China Miéville first emerged on my timeline on Twitter early in 2010. He had just published his award-winning novel The City & The City, an existential thriller set in a city unlike any I had ever encountered. Admittedly, I was late in discovering Miéville. Very late. He has written more than ten books in as many genres since his debut, King Rat, in 1997. According to The Guardian, “one of the most imaginative young writers around”, with a deep devotion to synchronizing the weird and wonderful of the continuous partial everywhere we live in.
Miéville, born in 1972 and raised in Northwest London, is a scholar and writer of ‘weird fiction’. In the spring of 2012 he gave a talk in Amsterdam on the theme ‘Future City’ as part of the lecture series Facing Forward. He was not the most obvious speaker to choose, seeing as he is an author of fiction, and a professor of creative writing. But the interesting thing is that in many of his books, the city plays such an important role in the development of the plot that one could almost speak of it as a main character. One might even think that Miéville has built more cities than most architects. I met with the author in London, where I witnessed him enthusiastically playing jungle and rap music at his birthday party. What follows is a montage of a few hours of conversation that took place at his home, going from the unseen obituaries of art movements to improvisations on dread and the sublime.
Juha van ‘t Zelfde: We talked about 90s jungle and 00s dubstep earlier in Amsterdam. In your books, you mention a lot of musicians like Burial and Kode9, artists who created dubstep, the soundtrack of 21st century London, and destroyed it at the same time.
China Miéville: ‘One of the things I like about people like Burial is that he has no interest in playing live. I like the idea that nowadays you can have a genuine career as a truly fascinating, sometimes very experimental, deeply devoted musician without going through playing in front of twenty people, or indeed playing in front of anyone if you don’t want to. I like the fact that the Internet allows people to hide and to prioritize the work, if that is what they want to do.’
What’s your fascination with Kode9?
‘I’m interested in movements where their death pre-announced them. Sine Of The Dub, which is a remix of Prince’s Sign ‘o’ the Times by Kode9 and The Spaceape, and the moment that comes after it, reminds me of the author H.G. Wells. I love The Island of Doctor Moreau. To me, that is Wells’ absolute pinnacle. One of the reasons why I love it is that it feels to me like that book is actually an obituary of a lot of the stuff that comes after it. Only, the stuff that comes after it doesn’t notice. So I like those notions, hinge moments that a door is closed and people haven’t even clocked it.
There’s an old British zombie film, The Plague of Zombies, that came out two years before Night of the Living Dead. The latter supposedly culminated the discussion about the shift from the critique of war culture, critique of consumerism, the politicization of the zombie through a kind of post-imperial zombie, the de- and re-racialization, blablabla… All of which I buy, but it feels to me that the origin of that is The Plague of Zombies, which was made two years earlier than Night of the Living Dead and no one noticed. So I would like to think I can have my cake of dubstep dying with Sine Of The Dub and still have the dubstep that came after it being the highpoint. That’s not impossible.’
But why Sine Of The Dub?
‘With Sine Of The Dub, Kode9 destroyed the Prince original to some kind of rubble. He completely shattered it down and made it so you could no longer go back to making dubstep after that track. Dubstep has been dead since then. Finished. And everything that happened ever since is something else. That was a full-stop at the end of a genre.’
As a Londoner, you have witnessed the recent gloaming of the city you grew up in. You wrote the essay London’s Overthrow, published in The New York Times in March 2012, describing London in a time of austerity and subversion. It reads as a pre-apocalyptic eyewitness report in a city eating itself, where architecture has failed and music has become the carrier of dread. Do you think that the music we are talking about pre-announces the death of London?
‘The Bug, a producer of grime and member of Kode9’s swarm of Hyperdub artists, wrote a track on the London riots before the London riots actually happened. Catch a Fire starts with the lyrics:
“Let’s clean this city with burning flames of fire Crack heads, piss heads, hood rats, undead”
I was talking to Dan Hancox about it, who wrote a book called Kettled Youth, and he is really into all of this stuff. He has a whole line about how the riots were embedded in grime. And you must have heard of Plan B and his film, Ill Manors. It is quite dread-ful.’
As you know, I am quite interested in dread, as a kind of pre-emptive fear, a fear of anticipation. What’s your view on dread?
‘There is a very interesting and problematic question, which is the politics of dread. Dread is invoked a lot by the right because it can be paralyzing. Like with fear of heights, that can literally bring you to your knees. It seems to me that dread can tip quite easily into a kind of reactionary ecstasy. If I were thinking about dread, I would want to negotiate that problem of the politics of dread. It is not a politics-free affect. So my first reaction is probably that it is a variant of my feeling about the weird. Because this crosses over a lot with the weird stuff that I am interested in, which is a combination of political unease and a deep, affective attraction. A lot of the stuff that I love has a lot of questionable political connotations, and it seems to me that the dread, the dread-ful, is not exempt from that.’
But how do you define it?
‘Dread is something that clearly has to do with the sublime. I suppose to me it is all related to ecstasy, which I am really interested in. Ecstasy is very powerful, a very politically and philosophically polyvalent condition. I think about ecstatic poetry a lot. Religious ecstatic poetry. The interesting thing with dread is that the word is very often used to talk about God, including by people who are completely devoted to God. The dread of Godhead. That sense of trembling before God can be tremendously reactionary, but can also be a kind of explosive overturning of everything. I don’t want to be too pat about it, but I feel like there is a way of negotiating it. I have been really obsessed recently with a sort of religious ecstatic poetry, especially Christian poetry. Francis Thompson, a Victorian poet, wrote a poem called Hound of Heaven. He was a Catholic, but a very strange Catholic. This poem is about being haunted by God. Being haunted by this predatory God, and the poet running and running from this terrifying Godhead Doghead. And then at the end realizing he would not get away and surrendering. This notion of the dread of totality. And now that I say that word, I think there is something about totality in dread.
The flip-side of that would be a poem like the Dream of the Rood. I have been obsessed with it for years. It’s an Anglo-Saxon poem and it is narrated by the cross. The rood, an old word for tree or piece of wood in Anglo-Saxon, represents the tree on which Christ was crucified. It’s amazing. That poem has this sense of opening before totality. So I think, and I am thinking as I am going along, that maybe there is a certain libidinal investment in the surrender to dread, which feels to me politically questionable. Whereas there’s something about the honourable, even if doomed, refusal to surrender to dread. Even if you also think it is amazing, it’s not about fighting dread, but it’s about refusing to simply abase yourself before it. Which is a kind of Prometheanly beautiful and politically more exciting moment to me. It’s a sort of kernel to attempt to retain some form of selfhood in that moment of awareness of a totality. Because it’s all to do with the dialectic of the totality and the specific. And the specific political agent, and aesthetic agent, which is a person. So I suppose that’s the direction in which I would want to try to start negotiating it. Which is honestly the sort of thing I have been thinking about with weird fiction: the ecstatic, but then slightly translated into different terms. Because I think the sublime is the mediating term in all of this. That’s what unites the weird, the ecstatic, the dread. It’s this sort of reconfigured sublime.’
How would you define the sublime?
‘I wouldn’t define the sublime, because that would seem to make it hostage to fortune. What I would probably do is use a quick and dirty holding definition, which would essentially be more descriptive than rigorous. The thing with the sublime is, even if there’s endless and endless debate about how you define it and how you theorize it, it’s all predicated on this notion that to some extent you know it when you see it. And that on the one hand is an evasion of theory, but on the other hand is actually quite useful. Because I feel I can say: when you climb to a top of a mountain and you look out and you get that feeling, or when you’re standing on the edge of the Eiffel Tower and you get that feeling – for the moment I am going to evade the question of what exactly it is or what it is doing – that’s the thing that mediates all these terms. I suppose that would be the sublime for me. And that’s what I find in a lot of the stuff I am interested in, including the weird. I wonder whether dread is a piece of evolutionary noise. An accidental by-product of ‘sentience meets mortality’. Which makes me think… this sounds really weird, but work with me for a second. I once saw a comedy sketch in which a cow was attached to a winch. The cow was winched up 200 feet, and for the first ten feet after it leaves the ground the cow is freaking out. And then above that: completely placid. Because it is no longer relating to anything. It has no fear, because it has no consciousness of what it is. Whereas a human would be freaking out all the way up. So I wonder if maybe that point at which a non-sentient animal stops freaking out, and we don’t, is where dread occurs.’
We met in Amsterdam in May during Facing Forward, when you joined Rem Koolhaas in speaking about ‘the future city’. What did you think of Koolhaas, who evaded the subject of the city altogether in his talk and instead focused on the countryside?
‘His story was fun. His presentation was essentially a series of observations. Interesting observations. And to that extent it looked like peering into a lab at work in progress. Because I don’t know him, I have no way of judging whether this is true, but the impression I got, what impressed me was he did not seem defensive. He seems to be someone who is secure enough in his own riffs that he is quite relaxed. He actually enjoyed being disagreed with at the discussion. He didn’t seem to have that sort of chippiness that some have. His interest in the countryside could perhaps be his HG Wells moment, his Sine Of The Dub.’
Countryside as the next dubstep: its death pre-announced it. Any final thoughts?
‘There are two projects that I really like the idea of. One is a little book of roads less travelled. Like that zombie film: things that could have been paradigm shifters, that deserved to be, but for whatever historical reason weren’t. Then you could have a short essay on an art piece that didn’t change the world of art but really should have. And the other one is, like Sine Of The Dub, moments that paradigms were ended and nobody noticed.’
Juha van ‘t Zelfde is a researcher of contemporary culture. He is curator of the Dread exhibition, which opens in De Hallen in September 2013.