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FLYING TO EARTH

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Steve Hanson reviews Plane Truth by Rose Bridger (Pluto).

This book provides a critique of an aviation industry which is enmeshed with ‘the globalisation of manufacturing’ and ‘extreme oil projects’. Bridger’s book is a great resource for both activists and concerned citizens.

Air travel is of course ‘international’ by its very nature, but its hubs are locally-specific. This means different conditions for passengers, for instance, ‘citizens of Africa fly the least’, but ‘the accident rate is appalling’. It also means that the ground-level opposition to massive air infrastructure projects have different levels of resistance, from both sides, in different nation states.

This book is a crucial addition to my growing collection of resources about the ‘other side’ of ubiquitous, taken-for-granted modernisms. Wolfgang Schivelbusch on shop window lighting, or Kittler on media fusing into ‘secular’ form, out of discarded military ordnance. Bridger’s book isn’t historically or theoretically grounded in the same way, but it is at least as useful in our age of permanent crisis.

Plane Truth now sits on my shelf next to After the Car by Dennis and Urry (Polity). Because they traced the development of the motor car back, via some incredible quotes, in order to understand how what we ended up with was not neutral or inevitable. Bridger does similar things for the aeroplane. A popular nineteenth century journal existed called ‘Horseless Age’, and in 1896 an article described how:

‘…there is absolutely no odour connected with the electric vehicle, while all the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbon in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odour.’

The electric car was ditched, as the power of the internal combustion engine was essential for modern warfare. This turning point partly led to our current crisis. Dennis and Urry understand, as anyone well-versed in Marx does, that twentieth century capitalism isn’t the strong reassuring force its surfaces seem to suggest, but sharkish, chaos in organised groups, with little regard for the long-term availability of raw materials, or even the long-term viability of its own game.

Bridger points this out very clearly in regard to aviation protests. There have been voices of dissent, but they have been drowned until very recently, by the sheer machine noise of material wealth-gathering, ‘progress’. Her work is always grounded in careful research.

The car sits alongside these issues in terms of the consumption of raw materials and pollution, but more immediately in traffic accidents and how they crowd city life, eating up pavement space, even when stationary. Bridger’s book covers these issues for aviation, but sticks closely to resource economics. She adds to the picture of the airport what the techne of the aeroplane does to the ecology.

Imagining what the future might look like is a risky business, and again, reading Marx tells us why. Buckminster Fuller once wrote that ‘you never change things by fighting the existing reality’, to actually change it, ‘build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’

I only half believe this, but Bridger’s urgent plea for disorganised capitalism to change is very worthwhile. The imaginary space of futurology is crucial to stimulating real action, however different from the speculation this may eventually be.

Elsewhere, John Urry has described how solipsistic we are to imagine ourselves ‘special’, aloof or superior from the forces of nature or physics. Our culture is the ultimate outcome of the separation of everything, the product of a kind of Kantian humanism gone feral. We thought we’d started the engine and flown away, but we were attached to the earth all along. Bruno Latour describes this well, as does Peter Sloterdijk.

Blake’s portrait of Newton seems even more important now, although many aspects of the romanticisms which followed it show how we were drugging ourselves with dangerous delusions. We can only hope that the post-car era isn’t only possible in a post-pedestrian one, which is a very literal and final reading of the term ‘post-human’. I also hope that we are not finally ‘grounded’, on a kind of neo-Medieval floodplain. Speaking at the very broadest level, international travel is at least culturally desirable.

Dennis and Urry’s text is almost ridiculously upbeat in tone, as they explore the possibilities still open to us, local sustainability, radically altered technologies and modes of transport, but these suggestions always arrive next to ominous passages about a return to a kind of feudalism.

Bridger’s voice is similar, and I pay tribute to all of their willful optimisms and pessemistic intellects.

Thought Worms from the Wreckage

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2014 at 10:10 am

Robert Galeta reviews ‘Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage’, by Esther Leslie (Unkant).

This is an exhilarating and disturbing book. Its contents, explorations and connections between key thinkers and artists in Weimar Germany, are inherently dark: shatterings and displacements, stupefying mass entertainments, then the nasty use of art for politics by the Nazis, mass ‘mendacity’, to borrow from a quote here by Kurt Schwitters. Its content is an instance of our terrible modernity, in the double sense of that adjective, used by Sophocles in one of the Choruses in Antigone, terrible in our capacities.

But this is also a very uplifting book, because of the inherently positive engagement of the thinkers and artists to really look at and try to articulate the lived reality they were in, with the help of philosophers, Marx, and also Freud and the anti-strategies in art concocted by the Dadaists.

But it is, for me, also uplifting because of Leslie’s deft use of language, combined with great scholarship, but not at all bound by it. Here are some extracts to illustrate these points:

From the section ‘Momentous Surfaces’ about IG Farben’s new colour film:

‘Kracauer’s view of film turned pessimistic; film worked on the masses, rendering them half-conscious and atomised in their numbers. This art of light and colour gave substance to the thin veneer of glamour, and entertainment’s distraction becomes intoxication.’

From ‘Comrades and Constellations: Construction Site’ about the relations between Benjamin and Brecht:

‘Effortless consumption is the mode of reception effected by naturalist theatrical mechanisms. Brecht’s aesthetic system, in contrast, is designed to convey the conditions that we are in, and as such runs parallel to our workaday world, but is peeled off from it, made strange, such that aspects of these conditions, these functions of the real, are “discovered”, made recognisable in the perplexing moment of their estrangement.’

I was impressed by Leslie’s language in her earlier 2007 Reaktion book ‘Walter Benjamin’, where she studied essays, articles and essays unavailable to an English reader. But then, having been taken through the death of Benjamin on the Spanish border, you turn the page and she does something truly wonderful, and perhaps, thinking of this new book too, filmic. I won’t say what – do read it.

The book’s structure is very much about connections, for example Samuel Reimarus’ 1760 ‘General Considerations on the Instincts of Animals’ is part of a reflection on our detachment from nature and the importance of the sensual for Marx. This is 74 pages after the following, from a section entitled ‘Immoral Economy: Time and Money’, but this cutting backwards and forwards upsets thinking about what is being re-read, here around Marx’s ‘Grundrisse’:

‘Labour is an energy. It comes from our mind and bodies. It is a natural power. It is part of workers’ vitality. This energy is directed towards making useful things, but it is also calibrated as abstract labour, as quantities of labour. The calculation runs: x amount of labour hours at x amount of cost is carried out by x.’

This structure or configuration, because it is figured, both for thought and emotion, generously brings the Academy out through its doors. This very much supports the last sections about now, about the need and responsibility for critical practices. But this isn’t so much an ending as another pulsing inviting us to read across, to put what has been connected or put alongside into our time of technological noise and mendacity, to be alert.

– Robert Galeta, May 2014, Manchester Left Writers

In search of deeper veins

In Storey on April 18, 2012 at 11:05 am

Review article by Steve Hanson (2010) originally published in the now-austeritized Networks.

John Storey Culture and Power in Cultural Studies, The Politics of Signification (Edinburgh University Press)

These essays and chapters were originally written between 1986 and the present day, and are re-published here under the themes of ‘power’ and ‘the politics of signification’. This is not just an introductory book, or an arbitrary anthology, it bears repeat reading and contains a complex, well-linked set of critiques. Storey essentially begins where my students do, with Raymond Williams and his notoriously widescreen explanation of ‘culture’, before moving into its re-theorizing, via the work of Stuart Hall and others at the CCCS, who imported Gramsci and ‘hegemony’. Storey then takes us through ‘culture’ and ‘power’ many times, weaving example after example into theory. Raymond Williams began a similar journey across borders and ideas, through the lives and ruins of cultures, only a short walk from the lecture theatre in which I teach, for his essay ‘Culture Is Ordinary’, in 1958. Williams was collapsing high and low culture, moving away from F.R. Leavis and his generation. Fifty-odd years have changed nothing in that sense, ‘culture’ is still upper-case Ordinary, everyday, but worthy of serious attention, and Storey’s book holds strongly to that idea.

The point of this text is to allow people access to the tools with which they might take culture to pieces and see how it operates. Understanding signification creates more effective communicators in any media industry, and sharper contemporary artists. In my experience, students who are just starting out either leap right through cultural artefacts, searching for ‘deep’ meanings, which may ultimately be fugitive, or they remain on the thinnest of surfaces, tending to naturalize them. ‘Depth’ is a misleading term to use here though. What Storey often does is account for the way any one cultural artefact brings other significatory surfaces into play. In his example of recent car advertising, he shows how the automobile is often presented as solitary, rather than just another atom of congestion, essentially using discourse analysis to show that what is missing is just as important, sometimes, as what is presented or re-presented. The car advert reveals the myth of the individual, lone vehicle. This is a point Storey makes in passing, to illustrate something else, but it alerts me to the usefulness and scope of this text. It also serves, for me, as a metaphor for the doing of cultural studies, which should link isolated objects up to the wider social world and its issues.

Raymond Williams took his journey on a bus, Storey occasionally arrives in a Rolls Royce, grandly stepping out to declare it a charabanc: ‘Ceci n’est pas une Roller!’ He describes the increasing visibility of opera in advertising, on film soundtracks, tracing this back to the invention of opera as art, in nineteenth-century Manchester. He collapses the continuing distinctions between art and entertainment, rightly seeing the danger in elitist discourses. Storey then describes how ‘the sixties’ are articulated in an imaginary form, in and through the 1990s. Key to this is understanding how some seriously edgy narratives get channelled into consumerism for profit. This could be what Marcuse called, in that notorious mouthful, ‘repressive desublimation’, only Storey allows for agency at the same time as he accounts for the entertainment market’s unstoppable assimilation, on permanent cruise control. ‘Agency’ here is a kind of lower-case ‘resistance’, the often-overlooked caveat to Foucault’s work.

Storey turns things over thoroughly, viewing them as prisms. The range of examples he works through is appreciated. Taken together they explain how we can go in any historical direction, making different sized leaps, from the 1960s to the 1990s, or the 1880s to the 1980s, and make some very potent insights about now. Grand-narrative history may be off the curriculum for good, but Storey does what Fredric Jameson urges – he always historicizes. We know that Santa doesn’t exist, but the essay on how Christmas was invented is a gift, not a disappointment. Exposing historical ‘invention’ is Storey’s craft. He reveals the hidden, understanding how culture is made and re-made, rather than imagining it as developing from some original point of authenticity. This book does what all great cultural studies courses and texts should. It shows that the floor we stand on is less stable than we previously thought. As room-shakers we run risks though, if students leave lectures ever so slightly disturbed, things are going well. If they are so alarmed that they never return, we have gone too far. This book will rattle cages, but it also provides some advice on how to rattle back.

The humanities often unwittingly present easy targets for critics. This book’s index features ‘The Beatles’, ‘Ulrich Beck’ and ‘Beethoven, Ludwig van’, because Storey considers high and low culture to have been shaken from the shelves, through the history of cultural studies, and its aforementioned little quakes. ‘Foucault’, ‘The Four Tops’ and ‘The Frankfurt School’ are only a page away, but Storey presents a fast-moving target to the enemy, explaining how discourses are saturated with power at every step, staying with that core, undeniable drive. He takes his subject seriously, describing how signifying practices such as melodrama and acid rock can reach outside their spaces of signification, for instance in a three night theatre run, and point to issues and debates outside that space. These are crucial things. To see how power both shapes meaning and shape-shifts through it is possibly one of the few guaranteed transferrable skills left. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I, and perhaps I should also point to myself pointing it out, in a review of a book on cultural studies and power, by a cultural studies lecturer.

On my return from Planet Meta-, I find a country preparing to measure research via ‘economic and social impact’ again, so we do need to remember these points. Software packages change faster than Vice-Chancellors, but these issues remain, for media students as much as fine art acolytes, and understanding how signification and power courses through both Photoshop and institutional hierarchies can only prepare them for the ‘real world’, which critics of this kind of book claim to exist beyond its pages.

Each case study confirms this. Storey re-inserts politics into the work of Matthew Arnold, claiming that he was hegemonic, as essentially a reformist, urging for the middle classes to step up to leadership and displace the aristocracy, rather than the more revolutionary recommendations posited by Marx. Arnold had some unpleasant things to say about the middle classes, but Storey reveals how cultural critics need to go further than the rhetoric on the surface, locating deeper veins, and even blacker track marks, on the skin of culture. His ‘symptomatic’ reading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness shows how it attempts to construct ‘bad’ imperialisms, which are bracketed off from British forms. In this case, the ‘bad form’ is Belgian, re-situating Heart of Darkness in a nationalist discourse, even though it is identifiably anti-imperialist, thus teasing out and revealing hidden strands of hegemony. Storey returns us to the way in which cultural texts refer to grand-narrative power discourses such as imperialism at the same time as they resist them, creating ambivalences, as well as meanings, in their semi-lit, beating centres, with all of their shadows. This level of nuance in Storey’s critique is exemplary. At the end of this last chapter I sense a way in which reading Conrad like this might lead us to question more contemporary cultural documents and ask the ‘imperialism’ question of them all over again, in the manner Storey so ably demonstrates.

I have described how certain ‘c’ words have shameful connotations on this island before, connotations which need inverting, and so here ‘c’ stands for both ‘clever’ and ‘compliment’.

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