Scene(s) of the Crime

Walter Benjamin memorably observed that Eugène Atget photographed Paris like the scene of a crime.* Atget’s subject-matter was the Paris of the Third Republic, which built much of the city that tourists admire today. But as Benjamin knew, the Third Republic rose from the ashes of a short-lived workers’ utopia, and by continuing the modernization projects of the reactionary Second Empire, the Republic inscribed lasting changes on the French capital’s spatial order and demographics. Atget, nostalgic at heart, trained his lens on a disappearing world: small shops, humble dwellings and narrow medieval streets, the traditional haunts of Paris’ popular classes. In Atget’s photos, these cityscapes are completely deserted, as if the residents had vanished into thin air.

Perhaps all urban photographers are fated to document flux and transformation, even when, like Atget, their artistic mission is to remember and preserve. This irony is especially sharp in the case of Vancouver, where globalization and property speculators have recently upedended the city. A frenzy of home demolitions and large-scale construction projects has created an urban landscape of staggering inequalities: on the one hand, a rentier class of ultra-rich migrants, money-launderers, and property developers, as well as residents and petty landlords who reap unearned income from their spiking real estate values; and on the other, a downwardly-mobile working population displaced, evicted, heavily endebted, and generally downsized by runaway speculation. In such a context any photograph soon turns historical artifact.

A recent exhibition in Vancouver encapsulates these glaring contradictions by pressing art into the service of an oligarch’s vision of urban redevelopment. Titled “Fight for Beauty,” the exhibition claims to promote the arts in civic life, but serves essentially as an advertisement for Westbank, the powerful Vancouver property developer that mounted the show. In spite of withering reviews in the local press, Westbank extended the exhibition and launched a second blitz of self-promoting ads, underscoring in this way the belligerent thrust of the show’s central theme: “the fights that build cities and culture.”

The first exhibit in “Fight for Beauty” is a small color photograph by Fred Herzog, the well-known chronicler of Vancouver’s street life. Herzog’s modernist composition captures the stark symmetry of a dock’s buildings extending into the bay at sunrise, while the Marine Building’s ziggurat looms above, half obscured by haze. Herzog’s photos are typically bustling with activity; here, the image shows no human life. Empty as an Atget cityscape, the photo captures the scene of a crime.

90122

Elysium? (Fred Herzog, CPR Pier & Marine Building, 1953)

As narrated by Westbank’s founder, Ian Gillespie, Herzog’s photo portrays Vancouver’s Coal Harbor “before the very idea of the neighborhood had been formed.” The claim is peculiar, as it projects into the image a retroactive meaning, as if the developer’s as-yet unborn plans for Coal Harbor lay like a germ in the photo. Strangely, too, the developer’s “idea” of the neighborhood – an ultra-wealthy enclave with luxury hotels – erases the neighborhood’s prior existence, as if rebranding it could abolish the history that stubbornly clings to its name. For the developer, it seems, history presses forward like a force of nature, always benificent, turning coal into diamonds, and helpfully building interest on his investments. We learn from Gillespie that Herzog’s photo is from his own personal collection, and that it was shot on Herzog’s very first roll of film. This valuable rarity is perhaps the only thing the photograph shares with the rest of the exhibition.

Ballet; jewelry; couture fashion; a custom-made Fazioli grand piano: “beauty,” in Westbank’s curatorial vision, is unmistakeably construed as an accessory to wealth. Likewise, the developer’s contribution to urban design is a portfolio of ultra-luxury buildings, including the Shangri-La, “Where the living is easy,” a high-rise hotel and condominium tower planted amidst of a fresh crop of global luxury retail stores and across the street from Vancouver’s gleaming new Trump Tower.

Like these business ventures, Westbank’s notion of “beauty” has a strategic, rather than aesthetic function; it gives cover to class violence and dispossession by elevating the worthy intangibles of value over the mere vulgarity of price. In so doing, though, the company only reinforces its tacit identification with people for whom money is no object. Accordingly, the show’s brochure asks, “Since when have we learned the price of everything yet know the value of nothing?” – a question that somehow manages to be not only inane, but also wounded, plaintive and even vaguely threatening. For all that, however, the query is not entirely a non-sequitur, as it betrays the anger of threatened privilege stirred to righteous self-defense. And as an expression of defensiveness, the timing of “Fight for Beauty” seems no coincidence. The show, after all, was mounted at a time of vocal, organized, and occasionally successful protests against rising rents, displacements and evictions and after a slew of bad press prompted a tightening of regulations for Vancouver’s corruption-riddled real estate industry. “Fight for Beauty” also happens to close two days after the February 2 deadline for property owners to file Empty Home Tax declarations. Recent figures show that in a city with a less than 1% rental vacancy rate, as many as 1,000 houses are demolished every year, and upward of 25,000 homes in the city are currently empty or only temporarily occupied.

Version 2

Sociopath: Westbank’s “Vancouver House” project

Westbank’s “Fight for Beauty” may tell us nothing about art, but it speaks volumes about the world-view of plutocrats who, in Chrystia Freeland’s description, see themselves as “the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition” and constitute “a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen.”** The last point clarifies the yawning gap between Westbank and the local arts community, who countered the developer’s notion of civic beauty by pointing out that rising rents are displacing local working artists from the city. It also explains the tone of open contempt with which Gillespie refers to neighborhood anti-gentrification protests. Speaking, for instance, of development plans for the West End’s Lauren building, billed as “a luxury rental like no other in the neighborhood,” Gillespie heaps scorn on “the opposition,” a group of protesters he characterizes as “small, vocal, and sometimes violent,” underscoring the last word with a tone of lofty surprise and injury.

Version 2

Be afraid: Westbank scale model

Gillespie counts as a significant victory in his “fight for beauty” the public sculpture commissioned for the Lauren, titled “Triumph of the Technocrat.” Constructed out of reclaimed materials, the sculpture is, in Gillespie’s account, a “self-reflective critique of its own development and process of creation” — from which we can glean that the artist put some thought into it. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the developer’s words as mere verbiage, as they disclose hidden meanings in his account of the sculpture’s broader significance to “the surrounding community,” as he puts it. For Gillespie, the sculpture represents “the unseen mechanical process of development and land speculation impacting the surrounding community, drawing parallels between the role and complicity of all players in the development process.”

An oligarch’s entire social theory is sketched out here. If, on the one hand, the developer concedes that land speculation impacts the surrounding community, with all that the word “impact” implies of a violent strike, on the other, he seems to fold that community — including, presumably, protesters and activists — back into the process of development itself as complicit players. There is, apparently, something more encompassing than the “surrounding” community, something that surrounds and contains them in turn. That thing, of course, is Vancouver itself, a city run by billionaire developers and fueled by unregulated foreign capital. To live in the city is therefore to be complicit with its unchecked, runaway development, whether you agree with it or not.

Surprisingly enough, the oligarch’s social theory of general complicity lends support to Walter Benjamin, who suggested that all who participate in the city of crime are “culprits.” The claim comes in the specific passage where Benjamin speaks of Atget.

It is no accident that Atget’s photographs have been likened to those of a crime scene. But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit? Isn’t it the task of the photographer … to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? (“Little History of Photography,” 527).

Benjamin and the developer are only superficially in agreement, of course, as the former intends to prod the conscience of guilty citizens and prompt them to assume their political responsibilities. Gillespie, in contrast, sees all citizens as already inevitably subsumed in an unstoppable force of development, each of them contributing, in their own small way, to the accumulated wealth at the top of Herzog’s distant misty pyramid in the sky.

Gillespie has brashly adopted the term Gesamtkunstwerk as his company’s building ethos, despite the term’s socially-conscious significance in the German Bauhaus. And yet the word is somewhat appropriate to Westbank if translated as “all-embracing art,” for as the developer’s social theory suggests, plutocratic architecture can encompass all of social reality. It may appear contradictory that this architectural totality results in the plutocrats’ increasing distance from us, like the orbiting residents of happy Elysium. But the purpose of Westbank’s Gesamkunstwerk is not, of course, to house everyone — far from it — but instead to include us all in the economic logic that promotes and rewards spiraling inequality.

Public art itself, in Gillespie’s mind, is therefore the materialization of an all-embracing “complicity” that absorbs rival parties within the ineluctable process of gentrification. This can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his account of Stan Douglas’ famous photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. The monumental image, a major work of the Vancouver School, portrays the Gastown Riots, during which police brutally attacked and arrested protesting hippies. The composite photograph hangs in the atrium of Westbank’s Woodward’s building, at the very site of the riots themselves.

BOO_StanDouglas_2302

Stan Douglas, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971

Completed in 2009, the Woodward’s building was and remains controversial for initiating gentrification in Gastown and the neighboring Downtown Eastside. For Gillespie, though, Stan Douglas’ photo signifies all of the history of the period, from 1971 to the present, indiscriminately. Speaking of the Woodward’s redevelopment project, Gillespie says that Abbott & Cordova “perfectly represents what this project has been all along: a fight in 1971, and a fight all the way to 2009.” Although he refers to the riots as “a pivotal moment,” that moment is construed not as belonging to its own time and context, and with its own political aims, but instead as simply “defining Gastown’s current character,” as if it led ineluctably to the gentrified present. Westbank’s version of Gesamtkunstwerk  performs here its remorselessly totalizing logic: embracing all, yet excluding most everyone, evicting them even from history. We should imagine Douglas’ photograph vacated, empty and desolate, as haunting as an image by Atget.

“Fight for Beauty” closes this weekend.


*Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings: 1931-1934, 527.

**Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (London: Penguin, 2012), 5.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

200 Years of Frankenstein

She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Man’s only predator in the British Isles was now a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?

In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.

The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.

During her adult years the global climate gradually warmed. Glaciers stopped advancing. But it wasn’t until the year of her death, 1851, that they began their retreat.

*

Frankenstein is a work deeply embedded not only in history but in the climate and geology of its era. The novel’s dramatic opening and conclusion, and, notably, the entire personal account of the “monster” himself, take place in frozen locales. These settings of ice and snow are more than themes and symbols; they constitute the scientific matter of the novel, as much, if not more than, the story’s overt topics of chemistry, biology and physical reanimation. And as with those topics, Shelley’s fantastic imaginings of the Earth’s frozen latitudes are proving remarkable prescient.

Version 2

The novel’s opening pages relate Captain Walton’s passionate wish to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole. In the Captain’s first letter to his sister, his excitement leads him to describe the Arctic’s frozen wastes as a place of sunshine, beauty and delight. He goes so far as to say that in the North Pole of his imagination, “snow and frost are banished” – as if the curiosity he calls “fervent” and “ardent” were literally a heat-producing force of transformation.*

One measure of a classic text is that it discloses new meanings to different eras. Walton’s aim of “discovering a passage near the pole” may sound strangely familiar to a reader today. In the summer of 2016, the first luxury cruise liner traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route that had long been impassible, and, as recently as a decade ago, navigable only by icebreakers. Likewise for Russia’s northern sea route; last summer, a tanker made the first transit from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean.

Climate change, in other words, is turning Walton’s fervid dreams of an overheated Arctic into reality. Ironically, global warming is occurring fastest in the polar regions; scientists now expect the North Pole to be ice-free within a few decades. Shelley could hardly have anticipated these outcomes, though the connection she makes is far from coincidental. Captain Walton’s adventurous spirit is no doubt symbolic of a Goethian Romantic ziel, but the man also embodies the period’s abrupt leap forward in science and the technologies of transportation. As such, Walton and his scientific ambitions personify a force whose environmental costs are now coming due. That earth-altering force is the European Industrial Revolution, whose opening act, variously dated from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, overlapped with the end of the most recent ice age.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Das_Eismeer_-_Hamburger_Kunsthalle_-_02

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice (1823–1824)

Shelley clearly dramatizes the destructive force of Frankenstein’s scientific work in the young doctor’s blind ambition, his reckless experimentation, and his heedless irresponsibility to the creature of his making. What was merely allegorical in Shelley’s time has now become our sorry reality, however; to cite only one recent example, an investigative article by Reuters exposes the “horror movie” character of the commercial trade in body parts. But the everyday banalization of Shelley’s horror theme should not obscure the contemporary relevance of her cautionary tale, whose moral implications can be seen most clearly in the man-made predicament of climate change: a crime against nature that may warrant the name of “sin”; the unleashing of an unstoppable destructive agency in inhuman form; and, in what the World Economic Forum blithely calls the “upside” of catastrophe, a melted North Pole that will yield new profits for commercial transport.

Captain Walton sees in Victor Frankenstein a kindred spirit, and Shelley reinforces the symmetry of their burning passions when, at the end of the novel, Victor relates the “fervour” of his pursuit as the “monster” leads him northward and into the Arctic. “I resolved not to fail in my purpose,” says Victor, “and calling on heaven to support me, I continued with unabated fervour to traverse immense deserts, until the ocean appeared at a distance.… Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness.”

As Victor considers the rigors of an arctic journey, he becomes a man entirely consumed by destructive rage. “At the idea that the fiend should live and be triumphant,” Victor says, “my rage and vengeance returned, and like a mighty tide, overwhelmed every other feeling.”

Once again, as with Walton, Shelley insists on the burning force that drives Victor on. “I have endured misery which nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within my heart could have enabled me to support. Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction. But again the frost came and made the paths of the sea secure.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Caspar David Friedrich, study for The Sea of Ice (1821)

 

Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, links Victor to the Greek deity who created man and stole fire to give it to humanity. In light of the latter theme, it is significant that Victor’s voyage ends with the break-up of the sea ice, as if, like Walton, his burning passion can melt the frozen landscape. Accordingly, Victor’s last vision of the Arctic is not one of frozen desolation but of water and melting ice. The doctor ends his journey north on a drifting ice floe, like a stranded polar bear — a ubiquitous metonym in the press and social media for the polar environmental crisis. If, then, the last words of Victor’s narrative might seem overwrought today in their romantic excess, one might instead imagine them as capturing the desperate anguish of an apex predator threatened with extinction:

A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished; in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice that was continually lessening and thus preparing for me a hideous death.


*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction

American Carnage

I’m so ambitious / I’m looking back

— David Byrne, “The Book I Read”

Right-wing minds betray a constant paradox: their passion for capitalism is matched only by their nostalgia for the very world that capital destroys. In Donald Trump this contradiction is pushed to an extreme. Economic damage calls for more destruction; suffering warrants further punishment. The dark vision of “American carnage” on Trump’s inauguration day was quickly followed by a rollback of regulations that hit Main Street with especially nasty force.

The contradiction between backward-looking conservatism and headlong development has now arguably reached its terminal impasse. By favoring tax cuts and big business over climate protection the Trump administration has put the lie to right-wing calls to return to an earlier time, to rebuild the economy, to make America a great white ethno-state againThis is because the denial of climate change winds a clock that can’t be turned back. History, known for its fits, starts and reversals, now runs on fast-forward only. For climate scientists, the watchword of this awful predicament is irreversibility.

Life will get worse and there’s no going back: if this stark message has failed so far to rule our days, it’s because we’re used to coping with the rising costs of progress. The tax cuts passed by the Senate today will surely increase those familiar hardships. The difference now is that our collective delusions of profit and security are troubled by our fast-widening distance from the homeostatic past. In this way, we’re like the characters in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: looking back with regret at the world we’ve left behind, unwilling to face the future — and unaware that we’re already dead.

*

Lincoln in the Bardo is a treatise on irreversibility. The novel is anchored in a painful, lovestruck sense of irremediable loss. Like all great works of art, the book feels not only important but necessary. One might say timely, but it’s not clear what the word means to the untimely present. In Bardo’s Lincoln, Saunders gives us a head of state whose soulful anxiousness at the start of the Civil War is strangely suited to the man’s crushing historical responsibility. This topic can’t fail to move today’s readers with renewed wonder and horror at what we’ve suddenly lost over the past year. We face crises much greater than Lincoln’s, but we do so at a time when willful malice occupies the White House, language and truth are martyrized daily, and a government of vandals lays us open to disasters without end.

Obviously these problems have been a long time coming, but a cynical view of the past may underestimate the moral value of stubborn, agonized and desperate nostalgia, the reigning condition of Saunders’ main characters. Bevins, a young gay man thwarted in love, is in thrall to vivid yet chaotic images of earthly beauty — a stammering, captive Whitman. His regular companion, Vollman, knew a single night of perfect bliss before losing his wife and home. As they understand it (poorly), Bevins and Vollman succumbed to the same ailment and were confined to “sick boxes,” they say. At night, though, they can climb out of the “boxes” to share their grief and perplexity with the other captive residents of Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC.

Like these characters, Lincoln is unable to give up what he has recently lost. The night after the funeral of his young son, the president can’t help returning to the cemetery, where his desperate love drives him to remove Willie from the crypt to hold his body again. To the watchful ghosts Bevins, Vollman and others, this remarkable act of devotion — a “miracle” in their eyes — suggests that they, too, are perhaps not unloved, that they may not be unwelcome after all in “that previous place,” as they confusedly call the world of the living. Amazing also to the ghosts, Lincoln stays late into the night at the cemetery, and during a second visit to his son’s crypt, the distinguished revenant’s mind Version 2is host to many curious phantoms, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln becomes legion, and on his way home, one of the ghosts, a black man, rides with the head of state into the dark and uncertain future.

The theme of metempsychosis allows Saunders to display his marvelous gifts of empathetic character portrayal, familiar to readers of his short stories. In this novel, Saunders’ first, the writer’s empathy takes literal form in the ghosts’ visitations of Lincoln’s mind and each others’ troubled spirits. The ghosts know each other’s life stories verbatim and often complete each other’s sentences, having heard everyone’s litanies of desire and regret thousands of times. This makes their condition tiresome, but the ghosts are fiercely proud of their persistence; they’re determined not to abandon the world they remember, and they even deny they are dead.  When a newly-buried civil war soldier emerges from the grave and opts for the afterlife, the ghosts furiously desecrate the “sick-mound” he has left behind. Vollman, observing the scene, explains with scrupulous care that they do this “not out of meanness, for there is no meanness in them; but rather from excess of feeling.”*

The episode suggests an allegory of historical remembrance, albeit one almost saintly in its forgiving empathy. We see an equally suggestive “excess of feeling” in the gruesome image of a soldier on the battlefield who has quite literally spilled his guts. Saunders yields the pen to historical testimony, and cites directly:

I had never seen a dead person before. Now I saw my fill. One poor lad had frozen solid in the posture of looking down aghast at his wound, eyes open. Some of his insides had spilled out and made, there on his side, under a thin coat of ice, a blur of purple and red. At home on my dressing table was a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and this fellow looked like that, only his bulge of red and purple was lower and larger and off to one side and him gazing at it in horror (153).

The “thin coat of ice” covering the ghastly wound of the soldier echoes the “placental sheen” that begins to cover Willie’s ghost, threatening to trap the boy’s spirit forever in the cemetery. Bevins and Vollman make it possible for Willie to finally pass on to the afterlife, and Willie, in turn, disabuses them of their delusion of returning to the world of the living, having learned from his father that they are all, in fact, dead. Saunders’ vision of American carnage ultimately leads to redemption and renewal.

**

We might fault Saunders’s novel for offering a moral that, despite its Buddhist echoes, reinforces familiar Christian motifs of purgatory and salvation (“Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the liminal state between death and rebirth). More generously, we could say the book is conflicted on this score. When Vollman complains that “the architect of this place” has judged that a child’s wish to to stay in the cemetery is “a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” it is as much the author as the “architect” who can be faulted for the injustice. For it remains unclear why, in this fictional moral universe, it is wrong for the adults “to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here,” as Vollman, Bevins and others do. Saunders puts a thumb on the scales by making many of the ghosts’ characters flawed in some way, but this only exacerbates the moral conundrum. The case of Elson Farwell, a former slave, is instructive. Buried among the poor and criminal class in a common “sick-pit,” Farwell holds fast to the desire to go back and massacre every member of the family that owned and abused him, wife, children and baby included — a wish that should hardly be the cause of a reader’s reproof. It might instead serve as a model of moral justice.

Elson’s apparent “sin” is as fictional and deluded as the idea of his “sickness.” Likewise, by holding to what remains irreparable in history, Black justice may not turn back the hours, but it often faces counterclockwise. So too do socialism and ecological justice, which look back today at our lost best chances; for ten years now it has been “too late” to stop a warming world. At a time when the current president sows discord and makes good on his vision of “American carnage,” we can glean a different lesson from the ghosts’ insistence on returning to the past. To stop time in order to “reverse it,” as Bevins says, may not be to indulge in conservative bad faith or deluded nostalgia. Instead, it would be to commit ourselves to the impossible and to acknowledge what is truly hopeless in our present state.

Version 2

***

Postscript: On December 20, the U.S. Congress passed the Trump tax reform bill. It was disturbingly warm in D.C.; people were lunching outdoors in Georgetown. The mild weather underscored the bill’s lurking threats: under cover of a gift to all, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was poised to supercharge economic inequality, and, by burdening the state with a huge deficit, virtually guaranteed draconian cuts to future social services. The tax bill’s biggest losers, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, were thus assured further suffering in the coming years. But a government downsized by revenue cuts also guaranteed worsening life prospects for all social classes: the state, crippled in its regulatory functions, would be unable to rein in end-game capitalism and accelerating climate change. It was easy to imagine these social, economic and climatic conditions prompting the civil conflicts presaged by Omar El Akkad’s novel American War.**

I chose to mark December 20 with a visit to Oak Hill Cemetery. It felt like a spring day — a spring without birds, flowers, or the slightest hint of color. On North Hill, a child lay under a stone slab, featureless. Nothing moved. The place was empty. In the tepid hush it seemed like time was set on pause.


* George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 140.

** Omar El Akkad, American War (New York: Knopf, 2017).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction

Fresh hell

One can’t help notice a bad grammar mistake, but it doesn’t set off an alarm until you hear it again. With repetition the error becomes the verbal equivalent of a sin; but what then of the first transgression, you wonder, and where does the fault lie if it exists only in the plural? Meanwhile, undeterred by your moral troubles, the locution spreads, becomes commonly accepted; you wonder if it might enter the dictionaries. You wonder, that is, how low we can go.

“Downfall.” The word is increasingly used to mean drawback, presumably by association with downside. “The only downfall was the bathroom,” says a restaurant review on Yelp. “The only downfall is the service,” says another. In a Seattle hotel review, “the only downfall” was urine on the sheets of “one of our beds.” When so much can go wrong, it seems that a lone downfall, or a single soiled bed, can be a blessing. In this way, mentioning a “downfall” can emphasize an overall success. Out of sheer scrupulousness, apparently, a patron of La Quinta details her frustration with the hotel’s excessively soft pillows. “Nonetheless,” she cheerily concludes, “that was the only downfall!”

Since “downfall,” in its proper sense, signifies a uniquely terrible and often terminal ruination, its use in these cases can be judged hyperbolic, while the adjective “only” seems entirely redundant. But this is where the word’s new usage parts company with its staid cousin. The chorus of downfalls in our current vernacular suggests that ruination is in fact common and ordinary; the word “only” implies that the downfall in question is Version 2just one among many potential or even infinite possible downfalls. Other phrases suggest the same: the ever-relevant “new low,” for instance, and the increasingly popular “fresh hell” — as in the phrase (rhetorical question? Or not?) what fresh hell is this? Grammar prescriptivists may scoff, but who can deny the aptness of these phrases in a time when every low point turns out to be a false bottom, like a trap door to endless stacked gallows?

A book written by Christian Marazzi in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis implies as much by predicting “repetitive downfalls” in the world economy: “Over the course of 2009, and beyond,” says the author, “we will witness the succession of a false recovery, a hiccups movement in the stock exchange followed by repetitive downfalls.”* Marazzi’s volume includes a handy appendix, titled “Words in Crisis,” that lists the key terms of contemporary financial jargon. But the language of the analysis itself, including “repetitive downfalls” and “hiccups movement” seems to be symptomatic of crisis too, its stuttering awkwardness the sign of a hurried attempt to catch up with careering events — unless it is due to the translator, who we imagine (why not?) as harried, wretched, underpaid, no doubt desperate to keep to her deadlines and obligatory word count? Whatever the case, the prognosis of “repetitive downfalls” in The Violence of Financial Capitalism lends support to Colin Crouch’s insight that following its apparent demise, neoliberalism now persists in a weird state of continual “non-death,”** as well as the grim prognosis of “permanent economic collapse” that David Wallace-Wells says is our likely fate on an increasingly overheated planet. More recently, an ominous editorial by Eugene Robinson points to “a succession of new lows” in U.S. politics and darkly predicts that “the worst is yet to come.”

