Culture”. I have never been there but I feel I have. It was, of course, where Philip Larkin lived for much of his life. He was the librarian at its university, a post he took up in 1955 and held until his death in 1985 at the age of 63. Obviously, he was best known as a poet but Larkin was a serious librarian and well-respected in the profession. Like all librarians in higher education, one of his chief bugbears were self-aggrandising members of the academic contingent, of whom there were more than few. They were never shy in promoting their own, often unreadable and meretricious efforts and shamelessly petitioned and pressurised Larkin to acquire them for the library. Whenever he spied such individuals in his bailiwick he would hide in the stacks until they were gone.

One of best anecdotes about Larkin and Hull is to be found in Jonathan Raban’s Coasting, an often hilarious account of a journey by boat round the British Isles. Raban, who was educated at Hull’s university, berthed for a night at Humberside port. Hull, he reported, was “baleful” but “a long way from being morose”, taking the demise of the fishing industry in the same manner that it had taken the Blitz.

“If Hull was going to have to endure hard times, it was going to see them out with good graveyard jokes and a face cast in an unflinching, lopsided grin.”

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The Great AI Awakening

Gideon Lewis-Kraus for the New York Times Magazine
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Gideon Lewis-Kraus provides an in depth exploration of Google’s innovative use of AI in translation today, and in the future of tech tomorrow:

Prologue: You Are What You Have Read

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater.

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Ways of Seeing Japan: Roland Barthes’s Tokyo, 50 Years Later

Colin Marshall writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books
tokyo

In the LA Review of Books, Colin Marshall travels to Tokyo to revisit the city 50 years after Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs:

ROLAND BARTHES FIRST VISITED Japan in 1966, not long after the defeated and reconstructed country announced its return to the international community with the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Japan would have hosted its first Olympic Games there in 1940, had World War II not caused the duty to pass to Helsinki. Now, half a century after the semiotician from Cherbourg walked its streets, the Japanese capital prepares for its second Summer Olympics in 2020, in hopes of signaling another reemergence: not from wartime devastation by the most advanced weapons known to man, but from the long hangover of the postwar economic bubble, burst in the 1990s, and the subsequent “lost decade” now turning into a lost quarter century.

By most economic and demographic indicators, Japan has long looked like a country in trouble, even though a foreign visitor sees signs of robust health everywhere: a refined and efficient service culture; reliable infrastructure; conspicuous displays of high technology; shops filled with an astonishing amount and variety of carefully designed products; lively packs of uniformed schoolchildren, the smallest of whom ride on the back seats of their mothers’ bicycles. The aftermath of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake may have exposed deep and previously unsuspected societal frailties, and yet, on every one of my trips to Japan I marvel at all those well-put-together moms calmly biking their kids to school. Surely they indicate an achievement of which the rest of the developed world, no matter its wealth, can only dream — even if on paper the country itself looks about to lie down and die.

As a pioneer in the study of signs and symbols, Barthes would have enjoyed grappling with all the conflicting signals sent out by 21st-century Japan. He lived through most of the postwar years when the Japanese economy grew at an unprecedented rate, but he missed the downright grotesque inflation of Japanese asset prices in the decade after his death in 1980. By then the West, and especially the United States, nervously fixated on images of flush Japanese tourists landing in Hawaii and buying mansions in cash, sharp-suited Japanese businessmen lavishly entertaining on sinisterly vast expense accounts, and Croesan Japanese conglomerates snapping up Los Angeles’s movie studios and downtown high-rises.

Japan gave off few such signs in 1966, when Barthes accepted an invitation from his friend Maurice Pinguet, Director of the Franco-Japanese Institute in Tokyo, to teach a seminar there on the structural analysis of narrative. That stay in Japan, followed by two more that year and the next, provided Barthes with the material for 1970’s slim but rich monograph L’Empire des signes, which came out a dozen years later in Richard Howard’s English translation as Empire of Signs. “I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence,” Barthes, rooted in a monoculture of his own, assures us early in the book. “[T]o me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation — whose invented interplay — allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.”

