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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This report is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Analog Sea and the Pixelated Madness Horatio Morpurgo
‘Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it’, wrote Max Frisch in 1957. In an essay published only after his death in 2015, Oliver Sacks reflected on the ubiquitous use of smartphones in his New York neighbourhood. He foresaw ‘a neurological catastrophe’ as the reflexes of a generation with ‘no immunity to the seductions of digital life’ are conditioned in this way. Two Norwegian reports, recently cited by Will Self, studied the effect of social media use on the ability to ‘lose oneself’ in long-form prose narrative. They suggested that Homo virtualis is already with us: ‘I can see’, wrote Self, ‘no future for words printed on paper… if our civilisation continues on this digital trajectory’.

The Analog Sea Review, founded in 2018 by the poet Jonathan Simons, is part of an ‘offline publishing house and institute’. It offers ‘life-sustaining counter-measures to the pixelated madness’. The above quotations all come from work that has appeared in its pages. It is published in English but in Freiburg. The Central European atmosphere of its content extends also to its elegant hardback design. ‘When you express yourself, use the things around you’, wrote Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet. ‘If your everyday life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself; tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.’

Analog Sea faces the worst about the likely prospect of ‘downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and the world’. It turns to poets and artists, living and dead, to novelists, physicists, psychoanalysts, film-makers and philosophers, not only for their views on the pixelated madness, but for hints on how our relationship to primary experience could be restored.

Novelty of course has always been the internet’s chief promise and selling point. Are we too quick to take that novelty on trust? There are longer stories to tell in which the internet is neither as new nor as exciting as its marketing people would relentlessly have us believe. It represents an acceleration of that tendency described by Guy Debord, half a century ago, which he called ‘the spectacle’. Part of Analog Sea’s 2019 edition was devoted to Debord’s current relevance.

The spectacle is the reign of personalities, ‘news’, commodified art, a reign of appearances under which no ‘central question’ can any longer be posed. It is the power of all this to hold us spellbound. It controls our lives by reconstituting us as passive spectators, so long as we remain ignorant of it. Dextrously, it determines how we relate both to the life going on around us and within us. It is the ‘ruling order’s defence’: it serves capitalist structures by acting as the veil which conceals them even as it distracts us.

If ‘the entertaining celebrity is a capitalist robot’, as the philosopher Donald Kuspit has more recently argued, then what is the country which elects such a robot to highest office? Debord’s answer was neither scream nor shrug. It was the ‘dérive’: literally, ‘drifting’, a reinvention of the way we engage with our surroundings so as to subvert this omnipresent ‘ideology of trade’.

In developing his idea, Debord drew on the Surrealists, the Romantics and the Baroque, as well as from the Age of Chivalry and its traditions of the long journey of adventure and discovery. He affirmed, in other words, a rich vocabulary of pre-spectacular dissent on which we might still be drawing. There’s a reason we are encouraged at every turn to play down the past while we cry up the Novelty.

‘Industrial societies turn their citizens into image junkies’, Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), ‘it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.’ The impact of television’s commercial images was an early theme in Wim Wenders’s work. The director is interviewed in the third (2020) issue about how digital technology has taken over where television left off and where that leaves a film-maker who wants to stay thoughtful.

‘Anybody who says digital technology makes everything easier doesn’t know what they’re talking about’, he complains. ‘It’s easier to shoot, but you end up with ten times more material.’ Some film scores ‘already sound as if an algorithm has written them’. Readers of Emotion Pictures will already be aware that Wenders is a writer. He speaks here about how much reading has mattered.

The issues are made up of several sections, artwork announcing each new theme. After Wenders, for example, comes Glenn Gould. The reclusive pianist made a series of ‘contrapuntal documentaries’, experimental films, about the Arctic as an ‘archetype for human solitude’. A transcript of one of them is followed by an aphorism from Pascal. Reflections from environmental writers on the Arctic lead up to Gould’s commencement speech to a group of Canadian students in 1964.

Analog Sea’s editors insist they are not ‘anti-technological’. They use the internet ‘almost daily’. Their dispute is with technology’s ‘promises of endless amusement and togetherness’ and how in practice this ‘digital utopianism continues to pull us deeper into dark waters’. You can, to put it another way, hate car culture and still drive one of the damn things.

The review asks what a ‘society devoid of interiority’ would be like, if that is indeed where this digital dance is leading. About its implications for self-knowledge, it asks Michel de Montaigne. ‘The call to solitude is universal’, wrote Thomas Merton. But where do we find it now? For the meaning of leisure in such a world, it turns to Freiburg-trained philosopher Byung-Chul Han (a discovery I was glad of). Walter Benjamin once called boredom ‘the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’. Can that bird survive Instagram?

Analog Sea feels here and there like last-ditch fighting, but maybe that’s how the worthwhile battles always feel. American and British poets are preponderant but that’s just a quibble. In the midst of home-schooling, Brexit and Donald Trump’s attempted putsch, I was profoundly grateful for this view out of a window in Freiburg.

This report is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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