‘Misremembering is Productive’: An Interview with Harry Dodge

The author of My Meteorite on interconnectedness, chaos, and a sense of magic.

There’s a theory in quantum physics that two particles can affect one another no matter what distance you put between them. This is referred to as entanglement, or what Albert Einstein once dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Though we can’t see the mysterious links, parallel dimensions and communication channels, that interconnectedness extends beyond the quantum realm. The proof is in the little particles that have recently forced us into a collective stillness, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves.

In his new memoir, My Meteorite, Or Without the Random There Can be No New Thing (Penguin Books), multidisciplinary artist Harry Dodge explores the tiny links that influence the rhythm of our lives. Here, the connections are built around the ways we cull meaning from repetitions and coincidences. But the book’s catalyst is randomness—the way we’re initially shielded from the attachments, completely awestruck by the universe before we start to reason it. I talked to Dodge just before California instituted a lockdown in March. We discussed his book, but also how this pandemic has drawn attention to our interconnectedness.

Sara Black McCulloch: I wanted to start by talking about memory and forgetting, especially how they play out in the book. Memory isn’t stable, and when people remember something, it’s reactivated in many ways. How does that tie in with virtual reality?

Harry Dodge: Historically, whenever anyone has announced to me, “Hey, the work is about memory,” it would put me off—ugh—like everything is going to be sepia-toned photos on cross-dissolve, you know. But I read some science writing on memory and consciousness a couple years ago and that was when I started to think about it differently, as biological, as constitutive of intelligence, all that. Everything we know and do—even, or especially, our intelligence—is built on memory and recall. Mental and physical habits both qualify as memory—walking, putting on a pair of pants, all that. Identity, who we understand ourselves to be, is obviously built from things we remember consciously or unconsciously. When my dad got sick, his memory was in decline, I was surprised and fascinated by the deterioration. I don’t know what I expected, something purely physical I guess, some faltering with speech, or inability to walk, but the manifestation of the illness—the part I could see—was this ghostiness behind the eyes, his selfhood, was, in my estimation, more diaphanous, if you know what I mean. I started thinking about the nature of the relationship between one’s memory and one’s ability to feel and/or project a sense of self. 

Simultaneously, I was reading on matter, materiality and interconnectedness, quantum particles, and trying to think through this concept of the plural subject, the idea that we’re more permeable than we know and are formed by pressures we can’t even imagine, a plurality of forming forces. I wondered if this biding theoretical interest—the “melty self,” as it were—could map onto observations I was making about my dad. There’s that. But maybe you’re talking about something else, this weird way that misremembering is productive? The text certainly revolves around the idea of misremembering and the idea that that is generative. And there is the hovering related question of what exactly constitutes reality—is it something material, mental (virtual), or several things at once. I’m really interested in mental worlds and the imaginary—and the question of how, qualitatively, that can rhyme with, more or less, this idea of a virtual world.

Your sculpture focuses on how we pair words with the use of an object, and if someone no longer has the ability to recall that function breaks down. So if I have a broom that is normally used for sweeping, and I can no longer remember that, then now this object has lost that intended use for me. That opens up a new realm of possibilities.

Yes! There’s a kind of surreality provoked in some of the sculptures, perhaps caused by a kind of refusal of the original purpose. You know, many years ago, someone said to me, “your work looks figurative, but it’s actually really abstract.” Right? I try to defamiliarize objects—which suggests they were familiar in the first place. I am not what you call me. And my sculpture definitely does that—if it’s functioning the way I want it to. Though the familiar, or nameable, is less and less a part of the set of terms that comprise my sculpture, it still occurs; I take bits of lumber or buckets especially or other planes, scrap wood, and kind of smash them into the space of strangeness. And, you know, a mode of defamiliarization in order to puncture holes into the banal is definitely important to me, though I think I handle it really differently in the book.

