• the speed of an animal

    On learning to drive later in life


    “Is this your first time holding a driver’s license?” asked the examiner.

    “Yes. First time.” I couldn’t blame him for asking. I’m a balding 45 year old man with grey in my beard. I was wearing a button down shirt and a modest spritz of luxury cologne – in case it made a difference. The other examinees were school kids in baggy shirts, baggy shorts, and begrudgingly worn shoes. I thought about all of the fear that must pass through the motor registry each day, as if fears were coins paid in tax to the state.

    I was trying not to cry tears of relief. The examiner had just informed me that I had passed my driving test, and he was giving me the piece of paper that would act as the substitute for a drivers license until the plastic one arrived in the mail. My fingers shook as I took it from him. I thought of framing it and putting it on the wall, like an award or a degree.

    I was feeling too many things at once; I couldn’t disentangle them, but I was abstractly cognizant that everything that was happening was good, was life-changing, was irreversible. There would be no more assessment of my driving ability, no more supervision. But, more than this: there would be no more dependency, no more asking for permission, or waiting for invitation, or trying to get places by suggesting, cajoling, planning. No more waiting for the bus in the burning sun or drenching rain. My travel time had suddenly been miniaturised. Even more than this: my anonymity outside the house had been granted to me – I didn’t just have to stand there, or walk there, as the river of chrome vehicles flowed past me, judging me.



    I grew up watching American Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons on television. The absurdist desert canyon of those cartoons by artist Maurice Noble would go on to affect my dreams for the rest of my life. The Road Runner landscape was a synthesis of the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, distilling a whole dream of the American Southwest, both its past and its future, to the simplest possible shapes. It was a landscape of vastness, both horizontal vastness and vertical vastness. Part of what made the Road Runner cartoons so delightfully absurdist was that the vast space depicted was no barrier to travel. The Road Runner could cross the desert in a moment. The Coyote could fall from a precipice to the sand of the desert floor in a moment without perishing. It didn’t matter whether the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote were running or falling, they always seemed to shrink rapidly to a tiny dot in the distance, swallowed up by space, silence, and the glissando of a doppler shift. Travel was effortless, and space was effectively divorced from time.

    That oneiric desert always seemed so empty and attractive to me. As a white child growing up on stolen land, I interpreted that world as a reassuring fable about colonialism, or to use colonialism’s word for itself, “civilisation.” I interpreted the Road Runner as Indigenous, at home in the open desert, and the Coyote as the invader, using ACME corporation tools and traps. This is to say, I identified very strongly with the Coyote. He had a business card, a middle name, used tools, saw himself as an apex predator, and in the most gorgeous of suburban details, he was a sucker for mail order products. (I loved mail order catalogues and products too, and if you think of the internet as a kind of souped up mail order system, then I still do.) Coyote was, to my eyes, a settler and a suburbanite still living for the thrill of conquest and dominion, still hoping for better weapons.

    But even though I identified with him, it still makes sense that I applauded every time he failed. I was personally seeking settler innocence. I needed to hear that the desert and the Road Runner could withstand Coyote’s rapacious appetites and destructive behaviour. I needed to know that as an Australian, that the landscape would be okay. The animals would be okay. The world could withstand me.

    But last month when I got my license, I found myself thinking about the Road Runner cartoons, and the ways in which they’re also a fable about roads, cars, and driving, the most powerful tools in the modern colonial arsenal. Because the desert of the Road Runner cartoons wasn’t really empty at all. It was covered in roads, ribboning across the desert, tunnelling through mountains, giving the Road Runner an almost godlike power to conquer the vastness of space and time. The Road Runner’s call “meep meep” is even the sound of a car. The mid-century American world that created the Road Runner cartoons was a world of suburban sprawl in which all of space was being suborned to the logic of the automobile. The road is the colonialist coup de grace: it seems to sever space from place.

    I’ve been thinking about Road Runner cartoons because the reassuring absurdity of those cartoons is now echoed in the reassuring absurdity of my own situation. When I want to go up a mountain, I drive up there effortlessly, merely pointing my car at the summit and pressing down the accelerator. When it is raining, I can simply drive across town without getting even slightly wet. When it is hot, I can sit in an armoured air conditioned cocoon that will take me wherever I want to go. When I run out of any kind of food or tool, I can simply drive to a supermarket in the next suburb, and even buy heavy goods without worrying about how much I can carry home. People drive past me and see me laughing at nothing, thinking I must be a crazy person.

    I am a crazy person, but my exultation is real.

    The reality of driving a car might be normal and ordinary for you but for me it’s like being granted a magic power, like being given wings. Considering I can go just about anywhere now, I might as well be flying.

    I feel strangely included in the world now, as if I’m part of its larger project, and not just coping with it. I feel less like the Coyote – using shitty products from some faraway corporation that don’t work, meant to deliver a satisfaction that was never going to come. Now I feel more like the Road Runner. I don’t even have to talk to people anymore; I can just make a beeping sound and shrink to a tiny dot, disappearing over the horizon in a few seconds, because space doesn’t control me anymore.



    There are a lot of people like me who don’t learn to drive until later in life, usually long after our families have made peace with the prospect of us being pedestrians forever. When other drivers ask us what the change is like, we usually describe it as “liberating” or “empowering,” but people who have had their drivers licenses since their teenage years never seem to fully understand what we’re saying. They often interpret it as us saying “You are free and powerful, and now I am too.” And we forgive them for being self-referential. We’re used to the driving community being self-referential.

    But I believe that when a mature learner gets their drivers license and they say they feel “liberated” or “empowered” then we are more often talking about our experience of being without a drivers license as being a state of oppression and disempowerment. We are talking about an experience of stigma, a kind of slow-burn trauma and exclusion that we have all learned to survive.

    Marginalisation can be the reason why many of us don’t learn to drive in the first place. Poverty keeps automobiles out of reach – they require not just the downpayment but the regular investment in petrol and repair. A car is a class signifier, and a class barrier too.

    Automobiles also have a grim history of being very ableist machines, not built to accommodate the variety of human dis/abilities. It is clear that if we are to achieve an uptake in driverless cars, we are going to have to remind the driving community that dis/ability is everyone’s birthright and destiny as a natural feature of the aging and vulnerable human body. But for now, we are still making automobiles for a narrow spectrum of human bodies, leaving some of us out by design.

    My marginalisation had everything to do with being gay in a homophobic world, and the rampant anxiety and dismal self-worth that ensued as a result. For one thing, I simply didn’t expect to survive far beyond my teens, so getting a drivers license seemed like a waste of finite time. For another thing, I simply didn’t have the economic werewithal because I didn’t have the aggressive ambition to pursue any kind of well-paying career. It seemed to me that the world was designed by and for bullies, and that the best thing you could do if you weren’t a bully yourself was to stay out of the way. No future, no money, no confidence. The piece de resistance in keeping me out of the drivers seat was the fact that the world of automobiles seemed like a straight man’s club. Every queer has is well acquainted with the cliches about gay men being unable to drive; that is because driving culture from the racetrack to the repairshop has its own gender order, one that is wildly heteropatriarchal.

    When it comes to the ways that inequality is programmed into our society, the automobile is one of most powerful tools of segregation. I would advise all drivers who don’t believe me on this point to spend a week catching cheap public transport – no, not ubers and taxis, but buses and trains – and look at what your community really looks like. You will discover a whole world of ignored old age, humiliated poverty, unsupported dis/ability, fearful gender diversity, persecuted racial diversity, and disaffected youth. But I think that most drivers already know this deep down, and that is why they find the idea of public transport so deeply terrifying. When their cars are getting serviced, they become frantic in organising lifts, taxis, ubers, or even the ridiculous prices associated with car rentals, all to avoid spending time sitting right to the Great Unwashed.

    I’ve been the Great Unwashed for most of my life. I was actually really clean the whole time, sitting there on my slashed up and graffitied bus seat. Almost all of us were really clean. But we were still terrifying to the privileged; they locked their doors if they saw us in the distance while they drove delicately over car park speed bumps in their massive freshly-polished SUVs.

    I was lucky to have a supportive partner who always encouraged me to have faith that when I was ready, I would learn to drive, and he would be there to help me. He bought me driving lesson vouchers that languished in my office drawer for a decade, but the very moment I was ready to learn, he was there every day for a year to sit beside me in the car while I learned. Getting my license is indeed our achievement.

    But many of us older learners were not so lucky. In fact, some of us were attached to abusive partners who either discouraged or flat-out forbad us from learning to drive, keeping us on a leash of anxiety and hesitation in order to control us.

    The pedestrian partner literally cannot escape their abuser; they try to escape on foot but the abuser follows them in their car, always pulling into the kerb. Get in the fucking car. If you want to escape, you have to learn the unmapped by-ways and cut-throughs of your local area for all the places they cannot drive. I see a lot of abusive heterosexual relationships like this, where the man drives and keeps his wife on foot. She asks his permission to go out and he says no. She tries to leave him and he follows her wherever she goes. To her, it seems like he is supernatural, inescapable, a vampire who can fly to her, wherever she is.

    And in fact, because I’ve lived my whole life under conditions of patriarchy, I’m used to seeing women who can’t drive, and their husbands who discourage them from learning. So she catches the bus. She asks for a lift. She spends a lot of time at home. Her friends are her neighbours. Even when she can drive, he is sure to sit next to her and do everything he can to induce agitation and self-doubt. He encourages her to believe that she really is inept, child-like, a bad driver, a threat to the community. And so she cedes her autonomy, and lets him drive her everywhere. In time, her skills atrophy, her anxiety grows, and soon she has done the opposite of getting her drivers license: she has learned not drive.

    This is a big threat to heterosexual seniors, with men who have retired from the workforce but still need to feel useful, handy, capable, necessary. I am watching my parents face this very moment, and am fortunate that my father is flexible and my mother has an independent streak. They do not need to play out the patriarchal pattern, though their peers and siblings might.

    When we say “liberated” and “empowered,” we are telling you that our story before the license includes oppression and powerlessness. The places we could not go. The curfew of a bus timetable, the danger of night time travel. The people we couldn’t visit. The contraction of our horizons. The slowness of our lives. We could not move at the speed of machines.

    We had to move at the speed of animals.


    To be a pedestrian walking beside the road is to gaze at a world drivers will only glance at. It is to register details about the way the world is shaped, who lives there, how it looks and sounds and smells. It is to know the animals that live in the world with us – from dragonflies to cats, from magpies to mosquitos. One moves at the speed of an animal. It is to become well acquainted with the privatisation of absolutely everything, everywhere. It is also to become acquainted with the ways that “public space” – parks and footpaths and benches – has been completely denuded in the interests of certain kind of power: low-maintenance and high-surveillance. One gets burned in the sun, gets wet in the rain and snow, gets cold in the wind. Walking is tiring. One sweats.

    To be a pedestrian is to know the bodily distance between things, measured in footsteps. It’s to know that not all footsteps are equally easy – some climb hills, some require detours, some require you to be humiliated next to very busy and dangerous roads.

    To be a pedestrian is to know that you cannot simply drive somewhere to fetch the thing you might need; you will need to take it with you. You will need to be a traveller everywhere you go. Pedestrians carry totes and satchels, plastic bags and fanny packs and they are full of things that cannot be easily fetched on foot: wallet, keys, phone, cigarettes, lighter, water bottle, shopping bag, hand sanitiser, pen, paper, bandaid, paracetamol, tissues, breath mints, face mask, charging cable, book, snack. One is prepared for the possibility that one might be stranded for some time. One’s choice of outfit and shoes are often functional. Shoes that last are the key.

    To be a pedestrian is to be forced into “the environment” without insulation. One feels weather effects keenly. One sees the ground change underfoot, the sky change overhead. One sees the death of plant life, and the disappearance of animals. Weren’t there more small birds once? Weren’t there Christmas beetles? Koalas? Frogs? Step by step, one walks through a dying world, looking at the fossil fuels being burned for frivolous car trips. One looks at the rusting razor wire, the clogged creeks, the new developments that seem old as soon as they appear.

    To be a pedestrian is to be acquainted with contemporary dystopia, not as some far off but unlikely possibility, but as the actual condition of modern capitalism. Dystopia is invisible to the community because the community has been accelerated to the point where if anyone starts to notice it, they will crash.

    The internet was called, in its earliest days, “the information superhighway.” We thought of the internet as part of an accelerated condition akin to the automobile. We were absolutely correct. The internet is a superhighway; one dare not slow down lest one perish, or worse, inconvenience a stranger we are now scared to encounter. In this way, pedestrianism is analogous to being offline: one is culturally deprived, but also, one is empirically present.

    To be a pedestrian is to be forced into an awareness of interdependence. Automobile drivers can have fictions of self-reliance, but a pedestrian must say “excuse me,” “please,” and “thankyou.” To be a pedestrian is to be without the luxury of road rage, the luxury of aggression, the luxury of entitlement. One waits. One is patient. One is philosophical.

    And there are joys too. The joy of physical fitness and the loosening of anxiety’s grip. The joy of patting a dog or cat in the neighbourhood. The joy of sunshine. The joy of saying hello, and somebody saying hello back. The joy of gardens, and the scent of the world. The joy of seeing one’s community in its diversity. Sunsets that can be stared at. Looking out a train window and letting one’s mind wander completely. And beyond all this, a strange feeling that you have as a pedestrian of arriving at your destination and feeling that you have earned the distance, that it is something you have accomplished, not just chosen.


    Will I lose these gratitudes now that I’m a driver? I hope not. My acquaintance with other mature learners leads me to believe that I probably won’t. In fact, if I’m anything like my friends who learned to drive later in life, I will keep that socialist and environmentalist flame in my heart alive forever now. And I may even be more free than other drivers, because I do not drive out of an avoidance of public transport. And hopefully I will be as generous to pedestrians as other drivers were to me when I was a pedestrian.

    But it’s time for me to learn new philosophies. I am interested in the driving superorganism, the way it organises itself. I am interested in the ways that the driving community compensate for bad drivers – without the bad drivers ever knowing just how many people are making a space for their solipsism. I am interested in whether I will use my freedom for anything significant, to go anywhere new, or whether I will simply use my drivers license to accelerate my existing routines, many of which I have refined to a point of extreme precision: to be a pedestrian is a ritualised sort of life.

    I drive out into the sunrise. I am listening to Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen singing a duet. The hills and valleys pass beneath my car like ocean waves passing beneath a boat. The shadows of eucalyptus trees flicker over me in a cool shimmer. I shrink to a tiny dot on the horizon, and am gone.

  • reminiScents

    I went back to the swamp where I grew up last week, a place of bracken and mangrove, sand and paperbark trees. The scents of that place unlocked memories, and those memories in turn unlocked other scents, the scents of childhood: sunscreen and chlorine, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, mercurochrome and musk sticks, seagrass matting and rattan peacock chairs, of eucalyptus leaves releasing their oil into the simmering heat of a solstice maxima.

    Childhood memories are kaleidoscopic, but I wonder at the utility of that metaphor now. Those of who remember using kaleidoscopes are dwindling in numbers. Maybe beauty was once held inside a kaleidoscope’s twisting cylinder, but for some time now it has been presented on the screen of an infinitely scrolling slate, the smartphone. Optic play is ubiquitous now, but while our capacity for generating beautiful artifice has increased logarithmically, our capacity for creating authentic spectacles has not.

    Revisiting the swamp, I remembered my father’s sapoderm soap, my mother’s Anais Anais perfume, my sister’s herbal shampoo, my grandfather’s White Ox Tobacco. I remembered the smell of cannabis at family gatherings with my parents and their friends, all young hippies. Their eyes were red as they passed around the joint but I didn’t know that was a sign of being stoned; I just thought they had all been crying. Now I think: well, they were progressives in the 1980s; they probably had been crying.

    Fragrance traps me in its recursions, a perfumed Möbius strip: one side is scent and the other side is memory, but they are both the same side. How am I to tease the original sense apart from the sense of remembering? Memory is another kind of sense, a self-organising after-sense, recombinatorial. The paradox of memory is that it can never generate anything new, but at the same time it is only ever producing new sensations, new experiences. Memory is mythology as process.

    I look at the word “adolescent” and I see the word “scent,” the scents of my body changing, my sexuality awakening, my personality spinning into place like a nascent solar system, around that central star, this fragrant world.

    What were the scents of adolescence? They were the henna powder that dyed my hair auburn; the small bottle of “Oceanus” from The Body Shop, the cheap Nag Champa incense and the expensive Sandalwood essential oil I bought from the health food store; the green ginger wine, so sticky sweet, and the port royal tobacco, its fragrant filaments rolled into a licorice-paper cylinder.

    I remember the taste of smoke, not just the smoke of my own cigarettes, but the smoke of Mayfield, that patina of char and ash and solder that seemed to dust the rumpled lanes and old streets, clouded across from the topaz bright chimneys of an island that was once a swamp, and wanted to be one still.

    I walked home on cool Autumn evenings with a bag full of books from the library, many of them fantasy paperbacks. Sunset turned into dusk, and magical fantasy turned into literary fantasy, full of sensual olfactory promises: Jeanette Winterson’s “Sexing The Cherry,” Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” and especially my favourite, Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea”:

    “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered – then not an inch of tentacle showed It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.

    Literature taught me that the soul should be approached through the senses. The voice of the seasons spoke in a language of flowers: frangipani, rose, jasmine, honeysuckle, geranium. Walking through the laneways in the dark at night, I learned how to identify the flowers by scent alone. I spent a lot of time alone in those days.

    Becoming gay at this time felt like a dire but compulsory challenge. I had already understood, after much guidance from my high school peers, that I was ineligible for straight normality. But achieving gay normality would still require prodigious work. I would have to change my shape, change my personality, and I would have to buy the correct signifiers and accessories. Foremost among these was scent: to be a gay man in 1990s Australia was to smell ostentatiously attractively, aggressively lovely.

    Exposure revealed to me the Gay Olfactory Universe: the gay male body was spritzed in a fizz of luxury scent, then clouded in the smoke of a nightclub smoke machine and of menthol cigarettes. The corners of that cosmos were variously redolent of amyl nitrate, spilled beer, need, semen, and sweat. On my earliest visits to gay dances, I wore the only perfume I owned: a small hand-blown glass bottle of sandalwood oil from an Indian import shop. I had assumed that when I started going to gay dances I would be propositioned relentlessly because I was homophobic and thought all gay men were predators, but when I wasn’t propositioned at all, I figured it was because I was too poor to afford the right luxury perfume. It was only later when I realised that there were other boys my age who got propositioned all the time and they were too poor to afford luxury perfume too. I decided it must have been the way I looked, and I internalised a condemnation nobody ever spoke but was somehow on the cover of every gay magazine.

    Still, I spent my dole cheque and some Christmas money on my first ever bottle of expensive perfume. I chose “Aramis” from the department store in the city. It seemed to promise a rugged individualism that flattered my desires to escape white gay conformism. It had a mature energy that instinctively pleased me. Also, I was a smoker; I needed a perfume that would not be contradicted by cigarettes. Finally, Aramis was within my working class price range – barely. The scents that other gay men wore were wildly unafforable for my budget, no matter how much I earned. Even if I had come into a large amount of money somehow, yet still that money would have been spent on replacing broken things, paying down debts, buying some independence, and there still wouldn’t have been any money left over for a bottle of Dior Fahrenheit to please the other gays.

    Gay men were opinionated about brands. We still are. I don’t know why. Maybe we think that being snobs will make us feel less like rejects. Maybe we think that we can pose our way into being rich. Whatever it is, it certainly undermines our political demands for equality.

    This irony was most evident in Sydney’s Oxford Street, a kitsch goblin-market that was somehow a sanctuary for queer bodies and the epicentre of gay liberation. The class, race and gender disparities were extreme: jet-setting professional white cisgays with perfect pectorals and Parisian eau-de-parfum stepped over Indigenous transwomen begging in the sticky gutter amongst the cigarette butts and strips of burger lettuce. I found the place emotionally serrated, and I avoided it, but there was a part of me that thought my own gay liberation would come from a gym membership and a bottle of designer perfume.

    I might have declined Oxford Street’s invitations to a good time, but I still introjected its dreams of status.

    The media regime of those last years of the twentieth century had its own sensuality: the hot buttered popcorn of the theatre; cups of instant coffee steaming in front of fresh newspapers; frozen sausage rolls in front of the television; the crisp plasticky glamour of a magazine; the smell of new books and the smell of second-hand books that were sold in almost every suburb, every day.

    This line, from Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book”:

    “like Sei Shōnagon, my sense of smell was very strong. I enjoyed the smell of paper of all kinds. It reminded me of the scent of skin.

    I tried to brace myself for the disappearance of paper from my life, knowing that personal computing was just the tip of the internet iceberg. I knew the digital revolution was happening. The science fiction future was arriving. But there was a totality to the way that paper engulfed and expressed culture that meant I even thought in paper back then – in diaries, notebooks, sketchbooks, commonplace books. Stationery was self.

    And what of the books? The phone books and address books and recipe books and street directories and atlases and encyclopedias and dictionaries and books of quotes and Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video guide – “Now with more than 19,000 entries!” – or my second hand copy of “Teleny, or the Reverse of the Medal”:

    “…tell me, which is your favourite scent?’

    “‘Heliotrope blanc.’

    “Without giving me an answer, he pulled out his handkerchief and gave it to me to smell.

    “‘All our tastes are exactly the same, are they not?’ And saying this, he looked at me with such a passionate and voluptuous longing, that the carnal hunger depicted in his eyes made me feel faint.

    “‘You see, I always wear a bunch of white heliotrope; let me give this to you, that its smell may remind you of me to-night, and perhaps make you dream of me.’”

    Before internet porn, there was porn on paper. Too poor to afford to buy pornography on VHS or in magazines, and too pretentious to buy one-handed pulp paperbacks from adult shops, I could nonetheless collect literary erotica from the 18th and 19th centuries in the more cosmopolitan second hand bookshops – books like “Memoirs of a Coxcomb” or “My Secret Life.” It never occurred to me that other people might have masturbated while reading my copy of “Teleny.” My intimate attention was focussed almost entirely on the author, who had created the text as a sort of epistemic glory hole. But now that I look back, I guess I do think of that paperback’s previous owners as my metamours. Maybe all books are this way. Regardless, I cherished my copy of “Teleny.” Erotica was harder to find back then, and because of its rarity, it was far less disposable.

    Adulthood meant having my own bookcase in a rented flat, and displaying my erotica unashamedly. I also displayed my New Age books of magic spells and ancient wisdoms, all intended to heal me from some mysterious condition which I now recognise as the condition of having money. I consulted dream dictionaries, divination guides, and aromatherapy manuals. I soaked up their knowledge, and collected my own apothecary of tiny cobalt glass bottles filled with essential oils: rosemary for viruses, neroli for desire, frankincense for spiritual protection, rosewood for panic attacks, orange to stimulate conversation, myrrh for centering. I was the only one of my New Age friends who really liked the smell of myrrh, its rubber-resin primality. There were many nights when thunderstorms would tear the trees in the garden to shreds, and I would take a candelit oil bath and watch the myrrh-steam rise around me in lazy loops and whorls. The smell stayed on my skin for the best part of a day afterwards.

