Sudan archives

A sudden thunderbolt hit North London on the early evening of Monday 28th November leading to numerous enquiries about an unexplained explosion or even speculation about a meteor strike.  What a fitting meteorological phenomenon to mark the arrival of the musician Sudan Archives in London for her show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.  Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the violinist and songwriter Sudan Archives has crafted a genre defying body of work over recent years.  Her show was marked by a sense of exuberance in its oscillation between searing violin improvisation and dramatic renditions of “Come meh way,” “Moss garden,” and other songs.  Even if the somewhat muddy sound system could not convey the subtlety of all her works the atmosphere was electric.  It is good to know that live music is flourishing once again in the post-Covid city.

Political opportunism as hyper-parasitism

The UK is entering what may be the final act of an extended political farce that has been underway since the appointment of the disastrous David (“I’m giving up my time to govern”) Cameron in 2010.  The appointment of Liz Truss as the fourth Conservative prime minister in a row after the departure of Boris Johnson brings a new level of self-serving mediocrity to British politics.  Johnson, a populist opportunist, manipulated anti-European sentiment during the unnecessary EU referendum of 2016, in order to destroy the premiership of his Etonian rival, David Cameron.  Johnson then worked assiduously to undermine Cameron’s hapless successor, Theresa (“breakfast means breakfast”) May.  Now Johnson in his turn has been ousted in a further intensification of Tory in-fighting, the ageing membership having been lured towards the apparition of a Thatcher lookalike as his successor.  No matter that Johnson has been replaced by another political opportunist, who campaigned to remain in the EU, but has successfully persuaded the increasingly right-wing membership of the Conservative party that she alone can carry the Brexit revolution forward.  Of course, Brexit is not a political destination but a process, an ideological shark that must keep moving to stay alive as Fintan O’Toole and other commentators have pointed out.  Although Johnson and Truss both claim that Brexit has been “done” it remains a poisonous mist that continues to infect all around it, damaging agriculture, manufacturing industry, trade, universities, and so on.  In inheriting Johnson’s parliamentary majority Truss becomes a political hyper-opportunist feeding off the political capital of her predecessor.  We should note that the phenomenon of hyper-parasitism in nature can takes complex ecological forms, with some plant galls displaying at least five levels of parasitism.  Similarly, the emergence of political hyper-opportunism contains many layers of intrigue, and could be likened to a kind of political gall — shall we call it Brexit — since the definition of a gall is an “abnormal outgrowth” which can happen from time to time even in democracies.

 

Ukraine

On 3 March 2022 the Channel 4 News chief correspondent Alex Thomson, reporting from Moscow, made an astute observation about the Russian media landscape that “truth is not a concept, it’s a commodity”.  Indeed, the attempt to control information through webs of power and patronage has been a hallmark of the Putin regime since its inception over twenty years ago.  The invasion of Ukraine has been based on an attempt to alter history through the manipulation of truth.  In this sense I follow the historian Richard Evans’s insistence that a relativist view of the past is dangerous and serves as a breeding ground for ethno-nationalist mobilization.  Indeed, the Russian state’s attempt to manipulate global public opinion has been underway for many years, culminating in spectacular successes such as Brexit, the 2016 US Presidential elections, and support for (and from) a motley cast of politicians in France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and elsewhere.  It is telling that Volodymyr Zelinskiy, when becoming president of Ukraine, did not request that pictures of himself be put up on the walls of government offices.  Instead, he encouraged staff to display photos of their families (presumably including pets).  It remains to be seen if the outcome of this terrible conflict will reset global politics towards democracy and away from the realm of violent autocrats and the wilful twisting of history in the geopolitical arena.

The politics of masks

Over recent months I have been working in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich.  Passengers on public transport systems are required to wear masks in order to protect themselves and others from infection with the Covid-19 virus.  Not just any mask but a medical standard FFP2 design should be worn (see my photo from the Berlin U-Bahn).  I have very rarely seen any passengers without masks apart from an occasional nose on display or the odd maskless mobile phone user (much to the irritation of other travellers).

In Germany the Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on the need for competent science-led public policy marked by ambitious forms of large-scale governmental intervention to protect both public health and the economy.  It is arguable that a political swerve towards calm deliberation and rational decision making may even have contributed towards the surprise outcome of the German federal elections last September when Angela Merkel was suceeded by Olaf Scholz as chancellor.  More broadly, critical scholars such as Andreas Malm have asked whether the same level of seriousness in policy making might be applied to other threats such as climate change.

Whenever I return to London, however, I am shocked by the lack of compliance with public health measures.  Although mask wearing remains compulsory on London’s public transport system perhaps only half of the passengers make any effort to comply.  In the UK it appears that public health messaging has been steadily disintegrating for months, driven in part by the steady stream of revelations of rule breaking by law makers.  In the place of clarity and cooperation a sense of confusion and cynicism has taken hold.  It is worth recalling that some of the highest death rates from Covid-19 in the UK by occupation have been experienced by public transport workers and other front line staff who deliver essential services.  To wear a mask is an act of solidarity with vulnerable workers as well as other passengers.  The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has recently reiterated the requirement for people to wear masks on public transport but the police claim that they lack the resources to enforce these public health measures.  Earlier government aims to control or contain Covid-19 have been quietly abandoned on the grounds of political expediency bolstered by spurious herd immunity arguments.  Disparities in public health policy between England and other parts of the UK have been deliberately exploited to revive forms of English nationalism that have helped shore up support for Johnson and his acolytes within the Conservative Party.  We have somehow moved from what might have been a form of science-led public health policy towards a very different kind of social and political configuration led by shifting alliances on the right of British politics.

Consider the mink

One of the saddest non-human spectacles in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic has been the mass cull of mink on Danish fur farms in the autumn of 2020.  The fate of 15 million mink, which were believed to harbour the C5 variant of the virus, illuminates some of the hidden dimensions to the global “zootechnosphere,” to use the historian Chris Otter’s phrase, and the treatment of non-human others.

The images of these huge fur farms – Denmark is world’s foremost producer – remind us that the significance of the post-Fordist economic transition towards more dispersed or flexible forms of production has been over-stated in relation to capitalist agriculture.  The use of large-scale mass production remains very significant for the production of food and many other commodities.  The fate of these animals highlights the hidden violence towards animals under modernity that is largely occluded from the sphere of consumption and everyday life.  The practical problems in disposing of millions of dead mink are reminiscent of the eerie funeral pyres for cattle slaughtered in the UK in response to the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, in another controversial mass killing of otherwise healthy animals.  As in the case of the mink, the underlying reasons for this thanato-biopolitical response are rooted in the unprofitability of caring for unsaleable animals or their products.  The use of a cull can be conceived as a brutal kind of corporeal devalorization in which these animals become too expensive to keep alive, despite evident public unease and wider political reverberations.

As the philosopher Clare Palmer shows, the question of animal ethics is often framed by specific situations: the treatment of an animal in a zoo, for instance, is likely to be very different to those confined within industrialized facilities.  The question of human obligation to protect animals from harm is clearly context specific: it is rare, for example, to observe human intervention to prevent death or suffering of animals “in the wild” but when non-human others fall under our power or control the ethical questions become more complex and more pressing.  It is, after all, the violence of human interactions with nature, and with animals in particular, that has provided the multiple “spillover zones” for many of the most dangerous zoonotic threats under modernity.

 

Night Moves

The exploration of radical environmentalism in the thriller Night Moves (2014), directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a fascinating study in character development and ethical complexity.  The film steadily builds a sense of extreme tension in relation to the planned destruction of a dam that has unintended consequences.  Shot over just thirty days in southern Oregon, the sparsely populated landscape provides a poignant backdrop to the inner turmoil of the three main protagonists.  A sense of foreboding permeates the film as it drifts inexorably towards its violent denouement.

High Life

The grim possibilities of multi-generational space travel to reach potentially inhabitable reaches of the solar system are explored in Claire Denis’s film High Life (2019) where human “refuse” is propelled into space as part of a system of extra-terrestrial laboratories. The scarred and psychologically damaged human cargo are “recycled” as part of a largely unseen nexus of scientific experimentation.  The film presents an unsettling post-human journey in which the limits to humanity become brutally exposed: in one strange sequence the decaying spaceship docks with another experimental space station full of dead and dying dogs.  The doomed mission lies trapped in a liminal state between the claustrophobia of confinement and an inky abyss beyond.

