Artists and Urbanization

In the late 1980s, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze did a series of quirky filmed interviews with Claire Parnet, a journalist at the French daily, Libération. Eight hours of documentary footage emerged, an Abécédaire, in which Deleuze extemporises on all things A to Z, Animal to Zigzag. Here Deleuze is perhaps at his most fascinating best. We get a rare glimpse not only inside the life (and living room) of a notoriously media-shy thinker; we enter inside his own head, too, inside his own thought-process, watch him ad-libbing, smiling and ruminating, unrehearsed before the camera. It’s something refreshingly different from today’s canned, bland TEDx gabbing.
Deleuze is always inspiring, and I like to watch him when I’m feeling down about the world. So, a little while ago, I checked out his Abécédaire again, homing in on the letter “G,” for “Gauche”—“Left,” wondering what Left might still mean today. “What does it mean for you to be ‘Left’?” Parnet taunts Deleuze. “I’m going to tell you,” he says, “that there’s no government of the Left. A government of the Left doesn’t exist, because to be Left isn’t an affair of government.”

But let’s start with what it means not to be Left, Deleuze says. This is to think of the world “a bit like your postcode. You begin with yourself… the street where you live, the city, the country, other countries further and further away.” On the other hand, “to be Left [être de gauche] is the direct opposite.” It’s to perceive the horizon, to move inwards from the outside, to imagine the planet, “the continent, your country, region, city, street… you.” “Left,” says Deleuze, is an affair of perceiving that horizon, of keeping your vision of yourself and the world expansive, large. It’s to live with the vastness of the planet, with its immensity.

Perhaps this is one way in which we can reimagine urbanization, understand its immensity. Perhaps we can understand what is happening to our cities as a reflection (and reinforcement) of what is happening to our global political-economic system. Cities today are defined by the closing of the circle of a particular form of capitalism; less a model of industrial or agricultural production, more as something predicated on the production of space, as a system that produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. This process quite simply embroils everybody, no matter where. That’s its immensity.

In a sense, cities don’t so much spread themselves out as grow because they become vortexes for sucking in everything capitalism offers: its land and wealth, its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the city machine, that makes cities so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because the energising and totalising force of cities expels people, secretes people who are somehow residual to this system, dispensable to it.

“Residues” are remainders who live out the periphery, people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues exist in the world of work: precarious and downsized workers, informal and gig economy workers, workers without regularity, without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander, people forced off the land, thrown out of their housing (by impersonal property markets and violent eviction), whose homes have been repossessed, whose living space teeters on the geographical and economic edge.

Plenty of artists fill the ranks of residues and now know how capitalism’s cutting edge is frequently a bleeding edge for art. True, high art can be exploited as super profitable cultural capital; but progressive art, Left art, leaves many artists—painters, installation artists, performance artists, writers, poets, etc.—out on the margins, struggling to earn living inside the meanness and aggressive bluster of global capitalism.

Artists have special needs for space, not only for living space but for spaces to create, display and perform their art in, spaces to practice their art in, and that’s why artists have historically been very vocal in demanding their “right to the city,” since they feel the pinch in urban areas alongside other modest means people. And that’s why artists often find affinity with these other people. Artists have been forced to think about their place in the world, in the city, about their links for other communities, about their relationship to the class system. Urban areas offer artists access to markets and to audiences, to fellow-traveling artists, to like-minded creative people. Yet urban areas with soaring rents and property values also put intense pressures on artists that makes them sometimes wonder whether they’ll ever have the means to create at all.

Meanwhile, political demands are now placed on artists. Indeed, artists can make a crucial contribution as residues, because their art can help other residues recognize one another, find one another. Artists can open up lifelines where residues can encounter one another. Artists can create imaginative spaces of encounter, events, objects and happenings that give expressive form to this vortex of planetary urbanization, helping residues navigate and survive in this vortex.

Radical art can do this by formulating forcefields of resistance, creating new ways of perceiving those planetary horizons that Deleuze said Leftists should perceive.
Deleuze knew that all great art was about creation, was about formulating new concepts of Becoming, about how Leftists never really cease “becoming minorities” [devenir-minoritaire]. In his Abécédaire, Deleuze says that, maybe, minorities will never actually make up the majority. To be Left, and be a Left artist, is to affirm your Being by Becoming a minority, alongside other minorities, other residues, be proud of it, wear it as a badge of honour. It’s to assemble and form an ensemble with your fellow minorities, to express your becoming out in the world together.

The poet Charles Baudelaire long ago suggested that the modern artist should aspire to become “a spiritual citizen of the universe,” that they should create a cosmopolitanism which doesn’t only touch the horizon: occasionally it pushes beyond that horizon, opens up new doors of the perception. Baudelaire drafted what might well be the greatest single definition of what art should be: something only completely true in another world. This sets the tone for artists today, for the artist as marginalized creator, for the artist who’s equally a truth-teller, a rebel, a he or she who isn’t afraid to stand up to the corrupting forces of money and power, and who, in many ways, has nothing to lose. Truly independent artists are free to let us glimpse—maybe even grasp—that other world. Before us now lies a massive expansion of urban life across the planet, an opening up of our urban horizons and frontiers, matched by a closing of the political mind, a withering of the established political will.

Ruling forces seemingly everywhere appear intent on blowing this planet apart, cowering before provincial smallness rather than embracing cosmopolitan vastness. Art can keep things large and intact. It can create visions expressive of a mutually shared planet in which people who look different, who talk different from one another, who don’t know one another, who may even hate one another, have more in common than they might think.

This likeness is an ever-growing mutuality of disadvantage, of despair, of suffering and, perhaps, of hope. There’s affinity here even if it’s rarely acknowledged. Art and artists can help us identify how this affinity might get recognised, how it gets mediated, undermined, upended by forces upending the planet, forces that conspire together, that throw everybody into a scary mix. The hope against hope of art is that it can help inspire a new urban sovereignty in which people strive to become wholly human.

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“Fulfillment was already there”: Debord and 1968

This essay was originally published on Verso’s blog on May 17

On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation. This was theory that identified enemy minefields and plotted a Northwest Passage, getting daubed on the walls of Paris and other cities during May 1968: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY.”

Its refrains were all over the modern high-rise environment at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a classic scene of urban isolation and separation, a “suburban Vietnam,” where a peripheral new town university coexisted with working-class slums and Arab and Portuguese shantytowns. The place was sterile, sexually and socially repressive, and totalitarian. This was the spirit of a society without any spirit. The same centralisation, hierarchy, and bureaucratic obsession persisting in the educational sector persisted in other aspects of the French state. Tough rules governed student dorms and freedom of movement; classes were overcrowded, resources stretched; professors were distant, student alienation rife. The right-wing Gaullist regime attempted to modernise the economy, in line with Common Market membership, and unemployment was growing.

At the University of Strasbourg, two years prior, a handful of Situationists had intervened, angry students of Henri Lefebvre and friends of Debord. They’d riled and denounced, tried to revolutionise students with an influential pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life—Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual and especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.” They’d infiltrated the National Union of French Students (UNEF), accused students at Strasbourg of pandering to a society dominated by the commodity and the spectacle. Student poverty was a poverty of ideas, a poverty of guts. Students were really “submissive children,” labour-power in the making, without class consciousness. They accepted the business and institutional roles for which the “university-factory” prepared them, never questioning the system of production that alienated all activity, products, people, and ideas. The Situationist’s text struck a chord; translated reprints extended its audience, notably to the U.S., Britain and Italy. In Strasbourg, the document caused a scandal; a coterie of students refused to be integrated, resisted co-optation. Critical awareness gathered steam over the next year and a bit, until, late March of 1968, it blew a gasket at Nanterre.

On Friday, March 22nd, assorted Situationists, young communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoists invaded the university’s administration building, and began occupying it. The week before, the “Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International” had been established. Its members put up posters and scribbled slogans on the walls of Nanterre and the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter: “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,” “NEVER WORK,” “BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY,” “TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS,” “PROFESSORS, YOU MAKE US GROW OLD,” “IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN.” In early May, “the March 22 Movement” met with UNEF at the Sorbonne. The authorities tried to break up the meeting; instead they only unleashed its latent power. The gendarmerie mobile poured into the Sorbonne’s courtyard and encircled its buildings. Several thousand students fought back, inside and outside, ripping up paving stones on the street. Skirmishes broke out elsewhere, spreading both sides of the Seine, flaring up at Châtelet and Les Halles. On May 6 and 7 a huge student demonstration took over the Boulevard Saint Michel and thoroughfares near rue Gay-Lussac; protesters overturned cars, set them ablaze, dispatched Molotov cocktails, and manned the barricades.

On May 13 there was a one-day general strike. With the French Communist Party (PCF) and general worker’s union (CGT) joining the action, “student-worker” solidarity suddenly looked possible. Situationists and students took over the Sorbonne. On one revered fresco they emblazoned the caption: “HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST.” Exams had been cancelled at the barricades; sociologists and psychologists became the new cops. Next day, in Nantes, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant occupied their factory and locked out the bosses. Meanwhile, Renault workers at Cléon in Seine-Maritime followed suit. Then the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat action, halting newspaper distribution. Workers’ councils linked up with students’ councils, becoming comrades in arms. The working class, at last, declared its unequivocal support for the student movement when rank and filers at Renault-Billancourt took over France’s largest factory.

By May 20 strikes and occupations became contagious. Nationwide, around 10 million workers downed tools and froze assembly lines. France seemed on the precipice of revolution; a festival of people was glimpsed. Alienation was cast off, momentarily; freedom was real; capitalised time abandoned. Without trains, cars, Metro and work, leisure time was reclaimed, time lived. Students and workers seized the contingent situation, acted spontaneously, created new situations, realising something what no trade union or party could ever do, or wanted to do. And yet, as quickly as things erupted, they were almost as speedily repressed, by state and bourgeoisie, soon backed by the Communists and the CGT. The optimistic promise, the beach beneath the paving stones, had dissipated, for now. The music was over. There was no other side to break on through to.

The occupation of Paris was, still is, seen throughout the world as an event of historical significance. Solidarity between workers and students had for a moment expressed itself; so too direct action militancy and student internationalism. From the LSE to Berkeley, from Columbia to Nantes, from the Sorbonne to Barcelona, dissatisfaction had spread like wildfire. At the same time, The Society of the Spectacle’s demands, as Debord would write (with Gianfranco Sanguinetti) in The Veritable Split in the Situationist International (1972), “were plastered in the factories of Milan as in the University of Coimra. Its principal theses, from California to Calabria, from Scotland to Spain, from Belfast to Leningrad, infiltrate clandestinely or are proclaimed in open struggles…The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes.”

