Writing digressions and fragments of culture (plus a music playlist)
There was a reason why my last Substack post concerned itself with writing gaps. When I put it together I knew I had a gap arriving soon. A break for some surgery. I won’t go into detail, but I’ve become bionic in the interim1. That makes it sound more interesting than it is, my perspective shaped by memories of watching the Six Million Dollar Man2. Thinking back, I don’t imagine Steve Austin had this particular prosthetic. I’m fairly sure he didn’t, too boring. Then again, if they had incorporated this into his rebuilt body they wouldn't have dwelt on it for very long. It wouldn’t have made good television.
The gap is nearly, hopefully, over. I’ll be back at my desk in a little over a week (I’m writing this post because I couldn't quite fully resist the impulse to write something). There have been things to turn to for distraction during this period of recovery. The TLS, LRB and NS are my regular gap fillers, along with a range of podcasts, Substacks and blogs. And music, of course. I bought the below vinyl from a record fair last week. Quite a title and piece of artwork. Despite being over 40 years old I couldn’t help thinking that it seemed somehow to fit the times.
A bigger gap has called for a bit more variety and quantity of content to fill it. Daytime TV is not often a good companion. There are exceptions, shows that radiate a bit of energy, warmth or intrigue - Homes Under the Hammer has all three (for readers unfamiliar with the show, it follows people who have purchased houses at auction to see how they get on with renovating them). The self descriptive A Place in the Sun is occasionally worth the time. Bullseye, the 1980s and 90s darts based quiz show, is always brilliant and is ideal for nostalgic amusement. And the background of multiple repeats of Murder, She Wrote is a rock. Sometimes there might be that rare nugget: an episode of Columbo. Escape to the Country is borderline and has to be judged on a case by case basis. These have been the fragments that have populated this recuperation time.
The inevitable question arises: should I be making more productive use of this gap? When you train yourself to make the most of every gap that comes along, which is how academic work works, letting a period of a few weeks stay empty goes against the flow. I did think about using this particular gap to write about what I was watching - turning the TV padding into a source for being creative. But I wrote about Bullseye a little while ago and I’ve produced something on Murder, She Wrote recently too. The comedian Dave Gorman did a brilliant 15 minutes of stand-up on Homes Under the Hammer for his TV show Modern Life is Goodish, I don’t suppose it can be appended or topped.
I’ve largely managed to resist this temptation to use the time to write. A gap, as I reasoned last time, can be productive in its own right. I have spent a few short moments here and there adding to some short stories I started developing a couple of years ago. I wonder if they will ever surface, perhaps not. They are just an experiment (maybe I should post them on this Substack?)
It occured to me that more than is normally the case I’m consuming piecemeal fragments of culture. Culture in bits. I’m returned, as I often am, to Georg Simmel's essay on ‘The fragmentary character of life’. It was a piece that was adapted and developed as one of the four chapters of his final book The View of Life, published in 1918. Simmel explored how modernity was based on the overwhelming experience of bits. This experience is defined by the way individuals piece those fragments together to build and reinforce their concept of the world and to give meaning to their individual lifecourse within those worlds. As I switch between daytime TV shows, a podcast interview, an automated playlist, a radio programme and a short review in the TLS, Simmel’s essay seems to capture something. Yet he couldn't have seen how fragmentary things would become with streaming and platforms. I’m left wondering if all of these shards can actually be assembled into a concept of the world.
As my limited focus moved across the content around me, the writer Geoff Dyer got me thinking again about this fragmentary character of life. One of the bits of content I’ve been consuming is the audiobook of Dyer's recent The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings. It's not actually about Roger Federer, he hardly gets mentioned even though tennis does reappear severall times. It’s actually a book that explores many different types of endings. Various last or final days in music, sport and philosophy make appearances. As do memories and moments from Dyer's past. The personal is treated as part of the cultural endings within which it occurs.
Dyer doesn't like to think in straight lines. His writing is all about the art of digression. Its brief sections shift, maybe even lurch, between topics. The book is pretty much built from tangents. There is that central hook of the ‘ending’ but that remains too loose to be a centre of gravity. Dyer is riffing off topics. This lends the book a free form structure, like some of the jazz Dyer discusses and has written about before. These riffs are sometimes auto-reflections, including thoughts on the writing of this very book. There is no fourth-wall. The text tells its own story as well as thematically spinning in different directions. A text that itself has a fragmentary character.
Nietzsche is an unlikely but prominent figure in Dyer's text. He resurfaces a number of times. There are reasons for this. Dyer finds a number of endings in Nietzsche’s works. I wonder though if there is also a kind of methodological influence here too. Perhaps Nietzsche's presence is a matter of style as well as content. These two writers share what might be thought of broadly as the segmentation of thought. Nitezsche's aphoristic style finds a form in Dyer’s digressions. The book’s short sections are like chunky aphorisms. Each one picks up a thread, sometimes returning to it later on, others are left behind. It’s a book of loose ends.
On the topic of filling gaps, when I have a book published I usually try to create a music playlist to accompany the text. I treat it a bit like DJing at a launch or a free mixtape glued to the cover. The idea is that the songs on the playlist all link loosely to the book’s core themes, which makes it a challenge to assemble it. The playlist for The Tensions of Algorithmic Thinking, which is out later in November, can be found here.
There's a little bit of background in this piece I wrote a couple of years ago for the Big Issue North.
And probably from reading Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles and William J. Mitchell.