Monday, 17 November 2014

An English toilet, a French toilet, and a German toilet walk into a bar…

In summer 2013, I noticed something weird about, Slavoj Zižek, David Foster Wallace, and toilets.  A series of coincidences in my life this week made me dig further…

The ideology of toilets

Slavoj Zižek has a skit that he occasionally performs in talks, about how different designs of toilet reflect the ideological character of their parent nation.  It’s quite funny – you can watch it here (from 1:02 to 3:45).  

The argument goes as follows:

German toilets are designed with the hole at the front, meaning that poo sits there for inspection before being flushed – which apparently is a manifestation of German philosophical reflection or conservatism.  French toilets have the hole at the back, so the poo vanishes immediately when flushed, representing French radicalism or rashness.  (Stay with me here.)  The Anglo Saxon approach (meaning England or the US, depending on the version he tells) involves the shit floating in water before being flushed – a kind of compromise, possibly expressing moderate rationality or economic liberalism. 

Got that?  Don’t worry.  Read on:

The Suffering Channel

David Foster Wallace’s short story The Suffering Channel follows a group of journalists from a New York magazine, who are writing a feature on an enigmatic rural ‘artist’ who makes sculptures out of his own turds.

Here’s an excerpt from a conversation between a group of magazine interns:

“She […] asked generally now whether anyone else who travelled abroad much had noticed that in German toilets the hole into which the poop is supposed to disappear when you flush is positioned way in front, so that the poop just sort of lies there in full view and there’s almost no way you can avoid looking at it when you get up and turn around to flush.  Which she observed was so almost stereotypically German, almost as if you were supposed to study and analyze your poop and make sure it passed muster before you flushed it down […]  whereas as in French toilets, though, the hole tended to be way in the back so that the poop vanished ASAP, meaning the whole thing was set up to be as elegant and tasteful as possible…  So then what about the US toilets here, with the hole in the middle and all this water so it all floats and goes around and around in a little dance before it goes down – what’s up with that?” 

Sound familiar?  Right.  So how did this come about? 

Beyond the u-bend:  the genealogy of the idea

Where does Zižek say his ideas come from?  In the video (2011), he claims he made the initial observation about the different designs of toilet himself, and as a result, sought the advice of architects and designers for the origins of this phenomenon.  When he didn’t receive a satisfactory answer, he bombastically exclaims, “A wild speculation came to my mind”, whereupon he arrives at his theory in a flash of inspiration. 

However, the earliest source I can find where Zižek expresses his toilet theory is in an article he wrote for the London Review of Books on 2nd September 2004.  (He may also have expressed it somewhere earlier that I’m not aware of – I simply don’t know.)  In the LRB, he rather more modestly presents a lineage of authors, including Hegel’s idea of there being three key European national ideals (German, French and English). 

He then mentions that “In the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that ‘German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.’”  

So I went away and read Fear of Flying to see what Jong had in mind – and it turns out she’s actually much more specific, and goes much further than this flippant remark Zižek quotes about the Third Reich. 

After a whole paragraph on the German psychology of hygiene, Jong ponders “A classification of people on the basis of toilets.  ‘The History of the World Through Toilets’”, and describes in detail the national-psychology characteristics of each:
British:  “…the last refuge of colonialism.”
German:  “…enables you to have a long look, choose among political candidates, and think of things to tell your analyst.”
Italian:  “…the toilets run swift here and the shit disappears long before you can leap up and turn around to admire it.  Hence Italian art.”
French:  “I somehow cannot make sense of French philosophy & literature vis à vis the French approach to merde.”
Japanese:  “This has something to do with Zen.” 

Huh.  So it now seems clear that Erica Jong originated this theme…   


…But not in a straightforward way.  Because although there are similarities between all three works, they’re certainly not identical. 

The stereotype of Germans being analytical and philosophical is espoused by each of them.  But the French caricature in The Suffering Channel is of elegance, rather than Zižek’s one of political radicalism, whilst Jong’s is uncertain – though maybe her image of Italian artiness acts as a stand-in for Wallaces' and Zižek's French paradigm here.  The Anglo-Saxon part is the most confused of all.  Jong offers the British Empire and stiff upper lip, Zižek thinks it’s about British or American liberalism, but Wallace doesn’t really offer anything at all. 

In fact another feature which is common among Jong, Wallace and Zižek is that by the time they get to the last stereotype on their respective lists, they’ve run out of steam.  They tail off vaguely as if to say “Well… you get the picture – do I really need to finish this idea?”  Alternatively, perhaps it’s a deliberate critique of the absurdity of national collective identities, or even a self-mocking way of acknowledging that although they made a joke based on stereotypes, they don’t wholeheartedly  subscribe to them.  (Though this last suggestion seems unlikely in Jong, who demonstrates a strong antagonism towards both German and Middle-Eastern culture in Fear of Flying.)

It’s also notable that Italy, and especially Japan, are included in Jong’s list of nationalities, because when Zižek brings up the idea of the European ideological trinity in his talk, he decries it as racist – although it appears to be him who is excluding other cultures from his analysis.  (Notwithstanding that Jong’s summation of Japanese culture is, ahem, lacking in nuance to say the least.)

While Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying came out back in 1973, the timing of Wallace and Zižek’s work is curious:  Zižek’s LRB article appeared on 2nd September 2004 – just three months after the publication of Wallace’s Oblivion Stories anthology, on 4th June 2004. 

But it’s still difficult to suspect that Zižek’s idea was prompted Wallace.  Partly because he also cites Jong’s much earlier novel (albeit not the most relevant part of it).  But also because Zižek must have been aware that the Venn diagram of people who have read both Slavoj Zižek and David Foster Wallace must be a pretty cosy one.  (Though a quick web search only turns up one other blog post from 2011 making the same observation.)

And to what extent did Wallace borrow his idea from Jong?  

Above all, regardless of 'who started it' (the one who smelt it dealt it?), I do find it pleasing that a little idea about toilets from the '70s is still clinging on after all this time, being recapitulated in different forms - even surviving the gradual homogenisation of European WCs - and continues to amuse people with puerile minds like me.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Youth fiction, invisibility and recognition

The fear of being ignored is a prominent theme in many kids’ books and films.  What does this say about how young people relate to parents and authority? 

Invisibility and parental recognition

I’d previously noticed that a number of children’s books play on the unfairness of being invisible.  I’d particularly noticed the perverse glee taken in children being proved right when something bad appears to befall them, after their cries for parental attention have gone unheeded.  In Not Now Bernard, Bernard is ignored by his disinterested parents and is ultimately eaten by a monster as a result.  Noisy Nora pretends to run away from home after her parents won’t give her enough attention, but is welcomed back when she returns soon afterwards.

Often it’s even manifested in the main characters being literally invisible or small (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Borrowers) or slipping into somehow parallel dimensions (Tom’s Midnight Garden).  (It’s tempting to see a link here to other stories about parallel dimensions - NarniaPeter PanConrad’s WarAlice in Wonderland etc – but I think something else is going on here.)

Once I’d spotted this theme, I started noticing it everywhere.  But I also started noticing different types of invisibility, and different responses to it.  Did they relate to different stages of childhood? 

In books for young infants (maybe three to seven years old), the reader seems to be invited to sympathise with another child who is neglected, and strives for parental recognition and approval – like in Not Now Bernard and Noisy Nora

Adventure time!

But in books and films for slightly older children (maybe eight to fourteen), the emphasis seems to shift.  Acting without parental supervision isn’t merely frightening and undesirable – it acquires the heady excitement of doing something magical your parents don’t know about.  And following from that, the way young readers empathise with the character not just in sympathy but with envy

In the film ET, the eponymous alien hero is an amazing secret known only to the children.  (In fact, the specific plot device of “We can’t let the authorities find out about you, because scientists would want to take you away and experiment on you” ends up becoming a fairly widespread plot device to accommodate this whole genre of stories.)  In Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard, the toys that come to life, and the adventures they have, are known about only to the main character (a schoolboy) and his peers.  Likewise Five Children and It, The Demon Headmaster, and probably hundreds of others. 

These stories create a sense of peer-recognition and community;  the commonality that comes from disempowerment.  That shared experience and understanding is the triumphant flipside of living under parental control – the ability to act with agency, under the radar of the all-seeing parental gaze.

This new-found excitement of doing something big without the crusties is still often tempered by anxiety though.  In The Goonies, the heroes take delight in their adventure, but the happy ending comes when all their parents arrive to give them a hug.  It’s significant that the final scene in The Goonies is in the youths relating their experiences to their parents and the press.  This taps into something else that many (but not all) children experience – the sense that if your mum only knew what was going on, then everything would just be OK. Not necessarily because they’ll have practical solutions to fix everything, but simply by dint of your situation being made slightly more real by dint of their recognising it. 

Perhaps this is also why it’s so powerful when characters in stories think they’ve just escaped from danger into the arms of familiar people, or into safe spaces – only to find that they are not as safe as they appear.  (The scene in Jurassic Park where the woman thinks she’s found her companion, but is horrified to find it’s only his severed arm.  The part in 28 Days Later when we think the army will save them, only to discover they just want to imprison and rape them.  The bit in every scary film when the hero manages to escape to the safety of their car and drive away – only to realise that the killer is actually on the back seat…)

Teenagers and respect

But maybe the flipside of the emotional need for your parents / the authorities to know what’s going on, is the frustration of (or fear of) not being believed.  This is a trope that emerges for various teen characters, returning full circle to Not Now Bernard.  Because although in many ways teenagers can be eager to remove themselves from the adult world (eg through various specific identities and subcultures) they’ve also often moved beyond the phase of wanting Narnia-type adventures, and crave to be taken seriously as adults.  They want to be shown respect.  (At the very least, they want to appear grown up to other teenagers – “Old enough to grow a bad moustache”, as one character puts it in The Simpsons.) 

In The Blob, a group of teenagers are the first to recognise the threat of the giant gooey alien predator.  But the sheriff initially doesn’t believe them, assuming it’s “only kids” playing a prank.  The happy ending comes from the recognition of adults.  Similarly in Hackers, a group of teen computer geeks struggle against an evil foe, only managing to win the day when they’re able to broadcast their side of the story to the nation, by hacking into a TV station. 

Teen stuff actually gets a bit more complicated than children’s literature.  I think this is because whereas there are endless numbers of books written specifically for kids, this is less the case for teenagers – although of course many books aimed at teens do exist.  Meanwhile, there are loads TV shows and films directed at teenaged audiences.  But the cultural context of TV and film is very different to book, with plots and characters often liable to be much more driven by advertising revenues, and capturing specific demographic ranges.  This means that in children’s literature the plot will often focus on characters in quite a narrow age range, whereas other fiction rarely features only teenagers – there will usually be other characters with a range of ages, especially in family films (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Goonies); even where the main character is a teenager (Back to the Future);  and even where almost everyone is a teenager (eg Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

No doubt there are loads of other examples in youth fiction to disprove all of what I’ve written above.  And there are plenty of adults being disbelieved and rendered invisible in grownup fiction.  It's certainly too simplistic to divide all youth into three clear-cut phases, whose subjectivity is felt identically by everyone, consisting of  'clinging to your parents', 'having adventures with other children', and 'selectively entering adulthood and seeking recognition'.  But despite these caveats, I do still think that some of the tropes above tap into to specific fears and desires that are experienced by many young people at certain stages of their development.  

Monday, 18 November 2013

Apocalypse Never: why we’ll never know when climate change has ‘arrived’

Climate change is often perceived as a single event that will happen at some point in the future, whereupon all the world’s weather systems will suddenly, simultaneously go haywire.  All the ice will melt, and sea levels will rise and instantly flood through our city centres;  tsunamis, hurricanes and forest fires will terrorise the coasts and countryside;  and we’ll finally know – once and for all – that this anthropogenic climate change thing scientists have been warning us about, was real all along.  

Except that won’t happen.  Climate systems are more complex than that, and changes will probably occur over long periods of time, and even rates of change won’t be constant.  We’re currently living through a period of gradual atmospheric shifts, witnessing the biosphere mutate around us.  But it’s very difficult to see this happening.  The interplay of different geological cycles and systems means we’ll never be able to draw a line in the sand and say:  “All past hurricanes were just bad weather.  This one, (and all those yet to come?) was a climate change hurricane.”  (Though some people, famously including the mayor of New York, have done just that.)  

This is dangerous, because if we’re always waiting for the ‘aftermath’ of some grand catastrophe, we’ll end up waiting forever, whilst the harmful consequences of global warming and unstable weather patterns continue to build incrementally around us.  There will be no ‘after’ – only an increasingly unpleasant ‘during’.  In order to take effective and timely action on climate change, we must build social movements that re-imagine the apocalypse.

Short-term human imagination
Why is it that we find it so hard to conceptualising gradual change over long periods?  Why do we think in terms of the ‘normal’ present, versus the post-apocalyptic future?  Why is it, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, that we’re so readily able to imagine a future earth as an apocalyptic wasteland, but don’t have the imagination to avert this by re-thinking the way we organise our society in the present? 

It’s often suggested that humans are simply incapable of thinking in the timescales needed to avert long-term climatic change.  That our psychology is evolutionarily hard-wired to let us solve problems that will help us immediately – how to find food, shelter, etc – but doesn’t let us comprehend bigger, more abstract things like the future, quantum physics, and the popularity of Robin Thicke. 

But I’d argue that there are loads of everyday things that would be really useful to understand but we have no clue about how they work – like consciousness, and love.  On the other hand, there are loads of examples of humans having a very good grasp of phenomena that operate across huge scales of space and time.  We understand (pretty much) how stars work – how amazing is that?  And – under the right circumstances – people have conceived projects designed to last for centuries. 

Bazalgette’s London sewer system comes to mind (famously over-designed to accommodate a potential population boom in the capital), as does a lot of other Victorian civic architecture.  But even simple objects:  in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell regards a stone water-trough, which he claims was made at least 100 years ago.  He muses, “That country had not had a time of peace of any length at all that I knew of ... But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years”.  [OK, the water-trough is fictional - but you get my point.]

Media simplification
The mainstream press doesn’t lend itself well to long, nuanced, multi-stranded narratives.  A related but separate problem is that discussions around risk and uncertainty are very difficult to convey succinctly or punchily.  Scientific uncertainty is often misunderstood as meaning “scientists don’t know what’s going on”.  It’s also not usually possible to go into the detail of how scientific consensus is formed, or what it even means to say ‘scientific consensus’ in the first place – so when people say ‘scientists agree climate change is real’, it’s not always clear what that means. 

The media is happiest when it can explain a whole story in a single bombastic headline, then supplement this with some background detail to add a bit of colour.  Where there is room for debate in a story, it is generally presented in black-and-white terms, with two rent-a-quotes who are framed as being from two diametrically opposing camps, who say the opposite to each other in order to provide a sense of ‘balance’.  This echoes the archaic, adversarial traditions of debate so beloved by our law courts and parliament. 

[Of course, the above is an equally simplistic and unfair characterisation of journalism, and there’s a huge amount of variety and depth in the way that climate change and other stories are covered in the national media, depending on the news outlet, context, the format of the piece, etc.  But I do still think that these concerns remain a barrier to a better public understanding of climate change.]

This approach leaves limited room to air more subtle shades of critique between different parties.  It gives little scope to tease out the whole web of issues that usually underpin a story.  Questions as broad as climate change are particularly adversely affected by this style of reporting. 

In particular, it is the black-and-white (in fact black versus white) approach that seems to lend itself to arguments over whether climate change is happening or not.  Discussions over the extent of the capacity of oceans to absorb CO2, or the pros and cons of different policy approaches to minimising deforestation, are too vague to make good headlines.  They’re also less suited to the topical immediacy on which most news items are pegged. 

The upshot is that climate change debate is often limited to the question “Is it happening or not?”  Or at best, demanding to know exactly what concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will cause specific temperature rises, and what precise meteorological effects these will correlate with.  (Spoiler:  we can’t predict it that accurately.)

Missing middle, but no end
In the face of an oppositional discourse where climate advocates are pitted against climate deniers, we end up with all the climate campaigners focusing solely on the most harmful effects of climate change – the devastating end-times that humanity must strive to avoid – just in order to get the public and policy-makers to take it seriously enough to act.  But in only telling the end of the story, we lose all the action in the middle, and skip straight to the denouement in the final chapter. 

The trouble is, if we wait to witness a disaster before we’re satisfied that climate change is real and problematic, it will not only be too late to mitigate its causes, but we may not even notice it going on all around us.  If we’re searching for an ‘aftermath’, we’re never going to find it – because we’ll forever be living in the present. 

Linear narrative
I suspect the media question isn’t just about presentation of climate stories, but the way we’re trained to process narrative itself.  The way culture is produced and consumed often relies on being able to sell a simple linear narrative arc, with a beginning and end, and often with goodies and baddies.  Books, films, and TV series all leave us with the expectation of a resolution, to end on a perfect cadence.  (Of course there are exceptions to this rule, like The Prisoner – but they are indeed exceptions).  Likewise, when we engage with narratives on climate change through these same media, we’re presented with a view that has to be easily packaged into the standard format. 

If our brains are trained to think in terms of rigid narrative arcs, with a beginning and end, it’s more difficult to think in terms of a never-ending process that will continue to play out indefinitely.  We’re always searching for a mental milestone to signify where the story ends.  (Even if there’s a sequel planned for afterwards).

Disaster movies and hell on earth
Climate change is imagined as an impending disaster (which it pretty much is).  We’re already very familiar with what disasters look like, because we’ve seen them in hundreds of films.  Disasters look great on the big screen, because they come with big explosions, a lot of human suffering, and often a topical moral message. 

The trouble is, disaster movies almost always portray the apocalypse as a one-off, traumatic event.  But climate change is a bit more like 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with successive generations of a village living through years and years of small, cumulative disruptions and developments.  This makes climate change very hard to put on screen.

Films featuring the aftermath of epic, world-changing phenomena such as nuclear winters and zombie outbreaks, are our main fictional frames of reference for imagining post-crisis landscapes, which means that when climate-perturbed futures are mapped onto these expectations, something gets lost in translation.  Films featuring individual extreme weather or geological events (Perfect Storm, Twister, etc) maybe relate to some of the local disturbances that could be thrown up by climate change, but they don’t give the whole picture of everyday life.

There aren’t a lot of fictional films explicitly dealing with anthropogenic climate change and its effects (The Day After Tomorrow is one), though a few touch on general themes of ecological collapse (Wall-E springs to mind).  The Day After Tomorrow depicts climate change as a singular event – a tipping point that creates instant global devastation at a single stroke presumably – due to the constraints of Hollywood narrative requirements mentioned above.  But it seems unfair, and almost beside the point to pick this one example – we’ve already learned, through exposure to decades of apocalyptica, to think about time by dividing it into epoch-defining moments of crisis.

In modern Britain, beliefs in traditional notions of Hell – an eternity of literal fire and brimstone – are less prevalent than they once were.  However, it has been suggested by some that Hell is a concept that has not been lost, but secularised.  It has migrated to Hollywood cinema screens depicting floods, explosions, and wastelands;  to crudely constructed, orientalist portrayals of regions in the world that suffer armed conflict, genocide, and famine.  

Yet these secularised visions of ‘Hell on earth’ retain something of the transcendent;  the abject;  the infinite and unknown, that have always characterised Hell as an unsettling concept.   Perhaps by tapping into this portion of some cultural subconscious, disaster movies speak to some buried anxiety of eternal devastation brought about by our own wrongdoing, closely aligning with the same visions of moralising and hellfire preached by many in the environmental movement.  [Not that there's some homogenous, universally held version of Hell, but I do think a hazy conception of Hell is recognised widely enough to carry significant resonance for many people.]

Borderlands and D-Days
Naomi Klein’s theory of the Shock Doctrine – the creation of perpetual emergency, a present moment that is permanently ephemeral and ‘now’, as a mechanism of domination – is partly reflected in the quick-fix lifestyle interventions necessary for consumer capitalism.  So-called retail therapy;  comfort eating and crash-dieting;  get ripped in 4 weeks;  the ‘before and after’ shot. 

The notion of there being an ‘after’ to take an ‘after shot’ of, is significant.  It’s an everlasting, effortless ‘after’ that follows a single burst of energy needed to create a dramatic, one-off change that will not relapse.  The greener pastures promised by lifestyle-advertising repeatedly create in our minds miniature milestones in our lives, on the other side of which lies a blissful ‘after’, a future of release.

Of course, in reality there is no ‘after’ a diet, where you can stop working and revert to your presumably slovenly, primordial, default state.  You have to keep it up indefinitely.  This is why the very concept of ‘going on a diet’ is problematic – because although it might be possible to moderately adjust to a healthier lifestyle, who could face going on a permanent diet?  (And how could you sell it?) 

The same consumer logic of one-off crash diets and quick fixes is well suited to the attraction of climate technofixes, where one catastrophic singularity is mitigated by another, one-off intervention of high technology, without addressing any of the interconnected underlying problems of energy production and consumption, resource depletion, social inequality, etc.  Our tangled global crises are instantly solved with the same simplicity of Bruce Willis nuking an asteroid.

That isn't to say we should reject technology altogether - but we need to think about what technology we deploy, who controls it, and whose priorities it serves.  To return to Fredric Jameson (sort of), why is it that many individuals and governments are prepared to accept the validity of madcap geo-engineering schemes, but dismiss large-scale solar and wind energy generation, and global emissions treaties, as implausible?  

Re-imagining capitalism and re-imagining the climate
Nina Power once said in a talk she gave for Auto Italia that the anti-capitalist revolution isn’t going to be a ‘grand rupture’.  This is the revolution figured as the ‘glorious day’, as imagined by so many on the left, and captured exquisitely in the romanticism of Silver Mt Zion’s lyrics about barricades, and the grand ‘parade’ that repeatedly serves as the metaphor for their insurrection.

Power didn’t mean that a revolution wouldn’t entail great upheaval.  She meant that the world the day afterwards wouldn’t look so very different to how it did the day before.  Our personal relationships, our streets, will still feel just as they did the previous Tuesday.  Even following times of major transition, the everlasting questions remain, ‘What do we do now?  How do we build from here?’

These questions can’t just be asked after the event.  Although many find romanticism in ideas of grand, radical upheavals that suddenly uproot centuries-old systems of inequality, real, peaceful and lasting change must come through slowly building social movements that can address these challenges.  And in fact, most of our daily experiences of participating in politics – however radical – are not about planning for some far-off glorious revolution, but are about small actions – raising awareness of particular issues;  holding debates;  staging demonstrations that don’t expect to immediately bring the government to its knees, but that hope to challenge institutions to behave a little bit better, or will inspire others to take more small actions of their own. 

This slow-burning, building impetus, for me offers hope for ways in which we might seek to re-imagine approaches to climate change.  Because climate change also requires a radical sea-change in the way society operates, but won’t manifest itself suddenly and completely.  It therefore requires solutions that are visionary and groundbreaking to create a new, different, more liveable world, but that don’t expect to see these changes take place over night. 

Having earlier mentioned Godspeed You Black Emperor’s ‘parade’ revolutionary aesthetic, their daughter band, Silver Mt Zion, offer a different vision of resistance in the title of their 1999 album, “Slow Riot for a New Zero Kanada”.  I can’t pretend to know the sentiments that lay behind this name, but for me it speaks of a sustained but powerful response to a late-capitalist, brutal world order that has created a landscape where – in the words of Wikipedia’s translation of the biblical quote in the liner notes –

“The earth… was waste and void…
There was no man, And all of the birds of the heavens were fled... 
The fruitful field was a wilderness,
And all the cities thereof were broken down… 
The whole land shall be desolate,
Yet I shall not make a full end.”


Climate change is indeed a real and serious problem.  Although it won’t make its full effects known in a single day, its impact will be enormous – and ongoing.  Likewise, we need to develop solutions to re-organising the economy, society, and politics, that can’t happen overnight, but do need to be profound and radical – and sustainable in the long-run.  There will be no ‘after’ – only an endless ‘during’.  We need a slow riot.  

Monday, 4 November 2013

The (re)gentrification of cycling

A striking image occupied two full pages of the Evening Standard last week.  It featured a cyclist adorned with every possible ‘cycling visibility’ bauble you could imagine, and then some.  It was reminiscent of a cartoon I once drew to illustrate the proliferation of bike safety merchandise – except that this photograph managed to contain accessories that didn’t even feature in my exaggerated doodle, including some contraptions I’d never seen before.  

The piece brings into the mainstream the idea of cyclists as a new consumer market – and a high-end one at that.  The subtleties of different types of bike lights are no longer the sole domain of backroom bike-shop geek-talk:  57 varieties are now brought to us alongside a column that compares youth-restoring face creams. 

This reinforces the idea that hi-vis bicycle clips are no longer enough.  High-end bike clobber is no longer the preserve of the elite lycra-clad men who think nothing of cycling 80 miles on a Sunday afternoon.  It has now become a staple for anyone who wishes to use the roads.  A minimum requirement to avoid moral opprobrium for endangering your own safety, both in conversations with friends and family, and collectively in the popular press.

Furthermore, this marketisation of bike gear means that – as with all other consumer markets – the bar is continually being raised, with an ever-increasing diversity of products that must be purchased, at increasingly high costs.  The expansion of the range of products also means that an increasingly outlandish culture is being created, which moves potential riders further and further away from appearing ‘normal’.  Who wants to go around looking like Robocop, with the weird head-torch bike helmet in the picture above? 

Part of me even feels that the spectacular nature of the appearance of the modern biker-rider shares something with the ever-more sinister uniforms of police forces and armies.  Seeing the terrifying pictures of the Taiwanese army’s new Hannibal-inspired autumn range, I couldn’t help but think they resembled a cross between a BMX-er and a bike courier, only wielding a gun.  

Outsider clique culture and professionalisation
But more subtly, this entry requirement also manifests itself by making people feel that they just ‘don’t belong’ on a bike or on the roads.  That they lack some kind of ‘official’ status, which would presumably arise from some combination of experience, skills, expertise, or simply ‘looking the part’.  Rachel Aldred, a sociologist of cycling, found in her research that many cyclists she interviewed stated that although they regularly ride a bike to get around, they don’t identify as ‘proper cyclists’

The group of people who are perceived as holding this ‘official’ status themselves end up representing a psychological barrier to others joining their gang – rather than cycling being perceived as something anyone can do.  This isn’t helped by the stereotypical image of the cyclist – reproduced in the Evening Standard image above – which is that of someone young, athletic, attractive, affluent, and usually white.  (Though adverts in recent years do at least seem to be moving away from the assumption that cyclists are all muscular, lycra-clad men.)

As well as informal pressures on cyclists to conform with trends in clothing and equipment, there are calls for helmets to become mandatory, for some minimum level of training, for all bikes to be insured, and even for bicycle number-plates. 

A culture of increasing specialisation, professionalisation, and bureaucratisation of cycling mirrors trends in many other areas of society.  Professionals such as lawyers and doctors used to practice over a whole range of areas;  it’s now extremely rare to find ones who work on more than one highly specific field.  It’s become a cliché that journalism used to be a trade you could enter after leaving school at 16 and making the tea at a newspaper;  these days, hacks pretty much need an Oxbridge degree and a trust-fund.  And speaking of making tea, it’s increasingly difficult to even find work in cafés without having formal barrista training. 

So, as cycling becomes increasingly marketised, its visual culture becomes increasingly alien from ‘normal’ people;   those who are considering starting have an increasingly large gap of knowledge and equipment to overcome;  and those who already participate in it and want to continue must turn over an increasingly amount of their attention (i.e. time and money) to keeping on top of developments in the field.

Cost and inequality
The problem isn’t just that the culture of cycling is being made more cliquey.  The rising financial cost of keeping up with all the necessary apparel is also creating a very real barrier to participation.  A bike light that costs £125?  Seriously? 

The cultural and financial burdens of modern urban cycling are surely no coincidence.  The link between the recent modishness of cycling among the young professional classes descending upon Britain’s metropolitan centres has played a large part in the ability of manufacturers and retailers to bump up their costs so drastically. 

I recently bought a new bike for £850 (which I couldn’t have done without the government-subsidised cycle-to-work scheme my employer fortunately participates in).  This is almost double what the same model cost about four years ago, and almost triple the price my housemate recently paid for a small second-hand car.  Even old second-hand bikes now command £150 - £400, particularly if they have desirable ‘vintage’ (meaning ‘made in the 1980s’) steel frames.  About 8 years ago, they’d have cost more like £30.

Contrast this with the bike’s image in Britain until recently – the means of transport of the person who can’t afford a car. 

Another recent article in the Evening Standard featured a former gang-member slamming the lack of government investment in youth services in working class areas.  He strikingly singled out Boris bikes as emblematic of the state prioritising middle-class interests.  Boris bikes were cheaper than buses until January of this year, and could in many ways be portrayed as a great leveller of access to transport, and cycling in particular (albeit their condensed distribution in central London and its most affluent suburbs caters towards the city’s wealthier inhabitants).  However, cycling has now become so strongly associated with middle class culture that for many it has come to represent a source of tension between the perceived interests of the political classes and those of the disenfranchised urban populace.

A little bit of history repeating
This trend of the last 10-ish years isn’t a sudden post-script to a history of salt-of-the-earth working class cycling though.  Carlton Reid has noted that penny farthings in the 1870s were “The red Ferrari of the age”.  It was only later that they became the mainstream, cheaply available method of transport that saw my grandfather ride one each morning to the factory where he worked.

In cycling’s new costliness and social status however, we seem to be witnessing a disappointing return of Victorian-era phenomena to the present day – in common with welfare arrangements, tweed and rickets.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Stand up tall: authenticity, the past, and the future

Dan Hancox’s recent e-book, Stand up tall:  Dizzee Rascal and the birth of grime, uses Dizzee Rascal’s first two albums as a prism through which to explore the history of grime, and the politics that underpinned its birth.  I found it compelling, as Dan Hancox’s approach made me reflect on my own, strange relationship with grime – but it also raised broader questions for me around authenticity and nostalgia. 

Not orientalism
I first encountered Dan Hancox a few years back when he gave a talk at the University of East London about the role of grime in the 2010 student protests.  I remember at the time finding it hilarious to hear someone talk about grime in that accent – this was something I’d never encountered before. 

I had mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I found something uncomfortably anthropological about his insights and descriptions.  It reminded me of when I used to work in criminal courts, and would hear upper-class barristers trying to ‘translate’ slang used by defendants.  There also seems to be something slightly problematic about the mainstream music media’s attitude towards Hancox, positioning his writing as legitimating a whole culture by virtue of his writing about it as a middle class Oxbridge graduate. 

(Though I’m sure this is a mantle he would never choose for himself, and his genuine joy for the genre and its culture is apparent throughout – not least in his approach to interviews.  The end of the book describes with glee his various encounters with grime artists on their own terms – in the back of cars, in recording studios, in cramped bedrooms.)

On the other hand, I found it positive that here was someone with his background prepared to take the genre seriously, and unironically discuss it in the language you would expect to hear people use when talking about any other art or literature – a far cry from the derisive and smug tones of the TV show Rude Tube, serving up Jaxxor’s ‘Junior Spesh’ to a knowing crowd of chav-baiting hipsters. 

There was a notable lack of sensationalism or exoticism – something missing from most grime coverage.  I enjoyed his analysis of grime’s sense of humour about itself, which can be easy to miss or misinterpret.  I found his attempt to describe the possible joy of screwfacing at dirty basslines reminding me of my teenage self explaining mosh-pits to people who thought they were all about fighting and aggression. 

Rose tinting
However, I did find some of this approach overly rose-tinted.  While a lot of mainstream coverage of grime – and of urban and youth culture in general – focuses too heavily on gang violence, Hancox I feel reacts by down-playing it too much.  He talks about violent lyrics being mainly bravado, and describes the camaraderie of grime artists behind the façade of machismo – with the infamous exception of Crazy T’s murder conviction. 

But this ignores some very real problems, which grime music is famous for documenting – the postcode wars, frequent fights and stabbings, rivalries between estates and gangs, and occasional killings.  As Hancox rightly points out in the book, this doesn’t mean grime caused or was caused by these phenomena, and I’m not locating violence as part of the grime ‘scene’ exactly.  But grime is certainly the soundtrack to all that. 

This brings me on to my own weird relationship with grime.  Growing up as a middle-class kid in suburban East London, grime was definitely on my radar as a teenager.  I had friends that listened to it, and friends of friends who produced it, and who were fully part of that world.  But my response to it was always detached. 

There was something kind of absurd about grime, in the same way that probably most teenage sub-cultures are when you’re not part of them.  I remember sitting in my friend Ben’s car, and him playing me Pay As U Go Cartel on Rinse FM (back when it was still a pirate radio station), and at first being convinced he was listening to it ironically.  I remember us all laughing like drains at an Oxide and Neutrino lyric, “I'll break in your house, strip you naked and take your possessions, now that’s gettin jacked.  I shot myself in the leg, cos I’m crazy like that. ” – how could anyone say that and take themselves seriously? 

Grime was also strongly associated with the kids who’d rob me and my friends on the bus, and start on is in the street.  While clearly not everyone who listened to grime was a potential mugger, grime acquired a connection with something scary.  Going to the Stratford Rex – which Hancox describes as the setting for a bland live-set from Roll Deep – was a genuinely tense experience when I was a teenager.  It was only in my early twenties, when getting robbed or attacked by other teenagers became a much less frequent occurrence, that I actually started listening to grime on its own terms.  From Hancox’s anecdotes, including seeing Roll Deep in 2005, I’m guessing (though perhaps ignorantly or unfairly) that he had similar experiences to mine. 

Creating the past, destroying the past
I read this e-book on the day I returned from heatwave August France, after a fortnight cycling through sleepy rural Brittany, and staying at an anarchist permaculture farming community.   After living in utopia, this was a pleasing way to ease myself back into the grit of the city. 

I enjoyed the stroll through Thatcher and Blair’s legacies on the East End;  the politics;  the architecture;  the history of the Docklands area;  the impact of gentrification and the Olympics;  the relationship between the police and young BME people.  And I enjoyed that none of it was abstract, that it was all told from an intimate perspective.  I also – inevitably – ended up revisiting almost the whole Dizzee Rascal back catalogue. 

But all this created the strange effect of making me feel a glow of nostalgia for something I’d never (at least not contemporaneously) been part of.  It made me think of Mark Fisher’s writings about longing to recreate a nostalgic past that you’ve never experienced.  My friend Ishraaq has often expressed his pain at being in the right place, at the right time, but in the wrong social class, to participate in grime as a teenager.  And that however much he listens to it now, it will only ever be as an outside observer – it will never have been a part of his youth. 

This re-combined especially weirdly with Hancox’s own ideas about grime attempting to escape from a humdrum present into a dream-world future.  Like maybe I’d fallen through a hole into some sort of limbo-dimension, re-inventing a past that denied its own present by looking for a future that has never been. 

Although I’m actually undecided about the claims that grime denies its present (after all, what other genre speaks – in its own accent – about such minute details of quotidian life?), nothing demonstrates more clearly a desire to escape the past than the end-notes about Dizzee Rascal’s refusal to participate in the book, or talk about his roots in grime and pirate radio. 

In an uncomfortably hurt fanboy voice, Hancox talks about Dizzee’s refusal not just to talk to him, but to pretty much anyone about his life and music before a certain period.  (It can only have been these passage that spawned some rather beautiful slash fiction on Twitter:  "I... I... I luv u", sighed the cub journalist as Dizzee's toned arms wrapped around his quivering torso".)

Creating the future
Although it’s a shame that Dizzee sold old (and he definitely has), I can understand why by this point he’d be weary of repeatedly being expected to re-visit his past for the delectation of the mainstream media seeking orientalist thrills, the ‘urban safari’ satirised in Plan B’s Ill Manors.  (Again, I’m not necessarily including Dan Hancox in this milieu).  

Dizzee’s frustrations at this minority-pigeonholing are echoed in Kanye West’s recent interview with Zane Lowe, where talks about the barriers he has come up against as a black artist trying to take his work in new directions.  He finds that he can never simply be an artist, but must always be categorised as a black artist, and one who has a history of talking about the street. 

(As an aside, this explicitly voiced class-and-race-consciousness of Kanye West – rarely seen in modern pop music – is also expressed by Dizzee in Cut ‘Em Off, albeit more romantically, in a lyric that stands out for me above anything else he’s written: 

“Remember this:  I AM YOU.
So if you think you're real, do what you gotta do.
On a level, you’re just challenging yourself.
So if you’re feeling brave, go ahead and hurt yourself.”)

Dizzee himself has framed his new music not as selling out, but as a desire to create a more positive future by singing about subjects other than the negative aspects of street life, and not dwelling on a past that he no longer lives in.  Fair enough, though it’s a pity he did it with James Corden and Robbie Williams, given that he now has the power to pick and choose pretty much any musician in the world to collaborate with.

But there’s still no getting away from Dizzee’s incisive political insight.  Though many took the piss out of his Newsnight interview, his response to Paxman’s question, “Do you believe in political parties” - “I believe they exist, yeah” – was exactly the kind of thing I’d have wished I’d said if I’d been asked that question. 

And, while grime contains its share of political and philosophical and wisdom (though you often have to look pretty hard for it), Boy in da Corner and Showtime contain it in density that is rarely matched in any album of any genre of the last 20 years.  

Which brings me back to my opening sentence.  I found it in some ways limiting that Dan Hancox chose to use just two albums as his focal point – though I had to admire his discipline in not straying into the plethora of other artists he could have brought into the mix.

But it’s a testament to the depth contained in those two short albums that they were able to work as a lens to investigate not just a genre, but a whole era, place, political landscape and culture.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

More cyclist victim-blaming

This afternoon I met a friend of a friend, and we discussed her experiences of driving in London, having moved here from China a couple of years ago.  I sympathised with her nightmarish experiences of driving lessons involving the enormous roundabouts in the part of East London where I grew up, and related to her feeling unconfident in navigating London’s often hectic streets.  

She then told me that she’s failed her test four times – but in the same breath, added with outrage that two of these failures had been due to cyclists.  I raised my eyebrows.  It seemed harsh for a driving examiner to fail her for a mistake that was someone else’s fault.  On the other hand, I could imagine a learner driver not having the experience to deal with out-of-the-ordinary situations, and panicking during interactions with other road-users behaving in unexpected or selfish ways, leading her to feel cyclists were to blame for whatever the incident was.  (Notwithstanding the fact that she felt that failing her driving test four times was an injustice against her, rather than an indication of her ability as a driver.)

She elaborated on her story.  The first time she failed, it was because she was asked to pull over when she was in front of two cyclists.  When she indicated and slowed down and, she incorrectly anticipated that they would undertake, and waited in the middle of the road for them to do so.  Instead, the cyclists (correctly) just waited patiently behind her for her to pull in.  She ended up stationary in the middle of the road, for which she was failed. 

I asked what the cyclists had done wrong.  Her response was that if they hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have failed. 

In the second story, she overtook a cyclist on a relatively quiet road.  The examiner soon afterwards asked her to take the next left – which she immediately did without checking her mirrors, cutting up the cyclist who was now just behind her, and who she’d now forgotten about. 

I asked how the cyclist was to blame for her cutting in front of him without looking.  Her response was that he should have used a different road.  I said, ‘What, the other London roads, with no cars on them?’  To which she responded ‘yes’, before going on to say that on a policy level, “They” shouldn’t be permitted on “Our” streets, thus enabling better overall road safety . 

I didn’t ask her any further about why she used the words ‘them’ and ‘us’, or about her use of the possessive ‘our’ – ie why she thought the road belonged to her, but not to cyclists.  But I was quite sarcastic in pointing out that she blamed the cyclist for her own driving test failure, even though it was her behind the wheel, and furthermore it was she who nearly killed the cyclist.  However, she remained adamant that the cyclist was at fault, and that she had done nothing wrong.  

For her, the idea that the cyclist must have been the one in the wrong was closely tied to the idea that cyclists don’t belong on the road.  This gave her the right to drive exactly as she pleased, as cyclists are only temporarily permitted to ride there by the good grace and patience of the car drivers who legitimately inhabit it (ie her). 

The explicitly espoused views that 1)  car drivers are the natural owners of the road, and 2)  cyclists are in an ‘other’ category that has no rights either as traffic or as human beings, seem to be heavily connected, and apparently remain prevalent among London road-users.

Monday, 7 October 2013

The segregated city - urban taxonomies

The city is full of boundaries.  Messages about the space we are inhabiting, telling us where we are allowed to stay put, and where we should keep moving;  where we can and can’t enter, and under what conditions;  messages about how we should behave once inside. 

Sometimes these signals are obvious – a fence with a locked gate tells us we are not meant to enter somewhere.  Some signals are more subtle – a change in the texture of the paving tells us that we are moving from public space to private property, where our legal rights are very different, dictated by the landowner instead of a democratically accountable council or government.  These messages are sent out by urban infrastructure like radio waves, and continually reinforced in our minds by the behaviours of those we see around us.   

And they are indeed messages:  not accidents of construction, but actions carefully considered  by town planners, architects, corporations, local authorities, etc. 

We now rely on a complex web of signals and signposts to guide our interactions with the city, and with each other.  Road markings, traffic signs, positioning of kerbs and speed humps, bollards, railings, fences, walls, the design of junctions and roundabouts, phasing of traffic lights;  anti-skateboarding devices, anti-pigeon devices, anti-youth devices that emit a high-pitched noise, benches designed to repel homeless people;  anti-climb paint;  positioning and availability of facilities such as street lamps, public toilets;  the design of buses and bus stops, and the layout of their routes.  There is even an example of a town in Essex that painted yellow lines on the pavement to guide where people should walk.

These layers of mediation between our inner thoughts and our external environment have the cumulative effect over time that we stop making decisions and relating our judgements to our direct experiences of the place and our memories.  Instead, we check the signals.  Or rather, we don’t stop thinking altogether – but our thoughts maybe lack nuance, and our ability to critically interpret and respond to new situations is diminished. 

Our diminished ability to think critically about situations leads to our becoming isolated from other people in our immediate surroundings.  People stop being individuals, and become specimens of a given category.  When we drive along the road, we’re looking out for drivers in front and behind us, checking to see if they’re indicating, whether they’re speeding up or slowing down, performing pre-determined movements that imply particular patterns of behaviour.  We’re not thinking about what that person is like;  what sort of day they’re having;  how they’re feeling;  etc. 

And fair enough – if we spent all our time wondering what the driver next to us was going to have for dinner, I’m not sure it would help our driving.  But I still think it’s important to note the trade-off that we make in this process of dehumanisation.

Our removal from other road-users is all the more stark in relation to people in different categories.  People on the ‘other’ side of the boundaries that mark up the city.  For example, if we travel along the road in a car, we are not only bodily separated from the outside world through the physical fact of the car’s shell.  We also a gulf apart from pedestrians inhabiting the parallel dimension of the pavement. 

The visual language of the division between the road and the pavement is powerful enough that we are able to drive along and see people on the pavement in a completely different category to those driving the car directly in front of us.

We’re aware of those pedestrians in our peripheral vision, but as long as their body-language doesn’t indicate they’re about to make a mad dash into the road (into our world, colliding with our reality), we are able to ignore them. 

This isn’t an argument that we should abolish kerbs, and there are many good and helpful reasons that symbolic and physical signs and barriers  – though there have been some interesting experiments in removing these.  But I do think it’s interesting to interrogate the effects of excessively taxonomised mindsets on the relationships between different users of urban space.