ads without products

hell 7: brutalism, waiting rooms, messianism, bombs

with 9 comments

I had the great misfortune today of visiting the one masterpiece of London Brutalism that Owen Hatherley will likely never see the inside of: the American Embassy building on Grosvenor Square, designed by Eero Saarinen. I had been planning to phonecam the entire experience for the blog, having been away from the Heimat long enough to forget that the Permanent New Normal has resulted in the prohibition of mobile phones inside pretty much every US governmental edifice.

What would have featured in my photoessay, had I been allowed to stay high-bandwidth, were pictures of the waiting room where I spent nearly three hours. It’s a classic High-DMV affair: lots of uncomfortable chairs, broken scoreboards that should be telling you who’s being called where but are out of service, a Coke machine that eats pound coins returning no bottles of beverage, stacks of magazines that no one in their right mind would ever willingly read (one was called something like Expatria – it’s lead article was on up-armoring BMW SUVs) and pamphlets that tell you little more than that you’re bound to be in this room for a long fucking time, and screaming babies, some of them mine.

Waiting rooms are fascinating; it’s an obvious thing to say but even a relatively short amount of time spent in one re-confirms that hell would be just like that. Nothing to read, nothing to do, but wait for a number to be called (but the PA is too crackly to hear what they’re saying!) that never seems to get called. Someone has something that you desperately need but they have it on the wrong side of the glass partition and they’ve forgotten about you, and now there’s no line to join to let them know that they’ve forgotten you and thus you’re stuck there, in a little eddy of civilisation, forever and more.

I have a terrible fear of bureaucracy. Many of my nightmares and almost all of my worst waking fantasies have to do with the confrontation with someone who couldn’t care less about something that I couldn’t care more about. This might mean that I’m a bad socialist, I’m not sure. It does mean, I will confess to you now, that from time to time I have paid my way out of lines, paid what it costs to deal with someone who wants my money rather than someone who is structurally obligated to blow me off. I have a clear idea the price that I might one day pay for such behavior.

I’m about to start writing a piece (for a fairly swish collection of essays populated by all the better-known London psychogeographers and, erm, me) that will center on waiting rooms, the sort of thinking and desiring and fearing that goes on in them. One of the things that I’ll talk a bit about is the section in Walter Benjamin’s notes toward his theses “On the Philosophy of History” in which he expands a bit upon messianic time as a critique of social democratic ameliorism:

In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began. The ideal was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an ‘infinite [unendlich] task […] Once the classless society is defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity.

Just to be clear, I’m no fan of messianism. But Benjamin’s description of the temporality of non-messianic politics is frightening, hellish even. Democratic socialism, in this formulation, is a sort of waiting room in which one is destined to wait forever, all while believing that one’s number is about to be called, will be called in the next round, just when the bureaucrat behind the glass window gets around to it, must be coming soon, we’ve been in here longer than anyone else at this point haven’t we?

Still as persuaded as I am by this, after today I am ready to offer a less-than-allegorial counter-allegory.

After about a half-an-hour of waiting, which proved to be a fifth of the way through the time we spent in the embassy, something disturbingly marvellous happened. I’d just run through the last of my coins on a packet of Oreos which we were going to share two each for the three of us, when the loudspeaker in the room started to pronounce suddenly and in a firm tone a phrase that I have never actually heard pronounced save for on television:

DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER. AN ATTACK ON THE EMBASSY IS IMMINENT. MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS. DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER.

My fellow Americans seated in the waiting room were baffled, non-plussed, confused. Not a single person did a single thing except look towards the source of the words, the loudspeak, and wonder what was going on. Was it the kid who had touched the glass? Was it a false alarm?

DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER. IF YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR OFFICE, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MOVE TOWARD YOUR OFFICE OR WORKSPACE. STAY WHERE YOU ARE, DUCK AND COVER AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.

Assuredly today wasn’t the day that someone rolls a truckbomb up against this basically undefensable redoubt of be-eagled Americanism! I noticed, however, that the embassy staff (who were behind a glass partion, like bank tellers) jumped immediately out of their seats and ran away from the places where they were standing or sitting. This, my friends, was unsettling and I began as swiftly as I could the process of moving my largish family away from the windows and toward the center of the building. And just as I did, ahead of anyone else on the civilian-side of the room, the other shoe dropped.

THIS WAS A TEST. THIS WAS ONLY A TEST OF THE EMBASSY’S ALERT SYSTEM. THIS WILL BE A TEST OF THE EMBASSY’S ALERT SYSTEM…. DUCK AND COVER, DUCK AND COVER. AN ATTACK ON THE EMBASSY IS IMMINENT. MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RETURN TO YOUR OFFICE OR WORKSPACE. THIS IS A TEST.

The truth of the matter is that even when the interruption comes, observation suggests that individuals will neither panic nor become resolute. Individuals, instead, will stand staring with a dreamy sort of awe. The impulse to fear ridicule from over-reaction will outride even the fear of death and disfigurement. Even if the messiah were to arrive, marked as such and announced by a thunderous voice, mostly people will stand an stare at the loudspeaker, trained to wait by the waiting room itself, fingering the ticket that they pulled from a machine and stuck in their pocket, numbly aware of just where they are and how things work where they are….

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 13, 2009 at 12:24 am

Posted in hell, waiting

9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I imagine the visit was for something important….

    British embassies around the world are getting “frustrated” by travellers wanting weather reports and advice on how to deal with unruly children.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8196865.stm

    “It’s my kid y’see, she’s so obsessed with Barbie that she forgets to eat.”

    “Oh, just get her a puppie for Christmas, that usually sorts ’em out. Next please!”

    David

    August 13, 2009 at 10:40 am

  2. No, puppy. Your superior reaction to impending obliteration by high explosives is commendable.

    David

    August 13, 2009 at 10:42 am

  3. It was for “registration of citizen born abroad.” Unlike the British, Americans don’t really fucking care to hear advice from the government about obvious things like how to board a train or what happens if you don’t eat fruit and vegetibles.

    Yeah I could have done even better – never actually ducked nor covered – but I was at the head of the pack. Stood up in a very manly way, half-shouted a few orders… Could have done better though…

    Ads

    August 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

  4. patiently awaiting your response to the US right wing’s ‘interesting’ view of the NHS as some kind of third world medical ghetto in which undertrained Gradgrinds shuffle abacuses to decide whether you live or die

    or is this a good time for your spouse to guest post?

    anon

    August 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm

  5. hahaha. She’s already written exactly on that subject for a place that pays you to write such things. Yes, though – I have half of a long post on the topic sitting on my desktop – should finish it and post it shouldn’t I?

    Ads

    August 13, 2009 at 1:56 pm

  6. ‘I’m about to start writing a piece (for a fairly swish collection of essays populated by all the better-known London psychogeographers}’

    Do you know what ‘swish’ means in American? Because in British, it can sometimes refer to one’s tan suits and other fashionable accessories. I’m sure you meant the latter, as the former is majorly specialized. Gary Cooper was in a movie called ‘Saratoga Trunk’ with Ingrid Bergman, and that is the best source I know of for understanding what ‘speaking American’ means. I highly recommend it as a welcome addition to your movie list.

    informal economy

    August 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm

  7. […] modern, if not quin­tes­sen­tially human. Last week Ads with­out Prod­ucts wrote about sev­eral modern ver­sions of hell, and this strikes me as another for the list: to be […]

  8. […] modern, if not quin­tes­sen­tially human. Last week Ads with­out Prod­ucts wrote about sev­eral modern ver­sions of hell, and this strikes me as another for the list: to be […]

  9. […] in a masterful vignette, opines on the agony of the waiting room: Waiting rooms are fascinating; it’s an obvious thing to […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: