Categories
Archaeology of Cultural Space

Choice for All? No Thanks; Re-Mapping and De-Canonizing

Rotating through the tattered remnants of something that used to stand here in resolute defiance, you stand in the back alley, staring at the arc of detritus, spewing out from some torn bin liner around the corner. Consult the legend, the signals, figure out what’s supposed to be here. Up until this point, you had the rhythmic choreography down to a tee, had been following the cues perfectly, until you followed them off the map, the paradox that rises from mistaking the abstract for the ground beneath your feet. Here you are in unfamiliar territory, some alien ship or unexplored piece of turf somewhere in the wilds. It’s right there on the piece of paper, on the satellite image; it didn’t say it was going to be like this.

The Urban is full of folds and cracks, that much is clear; the classic distinction of town and country, like that between state and civil society in Hegel, is something that precipitates closure even as the global flows of exchange, the “market” precipitates fracture and atomization. The core problematic of contemporary “neocapitalism” lies in this paradoxical movement, one replicated down to the individual objects and experiences of the every day. What is this wistful emptiness of culture that accompanies us, the flat PoMo anything-will-do landscape in which nothing can be expressed without quotation marks, phrased in the form of a question, in which the constant self-reflexive questioning has taken the place of all conviction, where popular music is simply reduced to an aesthetic consumerist qualifier and any statement of taste has to be made in the constant fear of breaking rank, than an ongoing symptom of such contradictions? Even as Spotify and Netflix present us with a supposed cornucopia, a vast array of choice before our eyes; is this what it comes to, choice?

For even as streaming encapsulates this ubiquitous, global similitude, the effects to move towards a unified cultural reality in which anything goes, the meaning of such cultural experience is reduced to just this dynamic, where choice = freedom. The choice/freedom mythology is a distinctly liberal one, something rooted in the traditions of the enlightenment, wherein freedom consists of a kind of non-intervention, you-do-you and all that good stuff where the speculative political imaginary lays out a world in which we can proceed unhindered, where we can be ourselves. I’m sure I don’t have to lay out in too much detail what’s suspect here, namely the idea that if we strip back the layers, behind the surface we find some kind of pure self, and that from this basis it is possible to act authentically; from this premise we enter an entire discourse of authenticity and realness, of soul. Herein lies the problem with you-do-you, the dream of the libertarian, those who wish to go about their vital work without intervention, that there is no freedom in being a slave to false authenticity, that authenticity stems from the very feedback loops of capitals central libidinal machinery. This is of course where the dream of neoliberalism itself falls apart, wherein it is revealed not to be the unhindered freedom of markets, the ability for each to make their own fortune, but an enforced politico-economic paradigm of privatized authenticity. Behind the frontier-vision of capital lies the assumption of the traditional rugged survivalist and their family, the safety and comfort of the homestead or the British bourgeois estate, the consignment of our being to a script, a repeated daily routine of reinforcement in which authenticity, the stripping back of aestheticization, merely translates into the most depressing of cyclical reiterations.

Choice = freedom is a limitation, it implies not that we can shift the meaning, the nature of social relations, but that we can choose between them at leisure, defining the emancipated future as one of choice merely bows down to the order of consumer production. There is a certain worldview which seems to echo the incurable optimist, the Whig conceit of teleological progress transformed into confidence that in the end nothing is better than anything else, that no time is better than any other time, that nothing ever changes; before you know it the end of history is here, the sheering away of historicity, the onset of the eternal present suspended in non-time and non-place. Against this, the injunction that culture, that art, music, might mean anything becomes practically unthinkable.

This is an injunction away from choice as predominant motor of autonomy and towards a shift in the mapping of culture itself. Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space of the deceptiveness of maps. The important thing to note, for him, is that maps don’t simply deliver a straightforward reading or empirical datum on the places they represent, but rather they play a part, as representations, in producing them. The same is true in this sense of the ways in which we map between points of cultural interest on a timeline, producing a canon. The process of de-canonising and reinvention is then the process of re-organising the map, and through this the ways in which we navigate it. It similarly, through re-configuring space, excavates new potentials in bringing together and undermining boundaries between separate points. It re-aligns the focus from the non-interventionist liberal ideal towards a new space where these choices are revealed to be predicated on a lie.

