Sunday, 2 December 2012

Tech-fetish

For years I considered Richard Branson to be Britain's most over-rated businessman, but now I think it's James Dyson. Partly because such a grand reputation could be built on a small and over-priced line of white goods. Unlike the original Hoover or the Singer sewing machine, there really has been no wider economic or social impact of Dyson's products. More than this though he and his products are perfect embodiments of the tech-fetish that has bedevilled our times since the launch of Windows 95 and the spread of mobile phones.

Dyson's products all offer minor amendments to already established goods. He replaced the wheel in the wheelbarrow with a ball; he took the bag out of the vacuum cleaner. I still can't work out what's new about his hand dryers other than they are sought of upside down. He thinks his success lies in his 'engineering' but really it lies in the aesthetics of his products, his marketing department and, of course, in outsourcing the manufacturing to East Asia.

The Dyson vacuum cleaner is finished in primary coloured plastic and allows you to see inside and watch the working parts in action. It makes a fetish of its own machine-ness. It is playful, and suggests, consciously or unconsciously,  a child's toy.

When it appeared in the 1990s it was not alone in doing this. The original iMac also came in bright plastic and let the user see inside. So did the wind up radio.










 I'm sure Phil can find a good Spengler concept to capture this infitalisation of manufacturing and design. These products, I would also argue, are related to the ludicrous boosterism of Silicon Valley: particularly the claims that 'tech is the future' or that IT will bring about a new Industrial Revolution. Both the Wired crowd's love of 'tech' and Dyson's overestimation of engineering show a profound misunderstanding of the Industrial Revolution itself. It was revolutionary in world historical terms not because there were lots of innovations in machinery, but because manufacturing became, for the first time, the dominant sector in the economy. Seeing as IT and engineering are part of the services sector, which has already become the dominant sector in the western economies, it's hard to see how they could lead a similar fundamental shift in the economy.

Furthermore, in the 18th and early 19th century innovations in machinery were overwhelmingly concentrated in textiles. This was in order to make better and cheaper cottons and woollens which there was a huge mass-market for, not to sell gizmos to bored consumers. As Raphael Samuel showed long ago almost all other manufacturing sectors in Britain expanded through increasing the hours worked by labour and making incremental improvements in hand tools. There were hundreds of thousands of 'engineers' in the 19th century but their main role was to supervise and mend steam engines not to invent stuff.

In our time, the great change in manufacturing has been its relocation and, in some areas like car-making, the use of robotics. But Dell and Apple have not pioneered any significant manufacturing innovations which others sectors might want to use. Textile technologies have not really altered since the invention of the artificial fibres nearly 100 years ago. Cotton is still picked by hand in the open field, and garments made up in sweatshops with sewing machines. The future is low-tech and long hours. It's just that the Western middle class, including its liberal commentators, no longer have to see it from the study window.


Friday, 2 November 2012

Paedogeddon



"Paedogeddon" was a one-off special of Chris Morris's "Brass Eye" satirical documentary show, aired on Channel 4 on 26 July 2001. The programme was a response to the then News Of The World editor Rebekah Wade's campaign to "name and shame" convicted paeodophiles after it was revealed that the murderer of eight year old Sarah Payne, Roy Whiting, had previously abducted and assaulted young girls in the area where Sarah was killed. The News Of The World's campaign caused something of a national uproar, with mobs aggregating in housing estates and attacking individuals suspected of being paedophiles, resulting in some notorious examples of mistaken identity, including the home of a paediatrician being attacked in Newport, Wales.

The events had all the trappings of what contemporary sociologists call a "moral panic". It's fashionable to view such moral panics as media-generated phantasms, and dismiss them accordingly. But that is far from the case. A moral panic is actually a process in which a deep social problem that lies unacknowledged in the collective unconscious erupts into consciousness via the punishing social superego mechanism of the media, most usually through the tabloid press. There then follows a moment of agonising hysteria before the calming, reasonable voice of the paternalistic liberal media tamps it down with imprecations against "mob rule" and "kangaroo justice". At the end of the whole process, the issues remain pretty much as they were before. Which is to say that moral panics are media-managed cathartic processes that give vent to anxieties while doing nothing to resolve them.

"Paedogeddon", compromising its gullible populist celebrities to expose the wafer-thin understanding of the issue that drove the panic, is a classic example of a liberal-paternalist damping down of inchoate public rage. Its biting satire was actually soothing balm. It did everything necessary to endear itself to a metropolitan elite for whom the sight of mobs waving placards denouncing "peadofiles" was unspeakably embarrassing in a modern democracy. Morris excoriated the tabloid hype by imagining a Britain overwhelmed by child molesters to such an extent that, for all the complaints against the programme, it must surely have been clear that he was attacking the media's tendency towards hyperbole, and not the victims of abuse themselves.

There was, however, one problem with this approach. The actual scale of paedophile activity in Britain and northern Europe had been exposed three years earlier in a sober report by The Guardian's Nick Davies, and the reality was far in excess of Morris's satire. Davies's report, titled "The Sheer Scale Of Child Sexual Abuse In Britain" is by quite some distance the most shocking and depressing report I have ever read, and I would recommend not reading the entire article if you want to retain even the slightest flicker of faith in humanity. In attempting to enumerate the problem, he wrote:
The ease of the crime is reflected in its scale. No one knows the exact numbers, but to construct a picture is to watch an arithmetical explosion. Start with a hard fact. At the last count, there were 2,100 child sex abusers behind the bars of British jails. Now think of all those who have previously been convicted but who have been released back into the community. You have to multiply by 50: according to the Home Office Research Department, there are 108,000 convicted paedophiles in the community.

Now, think of all the child victims who are conned and confused and never report their abuse in the first place; and all those cases which are reported but which fall short of the demands of the courts; and all those cases of rape and indecent assault which are convicted but which are not statistically recorded as crimes against children. At the most conservative estimate, the NSPCC and specialist police agree with studies here and in the United States, that the official figures for convictions record no more than ten per cent of the paedophile population. Which means that today in Britain, there are probably 1.1 million paedophiles at large. Other studies suggest that the figure is very much higher.

