Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Night Moves



The exploration of radical environmentalism in the thriller Night Moves (2014), directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a fascinating study in character development and ethical complexity.  The film steadily builds a sense of extreme tension in relation to the planned destruction of a dam that has unintended consequences.  Shot over just thirty days in southern Oregon, the sparsely populated landscape provides a poignant backdrop to the inner turmoil of the three main protagonists.  A sense of foreboding permeates the film as it drifts inexorably towards its violent denouement.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

High Life




The grim possibilities of multi-generational space travel to reach potentially inhabitable reaches of the solar system are explored in Claire Denis’s film High Life (2019) where human “refuse” is propelled into space as part of a system of extra-terrestrial laboratories. The scarred and psychologically damaged human cargo are “recycled” as part of a largely unseen nexus of scientific experimentation.  The film presents an unsettling post-human journey in which the limits to humanity become brutally exposed: in one strange sequence the decaying spaceship docks with another experimental space station full of dead and dying dogs.  The doomed mission lies trapped in a liminal state between the claustrophobia of confinement and an inky abyss beyond.                

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Covid and Brexit: the accursed duo




The senior public health expert, Professor Anthony Costello, warns that the UK is likely to have one of the worst, if not the worst, death rate from Covid-19 in Europe.  The UK has been experiencing a slow-motion catastrophe, unfolding over a period of weeks and months symbolized by the current incapacity and near death experience of the Prime Minister.  Why has the UK been much more badly affected than Denmark, Germany, South Korea, and many other countries?  


i)          From the outset the British government tried to pretend that they had a superior approach to the coronavirus crisis that contrasted with the “panicky” overreaction of their European neighbours.  There was a palpable sense of “British exceptionalism,” now liberated from the strictures of European cooperation (the UK had only just “celebrated” its departure from the EU at the end of January).  Opportunities to share procurement opportunities for essential equipment were simply rebuffed (and then denied).



ii)         Tellingly, many of the leading ideological zealots and opportunists behind the Brexit campaign are now at the heart of the UK government, bringing with them the same degree of hubris and insouciance that has marked policy making over recent years.  The art of “winging it” and dispensing with preparation has become a mode of governmentality, born out of a neo-colonial sense of superiority, as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole has brilliantly observed.  It seems oddly appropriate that last summer’s ill-fated leadership campaign for the Conservative Party, launched by the hapless health secretary Matt Hancock, was quickly dubbed “the charge of the lightweight brigade” (after a famous nineteenth-century military disaster).



iii)        A major strategic exercise in pandemic planning in 2016 — Exercise Cygnus — found serious gaps in preparedness but was never acted on.  All government attention since 2016 has been subsumed by the on-going Brexit fiasco sucking resources and expertise away from every other area of public policy.  Breezy talk of economic self-reliance has quickly fallen apart during the coronavirus crisis leaving a landscape of broken supply chains, idle factories, and food left rotting in the fields.    

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Coronavirus






I was wrong about the Covid-19 virus.  On Friday 6 March I met my students in Cambridge to reassure them that I had every intention of taking them to Berlin for their overseas field class: at that time there were just 8 recorded cases of the coronavirus in Berlin and there seemed little reason to simply cancel the planned trip.  Just 24 hours later I had changed my mind.  The latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute indicate over 2,000 cases of the virus in Berlin (with over 53,000 cases across Germany as a whole).  All of the cafes, museums, and restaurants that we would have visited are closed.  As a group of 25 people all of our planned field excursions to parks and nature reserves would have been illegal.



As I write this blog I am sitting at home in Stoke Newington in North London.  Under placid blue skies there is an apprehensive atmosphere.  Many people wear improvised face masks.  Some strangers swerve to avoid each other in the street whilst others walk towards you out of defiance towards new rules on social distancing.  The few shops still trading have long and anxious queues snaking into side streets.  The other day an army truck trundled down Church Street as if a distant coup was underway but not yet announced to the wider population.  Strange notices appear such as anti-jogging signs in the local park.  Accumulations of refuse suggest that public services are beginning to fray under the pressure.  At night the city is quieter than I have ever known—the silence is broken only by the sound of foxes or distant ambulance sirens.



The coronavirus pandemic is already revealing stark differences in the public health preparedness of different nations.  The contrast between the UK and Germany is striking: whilst senior members of the UK government fall sick after failing to follow their own half-baked advice it is already apparent that mass testing in Germany, combined with a better prepared health care system, is saving many lives. 

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.