Categories
Capitalism Space

The City is a War Zone

London, the capital, is always for me a fleeting place. Like the rushed, sour-faced businessmen pushing you out of the way, it’s there and then its gone, a blast of sickly wind to the face.. but whenever I’m there these days I always try and take the opportunity to wander, rather than just visit; not because I want to position myself as some kind of contemporary flaneur, but just exist somewhere else for a short time without having to go anywhere.

Regardless, when you find yourself rammed into the centre of the business towers, the immense slabs of glass threatening to bear down on you, the romantic ideal of the ego positioning itself as the observer seems to dissipate into so much asset management and ostentatious bars for well paid employees. Even if you wanted to, there’s not much society to observe here amongst the throngs of similitude, the empty shells of finance capital closing off the sky above you. It is ostensibly a teeming centre but winding in between its “phallic verticality” as Lefebvre put it, it feels more like a ghost city, the people becoming nothing but units, photons, atoms firing between the immensity of the capital syphons, asset strippers, resonators of dead labour. Indeed the unbound absurdity of the gigantic monuments to capital such as the Shard seems to overshadow the lives of all who surround it, a sharp, cutting manifestation of the teleology of capital, the hideous and predictable accuracy of its dehumanising impulse.

The expression non-place doesn’t seem to do it justice, here you find anti-places, erasure and decay beneath a propagation of gleaming battlements prepared for war, these wonders of the capital are built on dashed brains, these expensive developments on mangled limbs.. the reflective surfaces in their purity reek of blood. The architecture of central London is psychological warfare, a vertiginous fall into the abyss from the ground up. It strains every muscle to ensure that the social unconscious, that dirty, repressed underside, remains hidden to you, the visitor, but it can’t..

Eventually, if you allow for some drift, you are bound to emerge into the ruins, those parts that it can’t, or more likely has not yet erased and replaced in its constant cut-and-paste sprawl, and here you invariably find traces and leftovers, what the slick inner-city beast has spewed out and what it has abandoned mingles in with what it has yet to touch and what it so desperately wants to ignore. It is here that the gigantic, gleaming emerald city of London finance begins to feel like a cruel joke at the expense of the lives of the people here, an ostentatious display seemingly designed to provoke envy and resentment. The city is a building site, a shifting tableau, but only in one direction..

In fact, when you scan the horizon, you’d sometimes be forgiven for thinking an entirely new city was being built amidst the patchwork. Each new development and project comes with its own mediocre utopia, a little vision of an updated, “modernised” neighbourhood, an architectural model with miniature residents strolling in front of it. The problem of course as that these aren’t architectural models and these people aren’t blank plastic clones. The city-as-playground-for-investors planning approach is nothing less than a tactic of war where the lives and bodies of the marginalised and the poor are subjected to emotional and psychological violence and displacement in the name of the UK’s “place on the world stage”. To keep up this gigantic facade, those parts of society it doesn’t want you to see, that might turn off the money-taps, must be obscured between the folds and the cracks, still seen sometimes in flashes and glimpses, the reflection in the glass from the window of a bus.

And the ideal can be seen right there, in the centre, the living graveyards of investment and entrepreneurial capital. At one point you imagine people may have seen this as exciting, a new horizon, a symbol of prosperity, but it seems now like these impossibly solid bastions of industry are little but cold glass and steel staring back at you, employees faces a blank picture of banal misery as they check out for lunch break or a cigarette. The people here often seem like empty shells, they could be anyone but they try to be no one; as they gather around for an evening drink each face blends into another, everyone dresses the same way, everyone talks about the same things, where is the famed plasticity of capital here? The answer of course is that this plasticity exists only in order to maintain just this kind of simulation of socialisation. Even off-hours people rehearse their lines, practice a kind of set routine that they simply improvise in varying orders from day to day. This is the world where talking to people becomes networking, where nothing exists if not subordinated to a business and finance based logic, Mark Fisher’s “business ontology”, a wasteland of imaginary capital.

