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14 July 2010

Spectacle

When it comes to blogs, the cliche used to be that everyone wrote identical, banal entries about their lives and emotions. In 2010 the cliche is that everyone writes identical, banal entries about celebrity and ‘low culture’. Post-Perez, if you will. A Lady Gaga magazine cover will be reproduced on hundreds of thousands of blogs and pored over like it is an undiscovered Van Gogh. These images, this culture, has moved from being something that bombards us to something that is not only eagerly consumed, but breathlessly replicated in a perverse facsimile of production. People make a living out of this noise.

My university dissertation was on the Situationists and how prescient many of their theories and ideas were. This paid particular attention to Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. It is a work which, in the succinct words of wikipedia, “provides an extensive reinterpretation of Marx’s work, most notably in its application of commodity fetishism to contemporary mass media" and "expands the concept of Marx’s theory of alienation to include far more than labor activity.” Capitalism is “mediated by images.” All social relationships are conducted through the spectacle, and the spectacle is “the chief product of present-day society.” It is the totality of reality, far more than the technology which we use to embrace it.

I can’t recommend it enough. It reads like a primer (a warning?) for 2010, where we sit on our mobile phones when friends are sitting cm away, commodity (and commodity-image) fetishism has completely replaced religion and social life has left “a state of ‘having’ and proceed(ed) into a state of ‘appearing’.”

It’s kinda depressing.

26 September 2011
2 June 2012
I left work just after 4pm yesterday and, having no plans, decided to have a bit of a wander. I walked through Regent’s Park, aware generally that I was walking in the direction of Camden yet taking impromptu detours through areas of long grass where it was clear few people ventured. I was pleased to find myself at the bridge which crosses over to Primrose Hill and I walked to the top, sat down and took in that magnificent view. With a bizarre and unlikely timing, ‘London’ by Pet Shop Boys came on my iPod just as I reached the top. A “this is where I am” photo to my mum, brother and boyfriend.  It felt like a pause, a taking stock. How the hell did I end up here and how fortunate I am to be able to think that. Around me it was mostly couples, families and groups of students; runners panting their way up and down the hill while little girls self-consciously copied them, collapsing with laughter after running a few yards. I saw one other person who was on her own and wondered where she had come from. She lay on her back and spoke to someone on her mobile, staring at the sky. The urge to share this place, even when alone, is irrepressible - the trade-off being that you cannot truly wallow in any sense of solitude.
After 40 minutes or so a drizzle started to fall and it was time to go. Back down the hill, past the magnificent town houses (one of which I spent an evening in, a lifetime ago, drinking wine on the balcony with a Brazilian I never saw again) and towards Chalk Farm.  As I turned a corner onto Chalk Farm Road, the city returned with a roar. The police were holding a young black guy and speaking into their radios; a crowd had gathered around a man holding a megaphone, ranting about ‘men’s rights’ while a little boy (his son, I guess) held his hand and drank a Capri-Sun. As I walked along I marvelled at how pretty much every shop in Camden sells tat and yet there are always crowds flowing in and out of them. 
It was about 5.30 now and everyone was descending on the cash machines and bars, kicking off the bank holiday weekend. I ducked into The Black Cap, expecting it to be mobbed. I forget that it’s never mobbed. I sat at a table on my own, sipping a pint and took out the book I’m reading at the moment, The Beach Beneath The Streets: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark. I did my final year university dissertation on the Situationists so I’m familiar with many of their concepts and it was impossible not to smile when I realised that the section I was reading was about the dèrive - the “drift”. Defined by Guy Debord as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences”, it is a practice wherein you follow the contours and flow of the city, allowing your journey to be driven by it and forgetting its rational divisions and your usual purposes for venturing into certain areas (e.g. to go to work, to go shopping, to go to the Doctor etc etc). The aim is to create a new experience - a new relationship with the city, different ways of thinking about it, how it functions and how it affects us. To explore its “psychogeography”, as the Situationists called it. It is certainly one of the most popular and enduring concepts from Situationism and  for obvious reasons. I was no doubt flattering, deceiving and inflating myself by retrospectively labelling my afternoon walk a dèrive yet it was undeniably a powerful and profound experience. 
Debord believed that the dèrive worked best with “small groups of two or three people” and that “the average duration of a dèrive is one day”. Suddenly those two days off for the Jubilee look immensely exciting.