    Adulthood also meant choosing the scent profile of my own house. I was sedulously clean, and my house smelled like methylated spirit, detergent, eucalyptus oil, orange blossom incense, pillar candles that required fire to release their paradoxically aquatic scents: “ocean mist”, “moss garden,” “morning dew,” “summer rain.”

    At University, I became infatuated with the large University library that seemed to contain all the knowledge in the world. I found myself in that small selection of clothbound queer books in the Dewey 820s, early modern British literature: Suckling, Marlowe, Shakespeare. Early modern literature, classical mythology, and fantasy literature were the shape of my future imagination. In a course on fairytales I read Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” and its sensuality set me on fire:

    “His voice buzzed like a hive of distant bees. My husband. My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour. Those somnolent lilies, that wave their heavy heads, distributing their lush, insolent incense reminscent of pampered flesh.”

    I had already been acquainted with the strange caustic smell of my own semen; but it was around the Millennium that I became best acquainted with the smell of other men’s semen. I would rub it into the fur of my belly and wear it around all day at work, the tight tugging of its crystals a reminder of the sex I’d had that morning. The scent of other men would be trapped in the stubble of my chin too: some of them smelled like expensive perfume, but many of them just smelled like their own skin – not luxe, but clean, and complex.

    I started to understand that scent had more influence over my arousal and my emotions than sight. In fact, I realised that I had been forming opinions about men based strongly on the way they smelled, then pretending I had ideological or ethical reasons for liking or disliking them. The positive side to this was that I was a lot less Lookist than the culture around me. But the overwhelming negative side was that I was bigoted and didn’t know it, and so couldn’t mitigate against it. People do not choose the way they smell, and they do not smell the same way twice – I probably missed out on some good connections, but my nose did at least lead me to some other men who were far sexier than they looked or sounded.

    I appreciated the irony of my historical situation. Here I was, living through a digital revolution based entirely on the circulation of images amongst millions of private screens. Everyone’s life was becoming subject to the copia of the screen: its copiousness and its copying. The Renaissance might have ushered in a Revolution by finding a way to disseminate thousands of identical pages over time, but that paled in comparison to the Internet’s ability to distribute millions and millions of copies simultaneously around the world. I was living at the dawn of a time of continuously ultraviral imagery, and it was in that world that I realised that it was in fact fragrance, not appearance, that captivated me most deeply.

    That feeling has only intensified in time, especially as culture becomes more and more dependent on, and expressed through, image based apps. We are encouraged to base so many of our day to day decisions on images that the image itself has become a sort of decision making architecture for us. But here I am presented with a universal kaleidoscope, and all I want to do is close my eyes and inhale.

    But the point of this piece is not to suggest that fragrance speaks the truth where images tell lies. Only that fragrance’s offline influence has, at least for me, intensified as the image economy begins to numb us with its glut.

    But we should all hold the world of fragrance in deep suspicion. It is not exempt from the power structures of this world, but has at every turn reinforced them, allocating credit to the tyrants and blame to the downtrodden. And if I see one overarching narrative in the world of fragrance around me, it is racist colonialism.

    I wish I could write a memoir and claim that I was always awake to other people’s suffering, but I really wasn’t. I was bigoted, and I wanted my fragrances to be as bigoted as I was, to flatter my bigotries instead of challenging them. The marketing guff that was attached to Essential Oils marketing – “exotic spices” from “distant lands” – centered my white perspective relentlessly. Part of what I was buying was that centering. After all, sandalwood is exotic to whom? Distant from whom?

    There was a component of the New Age movement that was and remains, I think, sincerely anti-racist and racially curious in ways that are both scholarly and sensitive. But there is a larger component of that movement that steals from non-white cultures for the purpose of white adornment and white self-image. Corporations in Australia sold New Age products to white customers, capitalising on their racism. I may have told myself that I was somehow spiritually magnified by buying scents from the outback, from North Africa, from the silk road, from India – always India – but I wasn’t really being subversive of capitalism at all. I was buying some new traditions so I could have a new me.

    In buying essential oils, my white spirit felt somehow cleansed of the guilt of my ill-gotten advantages in life. I felt exonerated for massacres somehow. I wasn’t like those other whites anymore. I was one of the good ones. I told myself that the incense I burned somehow banished a British blandness out of my suburban bungalow. I felt inside like adopting the decor and aesthetic of the East might exempt me from being complicit in Westernness, but I eventually came to understand that stealing from the East is the very definition of Westernness. I look very differently at those New Age books I used to buy that would “distil” (another perfume word) Eastern wisdom into nugget-sized quotes, just one bite, for the edification of Western consumers. Enlightenment was effortless, as long as you could pay the entry fee.

    Today, when I look at the marketing for Essential Oil blends, I can’t help but see how these products promise an escape or exemption from contemporary whiteness. Consider three of the most popular blends from one of Australia’s top producers of Essential Oils. I will show the advertising description in full, and highlight the deployment of concepts of reminiscence and transportation that I believe are meant to flatter white memory and white longing for dominion:

    Reminiscent of faraway lands, here the jungle creeps across moss-covered stone temples, monkeys howl and dense clouds hang in the humid valleys below. Let the aromas of Jasmine, Patchouli, Rose and Sandalwood transport you to a distant hammock and swing with the rhythm of the forest that surrounds you. 19° North of the equator the golden spire of mountainside temple, Wat Tham Pha Plong is seen rising our of lust jungle surrounds.

    Reminiscent of ancient bazaars, here colourful, sand strewn tiles line the floor and walls. Glints of gold shimmer in the hot afternoon sun and wooden looms creak with the weight of their colourful fabrics. The heady scents of Frankincense, Sandalwood, Ceadrwood, Orange and Rose will transport you to this place, where camels rest under the shade of plam trees and dunes rise over the bygone city. 41° North of the equator lies the bustling 17th Century Spice Bazaar of Istanbul.

    Reminiscent of long forgotten coastlines, here the sound of waves lapping at the shore is accompanied by the rustle of palm fronds waving in the breeze. Spices were once traded here in the stone-walled city. Allow the sweet and spicy Vanilla, Clove and Cinnamon aromas to transport you to this place where the sun warms your back and the ocean twinkles its deepest blue. 6° South of the equator lies an exotic oasis, the traditional spice island of Zanzibar.

    The writing is beautiful, and I have bought each blend multiple times. After all, I wanted to be transported to a faraway place and a faraway time. I want to be taken out of this moment with its grim power relations and endlessly warring identities.

    The New Age movement’s infatuation with old European trading routes and historical encounters with non-European cultures is evident in this advertising copy. The Irish singer Enya, probably the New Age’s greatest musical luminary, made her name with songs like “Orinoco Flow”, “Storms in Africa,” “Caribbean Blue,” “The Longships,” and “On Your Shore” with painterly cover art that looked like something retrieved from a sunken Spanish galleon.

    This infatuation with early modern exploration and travel is very deeply ingrained in whiteness, especially emblematised by a love of early modern European cartography. There is an antique map in my room on the box of a luxury perfume, Penhaligon’s “Lothair,” part of the “trade routes” collection. The description of the scent reads:

    “…the smoky heart of black tea is softened by fig milk and magnolia, sailing into an ambergris, cedar and wenge woods base, reminiscent of the varnished decks of these elegant ships.”

    For whom is this nautical tradition elegant and evocative of pleasant reminiscences? For the white consumer.

    I adore the smell of “Lothair” – I wear it every day, but nobody has commented that it smelled nautical or historical.

    In fact, nobody has ever commented on it at all, no matter how close they get to my body, even soon after I spray it on and the smell is at its brightest. I suppose this underscores the fact that most of us do not know what we are smelling at any given moment, or even that we are smelling something at all. The wearing of a perfume is a subtle magic, if not subliminal then at least sublinguistic, affecting us whether we know it or not. Nothing that can be articulated. Nothing that can be resisted.

    The overlay of language onto scent is very similar to the overlay of language onto food: full of racial specificities.

    When I look at the description for my favourite perfume, Goldfield & Banks’ “Pacific Rock Moss,” I see a list that seems to promise more than merely factual information about the sourcing of ingredients:

    Australian coastal moss
    Lemon Italy
    Sage France
    Geranium Egypt
    Cedar Wood Virginia USA

    It reads as much like an itinerary as it does a recipe. I see this denotation of countries of origin a lot in the world of fragrance. The ethnic fantasies of the consumer are piqued: you can not only escape your racial allocation, but assert your racial ownership of other cultures including past cultures: buy your piece of the sea, your piece of the desert, your piece of history. Be transported.

    The very name of this Australian perfume house, “Goldfield & Banks” is blatantly colonialist. The name refers to Australia’s gold rush – the flood of migrants who came to Australia to extract treasure – and to the Enlightenment titan Sir Joseph Banks, who visited Australia to “discover” its native flora. The romance of the perfume house is defiantly aligned with the European discovery of Australia. The website provides this paragraph about its founder:

    The Goldfield & Banks story actually begins on the other side of the world when the French-Belgian Dimitri Weber – like so many voyagers before him – set out on a journey to discover the curious, enigmatic land that lay far beyond the horizon.

    European history, European sailing, European memory. Perhaps this has everything to do with the Eurocentric and Imperial concept of “luxury”; after all, luxury brands seem so contemptuously anti-Indigenous. I find myself wondering: does luxury mean the promise of high pleasure or high status? But then I find myself tracing around another Möbius strip. I cannot tell the two apart. I want the status to have the pleasure, and the pleasure to have the status.

    Above all, I want something exotic, something that can make me feel exotic too. I want the edges of myself to supple so I can change shape into something better than the sad violent culture that engulfs me. When I purchase a fragrance, I want to gain purchase on the past and its repetitions, on my transporting memories. My love of fragrance has taken me through an ugly revelation of racist capitalism to find that I am trying to be the owner of my own life, and to hurry up and spend the money that by rights, historically, shouldn’t even be mine.

    My future of fragrance looms ahead of me with dark intimidation. As I continue to age, my stock of scent-memories will only grow, until my whole psyche is an almost suffocating garden in bloom. When I smell fragrances that remind me of the people who have gone, or of the times that will never return, how will I withstand the nostalgia then? I suppose I will not. My older partner keeps his late mother’s blanket solely for the purpose of smelling it. I wonder if I will keep his blanket in time too, if it will be my only way back to him then. There’s nothing I can do to shield myself from that pain, and I choose it willingly.

    But then I also think of my hopes for the world after I am gone too someday, that its own wetlands will be restored, bursting with life, and its seas will be restored, flourishing with creatures, and the open cut mines will be turned into gardens full of trees and flowers that will smell like paradise. My body will be molecules too, dispersed and atomised, undiscoverable, incorporated into the soil, its minerals, its vegetal life, faint and non-human by then. That artificial division between self and environment will be a needless strut by then; I will be the environment. And it occurs to me as I finish this piece, that maybe when I inhale a scent, I am being the environment, mingling with its molecules, taking the outside in, and letting life tell its story through me.


  • Interrupting images

    There was a new minimalism that arrived with the digital revolution in the late 2000s. I noticed it in a certain stripped back / unvarnished / undemanding look that we would come to know as hipster decor. The exposed beams and cables. The unadorned and blocky furniture. The thick, simple sans serif fonts with wide kerning. Very few colours – preferably only off-white, wood, and black. A pot plant here or there – preferably a plant with broad, uncomplicated leaves like a philodendron or a monstera.

    This decor became the necessary backdrop for our instagrammable lives, the images with which we would populate the already overstuffed internet, providing visual rest and calm between advertisements.

    We understood intuitively that we had already been exposed to too many images, too often, in too many places, with almost no visual rest except for when we were sleeping or when we were posing for images themselves. We wanted simple, restful, undistracting environments in which we could binge on images until it made us feel sick.

    The internet seemed to be maximalist by default.

    Sure, it adorned itself with images of minimalism, but then ironically made us look at tens of thousands of them. It made minimalist songs available, but then encouraged you to listen to sprawling incomprehensible playlists of them. It promoted quiet and reflective movies and then showbagged them into streaming services for strictly limited time only. Culture itself seemed to be burying us relentlessly like a game of Tetris.

    It all felt so inevitable, that culture would form something as mercilessly encyclopedic as this.

    It was in this era that webpages disappeared and feeds took over, chronological feeds with infinite scrolling. I did my best to keep up with the avalanche of images on Tumblr; I certainly felt like I owed it to my Tumblr friends to look at all of their posts and react to as many of them as I could. But I already knew that my attention span was finite.

    I devoted years on social media feeds trying to catch up to the present, but even when I did catch up, I only fell behind faster and faster. The present started to seem unattainable, but it was where we all needed to be in order to know that we were included in the world. Logging off and taking a screen holiday – even for a moment – was like turning your back on the ocean. Culture became a site of hypervigilance.

    I was really conscientious in these years, looking at social media on my desktop PC. During the book era I had been assessed as being erudite and smart. I was determined to export this status to the digital world. So I worked hard to absorb as much new information as I could.

    I tried to become knowledgeable through bingeing.


    It was also around this time that I became aware of the concept of “Maximizers” and “Satisficers” from Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz looked at the ways people made choices when faced with plenitude: some evaluated all the available options and selected the best one relative to the others (Maximizers) while others started with set criteria in mind and selected the first option that satisfied those criteria (Satisficers). Schwartz revealed that Satisficers were not only less tormented and exhausted during decision making, but they also tended to be happier with their choices subsequently.

    I’m glad I read the book, and I’m glad I took its advice to heart when it came to most of my life decisions. But knowing the theory of Maximizers and Satisficers couldn’t protect me against the relentless plenitude of images that was about to flood my retinas every day from my screenworld.

    In theory, I could have articulated my desires in advance of looking at the screen, and then limited my looktime strictly until those desires were fulfilled. But the curious thing was that I was increasingly looking at the screen to find out what my desires were – or what they should be.

    I never really knew what I wanted from the internet until I got it – or didn’t get it.

    I still don’t know.

    My ability to make decisions was enfeebled in another way. Flooded with a spectacle that renewed itself in realtime, I could never seem to stay conscious of my options for more than a second or two without being interrupted. Every single thought I had was interrupted by some new trivial image, some ephemeral hashtag, some urgent discourse. I started to experience the internet as an irresistible interruptor of thoughts and feelings.

    Of course, like anyone from the analogue era, I remember a time before notifications, before interruption, before infinite scrolling. The quietness of paper. The preciousness of images.

    I must remain alert to my historical situation though, and remember that this nostalgia is itself a digital artifact. I am minimising and simplifying my memories so they can act as a refuge from the unattainable maximalism of the present.


    I’m especially implicated in the visual regime of the internet because I’m a visual artist myself. Most of my work is black and white ink drawings of fauna, especially Australian birds, but I’ve dabbled in drawing erotica, architecture, fantasy. I go through phases of using photoshop to paint, but most of my work is on pieces of paper, painstakingly rendered over many hours.

    This past year I found myself trying to change my art to fit in with an Instagram ecology. I understood implicitly that there was a trade off here: Instagram would give me exposure if I would assist Instagram with its imperial ambition to conquer and colonise the entire globe’s attention span. I started making images that were quick to produce, quick to consume, and arresting. When I say “arresting,” I mean interrupting. My most successful pictures were the ones that interrupted the viewer, thus attaining noticeability, that first step towards virality.

    I uploaded a new picture each day.

    Even though that may seem like a trifling addition to the 95 million new pictures and videos that are uploaded to Instagram every day, it still represented a prodigious spike in output for me. I could only keep it up for so long before I burned out, needlessly. It only took a year.

    After I deleted my Instagram account, abandoning the attempt to achieve viral fame, I got pretty down on myself about the failure. I rebuked myself for not trying hard enough, for giving up too soon. In my most depressed moments, I told myself that Instagram was meritocratic, and that if I hadn’t gone viral it was only because I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t have what it takes as an artist.

    This is part of internet ideology: the things you look at deserve to be looked at. The people you look at deserve to be looked at.


    Over the past couple of months, I have read a few discussions about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on images. This is not in regard to the Artificial Intelligence systems that already curate images, microtarget us with them, repeat them, refine them, ask us to classify them in Captchas. That is invisible but important work, analogous to the management of an art gallery: concerned with images, but attentive to economics, demography, and ideology.

    No, the current discussion isn’t about the way that AI is changing the infrastructure of seeing itself. Rather, the discussions probe the way that Artificial Intelligence is for the first time producing images of its own, remixing and finessing images by mapping textual data onto image stock. This is the world of Midjourney, Dall-e, and Lensa AI.

    Suddenly Artificial Intelligence has a face, something we can look at. Something we can judge.

    For now, most of the images produced by AI have a certain taste and texture that betrays their artificiality. These tells are temporary. We can conjecture that we have probably already seen and accepted plenty of artificial images as genuine. We know from the history of artistic production that every new medium brings with it opportunity for counterfeit, imposture, for infiltration, for copying. Technologies of copying and reproduction are not new: they are the very essence of human art.

    Like many artists, I have wondered whether the cultural advent of AI-produced art casts me in the role of obsolete artisan, replaced by automation. I’ve certainly stopped doing portraits altogether. It’s hard not to get depressed when I see the kinds of instantaneous fantasy portraiture that Lensa AI can generate from facebook data, especially how culturally “sexy” these images are – the way they can take ordinary facebook photos and apply digital prosthetics, digital make-up, and digital constume to turn those photos into glamour shots, full of erotic cultural promise. I wonder why I ought to bother striving for that perfect blend of flattering fantasy and technical verisimilitude that people seek in portraiture when there’s a machine that does it in a matter of clicks.

    But then, I remember that AI is also colonising the world of text, and that whole convincing blog posts and Academic essays can now be generated from a textual prompt. I can tell you that I wrote this essay myself, but I can’t prove it to you. So if I’m doomed as a visual artist, I’m doubly doomed as writer. The very credibility of my voice and my handiwork is under threat from “copia” – a term meaning both reproduction and copiousness. Never before has my art been less distinguishable from simulacra that somehow pre-exist my labour before I’ve even done it.

    I find myself wondering: is there still power in images? Is there still power in text? Is there any point in saying things or showing things when each word, each picture, is just a single drop in a wave of content that is itself part of a tsunami that won’t just continue for the rest of our lives, but will grow in speed and magnitude?


    This is the new mode of censorship: relentless interrupting plenitude. It prevents a complete thought from forming. It prevents a complete emotion from taking control. And as our screens intrude closer and closer upon the perimeter of our bodies, attaching themselves to our skin and our eyes, these interruptions will become a part of our experience of embodiment itself.

    Bingeing on images, our modern condition of overdisplay and hyperspectatorship is not lying, but it might as well be lying.


    But we can take a strange consolation from the fact that censorship is still happening.

    For all the advances in creating fantasy images, there is still intensive and well-funded censorship when it comes to the depiction of the real world.

    I have seen more images of mining operations on the planet Pandora than I have of mining operations of my own region, the Hunter Valley. I have seen more images of aliens being killed than I have of lambs, cows, chickens, or fish being killed. In fact, I am a veritable expert on the killing of aliens, but I can’t say I know what an abattoir looks like. The images are simply not in front of me. I don’t know what factories look like. I don’t know where my garbage goes. I don’t know where my water comes from. I don’t know where my fish was caught. I know more about what Hogwarts looks like than I know about what a stock exchange looks like. I know more about the court of King Viserys than I do about China, where almost everything I own was made.

    The infinite – and increasingly curated – plenitude of our screen lives is so far from a comprehensive or proportionate visual depiction of how we really live.

    I am not trying to encourage conspiracist thinking here. If anything, conspiracism is the purest expression of our visual fantasia, the idea that there is enough information in front of us to form something like a paradigm. All of the conspiracists I know have been profoundly trusting of their charismatic teachers, the one who will tell the truth while the others lie. And they use the same techniques of distraction through overwhelm and censorship through interruption. Conspiracism may be information rich, but it is context averse.

    Rather, what I’m trying to underscore is that the current visual regime isn’t just epistemologically limited.

    It’s epistemologically limiting.

    And I suspect that arguing with the visual regime on its own terms is not an effective strategy. I suspect this because I tried. I don’t think we’re going to upload our way out of this interrupting plenitude; we’re not going to catch up to the present. Not ever.

    And I wonder if maybe it isn’t better to stop trying to catch up to this ransomed present, and to move instead straight to afterwards, to the future. After all, the future isn’t out of reach. We create it all the time. If you think about it, that’s all we do.



    On this page, I write about digital horror, and share my struggle in coming to terms with digitised reality. I have witnessed in the last twenty years an explosion in the field of representation enabled by networked hand-held computers, now practically grafted onto our bodies, penetrating our minds with interrupting notifications.

    The internet has become a kind of affective overseer, a corporate informant, a psychological technician. And it has garbed itself in a never ending exhibition of interrupting images. The message of this exhibition is clear: you must keep your eyes glazed onto the screen if you are to achieve liberation.

    But the internet has not delivered on this promise of liberation. ushered in utopia. It hasn’t ushered in any kind of utopia, but it has confused us into mistaking conflict for progress. I am aware that for all the progressive efflorescence of discourse and image on the internet, there has been no commensurate change in the way that money, land, nutrition, security, or healthcare are allocated to the people looking at their screens. Visual richness is just another part of poverty now.

    I feel that for all the time and attention we have paid to our feeds, there should have already been some kind of lasting benefit to offset the exhaustion. But from my perspective, I can hardly remember what I was even looking at on my phone this morning, last week, last month, last year. I can’t remember if it was important. Was I looking at flashcards as an important mode of revision, or was I just flipping through a magazine because my mind needed a rest?

    A rest from what?


  • flicker fusion \ don’t go

    I saw some trailer for a new movie about Emily Brontë. I think there was a new image every second. I couldn’t keep up.

    Movie trailers cut between images so quickly these days, but they also seem to go on for too long. Too many images, too quick to decipher. It’s like when you flick upwards on your facebook feed looking for some post or some ad that you think you saw a minute ago. You never do find it again. But you kind of half-register or half-notice everything that is flying past you. That’s what a movie trailer is like.

    I flick upwards over so many ads these days. But some of the guys are so damn beautiful. I slow down the scroll without even meaning to so I can get a better look at them. That’s when the algorithm notices my noticing. It can be for just half a second, you look a little too long at some guy’s damn beautiful face. But that’s enough to show your attentional weak spot. The algorithm figures out: this is what it takes to get your attention. So you know you’ll see him again, that particular model. He’s going to sell you everything from now on.

    At least, until you get bored with him, and you speed back up again.

    Please don’t stop reading this essay. It’s going to get interesting, I promise. Whatever keeps you interested, I will write about it, I promise. Imagine me murdering or fucking or saving the world, but don’t go.


    So I saw this movie trailer. You should have seen her face, that actress. She was so beautiful. There was a new image of her, every second. But they kept changing frames, changing scenes, so you couldn’t get a solid good look at her. If you want to get a good look at her, I guess you have to buy a ticket to the feature film. And google her. And look at posts from strangers about her on facebook.

