Digital Utopianism or Pixelated Madness? By Horatio Morpurgo

‘The question is no longer whether our future is digital but to what degree we want to remain human.’ So begins the current (fourth) number of Analog Sea, the ‘offline journal’ founded in 2018 by Jonathan Simons. Copies are only available through actual physical bookshops (such as The Bookshop, Bridport) and the publisher can only be contacted by post. Its pages form part of ‘an emergent fringe publicly championing a more sceptical relationship with technology’, particularly ‘digital utopianism’.

Analog Sea, an English language publication based in Freiburg, Germany, has been reviewed favourably by the Washington Post and the Times Literary Supplement among others. It sells more copies in Menlo Park (birthplace of Google, current home of Meta / Facebook) than in any other city in the world. They know very well there what ‘the pixelated madness’ is doing to us.

This fourth number is largely given over to a sustained meditation on the nature of liberty. It is properly wary (which is to say not reflexively dismissive) of the West’s claim to embody such an ideal. Ukraine is mentioned only once but the war is clearly the occasion for these troubled reflections upon what is being defended there.

Featuring interviews with historians and film-makers, the writings of philosophers, poets and novelists, it is divided into four sections. The first explores some lesser-known byways of the Sixties counter-culture. In San Francisco, for example, the Diggers took more than their name from the seventeenth century English dissenters. In a park they set up a makeshift wooden frame, labelled it ‘Free Frame of Reference’ and started cooking. You brought your own bowl and by walking through the frame were understood to have entered a new space. The free food you ate wasn’t just a picnic but part of a utopian experiment, a reclamation of the commons. They ran free printing shops, too, emulating the pamphleteers of the 1640s.

Theirs was a freedom radically at odds with an America where, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, ‘the music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship.’ The Diggers were rapidly outflanked: divergent strains within the counter-culture soon began to pull apart. These different groups, though, should be seen not as the ‘foolish ideological mis-steps’ of caricature but as ‘collectives engaged in a larger battle for the concept of freedom as such.’

            So the famous ‘Summer of Love’, for example, was organised by a more ‘entrepreneurial’ faction within the counter-culture, deliberately pitched to the media fascination with its more photogenic aspects. When a certain Republican hopeful and former actor named Ronald Reagan argued, in 1964, that the only freedom which could guarantee prosperity was the free market, his argument was part of this wider struggle within American culture.

            Why should anybody care now? Because by 1967 Reagan was Governor of California. Because from the defeat of that utopianism there emerged ‘the free market doxa that has dominated the last 30 years of Western politics.’ To recall this now is anything but an exercise in nostalgia. It is to affirm the possibility of contesting that victory and in multiple ways.

The journal’s next section explores how freedom has manifested through music down the centuries, whether that be Bach’s Chaconne, Mozart’s concertos or the piano Nietzsche played. We hear of Scott Walker’s ‘Jesse’, a song about Elvis Presley’s still-born twin, to whom he spoke ‘in moments of desolation’. There is John Coltrane, too, and the ‘free movement’ in jazz, as well as the centrality of mutual aid to the punk ethos.

The third section addresses authoritarianism head on. We surely can do better than match Putin’s imperial mania belligerence for belligerence, mechanically invoking a freedom we prefer not to examine too closely. So the historian Robert Zaretsky tracks freedom from Edinburgh to Paris to Geneva, through the writings of Hume, Diderot and Rousseau in the eighteenth century, through to Camus and Weil in the twentieth. He also describes what it’s like teaching this to students who see themselves as ‘clients’ for whom a degree is ‘a marketable commodity.’

Robert Fulford explores British culture through the story of The Sun’s notorious ‘Gotcha!’ headline, which rejoiced at the drowning of hundreds of Argentinian recruits during the Falklands War. To Fulford, the literary imagination matters as an inveterate foe of borders, whether those are policed along ethnic, class or national lines. Abraham Lewin recalls that myriad resourcefulness shown in the Warsaw Ghetto, the ways found by its inmates to insist upon fully human identity. The poet Adrienne Rich squares up to her American homeland. She questions ‘the ‘‘free’’ market’s devotion to freedom of expression,’ exploring the work of Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish as she does so.

‘We are not simply trapped in the present,’ she writes. ‘We are not caged in a narrowing corridor at the ‘‘end of history’’. Nor do any of us have to windsurf on the currents of a system that betrays so many others. We do have choices.’

The final section is devoted to the theme of walking. From Rebecca Solnit to Henry David Thoreau, from Walter Benjamin on why the flȃneur was invented in Paris to Virginia Woolf meandering down to the Strand in search of that pencil. The literal freedom here is simply that of moving through space. To actually exercise it, though, prompts reflection on more elusive forms that freedom can take.

Readers of the journal’s earlier issues will notice here a looping back to the section in Number Two about Situationism. In any case you will need several good walks to digest the sheer abundance of suggestion on offer here. Analog Sea is what a grown-up public culture looks like. We’ve got so used to our poisonous fog, we scarcely recognise the real thing when we stumble upon it. Presented here are writers who can defend the possibilities of our freedom and bear witness to its shortcomings. Analog Sea deserves our attention.

Join Analog Sea editor Jonathan Simons in discussion with writer Horatio Morpurgo for the 57th Lecture on Everything at the Chapel in the Garden in Bridport at 8pm on April 14th. Tickets £10 on the door.