Monday, 2 January 2012

The Professor's Last Words

It was to my alarm and surprise and, I admit, my reasonable good fortune, that I found the Professor - who, it was revealed, had left no living relatives - had made me the sole inheritor of his estate, on the condition that I personally prepare for publication his last work, The Electric Sky Has Fallen, along with any remaining essays or papers, should he die before its completion. This now being the case, I found myself in his flat on the outskirts of town one drizzly afternoon several thousand pounds the richer (most of his savings had been swallowed up in an ill-advised law suit against his former US employers for wrongful dismissal), and surrounded by folders and loose pieces of paper that belonged to a system impenetrable to any mind other than the Professor’s own.

Nevertheless, after three and a half hours of rummaging, I had managed to assemble, in page order, what I believed to be the majority of The Electric Sky Has Fallen, in its final draft, along with the remnants of several earlier versions, that were at so much of a variant as to be of interest in themselves. What was missing, however, was the conclusion to the book in any form. To my annoyance, the Professor’s computer was password-protected, and several attempts on my part to guess what it might be had proved fruitless. Any information stored on it would be retrievable, I surmised, but the knowledge of how one would go about employing somebody to do this was not in my immediate possession.

No doubt it was something that could be sorted reasonably quickly, but right then I impatiently wanted the complete book in front of me, from start to finish. That I didn’t was frustrating me more than I should have allowed it to. But nevertheless, my mood was dark as I began boxing up the files and papers, ready to be taken out to the car, careful that they should not get wet in the rain. Not a drop shall strike a single sheet, I thought, as I sealed the boxes with packing tape.

And then I saw it. In the wastepaper bin, by the desk: a single sheet of paper. Not screwed up in a ball, not folded, but simply placed there. I leapt over the un-boxed folders and quickly pulled it out.

Sure enough, there it was. A conclusion, or at least, the beginnings of one. It read:

'Lyotard was right of course, when he diagnosed what he called the Postmodern Condition; the symptoms being a floundering existence, without any real sense of meaning, triggered by the meta-narratives’ systematic collapse. Those grand systems of thought that held our sense of reality together and gave forward direction to society and the individual: religion, history, political and social progress, science, art et al., that had been brought down under the weight of their own idealisation of humanity, ironically the very thing they were constructed to define. What Lyotard did not live long enough to see however, was how this process is indivisible from, if not actively generated by, the ‘shuffle’ effect I have outlined here. Its origins lie not in electronic media, nor even in technology, and not even in capitalism itself, but the unnameable terror too glibly known as evil that defines the logic of all of them. The Shuffle is an inevitable viral process that infects every level of social action, breaking down the perceived connections between things, destroying even the belief in cause and effect, and annihilating any sense that there is something truly better out there that might be striven for: an ideal state that can become at least partial reality.

Now there is only one effective meta-narrative left, and that is of the individual as consumer. And yet it is an empty one, as by its very nature, it holds no promise of ultimate fulfilment. Each act of consumption is rendered obsolete in the moment of its occurrence, and so the subject is left once again with a lack: despairingly hungering for a sense of wholeness that their very role forbids. The task for the contemporary subject, therefore, is to operate outside not only this meta-narrative, but all of them.

One should not despair at the breakdown of the nuclear family. It is in fact a courageous adaptation on the part of the masses. Seeing the notion of impermeable love as the fallacy it is, the ideal held out as the promised end of yet another dead meta-narrative, relationships are now embarked upon in the full knowledge of their likely end. This is a new type of love: a mutation, which binds people together temporarily, until it is no longer love, at which point it is abandoned. In a way, it is the purest type of love, untainted by any notion of what love ought to be. It is just itself, and only divisible by itself. And it this new love that may be the first sign that people are learning to fight back. The Shuffle may have destroyed all the meta-narratives that previously supplied meaning, but this love exists outside them, for its being and its meaning are as one.

For we love. And the love we have is love. It is love because we love. And it continues to be love until it ceases to be love, but that does not diminish the fact that it was once love. It carries its meaning always, even after all those who loved have abandoned it or passed. Even after it dies, love lives. It is ours forever. It cannot get lost in the Shuffle.

Furthermore, to return to my expansion of Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, that is to say, a site of alternate ordering, which I re-imagined as a means by which cultural phenomena may be analysed in terms of'

There was no more. Perhaps I would find more stored on the computer once I had accessed it, but I doubted it. That was it. His last written words, thrown away, rejected, but as close as he would get to a conclusion.

Like much of what the Professor wrote, I didn’t know quite what to make of his notion of the new kind of love that he perceived to be emerging. Maybe he had a point, but I wasn’t as sure as he was that it was a good thing. I tried to square it with the few facts of the Professor’s life that I had: the indecent exposure to the post-grad; the total lack of personal correspondence in his papers; the leaving of his entire estate to myself, a casual acquaintance, in lieu of a family or even a loved one. But none of it added up. The Professor was a mystery to me as much then as now.

After I had read it, I put the last piece of paper in one of the folders, which I then sealed in a box. It took me three trips to get all the boxes out to the car. Each time, I went out of the study, through the living room, which was unaccountably full of different makes of television sets, MP3 players, and laptops - none of them plugged in, most of them not even operational - past a whole table littered with mobile phones, out into the landing, down the steps, and into the now pouring rain. As I took down the last of the boxes, I pulled the door of the flat shut, and locked it. I thought I might have heard one of the phones ring as I got to the bottom of the stairs, but my hands were full and it was raining hard, and once I got to the car I didn’t want to go back. So I slammed the car boot shut, and drove off into the grey of the day.

Sometimes I wonder who could have been phoning, if indeed it was one of the Professor’s phones that I heard. All his academic colleagues would have known of his death, I am sure. Maybe it was a secret someone, who did not know him as the Professor: who just knew him as a friend, or lover. Maybe it was a wrong number. All the phones were dead by the time I returned to the flat, and I couldn’t for the life of me work out where he’d put the chargers in all that clutter. I suspect he threw them away upon purchase, an obscure strategy in his fight against the Shuffle (hence the sheer number), so my curiosity has, to this day, gone unsatisfied. And no doubt because of this, for some reason, I found myself thinking that maybe it was the Professor calling from beyond the grave, ringing to tell me that things had not turned out as they should. Perhaps he had found that death itself had been deprived of its meaning. For what if death, like life, was now caught in the Shuffle? What if there really was no escape?

My edit of the unfinished The Electric Sky Has Fallen, not including the discarded fragment of the conclusion, was finally published last year. Reviews were mixed but sales were good, much higher than could be expected for a text so unforgivably academic. The phrase to get ‘lost in the Shuffle’ entered common speech to mean, ‘having a bit of a confusing day’. More than that, a whole generation began to think about their surrounding environment in a new way. Electronic communications, personal technology, sun-beds even - thanks to the Professor’s bizarre chapter-long rant on their malignant psychic energy - were being radically questioned, although this had no noticeable effect on the actual consumption of these things.

Every so often now young people turn up at my door, wanting to talk about the Professor - his guru status very much posthumously restored. Invariably they ask me what they can do to fight the Shuffle. They use all the Professor’s buzzwords, and have clearly only absorbed the more sensational chapters, virtually ignoring the denser theoretical section that makes up the last third of the book. I’m sorely tempted to summarise the contents of that final fragment, of which only I have knowledge and moves me so deeply to this day, and tell them the Professor wanted them to love, to treasure it in all its forms, and that to feel it is to know of it’s unarguable, uncompromisable reality.

Of course, I cannot be sure that this is the answer to anything. To be honest, I’m not even sure I entirely believe there is a problem. In any case, the Professor himself ultimately rejected it, it seems. But I do know that a world in fear of the ‘shuffle effect’ could never see the beauty in something that simple -something so manifestly correct in its own way, regardless of any practical application - if it were presented to them. It would merely be seen as a sentimental solution, already drained of its meaning by the Shuffle before it had even passed my lips. No, if it is to have any power at all, these young warriors must discover it for themselves, in the little quiet moments when the battle does not preoccupy them, in the tiny spaces between thought where only feeling exists. I trust that they will.

In the meantime I say to them that I cannot help them; I am but the editor of the manuscript, and it’s up to them to find a solution now that the Professor’s gone. Then I give them one of the Professor’s old MP3 players and tell them to be careful in the traffic. And I send them on their way.

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