I left work just after 4pm yesterday and, having no plans, decided to have a bit of a wander. I walked through Regent’s Park, aware generally that I was walking in the direction of Camden yet taking impromptu detours through areas of long grass where it was clear few people ventured. I was pleased to find myself at the bridge which crosses over to Primrose Hill and I walked to the top, sat down and took in that magnificent view. With a bizarre and unlikely timing, ‘London’ by Pet Shop Boys came on my iPod just as I reached the top. A “this is where I am” photo to my mum, brother and boyfriend.  It felt like a pause, a taking stock. How the hell did I end up here and how fortunate I am to be able to think that. Around me it was mostly couples, families and groups of students; runners panting their way up and down the hill while little girls self-consciously copied them, collapsing with laughter after running a few yards. I saw one other person who was on her own and wondered where she had come from. She lay on her back and spoke to someone on her mobile, staring at the sky. The urge to share this place, even when alone, is irrepressible - the trade-off being that you cannot truly wallow in any sense of solitude.

After 40 minutes or so a drizzle started to fall and it was time to go. Back down the hill, past the magnificent town houses (one of which I spent an evening in, a lifetime ago, drinking wine on the balcony with a Brazilian I never saw again) and towards Chalk Farm.  As I turned a corner onto Chalk Farm Road, the city returned with a roar. The police were holding a young black guy and speaking into their radios; a crowd had gathered around a man holding a megaphone, ranting about ‘men’s rights’ while a little boy (his son, I guess) held his hand and drank a Capri-Sun. As I walked along I marvelled at how pretty much every shop in Camden sells tat and yet there are always crowds flowing in and out of them. 

It was about 5.30 now and everyone was descending on the cash machines and bars, kicking off the bank holiday weekend. I ducked into The Black Cap, expecting it to be mobbed. I forget that it’s never mobbed. I sat at a table on my own, sipping a pint and took out the book I’m reading at the moment, The Beach Beneath The Streets: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International by McKenzie Wark. I did my final year university dissertation on the Situationists so I’m familiar with many of their concepts and it was impossible not to smile when I realised that the section I was reading was about the dèrive - the “drift”. Defined by Guy Debord as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences”, it is a practice wherein you follow the contours and flow of the city, allowing your journey to be driven by it and forgetting its rational divisions and your usual purposes for venturing into certain areas (e.g. to go to work, to go shopping, to go to the Doctor etc etc). The aim is to create a new experience - a new relationship with the city, different ways of thinking about it, how it functions and how it affects us. To explore its “psychogeography”, as the Situationists called it. It is certainly one of the most popular and enduring concepts from Situationism and  for obvious reasons. I was no doubt flattering, deceiving and inflating myself by retrospectively labelling my afternoon walk a dèrive yet it was undeniably a powerful and profound experience. 

Debord believed that the dèrive worked best with “small groups of two or three people” and that “the average duration of a dèrive is one day”. Suddenly those two days off for the Jubilee look immensely exciting.

5 March 2013

Free to be Human - the “descent into infantile triviality”

Today, possession by devils is indicated by our failure to adequately worship the God of consumption; by a weird tendency to ‘deep conversations’ and serious thought…the death of our own culture can currently be experienced as a descent into infantile triviality. - David Edwards

All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one exchanges views and that one is ready to accept any opinion or conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as the other. On the market of opinions everybody is supposed to have a commodity of the same value, and it is indecent and not fair to doubt it. - Erich Fromm

These two quotes are taken from David Edwards’ book Free to be Human, a curious but provocative blend of Chomsky and Herman’s 'propaganda model', Fromm’s political psychology and Buddhism. It’s an odd read, encompassing (amongst much else) a political theory of the media, an attack on ‘New Atheism’ and a didactic bent which at times feels like self-help. If it sometimes feels like it’s stretching, however, there is much of value to be found within its arguments. As the quotes above indicate, one aspect which I found particularly interesting was the linking of the urge towards ‘triviality’ in our personal lives to the propaganda model. Something which seems absurdly self-evident now but an angle I hadn’t really previously considered. I have previously noticed, and written about, the “common fear of being serious and/or sincere” so the placing of this within a theoretical framework as serving capitalism grabbed me. Triviality is seen to allow us to rationalise our positions in the absurd society we live in by refusing to consider it too much - and certainly by refusing to challenge its dominant ideas and narratives. It serves to isolate those who do challenge it, heretics who are quickly painted as self-important cranks. Further, in its particular manifestation as a facetious fixation on popular culture it flows neatly into consumerism - rather than thinking about what it means to be ‘ourselves’, what it means to live, we instead express both our personalities and our relationships via popular culture and consumption. I was reminded of only a few weeks ago when I  found myself complaining that so many ‘friendships’ seemed to consist of an endless exchange of references to culture and things - catchphrases from reality tv shows, shared semi-ironic ‘love’ for retro pop music, links to internet memes and so on. I had found myself considering what many of us would talk about if we were dumped on a distant island, completely removed from popular culture; wondering who we would be. It ties in neatly with the Situationist idea that "in mass-production economies all that was directly experienced has been replaced with images of itself"  and that "all social relationships are conducted through the spectacle" - our very identities, never mind our lives, seem unfathomable outside the context of modern capitalism (a fundamental aspect of Capitalist Realism).

This idea clicked with recent readings and thoughts on social media and our expression of self through it. It takes the mediating role of the spectacle to some kind of logical extreme (perhaps not as extreme as we’d like to think), removing all but the most perfunctory illusion of human interaction and instead offering the “pure, dehumanizing objectification” where “the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual”. Those links we post on Facebook? That’s ‘us’. The likes, comments, RTs etc are what passes for relating to other people and in themselves are a kind of instant panopticon where we both seek instant approval and seek to avoid instant scorn. It’s the urge to and descent into triviality gone supernova.

While consideration of ‘serious’ issues is subservient to our own ego and, as a result, subject to an unconscious (sometimes not to unconscious) self-censorship - we don’t want to be that person - an ostentatious, facile display of concern can nonetheless be deployed to our own purpose. Something like the petitions regarding gay people in Nigeria offered this in spades - it was seen to be the opposite of ‘trivial’ and evidence of a more ‘serious’ personality but the engagement was so slight that it posed no danger of alienating anyone; furthermore, it both served and fed dominant narratives and so was a seriousness which only cemented a sense of belonging to a society which was fundamentally right. In the same way, being seen to care about issues like poverty, hunger and social justice serves us well but consideration of the systemic causes (and a surely reasonable assertion that we cannot even begin to tackle these issues through social media) is jarring - it brings bad feeling and detracts from the idea that more (if different) consumption is the answer. 

That bad feeling, that desire to protect our ego, is the fundamental reason why we are so terrified of being critical (in the analytical sense). As Fromm notes above, the ‘market of ideas’ prevents this being a problem. We just project, safe in the knowledge that no-one will think about what we say too seriously and that, if they do, the fault lies with them. We can dip our proverbial toes into ‘seriousness’ and not stir the murky waters beneath, wherein lies the unknown which might demand an exchange of ideas, could lead to our questioning of previously unassailable truths about society or even ourselves. Better to nod, to ‘like’ and in the process protect not only the ego of those around us but, fundamentally, our own.

These are truly fascinating and potentially profound considerations. They take something as ubiquitous and impulsive as the sharing of a cute cat video or the dominant tone of discussion with our friends and ask us to critically examine what they mean, where they come from and what they serve. I think any such examination is an inordinately useful one. Indeed, while it is wide-ranging, for those of us who spend a lot of time on social media it is an absolutely essential one.

26 June 2013

Before Midnight, London and a Reason to Believe

image

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are films about many things: love; identity; being; self-discovery. One of the fundamental aspects of their emotional appeal, however, rests on the theme of possibility.  In the first film the characters are 23 years old and much of their impulsive behaviour can be attributed to the vagrancies of youth; certainly the initial dialogue is the most self-conscious of the series, suggesting two people trying on identities for an evening (and of course trying to impress a potential romantic partner).  The will they/won’t they finale works in a relatively straightforward way but the dangling question of whether they will meet again is particularly evocative because (with hindsight) you are aware of how much can change in a year. When you’re young it’s especially the case that you can change radically in a year. Indeed, the film illustrates how much can change in one night – you feel that Jessie and Celine are better people when they are together, fuelling and feeding off each other. They positively fizzle with possibility, both as individuals and as a couple.

Before Sunset reunites the two 9 years on. They are now in their early 30s – changed, grown, even accomplished (Jessie is a successful novelist). Nonetheless, the same spark is quickly present and its flame illuminates what is lacking in their lives (and in themselves).  Their time together is even more constrained on this occasion as Jessie has to catch a plane. Possibilities seem limited by circumstance. The end of the film, however, is far less ambiguous than that of the first. It’s clear that Jessie has made a decision – the kind of decision which you can still afford to make when you are 32. In one afternoon two dissatisfied lives have been, in a sense, revived.

Before Midnight again leaps 9 years forward and without wishing to give much away, it’s fascinating and powerful in how it deals with ageing and the limiting of possibilities which that seems to bring. Life brings responsibilities and reason – it also brings cowardice and weariness. How do you deal with dissatisfaction when you are beginning to feel like your time has passed, that it’s too late to do anything dramatic to address it? In this film possibility is not the romantic notion of previous – rather it’s almost taunting and oppressive. It speaks of chances squandered, paths not taken. How we make our peace with that and, more importantly, how we modify our notions of possibility and the fulfilment it brings, are key questions which the film looks at. It’s a wonderful, beautiful experience – perhaps the best in the trilogy. The dialogue remains improbably eloquent yet somehow perfectly captures the anxieties, difficulties and rewards of ageing and ageing together.

I left the cinema feeling revitalised. Alert to possibility. Inspired by the rich complexities of relationships (not just romantic ones) and the didactic power of conversation. At one point in the film Jessie and Celine speak about how the important thing in life is to ‘stay hungry’ – to keep questioning, keep trying to grow, keep aspiring to be and do better. The genius of it is that it doesn’t shy away from how this notion can become a stick with which we beat ourselves up; we can become so fixated on particular interpretations of ‘growth’ and ‘possibility’ that we can end up trapped by them. Life is infinitely complex and sometimes that’s enough.

It helped that I exited into a gorgeous London evening.  Heavy in the air was the kind of languorous haze that focuses the mind on your immediate surroundings. Beauty shifts to the quotidian and it’s almost impossible not to relax into the night, let your soul drink its fill and feel that maybe this is it. This is life and it’s not half-bad. It’s a feeling which I often have when I wander around London. Given the importance of wandering around European cities to the Before… films, there’s a thesis to be had in exploring their relationship to the dérive. The physical manifestation of the poetry and politics of possibility and throwing off of the shackles of time, the derive nurtures the soul and profoundly lends itself to the themes of the films.

With quite splendid timing a sense of the cacophonous possibilities of London was re-awakened in me by Julian Temple’s magnificent documentary London - The Modern Babylon only this past weekend. A riotous musical and visual collage, the film presents London almost as a living organism – one which sheds its skin, fractures and bends yet maintains its quickening pulse throughout history.  It’s certainly no hagiography and we’re left in no doubt as to London’s violent dissonance. It’s a place of conflict, of confusion, of endless noise which never quite comes together. Yet it’s impossible not to feel humbled at the place, not to feel that its ancient, tattered mosaic is at once unrecognisable from one generation to the next yet eternal in its awe-inspiring wonder. If you are lucky enough to tap into London’s veins you may find an original Source, something from the dawn of time which speaks to the very nature of who and what we are. Wander its streets and you may be forever changed.

On one of the recent Bank Holiday Sundays I found myself stood outside a John Smith’s pub in Soho, enjoying a typical night with a couple of friends. One of them asked a young guy in a hoodie for a light and we ended up chatting to him. It turned out he was from France, studying in Ireland and was only in London for one evening as he waited for his bus to leave from Victoria at 4am. We ended up spending the evening with him, taking him around various Soho bars before I finally saw him onto a bus to Victoria at 3am. There was something about that experience which underlines, magnifies, captures everything I’ve spoken about here. There was something about only knowing someone’s first name, knowing you will almost certainly never see them again and knowing that this was one story amongst thousands playing out in London that evening. I went home that evening very drunk and very content. I’d allowed myself to forget that London – that life – can throw these wonderful curve balls if you only allow yourself to catch them. In possibility we find nourishment and transformation. In possibility we find a reason to believe.

Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh