Realism(s) #12, or: garments

Łódź Symphony - Peter Hutton, 1993, 16mm


[Ryland asked me to contribute a little something to &review here it is. This text is for a video extract, about the curtain above. Update — now in print!]

Too often nowadays, we receive movies in degraded form. We might get to see more, but what we see in them lacks light and weight — it's getting more difficult to talk about anything material. But sometimes objects retain something of their real mass. An instance here, in a shot at the end of a film by Peter Hutton. It's a third-hand encode, but for once, in the curl of fabric, there's a memory of ribboned film, the pastness of an event: '...for we see that everything grows less and seems to melt away with the lapse of time and withdraw its old age from our eyes. And yet we see no diminution in the sum of things' (Lucretius).

The film's about the city of Łódź, its everyday sights and sounds: streets, walls, industry, workers, vagabonds, monuments. Hutton's made many of these on 16mm, portraits of cities, rivers, the sea: always silent, without narrative, never minimalist. Occasionally they're projected at festivals or in galleries, but the rest of the time they circulate underground in this basest of forms — unspooling as variable bitrates, not shadowplays. What remains is a mutable image pointed to an opening between two rooms, a camera in one and open to the other. The surface of the screen is greyed, faint, veiled by analogue flickers and colour warp, functioning like gauze. A net curtain billows in the wind, once and twice: at last, a semblance of light, a bleached sheet, a ghost of movement, a travelling of atoms. Clothes, curtains, leaves, they're the only way you can see the wind in movies. And the only way we'll remember them too.


An aside, or: Itinerants

Study for Le Pont de l'Europe - Gustave Caillebotte, 1876, oil on canvas

Klassenverhältnisse - Straub-Huillet, 1984, 35mm

People sometimes assume that the films' Robinson came from Céline, whereas the name was suggested to me by Kafka’s Amerika, in which Robinson and Delamarche are a couple of itinerants who describe themselves as out-of-work mechanics. Paul Scofield once sent me a postcard of August Sander's photograph Itinerants (1929). In Paul’s absence, I had the idea that one of the two men it depicts slightly resembled him, and perhaps, even more slightly, Harun Farocki, who plays the character Delamarche in Klassenverhältnisse, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s adaptation of the novel. In the film, Robinson is played by Manfred Blank, who I thought slightly resembles the other man in Sander’s photograph. In Kafka’s novel, another character says: ‘I don’t even believe that his name is Robinson, for no Irishman was ever called that since Ireland was Ireland.'

--Patrick Keiller, interviewed by Andrew Stevens, The Future of Landscape, July 2010.

Klassenverhältnisse - Straub-Huillet, 1984, 35mm

Juventude em Marcha -Pedro Costa, 2006, digital video


The Rabbit Hunters - Pedro Costa, 2007, digital video

Juventude em Marcha -Pedro Costa, 2006, digital video

The water is grey and blue, wide as an inlet of the sea. A ray of white light, falling from high in the sky, obliterates this sham scene.

--Rimbaud's The Bridges, quoted in Patrick Keiller's London, 1994.

"Grasp the world," instead of extracting impressions from it; work with objects, characters, events, in reality, and not in impressions. Kill metaphor.

--Deleuze & Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (Minnesota UP), 1986, p.101.

Well, cinema is, or should be, the art of space. Even though a film exists only if that space is able to become time. But the basic work is space. As Mallarmé said: “Nothing will take place, but the place.”

--a new interview with Jean Marie-Straub: Speaking of Revolutions, October 2010.

Klassenverhältnisse - Straub-Huillet, 1984, 35mm


History Lesson(s) #3

By the end of the month, the price of oil had dropped below $125 a barrel. In the previous six months, the price of arable land had risen by 32% to nearly £14,500 a hectare. After increases in prices of agricultural commodities, the price of wheat had doubled in the year to March [2008]. There had been riots in Egypt and several other countries. In the UK there were 2.1 million hectares of wheat, a 14% increase in the previous year. Sample yields gave early indications of a record harvest.

Though cultivated in Britain for over 3000 years, field beans were grown in the UK mainly for animal feed. Field beans for human consumption were exported, mostly to Egypt, to be used in a variety of dishes, especially during Ramadan. Wheat has been domesticated for at least 10,000 years. It is the UK’s predominant crop, one of the world’s three major staples. In an average year, the UK grew about 15 million tonnes of wheat, of which about 25% was exported. About 40% of the crop was used as animal feed, much of it for cattle. Only the best wheat could be sold at a higher price for milling. Milling wheat was typically about a third of the total harvest.

Despite record yields with the falling price and steep increases in the costs of fertiliser and fuel, farmers would find it difficult to make much profit from their wheat, unless they could sell the grain for milling. The better-prepared had pre-sold part of their crop already, and prices were higher earlier in the year. If the wheat were harvested when damp, drying would add 15% to the cost of its production, and less would be sold as suitable for milling. In the middle of August, farmers began to cut their crops, despite there being no sign of any prolonged improvement in the weather.

At the end of August, the harvest was still only about half-complete. In some parts of the country it continued until the end of September.

--Robinson in Ruins, 2010, narration by Patrick Keiller.

Robinson in Ruins - Patrick Keiller, 2010, 35mm

From about late 2006, a lot of financial firms — banks and hedge funds and others — realised that there was really no more profit to be made in the US housing market, and they were looking for new avenues of investment. Commodities became one of the big ones: food, minerals, gold, oil. So you had more and more of this financial activity entering those markets, and you find that the price then starts rising. And once, of course, the price starts rising a little bit, then it becomes more and more profitable for others to enter. So what was a trickle in late 2006 becomes a flood from early 2007. You have a massive expansion. It sounds incredible, but world rice prices increased by 320% between January 2007 and June 2008. So in just 18 months you have tripling of world rice prices. World wheat prices go up by 240%, maize prices by 218%.

--Jayati Ghosh, 05/05/2010. Cited in WDM's The Great Hunger Lottery, July 2010.

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 245 points in January, up 3% from December and the highest since July 2008, but still 11% below its peak in April 2008. The increase in January mostly reflected continuing increases in international prices of wheat and maize, amid tightening supplies, while rice prices fell slightly, as the timing coincides with the harvesting of main crops in major exporting countries.

World food prices surged to a fresh record high in January for the seventh consecutive month.The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome said its food price index averaged 230.7 points last month and was up 3.4% from December, marking the highest level since the organisation started measuring food prices in 1990. It topped the high of 224.1 hit in June 2008.

All food commodity prices showed strong gains last month, except meat, which remained unchanged. "The new figures clearly show that the upward pressure on world food prices is not abating," said FAO economist and grains expert Abdolreza Abbassian. "These high prices are likely to persist in the months to come. High food prices are of major concern especially for low-income food deficit countries that may face problems in financing food imports and for poor households which spend a large share of their income on food."

He added: "The only encouraging factor so far stems from a number of countries, where – due to good harvests – domestic prices of some of the food staples remain low compared to world prices."

Cereal prices were up 3% from December and the highest since July 2008, but still 11% below their peak in April 2008. The recent rises in wheat prices are one factor that triggered the growing unrest in Egypt, and the recent protests in Tunisia. Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer.

--The Guardian, 03/02/2011.

Since 1991, the year Egypt yoked itself to an IMF structural adjustment programme and embarked on a series of wide-ranging economic reforms, the country has been something of a poster child for neoliberal economists who point to its remarkable levels of annual GDP growth as proof that "Washington consensus" blueprints for the developing world can work. Coming on the back of an economic crisis precipitated partly by profligate government spending on arms sales (subsidised by US aid), the regime of President Hosni Mubarak signed up to an IMF loan that was conditional on economic liberalisation. Those conditions – relaxed price controls, reduced subsidies, an opening up of trade – were met with gleeful abandon.

Ever since, the country has been subject to successive waves of neoliberal reform. In 1996 a huge privatisation drive kicked off – resulting in sham sales to public banks and regime cronies, a rapid deterioration of working conditions and a wave of strikes so powerful that one analyst labelled it the largest social movement seen in the Middle East in half a century.

Then 2004 brought a new cabinet which swiftly cut the top rate of tax from 42% to 20%, leaving multimillionaires paying exactly the same proportion of their income into government coffers as those on an annual salary of less than £500. Special economic zones were created, foreign investment reached dizzying heights ($13bn in 2008) and, in the past three years, economic growth has clocked in at a consistently high 7%. The minimum wage, incidentally, has remained fixed at less than £4 a month throughout. The global business community applauded Mubarak's rule as "bold", "impressive" and "prudent".

So Egypt is now a glitzier, more prosperous land with pharaonic-style riches to match its pharaonic-style leader (now entering his 29th year in power). Except, as the GAFI report inconveniently points out, 90% of the country has yet to see any of the bounty. Foreign investment has been largely channelled into sectors like finance and gas which create few new jobs. While national resources like natural gas have been sold at subsidised rates to the tycoon owners of iron and fertiliser factories, the cost of ordinary commodities like bread and cooking oil has spiralled. In fact since the IMF began hauling Egypt's economy into modernity, Egyptians have got steadily and dramatically poorer: when structural adjustment began 20% of the population were living on less than (inflation-adjusted) $2 a day; today, that figure stands at 44%. In the past decade, when GDP growth was at its strongest, absolute poverty has climbed from 16.7% to almost 20%. Chomsky called neoliberalism "capitalism with the gloves off"; it's hard, looking at this jumble of statistics, to discern anything but a shameless hit-and-run job perpetrated by a tiny band of Egypt's business elite.

--Jack Shenker, The Guardian, 08/09/2009.

The Nasserist state, for all its flaws, gained legitimacy because it was seen as a state for the mass of Egyptians, whether abroad or domestically. The present regime is widely seen in Egypt as a state for the others – for the US, Israel, France and the UK – and as a state for the few – the Neoliberal nouveau riche. Islam plays no role in this analysis because it is not an independent variable. Muslim movements have served to protest the withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities, and to provide services. But they are a symptom, not the cause.

--Juan Cole, Egypt's Class Struggle, 30/01/11.

Film socialisme - Jean-Luc Godard, 2010, digital video


History Lesson(s) #2

On April 20th [2008], he walked to Launton, near Bicester, in search of the site where a meteorite fell on February 15th, 1830. 1830 was a year of revolutions, in France and Belgium, and in England, where the Captain Swing riots began at the end of August and continued through the Autumn. On September 15th, the Liverpool to Manchester railway was inaugurated. The monument was halfway up Poundon Hill, on the site of a former diplomatic service wireless transmitter used by the Special Operations Executive during World War II. But it was not meant to commemorate the meteorite. It was a millennium milepost on a cycle route to Cambridge, one of the thousand funded by the Royal Bank of Scotland. RBS was the world’s largest bank. In the previous day’s paper he had read about its weak capital position. It was then the most vulnerable major bank in Europe.

--Robinson in Ruins, 2010, narration by Patrick Keiller.

An odd thing occurred this week. Britain’s national debt jumped by £1.3 trillion, virtually 100% of GDP, and hardly anyone paid attention. The bad news was crowded out by the surprise 0.5% drop in national output in the last quarter of 2010.

There was reason to this apparent insouciance. What happened was that the figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) finally caught up with the huge banking bail-outs of late 2008, when the government took effective control of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) by injecting big slugs of capital into them.

Yet even if this was a chronicle of a debt foretold, it is worthy of note. Even in these troubled times it is not every day that the national statisticians of any country reveal a near trebling in debt. Before the banking rescues in October 2008 net public debt stood at £742 billion, equivalent to 52% of GDP. By the end of the year it had soared to £2,070 billion, worth 147% of GDP, according to the report published on January 25th.

The ONS had already included in its previous public-debt figures Northern Rock, a mortgage lender that was eventually nationalised after suffering Britain’s first bank run for over a century. Together with Bradford & Bingley, another former building society that was rescued, that had added around £130 billion to the nation’s liabilities. But these mortgage banks were minnows compared with RBS and LBG, which put a further £1.3 trillion on to the public balance-sheet. Following its ill-fated takeover of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, RBS had become the world’s biggest bank by size of balance-sheet while the shotgun wedding between relatively healthy Lloyds TSB and ailing HBOS during the banking crisis had created in LBG a domestic behemoth controlling around 30% of mortgage lending and current accounts.

--The Economist, 28/01/2011.

In New York, at least three major banks were known to be at risk of failure. A few days earlier, the two largest US mortgage finance corporations, with $5 trillion worth of loans, had been taken into public ownership to save them from collapse. In the early hours of Monday, September 15th, after a weekend of frantic negotiations between US and UK bankers and the federal reserve, Lehman Brothers announced that it would file for bankruptcy. A few hours earlier, Merrill Lynch had agreed to be taken over by Bank of America for only $50 billion.

On Monday morning, stock markets began falling. By 9 a.m. in London, the share price of HBOS, the UK’s biggest mortgage lender, had fallen by 34%. The spokesman for the company stressed that “HBOS is a strong financial institution.” During the afternoon at a White House press briefing, the US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson assured the public they could remain confident in the “soundness and resilience” of the financial system. By the end of Monday’s trading, oil prices had dropped by more than $5 a barrel, wheat futures were up 3.2%, and gold had risen by more than $28 an ounce. On Monday evening, the US authorities agreed a $20 billion emergency loan to the insurer AIG, after its share price had fallen by 63% during the day.

On Tuesday, markets in Asia that had been closed on Monday fell rapidly in early trading. In London, HBOS’s share price continued falling – a spokesman claimed the bank was strong and “well-capitalised”, and there were calls for government intervention to stop hedge funds from short-selling the bank’s shares. In New York, when the markets opened, AIG’s share price fell again, by 30%. Late that night, the US government agreed to give AIG $85 billion in return for a 79.9% stake in the company.

On Wednesday morning in London, HBOS began merger talks with Lloyds TSB. In Moscow, the government regulators suspended trading on the two main stock exchanges. The Bank of England announced it would extend its emergency lending scheme for UK banks. In New York, gold closed up $70, one of the largest one-day increases on record. At seven o’clock on Thursday morning, Lloyds’s takeover of HBOS was announced to the City; shares continued to fall, and gold rose another $30. Six of the world’s largest central banks together offered $180 billion to overcome the scarcity of funds in short-term dollar markets.

On Friday, the world’s stock markets stopped falling. Government intervention had averted the financial system’s immediate collapse. But the US and UK’s deteriorating performance was reported daily. While the turbulence had subsided, it seemed likely there would soon be more. With the state having intervened on such an unprecedented scale, it seemed possible to imagine for a moment that this was no ordinary crisis, and that some larger historic shift might be occurring.

--Robinson in Ruins, 2010, narration by Patrick Keiller.

Underneath all reason lies delirium, drift. Everything is rational in capitalism, except capital or capitalism itself. The stock market is certainly rational; one can understand it, study it, the capitalists know how to use it, and yet it is completely delirious, it's mad. It is in this sense that we say: the rational is always the rationality of an irrational.

--Gilles Deleuze, from "Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium", Chaosophy (Semiotext(e), 1995).

In particular there is this idea that there is something natural about markets. As [Edmund] Burke said, there are the laws of commerce which are the laws of nature which are the laws of God. And still, every morning on the Today programme we are confronted with the same assumption, that the market is natural and that anything else is intervention and is artificial, which is clearly nonsense, it's just absurd. I mean, you don't have to think about it from the point of view of a foxglove to think of it as being absurd, but maybe that helps a bit.

--Patrick Keiller, interviewed by Daniel Trilling, Politics and the English Countryside, 24/11/2010.

When we hear early on in the film that Robinson has made contact with a series of “non-human intelligences”, we initially suspect that he has finally succumbed to madness. Yet the “non-human intelligences” turn out to be not the extra-terrestrials of a florid pulp-science-fiction-inspired psychosis, but the intra-terrestrial life forms that an ecological awareness reveals growing with a silent stubbornness that matches the brute tenacity of capitalism.

--Mark Fisher, English Pastoral, November 2010.

We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling of secularity which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance. Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes, lounging against a rainwall of exotic and artificial plants or else agonising among poisonous colours and lethal stems we were not taught to avoid. The world of the human age is an aesthetic pretext for grinding terror or pathological ecstasy, and in its cosmos, all of it drawn from the very fibres of our own being and at one with every post-natural cell more alien to us than nature itself, we continue murmuring Kant’s old questions – What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope? – under a starry heaven no more responsive than a mirror or a spaceship, not understanding that they require the adjunct of an ugly and bureaucratic representational qualification: what can I know in this system? What should I do in this world completely invented by me? What can I hope for alone in an altogether human age?

--Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), p. 608.

Robinson in Ruins - Patrick Keiller, 2010, 35mm

Studies in Verticality #5, or: stark utopia

I. The site of the impact of the Wold Cottage meteorite, the first recorded in Britain (on 13th December, 1795), photographed by Patrick Keiller. The monument dedicated to "this extraordinary stone, in breadth 28 inches, in length 36 inches" was built by Edward Topham in 1899.

II. Nelson's Needle, Portsmouth, photographed by Matthew Flintham, whose PhD thesis formed part of the AHRC funded project, 'The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image', that enabled the writing and filming of Keiller's Robinson in Ruins (2010). Keiller's film is one of the most vital reflections on "the problem of England", here the crisis of its capitalism, since he last made one. A few notes as to why:

"It is a journey to the end of the world."

--the first words of London, 1994, narration by Patrick Keiller.

The Victory, Nelson's flagship, is preserved at Portsmouth, and is the principal monument of the 18th century British Navy (the largest industrial unit of its day in the Western world), on whose supremacy was built the capitalism of the land, finance and commercial services centred on the city of London, and which dominates the economy of the South of England. Those of us aesthetes who view the passing of the visible industrial economy with regret, and who long for an authenticity of appearance based on manufacturing and innovative modern design, are inclined to view this English culture as a bizarre and damaging anachronism. But if so, it is not an unsuccessful one.

--Robinson in Space, 1997, narration by Patrick Keiller.

[Robinson] had read that one of the factors that had enabled industrial capitalism to develop first in England was the mobility of the previously settled agricultural workforce. Such labour market flexibility however derived not from any Anglo-Saxon customary freedoms, but from government legislation, an act to prevent the removal of poor persons until they shall actually become chargeable. The 1795 amendment to the Settlement Act: "in the interest of freeing hands to go where burgeoning capitalist enterprise needed them most." That same year, a meteorite fell in Yorkshire, which confirmed the reality of meteorites, and led Robinson to conclude that a meteorite fall necessarily coincides with an event of major historical significance.

--Robinson in Ruins, 2010, narration by Patrick Keiller.

Matter, having received into itself individuality, form, as is the case with the heavenly bodies, has ceased to be abstract individuality; it has become concrete individuality, universality. In the meteors, therefore, abstract-individual self-consciousness is met by its contradiction, shining in its materialised form, the universal which has become existence and nature. Hence it recognises in the meteors its deadly enemy, and it ascribes to them, as Epicurus does, all the anxiety and confusion of men.

--Karl Marx, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, doctoral dissertation, 1841.

He was reading Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, published in 1944, which located the origin of twentieth century catastrophe in the development of market society in England. Polanyi accorded great significance to the system of poor relief, devised by the Berkshire magistrates on May 6th, 1795, at the Pelican Inn, in Speenhamland, a part of Newbury. The system guaranteed a minimum income linked to the price of bread, which had risen steeply. It offered landless agricultural workers some protection from the displacement intended by the changes to the settlement act. Polanyi argued that laissez-faire was planned, whereas Speenhamland was society's spontaneous reaction to the disasters that were accompanying its imposition. "The idea of a self-adjusting market," he wrote, "implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society."

--Robinson in Ruins, 2010, narration by Patrick Keiller.

It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.

--Fredric Jameson, quoted by Keiller at the beginning of Robinson of Ruins, from The Seeds of Time (Columbia UP, 1996), p.xi.

I recently came across a description, in Kitty Hauser’s Bloody old Britain, of O.G.S. Crawford’s photography: "Like photographers of the New Objectivity, clarity was his goal. Like them, he favoured stark contrasts, with no blurring or mistiness. His focus, like theirs, was on the object or the scene in front of him, which it was his aim to illuminate as clearly as he could. [...] It was commitment that lit up his photographs [...] Such photographs suggest a love of the world that was almost mystical in its intensity." I had forgotten that photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one, even if only by improving the quality of the light.

--Patrick Keiller, "Landscape and Cinematography", Cultural Geographies 16, 2009, p.413.

It would be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world — better to say the alternate world, our alternate world — as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.

--the final words of Frederic Jameson's Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, 2009), p.612.