Friday, November 30, 2007

Guess my overarching Narrative

Nicking this idea completely from Sinker's Guess My Theory...I have, in the course of Research paid for by the University of London decided that the course of 20th century political aesthetics is encapsulated in the following images. In order.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

London Zone

Mandate my Ass

In writing about ‘Jobseeker Mandatory Activity’ I’m going to start with a building, and not just to conform to type. In the dead centre of Lewisham is the former Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society's Tower House, built in 1933, a redbrick and white tile department store, with reliefs of trains, liners, the motifs of local industry, the work that was most likely painfully absent in that depression year; inside was a department store for those, like my Grandma, who would get their schoolclothes from the Co-Op and thus be regarded as ‘common’. Nonetheless, loudly holding the borough’s dead centre, the Lewisham RACS was clearly a thumping affirmation of collective, working-class pride. It’s façade-deep. Follow it round the back to find concrete & stock-brick warehousing, snaking round to link up with what is now a Bowling Alley. The RACS building was chopped up into individual franchises: a Yates’s (with SKY SPORTS INSIDE promised), a branch of Fitness First, and at the back, through the warehouse entrance, Twin Training, a private purveyor of education and ‘training’. This is the company to which the (unusually bluntly named) Mandatory Activity has been contracted out. ‘It’s by the bowling alley’, they told me at the Jobcentre, as that’s a better marker than the RACS’ towering (but seemingly invisible) monument to solidarity.

JMA, if you will, is a scheme being ‘tested’ in selected areas of the nation – South East Wales, Warrington, Lanarkshire, South East London (prizes for guessing what links these). At Lewisham Twin, JMA will, according to the bumph, entail ‘upbeat motivational training’. So the image of the Restart counsellor, encapsulated beautifully in The League of Gentlemen’s Pauline, doesn’t quite apply here. The JMA is something a little more insidious. Certainly no-one here is being treated with the casual contempt that Pauline doles out, or that anyone who has waited in line at a ‘JobcentrePlus’ (or tried to walk into one without conferring sufficently with the newly contracted heavy-duty security) gets subjected to. This much is clear when our host – earnest, Nigerian, lanky, clearly very good at his job – declares to us that we should regard the Mandatory Activity as a break, even though it is compulsory, on pain of loss of an already piddling income. ‘Think of it as being like a management training course’. He introduces himself in the third person: ‘Anthony is a person who values people.’

There’s around 25 of us, all men bar five women, one of whom disappears after the first day. Many are people in their 40s, 50s who have worked most of their lives as electricians, shepherds (!) or even lawyers and find employment unsurprisingly tricky to return to. Only one or two conform even remotely to the archetypal hooded malingerer that haunts the dreams of MailLand. So, we get a couple of ‘games’ in groups, such as the ‘you are one of a group who are sole survivors from an aeroplane which has crash-landed in the Indian Ocean on a flight from Cape Town and Karachi. You have managed to get into a life-raft, what personal effects will you throw out’ one, but what the Mandatory Activity really entails is listening to an experienced exponent of managerial tosh wax motivational for three days. Perhaps the best bit is the mnemonics. We’re handed a sheet of paper headed ‘STAYING ON TOP WITH SWOT ANALYSIS’. SWOT being Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. In the midst of the discussion of Swot analysis another is thrown out: GROW, which is made up of Goal, Reality, Options, Will. While we’re taught how to GROW, we’re handed out extracts from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Later, another mnemonic explains that, in interviews, ‘you have to communicate STAR in order to be the Star’. That’ll be Situation, Task, Action and eventually, Result.

The ostensible point of all this is to get us into work by helping with our apparent lack of confidence and social graces, explaining the alleged obstacles that led to our being unemployed for an extraordinary six months. Our host, who lays proud claim to pioneering, when back in Nigeria, 'the project Building Your Tomorrow Today' and a book entitled You Can Make It, repeatedly stresses the importance of three things: Service, Values and Vision. Every job is a service. All organisations provide a service. All organisations have values, and visions. You too have values and visions, you just have to match yours with the organisation’s. Curiously enough, rather than demystifying, the motivational training makes the grimly mundane world of work (Southwark Pest Control is one of the examples we are given) into a baffling, messianic world of entrepeneurs sharing with each other their visionary visions and their valuable values. ‘Anything you want to do, you can do it’ (I quote) is the plainly stated philosophy, a bizarre mismatch with the data entering, painting-and-decorating and benefit-claiming that lies in wait for most of us here. People are mostly bored but relieved by the lack of the Jobcentre’s more obvious inhumanity. That’s still very much here, of course. Someone turns up late for the third day, and the jobcentre are swiftly informed. The stark possibility of weeks without income. In the world of vision, punctuality is brutally important. ‘You must be the master of time’. (again, I quote)

Central to ‘JMA’ is an individual ‘Action Plan’ for each one of us to take back to the Jobcentre and whisk into work, handed out at the course’s end. We’re first given these to fill out ourselves, though the oh-so-efficient private contractors manage to lose some. Regardless, the end result is a chart with cuttings and pastings from internet job sites for each of us to take home. So the only concrete part of the whole thing is the pep talk, and here, in true market Stalinist style, ‘cadres decide everything’. There’s none of Pauline’s dismissal of the ambitious, or the proverbial careers officer’s admonition that you give up space travel for the sausage factory. We can, all of us, make our dreams come true. Right at the end, as everyone hurriedly picks up their travel expenses, we’re told that we’re not to be seen here again. ‘I will next see you…’ ‘On TV!’ someone interjects. ‘As an entrepeneur!’ He’s impressed. ‘An entrepeneur, that’s the aim, isn’t it’. We might all be living on a pittance, but by god we’re going to make it, now that we’ve realised that all that holds us back is our lack of vision.

So at the end of a mercifully brief three days we all walk out, not noticing that this has all taken place in a building once devoted to the now quaint belief that profit might not be the only possible ‘motivation’. Remember the mnemonics, aim high, hold onto those values, and soon enough SE London will be awash with the exploited shedding their collective chrysalis and floating away as exploiters, as long as their benefit isn’t cancelled first.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Rothermere Reich

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


The seaside postcard genre doesn't get much better than this, does it? Sex appeal of the inorganic indeed. And who has ever been called Flypip...?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Grimness and Glam

A quick gloss on K-Punk's fine piece on Roisin Murphy as lone standard bearer of glam - well, if he's not going to update then I may as well. One thing not mentioned there is that her last two videos - 'Overpowered' and 'Let me Know', both embedded here for your viewing pleasure - undertake a quite conscious dialogue with the glamour of the look, the lighting, the intoxication of disco and its flipside: going home on the night bus in your costume and having to do the washing up, or fantasising in the greasy spoon about being a disco superstar. This tension between the seamless fantasy and the seamy reality isn't a concession to mundanism, it's something totally key to glam from the start: being thoroughly inappropriate, a working-class pursuit that can become a bit tedious when taken out of it. Think for instance of how thrilling Soft Cell's decadence in Yorkshire was, and how drab Marc Almond's later decadence in Berlin, New York or wherever is in comparison. If there's nobody at the bus stop calling you a poof, then it just becomes meaningless preening.

Both of these videos exemplify this beautifully. Roisin squirming on the nightbus with her Schiaparelli hat dangling, or dancing in the 'Classy Touch' greasecaff (which of course looks far more glam than the caffe nero equivalent anyway) before the fry-up arrives, while the lights dance around her. This is part of disco even in its most seemingly normative incarnations: Saturday Night Fever, usually remembered as a flarefest fit only for the ironic high street theme pub, is actually an incredibly grim depiction of wasted lives that only come alive when they're in the disco: only when I'm dancing can I feel this free, as someone once similarly driven by desire to get out of the mundane as quickly as possible put it.

Limited Capacity

So, the right-wing press are agog at the preposterous ailments of those claiming incapacity benefit, now to be replaced, much as class and poverty were by the 'underclass' and 'social exclusion', with an 'employment allowance'. Depression, headaches, leprosy - all clear symptoms of nothing more than an unmanly aversion to a good, honest 40 hours a week of data entry. I am minded to declare a certain personal interest in this issue. I claimed incapacity benefit for around a year because of Crohn's disease. Now this isn't something that makes one totally physically immobile, it doesn't stop you being able to read, walk, go up and down stairs and what have you, but it is mostly unpleasant, occasionally debilitating and generally somewhat unwholesome. A reason for claiming over this is that the other option is the delightfully named Jobseekers' Allowance: a late-Major but notably proto-Blairite coinage, where the unemployed are legally perpetually on their Tebbittian bicycles, the Seekers rather than those who are merely jobless or indeed, not defining themselves at all with reference to the aforementioned Stakhanovite data entering. Accordingly, the new benefit will wipe out the very word 'incapacity' - Gordon Brown's much promised presbyterian 'vision' now turns out to be the abolition of illness itself.

Another intriguing element of this is that GPs, who have to approve all incapacity applications, and are usually seen as cold, stern, rather unnverving but undoubted Pillars of the Community have to become in the popular imagination whimsical, oversympathetic types willing to grant any malingerer their 80 quid a week. I was struck off incapacity after an being questioned at a jobcentre examination about my physical abilities: frequent pain and occasional severe bowel-based unseemliness was one thing, but the questions - can you walk up the stairs (yes) do you stay in all day and watch TV (no) were all geared to get me seeking once again. Of course, once seeking one must be available and looking for work at all times; not an easy thing when one spends the first three hours after waking mostly in the toilet. Imminently I have the joy of a 'motivational course' awaiting in order to force me into work through sheer tedium. Take a sickie from this 'Jobseeker Mandatory Activity' and you lose a week's benefit.

I'm mentioning these personal gripes with no particular reservations, not seeing why these sort of details are somehow working against the struggle and reading Althusser in a gentrified garret not. Nonetheless the war on the sick is a much, much wider phenomenon than my own version of it would imply. As Mark has frequently pointed out, mental illness has risen exponentially among the young, the grind of British work and 'play' produces predictable casualties, and some (although undoubtedly a minority of those claiming IB) quite reasonably just want to avoid work altogether. Neoliberalism has no interest in acknowledging its own byproducts. The incapacitated are usually put in the deserving poor bracket, and even that now seems a remnant of wet pre-79 humanism. Smear the bastards. They're not ill, they're bloody shirkers with headaches! Malingering depressives! Workshy schizophrenics! And, it would seem, layabout lepers.

Friday, November 16, 2007

DIY Geodesic Utopia

The BBC goes to Drop City. So they might have been hippies, but in their works was the spirit of Mikhail Okhitovich. The fact that 'Dr Bronowski' is the only person considered compos mentis enough to speak here is especially wonderful, just try and ignore the wholly unnecessary bit of Dylan near the end...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Boy Falling out of the Sky

Good heavens. Note how this looks like a still from The Man Who Fell To Earth rather than something so embarassing and off-the-cuff as a police mugshot...

Postcards of the Apocalypse

Some people, as I've said, may even be excited: South Beach is under five feet of water...? Get your camera...
BLDGBLOG, amusingly sceptical about the political efficacy of disaster aesthetics (something from which pesky humans tend to be absent) and pondering what might be put in its place. See also on the 'architects being taught to use theory' vexed question, the entirely sensible suggestion: give em HG Wells to read instead...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Cream, get on Top

Not posted this yet, and should: my piece on Eisenstein as Marxist-humanist thinker and thinker of rum things about cream separators, for the New Humanist. And take a look at these Quicktime films of Soviet montage at work.

