Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

While looking for resources for the creative writing course I am running this semester, I came across some fantastic sets of rules put together by a number of well-known authors at The Guardian‘s request. The lists are introduced as follows: “Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts”

Ten rules for writing fiction – part one

Ten rules for writing fiction – part two

Authors include: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson.

Quite a roll call! The rules are, of course, as diverse as the authors’ works. The additional research I have been doing for my course has been inspiring me to consider revisiting early ambitions to write fiction before I was diverted into the byways of the academic writing genre.

Many of the often highly entertaining rules on the list are naturally variations on the bread and butter rules for all those who write and ones I am all too familiar with, although possibly more honoured in the breach than the observance. The rules I most connected in with were Michael Moorcock’s – although I am no big fan of his fiction.

One of my difficulties has always been how to devise a plot. Moorcock suggests in his second rule: “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.” This kind of reworking of another source is something I have always found fascinating in general – but hadn’t thought to actually apply it systematically to my own attempts at fiction.

I like Moorcock’s 7th rule as well: “For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.”. Here is a link to this formula for general edification, appropriately posted in the Creative Writing section on the ‘Fandom’ site.

I did like Colm Tóibín’s rules – which apply to any kind of writing – particularly these:

1 Finish everything you start.
2 Get on with it.
3 Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
4 Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
9 No going to London.
10 No going anywhere else either.

It just goes to show that writers have long been familiar with the concept of lockdown. Having said all this, my fiction writing projects are probably not for the immediate future in a university environment that is in meltdown at present. But let’s not venture onto that sad territory today!

A reflection below from an interesting article on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s love of American hard boiled detective fiction. Wittgenstein is not known for being an easy read amongst philosophers! Zimmerman provides a nice summation of why we like the fiction we do. This has pretty much always been my own approach to fiction. I see it as part and parcel of my other philosophical interests. It is philosophical reflection played out on another stage.

“Well, why do we—any of us—love the particular fiction we do? Probably not because it matches our philosophical convictions. We choose a genre of fiction because it chooses us—because it speaks to us on the primary level of identity. To read fiction is to inhabit other selves, try on alternative lives, run test cases that probe and stretch our inner and outer relations. And then to return to our actual lives, where we find that the temporary reimagining has already spilled over, quickening, enriching.”

Philip K. Zimmerman, ‘The philosopher and the detectives: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enduring passion for hardboiled fiction’, CrimeReads, September 24, 2020

This post was originally intended as a bare-bones response to Bruno Latour’s challenge to list hopes for change emerging out of the coronavirus crisis, but ended up being prefaced by a preamble on my difficulties with writing and a reflection on my current context.

For quite some time, I have suffered (and I use the word advisedly) from the realisation that anything I have to say has already been said – and often far better by someone else. As an academic trained in the best traditions of high modernism, this incapacity to maintain a position at the forefront of the bleeding edge avant-garde has a stifling effect, muzzling one into a helpless silence. It is a recipe for endless disappointment, as one finds, in an overpopulated public forum, that one seemingly brilliant idea after another has already been articulated by someone else. Added to this is that other Enlightenment ideal that knowledge and expertise will somehow provide the solution to every problem. Things are in reality far more ambiguous. There is also the expectation, for a certain type of intellectual at least, that one must speak with the voice of truth, be a prophet in the wilderness, a sign and inspiration to all. These modernist and pre-modernist imperatives haunt the edges of every attempt at publication, like the ghastly phantom presence of some long forgotten and unmourned ancestor.

This latter pretension was taken to task by Michel Foucault who criticised the notion that intellectuals should speak as the universal voice for all and offer a guiding light to the collective road ahead. His own towering figure and monumental work was of course a thorough contradiction of his words, but they are words that at least point to a possible path for others. The radically non-didactic and inclusive tenor of his investigations also offers an open invitation to pursue a myriad of directions far removed from his original concerns.

Perhaps, as Foucault suggests again, all one can do is speak from the standpoint of one’s own inquiries and experience, hoping to find connections with others, however slight. Perhaps merely adding another voice to the collective discussion that is human existence, another voice with all its subtle nuances of individual difference, might just be that barely perceptible shade, that trifle, that helps another to clarify their own point of view. Perhaps, in the end, that’s all that’s needed – that tentative shred of hope that other connections can be made no matter how obscure and fleeting.

