SURREALISM IN THE HIGH STREET

Some days, the music seems over for Main Street GB, for the great British High Street. And when the music’s over, in the immortal words of The Doors, “turn off the lights.” British High Streets have had their lights turned off long ago. We’ve canceled our subscription to the resurrection. Few joyous sounds are heard. A stroll down the local High Street isn’t so much a jaunt along Easy Street as a plunge into “Hard Times,” something Dickensian, full of bleak houses. Indeed, COVID sealed the already-precarious fate of High Street commerce. Long-range entropy turned into sudden catastrophe.

Store closures, bordered up premises, dreary, disheveled streets, with dreary, disheveled people, worn down by life’s hardships, strike as the order of the day. Under a typically gray British sky, everything becomes even more depressing, if that’s possible. Those businesses still in business, like the ubiquitous array of High Street chains—Boots, W. H. Smiths (surely the dreariest store in the land), Superdrug, etc., etc.—hardly raise one’s spirits. They’re about as inspiring as a stick of celery in a lonely field.

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Well before COVID, the British High Street was on the rocks. Yet after successive lockdowns, estimates reckon 11,000 stores have gone under, tipping a lot of High Street retailing over the edge. Unit vacancies currently stand at around 16 percent. The bulk of the casualties are chain outlets, unsurprising given that for decades chains have colonized our High Streets everywhere. They’ve monopolized and driven out smaller businesses. They’ve been pretty much all the High Street commerce we’ve had. But in killing off the competition, they overextended; and now, overextended, they’re downsizing, leaving people with no alternative. Save thrift (charity) stores. Up to 18,000 more stores, restaurants, and leisure outlets could fold as major retail groups like Debenhams, Topshop, and Dorothy Perkins collapse. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer, with reported losses for 2020/1 of over £200 million, have axed over 100 of its stores nationwide; more closures are imminent.

House of Fraser (owners of Debenhams and Topshop) have also shut over 100 stores, including their London flagship at the iconic art deco building on Britain’s prime High Street, Oxford Street. Billionaire Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct bought House of Fraser in 2018 but has struggled ever since. According to one business commentator, “House of Fraser stores are drab, staff levels are low, and service terrible.” It’s pretty damning. Stores have failed to adapt to consumer demands, critics say, for both an in-house and online consumer experience. And now they’re paying the price (“What Does the Closure of House of Fraser’s London Flagship Mean for the UK High Street?” Retail Gazette, November 23, 2021).

Retail analysts reckon further troubles are in store for the British High Street. The challenge is how to reinvent it, how to make High Streets and city centers less reliant on chain retailing, maybe even less reliant on retailing tout court. In the meantime, the predictable and boring High Street we once knew is soon destined to become a whole lot worse: deserted, boarded-up, jobless. For decades, we’ve been in a grip of a Hobson’s choice, between a sterile wilderness, on the one hand, or a dead wilderness, on the other. Alternatives have been throttled by market forces, by a lack of imagination and political will. Identikit Britain needs a new value system for its cities and towns.

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Growing up in Liverpool in the 1970s, I remember a time when you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee anywhere on the High Street. This was very troubling for me, a wannabe French surrealist shacked up in gloomy Garston. Those surrealists used to drink a lot of coffee. They liked to talk and hang out in cafes. And with all that caffeine inside them, afterward they liked to walk the city streets. In those streets, they said, you could discover novelty and chance encounter. That’s the meaning of life in the city, they said, novelty.

A bit later, I read Jane Jacobs. Jacobs drank more gin than coffee. She particularly liked her local—New York’s “White Horse Tavern,” along the same Greenwich Village Hudson Street block she lived. Jacobs didn’t much like what planners had done to cities both sides of the Atlantic, nor what they were to mastermind. They peddled the silly idea that functional separation was the way forward, that spaces should have mono-uses—work here, residence there, leisure someplace else. Jacobs said this destroyed the mixed land uses and diversity that made neighborhoods vibrant, that brought life to cities of all shapes and sizes.

Decades on, weird things happened to our cities. Since Margaret Thatcher, we’ve not had much planning, even of the sort Jacobs dissed. The “free” market has decided things. And the free market soon discovered coffee. We have more places nowadays to drink coffee than the surrealist could ever have imagined. We know something’s up when Whitbread, the brewery group, started shutting its High Street pubs and diversified into coffee, supplying us with a Costa Coffee on every street corner—or on every other street corner, next to every Co-op, with a Starbucks and Caffè Nero close by. The surrealists can get their caffeine rush. But where, after supping, would they wander, seek out that novelty and fleeting delight?

Once the famine, lately the feast, an orgy of sameness. Steadily but surely, up and down the country, in that free market economy, our big cities and little towns have become alike. Predictable chain stores dominate, too ubiquitous to mention. When Whitbread acquired Costa in 1995 for £19 million, it had 39 stores. When Whitbread went on to sell Costa to Coca-Cola in 2018 for £3.9 billion, there were thousands of stores—in fact, 2,700 as of 2021. Since the pandemic, though, Costa-Cola has slashed 1,650 jobs, amid store closings and staffing purges nationwide—including 40-odd closures on mainland China. (I remember a few years ago flying to Australia, waving goodbye to a Costa at my Heathrow gate, only to be greeted by another Costa hours later, stepping off the plane at Dubai.)

Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about the taste of chain store coffee; Costa’s, like all the rest of them, has a sharp metallic bitterness about it, only ever tasting one way, irrespective of the store, irrespective of who makes it. Little wonder most people want to drown that bitterness with masses of milk and sugar, or with frothy cream and chocolate and Lord knows what else. Personally, I like to think coffee drinkers might opt for a less reassuring sterility of taste and place if they were given the choice. Perhaps it’s too late. Perhaps they’ve already been conditioned into knowing only that taste. Which, of course, was the chains’ principal objective in the first place.

I’m old enough to blame it on Thatcherism. Planning was bad, but no planning is worse. Though let’s be clear: it’s not like there hasn’t been any planning; more that our local authority planners have been bought off by those same big chains. They’ve had their pockets lined and political ambitions anointed. They’ve granted planning permission where they shouldn’t have, given it for anything and to anybody who’ll bring commerce to town, kowtowing to big chains most of all, offering them the kinds of tax breaks and rent holidays they’d never dare offer struggling independents.

Our local politicians and planners believe big chains are the most economic reliant, the most economically resilient. Famous last words. It’s a warped understanding of monopolistic economics, and of what a rich urban culture should be all about. Meanwhile, honest planners haven’t been very imaginative, or have given up too depressed. They should’ve read more French surrealism. And more Jane Jacobs. Nor has the free market been very free. Our cities are arenas for high yields only, for gleaning land rent, for making property pay any way it can. People are priced off the land. Only rich companies can afford to stay put. And then they leave.

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Surrealism has been on my mind penning these words because I’ve just visited a big exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery: “Surrealism Beyond Borders.” Many years ago, I swore I’d never go to another museum to see another Surrealist exhibit. I’d seen hundreds. They’d usually been curated pretentiously, smacking of pomposity and self-importance. They never captured the surrealism that I carried around in my head. Catalogues, compiled by art critics, invariably stressed fantastical juxtapositions and counter-hegemonic practices, liberational assemblages and strategies of defamiliarization—academic jargon destined for Private Eye’s “Pseud’s Corner.” Usually, too, these exhibitions of artworks by artists that hated conformism and predictability were colossally conformist and predictable, and such was the Tate’s. Still, inexplicably, I went, somewhat predictably.

The exhibit, initially unveiled at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in late 2021, was vast, spanning eleven large rooms of the Bankside gallery, with paintings, drawings, photos, pamphlets, and films of surrealisms from around the globe, beyond a Paris-centric identity: from Osaka and Bogota, Mexico City and Cairo, Haiti and Havana, Mozambique and Korea. Points of transnational convergence were highlighted, shared political allegiances; shared fears, too, about the state of world, about colonialism and war, about exile and authoritarianism, about civil rights and the plight of the creative artist in repressive societies. Those concerns never seem to die out entirely.

The collection was also keen to place greater emphasis on surrealist women artists, like Leonora Carrington, Kati Horna, Frida Kahlo, Françoise Sullivan, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo; and on non-white males, like the voodoo-Afro-Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (with a Chinese father), and the American trumpeter, poet, painter, and black power activist Ted Joans, whose “Long Distance” exquisite corpse drawing game, produced over 30 years and pasted together from 132 collaborators on three continents, concertinas to over 35 feet in length, unfolding as almost the backbone of the whole exhibition. “Jazz is my religion,” said Joans, “and surrealism my point of view.”

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While much of “Surrealism Beyond Borders” left me cold, typically dissatisfied, walking out the door, I knew, like other Surrealist exhibitions I’d seen, it didn’t leave me with nothing: I’d had an encounter of sorts, getting me daydreaming about something. Besides all else, it made me think that those surrealist painters, photographers, and writers had much more interesting lives than ours, more experimental, more tumultuous lives; and they lived in more interesting places, more alive cities. I still dream of a piece of their action. But changing our way of seeing cities is more vital now than what changes our way of seeing a painting in an art gallery. The surrealists tried to make art-form a life-form. They drew on dreams and desire in conscious life. They wanted each to mutually inspire, to conspire as a new reality. The unconscious and conscious were to come together somehow, to encounter one another, to find a home in the city.

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Encounter here meant more than mere meeting or rendezvous, more than a simple get-together; a complex get-together, perhaps, an interesting encounter, a contradictory, even conflictual encounter, an encounter that stimulates, that enlivens the senses, that teaches. That’s what cities ought to be, surrealists said: sites of encounter, sites of “superior events,” as Breton put it. That’s how urban dwellers could prosper, could feel more alive, be less bludgeoned by drudgery. Surrealists wanted people to inhabit a landscape of dream and desire, and Surrealism built this dream house in the ashes of the dominant order, out of disgust and distrust of this order; and so should we.

Surrealism rings out like a public payphone waiting to be randomly picked up. Its call needs to be answered, its message passed around; its sound needs to resound, to echo beyond the museum walls. It needs to drift into the streets, out onto the High Street, where it’s really meant to be. Surrealism needs to find a voice again, become a soundscape, like a Ted Joans poem, played to jazz, to Monk, or to an Archie Shepp horn. At the Tate, one of the few highlights for me was watching Joans in action, reading aloud to a Shepp tenor sax, in William Klein’s film of the 1969 Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers. Shepp, a self-avowed communist, once shared an apartment with Charlie Parker; and in the early 1960s played some of his most innovative jazz with the legendary avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. If only our cities could resemble in form and content their lyrical atonal riffs.

The surrealists were wont to shock and exaggerate and André Breton particularly like to invoke Lautréamont’s exaggerated verse to shock most. Breton loved Lautréamont’s Maldoror (1869), a poetic flight of fancy, the epic odyssey of Maldoror, “the prince of darkness,” whose bizarre hallucinations became Surrealist touchstones: “the fortuitous encounter on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Refrains like these, intending to provoke outrage, reveled in encounters between absurd things that were very hard for ordinary folk to get their heads’ round. Yet the message was brought to earth later by Thomas Pynchon, himself no stranger to the genre. Pynchon said he’d discovered Surrealism in the 1950s and took for it “the simple idea that you could combine inside the same frame elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects…but any old combinations of details will not do.”

But the contrasts between the ideals of “Surrealism Beyond Borders” and the London cityscape are stark; and it’s impossible to get that contrast inside the same frame. Exiting the Tate Modern that day, I crossed over the Thames on Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge (co-designed by sculptor Anthony Caro), intent on a Surrealist dérive around central London. (On opening day, in June 2000, Londoners nicknamed this structure the “Wobbly Bridge,” as the slender ribbon of steel swayed alarmingly in the cross breeze blowing off the river.) Directly ahead is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Passing along St. Paul’s Churchyard, I’m headed west on Ludgate Hill. Already those chains are in abundance. There’s Côte Brasserie (higher end faux French restaurant chain), Sports Direct, McDonald’s (practically facing St. Paul’s), and Wagamama (fusion Asian food chain). Walking along, I’m greeted by Costa Coffee, Greggs (the dreadful British bakery chain, with 2,000 outlets nationwide), and Pret à Manger.

Ludgate Hill is lined with “TO LET” signs both sides of the street, flagging the ubiquity of office and retail vacancies. As I approach Farringdon Street, Leon (fast food chain) is on the corner, near Holland & Barrett (vitamin, nutrition supplement and health food chain). Over Farringdon Street, there’s Marks & Spencer, more empty stores with “TO LET” signs, Boots, Sainsbury’s Local, and then KFC. It’s a motley array of sameness. No matter where you go, whether you’re in central London or central Bury, these chain outlets are all absolutely the same everywhere: same store furniture, same colours, same layout, same menus, same décor, same shelf stock, same staff uniform, same smell, same feel, same same.

Turning right up Fetter Lane and another Holland & Barrett, with Pizza Express opposite. For a while, retailing disappears. Few people are about. The street is desolate. Fetter Lane becomes New Fetter Lane with office space on each side of the street, many new, sleek glass buildings. Their height, while medium rise, is too tall for the narrowness of the street, so everything feels enclosed. The space is dead. Defoe would have walked these same streets, as would his sympathetic, eccentric flâneur, H.F., as would Moll Flanders (Newgate Prison, after all, is just around the corner). Plague notwithstanding, these streets would have been more bustling then, more intensely alive, densely populated by people and dwellings, neighborhoods not yet emptied out by office space—by now-redundant office space. These streets were coffined even when their offices were alive with occupants.

Now, there’s around 58 million sq. ft. of empty office space in London. Commercial property specialists suggest that with flexible work trends and remote working—the future long-term trend for around half of the UK’s workforce—unused commercial office space will continue to grow. Few businesses now want to commit to long-term leases; over 60 percent of the office space providers offer reduced rates or rent holidays. As of March 2022, weekly London office occupancy was 31 percent, compared with 63 percent pre-pandemic. Lights on, nobody at home. Soon, too, these lights will turn off. (Even so, with the prevalence of cranes in the City of London, offices are plainly still getting built, and still, unbelievably, gaining planning approval.)

It’s hard for pedestrians not to feel the disconnect here, the way Jean-Paul Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin felt it in Nausea: a human being encountering cold inanimate objects, objects everywhere around you, that tower over you, that provide the context of your life—objects you must live with yet are somehow cut off from you, beyond you, against you. They make you shudder with that feeling, with the nausea that overcomes you, that alienated subjectivity. It’s the landscape of money and finance, of High Street chains that enchain, that flatten life, that reduce much that surrounds us to a passive one-dimensionality. It brings on nausea. Or, rather, as Roquentin mused, “it is the Nausea. The Nausea isn’t inside me,” he said. “It is everywhere around me…It is I who am inside it.”

New Fetter Lane opens out onto High Holborn, and I turn left headed west, passing Wasabi (sushi chain), over Gray’s Inn Road, encountering more office buildings, then Caffè Nero, another Greggs, and a (public) street sign with a McDonald’s “M” on it, attached to a lamppost, giving directions to the said hamburger joint. Then Dorothy Perkins, Superdrug, another Boots, and another Leon; soon another McDonald’s sign, similarly positioned on the public byway (how do they get away with it? Maybe because there’s no mention of McDonald’s by name, nor any image of their food), Blackwell’s (chain bookstore), and another Pret à Manger. I cross the bottom of Red Lion Street, passing another Pizza Express, just before Procter Street, I’m greeted by another Pret à Manger, hardly 400 yards from the previous one. Crossing Procter Street there’s another Superdrug, another Caffè Nero, New Look (clothes chain) and another Costa Coffee on the corner of Kingsway, next to Holborn Tube Station, with another Wasabi on the other side of the street.

Over Kingsway comes another Sainsbury’s Local and another sign for McDonald’s. I decide to walk up Southampton Row, headed north now, passing a batch of vacant stores, looking like they’ve been vacant since well before the pandemic. There’s a lot of litter swirling about and the landscape is worn and forlorn. I cross over Vernon Place, with another Sainsbury’s Local to my left, and another Holland & Barratt to my right, then Ryman (stationary chain). Soon Taco Bell, facing which is another Costa Coffee, and McDonald’s. Russell Square appears immediately to my left and after a little while I turn right onto Bernard Street, encountering another Pret à Manger and Tesco Express, before joining the south end of Marchmont Street, opposite Russell Square Tube Station.

Now, in the heart of Bloomsbury, for the first time on a foot journey nearing 3 miles, things get more interesting. I head up Marchmont Street, with the Brunswick Centre on the right (a concrete, high-density, modernist housing structure, built between 1965—73), and the Marquis Cornwallis pub appearing to my left. Just afterward comes Marchmont Street’s Post Office, lined outside by a large fruit and vegetable stall, my first glimpse of anything fresh. Immediately following it also my first glimpse of anything independent: “Bloomsbury Building Supplier,” a locally owned hardware store and paint and plumbing supplier. It’s been around here for thirty years, probably more. I know this because, in the mid-1990s, I used to live around the corner, on Coram Street, and the hardware store was already well established then, frequented by me included. Not far away, on the other side of the street, is Alara Health Food and Organic café, another independent and longstanding feature of the block. Ditto “Gay’s the Word,” an independent LGBT bookstore, set up by a group of gay socialists in 1979, still miraculously hanging on.

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There are other wonderful independent bookstores along Marchmont Street: SKOOB and Judd books, the latter being one of my all-time favs, dear to my heart when this was my neighborhood. It’s still run by the same two guys, now a lot grayer. SKOOB, nestled in the Brunswick Centre, 50 yards off Marchmont Street, is a more recent arrival. I remember it years ago at Sicilian Avenue, off Kingsway; and Judd Books was called “Judd Street Books 2” then, since the original Judd Street books was on nearby Judd Street, a little farther north, just south of King’s Cross Station. That location always felt peripheral to me; the owners agreed, eventually amalgamating their stock in the Marchmont Street premises, retaining the Judd Street name but later dropping “Street.”

Marchmont Street was the London street I loved best. It was where I wanted to live, on it or nearby. It didn’t only have bookstores and cafés; it also had an arts cinema, “The Renoir,” still has it, in the Brunswick Centre, a stone’s throw from my apartment. The neighborhood was my little utopia for a while. If anything, the changes taking place there over past decades, rather amazingly, have probably been for the better. The street hasn’t lost its charm. Independents have been able to flourish, despite rising rents. This is a segment of London I know intimately, and it was always the intended terminus of my walk across town. I confess it, like the philosopher Louis Althusser “confessed” about his “reading” of Marx’s Capital, his “guilty” reading. He was no innocent reader, and neither am I, similarly reading central London’s landscape with intent, like Althusser read Marx’s landscape in Capital, unpacking meaning, probing absences and presences, sights and oversights, the visible and the invisible. I could never be an innocent flâneur, a casual stroller through town, mimicking the casual reader strolling through a text. Instead, there’s too much interrogation going on, too much critical investigation, so I confess my crime, my guilty reading, my partial eying of the cityscape around me.

Marchmont Street, for me, was the nearest thing in the UK that resembled anything Jane Jacobs evoked in Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here, I thought, were some of the inspiring qualities of her “intricate street ballet,” ebbing and flowing in its “morning rituals,” in its “heart-of-the-day” and “deep night” ballets. Marchmont Street likewise exhibited mixed-use diversity and clientele—young and old, students and bohemians, Asian kids and families, tourists and locals, yuppie professionals and poorer working classes, blacks and whites, gays and straights—out in public in a central London street. A real rarity. A community center, a hardware store, a launderette, a dry cleaner, a post office, a bakery, a dentist, a newsagent, three hairdressers, a health food store, a Halal food store, two pubs, a betting shop, several cafes (independents as well as a Costa), three bookstores, a Waitrose supermarket (nearby in the Brunswick Centre), a cinema, together with Chinese, French and Indian restaurants, all relatively happily share the space of one small neighborhood block.

In bygone days, a café called Valencia served as my surrogate living room. It’s still around today, though with a bit of garish makeover since my residency. I used to sit there for hours, up on a stool overlooking a window, drinking coffee, losing myself, trying to find myself, all the while watching the world go by outside. Inside, I felt a part of this outside action; detached from it, anonymous, sufficiently absent, yet absolutely present. I surveyed the crossroads, the junction with Tavistock Place, monitoring things to the west and east, everything to the north; and, turning around, I could glimpse stuff to the south as well. I could see all, from this panoptic patch on planet earth. Sometimes, while I sat, I thought I didn’t have to go out into the world anymore, because, here, the world sort of came to me. I’d sip cappuccino, stare out the window, listen to the radio, feel the pulse of neighborhood life going about its daily round. I spent so much time there that its owners—two Egyptian brothers—used to give me a present every Christmas.

Those café days along Marchmont street convinced me that the Surrealists and Jane Jacobs knew what they were talking about when they talked about cities. One feature Jacobs insisted upon was that cities need hearts. If we open our ears, we can hear that heart beating, a human sound, like music. There’s a natural anatomy to urban hearts. Big cities usually have more than one heart, just like they have more than one High Street, one Main Street. Yet always these hearts will beat at busy pedestrian intersections. “Wherever they develop spontaneously,” Jacobs said, hearts “are almost invariably consequences of two or more intersecting streets, well used by pedestrians.” They’ll have corner stores or corner cafés, corner pubs or corner public squares. Hearts thrive off diversity not homogeneity. Rich people and rich businesses see city hearts as profitable financial investments, as organs to pump up and artificially inseminate. Under their watch, cities might look pregnant with possibility. But their real hearts have become sclerotic.

