Moveable Type is a new podcast series and an aural counterpart to the Moveable Type Journal. On this page you can read the transcript for Episode 1 which accompanies the Ambience issue.
Sarah Edwards 0:11
Hello, and welcome to the first ever Movable Type podcast brought to you by University College London. I'm Sarah Edwards and this week we discuss literary ambience to celebrate the launch of the latest issue of Movable Type and, of course, our new podcast series. We've got some fantastic content lined up for you, including interviews with our editors, Q&A's with some of our article writers, poetry readings and some 30-second book reviews. However, before we dive right in, I think some introductions might be necessary. So firstly, for those of you who are new here, Movable Type is a graduate, peer-reviewed journal that is edited every year by PhD students from the English Department at UCL. We're on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, so do follow us there to stay up to date. And if you want to browse our latest issue while you listen, head on over to ucl.ac.uk/moveable-type A Secondly, and more importantly, I'm joined today by the journal’s fantastic editorial team, without whom none of this would be possible. So I'd like to hand over to them so they can introduce themselves to you all. And I'm going to ask them to tell you a little bit about their role at the journal and about their PhD research. So Sarah, over to you.
Sarah Chambre 1:24
Thanks very much, Sarah. And it's been great working with our wonderful team putting this edition together. I'm Reviews Editor and Book Reviewer. In my PhD research, I work on Henry James, and I'm looking at his hybridity of form. It's called theatre fiction. So it's the idea that he operates in a space that is neither fiction nor drama, but it's about embodiment and phenomenology. And so I'm super interested in the idea of ambience, because one of the things I'm really keen to explore in this journal, which I think really has come across in some of our book reviews, is the idea that isn't a sort of momentary, kind of a new form of literature, but that it's something that builds on all sorts of ideas of reader response and the way that we embed a reader or invite a reader to read across media has always been something and has progressed over time, and emerged in all sorts of different formats.
Will Fleming 2:31
Hi, I'm, Will Fleming. I'm afraid my description of my research is going to be a bit more short and sweet. I'm a third year PhD student at UCL. And my research focuses on Irish avant-garde poetry and economic theory, and I'm the Articles Editor at Movable Type.
Miriam Helmers 2:49
Hi, I'm Miriam Helmers, and I'm the Creative Submissions Editor this year. My PhD focuses on Charles Dickens and his figurative language. I look at how he uses simile especially, and part of my research focuses on his work in the theatre and embodying his imagery. So I'm also interested in embodiment and all things ambient.
Zoe Rucker 3:17
Hi, I'm Zoe Rucker, I actually just finished my MA in English Issues in Modern Culture at UCL. And I’m now hopefully, fingers crossed, if that MA turns out well, starting my DPhil, at Oxford University in January, where I will be looking at T. S. Eliot and sort of transnational self-fashioning, through the medium of the little magazine journal. So basically, I suppose, what would maybe be ambient about that is that – I'm sort of focusing on the material texts and how even across sort of national borders, and transatlantic-wise, we can trace different versions of Elliot, based on what publication he is placing his work in. So yeah.
Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, we're really not ready to let you go yet, Zoe, so thank you for joining us again this evening. Okay, now, we're also really lucky today to be joined by two of the newest additions to our team, who each have fantastic plans for how movable type can innovate over the next 12 months as COVID-19 restrictions lift. So Damian and William, it's an absolute pleasure to have you with us and to welcome you to the team. Please will you also introduce yourselves to our listeners?
Will Burns 4:33
Hi, I'm Will. I'm a first year PhD student starting at UCL this year, and I also did my undergraduate here so it's kind of like a double return, you know, returning to the office with Coronavirus and all and also, it's great to be back at UCL. Great to be here, speaking today. My research is concerned with American poets writing on universities both real and imagined. And it's kind of concerned with not only thinking about how kind of new criticism developed parallel to modernist innovations, but also how the university offered a space in which to sketch out a kind of social vision as well and kind of looking at poets like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, the notorious railing against universities, but also kind of lesser known kind of visions of the University found in in Wallace Stevens, as well as the New York poets. So yeah, absolutely chuffed to be here.
Damian Walsh 5:28
Hi, I'm Damian Walsh, I'm a first year PhD student I'm new to UCL and I'm fresh to Movable Type as well, but really excited for the year ahead. My research looks at late Victorian literature and its interaction with transnational spiritualities. At the moment, I'm wading through a lot of the occult, lots of ideas of automatic writing, theosophy, talking to ghosts and that sort of thing, which is always very fun. But in my spare time, I moonlight also as an ecocritic, and I think that's what brings my interest really, to ambient ideas at the moment. And I'm hoping a lot of these kinds of thoughts will come up in the podcast today.
