The reader’s fortification

With this month’s release of A Place in the Country and Iain Sinclair’s enigmatic piece from Test Centre, memory of the late W. G. Sebald has resurfaced as it has tended to do in line with the publication of posthumous translations. It is a habit by which devoted readers are dealt another disturbing reminder of his untimely death. Such an (inevitably) melancholic mood hovered over my reading of the extract from A Place in the Country printed in the Guardian a few weeks ago. The structure of remembrance I experienced is an intrinsic element of Sebald’s intertextuality: it is as if by mourning the loss of those writers who most struck his discerning mind, the author could do little else but to spin his own ritual of remembrance in textual form; a gossamer web, as the cliché goes, of references, quotations, and voices. For Sebald’s reader, the sense of the uncanny provoked by the mere mention of things makes us rejoin Saturn’s orbit. One instance occurred today when a friend said ‘oak processionary moth’ as if out of nowhere. It wasn’t random – he was reading a report on the Guardian’s front page about plans to aerial spray the moths to save trees. The paradox of the proposal – destroying one aspect of nature to save another – would likely have perturbed the narrator of The Rings of Saturn as confirmation of the folly of ruthless human endeavour to defend nature against its own processes.

My eyes widened at my friend’s utterance. True, I was startled more by the fact that I couldn’t remember whether the oak processionary moth featured in the Sebald canon at all or somewhere else in the literature I’ve been reading lately. Given the manner in which it is impossible to read Sebald in isolation from those before or after him, such writers form a constellation in the life of reading. I listed the options to my friend: Nabokov, Sebald, McCarthy. Yes: McCarthy (Tom). For moths and silk weavers have significant parts to play at the beginning of C (2010). (Significant, that is, in the sense of symbolism rather than size – although they loom large over the reader’s subsequent experience of the text.)

But were they oak processionary moths in C? I’m grappling for particularity of context. Oak processionary moth. The context will come if I repeat the phrase.

The life of reading is often unmoored from the reader. It’s something more than the usual problem of memory. For instance, take my discovery of Jean Errard’s Fortification Réduicte Art and Démonstrée (Paris, 1600), which happened prior to writing this post. I found it at The Public Domain Review, a curious website about which I know little because it is new to me and whose ‘About’ section I was stopped short from clicking by a compulsion to write. Look at the images of fortifications from what the website describes as a “seminal work in fortification theory”. Errard’s text was published in 1600. Yet some of the images bear a striking similarity to the plans of Breendonk reproduced in Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). It is tempting to consider whether the author consulted this work when thinking about the idea of the fortress. As a reader I harbour fantasies of retrospective contact with the reading life of the writer.

Another text boards one of Saturn’s rings. Or, a constellation: Errard-Bentham-Virilio-Sebald.

[It was Vertigo that drew my attention to The Public Domain Review for a post that collates all the major texts to which Sebald’s narrator refers in The Rings of Saturn. A link to Sebald begat a Sebaldian link.]

Sinclair on Sebald

A curious small press called Test Centre is about to publish a fragment by Iain Sinclair in which he retracks journeys made by Sebald’s narrator and Austerlitz through East End London. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Test Centre presents Iain Sinclair’s new booklet Austerlitz and After: Tracking Sebald. An unused, adapted section from Iain’s forthcoming book American Smoke (November 2013), it recounts an East London walk in the late German author’s footsteps. In the company of Sebald’s friend, the poet Stephen Watts, the narrative moves from Liverpool Street through Spitalfields to the Jewish burial grounds at Brady Street and Alderney Road, considering along the way Sebald in life – his experience of London, his writing methods, and his residence in Norwich – and in death.

Simultaneously it tells of Iain’s history in the same terrain, whilst through its use of images (a nod to Sebald) it provides an insight into his approach to composition. His American adventure flanked by the tale of the actress Gemma McCluskie, finally discovered in the Regent’s Canal, he attempts to write himself out of his locale.

Information on ordering a copy of this artisanal limited edition can be found here.


The Attic

Attic Fantasist was born in July 2007. The blog’s name was inspired by a description of Cuthbert Brodrick, the eccentric architect of Leeds Town Hall, as an ‘attic fantasist’ who apparently lived under the aegis of his parents and whose cossetted domestic situation gave rise to architectural designs of an altogether different order. At the time I identified strongly with this nineteenth-century artist dreaming in the confines of his parental home. We have all been there – or at least, inviting empathy, I hope we all have been there. I’m still not sure whether Brodrick lived in the attic, but I certainly did and continue to do so for various reasons beyond my control. Soon I will start working in a more autonomous space that as far as possible I can call my own. But even there, in architectural echo across the River Mersey, I will scratch away in an attic. Strange to say that despite having spent much of my life under the eaves, since the first Attic Fantasist post and the moment I write to you now, I have not actually spoken about the attic in which the modest life of the fantasist is played out. And so, to inaugurate this blog’s reincarnation, I want to offer some reflections on the meaning of the attic.

An attic is an uncanny inversion of the cave. Attics and caves cannot accommodate the human body without discomfort and constant readjustment of its physicality. They increase our proximity to nature. They are spaces in which things are made to fit rather than being designed, like rooms with high ceilings or in fact any conventional room, to respect the body’s dimensions. The attic is architectural surplus, an apparent accident of building design. This belies its crucial function to insulate the properly occupied spaces of a building and offer a place in which stuff, both real and imagined, is stored and forgotten. Forever in darkness, the unoccupied attic makes itself known periodically with the flapping of wings and the ingress of rain. Its structural angularity and dramatic curves remind us of the cave. Lying under the eaves as the rain taps on the roof and dribbles down to the gutter or sneaks its way through any available opening, the cave’s cradling of nature comes to mind. The birds swooping down as if about to smack the windows but at the last second changing direction for the roof evoke the bats of a subterranean landscape. Light relieves rather than banishes the darkness that is the natural condition of the attic. (The ecstatic sense of the attic’s window onto the world is carried over into the cave and its luminescent opening at the mountain’s base). During the dark and sodden months, the condensation dripping down the attic’s curves are like the vertical rivulets reshaping the walls of the cave. Reminiscent of the cave’s crevices and hollows, the corners of an attic invite you to crawl into them in some form of uterine wish-fulfillment.

Attics and caves paradoxically solicit feelings of security and horror. Perhaps this is due to the analogy of the womb; these spaces might suffocate or nestle us. The urge to escape their confines is incorrigible. There is a tension here: falling asleep under the rain amplifies our sense of comfort and security. The attic is an extension of the bed. Such thinking does not work as well in the summer when we feel those curves and angles converging on the body as if in ultimate restraint. But then nowhere indoors is ideal in the summer. By contrast, the cave offers relative cool and calm from the melee.

A room is an aperture on the world. It refracts the light pouring in, altering the room’s shape and size. Remember that a darkly painted wall should never face a window; if so, a space will contract and fall under the spell of the natural condition and psychology of colour. If the camera analogy testifies to the connection between inside and outside, the attic is the exemplar in this regard. The bohemian living in penury in a garret (a more romantic word for the distinctly mundane attic) conjures thoughts of loftiness (no pun intended), of being above ordinary things, of observing the panorama of life by virtue of sheer elevation. Of being, in other words, closer to the sky with all its symbolism of flight and mortal danger. Little known is the basement fantasist; the sense of being dug down into the earth rarely inspires flights of fancy and freedom. The attic is the vantage point of inspiration. It coaxes the desire to be higher and higher, to resist gravity and the bad faith of being grounded in reality. I am not certain whether the attic fantasist knows when he is getting beyond himself or above his station, for his desire, however unfulfilled, is to make contact with the upper reaches afforded by his attic station.


Patience, released

Grant Gee’s film-essay on Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Patience (After Sebald), is now released on DVD by Soda Pictures.

The White Review has published an interview with the director online for free. I’d recommend buying the magazine whatever.

I wrote about Gee’s film here after seeing it at Snape Maltings in January 2011.

I am speaking about Sebald – though not on The Rings of Saturn – and Ida Hattemer-Higgins at a conference entitled Affective Landscapes on May 26 2012 at the University of Derby. My paper will link psychoanalysis, architecture, and psychogeography in Sebald’s Austerlitz and Hattemer-Higgins’s The History of History. 

From the interview with Grant Gee:

QTHE WHITE REVIEW — In Patience, someone discusses psychogeography, how it’s become fashionable, and questions whether what Sebald was doing is really psygeography. What’s your relationship to the term?