In old photos of the student occupations of the Sorbonne, Debord is visible in the thick of the action, lurking with intent. He was no student himself, nor was he particularly “youthful”: in May 1968, Debord, the freelance revolutionary, was thirty-six, older than a lot of junior professors, and almost twice the age of many student leaders (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit). He must have seemed like an old guy to many kids, somebody’s dad drinking in the student bar. Already his appearance had started to deteriorate. Surrounded by a large crowd of student activists, we can see him standing side on, without glasses, wearing a white jacket. His face is a lot puffier than a decade earlier; a boozer’s physiognomy was rapidly becoming apparent. By comparison with other ’68ers, who were mere political toddlers, he was a veteran provocateur.

Debord and other Situationists were genius agitators and organisers, and their presence was felt, practically and theoretically. The spirit of The Society of the Spectacle was there, even if some kids had never read nor fully understood it. On the other hand, Debord was frequently the most sectarian, invariably falling out with allies—especially falling out with allies, being most ruthless with old friends and former comrades. “Guy was a very tenacious person,” Jean-Michel Mension, a past oustee, remembered in his Situationist memoir The Tribe. “He was already very hard—very strict in the way he conceived of existence with this person or that.” There “were certainly jokers who became part of Guy’s group merely because they were friends of so and so, people who had no business there and who lasted only six months or a year before Guy found them really idiotic and kicked them out.”

Debord likewise dissed former pal Henri Lefebvre, the Nanterre Marxist professor, denouncing him as an “agent of recuperation.” He said the sexagenarian philosopher had stolen certain Situationist ideas. Debord reckoned Lefebvre’s take on the 1871 Paris Commune was almost entirely lifted from SI’s pamphlet, “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” Lefebvre recalled in a 1987 interview. “I was close to the Situationists…And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…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.”

Both Lefebvre and Debord believed the Commune some sort of historical antecedent of 1968. For seventy-three days, between March and May of 1871, when Prussian forces at war with France surrounded Paris, the city had become a liberated zone of people power. The barricades went up, even across Haussmann’s mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and pranks. Freely elected workers, artists, and small business owners were suddenly at the helm. Their rally cries were territorial and urban; their practice was festive and spontaneous. The Communards, until the National Guard massacred 20,000 of them, launched a revolt in culture and everyday life, demanded freedom and self-determination, crushed Louis Napoleon’s authority as he’d once crushed their freedom, occupied the streets, shouted and sang for their “right to the city.”

For the first time, it looked like a working-class revolution wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. In “Theses on the Commune,” Debord said the Situationists believed that the “Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth-century” (Thesis #2). “Underlying the events of that spring of 1871,” he went on, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.” “The Commune,” Thesis #7 said, “represents the only realisation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” It “succumbed less to the force of arms,” the next thesis explained, “than to the force of habit.” “Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement,” continued #11, importantly, “can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been fulfilled. They forget that for those who really lived it, the fulfillment was already there” (emphasis in original). “The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune,” #12 stated, “must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the prevailing political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the interdependence of all the prevailing banalities that it blasted to pieces.” “The social war of which the Commune was one moment,” declared the penultimate #13, “is still being fought today. In the task of ‘making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune’ (Frederick Engels), the last word is still to be said.”

In the wake of May ’68, Debord released a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, dedicating it to wife Alice Becker-Ho, whose beautiful image, clad in flat cap, leaning on a wall with a cigarette drooping nonchalantly from her mouth, fills one frame. It evokes an Alice-cum-Brando’s Wild One pose: “Alice, whattya rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” The film’s dialogue closely follows Debord’s original text, but the rapid-fire captions, disarming classical music, and exaggerated footage make it visually stunning. There are battle scenes and moody vistas of Paris, spliced between images of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro, all giving speeches; Debord plainly disapproves. There are news clips from the ’68 Renault strike, with workers locked inside the factory by the unions; scenes from the Bourse alive with frenzied traders, participating in money mayhem; there’s a vision of the Tower of Babel amid pitched battles from Vietnam and Watts (Los Angeles), circa 1965; Paris’s streets are ablaze, and students can be seen fighting cops; there are burning barricades at night, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, street altercations in Italy in the 1960s, Italian police leaping from jeeps, truncheoning a crowd of young people; West German security forces patrol another street, while Soviet tanks push back German workers in Berlin in June 1953.

The Society of the Spectacle, the movie, sealed a magical era for Debord. “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, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in ’68, and now it was over. Nothing could sour it. Yet as the dust settled from 1968, 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.


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Two or Three Things He Knows About Paris

Originally published on Verso’s Blog, 11th April 2018

There are few urbanists today who know their city as intimately as Paris’s popular historian, publisher and organic intellectual, Eric Hazan. He’s the only writer I’m aware of whose books have indexes for street names. But Hazan doesn’t just know Paris’s backstreets and inner courtyards: this guy seems to know all the names on doorbells, too. Since The Invention of Paris, he’s been knocking on doors and listening to footsteps, harking paeans to his hometown under fire. Hazan takes leave from one of Balzac’s remarks: “old Paris is disappearing with a frightening rapidity.” Balzac is one of Hazan’s heroes, and like the great nineteenth-century creator, Hazan himself isn’t so much a realist portrayer as an urban visionary, an observer of a Paris to come. He’s not one to go in search of lost time, nor even lost steps. Lost steps? There aren’t any.

Hazan’s pages are full of writers lamenting Paris’s perennial sacking — Balzac, Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Louis Chevalier, Guy Debord. And yet, the septuagenarian Hazan is over his grief for a lost loved one. He embraces a future very different from a once glorious past. He’s spent decades inventing another Paris, a popular one. Hazan’s modern day dandies and flâneurs have darker skins and inhabit a Paris beyond the centre, the other side of the Boulevard Périphérique, Pompidou’s dreaded circular expressway, whose jarring construction Godard had highlighted in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Louis Chevalier had described the litany of urban catastrophes besieging Paris in The Assassination of Paris; Guy Debord’s Panegyric likewise spoke of the city’s ravaging in the “repugnant seventies”; but only Godard, says Hazan in the newly translated A Walk Through Paris, brought home the seriousness of the Périphérique’s threat.

A Walk Through Paris takes us on a stroll from distant south to distant north, from Ivry to Saint-Denis, from one bookstore to another, loosely following Paris’s meridian, its dividing line between east and west. Hazan passes via Luxembourg Gardens and Les Halles, Belleville and Barbès, Montmartre and beyond, perhaps remembering how Jane Jacobs once said there were really only two kinds of people: foot people and car people. Hazan locates himself in the foot-soldiering camp, joining the ranks of his own roster of great walking urbanists — Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Francis Carco, and Debord — for whom Paris was more calling than simply backdrop.

Traversing Paris, Hazan unearths transgressive Paris, most of it long dead and buried. Yet here and there, remnants survive, in the built fabric, in the grubby working class neighbourhoods caught between speculative real estate interests on the one side, and a spectacular (and often tacky) tourist market on the other. Tourists flock to Paris’s lovely museums and historic quartiers, gape at its radiant buildings and monuments; but Paris as a living and breathing organism, Hazan says, lies elsewhere, in the northeastern “red belts” and multicoloured banlieues. Hazan here sees glimmers of renewed urban vitality; this is where a new City of Light will reemerge, if it ever reemerges. Parisian ruling classes have banished so many poorer people from its bourgeois centre that the periphery is now central to the city’s core future.

Hazan’s cityscape is the site of another comédie humaine. First time tragedy, second time farce. The 1850s and 1860s inaugurated an urban practice of divide and rule, of class expulsion through spatial transformation: Haussmannisation. It was a tragic counter-revolution masterminded by Paris’s notorious Prefect, Baron Georges Haussmann, who tore into the medieval city and its old working class neighbourhoods, mobilising public monies to prime the private real estate pump. The sense of loss, the sense of dispossession, was apparent for many poor Parisians back then, and is still felt by their counterparts one hundred and sixty-odd years down the line.

But Hazan’s stomping ground today isn’t only paradigmatic of a once-tragic Haussmannisation; it’s now part of a farcical new global process of divide and rule: let us call it neo-Haussmannisation. Haussmannisation and neo-Haussmannisation share the same lineage. But the primal scene of its progeny needs updating and upgrading. Those grand boulevards still flow with people and traffic, even if the boulevard is now reincarnated in the expressway, and that expressway more often than not is at a standstill, log-jammed every hour. Twenty-first-century grand boulevards flow with energy and finance, with information and communication, and they’re frequently fibre-optic and digitalised, ripping through cyber-space as well as physical space. Neo-Haussmannisation is a global urban strategy that has peripheralised millions of people everywhere. As cities explode into mega-cities, neo-Haussmannisation projects its new urban panorama onto our whole planetary space.

What’s happening in Paris is a microcosm, a cell-form of a broader urban tissue constituted by centres and peripheries threaded together all over the globe. They’re everywhere in opposition to one another, a patchwork quilt of socio-spatial apartheid that goes as much for Paris as for Palestine, for London as for Rio, for Johannesburg as for New York, for Mumbai as for Melbourne. Differences here are differences of degree not substance, not in the essential unity of process, engineered as it is by a global financial ruling class intent on business. The poor Global South exists in northeast Paris, in Queens and in Tower Hamlets; the rich Global North lives high above the streets of Mumbai, flies home in helicopters to Morumbi penthouses in São Paulo.

Fault lines and frontiers between centres and peripheries are no longer some straightforward urban-rural, city-suburb divide, nor even anything Global North versus Global South. Instead, centres and peripheries are immanent within the global accumulation of capital. Capital flows into real estate and land, commodifies space, fracks value from places and location. Its agents and institutions constitute a new aristocratic elite, growing rich from ground rents and interest-bearing capital. Land itself has become a pure financial asset. Profitable locations get pillaged as investment flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Centrality thereby creates its own periphery. Separate universes — centre and periphery — exist side-by-side, everywhere, cordoned off from one other.

A lot of A Walk Through Paris reads like a damning autopsy of the massacre of Paris’s urban tissue: the demolition of old jewel buildings, the unnatural levelling of its topography, faults of alignment, the amputation of acute angles, crappy architecture with little sensitivity to the neighbourhood’s past or people’s real needs. It’s an urbicide engineered by land-grabbing developers and greedy financiers. Hazan also recognises how spatial apartheid is kept in place by an ongoing civil war. Paramilitary policing in Palestine serves as something of a model for policing the Parisian periphery. Jerusalem isn’t any further from Ramallah than Drancy is from Notre-Dame. Paramilitary manoeuvring is different from the classical pages of Clausewitz, where war is staged on an open battlefield. War no longer involves grandiose campaigns by troops but is a micro-everydayness of peacetime occupation, a dogged affair in which the police and the paramilitary play interchangeable, often indiscernible, roles. The terrain of neo-Haussmannist civil war is more claustrophobic and more fluid, more intensive as well as more extensive.

Hazan says Auguste Blanqui, the fascinating conspiratorial figure whom Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire both admired, remains instructive for radical politics. Blanqui knew that urban space isn’t just the theatre of confrontation; it’s also the means and the stake, the battleground of a guerrilla warfare that builds barricades, that occupies buildings and strategic spaces, that deploys “the methodology of moving through walls.” Blanqui’s spirit, like Balzac’s, haunts Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris. He’s a living phantom who darts out on every street corner, alive and apparently well, still the grand master of a pet Hazan concept: insurrection.

Little wonder Hazan’s own publishing house, La fabrique, first made public that most incendiary of insurrectional tracts, The Coming Insurrection. The coming insurrection, Hazan thinks, won’t erupt in bourgeois Paris. André Breton had uttered as much in Nadja, seeing office workers clear out of work near rue Lafayette, alienated and atomised. “I unconsciously watched their faces, their clothes, their way of walking,” Breton wrote. “No, it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution.” It’s the new “dangerous classes” who’ll create the Revolution, who’ll create a popular urbanism, swarming the centres they surround; and maybe, just maybe, one day they might reclaim that centre. Hazan doesn’t speak of any “right to the city” as his organising banner. His model as well as his mad love is the “June Days” of 1848, more so than the 1871 Commune.

The Commune, Hazan says, started off as a patriotic upsurge, a gesture of national pride, before it became a revolutionary social movement. The June Days of 1848, on the other hand, were an insurrection of the sans-culottes from the very beginning, one that can still set the terms in our day. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, the conservative voice of order, marvelled at those June Days in his Recollections (staple reading for Guy Debord): “the greatest and strangest insurrection that had ever taken place in our history.” Hazan cites Tocqueville almost describing Occupy, circa 2011: “the greatest because insurgents were fighting without a battle cry, leaders, or flag, and yet they showed wonderful powers of coordination.”

The June Days were a revolt initiated by an anonymous rank-and-file, by a nobody urban proletariat, ordinary men and women “who gave events their colour and explain in part why they’re now forgotten.” 1848 is the most important insurrection in working class history, says Hazan, because it marked the severing of an implicit pact, the end of an illusion: that the people and the bourgeoisie, hand-in-hand, were going to finish what they’d started in 1789.

Today, we’ve seen another illusion put to an end: that a paternal capitalism will give ordinary people a break, that a bourgeoisie and working class might establish a just social contract together. All bets are now summarily off. What we’ve seen instead is the end of an epoch of expectations: expectations of steady work, with decent pay, with benefits, with security and pensions; the whole bit. These days, there can be no expectations in life, except those you create yourself, invent yourself, including the insurrection — an insurrection in which economic self-empowerment would need to encounter political collective empowerment; the favelas as well as financial districts, banlieues as well as bidonvilles, the malls as well as Main streets will all now need occupying.

At that point, the barricades wouldn’t so much go up in the city; more that the barricades separating centres from peripheries would be torn down, removed from within the tissue of neo-Haussmannite urban space. Barricades can no longer simply be manned to defend inwardly. They’ll need to be flexible and portable — and outward looking. They’ll need to move between nodes, disrupt and block, foster new life within. And they’ll need to be mobilised to tear down barriers that keep people apart, that trap people in, that peripheralise. The latter sort of barricades are walls of fear that need smashing down like a veritable storming of the Bastille, so that new spaces of encounter can be formed — new agoras for assemblies of the people.

The greatest poet of Haussmannisation, Charles Baudelaire, might also be the greatest bard of neo-Haussmannisation. Baudelaire witnessed Haussmann annihilate whole neighbourhoods that had lived and evolved, tightly knitted, for centuries. The grand boulevards prized open the whole city to its inhabitants, creating a modern form of urban publicity — Baudelaire’s great muse. In one of his Paris Spleen poems, “The Eyes of the Poor,” Baudelaire shows what this new kind of extrovert urbanisation could do to private bodies in the public realm. Two young lovers sit near the window of a dazzling new café, lining one of Haussmann’s newly minted boulevards. They dreamily look at each other. They’re inside, sharing one another’s company, admiring one another, yet through the window they’re able to survey the gaiety and bustle outside, on the street.

Before long, a ragged homeless family passes by. Enamoured by the café’s opulence, they stop. They peer in. A child presses his nose against the gleaming windowpane, admiring the décor and people inside. “How beautiful it is!” Baudelaire has the rag-picking family cry out. “How beautiful it is!” But they know it’s not for them, not their world. Their fascination is admiring, not hostile. The male lover is touched by “the family of eyes” outside. He feels a strange kinship with them, despite the social distance. But his lover is unmoved. She wants the patron to shoo them away, to move them on, someplace else, anywhere out of sight. “These people with their great saucer eyes,” Baudelaire has her shriek, “they’re unbearable.” Just then the two lovers love each other a little less.

In Haussmann’s urban reality, private joys sprang from open public spaces. You could be private in the crowd, alone yet amid people, inside on the outside, outside on the inside. There were walls and there was transparency, there was social closure and physical openness. Baudelaire’s “Eyes of the Poor” evoked the paradox of this thoroughly modern form of capitalist urbanisation. Poor people could at last see what rich people were up to. Yet Baron Haussmann’s spadework pales compared with the creative destruction wrought by global neo-Haussmannisation, which has uprooted and displaced millions and millions of Baudelairean ragpickers.

Now, this “family of eyes” is global. Those “great saucer eyes” are somehow all-seeing, and, with the internet and WikiLeaks, sometimes all-knowing. People can glimpse the global elite along this information boulevard as never before, glimpse them through the windowpanes of hyper-modern global-urban life. Can a global family of eyes encounter itself as a polyglot international, as an emerging citizenry that might one day repossess what has been dispossessed? Those big saucer eyes now look on with indignation as well as awe. Now, there’s not so much a world to win as a whole world to occupy, a whole world that’s really people’s extended backyard.

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Double Indemnity Urbanism


This past July, I participated in the Ecocity Summit at Melbourne’s South Wharf Convention Centre, a jamboree gathering of global ecologists and environmentalists, greens and smart technologists, politicians and NGOs all battling the impact of climate change on cities. Plenty of gloom was voiced. Yet it wasn’t total doom: some delegates even pointed to glimmers of hope, reasons to be cheerful, part one, not least because, in 2017, global greenhouse gas emissions seem to have stopped rising. They’ve leveled off, and maybe, just maybe, there are hints that they’re dipping.

So announced the Summit’s principal speaker, climate change activist and Nobel Peace Laureate, Al Gore. Before a huge crowd, the former US Vice-President dished the dirt about those inconvenient truths, conveying the depressing bad news—unprecedented droughts and wild fires, deforestation and downpours, hurricanes and tsunamis that threaten the very extinction of our species. Not good. One of Gore’s most unsettling images was footage from a helicopter ride he took over Greenland, watching in real time its glaciers literally crumble into the sea.

Al was slick and engaging, surprisingly self-deprecating. ‘You can imagine how I feel’, he lamented, half-jokingly, having a climate change denier in the Oval Office. No names mentioned. Last Spring, Gore said he marched on the White House in a massive Peoples’ Climate Day demo, arm in arm with his daughter, never believing he’d ever see that day!

The impact of sea level rises for cities, with their flimsily built houses and precariously positioned dwellers, is nigh catastrophic. They’re tottering on the edge of oblivion. Nine thousand cities loom within 100km of the ocean; cities with an elevation of less than one meter above sea level will go under if they’re not protected; by century’s end, average sea levels are set to rise by one meter and even a centimeter rise puts one million people at risk. Yet just as cities are threatened, they threaten; they’re part of the climate problem: cities collectively produce 70% of planetary greenhouse gas emissions. They squander resources, suck up water, burn up the ozone, and pollute their denizens. And it could get worse: an International Energy Agency report (2016) warns that business-as-usual practices in cities might spell 50% emission hikes by 2050 (see Barnett and DeWitt 2017).

Still, as ever in urban life dialectical twists abound, ushering in maybe rosier news. For cities are launching their own fight back campaign against climate change, a C40 alliance—a global network of 91 cities, representing around 650 million citizens, committed to delivering on the Paris Agreement. They’re taking the lead even as certain national governments balk. Thus, when Donald Trump refused to pledge the $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, suggesting ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’, Pittsburgh’s Mayor, William Peduto, told his President otherwise.

In a New York Times Op-Ed (co-written with Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Chair of the C40 Alliance), Mayor Peduto reminded Trump how the once smokestack Pittsburgh is now a ‘trailblazer in environmental innovation’, from wind turbines lighting up its bridges, investment in smart infrastructure, bike sharing programs and new mass transit, to a renewable energy industry that employs 13 000 people (Hidalgo and Peduto 2017). The city’s Phipps Conservatory is widely recognised as one of the world’s greenest buildings, generating its own energy and reusing all water. By 2035, Pittsburgh aims to be 100% renewable-energy-powered. Pittsburgh pledges, along with 250 other US cities, that ‘WE’RE STILL IN!’—‘and we will achieve and exceed America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement’, vows Peduto.


One source of optimism for Al Gore is how the price of renewable energies continues to plummet, making sustainability’s uptake economically viable for businesses. Little wonder the Summit was full of techie-types eagerly nodding in approval, peddling their wares, hustling to make smart money out of dirty capitalism. Hence the glitzy (and large) BMW and Mitsubishi cars stationed proudly at the Summit’s concourse. Not a bookstand in sight. Doubtless these vehicles are less environmentally hazardous; but it’s a perverse value system on show, one that endorses—rather than condemns— commercial consumption and the conspicuous adoration of gadget commodities. It reminded me of something pioneering political-ecologist, André Gorz, wondered in the 1970s: Is this ‘Their Ecology or Ours?’ (Gorz 1974).[1]

Men in suits handed out business cards and glossy leaflets; important local politicians and civil society bigwigs waxed seductively; and the well-rehearsed PowerPoint gabbing and canned TEDx-like performance made everything feel very corporate, very expert. More skeptical minds might wonder whether climate change concerns now help expand capitalism rather than shrink it. For all its moral virtues, Gore’s environmentalism rests solidly on its market laurels.

Repeatedly, we heard from local boosterists how Melbourne yet again, for the sixth-year in a row, reigns as the world’s ‘most livable city’. During one afternoon stroll along South Wharf’s riverside promenade, amid thousands of smiling tourists, toasted by glorious winter sunshine, I wasn’t going to disagree. Although earlier in the year I remember reading the roster of the world’s least affordable cities, compiled principally on the basis of housing costs. Topping the bill as our most unaffordable city is Hong Kong; Australia’s very own Sydney is hot on its heels, in second place. Third is London, a city that priced me out long ago. San Francisco runs fourth; and the fair city of Melbourne, closely behind, in fifth.

Oz has two of the least affordable cities on earth, both eminently livable, each preeminently unaffordable. Thus the low-tech question I wanted to pose: Most livable for whom? What does livability mean in the context of sustainability? How resilient can a city be when access is denied to all but its wealthiest people? Not so long ago, citizens of Sydney grumbled that their city is getting just too expensive; Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, had these words of anti-sympathy: ‘Get Out!’ (Koziol 2017). Joyce said he’s fed up with people griping on about the unaffordability of Sydney and Melbourne. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. (I had heard this refrain a while back, voiced by ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, that great patron of public health and environmental concerns.)

The crucial issue here is, shouldn’t sustainability be an inclusive rather than exclusive experience? Oughtn’t resilient societies foster diversity and offer people choice as well as security? People who work in Melbourne and Sydney, and who contribute to the city’s economic prosperity, should be able to afford to live there. It’s a no-brainer, a glaring mismatch between pay and housing, leaving ordinary folk stuck between the rock and the hard place, trapped within a landscape of mean employers and greedy realtors. London is a testing ground of how not to do it. Like other dynamic big cities, it seems more successful at reducing carbon emissions than preventing billionaire investors speculating on its real estate. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan leads the way in ‘smart travel’ and congestion charge zoning, reducing carbon emissions by 16% over past years; yet he’s less courageous at ensuring hedge-funders and big multinationals pay their fair share of corporation tax. Climate action plans get imaginatively formulated as politicians lack the guts to confront the private sector, flinching at the affordable housing question. (The Grenfell Tower tragedy reaffirms the unsustainability of a society dictated by deregulated markets.)

Maybe the most jarring contradiction between cities and climate change is how a private sector renewable energy industry booms at the same time as urban public budgets downsize, undergo austerity purges almost everywhere, brutal scale-backs and sell-offs of vital social infrastructure. The trajectory of most Australian cities ‘can be explained largely by the relentless weakening of public institutions’, urbanist Brendan Gleeson (2017, p 171) explains, ‘under the aegis of a prolonged and seemingly intractable neoliberal dispensation’; ‘much of the work of urban and metropolitan crafting’, Gleeson continues, ‘is now undertaken by private consultancies without recourse to publicly articulated and consistently adjudicated standards’.

This year is a fascinating one for staging an Ecocity Summit because it is the Golden Jubilee of Henri Lefebvre’s The Right to the City, the French philosopher’s inaugural ‘cry and demand’ for a more participatory and democratic urban life (Lefebvre 1996). Penned in 1967, Lefebvre’s provocative text commemorated the centenary of Marx’s Capital; and, as Lefebvre envisioned it, this right was an expression of people shaping their own destinies in cities—the new factory of modern class struggle. Participation dramatises urban life, Lefebvre said, animates a potentially active citizenship. Its presence brings cities to life; its absence usually denotes a city’s death, that something essential is missing.

Lefebvre was a man of the margins, of the periphery, and his right to the city is an ideal conceived from the periphery. It aims to empower outsiders to get inside. Sometimes, even, to get inside themselves. The right to the city might seem a fuzzy sort of human right. But actually it is very concrete. It means the right to live out the city as one’s own, to be happy there; the right to affordable housing, a decent school for the kids, accessible services, reliable public transport; the right to have your urban horizon as wide or as narrow as you want; to feel some sense of shared purpose, that you’re not alienated from the city’s affairs. The city is a great public work of art, Lefebvre said, an œuvre, a use-value for its citizens—not an imposition on them, not a profitable product up for tender, an exchange-value.

Lefebvre never imagined urbanisation everywhere, that bricks and mortar, freeways and highways would cover the entire globe. He never imagined the green world turning grey. Rather, as his celebration of Marx’s Capital implies, he warned of the closing of the circle of a particular form of post-war capitalism, one that defines itself less through a model of industrial or agricultural production and more and more through an actual production of space. This system creates planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, as evermore frackable spatial units.

Cities don’t so much spread by their own volition as become vortexes for sucking in everything the planet offers: its capital and power, its culture and people, its wealth and dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because it expels people, secretes what Lefebvre calls a ‘residue’. This expulsion process makes urban space expand, lets it push itself out, has it further entangle rural space, and disentangle rural life.

Lefebvre says every big system leaves something that escapes it. Every whole leaves a remainder. It’s an idea most forcefully articulated in Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre’s dense takedown of traditional philosophy, published two years before The Right to the City.[2] In Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre says global capitalism will always tend to exhibit leakiness, have internal contradictions that both structure and de-structure it. Totalisation can never be total; it will always secrete and expel a ‘residue’. There’ll always be people who don’t fit into any whole, who don’t want to fit in, who aren’t allowed to fit in.

Residues are workers without regularity, without salaries and security, without benefits and pensions. They’re workers without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander, victims of war and economic collapse, of environmental devastation, of drought and deforestation, of wild fires and wild regimes. They’re displacees, too, people forced off the land, thrown out of housing. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. Residues aren’t merely the city’s secretion: they’re now the very substance of the city itself.

Lefebvre says the political ante here is to formulate a ‘revolutionary conception of citizenship’. Indeed, he said this is really what he meant by ‘the right to the city’ all along (Lefebvre 1989; 2014). And such is the working hypothesis he’s bequeathed us fifty-years down the line, left us to figure out practically. The right to the city is about residues reclaiming (or claiming for the first time) their rights to a collective urban life, to an urban society they’re actively making yet are hitherto disenfranchised from.

During my Melbourne sojourn, I was fortunate enough to catch a stunning exhibition called ‘EXIT’, in its final few days at the city’s Ian Potter Museum of Art. Sponsored by Paris’s Fondation Cartier, EXIT was the brainchild of Paul Virilio, an urbanist clearly marked by Lefebvre’s pioneering work on space and everyday life. A life-size Virilio greets you upon entering, a three and a half minute wonder video of the philosopher heading towards the camera (and towards the onlooker), marching along the Atlantic sea front at La Rochelle, in West France, where the emeritus professor Virilio now lives. Filmed in 2008, Virilio announces ‘the latest news’: that year, 35 million people were displaced because of natural disasters and human conflicts.

‘The twenty-first century will be the century of great migration’, Virilio says. Over the next fifty-years, a billion people will be displaced as a result of climatic catastrophe, war and economic breakdown, displaced from work, from their homes, from their homeland—in a never-ending procession of human movement. What we’re about to witness is an EXIT of an unprecedented magnitude. ‘What’s left of our terre natale?’ Virilio enquires, of our native land? Ancient society inscribed itself in a territory, connected itself to a territory, to a terre natale. Now, there’s a crisis of ‘localisation’, Virilio says, an immense and epochal-making disruption; everything is adrift.

‘All this calls into question what?’ muses Virilio, in a brilliant prose poem on the move:

‘Sedentariness? The city? The fact of being here and not elsewhere? The fact of being settled, in a region, in a nation? Immigrants are merely the forerunners of the great traceability to come. Identity means you’re connected to a place; traceability means you go with the flow, you go on a never-ending journey. Today, the sedentary person is at home everywhere, thanks to telecommunications, to interactivity; the nomad is at home nowhere, except in the transit camps. Here and there. So the question is how will we cope with this perpetual motion, with the perpetual movement of history in motion? Not anymore the history of great invasions, or what we call conflict-based displacements, but the history of climate change, where the weather matters more than geography, as if météo-politique were about to submerge géo-politique. It’s almost as if the sky and the clouds, and the pollution of them, were making their entry into history. Not the history of the seasons, of summer, autumn, winter and spring, but of population flows, of zones now uninhabitable for reasons that aren’t just to do with desertification, but with disappearance, with the submersion of land. This is the future.’

When you enter the main EXIT installation—‘a visual representation of the world’s population in motion’—everything goes dark. You sit on the floor; before you, in a large semi-circle, a great big globe moves, planet earth revolving and orbiting in bright fluorescent colour. It shifts back and forth; you’re immersed within it; we hear its whooshing motion, listen to liquid gurgling, to its sea levels rising; red and green pixels map out the inexorable flow of refugees and displacees, a graphic global torrent wherein we can read the figures and tot up the numbers: between January 2000 and April 2015, 1 186 280 653 people have been disrupted because of drought; 745 277 081 by storms; 27 586 735 by earthquakes. ‘Natural’ disasters displace on average 26 million people per year—one person every second. Between January 2006 and December 2014, 124 million people were displaced because of inundations; numbers here are significantly higher in the Global South than in the Global North. Countries most affected by global warming are of course those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the next half-century, a Tsunami of a billion displaced souls will form a vast human tidal wave, searching for a homeland, for a city, for a roof over their heads; a massive exodus of uprooted residues that will disrupt the geopolitics of nation-states and cities, a colossal flow that can’t be dammed, that will need to be absorbed somewhere, somehow. No international law can protect these deportees. Many will end up in internment camps, confined on the edge of some big city, out on the global banlieue, where they’ll await reintegration or further expulsion. A lot will never leave. People are on the move, yet national frontiers close down; walls go up.

EXIT was the development and update of a project Virilio had conceived a decade ago, ‘Terre Natale: Stop Eject,’ realised in collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon. Luckily, the Ian Potter Museum had this exhibition’s handsome catalogue, a large-formatted brick of a book, full of Depardon’s evocative, globetrotting images, many in colour; it seems he’s gone to the four-corner’s of the world, scouring our lonely planet for disappearing cultures and ecologically brutalised landscapes (Depardon and Virilio 2008). Depardon is fascinated by indigenous cultures and languages threatened with extinction, with peoples living on the margins of globalisation, like Brazil’s Northeastern Yanomanis. His photos are supplemented by insightful essays by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and anthropologists Marc Auger and Michel Agier, as well as a wonderful dialectical dialogue between the photographer and Virilio.

Virilio, a Parisian, doesn’t much like traveling; Depardon, of peasant stock, whose parents hardly ever left their village, journeys everywhere. Their exposition is a confrontation between the countryside and the city, between the rooted and the uprooted, between the poetics of attachment and detachment. But there’s a new twist to this opposition, Virilio says, because it ‘not only calls into question the countryside and rural roots, but urban roots as well’. ‘There’s no rural exile anymore’; and ‘we’re seeing the end of the city, and therefore of urban exile’ (Depardon and Virilio 2008, p 12). We’re heading towards ‘THE BEYOND.CITY’. Virilio says, ‘the city we don’t know, not a city of belonging—of center and periphery—but a city of movement’.[3] Here, there’s precisely a lack of any here—or, as Virilio puts it, ‘ailleurs commence ici’: ELSEWHERE STARTS HERE. Meanwhile, migratory movement involves a constant ‘stopping and ejecting’. You stop and you eject the cassette. ‘We’ve gone from the place of election—the city, the place where we elect to live—to a place of ejection. Stop eject means “Get Out of Here!”’ (Depardon and Virilio 2008, p 13).

Virilio, like Lefebvre, wonders what remains here of fraternity and solidarity? What might a new revolutionary conception of citizenship actually resemble? A citizenship that lies inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation. Struggled for, not rubber-stamped. A citizenship without a flag, without a country, without borders. An urban citizenship. One strand of this, a sort of indemnity insurance that future-proofs our endangered ecology, is a new hospitality for cities, a right to the city that leaps across the nationalist divide, that sneaks inside it, under its reactionary radar. Within this right, ‘cities of refuge’ might be created: the right to the city would be the right to an urban immunity, to an urban asylum for the rootless and landless, an unconditional citizenship attached to a city. This urban re-enfranchisement would go beyond an ecology conceived only by mayors and political honchos, and would draw its energy from below, safeguarding the downtrodden and disaffected, offering sanctuary for every residual, for every stranger and settler amongst us.

In an odd way, this ideal is more real than we might think. A number of US cities, for instance— Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Providence—all recently pledged not to cooperate with Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Across the United States, ‘sanctuary cities’ are gearing up to oppose federal government and its immigration agents. At the prodding of immigrant rights and other citizens’ groups, urban bastions have reaffirmed their intention to defy the Trump administration. At the risk of losing millions of dollars in federal support, they’ve pledged to act as bulwarks against mass deportation. These cities have as yet no power to bestow ‘official’ rights to people, but they have the power to resist. Set against a crisis of national political legitimation, the spectre of urban solidarity looms.

But this is only one part of the necessary contract. Another aspect of ecological sustainability is a new right of the city, a new status for the city itself, thereby releasing what I want to call double indemnity urbanism: a right to and of the city.[4] The C40 alliance lets us glimpse the promise of this second prong, demonstrating how cities can be more progressive than nation-states. Some US cities have initiated minimum wage ordinances, instigated paid sick days, drafted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights—only to have their conservative states block this legislation. Michigan cities proposed a bill to restrict plastic bags, cups and packaging in restaurants and fast food outlets, non-biodegradable sources of pollution. However, Michigan’s Restaurant Association, after aggressive and successful lobbying, prevented its chain restaurants and retailers from having to comply. Meantime, Texas’s big cities proposed a ban on fracking; until the state, responding to a gas and oil lobby, capitulated, again banning the ban. Rancorous stand-offs between state and city, between national government and municipalities now punctuate the US’s political landscape. ‘We’re the United States of America’, conservative state representatives remind people (see Badger 2017), implying that it isn’t the ‘United Cities of America’.

Even so, the concept of ‘united cities’ is a thrilling one, an urban alliance that stretches across the globe, something more radical than a C40 network, bestowing greater democratic and ecological powers on cities, powers to act and self-govern, to do so alongside other cities. That said, it’s difficult to reimagine cities with more jurisdictional powers, with new empowering rights, if they’re not inclusive, if their resources aren’t accessible to everyone, if all but the privileged are kept out—like in ‘compact city’ ideals, which create zones of clean exclusivity, ripe for techno-fixes and monopoly exploitation, ripe for topping the liveability indexes. ‘There should be less cheerleading all around’, say Barnett and DeWitt (2017) in a recent ‘Conversation’ polemic. ‘City mayors need to lobby their state and federal counterparts to ensure coordinated actions at all levels’, the duo add. ‘And citizens must throw out mayors—not to mention regional and national leaders—who don’t accept the urgency of climate mitigation.’ Hear, hear!

Cities expand everywhere; urbanisation continues apace; people increasingly lead urban lives; urban boundaries become more porous and intermingled, more hybrid and messy. Yet nation-states try to dam the flow, disentangle and deny diversity, erect barriers—barriers, that is, for people, because political leaders happily cheer on capital circulating without apparent limit or hindrance. A new progressive status for cities has to be something else, has to manage and administer differently. The mosaic and mentality need rebooting. This new status would involve both a shrinking and enlargement of the scale of governance, below the nation-state yet wider than city government. It would mean a regional scale of metropolitan control, a ‘city-state’ configuration, like in Ancient Greece, where there were no nation-states as such; identity took on an urban characterisation, got defined by which city you belonged to; and belonging was always portable and transferable. This new city-state would be mobilised in such a way that its reactionary hinterlands were neutralised, incorporated within the city-state’s domain; a form of progressive gerrymandering you might wonder? Yes. God knows, it’s about time political redistricting promoted the common good rather than have it plundered.

The great twentieth-century urban historian, Louis Mumford, long ago gave us a startlingly suggestive expression of what this city-state might look like, and how it might function (Mumford 1961, pp 563-567). There’s no longer a metropolitan region dominated by a single centre, Mumford says, with its continuously sprawling structure. What we have now would be a regional framework ‘capable of embracing cities of many sizes, including the metropolitan centre’; an ‘open-ended network’, Mumford (1961 p 565) says, comparable to ‘an electric power grid’. ‘Each unit of the system has a certain degree of self-sufficiency and self-direction… But by being linked together, the power stations form a whole system whose parts, though relatively independent, can upon demand work as a whole, and make good what is lacking in any particular area.’ The old function of the urban centre, as a walled container, would now open out, be exercised through the functional grid, a framework Mumford intriguingly calls ‘the invisible city’. (Mumford 1961, pp 563-67).

The ‘visible city’ is something like our old configuration, which would nominally still exist, where forms and functions are more concrete, more apparent, a city of face-to-face encounters and meetings, of place-specific everyday life, with particularly defined neighbourhoods. But the invisible city, as a parallel universe, would flow through the visible city. It has more abstract relations, Mumford says, that operate through a process of ‘etherialisation’. ‘Gone is primitive local monopoly through isolation; gone is the metropolitan monopoly through seizure and exploitation. The ideal mission of the city is to further this process of cultural circulation and diffusion; and this would restore to many now subordinate urban centres a variety of activities that were once drained away for the exclusive benefit of the great city’ (Mumford 1961, p 564). Now, says Mumford, a ‘new urban constellation’ prevails, which today we might see as a resilient and sustainable urban form, ‘capable of preserving the advantage of smaller units, yet enjoying the scope of large-scale metropolitan organisation’. Importantly, its mutual intercourse would base itself on cooperation, ‘passing through geographic obstacles and national barriers as readily as X-rays pass through solid objects’. Over time, this system ‘could embrace the whole planet’.

The technological prowess to realise all this is here today, already within our grasp; I’d seen it at the Ecocity Summit. But it lurks in its bourgeois clothing. If only we could shrug this off, break free, ditch the suits and ties and business cards, if only we could find the political will to liberate ourselves. Business, media and technology has undergone extraordinary innovation and experimentation over recent decades, making it a super-dynamic sector of our lives. Yet somehow politics has stagnated; our political institutions haven’t changed for centuries. (British Parliament still has its politicians sit on the same medieval benches Guy Fawkes tried to blow up!) In politics, there’s been no reimagining, no experimentation, no innovation. Perhaps this is intentionally so, done for solid reasons of preservation, of defending vested interests. If voting really changed anything they’d abolish it anyway. What changes there have been always seem to move in a retrogressive direction, are done to prop up the status quo rather than overturn it. Our political institutions have imbricated themselves, implicated themselves, plonked themselves down on us at an evermore rigid national scale. This has to change, has to be challenged, fought and struggled to be changed. We need to buy into another politics with another policy, a double insurance package, a right to and of the city: here and there. This is the future. It is no longer elsewhere.



[1] This also reminds me of something Jane Jacobs said a while back, that there are two kinds of people: foot people and car people. I see myself firmly in the former camp. ‘Experts’, Jacobs (2016, p 277) said, ‘do not respect what foot people know and value’.

[2] An English translation of Métaphilosophie (1965) has since appeared; see Lefebvre (2016).

[3] The English catalogue uses the term ‘ultracity’. But this loses the implied effect of Virilio’s original French, which is ‘l’OUTRE.VILLE’—the BEYOND.CITY (see Virilio and Depardon 2009, pp 63-64; the use of upper case is Virilio’s own). We’re surely not too far removed from Lefebvre’s idea of ‘la planétarisation de l’urbain’—the planetari- sation of the urban, which seems more accurate than ‘planetary urbanisation’. Virilio and Lefebvre both concur that the city isn’t what it used to be, that, in our age of climate catastrophe, a new conceptualisation is required, the city beyond the city, the city that internalises the globe—for better and for worse.

[4] Double indemnity insurance is life assurance that makes a double payment to the beneficiary upon accidental death. As I use it here, I’m hoping this might be a policy that has a similarly dual aspect—pays out twice—yet actually avoids accidental death, or even premeditated death, urbicide, the premeditated death of a city. Double indemnity insurance policies usually cover people working in ‘dangerous industries’; engaging in progressive urban politics seems to me an equally risky business these days.



Badger E 2017, ‘Blue Cities Want to Make Their Own Rules. Red States Won’t Let Them’, The New York Times, 6 July ( own-rules-red-states-wont-let-them.html, accessed 5 September 2017)

Barrett B and DeWitt A 2017, ‘This is Why We Cannot Rely on Cities Alone to Tackle Climate Change’, The Conversation, 3 September ( on-cities-alone-to-tackle-climate-change-82375, accessed 5 September 2017)

Depardon R and Virilio P 2008, Native Land: Stop Eject (Fondation Cartier: Paris)

Depardon R and Virilio P 2009, Terre Natale (Actes Sud: Arles)

Gleeson B 2017, ‘The Metropolitan Condition’ in Hamnett S and Freestone R (eds) Planning Metropolitan Australia (Routledge: Abingdon)

Gorz A 1974, ‘Leur écologie et la nôtre’, Le sauvage, avril, pp 10-12 (available online at: https://, accessed 5 September 2017)

Hidalgo A and Peduto W 2017, ‘The Mayors of Pittsburgh and Paris: We have Our Own Climate Deal’, The New York Times 7 June ( pittsburgh-and-paris-we-have-our-own-climate-deal.html, accessed 5 September 2017)

Jacobs J 2016, Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House: New York)

Koziol M 2017, ‘Can’t Afford to Buy a Home? Get Out of Sydney and Melbourne, says Barnaby Joyce’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January ( political-news/cant-afford-to-buy-a-home-get-out-of-sydney-and-melbourne-says-barnaby-joyce- 20170124-gty35n.html, accessed 5 September 2017)

Lefebvre H 1989, ‘Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire’, Le monde diplomatique, mai, pp 17-19

Lefebvre H 1996, ‘The Right to the City’ in Lebas E and Kofman E (eds), Lefebvre—Writing on Cities (Blackwell: Oxford)

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Mumford L 1961, The City in History (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.: New York)

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Debord and Marquez at Fifty

Just as mainstream politics plumbs the depths, this year’s Golden Jubilee of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude helps radical politics soar. With spellbinding brilliance both books continue to fascinate and grip readers. Each transforms the world we thought we knew upside down as well as inside out; and each, in turn, puts that world back together again, right side up.

Few think of Debord, the prophet of spectacular capitalism, as a magical realist, just as fewer still would see Garcia Marquez, the prophet of magical realism, as a theorist of the spectacle. Yet it’s possible to conceive both men in this guise and posit their respective masterpieces as works of art that push reality beyond realism. Right-wing politicians and tabloid media do this all the time nowadays; maybe it’s time the Left carries out its own pushing beyond realism, makes its own make-believe real.

The Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude open up different doors of perception, so maybe it’s no coincidence that they should appear the same year Jimi Hendrix wondered “Are You Experienced?” and The Doors bawled “we want the world and we want it now!”; when the psychedelic “Summer of Love” raved and the Pentagon levitated in a giant carnival protesting the Vietnam War.

In a way, each is a darkly pessimistic text that pinpoints the shortcomings of the 1960s generation as much as embodies its utopian desires; and here, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Marquez’s hero, a sixties-style anarchist, an altermondialiste avant la lettre, sets the brooding tone: organizing thirty-two uprisings in the name of a radical liberal cause, he lost every one of them.

On the other hand, with almost-supernatural lucidity, The Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude transmit a strange optimism, a backdoor sense of hope, and offer another take on what our lives might be. Each book shows us how reality can be represented differently, how more acute and astute forms of subjectivity can create a more advanced sense of realism and a different type of objectivity.

Legend has it that Garcia Marquez was driving to Acapulco for a family vacation when his Latin American Don Quixote came to him in a flash. Turning his car around, he returned to Mexico City, and for the next eighteen months tapped away on his Olivetti electric typewriter a story that had been in his head for eighteen years. “All I wanted to do,” he said, “was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesized the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.”

On sale fifty years ago this month, in Buenos Aires, a few weeks before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, One Hundred Years of Solitude opened with Marquez’s re-imagined childhood memory: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

But the bizarre saga of the Buendias in the town of Macondo, hacked out of the middle of damp Colombian jungle, not far from a barnacle-encrusted Spanish galleon, takes on a reality way beyond a quaint family romance. It’s a paradise found and lost, a saga of a magnificent and miserable humanity, a mad dream of damaged characters whose only goal in life is to live out a wonderful human adventure. Marquez said that the Caribbean world of magic and drama, mythological societies and fabulous plants, pre-Colombian cults and slavery, crumbling colonial empires, provided a taste for fantasy, an oral memory conveyed through the loosely grounded realism of his grandmother and grandfather.

An adolescent penchant for bad Latin American poetry and Marxist texts lent secretly to him by a history teacher, and then a revelatory reading of A Thousand and One Nights and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, convinced young Gabriel he wanted to be a writer. “In A Thousand and One Nights I read there was a guy who opened up a bottle and out flew a genie in a puff of smoke, and I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ It was more fascinating than anything else that had happened in my life up to that point.”

All that, too, convinced Marquez that writing should be a poetic transformation of reality. The source of creation is always reality, always embedded in reality, yet a reality in which imagination is an instrument in its production and re-creation. The discovery was “like tearing off a chastity belt,” he said; “you can throw away the fig leaf of rationalism,” provided “you don’t then descend into total chaos and irrationality.”

“Things have a life of their own,” Melquiades, the gypsy magician reminded José Arcadio Buendia. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” José Arcadio hardly needs reminding: Macondo’s patriarch’s “unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic.” He taught his two wayward sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano, the wild man who’d eventually run off with the gypsies, and the withdrawn child who’d become one of the nation’s most fabled radicals, to read and write; “and he spoke to them about the magical wonders of the world, not only where his learning had extended, but forcing the limits of his imagination to extremes.”

Pushing things to extremes was Guy Debord’s forte. And reality was never forced to such limits as in his The Society of the Spectacle. With its 221 short, intriguing theses, aphoristic in style and peppered with irony, The Society of the Spectacle remains our greatest political prose poem, quirkily Marxian, uniting a left-wing Hegel with a materialist Feuerbach, a bellicose Machiavelli with a utopian Karl Korsch, a military Clausewitz with a romantic Georg Lukács. Hitting Parisian bookstores in November 1967, the book would get daubed on walls across France six months later: “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY.”

The Society of the Spectacle gives us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of a world in which unity spells division and truth falsity. It’s a topsy-turvy world that sounds a lot like our own. Everything and everybody partakes in a perverse paradox. “Every notion,” Debord says, “has no other basis than its passage into the opposite.” “Within a world really on its head,” he says, “THE TRUE IS A MOMENT OF THE FALSE.”

Debord uses time-served Marxist tools to describe and analyze a new phase of capitalist reality, one that seems to have decoupled itself from its material thing-base, and rematerialized as an image, as a spectacle. Debord’s book is experimental, is itself a piece of détournement, of hijacking and rerouting; so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that in mobilizing Marx Debord should at the same time détourn Marx. He’s adamant that the spectacle lies “at the heart of the unrealism of real society.”

This is a difficult concept for Marxists to get their heads’ around. For what it suggests is that the separation between appearance and essence (Marx’s trusty definition of science) has, like a piece of elastic, been stretched to such a degree that these two opposing ends of reality have snapped and reformed as one. An epistemological duality has recoiled into an ontological unity: essence really is appearance, and appearance an essence. Society’s image of itself is its real reality; society’s form is society’s content, its content is its form.

Debord’s insights in The Society of the Spectacle are wide-awake documentation, brutally realistic descriptions and inversions of what is and projections of what might be. Sometimes he conjures up the realm of dream, releasing unconscious yearnings, sublimating deep political desires. At times, the tone reincarnates his poet hero Compte de Lautréamont, whose Maldoror and Poesies expressed similar incandescent chants and opaque similes. Elsewhere, Debord scripts Greek tragic drama, the “epic poem” of the spectacle, “which cannot be concluded by the fall of any Troy.” The spectacle “doesn’t sing the praises of men and their weapons, but of commodities and their passions”; and “every commodity, pursuing its passion, unconsciously realizes something higher: the becoming-world of the commodity, which is also the becoming-commodity of the world.”

One of the bizarrest of all bizarre episodes that cram One Hundred Years of Solitude is Macondo’s insomnia plague. At first, no one was concerned about not sleeping because in Macondo there was always so much work to do and so little time to do it. But after a while a fearsome illness took hold; a sick person was in a permanent state of vigil. Soon “the recollection of their childhood began to be erased from their memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of their own being, until the person sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” The expert insomniac eventually forgets about dreams, and about dreaming. And even though nobody sleeps a minute, the following day people feel so rested that they forget about the bad night they’d had.

What’s fascinating about Marquez’s notion of the insomnia plague is how it captures an equally bizarre reality we ourselves are living out, a reality Debord labeled “the society of the spectacle,” where “the sun never sets on the Empire of modern passivity.” Debord says the society of the spectacle is founded on “the production of isolation,” a condition that reinforces the idea of a “lonely crowd,” of people bound by a common economic and political system yet forged together in a “unity of separation.” The spectacle is the “nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.” But it can’t sleep, because of the insomnia plague, because the spectacle “is the guardian of sleep.”

Marquez’s portrayal of the insomnia plague pinpoints how the reality of real truth and the reality of illusion are one and the same. There’s no real way to tell either apart. We never know whether life is a dream or a figment of people’s febrile imagination, the reality of an insomniac turned amnesiac. Fact and fiction mutually conspire, negate each other; the lived becomes a representation, a representation the lived. The blurring of one with the other, the authentic with the inauthentic, fact with fiction, the real with the meditated image, also speaks bundles about Debord’s society of the spectacle, about how it possesses us body and mind, and how it now begets a different political agenda.

Marx wanted to expose bourgeois sleights of hand and reveal for people the hidden world of capitalist alienation. He wanted to demonstrate the “root” cause of their subjugation and domination. But now there seems nothing to unmask. What we have instead are the shenanigans of a ruling class that wallows in the fabrication of its own truth, its own lies. The alienation experienced across the globe is rarely based on ignorance. It’s usually founded on hopelessness and disempowerment, on our insomnia plague, which condemns people to live much the same way residents of Macondo were condemned to live: in an eternal present, forgetful of the historical past, no longer dreaming of any discernible future. And in this forgetfulness, reality slips away, leaving people vulnerable to anyone who promises to read the cards, who popularises mystification.

But not everyone is smitten. Throughout our spectacular age we’ve always had people hell bent on staving off the insomnia plague. We’ve had our own Colonel Aureliano Buendias inspired by strange gypsies who’ve tried to uphold the power of dreams, dreams of a future, of Macondos arising out of wild swampland. In this sense, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the introverted soul spurred into militant direct action, might be something of a twenty-first-century radical role model, inspiring us to fight against our slipping away of reality.

The Colonel creates another reality out of his own subversive will. He doesn’t reveal or discover anything through theory: he creates, pioneers a new trail for a reinvigorated, less defensive kind of political practice. Even as the insomnia plague raged, young Aureliano conceived a formula to resist, to help protect against memory loss. He invented a system of marking things with their respective names, using little pieces of paper pasted on every object. In adolescence, Aureliano was bookishly smart and often withdrawn, absorbing himself in his workshop, making little gold fishes, losing himself in poetry. But his humanitarian feelings always had him sympathize with the left-leaning Liberal Party.

Later, when he sees his conservative father-in-law doctor the ballot boxes after the town’s election, the grown up Aureliano knew then he’d witnessed first-hand the sham of party political democracy. One Sunday morning, drinking his habitual mug of black coffee, just as the Liberal opposition to Conservative rule was escalating, and just as Macondo was steadily becoming a Tory garrison town, Aureliano tells his friend Gerineldo Marquez in a voice the latter had never heard before, “Get the boys ready. We’re going to war.” “With what weapons?” Gerineldo wonders. “With theirs,” Aureliano rejoins.

From that moment on, dressed in black high boots with spurs, an ordinary denim uniform without insignia, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces, the anarchist warrior and man most feared by the government, is born. He’d reinvented his own radical self through engaging with the world, doing the right thing—even when losing. “On his waist he wore a holster with the flap open and his hand, which was always on the butt of the pistol, revealed the same watchful and resolute tension as his look.” When Ursula, Aureliano’s mother, Macondo’s great matriarch, sees him then, she says: “Good Lord, now he looks like a man capable of anything.”

One is struck by the strange affinity between Colonel Aureliano and the Situationist Guy Debord, the thirty-six-year-old author of The Society of the Spectacle. After all, both have a penchant for militant action and muckraking; are elusive and charismatic presences; have melancholic dispositions, demonstrating occasional ruthlessness toward friend and foe alike; and both fervently believe that politics is another form of war, an art-form of resistance, a game of strategy, of attack and defense that should be studied as well as practiced. The Colonel fought with the Duke of Marlborough, the early eighteenth-century English General, in his pocket; Debord, like Lenin and Mao, looked to the German tactician of war, Carl von Clausewitz.

Debord and the Colonel carry the homeopathic pill of subversion in their pockets. Their penchant for battle arises out of a marked distrust of professional career politicians. “We’re wasting time,” the Colonel says, “while the bastards in the party are begging for seats in congress.” The Colonel hates those soft politicians and lawyers leaving the presidential office each morning, taking refuge in their dreary cafés to speculate over what the president meant when he said yes, or what he meant when he said no. Debord similarly believes that active engagement is the only viable alternative to representative democracy, to the alienation of the spectator.

Both men affirm practico-sensual activity, a radicalism much more extra-political, much more intensely militant and transformative within everyday life. Their resistance is non-negotiable, moodily romantic and innately poetic. Perhaps the line in One Hundred Years of Solitude that so magnificently captures the spirit of each man’s radicalism is when Marquez describes the Colonel as “sneaking about through narrow trails of permanent subversion.” It’s a memorable phrase we should now chalk up on a wall somewhere.

Indeed, we’ve little choice today, if we want to stay radical, but to sneak about through narrow trails of permanent subversion. “Sneaking about” implies going about one’s politics furtively, clandestinely, in a manner that’s passionately discreet, mindful of traps, of the innumerable ways current society can catch us out, can ambush us, seduce us, buy us off. Above all, one must permanently sneak about, in private and public, if one is to remain faithful to oneself, if one is to pursue, without cease, with other true selves, some kind of secret war of position.

And those trails staked out, those passageways through which one constructs one’s radical life-project—they’ll always likely be narrow, tiny fissures, slim cracks in the fragile tissuing of the spectacle, entry points, brief moments of chance, of possibility, fleeting opportunities for collective action.

Debord says that contesting a false reality lived as true life requires converting negative practice into an affirmative living ideal. It means, maybe more than anything else, opposing “spectacular time” with “lived time.” The former is spatial, flat and empty; the latter, historical, deep and rich. Lived time invents a renewed sensual connection to oneself and to the world, a vital link to an unmediated life-form, one that remembers, one where the self is no longer “besieged by the presence-absence of the world.”

If the spectacle is both real and fake one must create out of a practical force another sort of real life, a fantasy life in which one is true to oneself in a world of true others. The old Catalan bookseller near the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude is instructive here because his customary good cheer was sustained, Marquez says, by “his marvelous sense of unreality.” Yet once this wise old man started to get too serious, too analytical and nostalgic for a paradise lost, his marvelous state began to crumble, began to turn cynical and bitter, poisoning his joy of life.

Remedios the Beauty, Macondo’s most dazzlingly attractive creature, arguably embodies the qualities of what this marvelous society might entail, a culture stripped of repressive conventions and morals, liberated from mediating images and banalities, directly accessing the real. Marquez says that Remedios the Beauty “symbolizes subversion,” that her startling “simplifying instinct” frustrates authority. She wanders about the Buendia’s house stark naked, in total liberty, and with her exceptional purity was able “to see the reality of things beyond any formalism.”

Even the Colonel “kept on believing and repeating that Remedios the Beauty was in reality the most lucid being that he had ever known.” She exists in a world of simple unmediated realities and was immune from the insomnia plague when it struck. Therein, perhaps, at its most primal level, resides the real solution for reclaiming the lived from the represented: the simplifying instinct, the revival of rich human feelings that have been sacrificed to sustain the spectacular illusion of living in comfort, of living affluently.

This is also what Macondo’s two last remaining Buendias—Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano, the Colonel’s great-grandson—created in the stunningly moving finale of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Don’t let it get away,” they’re reminded. “Life is shorter than you think.” They don’t let it slip away. A hurricane sweeps through them, and, as a couple, they discover the sensuality of Being, and the power of the right to love. Amaranta Ursula and Aureliano “remained floating in an empty universe,” Marquez says, “where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.” Love is the only “dominant obsession,” Marquez says, “that prevails against death.” It’s a primal force that isn’t an accessory to political life but something central to the very meaning of politics itself. (Even an aged Guy Debord, who spoke “as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion,” endorsed the power of love. “My method is very simple,” he reminds us. “I will tell what I have loved; and, in this light, everything else will become evident.” In his “pleasing and impressive solitude,” he says, as death encroached, “to tell the truth, I was not alone: I was with Alice.”)

Maybe in the dust and rubble of our crisis-ridden culture, the 50th anniversary of Debord and Marquez’s masterworks isn’t so much a wake-up call to get “real” as a invitation to dream big, to open our canvas out onto an epic, romantic stage, to fight for the right to love, for another summer of love. For what we have here are two tragic yet instructive love stories. Both books ask us to imagine how love can negate the politics of hate, how beautiful human intimacy might be the antidote to spectacular detachment as well as the nemesis of ugly global power. If nothing else, both books force us now to rethink what realism really means.

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Watching the Detectives

There’s awe-inspiring immensity down there. I’m looking out over Mexico City, from thirty-six floors up in the sky, a recumbent giant right before me, shimmering in glorious February sunshine. It’s a miracle I’m here, shacked up in this lux hotel for a few days. Behind triple-glazed glass, I can’t hear a thing; but what a sight to behold, to conjure with. Down below I can see the great green expanse of Chapultepec, sliced apart by Paseo de la Reforma and criss-crossed by the enormous multi-tiered expressway—Circuito Interior—over in the distance, gridlocked with traffic. It looks like the traffic passes beneath a rollercoaster, even passes into this rollercoaster, looping the loop. The city all around seems only to end at the horizon, at the foothills of faraway mountains beyond; at times Mexico City even seems to stretch beyond that horizon, beyond anything as-yet recognisable, as if it’s already staking out some new planetary urban turf. The view is so gripping I hardly want to abandon my perch. Yet I have to get out, into the sunlight, out from behind my glass insulation, plunge into the frantic beast outside.

Immediately outside the door is actually mellow, the leafy upscale tranquility of Polanco’s quietly busy streets. The air is balmy, life-affirming. I’m wandering passageways named after Ancient philosophers and famous writers; one is called Alejandro Dumas, which leads me into Parque Lincoln, a verdant little oasis with its scrubbed white clock tower, pond and peacocks, an aviary and a statue of Abraham, the park’s namesake icon. I stroll along empty paths, cross over the road. Even the traffic is polite around here. I smell a bookstore somewhere. I think of Walter Benjamin, that intrepid urbanist and bookwormer, and understand what he meant when he was unpacking his library: each book on the shelf, he said, was like a little memento of a time spent wandering the city streets, a tiny brick with which he could reconstruct past urban environments and perhaps even imagine new ones to come. “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

Then I find it. Or it finds me: Cafebreria El Péndulo, a city-wide chain, a bookstore-cum-café, though like so many in Latin American it has an inner atrium of immense beauty and taste. Light floods into it, and the sense of space, of openness and solace, is palpable. Exotic vegetation invades the stacks; or maybe books invade exotic vegetation, leafs become leaves. I’m searching for the book I need. Everywhere titles are delicately encased in cellophane. I’m not sure if I can look in. There’s plenty of people sitting in armchairs, drinking Latte; yet nobody reads a book.

Suddenly, I see one I have to have. I prise open its protection, rip it apart. It’s free now, liberated, readable—some 600 pages. Daubed across its cover in black uppercase is: THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES. I think I’ve found my Mexico City field manual; I think I’ve found the field manual for the rest of my days on earth. I’m lost in Mexico but feel I am on the way to finding myself. I settle back into an armchair at El Péndulo, and before long realise that I’m in a bookstore, and a neighbourhood, where no real poet ever bought books: they stole books from these places, pilfered from them.

Roberto Bolaño, the book’s author, died in 2003 at fifty, taken away by liver disease in Blanes, on Spain’s Costa Brava, a bit north of Barcelona, where he’d lived with wife and two kids during his forties. A Santiago native who grew up in Mexico City, Bolaño studied law but dropped out, yearned to be a writer, a poet, and helped establish a combustible group of wayward poets—the Ultrarealists. In the 1970s, they heckled and hassled and threw ripe tomatoes at literary conventionality, doing so as they lusted for literature in life. The Savage Detectives depicts, with a faint fictional patina, his years of youthful torment and turmoil, of catastrophes past and those you can be sure will come.

For 139 pages I listen to a young punk kid, a seventeen-year-old ado called Juan Garcia Madero telling us in his journal about teenage angst, about scribbling a few good refrains and trying to get laid. Each day he reveals his heart. He writes his Mexican Fleurs du mal, documenting his inauguration into a literary world that smoulders under a volcano. He seems more successful at fucking than writing, and manages to get off with two lonesome barmaids who take a shining to this bright young lad. He’s an orphan lodging with his aunt and uncle yet knows all about verse, about classical meter, about pentapodies and threnodies, about rispetti and strambotti. He hangs out at poetry workshops, getting bored, but afterwards, after hours, his real poetic initiation begins, in the city’s grungy bars and cafés, like the crummy Café Quito along Calle Bucareli—which in real life is the Café La Habana with its little rehabbed tables and retro beige and white chequered tile flooring. It’s here where he joins a group of disaffected poets called the Visceral Realists, and befriends The Savage Detectives’ two principal characters, visceral poets whose verse seems better practiced in life than penned on any page: Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, poor, elusive underground men who we know are later destined to vanish into the Sonora desert.