Nevertheless, on odd occasions, by some minor miracle or another, streets like Marchmont Street cling on to life, continue to have beating hearts. They retain diversity, manage to hold on to street spontaneity, to a certain kind of urban ambiguity. Things that shouldn’t co-exist do co-exist. Perhaps it’s no irony that one of our prophets of ambiguity, the poet and literary critic William Empson (1906-1984), twice opted to live along Marchmont Street; once between 1929-1931, and again between 1934-1936, at number 65, in a second-floor apartment now commemorated by a blue memorial plaque. Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, published in 1930 at the tender 24-year-old—precociously begun as a Cambridge University undergraduate–became a landmark in poetry criticism and was likely fine-tuned and finished off at his Marchmont Street abode.

imagesWhether deliberate or subconscious, Empson said that the best poetry makes the best and subtlest uses of ambiguity. So should the best and subtlest urban planning and design. Maybe, then, we can conceive Empson’s critical and creative treatise about poetry as a manifesto about the form and functioning of our cities. At its best, the city is a sort of poetic text, with the same rhymes and rhythms, same ambivalences and ambiguities as those of the best literary refrains.

For many people, city life is ambiguity, a constant struggle between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, a balancing act between working and living, an active tension and perpetual contradiction. Marx himself devoted much attention to this ambiguity, to how the two collided in the socialist imagination, and how the Good Life involves liberation as well as livelihood. In Volume Three of Capital, he says the realm of freedom begins only where the “mundane considerations” of necessity cease. Freedom begins, in other words, when basic needs for food and shelter are satisfied. A shortening of the working day, he says, is a prerequisite for making people freer and happier, for enabling ordinary folk to undertake more edifying activities that the world of work usually denies.

All kinds of aesthetic and creative endeavors might thereafter be released, even if it’s just having more time to paste postage stamps in an album or chase butterflies in a field (which Breton loved to do at his home in St.Cirq Lapopie). Thus, sensual stimulation—pleasure, adventure, experiential novelty—is also a basic human need, Marx thinks, even though it’s a category invariably commandeered by the idle rich, by the independently wealthy. Marx, however, insists that sensual stimulation is a right for everyone, not just for an entitled minority, who buy or inherit their privileges, who monopolize them at the expense of everybody else.

Marx always held this ambiguity between freedom and necessity in creative tension. He seemed forever torn between a workerist, Promethean vision of life, and an Orphean passion for play and pleasure. He tended to favor the former later in life and the latter in his youth. He knew, needless to say, that the two realms needed conjoining, that ethics and aesthetics had to co-exist. Yet he never quite figured out how to conjoin the two Marxes in his Marxism. Maybe for good reason: not only did he say he wasn’t a Marxist, but he equally rejected utopian thought because it tended to favor one over the other: either a dour, closed, anti-human system or a self-realization based on “mere fun” and “mere amusement.”

That said, Marx never positioned himself in the center, never chose compromise. Instead, he challenges us to imagine critical and radical forms of an Open Society, a society where people might work (necessarily, without surplus time) and be free, feel at once whole and more alive. He roots for a social and physical environment where the possibilities for human passion might heighten; where our senses—seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting, desiring, and loving (all Marx’s words)—blossom as “organs of individuality” and “theoreticians in their immediate praxis.”

Here the city comes into its own as a life-form and life-force, as a normative social space, where civic and cultural spaces, High Streets and backstreets exist to promote and give scope to intense human experience and diverse human activity. In them, people might inhabit and participate in a more wholesome reality, a bit like a busy local farmers’ market, where, al fresco, crowds congregate expectantly and the countryside encounters the city in all its ambivalence, like the fruit and veg being sold: misshapen, frequently dirty and battered, yet invariably flavorful and of high-quality. Products are unalienated, just as direct engagement with producers is unalienated, just as the space itself expresses an honest clarity. Above all, everything tastes, and in our contemporary processed age that’s saying plenty. Items on sale are the kind of products dumped by big chain supermarkets, whose stock are perfectly formed, mass-grown specimens, utterly devoid of dirt and flavor, like big chain cities.

A farmers’ market isn’t, of course, the only possible paradigm for wholesome urban space. Maybe another is the flea-market, something cherished by the Surrealists, especially by André Breton. Remember, early in Nadja, Breton wandering around Paris’s great open-air marché aux puces at Saint-Ouen? He loved doing it every Sunday afternoon, he said, best of all with a friend. A little beyond what’s now the Boulevard Périphérique, not far from the Porte de Clignancourt, Saint-Ouen’s flea-market has been around since the early 1870s, when ragpickers, clochards, and bric-à-brac dealers, deemed insalubrious by the bourgeois powers-that-be, were evicted from central Paris.

They soon installed themselves and their makeshift street bazaar in the northern periphery’s no-man’s-land zone and have been there ever since. The flea-market thrived as a venue where Parisians could hunt down trouvailles, find antique oddities, upscale garbage, arcane wares (fossils, taxidermy, rusty old mechanical devices, etc.), as well as the occasional period treasure and artistic masterpiece—all at a price you could haggle over. For the surrealists, Saint-Ouen epitomized a site of the chance encounter, with objects and people; surprises lurked around every corner and under each pile of junk. The surrealists would unearth here the artistic throwaways and ready-mades they’d make legendary.

In Nadja, Breton describes how, one Sunday, he and Marcel Noll visit Saint-Ouen. “I go there often,” says Breton, “searching for objects that can be found nowhere else: old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, really perverse objects in the sense I mean and love.” At bazaars like Saint-Ouen, Breton says he delivers himself to chance, revels in circumstances “temporarily escaping my control,” gaining entry “to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see.” Breton was a man who once gave one of life’s great directives: “Expect all good to come from an urge to wander out ready to meet anything.” In a beguiling passage in Nadja, he says “I almost invariably go without specific purpose, without anything to induce me but this obscure clue: namely that it (?) will happen here.” (The point of interrogation is Breton’s own. What is the “it” in question? Who knows? Can anybody know? That’s Breton’s point.)

Breton at the Flea market

Several years later, in Mad Love, he recounts another trip to Saint-Ouen, this time with sculptor Alberto Giacometti, on “a lovely spring day in 1934.” “This repetition of the setting,” he qualifies,” alluding to Nadja, “is excused by the constant and deep transformation of the place.” There’s enough novelty going on, Breton hints, that you’ll never exhaust your visits, never walk through the same waters twice. Saint-Ouen is constantly changing, is the source of constant change, even to this day, and always there’ll be “the intoxicating atmosphere of chance.” “It is to the recreation of this particular state of mind,” he puts it in Mad Love, in Giacometti’s company, “that surrealism has always aspired.” “Still today,” says Breton, “I am only counting on what comes of my own openness, my eagerness to wander in search of everything, which, I am confident, keeps me in mysterious communication with other open beings, as if we were suddenly called to assemble.” “Independent of what happens, or doesn’t happen, it’s the expectation that is magnificent.”

In these passages, Breton touches on some of the grand themes of the Surrealist movement: an openness to novelty and chance; a celebration of adventure, of plunging into the unknown, somewhere unforeseen, impossible to anticipate in advance, someplace where an encounter happens—an “it,” as he calls it. Meanwhile, the expectation of finding something, some new novelty or discovery, some trouvaille, is just as important as actually finding it, as actually realizing the expectation. And, finally, for Breton, such above traits are distinctively human traits, putting us in “mysterious communication” with one another. We need this mysterious communication somehow, and we’re prepared to assemble around it. There’s a generosity of spirit here, and one question we might ask ourselves now is: are we already picking up that ringing surrealist public payphone?

It probably sounds bizarre but maybe the thrift (charity) stores we’ve seen burgeon up and down the land, even before COVID, are the closest things we might encounter to the surrealist flea-market. Don’t they touch on the same sort of serendipitous experience? As businesses fold on the High Street—failed independents, runaway chains—thrift stores have moved in, occupying empty units, becoming a ubiquitous presence everywhere; a predictable external sight, perhaps, yet an internal adventure for everyone who crosses their threshold. Some people hate thrift stores: they smell musty, of body odor, and they’re full of trash, and you never know who’s worn those clothes. Others, seemingly the majority of people, love them. Maybe because of our deep-down yearning for novelty, maybe it’s that which is borne out in thrift stores? The human need for experiencing the unexpected? You’re not sure what you might find in each visit, what shirt or blouse or jacket lurks on the rack, what record or DVD or used book, what household ware or piece of furniture; and at what price, something cheap, something designer, something you never thought you wanted and had no intention of ever going out to buy. And even if you find nothing, you’ve been stimulated, were expectant.

Indeed, you enter each store with a sense of expectation. A bit of adventure to the usual everyday mundanity. Of wanting to dig around stacks that don’t resemble anything you’d find in a chain store. You already know what you might find there, in an environment that’s anodyne and sterile, uniform and highly organized, programmed; that offers no real choice with its rows and rows of stuff, piled high. No serendipity, no novelty, no surprise. Nothing is left to chance. The atmosphere is oppressive, the staff alienated. Not so with the thrift store. A welcome antidote to the predictability and sterility of the High Street. A relief to pass time in a more friendly, relaxed, and informal ambience, where people freely chose to be in, to work in. Besides, isn’t it a good thing for the environment that those items are getting recycled, that there’s less waste? And because thrift stores are registered charities, aren’t they generally supporting a good non-profit cause, as are the people who shop there? Worlds removed from businesses answerable to shareholder greed.

But thrift stores are ambiguous, too. If they didn’t exist, there’d be gaping holes along the High Street. Isn’t that good? Yes and no. There are more than 10,000 thrift stores in the UK; others seem to sprout every day, almost overnight. Charities receive mandatory 80 percent relief on business rates if their premises are “wholly and mainly” used for charitable purposes. In many instances, local authorities, keen to keep footfall on the High Street, desperate to fill vacant units, have topped up this relief to 100 percent, basically meaning big, rich multinational charities like Oxfam are exempt from paying business rates. The little entrepreneur who wants to start up her café business in the empty spot next door won’t get off as lightly, will be compelled to pay the market rent as well as the going business rate. That way, the proliferation of charities along the High Street guarantees market rents will never go down, even with an over-supply of retail rentals. Charities effectively mask capitalist failure without ever resolving the causes of this failure. And unlike an independent business, who pay salaries to any employee, charities benefit from volunteer labor. They thus offer novelty on the High Street without ever offering paid work on the High Street.

Yet maybe the future of the High Street isn’t about paid work anyway. Nor about conventional retailing, conditioned by the laws of exchange-value. Maybe it’s more about entertainment and leisure, about use-value, novelty, and human encounter rather than strict monetary, financial encounter. Since COVID, some local authorities have balked at offering full rate relief to charities. There have been other appeals, too, to abolish rate relief entirely, to get charities to cough up fully on business rates; it’s a rebate that’s effectively worth around £2 billion each year. (Even if the rate were only 50 percent, £1 billion might accrue for other uses, be put into a national fund that could support regional small businesses, especially in distressed areas.) Is there another urban strategy that might nurture thrifts alongside independent activities, like artisanal pop-up stores, temporary art galleries, and attic sale activities?

Can’t the High Street be pedestrianized on certain days and hours to encourage more regular street markets and farmers’ markets, pop-up events, and street dining. The pedestrianization of Soho, which shuts off its 17 streets to vehicles between 5pm and 11pm to accommodate outdoor dining, offers a remarkable vision of a “hospitality recovery plan” (as Westminster City Council calls it). Sitting on chairs around tables from adjacent restaurants and cafés, Soho streets bustle with people. An amendment to dining laws, announced this year in the Queen’s Speech, has made road closures and outdoor leisure a permanent feature of some of central London’s neighboring High Streets.

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Can’t empty commercial units also be rezoned, converted into affordable housing, bringing people to live in town centers, at the same time as doing away with uniform opening hours, so that central spaces might be alive at all hours, not just at pub hours at night. Some independents might close after lunch and reopen later in the early evening, stay open late, a feature, for instance, of the smallest, most provincial French towns, which tend to come alive at evening time, when in Britain their counterparts are deserted and already dead. Mightn’t we do away with uniformity altogether, put a ban on chains (get bold!), instigate commercial rent control, and induce people to experience a more obscure clue: namely that it (?) will happen here; yes, happen even on your High Street.

Why can’t central government empower local authorities to empower local, independent businesses? Real empowerment, I mean—empowerment of ideas. Many people, lacking money capital, have capital inside their heads awaiting realization. That’s the alternative. That’s the opportunity. Cities and small towns have lacked any sense of participatory democracy for a long while, and chains are a sure way to foster disempowerment in work and in urban life. Our retreat to online shopping is merely a symptom of High Street alienation. Yet it isn’t hi-tech urban design that’s at stake; more low-budget city acupuncture, of finding new ways to recreate old stuff, of poking into things meticulously and lovingly to enable sociability, like at the flea-market—not rolling in roughshod with the bulldozer and a new Tesco superstore.

It’s more about nurturing street space, developing floor-space, re-energizing vacant units. The essential thing is to construct a human space in which experiential communication can be most effectively transmitted. Streets are communicating vessels, after all, capillary tissuing, where exterior and interior worlds constantly interchange and flow into each other. Physicality morphs into sociality, and vice versa. The more we stay passive objects, in a wilderness of sameness, of mono-space, the less we actively participate in the production of our own life, and the less we get out of this life. Could there ever be a sense that curious objects might induce curious people to one day create curious cities?

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NEW YORK: Forest of Symbols

New York has an office space problem, a glut. It also has a retail store problem: empty units standing out like missing teeth. Those gaps are everywhere in town, especially in Manhattan, glaring cavities. Recently, I decided I wanted to photograph them, vowed to walk around everywhere to assess the extent of the required dental work. But soon I realized so much had gone that I’d be snapping away all day, and most of the night, doing so along every street (and avenue), in every neighborhood.

In many cases, empty stores are directly related to empty offices. Workers no longer in the workplace spell shuttered up coffee shops, dry cleaners, lunch restaurants and bars, even newsstands—those small businesses that once served commuting office workers. New York’s Comptroller’s Office reckons vacant commercial premises across Manhattan have seen a sharp hike; in some parts of midtown, one in three retail spaces now lie fallow (see “Fewer Workers Planning to Return, Hurting Manhattan’s Comeback,” The New York Times, April 12, 2022).

New York’s newly incumbent mayor, ex-NYPD cop Eric Adams, has been pushing for a recovery plan based on thousands of workers returning to midtown and lower Manhattan offices. The city’s 1.3 million private-sector office workforce, the mayor says, needs to get back to their desks. He wants crowds returning to central business districts, workers breakfasting, lunching, and dining there again, supporting small enterprises that will fast disappear without sustained patronage.

Adams’s mantra, though, is falling on deaf corporate ears. Some of the city’s biggest firms are urging employees otherwise. The management consultancy giant PwC told its 40,000-strong workforce it can now work remotely forever. Law firms and publishers like Penguin-Random House are following suit. Spotify has a 17-year lease on 16 floors of No.4 World Trade Center (at $2.8 million a month) but told its staff they can “live anywhere in the US.” Facebook voiced likewise to its thousands of NYC employees, throwing into question what’ll happen to their home at midtown’s James A. Farley Building. The insurance company TIAA, Verizon, as well as many other big techies (like Google), are all instigating hybrid working practices, insisting there’s no compulsion to get back into the office. JPMorgan Chase, New York largest private sector employer, said only half its 271,000 employees would return to the office five days a week. So despite the mayor’s pleas, in-person work presence looks like a blast from the past, not a glimmer of hope for the future.

The decline of Manhattan office workers is set to disrupt New York’s collective life. For one thing, it threatens to undermine the city’s real estate-reliant tax base. Overly reliant tax base, more like. Offices: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Pre-COVID, office buildings in Manhattan supplied more than a quarter of New York’s property tax revenue—money used to fund public schools, the police, parks, and public infrastructure. With 19 percent of Manhattan’s office space available for lease, a near record high, the dark days of the seventies’ fiscal crisis loom. Downtown, 21 percent of offices have no tenant. And without a regular stream of commuters, the region’s mass transit systems will face even greater budget cuts, disproportionately harming those workers who still show up to work. Reduced funding means poorer service and crappier facilities. At the April 2022 Brooklyn subway shooting, recall that none of the station’s CCTV cameras functioned. Rising subway crime will also present real and imagined obstacles to sustained usage, persuading many New Yorkers to think otherwise, if they can, about the daily commute.

And yet, while office occupancy dips, the city’s residential property values and rents soar, somehow defying gravity. Large swaths of the city’s public life are destined soon to deteriorate, languish because of lack of funding; still, private sector rents rose 33 percent between January 2021 and January 2022; and in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 40 percent gains have been reported. (Average sales prices for Manhattan apartments jumped 12 percent during the first quarter of 2022.) This seems inexplicable, even obscene, while so much of the city still reels from COVID.

After offering discounts, landlords are beginning to turn the screw again. For tenants who stayed during the pandemic, the goodwill is over; and for returnees, they’ll have to pay even more than they did before they left. Property owners say they’re trying to regain lost income and compensate for escalating costs of utilities and property taxes (“Rents are Roaring Back in New York City,” The New York Times, March 7, 2022). But hikes have only worsened the city’s chronic affordability problem. Some 45,000 people currently live in shelters; 5,000 make do—or not—on the streets. Homeless encampments across the city have been aggressively dismantled by NYPD’s Sanitation Department and Department of Homeless Services. The mayor is keen to highlight the “moral failings” of homelessness, clearing away the homeless for their own good.

Meanwhile, converting New York’s 700 underutilized hotels into affordable housing encounters legal and technical barriers. A new $100 million fund to motivate developers to convert empty hotels into residences wallows because of regulatory red tape. Here, as with flexible work models, city policymakers have been slow off the mark, hardly grappling with what all this portends for the Big Apple’s future. New York state has yet to relax zoning regulations, further hampering the conversation of office space into residential housing, including accommodation for low-income New Yorkers. So it goes.

***

I walked past Kurt Vonnegut’s old townhouse the other day, at East 48th Street, a narrow, white, three-story building, mid-block between Second and Third Avenues. I was thinking about the expression he’d made famous in Slaughterhouse 5: “so it goes.” Vonnegut said the Tralfamadorians uttered the phrase each time they encountered a dead person. So would he, Vonnegut said, in his novel. But I wasn’t thinking so much about corpses that day, about dead people, even though I could have easily been—Russian shells, after all, were raining on the Ukraine, circa 2022, much like Allied firebombs had destroyed Dresden, circa 1944. Instead, I was thinking about Vonnegut’s expression in conjunction with something I’d read in that morning’s New York Times, rolling my eyes, because of the awful familiarity of it: urban policy reverting to its old playbook of quack ideas. I’d been hearing this stuff for decades. So it goes.

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New York, like elsewhere in America—really like everywhere in the world—is handy at doling out huge amounts of public money to line the pockets of an already-immensely wealthy private sector. Thus The New York Times was reporting on how Albany was soon about to foot the bill for the Bills, for a new billion-dollar football stadium in Buffalo, even as the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls. Critics have damned this spectacular deal—costing New York state $600 million and Buffalo’s Erie County an additional $250 million—as an egregious case of corporate welfare; forking out huge sums of public, tax-payers money to subsidize a team owned by billionaires. It’s miraculous how the state finds ready money for private services after crying poverty for public services. So it goes. Even pro-capitalist economists wonder about the effects new mega-projects like this have on civic bottom lines. “Large subsidies commonly devoted to constructing professional sports venues,” they say, “aren’t justified as worthwhile public investments” (“Public Will Foot Most of $1.4 billion Cost for Stadium. Buffalo Fans Cheer,” The New York Times, April 17, 2022). Much the same can be said about other mega-projects.

Unquestionably, the biggest folly—the most egregious of egregious mega-projects—is New York City’s Hudson Yards. This 12-acre site, west of Penn Station and Madison square Garden, had once been gritty rail tracks and storage yards for Long Island Rail Road trains. Completion isn’t destined until 2024; yet much is already in place. Hooking up to the High Line and a revamped No. 7 subway station, Hudson Yards is meant to symbolize the pride and joy of a post 9/11 Big Apple, a celebration of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayoral years, his bleeding edge: New York, Inc.

Now, a $25 billion mega-plan brings shingled blue-glass skyscrapers, office space, deluxe condos, and high-end retailing galore, to say nothing of an eco-arts center and bizarre pedestrian walkway called “The Vessel.” Touted as Manhattan’s Eiffel Tower, designed by Brit Thomas Heatherwick, the Vessel is a $200 million 16-story stairway to nowhere, resembling a truncated giant honeycomb. Nearby, comes the “Shed,” a $500 million eco-friendly arts center and performance space, looking like an aircraft hangar wrapped in a gray down comforter. The structure is a movable feast, a shell that glides along rails, seating 1,200 people at any one time, “physically transforming itself,” the hype says, “to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.” In 2013, the City of New York handed over $50 million towards the project, to Related Companies and the Oxford Properties Group, representing the single biggest capital grant given in that year.

The bourgeoisie tears away sentimental veils, Marx famously said in the Communist Manifesto, and puts in its stead “open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation.” In all this—in open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation—we are, at Hudson Yards, on familiar ground. So it goes. The New York Times architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, called the development “a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.” It’s the largest private real estate venture in US history, and in the brazen world-leader of private real estate deals that’s saying a lot.

In office, Bloomberg pumped 75 million public dollars into the development, matching it with a similar sum from his own deep pockets. Meanwhile, BlackRock, a midtown investment company, managing a $6 trillion portfolio, wrote off $25 million in state tax credits, to buffer the move of its 700 workforce to Hudson Yards, less than a mile westward. Some estimates suggest the whole initiative has totaled as much as $6 billion in tax breaks and public finding. Socialism for billionaires is how the scam has been described—even as those self-same scammers wax lyrical about the virtues of the “free market.”

