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“must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and i am completely undone”

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Taught Conrad to the grad students yesterday. When I say taught, I mean it. I’m a little worried that my seminars turn into lectures, each and every time. Not because I’m reading from a stack of pages or anything. I basically go in and freform for two hours, a semi-conversation, not unlike what Marlow’s doing on the decks of the Nellie himself.


Anyway, they seem to like it. Or did last year on the evaluation forms, so I’ll not change. They scribbled and nodded often and insistently today as I ranted, so I’ll take that as a thumbs-up. Mostly, with HoD, we look at paragraphs like this one:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The rhythm of Marlow’s discourse is keyed to frantic oscillations just like this one. Back to work, back to work, no more thinking about my mad colleagues, no more thinking or seeing in general. (Remember from the start: “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency.” Indeed – but saves us from what?) Then, then: the still. Do you see the pivot. “One must look about sometimes.” Uh oh. “I asked myself sometimes what it all meant” – no don’t do that! And from there it plummets into frantic pilgrims and corpse stink, a Wellsian space-invasion and a avant-Lawrentian apocalypse as Marlow’s eyes and mouth run away with him.

The whole novel works like that. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, Conrad’s stuff is often about the obsolescence of vision, thought, subjectivity, and interiority in a world in which those things seem to have been just now invented. Modernist subjectivism is born under the sign of its own unsuitability, is born to the sound of a whispered wish that it would simply go away.

Anywho. I get quite ramped up when I teach stuff like this. Hard to keep quiet. Especially when there are things like this to talk about, from a letter from Conrad to William Blackwood, the editor at the magazine that had commissioned HoD in the first place:

And this is all I can say unless I were to unfold for the nth time the miserable tale of my inefficiency. I trust however that in Jany I’ll be able to send you about 30000 words or perhaps a little less, towards the Vol: of short stories. Apart from my interest it is such a pleasure for me to appear in the Maga that you may well believe it is not laziness that keeps me back. It is, alas, something – I don’t know what – not so easy to overcome. With an immense effort a thin trickle of MS is produced – and that, just now, must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and I am completely undone.

Can you spot the HoD keywords lurking in the letter? I’ve given you one clue already. The last sentence is chocked with them, tho. Remember the “thin trickle of ivory” that comes out of the jungle in exchange for all the manufactured trinkets and other garbage they send up river? And the “one channel” is just slightly interesting, right, given the fact that he’s writing novel about a guy headed on a little boat up an increasingly narrow river?

The much-discussed politics of the novel are to be found in this sort of thing, I think… and have argued this much in print. If you want the rest, you’ll either have to use your google-fu until you find the paper or sign up for our MA programme. Preferably the latter, and especially if you’re from elsewhere, as we need the loose change.

It’s definitely the perversest possible point to take away from HoD, but I too am trying to keep myself and my energies in “one channel” lately, trying not to “look about,” not even “sometimes.” I am fantasizing this morning about a life lived clockworkwise – get up, read the paper and eat breakfast, play with kids, off to the bus same time every morning. Instantly to desk and computer on and typing with the time I have. No mooning about – no thinking about. Then home, then relaxation, then reading, then bed. If there was an operation, preferably non-painful and I guess reversable, that could extract the self-distracting, meaning-seeking part of the brain and put it in a beaker for a bit, I’d be the first on-line, if a bit reluctantly, just at the moment.

At any rate, I started working last night – as a stupid sort of hobby – on a short and sloppy little  book – one written in semi-blog style and which proposes some suggestions toward  a new prosaics. It’ll follow the rubric suggested by Aristotle in his Poetics – “Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song.” I’m going to take up each of those aspects, translated into novelistic application of course. I’ll post things here as I write them – I have no idea what I’d do with this little book if I actually finish it. And just so you know which future posts are attached to this project, I’ll title them like this: prosaics x.x, indicating the chapter at hand and (roughly) where it might fit in that chapter. So:

0 = Introduction

1 = Plot

2 = Character

3 = Diction

4 = Thought

5 = Spectacle

6 = Song

7 = Conclusion

Let’s see what happens. Going to try to do a page a night, whenever possible. Might be interesting, this – and perhaps a slightly more pragmatic (and pragmatically programmatic) use of the time that give to blogwriting than disparate random stuff. As far as I can imagine it, the point of the book will be to look again at the lessons of modernist innovations, identify their persistence in the present, and then propose alternative ways forward.