The book, as I’m sure you noticed, once in a while, ascends into a poetic space, becomes poetic. (And by poetic I mean something so specific that it is still moving and therefore uncaught, or untamed.) The book is a long sculpture and, as such, builds on itself. There’s a bunch of objects and fragments and pieces laid end to end. The book isn’t excerptable, it’s not a memoir, there are no slices that function as representative of the whole, one must read it all if one wants to experience the project. Things—by which I mean themes or say structural forms or word play—are repeated, slightly off-register, and they land in piles, eventually generate shapes like temporal diagrams of chaos almost repeat. Aperiodicity. (I have also, alternately, referred to the structure of the book as a fugue, a musical term describing a composition that adds novel maneuvers section-by-section, and—bit by bit—abandons phrases.) So the end song is a different song than the one we began, but there are connecting rods, linkages, segues and those obviously vary. The idea that there’s something unspoken and unwritten starts to resonate: the figure emerges, but as anti-matter, this content I’m trying to evoke. Prose is a tool defined almost exclusively by an expectation of legibility. And I’m into that, but I’m also interested in one-to-oneness in an experience of language, prosody, poetics, specificity, unmastery and defamiliarization, like some 3-D sculpture, or a poem. It happens a lot faster in a sculpture, obviously, a viewer is like, “I know what that is—a bucket, and then the longer they stand there, maybe a minute and a half, it stops being a bucket. Now it has dimension, color, it’s no longer a bucket, it’s this weird thing. The comfort of mastery—this experience we crave—is only unmade at length…or reconfigured.

Touching on that: no defined chronology in the book either, but a repetition of scenes. Is that right to say? Does that help us build into it? Because I think there’s a lot more of an emotional register to these scenes the more we come back to them. Was that intentional? 

I have some favourite colours, in sculpture, for example—I use red, orange, yellow, and black a lot, gray too. If I bring in a colour, like blue or green, it’s for a reason, an accent, some percussive conceptual messaging, a divider. And I also have emotional modalities, things I deploy again and again, in my videos, the time-based work. I am aware that those modes have been employed in the book too! I often open with something disorienting, a kind of survey—in media res, jumping into this weird spot. Hopefully you’re drawn in by something, a kind of allure, you know, whether it’s sentence structure or some image, and then you sort of read on into things that are sad or funny. Or gripping somehow. I think as a reader spends time with the work, trust builds, the idea is that a reader will allow the text to bring them into a very deep emotional place. The refrains help with that. I think they convey a sense of artistic intent. [Laughs] I don’t ever want to get operatic or melodramatic or anything. I’m trying to let the reader, you know, find the emotional pockets—understated, unexpected and powerful. A kind of surprise, “Oh, for some reason that just killed me.” I’m into giving people space, whether I’m teaching, or parenting, or making art, you know. I’m trying to bring people to very deep places but with a light hand.

From my understanding, you were working on User while you were writing the book, and there’s a short film in the exhibit called “Late Heavy Bombardment.” I watched it after reading the book and I don’t know if I’m reading into this, but a lot of the things that you touched on in My Meteorite — transhumanism, AI and cyborgs — come up in both the book and the film.  Were they influencing each other?  

When I’m making artwork, I am trying to—whether it’s a book or a movie—I’m trying to find something hot inside myself, these pockets of interest, places where it’s hot, you know, like a fever of sadness, or a fever of confusion. I believe in hanging around with confusion. Any sort of cognitive dissonance, apparent paradoxes in my thinking, are always great places to burrow into, for example. I just try to find those pockets and write from them, make from them no matter what I’m making.

I think I was still finishing My Meteorite when I went to write this little short video last spring. It’s a great short animation with all these 3-D virtual characters in this lecture room trying to figure stuff out, share tips on bullying or whatever. So of course, while writing the script for this, all of these things are still hot for me and they’re still on my mind, and they’re still things that I’m wrestling with. Absolutely. And I’m glad that that’s legible and it’s because I’m telling the truth about my interests, my bewilderment; I’m scraping up or manifesting real-life thought processes, problems I’m working on. Trying to make meaning. As I see it, I’m lifting figures from the primal ooze. I always think that good artwork comes from that kind of hot confusion. [Laughs

Hence the volcano at the end of the short film.

Yeah, exactly! Now we’re in that volcano, we’re clinging to the side of the cone! [Laughs] The volcano at the end of that was symbolic of, like, the stress-testing of democracy, one, and climate change, two. I mean, right now, this pandemic, we’re at the beginning of it, it’s awful. Sad—should have been dealt with better. But also here we are again needing to balance our desire for safety with a preservation of our civil rights, and by that I’m talking about deep extreme surveillance, apps on phones that take our biological stats on the hour, track our whereabouts. Stuff like this is always a trade-off; we want measures to be temporary and they might turn out to be, but note that authoritarian regimes have plans ready for just such times and are all too happy to pull the trigger on some mind-shattering executive powers. Not to be a downer. Also Trump’s obviously planning on revving up hate and scapegoating—repurposing fear to amplify dischord. That’s a big problem. 

Yeah. And it’s still weird to me, that Bernie Sanders’s idea of universal health care, especially in a pandemic, is still being referred to as something radical, as opposed to something necessary.

Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s kind of crazy, but these ideas are flexible, and subject to transformation just by force of labeling or contextualization. Lamar Alexander blocked a bill suggesting taxpayers should pay furloughed workers, not the private sector, which may or may not be a good point, but what is that? Socialism. Not a stereotypically GOP modality.

I’m into one-for-all. There needs to be more socialization, obviously, which is partially what the book is about: interconnectedness. We’ve got this sudden clear feeling of it, as we apprehend that a particle has travelled around the globe in a few months, the magnitude of the spread is overwhelming. And there’s aspects: some are affirmative like emergence and creativity, but also the awesome, sort of sublime part, which is our shared vulnerability. Navigating our vulnerability, our porousness, or “impressionability” is what gives life meaning—it’s some essential component from which a sense of meaning issues.

Were you ever tempted to write My Meteorite from a different point of view?

When I was writing My Meteorite, no, I mean, it was not something that I was tempted to do. The first person was enough! But moving forward yes. I am writing a book now where there are a few different characters, like a poetic short fiction. 

I just read Olivia Laing’s Crudo this summer, and it blew me away. I just loved the way she lightly pretended the whole time—the character of the author—that she was Kathy Acker. Have you read that book?

Someone actually recommended it to me earlier this week.

It blew my mind off! She also kind of flips from the first person to the third person really quickly—in one sentence sometimes!—it’s super awkward on page one, but by the time it’s page two or three, turns out it’s a super beautiful magic trick. I’m very inspired by the way she flouts convention in the most unassuming way in the course of that short novel. 

Were you trying to challenge your reader in a similar way? Your book doesn’t have a set chronology and we’re used to that in a book, right? Were you ever also thinking about how readers interact with books and their expectations?

I was saying to people, “I’m pretending to write a book,” which meant that I was taking notes on experiences through 2016 around the time my dad decided to move to California. I started writing in earnest at the moment he died. I understand the chronology of the book to be that 2016 and 2017 are intercut and generally in a forward progression, so my dad dies at the beginning and also at the end. I think that if the book is at all legible and easy to read, it’s because there are a few stories, if you could say such a thing, that progress in linear fashion, which maybe is how most of us experience time. I don’t know. [Laughs]. I was trying to write something I would like to read and I don’t enjoy things that are straightforward really at all. I suppose I expect my readers to want the same thing: space to think in, a lot to think about, you know, fodder.

Have you ever watched True Detective? Matthew McConaughey’s character says that “time is a flat circle.”

[Laughs] Exactly—a flat circle. Not a linear progression, some kind of pooling of time, or sedimentary situation, and the book is about that, how we’re always deploying things we’ve learned, the past arrives into the present, constitutes it; deforms it, pluralizes it. Also there’s these other things in the book, slipped in, that are out of time, that punctuate, for sure—things I always think of as “ugly legs.” They kind of hang off. And to tell you the truth, I didn’t worry too much about that, it’s just the way my brain works. Writing, finding form, there was something sculptural, about dimension, and motifs. That did seem like it was going to make the book better and more interesting, not necessarily super complex, more just a book I would like to read.

We adapt. I think we underestimate how much we can adapt. We’re not as hardwired or stubborn as we think.

We’re not that stubborn! A book teaches us how to read it and, you know, I believe in that. I trust the reader. I try to give people a reason to stay with any work of art that I offer. I’m a social being, my strategies oscillate between disorientation and familiarity or comfort, and I think of it as social—all the work I do.

I’m interested in how you title your work because, with a book especially, it’s your first encounter, that’s not the right word—it can be a guiding principle sometimes? How does that come about? Is that something that you have in your mind? Or are you avoiding it until you’re finished writing?

When I make a body of work, say sculpture and video, I’m usually reading a lot of theory and thinking about a lot of philosophy and even if the sculptures aren’t diagrams or even rhyming structural messaging systems, and usually they’re not, I was still thinking about something when I made each one. So when I finish a body of work, I will sit for two or three or four days and do all the titles at once. And those range from weird theoretical allusions to low brow — I can’t think of the word —cuss words just kind of staccato things. All the titles in the show taken together will also make a kind of text or texture.

While writing My Meteorite, a lot of titles were coming to mind and they showed up at the beginning of the document. Sometimes there were up to 10 or 11 of them honestly. And so, as the first draft was winding down, I started to pare them down, canvassed a few people. Initially, I thought that My Meteorite was maybe too simple a title for me but it stuck. Working title during the intial draft was Without the Random There Can be No New Thing, a Gregory Bateson quotation by the way, and of course that was eventually relegated to subtitle. The short title, it can be thrown around, you know, like, “Have you read My Meteorite?” [Laughs] rather than this complicated mouthful. So again, something more legible and palpable, paired with something that’s a bit more abstract. 

Throughout the book, there is magic in randomness, more specifically coincidences. Science works to dispel that magic; to explain it with logic. We’re humans, so we seek out patterns, and not randomness. And that kind of takes the magic, I would say, from coincidences. What is your relationship to coincidences now?

[Laughs]

Science can be a bummer sometimes?

Yeah. You know, in the book I was trying to evoke in readers a sense of the magic, of these natural constants even, the habits of matter—matter has stuff it likes to do! Amazing. I mean, if you’ve ever seen a documentary about gravity or the magnetic field that surrounds the earth, who cares if it’s measurable or knowable. It’s still crazy. It’s mind boggling. “Marvel” and “what is scientifically knowable” are not mutually exclusive. I wanted to crack that open, you know, re-enchant the material world, not necessarily peel away the magical from the palpable, but to just sort of like, smash open a sense of astonishment in the everyday. 

But there are these words that circulate in the book: this idea of the random, which could create a new thing versus this idea of pattern. The patterns, I write, are postulated to be the results of the habits of matter, which if they are absolute, would suggest a kind of predetermined—if unimaginably complex—world, and this scenario also sort of precludes free will. Right? It would mean that humans are just bags of vital particles and the particles have their own agenda. Philosophically this also does away with ethics and on and on, it’s pretty extreme. There’s a lot there let’s say. Too much for an interview like this. Some people think the book is a pro-randomness manifesto [laughs] but I don’t feel that I’ve come down on one side or the other. Although I am pretty convinced by Bateson’s idea of the stochastic processes. He wrote that he thinks there are nonrandom elements that preserve this or that random event or flow. And according to him the dynamic is relevant not only to like genetic variation, but also macro-things like learning. Secretly just between you and I—I do feel that these natural habits of matter are more in charge than anybody is comfortable believing. 

I mean we’re freaked out by our own replacements and we made them—uncanny valley? It’s bizarre because it’s not quite right but it’s also too on the nose. And I think that in some ways, children do notice a lot of things in the world that we grow out of as adults.

I’m really interested in amazement, this idea of marvelling. I reject the notion of a direct correlation between knowledge and mundanity. Édouard Glissant wrote, you know, that though we can’t know everything it would be foolish not to try to know and that there’s a kind of poetics—like a feverish poetics—we practice that is actually that, striking out into the unknown trying feverishly to know. 

When you were writing the book, because you do talk about events in your life, were you at all worried about the truth, or skewing it a little bit to test those theories out?

Yeah, that was part of what I was doing. I’m aware that by all of these framing devices and word choices, juxtapositions, that I’m constructing something. And so there is an adjacency or a proximity or a rhyming with my life, rather than some presentation of facts, facticity—that was something I intoned—some broth I sipped while writing—but I wasn’t fretting about it, no. I was interested in being just a little surreal, which was why I didn’t look consult the internet continually, and part of why I sometimes paraphrase or misquote this or that. The fact checkers—God bless them!—they would find things and query me, “You know, that wasn’t really how many rings the tree had—the oldest tree in the world.” Because I well, yeah, I know, I’m doing this from memory. That was important to me, the fecundity of imagination. I didn’t go back to look at the article I read about the guy cutting down the oldest tree in the world. I thought I was writing fiction, and just using the details of my life as ready spirited fodder. [Laughs] There were definitely a few things I corrected. And there were a couple things I didn’t correct because the book is obviously about the misremembered sculpture, the rippling maw of possibility related to the figure of the birth mother. I just was trying to make a little space for this idea of the virtual, to try to tease some thoughts out about the virtual.

You also unpack quite a bit of Blade Runner 2049 at the end of the book. I don’t want to give the ending of the book away, but with the movie, everyone went into it expecting some questions would be answered, but that doesn’t happen. It left us asking more questions. I wanted to know what you thought about legacy and how that connects to lineage.

I was really moved by Agent K’s sudden strong desire to be Deckard’s son. He was like, “Oh my God. I’m actually born and you’re actually…” you know, he went there! You’re kind of rooting for him, Yeah, it is true! You were born and you’re real! [Laughs] And so we felt awful when the facts started to bear out other realities, the fantasy started to fade…I write this all out in the book, but I did find it very moving. Watching this intense psychic world rev up, you know, once it was launched in his head, Agent K, he was like, “You’re my dad,” and he felt it, and after that, well, facts on the ground didn’t matter much. Love had happened and you know, the changes it wrought in him were unretractable. He was like, “Well I felt it man, and it filled me up for good.”

In what way? 

Experiencing the joy of belonging, even if it’s illusory—or was it love. Even misapprehensions change things, have effects. I find that so fascinating. The idea is that this love—it budded in him, right? and regardless of facts on the ground, this love—the effects of it, the joy?—were already in motion, were not particularly flimsy or quenchable.

My Meteorite is, in large part, a meditation on love, this thing that draws us into relation, and it’s about interconnectedness. In the book I’m puzzling through all manner of connection: touch; the fabric made by discourse; genetic linkages that evolve over decades without regard to time and space; in-person meetings which are constituted by the amplitude of risk; family bonds constituted by repetition, time and attention; the incredible remote connectedness of quantum fields which also do not heed the logics of the local; and even reverberating gravitational waves—centuries old—made by black holes colliding.

It’s wild to be talking to you at the front end of this big, awful pandemic: a world in which everyone is suddenly flung into hyperawareness of how interconnected we are. A virus spread by touch, creature to creature, over the globe in a few months is breath-taking, because we can comprehend some part of it, the durational aspect of it, and the figure—a sometimes lethal virus—is frightening. I’m trying to put together thoughts right now, but it’s just so odd the way we want (and need) to disconnect physically but it’s also a kind of grand experiment in socializing remotely, by screen.  For the technoparanoid, I think we’re going to be surprised at what’s possible. And, aside from the obvious, and though most of the results of this—economically-speaking—are a hazard for anyone living paycheck to paycheck, you know, something about the manifest failures might work as negative space around modalities that are promising for the future. Certain images cannot be unseen. Which is to say that we might batter open some new doors of relation, we might learn something amazing about what matters in our relationships, in the conveyance of our relationships, by this awful dress rehearsal and that is a hopeful tendril I’m trying to hang onto. There are choices about how to respond to the fact of interconnectedness, there are lots of ways to go, shame is one place to land, or fear, but balancing that with courage and service and the ecstasy of permeability is another—as is finding the affirmative possibilities of our bodies and our world as interdependent and co-constituting.

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