Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Roma


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

Truth is out there: Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture at 2018 Turner Prize.  Photo: Matthew Gandy
Still from Forensic Architecture documentary to accompany Turner Prize entry.


“In my understanding,” argues the founder of Forensic Architecture Eyal Weizman, “truth is something that is like a common resource”.  “The truth is just like air or water,” continues Weizman, “something that we all need in order to understand, that provides evidence for civil society groups that are confronting state crimes and human rights violations worldwide.”   In this brief yet eloquent interview, that accompanies Forensic Architecture’s short listed entry to the 2018 Turner Prize, we gain some fascinating insights into this radical interdisciplinary research programme that Weizman initiated at Goldsmiths over a decade ago.  This remarkable body of work brings questions of epistemology and politics into dialogue as part of an unsettling of the human subject within architecture, art history, and related fields.  
The work of Weizman and his colleagues provokes a series of critical questions that offer an important alternative to the recent emphasis on neo-vitalist or object-oriented ontologies:
i)         An enriched reconceptualization of the human subject can transcend the limitations of humanism as well as the flattening and undifferentiated dimensions to some post-humanist perspectives.
ii)        The conceptualization of buildings and also plants as evidentiary markers or sentinels could surely be extended to other organisms such as insects because of their extremely precise responses to environmental change.  There is in this sense an interesting parallel with the emergence of “forensic entomology” and the use of biological data in criminal investigations.
iii)       The radical use of technological tools, and the democratization of digital cartographies and other modes of representation, opens up new possibilities for articulating technologically enhanced forms of citizenship.
iv)       The idea of truth as a collaborative synthesis derived from multiple perspectives, whose modes of scrutiny or validation are transparent, is a welcome foil to more cynical, nihilistic, or post-truth formulations.  There is an emphasis on the accountability of science rather than its degree of fallibility or infallibility.


Monday, 31 December 2018

Corbyn: a political tragedy

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, 14 November 2016

Wisconsin


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

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

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



Monday, 3 October 2016

Boyhood


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

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

Friday, 16 September 2016

Ex_Machina



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

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


Thursday, 15 September 2016

Harlow as viewed from Berlin



In the wake of the EU referendum there has been a surge of racism and xenophobia across the UK including acts of extreme violence.  A spate of attacks on Polish people in the Essex town of Harlow, for example, located not far from London, culminated in the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik, and has attracted international attention.  Unlike the muted media coverage in the UK external observers see this murder and the atmosphere of intimidation as a shameful indictment of the UK’s declining status as a respected European nation.1
Harlow was the future once.   As one of the original new towns established under the New Towns Act of 1946, and designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, Harlow was a state-of-the art planned settlement created in response to acute overcrowding in London.  Its buildings exemplify some of the most important examples of post-war British architecture and its comprehensive park system reflects the richness and complexity of the local topography.
Politically, Harlow is a classic bellwether constituency:  Labour in the 1970s, Conservative in the 1980s, regained by New Labour in the 1990s, lost again to the Conservatives in the 2010 general election.  In the 2015 election this working-class seat seems to have slipped further out of Labour’s reach than ever before: it is more Tory now than even under the high water mark of Thatcherism in the late 1980s.  Without Labour winning Harlow there will probably never be another progressive government in the UK again.
Part of the UK’s problem is that it has never gone through a process of collective self-reflection over its colonial antecedents, whether in Ireland, Kenya, India, or elsewhere.  A fog of self delusion pervades national discourse so that the UK’s complicity in the geo-political turmoil that has generated the contemporary mass movement of migrants and refugees is scarcely acknowledged.  Equally, the enormous contribution of migrants to British society, over many decades, has been drowned out by years of wilful misrepresentation.   The imperial mantra of “free trade” has become part of the labyrinthine tautology of “Brexit means Brexit” where vacuity and mendacity rule supreme. 
The fading of Harlow’s post-war dream is a poignant cipher for the wider ills of British society.  But the European Union is no more responsible for the town’s perceived decline than the rings of Saturn.  Why blame Europeans for the failures of Britain’s ruling class?  I hope very much that Neal Ascherson’s interpretation of the UK’s predicament is correct: we will spend three years trying to get out of the EU and then a further three years trying to get back in.2 
1          Christian Zaschke, “Rührt euch,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (10/11 September 2016)
2          Neal Ascherson, “Where are we now?,” London Review of Books  (14 July 2016