As a complex of overdetermined meanings, then, “the only downfall” is a culturally valid expression. It contains a host of social and economic anxieties and is therefore “crucial enough to pass along,” as a film critic says of horror’s infectious appeal.*** Google the words “only downfall” and your first hit is likely to be a popular and widely-shared quote signed r.h. Sin: “The only downfall of having a good heart is that you’re constantly looking for angels inside of demons.” The quote suggests that the word “downfall” may have migrated from its standard meaning, glomming new ones in the process, but still remains close to the source: Sin’s “downfall” unmistakably suggests Lucifer’s fall and man’s degraded state.

No joke, then; no mistake; no exaggeration. Wordsmiths at the blast furnace, our amateur linguists who labor pro bono on Yelp, Twitter, and interminable comment threads may be right to complain. They say we’re in hell, and glad “nonetheless” that our punishment is “only” this bad, that it’s “only” a few degrees warmer, and it’s “only” just begun.


*Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Kristina Lebedeva, trans. (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2010), 11. It is noteworthy that the later edition of the book, translated by Lebedeva and Jason Francis McGimsey, substitutes “downturns” for “downfalls” — a translation no doubt more grammatically accurate but less symptomatically true to the crisis of the writing. Indeed, the previous “error” might be said to be closer to the events the book reconstructs (the start of the Wall Street crash) as well as those of the author and his translator, both suffering its immediate aftermath. Accordingly, a truer historical account of the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis might be best pursued not in the field of economics but in close reading — specifically, close reading of significant errors, including the word “downfall.” What justifies this foray of literary analysis into the study of contemporary finance? We have seen that the word “downfall” is laden with an implicit knowledge of the socio-political conditions of the present. Further, grammatical errors, due to their dense overdetermination of meanings, are close to poetic expressions in their semantic complexity, and thus to artistic expression more generally. As a result, Argentine author César Aira’s theory of interpretation can be brought to bear on the socio-economic historiography of our recent past. Indeed, Aira’s theory of historical reconstruction, according to which “art … permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged” is the only theory capable of approaching the time-frame of financial trading, whose complex operations, like dreams, can occur in mere nanoseconds. In this way, interpretation can yield results a great deal more concrete than linguistic meanings and mathematical figures, even if the reconstructed “particles of reality,” in their increasing detail, tend ineluctably toward the impalpable. As Aira says, “The course of events that preceded the composition [of the work of art] can be deduced from the text, in ever greater detail, as one reads it over and over again. Perceptual data is recovered in this way, but also psychological binding elements, including memories, daydreams, oversights, uncertainties and even subliminal brain flashes. The treatment of the external conditions should be similarly inclusive: the succession can be progressively enriched with particles of reality, down to the subatomic level and beyond.” See César Aira, Varamo, Chris Andrews, trans. (New York: New Directions, 2012), 45, 44.

**See Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

*** James B. Twitchell, cited in Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 11.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Diction

Brutalism Revisited

The Sirius building is a social housing complex in the Rocks district of central Sydney. The Lego-like Brutalist structure has been lauded by architects and residents since its opening in 1980, but rising real estate prices have lately put it in the crosshairs of redevelopment. Today only a few tenants remain; the building is slated for demolition.

Over the past year community groups and architects lobbied to protect the Sirius with heritage status, but the New South Wales Government opted to cash in on the land’s high value, citing profits that could be spent on social housing projects elsewhere. In so doing, however, the Government tacitly sanctioned the gentrification process, condemning the Sirius’ low-income residents to banishment from the city center and erasing a monument to social welfare and inclusive urban planning. Born of labor strikes and community organizing in the 1970s, the Sirius embodies an egalitarian ethos in its identical concrete modules and generous common spaces, values casually dismissed by the Finance Minister, who recently tweeted, “if you need a PhD in Architecture to ‘appreciate’ the #Sirius building, then it’s clearly not a building for the people.”

In retrospect, the Sirius’ opening date of 1980 seems fatefully symbolic: the year is commonly seen as the start of the neoliberal era. Its pending demolition is no less significant, as it coincides with what may be that era’s nasty, fitful demise. Similarly, the Finance Minister’s arrogance harks back to Thatcherism, while his faux-populist attack on so-called “elites” echoes a fascist strain in contemporary governance. In the Sirius debacle we can see neoliberalism’s end game, its last-ditch raid on the commons and public wealth. No wonder Brutalism is having a resurgence of interest lately; buildings like the Sirius look increasingly utopian and retro-futurist in our disenchanted glass-and-steel cityscapes.

Before, that is, they fall to the bulldozer.

*

Sydney is ranked as the world’s second most unaffordable city; Vancouver, BC comes in a close third on that unfortunate list. Like Sydney, Vancouver has widening social inequality due to skyrocketing land values, and as in Sydney, the real estate trade in luxury homes is causing a loss of heritage structures and a crisis in social housing. Meanwhile, as market force disrupt public education, large-scale campus redevelopment projects mirror the Sirius controversy; privatization at the University of British Columbia is leading to the the demolition and remodeling of Brutalist structures, once a defining feature of the school’s built environment. As a result, a tour of UBC’s Brutalist architecture is like a visit to the fast-receding recent past.

wp_20170208_13_37_55_pro

UBC’s Museum of Anthropology was designed by Arthur Erickson and opened its doors in 1976. The building is as impressive as its setting. Tall windows provide views northward of forested islands and mountains; the landscaped grounds drop off abruptly to the sea. The museum’s grand architectural motif of concrete pillars and cantilevered crossbeams echoes the totem poles and post-and-beam structures of the Northwest Coast First Nations. As the University pursues a master plan of so-called “transparency” in new campus buildings, the MOA stands as a dignified reminder that Brutalist concrete and glass are far from incompatible.

The Museum of Anthropology is built on the site of three WWII battery gun emplacements, one of which is incorporated into a circular gallery. An attentive visitor can make out the concrete foundation of battery gun #3 on the west side of the museum’s main hall. Two searchlight towers still stand on the shore below the museum.

Version 2

This convergence of Brutalism and bunker architecture at the Museum of Anthropology is highly suggestive. The same year as the MOA opened to the public, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris mounted an exhibition of photographs of WWII bunkers, which were published with an accompanying theoretical treatise by the photographer, Paul Virilio, as Bunker archéologie.

Virilio, a professor of architecture, saw military bunkers as a testimony to the radical transformation of modern space-time by the threat of “total war.” He claimed that a certain “poetry” inheres in the bunkers’ obsolescent principles of armored defense, deriving as they do from the pre-nuclear age of artillery. By the war’s end those principles would be wholly invalidated, and along with them, any idea of security and protection in the civil sphere, too. “The bunker,” Virilio says, “is the protohistory of an age in which the power of a single weapon is so great that no distance can protect you from it any longer.”*

Looking back at Virilio’s 1976 exhibit, we recognize that similar feelings of fear and regret color our view of Brutalism today: nostalgia for an age of welfare and social security, a world in which public institutions, including universities, could still defend against the market and finance capital. From the perspective of globalization’s discontents, Brutalism can appear almost naïve, its confident structures unwittingly vulnerable. Like the bunkers, then, Brutalism is protohistorical: its heyday already anticipated our age of homogenized, globalized, transnational space.

Version 2

These historical contradictions are expressed in Brutalism’s language of design as a play of contrasts: solidity and absence, weightlessness and bulk. At the MOA’s southwest corner, a jutting shape frames a rectangular void, a zen garden among the cedars. The concrete’s bold horizontal levitation contrasts with the forest’s randomly-spaced tree trunks and wayward branches. Massive as it is, however, the concrete wall reminds us that it plays a modest role no different than any other construction material: to host the transitory and contain the intangible. Here, the stark contrast between immateriality and bulk exacerbates the contradiction, challenging the massive material to yield further, to withdraw, to aspire in spite of itself to sheer abstract form.

Across the street at the Peter Wall Institute, a high-ceilinged dining lounge opens onto a secluded garden and a pond bordered by concrete patios. With its long horizontal planes, deep overhanging roofline and seamless articulation of indoor and outdoor space, the lounge and its garden evoke a touchstone of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. UBC’s Brutalist reimagining of the 1929 Pavilion accentuates the Bauhaus building’s cantilevered concept by substituting a massive concrete block for Mies’ long, slender lid.

wp_20170206_11_23_19_pro-1

 

The Barcelona Pavilion was inspired by traditional Japanese architecture. A visitor to the Peter Wall lounge can take the measure of the Brutalist building’s Eastern heritage by visiting the nearby Nitobe garden’s simple, elegant tea house, an ethereal structure of wood, straw, bamboo and paper. With the tea house in mind, Brutalist bulk gives way to abstraction, and spatial volume becomes nearly palpable, like a sculpture shedding its mould.

We might even trace the architectural sources of the Peter Wall lounge further back still, and imagine the concrete structure “not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered,” as Lévi-Strauss said of a Bororo village in Brazil. To the visiting anthropologist, the delicate yet monumental Bororo houses seemed more like clothing than edifice. Interestingly, his ethnographic descriptions confirm Virilio’s insight into the fragility of fortifications: the houses, Lévi-Strauss said, were “like a light, flexible suit of armour, closer to Western women’s hats than to Western towns.”** The anthropologist’s descriptions serve to illustrate his larger argument that built space reflects social structure, that is to say, the intangibles of language and community. At the Peter Wall lounge, students can have lunch along with professors and residents on fellowship; but nothing keeps a campus visitor from enjoying the space, too.

Version 2

 

The Peter Wall Institute includes residences for visiting scholars that have large windows and balconies with sweeping views of Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains. This longstanding gesture of hospitality to scholars was recently retracted, however; the Institute has reclaimed the upper floor spaces for administrative offices. Elsewhere at UBC, similar shifting priorities are transforming the role of Brutalist buildings in social and academic life.

Version 2

 

The Walter Gage student residences date from 1972. The Brutalist complex includes three tall towers with grand views of mountains and sea. From lower levels, however, that perspective has become more restricted as UBC has monetized the natural view. An anomaly at a public university, UBC includes an enclave of luxury private houses, townhomes and condominiums within the academic campus core. These expensive properties now stand betwp_20170206_09_39_01_proween the midcentury dormitories and the mountain views. Planted at the heart of the luxury neighborhood is the imposing granite-clad School of Economics, whose ersatz Oxbridge crenellated tower provides a fitting backdrop for the residents, evoking as it does an era of educational class privilege. Moreover, the building’s idea of fortification is so antiquated that, inverting the meaning of Virilio’s bunker archeology, it relegates the idea of danger to the domain of myth.

The contrast is striking: on one side of Walter Gage Road, the Brutalist complex; on the other, picture windows, granite cladding, generous balconies and vast penthouse terraces. UBC touts the revenue it gains from its real estate sales, but a glaring contradiction remains: ownership of a view home on the “public” university campus is the sole privilege of the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile, UBC is launching a new venture to address student affordability problems: “nano” apartments currently in development will offer 140 square feet of living space — exactly twice the minimum standard size of an American prison cell. These tiny dorms will stand well back from the views next to the university bus exchange on the far side of the Brutalist dormitories.

Version 2

 

Buchanan Tower is perhaps the starkest exemplar of Brutalism on the UBC campus. Inspired by an Arthur Erickson building in downtown Vancouver, Buchanan Tower is commonly judged unattractive, but its uncompromising grid of identical windows is the physical sanction of an egalitarian ideal: no penthouse, no corner offices. We might conjecture, then, that it is not so much Buchanan Tower’s starkness as its outmoded ideals that make the building “an object of disgust,” as Virilio said of the bunkers, in contrast to the pleasure commonly afforded by “transparent and open civilian architecture.” In this light, a negative judgment of the tower could be seen as a moral failing rather than a mere lapse of taste.

The recent film High-Rise displays a similar error of judgment by making an emphatically Brutalist apartment building the virtual protagonist in a social allegory of dystopia and class warfare. With its domineering architect residing atop the tower in a luxury home and social classes ranked below on corresponding floor levels (the working class tellingly omitted, however), the building’s spatial ethos is clearly more representative of globalized neoliberalism’s luxury towers than Brutalism. In an interview, the director of High-Rise claimed that his intention was not to discredit 50’s and 60’s architecture, but in so doing he made a telling aside. “I went to Vancouver for the first time and stayed in a tower block, with me being slightly prejudiced against tower blocks, and this thing was really beautiful,” the director said. “Everyone lives in these tower blocks,” he continued, “and they’re all alright, that kind of condo, and this is seen as the height of luxury.”

Needless to say, the director’s vision of Vancouver is singularly blind to the violent dystopias fostered by such “beautiful luxury.” What better symbol of the social cost of luxury than Vancouver’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, due to open the 28th of this month? In a sorry confirmation of the victory of the oligarchs and the corresponding demise of Brutalism, the glass and steel Trump Tower was designed by none other than Arthur Erickson.

*

All Brutalist architecture owes a debt to the visionary apartment design of Le Corbusier, the Unité d’habitation, first constructed in Marseille in 1952. On an architectural tour of that building some years ago, this writer was hosted by a resident who had lived there happily for decades. The old woman firmly expressed the wish that she would never have to leave her pleasant, stark modernist apartment. Was she afraid of eviction? That she might outlive the building — or even Brutalism itself? I didn’t ask. But I remember how she put it: “I hope I die here.”


*Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 46.

**Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 215.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reading the Neoliberal University

In the 1998 film Dark City, a race of aliens in human form control a noir metropolis where the sun never rises. The minds of the city dwellers are constantly manipulated, like the cityscape itself, which is rearranged as they sleep. “The rich get richer,” says the sinister Dr. Schreber, as he injects a sleeping couple with a memory-altering drug; meanwhile, the aliens, pursuing their lab-rat studies of human behavior, quickly transform the couple’s modest tenement: the building morphs, bulges, and changes into a vast luxury home.

Dark City provides a startling vision of urban spaces molded at will. Buildings rise out of nowhere, twisting and groaning into a crowded sky; in one chase scene, the protagonist scales an accordion-like staircase that pulls up and away from him, a shot that cites the dizzying dolly zoom from Vertigo. But the use of Hitchcock’s psychic motif to convey a literal warping of space points to Dark City’s major weakness, what we might call a puppet-master theory of power and politics. Even when the hero defeats the aliens, using their power to “tune” the cityscape, the film promotes the idea that politics is the emanation of power from a single controlling source. Convenient as if may be to think so, politically and plot-wise, something as complex as a modern city can hardly be the plaything of a central malevolent force.

Or so we used to think. In today’s financialized, securitized, hypercapitalist cities, something akin to Dark City’s nightmare vision is taking place. Power is more centralized and money more concentrated in a global oligarchic ruling class. Democracy itself, that old urban invention, is in retreat everywhere, and Foucault’s idea of “micropolitics” seems to lose much of its relevance. New, cruder forms of brutality and demographic control speak to a reversion from the complex modalities of foucaultian discipline to the heavy hand of sovereign punishment. Saskia Sassen, the sociologist and urban studies scholar, has suggested that this mutation in the field of politics is most visible in those places where power is most highly centralized, the world’s global centers.

Historically, the oppressed have often risen against their masters. But today the oppressed have mostly been expelled and survive at great distance from their oppressors. Further, the “oppressor” is increasingly a complex system that combines persons, networks, and machines with no obvious center. And yet there are sites where it all comes together, where power becomes concrete and can be engaged, and where the oppressed are part of the social infrastructure for power. Global cities are one such site.*

With its evictions, rising rents, luxury developments and skyrocketing land values, Vancouver, British Columbia exemplifies Sassen’s diagnosis of the contemporary “global city.” And at this Pacific Rim city’s westernmost edge a satellite metropolis is fast emerging at the University of British Columbia. UBC has witnessed a breakneck pace of construction in the past five years; more than a dozen new buildings have been completed in that time along with a half-dozen major renovations and a university-wide landscaping project that has reshaped gardens, plazas, walkways and transit stations throughout the campus core. The sky above UBC bristles with construction cranes; at mud level students and faculty run mazes between building sites and excavations that seem to appear overnight. Meanwhile, apartment and condominium towers rise from the forest on the edge of campus, and adverts at Wesbrook Village promise that “Everyone can live at UBC.” A disturbing thought – surely they mean “anyone”? But the slip is telling, as the University’s growth ambitions seem to have no limit.

Approaching Vancouver’s UBC campus via University Boulevard, visitors are greeted by eight-foot block letters spelling the school’s initials in gleaming stainless steel, a logo more suggestive of a business park than a public university. These three letters pose our first interpretive challenge as we visit the campus. How to read them? The sign turns each letter into an imposing object, while at the same time evacuating all interiority in a play of surface reflections. Both vacuous and brash, the sign achieves a kind of linguistic aphonia characteristic of UBC’s marketing language and managerial speak.

Version 2

In 2015, UBC announced it would raise international student tuition by a whopping 37%. Six years earlier, in the midst of a budget crisis, UC President Mark Yudof proposed a similarly draconian 32% tuition hike for local California students. Yudof justified his move with the notorious statement that “the shine is off” public education. Does UBC’s gleaming logo mean to suggest otherwise? Or does it, rather, confirm what happens to public universities when student fees are increased? The case of UBC’s southern neighbors is instructive: with rising tuition, the core principles of access and affordability are undermined, and along with them the democratic premise of the “public” university; students, indentured to loans or obliged to work their way through school, are forced to view their education as vocational training; the drift away from state financial support and the taxpaying public separates the school from social accountability; and the use of private funding imposes market logic on the school’s priorities and operations. The university is privatized; it becomes a transnational corporation.

The UBC sign’s outsize dimensions suggest that without such a brash announcement, one might otherwise doubt that one had arrived at the school. And there would be reason to wonder. The school’s corporatization has spawned drastic changes in its look. Until recently, a landmark building stood at this corner: the imposing General Administration Building, whose mid-century concrete Brutalist aesthetic ultimately fell afoul of the University’s glossy new rebranding campaign. An empty lot occupies the site today.

The demolition of the Brutalist-style General Administration Building can be taken as a symbol of the reshaping of public education under neoliberalism. In spite of the word’s negative connotations, Brutalism denotes frankness and honesty in construction, an architectural ethos embodied by raw, exposed concrete. Moreover, the material’s solidity speaks to the will to long-term investment in social infrastructure commonly seen in mid-century government buildings, social welfare projects and public universities. In contrast to Brutalism’s solidity and permanence, new buildings on the UBC campus are characterized by expansive glass walls. Planning documents speak of “emphasizing transparency (e.g. glass) on the ground floors to project a sense of lightness, welcome and optimism,” thereby “allowing interior academic uses to be visible.” This last directive is vaguely unsettling, as if the primary function of classroom activities was to advertise education to passersby and window shoppers. And indeed, UBC’s new design priorities suggest a general market-oriented transformation of the academic landscape, from slogans and logos to large-scale campus building projects.

This marketing ethos is evident in the rental apartments under construction next to the Administration Building’s rubble. The building is soon to house a range of businesses and restaurants at street level, and as a result, when one passes the UBC sign to enter campus one will run a gauntlet of commerce and entertainment along the last leg of University Boulevard. A “key gateway” to campus, in the administration’s language, and leading directly to what maps designate as the “campus core,” the remodeled University Boulevard is a clear signal of the school’s privatizing trend. And though we are still on the edge of the university, the name of the new apartment building, “Centre,” performs a verbal reorientation of the campus itself. We might say of “Centre” what Jean Baudrillard disparagingly said of the Beaubourg in Paris, that its “fragility” and “world’s fair” aesthetic “overtly proclaims that our time will never again be that of duration, that our only temporality is that of the accelerated cycle and of recycling.”** Ironically, this very denial of permanence can serve to promote the University’s brand when hitched to the school’s “zero-waste” ambitions; at Brock Commons, next to a venerable cluster of mid-century Brutalist dorms, a new dormitory building is nearing completion. UBC proudly bills it as the world’s tallest wooden building.

(End of part 1; to be continued)


*Saskia Sassen, Expulsions, 11.

**Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg Effect,” 61.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Bed with the Donald

Two days after this year’s US presidential election, Teju Cole signed an op-ed piece in the New York Times that drew parallels between Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the rise of Donald Trump. Ionesco’s play, inspired by the author’s own experience of fascism in his native Romania, suggests that political upheavals can be as baffling, disorienting and unexpected as his absurd premise, in which an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” transforms rational human individuals into mindless, violent herd animals.

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Cole’s essay struck a chord echoed by other post-election commentators. An exasperated Tabatha Southey bitterly mocked journalistic “safaris” into Trumpland that sought to “humanize” Trump’s electorate. No, Southey countered, there was nothing more to “understand” about a Trump supporter than their tendency to violent anger, racism and misogyny. In a broader assessment of global politics in this new “age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra argued that “liberal rationalism” is under grave threat from such figures as Trump, who “strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.”

As theater directors confront the “political absurdism” of our present conjuncture, we may expect a general revival of Rhinoceros on the stage. Another Ionesco play, however, captures an equally significant aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the tendency to misrecognize one’s neighbors and, in the process, to misapprehend oneself. We can cite in this regard the failed assessment of the Republican candidate by the mainstream media, who all but wrote off his chances of winning, and the enduring confusion about the demographic identity of Trump’s supporters. In the election’s aftermath, commentators scrambled to put a face to this electorate, which many identified as an angry and disillusioned working class. Subsequently, as more complete polling data came in Trump’s electors began to look like a broad cross-section of the US population. To put it in tweet form, we were all in bed with the Donald.

In The Bald Soprano, a married couple arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the two are shown in by the maid. Strangely, however, as the husband and wife wait for their hosts, they can’t recall where they have met before. The two soon establish a series of increasingly absurd “coincidences”: they are both originally from Manchester, and each traveled to London not only on the same train but in the very same compartment, and in facing seats. Next, they learn that they both reside on the same street in London, and in an incremental process of careful cross-verifications, each provoking the same outbursts of surprise and amazement, they determine that both of them live in the same building, on the same floor, in the same apartment, and sleep in an identical bed “covered with a green eiderdown.” “How curious it is and what a coincidence!” says the lady of these last details. “It is indeed possible that we have met there, and perhaps even last night. But I do not recall it, dear sir!”*

The couple finally discovers that they both have a daughter with one white and one red eye, which provides them with sufficient proof that they must be married and living together. At this point the man and woman approach each other and they solemnly embrace. Stage directions say that the clock strikes once, very loudly, and specify that “this striking of the clock must be so loud that it makes the audience jump.” The couple does not hear the bell, however, and this disjunction alerts us to another distressing problem of misapprehension: should we, the audience, be amused by this seeming farce — or should our hair be standing on end?

“Donald, it’s you, darling!” exclaims the woman at the end of the dialogue, and the name rings like a gong struck by Ionesco from beyond the grave, another reason for the audience to start, rather than laugh at the scene. When the maid subsequently appears and addresses the audience, she only adds to our confusion. But she delivers what may be the political statement of our times, a warning to Trumpists and opponents alike, and a challenge to the president-elect’s governing ego, were it possible to inject into his consciousness a seed of healthy méconnaissance: “Donald is not Donald” (19).

*

Trump has put the id in president; he may in fact be the first surrealist chief executive of the United States. When this blustering, orange-haired Ubu demagogue is inaugurated on January 20, it will be almost exactly one year to the day he boasted on the campaign trail, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The future POTUS seemed to be riffing from André Breton, who famously said, “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”**

“Bitter victory of surrealism,” as the Situationists put it. Noting that modern business tactics had coopted the avant-garde, the agit-art group claimed that new radical art practices were needed to confront the social ravages of consumerism and the violence of an empire in its death throes. France, in that fateful year of 1958, was confronting the rise of its own strongman president. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros premiered in Paris soon afterward, proving, in spite of the Situationists’ doubts, that absurdism could make a strong political statement by reviving surrealist aesthetics. Is it too much to hope that political theater can do the same today?

For the time being we may be stuck with crowd-pleasing musicals. In any case, the prospects for French radical aesthetics in the US look dim. In a cautionary tour of pre-election Appalachia – a “safari” in Trumpland, as Tabatha Southey would put it – Chris Offutt recently described how the Republican governor of Kentucky has been dismantling the state’s public education system. For Offutt, the objective of this policy is clear: uneducated white men tend to vote Republican.

The governor’s own reasoning seemed more sinister. He took direct aim at French literary studies, implying that an American outbreak of rhinoceritis would be best promoted by removing Dada, Surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd from college syllabi. Was the governor aware of the subversive potential of foreign-language instruction, too? After all, The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s first play, was inspired by taking a course in the French Assimil method. But the governor’s explanations were as obscure as his motives. In his laconic turn of phrase, austerity measures are not so much choices as a confirmation of the inevitable or the joining of a stampede. Trumpism, it seems, is a triumph of the inexplicable. ‘“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French-literature majors,”’ the governor drily explained. ‘“There just will.”’


* Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 18.

**André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969), 125.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction