Matt Hayler

The Event of Ambience

In a chapter called “Against Allegory,” in his book J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (2004), Derek Attridge argues that we should, more often, stop asking what a text “really means.” He’s writing about the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, a writer who critiqued the structures and policies of apartheid and whose writing was yet allowed through the censors of the regime that enforced this bureaucratic racism because sympathetic academics on the censorship board could persuasively say that he was writing about something else entirely. Because of the conditions under which his work was published, Coetzee, Attridge argues, tends to be read as someone hiding his true meaning: even as his work rarely deals with the specificities of South African politics, set in different (and often ambiguous) times and places, it still tends to be read as “standing in” for apartheid, as being an allegory for the politics of…

Foregrounding Backgrounds

I’ve been thinking about ambience (unsurprisingly) and what it might mean. I’ve been really keen to get away from the idea of ambience as simply “background/backdrop;” this doesn’t seem, to me, to be what we’re talking about at all. Or it didn’t. But maybe I’ve been doing background a disservice, or, rather, I think background gets done a disservice. Background isn’t unimportant, and it doesn’t just hide or get hidden — background does. Background is constant, consistent, imminent, but it’s also intrusive. Background structures, but not just as something that sets the scene. If ambience is background then I suspect that it’s because background is a conversational thing. If you’re looking at a photo, a portrait, then the background matters. The subject may be a human head, but the background is what makes the portrait. There is no photo without the background; if the photo is so zoomed in that…

Ecstatic Ambient Literature

All spaces touched by humans will have their own encircling information stretching out over space and time. In our landscapes we have the traces of fossils, bones, cairns and other graveyards, architecture of all kinds, and the worked and reworked soil of farmlands, coal mines, gasworks, orchards, and forests. In our cultural lives we have oral histories, gossip, overheard conversations, interlocutors, artworks, adverts, announcements, preachers, signs, warnings, and portents. And to this patchwork we’ve added radiowaves, microwaves, wifi, Bluetooth, cellular data, transcontinental and transpacific and transatlantic internet cables, and the other trillion wires of ubiquitous computing, household homeostasis, and surveillance infrastructure. There are always stories to be read and written around us, always stories in the air; to quote the movie Aliens: “they’re in the walls.” To me, Ambient Literature is a literature which explicitly responds to this knowledge and recognises its distinctive character and intensification in our current moment.…

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