Covid and Brexit: the accursed duo

The senior public health expert, Professor Anthony Costello, warns that the UK is likely to have one of the worst, if not the worst, death rate from Covid-19 in Europe.  The UK has been experiencing a slow-motion catastrophe, unfolding over a period of weeks and months symbolized by the current incapacity and near death experience of the Prime Minister.  Why has the UK been much more badly affected than Denmark, Germany, South Korea, and many other countries?

i) From the outset the British government tried to pretend that they had a superior approach to the coronavirus crisis that contrasted with the “panicky” overreaction of their European neighbours. There was a palpable sense of “British exceptionalism,” now liberated from the strictures of European cooperation (the UK had only just “celebrated” its departure from the EU at the end of January).  Opportunities to share procurement opportunities for essential equipment were simply rebuffed (and then denied).

ii) Tellingly, many of the leading ideological zealots and opportunists behind the Brexit campaign are now at the heart of the UK government, bringing with them the same degree of hubris and insouciance that has marked policy making over recent years. The art of “winging it” and dispensing with preparation has become a mode of governmentality, born out of a neo-colonial sense of superiority, as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole has brilliantly observed.  It seems oddly appropriate that last summer’s ill-fated leadership campaign for the Conservative Party, launched by the hapless health secretary Matt Hancock, was quickly dubbed “the charge of the lightweight brigade” (after a famous nineteenth-century military disaster).

iii)        A major strategic exercise in pandemic planning in 2016 — Exercise Cygnus — found serious gaps in preparedness but was never acted on.  All government attention since 2016 has been subsumed by the on-going Brexit fiasco sucking resources and expertise away from every other area of public policy.  Breezy talk of economic self-reliance has quickly fallen apart during the coronavirus crisis leaving a landscape of broken supply chains, idle factories, and food left rotting in the fields.

Covid-19

I was wrong about the Covid-19 virus.  On Friday 6 March I met with my students in Cambridge to reassure them that I had every intention of taking them to Berlin for their overseas field class: at that time there were just 8 recorded cases of the coronavirus in Berlin and there seemed little reason to simply cancel the planned trip.  Just 24 hours later I had changed my mind.  The latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute indicate over 2,000 cases of the virus in Berlin (with over 53,000 cases across Germany as a whole).  All of the cafes, museums, and restaurants that we would have visited are closed.  As a group of 25 people all of our planned field excursions to parks and nature reserves would have been illegal.

As I write this blog I am sitting at home in Stoke Newington in North London.  Under placid blue skies there is an apprehensive atmosphere.  Many people wear improvised face masks.  Some strangers swerve to avoid each other in the street whilst others walk towards you out of defiance towards new rules on social distancing.  The few shops still trading have long and anxious queues snaking into side streets.  The other day an army truck trundled down Church Street as if a distant coup was underway but not yet announced to the wider population.  Strange notices appear such as anti-jogging signs in the local park.  Accumulations of refuse suggest that public services are beginning to fray under the pressure.  At night the city is quieter than I have ever known—the silence is broken only by the sound of foxes and distant ambulance sirens.

The coronavirus pandemic is already revealing stark differences in the public health preparedness of different nations.  The contrast between the UK and Germany is striking: whilst senior members of the UK government fall sick after failing to follow their own half-baked advice it is already apparent that mass testing in Germany, combined with a better prepared health care system, is saving many lives.

Urban atmospheres

I have become increasingly fascinated by the “affective atmospheres” of late modernity, connecting with the study of light, sound, and other facets to the multi-sensory study of urban space.  The post-humanist challange to the idea of the bounded human subject opens up new lines of reflection and analysis.  I am interested in emerging fields of conceptual dialogue between historical materialism and affect theory.

Attentive observation

A botanical transect is an embodied methodology par excellence: the systematic recording of plant life involves not just training the eye to notice small details, using sophisticated forms of pattern recognition, but also the use of other sensory clues such as smell to help identify specific plants, haptic interactions with leaves to explore their surface textures, and an awareness of small variations in light and shade, to produce an “incidental sensorium” that is open to the unexpected.  I explore some of these issues in my essay “Queering the transect” and I am also writing a longer essay about walking methodologies and the urban sensorium.

The urban Anthropocene

It is striking that most of the significant theoretical work in relation to the Anthropocene has only engaged indirectly with the urban arena.  There are parallels here with the first wave of political ecology literature in the 1980s that focused predominantly on a rural or global South context.   The Anthropocene debate has had an uncertain articulation with urbanization beyond the identification of specific empirical parameters or material traces.   I have begun to explore these issues with a paper on urban biodiversity and will be developing these ideas further in my next book where I consider the role of “urban refugia” in relation to the sixth mass extinction.

Urban epidemiology

I have a longstanding interest in public health, urban epidemiology, and corporeal geographies.  I initially explored these themes in relation to the development of modern cities through the provision of water infrastructure and other basic services.  I have also developed the question of disease in relation to the resurgence of  tuberculosis, the history of malaria, and the presence of complex boundary phenomena such as multiple-chemical sensitivity.  In my current work on urban nature I am interested in expanded conceptions of other-than-human geographies that extend to zoonoses and neglected facets of urban entomology.

There is significant scope for a critically reworked political ecology, in combination with new insights into the independent agency of nature, to explore evolving relationships between human health and the urban environment. Although existing studies within environmental history and other fields have emphasized the role of infrastructure networks and other measures against the threat of water-borne disease these insights can be extended to other socio-ecological and epidemiological dimensions of urban space.

Documentary filmmaking

I am interested in the use of film as a research methodology.  Documentary filmmaking can be conceived as a series of choices where a putative “reality” — or at least a cinematic semblance of the real — becomes framed, deciphered, represented, and ultimately enters an intertextual and fluid domain of meaning. A documentary faces a series of constraints in terms of how to convey its purpose, how to indicate varying degrees of verisimilitude, and how to connect with diverse audiences.  With my first film Liquid City (2007) I explored cultural and political dimensions to water and urban infrastructure in Mumbai with a particular emphasis on the use of interviews interspersed with everyday life and urban landscapes.  My most recent film Natura Urbana (2017) also uses interviews but draws on extensive archival footage to develop a historical document in its own right.

Cinematic landscapes

This on-going strand of work has involved a close engagement with developments in film studies, art history, literary theory, and related disciplines.  I have been exploring cinematic landscapes in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), Werner Herzog’s Lessons in Darkness (1992), and Hiroshi Teshigehara’s Suna no Onna (1964).  I have also been writing essays on artists who work with nature and landscape such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Ulrike Mohr.  I plan to write a book on Cinematic landscapes that links insights from art history and cultural geography to the study of film but which extends the European focus of some of this earlier work to cinematic developments in east Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

Cyborg urbanization

My work on cyborg urbanization has been both an exploration of the material experience of urban space – our reliance on complex technological networks for survival – but also an engagement with metaphors in urban discourse.  I think our choice of words is important: too many contemporary urban metaphors are either warmed-over nineteenth-century concepts or a pot-pourri of the latest scientific ideas used for rhetorical effect.  I want to use the cyborg concept as a way of exploring not only the vulnerability of the human body but also ways of re-thinking what is meant by the public realm as a shared set of interests.  I have recently extended my work on corporeal themes to light, sound, and the affective atmospheres of late modernity.

 

 

Urban wastelands

I have long been fascinated by “wastelands” since my early forays into London’s so-called “bomb sites”. A focus on spontaneous forms of urban nature transcends the merely speculative or utilitarian potentialities of ostensibly empty spaces. Within urban ecology significant attention has been devoted to wastelands as “ecological refugia” or islands of bio-diversity. These spontaneous ecologies can serve as “accidental laboratories” for cultural and scientific curiosity.

Urban metabolism

This area of work has involved research into the development of sanitation, urban water supply and urban environmental politics in Britain, France, Germany, Nigeria, India, and the United States.  Key outcomes from this work are the books Concrete and clay: reworking nature in New York City (The MIT Press, 2002) and The fabric of space: water, modernity, and the urban imagination (The MIT Press, 2014).  Concrete and clay examines five interrelated aspects to New York’s urban environment: the building of a modern water supply system; the creation and meaning of public space; the construction of landscaped roads; the grassroots environmental politics of the ghetto; and the contemporary politics of pollution.  With my book The fabric of space I turn to cultural and historical dimensions to water and human society through a series of developments in Paris, Berlin, Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and London.

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma (2018), named after the eponymous neighbourhood of Mexico City, is framed through the experience of a middle class family’s maid Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio Martínez).  The film evokes an intense sense of time and place from the early 1970s inspired byCuarón’s childhood memories.  The set design encompasses specific details such as tile patterns along with the use of black and white photography and rich soundscapes to lend the film an especially poignant atmosphere.  The narrative weaves together the emotional turbulence of the main protagonists with wider events such as the Corpus Christi massacre of university students of June 1971.  Roma provides a subtle exploration of the intersections between place, politics, and memory, incorporating the claustrophobic drama of a family in crisis, as well as the stark social divisions that underpin modern Mexico.  Cuaron’s Roma reminds us why cinema can be both aesthetically and politically compelling.

Truth is out there: Forensic Architecture

“In my understanding,” argues the founder of Forensic Architecture Eyal Weizman, “truth is something that is like a common resource”.  “The truth is just like air or water,” continues Weizman, “something that we all need in order to understand, that provides evidence for civil society groups that are confronting state crimes and human rights violations worldwide.”   In this brief yet eloquent interview, that accompanies Forensic Architecture’s short listed entry to the 2018 Turner Prize, we gain some fascinating insights into this radical interdisciplinary research programme that Weizman initiated at Goldsmiths over a decade ago.  This remarkable body of work brings questions of epistemology and politics into dialogue as part of an unsettling of the human subject within architecture, art history, and related fields.

The work of Weizman and his colleagues provokes a series of critical questions that offer an important alternative to the recent emphasis on neo-vitalist or object-oriented ontologies:

i)         An enriched reconceptualization of the human subject can transcend the limitations of humanism as well as the flattening and undifferentiated dimensions to some post-humanist perspectives.

ii)        The conceptualization of buildings and also plants as evidentiary markers or sentinels could surely be extended to other organisms such as insects because of their extremely precise responses to environmental change.  There is in this sense an interesting parallel with the emergence of “forensic entomology” and the use of biological data in criminal investigations.

iii)       The radical use of technological tools, and the democratization of digital cartographies and other modes of representation, opens up new possibilities for articulating technologically enhanced forms of citizenship.

iv)       The idea of truth as a collaborative synthesis derived from multiple perspectives, whose modes of scrutiny or validation are transparent, is a welcome foil to more cynical, nihilistic, or post-truth formulations.  There is an emphasis on the accountability of science rather than its degree of fallibility or infallibility.

Corbyn: a political tragedy

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn twice in the two most recent Labour leadership elections.  The first time because he was the only candidate that seemed to directly address substantive policy issues and the second time because I felt he deserved a chance to succeed despite his lamentable performance during the EU referendum of 2016.  Had any other candidate won I would have rallied round and supported them as usual: the only time in recent years that I have withheld my support for Labour is for Blair in the 2005 general election, in the wake of the disastrous Iraq War.

It’s clear that Corbyn takes a 1970s view of the European Union that is both conspiratorial and wrong headed.  His few remarks on state aid for industry indicate a misunderstanding about the role of the EU in the fields of technological change, competition policy, and regional development. Other socialist politicians in Europe have urged Corbyn to adopt an internationalist perspective but he will not let go of a parochial and backward looking stance.  The repeated mantra of the current Labour leadership for a “jobs first Brexit” ignores the impact of a shrunken economy on any progressive political programme.

If Labour’s support for Brexit is driven more by political expediency than anything else then this stems from a misunderstanding of British politics. Although many constituencies with Labour MPs voted for Brexit in 2016 a majority of Labour voters opted for Remain.  Recent surveys show that the shift towards Remain among existing and potential Labour voters has further strengthened so that a pro-Brexit position risks alienating millions of supporters.  It would be far better to combine a commitment to Remain via another referendum with a clear programme to end austerity and tackle critical challenges such as the need for more social housing, the impact of inequality, and declining public services.

Clinging to the “Lexit” position seems even more disastrous when we move the focus from economic policy to cultural identity.  Brexit is a project of and for the political Right: the referendum was narrowly won by the Leave campaign on the basis of cheating, lies, and the deliberate use of racist rhetoric to unleash a kind of angry nostalgia.  This is the vision of Enoch Powell not Clement Attlee and Labour’s dalliance with a destructive form of English nationalism risks shattering their commitment to anti-racism and social justice.  As the Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn has recently argued, the defining failure of centre left parties across Europe in recent years has been to allow worsening socio-economic inequalities to be blamed on migration rather than neo-liberalism. This failure of political leadership predates Corbyn but he has neglected to challenge dangerous misconceptions about the causes of poverty, inequality, and industrial decline.

So here we are, just a matter of weeks away from Brexit, unless article 50 is rescinded or delayed.  And time is rapidly running out for the Labour leadership to take a principled position on the most critical political dilemma of our generation.

Wisconsin

In Michelle Obama’s eloquent speech given in New Hampshire against the rising tide of hatred and misogyny unleashed during the American election campaign she did not refer to Donald J. Trump by name but merely as Hillary Clinton’s opponent. Now we will have to get used to reading and saying his name more often but politics is never just a matter of a single individual, even under the extreme reactionary swerve of US politics, that has taken everyone, not only Americans, into a dangerously uncertain and perhaps even irreversible situation.  The Paris climate change treaty may be in jeopardy.  Key domestic achievements of the Obama years could be ripped up including wider access to health care.  New appointments to the US Supreme Court will have lasting significance for American society.

The Democrats had foolishly assumed that Wisconsin was safely in their camp but the primaries had already given signs of deep disenchantment with the dynastic Clinton party machine.  However effectively Hillary Clinton managed to present her own agenda she was nonetheless unable to completely emerge from the shadows of the last Clinton administration (as may also have been the case with Al Gore in 2000). Both Gore and Clinton were ultimately ahead in the popular vote but cursed by the final outcome of the electoral college system (and also in Gore’s case by the infamous Florida count and its legal aftermath).  It turned out that Barack Obama’s broad-based coalition of progressive voters simply could not be mobilized in sufficient numbers to hold Wisconsin along with other crucial electoral college votes spread across the so-called “rust belt” of the Mid West.  Would a Sanders-Warren ticket have done better?  Maybe, but we shall never know. Furthermore, with over forty per cent of American adults not participating in the election, let alone a further seven per cent disqualified as former felons or for missing papers, the actual outcome of this debacle was decided by less than a quarter of the adult population, and far fewer if we look at the wafer thin margins in five or six bell weather states.

The rise of right-wing populism now endangers liberal democracy at a global scale.  A toxic brew of pervasive inequalities, manipulated grievances, and historical amnesia threatens to overwhelm attempts to articulate a progressive alternative. The social democratic tradition in particular finds itself in deep crisis, its sources of mobilization splintered and scattered, and its previous achievements steadily eroded.

Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s remarkable film Boyhood (2015) took twelve years to make.  The film focuses on Mason Evans Jr (played by Ellar Coltrane), who we first meet aged six, along with his sister Samantha (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei), his mother (Patricia Arquette), who is a constant in his life, and his wayward yet loving father (Ethan Hawke).  We follow this ensemble of characters and actors in real time from 2002 to 2014, the film being shot for a few days in each year, and then crafted into a cinematic document.   With the passage of time the emotional nuances of each scene become magnified through an intense kind of cinematic verisimilitude.

The representation of time is one of the most complex dimensions to cinematic art.   The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze even divides the history of cinema into a putative shift from the “movement image” to the “time image” in his idiosyncratic overview of the medium.   Though occasional spaces of real-time have been eloquently evoked in the unhurried films of Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes, and other directors, the brilliance ofBoyhood is to take the question of time in a fundamentally different and exhilarating direction.  At one level Boyhood serves as an elaborate documentary experiment that works as both a sociological snapshot of American society but also a dramatic device of poignant emotional intensity.  In the final scene we encounter Mason, now an eighteen-year old student on a camping excursion with his new friends from university, and we are taken back to the precise spot, by a lake in the mountains, to which he had gone with his father years ago.  The beauty and repetition of this tranquil landscape is startling.  Mason wonders whether the familiar refrain that one must seize the moment should really be turned around since it is really the moment after all that seizes our consciousness.

Ex_Machina

In this stylish and intelligent new science fiction drama, directed by Alex Garland, a young computer programmer is sent to an isolated research facility, run by an eccentric recluse named Nathan Batemen (played to terrifying effect by Oscar Isaac), to determine whether his new robotic creation possesses artificial intelligence.  The computer programmer Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) encounters an enigmatic female robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), who quickly surpasses the boundaries of the Turing test, revealing what appear to be a range of human feelings including loneliness, vulnerability, and desire.   The emerging emotional connection between Smith and Ava, or rather projected onto Smith by Ava as part of an elaborate experiment, begins to unsettle the power relations within the subterranean labyrinth.

There is a touch of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) here in Garland’sEx_Machina (2015) where the power of imagination emerges out of an interface between human and machine and consciousness resides in a tangle of wires and flesh.  The film’s spectacular denouement hints at a near future in which Turing’s anticipated avatars stroll among us.

Harlow as viewed from Berlin

In the wake of the EU referendum there has been a surge of racism and xenophobia across the UK including acts of extreme violence.  A spate of attacks on Polish people in the Essex town of Harlow, for example, located not far from London, culminated in the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik, and has attracted international attention.  Unlike the muted media coverage in the UK external observers see this murder and the atmosphere of intimidation as a shameful indictment of the UK’s declining status as a respected European nation.¹

Harlow was the future once.   As one of the original new towns established under the New Towns Act of 1946, and designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, Harlow was a state-of-the art planned settlement created in response to acute overcrowding in London.  Its buildings exemplify some of the most important examples of post-war British architecture and its comprehensive park system reflects the richness and complexity of the local topography.

Politically, Harlow is a classic bellwether constituency:  Labour in the 1970s, Conservative in the 1980s, regained by New Labour in the 1990s, lost again to the Conservatives in the 2010 general election.  In the 2015 election this working-class seat seems to have slipped further out of Labour’s reach than ever before: it is more Tory now than even under the high water mark of Thatcherism in the late 1980s.  Without Labour winning Harlow there will probably never be another progressive government in the UK again.

Part of the UK’s problem is that it has never gone through a process of collective self-reflection over its colonial antecedents, whether in Ireland, Kenya, India, or elsewhere.  A fog of self delusion pervades national discourse so that the UK’s complicity in the geo-political turmoil that has generated the contemporary mass movement of migrants and refugees is scarcely acknowledged.  Equally, the enormous contribution of migrants to British society, over many decades, has been drowned out by years of wilful misrepresentation.   The imperial mantra of “free trade” has become part of the labyrinthine tautology of “Brexit means Brexit” where vacuity and mendacity rule supreme.

The fading of Harlow’s post-war dream is a poignant cipher for the wider ills of British society.  But the European Union is no more responsible for the town’s perceived decline than the rings of Saturn.  Why blame Europeans for the failures of Britain’s ruling class?  I hope very much that Neal Ascherson’s interpretation of the UK’s predicament is correct: we will spend three years trying to get out of the EU and then a further three years trying to get back in.²

1  Christian Zaschke, “Rührt euch,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (10/11 September 2016)
2  Neal Ascherson, “Where are we now?,” London Review of Books  (14 July 2016

Schlachtensee

This afternoon I grabbed my towel and headed for Schlachtensee — a lake in the south west of Berlin, surrounded by the vast Grunewald forest that stretches beyond the city limits.

It’s been just over ten years since I swam in this lake — the last time I was here, Germany were hosting the world cup, and I had a picnic on the lakeshore.  As I swim out through bands of warmer and cooler water, beyond the dappled shade provided by alder and poplar trees, I am alongside coots and great crested grebes bobbing about on the surface, making occasional dives into the muddy depths.  Large dragonflies skim across the water like turquoise jewels in the sunshine.  In the distance I can the see the bright green reed banks on the other side — my destination as I gradually leave the crowds behind.

In the early twentieth century speculative developers tried to grab the lakeside to build private villas and restrict public access.  Luckily a new city planner called Martin Wagner stopped this from happening in the 1920s as part of his inclusive vision for urban nature.  How many swimmers know that somebody had their future in mind nearly 100 years ago?  This is public space at its best!

Landscape as political transect

Tower Hamlets (32.5 % Leave  67.5 % Remain)

It is the afternoon of Saturday 25th June and my train draws out of London’s Liverpool Street Station amid a thunderstorm, heading east for Ipswich and Norwich. It is a grubby poorly upholstered train with many empty first class carriages whilst the rest of us are crammed into the other half of the train.

As the train leaves the station I can see a familiar mix of Victorian terraces interspersed with post-war social housing.

Newham (47.2 % Leave 52.8 % Remain)

The Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre, and high-rise student accommodation.

Cranes, tents, and half-finished buildings in the rain.

Cemetery, pylons, overpass.

Car parks, transport depots, inter-war retail units.

Barking and Dagenham (62.4 % Leave 37.6 % Remain)

Petrol stations, big box Wickes store.

The train slows slightly but does not stop at Chadwell Heath station.

Semi-suburbia and standardized poor quality new build housing.

Havering (69.7 % Leave 30.3 % Remain)

Sports playing fields and multiplex cinema.

We pass through Romford and Gidea Park stations.

Pylons, undulating suburbia, copses.

We are now leaving the administrative boundary of London and entering Essex.

Brentwood (59.2 % Leave 40.8 % Remain)

Sewage works

We pass over the M25 orbital

Splash of green graffiti

Pipe sections by the railway tracks

Heaps of gravel, greenhouses.

Fields fringed with white flowering umbellifers.

Bird on a wire.

Isolated homestead near the tracks.

Muddy brook and country lane.

The white of willow leaves flashing in the sunshine against a dark grey thundery sky.

Chelmsford (52.8 % Leave 47.2 % Remain)

We draw into Chelmsford station, the tracks lined with buddleia, elder, and sycamore.

Political vandals

Last Sunday I followed the lead of Unison’s Dave Prentis and reported Nigel Farage to the police for inciting racial hatred: his now notorious poster depicting refugees seeking a safe haven from war and violence marks a debasement of our political culture that cannot go unchallenged.  Given the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, and rising levels of racism and xenophobia in the UK not seen since the 1970s, the task of defending society from the politics of hate is a responsibility for every citizen.

When the UK Prime Minister David Cameron foolishly called for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union he set in train a process that has yet to be fully played out regardless of the final outcome on 23 June.  At one level we have the spectacle of a Conservative leadership campaign in which political recklessness has been re-fashioned as an absurd bid for English independence that further divides the different nations, regions, and communities of the UK. And standing behind the right-wing populist Boris Johnson is his new aide-de-camp Michael Gove, a curious ideological zealot, still smarting from being sacked by Cameron as Secretary of State for Education. The simmering internal disputes over Europe within the Conservative Party have been re-energized by a cocktail of bitterness and political ambition.

Among the glaring features of this referendum, illustrated yet again by the final debate at Wembley last night, is a pervasive hostility towards “experts” and rational argument. Millions of voters are convinced that the decline of manufacturing industry, falling living standards, and underinvestment in public services is the fault of the European Union and not successive UK governments. The longstanding lack of investment in education, skills, innovation, infrastructure, and all the other ingredients of economic success has scarcely been addressed.

If there was ever an illustration of why a referendum is a crude and dangerous political tool this Thursday’s polarized and unnecessary choice shows why. The EU is not perfect but to leave would be an act of political vandalism based on a misreading of history and a retreat from reality.