This vast scale appears to be confirmed by “prevalance studies” which take samples of the population and establish how many were childhood victims of sexual abuse. In the UK, the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Australia, studies consistently find that around 20% of women and around 8% of men suffered sexual abuse as children. In the current population of UK children, that would cover 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys, a figure that is consistent with the projection of 1.1 million offenders.
That's one hell of a lot of nonces. It becomes clear then, that paedophilia is not a marginal activity pursued by a small number of isolated individuals, but is an endemic part of British society, and perhaps all human societies in turn. The surprise is not in Wade's moral panic, but in the fact that the dark truth, as evidenced in the recent Jimmy Saville hysteria, stayed suppressed for so long. There is the added irony here that it was Nick Davies's research in exposing the issue that would facilitate Wade's ascent to the top of News International, and the same Nick Davies whose research into phone hacking would bring her low again.

The lesson, as with so many British scandals of recent times, is that despite the punitive hysteria and dubious methodologies of the tabloids, the truth of what they point to is usually even worse than their moral panics suggest. The crooked timber of humanity is more warped than we could ever have guessed.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Rich Being Rich

“I believe in the rich being rich and looking after the poor, because in my experience, the poor cannot look after themselves”


In the spirit of recent-ish moves towards a proper understanding of conservatism, I thought I’d take a look at a BBC documentary on his party by late Tory pinup Alan Clark. It was made in the immediate aftermath of the 1997 general election and the end of 18 years of Tory rule. Indeed, one of the first shots is Clark standing outside a desolate Tory election soiree, with chants of “You’re out, and you know you are” echoing behind him. Interestingly, Clark is already talking in the past tense about events happening as he speaks.

Clark’s thesis is that the origins of this Tory defeat go back “to when they first became the party of government, in nineteen-twentytwo-oooo”. Implicit in his argument is that the sexism and snobbery that many would see as intimate to the party were the flaws that allowed both for the spectacular rebellion of Thatcher, but also caused them to lose to a man who publicly distained such discrimination while remaining essentially conservative: Tony Blair.

Clark sees the rebellion that caused the Tories to split from Lloyd George’s Liberal coalition as marking the foundation of modern Toryism. “The toffs and the grandees suffered from that customary illusion of politicians: that they were indispensable”. An ability to change – “that innate sense of self preservation”, Clark calls it – is what kept them in power.

The programme came out at the beginning of a long period of Tory weakness, and there’s a sense that many of those being interviewed know it. This allows for a frankness that suits Clark’s aristocratic self-confidence, a trait that caused him to be at the centre of many political gaffes when in office. While it’s difficult to call a man who speaks in full, recursive sentences plain spoken, he is less concerned with being “on message” than most politicians. The programmes introduction for instance, intercuts various members of the Tory fellowship defining Conservatism. Peter Carington merely replies bullishly, “What does everyone else say?” Clark on the other hand is able to gesture towards something central to modern conservatism: the belief in fairness within a strict hierarchy of class inequality. This enables new blood to gain positions of power and enact the radical changes necessary to preserve such a hierarchy.

There are other revealing moments. The quote at the top of this post comes from the slight, cigar-smoking Lady D’Avigdor-Goldsmid, who is subtitled as a “friend of Lord Beaverbrook” (as is Michael Foot, who wears his arm in a sling). Her remark reflects a deep, prevailing attitude in the Tory Party and indeed the whole political class. It could be said by any minister today, but only behind closed doors. Again in the intro, Nigel Lawson describes the Tories as kind of ideological police force: “If you didn’t have any criminals, you wouldn’t need policemen. And in the same way, if you didn’t have people going about with damaging political ideas and nostrums, you wouldn’t need the Conservative Party”.

As Clark stiffly minces around private clubs and his stately home – all tinted a sickly 90s VHS sepia – he frequently reiterates the point that for the history of the Tory Party in the 20th century, anyone, even aristocracy and royalty, were disposable. He also gives us entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Lord Curzon, who lost out the office of Prime Minister to Stanley Baldwin, who remarked while seeing British soldiers bathing in Palestine that he was surprised that “the lower classes had such white skin”. Clark sees Curzon’s failure to become PM, despite being Viceroy of India and Deputy Prime Minister, as marking a sea change in the Tory Party, where power moved from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie.

From here he narrates the history of the party, but it’s not until he reaches the seventies that things become particularly relevant for us. He mocks Heath, a “replica Wilson”, for not being good at economics at school. His damming verdict of the man is that his government was “one of the most frustrating and melancholy interludes in the whole history of post-war conservativism”. Heath “had not the slightest idea of what he wanted to do” and “his objectives were often couched in language so obscure as to mislead the author as well as the audience”.

It’s here that Clark, in his attitude more than anything else, describes the conservative commitment to the sublime. The sublime is a harsh glory. It doesn’t involve getting your hands dirty – not literally at least – but it is a brisk toughness that opposes the comfortable and safe. Clark helpfully reminds us – despite it being “hard now to remember” – “just how powerful and disruptive the unions were in the nineteen-seventies”. Heath “didn’t have the muscle, political or economic, to meet the unions head-on and win”. Thatcher did.

This economic “muscle” is foreshadowed in an earlier episode by a spectral Enoch Powell, who dismisses Macmillan’s belief in planned economies, Keynesianism and that Macmillan “never accepted the monetary theory of inflation”. Powell says all this like Jacob Marley haunting Scrooge. This is fitting, as Powell’s ideas on economics and immigration haunted both the Party and the political class in general, then and now. As Clark points out, Powell’s jabs show that Macmillan was “far more left than New Labour today”.

Clark summarises the goal of Thatcher’s right hand man Keith Joseph as being an avoidance of “the ratchet effect”. That is, there was a need to reverse the polarities of British politics from socialists pulling left and Conservatives “content with the status quo”, to it being Labour “who had to apply the ratchet, while Conservatives were deciding which way the wheel must turn”. Clark delivers these lines as the camera swirls around him melodramatically in a 360 degree pan. There is a faint smile on his lips.

It’s the last half of the series that is most relevant to today, with its Tory-centric perspective of the struggles of the 80s and the illusions of the 90s. Despite Clark’s dogged and insipid devotion to Thatcher, there’s a number of interesting moments. Clark makes the surprising claim that “without North Sea oil, there could have been no Thatcherism”. And Jim Prior quotes Thatcher as saying “the problem with the middle of the road is that you get knocked down by traffic from both sides”, something the Labour Party continually fails to notice today. Sometimes the programmes aesthetic flourishes become ridiculous, like when the screen is tinted red during scenes of the miners’ strikes. To shots of policemen grappling protesters to the ground, Clark stonily intones “the conflict made [Thatcher] more determined”. The sublime at work.

However, Clark is candid about Thatcher’s tactic of using revenues from North Sea oil to pay for unemployment. Despite relishing the defeat of the miners, he calls the economic strategy “wasteful”. Convicted criminal Conrad Black makes an appearance to say that it was important to the press that “the government […] would not tolerate illegalities in the manner that some previous governments had in industrial relations disputes”. Thatcher could count on support from The Telegraph.

On the defeat in 1997 the programme says very little. John Major insists that the country is “apolitical”, but Ken Clarke puts it well when he says that during the 1997 election the Conservative Party itself “was the main subject of the debate. Not our policies. Not our ideas. We’d already won the battle of ideas – our policies were imitated by our opponents.”

None of this, I suppose, is new. But it’s interesting to see it articulated in 1997. Clark’s thesis of pragmatic Conservatism is a persuasive one. But he reveals the superficiality of his argument when he says,

“Most Tory MPs are not preoccupied with ideology. They seldom read the manifesto and indeed I don’t myself. So I don’t see the arrival of Thatcher as being a break from the pragmatic, power-driven tradition of politics that dominates this story.”

Self-interested scheming and compromise does indeed drive politicians. But that does not make them immune from ideology, whether they read press releases or not. Missing from Clark’s story is the world outside the corridors of power. Why the trade unions called strikes or why post-war politicians were committed to Keynesianism is barely hinted at. This view of politics as personal power play dominates official discourse. It’s why all of Westminster loves The Thick of It. It’s also why politicians are so totally out-of-touch with ordinary people and why they rarely stray from their bubble of big business and the 24 hour news cycle. In Clark’s view of the world, politicians are individuals like everyone else; they make pragmatic, commonsense decisions, usually for mundane personal reasons. That he can’t see this as ideology is because he is blind to it.

So it’s strange that Clark doesn’t consider Thatcher to be a true conservative. She didn’t stick to a manifesto idea of conservatism, but she favoured the rich and the privileged and saw inequality as necessary and good for it promotes “excellence”. Perhaps Clark overlooks this important aspect of the appeal of conservatism because, as an aristocrat, they do not touch him as viscerally as they do those outside of high privilege. Either that or he’s repeating the usual received opinions about conservative politics. Clark wants Thatcherism and traditionalism, but he can’t have both.

There are two lessons to be learned from the history of the Tory Party. One is that power plays, backstabbing and scheming are a necessary part of politics. The other, more important lesson is that low cunning is not enough: if you are content with appealing to the status quo, you will be destined to be directed by others who control the wheel.

I’ll give Clark the last word, as he seems to be describing not just the Tory Party, but the limits of the imagination of the current political class:

“Since 1922 the Conservative Party had been the natural party of government by stressing unity and consensus, always preferring pragmatism to ideology. Yes, the Party had its greatest electoral successes during the Thatcher years, when it abandoned this formula, but by demeaning the public sector, crushing the unions, and crippling local democracy, great damage had been caused to the traditional fabric of the nation state. In May 1997 they paid the price.

“There is now little left but question marks. How must the party change? Should it return to the One Nation tradition? Or should it push further out with a radical right wing agenda? To whom can it look for leadership?

“In 1922 the Conservatives had found rejuvenation, breaking away from a coalition that was exhausted and out-of-touch. Now the Party is in that same position itself. How feasible is it going to be for them to repeat their achievement of 75 years earlier?”

Monday, 20 August 2012

King Knuts of rhetoric

A minor theme of political commentary has been the decline of political rhetoric, with Obama being positioned as some kind of revivalist act. You can always tell a decline of a cultural form is happening when some re-double their efforts to keep it going, whilst wiser heads just abandon it and look for something else. And so in the 90s British politics saw a series of bizarre speeches, mainly at party conferences. The biggest offenders were the nearly men of the Tory right (although Blair's 'education, education, eductaion' and Mandelson's 'I'm a fighter not a quitter' deserve inclusion.) Totally consumed by their Thatcher worship, but knowing they were going down on a sinking ship, they lashed out with bombastic, grandstanding addresses. Widely trailed in the media, they were all fatally undermined by the reality of government administration and the indifference of the public.

John Major, mocked at the time for his mild-mannered suburban approach, now looks the most clued up of them all. The Peter Lilley speech is particularly appalling as he actually believes his combination of social cliche and golf club humour is a genuine policy position. The Portillo 'Who Dares Wins' seems even more barking as the years go by. Even before his liberal conversion to TV nice guy he can't actually have believed he would reverse post-imperial decline with a motto? This points to another symptom of decline: the belief that the form itself has value rather than being a tool for something else. Obama is the logical conclusion of this trend.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

US 80s-90s

This article deals with the loose period 1987-1994. It could just as easily have gone in ‘Faces’, but I assume most people who follow one decade blog follow all three.



In December 1990, tunnelling machines knocked through a final section of chalk, and an Englishman and a Frenchman were able to shake hands deep under the seabed. It came as a surprise to me, because Europe had always seemed further away than that. Culturally speaking, at least, Britain’s real neighbour in the eighties was the United States of America.  This was about more than sharing a common tongue, or the politics of the ‘special relationship’. If Business Ontology (the belief that everything in society should be run as a business) is a dominant ideological position today, then the 1980s enjoyed a particular variant on the theme: everything in society should be run as a business, because that’s how they do things in America. ‘American’ was for long time a straightforward synonym for progressive, modern, desirable.

