From a remarkable sequence, shortly after the intermission, in Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927):


Apocryphal? Yes and no. There seems to have been such a character, but he only admitted to soaking the papers and throwing them into the Seine after-hours. But a 1908 biography of Josephine has this to say:

If there was the slightest evidence against an ex-noble, he or she was doomed, and among the Beauharnais papers, if not in Josephine’s personal correspondence, there can hardly fail to have been something which might be twisted so as to compromise her. According to a common story, Josephine was one of the people saved by the erratic humanitarian La Bussiere, who preserved a number of prisoners’ lives, destroying their dossiers by the simple method of chewing them up. Josephine herself appears to have believed this story, for she made a point of attending a benefit to La Bussiere at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre in 1803 and of contributing to a fund on his behalf.

Philip W. Sergeant, The Empress Josephine; Napoleon’s Enchantress. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1908.

For obvious reasons, our archives are conspicuously bereft of direct evidence touching upon the history of bibliophagy. The practice is nonetheless an ancient one, with a diversity of motivations: for an obscure Christian sect of uncertain provenance, it was a means of bodily union with the divine Word. See Eigil Zu Tage-Ravn on “the ecstasy of the scroll eaters.”

On the exciting occasion of the release of Alex Wright’s Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age I decided to post another vault piece. I didn’t write too much about Otlet, but it covers a lot of the same ground, if not with great competence.

The point of departure for the present paper was Clifford Lynch’s 2005 article in D-Lib Magazine, “Where Do We Go From Here? The Next Decade for Digital Libraries.” I was inspired by the broad parameters Lynch gave to the field, and the theoretical possibilities such a vision opens up. The field, as practiced today, is overwhelmingly defined in an ex post facto manner, from a survey of existing collections, technologies, and administrative priorities. The relatively limited number of practicable options we have before us at the given moment bound the parameters of discussion; these options are implicitly assumed as given.

Computer science is not generally a discipline, like those in literature and the arts, which busies itself with excavating the past to take up possibilities previous generations had discarded. But I believe the perpetual storm of digital innovation masks an underlying inertia and even amnesia; certainly it encourages speculation on the future to proceed entirely from extrapolation of the present. Perhaps a reassessment of early theoretical computer science, in this case digital library science, will allow for more radical futurological speculation than the current milieu, mired in what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences,” may permit.[1]

            I became interested in the prehistory of the present moment: the series of intellectual leaps that made conceiving a digital library possible, and, perhaps more interestingly, the speculations that have been discarded, or forgotten in the flow of technological advances that are often naively assumed to have been inevitable. I am interested, then, in the murky period where the “digital library” existed only as thought experiment in the minds (and writings) of some of the twentieth century’s most visionary theorists of communication and information.

            Clifford Lynch opens his piece thusly: “The field of digital libraries has always been poorly-defined, a ‘discipline’ of amorphous borders and crossroads, but also of atavistic resonance and unreasonable inspiration.” This amorphousness, rightly or wrongly, is often assumed to be a barrier and a nuisance, and to the extent that it produces redundancies, inefficiencies, and failures of interoperability, it is. But in a way, it is highly auspicious that the field remains subject to “atavistic resonances” and “unreasonable inspiration;” that is, it still has an essentially vitality, a basic radicalism. The atavistic resonances – the echoes of the work of theorists like Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and J.C.R. Licklider – can, however, be faint. My intention is to amplify some of these fading tones by paying close attention to these ideas of the past, in order to suggest, if obliquely, the range of possibilities for the future.

            Though the present paper deals only with the twentieth century, a bolder path could in fact be taken. Literary speculation on access to the totality of knowledge is ancient; the earliest digital library is, perhaps, the mind of God. The encyclopédistes of the French Enlightenment were among the first to perceive knowledge as a totality, and one that can theoretically be collected and organized as such. The Faust myth provides another precedent: finding the existing store of literature insufficient to his ambitions, Faust bargains with the devil for unlimited knowledge. Even in the twentieth century, utopian and millenarian undertones – Lynch’s “unreasonable ambition” – are audible in the discourse of the future-library, as people look into the future and see fulfilled some of the grandest, and hitherto most unreasonable, desires of humankind.

            The earliest thinkers on the pre-historical timeline Lynch briefly outlines are H.G. Wells and Paul Otlet. Wells, who of course is better known for his science fiction, was also a passionate advocate for the democratization of knowledge, and for the use of modern technology to organize that knowledge in hitherto inconceivable ways. He called his idea the “world brain,” explaining that:

[b]oth the assembling and the distribution of knowledge in the world at present are extremely ineffective, and thinkers of the forward-looking type whose ideas we are now considering, are beginning to realize that the most hopeful line for the development of our racial intelligence lies rather in the direction of creating a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing and release of knowledge, than in any further tinkering with the highly conservative and resistant university system, local, national and traditional in texture, which already exists. These innovators, who may be dreamers today, but who hope to become very active organizers tomorrow, project a unified, if not a centralized, world organ to ‘pull the mind of the world together’, which will be not so much a rival to the universities, as a supplementary and co-ordinating addition to their educational activities – on a planetary scale. (Wells 1937)

For my purposes, it is extremely interesting that it was a science fiction writer who first speculated upon the basic architecture of modern library and information technology in the previous century. Later speculations are alternately more prescient and more bizarre in that they anchor their vision to specific arrays of technology.

            Another crucial milestone was Vannevar Bush’s 1945 paper in the Atlantic Monthly, “As We May Think.” Though the ideas had been germinating for over a decade, and had been discussed in a 1939 piece for Fortune, this article was their first proper introduction to the general public (Waldrop 27). Bush’s article was written as the Second World War was winding down, and the scientific community – so integral to the war effort – was thinking about its way forward in peacetime. It was clear that the “mass of research” was accumulating faster than our ability to process, interpret, or even store. The situation struck Bush as not only unfortunate but absurd: “The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

            Bush looked to the “new and powerful instrumentalities” of the mid-twentieth century to overcome this impasse. To us, the technologies he describes seem almost comically antiquated; M. Mitchell Waldrop, in his study of the early history of the personal computer, remarks that “his desk library was still very much an analog device, grounded in the microfilm and photocell technologies of the 1930s.” His speculations on what could be done with these technologies, however, was revolutionary. His “memex” was to be a device, usable by non-experts, which would not only rapidly speed up by research by condensing the bulk of research into one easily workable device, but which would actually improve our “processes of thought.” ­­

It would do so by making the organization of knowledge mimic the associative networks of the human mind. “With one item in its grasp,” Bush explains, “[the human mind] snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.” Likewise, on the memex, “when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button…It is exactly as though the physical item had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book.” The “trails” thus formed could then be copied and transmitted. Today, we know such documents as hypertext.

Bush’s breakthrough was to conceive of a deterritorialized library, one that, more radically still, was not organized as a hierarchy but what the French theorist Gilles Deleuze would call a rhizome. This entirely new architecture of information is now familiar, but can still be pursued to more radical ends, as people in the worlds of linked data and the semantic web are currently doing. Theorists at the cutting edge of information technology might be willing to disagree with Bush’s assertion that “for mature thought there is no mechanical substitute.”

            There is another concept buried in Bush’s essay that is pertinent to the present moment. He was concerned not only with the storing and networking information, but in the future of knowledge production. This would be done by a union of the vocoder and the stenotype machine – themselves still new technologies when the essay was written – to process speech into text, a technology that in 2010 is still fledgling. The idea of using the “memex” to actually produce knowledge makes it more like a computer than a mere microfilm reader; his idea is an ancestor of the contemporary notion of “born digital” material. And his phrase “the original copy,” be it an unfortunate malapropism or a daring solecism, is prescient: he can conceive of information as always-already a copy of itself, a notion which began with the printing press but has hypertrophied in the “information age.”

            Another man, J.C.R. Licklider, took Bush’s ideas even further. Licklider was a man of immense talents, with important contributions to psychology, psycho-acoustics, computer science, and other fields. According to the subtitle of M. Mitchell Waldrop’s biography of him, he also presided over “the revolution that made computing personal.” His only book – written on commission from the Council on Library Resources – was a fairly slim volume called Libraries of the Future, which for Clifford Lynch marks “one of the transition points between pre-history and the actual history of digital libraries.” M. Mitchell Waldrop calls it “one of the founding documents of what is now called digital library research” (Waldrop 185).

It is difficult to appreciate the foresight of Licklider’s imaginary computer network, as we have become so deeply accustomed to the existing Internet that it takes some imagination to consider any other way of networking, publishing and transmitting information electronically. (Lynch reminds us that “very substantial digital library systems were developed prior to the World Wide Web.”) Even if the specifics of his model are often no longer relevant, his project is worth studying precisely because the horizon of his imagination is not constrained by an existing precedent. Written in that brief epoch where the future dominance of the computer over all spheres of life could be predicted but only dimly imagined, it is able to imagine the eclipse of the book and the traditional library but is able only to speculate on the future by extrapolating from technological trends and potentialities. It indeed holds a unique, transitional, position in the history of library science.

Though his model of “the computer” was a bulky, punch card operated machine (a set-up he would later help abolish), Licklider rightly predicted that within a few decades the storage and processing capacities of computers would grow exponentially:

Thus in the present century, we may be technically capable of processing the entire body of knowledge in almost any way we can describe; possibly in ten years and probably within twenty, we shall be able to command machines to ‘mull over’ separate subfields of the corpus and organize them for our use… (Licklider 7)

This reads much like Bush, as does his “neurophysiological” approach to organization:

…complex arrangements of neuronal elements and processes accept diverse stimuli, including spoken and printed sentences, and somehow process and store them in ways that support inferences and the answering of questions… (Licklider 24)

The final clause contains hints that Licklider’s thought differs substantially from Bush’s. Licklider was, above all, a theorist of “human-machine symbiosis” (Waldrop 4). For him, the neural metaphor did not describe only a particular kind of information architecture, but a direct analogy with the process of thought itself. He imagined documents doing something akin to reading themselves (Licklider 6). This will sound familiar to people who have heard of Linked Data, or Tim Berners-Lee’s idea of the Semantic Web, where all information on the web is encoded with rich layers of universally-readable metadata, making the internet a true “web” of semantically meaningful information rather than inert text and files requiring laborious processing by human beings. Likewise, Licklider’s network would be capable of “detecting apparent duplications and complementations in related fields, and noting similarities of form or structure in models or other information structures employed in substantively different areas.” This functionality is also present in Bush’s memex, but here, the process happens automatically.

Licklider envisions information being organized in an entirely new way. Early on, he offers a radical critique of the book, one that still has a charge, since even in 2010 we struggle to suppress our naïve fixation with it. The fixation extends beyond the simple nostalgia for the printed page in an era of e-readers and online magazines, to the way digital libraries conceive of information. Licklider asks us to forget the “schema” of a library based on “books on shelves,” and laments the “passiveness of the printed page” (Licklider 4ff).

Forty-five years later, most digital libraries still use the individual text as the basic unit, with the discrete file or package of files replacing the page or the binding of a book. We have not attempted to actively critique the dominant taxonomy of the archive, which organizes texts, considered as wholes, by their “authors.”[2] Licklider understands that with computers, we have the power to transcend this humanist paradigm and develop entirely novel methods of organizing and interpreting information at much more granular levels. In other words, we can catalog not just books but knowledge itself.

            In some ways, this is hopelessly utopian, and immediately invites serious challenges. What is the basic unit of knowledge? Licklider suggests the “idea,” conceding that this is a “discouragingly nebulous” term. If the idea is an algorithm, this is perfectly reasonable, but his ambitions are much greater. He wants to, somehow, distill the ideas inside a text from the “words and sentences themselves,” something that I, coming from a literature background, find entirely absurd. But I concede that simple declarative sentences, at least, can be partitioned into component parts, and approached heuristically in ways that minimize ambiguity. Licklider takes the idea, presumably from Noam Chomsky, a colleague at MIT, that languages can be generated from a simple system of rules. Licklider intends to reverse engineer this, condensing natural prose into something he calls “unambiguous English”: an oxymoron if ever there was one. This is something like lossy compression on the level of language.

            Though I feel that these problems should not be ignored, I admit that Licklider is perfectly aware of them:

…on the other hand, no one seems likely to design or invent a formal system capable of automating sophisticated language behavior. The best approach, therefore, seems to us to be somewhere between the extremes – to call for a formal base plus an overlay of experience gained in interaction with the cooperative verbal community.

These pragmatic tradeoffs are endemic to computer science as a discipline, and the fact that he seems to anticipate the rise of wiki systems and crowdsourcing in his last comment is remarkable.

            His book contains another dichotomy worth talking about, that between “syntactic” and “semantic” understanding. His misgivings about the latter have been shown. But what if syntactic analysis could itself yield meaningful results? Can data mining be complimented by concept mining?

In a talk the literary critic Peter de Bolla gave in New York several years ago, he discussed the evolution of the concept of human rights in the Eighteenth Century based entirely on an ingenious, automated trek through Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), a principal online database for scholars of the eighteenth century. De Bolla did searches for words occurring in proximity, whether in the same sentence, clause, or within the distance of a certain amount of words. For instance, he compared the frequency, decade by decade, with which the word “rights” appears in proximity to “personal,” as opposed to “property.” Over the course of his talk, this kind of archival researching seemed more and more convincing, if incomplete. The audience, mostly students and faculty accustomed to belaboring over single words and the fine details of individual sentences, responded with a mixture of horror and fascination.

            Another profound consequence of Licklider’s paradigm would be to undermine the distinction between “library” and “nature” research, by forming a collection in which both are a kind of “acquisition.” This would be as close to a total compendium of knowledge as I am capable of conceiving. By eliminating a distinction between the “lab” and the “library,” Licklider’s habit of speaking of the “store of knowledge,” “the corpus,” rather than “the store of books” would be justified. His vision is universal; most digital libraries are specialist. Even the grandest projects, like Google Books, retain the book, the printed page, simply in a different presentation. Licklider’s model is more like the Internet than a delineated archive; “perhaps it will be best to call it simply a ‘network,’” he says. This was hardly dead metaphor at the time of writing, as it is now: the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of the term in this sense is from 1962, while Licklider’s research for this study took place between 1961 and 63. Certain universities are requiring their researchers to submit and store raw data, but as of yet nothing like what Licklider has proposed has, or could, be realized. The current publishing models are simply too entrenched. But I do not think this requires us to stop being “unreasonably inspired,” in Lynch’s phrase.

There is much in Licklider’s book that does not differ in any meaningful sense from science fiction, in that its technologies are purely hypothetical. General knowledge of computing at the time was so remedial that he needed to provide a footnote when he used the word “software,” for instance – even for a quite advanced audience. As in much science fiction, those predictions which have come to pass seem uncanny in their apparently prophetic brilliance, while those that haven’t seem even more risibly absurd and far-fetched that they must have to their original audiences (e.g., in an example on retrieving paper copies of digital documents: “Unfortunately, my office is not located near a pneumatic-tube station”). This reaction is due in part to our instinctively teleological view of history, which maintains that events unfold in a manner that is deterministic if unpredictable.

From this perspective, theory and speculation exist as spectators, as gamblers at the craps table of history. In fact, developments in technology and elsewhere are shaped profoundly by the intellectual milieu in which they arise. The visions of Licklider et al are thus partially constitutive of later trends in information technology, and this is why a critical understanding of the theory of digital libraries extends back before their actual emergence. And only by walking the road back, and examining paths not taken, can we understand the full scope of what lay ahead of us.

Works Cited

Bush, Vannever. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly.July 1945: 101-108.  Retrieved from <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/as-we-may-think/3881/>.

Licklider, J.C.R. Libraries of the Future. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1965.

Lynch, Clifford. “Where Do We Go From Here? The Next Decade for Digital Libraries.” D-Lib Magazine. July/August 2005.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal. New York: Viking, 2001.

Wells, H.G. “World Brain:
 The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.” <https://sherlock.ischool.berkeley.edu/wells/world_brain.html&gt;.


Many thanks to Clifford Lynch for helping direct me via e-mail to some of these and other resources in the early stages of this project.


[1] I refer here to the incessant arguments concerning, for example, metadata standards, file formats, et cetera, which continue to bedevil digital librarians. These are far from unimportant, but here, as the cliché goes, I am more concerned with the forest than with the trees.

[2] Cf. Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”

The notes that became this essay were written in 2008, while I was studying in London and restlessly enjoying the latter days of dubstep before it splintered into the million pieces critics lazily conflate with the term “post-dubstep.” Years later, and with so much superior writing on the still very-much-essential Burial, this is something of a throw-away vault piece. Yet, with the popularity of what Americans insist on calling “dubstep,” for better or worse, still in evidence, I thought this down-to-basics relic might be of some interest. I’m not uploading the tunes that form the soundtrack, because I’ve already gotten enough warnings for doing that sort of thing here. (The eclectic formatting is intentional but didn’t transfer to the web that well; I’ll fix it some day.)



/dubstep and urban resonance



This music manages to haunt so many versions of myself : as frightened and lonely in the dark, as wide-eyed and caffeinated, thumbing through philosophy texts, as ponderous bassist, as wounded night-wanderer, as blissed out weekender…it will not leave me alone, and I have not left it alone. To approach it here I’ve tried to craft a schizoid concept album, style variations as suitable to context. There are lingering ideas and fragments that may drift off like Burial’s “embers.” I have rifled through texts opportunistically for samples, like a DJ in a box of used vinyl. I’ve attempted to fill the text with both echo space and 2-steppy paranoia. A running soundtrack elucidates the text (and vice versa, hopefully).

I have focused largely, perhaps excessively, on Hyperdub, namely Kode9 and Burial – who are mostly referred to as such, not as Steve Goodman and William Bevan. It is by now a cliché to remark, if you like him or not, that Burial is sui generis, not part of the dubstep mainstream. My assumption is that if Burial is “oneiric dance music” like k-punk has suggestedi, an analysis of his music, which I see as a trek into the unconscious of dubstep, a blowing up of its otherwise repressed affective tendencies, will be a way of understanding broader musical paradigms – which need not be limited to any particular generic taxon.

may 2009



An aerial view of South London at night, around Wandsworth Prison. “Burial’s parallel dimension sounds set in a near future South London underwater. You can never tell if the crackle is the burning static off pirate radio transmissions, or the tropical downpour of the submerged city outside the window.”ii





If grime is the voice of angry urban London, dubstep is its primary echo, the sound of dread bass reflecting off decaying walls. To feel it, leave the sterile cleanliness of London’s centre. Follow the carrier wave as it heads for the margins, travelling south through Elephant & Castle, via Norwood and Thornton Heath to Croydon: the home of dubstep.iii

This thing we call dubstep of course comes out of Croydon, more specifically a little record store on Surrey St, in the shadow of the Croydon flyover.1

In the deepest recesses of south London, so deep in fact that it’s not really London anymore, lies a much maligned urban sprawl. Croydon…”iv

Nearest tube station something like five miles away. It is beyond the London postcode system, grime’s territorial shorthand.


Dubstep audaciously realigned the sound of the post-garage ‘nuum to South London: marginal, despised, other than London. Certainly other than East London (Plastic People’s location in Shoreditch notwithstanding). The more obvious acoustic-geographic comparisons are the dead ghosted cities of post-punk – not grime’s inner city decay, spaces like styles imported from New York. Melancholy over madness. The bleak sagging greyscapes of films like Nil by Mouth, incidentally Burial’s favorite London movie. “A geography passing beyond the natural to become metaphysical, only describable in terms of music or abstract physics…”v

Croydon has got the JG Ballard vibes about it. It’s a Ballard area. I imagine Croydon is Shepperton in the south. You’ve got some connections with Ballard haven’t you? Yeah, I mean you know Croydon better than I do, but Croydon seems a bit grimey for Ballard. The Ballard thing is about the suburbs. The future of the city is not urban, it’s suburban and Croydon itself has got loads of suburbs.

But it’s not a hub because there’s nothing there. Is that what’s crucial about Croydon? That there’s nothing…vi

Nothing. Built-in, modernist nothing, a suburb with its own suburbs, a black hole. Disappeared.

…dubstep (and again Burial specifically) is very much about built-up areas, urban space, places that should be bustling with life…. but are now uncannily, eerily empty. Either that, or just lonely-making. Dubstep is desolationist.vii

A melancholy non-place like the one Antonioni depicts in the closing sequence to L’Eclisse – the leading example of what could be called the New Town Symphony. (My only regret is the heavy-handed piano over the closing shot: the quiet buzz of the streetlight would have been much more apropos.) The uneasy flicker and hum of the desolate night, night buses and distant lights, Stevenson’s low growl of London all around – only this time it is the sound of electricity and burning petrol.

“Margins are so key. When has there ever been a good record from central London? Streatham, Bow, Romford, Croydon, Newham, Thornton Heath … it’s all margin music.”viii


Those who have recorded their impressions of coming into London by the railway from the South, have remarked upon the apparently endless vista of red and brown roofs, dead walls, and little streets which flashed by. The prospect has been compared to that of a sea, or a desert…ix

It’s already under water. These are already the last days.


Only her voice and bones are left; at last

only her voice, her bones are turned to stone.

So in the woods she hides and hills around,

For all to hear, alive, but just a sound.

-Ovid, Metamorphoses, III.399-341 [Narcissus and Echo]

There is a self-effacing dread in echo: Kerans hearing his name boom off of dead clock towers in The Drowned World (p. 61). Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves:


Echo appears to originate from the locale. It is a kind of haunting, a present perpetually submerged in the immediate past. The soundscape is thick with accretions, not far removed from the world of J.G. Ballard’s The Sound-Sweep, Kode9’s favorite work by the author along with The Drowned World.x Here sound sticks to space and needs to be swept away, exorcised. Music itself has become “hypersonic,” inaudible, only experienced at some unconscious level.

Stimulate the audio nerve directly.


At present our cities are hypersonic as well. Electronic signals beyond the range of human hearing, low-frequency engine roars, overhead flight patterns. A matrix of accidental sounds. Desolate cities as cisterns: reverb machines. Desolation is the prerequisite to echo – a desolation that gets internalized as we are possessed by the ghost of dead sounds, abject sounds that could once have been ours. Isolation, understood simultaneously as social disintegration and lovesick heartache. Echo in tears, Narcissus kissing the water. [BBC: Life in UK “has become lonelier.”xi]

Its use of delay perfectly suited to reflect urban decay…xii

The echoed voice is suddenly inhuman – thrown back at us, more alien with each reiteration. Speech into sound, a withering of signification. The echoed voice is fragmented, denied a posture of logocentric presence. We are dispossessed of it. It now belongs to space, the medium becomes the message.


The voice can be lost in other ways: in deafening thoroughfares, in the rain, in clubs. Or if one has no occasion to speak, as would be the norm in places with built-in reverb. And so plenty if not most dub dispenses with the voice entirely. But the dis-placed human voice lurks as a trace in the underworld of these musics, conspicuous by its absence.


The Spaceape returns as a hostile alien, his voice “immune from dying” in a world of echo. He is uncanny and surreal, his voice itself like a wonky bass pulse. Linton Kwesi Johnson for the [post]-rave generation. England is still a bitch.

Interestingly more than one reviewer objected to the Spaceape track on the first Burial LP, a version of “Victims” but on a record less comfortable with this kind of voice. Pitchfork: “the album’s only genuinely unlikeable moment.”xiii Marcello Carlin on the blog Church of Me: “an intrusive nuisance”xiv That is: hostile, alien. The pounding, militant voice of the subaltern suddenly breaking through the surface of this drowned world is too much for some to bear, evidently.

The “vast, empty and deeply emotional” world of Burial, the haunting desolation of things like “Forgive” with its incoherent voices lost in the rain, becomes paradoxically euphoric: an opiate. Ballardian again, in its embrace of disintegration: Vaughn in a speeding car, Kerans marching toward the equator.


But that state of opiated bliss, of an ecstatic return to the womb, was never possible; despite all of this vastness, there is the inescapable epileptic percussion. Dubstep’s breakbeats maintain a state of paranoia, unease. It creates a claustrophobia; movement forwards entails movement backwards.


There is neither the euphoric rush forward of 4/4 House or the propulsive embrace of desolate cityscapes one finds in krautrock, the motorik beat speeding us down the autobahn. Those motorways are sources of anxiety; we – or at least I – often hear the sound of passing cars somewhere in the background of Burial’s tracks, but it is warped, distant, anxious. This jerkiness is what k-punk calls “2-step’s anorgasmic anticipation-plateau;” he interprets this positively, in kind of a Delueze/Guattari mille plateaux sense, in order to argue that Burial is doing something opposed, but it seems to me that this music is in fact haunted and disturbed by its anorgasmia.xv

Perhaps this is because we are not talking about consummation at all, but disintegration and devolution interpreted positively. Back to Ballard, and back to opium. The Drowned World postulates a future in which the death drive of Beyond the Pleasure Principle becomes semi-conscious, and with enthusiasm its characters suicidally rush toward “forgotten paradises,” the painless serenity of inorganic matter. The aqueous aesthetic of immersion displayed in both Ballard’s novel and in dubstep also recalls the “oceanic feeling” of Civilization and its Discontents, the ecstatic sense of ego-dissolution that for Freud is the essence of religious passion, a stand-in for a return to the womb, another kind of devolution.

This is also the logic of opiate literature, a sub-genre that was integral to the psychic landscape of 19th century London and which has left traces in the way certain zones are understood (e.g., Limehouse).


We’re in Wilehouse…it used to be called Limehouse, but since things are so wild around here, it just had to be called Wilehouse. Wildness within, a “dark east” that replicates that darker East. Opiated Celestials haunting the back streets of the East End, or more importantly, the back pages of West End penny newspapers.

Beyond these psychogeographical concerns, part of the inescapable legacy of London, the aesthetic of opium provides a way to understand the latent, ultimately thwarted, desires in this music. Meconium has a song called “No Heroin No Dubstep”: not literally true, of course, but on a metaphorical level it seems perfectly obvious.

It is not for nothing that Burial has a track called Endorphin, featuring a grotesquely echoed voice spilling out into the night in the flicker of “all those flashing lights,” with a moaning voice of pain and desire fading in and out over a sea of bass…

The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time…xvi


The whole movement of this imagery was inwards and downwards. [Coleridge’s] symbol for the exploration of human personality was always that of a shaft leading down to a huge dark space. In terms of psychoanalysis such dream images are explicable as equivalents of infantile and sexual experiences…xvii

Inwards and downwards: precisely the movement of Burial’s music. Even the name suggests a latent desire for interment. But the jerky anxiety of the drums prevents, ultimately, the capaciousness and expansiveness of the bass & atmospherics from gesturing toward spaces like the sea or vast expanses of ice. This is not “arctic ambient,” these are not whale songs. This sonic space is anxious, striated, vast but tenuous, ephemeral and uncanny. Which is to say essentially urban. There is no “oceanic feeling” here. The return to the womb – like the orgasm – is deferred; we are forced to keep on dancing2, or keep on walking home. The drug analogue for this is not the nothingness of heroin, but caffeine spasms, amphetamine crashes – weary comedowns.



It was sometime after 3 when I left the real world. I don’t know how it happened – I was behind one of the speaker walls, probably prowling for drugs or girls as drunk as I was to kiss in some corner against a wall throbbing with terrifying bass rhythms – a ludicrous fantasy born out of loneliness. There was no girl, but the last thing I remember was chatting, as far as was possible over the noise, with a few West Indian guys. I didn’t give them any money, I know, because I didn’t have any – I had sneaked in to avoid the 12 quid entry fee, because some shit Barclay’s machine across from the Brixton tube station ate my debit card. I didn’t eat for three days after until I could get a new card mailed from the States, but let’s get back behind the speakers…as far as I remember, Kode9 had just come on. I was still shaking off the bottle of Tesco gin I drank before I left – to beat the exchange rate, you had to nearly black out before you left on brand X liquor, and maybe buy one 15 dollar cocktail to keep you leveled at the club if absolutely necessary. This night might well have been, seriously, the historic low point of the US-UK exchange rate, something like 48 pence on the dollar. Being sober at such events as far as I’m concerned is out of the question, because I end up experiencing it primarily as a music critic rather than as a body in space and time…a character flaw, to be sure, but there is something to be said for alcoholic phenomenology. Music is deeper, delay becomes more pronounced. You mimic the music’s submersion and torpor along with its euphoria. The effects in these regards are not unlike the way opium was discussed above…and one of DeQuincey’s principle “pleasures of opium” was going to the Opera. He was the original raver.

In any case I tend to think somebody put something in my drink although I cannot justify this. This all, of course, is very fuzzy. But I do not remember smoking anything, or taking any pill. I’d probably been a perpetrator of more crimes than I could prove to be a victim of, including the classic fake oyster swipe on the back of a bendy-bus on the way down there…but next thing I knew my first girlfriend from when I was about fifteen was relentlessly mocking me, passionately kissing someone who I despised, as a crowd gathered around to laugh at me nearly until their insides fell out. I panicked and fled across the dance floor, remembering the music only as nightmarishly oppressive…I scrambled through the stairways, admittedly confusing when I entered hours earlier, but now Piranesian and impossible to navigate. Miles high. I seem to remember something of a scene in the coat check room which I felt was about 30 stories up the spiral staircase as I got my bag back and sprinted out into the 4am night, to be desperately lost in South London until well after dawn…

And I had nearly been driven insane by Steve Goodman.

[Only the next afternoon when I woke up seeing kaleidoscope patterns, soberly reflecting on the night and my knowledge of drug reactions, did I realize that I had probably taken acid, somehow.]


Out on the streets, slightly less mad, I found myself living out a Burial tune while listening to Untrue, one of three of four CDs I had with me in London. This is Burial’s domain: after the club, that music simmering, half-remembered. In the dead of night, the point of superlative desolation. These are techno-nocturnes.

The slightest sound is reverberated between the lofty walls of houses, and the echoes of our own footsteps, as we plod quietly along, return to us from the other side of the way, as though some invisible companion dogged our march and mimicked every movement we make.xviii

Not the night, though, of Benga and Coki’s “Night,” paean to night’s licensing of unrepressed energy flows. This is the night after that night. The music deterritorialized, as memory or mp3. To purists this music does not exist.

It’s more about when you come back from being out somewhere; in a minicab or a night bus, or with someone, or walking home across London late at night, dreamlike, and you’ve still got the music kind of echoing in you, in your bloodstream, but with real life trying to get in the way. I want it to be like a little sanctuary. It’s like that 24-hour stand selling tea on a rainy night, glowing in the dark. It’s pretty simple.xix


The next morning my CD player was paused on the middle of the second half of “Shell of Light,” by chance or not the most heartbreaking moment on the album, and who knows how many times I listened to Untrue record that night, or where I went. I have discrete memories of various places in London that could have happened at any point, given the amount I drank and the amount of wandering I did (a brand of lunatic gonzo tourism, ecstatic, aestheticized hedonism: not a gemlike flame but a bonfire, a March to the Sea. The folly of youth.) I have a memory of trying to hail a cab back to King’s Cross from South London and being told it would cost fifty quid, when I realized I had about 20p on me – that could well have been that night. God, I walked up whatever fucking road that was for two hours, nearly crying, utterly lost in the least romantic sense of the term (I enjoy getting lost, enjoy reckless exploration, but also know the utter dread that one risks…)

I’m dying to see densely packed apartment blocks, people on the streets, something to suggest I wasn’t in the middle of nowhere…. Open space became utterly anathema, I wanted 200 story buildings, I wanted to be back in Manhattan. To be surrounded by water. Outer London can feel like a gigantic circular Queens. And those fucking, yellow and white light-up little plastic things on traffic islands they have in the UK – they are the most melancholy objects on the planet to me. I remember them solely through despondent noctambulations – invisible usually, but otherwise promises that you are coming near somewhere remotely centrally located – usually a hopeless promise. Two roads to nowhere coming to a fork. They were all over the outskirts of Bath, on the loneliest night of my life when I was coming off E and copious amounts of alcohol on the outskirts of a city I didn’t know the inskirts of…so inevitably slept in a field in terrible cold. I don’t think I ever went to the Abbey.



Part of the euphoria of rave was in its reclamation of derelict urban space, or rather, posthumous, marginal, exurban or ex-urban spaces:warehouses, garages3, aircraft hangars…

It wasn’t a barn. It was an aircraft hangar. The only time you see anything like it is in those ‘Old Testament’ films with a cast of thousands. All too much to be real. So many people dancing.xx

The accoutrements of a Ballard novel. A very Thatcherite, suburban dystopia unexpectedly carnivalized. Rave was the bacchanaliazation of post-war urban planning nightmares; the M25, erstwhile a strange loop to nowhere or to itself, a quarantine fence at best, lent its name to Orbital’s ecstatic project. The city had been abandoned to a future without cities, but now this liminal spaces licensed the collective realization of displaced fantasties. The Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker becomes the Temporary Autonomous Zone of Hakim Bey.

Enter the 1990s. This story has been told. By 2008, I’m on line at Ministry of Sound, waiting to be sucked through airport-style metal detectors. [codified nightlife, Dionysus now with a SECURITY tee and a walkie talkie]. These things set off strange associations…the twin bomb plots of 2007, Tiger Tiger and Glasgow International Airport being exchangeable targets. The latter coming second, almost a cop out. Drunkenness is the principle growth market in the advanced capitalist cities, their raison d’etre. Tiger Tiger is more obvious than the City, a placeless place filled with distant people from bedroom towns, the affluent homeless.

As the whiteshirted flashlighters stomp about this machine, I also wonder what a skreamix of Music for Airports would sound like…more site-appropriate, to be sure.

Most of these performers are not all that much older than me. They have inherited the same nostalgia.

But I also love the euphoric stuff that’s in UK tunes too. I feel like it was stolen from us…I’m too young to have ever gone to a warehouse rave, but I want to show the ravers that someone is still holding a light for that old sound…that the signal is still out there.xxi


The thing about holding a light is that it could only be necessitated by a distressing darkness. Much of this darkness is simply the persistence of the bleak cityscape that rave temporarily transformed.

I live next to a prison so that’s half of the view from my room, the other half is prison land. I think where gallows used to be but I dunno, doubt it. The rest is a fucking massive dual carriage way all the way from Streatham down towards the Thames. You can see for miles all the way to the river, past the river and when it’s foggy like it was today, it’s a mad view.xxii

This partially explains the sense of bittersweet longing toward these spaces. An overwhelmingly negative relationship to dead cities gives you dystopian cyberpunk, gives you industrial post-punk, things like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten.


Those visions are here too, but are always in tense relationship with a nostalgia that softens them.

Burial is an elegy for the hardcore continuum, a Memories from the Haunted Ballroom for the rave generation. It is like walking into the abadoned spaces once carnivalized by raves and finding them returned to depopulated dereliction. Muted air horns flare like the ghosts of raves past. Broken glass cracks underfoot. MDMA flashbacks bring London to unlife in the way that hallucinogens brought demons crawling out of the subways in Jacob’s Ladder’s New York. Audio hallucinations transform the city’s rhythms into inorganic beings, more dejected than malign. You see faces in the clouds and hear voices in the crackle. What you momentarily thought was muffled bass turns out only to be the rumbling of tube trains.xxiii


There is a lot of overlap between Burial and Joy Division, though, with Martin Hannett’s echo production techniques evoking the dreary landscape of post-industrial Manchester – an environment even Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who have hopelessly tried to argue against miserablist readings of the band’s music, admit inspired their playing. A song like Shadowplay is firmly in Hyperdub territory, the 1978 Granada TV bit even interlaced with lonesome highways in negative.


the center of the city at night. the depths of the ocean. waiting for you. the assassins grouped in four lines.


Croydon Flyover (Eric Hands, 200?)xxiv: A photograph that should be sent back in time to the inbox of a young Peter Saville

But Joy Division could look back only to a city that could offer them, at best, better employment opportunities. Maybe Northern Soul. Madchester was beyond the realm of possibility in the 1970s. There is nothing redeeming in the city of Shadowplay. Burial by contrast is looking back on that other desolate city as a site of (lost) possibility, and because of this nostalgia is far more elegaic than Joy Division, who have nothing comparable to mourn. Appropriately, the Ballard reference of choice for them is The Atrocity Exhibition, rather than The Drowned World.

Still pursuing the path that’s been buried for years,

All the dead wood from jungles and cities on fire,
Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair,

Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be…


…a city paralysing itself in fear of blackened steel, perpetually on the point of total detonation.xxv

The nostalgia can turn sour as well, and many of these songs are simply ominous. The death drive displaced onto the city surfaces and reabsorbed as echo. The city about to be drowned, not by degrees but by catastrophe, a sudden critical mass.

Kode9 at least is obsessed with a kind of technofuturism. The cyberpunk aesthetic is a touchstone here. Goodman’s work is infused with the dread of future-war, the most dramatic manifestation of dubstep’s characteristic paranoia.

1. The angular momentum of breakbeat culture provides a sonic simulation of hyperurban meltdown. Not an analogy but a cartographic isomorphism opening sonic production onto a war continuum which deposits localised chaosmosis on every scale. ‘Jungle’s basic problem’- how to sustain rhythmic asymmetry, nurture the swerve, sustain the turbulence- ‘what degree of stratification is required to get distributed?’xxvi

His CCRU texts are riddled with militarized language, an uneasiness with the silent complacent posthumous city that goes beyond either desolation or longing, toward a fear of imminent doom…

2. Machinic night-vision reports from the dark side of the Occident, mapping the interlock of desiring machines, social megamachines and war machines as technology converges with biology in computerised control societies.

3. Planetary capital flow redistributes bringing novel mutations along the axes of East-West and North-South. “The more the world-wide axiomatic installs high industry and the highly industrialised agriculture at the periphery, provisionally reserving for the center so-called post-industrial activities (automation, electronics, information technologies, the conquest of space, overarmourment etc.), the more it installs peripheral zones of underdevelopment inside the center, internal Third Worlds, internal Souths.’xxvii

He gestures toward a sonic archeology of the invisible, a fractal “turbulence” that flows in undercurrents through the unconscious of a late capital-ist London and and its cryptic marginalia [Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi. Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.],“internal Souths” of social marginalization and sonic ferment.

Burial’s drums are literally weapons: scratching knives, videogame samples of machine gun shells hitting the ground, lighters igniting. Atmospherics for a militarized London post 7/7.

2005 – the only thing I remember properly was at 9am on the 7th of July. I was walking across London crossing from south into central London. I usually get Northern Line but had to go a different way ‘cos the underground was fucked. I had headphones on; I was listening to tunes, just lost in it but I could tell vibes around me were offkey and weird. You could feel it. So I took the headphones off and overheard people saying all this stuff. People were ringing me but getting cut off.xxviii

This aspect of Burial’s music, as terrorism dirge, exhibiting a paranoia as something deeper than a TV-spawned epiphenomenon, is – as far as I can tell – not often attended to. Successfully repressed, buried, but flickering as ultrasonic “embers in the tune”xxix



…its vinyl crackles sounding like London burning down forever.xxx

1The micro-ecology of these developments have been duly dissected and cataloged elsewhere. Dance music, which lives or has lived in the past on ephemeral dubplates to be played for insatiable club audiences, is, more than any other broadly defined category, burdened by the pressure to be new. It tends to evolve at breakneck speed and taxonimize itself into a million shards. This results, also, in a hyper-anxiety of influence, and an uneasy nostalgia toward one’s predecessors. This explains the endless hand-wringing over the very concept of the hardcore continuum. I find the details of all of this ultimately tedious and distracting: footnote fodder.

2Dancing itself is an embodiment of a music’s mood, a visceral, tactile experience of sound; the visual has already been deprivileged, and now so in a sense has the sonic. This is theory as practice, Kode9’s bass materialism, his “bass bomb” exploding mind/body dualism. The sound hits you somewhere in the stomach or chest – like fear, like heartache, sickness or extra-musical vibration. To dance to dubstep is to recreate a narcotized, infantile flailing, a vaguely sexual churning of the body through a space that music, sweat, drugs and fatigue have made as fluid as water. (An oceanic feeling.)

3I personally think it enormously important to keep in mind the following appropriations: the Paradise Garage in New York City was named after a parking garage that was formerly at that site on King St. The “genre” or wot do u call it of “UK Garage” was named after this place. And the sound system at Ministry of Sound was mimicked directly on the Paradise Garage sound system.

iMark Fisher, as k-punk, “London After the Rave,” April 14, 2006. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007666.html

iiHyperdub, Press release for Burial. http://www.hyperdub.net/burial.html

iiiMartin Clark, “Where is dubstep?”. November 10, 2004. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2004/11/where-is-dubstep.html

vPeter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, page 757

viGary Weasel, Spannered.com interview with Kode9, January 16, 2009. http://www.spannered.org/music/1113/

ixPeter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, page 680

xSimon Sellars, “A Ballardian Burial.” http://www.ballardian.com/a-ballardian-burial. Kode9, appearing in daylight as Steve Goodman, discussed Ballard’s sonic aesthetic as one of “urban delay.” This presentation was not, to my knowledge, transcribed or recorded, and is thus, appropriately, inaudible.

xiBBC News, Life in UK ‘has become lonelier’, December 1, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/uk/2008/changing_uk/default.stm

xiiMartin Clark, Dub, Decay, and Delay, February 6, 2007. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2007/02/dub-decay-and-delay.html

xiiiTim Finney, review of Burial, June 21, 2006. http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/9138-burial/

xvMark Fisher, as k-punk, “London After the Rave,” April 14, 2006. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007666.html

xviThomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Penguin Classics edition, p. 76.

xviiHayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, p. 248

xviiiCharles Manby Smith, Twenty Four Hours of London Streets, p. 395. Via http://www.victorianlondon.org/publications7/world-00.htm.

xixDan Hancox, “’Only Five People Know I Make Tunes’”, interview with Burial in The Guardian, October 26, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2007/oct/26/urban

xxBrian Belle-Fortune, All Crews: Journeys Through Jungle / Drum and Bass Culture

xxiiIn Martin Clark, “2005 According to Burial”, December 31, 2005. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2005/12/blackdown-soundboy-end-of-year-review_21.html

xxiiiMark Fisher, as k-punk, “London After the Rave,” April 14, 2006. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007666.html

xxivEric Hands, “Croydon Flyover.” Uploaded to flickr November 9, 2008. http://www.flickr.com/photos/erichands/3016037418/. See also: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erichands/sets/72157594419619114/


xxviiiIn Martin Clark, “2005 According to Burial”, December 31, 2005. http://blackdownsoundboy.blogspot.com/2005/12/blackdown-soundboy-end-of-year-review_21.html


when you proposed a simple nominalist solution to the ship of theseus paradox,
i began calling myself by your name
and painting self-portraits in the style of lucio fontana.
i could not scratch the surface,
something flew away and died, forgotten in midair like noah’s raven.
i pondered a positive catatonia in the bathtub,
but began to feel more marat than archimedes.
the canvas stayed closed, but begin to bleed, a bit alkaline,
so i brought it to the tub; it did not know how to swim. by then
my skin had folded over itself, stagnant water running through the sulci.
this sudden metamorphosis caused me to forget the paths back to my room,
the walls all corners pulsing outward. i was forced to rent a new apartment
on a street whose name i could not pronounce. it shared a kitchen with a foreign embassy
and came with a week’s supply of methylated cooking wine.

the cabinets were full of ostraka and bird shells.

I usually prattle on about these things, but I think it’d be more fun to listen to this without any context. Enjoy.

Note: I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been bogged down and unable to pursue extracurricular projects to their conclusion. I do have a very exciting project on high-tension lines, marginal spaces and suburban hauntology in the works – stay tuned. As for this, it’s an old academic paper, which I am posting because I’m citing it elsewhere and would like to make it available. I’m afraid it is less lively than most of the things I post here, and it would be better if I had time to rewrite it with a few years’ extra knowledge, but hopefully it isn’t totally devoid of interest.



Rudyard Kipling’s Kim comes at the end of a century in which opium had a privileged position within the British consciousness. Its role was complex and often contradictory, and the detailed story of how it transformed from a ubiquitous analgesic comparable to modern-day aspirin to a tightly controlled and restricted drug is beyond the scope of this paper[1]. However, there are certain general continuities in this discourse. One is the close alignment of opium and Empire, and the preponderance of Orientalist tropes in writing on opium. While this took the form of a fantastic exoticism earlier in the century, as in Thomas De Quincey’s seminal Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which one critic writes “invented the concept of recreational drug use” (Boon 37), the tone becomes much more urgent later in the century, as imperial anxieties become more acute. In numerous works of late Victorian fiction, among the more famous being Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891), opium acts as an agent through which the Orient contaminates and disrupts the stability of English society, subjectively transforming or inverting the English figures it encounters. Kipling engages tangentially with this history, utilizing opium to inscribe the Oriental within his central character and build his text out of this opiated origin.

Quantitatively the role of opium in the text is marginal; it is explicitly mentioned only ten times, usually in passing. Its most prominent appearance is in the important opening paragraphs, which establish Kim as a character and set his quest narrative into motion; these will be focused on here. The novel begins:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zamzammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher -the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

There was some justification for Kim – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim’s mother’s sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel’s family and had married Kimball O’Hara, a young colour- sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O’Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for the child, tried to catch him, but O’Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India. (49-50).

Kim is introduced in a position of play dominance, striding a now unused gun outside the Lahore Museum, a symbol of imperial power/knowledge and a site incidentally curated by Kipling’s father from 1875 to 1894 (340 note 4). His position of mock authority is explained by the fact the he “was English,” a remark which we soon find to be a red herring, since he is not “English” but Irish, peripheral rather than central to the imperial center. Within the Indian setting this fact is blurred, as the distinction between colonizer and colonial subject becomes a gradient rather than a sharp dichotomy. Kim’s relative closeness, ancestrally, to the physical and ideological center of Empire as signified by his “white blood” (94, etc), allows him to gradually come to occupy the position of “Sahib.”

The phrase “white blood” is interesting, because as this introduction makes clear, his whiteness is not visibly signified: he “was burned black as any native.” Nor does his speech bely his heredity; he chooses to speak “the vernacular” rather than English, which is interestingly called “his mother tongue” despite its foreignness and Kim’s alienation from it. Despite all of these contradictions, the narrative attempts to achieve some kind of stability with the confident assurances offered by 19th century racialism: “Kim was white…”

Even if our fleeting omniscient narrator assures us Kim “was white,” whatever that may mean, he was raised by an opium-smoking woman who claims to be Kim’s aunt. For those who believed her, Kim was a hybrid figure in racial terms; we who are told his mother was “a nursemaid in a Colonel’s family” are given something more ambiguous until an apparently accurate clarification is put in the mouth of Bennett in a later chapter. But culturally, Kim is steeped in the depths of Indian “bazar” culture.

Before proceeding with Kim, a word is required about the Indian setting. India was where opium for the vast trade with China was produced (opium for use in the United Kingdom was grown in Turkey). This trade was a source of a tremendous amount of wealth, but at the same time, it was an uncomfortable fact that the Empire had amassed such riches at the expense of submitting millions of Chinese to a degree of opiate dependence that was uncommon or at least invisible in Britain (see Zheng, and Berridge, ch. 7). A debate over the morality in the trade which began around the time of the Opium Wars had blown up into a vigorous political movement by the 1870s, spearheaded by the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. The issue was in and out of Parliament up until the time Kipling wrote, and the wide circulation of the Society’s Friend of China among middle and upper-class audiences had a significant effect on thought about the relationship of opium, Empire, and the Orient (Milligan 21). Berridge writes that the “myth of the opium den” was “the most obvious public legacy of the anti-opium movement” (195).

It is this mythology which will come to bear on the figure of Kim, through his father. Kim’s father is a poor, washed-up Irish soldier who has fallen into alcoholism. The figure of a no-good Irish drunk is a common enough one, and in a novel abounding with racialized aphorisms and characterizations its appearance is not surprising. It is interesting however that his drinking is narrated as a segue into his opium use. The discourses of alcohol and opium frequently overlapped in the 19th century, particularly with regard to the working classes and the poor, of whom the Irish would have comprised a disproportionate percentage. Public health officials routinely expressed alarm that working class alcohol culture could be combined with or be superseded by opium abuse (Berridge 105). De Quincey himself remarked on this: “But…some years ago, on passing through Manchester, I was informed by several cotton-manufacturers, that their work-people were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating…The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of wages, which, at that time, would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits” (De Quincey 6).

The extent of working class opium use which could be clearly identified as “recreational,” or “stimulant” in the parlance of the times, was certainly quite low, in part because of the difficulty of impossibility of making the distinction between medical and non-medical use. The repetition of the anxiety in both the medical literature and in literary texts like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) nonetheless reveals that the specter of this descent into abuse was always present, at least in the bourgeois mind.

It is the the fate that befell Kimball O’Hara, Sr., after he “came across” this woman, Kim’s surrogate mother to be. The language displaces any choice he might have had, construing the genesis of his opium habit as a seduction: “he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her.” He dies with her in a haze of opium smoke.

The method of ingestion is remarkable, since opium smoking was a distinctly Chinese practice. Historian John Richards writes: “Indians usually ate opium by swallowing small pills or drank it in opium infused water. They had never adopted the practice of smoking it in pipes” (Richards 375). The effect is to draw into the text a history of late Victorian English writing on opium smoking. Smoking, localized by “the myth of the opium den,” was a prime target for moralistic and sensationalist writers because it was clearly non-medical and decisively foreign in origin. The image of the opium smoker lacked the complex system of connotations attached to laudanum use and could be employed as an unproblematic symbol of vice, corruption, and Oriental danger. As such, the dens – conceived as “foreign particles lodged in the body of British society” (Parssinen 67) – were the subject of a plenitude of journalistic treatments, which are “so conventionalized…that it is difficult to tell whether the authors actually made the visit, or simply plagiarized from one another’s accounts” (Parssinen 52). The formula remained more or less the same because these articles continued to do the same cultural work. Five titles from five different decades suggest the continuity: “East London Opium Smokers” (1868); “A Night in an Opium Den” (1874); “London Opium Dens: Notes of a visit to the Chinamen’s East End Haunts” (1885); “Chinese London and its Opium Dens” (1895); “Opium Dens in London” (1904).

Modern accounts suggest that if such “dens” existed at all, and were not just social spaces where Chinese happened to casually smoke opium, they did not extend beyond the small East End neighborhood of Limehouse and were so limited in number as to be hardly worth comment (Berridge 195ff); however, the presence of this seductive danger within the range of a hansom cab proved too alluring, and became the standard site of literary opium use after the 1860s. The “literary” as opposed to journalistic tradition began with Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and persisted into fin de siècle treatments roughly contemporaneous with Kim, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” both published in 1891. The echoes of this tradition are present in Kipling’s strange, factually inaccurate choice to make the woman smoke her opium.

The mythology of the den was also a sexual one. No sexual interaction between these two characters is narrated, but the fact that she remains Kim’s “mother” and the erotic potential suggested by drug-fueled cohabitation suggest the possibility; this would be a disruption of racial and imperial boundaries of a most transgressive sort, particularly since the “native” woman appears to be the dominant agent. The presumed racial mixing and closed quarters of the “opium dens” that were so central to the Victorian imagination of opiate use always suggested the possibility of miscegenation to a paranoid and sensationalist press, for whom there was “an almost uniform association between the Orient and sex” (Said 188).

Beyond this potential sexual relationship we have the a teacher-student relationship of initiation. This common enough trope suggests the cult-like, esoteric trappings given to opium culture, and in this case puts the Indian woman in a position of dominance by giving her the power to impart arcane knowledge (cf. “the true secret of mixing” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Incidentally this is the knowledge that leads to O’Hara’s death as narrated in the very same sentence, as if it were the necessary corollary to his contamination.

He leaves behind him three texts which derive from Anglo-Imperial institutions, which are to be Kim’s legacy from him:

His estate at death consisted of three papers – one he called his ‘ne varietur’ because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his ‘clearance-certificate’. The third was Kim’s birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic – such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher – the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim’s horn would be exalted between pillars – monstrous pillars – of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim – little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O’Hara – poor O’Hara that was gang- foreman on the Ferozepore line. Then he would weep bitterly in the broken rush chair on the veranda. So it came about after his death that the woman sewed parchment, paper, and birth- certificate into a leather amulet-case which she strung round Kim’s neck.
‘And some day,’ she said, confusedly remembering O’Hara’s prophecies, ‘there will come for you a great Red Bull on a green field, and the Colonel riding on his tall horse, yes, and’ dropping into English – ‘nine hundred devils.’

‘Ah,’ said Kim, ‘I shall remember. A Red Bull and a Colonel on a horse will come, but first, my father said, will come the two men making ready the ground for these matters. That is how my father said they always did; and it is always so when men work magic.’ (50).

These documents would have had the effect of assigning Kim to his father’s Masonic lodge and, by extension, implicating him within the greater military-imperial establishment of the Raj. But the documents’ signification is blurred, filtered through O’Hara’s “glorious opium hours” into a kind of wild fantasy. This fantasy, though containing a kernel of truth, is embellished with grandiose language and turned into a “prophecy” rather than a set of instructions. It contains some of the classic hallmarks of literary treatments of opium use, for instance: the tendency towards mythological language (“magic,” “whose God was a Red Bull on a green field,” “devils”; cf. De Quincey’s encounter with Vishnu, Siva, Isis, and Osiris, [82], etc.), an exaggeration of physical description (“monstrous pillars”; cf. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, The Mystery of Edwin Drood‘s oneiric opening paragraphs, etc), and a hazy, dreamlike tone (phrases like “magic,” “some day,” and the sudden, associative appearance of the variously narrated elements). This way of framing the “Red Bull” narrative is, in the logic of the story, distinctly “Oriental”; Creighton says, revealingly: “The transformation of a regimental badge like your Red Bull into a sort of fetish that the boy follows is very interesting” (161). It is moreover doubly filtered through opium, first by O’Hara, then by the woman who distorts his telling, literalizing his metaphors and decontextualizing his claims.

The documents have become a fetishized “amulet” and Kim’s fate as a “Sahib” has been derailed by opium-fueled misreadings and misunderstandings. Kim’s understanding of himself, deeply vexing for the European characters, must be demythologized by the appropriate colonial authorities in order for Kim to discard his “Asiatic” character. In this sense, the entire narrative is a struggle by the forces of Empire to efface Kim’s hybridity, which had been at least partially constituted by opium.

Works Cited


Berridge, Virginia. Opium and the People (Rev. ed.). New York: Free Association Books, 1999.

Boon, Marcus. The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard           University Press, 2002.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: Penguin, 1998.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. New York: Penguin,            2003.

Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Penguin, 2000.

Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and Orient in Nineteenth Century British Culture.           Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

Richards, John F. “Opium and the British Indian empire: The Royal Commission of 1895.” Modern           Asian Studies. Volume 36, part 2, May 2002. p. 375-420.

Said, Edward. Orientalism (25th Anniversary edition). New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Zheng, Yangwen. The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press,        2005.

[1]             Two of the best treatments are Berridge, Opium and the People (1981, revised 1999), and Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society 1820-1930 (1983).

These pieces, except for one, were created on Christmas Eve, several years ago – perhaps 2007, though I cannot be sure. I worked for the entire night constructing them, though my process was not additive but subtractive, or rather divisive: they became less under my control the more I tinkered, as I introduced new variables, spliced segments at random, and subjected them to modulations I did not understand. I have tried to add to this collection, but nothing I do fits with the basic algebra of these particular songs.

I hadn’t slept the night before, and I knew I would have to be awake the next morning to celebrate the holiday with my family. I supposed that insomnia is common to astronauts, for whom day and night are terrestrial abstractions. I felt at one with Apollo 8 that night, in that manic intensity that froths in the tail end of an insomniac binge…

I had first heard the Apollo 8 broadcasts a few days or weeks before that, and was struck by the tone of awed sincerity that overwhelmingly negated my cynical, straight-faced response to what I would like to have seen as saccharine piety. I was born at a time when “the space age” was already a nostalgic slogan, a boilerplate alarum for a dead futurity: the obvious fodder for MTV’s earliest advertisements. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cw6xesXLIAA). How could what seemed like the greatest accomplishment in human history become, in twelve short years, comical prefatory footage for a Buggles video? And how perverse am I, now, to count that broadcast as coequal to the moon landing, being born after both?

I thought there was something sublime there, something that gave an urgency the electronic pieces I was creating otherwise lacked. I was inspired by Eno’s Apollo, of course, and the discerning listener will wonder if many of the harmonies come from an earlier piece of his. The theme of space travel, however hackneyed, lent an anchor by which to tether music which would otherwise float up and pop like sad balloons. They remain suspect of an ersatz vitality. But they are still the only tracks I’ve produced that have any vitality at all.

I encourage any listeners to use the best headphones they have access to. The originals do not scale down very well, in any case, and I’m afraid much of their granularity is lost entirely on ordinary speakers; laptop speakers produce nothing but irritating static.


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