‘I fear a future of digitised, mobile snippets of knowledge, summaries and bullet points’ – Steve Finbow interview Lee Rourke, author of The Canal

Lee Rourke’s The Canal has garnered praise since its publication by Melville House in June this year. A novel about boredom that is far from boring, The Canal nudge-nudges Martin Heidegger, wink-winks Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and lands a mighty slap on the arse of JG Ballard. Steve Finbow caught up with Lee outside The Three Kings in Clerkenwell and then again in cyberspace.

Steve Finbow (SF): You write that desire is similar to boredom; do you think that like fetishes (a concentration of desire) there are particular types or differing degrees of boredom?

Lee Rourke (LR): Yes, I do. I would point anyone towards Heidegger’s three-fold explanation of boredom in his lectures from The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, which are possibly the only real exploration of boredom as an everyday thing in modern philosophy. The narrator of The Canal is continually experiencing each of Heidegger’s proposed degrees of boredom: the first form of boredom is a state of ‘becoming bored by something’, the second is ‘being bored with something and the passing of time belonging to it’ and the third is a form of ‘profound boredom’ where ‘it is boring for one’. It is in the state of ‘profound boredom’ where the feeling of emptiness begins, it is the most challenging form of boredom for Heidegger, and it is where things begin to fall apart for the narrator of The Canal.

There is the constant desire to do things, anything, in The Canal and, yes, for me desire is inextricably linked with boredom. The desire we feel stems from the act of being left in limbo by the existence we have been thrown into, or towards. Being held in limbo is far more extreme than being held back or thrust forwards. Held in limbo we feel desire; the desire to escape. We feel the desire to fill the gaping void that this limbo reveals to us – we fill it with anything and everything, just as long as it is filled.

Having said all this, I was also wary of the dodgy heroics of Heidegger, for this reason there is nothing heroic in The Canal. I could never celebrate meaninglessness and boredom in The Canal when there are people in this world who have suffered – there’s nothing meaningless about suffering. For me, boredom is part of us, it is us to the core, and I wanted to explore the idea of simply embracing it in fiction. As the narrator of The Canal proves, this is never simple, and it’s certainly never heroic.

SF: In the South African satirical sci-fi movie District 9, the aliens’ weaponry cannot be used by humans because it is encoded with alien DNA – would you say your feelings about technology are ones of awe or trepidation?

LR: It’s funny you should mention this film as I only watched it the day before I read your questions. I strangely liked that film. We, like the government/military officials and the gangland boss in District 9, are completely in awe of technology – some of us still believe that it can afford us a God-like status. Which is wrong, because technology has gradually become our God, we are merely stationary beings awaiting its every arrival, itching to be used by it in some new and exciting way. We buy, with our hard-earned wage, into the God-like status of technology every day. Our lives, and salaries, are governed by it. I suppose it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra announced that (our old) ‘God is dead’ in the market place, surrounded by traders, buyers and sellers.

It didn’t used to be like this, though. As Heidegger points out in his stunning essay “The Question Concerning Technology” the word ‘technology’ stems from the Greek technikon meaning something belonging to technē, which in turn means not only the skills of a craftsman but also the craft of poiēsis, for the Greeks technology was inextricably linked to the poietic: a bringing forth of craft, the artistic, and above all else knowledge. Heidegger calls technology a mode of revealing, a kind of truth that reveals everything about ourselves. Right up until the time of Plato, Heidegger argues that technē was linked to epistēmē: to know something, to be an expert in something completely. There was a time when through such a bringing forth of these things we could transcend the everyday towards a realm of pure knowledge – which, in my mind is quite a God-like transformation.

The thing is, modern technology, which is about as far removed from its etymological roots as can be, is leaving us behind. Modern technology is a bringing forth of knowledge that has no use for us, so we are left standing, motionless. Heidegger warned us about this (cleverly using the Rhine and a hydroelectric plant’s dam as his metaphor); he called it standing-reserve (Bestand). Everything is ordered by technology to be immediately at hand, to stand in reserve to be used – much like the water of the Rhine waiting at the damn to be used to turn the turbines of the hydroelectric plant. In other words, we have finally reached the point where we continually stand in awe, awaiting technology’s next, bedazzling use. In this respect, yes I think we are completely in awe.

I guess this is why the narrator of The Canal is constantly gazing up at the aircraft in the sky; to him they are at once beautiful and terrifying, defying everything he fears, symbolising both the escape from and decent towards gravity, i.e., death, before they leave him behind, stationary on the bench. I guess, in watching the aircraft floating above him, he is in some symbolic way tapping into the bigger picture, some symbolic order of things.

SF: Which writers/artists/musicians best depict the contemporary state of the world?

LR: There are so many, it’s hard to know where to start. I would definitely say the films of Werner Herzog, Chris Marker and Johan Grimonprez. The novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Michel Houellebecq, Stewart Home, JG Ballard and Tom McCarthy, for me at least, say something about the state of our world, both symbolically and systematically.

SF: Could you name four books that informed the writing of The Canal and tell us why they did so?

LR: There are way more than four, but if I was forced to narrow it down to just four (which I just have been), I would have to say: JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, because it points us towards a future that is boring, i.e., our present. Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, because it unravels the impossibility of Literature. Martin Heidegger’s collection of essays Poetry Language Thought, because it pointed me towards horizons, bridges and the importance of dwelling. Martin Heidegger’s lectures The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, because it explained to me our slide towards the abyss.

SF: Do you write because you are bored?

LR: I think I’ve always had the desire to write, and I think that everyone, including myself, is bored to greater and lesser degrees; so I guess my answer would have to be yes and no. I find writing hard work, so I generally slide into boredom if the writing on any particular day is not going too well: my mind starts to wander, I get irritable, that sort of thing.

SF: I found The Canal to be a philosophical book – not in its density – it’s surprisingly easy to read for a novel containing so many ideas – would you say philosophy has a place in the instantaneous-metastasized media world we live in? In other words, is there time and space for reflection?

LR: I think there is time and place for reflection if you choose to take a step back from things, especially the things that clutter everyday modern life. I wanted to talk about big themes (or those which I consider to be big themes) in a very simple matter of fact way. As human beings we are met with big things, themes, thoughts each day, most of us are oblivious to them, some of us choose to ignore them and a small minority try to fathom them. I wanted The Canal to be a simple discourse with these themes, a conversation with them and also the reader. The conversation chapters were solely written for this purpose, I didn’t want them to be two ‘realistic’ conversations between two ‘realistic’ characters, I wanted it to be an open conversation between the book and the reader. The sole purpose, in my mind at least, was to create a spark, to ignite something within the reader that is outside of the work of fiction in their hands. I don’t know if I succeeded in doing this, I guess that bit is up to the reader, not me. Once I have written the book, it’s finished. It’s not mine anymore. But, to return to your question, yes, I do think there is space for philosophy in a media-saturated world; I guess we just have to find different ways of disseminating such things. XML, mobile content, e-books is the next stage of mediation and dissemination and philosophy can play its role in all of this – we just have to learn how to do it, we mustn’t let the glare of technology take us away from our base, fundamental roots: like, what the fuck is all this about? I’m pretty sure we’ll never know – in fact, I’m pretty sure we don’t really need to know because there’s nothing to know. Isn’t the role of philosophy to ease us through our existence? I can always see room for something like that.

SF: What are your specific disciplines when it comes to writing? Any superstitions?

LR: As I said before, I find writing extremely hard work. So, things have to be right in order for me to feel comfortable whilst writing. I write longhand in large notebooks, and I can pretty much write anywhere – but I have to be in the right frame of mind. It’s funny, before I start to write I can feel it coming on, I start to pace and become annoyingly hyperactive, then I go to write and all seems to calm down. But the slightest thing can but me off: the wrong sized nib on a pen, the wrong thought, a noise outside the window. I don’t have any superstitions as such, but I have to always make sure that I am facing side-on to the window. I like the window to be on my left-hand side when I am writing – I have no idea why, but it just has to be that way. After I have filled-up a notepad I type it up onto my laptop, this is where I do all of my editing, and I also make more notes at this stage whilst I am editing.

SF: How autobiographical is your work?

LR: There are echoes from my life in all of my fiction. But I’d never consider them to be autobiographical. Everything is fiction, all is construct. Blaise Cendrars illustrated this, as did Jacques Derrida. Even if I was to write about the most personal thing that has ever happened to me in my life it would be pure fiction – fiction in its purest form, to boot.

SF: You write: “…as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will become increasingly more violent.” I have to disagree with this statement, arguing that the world is becoming infinitely more interesting, we have on demand information about everything, that we are moving into a maelstrom of everythingness, and that humanity is becoming more docile, locked into that information. Shall we arm wrestle?

LR: I’m actually quite a good arm wrestler. I could argue that the above is my protagonist’s view of the world as he sees it based on the things that have happened to him within the pages of The Canal the novel. Or I could be speaking through him, a form of postmodern ventriloquism a la Stewart Home or Ann Quin. I like to think that at this point in the novel I am plugging into something already iterated by JG Ballard on the vast circuit board of Literature. For me, at that point in the novel, a reiteration of Ballard’s basic formulae was a perfect signpost for me to reach. But, there is also part of me that wholeheartedly agrees with the above too, it is me speaking completely and I do see a slide towards meaninglessness in our lives – I do see things becoming more boring as the gaping void of our existence slowly begins to reveal itself the more technology takes things away from us. There is only one conclusion I can see on our vast horizon: violence. We are ill-equipped to deal with nothingness, we ultimately fear it, and we will do anything to protect whatever meaning we have been lucky enough to salvage from the wreckage of modernity. Boredom, in a sense is our truth, and we don’t like the truth especially if it doesn’t contain all the things that help ease our time living an existence we don’t have the power to understand. This is why we crave the technologies that are now leaving us behind, they, at least, offer us some respite from this fear. Which is the point in my argument where I now say that I agree – I mean, who can’t find all that interesting?

SF: Finally, what are your thoughts on the future of publishing? Writing and technology at the crossroads?

LR: I personally think we have reached a very interesting and exciting juncture. I am all for e-books and the digitisation of literature. I see a future of mobile content, where we can feed into knowledge wherever and whenever we want. There is something very exciting about the dissemination of knowledge for me and the digital technologies that are now making such things a possibility are staggering. But we also have to be careful; technologies have a habit of making us think that things should be easier, and that things should be done for us. I hope that the same technologies that have made it easy for us to feed into and share knowledge, don’t also dumb-down our intake of knowledge as a whole – culturally, as well as intellectually. We seem to have this need for speed at the moment, I’m worried that technology will quicken things up for us to such an extent that we’ll forget about sitting down, for long periods of time, reading and ingesting information at our own natural pace. I fear a future of digitised, mobile snippets of knowledge, summaries and bullet points.

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