Thursday, 3 May 2012

Casual Observations 3

Robinson's first reaction was one of spleen. 'There were,' he said, 'no mitigating circumstances. The press, the voting system, the impropriety of Tory party funding - none of these could explain away the fact that the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they believed that it was still in their interest to do so.
                                    -  London, Dir. Patrick Keiller, 1992
When I read that Boris Johnson was leading an election poll, I was reminded of the above scene in which the protagonist, Robinson, is outraged by John Major's unexpected victory in the 1992 general election.

Not simply a film, London, is an essay on the Conservative "suburban government that uses homelessness, pollution, crime, and the most expensive and run-down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe as weapons against Londoners' lingering desire for the freedoms of city life."

Today, it is difficult to believe that the existence of this London has been forgotten, when contemporary examples of its legacy are so numerous.

Reflecting on idle conversation, many people I have spoken to that are considering voting for Johnson are from the demographic to which I also belong - white, university educated, middle class, first-time voters in the Mayor of London elections. For these people, it seems, the London that was once characterised by mass unemployment, absence of amenities, and police racism is as distant an island as those living currently in London's poorest areas.

Viewing Patrick Keiller's exhibition at the Tate Britain a few weeks ago, I was also reminded of the broader context in which these maladies exist - namely the on going neoliberal economic crisis, of which Britain's return to recession gives good illustration.

Of particular note was the similarity between a scene from Keiller's Robinson In Ruins in which a combine harvester collects corn as a voice slowly announces fluctuations in the stock market, and George Lambert's A View of Boxhill, Surrey (1733), also on display.

A View of Boxhill, Surrey is an early example of a British landscape painting inspired by the style of Claude Lorrain, who painted Italian landscapes adding characters, scenes and references to classical antiquity in the foreground.

Previously, paintings of the British landscape had largely been commissioned by the English aristocracy to valorise their right to land and property ownership through depictions of scenes in which aristocrats are placed in the foreground of topographical representations of their estates.

A View of Boxhill, Surrey is neo-classical in nature, but dispenses with references to antiquity and depictions of lords, and instead focuses on the landscape and the forms of production within it. In the fields, you can see men harvesting corn, and in the centre, a man painting the landscape (perhaps a reference to Lambert's own profession).

In this sense, it is a post-Enlightenment painting, in which the figure of god and its earthly representatives in the form of the church and the aristocracy have been erased, leaving merely the materiality of the Earth and the activities of those that dwell in it.

Keiller's homage to George Lambert is in the style theorised by Walter Benjmain's in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechancial Reproduction; Keiller's "reproduction" has lost the "aura" of the individuality of Lambert's original.

Yet, there is something seditious and aggressive about Keiller's version, and its aim to inflict boredom on the audience is doubtlessly a Brechtian device, that has its most notable cinematic roots in the 7-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam from Jean-Luc Godard's Week-End. Keiller's 'traffic jam' is therefore not just an aesthetic, but a historical comment on the nature of the internal antagonisms of capitalist production.

Speaking of the Enlightenment, I also recently went to see Werner Herzog's Into The Abyss (trailer above).

Like Stroszek, Herzog uses the USA as an allegory for the failure of the Enlightenment. In Stroszek this was expressed through the characters' failed attempt to escape a life of crime of Berlin for the new horizons of America, only for them to be returned to delinquency having failed to pay for the mobile home they were so keenly sold.

Perhaps not consciously, Strozsek nevertheless reflects Foucault's thesis in Discipline and Punish, that the juridical system intentionally produces delinquents to prevent class awareness, and that modern society therefore uses the carceral model as a method of social organisation against political uproar.

With Into The Abyss, Herzog makes this allegory explicit by filming a documentary about the life of an inmate on deathrow. Beginning with an interview with the prison's reverend, the film launches an attack on the irrational theisms that govern the American judicial system and post-Enlightenment civilisation in general.

Which leads me finally to the mysterious death of MI6 agent, Gareth Williams, whose dead body was found locked inside a bag in his flat in Pimlico in August 2010, with no significant evidence of a third party being discovered at the apartment, despite the overwhelming probability that Williams could not have been able to close the lock from inside.

Following the conclusion of the coroner's report (who could not dismiss the possibility of unlawful killing), one of the most conspicuously unanswered questions is how Williams was able to go missing from his post for 7 days without anyone in MI6 reporting his absence.

In many ways, the circumstances of Williams's death evokes the public shaming given to the corpse of Polynices in Sophocles's Antigone. In the play, Polynices's body is refused proper burial by the new king of Thebes, Creon, and is left to rot on the battlefield, while his sister, Antigone, has her protest for his interment silenced by being buried alive.

With the unanswered questions of how Williams was allowed to disappear, and why there was no evidence of anyone else being in his flat, it would seem that, as in Antigone, justice will flounder once more.

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