Brilliant, thank you both. I also feel like that interest in ghosts might pop up a little bit later, Damian. Okay, now, William and Damian as the most recent additions to our team, I think you're actually in the best position really, to become the interviewers and to quiz us on the theme of the issue, really. So William, I'm gonna hand it over to you to start us off. So take it away, ask your questions.
So question number one, I noticed in your call for papers that you hinted at a few different definitions of ambience, and ambient literature, and that you continue to do this throughout the journal. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Definitely. Perhaps at its simplest, ambience – ok, I never know how to pronounce this guys – I'm just gonna say ambience is ‘a feeling, an atmosphere, or a mood evoked by an individual's experience of a place at a set time that can frame their experience of literary texts’. Fundamentally, we started to think of it as an experience that's situated in time and place.
Is that why the editorial instructions preface with that quotation from Wallace Stevens poem, ‘the house was quiet and the world was calm.’ For anyone who hasn't read it yet, the epigraph reads: ‘The house was quiet and the world was calm. The reader became the book and summer night was like the conscious being of the book.’
Yes, definitely. It was one of the quotations that we brought to our initial meetings, where we discussed the potential themes for the use issue. We were especially drawn to that space, you know, that liminal space between the book the world, the theatre, the street?
And how did you come about to the sphere of ambience? Were there any other texts, quotations or writers that led you to the theme?
Yeah, so there are definitely other texts and writers that there's a theme, Virginia Woolf cropped up at the beginning, there was a section of her writing that I particularly liked, and wanted to try to bring into call for papers. And that's a moment where she describes a favourite reading spot in a library and how the light would fall over her shoulder and onto the page while she sat in a pale armchair by the window. And her description sort of zooms in on the pages of the book and demonstrates reading’s power to absorb the reader. And that absorption is something that I think we're quite familiar with, and we come across it quite a lot in discussions of literature. But Woolf actually showed herself to be, actually less interested in really absorption and more interested in the moments where that absorption is disrupted, where it breaks. And she interests herself in that moment, in which, as she says, ‘a reader’s eyes stray from the page’.
Actually in that same passage, she describes a particular memory in which a gardene, I think it was, was leading his pony outside the window and how her eyes strayed from the page of the book to rest upon his face. She writes, it was, ‘as if one reached it through a great depth of time’, she dwells actually on that sort of soft, swarthy tint of the cheeks and the lines of his body scarcely disguised by the coarse brown stuff of his coat. And she concludes that the man ‘outside the book’, and well, really outside the window, took his place naturally by the sight of those dead poets that she was reading. So she really collapses the space between world and text and such sort of thoughts and writing.
It is these kinds of moments which Clive Scott attends to so beautifully in his 2012 book, Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading. Describing these lines from Woolf, Scott writes, ‘the world outside the window becomes the atmospheric envelope of the reading experience and in return is as if transformed and absorbed by the book’. Both Scott and Woolf direct our attention to that moment when our eyes stray away from the page and reconnect with the world. Though we may not think about these moments, as much as we think about the real immersion, Scott encourages us to think about it as a literary moment, a literary movement and a literary experience.
I love that phrase, ‘atmospheric envelope’. It's such a good, such a good phrase. Do you think this issue responds to the idea that this is a literary experience that can easily be ignored? I wonder, because it straddles that space between text reader and world? I'm thinking back to that Wallace Stevens quotation I mentioned before. I wonder if this issue also questions whether there is in fact a space between world and text? And if there is what the nature of that space like?
Yeah, definitely, I mean, that that that space between world and text was, in many ways, I think, kind of the main focus or what got our call for papers off the ground, really. And I think one of the strengths of this issue is, you know, sort of the sheer diversity of approaches to those sort of liminal spaces or conceptual spaces. I should just note that our sort of Codex or Bible in coming up with this theme was a relatively new critical book called, unsurprisingly, Ambient Literature. And one thing that it foregrounds is how place based writing and location based technologies produce new kinds of literary experiences. It suggests that these ambient literatures which blend place-based writing and location-based technologies, in a sense sort of happen beyond the remit of the theatre, gallery, or cinema, you know, they sort of happen in the actual everyday shared world.
And while we were interested in the ideas in the Ambient Literature book, on which we had two quite different views, which was really illuminated some of the ideas that were being promoted in that, we were a little suspicious about the separation between literature and the everyday shared world. And we thought to find ways to allow our contributors and their contributors to explore that.
What really sort of strikes me actually is that all of the contributors are to some extent, exploring how the world outside becomes the text and how text might provide readers with ambient experiences that exceed the world around them in some way. The editorial introduction actually articulates this well, when it says, ‘There are inevitably contact points between these two experiences, which demonstrate how thin the veil is that hangs between text and world’.
Yeah, even in texts and literary experiences that encourage readers to suspend their disbelief there, there will always be those moments that drop readers back into the embodied reality around them. In the text itself, I suppose, in the imaginative world of the text as well. So those moments which could be engineered by the text, or imposed on the readers by the world around them, this illustrates how the world and the text are always in that negotiation with one another.
And so how crucial was the release of the ambient literature book to the issue? And I think there’s some kind of allusion to potential resistance to some of the ideas in that book. Was that kind of like a good way of setting a kind of debate within the pages of the magazine?
Yeah, I think it was actually. So it was definitely a major factor in our decision process. I think I was definitely driving the ambient literature angle, more so than some of our other editors. And I think the fact that that actually came up when we had our initial discussions kind of showed us that not only was it something that was really topical, it was something that could also actually get people quite excited and into some quite heated debates, I suppose. So we I think we all kind of agreed collectively that the ambient literature project, which was actually behind that ambient literature book was something that contributors could engage with, and that it would lend themselves well, it would lend itself I guess, to thinking about the impact of technology on literary experience. And although that was great, because it had this sort of very contemporary angle, the other thing that we could see was that it was just one of the one of the latest texts, really one of the latest contributions to a really long discourse about situated reading and writing. So it definitely presented itself as an opportunity to explore this in its contemporary setting, but also to think about its historicity and sort of the significance and politics of ambient literatures from the past as well.
Sarah, for those listeners who might not have come across the ambient literature project, or read the critical book that came out of it, could you give us a little context?
Yeah, of course. So the ambient literature project was a two year practice-led research projects, and it ran from 2016 to 2018. It was a collaboration between the University of the West of England, in Bristol, Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham. And it was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Now the aim of that project was to sort of investigate the locational and technological future of the book. So it really did have that sort of technological impetus behind it. And one of the basic ideas behind that project was that a combination of place-based writing and location-based technologies could actually produce new kinds of literary experience. And by this, they mean that a literary experience involving text and audio that could run on a smartphone or a tablet could offer a distinctive and a new form of reading, listening and looking at the world.
And what, what exactly did the project do? Like, what was the practice-led component of the project, let's say?
Well, I suppose you know, one of the one of the main things that did really was actually to commission pieces of writing by established writers which used these location-based technologies. And this ostensibly allowed researchers to analyse the innovations and the negotiations that, you know, could be entailed in such work. And so as well as the practicality of ambient literature, that is its sort of political and theoretical implications, it was as much a project concerned with the composition process itself as well.
And those commissioned pieces utilised mobile technologies, and invited them – visual, sonic social and historic resources a place into the text, so that they became elements of a live and emergent scenography for, for storytelling really.
Right. So would it be fair to say that ambience isn't a new idea at all, but it's being reconsidered in light of new technologies that alter our place-based experiences and transform them alongside digital network? So it's rehearsing this again?
Absolutely, yeah. And, you know, this transformation of our sort of literary experiences by digital technologies, you know, isn't exclusively limited to the ambient literature project itself. You know, we also see it in the work of other contemporary writers as well.
Actually, I think it can also be seen in the work of Tam Lin, who describes his work as a sort of form of ambient literature and itself that is, ‘interwoven with elements from Twitter news feeds, Google search results and blog posts’, and is therefore ‘porous to the networks of textuality that enmesh us’, which is actually similar to J. R. Carpenter’s This is a Picture of the Wind published in 2018, I think, which is ambient because of how it used to used live weather reports to respond to the British storms of 2014.
Could you give us an example of an ambient text that was created by the ambient literature project?
Yeah, I can give you one example from that book, which is Kate Pullinger’s ‘Breathe’. It’s a pretty cool example. It's a ghost story that was designed to be read on a phone screen. It was created in collaboration with Editions at Play, which is a collaboration as well between Google Creative Lab, Sydney, and that London based publisher Visual Editions, so really plays with the visual of that.
Can we still access that now?
Yep, it's still available. It's browser based too, so you can you can access it anywhere on your computer, and when you have Wi Fi.
Can you tell us more about the ghost story?
‘Breathe’ tells the story of Flo, who has the ability to hear ghosts. As Flo struggles to communicate with her mother, Clara, who died when she was a young girl, other voices keep interrupting.
And so what does the phone contribute to the experience?
Well, firstly, the story uses three application programming interfaces: weather, time and location to gather data on the reader and tailor the story to them according to the temperature, the season and the place in which a reader is situated.
Yeah, and I think that all really helps, you know, create that sort of uncanny feeling that the ghosts in the story somehow know where a reader is located, right?
Yeah, the phone accesses the reader's camera at the beginning of the story. So it takes a single image of the reader’s surroundings, and then that image is brought back into the story several times. It haunts the story,s as it were.
Yeah. And then because that whole experience is itself mediated through the phone screen, as it were, you know, as the reader taps and interact with it to move through the story. It's like the phone itself becomes haunted. So our habitual phone interactions become as Matt Halo puts it, literary movements.
So turning swipes, taps and you know, general kind of like haptic kind of, you know, everyday manipulation of the phone and to kind of literary movements. That sounds like the kind of revelations that we see throughout the book. Is that right?
Yes, you got it. There's there's a bit in the introduction to the book, which suggests that ambient literature is less about the locative and the immersive qualities of literature and more about touch points or points of contact. We found that phrase finds a lot of traction alongside Pullinger’s ‘Breathe’, which relies on those touch points, as you said, the haptic qualities, to create this haunting atmosphere. That is the way a hand touches the screen, or the story touches the world in which the reader is sat in by gathering data on its location, or showing the reader an image of themselves.
So with all these touch points, these taps and movements, do you feel that ‘Breathe’ is representative of ambient literature as a whole?
I think to some extent, yes. The ambient literature book does give a lot of time and energy to discussions of the technological elements of contemporary ambient literatures and Pullinger’s text definitely does that. But the ambient literature book also stresses the historical continuity of ambient literatures rather than a technological disruption.
Well, that seems like a very sensible, you know, to see kind of technology as part of a process of history, as opposed to just like a break out of nowhere. So we just say that the kind of general kind of through line of the edition is more in terms of the kind of situated and responsive nature of reading and writing?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, that that approach basically means that ambient literature sort of essentially speaks to the history of reading – whether that's reading alone, you know, in your favourite chair at home, or reading in coffee shops or reading on the go. There's some great discussions in the book, for example of the market for books for subway, streetcars, and buses, and in other words, you know, the literature of mobility.
Yeah, and those discussions cite, for instance, the founding of WH Smith bookstores for railway stations and the creation of Penguin pocket sized paperbacks. The authors, academics and theorists contributing to the ambient literature book are insistent that these earlier innovations that created literature that could be consumed ‘on the go’ or not detached from the sort of current boom in e-readers and e-reader mobile apps, the book suggests, all of these things sort of actually share the same history.
That's really interesting. It sounds like quite a good antidote, maybe for the abuse that millennials get for being on their phones all the time. Or the idea that this has just sort of come out of nowhere, bring it back to the historicity is really, really interesting. And what do you feel this issue of Movable Type contributes to that discussion surrounding ambience?
Well, with this issue of Movable Type, we were hoping to set in motion a new wave of interest in ambient literature, seeking new insight into the patterns and thematics of ambient writing, and bringing to light discussions left unresolved by various critiques of ambience.
Yeah, and building on what Sarah has already said (and maybe shout out to all the millennial scholars out there!), this issue presents a conversation between a group of scholars, writers and reviewers who locate ambient literatures beyond, beyond the apps, beyond the web browsers, identify new research trajectories, and challenge those definitions of ambient literature. So also countering its contemporariness and reliance on technology by also foregrounding precursors to ambient literature, as Will was also saying.
Yeah, and as hopefully the end of our editorial very eloquently suggests, all of these developments are more than a sort of distraction or aberrant offshoot of book history. You know, they're actually contiguous with reader response practice and they may come to represent an important component or even, you know, a central element of composition and reception as we know it sort of going forward.
In this interlude, we'd like to share with you an extract of Elisa Sabbadin’s poem, ‘Being Home’.
I watch colors match, the color of my pajamas with that of the couch with that of the cups
and with that of the hair of my cat,
With the shirt of my mother with the calendar hanging in the kitchen
With the bedsheets and towels and jumpers and every single strange book, a whole harmony
of greens and blues and oranges and reds, galaxies of sense
I sit in the shade of your house, the shadows of your garden, olives and juicy tomatoes, pesto,
Wine and alcohols of herbs, flowers on the table, flowers in the garden, sun in the flowers in
Mosquitos and smoke, sweaty hands touching, sweaty legs touching, mouthfuls touching
In this section of the podcast we talk about some of the fantastic articles featured in the issue and bring you Q&As with Miriam Helmers. Miriam transports us back in time to consider ambience in relation to mediaeval literature.
So the articles in this issue approach ambience from different angles and cover a range of time periods. But I'm fascinated by the article that you contributed, Miriam, which successfully reads mediaeval Mystery Plays in relation to ambient literature. It’s a really interesting topic, but it's also one that our readers and listeners might perhaps find surprising given the apparent monopoly of digital technologies on ambient literature. Can you start by telling us telling our listeners a little about your article?
Thanks very much. Yeah, it is a really interesting take on it, I suppose. And I think what you said about the monopoly of digital technologies is what got me going in the first place. Because my article offers a reading of mediaeval Mystery Plays, it overturns that concept. And I present the mediaeval pageant waggons, right? These were mobile theatrical stages that move through the city as early ambient technologies. In other words, you know, modern day contemporary technologies don't have the monopoly. And I also borrow the critical terminology of those discussions of ambient literature and use them to describe the Passion play actors as collecting data on their audiences. So I do use that modern terminology, but to show that it existed a long time ago.
You know, that's fascinating. It makes me think of that scene in the Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal where the, you know, the kind of, everything's fine, and then there's kind of travelling troupe of people come in their waggon. And then everything starts going terribly wrong. And the main action of the film is kind of refracted through what's going on the kind of stage waggon. It's, you know, completely, kind of evidencing what you're talking about. Next question, could you tell us about how you move from thinking about ambient literature supported by digital technologies, you know, kind of monopolised digital technologies, or even modernist technologies to thinking about kind of mediaeval technology, kind of as technology?
Yeah, sure. So going back to what I mentioned before in the podcast about a key aspect of ambient literature, the points of contact that we talked about, or the embodied response to a text. So, I consider that the materiality of time in place was much more of a reality for mediaeval audiences, than it is to us as they were often literally situated in a particular place and time when interacting with the play texts, for example, the pageant waggons in the Corpus Christi mystery cycle that I talked about in the article would move from place to place in the city of York, and audiences would experience the different plays in one place. That's really hard to say plays place, but anyway...! The various pageants would have to integrate those places as they moved. So they'd be competing with different ambient sounds, audience sizes, the space for movement in front of the moveable stage, etc. So the tactical embodiment of the text was a really necessary consideration for those actors for the audience experience and response.
I think that's really interesting. I, I think we often think of ambience as, or the word ambience usually speaks to a sort of tranquillity and peacefulness. I mean, sort of via Brian Eno’s ambient recordings, that sort of thing, but I really like this idea of ambience being as much the bustle of the marketplace that…
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. pigs, pigs snorting in the background, whatever you want..
This is ambient too – it’s great. What do you think we gain by thinking about ambience in relation to mediaeval technology like this?
So in the article I also consider how the ambience of the mediaeval place includes the worldview of the mediaeval audience. And that relied heavily on a shared faith experience and devotional practice, something that has become so fractured in today's society that it would not infiltrate the audience experience of a present day re-enactment, or modern mystery play, I guess. In the article I critique Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (2004) as one such ‘modern mystery play’ as it has been called, because while it seeks to embody, you know, the Passion of the Christ, as did the Corpus Christi play cycle, it cannot hope to find in modern day audiences the same devotional understanding of how the Eucharist (Corpus Christi), can be identified with Christ's sacrifice. So I also look at the shared theological understanding there. So in spite of advanced film techniques in the movie, which might seem to take advantage of it ambient technology, right? Without the ambience of a shared network of the faith, the film is not ambient literature in the way the mediaeval mystery play would have been in its successful gathering of the data as I talk about from the mediaeval audience. The audience's faith would have played into the pageants in ways that we just can't imagine.
That's fascinating is, are there any modern day films that you think do achieve the kind of the criteria is kind of like an ambient literature?
I just think without knowing what the audience is really thinking, you know, what is the shared worldview? It's really hard to say, I can't think of one unless it's like geared towards a specific audience and only shown to them, you know.
I'm thinking of people who say they've taken up the mythology of Star Wars as a religion. It’s that kind of like reverse engineering kind of, kind of criteria? Yeah.
That is a good analogy, actually. Because you could probably only find fans of Star Wars. That's really good.
Thank you so much, Miriam. One thing that is quite noticeable as you read through this issue is that the digital is not nearly discussed as much as one might expect. Will, this definitely seem to be the case with a couple of articles that you edited? Specifically, I'm thinking of those articles by Maria Sledmere and Katherine Dent. Could you tell us a little bit more about Dent’s piece to begin with?
Yeah, well, I should first note that all of the articles in this issue entail, you know, a degree of complexity and rigour, you know, to the point where none of them really lend themselves very well to this sort of elevator pitch. But I will try my best. So in in sort of broad strokes Katherine Dent’s piece places a late short story by Virginia Woolf, called ‘The Symbol’ in the context of the nonfiction travel writing of her father, Leslie Stephen, which describes his mountaineering experiences in the sort of mid to late 19th century. The argument is that Woolf converts her father's nonfictional idea of ‘thinking like a mountain’, basically, of seeing himself in meshed, completely enmeshed in this sort of colossal landscape, these colossal landscapes that he goes mountaineering in, Woolf sort of convert that into a sort of charged high modernist prose, which, in a sense, I suppose, sort of simulates this idea in modernist fiction. And this is basically achieved, Dent argues, through basically a battery of essentially kind of ambient literary tropes, perhaps most prevalently in what Stacey Alaimo might call the displacement of the subject of anthropological humanism in literature. That is basically the displacement of the sort of literary subjects within the literary landscape.
I thought that was a very accomplished elevator pitch, Will, and I, personally, I'm really interested in all these ideas as well, I have to say, for me, I think what's most interesting is what this article sort of picks up on, the idea of the ambient opening out onto the nonhuman, is sort of becoming a field for all these ideas. It's really interesting. What about Sledmere’s article? How does that relate to dense research?
Yeah, well, it two is interested in that sort of, you know, the role of the subject. But I suppose it puts it in a more contemporary or sort of late modernist idiom. And crucially, I mean, instead of mountains, Sledmere is interested in what she calls cloud writing. So one of Dent's points, for instance, is that Woolf’s ‘inability to pin down the symbolism of the mountain need not be read as a defeat, but rather as an openness to a plurality of meanings, or even to the possibility of a meaning that exists beyond human understanding’. Now, I think Sledmere makes a fairly similar point in theorising a contemporary kind of more combative, Anthropocene lyric, which ‘refuses to transform cloud into reified metaphor, inviting instead a more ambient sense of agency’. And there's a really wonderful kind of political undercurrent beneath all of this theory, which pushes towards what she calls reading atmosphere as Commons. And again, you know, I don't really have the dexterity to outline that political theory but you know, that's for the reader to, to discover, I suppose. The other thing I should mention is that you know, the difference with Sledmere’s piece is that it kind of actively engages with the ambient literature project, and with its use of kind of contemporary technologies, and in ways that Dent’s doesn't quite. It's a slightly different thing that Dent is doing.
I suppose the danger, isn't it with engaging with the kind of contemporary technologies is you’re kind of overwhelmed with the idea that it's just going to be a appropriated by capitalist technology, you know, isn't it it's kind of the kind of the Zuboff book is could easily dominate the discussion. You know, it's like Adam Curtis doing the bit on Pokemon GO where it's, you know, this chance to kind of kind of, you know, learn your environment ends up with kind of people run over or just kind of like, kind of just around kind of advertising boards. Yeah.
Yeah, I mean, I mean, if you're interested in that, then Maria Sledmere’s piece is definitely one to read because it does. It kind of collides all of those kind of contemporary, late capitalist hellscapes into one kind of grim, but ultimately affirming sort of pieces of critical theory. So yeah, I would definitely recommend it on those grounds. Yeah,
Grim, but affirming sounds phenomenal. Would you say is the kind of affirmative element that is what kind of draws the two pieces together?
Yeah, to an extent. I mean, I suppose yeah, if you're looking for a sort of common denominator, that's certainly one of them. And the other one that I you know, that I kind of think about, and it's one that I've touched on already. But basically, you know, one of the most generative parallels is how both of these pieces situate their ambient theories within literary treatments of sort of physical spaces or atmospherics, you know, in this case, mountains and clouds. And in a way to read these pieces together is to get a sense of the diverse applicability of the ambient projects, theories, you know, to see it at work across genres and across periods, which I think is a really worthwhile contribution to this sort of nascent budding fields of ambient literary studies.
I'm really interested in this line that said, you're beginning to trace sort of atmospherics, mountains, clouds and the idea of ambience as the weather, which is an idea I think we'll come back to a little bit later. But it's, it's reminded me quite a lot of something like Daniel Tiffany's discussion of the lyric and cosmology and the weather and mist and clouds and comets. And the idea of ambience tying it into atmospherics, as you put it is a really interesting connection there. So if you had to summarise it, what do you think these two articles contribute then to the discourse surrounding ambience?
Yeah, well, I again, I mean, it kind of comes back to sort of previous point I made, which is basically the, you know, I think the major contribution of these two articles together, as I see it, at least exists in that kind of arc or sort of trajectory that they that they imply that you know, across literary periods, across literary genres, and across literary and artistic media, and in terms of periods, I mean, I think again, Miriam's piece illustrates this beautifully. And, you know, in many ways, we're so pleased, that that's in there, as well, as part of this kind of arc through time. You know, these things in a sense, kind of speak to the success of the ambient project, in a way and how it offers us an entirely new lens through which to analyse art from any period or in any medium as opposed to, you know, kind of exclusively contemporary technology-based art, although obviously that does that that is a major aspect of it.
In this interlude, we'd like to share with you a reading of David Prescott Steed’s poem ‘Grave Reading’.
‘Grave Reading’ by David Prescott Steed. A little boy shall sadly miss a silent tear that lasts as long as time itself, but only two per grave please
Read at rest together with love. Reunited and sleeping in the garden. Always remembered plastic bars as exit paths to Boundary Road.
So Sarah, Sarah Edwards and Sara Chambre. As I understand that you both edited the reviews for this issue. What kind of books are we getting reviewed in this issue?
Well, I don't want to name any of them, because I feel that they all contributed in a really interesting way to this project of thinking about how ambient literature can speak to a much wider literary critical position than perhaps just looking at the more technological niche that is explored in the project. And I think one of the, the thing about the reviews of that particular book was that they both said, ‘Where does this fit in terms of an ongoing process or an ongoing flowering of, of genre over time?’ And I think that idea of temporal dialogue was really important in some of these reviews. So obviously Zoe's piece about Sophia Sieta, was very much looking at the way that she wanted to expand the envelope of, of when the little magazines actually covered the period of avant garde and extend that, and the way that they create a dialogue between each other across periods. And that expands the whole idea of the definition of avant garde in the silence, which I know Sarah is going to talk about that also looks at the idea of time, and the glitch. And I felt that in Olivia Laing's work, funny weather, which was something that I reviewed myself, there was a really interesting way in which she looked at art over a number of periods. And she juxtaposed reviews that allowed different artists to speak of their time. So there's very much a sense of a specific location in a period, but also about how those artworks spoke across temporal periods to each other. And I felt that she covered a long period of the 20th century, in the way that she was very specific about locations, but also allowed a sort of metanarrative to emerge of how those critical works spoke to each other.
And how about you, Sarah? Should we talk about ‘The Silence’?
Yeah, I think we should. I'm definitely far less diplomatic. And Sarah is, and I do want to take the opportunity to talk about Sadie Barker's review. And she's actually produced a speedy 30-second book review for us, which you can listen to shortly. But I really enjoyed working with Sadie on her review. She positions DeLillo's novel as a form of anticipatory literature. I love that phrase. And then she tries to present anticipatory literature as a subgenre of ambient literature. So she's really going into detail here, she's going into specifics. And she suggests that anticipatory literature is something that's rooted in a time and place, and yet it fixes its aim firmly on a future reorientation alteration or transformation of it. So she presents DeLillo’s novel, alongside other apocalyptic texts of the moment, such as Jenny Offill’s The Weather, which you definitely need to go and read if you haven't, and Ling Ma’s severance, which was published in 2018. And she suggests that the event of COVID-19, in its particularity and its suddenness, bears an opportunity to consider literary modes of anticipation, premonition and reflection up close. And those are her words. And I think she puts it really beautifully. And she also suggests that it's attuned us to the ways in which the everyday actually bear signs of the precarity, disorientation, and chaos to come. And she writes with such a real sensitivity to the present moment, which actually, to be fair, as Sarah’s pointed out, most of these reviews do when it's called for. And it just really lends itself to the theme to the theme of this issue.
Do you have anything to add to that, Sarah?
Yes, I do. And I think they, they variously came at the topic from quite different angles. And I think that that was very that was illuminating. So Flora Segher’s review of Allie Smith Summer, thinks about how Smith's novel holds the reader in their own socio historical moment, by responding to and reflecting on the most significant events of British contemporary history. She notes this particular quality of ambience is enabled by the drastically truncated production time of this quartet, so that it can respond to events such as Brexit in 2016, and COVID-19 in 2020, as they happen. However, Segher’s review goes beyond the simplicity of this ostensibly ambient quality of Smith's work to discuss a characteristic of the novel that is seemingly out of sync with particular conceptions of ambient literature. While some may perceive ambient literature to be temporarily anchored as it is place-based, Seghers demonstrates that even though Smith's work is situated in place, because its narratives and publication timeline aligns with real time and real world events, her novels temporarily open. And I think that's a feature of a number of these works, and it's reparatively so, in order to create a space in which readers can look to the future with hope, so that that really specifically nails this idea of temporal dialogue and temporal collapse that I felt was very much a feature across these reviews and, and that was really rewarding to explore.
I think I just want to echo what Sarah's already said, really, the reviews really offered a great forum for our contributors to develop the discourse around Ambient literature, and, you know, push them to respond to new releases in light of the ideas of ambience, but also to uncover, you know, the ambient qualities that were already there. So rather than just finding examples of things that could be considered ambient literature, I feel like each of our reviewers actually managed to go beyond that, to challenge our conception of ambient literature or to add detail to our understanding of it. And I think the two reviews of the ambient literature text, which Sarah's already mentioned, are particularly useful for readers who are new to literature as well. And even to those who are not, because they urge us to go beyond what we think we already know, you know, what we already considered to be ambient literature. And they asked us to think what exactly, with the emphasis on the exactly, are the new strategies, the new sensitivities and forms of awareness that attention to situated reading and writing can bring to literary humanities in general. And I think that is one of the greatest offerings that they bring to this issue. They try to get beyond the nature of a manifesto idea of ambient literature and into the detail, which is something which all of our reviews, and our articles try to do in various ways.
Getting beyond the manifesto, I think is quite a good way of putting it. A lot of yeah, a lot of critical fads, I hate to say sort of get caught up, I guess in that in the noise of that, but it feels like this, well, all of these pieces really going for some substance beyond simply a critical trend, that there's more ambience that might be useful, more widely into that, and that's really interesting. Well, I think that's just about time for our 30 second book review segment. Shall we get those going?
Yeah, absolutely. So coming up for you now is a 30 second book review by Sadie Barker. And as already mentioned, it's her 30 second review of Don DeLillo's novel The Silence.
The static of a television, the smoothness of a button, the glow of a screen. These Don DeLillo's the silence suggests are the sensations of our present and yet sensations only evoking notice when technology suddenly fails. Through apocalyptic event, a global crash in the data sphere, DeLillo asked questions about the ordinary in a world premised on distraction. How do we fill the silence when it suddenly engulfs us? What happens to people who live in their phones?
So we're nearing the end of the podcast now. But are there any questions or ideas that we've left out? Or that we think we need to kind of think about further in ending this issue of ambience?
Yeah, I didn't mention at the beginning, I forgot, but this issue of Movable Type is the first that we have creative submissions for. I'm honoured to be the Creative Submissions editor. And I think that those pieces really spoke to the issue of ambience. And yeah, I found I just want to mention that because I think the creative response is so important when it comes to this.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I echo that we were really excited to be bringing it back. And while the creative pieces, you may, you might think are coming at it at a tangent or a completely separate from what we were thinking about with the ambient. Actually, although they don't take a formal position, they really did open up the discussions we were having, you know, they drove us to think about the senses, for instance, so they drove us think about what it is to read in a particular place, or to try to capture the ambience of a particular moment in time.
Yeah, and I do think some of those creative pieces work really well. And we, you know, we didn't recognise this at the time. This wasn't some kind of masterstroke on my part, I'm afraid, but some of them really do work is kind of companion pieces. Like it was only after I was finished with, you know, looking through all of the articles that I went back and read some of the creative pieces. And for instance, Roland Bagnall’s ‘A Vast Hour’ has within it so many of the kind of concerns that are raised in so many of those articles. And I mean, that there's the kind of the grimness and the jubilation from Maria Sledmere’s piece in there, for instance. I just feel like with the creative submissions as well, there's a really nice through line that I don't think any of us sort of anticipated was going to be the case. So it's really nice to see that it’s worked out that way.
And we have one final treat for you today. It's a recording of an extract from Kevin Kvas’s, ‘Alien Investigations and Octopus Philosophies’, which, well, you really have to hear it to believe it.
The octopus, au contraire, is a philosopher of the moment, whose philosophy corresponds exactly to, with, for that moment only. The octopus leaves only, almost as byproduct, a vanishing point minimal trace of its dynamic biochemical rhetoric, whose cloudy shapeshifting toward eventual dissolution into the medium which other intelligences – despite having emerged countable generations ago from that very medium and so much more limited by self-involvement as to have expanded centuries of similar bodily fluid leavings and exchanges battering materials mistaken for the transcendent ideas they were supposed to symbolise, over the existence of such a thing as a self and their selves versus other often deemed lesser selves – would mistake for a solid surface distinct from, for preserving, such injections. The octopus harbours no delusions about its significance beyond only partly consciously calculated defence and camouflage. Which repertoire can include phlegmatic pseudomorphic self-replicas signed as it were with a pseudonym and autotomy (self-amputation) which the autonomous limbs of its decentralised nervous system survive to distract all but the most cannibalistic of impending predators. The Argonaut species detaches its penile arm for efficient deposition in the female’s sometimes gallery of a penis collection chamber. But nearly all species die anyway soon after mating, even hyponomic jetting where human anatomy conjoins the acts of breathing, eating, drinking, including ink based seafood broth and speaking, the octopus’s mantle-syphon assemblage conjoins breathing, excreting and locomotion, which also enables the dispersion of the melanin writings at escape velocity, risks pressuring a death-drive spiral of triple heartstopping hypoxia. Master of illusions – if it would deign to tolerate such illusions horrific as an honorific or the tyranny of names in general, whose oppression lies precisely in that audacious disposal to attempt to solidify by the arbitrary formation of another material what is precisely anything but static, and which material may or may not even be more solid relative to the thing under name – the octopus lets others deceive themselves otherwise, by sensing it, and narrating it by telling tall tales of it to the vanishing point of mistaking them for its tales, tales told by it. And so the octopus, which cannot stand on its own eight feet, save swimmingly, stands as tall as the dark shadow left pooling in its stead, in the head steadfastly fascinated into fastening it to one of the many metaphors implanted there by the multifacetedness of its veil of camouflaged metamorphosis.
We loved that text as soon as he received it as a submission, because it draws readers into this all-engulfing and really funny exposition of the self-consciousness of textuality. Language itself becomes this immersive environment. And he plays off, you know, the hyperbolic academic verbiage, and dissects all those anxieties that underlie a hyper-awareness of language and its effects which all Millennials scholars suffer from.
I couldn't agree more, what a great place and what a great note to end on. So we have now reached the end of our podcast. But before we go, we'd like to say really big thank you to Hugo Chambre, the producer of this podcast, to all of our contributors to this year's journal, and to those who recorded things for our podcast very last minute. And finally, to all of you at home. Thank you for listening, and we hope you can join us again soon for the next Movable Type podcast.