The capabilities of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before - which means the scope of society's domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
JOHN MARTYN R.I.P.
Thanks to Alex for sending me the sad news that John Martyn, a man who always seemed mortally embarrassed that he was capable of making such beautiful music, has died aged 60. Here is a clip of him playing "Small hours," the last track - a dreamy, slowed-down dub - off his greatest album, at Reading University in 1978:
Gebbie's final fantasy spread shows Hook being swallowed by a large jawed, fleshy crocodile, its mouth painted to resemble an adult vagina (it even has a beard and moustache) swallowing the Captain whole. Although not exactly what you'd call a happy ending, there is something triumphant in Wendy recognising the split between her real and fantasy desire. But the inherent risk and danger that comes with the potential happiness of sexual maturity and fulfilment remains.
Reminds of something that (I think) Baudrillard wrote about (I think) Japan, where he reckoned there was a kind of mass male back-to-the-womb fantasy of diving into a vagina and staying there forever...
My first priority on returning to the UK in March is to read Lost Girls, if only so that DV and I can talk long into the night about it. DV has written three super primers on the Wendy Darling storyline over at MDJ, following up her post in October.
As any fule no, Diogenes, the 4th/5th century BC philosopher, lived in a tub and made much of his poverty in order to expose the hypocrisy and greed of contemporary Greek society. Although his home lacked comfort, it seems that he kept his tub neat and tidy and eschewed possessions (the picture below, by Gerome, portrays a very kempt abode, though I can't quite see the relevance of the philosophical dogs), so it seems rather contradictory for compulsive hoarding to be named after him.
But so it is - Diogenes Syndrome is the name given to that condition of hoarding objects which appear disposable and useless to everyone else, of filling one's home with plastic bags and newspapers and old buttons and badges and bank statements and the like. Edmund Trebus, the hero of the Life of Grime TV series, is one of the most famous sufferers (though far from suffering, he was defiant in his claims that what he chose to retain and throw away nobody's business but his own).
Anyway, I write all this by way of introduction to Wang An Ting, who we met the other day in Chengdu. Wang, the self-proclaimed Head of the Mao Tse-Tung's Medals Research Society in China (Preparatory), has turned his house full of Mao-related clutter into a museum. Here is part of his Mao badge collection (only a small part, mind - there were four or five more glass cabinets stuffed with red and silver badges).
Here are some pictures of the five biggies of Communism (Sino-Russo-German Communism anyway).
Here are some busts, sitting aloft some nice Socialist-Realist pictures of Mao on the Long March and surrounded by adoring children (Mao and Stalin were great hits with the under-tens).
Here are Mao and Zhou Enlai and some other chap looking like the cats that got the cream next to a Chinese plane, plus some (possibly Maoist) mugs and biscuit-tins.
Chinese Maoism is a bit like Argentine Peronism - an empty signifier, an ideology adaptable to any political aims or ends, a doctrine (a communism with a rural powerhouse) which has turned into its opposite (urban neoliberalism) without anyone batting an eyelid (in a stroke of genius, Deng was able to justify his reforms in the early 80s in Marxist terms, claiming that true socialism could only be reached by first taking capitalist steps). But there is a trace left over from old-style Maoism which is still alive and well in China, a kind of theology in a country without an official religion, which is invoked to create nationalist pride and quell dissent. That Wang's museum, a obsessive palace fit for an old Cultural Revolutionary, was five minutes down the road from Starbucks didn't seem strange at all.
THE IMPORTANT THING IS NOT TO TAKE PART, BUT TO WIN!
What did the Beijing Olympics represent? Nothing less than the changeover of world superpowers. China may not dominate the world yet, but it will surely be the decisive nation state of the twenty-first century. Anybody who thought China was still some tinpot Maoist monolith watched the rituals of sport and theatre in Beijing last summer and had to concede that the game was up - London 2012 might as well not bother. Despite some initial disruption, the Tibetan and Falungong protests barely registered. The conclusion was: they may not do democracy, but who cares when they organise such a top-notch opening ceremony?
I visited the Olympic Park last Sunday, mainly to see the Bird's Nest and the Aquatics Centre, but also just to find out what an Olympic Park feels like after the event. Walking up the escalator from the subway, I heard a melodramatic power-ballad over the loudspeaker - the song was called "One world, one dream" (the slogan of the '08 games) and it played on a loop with two other officially-sanctioned songs the entire 2.5 hours I was there (I suspect the music continues into the night, long after all the tourists have gone home). It reminded me of that horribly over-wrought OVO thing that Peter Gabriel did for the Millennium Dome - its incessancy makes resistance futile (and immoral too, of course, for why would you want to resist global unity? All together now, "One world, one dreeeeeeam".....)
The stadia are, of course, at the cutting edge of architectural design. The photos above are of the Bird's Nest being constructed - they are reminiscent of Constant or even early Constructivism. Jonathan Glancey wrote in the Guardian that it was "an adventure in steel and concrete" and only a churl would deny that it is stunning from the outside - it makes London's 2012 stadium look extremely outdated (not so different from its 1948 stadium, in fact). The Bird's Nest, like the airport and the Central Business District (which will get its own post soon), is a building that, for better or worse, looks like the future.
But the overall effect of the Park is strangely futureless. Nothing that happens at the Park - least of all the music - happens without the say-so of the people who guard it. Nothing is spontaneous. The action has passed - people will continue to visit but nothing will ever happen here again.
Even if you are the type whose juices flow at the sight of a sports stadium, you would be hard pressed to describe the inside of the Bird's Nest as anything but tremulously dull. Having paid my 50RMB entrance fee, I entered the stadium, passed a stand selling bottles of iced tea and corn on the cob, walked down the steps and across the pitch. An image of Diana Ross missing from the penalty spot flashed across my brain, and I walked back up the steps and tried to find the exit. I walked half way round the outside, turned back on myself, found the entrance (whereupon uniformed guards shook their heads at me), turned back once more - where was the exit? I was trapped inside the Bird's Nest! My ears would forever ring with the sound of a small child's voice, plaintively singing about that wretched dream! (Fear not - I found the way out eventually, a small gap in the security fence - but it was touch-and-go for a while...)
Compared to the rest of the city, where you can't move for old statues dedicated to workers, there is a conspicuous lack of reference to work here. The Village (and the airport / hotels / bars / cafes etc that were built ready for the Olympics) was not built - or so we are led to believe - they just appeared. (In fact, as this article from the Observer points out, the massive Olympic construction effort involved countless thousands of workers, many of them rural migrants, most earning around $7 a day - and when the cranes and the scaffolding were dismantled in late 2007, the workers were suddenly out of work and on their way back in time to the countryside.) The narrative of the dream (there is only one, remember) in the official promotional film is that anyone can do it, but we know that the dream of becoming an Olympic athlete is only open to the urban middle and upper-class (don't worry - class is alive and well in China, and will be the subject of a more detailed post soon).
In my 2003 Lonely Planet guide to China, the Olympic park is barely mentioned, aside from being a residential area near to the old Asia Games complex. Those residents were, of course, decanted from their homes without a moment's thought. A place where people used to live their lives has now become a dead spectacle, an impressive feat of engineering designed as a representation of the "anyone can do it" lie of the Olympics and the bland, futureless consumption by China's increasingly consumerist (yet class-riven) society. But as such, it beats the plans for London 2012 into a cocked hat.
Confucius says: "while your parents are alive, you should not go too far afield in your travels. If you do, your whereabouts should always be known." Confucius would surely disapprove of me then, but he would heartily endorse the Beijing World Park:
Seriously, if it's kitsch you want, come to Beijing. Alas, I'm moving south tomorrow, so the World Park will have to wait for another visit...
Will do my best to post something coherent soon, but in the meantime, here are my jottings from Days 1 and 2:
Arrive in Beijing mid-morning after excellent in-flight entertainment - watched a documentary on Peter Green (with contributions from that old bastard Clifford Davis and, bizarrely, Jeremy Spencer) and an episode of Paddington (obviously) and fell asleep to Simon Callow reading Peter Ackroyd.
New airport terminal rather beautiful - a hush seemed to descend when I entered immigration - designed by Norman Foster, very influenced by Ming-style architecture, lots of brilliant light, rather like a temple. Was bundled into a cab last time I was here, but all much more orderly this time - my driver was obviously connected to the airport in some way - dodgy cab drivers would not last long in "Newly Industrialising China" methinks. Lots of "How am I doing?" surveys, "your comments are appreciated" etc where you can press a button between 1 and 5 to rate the member of staff - this is the future of democracy - opinions limited to consumption, workers assessed on crude numerical scale and punished ("appraised") accordingly etc.
Beijing much more built-up than in 2004, feels like a very new (glamorous) concrete jungle. At first glance, buildings slightly better here than at home - Brutalism still in, but worst bits of pomo pervade as well - remind me of those greasy 70s / 80s films of Manhatten, where the sun shines off the banks and exchanges and you wonder "where does everybody live?"... - lots of kitch adaptations of Chinese / neocolonialist styles - no diminutive charm - everything is huge.
Forbidden City and Tian'an'men still breathtaking. Wangfujing Street brash and consumerist...as I walk down it, I recognise various malls and restaurants and stumble on the hotel where we stayed last time.
-2 degrees here apparently - must say, it does feel pretty fresh. First meal: braised lamb and garlicky snowpeas with a sesame bun and a beer (they don't grow much rice in the North apparently, don't have the right climate, so they eat much more noodles and bread).
Speak to Miss Vicarage (soon to be Mrs Vicarage - yey! - though not Mrs Paddington - just doesn't sound right) 7am Chinese time / 11pm British time - the time delay is perfect for first thing in the morning / last thing at night chats. Muesli and boiled eggs for breakfast with very weak coffee. Middle-aged Russian pipes up - obviously very drunk - huffs and puffs, tells me how hard life is, then asks me what language I speak - I tell him English - he then asks if I am Chinese (?) - I tell him I don't know any Chinese so he starts quoting loads of bad Chinese at me, trying to stare me out - I leave him mid-slur.
Go to Olympic Park - often beautiful and impressive but dead, preserved in aspic after only six months - will write and post photos later. So much construction in last five years - the subway has more than doubled in size. Walk down Qianmen Dajie - lots of gorgeous buildings and beautiful flowers and big pots and old hutongs running off it, everybody preparing for new year, but I keep finding myself wondering, "is this real or fake?" All that Olympic stuff earlier I guess, but Beijing feels a bit bigger and brasher and tackier and more willing to sell itself than before - no easy distinction between authentic-old and pastiche-new here.
End up in rather posh restaurant in the evening - have a casserole of "cow's intestines and tofu" with boiled lettuce and minced pork and steamed rice. Intestines taste ok, same oddly silky consistency as tofu.
THE FIRST OFFICIAL STATEMENT OF HOMO LUDENS Authorised during the month of January 2009
Paddington is in China! With only seven minutes left on the internet meter, that is as far as Paddington's official statement goes at the moment, but I already have much to write about - the pavement desert that is the Olympic Park, the awesome Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition (seriously one of the best museums [musea?] I have ever been to), the greasy plans for Beijing's Central Business District (with home-made photos!), the writings of Confucius, some stuff wot I have learned about Deng and the reform era (doesn't sound promising I know, but it's actually pretty interesting, and explains why China has disobeyed the liberal democratic rule where opening markets = opening political freedoms) etc etc.
THE SECOND OFFICIAL STATEMENT OF HOMO LUDENS Authorised during the month of January 2009
Paddington is engaged! His bearess (General Secretary of the dearly-departed Missing Dust Jacket) made him the luckiest bear in either hemisphere by saying "yes" to his proposal of marriage late last week, and Paddington is consequently cock-a-hoop. To celebrate, I shall be posting lots of photos of us snogging outside Northern Line tube stations in the coming months (our project for the year is to visit each one and plant a smacker on each other's lips). Forgive the strange juxtaposition of Chinese politics and Underground kisses, but my head is a wonderfully strange juxtaposition of a place to be at the moment.
It is sick, but one must admit that Israel's tactic against the Palestinian people has a certain sadistic genius: make people live like animals, turn the tables by accusing them of behaving like animals, and then use this behaviour to justify a holocaust.
The Israeli Defence Force does exactly that - it defends Israel. But since the presence of Palestinians is seen as a threat to Israel's existence, defence has become equivalent to all-out attack. The inter-regnum period between Bush and Obama presents the Israeli government with a one-off opportunity to accelerate (or even complete) the complete dispossession of the Palestinian people from land which they can call home. In the last fortnight, this has turned into a one-sided massacre.
In other words, the people of Gaza have been provoked to breaking point. They have been forced to live in a situation which no human being should be expected to bear. It is hardly surprising that they have reacted. But actually, for all the mainstream media's reports of moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, the rockets which Israel claims caused the current onslaught were provoked by Israel's violation of the ceasefire.
The protest against the siege in Gaza today was angry, loud, and tense - but also peaceful and respectful. When we arrived in Kensington just before 4, the police outnumbered the protestors by two or three to one. Within half an hour, the protest swelled and the police started to fidget. One policeman balled his hand into a fist and punched it into his other hand (perhaps his hands are cold, I thought to myself). Another, spying a couple of excitable (but hardly threatening) guys at the front, licked his lips and advanced towards them, grunting "Come on then!". Two guys (not, I think, protestors) strode into the crowd, cruising for a punch-up, and eyeballed a policeman, but the rest of the crowd was having none of it. A man next to me - one of those fabulous men you get at protests who know the best chants and have foghorn-voices to match - told the bruisers where to go. Our collective rejection of violence was indicative of our closely-channeled rage. By the time we left at around six, Kensington High Street had been brought to a standstill, and the police were calling in reinforcements.
Will post photos from the demo when we find the USB that connects DV's camera with my laptop, but in the meantime, here are some pictures of the Parisian demo from Le Poireau Rouge:
Just an afterthought - while the noise generated outside the Israeli embassy today was passionate and inspiring, DV wondered what an entirely silent protest might look like? It'd be difficult to organise, but imagine 50-odd thousand people marching down Embankment, not making a sound, or a silent sit-down protest outside the Israeli Embassy ... it would certainly disrupt the Police's language of hostility and violence...
Happy new year - though not, one suspects, for the majority of the world.
If the world's balance sheet for 2007 showed a vast credit to the few and an even heftier debit to the majority, the balance sheet for 2008 shows that the majority of people remain terribly poor, but that this time a few at the top have had to sell a yacht or two. This may be wealth redistribution of sorts, but despite claims to the contrary, it sure ain't socialism.
Besides, the obituaries to neoliberalism are premature. The free market has been found wanting, but in the UK the Work and Pensions Secretary still merrily hounds the most vulnerable people into jobs that don’t exist, while his (unelected) colleague Lord Mandelson prepares 50,000 P45s via the part-privatisation of Royal Mail.
And for all the (deserved) euphoria of his victory, Barack Obama shows no signs of challenging the disastrous system that he will inherit; he has watched the annihilation of the Palestinian people without muttering a word in anger, and he has been bullish about further troop deployment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So, while we may cheer the fates that have befallen our most contemptible brethren (including this man, who has lost his party the election, lost $35,000 by neglecting his own website, and sustained minor bumps and bruises from a flying Baghdadi shoe), I think a straw poll of the world’s population would show that life hasn’t got much better for most people. Whether we opt for socialism, nationalism or something more barbaric next year remains to be seen.
But let’s not be too downbeat – 2008 has borne witness to the odd moments of joy as well. This lady has provided most of them for me – I haven’t been in too many relationships before, but my word, I’ve developed a taste for this one. Without wishing to sound smug, I am the luckiest Peruvian bear that has ever got waylaid in a West London train station, and I can't wait to spend another year (and another, and another) as her partner in crime.
Best album of the year? I’m tempted to reprise last year’s winner – even a Mercury nomination couldn’t stop Untrue sounding even better than it did in 2007. In fact, people have decried dubstep this year for becoming too generic, but Appleblim’s Dubstep Allstars Volume 6 mix was almost as good as anything I heard this year. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was the only record that topped it – a lush, poppy, deeply unpleasant album by a man whose musical fertility seemed almost inexhaustible in 2008. Ploughing a deeper furrow, Giggs’s Walk in da Park is essential – everything else sounds trivial in comparison. Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreaks sounds almost perfunctory at first - it is undignified, but it's also an awkwardly terrific bit of misery pop. Thirdwas a grower, while Knowle West Boydidn’t quite last the course; the bits I have heard of the Flying Lotus album are headily confusing, and their Radio 1 mix was delicious.
Single of the year? Tough call, but sometimes you’ve got to trust your instincts - “Put a donk on it” and “The message is love” by Jammer and Badness win hands-down. “Message” is a bipolar, soca-soaked headfuck, all bassline-bass, panpipes, demented scramping (mixture of screaming and rapping – copyright me), vibrato Hammond organs and lover’s rock crooning (“Hey girrrrrrrl ... hey girrrrrrl, the message is love ... come over here girl, I want to show you a real ... man ... makes ... love ... to a woman...) . “Donk” conjures up bassline, electro and techno in its chorus, and then has a dippy Peter Kayish middle eight played on acoustic guitar. “Disturbia”, “Wow” and Yo! Majesty make up the rest of the top five (whisper it, but I was also rather partial to “Love is noise” by the Verve too – though of course I shall fully respect you if you never visit this blog again).
Best gig? DV and I went to a bunch this year, some of them great (kode9 & Spaceape and Philip Jeck at the Museum of Garden History, Gang of Four at the Barbican), some of them not so great (DJ Shadow and TV on the Radio were both disappointing; Nick Harper at Komedia in Brighton was abysmal). But when Public Enemy played Nation of Millions at Brixton Academy in May, my resentment at not being 15 in 1988 receded immediately – the performance was incendiary, and reintroduced the bass and hard beats that get lost on the CD version.
Best film? The Baader Meinhof Complex, a subtle but unrestrained film that just about transcends the horrible credits sequence.
Best books? Neither from 2008, but New Grub Street and Planet of Slums are both heartbreaking tales of proletarianisation (Zola’s Germinal, which I am reading now, joins this genre as well, as does this "gothic novel," which returned to the best-sellers list in 2008).
Resolution for 2009? I MUST SPEND MORE TIME ON MY BLOG I MUST SPEND MORE TIME ON MY BLOG I MUST SPEND MORE TIME ON MY BLOG. Expect a couple of posts on Thorpeness and Sizewell soon, inspired by a very cold and not-very-festive Christmas walk - and, of course, the usual new year fishy facts (inspired by my recent receipt of Prue Leith's Fish Bible).