As Never Before

I was watching football yesterday, and chatting with friends remotely during the match, as so many of us do in these pandemic lockdown socially atomised days. It occurred to me that the narrative arc of a particular player, struggling for form, hitting the post, his anguish and despair, then eventually relief and the breakthrough of scoring, would make an interesting visual focus.

I was, in short, reminded of the 2006 documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, in which some seventeen cameras were directed solely upon the mercurial Real Madrid player during a match against Villareal. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema. On the one hand, it’s hypnotic, with its somnolent score by Scottish band Mogwai. On another, it’s the juxtaposition of Zidane’s concentration, and isolation, against that of the various groups of fans around the world, who appear in the half-time segment of the movie.


Of course, this was too good an experimental film idea to be original. There is nothing new and good under the sun. The original version of this idea was, astonishingly, made in 1970 and released the following year. Entitled Fussball Wie Noch Nie, or Football as Never Before in English, it was directed by the relatively obscure German new wave director, Hellmuth Costard, who is probably best known, or most notorious, nowadays for his early short in which an ejaculating penis recites the German morality law relating to movies.

Hellmuth Costard
Hellmuth Costard

Costard’s version follows George Best of Manchester United in his 1970 pomp, playing against Coventry City. Like the Zidane movie which emulates it, it isolates and focuses upon the individual genius in a team sport, generating a flowing image which is simultaneously utterly alienating, because so distanced from how we ordinarily spectate upon sport, and also so utterly familiar, because it is how we live life, as individuals performing our role as part of a greater, more complex whole, of which we only witness our corner.

Football As Never Before (1971) directed by Hellmuth Costard
Football As Never Before (1971)

This both is and is not the George Best we are familiar with, in other words. It is not, obviously, the Miss World dating George, the Carnaby Street fashion George, the drunk George on Wogan’s sofa, the alcoholic George, the wifebeating George. These Georges are real and true and fragments of a larger life, but are not the focus of why Best is an international icon.

This is football George, the subject of the witticism: Maradona good, Pele better, George Best. Allegedly the most talented player ever, or asserted so in some quarters at least. This is George doing what the world loved him for, playing soccer. But it is not how we are used to seeing him play. This is tightly focused on him alone. We see how much he shambles about, turning this way and that, occasionally perplexed, strolling, then breaking into a brief run, then stopping. The game, in other words, is elsewhere, or rather, it mostly takes place beyond our focus. He is only intermittently part of it. Here is a five minute clip, complete with a soundtrack, Football, by Manchester band Arficeden, to give you a sense of Costard’s vision.

It is perhaps too much to extrapolate out from this unusual and now obscure documentary to derive wider conclusions. Yet this is refreshing and familiar. Gone are the implicit negative narratives which always seem to hover in the background like a dropdown menu about George, the drinking, the womanising, the sad squandering of talent and ultimately life. We know they are there, but they are not here.

Instead we are treated to George doing what he did best, if you’ll pardon the pun. George the footballer. George on the pitch. But it’s not what we thought it was. It’s George on the pitch almost from his own point of view, how it feels to BE George on the pitch. And it’s a confusing wander back and forth, seemingly aimless, speeding up and slowing down, mostly a bystander in his own narrative.

In some ways, this is the real experience of George as footballer. But it’s not the one we’re familiar with, and perhaps not one we’re comfortable with either. As I said, it’s too much to extrapolate from this, but it seems a metaphor for life is in there, waiting for us to see it.

At the very least, Costard’s documentary, his way of presenting football as never before, is a reminder that narrative frame underpins all the stories we tell ourselves about reality. And in this era of fake news, alternative facts and ideological echo chambers, it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.

Riddley, Max, Iain and Dave

My fourth (of three originally intended!) article on Riddley Walker and invented literary languages is now live on the Ponying the Slovos project site.

