Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

This article from the Guardian struck me as being far removed the point:

"When the phrase 'Hampstead novel' was used in the 80s, everyone knew exactly what it meant: a middle-class morality novel - probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep. Critics fastened on 'Hampstead' as if the place itself might be a clue to content - as if the postcode was a giveaway. But, actually, the idea of Hampstead may never have had much to do with reality. Professor John Sutherland says the phrase became more an 'idea' than a 'topographical truth' ... What is perhaps most interesting about this slippery mirage of a genre is what it suggests about place itself - and the way it can take hold and have an independent life in a reader's imagination. It was the 'Hampstead novel' tag that first nudged me towards thinking about the way places are used as critical shorthand. I started to wonder about the geography of novels - and whether we still use place as a symbolic key to content...

'Chelsea, Hampstead and St John's Wood have been replaced by Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Gautam Malkani's Londonstani, set in Hounslow and on the Heathrow Flight path.' (There may be hope for the Luton novel yet.) Hahn points out that gaps in the A-Z tend to be filled by 'non British writers'. 'Fifty years ago,' he says, "it would have been amazing to read a novel like Monica Ali's from someone with a different background.".. In non fiction, Iain Sinclair made his name writing about such places (no small feat to write compellingly about the M25 as he has done in London Orbital). In fiction, Blake Morrison is one of a growing number of writers attempting to do something comparable. He could hardly be plainer about his allegiance: his most recent novel is called South of the River... Yet although British novelists now spread their nets more widely, there is still a paucity of state-of-the-nation novelists, writers able to move freely across the map and get an aerial view. Hanif Kureishi puts it like this: 'Dickens had a sense of the whole society, from prisoner to home secretary. No writer has that now.'

It's certainly true that place was an especially important concept in the Victorian novel. George Eliot wrote of how she saw it as nurturing and forming character, making it the basis for the balance of character and society that is the hallmark of the Victorian novel (to the extent that Moretti could construct a series of maps from Dickens and Balzac). In Eliot, Hardy and the Bronte sisters (and DH Lawrence later), the place is typically rural, albeit one being transformed under the impact of an increasingly commercial and industrial society. In others, like Gaskell and Dickens, there is a contrast of urban squallor and vice with rural virtue, following the likes of Fielding. As society became increasingly urbanised (not to mention less homogeneous) these sorts of themes work less well. In contemporary terms, people are more mobile between places, less likely to be influenced by one areas. I often think of a line from Peter Shaffer's play Equus, about how the very concept of place has been eroded in the modern world. Equally, place has become an increasinly homogeneous concept, with most of the population living in suburbs that are invariably designed as to be mutually interchangeable, before travelling to work in offices of glass and steel that come close to being mass manufactured. Contemporary geography is characterised by what Marc Auge calls the unplace; places like supermarkets, motorways, hotels, business parks or airports that are the architecture of transience rather than social stability: "... like the place, the non-place doesn't exist in pure form; it's more likely that new places are generated, relations are reconstructed within. Place and non-place are contrary poles; the place never disappears completely and the non-place is never fully established - they are palimpsests on which the confusing game of identity and relation finds its own reflection over and over."

As such, it seems to me that the writer that best characterises the modern concept of place is JG Ballard:

"One of the things I like about Ballard is how he treats architectural space: highway flyovers, corporate campuses, flooded hotels, suburban home-development projects, abandoned swimming pools, army camps in the desert. He presents the modern, built environment as this kind of psychological field lab for testing new ways of being human. He encodes all this, or hardwires it, into the actual landscapes of his novels. You get humans trying to understand and psychologically accommodate themselves to the presence of vast, empty car parks, derelict hospitals, redundant freeways, under-subscribed exurban high-rises and so on. It's a 'malfunctioning central nervous system' in spatial form, on the scale of a whole civilisation.

Ballardian space is psycho-spatial. His books are full of artificial lakes, highway medians, multi-storey car parks, strangely over-air-conditioned corporate boardrooms – and these all take on a kind of menacing, even confrontational, gleam, as if you’ve just stepped into some kind of unspoken mental challenge. The buildings and cities and landscapes in Ballard’s novels are more like psychological traps built by management consultants – not architects – who then fly overhead in private jets, looking down, checking whether their complicated theories of human cognition have survived the test. Where 'the test' is the world you and I now live in.

Of course, any built environment has a psychological impact on the people who live there. In Super-Cannes, for instance, the book's setting – an office park – is haunted by a kind of 'controlled and supervised madness,' Ballard writes. One of the characters explains, at great length, how the too-perfect and over-manicured landscapes of this new corporate enclave inspire sexual violence and anti-immigrant raids – a rebellion against the boredom of tennis courts and well-mowed lawns. Every artificial landscape is the diagram of a certain psychological state – even if that just means reflecting the dominant aesthetic of the day. But the idea that the built landscape can be read as an 'encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis,' as Ballard writes, crossing generations and countries, just fascinates me.

Space in Ballard’s novels is never deeply textured or deeply described. Instead, you get these abstract non-places – a corporate campus, a media center, a fitness complex. You drive down feeder roads and airport roundabouts and cross-city motorways. You never enter a world of rich, Dickensian details. He's like the anti-Dickens. You don’t walk past churches and bookshops and local bars and farmers' markets and whatever else makes a believable urban setting; you're always out in this weird edge-world of import warehouses and corporate development projects. Sports-car dealerships. The very lack of detail is what makes a setting Ballardian.

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posted by Richard 3:38 PM