The plutocracy-celebrating soaps Dallas and Dynasty enjoyed huge ratings. Channel 4 launched their American Football programme in 1982 (with the marketing blitz reaching peak levels in 84-85), perhaps reasoning that association rules football was in irreversible decline and that a gap existed for a flashier, more commercially minded rival sport. Others who’d been thinking along the same lines had taken over football clubs in this period, pushing their ‘inevitable’ club mergers and price rises, struggling to understand why the enduring popularity of football was failing to generate the money that washed around in American sports.

Irving Scholar floated Tottenham Hotspur on the stock exchange in 1983, and Spurs were also ahead of Manchester United in the area of omnimerchandising  - catalogues packed with everything from bedspreads to pencil sharpeners were doing the rounds in my school playground as early as 88-89. Alan Sugar picked up Scholar’s ball and ran with it through the early 90s. But Tottenham were always makeweights among the ‘Big Five’, and they never made the step up to globe-spanning giant, in either sporting or marketing terms.  The football modernisers of the 80s could say they were ahead of their time, and that’s true to an extent. ‘Ahead of your time’ isn’t necessarily a compliment, given that businessmen are supposed to understand their audiences.*

This first wave of Americana had broken by the end of the decade. Between rave, Italia 90, and Thatcher’s defeat over Europe, we’d seemingly found enough confidence to stand by ourselves for a while. But while the ‘official’, media-narrative grip of America had been broken, the process continued on an everyday level all over provincial Britain. The metropolitan media, and the creative/artistic world, didn’t really pay much attention to this (except occasionally to exhibit a sniff of disdain, before moving on to more important things). When Brett Anderson posed behind the slogan ‘Yanks Go Home,’ he and the writers were referring to one pond-crossing musical genre, not to the Americana the rest of us could see everywhere we went.

Kids who’d grown up on the osmotically influential cultural touchstones of mid- 80s America (Back to the Future, Michael Jackson) found themselves spending their adolescent leisure time in a passable imitation of this dream-country. In the late eighties and early nineties, every town in England grew bowling alleys, shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, and ice rinks, while the kids who spent their adolescence in these places almost invariably did so dressed in American leisurewear. The films showing at the new cinemas were, almost without exception, American. Even the two standout British successes of the period (A Fish Called Wanda**, Four Weddings and a Funeral) were set in a tourist’s theme park version of Britain, and had American female leads.



The theme parks, of course - a collection of sodden fields outside Lowestoft became home to Pleasurewood Hills (properly: ‘Pleasurewood Hills American Theme Park’, with a cuddly beaver mascot). In Ilkeston, a venue once known as ‘Britannia Park’, which had been ‘a celebration of British culture’ (tiresome echoes of both 2000 and 2012 there), was replaced with the American Adventure Park, its themed zones covering everything from the Aztecs to the Wild West. It fell into disrepair, zone after zone being closed down and dismantled, before it gasped its last in 2005. The pathos of the overgrown site made it a briefly popular location with urban exploration/hauntology types.



Older and wiser, we can look back and sneer at our Americanised leisure options, but there’s no denying how exciting all of this was to pre-adolescents at the time. Like the transition to Post-Fordist capitalism, this was something we wanted, something we asked for. When the out-of-town mall opened, when the local chain video store became a Blockbuster (with attendant Jelly Belly concession) – it’s not hard to see how it all seemed fantastically exotic to a child growing up in a depressed city, let alone a small provincial town. Those who weren’t fortunate enough (in the days before the internet, when you really needed a gatekeeper:  a friend’s older sibling, or a sarky bloke in a record/video shop) to stumble across a suitable subculture remained in the world of leisurewear and consumption***. ‘We’ pitied them, or reviled them – in the 80s, they might have been casuals; in the 90s, they embraced the American tendency (not that they would necessarily have admitted this) and became ‘townies’. Later, with an added dose of arrogant, frightened bravado; ‘chavs’.

With this proselytising done on the ground, the modernisers had a more receptive audience to their attempts to reshape British sport.  The FA launched the Premier League in 1992, supposedly (charitably) in order to head off a breakaway by the leading clubs, and invited bids for exclusive broadcasting rights from pay-per-view as well as terrestrial channels. Sky TV, who had hitherto struggled to make an impression on the British market, narrowly won out (the anecdote goes that, with ITV’s final bid on the table, Spurs chairman and satellite dish salesman Alan Sugar left the room to make a phonecall. Not long after he returned, Sky upped their bid by just enough to win).

The aesthetic of those early Premiership years was a strange one. The footballers themselves were still distinctly 80s-looking – relatively skinny, legs unwaxed, wave haircuts, the odd survivor with facial hair. The grounds were, for the most part, in the same condition they'd been in for decades. The Sky presenters addressed us from rickety chipboard studios perched up in the gods of places like Boundary Park, in the age before stadia were designed with executive boxes and media suites as priorities. But the continuity viewers could see on their screens wasn’t the point. What they were told they were seeing was something new and revolutionary, year zero, a whole new era in sport.



Sky’s presentation was jarring, to begin with. In those first few weeks they showed us the ‘Sky Strikers’, a dancing girl posse in puffa jackets, who gamely went through their routines to near-unanimous baffled silence (folk memory suggests massed, hostile booing, but this doesn't come out in the clips), while inflatable Bart Simpsons careened around them. As for Sky’s actual game coverage, hyperbole ruled and negativity was verboten.  Andy Gray became a comedy routine staple for his heroic insistence that every single game was a thriller.

The 80s were hardly a golden era of kit design – Hummel and Umbro in particular were responsible for plenty of overdesigned horrors. But it was only in the Sky years that football kit manufacturers really began to push the boundaries of creativity. There was a tendency toward gimmicky colouring and detailing, on away shirts most of all. Forming a neat parallel with the wider cultural trend, this took root most easily at modest provincial clubs. Tranmere? Teal and purple diagonal halves. Hull? Tiger stripes.  Aston Villa (okay, not exactly provincial, but the Midlands were culturally quiet at the time) enjoyed a green and black striped effort with a big red yoghurt company logo on the front. Manchester United’s most famous kit of the era, the Newton Heath 1893 tribute strip, was hardly ahistorical, but still fit the template – gratuitous green and a lace-up collar. The team who were wearing these shirts were backed by an off-pitch media and marketing operation far beyond anything Spurs had tried to do in the preceding years.

By 95-96, it all seemed to fade away. At the Euros, the St George’s Cross replaced the old-Establishment symbol of the Union Jack, and England lost in the quintessential ugly, commercial away strip (supposedly chosen because it went well with jeans), leading a stampede back to more familiar designs. Outside football, too, the flood of tacky Americana into provincial Britain seemed to come to a halt. The conventional wisdom on the subject would hold that Britpop and the YBAs (and so on, and so on) restored our pride in our own cultural produce, while the subsequent election of a moderately pro-EU government resulted in a cultural turn from the distant west to our immediate neighbours to the east. Alternatively, more cynically, we could hypothesise that the modernisers became more savvy to their target market, trimming away the overtly American edges of their wares to appeal to British punters. There’s a figment of truth in these arguments. The music charts began to look more to Europe, two key late nineties trends being the cheesy Europop of the Vengaboys et al, and French House. The American-style building developments of 1997 onwards had more of a sensitive, European sheen (compare this Walmart-style big box http://www.flickr.com/photos/moldovia/4541916322/in/pool-1432312@N21/ with this http://www.flickr.com/photos/32723111@N04/3059927002/in/pool-1432312@N21/) – but these explanations still skirt over an uncomfortable truth.

Sky’s 1992 Premiership coverage struck everyone as needlessly American. Today’s equivalent – Sky rolling out their sponsored ‘Grand Slam Sunday' idents – is, if anything, more brash and overblown, but doesn’t carry the same feeling of otherness. Britain is like that now.  In the 1980s, the gap between American leisure culture and British ground zero was unbridgeable, partly because of cultures of resistance that still existed on the ground. In the early 1990s, the poles had moved closer together, but the juxtaposition was still striking. By 2000, the discontinuity had been completely smoothed over. Britpop’s claims of patriotic triumph couldn’t be more hollow. American leisure culture is now so seamlessly worked into our lives that we no longer notice it. The ‘Yanks’ didn’t go home. We met the enemy, and we were them.

*A common trope of the time was club chairmen who’d taken power on a raft of ambitious promises eventually turning against and publicly abusing their own fans, fairly explicitly blaming the supporters’ luddite mindlessness for the failure of their own ill-conceived schemes.

 **‘Wanda’ bore a not-quite-sequel – ‘Fierce Creatures’ – about a brash, know-nothing American business guru who takes over a ramshackle British zoo. This ‘slick but clueless American business moderniser’ character was an archetype in British comedy throughout the period under discussion.

 ***Confusingly enough, kids who did belong to a subculture spent their free time in most of the same places, but they made more of a show of not enjoying them.

Haruspex 93


Before a visible audience, observed more closely between acts (along with some 'backstage' banter that includes historical figures like Cosimo Medici, participating as both 'cast' and 'audience'), a morality play is performed in 17th century Italy during the counter-reformation: The Baby of Macon (1993), a land plagued by famine which hasn't seen a birth in years. Perhaps miraculously, an (unseen) ancient hag gives birth to a Baby in perfect health, and for this reason no-one believes the child to be hers. Her virgin Daughter (Julia Ormond) claims The Baby as her own divine progeny, acquiring an appropriate air of regality; and sells blessings to the desperate townspeople. Despite her fraudulent claim, the famine begins to end. The Church, represented by The Bishop (Philip Stone), are as resentful of her success as modern skeptics like The Bishop's Son (Ralph Fiennes). The latter is particularly insistent on proving The Daughter to be a fraud, his mechanistic views betraying an aggression towards female autonomy. She offers to prove her virginity to him by having sex. This is witnessed by The Baby, who orders a bull to disembowel the Bishop's Son. Covered in blood, The Daughter is blamed by The Bishop for his son's death. He then confiscates The Baby to exploit Macon with far more vigor than The Daughter did, who in turn suffocates her Baby to death. The Daughter is apprehended, but cannot be hung due to being a virgin. Her punishment is what led to most of the film's controversy or condemnation: The Bishop sentences her to be raped 208 times. 

At this point the diegesis separating ''actors' and 'audience' breaks down; calling into question how many earlier scenes should be considered part of the 'play'. Closing the curtains on the 'audience', The Daughter reminds her 'rapists' that "you don't have to act anymore - the audience can't see you". Realizing that this hasn't deterred them, she invokes the virginity she has in common with her 'character'. The camera backs away to explore the auditorium, but both theatre and cinema audience continue to hear her screams - for over ten minutes. Although unseen, it could be the most disturbing scene filmed by a very violent film-maker. Some of the audience cry out their objection to this 'scene', only to be reminded by a rapist that we should be grateful to hear this, as "most of us die in silence". Following the death of the Daughter, the Baby's corpse is dismembered by the Church (in very graphic detail). Every little piece of him is sold as a religious relic, but famine returns to Macon. Both cast (apart from The Daughter and The Bishop's Son, both 'really' dead) and audience bow to us and each other in several directions from several angles and we, the cinema audience, are left bewildered as to who is actually performing for whom. The film concludes as a vertiginous hall of mirrors; encouraging nausea, shock and confusion in equal measure. Does Greenaway intend to make us sick? And if so, why do so using this 'play within a play' conceit? Unlike The Draughtsman's Contract or Drowning By Numbers, its internal 'puzzle' stubbornly refuses any notion of 'fun'. And despite its characteristically ornate design, it takes serious issue with the notion of 'art' too.


Considered too oblique, ripe and indulgent by many, Greenaway’s films were broadly satirical tableaux of changes occurring in Britain from the 80s to 90s. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) allegorized how Thatcherism overthrew an impotent political establishment, while it seduced the skilled petit bourgeois, leaving the bigger picture ever-so-slightly out of frame. His painterly alienation effects (he trained as a muralist) were appropriate under a regime staging its leader’s image with obsessive attention, down to her rhythms of speech and every hair on her head. Drowning By Numbers (1988) approached the renegotiation of gender roles as a carefully manoeuvred Jacobean coup; domestic war played as a game of symmetry. His most widely-seen film, chiaroscuro noir The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) lampooned the national carve-up, a cannibalistic orgy that relentlessly butchered culture, utility, leisure, sex and labour into meat, served to the most ruthless appetites. Greenaway’s many visual quotes from the Renaissance allude to the murderous source of its innovations: The bourgeois project of primitive accumulation; a process echoed by neoliberalism, which hypnotically accelerated like the time-lapsed fruit punctuating A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). In this context, it's unsurprising that Greenaway’s Shakespeare adaptation would be his fable of primitive colonialism The Tempest.

Greenaway’s follow-up to Prospero’s Books (1991) had a severely limited release. This was the first Greenaway feature that wasn’t scored by Michael Nyman, who found a mainstream audience scoring middlebrow hit The Piano. The soundtrack Greenaway used wasn't so much minimalist as bare minimum. After performing in the film, Julia Ormond’s appearances became noticeably rare. Although audiences, critics and awards panels heaped acclaim upon Ralph Fiennes’ torture and murder of Warsaw Jews in Schindler’s List (1993), his performance in Macon is rarely mentioned. A mere four years after The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover topped several ‘year’s best’ lists, Macon either received angry denunciations or was ignored entirely. With the possible exception of the The Pillow Book (1996), starring then-hot Ewan MacGregor, the director’s career never quite recovered. Funding dried up and his place in ‘British Cinema’ was quietly scrubbed away, in the tradition of eccentric British auteurs like Michael Powell, Lindsay Anderson, Nicholas Roeg and Ken Russell. Greenaway retreated back into the world of fine art and further away from narrative.


Taking a minority opinion, The Baby of Macon may be Greenway’s best film. It's actually his least pretentious work, condensing previous themes with a wilfully grotesque, stark brutality. Its ‘play within a play’ scenario makes no attempt to distance the audience from the cruelties of its late Renaissance setting. It angrily mocks 'family values' and implies acting 'in gender' entails as much violence as its enforcement in reality. Framed with more immediacy than Greenaway’s earlier films, it has the effect of being more claustrophobic. Its ceremonial dialogue (filled with dirty jokes and endless, unanswered questions) only enhances the visual impact of its barbarity. It avoids the stale ‘angry young man’ routine of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), rejects the reconciliatory talent show of The Full Monty (1997), and spits in the eye of that cynical tableaux Heritage Britain (Cool Britannia’s stepfather). Its failure may be due to a misunderstanding – or outright rejection – of what it’s actually about. It isn’t simply a critique of religious hypocrisy, or the misogynistic hate-crime it was accused of being. It’s admittedly very difficult to watch – or indeed see now – but it offers the most caustic, lacerating view of modern Britain; carving up its performance of ideology, gender, morality and rule of law. It’s a relatively direct, topical interrogation of how the British political economy organizes ways of seeing: The reproduction of national narratives.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


On the 12th of February, 1993, two year-old James Patrick Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre, tortured, murdered and dismembered (left deliberately on a railway track to make it look like an accident) by two ten year-old boys. Before their arrest, another boy was questioned. Before police confirmed his innocence, his family had fled the city for fear of their lives. Within days of the murder, and before any charges were made, there had already been arson attempts on ‘suspect’ homes. Bulger’s abduction was caught on CCTV – at a time when it was becoming ubiquitous in public spaces – and released to the media. Witnesses who didn’t intervene seeing a visibly distressed and bruised toddler being dragged away by two children (who claimed to be relatives) gained brief press notoriety as the ‘Liverpool 38’. When the accused arrived for their first day at the Magistrate’s court, over five hundred people had gathered to ‘protest’. What they were actually ‘protesting’ remains unclear. The crowd did, however, attempt to seize the van in which the defendants were transported. I could offer an educated guess as to what their intentions were: The abduction, torture, murder - and probably dismemberment – of two children. To this day, there are campaigns (backed by ‘celebrities’ and the Murdoch press) demanding that the Home Office publicly release details of the murderers’ locations and identities. Again, we can guess why revealing this is would be in the ‘public’ interest. As a comparative experiment in emotional theatre, I suggest you bring up the name of Robert Black, to see if you get any response at all; that is if you actually remember him.


The murder generated a great deal of shock and ‘public’ revulsion. I put ‘public’ in inverted commas because those of us less enthusiastic about cruel and unusual punishment - or lynching - often find the safest option is silence. As is usual with hatred fuelled by moral panic, to simply remind Mr. & Mrs. Outraged UK of due process of law can be risky. Eighteen years later, pointing out legal irregularities in this case can provoke angry – sometimes violent – responses. Despite how the law was rapidly changed in response to this one crime, it has been repeatedly subject to unlawful activity by the media, judges and Home Secretaries. Not only does England have the lowest age for criminal responsibility in Europe, privacy laws protecting children have been diluted and deregulated, and the influence of government on court decisions far exceeds national security concerns. The Bulger murder was arguably the most important ‘peacetime’ case to shift the balance between family and government, childhood and adult responsibility, punishment and rehabilitation, government and judiciary. These shifts all sharply diverted from what most of us would consider ‘progressive’. At the very least, boundaries have become so blurred that they may have reversed dozens of reforms and safeguards from the preceding century.

Doli incapax – or, the assumption of limited responsibility on the part of minors - was deemed irrelevant by prosecuting barristers, and the court agreed. While new psychiatric theories and ‘profiling’ asserted priestly authority within education, social services and the courts – celebrated everywhere from trashy, exploitative detective show Cracker to trashy, exploitative horror movie The Silence of the Lambs – this legal innovation was confirmed with the Holy Writ of psychiatric opinion (backed with the prestige of BAFTAs and Oscars). That many judgements have been overturned after the discrediting of mystical nonsense like Satanic Ritual Abuse or Munchausen’s-by-Proxy, peddled by a cadre of ambitious frauds, is neither here nor there. Especially since ‘profiling’ has proven ever so handy for catching Scary Muslims. Noises were made – not least by the presiding judge - about the deadly influence of ‘video nasties’, in particular a film that neither defendant had actually seen: Child’s Play 3. This didn’t prevent the all-encompassing Criminal Justice Act of 1994 from including rules on the sale of videos to children. Despite CCTV being proven useless in preventing James Bulger’s death, it didn’t prevent demands for further surveillance. As is increasingly the case this century, moral panic granted the state further rights to enforce power over everyday life.


Home Secretary Michael Howard made several interventions in the case, the main one overruling the initial sentence; adding five years to the Lord Chief Justice’s additional two. Howard’s one-upmanship followed a petition led by those passionate advocates for children’s justice The Sun. This, when the Rt. Hon. Mr. Howard Q.C. personally intervened to drastically reduce the sentence of a notorious Welsh gangster; who just happened to be his cousin (look it up), while assisting with writs to bury its reporting. His actions regarding the Bulger case were later ruled illegal, by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights (a foreign body still posing an existential threat to Free Britannia). That the Home Office routinely ignores other petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures doesn’t diminish the value of those they don’t. Taking time out from flushing the economy down the toilet, Prime Minister John Major responded to the murder with a stirring speech, stating it was time we understood less and condemned more (a statement I couldn’t quite understand, to be honest). Democracy, like justice, happens wherever they ask us to look.

Bulger’s killers were tried as adult ‘monsters’, and special chairs were supplied so both were able to see over the dock. Neither child said a word throughout the trial. Impatient to ransack their life stories, journalists settled for detailed reporting of their demeanour during the trial; contravening (then) standard media law. Due to ‘overwhelming public reaction', the judge declared after sentencing that the condemned should have their names, photographs and biographical details open to public scrutiny. Over the following decades this scrutiny hasn’t ceased and, despite further relaxation of reporting restrictions, local and national newspaper editors continue to the flout the law regarding this case. It’s become something of a national obsession, everywhere from The Sun to the Guardian, BBC News to endless radio phone-ins. It’s notable how much ‘revelations’ about the murderers’ lives obsess over their bodies: travel, sexual activity, illness, ingestion of drugs or alcohol, physical scuffles. For all the constant demands in the name of ‘public interest’, the environments and social relations that actually form the basis of their lives remain strangely anonymous. To locate ‘evil’ is to situate it in limbo, outside nature and society, until Final Judgement.

Before, during and after the trial, ‘investigations’ into the Dark Heart of Liverpool – a city admonished for its ‘untamed’ volatility by central government legislation, Harry Enfield sketches and Neil Kinnock – filled column inches in every newspaper; much of it redefining material poverty as a moral wasteland in need of salvation. Bulger’s murder unleashed a distinctly suburbanized version of apocalypse porn, complementing a more settled metropolitan contempt for de-industrialized ‘heartlands’. Tony Parsons unfavourably compared Britain’s “tattooed jungle” to the house-proud, hard-working proletariat of his parents’ generation - that mythical working class that accepted its lot stoically and hygienically – in Arena, a magazine soon to abandon its urbane pretensions and adopt the reactionary kitsch of ‘new laddism’, a lucrative menu of militarism, mutilation and mammaries. In the absence of coherent government ‘vision’, new hegemonic designs were converging. Although Thatcherism was granted some blame for ‘moral decline’, a curious stew of thuggish nimbyism, theatrical psychobabble and morbid sentimentality gradually came to the boil: the paradigm of talk shows then starting to dominate daytime TV. Utilizing his ‘common touch’ (perfected mourning the People’s Princess) Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair seized an opportunity to give a sermon decrying the spiritual decay of the working class. Space restricts discussion of how his abduction, torture, murder and dismemberment of entire nations has in any way reversed this process. A re-emergent far right found common ground with the populist spin of New Labour and John Major’s Back to Basics campaign; all of which laid claim to our ‘genuine concerns’.

At the very least, the narrative of moral outrage demands instant reaction. As with any number of modern tragedies, cottage industries emerged from the wreckage; building careers, fuelling campaigns, redrafting clauses in the social contract, restructuring modes of emotional exchange, extracting ever more value from ‘genuine concerns’ - a piece for everybody. Consolidating the counter-reformation of the 80s, these moments of community cannibalism occur at levels of emotional flatulence once alien to this country; at least within living memory. I’m weary of indulging clich├ęs about ‘collective consciousness’, but I can’t help but view these outbursts of hysteria as attempts to fill a vacuum, only serving to create black holes from which no light escapes. Press terminology encloses ambiguity with violently totalizing language: Storm, Beast, Fury, Tragic, Shock, Pervert, Monster, Scrounger, Terrorist, Horror, Yob, Hero. Occasionally these definitions exchange places. But this isn’t just an issue of tabloids. Buried beneath layers of pseudo-scientific speculation, barbaric ignorance, moral bankruptcy, profitable opportunism, emotional theatrics and judicial spectacle lies the body of a child whose short life ended in ways we’ll never fully understand; or perhaps really want to. That many felt they could make sense of it by demanding more dead children belies a famine that's neither spiritual, moral or even material. It’s the nameless, deserted wasteland that lies between each and every one of us. Whether we’ll ever recognise it for what it is remains to be seen. But of one thing I’m certain: Sitting too close to the screen - or stage - can seriously harm your eyes. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

"I want to create a new chamber"


A false start and a misplaced sense of history every time.
A whole heap of middles.

NinteenNinetyFive Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version.


Part one: Hatchings and Smashings. Easy on my balls they fragile as eggs.
What kind of eggs? Cuckoo eggs! Monstrous offspring, huge. Bastard eggs of the next man, inserted in the nest in the dead of night, who's the father? Rick James? Teddy Pendergrass? Raised in a velvet basement and then unleashed to make hideous love to the world. You know that line from Beowolf? You know the one:
It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet.
Well that's part of this mythos. That's part of it. But you have to remember who's writing the story, what is being made absent. What I'm saying is that's just one opinion, and you best hear another.

I watched Jackie Chan do drunken monkey kung fu when I was just a boy but even then I knew there was more going on than was being presented. Those drunken kung fus are hard on your body, hard on your joints especially. Watch the man do his thing it's as beautiful as swallows, as beautiful as cream going into your coffee. Strange attractors. Things are pulled in one direction and as intensity rises somewhere else another part of the body seems to become the head, seems to now take the lead. Well drunken kung fu is anything but, it isn't the result of damaged nerves, it's clarity. Watch the man move and it's more like micro-metrologicical-hypersensitivity, points of pressure rise and fall all around him, pull him in complex swirls feeding back into one another. The other combatant thought he was the only other there, thought it was just subject and object but that isn't the case is it? The drunken master is not just looking at you, he's looking at it all, you're just one relatively intense area, just one moment-by moment assemblage pushing air and throwing off waste heat and eventually getting your ass beat down and all the while all those other zones are a swirling riot rushing from point to point (headless) and they are going to keep on shimmying, keep drawing the man in the dirty draws this way and that, dancing to something you (doubly) can't hear because you're knocked the fuck out. 

collapse

 
The Ol' Dirty Bastard, first record, and ninteenhundredandninetyfive.
Try and focus on a hole, an absence. In terms of a style to which there is no father there is no Oedipal lineage to dwell on (Compare and contrast with Masta “who?” Killa). The Beowolf quote is bullshit precisely because ODB is not against anything stylistically, it's not a reactionary dichotomy. I like that story you'd hear a lot in old interviews of around this time, something like “I mixed rapping with singing, […] and I can't sing”. It's the cuckoo egg switch again, swap one part of the arrangement for something else and then reveal that something else as a negative value, as a yawning nameless negation, a black hole in the next. Singing has no aim but to unleash [animal] becomings. The singing eats up the words around it, beautiful non-sequiters (more so than Ghostface), points popping up all out of phase becoming phonic noise, eating themselves and defecating the magpie rattle of vocal chords, eating themselves again and sucking in the guest verses of other Wu Tang members, give me the mic so I can take it away



 



I felt the earth tremble underneath my balls. Sitting down with a wine cup on the Wudang mountain, the one plate met the other plate and this zone of intensity increased bringing forth heat and shivering in continual self correction and this energy just has to realize itself as a creative force, forcing billions of tons of rock up into the cosmos for some people to one day build temples and dragon-head incense burners on and found a discipline that bonded that mountain to the body. The was no one path this could have gone, every moment was local, every tremble was a moment of creation, an unplottable complex series, the only thing predictable with any degree of accuracy is from this point right here to what might be the next point, one single vibration. Maybe best not predict at all, no pretence of a plan, awkward as the RZA trying to hold it all together pausing between every line and trying to carry over some semblance of order through sheer angry frustration. Maybe best just go with it.
Look at Russell Jones dancing like a sailor, leaning back off/
to the right the shoulders both/
up and slumped/
the eyes back in the skull, the spit on the lips/
that line through the shoulders like the boom on a ship/
swaying as the pressure drops/
somewhere out to sea as the boom arm swings round over that sailor's head/
as the boom swings back to knock that sailor/
in the back of the head and out over the side/
out to sea down into the port side wash (we haven't left the dock)/
hitting a rock/ 
and/
laughing bubbles back up to the surface all weightless and falling/
a honey Timberland slipping/
from one foot/
laces like linguine/
hung from the toe against gravity/
deep within the water exploding ordinances/
a lapping, wailing of molecular discordances/
Wudang son


Leaning back to the point of a fall, a hip out, a dinosaur rock n roll hip, the tremble comes down or maybe comes up. And then collapse. The violence of self-violence in a plane of immanence, communal infection I'm not saying I got it but nigga if I got it you got it.
[I had a whole paragraph here about the difference between the video for Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Sabotage from the year before. I couldn't get it to sit flat. Trying to explain how this video is a true carnival grotesque, whereas Sabotage is just the soft conservative cover of irony. One doesn't care and the other really does care. Like I said, it wouldn't lie down, so I sent it away. Shimmy Shimmy Ya is not a joke, that's for sure. It's a Swiftian hotshot.]


 
Part two: Heart of a dog (glands of the ol dirty doggy)

  I must succeed in endowing the parts of my body with relations of speed and slowness that will make it become dog, in an original assemblage proceeding neither by resemblances nor by analogy. 
That brief collision of participles that make up the body can become a changing process that acknowledges both the body and the brief collision of particles. A loose and formless delivery, a slack stance, images into sound, into a logos-less sound of childhood (Wu Tang is for the children) remember when you was young and you used to go a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aaaaaaaaaaaaaa [...] remember when you used to say who could do this the long[est]? Sound as matter, like a punch as percussion, like all relationships between men and women being based not on signs but on smells. Like that very relationship being an entity. The interface is an object itself with emergent properties not found in either part separately but accessed through an encounter with the material world.

When her feet walked across the floor/ 
without a smell/
but with a smell/
that you can smell/  
your own smell/
and you know that feet stink/
it got an aroma to it/
and you're calculating how her ass moves from side to side with that aroma/
and you know that it's aroma in that ass too, but you can lick that asshole too and you won't get no aroma/
but you know that the aroma exists/
and then you can kiss her neck and/
suck this and suck that/
lick that and lick that/
and you can, you can actually feel/
you can feel the prophecy of a woman being sexy/
called a sex object and a sex tool/
and a, a fine scandalous romantic most moveable object/
that a motherfucker couldn't even get/
if he didn't have a motherfucking woman/



The Ancient Earthly Anti-Oedipus




All italicized quotes are taken from Ol Dirty Bastard, Deleuze & Guattari or Seamus Heaney.