This one looks at the various legacies and tributes to the post-apocalyptic debased English invented by Russell Hoban for Riddley Walker. Unsurprisingly, they’re largely post-apocalypse narratives themselves.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Edizione: Regno Unito Edizione: Regno Unito: Tina Turner: Film e TV

We have the third Mad Max movie, an Iain M. Banks NON-Culture SF novel, and a novel by Will Self, The Book of Dave, wherein the rantings of a psychotic London cabbie form the basis of a post-apocalyptic future religion.

It’s a fun mixed bag, linked by language, and it was fun to write about them all.

Defining Religious Futurism

We need a way of taxonomising religious futurisms due to the wide range of territory the term covers. There are three main strands of religious futurism, with a number of additional topics that are at least cognate or germane.

The first, and perhaps most recognisable, form of religious futurism simply describes futurisms derived from existing terrestrial religions, for example Islamofuturism. This form also includes futurised hybrids of these religions, such as the Zensunni and Orange Catholic beliefs described in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The Orange Catholic Bible: In the Future the OCB will Unfold Reality:  Interplanetary Religion, International Council on: 9781508508724: Books

A second rich category of religious futurism relates to religious belief systems, or nascent belief systems, which are either influenced by or directly derivative of SF, for example the Church of Scientology or Jedi beliefs.

Inside the Church of Jediism, Where 'Star Wars' Gets Spiritual
Church of Jediism

An additional main strand of religious futurism, what we might term creative or speculative religious futurism, relates to invented religious faiths ascribed either to future populations or alien civilisations in SF and cognate genres, such as the Church of All Worlds in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or Bokononism, which Kurt Vonnegut invented for his novel Cat’s Cradle.

Where we get some lack of clarity is in overlaps. There is evidence, for example, that religious futurisms of this latter category can migrate into the previous one. There is some evidence, for example, of people pursuing Bokononism in reality, and clearly Jedi commenced as a created belief system depicted within the Star Wars universe, and was not originally intended to be a religious belief. Indeed, to become one, it had to be fleshed out with doctrine by fans.

Cat's Cradle - Wikipedia

But then what of something like Scientology, which emerged from L. Ron Hubbard’s work on Dianetics, and was clearly influenced by his own career as a SF author, but was presented to the world as a revelatory knowledge? Or what of Mormonism, also presented to the world as a revelation, but one which in its origin story as told by proponents clearly contains elements of fantastika, if not overt SF futurism?

There are other anomalies too. What do we make of the non-theist belief system propagated in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, where most of the population believe the universe they inhabit to be a simulation? This particular theory, first popularised by Nick Bostrum, is gaining a lot of traction among both physicists and the general public. Is it, too, a religious futurism? Is religious even the correct descriptor? Is futurism?

Simulation Theory
Simulation Theory

As we expand in focus, the anomalies proliferate in this regard. Given the fantastikal aspect of most revelatory origin stories for religions, are we to retroactively consider all religions as religious futurism at an early stage of their development? If we locate the concept of futurism as relative to now, ie the present day, does that simply create a kind of moving walkway, in which, perhaps, Jedi beliefs will at some point cease to be religious futurism and simply become religion? What, other than the passing of time, is required for it to qualify otherwise?

In my own work on SF and Catholicism, I’ve sought to identify how the Anglophone literary tradition of SF constantly depicts Catholicism of the future as a threat – oppressive, anti-science, threatening to democracy and liberty, totalitarian in many aspects.

But this Catholic futurism is not the same as describing the actual likely organic evolution of Catholicism, which has to its credit, played a significant role in a range of scientific development from genetics to astrophysics, and which in its liberation theology form in Latin America has strenuously defended liberty and democracy from totalitarian regimes.

In other words, I wasn’t attempting to predict the future of Catholicism at all, but rather to chart what future Catholicism signified to the Anglophone culture of the recent past.

Likewise, we need to distinguish Islamofuturism from actual potential futures of Islam, though again the anomalies proliferate. What are we to make of Saudi Arabia, a highly conservative Islamic state, granting citizenship to a robot, the first ever robot citizen of any nation?

Sophie the robot citizen

I don’t claim to have easy answers for such questions. What I hope is that scholars of art, culture, the future and theology can start asking them and similar ones. Only collaboratively can we hope to close in on a working definition of religious futurism.

Mythopolitics in South Asia

The University of Oslo has a number of fascinating research projects and this latest one is of particular interest to anyone intrigued by religious futurism.

The Mythopolitics project is looking to recruit a doctoral researcher to examine if and how, 2014 onwards, there have been significant effects on popular public opinion and the political culture of India due to shifts in the construct of Hindu identity and Hindu nationalism. The popular media platforms could range from traditional to social media, for example: Bombay cinema, Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook.

Applications before January 15th 2021 are invited from candidates with a Master’s degree in visual studies/art history, film studies, culture studies, visual/cultural anthropology or allied disciplines.

More info here, if that’s you.

Enjoy the Sylents

Okay, I lied. There will in fact by four articles in total on Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker at the Ponying the Slovos project site.

This one’s the third of four now, and does the heavy lifting, addressing the linguistic structure of Riddleyspeak and navigating through some of the earlier critical perspectives on Hoban’s language invention.

To make up for that, the last one, out in a week or so, is all about Riddley’s legacy – Iain M. Banks’ non-Culture SF, Will Self’s post-apocalypse and Tina Turner’s wig, in other words. Don’t forget to tune in.

Pin on Shadowside: Meet Saliriel

Double Vision Politics

A week on from the US Presidential election of 2020, and with still much controversy and confusion involved, though a consensus among the media and global leaders that Joe Biden of the Democrats is the President-Elect, I think it might be opportune to give my 2c on the matter.

A succinct metaphor which has been suggested from time to time relating in particular to American politics, and its divisive two-party system, is “one screen, two movies.” The metaphor works because it proposes the idea that there is a set of events, what we might call reality, upon which two separate narratives are projected.

We can see this happening in America, and indeed in quite a few other places, if we choose to look. Partly this is a product of binary thinking, our (often false) predeliction arising from having hemispheric brains that there are two things to choose from in any scenario. There is black and white, up and down, left and right. But there is also brown, yellow, blue, green, opaque or transparent. There is sideways. There is in short always perpendicular options to the binary. There is, in short, nuance.

But let us return to ‘one screen, two movies.’ What happens if you try to watch BOTH movies at once, in real time? Or even simply flick back and forth between the two, like a magic eye picture? It’s obviously disorientating. A bigot Nazi righteously thrown out of office becomes an isolated victim of mass electoral fraud. A fifty year career political veteran becomes a senile old coot with a druggie son who’s been compromised by China. And so on. In short, there is such distance between the narratives that they almost cannot be comprehended simultaneously.

Critically, it seems almost impossible to reconcile them. There is no possible Hegelian synthesis here. These perspectives are oil and water, all the more unmixable for being all the more fundamentally rooted in a sense of tribal identities. The wailing despair which greeted Trump’s election four years ago, a gutteral howl from genteel middle-aged women captured on camera, is matched only by the outcry of relief and triumphalism of Biden’s supporters, a cohort who only a few years back were meming about how he was the dumbass idiot foil to a wise and weary Barack Obama.

Once practised a little, it becomes a parlour game of whimsy. Pick any topic and try to guess at the polarised views. Immigration controls are either a racist rejection of non-white humanity, or else a belated attempt to shore up jobs for Americans. Transgender storytime in libraries is an act of education and acceptance or a sign of enforced degeneracy and an attempt to destroy families and identity. And so on. But it goes beyond whimsical games of course. These viewpoints are not reconcilable and no amount of calls for unity will make them so.

The biggest tragedy is that there is no attempt at empathy from either side to the other. Both feel under fundamental attack from friends, neighbours, even family. This is tearing natural human relationships apart, inside and outside America. People don’t want to watch two movies on one screen. They can’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance. Instead, they are forced to demonise those who are watching the other movie.