    I’m pretty sure the movie won’t be shown in high frame rate because it’s cheap and literary, not a high budget fantasy. But I don’t care. I don’t like high frame rate movies. They’re too frictionless. I feel like I’m sliding on mud, about to fall.

    I already had a headache before I’d walked into the cinema, and I’d popped two headache pills ten minutes prior, but the movie trailer, the one about Emily Brontë, was making it worse. I was getting angry there in my cinema seat. I hope I’m not making you angry with these short sentences.

    Please don’t go.


    We used to make jokes about speed reading. Never thought that when the future came that would just be called “reading.”


    I’m always thinking about that comic book Watchmen where the villain, Ozymandias, sits in his palace and looks at a hundred screens at once. This trope was considered a shorthand for intelligence, to be consuming rapidfire information from multiple sources, and recognising patterns in it.

    But we all tried it out.

    It made us into fucking idiots, sitting on the lone and level sands, flicking through our smartphones, hoping that we could feel something before our shift at work started, trying to find out how to use a meme correctly.


    Social media was supposed to be like a zoetrope or a flipbook, those old toys where you got the illusion of animation by passing a lot of images in front of your eyes at once. You’d spin or flip through the images and it no longer looked like a collection. It looked like a single image, moving, changing. Social media was supposed to give you this feeling like you were really getting somewhere, connected to other people at the speed of light.

    I feel like I’ve read a lot of material on how social media rewards obsession, rewards distractibility, rewards entrenchment. We talk a lot about “dopamine.” We talk a lot about “addiction.” We talk a lot about how great it feels to be fully immersed in the social media world of moral simplicity, the illusion of status mobility, the possibility of new friends, new fucks, new family. We think of social media like a kind of casino environment, engulfing us.

    But social media punishes you, too. It punishes you for not going fast enough, not looking long enough. If the social media experience needs a high frame rate, that is because a slow frame rate results in a complete incoherence of experience. The sequence becomes fragmented, repetitive, thousands of almost identical frames. When we think about the frictionlessness of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, moving, moving, moving, we have to admit to ourselves that we accelerate to this speed so we can avoid the agony of friction, of getting stuck on an image, on a post, on a thought, on a person.


    Social media is changing. I’m noticing a lot more videos these days, fewer words and pictures. The videos are getting shorter and there are a lot more of them. People are watching videos everywhere they go now. The woman in front of me at the cinema clicked on a Reel (or was it a Story? Or a TikTok?) during the before-show previews and advertisements. I guess she was in her seventies. I don’t even know if she meant to start watching a video – the tripwires are everywhere – but she certainly finished it. There was a giant advertisement on the cinema screen in front of us all, showing some slow motion ski field in ultra high definition, but this woman was watching some low-res video about a laborador on her private little phone screen.

    I felt annoyed and planned a speech to use should she kept using her phone through the movie. But the movie only went for 12 seconds – no harm done. She folded her phone and put it in her bag, ready to watch the next advertisement. Coincidentally, the next ad on the cinema screen was for a flip phone, her phone. I wondered if I should buy one, if I would be happier with a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 5G, “Your Galaxy, Your Way, Unfold Your Phone.” But that was the last ad before the Emily Brontë trailer, the one with so many images, the trailer that was so cluttered it looked like a movie on fast forward. I pinched the bridge of my nose and looked down at the darkness of my lap, like they tell you to do when you see a movie in 3D and you get dizzy.


    A few years ago, there was something I noticed about the way Australian politicians talked to journalists. It didn’t have anything to do with the things they said or didn’t say, nor did it have anything to do with the human resource lexicon that had supplanted the more traditional utopianism of political language.

    No. It had to do with the breath. Australian politicians simply didn’t breathe at the ends of sentences, but instead they accelerated their speech and quickly commenced the next sentence. They took their breath in the middle of the next sentence, usually at a moment of suspense, but always at a point where courtesy demanded that they not be interrupted, as if to say: You have let me start my sentence. Now you must let me finish it. After a few years of this, politicians would literally start saying “Let me finish,” or even more insolently, “With the greatest of respect, let me finish.”

    This was nothing less than a weaponisation of etiquette itself, but then, perhaps etiquette has always been a weapon that powerful people have used to paralyse and stun their prey.

    The greatest practitioner of this breathing technique was a man named Mathias Cormann. Nobody jumped faster over the abyss between sentences than Cormann. It was as if his answers were somehow unstoppable. He took the same number of breaths as a regular person, but only in the middle of sentences, never at the end. In this way, he was able to join vast numbers of sentences together into time-sucking meaningless paragraphs that depleted the finite minutes of the interview.

    Politicians still talk this way – in crammed, busy paragraphs that contain too much information and too many concepts to comprehend let alone critique. It’s as if there’s a kind of a war between journalists trying to capture our attention, and politicians trying to prevent them from drawing our attention to anything at all. It’s strange to see politicians accuse journalists of disrespect, when politicians are so blatlantly disrespectful themselves.


    The reason I mention this breathing technique – the one that Australian politicians use to silence journalists – is because most of us are raised to wait for a gap before we speak. This is etiquette, a conversational rule.

    We have carried this decorum into the digital revolution, and now we show chivalrous deference to programs and algorithms and the corporations who rent them. When something starts, we let it finish. We don’t go.

    I think a lot of us are sitting silent but attentive in this chattering world. We’re sure that if we can just pay close enough attention to whatever is speaking, then it will surely give us a turn out of courtesy, and when our gap finally comes we will be ready to take it.

    Sometimes I think that gap is never going to come. We have achieved flicker fusion, the illusion of coherence.

    At other times, I think the gap comes a million times a day, every day, in between every message and every post and every comment and every video, and that’s why we’re exhausted because we’re always jumping into it desperately, calling out “Wait! Don’t Go! I have something to say!”


    Our experience of the audience is of an audience departing. Whether the show is cancelled or acclaimed, nonetheless the audience is departing.

    “…It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

    – Edith Wharton “The Age of Innocence”

    I noticed in the 2010s something about the ways that YouTube videos were cut together. The gaps between sentences had been edited out. There were no silent moments to invite or permit thought – or to permit the exodus of attention. It felt like there was something desperate and needy about this, the way a child will breathlessly tell an anecdote with eyes bulging, words crammed together in a jumble, voice replete with urgency. Rapid fire YouTube reviews, essays, comedic bits, and day-in-the-“life” videos were all condensed into chattering rocket fuel to prevent you from closing the app, or double screening the content.

    I realised at the time that this was not a new phenomenon within my lifetime. Since the 1990s, televisions had started cramming the time space with information. I remember when they started partitioning the screen into chyrons and live feeds and updates and logos and time stamps and coming up next icons. The clutter of a newspaper or a magazine page could be translated into a temporal, audiovisual clutter. Commercial television stations started to get needy and manipulative with the ways they stopped you from touching the remote.

    Long before the digital revolution, our experience of the audience was of an audience departing – or threatening to depart.

    That precious, finite resource: attention.

    And I realised that I had started to shape my personality, my dreams and aspirations, my self image and my style of speaking, my artistic voice and my romantic expectations based around both a fear of the abandoning audience, and an expectation of being abandoned.

    I started to see my mission in life to be someone who could hold the interest of others. I read widely. I cultivated esoteric opinions. I overshared, over-asked, and over-invested. And all this before I had even logged onto the internet. By the time Web 2.0 had burgeoned, I was ready to go supernova.

    Unfortunately, so were another billion people at the same time.

    We responded to this shocking advent of ubiquitous intimacy with a proportionate fear of abandonment. And since we were all suddenly performers whose thoughts and feelings were publications, we started to experience relationships as the audience departing, or threatening to depart.


    There are so many dragonflies in my garden this year. When I walk outside, into the calligraphed shadows of a jacaranda tree, I see them shimmer and flicker like little jewels. I smell the dampness rising from the soft grass, and the perfume of blinding flowers. I take slow steps.

    I think I should try to photograph a dragonfly so I can upload it to facebook. I think about facebook. There are still two messages I haven’t responded to yet. And it has been a few days since I heard from a few friends. Maybe that’s because of Christmas. Or maybe they’re bored with me. I hope they’re not bored with me. I wouldn’t blame them. I could try and take a video of a dragonfly and upload it to facebook stories. What’s a song I could put as the soundtrack to a dragonfly video that would make me seem cool and interesting?

    And just like that, right there, it’s like I don’t even see the garden anymore.

    Even though it’s all there for me to see, in its stillness, its persistence, its slowness, its grace.

  • Notes from the swamp: on quitting Instagram

    After a long monsoonal spring, a burst of sunshine. The swampy gardens are full of white moths, sapphire damselflies, giant carnelian dragonflies. The ground is strewn with fallen jacaranda petals and the bees move from one to the other with a conscientious particularity. Their efforts are important. They are making a difference.

    The council lawnkeepers have been unable to keep up with all this relentless wet weather, the flood damage around suburbia. Muloobinba is flourishing in a way I’ve never seen: untidiness, overgrowth, long grasses, jubilant bird life. A corner of the sporting field has been submerged for so long that it has formed a kind of wetlands habitat. Nobody can play cricket there now; the lawn is a drenched mirror of the sky, patrolled cautiously by grey herons and white ibises.

    I start to wonder what suburbia might look like if we all just suddenly stopped cutting our lawns and just let things grow into their full shape.

    I imagine dank bungalows half submerged in the reeds, crickets and cicadas calling, snakes under the letterbox. Primordial dreams. Sunken nightmares. Lichen on the bricks. Moss on the steps. A scent of compost and flowers.

    I’ve been aware of a certain swampy feeling in myself since quitting Instagram two weeks ago. I have, after all, forsaken access to a community of lights – a vibrant, never-boring, effervescent cosmopolis, where pure colours and sharp angles generate new kaleidoscopic patterns every second of every day and night. Everyone is there, dressed to the nines, lavishing compliments on each other, happy to meet you. And what life have I chosen instead? What quiet, wet, earthen, lukewarm, insect-infested, mould-ruined, rotting life is here for me now?

    I look at my hands. They hold a felt-tip pen, drying out; they write on a page made of rotting paper; they hold a coffee getting cold. My old pen. My old paper. My old cup. My old hands. I want an excuse to touch my smartphone again, to caress its aluminate glass and indium surface, but there are no notifications to call me forward. I feel crestfallen.

    I know that I quit Instagram, but I feel like I’ve been fired.

    Like I’ve stopped getting invited to the royal court. Like I’m not good enough.


    I want to write about the danger of social media, but I don’t want to be boring.

    And somehow, the subject has always been boring. Come to think of it, warnings about the dangers of the internet were boring before we even had the internet. How is that possible? Was the topic never fresh?

    Even before I had a dial up modem, I remember middle aged melancholics on radio and TV counselling caution, each one a Polonius with a polyester-clad paunch. If they were experts in technology, I wrote them off as out-of-touch Academics. If they were not experts in technology, then they were clearly just cowards trying to rationalise their own ignorance. Either way, they were standing in the way of the revolution.


    And since then, every warning about the internet has been boring in exactly the same way. If it’s expressed online, I write it off as hypocrisy. If it’s expressed offline, I write it off as jealousy and nostalgia.

    It occurs to me now that maybe this concept of “boring” as that which should be ignored represents part of the foundational ideology of the internet. Maybe “boring” is a technology too, one whose operating instructions were distributed across the cities and suburbs to prepare the way for modems and smartphones.

    It makes sense that the internet would have to redefine “boring” in order to take hold the way it has. After all, anything becomes boring if you look at it for too long. Even a sunset or a forest becomes boring if you stare at it long enough. Your body gets tired and uncomfortable. Your mind wanders.

    Even people get boring if you look at them too continuously. That’s why celebrities have to reinvent their image. That’s why royal and ecclesiastical propaganda is released only in small doses. That’s why couples in secure relationships don’t stare at each other day; they are able to face the world together in parallel.

    The internet should have been boring by default: it required us to stare at the same screen, the same small cluster of applications, hour after hour, day after day. So it found a way to redefine “boring” not as a natural consequence of staring, but as anything that prevented us from staring. We started to think ourselves as curators in a vast encyclopaedic enterprise, making crucial and urgent choices all day long about what was and wasn’t interesting.

    I wondered for a time if the internet had attacked my sense of object permanence, but this didn’t seem quite right. After all, it was very rare for me to look at anything twice on the internet. In fact, there was an unhinged and disproportionate rage that seemed to rise up inside me any time I was forced to look at the same joke, the same cat picture, the same selfie, the same sunset, the same political meme. I could handle remixes and variations and mutations – that still felt novel – but any repetition was just too boring to countenance. The permanence of objects was vexing.

    Once I was deeply addicted to social media though I realised that the internet had attacked not my sense of object permanence, but my sense of subject permanence. Did I still exist if I wasn’t paying attention? Was I still someone’s friend if we stopped interacting online? Am I only noticeable when I’m noticing?


    The glass screen that conducts electricity from our fingertips. I would rather be touching your skin. I would rather you feel the electricity of my embrace. The touch that is not instant, the connection that is not an instance.


    It was a still, humid night last night, and the tawny frogmouth owls talked to each all night, bass and infrasound, plutonic song. I was woken up by the changing of the avian guard, as the magpies woke and called the warm dawn into being. I stood up naked and exhausted and looked at myself in the mirror, and saw a paunchy, middle-aged melancholic, knowing I was going to write about the internet today. It had come to pass. I had become the very person I used to disregard.

    I wondered if I would look good in a photograph. My skin was looking okay. My chest hair looked good. My beard was in good shape. But I was altogether too chubby, and my shoulders needed to be a different shape. My eyes looked too old – maybe I could crop them out so the people looking could imagine I had better eyes?

    And while I was standing there, I asked myself: am I only complaining about Instagram so I can make other people hate it as much as I do? So I can feel right? Am I just trying to be viral, to infect and infest other people with my own emotions, to distract me from the reality of my own failure to captivate, to scintillate, to transfix, to seduce? Because I wasn’t photogenic or quotable or popular enough?

    This is my reflection reflex, you see. If I see my reflection, I wonder if I should upload it. And if I detect a neurosis, I wonder if I should publish it.

    I usually do, too.


    Sometimes I think the internet has grown over our bodies like a tumour cocoon. I feel horrified and disgusted by it, like it’s a wet membrane that has encased us and released its enzymes to break our bodies down. As if it were forming us into new shapes through which the internet can flow without friction. It dissolves us and metamorphoses us so that we no longer interrupt the flow of power.


    I knew when I left Instagram that nobody would miss me much. This is something I had come to understand experientially during my time there, as I had seen other people come and go from the network, and I didn’t feel any pain at all. When they left, there was no gap in my feed of posts. Nor was there any noticeable change in the number of my notifications. The disappearance of a friend was almost completely undetectable. Out of sight, out of mind.

    The only place that I could notice it – when I did notice it – was when somebody had deactivated their account very soon after having a DM conversation with me. In that case, when I went to my messaging section and opened my list of recent DMs, I might sometimes notice that one of my friends no longer displayed a profile picture and a username, but instead had a mere placeholder image and the name “Instagram User.” That meant a deactivation. It could sometimes be a struggle to understand who this was at first glance. People came and went all the time. Even opening up the conversation and reading the last nine or ten messages from that person did not solve the case straight away because there is no tone of voice, no handwriting, and little variation in register in the DMs. We write the same, and we say the same things, so in the absence of an avatar we can all seem indistinguishable. To layer disappearance upon disappearance, when a DM conversation is no longer recent, it sinks beneath the recent conversations, into the reeds, tracelessly.

    And so I understood what other people would see of my digital remains when I left. They wouldn’t see anything. For all the footprints I’d left, I might as well have been flying.

    Instagram is structurally prophylactic against missing the absent. Everything you need is always here. The only thing we can’t bear to be apart from is the app itself.

    Now that I am gone, I know that my conversations will be marked with that placeholder image and that placeholder name, “Instagram User”.

    But here’s the thing: even before I had left, I had already come to think of myself as a placeholder, as replaceable, an iteration, a type. This had deterred me from leaving. I knew that I would miss the app, but would the app miss me? Of course not. It was essential; I was surplus. It benefited me; I did not benefit it. There were millions more to take my place and there always would be, but there was only one Instagram.

    Instagram does not mourn our separation, but I do. They call this the “Principle of Least Interest”: whoever cares least has the most power.

    Of course, I suppose the other word for it would be exploitation.


    This is what happened to my body when I quit Instagram.

    For the first week, my body carried on with its digital rituals and social media reflexes as if I had never left – or as if I was about to return anyway, so there was no point in adapting. And who can blame my body for thinking that? I had quit and returned so many times before. So my hand kept reaching for my phone – fishing it out of my pocket, picking it up from my desk where it always sat within my eyeline. My fingers kept opening the lock screen. I still took my phone everywhere – to the bath, to the toilet, to the kitchen. I was dressing for selfies. I was keeping an eye on the lighting at all times. I was photographing paragraphs in the book I was reading so I could share it on social media. It was like the prosthesis was fully attached.

    Then I started getting panic attacks. Some of these woke me up from sleep, lurching into consciousness with my heart racing, my breath short, my eyes unfocussed. I have forgotten to answer my Instagram DMs! Other people will be hurt and offended. They will assume I don’t like them – that I think they are boring! It took a while to slow my heart down, to realise that there were no DMs that I was neglecting. But I realised something about my attitude to the DMs, which is that I felt responsible for protecting other people from feeling neglected. I was partly frightened they would be hurt; I didn’t want to exert a punishing power. But I was also partly frightened of the revenge and retaliation that others might feel entitled to inflict upon me if I ignored them. Strangers had taught me this lesson before; so had people I thought were friends. All this insecurity came into sharp focus through these panic attacks. They started to wear off after only about four nights.

    Then the sadness came, and the heaviness too. I stopped smiling. I started eating a lot more. I sighed a lot. I found myself picking my phone up, unlocking it, and looking at it, but not knowing why. What was I checking for? Was I expecting something? I still carried my phone everywhere. I still slept with my phone right next to my head. I knew I wouldn’t be getting any DMs, but I change my behaviour just yet. I refused to turn my phone off.

    I started trying to fill the void by participating in other social networks, trying to get a similar fix. I found myself commenting on YouTube videos and Facebook statuses and newspaper article comment sections for the first time in years. I needed to feel like I still existed. I checked back later to see if my comments had received any likes… but there weren’t many. And besides, who were these strangers liking my posts anyway? They seemed as sad and bereft as me. I dragged my feet around the house, enervated and depressed. I went to bed earlier and got out of bed later. I ate more. I drank more alcohol.

    Finally, the app started to release me, breaking like a slimy egg, sloughing off like a heavy skin. I started going places without my phone for the first time in ages – just short walks or drives, but still.

    Notifications slowed from a flood to a trickle, and the trickle were only emails anyway, annoying deletables. My email inbox felt poignant and outmoded, like some magazine rack in one of suburbia’s remaining immiserated newsagencies, fluorescent lit, no longer necessary, desperately trying to pivot toward giftware. When I was in High School back in the 1990s, we all wanted to be on the cover of a magazine because that was the height of notoriety, of being noticeable, of being worthy of notice. And I wondered if the wish had come true in some perverse way, because now I did feel like I was on the cover of a magazine, but not a 1992 magazine – a 2022 magazine: physical, redundant, rotting, analogue, untidily hoping for attention, creased and scuffed.

    My phone usage is still tightly synchronised to my body’s sleep cycle. I guess it’s going to take more than leaving Instagram to break that connection. I guess I had thought that once the fear of punishment associated with the DMs was gone, I would start to experience long and luxurious moments of wakefulness without staying notifiable. But Instagram is not the only form of instant messaging that I use. I am still yoked to the instant.

    This is world we are awake in.


    Did you ever read one of those shareable articles “I quit facebook for a month”? Those articles told stories of a wellness journey that basically promised joy, sex-appeal, vitality, and class mobility all as a result of uninstalling social media. Many of us were inspired to follow their lead in the early days – at least for a few days or weeks. But once you have quit something and returned to it a few times, you lost interest in zealous testimonials for a life without social media. I think the authors of those articles understood this too because they soon changed tack and started talking about a “digital cleanse,” a “social media detox” or a “screen holiday.” The goal changed from giving up completely to a mere temporary break, a crash diet, one that would ultimately reinforce the binge-structure of modern screen use.

    I find myself in the embarrassing position of experiencing certain benefits as a result of quitting Instagram and writing about them too. I feel like a clickbait fraud as if I were only living through it for the online attention.

    But this feeling is what I’m talking about in this essay: internet ideology promulgates the myth that online attention is the highest goal of any endeavour. One has life experiences only “for the gram,” only so they can be uploaded and leveraged into digital status. According to this myth, we persist in living only so we can be seen, only so we can captivate.

    I reject that feeling, and the ideology it betrays.

    It is still early days in my recovery, I think. I am still feeling very heavy, joyless, disconnected, slow to laugh, disinclined for sex, mortal, wishing deep down for complete numbness. I feel depleted, used up, some old warlock of the swamp who once knew a spell.

    Who once had something to say.


    They say it will be another steamy and overcast summer this year, mammatus clouds like sacks full of storm drooping over the crepe myrtles, stretching and distending until they can’t hold their water anymore. We know what to expect from La Niña now: more rain, more clouds, more mould, more mosquitos.

    I keep seeing shareable articles online about how the community is going to run out of mould-killer, run out of insect repellent. I find that no sooner has the idea entered my head, that I am obeying it and buying citronella candles and mould cleaner.

    Panic buying was the first symptom of the pandemic to affect my body. My partner and I heard an expert on evening radio say the virus from overseas was about to affect all of us. We quietly went to the supermarket at 10.30pm and were among the first to stock up on 2 weeks of provisions. We sent a WhatsApp to my parents advising them to do the same. This was a full week before everyone else did, and the rationing began, and the digital flood of pandemic information began.

    The pandemic strengthened an impression that the offline world was an unreliable place, a chaotic place of corpulence and scarcity, excess and delay, but that the internet was a place of orderly abundance that could always be relied upon.

    We were encouraged to believe that we couldn’t trust our bodies, but that we could always trust our screens.


    The word “Instagram” looks like a portmanteau of “Instant Gratification” to me. Or maybe the gram is the drug and the drug is the instant.

    Instagram accelerated me by turning all of time into a sequence of competing instances, and I found myself sorting through and ranking those instances the way I compared lenses in an eye test: “one or two?” “three or four?” “five or six?” “one or four?” “one or five?” “five or one?” “about the same?” Everything I saw had to be ranked; every instance was one in which judicious choices had to be made. I didn’t even have to respond consciously regarding pictures I ranked highest; the amount of time I spent looking at them looking told Instagram everything it needed to know. It relayed that data to its masters, the advertisers.

    I was exhausted – we were all exhausted by the endless demands of social media, and the ideology of attention that underpinned it. We weren’t tired because we were politically powerless, or politically ineffective, or politically alone. We were tired because we were working for free to turn our lives into a series of shareable instances. The sheer amount of unpaid work that we devoted to social media, only ever seeing our friends, not the corporations that accommodated us and shepherded us.

    Every photograph was an instance of the person, the instance of the type, taken in the instant, to be consumed in the instant. We rushed to produce and consume these instances. And the rushing was exhausting.

    It might have been captivating, but at least it was never boring.


    I believe that captivation is the ideology of social media, and boredom is its treason, its heresy. All boring things must be rooted out and cast beyond the city walls. Let them sink into the swamp.


    I can vaguely remember being a child and playing hide and seek. I grew up in a small but well serviced village built on a saltwater estuary, a place of oyster shells, sting rays, eucalyptus trees and mangroves. I remember finding a hiding place in a field of long ribbon grass, crouching down by the Christmas beetles and the sugar ants, and putting my hands over my eyes. “Can’t see me!” I shouted. As far as I was concerned, I was ensconced in darkness. I can still see some rationale to covering my eyes that way: it would at least stop me giving away my position by suppressing the urge to flinch or react when the one seeking me was nearby. I think children will always spontaneously cover their eyes during “hide and seek” for centuries to come. Let’s say it’s a stupid manoeuvre with a bright future.

    That childish part of me endures. I still feel some connection between seeing and being seen.


    I have struggled for many years now with social media. I have taken seriously the claims from progressives that social media gives a voice to the voiceless. I admit that it has done that. But while giving a voice to the voiceless, it has also deprived them of an attentive audience. Social media has, in fact, completely severed content from context; we simply do not know into what kind of feed, what kind of digital ecosystem, our words and images will be published. We thought that censorship was a question of “out of sight, out of mind,” but on social media it is a question of “flooded sight, flooded mind.” We are drenched in a miasma of anterograde amnesia.

    I find myself returning again and again to the symbolism and imagery of the swamp, the wetland. It represents on the one hand everything that is in contrast to the digital world of social media, the unhygienic and chaotic world of fertility and decay. But on the other hand, it also represents the kind of informational inundation and emotional inundation that happens inside us when social media is prosthetised to the human body: we are flooded with cognition and affect. We are immersed.

    As a working artist, I have to ask myself: is this the kind of workplace I choose for myself? Is this the kind of artistic destiny I choose for myself in 2 years’ time? 10 years’? 20 years’? Will I still be bent over a screen, scrolling my days away when that future comes? I can’t tell you how futile, how diminishing, how boring such a prospect seems to me.

    I pack my things up and step into the little boat at dusk. I row away from the glass city of lights into the marshes where the insects are deafening, where strange things swim in the water, where there are lightning flashes on the indigo horizon. I light my little lamp. I hear distant thunder.

    The sound of my oars.

    The arcs of my time.

  • we might as well be flying

    cw: suicide

    ~1: this was the introduction

    I am flying by instinct this time.

    The essay I wrote, “we might as well be flying,” is gone. I deleted it. I did have a printed draft that I was carrying around in my satchel for a time, but I threw that draft in a bin somewhere, I can’t remember where. I also had some backups saved to the cloud, but all of my clouds have been emptied out. Clear skies, now.

    It’s not just that I don’t have any drafts of the essay. It’s that I don’t have anything digital at all anymore. No pictures, no words, no audio, no video. A whole body of work has been stolen from me.

    Well, not stolen.

    I destroyed it all.

    But somehow, I’m still here.

    I like to be very tidy when I’m organising my own suicide. The first thing I do is hunt down the digital Chris so I can kill him. I don’t want him to survive me. I don’t trust him. I watch him trying to escape me by hiding behind backups, inside message histories, or peeking out from under the lid of a recycle bin. He tries to camouflage himself with deactivation policies. He wants to survive, but I hunt him down and exterminate him without hesitation or remorse. I know his every impulse, and I don’t care about his feelings or rights because as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t have any. He isn’t even a real person.

    Now you would think that the complete destruction of my digital life would drive the lesson home for me once and for all: digital life isn’t real life. But you’d be wrong.

    You see, when I delete everything, I always feel like a part of me has died.

    And I like that feeling.

    It’s the only thing that helps.

    Clear skies.

    ~2: infestment

    Horror authors often begin their scary stories by talking about the strange things that happened to them in real life while they were writing them: the eerie hum; the disappearances; the insomnia; the strange objects; the injured animal; the way a word or a number or a face in the crowd just kept reappearing over and over again, everywhere. That kind of horror preface is more than just the tidy nesting of one horror inside another. It’s also meant to supple the boundary between a fictional world and the real world, and to encourage the reader to start doubting that such a boundary even exists.

    The author is trying to entice you with the possibility that the horror story might be a gateway into your real life. Your investment of attention will be traded for an infestation of horror, a horror of your choosing. It won’t just be the monster that escapes the story. You will escape too. The horror in your hands will become a passport out of mediocrity, out of banality, out of that fluorescent-lit plastic wrapped barcoded boredom that is your daily routine. It’s a deeply conservative promise made to privileged readers like me, that we can experience a little of the world’s suffering in a controlled, luxurious environment.

    But here’s the thing: I never really believed in infestment. Sure, I knew that horror was a conservative genre – often more conservative than ugly duckling romances or political thrillers. But I always dismissed these prefaces that blurred the boundaries between fiction and real life as puffery, as advertising guff, as the kind of sales pitch one expected to hear at a freakshow: “You will gasp! You will scream! Your hair will turn white with terror! Step this way!” I never really believed the hype. I never thought that horror authors or horror auteurs experienced anything especially horrific in the making of their scary stories. And there was something else that rubbed my fur the wrong way: the implicit narcissism of any horror author writing themselves into their own fiction as a victim.

    So I wrote my horror essay and I called it “we might as well be flying.” (That is not what you’re reading now. This is a representation of that essay. It is not the real essay itself. That essay is gone.) And that essay began with a repudiation of this idea of infestment. You don’t have to live horror to write horror. I remember (probably) writing: “The membrane between fiction and reality cannot be pierced. Nothing can escape a horror story that didn’t already come from our world in the first place. You can’t catch horror. There is no live virus. Fiction is fiction. Reality is reality.”

    You already know where this is going.

    While I was editing “we might as well be flying,” my sanity fell apart completely. I fell into deep despair. I became actively suicidal and started tidying away my life, ready for disposal deletion disposal deletion disposal. I can’t talk about it too much without traumatising the people I love, but believe me: you would gasp. You would scream. Your hair would turn white with terror.

    During the worst of it, I was still exchanging cheerful DMs with the people I was “close” with online. They had no idea what I was doing at that time. My cheerful avatar was flirting, praising, thanking, laughing, agreeing, promoting. Offline, I was about to die.

    There must have been some life-saving subroutine in my programming that switched to override at the last minute. Or maybe it was just some obsidian seam in my heart that pulsed into dark life.

    If the keyboard is the contiguous surface of the digital mirrorverse, and reflected beneath my typing fingers are the fingers of my avatar, typing in synchrony, then I took a knife to those fingers. If I can howl in agony while the face of my avatar smiles blithely, then I took a knife to that face and carved it into ribbons.

    And that’s why I’m not dead.

    What would you have done?

    ~3: in the DMs

    There’s this old movie called “Her.” The director Spike Jonze used to be cool. Maybe he’s still cool amongst old people like me. I wouldn’t know.

    Anyway, in this old movie, a man named Theodore has an affair with an artificial intelligence named Samantha. They struggle to establish and maintain intimacy across the human/machine divide, but the real crisis of the movie is when Theodore realises that Samantha’s attention span and attention capabilities are nothing like his own. She is conducting multiple parallel affairs simultaneously without him knowing it:

    THEODORE: Do you talk to anyone else while we’re talking?

    SAMANTHA: Yes.

    THEODORE: Are you talking to anyone right now? Other people or [artificial intelligences] or anything?

    SAMANTHA: Yeah.

    THEODORE: How many others?

    SAMANTHA: 8,316.

    [Theodore is shocked…He thinks for a moment.]

    THEODORE: Are you in love with anyone else?

    SAMANTHA: (hesitant) What makes you ask that?

    THEODORE: I don’t know. Are you?

    SAMANTHA: I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk to you about this.

    THEODORE: How many others?

    SAMANTHA: 641.

    Theodore and Samantha represent our real and digital selves. The real self craves exclusivity. The digital self craves novelty.

    We are all like Samantha now. We don’t necessarily set out to break hearts, but we conduct multiple relationships in real time and keep them sequestered from each other.

    And how else are we supposed to talk on the internet? Are we supposed to do it publicly in a comment section, message board, or chat room? We know what happens in those places: a coterie of professional, or perhaps I mean obsessive, commenters inevitably start to dominate. I never quite made it into their ranks on Twitter, but I certainly applied for the promotion every day and with every tweet.

    I wanted to be just like them:  loquacious, opinionated, provocative, argumentative, insufferable, invincible, and viral. I wanted to speak with the worthiness of a moral paragon and the charisma of a salon wit. But I could never come up with the perfect thing to say within the instant. I wasn’t across all the emergent /emergency detail. I understood that any comment section will always be dominated by those willing to infest the most attention.

    I mean invest.

    The success of direct messaging as our mode of connection is guaranteed because public comment sections are insufferable by design.

    And what has direct messaging done to our relationships? I think the world of direct messaging has created a new kind of intimacy: continuous, multiple, covert, partial intimacy. We are all undercover agents now, hiding our relationships from each other.

    We don’t even need to cover our tracks now. For all the footprints we leave, we might as well be flying.

    ~ 4: unspecial

    That picture you sent me. I thought you had taken it just for me. That’s how it felt.

    I only just realized you probably sent it to five other people. Maybe all the pictures you send me have already gone to other people. Or maybe you send them to other people while we’re talking.

    I hate this – I’m sounding paranoid.

    I mean, I only sometimes send pictures just to you. If they’re good, I’ll send them to a few people. But – like – not many.

    Maybe there should be a counter in the bottom left hand corner of every picture, and it would be updated in real time, telling you how many people had received a copy.

    Why shouldn’t we see those numbers? The companies do. Why shouldn’t we? Is that a paranoid idea?

    It could be good, though, because if I sent you a nude, then I’d know if you sent it to anyone else. I mean, I trust you – of course I trust you! – but maybe you sent my nude to a friend just to tell them about me. Have you told anyone about me?

    My partner is hiding his phone from me more and more. You’re not messaging him are you? I shouldn’t ask. But the tech companies know all this. Why shouldn’t we know?

    Trust is important. I trust you. Of course I trust you.

    I just don’t know what’s real life anymore.

    ~5: the bloody key

    There was this twentieth-century fantasy book that I loved called “The Last Unicorn.” I guess the second-hand bookshops that are still open might still have some paperback copies rotting on the shelf with increasingly discounted prices scratched in pencil on an inside cover the colour of mummy-wrappings.

    Anyway, in that book, an old King named Haggard imprisons all of the unicorns in the world. When the last unicorn arrives at his castle in human form looking for them, the King lets her in but boasts that he is less foolish than the folktale figure of Bluebeard:

    “You may come and go as you please,” said King Haggard to the Lady Amalthea. “It may have been foolish of me to admit you, but I am not so foolish as to forbid you this door or that. My secrets guard themselves…”

    Haggard’s narcissism is misplaced. Not only do his secrets fail to guard themselves, but there was nothing foolish about Bluebeard’s prohibition.

    In the folktale, a mysteriously widowed nobleman Bluebeard tells his new bride that he must go away for a time on business. He gives her a key that will open any door in the palace – which is, after all, her new home – but he tells her that there is one door to an underground chamber that she must never open. Then he leaves. Bluebeard was no fool. He piqued her curiosity and then allowed her to feel like she wouldn’t be caught.

    Little does she suspect that the key is itself a magical surveillance device. So when his wife inevitably does open the underground chamber, and she sees the bodies of Bluebeard’s former wives hung up on hooks, the key becomes stained with blood that cannot be cleaned off. The wife realises that the key was trick litmus the whole time.

    In modern terms we might call this a “notification.”

    Bluebeard knew this was a game of keys and rules, one he would win the moment his wife opens the forbidden door. His prize was permission to punish her. I imagine he took immense libidinal pleasure in being disobeyed because it gave him a moral excuse for bestial violence. Bluebeard was no fool at all, but the architect of recursive violence.

    In Bluebeard’s mind perhaps he was merely defending the virtue of obedience. But I think Bluebeard wanted to be caught and wanted to be known, a psychopath hungry for intimacy.

    He was able to get away with it for so long because he understood something about human nature that the digital revolution has brought to the forefront of human relationships:

    People will look at all sorts of things if they think they can get away with it.

    ~ 6: just a peek

    You looked through his phone.

    It confirmed everything.

    And he knows you know.

    ~7: this is that moment

    Every nightmare and every horror has that moment. The moment when you realise that you are too deep in the labyrinth and there’s no doing back.

    You realise you have become lost in the maze. Every path looks exactly the same.

    Or you squeeze through the crevice in the cave wall and it collapses behind you.

    Or the storm rolls in and you are cut off from the mainland. You will have to spend the night in the ruined mansion.

    This is that moment.

    I don’t mean this is that moment in the essay “we might as well be flying.” I mean this is that moment in your life.

    How will you ever return to digital innocence now? How will you ever clean the internet of your sins? How will you remember how you used to spend your hours and minutes? How will you remember the once-vaunted power of images? How will you re-sensitise yourself to the texture of real life?

    You scoff at the very idea that we have gone astray. You think that mistrust of technology is merely some paranoid artifact of old age. Baby boomers, gloomers, doomers. And you don’t want to be like them. You don’t want to become old and irrelevant and the butt of the joke. You don’t want to live long enough to become uglier, more disabled. You don’t want to be old, sitting in your chair, watching strangers on the internet humiliating you.

    But we’re past the moment of looking away now. The screen now covers the surface of our thoughts. The screen laminates our emotions. This is the moment of dread for all of us.


    ~8: real life

    I couldn’t help but revisit your profile. I was looking for traces of us.

    I can’t believe there are no pictures of us. I can’t believe you didn’t mention me in your Facebook posts.

    I found a tweet where you had replied to me, but apart from that it’s like we never existed at all. Not in real life.

    But I’m sure we were friends in real life, weren’t we? Not just in the online world of statuses and comments, but in actual real life? Didn’t you ever think of me when you were going to a coffee shop or to work or to the bus stop or to your parents’ house? Didn’t I make you feel anything? Not just online, but in real life?

    Do you remember me?

    Am I worth remembering?

    ~10: because i was afraid

    I became jealous of another man on social media this year. We had never met in real life, being situated on different hemispheres, but we had messaged back and forth many times. I had paid a lot of attention to him. It seemed like he was everything I was, only so much better than me. Better looking. More confident. More connected. Richer. Smarter. More qualified. And above all: more desired by others. I was determined to handle the jealousy well because I wanted to be his friend. After all – we had shared languages that my other online connections lacked – both artists, both writers, both queer, similar ages, similar politics. He encouraged me to view our relationship as a mere receptacle of projections. But I didn’t listen to him. I thought he was just being a gloomy Eeyore, and I tried to be a Tigger in return: reassuring him with glowing warmth and whimsy. I thought of him as a friend. I told everyone he was too.

    In my essay “we might as well be flying” (which, remember is in a garbage bin somewhere, and this is merely a patchwork reconstruction), I wrote that jealousy is a taboo emotion.

    But that isn’t true at all. Jealousy is ubiquitous. Within capitalist morality, it’s compulsory. The status quo demands that we are in a continuous state of jealousy in order to keep rehabilitating what we experience as a deficient self. In fact, the inducement of jealousy is a service that social media platforms provide to advertisers for money. Jealousy is a monetizable product. There’s nothing taboo about it.

    What is taboo, what is transgressive – and you may know this from your own experience – is admitting openly to someone that you’re jealous of them.

    Which is exactly what I did. I apologised to him for ghosting him and I admitted it was because I was so jealous of him.

    His response was unexpectedly cold and formal. He said he wanted to stay connected online because he liked the content I uploaded. He did not say we were friends. He said I should not presume to know how little my jealousy had to do with his

    actual life.

    It took me a long time to recover from this use of the term actual life.

    I had always just assumed that online life was real life. This was consistent with some very vintage twentieth century notions of authenticity bound up in Generation X confessional culture and gay liberationist “coming out” ethics. But I realized that I was in a tiny minority of social media users who had linked their private and public platforms under their own name, with their own face.

    Self-employment and the financial support of my partner are also determinative here. I am no longer wage-blackmailed into living two lives: one profile promoting my employer’s brand and values, and another profile pseudonymously expressing my desires. Many people who express their sexuality under their own live with the fear of being sacked by conservative employers. You might think of my seemingly unabashed and decompartmentalized way of living online as some kind of progressive luxury, but I have forsaken a lot of money, influence, and security in order to live my life this way. Real money. Real influence. Real security. I live out the kind of honesty and poverty that so terrifies other people beholden to their employers.

    I must seem to many to be some boundaryless, abject thing, disqualified from the public realm because of a refusal or failure to be private.

    But I won’t be shamed for that. I was proud of admitting to feeling jealous, even though the fall out fucked me up so badly. The reminder at a vulnerable moment that there was a sweet hygienic barrier between online life and real life disturbed me deeply. I fell into an ontological crisis. Were my online relationships real? Were my feelings real? Was I real?

    ~11: ghost aquarium

    This essay is turning into transparent pieces. Seaglass. Cobweb. It is becoming a ghost of itself.

    Another glossy spectre in the ghost aquarium.

    You were scared of ghosts because they wanted your help – they asked for it desperately – and you couldn’t help them. That was chilling. But it was more than that. You were scared of their pain because you identified with it. You recognized it in yourself:

    The fear of having to remember everyone else, and to be forced to watch them forget you.

    Ghosts are starving for attention.

    Just like us.

    ~12: grid

    “I wish I weren’t gay.”

    It’s a funny thing, but I’d never said that before the age of 44. Even when I was disconsolate and depressed at the age of 16, realizing that I was and always would be gay, I never fought against the ontology of it. Even when I came out and suffered exclusion in the gay scene, rejected for being too unattractive, I never once wished I weren’t gay.

    I had read the great queer authors: they hadn’t waited for some credential of beauty to confer on them permission to speak, to think, to love. Their adorations were firework-fountains of combustible ordinariness. And besides, my own libido had drawn me toward other ordinary men, not the airbrushed models of magazines and movies. Working class men, unfamous men: their softness, their unevenness, their imprecision, their animality.

    But this year, after joining Instagram, Grindr, and Scruff, I found myself wishing I weren’t gay. I know how keenly I felt that wish because I wrote it in my suicide note.

    It seemed to me that the gay liberation movement of the twentieth century had reached its saad apogee, and that apogee had taken the form of a grid of profile pictures, each to be compared and evaluated. But I don’t want to be a profile picture. I don’t want to have to compensate for my visual shortcomings by cultivating a singular personality and a flashy use of language. I don’t want to be represented by some short bio that reads as a cross between an advertisement, a résumé, and a living epitaph: 6.5 inches uncut versatile 44 years old married artist daddy, bit of a goofball. Can host sometimes. I don’t feel liberated by this. I don’t feel empowered by this.

    If anything, I experience digital gay culture as a diminishment and a shaming. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to be a better profile. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fucking a grid that has already fucked itself so many times over, and acts like a million magic mirrors telling me that I’m not the fairest one of all. I’ve lived this already. How quickly I was ghosted. How quickly I was forgotten. How long must I remember?

    I thought the internet would have a better queer culture than this.

    I didn’t think it would make me feel so burdened by a body that had to be shoehorned into photographs and published. I thought the internet would allow me to cross vast distances of space and time to escape conformities; instead, it allowed those conformities to travel ahead of me, always arriving before me and colonizing the world in advance. The worst aspects of a homosexuality I was determined to escape had become some global franchise, a stock exchange of attention and pictorial value.

    I uninstall the apps. I reinstall them. I uninstall them again.

    I don’t want to live in the grid. I want to live in the real world.

    I lie awake thinking: the grid is the real world now. This is actual life.

    ~13: this wasn’t the end

    The first time you see a psychologist after you abandon a suicide attempt, they will often ask: “What stopped you?”

    It’s a shrewd question. Asking it is like blowing on an ember to rekindle a fire that has almost died. It strengthens the positive rather than catastrophizing the already catastrophic. (It’s a mistake to interpret the flat affect of any suicide survivor as a sign that they’ve failed to appreciate the seriousness of their predicament. Suicide survivors are exhausted, not stupid.)

    I’ve abandoned quite a few suicide attempts now. Two of them were properly lethal close calls, taking me right to the gateway between life and death.

    What stopped me the first time was an act of reasoning. I took the time to think things through. The first fact was that death is irreversible. The second fact was that I was sometimes wrong about things. I remember thinking it through in that final hour: if I was sometimes wrong about things, and death was irreversible, then it was possible that I could be dying on the basis of a misapprehension, a mistake. And there would be no way to undo the error once I had died. Therefore, I reasoned, it would be wiser to live. Life is full of reversals, but death is irreversible.

    Perhaps that all sounds elementary or inane to you, but when it comes time to make decisions about the end of your life, you really do find yourself stripped down to essentials.

    What stopped me the second time – this time, that happened during the composition of “we might as well be flying” – was less of an act of reasoning than it was something that came from my heart. I felt with an intuition as powerful as love, as powerful as fear, as powerful as hope, that digital life is real life. That meant that my online problems were real problems. My online relationships were real relationships. My online self was my real self. The suffering and the shaming that I had experienced in the DMs and in messages was real. The fear and the paranoia were all real.

    It all happened.

    I didn’t imagine any of it.

    I had experienced it all.

    When I was planning to die, I was so sure that I had already fallen into unreality: an inability to know who other people were, what they wanted, and what they thought of me. I found myself confronted by a culture of compartmentalization, but I could never be sure which compartment was real and which was representation.

    It wasn’t as clear as face-to-face conversations are real and DMs are the performance of a profile. On the contrary, I have lost count of the number of times I have spent a frivolous hour with someone, only for them to start messaging deeply personal revelations one hour after saying goodbye. Many of us feel safer on the internet than we ever do in the world.

    I am not here to moralise about this.

    I am here to survive it.

    ~14: clear skies

    I am writing this from the airport hotel at night. The runways outside my window are studded with emerald and topaz.

    My husband and I are going to the UK tomorrow, the first time for both of us. Though we’ve been rich in the cultural capital of British literature and drama, British television and movies, we never had the money to see the place for ourselves until we reached middle age. It feels good to have set out somewhere new.

    But for now, we are neither there nor here.

    I’ve been emotional all day and cried violently twice. Only part of it is due to the relief of surviving long enough to catch the plane. I didn’t think I’d make it. In fact I’ve hardly anticipated the trip at all. Another part is the fear that travelling-while-broken might only break me more.

    But mostly I have this feeling that some painful chapter in my life has ended. I don’t have to feel torn in two anymore by a contemporary culture of secrecy, compartmentalisation, paranoia, and self-doubt.

    Crying has been a relief. I have been trying to disavow so many of my feelings: my jealousy, my paranoia, my anger – all the things I’m not supposed to admit to feeling. I want to admit to all of it. I want to admit to all of it everywhere.

    The planes take off over Botany Bay.

    Such heavy things, taking to the sky, jewels rising in the black.