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18 July 2018updated 19 Jul 2018 9:43am

Laurence Scott’s Picnic Comma Lightning: how to read modern life

On selfies and Nabokov, Fitbit and Brexit, Scott’s book veers between the superficial and the illuminating.  

By Steven Poole

In a notorious exchange in 2004, an aide to George W Bush told the reporter Ron Suskind that people such as him lived in the “reality-based community”, whereas the current US regime was now an “empire”, and that “when we act, we create our own reality”. Twelve years later, the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump nonetheless persuaded many people that we had suddenly acquired a newly complicated relationship to reality – perhaps one of “post-truth” – which demanded explanation. This book, too, takes as read that something unprecedented has happened in the last couple of years. But what, exactly?

“We’re growing more and more dubious,” Laurence Scott writes in his introduction, “that there is such a thing as reality to begin with.” Throughout the book he employs this royal we disingenuously, since he evidently doesn’t count himself among the deluded. More fundamentally, however, this claim is inconsistent with the astute point he makes nearby that “fantasy” has become a catch-all term of political abuse: the notion of fantasy, after all, necessitates an opposing notion of reality that really exists. People haven’t lost confidence in the existence of reality; they just disagree (as they always did) about what it contains.

A more plausible claim offered by the author is that, “In these last few years… the questions of how we experience the real world, how we access its truths, have become mainstream concerns.” His book, then, is a loosely connected collection of essays about our changing experiences in an age of technologically mediated information, objects, and personal relationships, which touches eclectically on social media, marketing, the history of cinema, arguments about statues, smart gadgets, sponsored Instagram posts by celebrities, and so forth. With its references to TV and film as well as Lacan and Barthes, the voice is rather like that of a domesticated, smoothed-over Slavoj Žižek. The title, meanwhile, is drawn from Humbert Humbert’s laconic explanation of his mother’s death in Lolita – “(picnic, lightning)” – and the book is also a fragmentary memoir of the author’s childhood, and his grief over his parents’ death.

Not everyone will enjoy its style. There are tics here of an academy-tuned prose that self-importantly announces its concerns (“I’m especially interested here in phenomenology”), introduces subjects by way of obviously false dichotomies (of objects, he wonders, “Are they wholly separate from us, or are they somehow a part of us?”), and faux-hesitantly employs modal verbs to proffer very obvious ideas – the popularity of Marie Kondo’s tidying-up books, he suggests, “could be linked to our desperate wish to live more organised lives”.

Meanwhile, Nabokov himself would be rather unimpressed at being described here as a writer “whose brilliant tropes illuminate and animate the things they describe”. And there is the common rhetorical move of claiming that some subject is previously under-discussed: when talking about modern photography, Scott claims, “our role behind the camera’s lens is less remarked upon” – really? In an age of a million op-eds about selfie culture, and complaints that millennials photograph and video things with their phones instead of experiencing them unmediated?

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Here as elsewhere Scott predicts a future that he seems to be unaware already exists: “It could be,” he suggests, that in the future people won’t believe a story without digital-visual documentation. “‘Did that really happen?’ people will say, ‘Show us.’” As a matter of cultural fact, the phrase “Pics or it didn’t happen” has been a mainstay of internet forum banter since at least 2003.

Some of his subjects seem already analysed to exhaustion by others, even as they have not actually attained reality yet: this is true, for example, of the celebrated “Internet of Things”, which in consumer terms is still largely a marketing buzz-phrase designed to get us to buy internet-connected fridges, and in techno-political terms is really a future dystopia of total surveillance of the citizenry by turning every innocent object into a spy cam. Of the first wave of popular “smart objects”, such as Amazon or Google’s talking home speakers, it is unclear how helpful it is to conclude that “they resemble Heidegger’s definition of quiescence, containing ‘a fullness of being and reality which, in the end, essentially surpasses the reality of the real’.”

One has the feeling that the author has not long been immersed in these topics, a suspicion unallayed by the apparently slender research on display: for current thinking on neuroscience, Scott relies on what, in the endnotes, turns out to be a TED talk, while a theory of consciousness comes from a magazine interview.

His perceptive critique of the modern ideology that “story” is paramount (one’s life as a story; stories in commerce and marketing) would have benefited from reference to the brilliant book-length deconstruction of that idea by the French writer Christian Salmon in his Storytelling. And Scott echoes the glib nonsense of the worst pop-science writers when he refers confidently to “the molecular reality of storytelling”, which turns out to be the suggestion that satisfying stories encourage the release of the hormone oxytocin in the listener. (Apart from that, of course, the molecular reality of storytelling is almost totally mysterious, having to do with how human minds work.)

On the other hand there is throughout the book a sincere wish to make beautiful sentences and surprising images out of quotidian experience, which can often pay off, as when he describes the experience of putting away cutlery like this: “The teaspoons clatter into their narrow bunk at the foot of the three long beds for the adult utensils.” Or, discussing statues: “Statues are strange in their habit of enticing you towards them, only to ignore you.” The book lights up, indeed, whenever Scott veers off the beaten track of familiar snark about social media or Fitbit users and the like. His analysis that the Brexit campaign, for instance, was a fantastic example of “cosiness” is counter-intuitively persuasive.

Where the book is most interesting is as a literary close reading of modern culture, and its best chapter swaggeringly demonstrates that everyone is now, perforce, a literary critic. “Literary criticism has in the last ten years become a key skill of everyday life,” he points out. “With our personal relations unfolding in scrolls of words on our phones, we can reread them like we would a book… In the realm of everyday gossip and grievances, we have the transcripts before us.”

The general smartphone-using population, the author details brilliantly, is getting a crash course of immersive training in textual ambiguity, the critique of bad metaphors, and the operations of bathos and metonymy. Scott points out that even celebrities can now get into trouble for a simile considered improper, as when the singer Lorde said in an interview that being friends with very famous people was like knowing someone with “very specific allergies”. As he comments: “That the misfiring metaphor has become a genre of public misstep reflects the textualisation of our reality.” Oddly, one French thinker not mentioned at this point is Jacques Derrida: the French post-structuralists, after all, were long ridiculed by their Anglo philosophical rivals for saying that the world is somehow a text. But we’re not laughing now. 

Picnic Comma Lightning: In Search of the New Reality
Laurence Scott
William Heinemann, 268pp, £20

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This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact