by Jacob Warn
It was in the coffee-house that I fell asleep and had a dream – horrible thing – about bowing technique. It put me in the awkward position of teacher, teacher to my own family, and forced upon me the undeserved task of explaining the up and down bow. Try as I might, the task was impossible. Frustration, dissatisfaction, culminating in irrepressible ire. It is a simple concept, but recalcitrant to preconceived notions of direction.
This dream – or might it better be called premonition, for dreams look forwards, never back, despite what the psychoanalysts say; the dream cannot play out the past, perhaps a form, but as a mutation of the past it drags us into the future – and by future I mean that which is not experienced. Yes, critics of this view are never too quiet, instead, they argue against the evident fact that the past is anything other than memory. It is plain to see that, in fact, it is just this. We talk all the time about erasing our own histories, our memories. Coming to terms with the past is the gentle settling of memory in the riverbank of passing time. As the edges of memory sand themselves against the pressure of temporal teleology, so are they smoothed to the point of dissolution – as feathered images scatter themselves into whitenesses. With memory comes the only human way of rationalising each moment in which we envisage ourselves. It materialises in how we view history. Imagine the long horizontal that is dissected by the numerous marking dates. Like little soldiers they stand as instances which stay the feet of misunderstanding and call us to our attentions.
Dreams are the oldest form of time-travel. They are the narratives of self-transference. How else did Thetis know of her son’s death? How would Aeneas have paced out the Mediterranean and settled fortuitously on Italic shore? Was it not Coleridge who dreamt of Mongolian plains – though so far away in time and space? Forget not also the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge – forget not the significance of the bed in which all his visions and lessons are situated: past, present and future. Even today, don’t we speak of deja-vu and of the lucid dream as the experience of something outside of the linear temporality we purport to live by?
So my frustration today is unsurprising, when I try and try to explain what is up, and down, in relation to the four curved strings of a violin. Why is down up and up down when we play its lowest string? Lucidity is, of course, the imperative here. And getting a hold on the right end of the issue at stake is the imperative.
My prelude here finally leads me on to my subject. What came before has been but a beam in the way, but now, we might use this not as obstruction, but as support, and move on with the certainty of a solid base.
Sticks, since the very beginnings of our development, have found service in the might and main of humans. Hands have clutched them like straws from the Promethean day – and indeed, straws they were then. They have been our way into the world of nature; our tool, even, against the world of nature. Conflagrations of war, the hunting bark of dogs followed by the bending willow whips of the chasers; they are the support and friends of the old, the playthings of boys; with sticks, the oceans, lakes and rivers of the world are suppressed, surpassed and surfed; the man against the Cyclops found use in the stick then, and the other, led on by two doves, sought access to the Charon’s Styx clutching one that shines, and the dove – there, he returns – gave note to Noah of the receding waters. The stick gives warmth to the wealthy and poor; it gives time of life to the hunted and time of day as ticking hands rotate; it is the marker of time to the bundles of upping and downing bows of the orchestra and the frapping mental whip to the drugged as they pump along to a heady concoction of music.
What do I have on sticks, then? Nought but a yard length. This is all I propose to gain on them, and perhaps far less than that. Nor will I branch out further, for taking them as my template, I will remain on the straight and narrow, not bending (unless by will) nor burning unless by accident. If, then, in the final analysis I have not commended myself to you enough and, if you choose so to do, frustrated by my style, partake in some hedonistic letter-burning, then bear a moment to consider the injustice you do to paper – progeny of the tree – and which you more fool yourself in doing. No, my innings will focus henceforth on the stick alone – oh mighty stick that hath now, as never before, turned on us in our hour of need! Indeed, as kindling to this matter I must take us far away – as memory must do – to the multitude of cities and sites across the world: Paris, Seville, Istanbul and Perth. Here, not one in the guise of espionage, but rather a fleet – an army – of sticks has surrounded us, tapping and trapping each of us on the shoulder and, like the magician’s wand oft did, causing us to disappear.
You ask what I mean? What could I mean? I refer, gentle reader, to nothing other than the photographic stick, the stick of picture. Mean I the tripod? No. That Cerberus is better left alone and not woken. The Delphic tripod perhaps – a window as none other onto the futures of its clients? Again, no. I speak of a different stick altogether – it is the stick of representational pretence: the selfie-stick.
Let’s take a trip to Seville then. I was first struck here by the realisation of the stick’s crafty, usurpation. Seville is a city of stone, of balconies, of greenery, of winding vines, of exposed beams, of courtyard gardens and of the moistening trickle of water in enclosed squares that lends a sense of refreshment to the humidity of a city that lies in a bowl of dust. It is a city for the tourist who moves about at a steady pace – like the tightrope walker who balances vertical and horizontal with long pole in his arms and long rope under his feet – careful to keep his head above his neck and not let the rising swelter choke him as water does the careless swimmer. But as he goes about today, he lacks a certain life-raft, a buoyancy aid to keep him upright. No group lends support or structure. Instead, the modern tourist is happy to walk by himself and doesn’t realise the mistake he thereby makes. He, on the first foray into the wilderness of modern tourism is like the man who first ventured into the ocean in the first vessel not to be crafted from gourd. This explorer has created the longboat, the boat of non-cyclical proportions, but with its speed, he has forgotten the second paddle. In his early gourd, one sufficed – one was all that was necessary – but with this longer craft, the two-paddles would become a new standard – a new necessity. It is from our early explorer here where we get that eponymous phrase up the creak without a paddle, except, he was rather up the creak without two paddles. In a similar way, so too is the modern tourist in jeopardy. With the selfie-stick, he is all alone with insufficient means of propulsion.
To explain, the selfie-stick has achieved something which, until now, the stick was unable to achieve. Until now, it has been the subject and servant of its human master. But today, it is the master’s murderer. The selfie-stick first takes the camera, and turns it. It renders the camera’s function one-fold. Two lenses, one forwards and one backwards, become one. With this enslavement of the camera to this function, so too is the owner’s agency over the camera halved. The selfie-stick demands the constant shuttering on the self alone. It acts in the place of the taker, or rather, makes taker and taken one and the same. As the modern tourist wanders the paved streets of a famous city, at every moment of photographic capturing, he is himself captured. The evisceration of the ‘other’ – the one who takes but is not taken – is the deconstruction of the artistic relationship between subject and object. Instead, with the deconstruction of this bond, another weak and feeble relation takes its place. It is the relation between the individual, who, all alone, exhibits himself on the branches of social media to which he is inextricably tied. The ‘selfie’ is a concept entwined with, or shooting off from, the growth of self-representation online. The selfie-stick demands photographic exclusivity for the ‘selfie’ which in turn demands the exclusivity of self-representation which occurs almost entirely on social media platforms. The modern tourist is ripped away from his roots in the place and people of the photo and instead is replanted in a shady forest of virtual selves. His constitution is not the product of place or personal relation but rather the cumulation of value-judgements stemming from online sightings.
The history of the stick has been one of humane – and not human – subordination. It is the very recent past that has changed this power relation. The Amazon, in all its distance – that host of countless sticks – has delivered to our door in numbers unexpected a threat for which not one of us was prepared. It has rooted out the individual from the instance of experience and set him, not in a dream world of past or future temporality, but rather somewhere outside of the timeline. It has mandated selfie proliferation and has defied collective experience of places and sites. With the rise of such a stick, we have been incarcerated in jails of online representation through which we value and experience only a projection of life.