Encountering Value Beyond the Certainty Machine

By Albert Woods

Art by Ella Chedburn (Instagram: @echedburn)

I am sitting in a car, in the passenger seat. I’m tired, sad and a little bit pissed off. It’s been a demanding week, a funeral followed by a wedding. My sister is driving us back to London from the wedding and I finally feel able to unclench my body, let the masks fall and simply be with myself.

It’s a fairly inauspicious moment; but then, something amazing happens. A song comes on the radio and it’s so perfect it’s like it’s transmitting from another world. Everything is in place: the steady tap of drumstick on ride cymbal, soft like rain; acoustic guitar weeping at the caress of fingers; heavy sigh of harmonica; and above this, yet also somehow within, a voice that is devastating.

“Should have said so!” it cries, swelling with sudden passion; then just as suddenly it falls and trails off, mumbling darkly, “Makes it harder the more you…”

For these few minutes I’m entranced.

The song finishes, and the announcer says that it was ‘Watershed’ by Mark Hollis. In the backseat my mum coos approvingly and says he’s the singer from Talk Talk. Really? I’ve heard of them, but for some reason I was under the impression they were just a bunch of faceless 80s synth-poppers, momentarily catching the New Wave wave before being swept off to the shores of irrelevancy.

Later, I discover I wasn’t entirely wrong. They were indeed an unremarkable synth-pop outfit when they started out, but at a certain point something strange happened and this beautiful, fearsome and utterly idiosyncratic music began pouring out.

This music has enriched the last few months of my life in ways I can hardly express. It’s been a light for me through some very dark days, as I’ve battled with mental ill health. On a less morbid note, it’s given renewed impetus to my creativity, influencing me to experiment with some radically different ideas and approaches.

It has both sustained and inspired me. And yet when I reflect on that initial encounter, I’m struck by something which I find slightly disturbing: the sense that it could just as easily not have happened.

It was a moment, after all, of pure random chance. I just happened to be in that car at that time, listening to that show on that station. I hadn’t actively chosen any of this; it was all just background. Nevertheless, out of this background emerged something which connected with me on a very deep, soul level.

Why am I disturbed by this? I think maybe because it contradicts a message that is very deeply embedded in our culture, or rather, the invasive and pernicious system of marketing that calls itself our culture.

The message says that the things we value in our lives don’t come to us through chance encounters; instead, they are to be found through a mechanistic process. If we want to discover new music, then Spotify’s algorithms will look at what we’ve been listening to and generate a list of recommendations. Likewise, Amazon’s algorithms examine all our previous purchases and tell us what other stuff we should buy, adding a subtle element of social pressure by informing us that ‘others’ have bought it too.

Increasingly, we’re even being encouraged to entrust our romantic lives to the benevolent rule of the algorithm.

Indeed, of all the areas of our lives which we generally consider or at least hope to be a source of value for us, I can’t think of one for which there is not now a handy app or online platform promising to apply the ingenuity of machine logic to help us navigate our way to find that elusive ‘it’.

But is a process of analysing our current habits of behaviour and thought the best way to find ‘it’?

This idea seems to me to be premised on a particular conception of the self: that it is, like a machine, something flat, fixed and knowable. All we have to do, therefore, is metaphorically crack open the shell and look at the circuitry, and we will understand exactly what makes the thing tick.

But the experience of my encounter with Talk Talk has led me to consider a different conception of the self, as something more fluid, which is continually reshaped by experience.

After all, what was so astonishing about that experience was that it brought me into contact with something I could never have imagined – that almost seemed, as I said, like it came from another world. It wasn’t, or didn’t seem to be, logically connected to the kinds of things I’d enjoyed in the past; instead, it was the revelation of something entirely new. Consequently, I couldn’t just plug this new thing into my previous identity like a hardware add-on; my identity itself had to adapt, to change, in order to incorporate it. In this sense, the encounter was an invitation to grow.

This, to me, is a profound kind of value which no mechanical process is capable of finding, because by its nature it can’t be looked for. It must exist off the map of our current understanding of the world and ourselves, so that when, by chance, we do encounter it, that understanding has space to expand into.

So what do we do? I’m reminded, as I so often am these days, of Talk Talk: how they became the force they did only after they packed away their synthesisers.

Perhaps instead of enclosing ourselves inside the steel shell of the machine, where everything is cold certainty, we can step out into the wild, unknown world, and the wild, unknown self.

Maybe then ‘it’ will find us.

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