Pick's Plakaty

The London Transport Museum have got their act together and put their entire poster archive up, in full - the results are quite spectacular, and worth a few hours boggling at least. Meanwhile Jonathan Glancey visits the rejigged museum in the Covent Garden tourist playground, and unsuprisingly puts in another of his hymns of praise for Frank Pick, aesthete, stern presbyterian and London Transport boss. Great symmetry also that this comes out when (more quietly than I'd like: it ought to be yelled from the rooftops at Gordon Brown) it's becoming clear that the tube will be renationalised, seemingly because of the sheer financial idiocy of running it privately, but never mind. Reminding me, for once, why Livingstone is one of the few people I've ever bothered voting for, though it doesn't make his craven position over policemen shooting commuters any less unpleasant.
(thanks to Bat for the link)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Function and Ruin

My paper on functionalism for the Historical Materialism conference, some of the rest of which is elegantly summarised by the tomb. For the diametrically opposite angle to my huzzah for function argument, read this superlative post from Entschwindet und Vergeht (clearly winning the 'most underrated blog of year' gold star) on the aesthetic implications of preserving a ruin.

Hurrah for the Black Box Recorder

New Labour’s liberal apologists like to claim that they’ve somehow established a ‘progressive consensus’ in Britain. Perhaps the best answer to this absurdity is the unstoppable rise of the Daily Mail under their watch, to the point where it leaves the Mirror (once the nearest thing there was to a truly ‘left’ paper, and unassailable) trailing. Sure, pointing out that this paper is rather Right-wing is banal, the province of Have I Got News for You guests. But that doesn’t change the fact that the paper that once cried ‘HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS’ would undoubtedly do so again, were a similar force of order and barbarity to emerge again on British streets. The Mail would love a new Mosley, one they could truly get behind (the BUF leader being too obviously a narcissistic, opportunist aristocrat, and suspiciously intelligent, not instinctive enough to convince as potential dictator. A product of the stately home rather than the semi). They’d listen to Aretha Franklin at home perhaps, and would make quite clear that their expulsions of migrants wasn’t a racial question, much as did Rothermere's editorials in the 30s.

This latent and not-so-latent evil at the heart of England, where Brimstone & Treacle could easily be remade – but certainly not commissioned - without changing a line (except from The Irish to The Muslims) barely seems to leave an obvious trace on pop culture – a matter upon which, as Robin Carmody has ceaselessly pointed out, the Mail now proclaims its normality, dishing out free Prince CDs and all. The first Black Box Recorder album is a rare instance of the Land of Rothermere put consciously onto record. A sort of Mail music pervades everywhere, but always clothes itself in some sort of inoffensive Americanism. BBR, meanwhile, were that brutality, emotional atrophy and banal, weary fascism as a (kind of) pop.

The cover of England Made Me was originally to have been a photograph from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which the England Football Team give the Nazi salute. The record might, with that cover, have truly encapsulated British Fascism by adding sport to the litany of untrustworthy outsiders, single mothers (see ‘New Baby Boom’), lurking paedos and pinched petit-bourgeois malevolence. So in the midst of (cough) cool Brittannia, in 1998, a voice that spoke in purest Selsdon curtly declares ‘we don’t like you, go away – we’re swinging’: Britpop’s politics of racial exclusion in a pithy phrase. ‘Ideal Home’ sets the cut-glass vowels on a sparse, freeze-dried evocation of the joys of property, wherein there is ‘never an awkward silence…’ The evocation of Mail-land here is always elided with, and slipping into, an earlier, interwar, blackshirt-admiring incarnation. The Mail of today, the Daily Hell as Julie Burchill christened it, is hysterical, at a constant pitch of screaming neurosis in a way that its forbears were not, and BBR deliberately excise this edge of mania.

The blankness and poise deliberately evokes an earlier version of middle-class psychosis: ‘England Made Me’ was apparently based on the dispassionate self-hatred, seediness and moral turpitude of Graham Greene (rather than the novel of that title). The inextricable horror of Englishness, impossible to erase or escape: ‘I travelled all my life. but never got away/from the killing jar, and the garden shed.’ By ‘It’s Only the End of the World’ a total fatalism takes over, like a British seaside version of ‘Is that All There Is?’ where the apocalypse is welcomed, but with none of the ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’/’Slough’ glorying in destruction. And one wonders exactly what to make of the stripping of ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ into an anemic, poker-faced march.

Luke Haines is always balancing crassness and egotism with flashes of genius: for every ‘Unsolved Child Murder’, there might be some blustery, Albini-produced mess. There are great records: blaxploitation-red army fraction concept album Baader-Meinhof, or The Oliver Twist Manifesto, where Tesco Destiny’s Child arrangements back tales of the Gordon Riots and the much-anticipated assassination of Sarah Lucas. But crucial to why England Made Me (written with John Moore) is in a different league entirely is the replacement of his perpetually irritated rasp with the perfect vowels of Sarah Nixey. There’s never a slippage, never a moment where the façade might fall; she sounds like several husbands and suicide attempts couldn’t shake her hauteur. The songs, of surveillance, boredom, suburban idylls and ‘cars found parked at Beachy Head’ have to be sung calm and blank, leaving cold spaces between the phrases - and England Made Me is full of the sheer spatiality of suburbia, the sparseness (often just a drum machine and shards of guitar and keyboard, like Young Marble Giants stripped of all naivete or charm) transliterating the physical emptiness of the cul-de-sacs, arterial roads and tennis courts. The psychoses are occasionally reversed: BBR knew where the Angry Brigade were brought up, as can be heard on ‘Kidnapping an Heiress’.

England Made Me’s perfection was almost equalled on The Facts of Life, where it occasionally seems the sinister idyll is taken seriously, embraced. The sound is bright, seductive, aiming at some sort of unlikely CD:UK dominance, apparently inspired by the production on Billie singles, and by far the nearest thing to a convincing pop record Luke Haines has ever made (bar this, maybe). As the name implies, here we have a peculiar semi-pagan Surrey sexuality, evocative of the Betjeman fetish for the starched, jolly tennis girl, though here with Wicker Man overtones creeping in, or moments (‘Gift Horse’) where you realise the alluring voice imploring love is singing in the character of John Christie. Elsewhere, the banality starts to become transcendent. ‘The English Motorway System’ channels the endless repitition and featurelessness into a placid, Kraftwerkian romanticism of smoothly running infrastructure. Sadly there’s little of this on the third record, the unfortunately named Passionoia, where (in the general manner of Haines at his worst) anti-nostalgia turns into a morbid fascination with its adversary. Nonetheless it’s that ambiguity that’s at the heart of what makes these two records such rare and precise anatomisations of British psychosis: obsessed with the petty brutality in the miserable hearts of the brit bourgeoisie, but capable of finding in its most utterly blank manifestations something ‘beautiful and strange’: aware of the cruelty it is so clearly capable of, but merely observing the calm before it puts the boot in.

(some ideas nicked from IT,with thanks)

Manchester = Cinema, Paris = Boredom

Belated epigraph to these posts, and continuing the slap at Truffaut:

‘Extensive drive around this morning: the central library (excellent), back to Hulme, with its isolated cinema, and magnificent burned-out church – housing estate – the hide and fat yard, floor covered in blood. Shelagh’s schools. End up outside Strangeways jail –grim and impressive. Everywhere we go one thinks – why has none of this been on film? Search for a restaurant in the evening, in the pouring rain. Then back to the City of the Future.’
Lindsay Anderson, Diaries, 7/9/65

Friday, November 09, 2007

Buffalo Stance

A collection of beautiful photos of the Buffalo grain silos that accidentally kicked off European modernism. Still looking eerie and majestic, nearly a century after the likes of Gropius and Mendelsohn saw in them the architecture of the future...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Happy 90th Anniversary...

...of the glorious October (well, once you adjust the calendar from the Gregorian) Revolution! Some day, Comrades, etc etc...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Miscellaneous Gripes and Plugs

Proper posts this week will/may be about Black Box Recorder and the strange public school Stalinism of the 'Pylon poets' - although given the stony silence in my comments boxes of late I might need a bit of encouragement (one needs an audience, darling). So in the meantime, read these:

Entschwindet, excellent on the Architectural Association's attempts to justify its collective decamping to Dubai (Learning from Dubai, no less) with guff about 'critical' engagement. It would of course be preferable that some honesty and good faith were maintained and they produced straight-up oligarchitecture without claiming that they were undermining any (boo-hiss) Ideologies, reinscribing any narrativities or what have you, but the 'critical' gesture is a perfect example of what happens when Theory is marshalled by a group of practitioners who tend to need to earn a crust from the very dubious. Pioneered by Peter Eisenman and Oppositions in the 70s and 80s (when it had become obvious that the jobs were coming from stockbrokers and museums rather than local authorities and universities), the sleight of hand is to first denounce any 'moral' or 'ethical' position as 'humanist' or in cod-Althusserian, 'ideological'; and then define The Critical Practice of Architecture Itself as the only viable critical gesture. A pox on 'em.

Much of the above - and more! - will be found in my paper on the use and misuse of the term 'Functionalism' at the Historical Materialism conference at SOAS (that's in London, any non-Anglo readers) this weekend - where myself and I.T will also be showing Dziga Vertov's Soviet Toys and Enthusiasm, with Jonathan Beller as 'discussant', for the re-encouragement of any delegates made weary by a weekend of strenuous but invigorating Marxist discourse.

And a big 'OH YES.' is elicited by Simon on Bassline House, with which my acquaintance is brief, being a lickspittle Southerner - although what I've heard via Bat has been a damn sight more exciting than Dubstep's po-faced stoner torpor, albeit equally in hock to an 'ardcore-archivist tendency: What’s striking to me isn’t so much the North Will Rise Again/Nuum migrating beyond London thing, but the fact that what some people call “chav” is proven yet again to be the most fertile and vibe-generative sector of UK pop culture. Indie may be a white-out, but this is the forward sector, the class, that maintains the great British tradition of being plugged into black music and bringing something to it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Taylorist Titillation

The world of the 1970s English 'sex comedy' is a ghastly one and should by no means be revisited. However. In the almost entirely dreadful meta-brit-sex-com Eskimo Nell a virginal screenwriter asks his star if he can watch him 'on the job', and if possible take notes. 'Take notes! What am I, a Time and Motion Study??' In that joke, almost worthy of Lindsay Anderson's Brittannia Hospital, so, so much about workerism in the 1970s is said...almost as much as the 'down tools, men!' saucy postcard...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Unclean! Unclean!

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. Walter Benjamin's ambiguous protagonist has more than a little in common with that of your average 1970s paranoia-film, that fascinating and amorphous genre encompassing everything from Alan J Pakula to early Cronenberg. In The Andromeda Strain this impulse is taken to dementedly hygienic levels: as one of the characters points out, there's nothing so impure, unclean and viral as the human body. Hence the detailed rituals of cleaning and purification that take place within the five floors that make up the film's underground base. What makes it especially curious is how this ruthlessness is supplemented by the irrational biomorphism of the set. The base is full of curved, winding, womb-like corridors, their antiseptic whiteness or glaring redness not quite managing to obscure what an aesthetic space it actually is.

The film glories in the base's curves, the intimidating lettering, the split-screens and graphics appearing as pure aesthetic objects, with their particular function rather opaque - something encapsulated nicely in the use of numbers-as-terror. The inexplicable horror as the screen reduces itself to the declaration '601'. The chilling beauty of the set designers' puritanic planes matched perfectly by images of the strangely calm, whitewashed apocalypse that takes place in a small Southern town, all estranged further by Gill Mellé's calmly sinister electronics playing in the background. Meanwhile, as is pointed out, 'the president doesn't trust scientists', yet they blithely save the world in their Things to Come-like shelter from the outside, a reminder of the technocratic demand that scientists and engineers take the place of generals and politicians. This is a scientist's science-fiction film, as its revelling in machines and details, and the non-glamour of its protagonists makes clear - and in the process is especially strange and obsessively beautiful.