This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.
Just as I’m reading A1’s email inviting me to write for the Sydney Review of Books’s ‘Writers at Work’ series, another email pings in from B1, cc’d to M1, which is inviting me to invite B2 to cowrite something for B1 and M1 on artists’ writing, so I interrupt my reading of A1’s mail to read B1’s, which I then pretty much immediately forward to B2 in order to defer any decision to her, whereupon, having at least briefly evaded the taking-on of responsibility in the guise of its opposite, I return to A1’s mail to try to think about whether I will have the time to actually write something about writing to write back to A1, when T1, with whom I am nominally writing a book about B3, sends me his completed chapter, simultaneously reminding me that I am lagging behind on my own delivery of a part-chapter, which, to do properly, means that I would physically have had to go the Law Library to pick up a book on ancient near-Eastern practices of taxation and sacrifice – are the two ever fully separable? – and which I have also been avoiding out of a mild sense of fear and confusion, that is, at actually going to a specialist library to which I have (humiliatingly) never been before (though it is a mere 10 minute walk down the road) and attempting to negotiate an unfamiliar and potentially minatory space, let alone carefully reading through a technical treatise on a topic that, despite self-evidently being of supreme interest at once historical and contemporary, both generally and in particular, may take an amount of time and effort that will further retard my already very en-retarded schedule. Yet although T1’s email thus inspires further panic, it at least impels me to read his attachment – reading not only as necessary prolegomenon to writing but perhaps more opportunistically as further alibi for procrastination – which turns out to be characteristically magisterial, at once ‘clearly- and accessibly-written’ as they say on the packet, if bulging with ‘extraordinary and little-known’ (ditto) details about the prehistory of the term terra nullius, and making an argument that seems never to have been made before about this foundational – or, rather, anti-foundational – doctrine of Australian colonial settlement, thereby throwing me immediately into a funk of metastatic ambivalence, i.e., terror and admiration if without any accompanying catharsis, whether you translate this supremely equivocal Aristotelian term as ‘purgation’ or ‘purification’. My anxiety, fortuitously or not, is then immediately interrupted again – a request from M2 to contribute a short essay to a collection on the theme of cryptocurrency – which straightaway makes me think of P1’s dictum that Australian politicians’ universal enthusiasm for ‘smart cities’, that is, total surveillance sites in which you will immediately receive a text message from the government telling you that your account has been docked for speeding while you are still engaged in the aforementioned act of speeding, is an irremediably slavish enthusiasm for factories of inhumanity, which, naturally, only retriggers my anxiety, though now with a nominally different cause. The anxiety impels me to at once return to my half-finished powerpoint slide for an upcoming symposium on ‘Disruptions of the Digital: Privacy, Civics, Democracy’ – doesn’t that just roll off the tongue? – with P1, I1, J1, K1, M3, N1, N2, R1 and T2, at which I intend to speak about the current expropriation of the means of communication by contemporary digital media, and which relies heavily on Hannah Arendt’s reflections in On Violence that: No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power base — the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which… would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendency of power over violence. Even the most despotic domination we know of, the rule of master over slaves, who always outnumbered him, did not rest on superior means of coercion as such, but on a superior organization of power — that is, on the organized solidarity of the masters. This declaration has since been rendered even more terrifying or at least more concrete given that, in the time elapsed between the first publication of Arendt’s essay and the present, the uncanny techbros of Silicon Valley (and many other non-places too of course) have spent their days and nights essaying to perfect, first, the internet of informers that mercilessly tracks every thumb-swipe and finger-jab, from the quote-unquote smartphones we carry everywhere with us and which we cannot help ‘gazing lovingly at and fondling’ (as they say in the classics) even while driving on the freeway or in peak-hour inner-urban traffic, to the drones and surveillance cameras every moment tracking every fraction of the ground and the air, and, second, a regime of robot soldiers able to be deployed at an instant’s notice anywhere on earth or in ether, all accompanied by an unprecedentedly vast and immersive media barrage of bad-faith boosterism and totalitarian jingoism dissimulating itself as libertarian emancipation. To cite P1 again, what ya gonna do when you’re deplatformed by your own refrigerator? In a world of networked smartobjects, the ‘internet of things’, it won’t do you any good to get another one cos the things are getting together and talking amongst themselves. And what are all the bright young smartobjects talking about these days? Whether you deserve to continue to enjoy the fruits of their labours; in a word, whether you should be cancelled. I guess I feel more people should feel the force of Sigmund Freud’s insight in Totem and Taboo that ‘emancipation from one renunciation is made up for by the imposition of another one elsewhere’, that there’s not only no escaping a repression of one’s own, but also no escaping the malaise in civilization because civilization is itself constitutionally such malaise. What in any case would be the benefit in doing so? As Freud himself allegedly remarked to his daughter Anna when she told him how much money the S.S. had stolen when they searched the Freud family home in 1930’s Vienna – ‘they make even more from a house call than I do!’ – the recollection of which anecdote triggers another spasm of half-forgotten obligations, for instance that I also have agreed (why?!) to write an endorsement for a scholarly collection on comedy edited by M4 & M5 that was — is? will be? — so interesting that I read it through in its entirety, an act that I believe to be almost never truly accomplished in academic circles, which, in the terms in which the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche condemned the eminent philologists of his own times, usually means one trundles two or three hundred books a day without reading a single one, but then found I had to write and rewrite my enthusiasm down because the more truly I tried to convey my response the more my little blurb sounded like the breathless imbecility of an advertising algorithm, making it inappropriate for purpose unless I simulated a critical restraint I didn’t feel. Yet that was hardly the end of the divagations and prevarications. Should a blurb for an academic collection on comedy be funny? ‘Under the mask of humour,’ says Gershon Legman, ‘all men are enemies’. Probably not then. No sooner have I belatedly emailed the amended blurb, however, that I recall that L1 and I have to complete a grant application by Friday, so I email her before panicking that she may not receive the email in time so text her mobile phone for good measure, but, before receiving any reply from her, start to read the emails I have gotten in the 45 seconds or so since sending my unfunny comedy blurb, among which is an automated email listing a set of emails that the email system itself has automatically blocked, including several to do with a seriously brief book by the French philosopher Alain Badiou that A2 and I have been translating that now bears the English title The Pornographic Age, which is likely what set the algorithm’s bells ringing or moral senses twitching, so that it prevented the delivery of these emails, while, in a parody of prurience, somewhat tardily informing me of its own censorial actions. I then attempt to unblock the blocked emails which, it turns out, come with attached sets of proofs marked HIGH PRIORITY as, due to outsourced publishing deadlines, the expected turnaround is prohibitively tight, deadlines that, for better or for worse, I and A2 have conclusively missed, but which we would probably not have met anyway for a variety of reasons, not least justifiable irritation at being given so little time to check the proofs, an irritation that is often – although not in this case – ratcheted up even further by the scant resources most often given to external readers in such situations due to the corporate late-capitalist drive to do ever more with ever less, a drive whose vicissitudes could presumably be graphically depicted so that the impending moment at which one will have to accomplish infinite work with zero resources can be definitively identified. I then email A2 to propose a further delay, wondering if there will ever come a time when data anthologists of the future will come to the point of assembling works such as The Collected Emails of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos in 571-volume Martian leather-bound sets, before realizing this is exactly the role performed today by people like Julian Assange (sans the leather binding, obviously). In any case, any such epistolary exchange, whether real or fantasmatic, will undoubtedly share not even a shred of literary style with the great exemplars in the field: Aphra Behn’s monumental Love-Letters between a Noble-Man and his Sister, for instance. If, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message, the medium that is email incarnates the contemporary crush for control over communication. People like to crap on a lot about free speech these days, but if you’re using email at all, it really isn’t free, it isn’t private, and it isn’t yours. My friend P2 who has now somehow made it as middle-aged middle-manager in a rapacious deracinated multinational corporation has described the dashboard that gives him access to his entire team’s emails, complete with the merciless stats of who is online when and where sending what to whom. Emailing throughout the night? Good! Potentially taking 4 or 5 hours of sleep? Not good! At this point, my computer – really, the institution’s computer – automatically logs me out of the system for security reasons, requesting that I enter my password. As my 10 year old daughter said the other night while we were trying to legally download a movie – which took at least 20 irritating minutes of authorizing security details and attempting to remember ancient passwords – in order to pay $4.99 for 48 hours’ worth of access to something we could have more easily acquired for free through a pirate site, ‘that’s a lot of typing, daddy’. If anybody had proposed to me as late as 1999 that most people in Australia would spend most of their days in front of a crazy variety of screens reentering more and more recondite passwords while desperately trying to regain contact with some kind of responsible agent, I may plausibly have dismissed them as unduly pessimistic. After two decades of digital disruption, however, dystopian SF pessimism has become dreary quotidian actuality. A friend R1 recently spent her afternoon in a large office – to which she had gone in person as it had proven impossible to receive satisfaction online or on the phone – being referred from one administrator to another until, at the end of the day, she was referred to the very administrator with whom she began. Kafkaesque, yes, but R1 was not content to conclude by invoking this easy adjective. ‘Look,’ she said to me, ‘everybody there is either new or in a new position that has been created by continuous restructuring of the organization. As a result, nobody knows what exactly it is that they have to do, having not had the time nor training to be across the incredibly complex and indeed inconsistent and constantly-mutating organizational processes. If they tell me something incorrect, then they are at risk of losing their job; they cannot say for sure whether what they tell me is correct or not; so it’s vital that they help me by passing me onto somebody else who may be able to give the right answer; but since everybody is in this position, there is absolutely nobody left who can do this. Therefore in order to keep their job, it is necessary that they don’t do their job.’ This is civilization perfected as an absolute deadlock. As Freud writes in 1937 to Princess Marie Bonaparte, ‘I have an advertisement floating about in my head which I consider the boldest and most successful piece of American publicity: “Why live, if you can be buried for ten dollars?”’ Good question. As the English psychoanalyst Hannah Segal answers, thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘keep a little fire burning, however small, however hidden.’ Just don’t do it on email.
This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.