Still, one of the most startling of Hudson Yards’ scams, reputed to have amassed some $1.6 billion’s worth of financing, is even more insidious, only quite recently becoming public news (see Kriston Capps, “The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed,” CityLab, April 12, 2019). It centers on the controversial investor visa program called EB-5, part of George Bush senior’s immigration reform of the early 1990s. Bizarre as it may sound, the program lets immigrants secure visas in exchange for investment in the US economy. We’re talking here about super-rich foreigners, people who can pump between $500k and a million bucks into American real estate. That enables them—with no questions asked, no hoop-jumping—to gain fast-track visas, for work or study. (It has been something of a favorite in pre-COVID years amongst wealthy Chinese families.) The monies are supposed to go into federally-targeted areas, into poor and distressed neighborhoods across America, so-called TEAs—Targeted Employment Areas.

But the jurisdiction of TEAs—where its boundary lines are drawn—is rather loose, hence open to meddling and manipulation. And in New York, the Empire State Development, a public-private organization under New York state’s banner, is the arch-meddler and manipulator. Somehow, it managed to secure Hudson Yards TEA status, stretching its remit into poor census tracks of Harlem. As such, funds intended for real estate aid in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, like Harlem, were siphoned off and redirected into a super-luxury mega-development. “Think of it a form of creative financial gerrymandering,” is how Kriston Capps put it. That’s how developer Related Companies raked in around $380 million at Hudson Yards, bypassing distressed area scrutiny through a greedy audacity that beggar’s belief. Or perhaps not, in what was (is?) Trump’s America. (And, by the way, son-in-law Jared Kushner had been busily promoting Kushner Companies’ projects with EB-5 investors in China.) So it goes.

In our post-COVID workplace, though, this the notion of “bleeding edge” takes on a rather different significance. Vampires have sucked blood dry. There’s nothing left to bleed: empty offices and stores bereft of people characterize Hudson Yards, feeling a lot like the collapse of the dot.com sector in the noughties, highlighted in Thomas Pynchon’s own Bleeding Edge (2013). Depopulated officescapes, unused cubicles in open-plan ghost spaces, gather dust. “Eerily deserted,” said The New York Times (“How the Pandemic Left the $25 billion Hudson Yards Eerily Deserted,” February 2, 2021). Kohn Pederson Fox Associates’ 100-floor pinnacle office and residential building at 30 Hudson yards, taller than the Empire State Building, has around 500,000 square feet of unleased office space, casting a dark shadow across the shiny glitz. Hundreds of its condos remain unsold. With unpaid debts of more than $16 million, retail anchor tenant Neiman Marcus recently filed for bankruptcy, breaking its lease. At least four other upscale stores and several restaurants have likewise gone belly up.

When I strolled around Hudson Yards one lovely spring afternoon, the High Line was packed with people basking in the sunshine. Yet they were voting with their feet. Because, on the inside, inside the shopping mall, those crowds thinned to a trickle. Listless shoppers aimlessly wandered a complex whose scale is so massively oversized. Everything felt alienating, unlived in and dehumanized. Even the giant Whole Foods Market felt processed, supersized, starkly empty of organic humankind. Passivity prevailed in Hudson Yards’ rarefied air, both inside and out. In the chilly open-air shade, a small group of overseas tourists gathered at the base of the Vessel. They looked bored, perhaps puzzled why the structure was “temporarily” off-limits to visitors. Maybe they didn’t know the Vessel’s true claim to fame?

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The Vessel first closed in January 2021 immediately after a 21-year-old man leapt to his death from its 150-foot spiral staircase. The previous December, a 24-year-old Brooklyn woman had similarly jumped, following the death of a 19-year-old New Jersey man, an inaugural suicide, in February 2019. Witnesses then said there had been prolonged screaming as onlookers realized in horror what had happened. And just two-months after the Vessel reopened, in May 2021, amid a fanfare about a design overhaul to lessen the risk of suicides, a 14-year-old boy plunged to his death. Inexplicably, the height of the railings around the walkways, barely chest-high, hadn’t not been altered. Police confirmed it as a fourth suicide. Initially “envisioned as a shared, immersive design experience,” the Vessel’s future now remains uncertain. It was meant to be Hudson Yards’ quirky centerpiece, the brainchild of billionaire real estate developer Stephen M. Ross of Related Companies; instead the Vessel may well be a tragic metaphor of our anxious age, when so many tendered-aged people have decided to end it all. And when so many people have become so disgustingly rich.

One can only shudder at the public money squandered there. Especially in a development so utterly banal, such a colossal white elephant. There’s nothing at Hudson Yards to satisfy even a five-minute attention span. There’s no intrigue, nothing that grips, no curiosity, no messy city life. In fact, here one finds the sort of banality and predictability only money can buy. Hudson Yards’ banality resides in the predictability of its form and function, in its predictable sleek glass and steel architecture, catering for a predictable array of financial and high-tech services, multinational corporations and accountancy firms, banks and management consultancies, high-end retail giants, each aimed at a predictable bunch of wealthy consumers. All real urban texturing and spontaneous novelty is expunged. I took a photo showing how the development jars with its surroundings, with real life nearby.

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I remember the spring prior to the first COVID lockdown, doing a big walk around Hudson Yards with my friend and former teacher, the urban theorist David Harvey. It had been a soaking wet afternoon, chilly and gray, and we both tried our utmost not to let the weather, nor the awfulness of this project, dampen our spirits. Wandering around, David and I spoke of something he’d written about over thirty years ago, in his book Consciousness and the Urban Experience: “the restless analyst.” It’s the mythical figure haunting The American Scene (1907), Henry James’s roving travelogue around fin-de-siècle America. James had been away from the US for twenty-five years, living in Europe. As a “returning absentee,” between 1904-05, he spent a year rediscovering his native land, indignant at much he saw; many changes, he said, became “a perpetual source of irritation.” “Charming places, charming objects,” James wrote, “languish all around the restless analyst, under designations that seem to leave the smudge of a great vulgar thumb.”

The gaze of James’s restless analyst was the gaze of “an inquiring stranger.” This character likely came to mind at Hudson Yards because we, too, felt like “inquiring strangers,” out of place and similarly indignant at much we saw. In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, David said he’d “long been impressed with this character the restless analyst. It seems to capture the only kind of intellectual stance possible in the face of a capitalism that reduces all aspects of social, cultural, and political (to say nothing of economic) life to the pure homogeneity and universality of money values and then transforms them according to the roving calculus of profit.” So it goes.

***

For around thirty-years, I’ve regularly gone to sit on a bench in front of Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. I’ve always thought it a rather marvelous painting, the product of Pollock’s tremendously productive year of 1950. Its black and white skeins and swirls, spirals and splatters, drips and dollops of paint, poured from Maxwell House coffee cans and spilt from wooden sticks, engulf this vast 17ft by 8ft brown canvas. (If you go up close, you can also see other colors, like teal blue.) Autumn Rhythm radiates an immense electrical charge, a kinetic energy that always seemed to me quintessentially urban, even though Pollock executed it on the floor of a small-town Long Island barn. The critic Clement Greenberg said this Pollock “action painting” represented “the crisis of the easel picture.” All bets in modern art, he meant, were now summarily off. Here was something volatile, original, without a traditional beginning, middle or end, breaking free of its borders, painted only because you could stand on it, and dance around it.

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For a long while, I’ve believed this canvas also represented the crisis of the classic framing of the city, wrenching us away from how, for instance, the Impressionists depicted Paris: with blurry, shifting brush-stroke movement, yet always with a movement bound by a certain coherence, by a certain pictorial ordering, by a certain perspective of where the city centered and where it ended. Whereas with Pollock, this linear ordering is obliterated. Instead, he’s letting us glimpse a deregulated sort of capitalism unleashed, whirring before you, with its spirals of capital sloshing around the globe, creating nodal points that gel as cities, as spaces like Hudson Yards, that flow into circuits of real estate development, into global money markets. Here, in short, is a graphic depiction of contemporary finance capitalism in motion.

A decade or so ago, when the Occupy movement was taking hold across the globe, I had another idea about Pollock’s imagery: that it was equally a representation of resistance, a pictorial depiction of the act of fusion, of people coming together, and that those great whirls and curves, puddles and dribbles, those wiggly threads of splattered black and white paint were actually points of convergence, nodal spaces that people occupied, that blazed new territories of possibility, all somehow connecting with one another. Indeed, Pollock was illustrating nothing less than a radical geography of mass encounter. In retrospect, the notion strikes as rather quaint, pre-Trump, before COVID, B.C.

Now, though, sitting in front of Autumn Rhythm, April 2022, I’ve something else in mind, another thought about what Pollock might mean, for cities and life, a quieter vision. (You had to hand it to the man for sparking impulses!) Like all his best art, it’s not so much what Pollock himself meant in his paintings, if he meant anything at all; it’s more what it means to you when you encounter his paintings, what it does for you, says to you: all metaphorical and inspirational potential resides firmly in the eye of the beholder, in the head of the restless analyst. Before me now, before Autumn Rhythm, after visiting Hudson Yards, I’m seeing something else, sensing something else. Maybe it has to do with autumn, which had never occurred to me until now. When somebody once asked Pollock how he represented nature in his paintings, he famously responded, “I am nature.” Maybe, now, we can grasp autumn as implicit in the picture, as subliminally there, autumn as a season when things fall from trees, when mushrooms appear, when nature dies off, rots, only to nourish the earth as mulch for future growth.

Lately, I’d been reading a memoir by the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021). Doubtless Simard has helped me re-envision Pollock, affected my re-visioning of him and of city life. Simard has been thrilled by British Columbia’s old-growth forests since she was a kid, when she foraged mushrooms and huckleberries, even taking to eating handfuls of dirt, too, relishing, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Rebeca from Hundred Years of Solitude, the taste of damp raw earth. This taste never went away. Now, as a sixty-something college professor, she has become an authority on the forest’s undergrowth. Decades back, Simard noticed how commercial logging hacked down diverse old forests and replaced them with homogeneous plantations, stripping the soil of its underbrush. The logic went that without competitors, and with more space for light and water, young saplings would thrive. But they didn’t. Frequently they withered and died, proving more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in entangled ancient forests.

Simard discovered the reason why lay in mycorrhizal networks, the threadlike fungi that envelop and fuse with trees. Here, beneath ground, something amazing takes place. These fungi pass on to trees nutrients—phosphorous and nitrogen—and help extract the water required for photosynthesis. Around 90 percent of trees depend on these mysterious underground mycorrhizal networks—mykes is the Greek word for fungus and rhiza root—which link trees, even trees of different species, sharing life, knitting together the earth’s soils in a complex system of symbiosis. When we see mushrooms sprouting, this is just one part of the story, only the fruiting body of fungi, its blossom, the visible realm where spores are produced and transmitted. A lot more of the action is subterranean, occurs deep down. Carbon, water, and nutrients pass from tree to tree via underground circuits, shifting resources between the oldest and the biggest to the youngest and smallest, from strongest to weakest.

Mycorrhizal networks are delicate gossamer webs of tiny threads, which, if we could dig underground, we’d not only see them as tissue stitching together much life on earth—we’d also glimpse an intricate fractal patterning resembling Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. We’d see the paint of his spirals and whirls, his nodes and synapses, as the constitutive ingredient of these mycorrhizal webs: the mystical and magical substance called mycelium. If you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of soil, it might stretch to over a mile of thread. Mycelium operates more as a process than a thing, possessing an innate directional memory that spreads outwards radially, forming a spidery circle of filaments in all directions—sound familiar?

Mycelium expands until it touches something, finds something to latch on to, to feed on and nourish, anything dead or alive, organic or inorganic, decaying and decomposing—not only tree roots and plants but old books and carpets, bits of wood and floorboards, trash and food waste, moldy wallpaper and even cigarette butts. (Check out a Pollock action canvas like Full Fathom Five (1947), which features assorted moldy objects, like cigarette butts, embedded in the paint.) Half-jokingly, Simard says these material filaments of mycelium constitute the “Wood Wide Web,” nature’s very own broadband, traversing humous subsoil everywhere. Channels for resource exchange and communication are here always open, without tariff or subscription. In this other-worldly kingdom, the “internet of things” is nothing new: “smart” forests have been around for thousands of years.

While Simard says conflict in a forest is undeniable, she knows, too, that life abounds there because of negotiation and reciprocity, because of widespread mutuality. Earlier in her career, these ideas were disparaged by her male “growth and yield” forest colleagues. Nowadays, Simard’s vision of a forest ecology based on cooperation and selflessness has seeped into the mainstream, even gotten written into college textbooks. Hers isn’t so much a critique of Darwin—who, remember, stressed contest and self-interest in the evolutionary process; it’s more a little caveat, a modest rejoinder. When we think about sustaining life on earth, fungi teach us that real resilience comes about through cooperation not die-hard competition.

Loggers replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations sounds uncannily like the dynamics of today’s urban environments, where developers similarly create homogeneous plantations out of messy old human woodland, hacking through the city’s old growth, disturbing well-established urban ecologies. Stripped bare of human undersoil, devoid of any selfless life, our cities likewise wither from frailty. Only the richest survive in privately managed enclaves that exhibit little biodiversity. In these new forest wildernesses, people are forced to compete with one another, compete in labor markets, pit themselves against each other in unaffordable housing markets. Our human mycorrhizal networks have been uprooted long ago. We’re all here in a state of root shock. Thus Simard’s fungal studies provoke us to re-evaluate the whole notion of cooperation in urban life, particularly pressing nowadays given that a pandemic has threatened that collective life.

Mega-projects alter the metabolism of city life and, directly or indirectly, kill off the city’s old-growth forest. That forest, for sure, probably required some sort of nourishment at the time; it was already likely getting contaminated by invasive forest management. But now it’s gone, the city has less undergrowth than before, less resilience, and is set to wither like the newly laid forests Simard witnessed in commercial “fast-food” forestry. Trees are dependent on their connection to the soil and to one another—just like buildings and humans. We, too, exist in a complex web of social relations between ourselves and surrounding objects. Demolishing and upscaling buildings severs this symbiosis, disrupts the organic balance between people and people, between people and buildings—between human space and physical space. In the social world, there are also mycorrhizal networks that help shape life. They offer support and cooperation, supply nutrients to people, especially to the weakest, and sustain the social structure of a shared soil. Fungi don’t discriminate between species. They channel nutrients to multiple tree species. Theirs is a wonderous society of mutual aid. It prevails in the natural world so why can’t it prevail in the human world as well? And why can’t it prevail between different races and different kinds of human beings?

Perhaps we need another narrative about urban forests, a city equivalent of Jean Giono’s brilliant tree narrative, The Man Who Planted Trees (1953), about the French shepherd who over four decades disseminated hundreds of acorns, turning a Provençale wilderness into a wooded Garden of Eden. If only our developers and planners thought this way. Giono’s account was so compelling that many people believed the selfless shepherd existed. Fictitious or otherwise, here was a man who cared about what surrounded him, a sort of public figure, whose environmental management became a nurturing labor of love. His was a peasant’s view of forest management and perhaps we need a peasant’s view of city management, too, like the peasant of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926).

This surrealist classic—a “modern mythology,” Aragon called it—gives us similar ideas about forestry management, but its thicket is a dense city. It’s a field-manual about how we might treasure and preserve what we have in this forest, before it’s too late—Aragon’s beloved arcade, Passage de l’Opéra, was then about to be demolished to make way for an access route to the Boulevard Haussmann. Aragon himself had many times sauntered through the Passage de l’Opéra, under its glass canopy, tapping some of its hidden mysteries and charms. He delighted in the outmoded, in what you could find in the city’s undergrowth. There, you could stumble upon all kinds of secret lairs and earths, nests and rabbit holes; “a dark kingdom,” Aragon said, “that the eyes of humans avoid because its landscape fails to flatter them.” The peasant’s Paris is a city of full of trees and mossy old-growth, constantly under assault—arracher, déchirer, tondre [to uproot, rip up, mow] are words that feature in Paris Peasant. The city’s “glowing woodland” [buisson ardent] is, he says, perennially getting supplanted by commercial forestry, destroying much quirky, eccentric shrub life nestled within it.

The peasant is born on the land, is of the land, lives off the land. Only in this case, it’s the urban land we’re talking about, how we might cultivate an urban garden, one belonging to the whole community; how we might collectively sustain this “enchanted forest” [forêt enchantée], how we might dig away at it, manage it, renew it, without destroying its enchantment. Aragon wants us to cultivate this garden like a poet might conceive a poem, an everyday poem, like an ordinary stroll down Main Street, humming to yourself. The life of Aragon’s peasant is hauntingly poetic, full of dreams. But while the peasant’s dream is poetic, it isn’t idealist. Nor is it abstractly philosophical. Peasants tend not to think in terms of abstractions. Their world is practical and concrete. They pragmatically labor the land, doggedly struggle for survival.

And that’s how we need to cultivate our urban policy, how we need to doggedly foster our mycorrhizal networks, our relationship between buildings and streets—the complex ecosystem that constitutes our public realm. This is our shared forest, the surroundings that form our habitat, the one we work on and work with, the one we make and frequently break. Maybe someday we’ll dream the peasant’s dream, the dream of a harvest moon, when cooperative roots push up and nourish the earth, and ripen into gorgeous fruits and crops. Over eons, through symbiosis and coevolution, our natural forests have grown tall. They were once small, puny, yet developed over time into a collective form of life that is mighty and magnanimous. Could we imagine our urban history rising to such luminous heights?

One thing is certain: No peasant ever dreamt of towering office space.

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Far From the Madding Crowd?

There’s something about urban crowds, about hordes of people in the city, in public. There’s nothing like it, never will be. I miss it. I miss being amongst people, lots of them. After months of lockdowns and isolations, I know I’m not the only one, that a lot of other people miss other people, too, miss diversity and colors, shapes and faces, movement and dynamism, stuff that kindles our imagination, that challenges us, that makes modern life tick, worth living; many friends have told me likewise, and many people have told my friends likewise as well.

Far from the madding crowd? I’m not so sure. That might’ve once been an ideal in people’s heads, and still is for some; and, of course, a lot of people have sought this ideal out, fled cities for what they perceive as the relative safety and harmony of smaller towns and countryside, to say nothing about its affordability. Still, many others who’ve isolated themselves, who’ve become solitary citizens, are reassessing whether a life cut-off is a deep-down human impulse.

But the concept of “far from the madding crowd” holds a persuasive sway over our collective psyche. We probably have the English novelist Thomas Hardy to thank for that—his Far from the Madding Crowd, I mean, published in 1874, Hardy’s acclaimed masterpiece and first literary success. There Hardy riffed on Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” an 18th century lyric classic, much admired by T.S. Eliot, with its gentle meditation on the quietness of English rural life, on the forgotten dead in a graveyard: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,” wrote Gray. “Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;/ Along the cool sequester’d vale of life/ They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.” Yet Hardy’s book, a sunny one for him, with an atypical happy ending—Bathsheba finally succumbs to loving Gabriel and marries him—is nonetheless unsettling, not quite what we might think it is.

Was Hardy ironizing? Likely, insofar as his is a text full of erotic energy and macabre scenes (like the corpses of a mother and baby), lulling unsuspecting readers out of any pastoral complacency or Victorian prudery. In fact, far from the madding crowd has plenty of “ignoble strife”; and “the cool sequestered vale of life” is but a proxy for repressed violence and despair. With its fire and thunderstorms, its life-threatening elemental eruptions, its shooting, Far from the Madding Crowd might even be a staple read for our COVID age, bringing us closer to why madding crowds are so vital to being alive in the first place.

In an odd sense, it was far from the madding crowd where I began yearning for ignoble strife more than ever, for more noisy tenor to the quiet, secluded life I’d hitherto been compelled to lead. (I say “compelled” while recognizing the privilege of being able to withdraw.) In early summer, 2021, after the first lockdown eased, I got into my car and drove to Hay-on-Wye, a famed “book town” in Powys, South Wales, right on the English border. The village is packed with used bookstores; they’re literally everywhere, and in pre-COVID times Hay-on-Wye was renowned for its jammed literary festivals and vibrant bookfairs. The couple of days I spent worming its stores and thumbing its books, everything was eerily quiet, as if the end of world were nigh, soon about to happen. And I often found myself alone in the stacks, communing quietly with characters in the text, much as I’d been doing for months at home.

A disused movie theater now houses the Hay Cinema Bookshop, the town’s oldest book haven, founded in 1965, a vast two-floor emporium of used, remainder, and antiquarian books, of all genres. If the 200,000-odd volumes inside don’t grab you, then outside, in a couple of gray steel containers, its bargain section will, with an array of sell-off and damaged books, many gems going for a pound. In amongst them, I discovered a text that had a strange effect on me; not because of its writing but for what was on its cover. At first, I was appalled that someone would cast off such a handsome copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s A Life in Letters, a big-formatted Penguin book published in 1998. Within its leaves is some marvelous correspondence between the author of The Great Gatsby and his young daughter Scottie, then a student at Vassar College. “Some time when you feel very brave and defiant,” dad Scott wrote, “and haven’t been invited to one particular college function read the terrible chapter in Das Kapital on ‘The Working Day,’ and see if you are ever quite the same.” Elsewhere, Fitzgerald reminds his daughter “that Marxism doesn’t concern itself with vague sophistries but weds itself to the most practical mechanics of material revolution.”

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But these golden nuggets about Fitzgerald’s radical politics didn’t grip me quite like the beautiful glowing Azur of Raoul Dufy’s cover, a sweeping impressionistic vista of Nice, France, painted in 1926 from on high, from Castle Hill, with the city’s famous Promenade des Anglais curving around the Mediterranean’s Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels), disappearing into the distance at Cannes. There were palm trees and people, carriages and boats, sea and a yellowed-domed Casino (before it and its pier burned down)—an allure and romance that Dufy makes throb with his delicate brush. Some involuntarily memory had suddenly been activated in my brain. I wanted to go there, desperately, to Nice, wanted to enter this shifting scene, feel its energy, absorb people by the sea, remembering how, long ago, in the early 1980s, on a backpacking vacation, I’d once strolled down the Promenade des Anglais. Now, I needed to return, had to return.