The wastelands of business flow, or rather shudder into the limelight of a consumer tourist wonderland, coffee chains lining the streets and the push and pull of crowds swelling the pavements. But again, the people fade into insignificance, the slick wet pavements in the rain hold more interest than a thousand faces. Here again life seems to play second fiddle to the mechanised operations of production and consumption playing out under the rubric of colourful branding and smiling, welcoming faces. I’ll revise what I said earlier, the spit and grime of the city is hidden, repressed, but it lies in plain sight at all times. The exasperated employee selling the five hundredth latte of the day, the homeless man sitting beneath the famous landmark, meters away from groups of tourists, the simple dirt on the streets.. a facade relies upon displaying its own inadequacies, in emphasising the cracks, to work, and here it is not that the marginalised and displaced are completely out of sight in a literal sense, it is simply that the space around us draws away from what’s in front of our own noses, the violence all around us.

Just as historically the city works by excreting layers on top of its crumbling past, it simultaneously canonises and elevates to an ideal certain monuments and mythologies, the impossibly fragile spires and gleaming domes, the remnants of the neoclassical, the Victorian morality play, all reactionary paeans to the past, solid pillars and defined perspective. In fact isn’t this somewhere at the heart of the London facade, and in the most literal sense of its most damning economic effects. On the one hand we have the dystopian shadow of finance capital, and on the other the similarly threatening Dickensian imaginary, each playing its part in a war machine, a disappearing engine, erasing hearts and minds by the day…

The city is a war zone, but we can’t see the combatants.

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Uncategorized

Sex Education and Capitalist Spacio-temporal Collapse

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Have you ever felt out of time and place? I did, while watching Netflix’s recent series Sex Education. As a dramatized exploration of awkward teenage sexual discovery it is, well pretty serviceable, even well done, if it does rely upon exaggerated stereotypes to get its points across in many instances. It is admittedly a step above some of the other misfiring attempts to do the same thing in recent years; that said something that stood out above all this while watching it, having decided to give it a go on a whim, was the luridly surreal disjuncture of the setting.

Immediately, like many viewers in Britain I would wager, I noticed something incredibly strange. While ostensibly it takes place in England, and everyone in the show speaks with a British accent of some kind, the setting of the school seemed to be screaming american high school at me. We here had all the known stereotypes of the american high school drama, the jock, the nerd, the angry outsider, the bully… you get the picture, and multitudes of details within the show merely accentuated this, from the american football to the clothes people wear.

And it goes further; numerous times in the show I asked myself when it was actually supposed to taking place. While certain aspects of it seem to communicate a contemporary setting, others seem to flit about between the 70’s, 80s, other distinct time periods. As it went on, the show embodied not just a spacial disconnect, but a spacio-temporal one. The setting was multiple folded into one, some mash-up of now, then, here there that created a strangely disorientating effect, further amplified by the strange absence of references to an outside world [as one might reasonably expect to filter into the teenage experience]. Not only is the world of Sex Education one where multiple times and places can be found in one location, the location itself appears to exist in some bubble, removed from the comings-and-goings of any country beyond its walls. People arrive, people leave, but outside the strangely indistinct environs of Sex Education, somehow achieved despite obviously shooting on location in multiple instances, there appears to be no communication.

Believe it or not, the makers of the show weren’t actually trying to create some strange Lynchian dream-space, this is the material interests of capital at play. Gillian Anderson, who stars, talked about the purposeful decisions made in an interview, and that it was a purposeful attempt to make a British show that would appeal to the huge American market. Regarding the strange incongruities of the setting, perhaps heightened by the realism the show shoots for in other areas, it was hoped seemingly that “Americans wouldn’t notice”.  Indeed the strange intermingling of settings is probably noticeable largely to anyone who has experienced the British education system.

The setting of Sex Education then, encapsulates the folding of capital, the singular cutting and pasting of time and place that occurs when one can walk into the same shop on two different sides of the planet and buy the same product. The British sixth form becomes the american high school and vice versa, every high street becomes the same high street, every cultural object has the same reference points, a universal patchwork of repeated cultural touchstones repeated ad nauseam. Combined with the temporal confusion and we have a product redolent of Jameson’s postmodernism, the collapse of historicity and a culture of nostalgic repetition under the stretching, abducting and re-configuring construct of capitalist desire. It is something that is only heightened by the move to streaming platforms, the shrinking of the planet not only via transport but via the interlinking of cultural objects, the object of desire becoming a singularity of one-sides-fits-all cultural interface, where all become one and one becomes all.

This is by no means the first instance of this, but Sex Education simply provides me with the most obvious example to date, where the utterly surreal quality of the breakdown of difference and the folding of space and time in fiction when considered outside of the shows purpose and context resemble a Phillip K Dick story. It a simulacrum of a place we all have in our heads, we all see as real, but doesn’t actually exist. It is real as a disparate connection of pop-culture references, representing a pulling together and blending of various things we recognize from countless shows, films, books and other artifacts. This is largely in fact extended to the characters themselves, who I mentioned earlier resemble exaggerated stereotypes. Like the setting of the show, these aren’t people, but pieces of other people we know from other fictional references pulled together into a collage. Peel back the layer of Sex Education and you find only more cultural references, as far back as it goes.

This is not, despite appearances, dismissing Sex Education as something worth watching entirely, but despite it being well made and written in many regards there was a distinct feeling dogging the whole show for me, a constant reminder that none of this was real. It exists in some capitalist hyperspace, suspended in the collective consumer fish tank, perfectly assembled, filed off, sanded, polished… designed for purpose and beauty, but strangely devoid of its own identity.

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Uncategorized

The Intimacy of Space

After seeing First Man recently, and finding it a far more intense experience than I anticipated on both an emotional and cinematic level, I naturally rushed home to write up some thoughts on it. Like many have said, it is less a presentation of the majesty of space, the enormity of human achievement, or the abstract inhumanity of national progress or patriotic jingoism; indeed this is what may have inflamed the collective egos of American conservatives upon finding out that the film does not [horror of horrors] feature a scene wherein the American flag is planted on the moon. 

Indeed this call to feed the ugly, inflated sacs of empty nationalistic pride is precisely what First Man flouts so magnificently. Upon hearing a film is being made about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, the immediate fear [or hope for some] might be that we’re getting either a dry, unexciting recounting of historical events or an overly sentimental jingoistic affirmation of American cold war patriotism. What Damien Chazelle does is sidestep both of these pitfalls magnificently by focusing on the “Man” of the film’s title. This is not some story of grand collective achievement as much as it is a personal study of trauma, grief, the drive to confront our fears, emotional repression, and, overall, intimacy. 

Where similar films have in the past chosen to represent space through this lens of awe and majesty, offering us the classic Kubrick-esque outer shots of spaceships slowly docking, of gigantic objects floating gently through the void, First Man forgoes this approach almost entirely until we reach the moon itself, presenting itself almost in the manner of a home-made film in how the hand-held camera intimately focuses on surroundings and people, shaking, almost to the state of complete abstraction, during the most white-knuckle scenes of space-born malfunction and flight. From within the small metal box hurtling through the cosmos we are with the astronauts, being thrown around and shaken to pieces.

The effect is one of bypassing the inhuman machines of national accomplishment, churning cold war politics, the infinite void beyond that small window, and leading us crashing into the painful and poignant realities of the human. The heart of the film are points like the early brief scene where Armstrong draws the curtain to cry so nobody else can see him, and running through it is his personal attempt to consolidate his feelings of grief and loss with the stoic, emotionless figurehead he’s asked to be, the effects of all this on his wife and family, the human cost of the space programme, the gigantic feats of engineering and impossibly expansive context and ambition viewed from a perspective of total intimacy and tenderness. Armstrong’s journey to the moon is framed against his own attempts to confront his own emotions, get past the divide he has erected between himself and the people he loves. The visor of the space helmet becomes his shield from others, and ultimately the “giant leap” of the famous line becomes his, not mankind’s , first and foremost, inverting an abstractly vast human feat into one man overcoming his own emotional obstacles. 

This is, in some ways, the film about the moon landings that I didn’t know I desperately wanted, rendering the intimacy of space, reducing our perspective of the event from these statistics, numbers, footage, just some event we know happened, we know is important but have no real conception of, to the eyes of one man, wracked with fear and grief but unable to show it, to one woman, terrified that her husband might not make it back, to a personal tale of loss that renders the intimate humanity of our torment as a cosmic achievement, the drive to uncover new horizons becomes our own, the rocket, blasting towards a white dot in the sky, becomes an emotional journey. Space becomes the other we must confront, the horizon we must reach to consolidate the feelings that terrify us but reside within us. It is one of the most intensely beautiful things I’ve seen this year.