Punk Bashing Time

Andrew Stevens interviewed me for Creases Like Knives, 16 September 2017:

Punk Bashing Time: An Interview with Andrew Gallix

It was no less than Garry Bushell himself who wrote of ‘dreading well-meaning graduates with crops and tailor-made crombies’ in Sounds when he met with the teenaged members of ‘Skins Against the Nazis’ in 1978. Stevo had a few less hang-ups about meeting a fully-fledged Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris to go over his new book Punk Is Dead (Zero Books), which in part deals with aspects of skinhead’s troubled history among punk.

But then Andrew Gallix, who also edits the eclectic and punked-up webzine 3:AM, was a little more gracious and even-handed than some of the book’s other contributors when it came to recounting his own experiences.

You begin by taking issue with claims in “certain punk memoirs, [that] the streets of London, in 1977, were thronging with skinheads”?

Well, I was thinking specifically of Viv Albertine’s memoir — possibly the best punk memoir ever published and a truly excellent book in its own right. The dates, however, are not always totally accurate, which, to be fair, is hardly surprising given the breakneck speed of change in those days. Besides, it’s a personal memoir not a history book. I’ve just spotted an anecdote that supposedly took place in 1976 although Johnny Rotten is said to be listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot — an album that only came out the following year. Either the date is wrong or he was listening to another record.

In a chapter devoted to the Roxy club circa 77, Viv mentions night buses being ‘full of skinheads and drunks’, which is highly unlikely. Sham 69 started getting a strong following at the fag-end of the summer of 1977 — they were on the cover of the August-September issue of Sniffin’ Glue following the release of their first single. There was indeed already a smattering of skinheads in their midst, but it was so small they had no real visibility at the time. Teddy boys, definitely — they were all over the place. As I write in the book, I can’t recall ever seeing a skinhead in the flesh before 1978, save for intriguing pictures of Skrewdriver in the music press.

In 78-79 there were also quite a few punks with skinhead-style crops, so there was a lot of overlapping and ambiguity. The guttersnipe hanging out of the open platform at the back of a double-decker in the ads for ‘Clash City Rockers’ (1978) is clearly meant to be a punky urchin, with ‘CLASH’ stencilled on his trousers, but he also has a very short haircut that makes him look a bit like a skinhead. He’s a good example of this hybrid style that reflected a radicalisation of punk in the face of commercialisation and due to an influx of working-class punters on the scene. Paul Simonon himself sported braces and a proper skinhead crop, complete with a shaved parting, at some point in 78.

One of the ideas I develop in Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night is that punk was haunted by its lost beginning. If I may quote myself quoting the Cockney Rejects, ‘Punk’s year-zero mentality (like all other attempts to start again from scratch) was haunted by a yearning to return to some original, prelapsarian state — back in the garage, when the cult still had no name, before they killed the fucking thing. Being born again is just that: being born again. Being borne back’. The radicalisation of the movement that led to the skinhead revival is, in my opinion, part of this quest for authenticity. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Simonon and Weller had all been little skinheads or suedeheads.

I believe there’s another passage in Viv Albertine’s book where she talks about Mick Jones and herself being attacked by a gang of skinheads after a gig on the White Riot tour. I’ve just flicked through the book to check, but alas couldn’t find it. Once more, however, I suspect the date is wrong.

All this is very anal, of course, but I can’t help thinking historical accuracy is important; that the devil is in the (lack of) detail. Maybe it’s because it’s also my own past we’re dealing with here. Yesterday, on Soho Radio, someone was talking about seeing mohicaned punks on the King’s Road in 1977 — another common anachronism which annoys me no end.

But there’s plenty of accounts which claim that skinhead ‘came back’ at the Roxy in 1977?

It’s extremely difficult to say for sure when punk started and ended, but one possible cut-off point is the closure of the original Roxy club in April 1977. I believe Sham only played the real Roxy once, supporting Generation X — that is, Andy Czezowski, Susan Carrington and Barry Jones’ Roxy. I may be wrong, but in any event, they were totally unknown at the time and the whole skinhead thing only really started taking off at the Vortex and at the Roxy Mark 2, when the club reopened under new management, immediately becoming a parody of its previous incarnation.

The atmosphere on the punk scene grew much darker following the ‘summer of hate’, as the NME called it at the time, which had been the movement’s high-water mark. Things started going awry over the autumn and winter, culminating in the Pistols’ acrimonious split in January 1978. These are the bad days when the streets were ‘paved with blood,’ as Paul Weller sang: ‘I’m stranded on the Vortex floor / My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour’.

How old were you when all this was happening? You make reference to boys around your way kitted out in skinhead clobber and the ‘prepubescent, second-generation skinheads in a black-and-white photo spread — doubtless compiled by Garry Bushell — from around 1979’.

Yes, there were little skinheads everywhere! That was in 1979, and I was 14. Skinheads were ubiquitous for a while, and not only in London, of course. Up and down the country. It was absolutely massive, not a fringe thing. Weetabix even had commercials with cartoon skinhead characters: ‘If you know what’s good for you, ok’.

What about in Paris? Who were the ‘once dodgy skinheads’ you mention in your chapter?

I’ve written two chapters somewhat tangentially linked to the Parisian punk scene. One of them is devoted to L.U.V., a fascinating all-girl phantom band; the other focuses on the Bazooka art collective. I wish I could have covered more aspects of French punk. Hopefully in a future book.

The whole skinhead phenomenon was largely lost in translation abroad. What, in an English context, referred back to London working-class culture immediately took on a more sinister, neo-Nazi complexion on the Continent. To be honest, the French skinhead scene had no redeeming features whatsoever. It produced very few bands and they were all beyond crap — initially, Parisian skins followed La Souris Déglinguée, who were not themselves skinheads.

The very first French skins may not have been racist, but they were only interested in fighting. Many of them went on to become drug addicts. The following wave, however, was almost exclusively made up of glue-sniffing fascist nutters. There were also far-left skinheads, calling themselves redskins, whose sole purpose in life was to beat up far-right skinheads. To all intents and purposes, they were the mirror image of their enemies, on whose existence their righteous identity as anti-fascists was entirely predicated.

Those I refer to in that quote are Farid and his gang: la bande à Farid. They were the most interesting on account of being the first and having, paradoxically enough, an Arab leader. As French skinheads, they had a kind of exotic cachet. There hadn’t been any in France the first time round — I understand Australia was the only foreign country to have had an indigenous scene in those days. Most of the members of Farid’s gang hailed from Colombes, a nondescript Parisian suburb. Hanging out in and around Les Halles, they thrived on gratuitous violence, relishing the fear they generated throughout the capital. I remember travelling around Paris, in 1980-81, and wherever we went fellow punks would tell us to watch out because Farid was about. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time!

When the Specials played a gig at the Pavillon Baltard, on 14 March 1980, the French skins were all wearing Onion Johnny black berets to distinguish themselves from their English counterparts. Before the gig, they beat up a mate of mine and stole the white tie I had lent him. During the Specials’ set there was a massive brawl, like in a western, between the French and English skins. You can guess who started the trouble.

Violence is something of a motif throughout the book, for instance both Bob Short and Tony Drayton cite regular skinhead violence against punk squatters (‘gangs of skinheads who would rape and beat at will’). Tony even went so far as to include a manifesto against Oi! and skins in Kill Your Pet Puppy! Did that surprise you?

It didn’t surprise me at all, because violence on the streets was a fact of life back then. If you were a punk, you attracted random abuse and aggression all the time. In 1977, it was teddy boys, football hooligans or outraged members of the general public. I remember seeing blokes stepping off Routemasters on the King’s Road to punch a passing punk, then jumping back on. One of the most famous incidents, of course, was when Rotten was razored by vigilantes. That was part of a widespread anti-punk backlash in the wake of ‘God Save the Queen’. Before that punk violence had been largely symbolic: from the Silver Jubilee onwards, it became literal.

Thereafter, it was usually members of some rival youth cult you had to worry about. The early 80s were very tribal, and there was trouble on all fronts, but skinheads were obviously the worst of the lot. After 1982, almost all the gigs you went to involved some degree of violence at some stage — it just went with the territory. On one occasion, I was walking down Putney Hill with my then girlfriend, when we noticed hordes of skinheads ahead of us on the other side of the road. We were on our way to a gig by anarcho-punk band Conflict — and so were they. Sensibly, we decided to beat a hasty retreat as it would have been a bloodbath. I actually stopped going to gigs for a number of years because it just was not worth the hassle any more.

In all fairness, that adrenalin rush that kicked in as soon as you left home was intoxicating. Boredom may have been a buzzword, but there was never a dull moment: punk really was a revolution of everyday life. After a few years, of course, it started taking its toll.

Around 1985, and still with the same girlfriend, I came face to face with another large gang of menacing-looking skinheads, this time in Brighton. The only way to avoid them would have been to turn round and flee, but I feared they would come running after us, so we walked on petrified. As we got closer I noticed that some of them were holding hands. Nobody had told me that the skinhead look had been subsumed into gay subculture.


Indeed, I noticed David Wilkinson levered in a mention of Nicky Crane’s double life in his chapter on ambivalence of queer in punk. Richard Cabut, who co-edited the book, suggests in his ‘Punk Positive’ chapter’s many dismissals of ‘glue-swamped’ Oi! by ‘lobots’ that by the early 80s skinhead (as one of three ‘tribes’) had become ‘mindlessness wrapped in a dull, grey, lazy uniform of bitterness’. You yourself give the Cockney Rejects more credit, though, i.e. splinter groups capturing original unity.

Yes, I liked Sham 69 and then some of the early Oi bands — Cockney Rejects in particular. The first Oi compilation was really great. The musical boundaries were actually very porous in spite of all the tribalism: mods would listen to punk bands, for instance, and vice-versa. By 1980-81 I was more into the Ants and the anarcho side of things, but I was interested in everything that came in the wake of the initial punk explosion. As I said earlier, the skinhead revival was essentially a response to punk’s commercialisation, as was the mod revival. If I may quote another extract from the book:

Every splinter group that joined the ranks of the punk diaspora (Oi!, the mod revival, 2-Tone, no wave, cold wave, post-punk, goth, early new romanticism, anarcho-punk, positive punk, psychobilly, hardcore etc.) was a renewed attempt to recapture an original unity, which the emergence of these very splinter groups made impossible. As Paul Gorman put it in a recent documentary, ‘People began to play with, and tease out, the strands which were therein, and it was so rich, and so full of content, that one strand could lead to a whole movement.’ When Garry Bushell claims that the Rejects were ‘the reality of punk mythology’ — which is precisely what Mark Perry had previously said apropos of Sham 69 — he is referring to a very restrictive, lumpen version of punk that excludes most of the early bands bar the Clash. (Even within the Clash, only Joe ‘Citizen Smith’ Strummer ever really subscribed to this view.) Many Blitz Kids felt that it was their scene — which was not only contemporaneous with Oi! but also its inverted mirror image — that captured the true spirit of the early movement. Each new wave of bands sought out this point of origin: punk prior to its negation by language, when it was still in the process of becoming. The moment when memory’s exile would come to an end and literally take place.

Finally, is punk really dead? And did modernity kill every night?

The original title we wanted was Modernity Killed Every Night, but the publisher probably found it a little obscure, so I suggested a series of alternatives. Eventually we settled on Punk is Dead, with the original as subtitle.

Punk is Dead works on several levels. It’s a reference to the early Crass song, which is fitting as Penny Rimbaud has contributed a piece to the book, and an oblique response to the Exploited’s ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ — which, of course, was a response to Crass in the first place. I remember Jordan, around 1980-81, pointing out that the ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ slogan was an admission of defeat. I believe this was in The Face magazine.

In fact, when punk was alive and kicking, no one used the word ‘punk’ apart from journalists who had to call it something. Using it was very uncool. In the book I argue that ‘punk died (or at least that something started dying or was lost) as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name — or with several possible names, which comes to the same thing’:

Punk — in its initial, pre-linguistic incarnation, when the blank in ‘Blank Generation’ had not yet been filled in by that ‘bloody word’ [Jonh Ingham] — was the potentiality of punk. It escaped definition, could never be pinned down, as it was constantly in the process of becoming. Punk was a movement towards itself, made up of people who disliked movements and kept pulling in opposite directions.

So the whole question of onomastics is an important one, in my view. It is related to the controversial issue of punk’s birth and death. Borges claimed that writers create their own precursors. In the same way, there is a punk spirit that people now recognise in individuals or movements that predate (and indeed postdate) punk. In this book, we wanted to highlight the socio-historical specificity of the British punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Punk’s influence is everywhere today, but for a whole variety of reasons it’s not the same thing as the real thing.

In 1974 Malcolm McLaren contemplated using ‘Modernity Killed Every Night’ as the name of his boutique. In the end he opted for SEX, but the slogan was sprayed on one of the walls inside the shop. It came from a letter Jacques Vaché sent to André Breton during the First World War:

Despite his bovine-sounding name, Vaché (1895-1919) was a dandified anglophile, who enjoyed walking the streets dressed as a loose woman or a Napoleonic soldier. Choosing to be an actor rather than a puppet, he subverted army life, by — as he put it — deserting within himself. There, in that Switzerland of the mind, he would pretend that his superiors were under his orders, or that he was fighting for the other side. It was gun in hand, sporting an English pilot’s uniform, and threatening to shoot at random, that Vaché interrupted the premiere of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tirésias (1917) on account of its arty-farty production. Apollinaire had coined the word ‘surrealist’ to describe his play, but it was Vaché’s radical brand of criticism that embodied the true spirit of the forthcoming movement. A couple of years later, he died of an opium overdose, which may have been an accident, but is commonly regarded as a defiant parting shot to everyone and everything — the ultimate artistic statement. For André Breton — who befriended him during the war and always claimed that he was the true originator of Surrealism — Vaché was poetry incarnate. After listing his early literary influences — Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautréamont — he added, ‘but it is Jacques Vaché to whom I owe the most.’ His stroke of genius, Breton maintained, was ‘to have produced nothing.’

Advertisements

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

This appeared in the Irish Times, 16 September 2017, p. 10:

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

Joanna Walsh is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s sister. Not literally, of course, but in Worlds From the Word’s End — the story that lends its name to her new collection — she channels Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), giving it a fierce feminist twist. A woman comes to realise that she and her partner have always been “words apart”. Given that he is “only interested in the sound of [his] own voice” and prefers his “women quiet”, she makes a virtue of necessity by spearheading a mute mutiny that reverberates throughout society. Female hipsters — “seeking something retro as usual” — start modelling themselves on the “silent women in cardigans” of yore. The “new silence” goes mainstream. Newspapers become blank. Talk shows ditch the talk. Social media users post “photos of silent activities”. Signage is removed and libraries burned down as couples everywhere tire of “explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words”. In her struggle against mansplaining, Eve rolls back Adam’s enterprise of linguistic imperialism, returning all things to their (nameless) sui generis nature.

“I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you any more” — this paradoxical mission statement delineates the liminal space Walsh explores, charting a middle course between inscription and erasure.

The Story of Our Nation lies at one end of the spectrum. With great fanfare, we are informed that the eponymous story will differ from all past chronicles, criticised for being “parallel but not the real thing”. “What was missing,” the character explains, “was bare fact.” The national epic she is working on will log everything, from “gaps between doors and doorsills” to the “light that arcs night ceilings through the slits between curtains”. It brings to mind the legend (found in Lewis Carroll and Borges) of a map on the exact same scale as the territory it charts. This gesamtkunstwerk should likewise coincide with its object: “once we input all the figures you will be able to see everything in a flash.” The snag is that it can only be achieved by freezing the nation in its current state, lest the quest become “uncompletable”. The “real thing” is turned into a dead thing.

This is also the case in Two, which revolves around a pair of statuettes petrified in their verisimilitude: “So poised to move, yet so immobile, so lifelike and at the same time something that only looks like life.” Their owner fears the fixity of writing as well as that of art; the death of the author, whereby a text escapes its progenitor: “I must be careful describing the seasons as they may also be mistaken for metaphor, and I would not like to lay down some kind of mood setting I didn’t at all mean”.

Everything else is in a state of flux, and it it is this indeterminacy Walsh’s fragmentary prose taps into. Domestic settings grow uncanny: in one case, everyday objects migrate around the house as a daily routine goes awry. The characters are almost all anonymous or identified by a letter à la Kafka (this is even turned into a deftly executed extended joke in Reading Habits). More often than not, their gender remains unspecified. Femme Maison is one of several stories told in the second person singular, where you is I and I is another: “You wanted to be someone else, someone neither of you knew”. Hauptbahnhof is a monologue in disguise, the narrator addressing herself to the absent man who stood her up at Berlin Central Station, where she now resides: “Sometimes a demonstrator [in a shop] makes me over to look like someone new.” The longed-for metamorphosis fails spectacularly to materialise in Simple Hans, where a woman’s head is cut off at her behest: “This is the moment the good things happen in stories, but this is real life. She was meant to change into something else.”

The author’s fourth collection is made up of skittish vignettes and longer, more surreal pieces. There is a great deal of wordplay, but it is never gratuitous. “I’m not aloud”, for instance, speaks volumes about the silencing of women. Puns burrow rabbit-holes into the unconscious of language, where the text seems to become self-generative.

In Bookselves, Walsh conjures up a creature who emerges from someone’s bookshelf, having devoured all their unread books: “It will be the opposite of you, your inverse.” Her prose orbits a black hole whose presence it reveals but cannot express. Postcards from Two Hotels ends on a characteristically ambiguous note: “Tomorrow I return to the first hotel. It is in the second hotel that I did all my writing.” Walsh’s style finds its perfect expression in the troubled housewife who, having cut but not pasted, realises that her words “hover in vacant space”.

A Zen Guide to Paris

This appeared in the New European, 27 July-2 August 2017, pp. 38-40:

A Zen Guide to Paris

It is a testament to the loving preservation of the French capital that a guidebook, published in 1968, should still be fit for purpose. The quaint period detail (snacks “for five or six bob”) must not distract us from the enduring brilliance of Nairn’s Paris, republished by Notting Hill Editions with an introduction by Andrew Hussey. The author’s descriptions — crystalline, lapidary — are still in a league of their own. Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin? “Simple really; just a straight street with something solid at either end and a firework in the middle”. La Trinité’s façade breaks out “into cupolas and groups of statuary on the least provocation”. From the side, Porte Saint-Martin really does resemble “a slice of highly vermiculated slab-cake”. The buttoned-up naughtiness of Pigalle is, perhaps more than ever, “like a matron of forty-five unhooking her corsets with a simper or two”. Conversely, Goujon’s nymphs, with their “[f]ull breasts and infolded thighs suggest devotion beyond the line of public sculpture”.

Ian Nairn was a celebrity during his short lifetime. He found instant fame, at the age of 25, by launching a high-profile campaign against the blandness of “Subtopia”. He soon became one the country’s foremost architectural critics, writing a string of essays and books, including his masterpiece, Nairn’s London (1966). He also produced several travel series for the BBC. Driven by his demons, he drove a Morris Minor convertible around the country, resulting in a very British take on the road trip format. He eventually drank himself to death in 1983, aged just 52.

One of the reasons why Nairn’s works were out of print for so long is — as writer Owen Hatherley pithily put it — that he was “too modernist for the preservationists, too much a preservationist for the modernists”. His travel writing is impressionistic, guided by his “uncommitted eyes”; energised by what moved him, what he “enjoyed”. Scourge of “gratuitous notice-boards”, he railed “at the way people try to put words all over the landscape”. Nairn’s Paris could thus be seen, in part, as an act of erasure. The city’s romance is arrived at adventitiously, like the serendipitous poetry of métro station names: “What administrator could invent a poetic conjunction as rich as Sèvres-Babylone?”

His guidebook is “an invitation not to argument but to discovery”. Yet, for all his vision of an uncharted Paris, cut adrift from cliché and dogma, some passages remain resolutely and endearingly English. Apropos of a department store, he writes: “An incautious step will put the male visitor in a landscape which looks as though it is panties as far as the eye can see. The same situation could occur, doubtless, in Selfridge’s or Barker’s, but it wouldn’t feel the same”.

Nairn’s relationship with the French capital began rather inauspiciously. On his first visit he suffered from a mild case of Paris syndrome — the (then undiagnosed) malady said to afflict some tourists when the City of Light fails to live up to their expectations. Of all the “world-famous attractions”, only the Palais Garnier, Louvre Colonnade and Eiffel Tower passed muster. He cleaves to this heretical view in the guidebook, describing Notre-Dame as “one of the most pessimistic buildings in the world”. Several entries — including such crowd-pleasers as the Sacré-Coeur — are cordoned off within sanitary square brackets, making it perfectly plain that these landmarks did not “appeal” to the author, although it would have been remiss of him not to cover them. Nairn’s Paris — for that, after all, is the title of the book — is a “collective masterpiece”, not “a place for individual wonders”. It may be glimpsed at in the interstitial spaces when “travelling from one piece of architecture to another”. Paris is what happens, unseen, in between the sights, unless you (like him) have the “ability to turn off the main road” in pursuit of a “topographical hunch”. Nairn cuts a rum figure of a Virgil, providing tourists with a supremely serviceable Baedeker while encouraging them to lose themselves in the city, like part-time Baudelairean flâneurs. Going off-piste, however, is easier said than done. In a passage reminiscent of Walter Benjamin, he describes an archway, on rue des Ecoles, “embroidered with posters, inches thick”. The name of French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez — who had died four years earlier — “still peers through”, along with far older “Art Nouveau fragments”. Nairn muses, dreamily, that “something by Toulouse-Lautrec” may even have been preserved under all the layers.

Paris, in other words, is a palimpsest; its cityscape always already written. No wonder, then, that the travel writer should long for a blank slate, or, failing that, one that resists easy decipherment. Something akin to the restaurant menu boards he was so fond of, “written up daily in near-illegible purple ink”, or the “inscrutable lettering” adorning bus stops (designed, presumably, to delight and wrong-foot the unseasoned passenger in equal measure). His is not the Paris we will always have, but the one we never will; a city for ever in the process of becoming, like the “magnificent compositions” greengrocers conjure up out of fruit and veg: “a daily, renewable work of art, as valid,” Nairn argues, “as any of the creations that come out of art schools”.

Defamiliarising Paris — rendering it “near-illegible” — is no mean feat, given the “unthinking respects” successive generations have paid to the city’s “acknowledged sights”. The author recognises, with heavy heart, that Place Vendôme’s reputation is “impregnable”, however much scorn he may pour on the “swishest part” of this “swish city”. Instead, he limns the liminal; points visitors towards less canonical climes, wondering, for instance, why Ménilmontant’s “genuine poetry” remains largely unsung, compared with “over-praised and grossly over-painted” Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

More radically, Nairn goes in search of Paris’s genius loci, which, owing to the city’s “homogenous” and “monolithic” nature, is not rooted in any specific locale. “Specific buildings and specific views” are the “least part” of l’Île-Saint-Louis, he declares, “as they are of Paris as a whole”. Promoting the joys of the river Seine, he reaffirms this notion of a moveable feast: “The actual place is unimportant: there will always be a view of something. What counts is water, the gleaming stone kerbs, the angle of a tree, the look of someone else’s upturned feet, their view of your own, the perspective of buildings on the other side”. Likewise, the author’s elegant black-and-white photographs tend to focus on the aura of a site in lieu of the site itself. The Jardin des Tuileries, for instance, is adumbrated by a couple of empty chairs facing each other, like a Ionesco play on a budget.

Nairn has a penchant for undistinguished locations, where “there is almost nothing to look at in the usual sense”; where space spaces out and place can take place. In an entry not included in the present edition, he praises Quevauvillers’ features, “all lying around waiting for nothing to happen”. Nothing happened with a vengeance, when he and his wife, high on hiatus, spent a “very wet day” near a suburban station “not going to the Air Museum”: “In London it would have been a misery; in Paris it became The Day the Rain Came, luminous and isolated”. Numinous too. There is a Zen-like quality to these mini epiphanies — these lulls in the topographer’s relentless perambulations — which signals a fleeting sense of arrival: “the moment you give up and relax, the city will accept you. All you have to do is put your arse on a café seat, park bench, or low wall, and look”.

Transmuting the infra-ordinary into the extraordinary is Paris’s party trick, hence the “magic-city” sobriquet. It is “a memorable experience,” Nairn enthuses, “to have banality transform itself into ideal as you sit and look, hear, smell, and taste — the whole city is urging you to greater depth of feeling, the opposite effect of a Birmingham”. The humdrum is magicked, by dint of “atmosphere”, into the everyday sublime, a transformative experience that leaves visitors feeling “more alive”: “You and the city, together, have built an event which is neither personal nor impersonal”. Once tuned into, Paris achieves a flow state, where everything is “plugged in” while remaining a “vehicle for the expression of millions of disparate desires”. This version of the French capital is resolutely “on the side of life” unlike many of the fusty, musty national monuments — “desexed” and “stone-cold dead” — which Nairn inveighs against. It provides “pure urban freedom”; a framework within which “life can take what shape it likes”, allowing “full space for your private world”. It is perhaps best exemplified by the Tuileries, where I am writing this, sipping a cheeky rosé: “These are enchanted groves for world-citizens, where each gesture has its own weight and space: absolute, unimpeded by any outside influence: assessed by its own nature and no other — whether it is a kiss or a system of philosophy. (…) Not bad for a thick copse and some gravel; but that’s Paris”. I think we can all drink to that.

35957559180_20430a7bca_o

The Doodles of Yesteryear

This appeared in the June 2017 issue of Literary Review.

Read All About It

At first blush, the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ may seem a somewhat paradoxical choice of subject for a biographer. Au contraire, argues Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes: A Biography, originally published in France in 2015. Just shy of five hundred pages long, excluding notes and index, it is, to date, the most comprehensive portrait of Barthes’s life and times. Calling it definitive — which in many respects it is — would be to miss the point, however. Memories being open to constant recomposition, Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. He hoped his own might be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ – ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ – which, ‘like Epicurean atoms’, would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’. The ideal biography would thus come in the form of a book in a box, like something by Marc Saporta or B S Johnson, the unbound pages of which could be shuffled around like the index cards Barthes wrote on. The stand-alone paragraphs of his own memoir, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), were arranged in alphabetical order so as to obviate narrative continuity and its attendant teleological bias. While cleaving to a traditional, broadly chronological format, Samoyault goes to great lengths to ensure that Barthes does not end up pickled in aspic. In a prologue, she retraces his last steps on the day in 1980 when he was knocked over by a van, an accident that led to his demise (from pulmonary complications) one month later. ‘The Death of Barthes’ is, in effect, cordoned off, lest his life be reduced, retrospectively, to a fixed, univocal reading, akin to the ‘“message” of the Author-God’ he had once lambasted.

Barthes regarded death as the only event that truly eludes language. All the rest is discourse, as he argued in Mythologies (1957), a book in which he took reading out of the library and into the world. Rather than drawing up a laundry list of the different hats he wore, we should probably regard Barthes, above all else, as a reader. In bringing literature to life (‘every text is eternally written here and now’), the act of reading rewrites ‘the text of the work within the text of our lives’. Textual pleasure climaxes, he contends, when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives’ — when, in other words, it reads us. He even confessed to deriving more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ his distracted perusal imprinted upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself. It is through the prism of these abrasions — the interface between life and art — that Samoyault succeeds in getting a purchase on Barthes’s eclectic oeuvre.

Having famously described literature as the space ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’, Barthes increasingly sought out the inscription of this physical presence, ‘the hand as it writes’. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to the time he spent in sanatoria and the repeated diets he went on, turning his body ‘into an object for analysis’, which he read ‘like a text’. She avers that ‘going back to the body’ implied ‘viewing writing as a material production of signs that placed it on the same level as any other artistic practice’. Between 1971 and 1975, Barthes painted every day, inspired by the ‘absolute corporeal gesture’ of calligraphy he had discovered in Japan, a partly fantasised land that seemed to herald ‘a civilisation of the signifier’. Samoyault insists that this activity was ‘inseparable from his thoughts about writing’. In several essays and reviews, Barthes reflects upon the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists such as Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly or Bernard Réquichot, going as far as to claim that André Masson’s semiography achieved the ‘utopia of the Text’. His own graphic productions — he was reluctant to speak of artworks, preferring to see them as a form of handicraft — were, according to Samoyault, neither words nor paintings, but the ‘union of the two’. Describing them (there are 380 paintings and drawings by Barthes in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s archive), she observes that they ‘can be very close to writing when it forgets to make sense, when it turns into a trace, remembers the productions of childhood, the scribbling’. If they are indeed reminiscent of the doodles of yesteryear, they are also — perhaps more importantly — post-verbal. She explains that they allow us to enter a world free from ‘any formed language, any preconstructed thought’ – a world ‘exempt from meaning’, to use Barthes’s recurring phrase. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, he described language as ‘fascist’ because it compels us to think and talk in a given manner. The world is therefore always already written; the ultimate purpose of literature, in his eyes, is ‘to unexpress the expressible’, to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’.

Samoyault suggests that Barthes’s life can be partly explained by what it lacked. Together with his homosexuality and Protestant roots, tuberculosis (‘incontestably the major event of his life’) led to missed opportunities, contributing to a lifelong sense of marginalisation. Barthes spoke about the ‘great Oedipal frustration’ of having no father figure to slay. His mother’s death, in 1977, accelerated the autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn that began with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me,’ Barthes declared, though whether this urge would have taken the shape of a novel remains a moot point. Although Barthes left only an eight-page outline for his projected ‘Vita Nova’, Samoyault believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously, as well as large chunks of the unpublished writings in archives she was given access to, would eventually have found their way into some magnum opus.

Barring a few approximations — inevitable given the Herculean task — Andrew Brown’s translation is excellent. Chris Turner has also done a sterling job with Seagull Books’ beautifully presented five-volume series of essays by Barthes and interviews with him (£14.50 each), which is the perfect companion piece to the biography. Organised thematically, these occasional articles, reviews and texts are all briefly but expertly introduced, and in the process are made available to an anglophone audience for the first time. Some, like those where Barthes agonises over the definition of left-wing literature, are very much of their time, but they provide snapshots of his mind at work and confirm Samoyault’s premise that the unity of his life and oeuvre is to be found in the ‘desire to write’.


The Reality Effect

This appeared in FT Weekend on 13 May 2017:

The Reality Effect

The premise of Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a stroke of genius. Roland Barthes did not die following an accident in 1980; he was murdered. Jacques Bayard, a superintendent for the intelligence service — sworn enemy of “work-shy lefties” — is immediately put on the case.

Completely clueless (“Episteme, my arse”), Bayard recruits Simon Herzog, a young academic who teaches semiology, to act as his Virgil through the arcane world of Theory. It soon transpires that the great 20th-century linguist Roman Jakobson, famous for defining the six functions of language, had in fact discovered a seventh one. Barthes was in possession of a document revealing its potent secret: how to unleash language’s magical powers of persuasion. Such knowledge could turn anyone into the “master of the world”, which is why everyone — from Bulgarian spies toting poisoned umbrellas to President Giscard d’Estaing — is after it. The piece of paper has, bien sûr, vanished into thin air. In whose hands will it end up?

Binet’s bestselling debut, HHhH, about the assassination of Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, was awarded the Prix Goncourt du premier roman. His new novel, also inspired by real figures, is a sort of post-structuralist whodunnit casting the semiotician in the role of detective. The first part of the book, set in Paris and featuring a roll call of intellectual luminaries, is pitch-perfect in its evocation of early-1980s French society — and contains hilarious, often polyphonic, set pieces. The scene where novelist Philippe Sollers pontificates about his work-in-progress while his spouse, philosopher Julia Kristeva, has a nauseous existential moment induced by the skin of milk floating atop his café crème, is a bravura performance. The picaresque plot begins to flag, however, when the two protagonists hook up with Umberto Eco in Bologna and at Cornell University, where Jacques Derrida is torn asunder by dogs and Sollers castrated.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

One begins to wonder if Simon has not done a Proust: stepped out of the story at the end in order to write it with the benefit of hindsight. This would partly account for the choice of an anonymous present-day narrator piecing together past events. It could also explain some of the anachronisms — goths, yuppies, purple Dr Martens, crack cocaine — which may have been planted by the author as signs of an unreliable memory. The retrospective view provides a rich seam of dramatic irony as the characters’ forecasts prove invariably wrong. This is obviously its main raison d’être, but the time gap also signals a more fundamental distance, as though the ideas of Barthes or Foucault could only be integrated at the level of subject matter, no longer seriously engaged with. Or perhaps the narrative voice is language itself and Simon’s paranoia a manifestation of the novel’s growing self-consciousness. This particular enigma remains unresolved, which is as it should be if literature is understood as the invention of a voice “to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.

Although highly entertaining at times, The 7th Function of Language fails to live up to its title. Everything, including the most obvious allusions (like the ubiquitous Citroën DS that Barthes compared to a Gothic cathedral) is spelt out. After all, what is the point of a roman à clef if the author provides us with all the keys?

Retrotopia

This appeared in The Irish Times on 13 May 2017:

A Heavyweight’s Flawed but Important Last Work

Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January at the age of 91, was one of the last intellectual heavyweights of the 20th century. He belonged to a generation that derived its aura and wisdom from the second World War, even winning a medal for gallantry in combat. He was a Polish Jew, and so his life and work were shaped by both Nazi and communist persecution, the latter forcing him to relinquish his citizenship as a prerequisite for exile.

Although he became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971 — residing in England, with his family, for the rest of his life — he always retained a strong accent, not dissimilar to a comedy impression of Sigmund Freud. You can hear it in his numerous books, ostensibly written in English but frequently reading like literal translations from sundry continental tongues. This deterritorialised voice, poised somewhere between Yorkshire and Mitteleuropa, never tries to conceal its cosmopolitan origins. It speaks the language of liquid modernity, the era-defining concept that will doubtless serve as his epitaph.

Composed in the shadow of Brexit and Trump, Retrotopia — Bauman’s last, posthumously published work — revisits this rapidly evolving phenomenon. The sociologist had long argued that a loss of faith in society’s perfectibility was one of the main distinctions between the “solid” and “liquid” phases of modernity, a theme that he reprises and expands on here.

His argument hinges on the “emancipation of power from territory”, as a result of which nation states, with increasingly “porous” borders, are no longer able to fulfil their traditional functions. This political impotence, compounded by the stupefying pace of change, has redirected the utopian impulse towards the “space of collective memory”. We take refuge in the past because it can be “remodelled at will”, thus providing the “blissful omnipotence lost in the present”.

The future is now associated not with progress but with stasis or regression. At best it seems to offer more of the same; at worst it holds out the prospect of “social degradation” and “impending catastrophe”. Hence the privatisation of happiness, sought no longer through collective endeavours but through self-improvement and personal “wellness”.

Today’s dominant “managerial philosophy” appeals to our contradictory aspirations to autonomy and belonging. Idiosyncrasies, which would once have been ironed out on the Fordist conveyor belt, are now encouraged in the name of ever more diversity. In exchange, however, corporations feel free to exploit the “sum total” of their employees’ “personality assets” while guaranteeing them little or no loyalty.

Social in name only, our online networks offer another ersatz brand of communality, acting as they do as filter bubbles, providing insulation from any views likely to challenge our easily bruised egos. Such comfort zones are “as close to the nirvana of the womb” as we can get. Indeed, a return to the safety of the womb is the logical conclusion of a series of reactionary trends taking us back to a world of “weakening human bonds”, tribalism and growing inequalities — a Hobbesian “war of all against all”.

Despite the bleakness of the picture he paints, Bauman elicits none of the pessimism he has sometimes been accused of. He suggests that retrotopianism is largely due to our failure to develop a cosmopolitan consciousness, despite living in a cosmopolitan world. Human groups continue, as they have always done, to define themselves by exclusion. The challenge of our times, he asserts, with an enthusiasm that almost makes it sound feasible, is to achieve “integration without separation”.

Crudely reductive
Retrotopia is an important work but one that is deeply flawed. The sociologist’s rationale, for instance, can be crudely reductive: he too seems holed up in his comfort zone, from whence all ills are ultimately ascribed to globalisation. He appears surprisingly naive at times, presenting some of the pontiff’s pious platitudes as a blueprint for the future of mankind, or universal basic income as a foolproof panacea for inequality.

Bauman’s methodology is equally questionable. Sweeping statements (“today’s growth of violence”) alternate with detailed references to studies whose validity is premised exclusively on their authors’ academic credentials. The recourse to Homeric epithets — “the remarkable Belgian psychoanalyst”, “the great Norwegian anthropologist”, “the formidable Estonian student of culture”, “the foremost researcher” — is unlikely to hold sway in the current populist climate and may even prove counterproductive.

Another weakness is the author’s failure to engage with popular culture, which theorists such as Mark Fisher (who took his life four days after Bauman’s death) and Simon Reynolds have identified as the locus where the major symptoms of our nostalgic times may be observed.

Overlooking a few recurring linguistic mistakes and the odd cliche masquerading as reference, Bauman has a propensity to repeat himself twice, or even thrice, like a one-man Thomson and Thompson, which should have been reined in: “correctness and veracity”, “porosity and permeability”, “trenchant and incisive”, “budding, aspiring and up-and-coming”, “insecurity, uncertainty and un-safety”, “cautious, circumspect and prudent”. The cumulative effect is ludicrous, laughable and risible.

The keen interest this nonagenarian showed in the world and its future is a source of hope and even joy. His enduring intellectual vigour should come as no great surprise, considering that he published most of his works after retiring. Some of the references here are so up to the minute that reading Retrotopia is like stumbling across the number of a recently departed loved one on your mobile.

In those moments it is difficult not to give in to feelings of nostalgia.

Resemblance in the Work of Jochen Gerz

I have translated Octave Debary‘s Resemblance in the Work of Jochen Gerz (French title: La ressemblance dans l’oeuvre de Jochen Gerz) published by Créaphis éditions on 1 June 2017. It is a bilingual edition, with my English translation appearing on each page beside the original French text.

My aim here is to go on a journey down this road with Jochen Gerz. To strike up a conversation, not so much about his work as one that winds its way through his works. I wish to chart the trajectory I have been following as an anthropologist studying remains and the remains of history, which has led to a decade-long dialogue with Gerz’s oeuvre. Those artworks that he often abandons, once created, offering them up to the city and passers-by. Gerz is one of the foremost contemporary artists of memory and public space.