One wonders therefore how it will end. Half the US electorate will feel inevitably disenfranchised no matter what, as has been the case for Trump’s entire term of office. America is, of course, an empire in slow decline and has been for quite some time. But, not unlike the bankrupcy of Mike in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, empires tend to fail very slowly, then all at once. And the power vacuum a collapsed America would create is highly concerning. No wonder Russia and China look on with interest.

I of course am no expert on the matter, having only a couple of years as a political correspondent for an Irish newspaper, and a lifetime’s passion for the sport of elections, to fuel my speculations. But if journalism taught me anything, it taught me the importance of being able to speak to people you do not agree with, to be able to genuinely listen to them and what they think and why they might think it, no matter how bizarre or repellant or even threatening it may seem. However, I am tiring too of watching two movies. The double vision is not conducive to clarity. For the next while, I will instead focus my attention on just one thing, and as a literary critic and academic scholar…

Dystopia seems like a good choice.

Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism

Only two weeks after this wonderful documentary about the work of Robert Fisk was released, the man himself is dead.

TIFF 2019: Documentary on Robert Fisk highlights how the foreign  correspondent manages complex, grim realities - The Globe and Mail

He was a paragon of journalism, whose doorstop book, The Great War for Civilisation, based on his PhD taken at Trinity College Dublin, is the single best explanation for why we find ourselves in the world we are in. You really should read the book, but for a taster, here’s Fisk speaking at his alma mater about his experiences in the Middle East.

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East:  Fisk, Robert: Libri in altre lingue

Fisk was a journalist of the old school, by which I mean he believed in travelling to the site of an event to explore it in person, in examining the evidence for himself, in speaking to people (directly and in their own languages ideally) to get a rounded perspective on events, and in doing careful research and taking copious notes to augment his own prodigious knowledge and memory.

In this age when the old gatekeeper media are dying out, being replaced by both the amateur hordes of opinion mongers and influencers on the one hand, and by AI algorithm reportage and platform curation on the other, Robert Fisk’s methods seem like the craftsmanship of a lost age.

His decades of reporting on the affairs of the Middle East – its conflicts, their origins and of course Western interference – stands as a testimony to how proper, factual, neutral journalism was once the norm, or at least the aspiration, before the onset of web 2.0, clickbait, alternative facts and post-truth.

Of course, all journalism is ultimately ephemeral, at best the first draft of history. Fisk however had accrued a depth of knowledge, not only of Middle Eastern cultures and politics, but of the long history which had led to the current affairs he reported on. In order to gather this information together in one place, he wrote a doctoral thesis which eventually became his magnum opus – The Great War for Civilisation.

One often feels as if one needs a doctorate in the fraught and complex history of the Middle East to comprehend why things there happen as they do. Fisk had one, and it showed in his writing. He was fully able to account for his own Westernness in his writing about Islam, Arabs and the Middle East in general, as he had spent many decades imbibing the rich, sour and often bitter history of the West’s engagement with all three. And only a Westerner of his ilk, an Englishman with a military heritage and of ultimately Norse extraction, could have been the credible voice within the West that he was.

It is a tragic sign of the times that the fraught relationship between Islam and the West has entered a deadly new phase, just as the carefully researched journalism that Fisk embodied has been jettisoned almost entirely by news outlets motivated to generate sensationalism for clickbait income. What comes next is likely to be ugly, and I’m sorry we will not have Robert Fisk to help explain it for us.

Fortunately we do have many great creators, artists, writers and filmmakers from Muslim backgrounds who are already hard at work attempting to imagine into being better futures not only for the Middle East, or for Islam, but for the world and indeed all worlds. (Allah, after all, is called God of All Worlds in the Qu’ran.) Many of these – it sometimes feels impossibly like all – are featured in a new text about Islamofuturism.

Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World has been written by Jörg Matthias Determann, and was recently published by Bloomsbury. I have written a full review which will run in Foundation in the fullness of time. But for now, and without wishing to preview that review, I would like to note that Islamofuturism may well be the ultimate resolution for the many problems between Islam and the West which Fisk spent his life exploring and reporting about.