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November 5, 2009 at 11:12 am

porn, fast-forwarding, modernism, new aesthetics

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From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:

When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.

Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle!  Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always  a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…

Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.

Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:

[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.

The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *

There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.

So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.

* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!

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October 23, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Posted in aesthetics, modernism, porn

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Via One-Way Street, Bob McCrum on Alain de Botton’s new gig in the Guardian:

De Botton has taken quite a bit of flak for this assignment, and no doubt some of the abuse will be reheated and thrown at him all over again when his book comes out later this month, but what’s his crime ? Why shouldn’t he accept the BAA shilling? Sure, it’s not Proust or Happiness (two of the themes he has so successfully made his own), but it’s not pornography or racism, either, and – why the hell not? It will be interesting to see if he can rise to the challenge of a seemingly impossible task of writing about check-ins, fast bag drop and airport security. Dickens, no question, would have had a lot of fun with BAA.

Alain de Botton is not Dickens, but in taking this job, he is behaving like a very traditional literary animal. I’m sure there are many other examples of the resilience of literary life in the new world of cyber-publishing, but these three, coming together, do seem to make a trend

Just to be clear, and especially for the benefit of non-UK readers, BAA is a company that owns many of the privatized airports in Britain. It’s neither British Airways (itself privatized in 1987, under Thatcher) nor is it a public entity. It’s owned by the Spanish company Grupo Ferrovial, world-leaders in managing (mismanaging?) formerly public infrastructure. Even the BAA’s name is misleading. While it originally, while still public, stood for “British Airports Authority,” the company now claims that the letters don’t stand for anything at all. In other words, it pays to impersonate a public authority.

Notably BAA has of late been involved in a protracted PR / legal war with climate protestors (actually, the Climate Camp people) who’d rather BAA wasn’t permitted to build a third runway at Heathrow. It’s impossible not to see the De Botton book as the product of some PR firm’s mid-to-highbrow targetted re-branding campaign. Ah, BAA – patrons of the arts, patrons of the nice guy who writes about Proust. And in fact, if the whole thing calls to mind anything, it is a post-privatised version of this wondrous thing:

But of course, Auden and Britten were actually working for the GPO Film Unit when they made Night Mail, and of course again, this was long before the GPO was split into a million privatized and semi-privatized pieces by, yep, Thatcher.

This, of course, is mostly just politics talking, but in my ideal world, not only would Alain de Botton not be shilling CO2 for BAA, but there’d be no BAA Ltd., only the old, public BAA. There’s been a little spate of public organizations going into the publishing business lately, mainly as a sort of fund raising scheme. (I’ve not started reading, but will treasure for a long time, my Royal Parks boxed set of short stories, which I purchased at place I’ve been coming to, albeit far more frequently of late, since the mid-1980s, the restaurant at the end of the Serpentine in Hyde Park…) It’s very very red, but I’m not sure the general decline of prose fiction couldn’t be reversed if all prose was commissioned and paid for by entities like Transport for London and the NHS, the US Mail and, christ, the IRS. At some point (promissory, promissory – forgive me, for I am soooo tired), I’ll try to write about the aesthetic effect that such a development might possibly have.

On the other hand, what De Botton’s up to is just what it is – providing a profit hungry corporation with a bit of good PR, all dressed up as if it were simply a matter of one of the purest things on earth – infrastructural enthusiasm.

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September 1, 2009 at 11:34 pm

l’effet du réel

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In the backdraft of IT’s post about arses, how about this?

“Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Snake, a succes de scandale . . . ensured its creator’s notoriety at the Salon of 1847. The scandal surrounding the work was orchestrated by Theophile Gautier, who spread a rumour that the cast for the statue had been taken from life. The model was Apollonie Sabatier, called ‘camp-follower of the fauns’ by the Goncourt brothers, but by Baudelaire ‘the beautiful, the good, darling’, ‘a guardian angel, muse, Madonna’ and ‘girl who laughs too much’. This notorious work exerted a lasting influence. Sculptors began making the female body more curvaceous and languishing, but omitted the cellulite rippling above Mme Sabatier’s thighs that had lent credence to the live-casting rumour. ‘A daguerreotype in sculpture’, wrote Delacroix, in his journal for 7 May 1847. However, the tide of realism was arrested by subsequent titles for nudes. They were called Sleeping Hebe (Carrier-Belleuse) Eve after the Fall (Delaplanche) and Young Tarentine (Schoenewerk). Mathurin Moreau’s Bacchante continued this series late into the century.” — Pingeot, Musée d’Orsay, p. 45.

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August 27, 2009 at 6:22 am

Posted in aesthetics

notes on the aggregate 1: letraset mirror-stage

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1. Unexpectedly ended up spending the day in the hospital Wednesday – my wife needed some more surgery four weeks after all of this. She’s OK, or she will be eventually… But a frustrating way to spend a day for all involved, especially her. So it was a busy day, fraught with anxieties large and small – what do we do with the three-year-old while we’re there? What happens if the little one needs to be bottlefed? What will they find when they examine? How safe is general anaesthesia? Another day thick with dramatic tension following upon several years of the same sort of thing.

But hospitals have a strange effect upon the individual in the throes of the dramatic day. The hospital in question today had some 16 floors, some of which were populated by perhaps 30 patients, others more like 200 patients. A couple thousand cases of people (patients, loved ones, health workers) all in the middle of dramatic occurances – pain, morbidity, despair, elation, amputation, diagnosis, last rites. When in a large hospital in the middle of your busy day, the elevator cars becomes chapels of impersonalization. Your plight, your anxiety, is nothing compared to the people getting off on the eleventh floor – the young peoples in-patient area. Or wherever. There are several thousand of you. A hundred of you will experience mortality, tragedy. It doesn’t quite take the edge off, but it does put things in perspective, the aggregation of trauma.

2. The major moment of my involvement the day’s affairs came when (just like four weeks ago) I had to keep an unweaned and generally quite hungry baby girl asleep during the duration of the surgery lest she, as she of course would if she awoke, start screaming for a breast that ten floors down on an operating table. So I paced the room while holding her, back and forth, half of the time looking at the door of the room and the other half looking at this.

It’s a lovely view from up there. For those unfamiliar with Bloomsbury, that’s  the Wellcome Trust dead ahead, the Euston bus terminal and a smidgen of Euston station in the middle left, and in the distance the reddish one is the British Library. St. Pancras and Kings Cross Stations are a bit hard to see, but they’re there, smudgily. For someone more familiar with New York, it is somewhat astounding to think that you can get a more or less full panorma of the city from the thirteenth floor of a building more or less in the middle of the city. Here’s the other side, taken from an elevator bank, looking towards Tottenham Court Road right below, past Fitzroy Square in the middle on the left, and toward Marylebone and Paddington and everything else to the west.

I spend a good amount of my weekday life on the streets in the foreground of these two shots. In buildings and open spaces clearly visible from where I was pacing, I have purchased books, been interviewed for a job, received a phone call to say that I had a job, lectured students, tutored tutees, greeted long absent friends, drank in pubs alone and with friends and with students and with colleagues, eaten lunch, spent several nights in shitty hotel rooms because I’d been a drunken fool, attended communism conferences, gotten my hair cut, had heartfelt conversations late at night with my wife, had heartfelt conversations with others, purchased endless cafe lattes and copies of The Guardian, stumbled home drunk, received free of charge countless copies of the londonpaper, made angry and apolegetic phone calls while pacing in the parks, worked on articles and monographs and talks, picked someone up when they drunkenly fell on the pavement, taken books out of two libraries, wrote half of one novel and a third of another as well as countless poems, tried to find free internet access, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and lots else. Lots else both boring and sublime. I’ve had an impossibly busy year and a half in London. And almost everything down on the street, these things that I’ve done, felt so incredibly vivid. Often, the vividness of the events seemed to border on legibility or even scriptability – especially the obvious ones, you can pick them out of the list for yourself.