Barthes traveled throughout his professional life, but not all his travels — Oriental, Occidental, or otherwise — suggested equally fruitful premises for writing. His Carnets du voyage en Chine, finally published in English just four years ago as Travels in China, records little more than disappointment with a culture “not at all exotic, not at all disorientating,” in which he finds next to nothing “to note down, to enumerate, to classify.” In Japan, by contrast, he finds a seemingly inexhaustible trove of exotic and disorienting material to note down, enumerate, and classify.

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Darling Nikki

Maggie Nelson writing for the New Yorker
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Author Maggie Nelson recalls her first and most formative encounters with Prince, for the New Yorker:

 In 1984, when I was ten, my father died. He was a small man, five-five tops, jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then, as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect—at times electric, then liquid, popping, burning. Above all, it felt uncontainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it, for the most part. Was I sexual at ten? I don’t know. I know my father died, and then, suddenly, there was Prince.

1984 was also the year of “Purple Rain.” We saw it in the theatres and then my sister and I watched it innumerable times downstairs in our TV room. Our lair. I had already watched and would watch a lot of rock musicals—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Tommy,” “The Wall.” I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were full of white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me, and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because the girls in the movies were sticks—who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, chained up while Aerosmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? And while, God knows, I wanted to be the hippie chick conjured in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” I already knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie-fascist boyfriends in a haze of suppressed agency or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto.” Anyway, that girl was pretty and probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blond ringlets spread out on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she wasn’t seething with electric energy, she didn’t talk, she didn’t grind.

Then there was “Purple Rain.” Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.

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Humanity’s greatest fear is about being irrelevant

Ian Tucker in conversation with Genevieve Bell for the Guardian
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Writing for the Guardian, Ian Tucker talks to Genevieve Bell, the Australian anthropologist working at the Intel headquarters in Oregon, to explore our anxieties about rapidly developing technology, and artificial intelligence:

Genevieve Bell is an Australian anthropologist who has been working at tech company Intel for 18 years, where she is currently head of sensing and insights. She has given numerous TED talks and in 2012 was inducted into the Women in Technology hall of fame. Between 2008 and 2010, she was also South Australia’s thinker in residence.

Why does a company such as Intel need an anthropologist?
That is a question I’ve spent 18 years asking myself. It’s not a contradiction in terms, but it is a puzzle. When they hired me, I think they understood something that not everyone in the tech industry understood, which was that technology was about to undergo a rapid transformation. Computers went from being on an office desk spewing out Excel to inhabiting our homes and lives and we needed to have a point of view about what that was going to look like. It was incredibly important to understand the human questions: such as, what on earth are people going to do with that computational power. If we could anticipate just a little bit, that would give us a business edge and the ability to make better technical decisions. But as an anthropologist that’s a weird place to be. We tend to be rooted in the present – what are people doing now and why? – rather than long-term strategic stuff.

A criticism that is often made of tech companies is that they are dominated by a narrow demographic of white, male engineers and as a result the code and hardware they produce have a narrow set of values built into them. Do you see your team as a counterbalance to that culture?
Absolutely. I suspect people must think I’m a monumental pain. I used to think my job was to bring as many other human experiences into the building as possible. Being a woman, being Australian and not being an engineer – those were all valuable assets because they gave me a very different point of view.

We are building the engines, so the question is not will AI rise up and kill us, but will we give it the tools to do so?

Now, the leadership of Intel is around 25% female, which is about what market availability is in the tech sector. We are conscious of what it means to have a company whose workforce doesn’t reflect the general population. Repeated studies show that the more diverse your teams are, the richer the outcomes. You have to tolerate a bit of static, but that’s preferable to the self-perpetuating bubble where everyone agrees with you.

You are often described as a futurologist. A lot of people are worried about the future. Are they right to be concerned?
That technology is accompanied by anxiety is not a new thing. We have anxieties about certain types of technology and there are reasons for that. We’re coming up to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the images in it have persisted.

Shelley’s story worked because it tapped into a set of cultural anxieties. The Frankenstein anxiety is not the reason we worried about the motor car or electricity, but if you think about how some people write about robotics, AI and big data, those concerns have profound echoes going back to the Frankenstein anxieties 200 years ago.

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Highlights of 2016

Charlotte Mandell, Dan Fox, Shaun Whiteside and Jen Calleja on their highlights of the year.
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As 2016 finally teeters on its last legs, we decided to take a look back over a few of the year’s highlights for us. This year we were proud to publish excellent essays by Dan Fox, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Svetlana Alexievich, and Ben Lerner; as well as works of fiction by John Keene, Ed Atkins, Clemens Meyer, and Agustín Fernández Mallo with the second installment of his brilliant Nocilla triology.

For this blog post we asked a few of our translators, and an author, to reminisce over some of their own cultural highlights of 2016: Charlotte Mandell, Shaun Whiteside, Jen Calleja, and Dan Fox tell us about their most memorable experiences of the year in literature, music, and the arts.

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Charlotte:

For the past year I’ve been working on my translation of Mathias Énard’s long novel Boussole (Compass), so much of my reading has been connected in some way to that: Edward FitzGerald’s elegant translations of Omar Khayyam; Germain Nouveau’s poetry, in the Pléiade edition that Sarah (one of the main characters) bemoans no longer features him; Xavier de Maistre’s very funny Journey Around My Room.  There are so many books mentioned in Compass that it would take years to read them all, but I’d certainly like to try, starting with Leg Over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, a book that Sarah claims is one of the best novels of the nineteenth century in any language, not just in Arabic.  

I suppose the cultural highlight of the year for me was a gorgeous production of the seldom-performed opera Iris by Mascagni, conducted by Leon Botstein, at the Bard Music Festival last July.  It was beautifully sung by the soprano Talise Trevigne; the beginning of the third act, with its mysterious, Wagnerian overture, was one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen in a live performance:  Iris is shown falling in slow-motion, while tendrils of smoke rise up from the trash heap below.  A screen between her and the audience made it look even more other-worldly and ethereal. 

There’s an exciting new publishing collective, an offshoot of Lunar Chandelier Press, called the Lunar Chandelier Collective, which published several innovative poetry books this past year, each one very different from the other:  Heart Thread by my husband, Robert Kelly; Uncreated Mirror by a powerful young poet named Tamas Panitz; Waters Of by a lyrical and sensuous poet named Billie Chernicoff; and Porcelain Pillow, a poem that combines memoir and essay, by Thomas Meyer.  Robert actually had four books published this year: The Hexagon, a long poem published by Commonwealth Books; Opening the Seals, a meditation on proto-language, published by Autonomedia Press; Heart Thread; and The Secret Name of Now, a selection of shorter, lyrical poems, from Dr. Cicero Press.  

One of my favorite novels of the year, The Night Ocean, isn’t actually out yet — we received an advance copy of it from its author, Paul La Farge.  Its cast of characters includes H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, and William S. Burroughs, and the narration is so beautiful and intricately wrought that any summary would do it an injustice.  

Finally, I’ve been caught up lately in Nocilla Dream by Agustín Fernández Mallo, from Fitzcarraldo Editions — another difficult-to-summarize novel, having to do with the interconnectedness of things and the illusory nature of reality.  It’s elegantly and convincingly translated by Thomas Bunstead.  I’m looking forward to the next installment, Nocilla Experience.  I’m also very excited about Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, just out from New Directions:  there’s a fascinating article about it by Dan Chiasson in the recent New Yorker, here, with this memorable sentence:  “Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse.”

Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She translated Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone, also by Mathias Enard.

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Dan:

At the start of BS Johnsons pitch-black comic novel Christy Malrys Own Double-Entry (1973), the books anti-hero, Christy, begins his adventure by taking an accountancy course. Here he learns the principle of double-entry bookkeeping: for every debit, there must be a corresponding credit. Christy is a miserable young man who rationalizes his dreary lot with the belief that the world has conspired against him. Deciding that the metaphysical books need to be balanced, he begins to apply the double-entry system to his life. Christy draws up a two-column ledger: one for Aggravations, the other for Recompense.Each time life aggravates or debitshim he awards himself recompense, usually an act of minor vandalism. When for instance, he is forced to take a detour on his way to work, his compensation is to scratch the expensive stonework of a nearby building. As his sense of aggravation grows larger, the credit he demands becomes more gruesome.

What, I wonder, would the accounts look like for the calendrical crock of cowshit that called itself 2016?

AGGRAVATIONS                                                                                  RECOMPENSE

Donald Trump and related misery 

Neo-fascism

Aleppo

Brexit

Zika

Post-truth politics

Standing Rock

Climate change

22% of Great Barrier Reef coral dead

Record decline in Arctic sea ice

Pulse nightclub shooting, Orlando

Murder of Jo Cox

Death of David Bowie

Death of Prince

Death of Pauline Oliveros

Death of Sonia Rykiel

Death of Leonard Cohen

Death of Leonard of Mayfair

Death of Malick Sidibe

Death of Alan Vega

Death of Doris Lamar-McLemore (last speaker of the Wichita language)

Death of William Christenberry

Death of Jenny Diski

Death of Victoria Wood

Death of Harper Lee

Death of William Trevor

Death of Sharon Jones

Death of Kenny Baker

Death of David Mancuso

Death of Raoul Coutard

Death of Elaine Lustig Cohen

Death of David Antin

Death of Dario Fo

Death of Prince Buster

Death of Don Buchla

Death of Edward Albee
Death of Elie Wiesel

Death of Caroline Ahearne

Death of Abbas Kiarostami

Death of Billy Name

Death of Tunga

Death of Peter Shaffer

Death of Bernie Worrell

Death of Tony Feher

Death of Alvin Toffler

Death of Carla Lane

Death of Tony Conrad

Death of Ken Adam

Death of Merle Haggard

Death of Umberto Eco

Death of Pierre Boulez

Death of Alan Rickman

Death of Terry Wogan

Death of Jacques Rivette

Death of Zsa Zsa Gabor

Death of Scooter, the oldest cat in the USA

This myopically Western-centric and mostly arts-fixated list could go on. I am stumped for Recompense line items that could truly balance the bereavement, fear, heartbreak and anger that the past year has brought. Nothing on my roll-call of admiration and pleasure is going to stop climate denial or bring down Donald Trump. But these talismans of open-minded thought, empathy and action serve as a reminder for me to keep going. 

Exhibitions:

Denzil Forrester, White Columns, New York, and Tramps, London

Mark Leckey, Containers and Their Drivers, MoMA PS1, New York

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, The Serpentine Gallery, London

Paulina Olowska, Metro Pictures, New York

Bruce Conner, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jessi Reeves, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York

Danny Lyon, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Kerry James Marshall, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Diane Simpson, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Nicole Eisenman, New Museum and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

Lukas Duwenhogger, Artists Space, New York

Books:

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissimby Kristin Dombek

Respectable: The Experience of Classby Lynsey Hanley

The Complete Madame Realism and Other Storiesby Lynne Tillman

Here is Information. Mobilize.by Ian White

Film:

Arrival

Embrace of the Serpent

A Bigger Splash

Moonlight

Television:

Stranger Things

Black Mirror

Atlanta

Camping

‘Captain Fantastic’

Music:

Lodestar, Shirley Collins

‘Last Signs of Speed’, Eli Keszler

Juarezand Lubbock (on everything), Terry Allen

We Got It from HereThank You 4 Your Service, A Tribe Called Quest

Borealis Festival, Bergen. (At this small, yet brilliant music festival, I discovered the stunningly strange father and daughter improvised pop duo Yeah You; a blistering footwork set from Jlin, the hypnotic Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session, and the premiere of Object Collections new opera Its All True’ – based on the complete archive of recorded gigs by the post-hardcore band Fugazi.)

The two works that made the biggest impression on me bookended the year. In January, it was a song: I Cant Give Everything Away, the final cut on David Bowies final curtain album, Blackstar, released days before his death. Opening with warm string synths in respirating refrain, as if struggling for breath, and a plaintive harmonica line that directly echoes Bowies 1977 track A New Career in a New Town(what better description could there be for an afterlife?), the song begins with an admission with anxiety about the future; I know somethings very wrong…’ Over skittering drums, and an increasingly frenetic saxophone, the words I cant give everything awayare a line being drawn between the personal and private, or a defiant assertion of personal sovereignty. Ive given you all the love I can, it seems to say, but now I must take care of myself or I will be reduced to nothing. 

In December I saw Arthur Jafas seven-and-a-half minute video Love is the Message, The Message is Deathat Gavin Browns Enterprise, New York. Cut to Kanye Wests song Ultralight Beam, Jafas video pulls together reportage footage, cellphone video, and archival film of police shootings, civil rights marches, block parties, iconic performances by black musicians, and the burning surface of the sun. Wests sparse, roboticized gospel track problematised by the singers recent support of Donald Trump wrings pathos from the multiple video textures on screen, from the high-res to the low-grade and pixellated. Jafas film has the quality of a trailer for a documentary, a tantalising promise of a longer cinematic survey of African American social history, but its compressed expression of the complexities, contradictions, tragedies and triumphs of the black experience in the USA is gut-wrenching. I dont know what could possibly balance the books.

Dan Fox is a writer, musician, and co-editor of frieze magazine, Europe’s foremost magazine of art and culture. He is based in New York, and has published Pretentiousness: Why it Matters this year with Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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Shaun:

What a year. Book-ended (more or less) by two black-edged farewells: Blackstar and You Want it Darker, just in case the message of 2016 hadn’t got through. Both rare much more than coded farewells, and have seldom been off the stereo in our house. Goodbye, Bowie and Len. 

In literature, the great event for me was Sam Garrett’s translation of the Dutch classic The Evenings by Gerard Reve, first published in 1946 and never before translated into English. It’s a dark, existential sitcom, very unsettling and in places very funny indeed. As a Dutch commentator described it: “Nothing happens, and it seems to have been written by a psychopath.” Well done, Pushkin Press, and worth the 70-year wait. 

The exhibition has to be Bosch in ‘sHertogenbosch: the weirdness of the late medieval imagination laid bare in a comprehensive show bringing together works from all over the world, except the ones in the Prado, which it eventually joined when the show moved there. Wonderful. 

In film, my favourite was the touching, subtle and ultimately conciliatory divorce drama After Love by Joachim Lafosse. He coaxes extraordinary performances from his actors, not least from the children. 

But the most heart-stopping experience of all, on every level, was Akram Khan’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, to a semi-industrial score by Vincenzo Lamagna. This borrowed not only from classical ballet and Martha Graham, but from Bollywood and, most dramatically, Japanese horror movies. It was quite stunning, with dancers constantly transformed from objects into people and back into objects again. The scary second half in particular was a real treat, and Alina Cojocaru was of course amazing. Would almost restore your faith in humanity.

Shaun Whiteside is a translator from French, German, Italian and Dutch. His translations from French include novels by Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Michèle Desbordes, Georges-Marc Benamou, and Georges Simenon, as well as works of non-fiction by Pierre Bourdieu and Anne Sinclair. He translated Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and lives in London.

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Jen:

Exhibition – Helen Marten, Tate Britain/Serpentine Gallery

I went to see the Turner Prize with a very good friend of mine and we both experienced a kind of epiphany when we saw Marten’s work. Afterwards we bought her book Parrot Problems, and while flicking through saw that she was due to have a solo exhibition at the Serpentine. We headed straight there and spent what felt like hours taking in her poetic reflection of contemporary life, it’s almost as if it’s everything in existence refracted through dreams back into materiality and image. I couldn’t be happier for her win (the last time I fell in awe with a Turner Prize winner was Richard Wright, I think) and I especially commend and celebrate her sharing of her prize money with the other artists shortlisted (for the second time in as many months) against the winner/loser hierarchy.

Fiction Michelle Steinbeck, Mein Vater war ein Mann an Land und im Wasser ein Walfisch (My Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water) & Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

I’m currently in Zurich working on my first novel and I’ve been savouring this short book by Swiss writer Steinbeck. It’s a dark contemporary fairy tale where anything can happen, and opens with a woman accidently killing a child with an iron, stuffing it in a suitcase and being told by a wise woman to track down her father to give the suitcase to him. One critic said that she had to be sick in the head to write something like this but to write this kind of thing you have to be absolutely attuned to the structures of reality and your own consciousness. This book isn’t translated into English yet, sorry. But you can read a review in English in the latest issue of New Books in German

I read Max’s GITTWF – that just won its one hundredth award this week – on a flight to Italy. Well actually, I read it within the first hour or so and didn’t have anything else to read for the rest of the flight. In that short time I laughed, cheered, was left breathless, and then left devastated. For a writer also writing a novel in juxtaposing fragments it’s got a reassuringly small word count and a massive impact that still wakes me in the middle of the night or interrupts my thoughts while waiting in queues.

Poetry – Jack Underwood, Happiness

Jack’s poetry has spoken to me for years and he definitely made me feel that there was a place in poetry for my kind of writing and the kinds of things I wanted to write about. I’ve returned to this book may times this year, soothed by the melancholic hesitancy, depiction of personal embarrassment and unstoppable worrying.

Non-Fiction – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts & Chris Kraus, I Love Dick.

These have been two life- and game-changing books for many people. I did that whole ‘resist the hype’ thing I always do and then bought Nelson based on a recommendation from a friend who then bought me Kraus because she was moving to Australia. Just the quality of writing, the integrally experimental forms, and the unsurpassable honesty of both books have changed autobiographical, essay and feminist writing forever. Rebecca May Johnson and I are making loose plans to start a reading group next year and these will be the first two books for sure.

Record – Anxiety, Anxiety 

Glasgow’s Anxiety made the perfect punk record. It’s not just the record though, they break out the best unhinged, be-gloved live show I’ve seen since getting to watch Vexx many times around the UK last year. After listening to this record constantly, you should listen to frontman Michael Kasparis’ solo project Apostille, which sounds pleasant on record, but live is like watching a mean and sarcastic wailing goblin addicted to dancing sweating profusely over various electronics, and bassist Helena Celle’s new synth record is subterranean and distorted, absorbingly submerged like it’s bubbling up out of water. 

Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator from German. She translated Nicotine by Gregor Hens for Fitzcarraldo Editions and her debut collection of poetry Serious Justice is published by Test Centre. She is currently translating Kerstin Hensel for Peirene Press and Wim Wenders for Faber & Faber. Throughout December and January she is index writer in residence working on her first novel.

Devils in Dalston

Anna Aslanyan writing for the Times Literary Supplement
Portrait of Iain Sinclair

Last week Anna Aslanyan caught up with writer, filmmaker, and psychogeographist Iain Sinclair in the wake of the publication of his latest book My Favourite London Devils. For the Times Literary Supplement, they talk about the memories that haunt his writing of London:

“You couldn’t imagine anything like this here”, Iain Sinclair said, gesturing at the interior of Burley Fisher Books, a year-old venture in Dalston. Sinclair has lived in and tirelessly explored this part of East London for nearly half a century; back in the 1970s, he ran his Albion Village Press from home and was a “trader in forlorn and forgotten literature”, selling books from stalls. The new bookshop, in the middle of what has been branded the coolest place in Britain by the media, sells books and bagels by day, while by night, true to its promise to “be an asset to the local community”, it runs events.

It was packed for the recent launch of Sinclair’s new book My Favourite London Devils, a collection of essays dedicated to authors who, like himself, found their muse in London. Written over the past decade and a half, these pieces were recovered from storage and revised by Sinclair. Read together, they prove yet again that London is an inexhaustible theme, and that Sinclair’s take on it never stands still, mirroring the city in flux.

The book’s subjects range from famous to “eternally rediscovered”, to “reforgotten” – until, that is, Sinclair got on to them. Joseph Conrad – who on his return from the Congo was treated at the German Hospital in Dalston – and his The Secret Agent (1907) are mentioned in a piece written in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. One vignette shows Peter Ackroyd at a poetry reading in Earl’s Court, and together with another of the devils, Michael Moorcock, he and Sinclair have an eventful night out. Ackroyd has said that Sinclair’s poem “Lud Heat” was an inspiration for his novel Hawksmoor (1985).

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Carsten Höller in Kinshasa – Democratic Republic of the Congo

Carsten Höller in Purple Magazine
KINSHASA-0340-820x550

In 2014, Belgian Artist Carsten Höller premiered Fara Fara, a 13 minute film on a double screen exploring and reimagining Kinshasa’s vibrant music and dance scene. Later a 2015 Venice Biennale favourite, he remembers his travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Purple Magazine:

I’m on the plane to Kinshasa with four Europeans, none of whom has ever been to sub-Saharan Africa before. N’Djili Airport has been poshed up since I was there last, in 2011. To my disappointment, the little tourist information kiosk, where all they had was one postcard with some lounging bonobos, has disappeared. Same for the chair that was screwed to a wall because it lacked hind legs. We say hello to Papa Wemba in the lounge — our father of the rumba, Notre Père Rumba, as one of his albums is called. He came on the same Air France flight as us. There used to be huge crowds outside the airport when he came back from Europe, but not anymore.

We head straight to Zamba Playa, where Werrason is playing in front of a few hundred people. The five-lane highway to the city is brand new. It’s Chinese, but well done. They give us plastic chairs, placed in front of the stage, first row. Of course, no other whities. I wonder how my co-continentals feel about that. Finally, Primus. Werrason addresses the crowd, asking which of the two versions of the same song they like better. This is Congolese democracy. Madness. At the parliament, he says, “People, sit down,” to cool down the frenetically excited. He’s the only musician I’ve ever seen trying to calm down his public.

More Primus. Bellou drinks Turbo King, which is a strong dark beer. He’s our “cultural manager,” as he puts it. He is with Carlos, our driver and LeBrun and Maître Bola, who are here for our security. The music promoter Steve — with whom I organized Werrason (2004) and Koffi Olomidé (2005) concerts in Stockholm — also shows up. I am with Elin, George, Giovanna, and Pierre, and even at 11 PM, it’s very hot indeed.

Bercy Muana, the animateur with a third eye tattooed on his forehead, jumps and shouts like a psychotic wildebeest. Werrason is still trying to appease, but by now this seems more like an attitude, and he smiles. I am told that Bercy, whom they call “Goosebumps,” is coming from Ferre Gola. They call Werrason “King of the Forest.” And they call Bellou “Hakuna Matata” and “The Banker From Paris.” We finally make it to Chez Ntemba, my favorite nightclub in the world. The Primus is like machine oil. We all get dédicaces — shout-outs — from DJ Frank. No extra names for us, though. Over the years, Carlos has called me “Mopao,” but that’s an exaggeration because it means “big boss.” Koffi Olomidé is called that. My four fellow travelers have already lost all connection to spaceship Europe.

We are here to work on a book about a film that has not yet been made. Maybe it never will be, like an endless project, or like Synecdoche, New York, with Philip Seymour Hoffmann. The book can be the script for the film. Elin will write the text. George is the cutter. Giovanna is the editor and photographer. Pierre is the photographer; I told him I want old-style paparazzi pictures, with the camera in one hand and the flash in the other. That’s why we are here: they need to see and hear this.

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Fitz Carraldo Editions