Bruno Latour proposes: “a little exercise to make sure things don’t restart after the lockdown just as they were before.” This is in the form of inviting responses to a list of questions. He has also set up an online platform to facilitate these responses. He specifies: “This exercise is not a question of expressing an opinion but of describing your situation and what you may be investigating.” Latour also suggests that this might be a tentative contribution to a networked discussion – fragments of ideas to share and to discuss that might eventually and gradually find an embodied form through communication – friendly or otherwise – with others.

Essentially, he is inviting people to make a list of their hopes for change in a context that paradoxically in this time of physical lockdowns, has become a lot more fluid, more open to the possibility of real change. And of course all of this comes – as so often in human history – at an immense cost to people’s lives, health and well-being.

So, I am going to try out some of my own fragmentary responses to Latour’s invitation, tweaking them for my own purposes. This is very much from the perspective of my own lived experience – not a theorised or even a practical position – but it is most certainly and unapologetically opinionated. These are semi-formed thoughts on the go, an invitation to others to share their own perhaps better formed questions and proposals. And of course, it is entirely possible in this rapidly evolving situation that my own answers will be very different tomorrow.

To give these reflections a concrete physical context: I am an academic working in a large university in Queensland, Australia. Australia is in a more than privileged position in the current crisis – for now at least. It has been able to leverage the fact that it is a remote island continent with borders that can be sealed from the rest of the world. It is also a wealthy country with ample space and pleasant weather. (But it does need to be said that at the beginning of February 2020, 13.6% of the population was living below the poverty line. That percentage is set to increase. The higher education sector, where I am placed is also in trouble.) So for all the self-congratulatory rhetoric of various pundits in relation to Australia’s (so far) efficient management of the crisis, circumstances and the specificities of geography and history have played a central role.

These are of course, very early days and the future is uncertain. Lockdown restrictions at the time of writing are easing by slow increments. Strangely, the stepdown is inducing an even more uncertain feeling of limbo as the reality dawns that it will be up to individuals – no longer the government – to strategise in relation to their own future safety. Globally, we tread in uncharted territory with enormous suffering being the price to pay for having ignored for so long all the warning signs counselling against the march of untrammeled greed, self interest and the exploitation of both human and non-human.

Prior to this crisis, I had the sense of waiting for something; marking time, straining ahead towards an increasingly narrow horizon; locked down in a joyless prison of the overwhelming expectations of performativity within a tightly regulated neoliberal framework. It is a personal perception that has been slowly dissipating during this crisis. My sense now is of having the present restored – a present not constrained by the rigid dictates of past or future, a present not locked down and with an open uncertain vista ahead. But it is a fragile present and one can only hope that the prison doors don’t slam shut again. It’s with this in mind that I’m addressing the questions Latour proposes. My responses are in no particular order, encompassing the very local as well as the very global with no expectation, as I said earlier, that my responses will be the same tomorrow.

Question 1: What are the activities now suspended that you would like to see not resumed?

This is my list.

  1. The extraordinarily oppressive system of anonymous student evaluations of teaching in universities. Due to the fact the university has had to unilaterally move most of its courses online, it has suspended these evaluations for this academic year.
  2. Everybody endlessly rushing around in a frenetic circuit of work, performative leisure activities, constant movement through space with no time to appreciate the immediate environment, to enjoy the everyday, to pause to spend unstructured time with others.
  3. A joyless, regulated existence in the workplace and in everyday life – with a relentless performative drive aimed at reducing uncertainty and risk at every turn while promoting dubious measures of “growth”, “impact” and “productivity”. All of this leaving widespread unhappiness, illness, machine noise, air pollution and the ever more efficient destruction of vegetation, animal life and landscape in its wake.
  4. The enormous and obsessive fixation on real estate property and its value and enhancement through an ongoing cycle of renovation.
  5. Heavily mediatised and overpaid spectator sport and the 2020 Olympics.


Question 2: Describe why you think this activity is harmful/ superfluous/ dangerous/inconsistent and how its disappearance/suspension/substitution would make the activities you favor easier/ more consistent.

My response:

  1. In the performative ideology that has increasingly permeated every nook and cranny of existence, the convenient belief has been that anonymous feedback systems of surveillance are needed to ensure professionals do a good job. The way I am teaching has not changed during this suspension (apart from going online), but I find that without the cloud of prospective evaluations hanging over my head, a dreary weight of drudgery and oppression has lifted. There is a welcome sensation of space for freedom and enjoyment in my interactions with students. Enforced evaluations haven’t always existed. The thought of having to go back to that crushing, joyless, soul-destroying disciplinary regime feels like sandpaper against the skin.
  2. People taking their time and staying in place rather than endlessly performing and rushing around has removed a degree of exhausted frenzy from the atmosphere. Unfortunately a degree of frenzied performance appears to be creeping back in – if the constant parade of determined walkers, exercisers and picnickers in every available urban park is any indication.
  3. I would like to see more respect and recognition for both the human and the non-human. This had been steadily decreasing in the suspended system. The treatment of all beings and entities whether living or not with respect, rather than as disposable tools aimed at increasing a mythical “growth”, should be the goal. I would like to see the recognition of human and biological rhythms, not a spiraling servitude to the machine rhythms of computers and associated systems . Another hope is for the creation of networks amongst existences that are not hierarchical and managerial. I would like to see a future that is not locked down but open to possibilities – even if these are not risk free, with a recognition that human existence is risky by definition, at the same time being careful to emphasise that this is not a risk that should be taken at others’ expense.
  4. Housing should be shelter not an investment. Relaxing, comfortable, spacious and beautiful shelters for all, at an affordable price, built and functioning in harmony with the non-human (plants, animals and landscape) would be the ideal. I would also like to see the return and growth of programs of innovative public and social housing.
  5. Just to address the local sports scene: I don’t miss the marketing, financial and ideological juggernaut that is spectator sport: heavily mediatised, financially dubious, with its constant and tedious ‘boys will be boys’ sex, drugs, money and other scandals in the Australian football codes (mainly rugby league and Australian rules) and its dominance of the news and media programming. Nor do I miss the jingoistic, non-inclusive national identity mythmaking attached to these sports. I would like to see a lot less money go into this sector and its decoupling from notions of national identity and newsworthiness.
  6. (5a) Likewise, the Olympics represents an enormous financial burden on the host country, often at the expense of the already poor and is arguably a competition to see who has the best methods for concealing performance enhancing drugs. The twentieth century imperatives and ideologies that resurrected and refashioned the elite Ancient Greek tradition of the Olympics are no longer current and interest has been declining for a number of years now. I would suggest that the world no longer needs the Olympics.


Question 3: What measures do you recommend to ensure that the workers/employees/agents/entrepreneurs who will no longer be able to continue in the activities you are removing are helped in their transition toward other activities.

I would like to include all members of the social body in this question. My answers are simple in the abstract, complex in the practical implementation.

  1. My first answer is a universal basic income – not partial but universal. No exceptions. By universal income, I mean a model that allocates a subsistence income to every single adult citizen, one that is paid for by the tax system. This income would act as a safety net for individuals during times of individual and social crisis. Job earnings would be paid on top of this untaxed basic income.
  2. My second answer is a free education for all. And by free education, I mean open and non-fee paying access to an education that is not tied to social distinction and galloping credentialism.
  3. Thirdly, targeted programs and funding for setting up systems and practices which aim for a harmonious balance of how we live and cooperate with our natural environment and with the non-human entities on the planet.


Question 4: Which of the now suspended activities would you like to develop/resume or even create from scratch?

  1. A well-funded arts sector and the encouragement for everybody to take part in amateur expressions of art and culture.
  2. Universities as well-funded and well-respected high end education and research institutions, with the humanities and theoretical social and physical sciences in addition to the perceived more ‘useful’ sectors of applied science and vocational studies to be held in high regard by the entire social body. These institutions need not be large and I would like to see them decoupled from mechanisms of social distinction and credentialism.
  3. The time and spaces for relaxed human sociability, even if we do have to live with ‘social distancing’ for quite some time to come.


Question 5: Describe why this activity seems positive to you and how it makes it easier/ more harmonious/ consistent with other activities that you favor and helps to combat those that you consider unfavorable.

My answers:

  1. Humans are unable to thrive without the arts and spiritual practices of all kinds. These are the things that give life meaning and joy. Why has there been the expectation that they can somehow continue to exist without material support for those who produce these things? There is also too much of a disparity between the few artists who do extraordinarily well and the majority who live hand to mouth.
  2. High-level research needs to continue to warn people of social and environmental dangers, to promote social and individual well-being, to explore and expand the limits of human experience and open people’s eyes to the enormous expanse of all the networks, human and non-human, that we interact with. This research should be seen as a public good and funded as such.
  3. The answer is obvious here, humans need to support and be supported by other humans.


Question 6: What measures do you recommend to help workers/ employees/ agents/ entrepreneurs acquire the capacities/ means/ income/ instruments to take over/ develop/ create this favored activity.

Short and sharp here. See question 3. A universal basic income and free education for all.


This whole crisis, painful and destructive as so many elements of it are, is an invitation to begin again (to borrow Foucault’s phrase), to reconfigure, start and renew positive discussions and collaborations, no matter how modest and tentative these initiatives are at the outset. My hopes are manifestly more than a little Utopian, but no-one ever got anywhere by thinking small. And of course, we always need to bear in mind the warning and proviso that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.
With thanks to Peter Johnson on the Heterotopian Studies site for the link to Bruno Latour’s framework.

Five years ago, I put together a research paper on the problems of open plan offices in universities. These problems were by no means limited to the higher education sector but were evident across multiple industries. One of the points I raised related to the dangers of disease transmission. Of course, this is now a problem which has come home to roost in a very major way in the wake of the global pandemic. Although the ostensible reason for the construction of open plan offices was “collaboration”- something they arguably reduced in fact, the convenient rhetoric hid the true reason, which was a perceived cost saving (again perceived rather than actual – given a measured reduction of worker productivity in this environment) and greater surveillance.

There must be many companies now kicking themselves for their false economy in foisting these designs on their hapless workers. When this article titled “The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office” appeared in The New York Times recently, I had to laugh. As the article says of a movement which has gathered increasing momentum in the last ten years:

The embrace of open floor plans stretches back to the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity, but is, of course, also about cramming more people into expensive office space, a situation that people now realize creates unnerving petri-dish conditions.

The phrase ‘now realize’ is ironic considering that these dangers had already been pointed out in some detail by researchers and of course unceremoniously ignored. The miseries of the open plan worker, now mask wearing and surrounded by perspex, are only set to be compounded.

As Ron Weiner says below, a number of the measures taken to deal with the problem will amount to little more than theatre – no more than a symbolic gesture by employers with very little real world efficacy for their employees.

The proposed changes to the offices have struck some as more cosmetic than substantive, especially the sneeze guard.

“I call it social distancing theater, like T.S.A. security theater after 9/11,” said Ron Wiener, chief executive of iMovR, a Seattle company that designs standing desks that are used at many large employers, from Google and Facebook to the Department of Defense.

So how is the problem going to be solved? Allow Darwinian selection to take its course and save on salaries? Send the workforce home? Have a staggered roster system? Many of the open plan offices are new, built on the graveyard of individual offices – too large an investment for companies to demolish and rebuild or even substantially refit. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Foucault has this to say about “self-expression”:

I don’t believe in the virtue of using language for “self-expression”. The language that interests me is the one that can actually destroy all the circular, enclosed, narcissistic forms of the subject and of oneself. And what I mean by ‘the end of man’ is, deep down, the end of all these forms of individuality, of subjectivity, of consciousness, of the ego, on which we have built and from which we have tried to build and to constitute knowledge. …The West has tried to build the figure of man in this way, and this image is in the process of disappearing. And so I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, but rather I say them with the end in mind of self-destruction, precisely to make sure they are no longer what I think. To be really certain that from now on, outside of me, they are going to live a life or die in such a way that I will not have to recognize myself in them.

This passage transcribed from the subtitled The Lost Interview video by Sebastian Edin is rendered in Michel Foucault, Freedom and Knowledge, Interview by Fons Elders. Translated by Lionel Claris, Elders Special Productions BV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2012, p,33 as follows:

I don’t believe there is virtue in using language that is intended only to express various forms of subjectivity to others. That is a language that does not interest me. The language that interests me is the one that can actually destroy all the circular, enclosed, narcissistic forms of the subject and of oneself. And so I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, but rather I say them with the end in mind of self-destruction, precisely to make sure they are no longer what I think. To be really certain that from now on, outside of me, they are going to live a life or die in such a way that I will not have to recognize myself in them.

It is not about trying to find, then expressing an “authentic self” to the world. Rather, we could see our personal existence as an ongoing experiment with non static practices of the self, of manifesting a self to others through various kinds of external and internal practices. These practices are borrowed and modified from the practices invented by others and plugged into a general social and cultural network. It is not a question of finding, then externalising with anguished difficulty some authentic individual and unique interior.

A definitional discussion on “self-expression” on the Positive site notes the following:

self-expression is, at its core, the action of expressing yourself, and it can take a wide variety of forms. You can use your words, your facial expressions, your body, your movements, clothing, actions, and possessions to express your authentic inner self.

and refers to a definition drawn from Kim, H. S., & Ko, D. (2007). Culture and self-expression. In C. Sedikides & S. J. Spencer (Eds.), Frontiers of social psychology. The self (pp. 325-342). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

that self-expression is one of the most highly-regarded and venerated values in Western civilization due to the near-deification of “the individual” in our society. Not only is self-expression a vital practice of Western culture, it is also baked into the very roots of psychology. After all, psychology is all about the study of the mind, including the self, others, and groups of people.

Of course, the idea of an “authentic inner self” is something that Foucault famously challenges, also noting that the “free and unique individual” that people think they are expressing is far more constrained and illusory than they think.


Foucault News

After the terrible news of the fire and because the banner of Foucault News is an image of Le Stryge, one of the chimera on top of Notre Dame, I am reposting the message and photo below from the Alliance Française de Brisbane. The fate of the chimera is as yet unclear. This article on the BBC news site lists what has survived and what hasn’t.

Claude Mauriac in his memoir Le Temps Immobile describes watching Maurice Clavel, the journalist, playwright and author lecturing on Foucault at Notre-Dame, praising his anti-humanist Kantian stance in The Order of Things. (David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, Penguin Random House, p.192)

The Motto of the City of Paris “fluctuat nec mergitur” (she is tossed by the waves but does not sink) This will prove to be true once Notre Dame is rebuilt again.

Donations are already flooding in…

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This sounds like an interesting read. The adulation of ‘busyness’ is definitely something I’ve noticed in the last couple of decades at least.

Bellezza, Silvia, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan. “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol.” Journal of Consumer Research 44, no. 1 (June 2017): 118-138.

While research on conspicuous consumption has typically analyzed how people spend money on products that signal status, we investigate conspicuous consumption in relation to time. We argue that a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol. A series of studies shows that the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market. This research uncovers an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals. Furthermore, we examine cultural values (perceived social mobility) and differences among cultures (North America vs. Europe) to demonstrate moderators and boundary conditions of the positive associations derived from signals of busyness.

Peaks and pirates … A detail from a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s map by Monro Orr in 1934. Photograph: 14597/The British Library Board

I am fascinated by various kinds of literary and artistic maps. This article in The Guardian talks about some notable literary maps:

Robert Macfarlane, Frances Hardinge and Miraphora Mina, Wizards, Moomins and pirates: the magic and mystery of literary maps, The Guardian, 22 Sep 2018

From Moominland to the Marauder’s Map, writers Robert Macfarlane, Frances Hardinge and Harry Potter cartographer Miraphora Mina unfold their favourite maps

Broadly speaking, we might say there are two types of map: the grid map and the story map. A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, a meshwork within which any item or individual can be coordinated. The power of such maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. Their danger is that they so reduce the world to data that they record space independent of being.

Story maps, by contrast, represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and their perimeters are the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller.

Tyler Cowen, Americans own less stuff because of the internet, and that’s a worry, Financial Review Aug 13 2018

Lately I’ve been worrying about a problem of the latter kind: the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.


The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship.

This article in the Financial Review runs all the wrong arguments about the share economy. It’s not the lack of private ownership per se that is the problem and that is going to solve our current difficulties. Who needs more hoarding, more waste to clog up the environment, more greedy profiteers exploiting their fellow human beings – even at primary school level – where the latest educational trend is to encourage children to be ‘entrepreneurs’?

A more even social and economic distribution is what’s needed. The real problem is not the decline of ownership per se (which I think is a good thing – unless it’s due – as is often the case – to exponentially increasing economic disparities) but how goods are being shared and made available for use and who is making them available via subscription systems. What we should be more worried about in relation to some of the mechanisms the author describes (print, video and audio streaming services, google etc) are the ways our freedoms and access to knowledge are being controlled and manipulated by large corporations – all in the interests of profit. Also, some forms of the so-called share economy are just new and unregulated forms of exploitation. Uber and Air bnb, for example, are perhaps a little less ideal on that score than they would like to appear.

A useful article in The Guardian on the long standing prejudices against fan fiction and its emergence from the dungeons of dubious subculture particularly since the advent of the internet.

From Star Trek to Fifty Shades: how fanfiction went mainstream
Mikaella Clements
Wed 8 Aug 2018

The divide between a fanfiction writer and an original fiction writer can look very arbitrary when looking at authors such as Michael Chabon, who once described his own novel Moonglow as “a Gravity’s Rainbow fanfic”. Or Madeline Miller, whose Orange-prize winning The Song of Achilles detailed the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and whose latest novel Circe picks up on the witch who seduces Odysseus in the Odyssey. Miller said she was initially worried when one ex-boyfriend described her work as “Homeric fanfiction” but has since embraced her love of adapting and playing with Greek mythology. The tag could also be applied to classics such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, reworkings of Shakespeare by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Edward St Aubyn in the Hogarth series, and a spate of parodies: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Android Karenina.

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