But from up here, thirteen floors up, everything seems different, doesn’t it? My wife and I watched window-washers scaling the building opposite, but aside from them, everyone else is antlike and thus a bit robotic-looking. People walk from work to the Underground. People carry objects from a store back to their office or towards home. Cars circle blocks – you can’t tell if it’s the same cab endlessly circling or different ones each time around. From up high, mankind goes about the motions, in aggregate. The follow scent trails from hive to food source and back again. There is no interiority, hideous or beatific, to deal with from up here. From up here, in short, the world is unnovelistic, and it’s an odd experience to look down panoptically at the places where your life is ordinarily lived and lived densely.

3. I am fascinated by, have long be taken with, the doubleness (the duplicity?) of modernism. When we talk about, say, modernist architecture, we generally mean planning and rationalisation, efficiency and redistribution. We mean the anti-aesthetic, the anti-ornamental, the flatly utopian. On the other hand, when we think about modernism in the sense that I am paid to think about it, that is to say in a literary sense, we generally mean something quite different. Modernist novels, famously, take up the issue of the interior regions, the unheard but somehow overheard subverbal chatter. Dalloway or Ulysses seem, at least on first and many subsequent glances, to herald a new, and newly intense, emphasis on psychology, the gears working in the individual as the individual navigates her or his everyday life.

My academic work tries to square the circle a bit, bridge the gap, and wonder what is frilless and impersonal about personality, what is objective and anti-individualistic about something like style indirect libre, and what is suggestively collectivist about dispersal, introspection, and hyperbolic selfhood.

4. I don’t have the books that I need at home with me, so the theoretical interlude might be a bit scattershot and from memory. But if I am right, and I might be, there is some major rethinking ahead of us on the question of the relationship between the bird’s eye view and the secret history. (Left-oriented) cultural, literary, and political theory has for decades and decades been incoherent on this point. We fantasize about post-individuality, yet we still privilege the literature of the flaneur. We sanctify dispersed, individualized resistance, and we withhold from ourselves the thought of the structure or state, even as we at the same moment would have no time for the neurotic, bumbling avatar of bourgeois modernity, the autonomous individual.

We take up, reflexively, the cause of Michel de Certeau’s tactical against the strategic. Just think of contemporary forms of protest and the response to protest and our responses to their responses. But we do this despite the fact that the entire tide of history has washed toward the man of the street and his whims as the only arbiters of truth and efficiency worth banking on, as it were. As with so many other left concepts and approaches, we meet the opposition on their own ground, not ours. We even might say we allow ourselves to get kettled – willingly jump into the pot that they have long since set to boil.

5. There is a much, much wider question about the relationship of literature and quasi-literary products and politics that we would do well to if not answer at least preoccupy ourselves with, keep very much open. It is at once a simple and extremely complex question, and it goes something like this. Do we take literary and quasi-literary representation to be first and foremost a critical approach to social representation, one that shows how things are so that we might know how things are and thus find ourselves activitated to change them? This is the standard approach to the problem, and has been for a long, long time. If one writes seriously about the atomized self, one inevitably (following the natural gradients of literary production) will end up displaying the perils of atomized selfhood. It is hard to find literature that is meant to celebrate that which it represents.

But despite the fact that we have long since been preoccupied with the critical use value of literary representation, there is another answer – a murky one that we’re all familiar with, one that will seem obvious and true as soon as I say it, even if we have a much harder time formally acknowledging it. That is, literary representation, at times or perhaps always, also serves as an advertisement – a positive advertisement – for certain ways of being, acting, seeing or thinking. Again, this is probably at once too simple and too complex to go into fully here, but it is clear that for all the critical energies brought to bear by, say, modernist literature on the plight of the prewritten self in all its abyssal reflexivity and determination, modernist literature also performed a sort of advocacy – we might say, hesitantly, aestheticisation – of the selfsame situation. Literature holds up for emulation just what it is in the process of tearing down. It shows the world to be changed, unbearably changed, and in doing so accustoms us to the same change that it is otherwise resisting. Such is the conservative modernism (modernism this time with a small m, or something with a large one) of the literary endeavor itself.

So it does two things, two contradictory things, at once. Sometimes it works in oscillating phases, other times an intensive simultaneity. But there is no possible movement forward on a rethinking of literary aesthetics that doesn’t come to grips with this question in all it’s complexity.

6. Narrative works have always, but especially since the advent of modernity, been preoccupied with the individual and her or his actions, reasons, feelings, and outcomes. There is a boy and he meets a girl, and they feel X about each other but Y about the world and then…. something happens. Of course, though, despite their dependency upon the story of the individual or individuals, novels and stories always stage their people playing out their lives against a backdrop, a backdrop which includes things and places but also people – large or small numbers of people sketched in great or less great detail.

Other forms – those privileged by the media and disciplines that tend toward the topographic rather than individual, the strategic rather than the tactical per Michel de Certeau – reverse these poles. The surroundings (things, places, groups) move to the fore, and the individual is left to be represented only abstractly, as a type – metaphorically or literally a cut-out.

We might even want to take up a somewhat complex (between it relies on a twist) chiastic analogy like this: the background welter of fiction is to the individual as the letraset figure is to the architectural plan.

Once letraset goes CAD, humans even grow pixelated shadows and depending on the processing power that generated them, even start to see their own reflections in the mirrored glass. (Image courtesy of IT).

We can anticipate – it has been anticipated, actually – that the letraset people will one day soon have little digitized minds of their own. They will head our into the planned cities in which they live to do all of things that we do in the cities where we live, all the things that I described above and more. They will shop for food and vintage clothes, they will conduct their love affairs in pubs and flats and streamlined hotels in city centres, they will make tough decisions about their jobs, birth children in hospitals and watch their loved ones die.

7. I am starting, but only just starting to be able to imagine a meeting point between the architectural plan and the psychological fiction, between the sentient letraset people and the background materials of the realist novel. This meeting point is something that I am getting used to calling aggregate fiction. It is important to note that it already exists, perhaps has existed right from the start, in half-forms and hybrids, false starts and imperfect versions. The trick would be to pull it forward and make it stand on its own.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss among other things, the difference between the mass and the aggregate, the complicated politics of this potential form, and start to build out (hesitantly) a literary genealogy of what I’m talking about and/or looking for.

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May 25, 2009 at 8:31 pm

nostalgie de la boue

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Notes for a future post or more:

From an article by Iain Sinclair on films set in the East End in today’s Guardian:

But these films are not just memory devices to fix a period, or an excuse for nostalgic revivals. They are an important element in forging a mythology of place. One of the significant local traditions is of the established outsider travelling east with missionary zeal, like a pioneer into the wilderness. Robert Hamer, most celebrated for Kind Hearts and Coronets, was certainly a film industry toff. (Less so than Anthony Asquith, son of a Liberal prime minister. More so than David Lean, who rose from the non-commissioned status of the cutting-room.) Hamer’s East End invasion of a place that was never quite there, for It Always Rains on Sunday, was a marker for much that followed.

Hamer garnished social realist material from a novel by Arthur La Bern (whose later work, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, became the vehicle for Hitchcock’s London return, Frenzy). The tone is relentlessly downbeat, morbid: without the incessant rain, necks would remain unwashed. Mean English streets are photographed by Douglas Slocombe with the melancholy lyricism of Marcel Carné or Renoir’s La Bête Humaine. Backlit smoke. A poetry you can smell: hot tar, bacon, cabbage, tobacco, wet dogs, armpits. Real places glorying in defiant entropy: rail yards, markets, mortuary pubs, tight backyards with Anderson shelters and rabbit hutches. Slocombe goes on, in terms of this London project, to work with Joseph Losey on The Servant: and thereby to connect with Dirk Bogarde (former bit-part delinquent) and Harold Pinter. Pinter attended the same school as Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, those forgotten realists. Although his play The Caretaker was based on a glimpse into a Chiswick room, he returned, with director Clive Donner, to shoot the film version on his old turf: a house alongside the snow-covered Hackney Downs.

I’ve bolded the bit that I’m most interested in, and even more specifically, I’m really interested in the phrase defiant entropy.

It seems to me that there are a few options for how we play this defiant entropy, and not to give the game away (these are only notes), I’m not sure that any of them are truly convincing when thought into for more than a few minutes.

  1. The entropy is defiant because it marks a sort of decerteauvian resistance to municipal order, to instrumental rationalization, to gentrification. Street life vs. the redevelopment plan, the lived tactical vs. the cost-tested strategic. (But how do rail yards fit into this picture? And how do we know, for sure, the difference between defiance and abjection?)
  2. The entropy is defiant because it is ugly in a world that is supposed to be pretty. The world wants Costa Coffee and All Bar One, not mortuary pubs and markets. (But we certainly don’t think it’s really ugly, do we? Thus the article, thus our fascination and Sinclair’s… and the developers’…)
  3. The entropy is defiant because it is more real than other things. Blueglass flats being craned to life back behind Kings Cross are not real; urban squalor is real. (What slippery ground we are on when we play this game out, the game of the really real…)

There are other options, of course, and perhaps the three above are all one reason spread out and rephrased a bit, but let’s just leave it there for a second. In short, I worry a bit about the aesthetic fetishization of squalor. It has all the marks of a well-fed decadence, the likes of which we’ve seen before, we’ve seen recur at certain moments for a hundred years or more. I am wondering, in the end, whether we’re right about the defiance that we’ve attributed to urban entropy, squalor, and the like. Wouldn’t Sinclair’s sentence make as much sense if it read, say, Real places notable for their abject squalor. How, exactly, are they “glorying” – other than in Sinclair’s appropriative retransmission?

It’s a real question – and, of course, an old question – and I’d like to hear what you think. I love these things and places too, perhaps more than I should, and I just worry a bit about my love for them. Maybe, I think, everything should be bright glass boxes and intermodal transport links, maybe everyone should drink in a nice place and not a mortuary pub, if they want to anyway.

Sorry. Tired. Notes for Future Post, as I said….

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April 24, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Posted in aesthetics, london

mosselprom on fifth avenue, and the afterlife of constructivism

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a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

a new ad campaign from saks fifth avenue

There’s a piece in the IHT today on constructivism. Ah, a specter’s haunting, you know, the ad men. But there are more serious / valuable paragraphs that come after the stuff about Saks.

Constructivism is also a critical influence on the creation of digital imagery. This is partly because of the intellectual link from the original Soviet Constructivists to contemporary software designers. The trajectory begins with Moholy-Nagy, who worked in the United States with his fellow Hungarian, Gyorgy Kepes, on early theories of the construction of mechanical images. Kepes shared their thinking with his students, including Bass, and later with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among them the pioneering technologists Muriel Cooper and Nicholas Negroponte. The digital artist John Maeda studied under them and then taught Ben Fry and Casey Reas, the inventors of Processing, the advanced software that produces visualization, arguably the most compelling new visual language of our time.

Visualization, or “viz” as it is nicknamed, crunches through complex data to create digital images that explain its meaning clearly. As dynamic digital media, visualizations can be constantly updated, enabling them to illustrate changing information and complicated concepts that are too elusive to be depicted accurately on traditional charts or graphs. Geopolitical developments, such as population shifts, and virtual phenomena, like the flow of Internet traffic, lend themselves to visualization, as do scientific and medical theories. Among the most ambitious applications is the Blue Brain Project in Lausanne, where a group of neuroscientists is trying to create a visualization of the human brain, in the hope that it can be used to help find cures for Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.

The “viz” phenomenon owes more to Soviet Constructivism than its academic pedigree. When Rodchenko and Popova designed posters and pamphlets for the Soviet state, they were trying to help a confused and largely illiterate population to make sense of the dramatic changes in their daily lives. New laws. New institutions. New working practices. New expectations. New taboos. Their striking collages must have looked as exhilarating to 1920s workers as luscious digital visualizations do to us today, and shared the same aim of helping people to make sense of the complexity of modern life. That’s why there’s so much more to Constructivism than a style that shifts slouchy bags.

This is a story that I didn’t really know, but I’m glad to learn. I’ve begun work on a project on simplicity and modernism, and I must admit that I first became fixated on the term when I was reading John Maeda’s blog and looking at his book on the topic. But I had no idea that there was a traceable genealogy back to exactly the stuff that I’ll probably, long way around, start the project with…

Ah, sometimes, despite what I said and then redacted, it feels really good to be an academic and a blogger, and whatever else it is that I might be. If I could actually find room for all of this stuff in the book that I want to write, man….

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm