Photography: Dean Kuipers

Will Self

Writing On The Wall @ The Bluecoat 1/5/19

With a characteristic steely-eyed sense of threat and cool foreboding last put into practice against Mark Francois in a debate over Brexit, WILL SELF begins his Writing on the Wall Festival keynote speech at The Bluecoat with a word of warning: stay off your phone. A metaphoric theme he comes back to throughout the speech, but in the first instance, a direct instruction to the audience – and gently levelled towards one member of the WoW staff in particular who he spies using their device during the introduction.

The theme of this year’s festival, Where Are We Now?, will see him touch on many different aspects of his controversial and solidly uncompromising writings, and include no shortage of comedic asides, peppered with sneered, righteous attacks on those worthy of sneered and righteous attack, and a barbed didactic discourse to his refusal and rebuttal of the very idea of where we are and what we’ve become. But first, stay off your phone.

His speech is engaging and compelling unscripted, without notes, which in itself is notable in Self’s view for the fact that it could even happen at all given his years of marijuana use. Loosely based around the festival theme, this is an amble, a stroll through thoughts and ideas he finds important, distracting, dangerous, risible or just annoying: a glance through the window on his parallax and sometimes skewed view of our world and our time.

Where Are We Now? Self’s contention is that we have become so enthralled by our perception that technology is connecting us that we have begun to lose a sense of space, and that actually that connection is entirely false. When we are online, we’re not here as such, but “smeared through space and time”. We feel an impoverishment of a sense of place. It is anonymous bonds, rather than personal, which increasingly typify our society, and we suffer from, in his view, “an erroneous conviction that the world wide web is a map the same size as the territory it attempts to embody”.

He urges escape, a disconnection from what he refers to as the man-machine matrix. The crushing claustrophobia of our supposition of connection freeing us as humans as opposed to the suite of technologies we interact with actually serving merely to remove our autonomy, our sense of being “here, in the now”. Each journey we take involves an equation of time, distance and cost, and so it is no surprise we have little concept of being where we are, because the definition of that has been traduced to just getting from A to B in the quickest possible time. He uses resistance, and insubordination toward habitual influences. We need to actualise ourselves, our sense of being, and of space. To be here now, Self insists, we have to develop a parallax that isn’t just spatial, but is cultural, social, political, emotional. Place, he believes, is deeply resonant.

"We’re surrounded. The answer, he states, is to be quiet. Resist as much and whenever we can. Stay in bed. Switch off. Walk. Breathe"

Will Self has written both in long form and in articles for the London Review of Books, of walking, or more specifically of urban walking. Since he disengaged “with my pernicious practices” in the 1990s, Self identifies more and more with the practice of psychogeography, as defined by Guy Debord and the Situationists in Paris in the late 1950s. The idea, influenced by the earlier writings of Blake and De Quincey, of aimless urban wandering, as a methodology toward finding place within the environment, and a means of understanding the effect of our geographical environment on our emotions and behaviour. A means of finding our place, our space. Psychogeography is an act of resistance; a retreat from the demands of society by examining our own place within it. Society and our programming actually makes the practice of psychogeography difficult. We’re not conditioned to ‘do’ aimless, and Self struggles with that idea. Why, he asks. How can we know where we are now, without knowing that we have an understanding of the space we occupy in more than just the physical?

Where Are We Now? We’re trapped, Self believes, imprisoned by the GPS grid that determines our every interaction. Trapped in the delusion illusion of our supposed freedom, which we perceive is brought to us by inter-connected digital devices. We’re held within ourselves, losing an ability to create with thought. Our cities, our spaces insist on us being plugged into the man-machine matrix, at the risk of our exclusion. We’re surrounded. The answer, he states, is to be quiet. Resist as much and whenever we can. Stay in bed. Switch off. Walk. Breathe.

Nobody wants to be branded a Luddite, and Self insists that he isn’t. But he is recommending we make “the radical and autonomous decision to shut it off, to abandon the metric and to move through space and through time under your own volition or under random influences that will open you out to the world in another way… and re-engage with time instead of that permanent sense of the now which the web seems to equate to us… just be… quiet.”

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