Saturday, June 27, 2009


Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Back to Robinson in Space:

After Robinson published the results of his study of London, I didn't see him again for a long time, but I heard that he had been dismissed from his university position, and after a period in which he sank into a deep depression, had taken a part-time job teaching English in a language school in Reading, where he was now living.

But why choose Reading? Keiller, in his footnotes to the film, explains:

Robinson's decision to move to Reading was reinforced by his hasty misreading of Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life (trans. Steven Rendall [Berkeley, 1984]): 'Reading frees itself from the soil that determines it' and 'Reading is ... a place constituted by a system of signs' (pp. 117, 176). Indeed, his entire project was inspired by this book: 'Every story is a travel story - a spatial practice' (p. 115).



This is spot-on. Labour is now in a zombified state: its MPs wriggle ineffectually in an attempt to escape the grip of its inapt leader, but for all that they know that Alan Johnson would lead them into an election next year with a healthier complexion, they cannot face Brown down. As the oleaginous Ben Bradshaw (the new Culture Secretary apparently, like anyone had noticed) claimed yesterday morning that the PM was the right man to lead the party and the country, one could only feel pity for him.

As K-Punk rightly notes, Parliament has regressed back to the early 20th century, to the days before the Labour movement when there was no political representation for working-class people. Labour's share of a very low turn-out was 15% for the European elections. They will certainly lose the next general election, and it is virtually impossible to imagine them reconnecting with anything resembling a socialist value thereafter.

So the Tories will be elected - but not by an enthusiastic electorate. They gained only 28% of the vote - a pretty terrible result for the opposition when the governing party is catatonic. Even if those who voted UKIP switch their votes to the Tories, and even if the Tories win by a thumping majority, it will be an utterly bathetic – and potentially Phyrric - victory. The Conservatives are seen (as are the Lib Dems) as archaic - part of a political-economic system whose time has passed.

Which brings us to the Thatcher paraphrasis: that we are currently waiting for an idea whose time has come. Or to put it into Freudian terms (since at the moment I am reading this excellent Lacan primer), we await a vorstellungreprasentanzen: the representation of an idea whose time has come. To see the glass half-full, it feels like the idea about how we restructure society is “out there” somewhere, but remains half-baked and unstable and needs representing and voicing clearly. The inutility of the Labour Party clearly shows that it cannot be the place where progressive solutions will be found.

The BNP increased their share of the vote by just 1.3% this time (compared to an increase of 3.9% in 2006), and their two new MEPs received 8% and 9.8% of the regional share respectively. They were elected because people who would normally vote for the other parties stayed at home. As this article explains,

The BNP still ended up with two seats, but it was not because people supported what the BNP stands for. We held the BNP vote back, but our campaign just could not stand up to the relentless onslaught of bad publicity over the MPs’ expenses scandal, coming on top of the economic recession and growing unemployment, which meant many people did not vote at all. Rest assured we shall quickly expose the BNP’s failings in Europe as we have exposed the failings of BNP local councillors. The fight goes on.

If we do not find a way of articulating how our economic and political structures should change, Nazism could still take hold, but at the moment public sympathy for the BNP remains stagnant. That is not to take away from the awful fact that the UK now has Fascist representatives in Europe, but a concerted anti-fascist campaign and a coherent list of positive steps forward (see here for some ideas, but there are more, many more) will ensure that Griffin, Bron et al will get a lot more than egg on their faces.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Those of us aesthetes who view the passing of the visible industrial economy with regret, and who long for an authenticity of appearance based on manufacturing and innovative, modern design, are inclined to view this English culture as a bizarre and damaging anachronism, but if so, it is not an unsuccessful one.

- Robinson in Space (Patrick Keiller, 1997)

Marc Auge defines a non-place in relation to a place. A place is distinct in space and time. We can draw a map of it, and we know its location in relation to other places. It has boundaries (which may be more or less fixed), meeting places (landmarks, monuments, places of worship or commerce or leisure), routes and passages which cut across it and connect one meeting place to another. We can learn its history (which may be more or less factual, more or less mythical) by talking to the people who live and work in it, by referring to its monuments and street names, by noting the subtle, gradual changes which happen to it over time. A place has permanence, from which residents and visitors derive meaning and purpose: it has existed for longer than we can remember, and will outlive any memory of us. It seems as though it may be eternal.

A non-place is not distinct in space and time. Even when we can locate it on such and such a day, or such and such a place (a service station near the Watford Gap, or the air-conditioned lobby of a luxury Singapore hotel), its spatio-temporal location is nevertheless meaningless. It has nothing distinct – no boundaries, no history, no sense of permanence.

We live, Auge writes, in a world:

where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty-towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral.

- Marc Auge, Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity (1995)

Where the place is formed of events, myths and history, there is no room for history in the non-place: “what reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment.” It is a result of the excess of time and space that is characteristic of the globalised world, of the world becoming a network which facilitates circulation – of people, information, capital. We can access events wherever they happen in the world as they happen. Each day, news rolls – is there more news, are there more noteworthy events, more incidents of global import, than yesterday? We cannot say – the constant replacement of one news headline with another, means we can never concentrate on, or remember, more than a finite number of items. Each day passes with the same accelerated time.

The excess of space can be explained in a similar way – the world has become accessible (and therefore smaller), but we realise we cannot hope to access any of it in a meaningful sense (thus making it almost infinitely large). For Auge, travelling defines the non-place. Advertisements for holidays present the viewer with an idealised image of himself swimming in the sea, or investigating an ancient ruin, or volunteering with locals. Holiday publicity, Auge argues, depicts the non-place par excellence because the image derives its meaning not from the location being advertised, but from how it makes a spectacle of the spectator, and confers glamour onto him. (The power of the aspirational image over the specifics of place were demonstrated beautifully recently, when the tourist board of the landlocked Canadian province of Alberta used a picture of the Northumbrian coastline on their publicity. A spokesperson explained that "this represents Albertans' concern for the future of the world. There's no attempt to make people think that the place pictured is Alberta.")

Upon arrival at the airport, the tourist passes through the various security checks, and “as soon as his passport or identity card has been checked, the passenger ... freed from the weight of his luggage and everyday responsibilities, rushes into the ‘duty-free’ space; not so much, perhaps, in order to buy at the best prices as to experience the reality of his momentary availability, his unchallengeable position as a passenger in the process of departing.” The passenger, in proving his identity, willingly surrenders it. He has proved his innocence and earned the right to anonymity within the non-world.

Even when he arrives at his destination, he still seeks out the non-space: “a foreigner lost in a country he does not know can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains.”

Robinson in Space is a melancholy inventory of such non-places: Caversham Park’s World Monitoring Service receivers, nanotechnology parks near Horsell Common, Heathrow Airport, Felixstowe and the ports of the Thames Estuary, privatised docks at Sheerness, a Beefeater hotel under construction near Cowley, Campsfield House (a detention centre for asylum seekers), the M3 at Twyford Down, the Tescos at Dorchester (“with fountains worthy of Versailles”), the Morrisons depot at Wakefield 41...

It explains and attempts to resolve the "problem of England", a country which, by the dilapidated Major years, had replaced manufacturing exports with exports of services and “intermediate products.” It is a film about industrial, social and aesthetic decline, even though the years which it depicts were economic boom-times.

On 4th September 1995, Robinson and his companion arrive in Liverpool. At this time, more traffic passed through Liverpool's port than at any time in history. It acted as the major hub for trade with the United States, was the most profitable port in the UK, and the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company was ranked 253rd in the FTSE 500 index. And yet, the port is a hive of inactivity: its waterfronts are derelict, its city impoverished, and its spaces devoid of people. “If Liverpool as a city is not what is was a hundred years ago,” Keiller explains in his footnotes to the film, “this is not because its port traffic has declined, but because, like so much other economic activity, a port does not occupy space in the way that it used to.”

The containerisation of traffic (see also here for a visit to the container city of Southampton), the automation and “flexibility” of labour, the rapid transport links (via the Channel Tunnel) to Europe and beyond, has turned ports into transitional spaces which briefly pause the circulation of goods and services. The old Merseyside warehouses have been replaced by dormitories for trucks bound for distribution centres located at motorway junctions near Warrington and Wakefield. These centres now dominate the motorway. While signs inform the driver or passenger of the presence of nearby historic monuments or local points of interest, there is no suggestion that these places should be visited. These signs encourage us to acknowledge their existence, but they are rarely seen from the seat of a car. They are reduced to pure signifiers, and our eyes are instead drawn to

the windowless sheds of the logistics industry, road construction, spiky mobile phone aerials, a proliferation of new fencing of various types, security guards, police helicopters and cameras, new prisons, agribusiness, UK and US military bases, mysterious research and training centres, ‘independent’ schools, eerie commuter villages, rural poverty and the country houses of rich and powerful men of unrestrained habits [...] visible features of a landscape in which the suggestion of cruelty is never very far away.

These non-places, and the conditions which create them, impact upon the way people live and work by dividing them and erasing their status or consciousness as workers:

Despite having shed the majority of its workforce, the Liverpool port’s attitude to its remaining dockers has been extremely aggressive. In September 1995, two weeks after telling Lloyd’s List that it had the most productive workforce in Europe, the MDHC’s sacking of 329 of its 500 remaining dockers was triggered by their refusal to cross a picket line in support of fellow employees of a contract labour firm. The subsequent strike attracted international support. On January 26th 1998, the dockers voted to accept the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company’s offer of a £28,000 pay-off for each worker and ended the dispute. It seemed that, for the company, the issue was not money or specific working practices, but a concerted attempt to rid the port of any memory of its culture and traditions. As at the new Thamesport container terminal on the Medway, which its management says is ‘not a port’, these are seen as impediments to development and, unlike the physical structures on the waterfront, have been cleared away.

And yet, Thamesport is undoubtedly a port. Its landscape may have changed and the human labour which drives it may have become much less secure - most merchant seaman live in a deterritorialised world, travelling between one country and another, never getting enough shore leave even to visit a place properly. But for all the talk of a world dominated by finance and telecommunications, ports - in the UK, Europe, Africa and, most visibly, Asia - and the trade which they facilitate are central to the global economy. All history, culture and tradition has been deleted from them, but they remain the basis of the present and of the future.