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Edgelands

This is the second in a short series of posts exploring ambient literature. They’re tentative steps, and are not meant to mark out inviolate territory, rather work in gas-light toward something that seems to sit in the gloom of quasi-academic thought. The first one is here.

2. Edgelands and borders.

Liminal spaces.

If we’re trying to formulate a canon, a set of principles  by which we can include or exclude work, then there’s going to have to be a literature review. Or at the very least a bibliography.

And first on the list is certainly Malcolm McCullough’s ‘Ambient Commons’.

McCullough’s text is concerned with the nature of ambience in media; in broader culture; and he does a very fine job of exploring the nature of attention and the way that we interact with our surroundings. Ambient Commons isn’t the answer to ‘what’s ambient literature’, but it shines a light on it, illuminating a decent proportion of the landscape (of course, the danger of mapping any landscape is that eventually your focus becomes so fine, so acute, that you mistake the map for the territory, and here’s a moment for Borges: ‘In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it.’ (‘On Exactitude in Science’), and then you’ve crossed a particularly providential rubicon. Mapping is an exercise in analogy, a process of translation that asks the cartographer to situate themselves at a remove from what’s real, and to render it somehow abstract, somehow readable) and that landscape is rendered defined as a result of McCullough’s, and in turn our own, attention.

We tune our mental radios to the precise frequency of ambience, and we listen for a while.

McCullough provides a set of notes early in the book. Twelve ways to describe the ambient. Here’s one:

That which surrounds, but does not distract…

Attention, and the manner in which we read in a public place (let’s assume for a moment that ambient literature might also be literature that by its nature is read or experienced in a physical, public space. It might not be, but let’s assume so for a moment) is important then. There’s something enveloping about that phrase, reminiscent of the nature of signs in architecture. The ways in which the environment is designed and used, and also not-used or suggested.

And another:

An environment replete with non-things…

Which leads neatly on from the last piece. Here’s a question though: If we’re listening, and paying attention, what do we miss? Which fragments are overlooked in favour of the obvious or the essential. If I’m crossing a busy road, then my focus is no longer on the world as it might be, but as it is. Those non-things that we’re absorbed in, that we’re calling attention to, are gone, only to reappear in the world a few steps later. Where they went during their absence is a mystery, we only know that we’re safe again and they’re back.

And one more, for now:

A persistent layer of messages for somebody else….

We invade literature. We impose ourselves into a relationship between writer and text. We, as readers, are interlopers. Well, maybe.

We do pick at stories though, we want to find them in the detritus of the world. It’s rare that a book is written expressly for you to read. It’s author might have an ideal reader in mind, but the odds of you being them are pretty long. But we read, and we continue to seek out stories. So we’re leaning over the shoulder of another, reading words meant for someone else.

Those examples aren’t liminal. I’m trying to describe something without saying what it is. Blind men feeling their way around an elephant.

But in asking what use liminality might be to this exercise, the first question that came to mind was this:

  • How do we know that we’re operating on the edge of something?

I had several answers:

  1. When there’s a sheer drop to one side of your feet.
  2. When there’s a wall in front of you.
  3. When the lights go out – when there’s an evident change in our surroundings.

Each of which signalled two things – the presence of a body (physicality is significant to ambience, and is going to get an entry all of its own) and an immediate change in some aspect of the surrounding space. A change that requires us to employ a new sense or, possibly more usefully, to augment an existing one. If there’s a sheer drop to one side (the edge of a cliff, for example) then as much as our forward progress is unimpeded by its presence, we’re more than usually aware of the space to our right and left. The rules change. If the lights go out, then we have to pay attention differently. We might turn a torch on (which suggests a McLuhanite technology-as-extension), or we might change our mode of attention. Sound becomes more important, tells us more about the space around us than it was previously permitted to do.

If we’re listening more acutely, then its probable that we’re diverting energy from another sense in order to augment our ears. We’re focusing. There’s a change in the nature of our distraction.

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