Now listen, or as they say:
We are passing through corridors of stone; routes of labyrinthine complexity filled with hollow, echoing ghosts – phantasmal strains and thin snatches of half-remembered speech. Perhaps there should be dust, and maybe, in the darkest corners, the compressed and most unseen crevices, there is.
But even a place like this must conform to certain biological processes – for there to be dust, there must be human skin to flake and to float, in the air that is so awfully still. And there hasn’t been a human presence here for an extraordinarily long time.
This is not simply a poetic way of describing a blog that’s been quiet for the past six months or so, while I’ve been busy doing other things. Nor is it distinctly evocative of a particular milieu – no grandiose visions of primordial places, with hidden treasure glinting in subterranean splendour, all unseen by the eye of mortal man. No slumbering warriors lie in wait; an army of metaphor does not listen for the clarion call to reach its ears, rising with an inhuman swiftness; it is not charging into battle to engage in the struggle which we laughably call communication.
No. Because this is Cold Albion, and like all cold things, it exists at a remarkably low-energy state.
We have all met people before, and we have interacted with them – every look you give, every glance you receive, engages the neurology of those you contact, as well as your own. You carry representations of things, linkages and patterns, and all these are arrangements of energy.
When you see your loved ones, certain arrangements and patterns fire up. A great deal of the time, if you compared these arrangements -these perceptions – with a kind of nebulous ‘actuality’ you’d find pretty major discrepancies.
This is because it’s less effort than constantly re-analysing things. In short, it’s an evolutionary hack. It uses less energy and means we can move faster, and do other things with that energy, because, apparently like every other organism on the planet, we are biochemical in nature.
Molecules shift and move, obeying particulate rules and concentration gradients – diffusion and pH – principles and contacts, meetings and transferences via chemical pump; these are the methods which produce the electric surge, and the crackle of lightning that runs along your nerves and the neurotransmitters that carry the messages over the synaptic gap.
Heat the body up too much and the enzymes are denatured, the bio-machines cooked into uselessness. Too much energy and radiation warps your DNA, or burns your flesh and bone. All fire burns, and what’s fire but the fastest thing; the hungry flame that consumes the fuel?
Imagine having that energy within you, the metabolic processes constantly running; proceeding endlessly until your systems begin mutating or degrading, worn by years of replicating ceaselessly while you are unaware of the lion’s share of it, as you are going about your life. Does it feel like anything familiar, that sense of rushing existence?
And in that feeling, maybe we are considering something, you and I. Perhaps we could be considering the implications of the heated meat package that is our corporeal selves.
Because we’ve stood in the cold, haven’t we? It’s a sensation you’ve no doubt had – the heat of yourself bleeding away into the vaster space, spreading out and becoming diffuse. The way the chill is beginning to set in – except of course you’re losing heat, not gaining cold.
It’s not as if the cold is penetrating you, piercing you like a knife. It’s not as if the chill bites with sharp teeth, right before the numbness is beginning to set in, is it? In actual fact it’s the comfort that is leaving, dissolving; becoming threadbare as the body begins attempting the desperate process of conserving heat, of keeping things moving. Withdrawing to the centre, protecting those vitally important organs, leaving extremities to their fates.
Yet actual facts of biology have little to to do with language and how we go about perceiving. The metaphors are those of disruption and attack, instead of an apparently natural adherence to basic physical-theory.
So what happens when you start considering the fact that energy is finite, that all fires exhaust their fuel eventually? We’ve discussed this before, and it’s fairly implicit in my philosophy and words. As I say over in my latest essay on Modern Mythology – Toasters, Bladerunner and Schizophrenia:
We can’t even tell if we’re Replicants. Can’t trust our memories, or our assumptions, or our senses. All we have is now, this moment, and even that is being filtered by our imagined pasts and futures.
There is no escape; no external environment wherein the processes of change are stilled and all is in perfect repose, perfect balance. So instead, we wander these corridors and halls, chilled by the notion of eventual decay.
Gordon said I should write more, that there had been too much of silence in the corner of the blogosphere we inhabit. He said it, and admitted it was for purely selfish reasons. Since he’s back posting, I’m picking up that gauntlet: I respect such admissions, and that’s why I would like you to begin accepting the chill as we continue on, because in a sense it is somewhat necessary to what I’d like to give you.
Because I want to talk about trolls.
Not your internet trolls – this is not about griefers or 4chan – but the creatures from Scandinavian folklore. The monstrous beings that lurk in dark places and hidden caves, and who become quite literally petrified by sunlight; turned to stone by the dawn.
The heavy and unwieldy media, such as stone, are time binders. Used for writing, they are very cool indeed, and serve to unify the ages – Marshall McLuhan, ‘Understanding Media.’
Past, present and future, all emerging, swirling from the stony well of Urðarbrunnr. The woven web of wyrd, reaching back and forth, warp and weft and threads a-binding; up and down, left and right, ana and kata.
Down at the roots of mountains, back along paths of memory, might you know the music of trolls? If you’re of a certain age and from the UK, you might recognise it from Alton Towers adverts:
The well known piece, written by Grieg for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, occurs when the protagonist falls and strikes his head on a rock after chasing three maidens. Three maidens who claim to have got rid of their useless human lovers and are, to put it bluntly, hot for a little…troll-based action.
Peer, being a braggart and womaniser, claims he has enough troll-like stamina to satisfy all three, and so the chase ensues. Knocked unconscious by his amorous quest, he dreams of a green-clad girl who he pursues, eventually realising she is the daughter of the Old Man of the Mountain – specifically the Troll-King of the Dovre mountains. Lured by lust, as they travel to the Hall of the Mountain King, Peer comments on the clothing choice of his would-be shag:
THE GREEN-CLAD ONE
My week-day gown is of gold and silk.
It looks to me liker tow and straws.
THE GREEN-CLAD ONE
Ay, there is one thing you must remember:-
this is the Ronde-folk’s use and wont:
all our possessions have twofold form.
When you shall come to my father’s hall,
it well may chance that you’re on the point
of thinking you stand in a dismal moraine.
And here’s where things get interesting – the land of the Trolls seems to require a different way of looking at the world, of perceiving objects, and indeed, like many Otherly spaces, perhaps time itself. For when Peer arrives in that stony hall of the Old Man, far from being torn apart as the troll-courtiers would like, the King asks him a series of questions, questions that seem faintly ridiculous, albeit probably harmless – and the answers are even stranger. Take for example, the exchange that occurs when the Old Man asks what the difference is between humans and troll-kind:
No difference at all, as it seems to me.
Big trolls would roast you and small trolls would claw you;-
with us it were likewise, if only they dared.
THE OLD MAN
True enough; in that and in more we’re alike.
Yet morning is morning, and even is even,
and there is a difference all the same.-
Now let me tell you wherein it lies:
Out yonder, under the shining vault,
among men the saying goes: “Man, be thyself!”
At home here with us, ‘mid the tribe of the trolls,
the saying goes: “Troll, to thyself be-enough!”
Now, Grieg himself wrote of the piece:
“For the Hall of the Mountain King I have written something that so reeks of cowpats, ultra-Norwegianism, and ‘to-thyself-be-enough-ness’ that I can’t bear to hear it, though I hope that the irony will make itself felt.”
So we can see that he felt the piece summed up something negative, brash, and we might even say…trollish. Yet when you look at the Troll King’s remarks, you can perhaps feel a deeper meaning.
THE OLD MAN
My son, that “Enough,” that most potent and sundering word, must be graven upon your escutcheon.
Further trials await Peer – he is presented with music and dancing which to him is only a cacophony, and feasting which is only offal and gore. As he balks, the trolls cry out for him to be torn apart, but the Old Man cautions them that he is, after all, only human, with human senses.
The proposed solution is grisly, involving a scratching of the eye and the wearing of blinders to rid Peer of his human perceptual biases. Presented with the notion that his human sense may never return after such an operation, he flees from the hall, giving up on his paramour and returning to the waking world of men.
While a classic mythical narrow escape, here we’re more concerned with the inescapable. Peer’s human perceptions render the world a certain way, and the ambivalence of trollish existence is abhorrent to him. So the question then becomes, from whence did Peer Gynt gain his humanity that it is so easily removable by the Old Man?
There are some that might argue such things are innate, but if so, how is it that his senses would not heal?
It’s that enough which concerns us. If we contrast this with chase of Peer Gynt after his women, then might we look at the trolls as those who are capable of perceiving what is dross and foulness to humans, as things of great joy and beauty?
Imagine if you could modulate your perception in such a way as to gain exactly what was needed from things others could not process or deal with. Not simple contrariness, or even ‘settling for less’, but having different requirements?
Suddenly the claims of the Yogis, the magicians, the Tibetan Masters – they start to appear as something other than mere hyperbole. If you could change your perception, you could change how you react to things. What was once hostile and fearsome might now be known as a fierce protector or enthralling companion – phobia shifting to fascination, for example.
We are biochemical creatures, as I’ve said. Our emotions are made manifest by chemical and hormonal shifts in response to stimuli. You swim in a soup of neuro-transmitters, our veins and arteries rage with chemical fury. Born from that amniotic ocean, you are briny seas suffused with lightning – an plethora of complex systems operating in concert to produce ‘your’ existence.
Where does this roaring creature gain its shape? Where does personality come from, its name and sense of self? Do you know where you begin, and where you end?
There’s a dilemma here, because every thing is defined by what it is not. If you are human, there must be something that is not human. For there even to be a ‘you’ as a distict thing, there must also be that which is not-you.
Can you remember where you came from?
Marshall McLuhan wrote of a spectrum of media, from hot to cool. Hot media requires little participation – it is delivered rapidly and possesses its own energy, its own structure and arrangement, which is impressed upon the recipient. Film, for McLuhan, enhanced the visual sense – the spectacle is pre-delivered, it’s informational content designed to evoke specific reactions and resonances.
“The passive consumer wants packages, but those[…]who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.” – Marshall McLuhan
How much energy is spent, how much time is used, in the construction of identity? How many packages have you received before a personality emerged, and hence, how much of ‘you’ is a product of environmental shaping? Multi-billion dollar corporations are founded on the presumption that the consumer wants to be kept in-formed – hot off the presses comes the gossip, the news, the celebrity hijinks!
The trolls come from a cold and snowy land – their way is colder, slower. The Old Man’s aphorism is an incompleteness, an indefinite ambivalence that Peer cannot stomach – he’d rather be off chasing hot young wenches!
(Can’t fault him there, actually.)
The cooler media that McLuhan speaks of requires participation – cold media is incomplete and requires interaction to access.
We’ve all been in that situation – you know the one – where we’re presented with someone who we know nothing about, at a party, some sort of social gathering, or a business function. Striking up a conversation often requires more energy from the initiator than the recipient at the beginning. Once both parties are comfortable with the level of communication and interest, communication starts flowing easily and time can just fly by!
Things that exist at low energy states, such as this place, can lie quiet for a long while, and as participation increases, the level of energy increases dramatically because of the incompleteness.
It takes more energy to define, and maintain those definitions, than it does to allow ambivalence and incompleteness. More energy is expended in maintaining the status quo, than is accepting and utilising changing conditions. I’ve touched on the subject more narrowly in this post about the power of absence and architectural decay as regards creativity.
The coldest medium is apparently the environment itself – the mountains so beloved of the Troll King and other natural phenomena. They exist independently of the human sphere, indeed the majority of human culture seems to be about heating them up – defining and making sense of them. Even with modern technology, their contouring – or rather their need to be defined and mapped in the human mind, they generate more energy than a thousand scientists and poets in the silent inscrutability.
They do not require rapid, hot, energy to maintain some notion of integrity, unlike most of the human sphere.
And if cold media requires participation, then the earliest form within that sphere would be storytelling – a shared experience which the audience experiences and co-creates to produce something richer than its constituent parts. What’s more, the art is not lost – many are waking up to this fact, and I’ll even point you to some.
Foolish People are producing an independent film that’s certainly cooler than the films McLuhan knew of. Crowdfunded, “Strange Factories” offers bonuses and artefacts which draw their funders deeper into the world. But rather than just being a simple film, Strange Factories will have a live component, with the characters directly interacting with the audience. You can read more about it in this Wired article.
And if there’s anything of a magical persuasion about cold media, it’s this – a seemingly inert or innocuous word, object or gesture, possessed of low energy or apparent significance, can achieve a stronger affect than a drug regimen or therapy. It can even kill.
Now, as I said earlier, the coldest medium is the environment, except that’s not true.
The coldest medium is the self, that same roaring creature you were considering earlier. Because it is an indefinite thing. Why else would humanity be so desperate to define and name and package you? How do you perceive the self? Imagine if you could perceive all those processes, and modulate them.
Imagine what kind of being that would be, perceiving and participating in itself; how very vast and terrible it might be to have the knowing that you were enough, and knowing that you were all you could ever know.
Coldly aware that the rune of your self, risted with your life’s blood, was the only thing that was yours. That your name and everything you were taught – along with half your thoughts – were not actually native to you, but an attempt to confine you, to complete the incomplete, to cook you until you were palatable, and not raw and indigestible.
Yes. Welcome back to Cold Albion.