AGRANT GEE —  Tony Wilson said in one of the interviews he did for the Joy Division documentary that the Situationists were city planners. I liked that. I was always interested in the term from the Situationist stuff that was always on the fringes of punk and post-punk through Iain Sinclair’s early books, Patrick Keiller’s films… But I’m not sure I know what psychogeography has come to mean now. It certainly has a very different meaning from what it had at its conception or even twenty years ago – the utopian, revolutionary politics, combined with the sense of movement through the city as a kind of spatial psychotherapy where all kinds of hallucinatory histories come bubbling up.
But oddly enough, thinking about your question, the debt to surrealism and the hysterical intensity that Sebald brings to bear on places and which places bring to bear on him and the vertigo that floors him when he gets close to The Horror… you could place him in that tradition. Maybe Austerlitz in particular, the London scenes. Certainly he’s more in that line than in the line of nature writing which he also gets put in.

What is a library…

…and where should it be housed?
It is not for nothing that the libraries at Occupy camps and sites raise such questions. Judging from the images of Occupy libraries on Flickr, the housing of books can take many forms, from Toronto’s yurt to the volumes packed into plastic boxes on long trestle tables in New York. Occupy London at St Paul’s deploys Starbucks branding – ‘Starbooks,’ inevitably, though still amusingly – presumably as a two-fingered salute to a media industry intent on exposing the smallest cracks in the edifice of protest when they report on the paradox of protesters holding meetings in a nearby branch of Starbucks.

In a sense it doesn’t matter much where a library is housed. The more unlikely of places the better! Libraries as buildings create a sense of separation of life from knowledge: this is where knowledge is sought, that is where you are meant to stop thinking in creative and intellectual – or indeed in all – ways.

We can’t do away with library buildings: they keep old and homeless people (sometimes the homeless elderly) warm for a few hours as they read newspapers and books, chat to other people, feel in company and so less isolated and lonely. Libraries are also good for teenagers seeking relative peace from rowdy homes where there is a lack of private space for study. Clearly libraries in most cases need to be housed in buildings. But there is too much separation within life, far too much compartmentalisation of this from that. The life of the mind, the imagination, and dreams have their place. Sadly, there’s more places where all three of these things don’t go on than do. Neoliberalism again.

What is its function?
Not all of the books in Occupy libraries are what you would call the movement’s textbooks, if it could be said to have any. Think of a library hosted by protesters and what pops up in your head? The collected works of Marx and Engels? Klein’s Shock Doctrine? Holloway’s Crack Capitalism? Recent editions of the New Left Review? Ginsberg’s Howl? Perhaps. But what you do see in the pictures on Flickr are biographies of the ‘enemies’: Dubya, Palin et al… You think: are these sarcastic additions donated by right-wingers keen to make their own fingered gestures at a movement they deplore? Maybe some city boys have clubbed together to buy these memoirs of Republican nasties. Why not? What’s wasting twenty five quid to them? Or – shock horror! – anti-capitalists really do want to understand the world beyond their idea of things, which means they want to be informed about the enemy through their ever-so soi-disant mutterings.

The library is a hub where knowledge and dreams are born. It can be anywhere. It can be nowhere. Hold on: it is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously! No fines involved.

What is knowledge?
This is not a philosophical question. It could be; it’s just that I’m not posing it as such. Reason being: the exciting thing about these libraries is their randomness. There is no chief librarian vigorously thumbing publishers’ catalogues which tell libraries what they should have on their shelves. No, Occupy libraries appear to prefer a different kind of systematicity. As in, the system comes afterwards, once the title is picked up and is engaged by a reader whose desire is to engage another reader, provoking a potentially infinite chain of recommendation that literally conveys knowledge one-to-one or in some other configuration of readers and thinkers. Knowledge is not so much disseminated as embodied by a process which sweeps up engaged readers who become agents of change as a result of what they have or have not read (this latter can be as much of an active choice as the former).

Knowledge is what you made of the exchange? Knowledge is what you make of the book (which might involve you cutting it up and rearranging the paragraphs according to your whimsical or portentous desires)?

Why library?
Simple answer: it’s a form that works. A collection of books and other materials for enlightenment and pleasure in one space. This government (not to mention the efforts of the last) is keen on devaluing libraries not because people don’t visit them but because they are said to fail the economic utility that determines all value in this wretched f*&^%$g neoliberal world. All talk of communities running their libraries in some Big Society love-in is mendacious, colluding with neoliberalism. This fundamentally undermines what is meant by the library as an institution and its role as an incubator of dreams and facilitator of knowledge. That government policy on the provision of libraries goes hand in hand with worsening social and economic conditions in those very communities means the library somehow loses its purpose, becoming yet another space of entertainment that is the end result of neoliberal and capitalist notions of aesthetic pleasure: in fact, the aesthetic is merely an adjunct to the accumulation of capital.

Occupy libraries overturn such insidious manipulations of the idea of the library by hosting processes of knowledge and book exchange in the context of a gift economy one of whose endpoints is, without a shadow of a doubt, humanisation, and to feed the soul and mind in the interests of democratic change. Intentionally or not, Occupy libraries are tapping into the broader debate about the place and value of libraries in our communities by removing knowledge and pleasure from the cycle of capitalist exchange. It’s as if there’s a dialogue between Occupy libraries and the campaigns against local library closures, and the one is saying to the other: continue to fight to save the dreams and intellects within your communities! The dreams and intellects! Dreams and intellects are stronger than arguments about utility determined by checks and balances, by how much money is made by this or that library as they buy more DVDs and computers and install a branch of a coffee chain where the European literature section used to be (remember we’re selling off all European literature titles to fund the new and exciting changes!). And so, just as Occupy sites have installed libraries and universities as a matter of course, placing reading and discussion at the centre of what is entailed by the commons and democratic life, it is there for all to see that wherever neoliberalism treads, the denial of free access to knowledge follows (the rise in tuition fees is yet another node in this particular network).

Why library? We can’t do without them.

What is the order of things?
When people refer to their libraries it is never known what they mean. Beyond those individuals who ironically name what is merely a stack of books something grander by far, you are inclined to think that what is being referred to is a substantial collection that has been acquired and archived with the idea of systematising a body of related works and/or the passions and interests of the collector. All of which makes me think: why can’t a stack of books collected in this way be a library? Is it not a more meaningful concept of library? If my stack of books represents a bout of research or sustained curiosity, I would consider this not merely an archive but a library to which others might benefit, gaining access to a living embodiment of a thought process or moment in history. In other words, much like the libraries of the Occupy movement, this ‘library’ is not determined by the amount of books and their expense but by the extent to which it embodies or even crystallises a continuing history. To put it another way, such a library distances itself from the bourgeois concept of a room in which feigned intellectual tastes collide with the acquisitiveness of the privileged.

The artist and producer Lorena Rivero de Beer wrote recently on Mute about the process of cataloguing the Free University of Liverpool’s library. This library consists of donations made to the University by colleagues, friends, associates, the like-minded and the participants themselves. It is another example of a gift economy in which the gift will go on giving. Lorena’s article includes a photograph of participants surrounding a table of around 500 books and ‘intuitively cataloguing the Free University of Liverpool Library’. Intuition and desire were at the centre of this cataloguing process, which jettisoned preconceived notions of category, genre, discipline, publisher, or even theme. This playful and loose classification was ‘aimed at revealing the power hidden in disciplinary divisions and also to reflect on the subjective positions through which they are made’. They were personalising the library, ordering it through the interlocking desires of the collective as a result of discussion and reflection. Like the Occupy libraries, the Free University of Liverpool’s motley collection of books – to which all are invited to access and enjoy – is not aimed at increasing knowledge in the service of capitalist production and accumulation. No, it is far more important than that: it is humanised and humanising, both of which qualities a library must embody if it is to earn its name.

On poppies, mourning, and nationhood

The two minute silence was an hour ago. At the risk of sounding indulgent (emotion is always a risk, the risk of offending by projecting the self beyond all others), the mere mention of the two minute silence forces an intense sadness to well up inside me and on occasion overflow almost instantaneously with a momentary sob. Detecting the risk of self-indulgence, I quickly suppress this incongruous emotion: incongruous because none of my family has died in any of the wars commemorated by this annual ritual. While it is true that most of my work as an academic has concentrated on war and genocide, thankfully there is no direct link between me and the catastrophe of war deaths. Clearly my response is to the idea of mass death and the sheer loss of humanity constituted by it. The two minute silence compounds this recognition, a recognition that is likely never to go away since empathy is constitutive of my humanity in the first place and so the thought of people losing their lives burrows into my mind as a psychic injury.
Consider the consequences of this psychic process extending to whole nations. This year’s poppy campaign in the UK has focalised this issue. I am uncertain whether my attitudes have shifted and therefore notice particular things more than I might have done in the past, but to me there has been a muddying of nationalism – or specifically, national pride – and the ritual of remembrance enacted by the poppy campaign. And then there was FIFA’s decision to ban England’s football players from wearing poppies on their black armbands during a forthcoming match in Spain. Needless to say that there was a hailstorm of protest, inevitably leading all the way to the Prime Minister and the Duke of Cambridge, the latter holding the post of Chair of FIFA. My thoughts have been mixed over this affair: one minute I think it is much ado about nothing, and that the players wearing poppies sewn into the black armbands does not in any way symbolise religious or political allegiance; the next minute I think there is more at stake here, namely what happens when nations are told – implicitly or otherwise – that they cannot ritualise collective mourning. Decisions such as FIFA’s are an affront not so much to the dignity of remembrance but to the way in which national mourning is bound up with national pride. For it is true that what is being ritualised is the loss of life to a specific cause; footballers do not, after all, mourn AIDS victims on their kit, and so their recognition of Remembrance Day is in some sense an assertion of national identity. This is the way we fought, won, and lost in drastic numbers. Their sacrifice is not only individual but collective, made in the name of a nation that responded to a geopolitical situation in the way that it did. In this light, it is easier to understand why FIFA viewed the wearing of poppies as political expression. Protestors claimed that the poppy is a universal symbol of memory and remembrance. But do all nations deploy the poppy in rituals of mourning and remembrance? And what if the other team England happened to be playing was Germany? What then?
The poppy campaign is a solid British institution and has good intentions: volunteers invite you to select a poppy from their tray and ask that you leave a donation at your discretion. The money raised from this process goes towards the care of those injured by conflicts past and present. What kind of empathy denies the moral or ethical import of this process? But as my politics have shifted in recent years and I cannot resist the deconstruction of ‘campaigns’ and ‘moral crusades’, this year I am viewing the poppy campaign in a different light, particularly as a discursive practice whose undertow has itself shifted as a result of contemporary ideologies of nationhood on the right and in some respects, albeit in residual form, in certain quarters of the left. It saddens me that the trestle tables set out in the name of the poppy campaign on city streets bear an unfortunate resemblance to those arrayed in the dubious name of the British National Party. How can I navigate this Union Jack-bedecked territory without betraying my convictions as an anti-nationalist and anti-fascist tout court? What difficulties confront me as I walk past a table campaigning in some related form to the official poppy campaign but in which the political ideologies pertaining to race, immigration, sexuality, gender, and capitalism are somehow dovetailed by a Union Jack symbolism acting potentially in bad faith.
I am aware that all of the above could be viewed as self-indulgent. They sacrificed their lives so that you could write this stuff, some might say. It is not difficult to donate to the poppy campaign without abandoning your own bloody politics, some might say with rightful indignation.
I write out of sorrow: that the poppy is being co-opted, exploited, and besmirched symbolically by defensive notions of national pride. Above all else, I am writing this post out of a concern to raise the issue of mourning, melancholia, and nationalism. As Freud explained, insufficient and blocked mourning fails to return the patient to their lives and to society. The result of blocked mourning is interminable melancholia, by which the lost object, the cause of mourning, is internalised by the patient’s ego. This is a disastrous manoeuvre because the lost object and affect of grief are then locked inside the subject, barring the return to reality and to stable health. A number of escape routes are posed as the solution to melancholia: Freud mentions hysteria as one such exit to unleash locked grief and release the subject from their apparently intractable situation. Considering melancholia as a form of repression, on the other hand, means that aggression and destructive impulses could be seized upon by the melancholic in order to relieve their insurmountable feelings of dejection and self-loathing, to give expression to their libidinous energy. It is not difficult to view this psychic economy as underlining the fate of nationhood in its confrontation with mourning. FIFA’s decision is one possible action amongst many that represses national mourning, paving the way for an aggressive or defensive reaction that becomes the default psychic character of the nation’s ego. Meddling with mourning is a dangerous operation with potentially destructive effects.