Miraculously, two months later, in August, in the height of summer, fully vaccinated, I was there again, back on a Promenade des Anglais flocked with people and boiling hot. I was walking along what must be one of Europe’s greatest public spaces, stretching four miles from Quai des États-Unis (United States Quai) to Nice Airport, hugging a coastline and a sea the colors that Dufy’s paint hadn’t exaggerated. It was as if the sun were burning away people’s fears, cleansing the air of virus, lulling everybody, perhaps, into a false sense of collective security. All of us were mingling along the vast promenade that rich English Victorians had constructed.

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Since the late eighteenth-century, aristocratic Brits had been coming to Nice, chasing the sun in winter; and in 1820 some proposed paving a walkway along its Mediterranean seafront. The Holy Trinity Anglican Church, headed by Reverend Lewis Way, coughed up funds, and by 1860 the magnificent iconic promenade bore the name of its Anglo benefactors. In recent years, walkway space has increased, getting widened at the expense of traffic flows; dedicated bike lanes have also been put in place, to the degree that, now, “La Prom” brings together every walk of life—buskers and ramblers, flâneurs and artists, roller-skaters and baby-strollers, wide-eyed tourists and seasoned locals, old and young alike—all moving and chatting, sitting and playing in a giant open-air democracy by the sea. It felt like uninterrupted liberty to move, to linger, to simply sit on one the promenade’s many fixed chairs and people watch, confirming William H. Whyte’s homily about urban life: that the most fascinating thing for people in public is to observe other people in public.

To suck in its balmy, salty air, to imbibe its crowded vibe, was to photosynthesize amid an ocean of people. Strolling along, I felt like a character from Edgar Allan Poe, from his Man of the Crowd—although I was pretty sure this sensibility wasn’t exclusive to me nor to men alone. We were all somehow “People of the Crowd.” “For some months I had been ill in health,” Poe had his protagonist tell us, “but was now convalescent.” For some months, we’d all been ill in health, and now, here, the lucky ones, were convalescing together, trying to recover from an illness that had shaken us to our existential core, that still might shake us to the core.

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“Merely to breathe was enjoyment,” Poe’s hero says. “I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in everything.” Again, I knew what he meant, think a lot of others on the Promenade des Anglais knew what he meant, too. “Dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past…and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me with a delicious novelty of emotion.” Soon, our man of the crowd contemplates, as I contemplated, “with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.” We were all “refusing to be alone,” as Poe might have said. Maybe we were men and women yearning to be close to the madding crowd, dreaming of becoming part of it.

In Vieux Nice—the city’s old town—throngs of people jostled one another, and energy levels were just as high as densities. In confined spaces, like lining up for ice cream at Gelateria Azzurro, along the narrow rue Sainte-Réparate, or grocery shopping at Cours Saleya’s daily market, mask-wearing became more common. On these occasions, it’s easy to understand why crowds and city streets have so kindled the French literary imagination, becoming as much part and parcel of the French vie quotidienne as baguettes and red wine. In “Crowds” (Les Foules), from Le spleen de Paris (1862), Baudelaire said “a singular intoxication” awaits everyone who knows how “to take a bath in the multitude.” Himself an avid admirer (and translator) of Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire likens this experience to a “universal communion,” to a profane joy, the “feverish pleasure” of people discovering one another on a packed street. True enough. On the other hand, might we wonder whether Baudelaire’s ideal of losing oneself in the crowd requires, under COVID, a more cautious reading: mightn’t intoxication now be deadly, a feverish pleasure that poses grave dangers of losing yourself forever?

***

Epidemiologists say COVID-19 “is primarily transmitted person-to-person by close contact through respiratory droplets.” The scholarly journal Communication Physics (August 23, 2021) confirms, however, that “the role of population density is an open question with evidence for and against its influence on epidemic spreading.” The journal adds that “merely the density of contacts, while relevant at a neighborhood level, isn’t enough to explain the mechanisms of spread.” In similar vein, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2021), which features a detailed COVID study from Malaysia, reckons that population density is a factor in the spread of disease yet caveats and riders remain. Density alone doesn’t answer the fundamental question as to why there’s a “chaotic spread of disease at the population level.”

Other studies highlight positive correlations between COVID and the “compactness of people.” Yet here again, there’s no consensus on the direct effect of population density on numbers of virus cases. The Malaysian survey showed that in districts with more than 250,000 inhabitants, and with a density of more than 500 persons per square kilometer, approximately 1.5 people were infected with COVID—which is to say hardly any more than in less densely populated areas. Each time the population density increased by 1 individual per square kilometer, there was a tiny increase of 1.38 in the active COVID cases. The study said attack rates of the epidemic in some instances were higher in smaller districts than larger ones, a feature borne out in parts of China, suggesting there are “proxy drivers of contact rates.”

The World Bank, too, not long ago released findings on the role of density and the spread of COVID, saying there’s no direct causality between the two. “Density matters, but not much.” The world’s most densely populated cities in East and South-East Asia—e.g., Seoul, Tokyo, and Shanghai—have had very low levels of infection compared with sprawling U.S. cities. In China, cities with the highest infection rates were those with relatively low population densities, in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 people per square kilometer.

In New York, the first wave of COVID killed more than 20,000 in a few months. Nobody knew what was happening. It seemed like a nightmare from the Middle Ages, black plague striking down everybody. How could people protect themselves? Run away? Pray for deliverance? People panicked, justifiably. Was it New York’s openness, America’s gateway to the world, with too much human coming and going, that sparked mass infection? Was it the city’s uniquely high population density, like Manhattan’s whopping 27,000 people per square kilometer, together with its reliance on mass transit mixing? Or was it lifestyle, that New Yorkers always dined out and rarely stayed in? Maybe it was some combination of all these things? (Some of the city’s highest infection rates turned out to be in lower density Staten Island.)

As it transpired, Big Apple denizens soon wised-up, began protecting themselves, started wearing masks, got vaccinated. Then came vaccine passes and more enlightened public health precautions. Ever since, the city has fared well on the health front, better than other places in America, better than many low-density cities like Dallas, even better than many small towns and rural areas. The city has gone on to suffer less COVID deaths than elsewhere in America, making it one of the nation’s safer places for human life and limb.

All of which poses the question: are dense cities per se the problem when it comes to COVID? Maybe we should reframe this question: Is there any such thing as per se when we talk about cities? Aren’t cities reflections of what is happening in our society, for better or worse? Don’t our economics and politics get inscribed in city life, flourish in cities, get intensified in cities, oftentimes plague cities? To attribute causation to cities in themselves, in other words, is to fetishize the city, is to misinterpret how cities are both reflectors and shapers of wider social and cultural processes. Sometimes cities exacerbate social woes; elsewhere they might be palliative or even curative for those woes. It all depends. To give up on cities, to run away from them, to wag the finger at them, in other words, strikes me as problematic. We need a different conversation about cities and our society, and about our society in cities.

High-density crowds, of course, are one of the great virtues of cities, perhaps the greatest virtue, the innumerable encounters between different people, and the sociability that prevails from this diversity. Sometimes sociability doesn’t prevail; conflict rules—social breakdown and separation. Yet maybe the dilemma of COVID urbanism isn’t so much about crowd avoidance as crowd management, about how one responds to the crowd, in the crowd, how people act toward one another, respect (or disrespect) one another (through mask-wearing, social distancing, etc.), how people understand themselves as people in public, not as individuals simply doing what you like amongst people. How do democratic institutions respond to crowds, how do they manage (or mismanage) crowds, nourish a general will while guarding against the flouting of individual rights? Something crucial in any crowd management is to differentiate between crowds and crowding, especially overcrowding. What we’re talking about here is overcrowding that scars everyday urban living for many people.

Overcrowding is different to density; the two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably since they’re distinguishable. Overcrowding can be just as palpable in low-density areas as in high-density ones; and high-density doesn’t necessarily equate to overcrowding. Plenty of the world’s richest neighborhoods—like Manhattan’s Upper East Side or Monte Carlo—are mega-dense yet certainly not overcrowded (Monte Carlo is second on the world’s densest urban roster, and perhaps the wealthiest, with a 32 percent millionaire population!). Overcrowding is where households have more occupants than rooms (excluding bathrooms), and where people can’t avoid close contact with each other. As a lot of multi-occupants tend to be poorer, and their jobs more menial, they don’t have the luxury of homeworking, either. And even if they did, they’d have nowhere at home to work. Occupants come and go at all hours, depending on work shifts, and expose themselves and their housemates to people at large, to greater risk of infection.

A study in Chicago found no correlation between population density and COVID infection rates (see “In Chicago, Urban Density May Not Be to Blame for Spread of the Coronavirus,” ProPublica, April 30, 2020). But what it did find was a direct link between overcrowding and infection. “The communities hardest hit by the virus in Chicago,” the report says, “are low-density black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including ones where economic decline and population loss have caused more people to live in the same household.” In Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood hit especially hard by the 2008 housing market collapse, foreclosures and dwindling affordable stock have left less-resourced denizens with few options. Home ownership is off-limits; ditto high-rental units. So many people, particularly younger people, are forced to live with relatives, with parents or aunties and uncles who, decades ago, could muster the means to buy into the city’s housing stock. “There’s a lack of basic life essentials in the community,” one local politician says. “This is the culmination of decades of disinvestment.” “This is not about disparities in behavior or preventable cases of COVID, where, if people just knew more information, they’d be social distancing.” “It’s really a sad tale of people who know what’s coming, but there’s nothing they can do about it unless you give them housing or get them out of this predicament.”

Even before COVID struck, the Guardian warned of “Shoebox Britain,” of “how shrinking homes are affecting our health and happiness” (October 10, 2018). Britain’s speculatively induced housing crisis has pushed more and more people into homes that are shrinking and multi-occupied. The slicing and dicing up of houses and office buildings has been ongoing for a while, recalling the dark, Dickensian era of tenements and rookeries, only it’s 21st-century style. The walls are closing in for many people and there’s no way out, especially during a pandemic. Home offers no escape, no refuge, no haven in an anxious world. Only confinement, engineered by market-driven expansion, resulting in a sense of isolation and claustrophobia inside that’s almost as hazardous to human health as the outside. It is overcrowding spawned by inequality, by greed; an introverted low-density overcrowding, economically manufactured, far-removed from the extrovert delights of the high-density crowd.

“Shoebox Britain” slams decades of neoliberal urban policies. Successive government ministers (irrespective of political persuasion) have relaxed planning regulations and encouraged more and more housing development that’s rarely “affordable.” Developers and landlords always find loopholes in these regulatory changes, for corner-cutting and boosting profits. Meanwhile, local authorities, desperate for alternatives to their dwindling housing stock, have little choice but to steer needy residents over to these exploitative private landlords. And given there are few resources to monitor the quality of accommodation, it’s invariably squalid, a threat to physical as well as mental health.

Curiously, Britain’s neoliberal cities have had “lockdown” policies well before anybody heard of COVID. For years, rogue landlords and developers have been converting—locking-down—single-family homes into tiny apartments for housing benefit claimants. By including a token shared facility, like a minuscule kitchen, these developments are treated as internal apartment-shares and planning permission can be by-passed. The rental streams generating from six crappily constructed studios is exponentially greater than a three-bedroomed share in the same property. And it’s the taxpayers who line the landlord’s pockets, because the state is effectively picking up the rental tab. Is this “warehousing” of human life ever likely to protect anybody under COVID? Is it ever likely to enhance human wellbeing, post-COVID? It’s hard to imagine, unless something changes, unless greater space, affordability, and dignity can be established in urban living. Cities need to thrive on collective use-values, not wither as privately appropriated exchange-values.

***

Since time and immemorial, debates have unfurled about the relationship between density and crowding and the health of city dwellers. More insightful past commentators, like social psychologist Jonathan Freedman, argue that density and crowding are neither good nor bad. Instead, says Freedman, in his still-valuable Crowding and Behavior (1975), crowding and density intensify the effects of preexisting social situations, much as COVID has intensified preexisting social situations. High-density crowding does have effects on people; yet these effects depend on other factors in the situation. High-density, says Freedman, might cause people to be friendlier but also less friendly, just as crowding might produce great mutuality as well as greater malaise. Crowding can be negative when it creates its dialectical other of isolation and stress, when overcrowding is pressured and forceable; yet crowding might elsewhere mean the vitality of having many people about, constant “eyes” on busy streets (as Jane Jacobs liked to emphasize) that ensure social interaction and neighborhood safety.

If a social situation is bad, says Freedman, when people feel cut off and vulnerable, economically deprived, high density will likely aggravate an already fraught situation. Poorer people often feel powerless, subject to forces beyond their control, and living in a badly maintained high-rise with hundreds of peers might exaggerate feelings of uninhabitability. In this context, density and crowding, rather than poverty and inequality, are conveniently blamed for any social pathology. Conversely, if the situation is structured so that people aren’t cut-off or withdrawn, and a building or neighborhood nurtures positive feelings of empowerment and collaboration, cheerier outcomes might ensue. Better things might even get encouraged by high-density crowding.

This was always William H. Whyte’s central point in his pioneering The Last Landscape (1968), a book that boldly makes “the case for crowding.” (Since his bestseller from the late fifties, The Organization Man, “Holly” Whyte had consistently been a thorn in the side of conventionality; he was also a staunch early advocate of Jane Jacobs, helping kickstart her career.) Whyte says official U.S. land policy, as elsewhere, has invariably been contra higher density; “decentralist” by nature, with the primary thrust of “moving people outward; reducing densities, loosening the metropolis, and reconstituting its parts in new enclaves on the fringe.”

But Whyte isn’t advocating stacking everybody up in giant towers. High-density, he says, doesn’t mean only high-rise; actually, a tight-knit patterning of low buildings can exhibit surprisingly high rates of people per acre, sometimes even greater than twenty-story towers placed apart, where interstitial spaces are frequently empty and institutional, hardly inviting for lingering or leisure. They’re wastes of space, dead zones. Whyte wants to fill them with vitality, with healthy congestion. Here he similarly draws the distinction between “overcrowding”—too many people per room—and density—the numbers of people per acre. “Overcrowding does make for an unhealthy environment,” Whyte reckons, whereas “high density may or may not.” Besides, he says, everyone is always bemoaning the bad consequences of overcrowding; but what, he wonders, about “undercrowding”? “Researchers would be a lot more objective if they paid as much attention to the possible effects on people of relative isolation and lack of propinquity. Maybe some of those rats they study get lonely too?”

The thesis is challenging in an age of COVID, where crowding has aided the proliferation of infection rates while at other times has offered an antidote, the potentiality of a mutual aid, bulwarking the spread of infection. Unsurprisingly, apart from the deadly effects of physical illness, COVID has traumatized people’s psychological wellbeing, too. Medical practitioners now speak of a “second pandemic,” the chronic anxieties and depressions afflicting populations, especially those witnessing high body counts. The phenomenon has stimulated a lot of research into how lockdowns have disrupted communities and heightened loneliness, impacting hardest upon people already socially, economically, and medically vulnerable. The evidence is clear enough: social distancing has stressed mental health; yet it has unfolded differently in high-density neighborhoods compared to those where conditions of “undercrowding” and “overcrowding” persist.

Up and down the UK, resident groups and community associations, in conjunction with legions of volunteers, have forged “COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups,” stepping in to provide practical and emotional support in neighborhoods where government and private sector programs haven’t reached. Sociability here has bolstered mental health, helped counteract so-called “corona-related loneliness.” What’s happened in Britain is typical of what’s happened everywhere across the globe: an upsurge in community and voluntary activism, a “social cure” to pandemic fallout, having ordinary citizens resolve their own problems collectively. Notably, communities who’ve coped best with COVID tend to be more cohesive and selfless; residents there have a stronger sense of belonging and place attachment. And frequently, they’re located in densely populated urban areas. High-density neighborhood propinquity seems to accord more opportunities for mutual aid. The experience of a collective fate has led to a collective bonding that tries to change this fate.

A British study called “The Mental Health Benefits of Community Helping During Crisis,” published in The Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology (April 5, 2021) discovered that for enhancing wellbeing “unity is essential.” Their findings suggest that, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, crowding doesn’t so much spread infection as provide a social prophylactic to counteract it. Another study from Italy (“COVID-19 in Our Lives,” Journal of Community Psychology, December 20, 2021) reiterated the point, adding how a “feeling of responsibility” to protect the community was also consistent with an adherence to nationwide social distancing policies. A sense of belonging, in short, together with a sense of responsibility, enabled individuals and groups “to look at uncertainty, both dampening it and managing it.” “If a person’s tie with a community includes the feeling of responsibility for what happens,” the study said, “individuals will feel the desire to act and reflect on what to do to maintain a connection with their community.”

Research carried out in Spain on “The Role of Sense of Community in Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds” (Journal of Business Research, November 12, 2021) echoed these takeaways. But here the notion of “crowding” assumes another inflection. For the crowds in question are virtual, and constitute people who participated in “crowdsourcing,” in the “co-creation” of knowledge. They’re individuals communicating and collaborating with each other via online groups. The concept being that in times of COVID emergency, the “collective mind” can generate greater wisdom and mobilize itself more effectively. It was precisely this hypothesis that Spanish researchers wanted to test out, examining the efficacy of a sample of virtual communities who’d “achieved a high level of social interaction when face-to-face communication wasn’t possible.”

Social media, they say, drew together various “stakeholders,” and “allowed crowds to launch online communities, sharing feelings and information and even contributing to the resolution of individuals’ concerns and problems, eventually reducing feelings of loneliness and promoting positive values.” It’s not clear the extent to which these virtual communities might ever be converted into actual offline associations, doing practical work in kind, post-COVID, rather than just over the airwaves, on computer screen. Does the immaterial ever materialize into real place-based crowdsourcing? Moreover, it’d be interesting to know, too, if crowdsourcing flourished in conditions of undercrowding, if it helped reduce physical isolation and disempowerment? Maybe crowdsourcing works best in neighborhoods where stronger senses of real community already prevail? Still, the mitigating effects of virtual communication is nonetheless apparent—the human contact, the conversation, the emotional care, the empathetic solidarity, were all real enough, sustaining for people during confinement. (Curiously, as well, the researchers confirmed how “the wisdom of the crowds was an effective solution for identifying misinformation and verify fake news and alternative facts.”)

The virtual crowd will never replace the crowd in the street, the physicality of bodies, bodies really co-present in space. At least it’ll never replace it for me. Crowds offer energy releases, glorious and often maddening comings together of individuals and groups—crowds of protesters and demonstrators, crowds of shoppers and aimless strollers. Sometimes crowds can be led astray, manipulated, deceived en masse, warped by advertising and misinformation, sheepishly following one another, rallied on by demagogy; other times crowds dramatize the power people lack, express real truths about injustice, and voice political ambitions before the political means necessary to realize them are created. Either way, the crowd on the street is different from the crowd on the screen. There’s a special texturing to masses of people, in the open air, in the sunshine, even in the rain, an electricity generated by pure physical encounter.

That said, maybe the sensibility of the online group and the “weak-ties” that ensue, doesn’t only simulate; perhaps it can also stimulate an awareness of real crowds, the strong-ties of emergent public citizens? Perhaps a willingness to join crowdsourcing reflects a greater readiness to want to join the crowd, a desire to participate socially and politically, to affirm a public spirit, to go beyond a private self hemmed in by two dimensions, and by four walls. The Spanish crowdsourcing researchers said their participants “felt connected with crowds, sensed that individuals belong to the community, and built close friendship ties among participants.” “Feeling loyal to the crowd,” they said, “contributed to finding common ground in cohesion and compatibility.” “It provided mutual support and promoted collaboration and teamwork to foster resilience in the face of a pandemic.”

Feeling loyal to the crowd” is an exciting term. Maybe it’s another way of voicing Baudelaire’s ideal of “peopling your solitude”; of not only losing yourself in the crowd, but finding yourself, too, of feeling at home even when you’re not at home, doing it safely, healthily. Baudelaire’s register is romantic and melancholic; yet it’s somehow more optimistic than Thomas Hardy’s. Maybe it’s more comforting, too, less threatened by the madding crowd, about the human merging that takes place in urban life, about the experience “of being oneself and someone else,” as Baudelaire says, “adopting every profession, every joy, every misery, as one’s own.” The psychic rewards are enormous. “What people call love is awfully small,” writes Baudelaire near the end of “Crowds,” “awfully restricted, and awfully weak, compared with that ineffable orgy, that holy prostitution that gives itself totally, poetry and charity, to the unexpected that appears, to the unknown that passes by.” Merging with the urban crowd won’t ever prevent a pandemic; nor will it fully resolve the sadness and loneliness lying at the core of much human life. But it might help us understand each better, help us absorb our sorrows and celebrate our joys. It might shed light on dark shadows and enlarge the whole horizon of our being alive.

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100 YEARS IN FULL BLOOM

100 years ago, in Paris, February 2nd, James Joyce celebrated his fortieth birthday by raising a glass (or two…) to Ulysses, his great epic novel, launched into the world in all its full, if later revised, glory, that same day–this very day. Hats off here not only to author and book but also to the intrepid Sylvia Beach, whose Shakespeare & Company bore the moral and financial brunt of its initial publication.

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Between 1914 and 1921, Joyce worked on his modern, single-day interpretation of the Homeric tale as he embarked on his own personal Odyssey around Europe—in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. After the thrill of its release, though, his book met with widespread prudery. Customs officials in New York orchestrated an Auto de Fe of hundreds of copies. Authorities at London’s Croydon Airport similarly seized the book. A boat load got pulped at Folkstone harbour.

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“I can discover no story,” said Archibald Bodkin, Director of British Public Prosecutions. Bodkin was happy to ban a book he’d barely read. “I have not had the time, nor may I add the inclination to read through this book. I have, however, read pages 690 to 732,” he claimed. “In my opinion, there is a great deal more here than mere vulgarity or coarseness, there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity.”

It wasn’t until 1936 before censorship relaxed: “Standards in these matters are constantly changing,” Britain’s Home Office said in November of that year. “Having applied these tests to Ulysses, “we are of the opinion that the book was not obscene and having regard in addition to its established position in literature decide to take no action.”

A century on, Ulysses continues to incite passions and stir up controversy. The book is slow, critics complain, overly complicated, boring, too low-brow, too high-brow; its lyricism gets overwhelmed by numbing verbosity; there’s not much action, no plot, little direction to the narrative: a funeral, a lot of boozing, a bit of sex (recalled, never actual), masturbation and defecation, breaking wind and nose-picking, trips to the beach, to a newspaper office, to a library, a hospital, then a brothel; characters wander Dublin musing and muttering to themselves, blathering on, frequently in Latin.

In short, Ulysses is hard going, a rather dismal affair, exerting heavy demands on readers’ attention spans. Even one of Joyce’s most ardent admirers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wished the book had been “layered in America.” “There’s something about middle-class Ireland that depresses me inordinately,” Fitzgerald said, “gives me a sort of hollow, cheerless pain.” What someone also said of Gogol might equally stand for Joyce: “seldom has nature created a man so romantic in bent, yet so masterly in portraying all that is unromantic in life.”

Still, for readers courageous enough, hardy enough, perhaps even imaginative enough, Joyce takes you into the richly textured life-world of Dublin’s Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, wife Molly (Penelope), and the youthful Stephen Dedalus, whom we met in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In each, we catch glimpses of our own life-world, hear our own thoughts, witness our own dramas unfolding within the text; seeing them in print, and hearing them in our heads, helps us somehow. Protagonists’ experiences become our experiences, their anguishes our anguishes, their struggles our own. Human strengths and weaknesses tempest-toss before us. It’s a full fathom five for anybody willing to take the plunge, for everyone with sufficient breath to make it through, to be affected for evermore by something rich and strange.

Bloom is the gently twinkling lodestar. Jew and socialist, forty years old like his creator, an outsider in a hostile land (much like our own), Bloom quietly struggles to get on by, to keep his marriage intact, to come to terms with loss (death of baby son, Rudy, after 11 days). It’s a loss that gives Ulysses its ever-present emotional tug, straining relationships between husband and wife. At Barney Kiernan’s, Bloom gets lured into squabbles about politics. The drinks flow. Our Everyman encounters the jingoism of the “citizen,” a menacing nationalist who froths at the mouth like his pet mut. He comes on like a rampant Brexiteer or Trumpite about to storm the Capitol, a one-eyed Cyclops who even sounds like one of the Proud Boys, waving the “Make America Great” flag: “broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed redhaired freelyfreckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.” The citizen and his cronies mock Bloom for his superior intellect, for his Jewishness, for his preaching of love: “I mean the opposite of hatred,” he stammers. “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred.” Of Bloom, Joyce always said: “he’s a good man,” an open man, too, “preferring to see another’s face and listen to another’s words.”

Meanwhile, the brooding Stephen, “the beautiful ineffectual dreamer,” comes “to grief against hard facts.” Like Joyce himself, Stephen once frolicked in “gay Paree” before receiving the fated, misprinted telegram: “Nother dying come home father.” Stephen’s day begins at Martello Tower, taunted by Buck Mulligan, friend, enemy, and tower mate, who thinks Dedalus killed his mother, refusing to kneel to God before her, on her last breath. Stephen gives back the tower’s key to Mulligan: “I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go.” “Loveless, landless, wifeless,” his daily perambulations begin, his entering the world “to seek misfortune.” Stephen collects his wages from Mr. Deasy, the reactionary headmaster of the private school where he teaches. Indebted, his measly three pounds and twelve shillings won’t go far. “I foresee,” says Mr. Deasy, “that you will not remain here very long at this work. You were not born to be a teacher.” “A learner rather,” Stephen retorts. “Life is the great teacher.”

Stephen, like Bloom, suffocates in provincial narrowness: “Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words.” After drinks in Burke’s pub, he heads to Nighttown, the red-light district. A paternal Bloom discreetly follows. Joyce’s parallel narrative begins to converge. At Bella Cohen’s bordello, Stephen hallucinates about his dead mother and is confronted by two soldiers, Privates Carr and Compton. “What’s that you’re saying about my king?” Carr cries out at Stephen. “I’ll wring the neck of any fucking bastard who says a word against my bleeding fucking king.” “Let my country die for me,” Stephen quips, before getting “biffed” by Carr. Bloom intervenes.

Now, “Blephen and Stoom” find unity in metaphysical disunity; poet and practical man conjoin, two world-historical temperaments—the artistic and the scientific—embrace one another in a union we need more than ever. The pair wander empty darkened streets, rest awhile at a cabman’s shelter, slowly wending their way back to Ithaca, to 7 Eccles Street, where Molly sleeps. Would Stephen accept asylum here? Bloom enquires later over cups of cocoa. “Promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully it was declined.” Both must seek their separate passage. His peregrinations over, his Odyssey done, Bloom, weary, heads upstairs, seeking reconciliation. “He rests. He has travelled.”

In a stunning literary and psychological dénouement, Ulysses ends with Molly’s stream of unpunctuated consciousness. “Theyre not going to be chaining me up no damn fear,” she tells us. Visions and opinions, confessions and perceptions, judgements and recollections gush forth in one of modern literature’s greatest set-pieces. With immense warmth and sensuality, Molly’s soliloquy reaches its climax with her first self-giving to Bloom, “the day I got him to propose to me.”  He “kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another.” Moments before we heard her tell herself she’ll get up tomorrow, make him breakfast, give him one more chance. A few hours earlier, she’d cuckolded him. (She and Bloom hadn’t had sex together for ten years, since Rudy’s death.) “I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get around him.” Well as well him as another: “would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

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Ulysses says Yes when all around us today there’s so much No, so much death and division. Its closing lines, uttered inside the head of Molly, offer us an opening, words of affirmation, a great gust of generosity and paean to the life-spirit. And while we might quibble whether this is really a woman thinking aloud, behind its daring verbal dexterity and linguistic inventiveness a simpler homily lurks: life can be as epic as we try to make it, as Homeric as we live and retell it to ourselves. Fantasy, imagination, memory, regret, yearning… it’s all there; Joyce shows us how. He urges us “to domesticate the epic.” He gives us plenty to think about during a pandemic.

His is a literature and life pitched at ground level, practiced as a “shout in the street.” We can shout it out ourselves if we like, insist, as Ulysses insists, that we don’t have to genuflect to God or nation but can face the world standing up, on two legs, without crutches, here and now, together, looking within ourselves and at our relations with other people. Thus, for all its passionate inwardness, Ulysses is a great social text, an outwardly public document, with its motley crew of characters looking into themselves only insofar as they’re looking out onto the world, out onto our own world. Can we uphold Joyce’s visionary grandeur in these broken times? Can we follow Bloom’s long-wave thinking, maintain his good cheer come what may, retain an optimism of the intellect as well as that of the will? Bloom was surrounded by bigots just like us. Force, hatred, history, all that… That’s not life for men and women, nor for anybody else. It’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

À la tienne, Jim, on your special day!

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CLIVE BARNETT, RIP

When I heard the geographer Clive Barnett had passed away on Christmas Eve, it took me a while to reconcile that it was the Clive Barnett who’d died, the Clive Barnett I hadn’t seen for many years yet whom I still considered one of my closest friends. I can’t believe Clive has gone. At Oxford, for three years—late ’80s/early ’90s—I’d shared with him some of the happiest moments of my life. We were doing our DPhils together, under David Harvey’s watch, became inseparable, like brothers, living in rooms next door to one another, drinking and eating together, arguing together, staying up all night together, reading the same things, almost breathing the same things.

In those days, Clive was a desperately shy lad, with a freshly minted BA from Churchill College, Cambridge. I was almost a decade older, a “mature student” from Liverpool Polytechnic. I always called him “young man”—not condescendingly, more with Joyce’s eponymous Portrait of the Artist in mind. (It was a label I’d still use even in recent email exchanges, when he was a middle-aged prof; he always called me “Andrew,” like only my mother ever did.) Clive was the nearest incarnation I’d seen of Stephen Dedalus: brooding, dressed in black, self-effacing, haughty, aloof, solitary, and very, very brainy. He seemed forever trying to cast off the tradition of the dead generations, shake off the fetters of his provincial East Grinstead upbringing, his middle-class, middle-England background, quietly expressing himself in some mode of life or art as freely and as wholly as he could. It would be a lifelong pursuit, one that would only cease in death, last week.

Even back then Clive had seemingly read everything, and already bore the hallmarks of the great intellectual he’d become. We were chalk and cheese, hailing from very different backgrounds, having radically different temperaments. He, gentle and softly spoken, subtly ironic; me, loud and brash, rather heavy-handed; he, into the intricacies of theory, into its deconstruction; me, wielding theory as practice, like a sledgehammer. Yet we bonded around our love affair over knowledge, with its quest, come what may, and that we were both Harvey boys and proud of it. David became our centre of gravity, the subject matter of much of our nocturnal conversations, of our tenacious passions. In fact, our lives revolved around David, and into this orbit we also had the privilege of a young Erik Swyngedouw, then a junior lecturer, a dear friend who mingled with us graduate students as if he were still one. Soon Adrian Passmore, Michael Samers, and Argyro Loukaki would enter the Harvey fray, a member’s club headquartered at the Kings Arms or Bookbinders in Jericho.

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Clive’s interests were so diverse, so cross-discipline, that it was tough for him to narrow them down into a singular project like a doctorate. His mind worked otherwise; it always would. In Geography, though, he found his space, someplace where his mind didn’t really need a discipline, could flourish in all its expansive grandeur. As students, I wanted to master Marxist urban theory, and wrote a thesis on it relatively quickly; Clive patiently sought some purer truth, something even vaster for which nobody ever received a PhD. That’s probably why he took so long finishing up, having to box up his universality into something particular. I remember his generosity the day I had my viva, the day I got my DPhil. We spent the whole evening in his room, slowly drinking a bottle of whiskey, celebrating throughout the night, and afterwards, just as the sun rose, strolling across a ghostly Port Meadow at dawn. He was as thrilled as I was that I’d finished.

But there was sadness, too, a sadness then of knowing that we both had to move on, had to go off in different directions. Clive embraced academia in a way I never could. He’d found his safe harbour, as a dedicated teacher and globally respected scholar, a space from which he could sail his ships. Though I still remember Clive’s early career, how his brilliantly restless mind was mistrusted by universities. For several years, I watched him struggle to find a steady job, to convert his knowledge into a saleable product. He hustled around temporary positions, before landing at The Open University and later Exeter, becoming the Professor he’d always secretly wanted to be. What else could he do anyway? he used to say, oh so long ago. And now that voice, that quiet whisper I can still hear in my mind’s ear, utters no more wisdom. I’ll miss his piercing insights, his scathing diatribes, his wry humour. I’ll miss a presence I rarely saw yet knew loomed large and touched many people. I am very sorry, young man, that we never stayed in closer contact.

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GUY DEBORD’S LETTERS & LIBRARY

 Guy Debord has been dead twenty-seven years today. In Panegyric, his elegiac autobiography, the author of The Society of the Spectacle famously said that more than anything else his life had been marked by the habit of drinking, by consuming alcohol. “Among the small number of things I have liked and known how to do well,” he said, “what I have assuredly known how to do best is drink. Even though I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.”

Yale University’s Beinecke Library houses many black and white photos of Debord, taken in Italy during the 1970s. These comprise part of the archive of the Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Debord’s close friend and political confidant. The images are tremendously evocative of the times, when radical hopes of the previous decade had been dashed and many urban revolutionaries—like Debord and Sanguinetti—assumed a life of free-spirit wandering, of ducking and diving, of creating trouble while trying to stay out of trouble, often taking shelter in the countryside. Very few close-ups of Debord from this period show him not drinking. He’s usually sat in some cheap café or bistro, alongside wife Alice, savouring his beverage, cradling a little wine glass, seemingly relishing every tacit moment, every quiet sip. “It is understood,” he said, “that all of this has left me very little time for writing, and that is exactly as it should be: writing should remain a rare thing, because one must have drunk for a long time before finding excellence.”

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Since Debord’s death, though, it’s become evident that such comments are his own brand of self-mythologising. Not so much about drinking, which was real, truly excessive. More about the rarity of his writing. For what has emerged is how Debord was one of the most prolific letter writers of twentieth-century politics. In 1999, Paris’s Librairie Arthème Fayard began publishing these letters, beginning in September 1951, when Debord was still an enfant terrible making mischief with fellow Lettristes at the Cannes Film Festival, and culminating à la fin—at the very end—with a valedictory communiqué dated 30th November 1994, the day of his suicide.

This correspondence voices deep feeling and lived experience: from intimate love letters, scathing polemics, and everyday pragmatics (one asking Sanguinetti to talk to Debord’s Florentine landlady, asking her to turn on the gas heating prior to his and Alice’s return) to subversive muckraking, political letters about current events and strategy, about present and future writing projects. For over forty years, Debord wrote and mailed off hundreds and hundreds of letters, dispatched telegrams, posted postcards, each one now packed into what amasses to seven whopping volumes—eight, if you include other loose, earlier letters “retrouvées,” those missing from previous volumes, collated in volume “0.”

If Debord was drinking all the while, then as he drank, he wrote. How else could he produce so much? He wrote carefully, by hand, with aplomb, rarely in haste, never slapdash. Taken as a totality, Guy Debord Correspondance offers a wonderful glimpse of a radical life on the hoof, passed in clandestinity—in Florence and Barcelona, in Arles and Paris, in the verdant hills of Chianti and in the little lost kingdom of Champot, his Auvergnat retreat. Forever surrounded by people, in the post and in person, Debord may have been the most sociable recluse who ever lived. He pissed not a few friends and comrades off with ruthless dismissals and savage denunciations; yet plenty more formed his loyal entourage. They trusted him, respected him, enjoyed his company, and he theirs.

The other noteworthy thing, more recently revealed, isn’t that Debord “read a lot”; it’s truer to say that he read enormously, never stopped reading, took immense pleasure from what he read, maybe as much pleasure as he took from drink. Debord never annotated his books, never marked them up or touched them with his pen. Books seemed too precious to him, too pure an interlocutor to be violated. (One thinks of an exiled Machiavelli, telling friend Vettori how he lovingly entered “the ancient court of ancient men [in his library], where, received by them with affection, I feed on the food which is only mine.) Instead, Debord compiled copious notes on little “Bristol cards,” meticulously referencing quotations, adding commentaries, hinting where he might use this wisdom in his own work. Words, sentences, and whole paragraphs are recorded in tiny cursive that assume a specific gravity for Debord, as if they provided personal sustenance, a guide for living rather than for merely citing.

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Debord read plenty, and painstakingly labelled thousands of these fiches, classifying them into dossiers such as “Poetry, etc”; “Machiavelli and Shakespeare” (like Marx, Debord was an avid reader of the great English bard); “History”; “Philosophy, Sociology”; “Strategy, Military History”; “Marxism”; and “Hegel.” These cards have since found a protective home in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, curated as a labour of love by Laurence Le Bras, who now oversees “Le Fonds Guy Debord,” an archive of the dead Situationist revolutionary deemed a French “national treasure” in 2009. Yet the “library of Guy Debord”—what he read, why he read what he read, what he took from what he read—isn’t just lying dormant in some forgotten Parisian basement: in 2018, the independent publisher, Éditions L’échappée, began unearthing Debord’s reading list, reprinting his fiches de lecture in what has already filled three handsome volumes, Stratégie (2018), Poésie, etc.(2019), and Marx/Hegel (2021), each exceeding 500-pages, each illustrated with facsimiles of Debord’s own handwritten cards. (Two further tomes, Histoire and Philosophie, are eagerly awaited.) All this constitutes nothing less than a marvellous public treasure, a veritable feast for Debord fans, letting us lean over his shoulder, ponder a revolutionary brain at work, lay witness to the same sort of dogged, behind-the-scenes intellectual labour that Marx, another independent scholar, had carried out in the British Museum.

In one letter to Eduardo Rothe (21st February 1974), Debord says that theoreticians might now want to make better use of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz alongside Marx, Hegel and Lautréamont. It could be, he says, that such philosophers of war and societal breakdown, of cunning realpolitik, are better suited to a contemporary capitalism that operates more deviously and ideologically than anything Marx ever analysed. Clausewitz and Machiavelli are incisive and decisive for demystifying the cynical society of the “integrated spectacle,” where what was once diffuse or concentrated has now combined into a singularly potent force, incorporating the whole world and conditioning everybody under its treacherous economic sway.

Machiavelli warned that the common defect of men in fair weather is to take no account of storms. The crafty Italian Renaissance strategist was a prophet of storms, taught the shrewd how to manoeuvre through heavy weather, how to keep one’s head throughout. Debord mused a lot on storms, and Machiavelli helped him ride a few, offering lessons about discretion and deception, about how to avoid snares and frighten off the wolves. Fittingly, then, the first volume of Debord’s Library opens its leaves to “Strategy,” to the history and practice of war, with Machiavelli and Clausewitz starring.

The latter infamously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and Debord agrees, yet revels in the maxim’s reversal: that politics is the continuation of war by other means, another brand of warfare, a game of strategy and chance, of attack and defence, requiring intense study and courageous practice. “I’ve been very interested in war,” he said in Panegyric, “in the theoreticians of strategy, but also reminiscences of battles and in the countless other disruptions history mentions, surface eddies on the river of time.” Debord had studied war for years, read broadly and widely around military history, been fascinated by the logic of war, by its domain of danger and disappointment, by a reality that leaves no room for facile optimism.

For years, too, he’d collected little metal toy soldiers, something first wife, Michèle Bernstein, always teased him about. (On one fiche, Debord writes: “I’ve a side of me that’s entirely puerile. I rejoice in cards, in wargames and little lead soldiers. I also love grander games: art, cities, and overthrowing society.”) Debord’s own cinematic undertakings splice clips from movies he’d adored in his youth: battleship cannon fire, cavalry charges and troop formations, Custer’s Last Stand and the Charge of the Light Brigade all bring the folly and fortunes of war to Paris’s divine comedy of the 1950s. He’d even patented his own war game, Kriegspiel, modelled on Clausewitz’s writings, presenting “the forces in contention and the contradictory necessities imposed on the operations of each of the two parties.” “I have played this game,” Debord said, “and, in the often difficult conduct of my life, have utilised lessons from it.” Kriegspiel, he quipped, may well be the only aspect of his oeuvre that has any lasting merit.

Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war. So speaks Clausewitz, from the heart as well as the head, from first-hand combat experience gained in the Napoleonic era, when he served as a Prussian field soldier. In 1806, Clausewitz was captured by the French, yet by the age of thirty-eight (in 1818) he’d risen to the rank of Major-General, already playing a pivotal role in the resurrection of Prussia and in Napoleon’s final waterloo at Waterloo (1815), earning him an impressive cameo in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Clausewitz was bookish and smart and operated as effectively in Berlin’s intellectual circles as on any battlefield. His approach to war was distinctively dialectical, weaving into his “realist” account the frailties of human nature and the uncertainty of the physical world. (Napoleon’s worst enemy, Clausewitz said, was bad weather.)

Debord scrutinised the Prussian strategist’s posthumous masterpiece, On War, a classic that also impressed Marx & Engels, and Lenin & Trotsky. Yet in Stratégie we see Debord prioritising Clausewitz’s shorter pamphlets, seemingly following the Major-General’s own urging: “that no combat exemplifies the process of strategic thought as clearly as the Campaign of 1814 in France.” Many of Debord’s fiches transcribe Clausewitz’s delineations of Napoleon’s Grande Armée campaigns of 1812, 1814 and 1815. One of Debord’s oft-cited phrases hails from Clausewitz’s latter work: “In every strategic critique, the essential thing is to put oneself exactly in the position of the actors.” Another favourite, suggestive about Debord’s understanding of theory’s relationship to practice, flagged up at the close of The Society of the Spectacle, the film, is: “To repeat what we have often said, here as in all practical matters, theory has the function of informing the practitioner and to educate their judgement, rather than assist them directly in the execution of their tasks.”

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Michèle Bernstein often said of her ex-husband that behind his cold-fish demeanour, his sangfroid, lay a deeply passionate romantic. Poésie, etc., with a reading list steeped in the romantic tradition, confirms the like, demonstrating Debord’s passion for the poetic, for sensual refrains of the life-spirit, whether in prose or verse. Debord loved a beautiful turn of phrase, and, like Baudelaire, wanted to speak the fine language of his siècle, bawl it out in the streets, in the public realm. He says it was modern poetry that brought him and his Situationist comrades into the streets in the first place; and we can hear this poetic refrain, jubilantly and forlornly uttered, in films like Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unite de temps (1959), Critique de la séparation (1961), and, especially, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), Debord’s masterpiece threnody on Paris, his chip off Dante’s block: “Midway through the path of life we were surrounded by a sombre melancholy, expressed in such sad and mocking lines, in the café of lost youth.”

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Many entries in Poésie, etc. are, as we’d expect, bad-boy staples: Lautréamont and Cravan, Villon and Poe, Rimbaud and Baudelaire; there’s Lacenaire, too, and Dante, of course, whom Debord read in Italian, as well as Apollinaire, an adolescent favourite, together with those sages of the finite aspects of time, with its slipping away: Omar Khayyam, Jorge Manrique, and Li Po (Chinese T’ang Dynasty poetry gets its own separate annex in Poésie, etc.). “Perhaps you still retain the cheerfulness of youth,” said Li Po, “but your hair is already white; and what is the use of complaining?” “We come in like water,” wrote Omar Khayyam, “and leave like the wind.”

Not a few pages of Poésie, etc. cover the beloved Greek, Homer, and favoured Brits, read in translation (Debord had no English): Shakespeare, Swift, Carroll, de Quincey, Lowry (Under the Volcano), as well as an unexpected Thackeray (The Book of Snobs) and Graham Greene (Brighton Rock). There are multiple fiches for French classicists Bossuet, Pascal, and Chateaubriand, lesser numbers for German romantics Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin, and begrudging entries for André Breton, on his Manifestos of Surrealism and Anthology of Black Humour. (I say “begrudging,” because Debord admired and disdained the Pope of Surrealism in equal measure; he could never quite reconcile his love-hate relationship with son semblable, son père. The same might be said of Jean Cocteau.)

De Musset’s play Lorenzaccio, meanwhile, seems to remind Debord of past Florentine sojourns, of ill-fated flings: “Goodbyes, goodbyes without end, the shores of the Arno are awash with so many goodbyes!” Debord had a bit of a penchant for Gogol, the Russian satirist: “Be a living soul not a dead one,” Gogol scribbled on a scrap of paper, only days before starving himself to death; Debord enjoyed the cautioning, finding pleasure in another, zany Gogol line, from Diary of a Madman, framing, perhaps, the integrated spectacle: “I’ve discovered that China and Spain are the same thing and it’s only ignorance that makes people take them for two separate countries.” (Inside the left margin of the Gogol card is a curiously urgent note-to-self, written in January 1989: “Read quickly The Government Inspector, The Quarrel [Between the Two Ivans], then Nevsky Prospect; reread The Overcoat.)

Pierre Mac Orlan, another fav, helps Debord appreciate the poetics of war. The former’s Le bataillonnaire (1931), the infantryman, re-enacts the Great War through the lens of a young working-class Parisian, Georges Lougre, a Pigalle pimp and loser. When Lougre enlists, the proximity of death has him soon revalue his life. The futility of war is evident enough, even for men of little learning. But a richer meaning is gradually discovered through the tacit camaraderie he finds with fellow Joyeux, a shared melancholy every combat soldier feels, feels in their bones, a strangely poetic sensibility: le cafard, evoked by Mac Orlan’s lyrical prose and sentimental songs. It’s the doldrums of men without women, of men who mightn’t see tomorrow, men who recognise the difficulty of ever returning to civilian ways, yet, at the same time, can’t really settle into military life, either. “Soldiers, true soldiers,” says Mac Orlan, “aren’t conscious of their real worth. Very few love adventure. However, at certain hours, you might believe that they understood the tragic beauty of their itinerant fate.” Near the novel’s end, a train ride lulls Georges into introspection, “reviving in him,” Mac Orlan says, “the slackers he knew from the past, the desperate and often burlesque characters who roamed the streets of his youth, those of a Montmartre now entirely wiped out.”

Debord always insisted he preferred Musil to Proust; but Poésie, etc. equally reveals he’d nonetheless poured over Proust, was intimate with À la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps having more sympathy for Proust than he cracked on. At least for Swann, the Proustian dandy who chose not to live amongst elegant bourgeois but opted instead for the Bohemian Quai d’Orléans, a disreputable spot in the eyes of Swann’s snobbish peers. None of this would’ve been lost on Debord. He knew the Quai well, had it feature frequently in his films, panned at dusk. It was an image of Paris he was particularly fond of.

Another surprise is Debord’s intensive reading of The Bible, especially the Old Testament. His fiche on “The Books of Kings,” presumably dating from the mid-1970s, witnesses him grappling with the title of In Girum Imus Nocte, wondering if The Bible’s Latin “et consumimur igni” means “we will be consumed by fire, or maybe the reverse, that the fire consumes us.” Elsewhere, two vertical lines, Debord’s chief method of emphasis, home in on “The Book of Proverbs”: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” all of which sounds like a reworking of In Girum’s closing sequences.

***

Surprising in Poésie, etc., too, because of its categorisation, is Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. Debord mobilises Mumford’s text from 1961 as a masterpiece of fine prose as well as fine ideas, reading it fresh off the French press (translated in 1964), since his dialogue with Mumford is couched in the drafting of La société du spectacle (1967), shorthanded by Debord as “SduS.” “For the Society of the Spectacle,” Debord tags his first Mumford fiche, richly annotated by a young mind clearly energised by the history of cities, by its shift from the Greek polis to the American Megalopolis, from the birth of municipal liberty to its death throes. The City in History stakes out the contours of SduS itself. “Universal history was born in cities,” says Debord in Thesis #176, following Mumford, “whose climatic moment was the decisive victory of the city over the countryside.” “But if the history of the city is the history of freedom,” Debord continues, “it is also the history of tyranny, of a state administration that controls the countryside and the city itself. The city is the locus of history because it is both the concentration of social power, rendering possible an historical undertaking, and a conscience of the past.”

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Debord, like Mumford, thinks the modern desire to control and commercialise urban life is facilitated by the liquidation of historical memory, by the instigation of a collective forgetting, the spectacle’s principal arm. He cites Mumford citing Emerson: “The city lives by remembering.” (In parentheses, Debord quips: “the inverse is true!”) Mumford says the spectacle is ingrained in city life, was there in Roman gladiatorial games, and developed over time with assorted precessions and pageants, bread and circuses that have culminated in our own mass adoration of the gadget commodity. Debord makes a fascinating pairing of Mumford and his contemporary Karl Wittfogel, bringing each to bear on understanding the despotism of the spectacle and modern urban life. Wittfogel’s important book Oriental Despotism appeared four years before The City in History, and if its title left little doubt about the book’s subject matter, the subheading merely hammered things home even more: “A Comparative Study of Total Power.” Large-scale urban planning initiatives and resource control (especially water management), Mumford and Wittfogel say, necessitate highly centralised organising bodies, statist autocracies that can administer total power. Throughout history, in both the East and the West, under state communism and state capitalism, managerialist bureaucracies have seized power and managed to recreate built environments in their own image, imposing their despotic will on citizens.

Wittfogel was a German-born Marxist historian who moved to the United States during the Second World War. For years, he taught at New York’s Columbia University, quickly turning renegade, becoming a virulently anti-communist conservative. By the 1950s, he was happily testifying at McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, denouncing, amongst other people, fellow sinologist Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins geography professor. As such, it’s curious why Debord would want to insert pages and pages on Wittfogel in his Marx/Hegel library? (Lukács, for one, detested Wittfogel, calling him a “vulgar materialist”; the feeling was mutual: Lukács, for Wittfogel, was a fluffy idealist.) Debord’s fiches on Oriental Despotism almost outnumber those on Marx himself and one might wonder why? Perhaps because Debord and Wittfogel both share profoundly anti-Stalinist and anti-Maoist tendencies, and Debord plainly liked the provocation of placing him alongside humanist Marxists, flagging up the threat of dogmatic centralism in its ranks.

Many notations in Marx/Hegel hark back to the late 1950s, when, in a little black moleskin carnet, Debord, a twentysomething radical, was meticulously compiling the citations of another twentysomething radical, a young Karl Marx. Marx/Hegel represents a sort of Debordian Grundrisse, notebooks never really intended for the public light of day. Each text is united in its engagement with Hegel. Debord, too, was something of an unofficial pupil of the mighty German philosopher, studied him closely, and his dossier on Hegel runs to a bulky 118 pages. Yet Debord, like Marx, was no idealist, and took from Hegel the logic of the dialectic, its form rather than its content. Entering Debord’s dialectic is like plunging into a Dantesque labyrinth, full of twists and turns, rhyme and reason, inversions and subversions, theses and antitheses that constantly bite off one another’s tail, that loop and curl incessantly, as if the whole Marxist-Hegelian canon were fair game for negation, for Debord’s brilliant détournements.

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Dense reflections on Lukács’s focus on reification, on the triumph of the world of things over the world of people. Lukács’s ground-breaking History and Class Consciousness (1923) helped Debord frame the link between the alienation of urban subjectivity and the commodification of city space. Spectacular society, says Debord, is a hyper-reified version of Lukács’s world, a reality of separation, which the young Marx had stressed in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844): workers separated from their activity, from the products of their labour, from their fellow workers, even from themselves. Reification happens when something is denied, taken away from a thinking subject, displaced into an object, into a thing external to the self, against the self, something that forcibly sunders mind from activity, mind from itself. Here unity spells division. And yet, Debord projects theories of alienation and reification onto a more ambitious and sinister plane of immanence. Henri Lefebvre had brought the commodity-form to bear on “everyday life,” extending Marx’s notion of abstract time (value), having it incorporate abstract space; now, suggests Debord, abstract space is itself another aspect of the spectacle: “The spectacle is the other side of money; it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities.” “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity had attained the total occupation of social life.”

Thirty-years Debord’s senior, Lefebvre was something of a godfather figure for the youthful Situationist. They’d befriended one another, developed a warm friendship for a while, spent nights together, communed with each other. Debord seems to have read most of Lefebvre’s weighty oeuvre; his all-time favourite is Lefebvre’s own all-time favourite: La somme et le reste (1959), the philosopher-sociologist’s two-volumed intellectual autobiography. “At present,” he told Situ pal André Frankin, in a letter dated 14th February 1960, “I am reading La somme et le reste. It is very interesting, and close to us—here I mean: the theory of moments.” A week on (22nd February), Debord wrote the same Frankin a long, detailed letter, analysing Lefebvre’s “theory of moments,” and now we can scrutinise for ourselves, from Debord’s numerous fiches, the source of these comments. Debord’s discussion is very technical and very serious: it’s the 1960s, after all, and you sense the political stakes are high, on the brink of something. Debord thinks Lefebvre’s moments are more durable, more precise, purer than the Situationist’s notion of situations; yet this might be a defect. Situations are less definitive, potentially richer, more open to mélange, which is good—except, says Debord, how can you “characterise a situation?” Where does it begin and where does it end? 

***

Over half a century has unfolded since Debord wrote a lot of these notes. Highly technical debates around Marxist theory seem less challenging nowadays, less pertinent, and many ideas in Marx/Hegel no longer strike as the intellectual bombshells they doubtless were in their glory days. Debord would never again read Marx or Hegel with the same ferocity and intensity as in the runup to and aftermath of SduS. The book sealed a magical era for him. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it for 73 days, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfilment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in the situations of May 1968, and now the music was over. Yet as the dust settled from the street-battles, an emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.

In late Debord, Marx and Hegel recede, have been steadily replaced, superseded, by the likes of Clausewitz and Machiavelli, Cardinal de Retz and Baltasar Gracián. Resistance for Debord hereafter became more a question of strategy, something more poetic—we might say more ontological, a state of being rather than an act of theory, a dilemma about how to live out a poetic life now, in spite of it all. It’s maybe one reason why I found Marx/Hegel less intriguing than the earlier two volumes of Debord’s library. It’s maybe why, too, the most enduring lesson we might take from Debord is precisely how to endure; it isn’t so much his Situationist muckraking as the more stoical lesson he can teach us about how to stay true to our nature in desperate times, how we might resist the dominant values of these desperate times, how we might do it with fellow kindred. Debord never lived to see the most desperate times of all, those of the current moment. He was lucky. He never witnessed fake news or Reality TV or the unashamed rise of the populist Right, with imbeciles like Trump and Johnson. He anticipated them, of course, and in Poésie, etc. (p57) there’s an entry that heralds their passing, that offers us wishful thinking about their passing. It comes from The Bible, from the Old Testament’s “Book of Daniel,” and Debord uses it in the conclusion of his preface to the “Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle.”

Fingers of a human hand appear and begin writing on a wall. King Belshazzar watches as the hand daubs mysterious words, rather as Debord had daubed on rue de Seine all those years ago: ne travaillez jamais. The King’s face turns pale. He’s so frightened that his knees start knocking. Nobody knows what the words mean, not even the wise men of Babylon. Nobles are baffled. Enter Daniel, who can explain riddles, interpret dreams and resolve difficult problems. You, Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, he says; you praised gold, have drunk the wine of your people, deceived them. That is why the inscription on the wall says: MENE, TEKEL, PERES.

MENE means your days are numbered and your reign is about to end; TEKEL means you have been weighed on scales and found wanting; PERES means your kingdom is to be divided, spread amongst the just. “Under each project of the present society,” Debord signs off, “one sees everywhere inscribed the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES.” Thus the writing is on the wall. The days of this society are numbered. Its merits have been weighed and found wanting, a lot wanting. Is it only a matter of time, then, before the knees of its rulers knock and their reign crumbles with them?

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LAND OF STORMS: Guy Debord in Champot

Driving forty-five minutes from my home, I can get to Bellevue-la-Montagne, a sleepy, semi-abandoned village, perched at 990 metres in France’s Haute-Loire. It was twenty-years ago when I first discovered Bellevue. I’d just stepped off a plane then, from New York, pre-9/11 and COVID, days when you could travel easily, fly relatively hassle-free; afterwards I’d motored halfway across France. I wanted to see the house where Guy Debord had killed himself. I was finishing up my book, Metromarxism, and suddenly found myself in a kingdom very far from any city, far from Paris, far from anywhere and everywhere.

Yet Bellevue wasn’t my ultimate destination: I sought a tinnier hamlet, a more hidden underworld: Champot. I had no idea where it was, whether it really existed. The day I drove into Bellevue everywhere was closed, boarded up, long-forgotten. All apart from the butcher’s store, one of few of the village’s remaining petits commerces. In I went to ask for directions. Madame Soulier, the butcher’s wife, happily obliged, drew me a little map, immediately shared gossip on the Debords, guessing it was he I came about, the man who used to come to her store, ate her husband’s meat, spoke little.

Madame Soulier soon became my secret accomplice. Each time I went back, desiring further information, her hair was different colour. Bright pink and purple were favourites. So, now, I’m back in Bellevue again, twenty-years later, an anniversary homage to Champot, on a gorgeous sunny Sunday. No worries today. I didn’t care everywhere was closed again, didn’t care about anything. I’ve no idea whether Madame Soulier is alive; but the butcher’s store is still in business, and the vividness of its shutters suggest that the said Madame is probably encore en vie.

In those days, Champot felt miles away from Bellevue; really, it’s rather nearby. On this lovely day, I decide to hoof it, take a stroll down the medieval pathway, beyond Bellevue’s chateau (now the village bibliothèque), passing via Champot Bas, onwards to Champot Haut, chez Debord. Even in the deep silence of a rural French Sunday, even in the emptiness of a wilderness shuttered up, Champot feels as magically radiant as it always did, as it first had in 2001; a strange, mystical force grips you here, gripped me back then, in my forties, changed my life, still grips, in my sixties. One feels most of all a presence and life-force, not a death-sentence. Behind the high stone wall, inside the house’s ramparts, Debord once stood on the grass at night, staring at the Milky Way; the house seemed to open directly onto it, he’d said in Panegyric. His widow, Alice, wrote in her poem “Voie Lactée” that Guy was fascinated by the Milky Way, drew upon it, she said, “as a source of peace and serenity.” For her, its immensity brought on only vertigo.

Debord wrote beautifully about his sojourns in this land of storms: “they’d approach noiselessly at first,” he said, “announced by a brief passage of a wind that slithered through the grass or by a series of sudden flashes on the horizon; then thunder and lightning were unleashed, and we were bombarded for a long while and from every direction, as if in a fortress under siege.” No storms today. Only fair weather, sunshine and calm, warmth, not even a barking dog can be heard. Debord’s printanier refrains best capture today’s mood: “a great sweetness in the air, a sweetness you can taste…and a dazzling shade of tender green that comes over the trees, in the tremulous light of the sun rising before them.”

Nothing can better that. No other words can improve upon it. I don’t want to add anything more myself, either, about a subject-matter I’ve already written much about. Instead, I’d like to share a photomontage of this homage, a glimpse of Champot’s tremulous light, of a tender green that is still as dazzling as ever, shimmering in the sunshine like a glorious emerald carpet. Twenty-years on, indeed. Perhaps I do retain the cheerfulness of youth, as Debord said, citing poet Li-Po. “But your hair is already white; and what’s the use of complaining?”

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LEFEBVRE AND ALTHUSSER — Reinterpreting Marxist Humanism and Anti-Humanism

This blog was published at Monthly Review Online on Jun 13, 2021

Since the October Revolution, Marxism has experienced almost as many crises as capitalism itself. Crises are Marxism’s bread and butter, if not its chalk and cheese. Meltdowns of capitalism usually come as little surprise to savvy Marxist theorists, who’d seen it all coming long ago, even while those capitalist economies basked in booming glory. But economic crises are one thing; economic crisis plus a global pandemic is something else again, beyond an everyday capitalist norm, more akin to the political-economy of wartime. And for a thought that fuses theory and praxis, pandemic, like war, threatens not only life and limb, but also solidarity and tender acts of human togetherness.

But there’s another aspect to pandemic as well as to a Marxism of pandemic: the delicate balance between the individual and society is disrupted, between a liberty at the personal level and the needs of a society at the population level—the scale of much epidemiological enquiry. Pandemics necessitate that public health exigencies assume priority, even at the expense of the liberty of the person. Willy-nilly, collective rights find themselves clashing with individual rights, and not always to everyone’s liking—especially in lands where personal freedom is touted as sacrosanct. We’ve seen this most starkly expressed in the conflict over face-mask wearing, where protecting other people is seen by some as a downshifting of the self, as an assault on individual liberty.

For the theoretically-minded, this strikes as another way to frame debates about agency versus structure, about freedom versus necessity, about which is the more important, the determinant rather than determined. Marxists might recognise such a dialectic as a rerun of debates that raged throughout the sixties and seventies about humanist versus anti-humanist Marxism, about whether subjectivity ought to prevail over objectivity; or whether Marxist history is really objective, a process without a subject, a theory more amenable to the affirmation of collective necessity.

Humanists like Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) suggest Marxism should celebrate what Hegel called a “freedom of subjectivity,” that it should prioritise the free will aspect of Marx’s vision, his yearning for “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” The young, romantic Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts are particularly dear to the humanist Marxist’s heart. Here, in 1844, still smitten by Hegelian idealism, the concept of alienation dominates—or rather dis-alienation—the transcending of alienation, the freeing of human beings from capitalist enslavement, from wage labour. Marx posits a “total man” as the liberated person, as subject and object finding unity, rediscovering inner human essence, the ability for people to realise a limitless variety of possible individualities. [1]

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For anti-humanists like Louis Althusser (1918-1990) this reasoning rings out bogus, as something ideological, problematic for any socialist ambition. Socialism needs a “scientific” concept, says Althusser. “Humanism” here presupposes an “empiricism of the subject,” a kind of “essence” to human beings, which, Althusser reckons, the mature Marx—the Marx from the mid-1850s onwards—rejects. Humanism throws a “universal” veil over society, whereas revolutionary struggle isn’t a struggle to liberate “humankind” as such, but a struggle between classes. So, if we should ever talk about humanism, says Althusser, we might at least talk about “class humanism,” or “proletarian humanism.” Marxist liberation isn’t about releasing any transcendental human essence, nor expressive of personal freedom; it’s a historical phase that ends class exploitation, that builds democracy for the working classes. [2]

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Humanist Marxists accuse anti-humanists of dogmatism—of endorsing an “official” Marxism, under Stalin’s watch, with its programme of “the dialectics of nature.” Class struggle therein is seen as objective and deterministic, unfolding without conscious human agency, almost behind the backs of real people, like waves eroding the shoreline. Dogmatic Marxists, Lefebvre says, are happy to move people aside, being especially leery of Marx’s early writings. After all, they might give Soviet workers dangerous ideas about alienation in their own society. But if world communism is inevitable, an inexorable act of nature, as Stalin insists, people can be readily expunged from making history; Marxism elides into economism. Everything else—sociology, psychology, speculative philosophy, etc.—is reformist, irredeemably bourgeois.

Anti-humanists reckon the problem with dogmatism is too much humanism, not too little. Humanism encourages “the cult of personality,” says Althusser, the agency accorded to glorious leaders who supposedly make history all by themselves, like Stalin—or Hitler and Mussolini, or like a few of our own contemporary despots. This is divine worship of the individual, subjective humanism sneaking in through the back door, ideologically poisoning the rest of the house. The cult of personality has no place in Marxist theory, Althusser says, which is why he posits the provocative thesis that Marxists should break with the idealist category of “subject.” History has a “motor,” according to Althusser, but no subject. “Individuals aren’t ‘free’ and ‘constitutive’ subjects in the philosophical sense of these terms,” he says. “They work in and through the determinations of the forms of historical existence of the social relations of production and reproduction.” It’s another way of repeating Marx’s oft-cited dictum, that the masses make their own history, but not under circumstances chosen by individuals themselves.

***
Lefebvre and Althusser, as budding opposites, joined the French Communist Party (PCF) as young men. The former, scared by the Great War, in 1925; the latter, inspired by militant Resistants, in 1948. Lefebvre would, for “ideological deviations,” get expelled in 1958, though he’d reembrace the Party in the 1970s; Althusser would never leave, yet remained an outspoken critic. As dissident Party members, Lefebvre’s Marxism bathed in sunlight, was energised by what Ernst Bloch called a utopian “warm stream”; Althusser’s assumed a darker, colder, more melancholy cast. Lefebvre’s sixty-odd books overflow with the loose spontaneity and passion his Marxism advocates; Althusser’s writings, by contrast, are essays, tight and concise, shorn of frills.

Althusser’s anti-humanism insists that Marxism beds itself down in “the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” [3] But Lefebvre’s humanism doesn’t want to give up the ghost—geist—of alienation. If progressives jettison it, he says, won’t the living baby disappear with the stagnant bathwater? And yet, maybe twenty-first-century Marxism needs to loosen alienation from its subjective moorings, where it can degenerate into subjectivism, into an expression of bourgeois individuality and freedom. Maybe we need to see alienation not as undermining some abstract human essence, but posit it concretely, as a historical category, at work and in life. The traits of Marx’s factory system have entered into the generic traits of our society writ large. Life itself nowadays assumes a kind of industrial logic, with speed-ups and intensity drives, drills and efficiency targets, audits and assessments. As workers lean in, as they fill in those leaky non-workday pores, alienation is concrete. It moves with the times and so should we. It takes on meaning in different epochs, changes as we change, as our needs and aspirations change, as they change us, as we change them.

Decades ago, witnessing many German and European workers opt for fascism, vote against their class interests, Lefebvre spoke of alienation as mystified consciousness, recognising how propaganda transformed people’s minds en masse. He never saw this morph into social media, into misinformation and fake news, into twenty-first century estrangement, whose ideological channels never switch off and span the entire planet. Our alienation is different now, more cunning, less evident. And our consciousness is different, too, reshaped and re-mystified by a culture deliberately intent on undermining people’s capacity to think critically, to analyse broadly and deeply. Bombarded with banal messages and commercial stimuli, our brain cells have been pulverised by informational overload. Differentiating truth from falsity becomes increasingly difficult, fertile terrain for cults of personality to prosper, for demagogues to make promises they’ll never keep. But no matter.

Here, Althusser’s analysis still shines light on the murky zones of ideology. Ideology is never just free-floating, says Althusser, never simply (or complexly) a system of ideas innocent in life. Rather, ideology gets “materially” constituted, is embedded in particular capitalist “apparatuses” that manufacture it, that transmit it. They stalk the public, statist sector—in education and law, in the police and army, in religious institutions and political parties—as well as civil society—in business and advertising, on TV and radio, in newspapers, in social media and information technology. In fact, everywhere, we are enveloped in ideology. State ideological apparatuses can act repressively, through force (sending in the police and military), or else engineer compliance via consent, via more subtle modes of domination.

Althusser says ideological apparatuses “interpellate” people, “hail” us as concrete class subjects. It all happens, he says, along the lines of the most commonplace everyday scene—a hailing from across the street: “Hey, you there!” Conscious we’ve done something wrong, we look over, get taken in, believe the caller. Somehow, instinctively, we listen, accept it is us being called. This is how reality takes place through ideology, Althusser says, even if it seems to take place outside of ideology, beyond it. This is how we get “recruited” as class subjects and why Marx says life conditions consciousness—and not the other way around. What Lefebvre calls mystified consciousness, Althusser terms “an imaginary representation of our real conditions of existence.”

Ideology isn’t false consciousness: it’s real, has real anchoring to reality, real material existence. The bluster of Trump or Boris Johnson interpellates large numbers of people because their calls have what Althusser labels “a recognition function,” something a person needs to believe, wants to believe, recognises. It hits a reality buzzer somewhere inside them, becomes the necessary mood music for dissatisfied and alienated people. They want to hear this music, are open to it, feel the need to believe it. It’s on the level of feeling that messages get through, stoke up visceral emotions. Yet recognition functions through illusory representations, through imaginary distortions of actual reality (like the notion the Presidential election was rigged). “Experience shows,” says Althusser, “that the practical telecommunications of hailing is such that they hardly ever miss their man.” Verbal calls, messages popping up on screens, entering inboxes or dropping through mailboxes, getting bawled out at political campaigns, tweeted on social media—“the one hailed always recognises that it is really them who is being hailed.”

Althusser labels the drama of interpellation his “little theoretical theatre,” and the notion of theatre here is suggestive, full of dialectical resonance. Theatre stage plays involving actors with scripts. These actors assume roles and know how to learn their lines. They memorise them, act these lines out in character. Before them lie audiences, gatherings of people looking on, perhaps innocently, perhaps dangerously—dangerously in the sense that they are identifying with the actors. In interpellation, actors and audience become one, get bundled together; you can’t differentiate one from the other—at least in audiences’ heads—because the latter begin to live out the roles they’re watching. They come to the theatre, Althusser says, really to see themselves, and that’s why it’s dangerous: it’s precisely how interpellation hails you in life.

Althusser took a keen interest in theatre. While he plainly sees bourgeois theatre like bourgeois life, as a paradigm of interpellation, laden with ideology, he nonetheless understands theatre as part of the solution, too, as educational for not getting taken in by ideology. In this respect, misrecognition becomes a vital arm of political resistance, something Althusser tries to highlight in his articles on Bertolt Brecht. [4] Althusser says Brecht revolutionised bourgeois theatre the same way Marx revolutionised bourgeois philosophy. Marx says philosophy shouldn’t be contemplative and neither should theatre says Brecht.

It shouldn’t be “culinary,” he says, mere entertainment for audiences to drool over the play’s “hero.” In Brechtian “epic” theatre, there are no heroes, not even in plays like The Life of Galileo and Mother Courage, two of Althusser’s favourites. This is “materialist” theatre. There, the masses make history, not heroes. Brecht wants no object of identification—either positive or negative—between spectators and the spectacle, no complicity between the two, no pity or sentimentality, no anger or disgust. It’s the only sort of alienation that kindled Althusser’s political imaginary: the famous “alienation-effect,” Brecht’s Verfremdungeffekt—or V-effekt—the distancing that avoids reifying inter-subjectivity, that counteracts any possible emotional empathy audiences develop with the characters.

Brecht demands cool thinking responses from his audiences, not hot feeling outbursts. He wants to foster critical interpretation, a thought that provokes action. Overthrown are classical ideals of Greek theatre, where the repressed energy of the drama erupts into what Aristotle called catharsis—a stirring emotional release, usually at the play’s finale. It sounds like the din of a Trump rally, its demagogic rage. Brecht wants to snub any fictional triumph, any fear and misery of the Second Term. He interrogates context rather than panders to confabulation. “The public ought to cease to identify with what they’re watching,” says Althusser. “They ought to find a critical position,” take a stand on the outside, not be taken in on the inside. It’s precisely this critical distance that needs to be carried over into real life, into our diseased life. Like with all viruses, prevention is always better than cure.

***
As Althusser drifted away from the PCF in the late 1970s, Lefebvre drifted back into it. The decade pushed and pulled socialists and communists everywhere, ushering in as much a meltdown of the post-war Left as of post-war capitalism. Gramsci might have called this an interregnum, between a dying past and a new era yet to be born, haunted in the meantime by monsters. For awhile, the Left in France called for unity, for a “Union of the Left”; a popular unity to ward off monsters, between the PCF and the Socialist Party (PS), in solidarity with other Left factions and forces—avoiding, on the one side, dogmatism and sectarianism within its own ranks, and striving, on the other, to forge an electoral pact, a ballot box socialism.

The European Left was distancing itself from Moscow, abandoning commitment to “dictatorship of the proletariat,” embracing instead so-called “Eurocommunism”—“the democratic road to socialism.” The workers’ movement needed to fight for structural reforms, transform the capitalist system by stages, eventually altering it wholesale. Head on confrontation between bourgeoisie and proletariat ought to be avoided; socialism without the consensus of a large majority of the “progressive” population would be impossible. Rather than take the enemy’s fortress by assault, in one fell swoop, Eurocommunists needed to encircle this fortress, undermine it gradually, vote it out, erode its power. Later on, they could seize control, democratise the state.

Althusser thought this a grave tactical error, a betrayal of the working classes, and said so after the Union’s electoral defeat in 1978; Lefebvre seemed more open to its exploration, to its possibility. Althusser wrote a series of blistering articles in April, 1978, serialised in the newspaper Le Monde, about why he thought the Left union had collapsed and “What Must Change in the Party.” [5] He said the Party had to step out of its own “fortress,” embrace the popular movement, have more faith in the rank and file. “Democratic centralism” could only work, Althusser said, if the PCF loosened its absolutist grip on the workers’ movement. Party bigwigs, alas, had been more concerned with defending their institutional privileges against the PS than in allying to combat a national bourgeoisie.

Lefebvre also released a text in 1978—a crucial year in the demise of European Left—a book with a revealing title: La révolution n’est plus ce qu’elle était [The Revolution Isn’t What it Was], a dialogical exchange with Catherine Regulier, Lefebvre’s newly-wed and young PCF militant. Althusser is frequently pilloried by Lefebvre; Regulier usually sides with her Party comrade in opposition to her husband, making the conversation particularly fascinating because of its tangled loyalties. Like Althusser, Lefebvre disagrees with Gramsci: the Party isn’t a Modern Prince; Stalin put paid to such imagery. Yet rather than orchestrate “democratic centralism,” Lefebvre wants to develop and generalise “autogestion,” a worker self-management, pushing the Party to accept more decentralisation; power needed devolving to local communes; more coordinated direct action required fostering at ground level. Lefebvre, in effect, sought a democratic line between Party and state, wishing both would wither away.

Étienne Balibar, a former student and confidant of Althusser, and co-author with his teacher of Reading Capital, told me via email that Lefebvre and Althusser actually encountered each other during this fraught period. They met along with other Marxist theoreticians (like Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Jean-Marie Vincent) at Lefebvre’s apartment on rue Rambuteau (overlooking the Pompidou Centre). Balibar says they were “private meetings” [réunions privées], organised by another ex-Althusser student Nicos Poulantzas, whose idea was “to try and reunite Marxist intellectuals and relaunch, if possible, Leftist debate and the Union of the Left in distress [L’Union de la gauche en perdition].” [6]

“Lefebvre was old,” recalls Balibar, “but very alert and a charming conversationalist.” He wanted the Left “to bury the old hatchets,” to overcome its internal differences and disagreements, have everyone make peace with one another. Perhaps he was recalling what Lenin said about Marxists and anarchists; that there was nine-tenths similarity and one-tenth difference? Didn’t the same go for humanists and anti-humanists? “Althusser was often ill and absent in those days,” Balibar remembers. “He came a few times to the meetings without saying much, sometimes saying nothing at all.” “Lefebvre,” says Balibar, “told me that the Presses Universitaires de France had commissioned him to do a book on ‘Marx Today’. ‘Why don’t we do it together?’ he asked me. Like an idiot I refused, under the pretext that the deadline was too short for me, and that I write much slower than he does. To this day, I regret not doing it.” [7]

Lefebvre’s and Althusser’s work over that decade, from differing perspectives, tried to valorise for the Left a capitalist state in crisis. Could a unified Left leverage state power away from a disgruntled Right? Could it do so in the streets, in the factories, and through the ballot box? Could forces within the state be modified by organised pressure from the outside? Could pressure from the outside not only transform the inside but actually become that inside? “On s’engage,” Althusser used to say, “et puis on voit.” And yet, after engaging, after jumping into the fray, what one saw was a dramatic power shift, a transition and renewal in the reverse direction. It was the Right who got its act together, who closed ranks, who “condensed” its class power, just as the Left’s fell apart, as its unity fractured into disunity.

By the mid-1980s, a lot of ideas about popular unity and democratising the state, about Eurocommunism triumphing, collapsed, got rejected—almost before the votes were cast. Somehow its programme had overly compromised; or else hadn’t compromised enough. It was as if the Left didn’t know whether it was coming or going, having no more legs to stand on. It had kicked away both the Party and the People, hobbled lame. Still, unlike Britain and the US, “the Left” did nonetheless triumph in France, in 1981, under François Mitterrand’s Socialist Party; yet victory soon turned Pyrrhic, as its “leftist” policies began drawing straight from the Right’s playbook. By then, too, in a gentrifying Paris, an octogenarian Lefebvre had been evicted from his rental on rue Rambuteau and a depressed Althusser had strangled his beloved wife, Hélène, in a moment of “temporary insanity,” ending his days as a public figure. Poulantzas, meanwhile, had freaked out at a friend’s apartment, throwing himself out of the window in an impulsive suicidal defenestration.

Suddenly, the “New Right” set off on its long march, telling us there is no such thing as society anymore, only individuals and families. From struggling to ensure a providential state, now there was apparently no more state, not a public state for people anyway, only one preparing the political terrain for free market entrepreneurialism. Thus arose an awkward predicament for progressive people, especially for Marxist theoreticians: those items of “collective consumption” so vital for reproduction of the relations of production, so indispensable for propping up demand in the economy and for satisfying working class needs—public housing and infrastructure, hospitals and collectively consumed goods and services—were getting cast aside. How could this be? What once appeared essential ingredients for capitalism’s continued reproduction, for its long term survival, now turned out to be only contingent after all.

The Left has never really come to terms with a seismic tremor that registered big digits on the neoliberal Richter Scale. The 1980s bid adieu to social democratic reformism, to an age when the public sector was the solution to capitalism’s woes and the private sector the problem. Henceforth the former needed negating, Right ideologues argued; the private sector was the solution and a shot and bloated public sector the problem. State bureaucrats dishing out items of collective consumption through some principle of redistributive justice gave way to reality in which the market ruled. Writ large was the beginning of the privatisation of everything, of an ideology of possessive individualism. “Freedom” became its tagline: free markets, free trade, free choice, freedom to consume, freedom to do one’s own thing, freedom not to care about other people’s freedom.

Successive generations have been force-fed this ideology of freedom, treating anything public, any realm of necessity, with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as something symbolising unfreedom. Now, it’s no longer an ideological category: it’s embedded in people’s brains, a belief system that teaches us how to forget, how to turn our backs on the public realm and ergo on any social contract. Maybe for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. Its core functions—the planning and organisation of public services—have been outsourced to private consultants and contractors who’ve delivered little yet raked in much.

And as pandemic raged, countries who’d hollowed out their states most of all fast discovered they had neither the hardware capacity nor the software know-how to deal with a massive societal problem. So they doled out millions to private consultant “experts” like McKinsey who apparently did. When, in Britain, the latter instigated a National Health Service (NHS) test and trace system that hardly worked, we realised these “experts,” too, were clueless. COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state, of the incompetence of private enterprise addressing public health—and of how public health challenges aren’t resolvable by individuals and families alone.

There’s plenty of collective necessity, of course, dealing with a global pandemic. But collective necessity can only work if people recognise the state as “democratic,” know good government from bad. These days, in populist nations, democracy seems like a vision from another planet. We might call these uncivil states because people there have lost their sense of duty to one another. We’ve been kidded by demagogues into thinking we’re all free agents capable of doing what we like, and if we can’t then it’s someone else’s fault. The European Union’s? Big government’s? Rarely big business’s. Private inclinations have run roughshod over public interests, cults of personality have gone viral. Maybe intelligent people, inspired by some Brechtian V-effekt, might one day acknowledge society again, might distance themselves from ruling class lures and lies. Perhaps then we’ll see how we can be freer if each of us admits that we are part of a public culture in desperate need of collective repair, that the goal of socialist democracy is to fight to reclaim public power.

En route, we might also remember Marx, who insisted that real freedom came though addressing necessity. “Freedom can only consist in socialised man,” Marx said, “when associated producers rationally regulate their metabolism with Nature.” “A shortening of working day is the basic prerequisite for freedom,” he thought. Life blossoms forth on such a basis, he said. Freedom without necessity is yet more bourgeois claptrap, another ideological ruse to perpetuate its class dominance. Little wonder: “The bourgeoisie lives in the ideology of freedom,” Althusser tell us, and makes us live in it, too, forces its concept down our throats. But real freedom is hard when you have to worry about making the next rent check, when you wonder if your job will be there tomorrow, or what happens if you get sick. Free choice means practically nothing when you’re financially enslaved. Freedom here isn’t very humanist. Indeed, so far as anti-humanism goes, capitalism has got Marxism licked any day.

NOTES

[1] See, especially, Dialectical Materialism (1939), Lefebvre’s humanist rejoinder to Stalin’s Historical and Dialectical Materialism, published in Moscow a year earlier.

[2] See Althusser’s For Marx (1965), the best introduction to his anti-humanist Marxism.

[3] We might remember that even Marx’s abstract reasoning is concrete. Marx is weary of abstract abstractions, calling them in the Grundrisse “chaotic conceptions.” In a way, Marx would have been sceptical of epidemiologists’ scale of “population.” “Population,” Marx says, is an abstract abstraction, “if I leave out the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc.” When we follow Marx’s concrete logic, we can see more clearly how the COVID pandemic doesn’t just affect the population, but strikes different populations, strikes them unevenly and unequally, subject to positioning in the wage-relation and division of labour. Here we might add different races, too, and different classes of those races.

[4] Two instances are “The Piccolo Teatro,” a discussion of Bertolazzi alongside Brecht, which Althusser included in For Marx; and another, “Sur Brecht et Marx,” in Écrits philosophiques et politiques — tome II (1997).

[5] New Left Review translated and republished Althusser’s missives as a standalone essay (see NLR, No.109, May-June 1978).

[6] Even if little of practicality emerged from these meetings, protagonists did help pioneer a very interesting, if short-lived, theoretical journal called Dialectiques; between 1973 and 1981, 33 issues appeared, full of wonderful material that still inspires. Both Lefebvre and Althusser feature within its now-yellowing leaves, yin and yang opposites of a truly dialectical Marxism for what were truly dialectical times.

[7] Ironically, the book, Être Marxiste Aujourd’hui [To be a Marxist Today], would only materialise years later, in 1986, co-written with Patrick Tort, a strange homage to Georg Lukács. The focus was a conference at Paris’s Hungarian Institute from 1955, celebrating Lukács’s 70th birthday, an opportunity for Lefebvre to critique as well as champion his old Hegelian-Marxist colleague. If Balibar regrets passing up on joint-authorship, we can only regret not reading what might have been.

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LEFEBVRE IN THE AGE OF COVID — Lessons from The Urban Revolution and Paris Commune

 

This essay was originally posted at Monthly Review Online on 28th March 2021 

B40FA13A-E29A-4D41-8F41-DA8F087E6FB5Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970) quietly celebrated its 50th birthday under lockdown, and our greatest ever urban revolution, the Paris Commune (1871), just toasted its 150th. Both book and event have lost none of their lustre for helping progressive people think about city life, even as COVID-19 threatens to destroy that life. We might say especially as COVID-19 threatens that life, because both The Urban Revolution and the Paris Commune offer vital instruction about how we might rebuild a post-pandemic urban world, rebuild it democratically.

COVID has upended urban life as we once knew it. But it intensified already existing pathologies, those contaminating “normal,” pre-pandemic life. For decades, business-as-usual exploitation has meant cities have become not only functionally and financially standardised, but also unaffordable and unequal. Recent social distancing disrupts these inequities even more, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters, hurting poorer, immobile denizens the most. Nowadays, our urban reality is one of the de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and loathing.

Such denigration of the city would have hardly surprised Henri. He knew all about anti-urbanism and thwarted hopes. After all, The Urban Revolution was born of them, rooted and incubated in the promise of 1968, yet anticipating much more the depressing era that would follow. [1] By 1970, Lefebvre recognised that the promise of those street-fighting years was dashed; a sober reconceptualisation was warranted, a taking stock, particularly of material circumstances. What he foresaw, post-1968, was a revolution fellow Marxist Antonio Gramsci might have labeled “passive”—a revolt from above, a counter-revolution. (It’s what Marx meant in the Manifesto when he said “the bourgeoisie has played the most revolutionary part.”) Still, what Lefebvre wanted in The Urban Revolution was a revolution more akin to the Paris Commune, something Gramsci would have called a “war of position,” a popular, historical assault from below.

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Like Marx inverting Hegel, Lefebvre stands mainstream economic and sociological wisdom on its head: “we must consider industrialisation as a stage of urbanisation,” he says, “as a moment, an intermediary, an instrument. In the double process (industrialisation-urbanisation), after a certain period the latter term becomes dominant, taking over from the former.” This is a bold, provocative statement for any Marxist. For it suggests that the mainstay of the capitalist economy isn’t so much industrialisation as urbanisation, that industrialisation all along was but a special form of urbanisation. Capitalism reigns, Lefebvre says, because it now manages and manufactures a very special commodity: urban space itself—an abundant source of surplus value as well as a massive means of production, both a launch pad and rocket in a stratospheric global market.

We must no longer talk of cities as such, he says; all that is old hat. Instead, we must speak of urban society, a society born of industrialisation, a society that shattered the internal intimacy of the traditional city, that grew into Engels’ industrial city, but which has, in turn, been superseded, absorbed and obliterated by vaster metropolitan units. Rural places, too, become an integral part of the urban process, swallowed up by an “urban fabric” that continually extends its borders, ceaselessly corrodes the residue of agrarian life, gobbling up everything and everywhere in order to increase surplus value and accumulate capital. “This term, ‘urban fabric’,” explains Lefebvre, “doesn’t narrowly define the built environment of cities, but all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the countryside. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway and a rural supermarket are all part of the urban tissue.”

The Urban Revolution appeared a year before Richard Nixon devalued the US dollar, wrenching it from its gold standard mooring. Gone, almost overnight, was the financial and economic regulation that kept in check a quarter of a century of capitalist expansion. As the US economy bore the brunt of war in Vietnam, an American balance of trade deficit loomed. Nixon knew fixed exchange rates couldn’t be sustained, not without overvaluing the dollar, not without losing competitive ground. So he let the dollar drift, devalued it, and loosened Bretton Woods’ grip. World currency thereafter oscillated; capital could now more easily slosh back and forth across national frontiers. A deregulated capitalism became rampant, without restraint; Lefebvre sensed its coming, saw how it facilitated what he’d call the “secondary circuit of capital,” a siphoning off of loose money that could speculate on real estate and financial assets, liquid loot yearning to become concrete in space.

From capital’s point of view, as a class, this makes perfect bottomline sense: the landscape gets flagged out as a pure exchange value, and activities on land conform to the “highest,” if not necessarily “best,” land-uses. Profitable locations get pillaged as secondary circuit flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Willy-nilly people are forced to follow the money, flow from the countryside into the city, from factories into services, from stability into fragility. The urban fabric wavers between devaluation and revaluation, crisis and speculative binge, a ravaged built form and a renewed built form—and a fresh basis for capital accumulation. Once, it was a gritty warehouse on a rusty wharf; now, it’s a glitzy loft on a prim promenade. Once, an empty field on the edge; now a core neighbourhood on the up.

Half a century on, Lefebvre’s insights in The Urban Revolution sound as fresh and as meaningful as ever. Yet anybody expecting a rebel-rousing manifesto here will be disappointed. This isn’t a book like The Right to the City (1968), which climaxed with a passionate “cry and demand” for urban life. In 1970, Lefebvre gave us a more reflective text, cautious in its militant musings. If we want clues about what kind of radical revolution The Urban Revolution actually does espouse, we must look backwards, turn towards the past, and to an earlier Lefebvre work: La proclamation de la Commune, written in 1965. Reading it can help us move forwards.  

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It was the style of the Commune that kindled Lefebvre’s political imagination. What style? “The style of an immense, grandiose festival,” he says, “a festival that citizens of Paris, essence and symbol of the French people and of people in general, offered to themselves and to the world. Festival at springtime, festival of the disinherited, revolutionary festival and festival of revolution, free festival, the grandest of modern times, unfurling for the first time in all its dramatic magnificent joy.” [2] For 73 days, loosely affiliated citizen organisations, neighbourhood and artist associations, propped up by a “Central Committee” of the National Guard, transformed Paris’s 20 arrondissements into a liberated zone of people power, freed from bourgeois authority, from its army and police, from its economy and bureaucracy.

In the early hours of 18th March, a crowd of disgruntled citizens, predominately women, gathered on the Butte Montmartre, and surrounded obsolete cannons that were public property. General Lecomte ordered the National Guard to seize the cannons, and to open fire. Three times he gave the order to shoot. The soldiers stood silent, reluctant to turn their weapons on their own, on “the people”; they were, after all, themselves “the people,” conscripts from the working-class, and before them stood their would-be mothers. Suddenly, the tide had turned. Machine guns switched direction, took aim at the rule of Order. Lecomte would be shot later that day, alongside General Clément Thomas, one of the chief executioners in the 1848 “June Days.” 10 days on—28th March 1871—in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, la Commune de Paris was formally proclaimed. “Here is the holy city,” wrote Rimbaud not long afterwards, “seated in the west.”

It was, Lefebvre says, “grandeur and folly, heroic courage and irresponsibility, delirium and reason, exaltation and illusion” all rolled into one. Insurgents corroborated Marx’s ideal of revolutionary praxis at the same time as they refuted it. For this was no worker uprising incubated in the factories; rather, “the grand and supreme attempt of a city raising itself to the measure of a human reality.” An urban revolution had made its glorious debut, reenergising public spaces and transforming everyday life, touting victory while it wobbled in defeat. It was condemned to death at birth, notwithstanding the gaiety of its baptism. “The movement’s success,” says Lefebvre, “masked its failings; conversely, its failures are also victories, openings on to the future, a standard to be seized, a truth to be maintained. What was impossible for the Communards stays until this day impossible, and, by consequence, behooves us to realise its possibility.”

Ironically, the particular singularity and uniqueness of the Commune—that it occurred when Paris was besieged by war, surrounded by Prussian forces—makes it somehow more universally applicable for us today, as we, too, are besieged by forces that likewise surround us, that likewise invade our lives. In fact, the Commune’s pre-history sounds ominously like our own present history. Poorer populations suffered most. Paris’s economy was kaput. Enterprises folded daily. Food was scarce. Unemployment grew. People stood in long lines outside essential services, like boulangeries, desperate for bread. Winter had been bleak. Spring stayed chilly. There was little fuel for heating. Meantime, the rich had fled, cleared off to the countryside, along with their money. The Bourse and the Banque de France equally upped sticks; an interim bourgeois government ruled from Versailles.

This “de-structuring” of social life, says Lefebvre, rippled from top to bottom. On the other hand, its “re-structuring”—the reconstitution of urban life—flowed the other way, from the bottom upwards. People reorganised and rebuilt Paris in the rubble, from the rubble. Here we can learn plenty. There was a moratorium on rents; debts were written off; parasitic practices forbidden. Paris was “de-capitalised.” “There was a sort of qualitative bond,” writes Lefebvre, “in the activity of the Parisian masses.” The city’s base became “the people of Paris…artisans, small business owners, workers, petty-bourgeois allied to proletarians—who became spokespeople and participants in municipal events.” These unsung heroes and heroines “were proud of their anonymity.”

The promise of city reveals itself here when all is taken away, when city life is most in danger. For what remains are only its human resources—its citizens, citizens acting as citizens, joining hands, participating, creating their own public institutions, organising one another, doing so voluntarily, without monetary tags, without competitive compulsions; doing so, we might say, for the wellbeing of everybody else. It was the great gift of cooperation that Marx outlined in Capital, his core vision of democracy. Marx spoke about cooperation at the workplace; here we’re talking about cooperating in an entire city, human beings pooling their will and wits as a municipal power. When people work together, Marx says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely way to describe things. Marx thinks that when we “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.”

But the problem with cooperation in “normal” capitalist life is its phoniness, that it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who exploit people’s togetherness for their own commercial ends. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but creamed-off as private gain. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” he says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.” Marx always willed this at the factory; for 73 days, in Paris, we glimpsed it in the street, in daily life, where we still need it most.

Could we ever imagine those extraordinary circumstances of Paris’s Commune becoming somehow ordinary, embedded in a city life released from a competitive free for all? What happened in 2020 has been something extraordinary. COVID-19 instigated its own revolution in daily life, a passive, if deadly, revolution. But what of Lefebvre’s active revolution, and his right to the city? Could a de-commodified, de-capitalised city life ever become a little less extraordinary, maybe even something completely normal? What if real cooperation became the order of day, that our hands and eyes were in the front and behind—as Marx suggested—and that we became “to a certain extent omnipresent”? We’ve seen what a strong state can do when it intervenes in our economy and society, what it can do at a crisis moment; now we need reimagine it intervening once the crisis has passed, intervening democratically, fostering cooperation and participation, enabling some bottom-up reconstruction of a world that has undergone so much topdown destruction.

One thing is for certain: that the right to the city no longer means the right of the rich and powerful to mobilise its own property rights, to use them to abuse other people, to rip off at work and at home, to pay too little while charging too much. There has to be some institutional control of flows into the secondary circuit of capital, some way those flows can be stymied, channeled into infrastructure and property geared towards public use-values, not corporate exchange-values. In Lefebvre’s Marxist terminology, concrete space must prevail over abstract space. Those “blind-fields” of thinking of the world in terms of quantitative growth for quantitative growth’s sake must be broken down, rendered longer-sighted, more socially visionary.

Lefebvre said the right to the city, if ever it came to pass, would resemble a giant social and spatial contract. Associative ties would bond people together, bond them to each other and to their city. What we might add, in an age of public health crisis, is that these “rights” now need to be complemented by “duties.” The Commune, again, is suggestive. Communards gave to the city, recognised that to make their city function they had responsibilities. Public space wasn’t just about them, exclusively about individuals. Public service meant respecting the collective, respecting each other in the realm of one another. Freedom here came through collective necessity, through contributing towards the common good—existentially profiting from this common wealth, primarily because people were helping create it themselves. The sense of unselfish achievement was legion.

The value of the public realm, in other words, was affirmed, kept robust and healthy. In our own times, we’ve seen how this public realm has been denigrated and torn apart. The breakdown of the social contract is nowhere more evident than where unfettered self-interest reigns, where responsibility for other people is denied. What prevails here is an absurd anti-social contract, exemplified by the flagrant unwillingness to wear a protective face mask in public, since it supposedly threatens individual liberty. Successive generations have been force-fed a capitalist ideology that seduces people into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what like, and if they can’t their rights are being flouted.

Anything public and shared is treated with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. This no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any duty to the city beyond the self. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural these days to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of collective services—outsourced for vast sums to distant private consultants and contractors. But COVID has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state.

There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. It’s like rebuilding Paris in a revolution. One aspect of any right to the city has to be a willingness to acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits that we’re part of a bigger whole, part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding. The remarkable success story of the UK’s vaccine roll-out hinges on an unofficial subplot: the army of dedicated volunteers who have chipped in to lend a cooperative hand, organising every vaccination centre, the line ups and traffic flows, even administering the injections. They’ve done it everywhere with good cheer and with great efficiency. Maybe it’s because collective participation offers personal fulfilment. Everybody knows it, everybody appreciates it, is inspired by the positive spirit in the air. Waiting for your jab, standing in line, those hands and eyes in front and behind are really palpable, and uplifting. (One might dream of a public health system commandeering this much respect and manpower in ordinary times.)

In a strange, more modest way, perhaps this collective feeling corresponds with what the Communards felt. It’s a sensibility that crops up often in Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la commune, and gets expressed by a word seldom spoken anymore: “dignity”—la dignité. We seldom hear it because so much of our life today, notably our urban life, has no dignity, is hard, an alienating daily struggle to survive, to make ends meet. In amongst it all, dignity becomes a luxury, a far-off ideal. But the sense of dignity, as the Communards knew, derives from solidarity, from public engagement. Poor but proud, they retained their dignity, did the right thing, did it with others, staved off isolation and disempowerment, struggled to overcome adversity together, sensing that for a while it could work, that you could succeed. Perhaps the right to dignity is really what The Urban Revolution quietly proclaims 50 years on, like the Commune, at its 150th anniversary: the right to be respected, the duty to respect others. If ever there’s a style worth emulating, then it’s dignity. A grand style, for sure. One that should never have gone out of fashion. Vive la Commune!

 

NOTES

[1] Henri Lefebvre, La révolution urbaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); and The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003)

[2] Henri Lefebvre, La proclamation de la Commune (Paris: Gallimard, 1965). Lefebvre’s interpretation of the Commune led to a fallout with Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI), who accused their former comrade of pilfering its ideas on 1871. Debord said Lefebvre’s take was lifted from SI’s own “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” admitted Lefebvre in a 1983 interview. “I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan. I worked for weeks at the Institute.” “I don’t care about these accusations of plagiarism,” Lefebvre said. “I never took the time to read what they wrote about the Commune in their journal.” All the same, Lefebvre thanks Debord in La proclamation de la Commune, for his friendship and support “in the course of fecund and cordial discussions in the elaboration of this book.” But in a typesetting howler—or Lefebvre practical joke?—Debord is cited as M. Guy Debud! In 2018, La fabrique éditions republished Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la Commune, with an excellent preface by the late Daniel Bensaïd, from 2008, discussing at length the Lefebvre-Debord tiff, which unfolded like Gogol’s tale of the two Ivans. In La fabrique’s reprint, though, Lefebvre’s Debord acknowledgement has been cut.

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GOGOL’S NOSE

Today, 212-years ago, on April Fool’s Day, the writer Nikolai Gogol was born in the Ukraine. As his birthdate might suggest, Gogol was never a man to miss an opportunity to joke, and in this essay I pay homage to perhaps his most biting satirical story, THE NOSE—a tale for our times.

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Sniffing out stupidity and malevolence was Gogol’s great gift. His most olfactive tale, appropriately enough, is The Nose, a comically grotesque satire from 1836—grotesque in the sense of its storyline: a drunken barber finding a nose in his breakfast roll. (Think of it like the severed human ear we see close-up in the grass, crawling with ants, at the beginning of David Lynch’s film noir Blue Velvet.) If The Portrait had haunted us with those terrible eyes, then Gogol’s own portrait has its nose take prominence, become a nasal force, fleeing the frame to blow of its own volition. Remember, Gogol had a conk complex, a thing about noses, especially his own. “My nose,” he once told a lady friend, “is decidedly bird-like, pointed and long. However, in spite of its ridiculous appearance, it is a good beast: it has never been known to turn up, it has never sneezed to please my superiors or the authorities—in short, in spite of its excessive size, it has behaved itself with great moderation, for which, no doubt, it has got the reputation of a liberal.”

In 1828, as a naïve nineteen-year-old, humiliated by the reception of his self-published poem, Hans Küchelgarten, copies of which he tried to burn, Gogol set off to emigrate to America, getting as far as Lübeck before giving up the ghost. Had he made it to the new world, he’d have most certainly had a nose job, found some plastic surgeon to reshape it. The Nose even alludes to such a possibility: “I’ve heard there’s a certain kind of specialist,” somebody says, “who can fix you up with any kind of nose you like.” In a way, The Nose is Gogol’s nose job; he sticks it into the petty affairs of Petersburg officialdom, mocking its ranks, suggesting it’s not quite true that he never turned his nose up to anyone. After all, he does something much worse: has “Major” Kovalyov lose his. Gogol cuts off the self-satisfied bureaucrat’s nose in order to spite his face, wrenching him out of his snotty complacency. Gogol’s satire had always been biting: now it was so voracious that it bit off something completely.

Gogol was a natural born storyteller even as a solitary writer. When he wrote, he’d lock himself away in his room and scribble standing up at a lectern. According to his friends, who’d sometimes spy on the unsuspecting writer through the keyhole, before getting anything on paper Gogol frantically paced up and down composing in his head, voicing aloud his characters’ dialogue, laughing to himself, engaging in all manner of bodily contortions, clutching his hair, pulling weird faces and generally waving his arms about. Thus the thespian element was embedded in his finished comic set-pieces, explaining why Gogol was such a brilliant reader of his own texts.

When it came to “Major” Kovalyov, the comedy was merciless, no holds barred. For one thing, Kovalyov isn’t a real Major, just a Collegiate Assessor who calls himself a Major out of vanity. For another, this is no dream; that nose really does turn up one morning at Ivan Yakovlevich’s, the wastrel barber, in the middle of his onion roll. And the latter recognises whose nose it is, though has no recollection of ever severing it with his razor, having shaved Kovalyov a few days back. Praskovya Osipovna, the barber’s wife, says he can’t remember because he was dead drunk that day. In any case, she cries, “I’ve heard three customers say that when they come in for a shave you start tweaking their noses about so much it’s a wonder they stay on at all!” “I’ve a mind to report you to the police myself,” she says. The barber gets in a tiz about how to get rid of the snout, deciding to dump it in the Neva river, wrapped up in a handkerchief. But a policeman spots him on St. Isaac’s Bridge, up to something fishy, and hauls the barber in for loitering suspiciously. Thereon after, the nose appears across town, “wearing a gold-braided uniform with a high stand-up collar and chamois trousers.”

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Meantime, waking up early, there was no mistake about it: Kovalyov’s nose had gone. “He began pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t sleeping, but to all intents and purposes he was wide awake.” “Damn it!” he screams. “What kind of trick is this?” Hmm. It’s Gogol’s trick, of course, heaping scorn on parvenu conceit, wreaking revenge, maybe, on all those who mocked his own elongated beak when he was a lad, imagining them, like Kovalyov, losing theirs. Noseless, Kovalyov can no longer pursue his sleazily habit of chatting up pretty young girls. Nor can he wine and dine with his old cronies, or swagger proudly along the Nevsky Prospect, or boss about his inferiors at the office, pulling rank just for the hell of it. Now, “instead of a fairly presentable and reasonably sized nose,” all Kovalyov has is “an absolutely preposterous smooth flat space.”

By chance, one afternoon, he spots his nose stepping out of a carriage, and follows it to Kazan Cathedral, confronting it inside: “Don’t you realise,” says Kovalyov, “you are my own nose!” The nose has none of it. “What do you want?” it replies, curtly. The nose looks down on Kovalyov the way the Collegiate Assessor looked down on people when it was firmly affixed to his own face. He gets a touch of his own medicine, having his nose turn itself up at him. Then it slips away, disappearing into the crowd. Infuriated, Kovalyov heads straight to Police H.Q., to report a scoundrel on the loose. But the authorities are as indolent on the job as Kovalyov is on his; the Commissioner isn’t about; and nobody at the station gives a toss about a stray nose. So Kovalyov decides to put in an ad at a Petersburg rag, about a missing body part, hoping somebody might hand it. The newspaper clerk, nonplussed, says such an announcement would give the paper a bad reputation, end up as a libel case, like the one they had the other week with a lost poodle. “My God!” despairs Kovalyov. “What have I done to deserve this?”

Before long, the nose is seen taking regular strolls along the Nevsky Prospect, at exactly three o’clock every afternoon. Crowds of inquisitive people flock there to watch the spectacle. After a few days, the police seize it and bring it to Kovalyov. He’s thrilled yet perplexed about how to stick his nose back on. The doctor is as clueless as anybody, and suggests putting it in a jar of alcohol; “better still, soak it in two tablespoons of sour vodka and warmed-up vinegar, and you’ll get good money for it. I’ll take it myself if you don’t want it.” In the end, the nose miraculously shows up again, in its rightful place on the Collegiate Assessor’s face, between his two cheeks, and Kovalyov wonders if the whole ordeal had been a bad dream. “He grabbed it with his hand to make sure—but there was no doubt this time. Aha!”

***
The Nose is a decidedly weird tale even by Gogol’s decidedly weird standards. His letters suggest he’d initially conceived the story as a dream, but then decided to present it in waking Petersburg life. Still, it’s not so straightforward with Gogol. Nothing ever is. After all, his narrator tells us that Kovalyov was “to all intents and purposes wide awake.” It’s the “to all intents and purposes” that raises doubts. “Perhaps I dreamt it!” Kovalyov wonders, planting further seeds of ambiguity. “How could I be so stupid as to go and lose my nose?” Was it, then, something he did himself? Or was it the barber? But how could the barber do it and Kovalyov not know it? Whatever the case, this isn’t realism we’re dealing with here. It’s Gogol’s experiment in absurdist literature, his surrealist black humour, anticipating Kafka’s Metamorphosis by eighty-years, playfully pulling the rug from underneath the reader—or pulling the wool over our eyes—provoking us, taunting us, especially with its disclaimer: “The world is full of the most outrageous nonsense. Sometimes things happen which you would hardly think possible.”

His final paragraph has us wonder if this was Gogol’s April Fool’s gag all along: “All of this took place in the northern capital of our vast empire! Only now, after much reflection, can we see that there is a great deal that is very far-fetched in this story. Apart from the fact that it’s highly unlikely for a nose to disappear in such a fantastic way and then reappear in various parts of town dressed as a state counsellor, it is hard to believe that Kovalyov was so ignorant to think newspapers would accept advertisements about noses.” On the other hand, says Gogol, you won’t find much in life that isn’t on the absurd side somewhere. “Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.”

Almost two centuries after its publication, Gogol’s Nose still pokes fun at authorities and (dis)organised bureaucracies everywhere. Gogol mobilises absurdity to pillory the negative, to voice the artist as critic; yet with absurdity he also defends the “little people,” those victims of petty power who feel its injustice and complacency, who feel it while they experience their own sense of powerlessness. But Gogol is no bleeding heart liberal. His moral stances are frequently difficult to pin down, never fully settled upon. Sometimes the wielders of petty power are precisely his little people. In their fawning servility, in their yearnings to rise up the slippery slope of officialdom, Gogol knocks them down. He knows how power is scary because it is ordinary, because it is apparently autonomous, working behind the backs of those who work under it, of those who work with it and want it.

Vladimir Nabokov, in his brilliant little study of Gogol, says Gogol’s nose isn’t a proxy for sexual organs, nor any castration fantasy—which is probably how the cocaine-sniffing, nose-obsessed Freud might have read it. Rather, nasal symbolism for Gogol is more a narrative device, not so much a tongue-puller as a nose-twister, a piece of mischievous trickery related to the nose-humour so ubiquitous in Russian carnival tradition and in the hundreds of Russian sayings that revolve around the nose. Gogol knew them well. Nosology and nose-consciousness was rife in his day, all of which doubtless drew attention to the fact that his own beak was exaggeratedly long.

“The man with the longest nose,” a Russian proverb goes, “sees further.” Gogol didn’t just see further, but, as Nabokov says, brought new odours to literature and life. That’s doubtless why the authorities objected to his olfactivism: it was sniffing out awful truths about society, scenting other possibilities. When Gogol first penned The Nose, publishers weren’t turned on. They passed up on taking the tale, dismissing it as “sordid.” In printing it they feared prosecution. Gogol’s friend Pushkin eventually took the story for his own journal, The Contemporary, yet warned Gogol of probable trouble ahead, of censor repercussions. And so it was. The first beef was that the nose chose to cavort in Kazan Cathedral, a holy institution. As such, the setting was offensive, blasphemous, and had to be axed. In later versions, Gogol changed Kovalyov’s encounter with his nose to a shopping arcade—though modern reprints have restored Kazan Cathedral.

By the time of its third printing, in 1854, two-years after Gogol’s demise, the story went under the censor’s nose again. “The aim of the author,” they claimed, “is obscure and capable of being interpreted in various ways.” In condemning the tale accordingly, censors provided no better testimony to Gogol’s genius, that he was the creator of dangerous literature, a literature so ambiguous that it gave people all sorts of ideas, maybe ideas above their station. Readers might thereafter follow their own noses, and threaten the status quo, challenge the authorities as Gogol had challenged us to challenge them. Gogol’s literature stimulates deep feelings in a variety of ways, in unforeseen ways, in ways beyond the grip and grasp of governments.

That’s as good a reason as any why we should continue to read him, why we should continue to laugh with him. Most of us know from Pinocchio what happens to kids who tell fibs. Big fibs meant big noses; nice boys who fibbed and said sorry had the woodpecker come to peck their noses back to normal size. But that’s a children’s fairytale. In an adult parable, fib-tellers would lose their noses entirely; no woodpeckers would help them. “An absolutely preposterous smooth flat space” would prevail as a badge of dishonour. Corridors of political and economic power would be crawling with noseless Kovalyovs, from the petty fibbers to the really big liars, sprouting nonsense about Brexit, about how the election was rigged, about how the pandemic is nothing to fear, how it’s all a great hoax. Gogol could rewrite the script of our times, if only for a day, for April Fool’s Day, his day, and give us florid descriptions of noseless villains, clambering around frantically, outed as malicious lie-tellers, there for every honest person to see. What a day! Fake news’ nose snubbed! Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen. Don’t they?

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