Media of Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life

This is, of course, a somewhat utopian position to take, and I am an ardent anti-utopian. (Too many utopian visions result in gulags, thought police and death camps for my liking, no matter how well-intentioned they commence.) Nevertheless, what struck me while reading Determann’s fascinating survey of Islamofuturisms from Indonesia to Syria was the pervasive presence of two things in the multifaceted iterations of this rapidly proliferating genre and movement.

Firstly, the omnipresence of the shadow of The Thousand and One Nights. We have an ongoing origin debte among Western SF about when SF originated. Was it, as I’d argue, in the late 19th century alongside the development of professional science and industrialisation? Many, most prominently Brian Aldiss, argue for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as an origin text, and this is somewhat persuasive. Others see SF in earlier eras and texts – the voyages extraordinaires of the Age of Expansion; the lunar visitation texts of Rome, even in the automata described by Homer in the Iliad, or the “alien spaceships” of the Book of Ezekiel. But these are all from the Western tradition. From an Islamic, Middle Eastern tradition, it makes perfect sense to identify The Thousand and One Nights as a seminal SF text.

The Thousand and One Nights - Literature 114 (Spring 2014-2015) - Harvard  Wiki

Secondly, Islamofuturist cultural outputs almost entirely derive some of their animus from Western SF, according to Determann. Western forms, narrative devices and even sometimes direct lifts of scenes or characters are repurposed by Islamofuturism. Star Wars and Star Trek are huge influences, no less so than the indigenous cultures of Cairo, Istanbul or Jakarta.

What struck me, reading Determann’s book, is the sheer proliferation of Islamofuturism. His text is timely. In only a few years, the kind of survey he has conducted will no longer be possible in a single volume. Instead we will have to talk about Turkish cinematic visions of the future, Egyptian pulp SF novels, Indonesian feminist futurisms, and so on. In all of these environments and genres, Muslim dreamers are creating futures that contain Islam, centre Islam, challenge Islam, modernise Islam and most significantly, find modes of rapprochement between Islam and the West (yes, including revenge myths of total annihilation and takeover, but this is far from the norm.)

Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism thus function as two sides of one coin, or rather, as a Janus statue with one head looking back to the complex origins and sad histories of Western engagement with Islam and the Middle East, while the other looks forward, more in hope than expectation admittedly, to the future.

I hope that the Robert Fisk of a century from now has a happier narrative to write than The Great War for Civilisation. I hope he, or she, Western or Muslim or both or neither, can tell a tale of Islamofuturism and it’s reshaping of Islam and the West.

The Sea Monsters Scam of Academic Publishing, or, how I published an article about mermaids in an oceanography journal

This was originally published on LinkedIn. At some point, I will likely decide that I have no real purpose or need of a presence there, hence reproducing it here.

The oceans of knowledge are not a safe place for an unwary early career researcher, or academic from the developing world, who needs to publish their work to gain tenure or promotion.

Here be monsters, shady companies who prey on desperate and ill-advised academics. The scam is simple. There is a drive to open source publishing in academia to make knowledge as freely available as possible. This is because academics tend to produce their work as employees of universities, who are then charged by publishers to access that same work. This too could be considered a little unethical, but it is not new. The system, for those unfamiliar with it, is well described here.

No, I’m talking about a more recent development. With the drive to online, publishers have emerged offering to publish academic work for a fee. This fee, they insist, is to cover things like editorial, proofreading, and layout, as well as online hosting costs. However, the fees requested often run into hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unwary academics, often from developing nations, do not always distinguish these ‘journals’ from more respectable ones, which is how they make their money.

Most academics have been spammed at some point by these journals (the respectable ones don’t need to spam to recruit submissions.). Most academics wearily delete the emails. Some academics dream of spamming them back. Sometimes, academics with a little spare time troll the spammers, publishing nonsense articles to highlight their lack of professional standards. There have been articles published on the use of geese in obstetrics, the existence of midichlorians (the fictional cause of Star Wars’ ‘force’), and even an article simply entitled ‘Stop emailing me’, which consisted of that phrase multiply repeated.

I’ve been on parental leave recently, and as I had a day between writing projects and the baby was behaving himself, I decided to bite on the latest spam from an alleged Journal of Advances in Oceanography and Marine Biology. This too is an indicator of a scam journal, when their topic is very distant from your own speciality subject. Mine is not oceanography. I’m a literary scholar who teaches literature and journalism. So, rising to the challenge, I wrote an article about mermaids, selkies, sea monsters and oceans of lard.

They asked for $979 to publish it. We negotiated, while the article allegedly was out for ‘peer review’. Peer review is a system where other academics read your work blind and offer guidance on whether it should be published. It’s a voluntary quality control system, which moves slowly, because academics aren’t paid to do it, and it’s often at the bottom of their large ‘to-do’ lists. Articles can languish in peer review for months, and sometimes even longer. So it is another indicator of a scam journal when your article completes peer review in ten days, as mine did.

Meanwhile, I had beaten the cost down to $50. They got sticky there, because obviously the sales people on the email line like to make their money and this seems to be their floor. Equally, I didn’t intend to pay at all, and I knew that for the scam to work on others, they needed some content. I gambled that they would publish my article for free to lure others. I also gambled that they hadn’t actually read it, and nor had any peer reviewer. The gamble was correct, and you can read my ridiculous article here (until they read this and delete it.) It’s called Speculative Oceanography.

The Times Literary Supplement is entirely correct to demand a reform of the practice of charging universities for work that they themselves produce. But there is a risk that we may then lurch to an even worse situation, where predatory journals scam desperate academics and researchers with ever more prevalence. A brave librarian in the United States used to maintain a list of such predatory journals and publishers, as a guide for academics to consult, but he and his university were threatened with lawsuits from the deep-pocketed publishers, and now that list is no longer updated, though new journals and publishers pop up daily.

As we move to fully open source academic publishing, we need an international quality control system to prevent predatory journals from preying on the unwary. We need to kill off the sea monsters of academia.

Mermaid research and the pay-to-publish grind

This has been all done and dusted already. Really what I’m doing is archiving it here in case the other locations for whatever reason go dark.

The short version of events is that I was spammed by a pay-to-publish academic publisher, and I trolled them. The longer version is that this is the tip of a very dangerous iceberg of academic publishing, which threatens to destroy the credibility of peer review itself, not to mention the careers of many developing world and early career researchers. Anyhow, I banged on about that here before. For reference and archiving, it is now reproduced on this blog here.

Anyhow, here’s the article in question, just in case the hosting scam publisher goes dark, which they might well. You might have fun with it. It’s short, and packed full of joke references and some fun satire of academic writing. And lots of science fiction in-jokes for the nerds out there.

Sum Poasyum

Today, scholars, academics, artists and writers will gather (except they won’t, this being plague year) in Canterbury (ie virtually but hosted there) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

It’s an astonishing novel, an evocative work of post-apocalyptic world set millennia in the future but demonstrating how the future will be back to the past if we permit the fragile, complex thing we call technologically-enabled civilisation to collapse.

The most notable thing about Hoban’s novel is of course Riddleyspeak, the quirkily spelt, puntastic invented language in which it is written. Meant to evoke both the post-literate society in which it is set and the limited cognitive capacities (and low cunning) of its 12 year old narrator, Hoban’s invented language is a remarkable piece of literary creation.

I’ve been posting about Riddley Walker over at Ponying the Slovos in my own meagre celebration, seeking to get under the bonnet of Riddleyspeak and identify how it works and what it does. I’m hoping to experience sum of the sum poasyum too, but that will be dependent on another creature of complex idiosyncratic communication and low cunning, my infant son.

So if I fail, good luck instead to all who attend and hopefully some of the materials will end up archived and online for those unable to be there, even virtually.