Lima and Belano aren’t much older than Juan yet are already men of the world haunted by grown-up demons. They talk about Compte de Lautréamont as if he’s still their best pal. They’re on the trail of another phantom, Visceral Realism’s mythical poet Godmother, Cesárea Tinajero, who, back in the 1920s, had herself disappeared into the lost sands of the Sonora. Lima walks everywhere, never takes the bus or Metro, walks towards the unknown. Every book in the world for him is out there waiting to be read. Lima reads in his sleep, even reads in the shower. Belano, meanwhile, carries frayed and folded photocopies of Raymond Queneau’s verse in his back pocket, paper so scrumpled that it looks more like Origami, “a startled paper flower with its petals splayed towards the four points of the compass.” Visceral Realists want to negate all hitherto existing Latin American poetry, clear away what Lautréamont called “the poetic whimpers of the century”; they’re stuck between Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, the rock and the hard place.

Nighttime now. I’ve wended my way back to my aerial den. I’m reading on my bed, propped up by a pillow, staring out the window at the twinkling galaxy of lights, the liquid movement of red and yellow flows, oscillating and interlocking into some still-undiscovered chaotic constellation. I’m looking at Mexico City while reading about Mexico City. I’m here, physically present, in the real Mexico City, in this great seething, sprawling metropolis; yet I’m inside Bolaño’s great seething, sprawling metropolis, too, inside a book where places and words congeal into a singular literary reality: a life in literature becomes a literature of life.

After a while, I start to think about one of the characters in The Savage Detectives who’s about my age, Quim Font, a tormented adult, father of precocious and promiscuous daughters, Maria and Angelica, talented poets, dancers and painters; Maria beds Juan one night at dad’s house, a little fortress property in La Condesa, which turns in on itself with an inner courtyard and two houses. The daughters have their own separate quarters. Quim was once a successful architect but we quickly get wind of his downward drift; his psychological disposition is what we might describe as troubled. He’s moody and melancholic, frequently babbling bizarrely. At the end of the first part of Bolaño’s book, Quim lends Ulises and Arturo his old Impala sports car, so they can make a fast getaway with Juan and Lupe, a young prostitute whose psychotic pimp, Alberto, is threatening to kill. They take leave on New Year’s Eve 1975, with Quim losing his mind as well as his car.

It’s hardly surprising that when we next hear from him, after the narrative of The Savage Detectives splinters into dozens of polyphonic testimonies, a 400-page musing on what actually happened to Ulises and Arturo on the road, circa 1975-1996, Quim is now certified—a resident inmate of El Repose Mental Health Clinic. Yet institutionalisation seems to be doing Quim good. He’s calmed down a lot, although maybe it’s the medication. Anyhow, now he declaims with lucidity about books he’s read over the years, read when bored and when calm, but also when happy and sad, when thirsty for knowledge, even when desperate.

The latter are books that Ulises and Arturo want to write, Quim says. Their big mistake! You can’t live your whole life in desperation, Quim thinks. He’s learned that lesson the hard way, being desperate for so long himself. The passage from adolescence to adulthood is one from desperation to serenity, a regenerative process, he says, learning how to embrace Proust and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. When I hear this I’m not sure whether it’s the grown-up Quim talking or the grown-up Bolaño. Ultimately, Quim—or Bolaño—believes that a literature of desperation is “a literature of resentment,” “full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs”; it “doesn’t pierce the heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does.” Quim warned everybody. He lost his mind doing so, was driven mad. “Seek oneself,” he says, “lose oneself in strange lands. But with a guiding line.”

I’ve got to get a grip on things myself. I need to write this last quotation of Quim’s down somewhere, pin it near my work station. Some days I feel as troubled by the world as Quim, looking over the edge, trying not to fall down. Maturity isn’t about rediscovering lost youth in middle-age; it’s transforming youthful impulses, propelling them into the here and now, using them to help stake out what lies ahead, giving these youthful impulses a richer, more mature meaning. I’m glad I’m a grown-up fifty-something, with a daughter; I wouldn’t want to go back. I want to be a Visceral Realist as well as a Magical Marxist, a radical poet of pandemonium, but who, as Guy Debord once said, “speaks as coolly as possible about things that have aroused so much passion.” I need that guiding line, that invisible thread.

The next morning, bright and early, I head off on foot for Quim’s old neighbourhood, La Condesa, my favourite part of Mexico City, hiking across Chapultepec, past the National Anthropology Museum and the Zoologico, traversing some scary traffic arteries, passing over the Circuito Interior on a rusty footbridge, into the backstreets of hip and arty Condesa, with its pavement cafés and trendy boutiques. Things here are chic but with just enough Bohemian grunge to give the area an edge, to ward off cleansed bourgeoisdom. As ever, there are some stunning bookstores, like the hyper-modern space at Cultural Bella Época, an Art Deco jewel of a building, with a cinema, cultural centre and obligatory ace coffee shop. It’s said to be Latin America’s biggest bookstore, with 35,000 titles, and a 2,000 square-metre glass ceiling that looks as if it’s been transplanted from Amazonia. At ground floor level you can relax on big leather sofas amid the vegetation, and read under a flood of radiant white light.

After an early lunch, taken on a sidewalk terrace at Milo’s Bar & Grill, a stone’s throw from Parque Espana, watching the weekday late-morning world gently go by, listening to a chorus of chirping birds, I go off in search of another bookstore, this time for Anglophones, “Under the Volcano,” a literary haven on Calle Celaya. At first I can’t find it, walk by it. It’s discreet. From the outside it looks like somebody’s house, colonial-style, with striking blue-arched iron-grilling over its windows. You enter through an ornate archway entrance and pass into a darkened, somewhat dingy hall, with exotic looking Gauginesque artwork on the wall. A staircase leads you up to the bookstore itself, really one small room, lined wall-to-ceiling with used books.

The stock is rich and ample, well-organised and up-to-date—good condition American editions. Somebody knows what they’re doing. A young American guy mans the till, standing in for the store’s owner who’s out of town on a trip. Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is third on its bestseller list, behind Nabokov’s Lolita and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, though ahead of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano—eponymous inspiration for the bookstore—and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. “Under the Volcano” professes to be “an embassy for the soul of the English-speaking world—its literature in Mexico…a web-free, Kindle-less island of analog time in a digital sea; a community centre for Commonwealth and American expatriates in the most exciting, vibrant and accessible city on earth.”

I don’t beg to differ. I browse the Bolaño section and tell the young American I’m currently reading The Savage Detectives. He tells me to check out Bolaño’s poetry; Bolaño always saw himself as a poet, a better poet than novelist: his poetry made him blush less, he himself said. The American treasures his bilingual collection of Bolaño’s verse, keeps it at home and wouldn’t put in up for sale any day. Look at The Romantic Dogs, he recommends. “I’m here with the romantic dogs/ and here I’m going to stay.” Bolaño wrote poetry in “the land of idiots,” scribbled outpourings in the “silent wing of the Unknown University.” Accreditation here is a life-journey spent under the stars, not a certificate you gain at graduation.

I remember The Savage Detectives’ epigraph, from Malcolm Lowry: “Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?” “No…” I tell the American that Lowry originally hailed from Liverpool, like me—well, actually he came from New Brighton, across the River Mersey from Liverpool itself, close by, although unlike me Lowry was a rich kid, the son of a wealthy cotton merchant. I used to go to New Brighton for my summer vacation as a kid in the 1960s, take the ferry across the Mersey. Lowry, like Bolaño, like Ulises and Arturo, was searching for something his whole life, glimpsed it, even grasped it, yet was never able to deal with what he’d found. He destroyed himself. He was happier living in his art than living in his life. Like Quim, somewhere en route he lost his guiding line. He stepped over the edge, plunged down the abyss he’d been staring down way too long.

Under the Volcano, published in 1947, takes place in 1938 on the Day of the Dead, in Cuernavaca, a small town south of Mexico City. The book immortalises the hard liquor mezcal, and the trembling hand of the “Consul,” the defrocked English civil servant Geoffrey Fermin, Lowry’s alcoholic alter-ego abandoned by his wife, a man who drank his mezcal down to the worm. He was one of Guy Debord’s literary heroes. “Nothing in the world was more terrible than an empty bottle!” the Consul says. “Unless it was an empty glass.” “How, unless you drink as I do,” he says, “can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?”

The atmosphere of tropical heat and sweaty bodies, of sapping humidity and overhead fans, of colonial castoffs and quirky barflies steers Lowry’s Under the Volcano towards Gabriel García Márquez; yet Lowry’s dramatic tension is more brutal and destructive, more menacing, wrenching him nearer to Faulkner. The volcanoes loom everywhere, and vultures, adding to the sense of impending doom: “The volcanoes seemed terrifying in the wild sunset…and vultures hovered there like burnt papers floating from a fire.” The Consul leans on a bar and stares into “his second glass of the colourless ether-smelling liquid. To drink or not to drink—But without mezcal, he imagined, he had forgotten eternity, forgotten the world’s voyage, that the earth was a ship, lashed by the Horn’s tail, doomed never to make their Valparaiso.”

Bolaño’s cast likewise search for their Valparaiso, for their own eternity, as they down another mezcal—“Los Suicidas,” they ominously call it—toasting the Consul’s memory silently in their dreams. “Christ,” says Fermin, shot at the end of Lowry’s masterpiece, thrown down a ravine with a dead dog, like Kafka’s Joseph K., “this is a dingy way to die.” The spirit of Nietzsche haunts, the Nietzsche of Gay Science, who spoke of “preparatory men,” of people of the future wanting “their own festivals and weekdays, their own periods of mourning” and whose “greatest enjoyment is living dangerously,” sailing into uncharted seas, building a city under Vesuvius, under a volcano.

Ulises and Arturo build their house under a volcano. They, too, go searching for their own weekdays and periods of mourning. They crop up all over the place, all over the world—Barcelona, Kigali, London, Madrid, Managua, Paris, Rome, San Diego, Tel Aviv—going their own separate geographical ways, wandering in the wilderness; yet, somehow, no matter where they go, Bolaño joins them together ontologically. They do every odd job under the sun, from washing dishes to camp site watchmen, having adventures galore, cropping up in Liberian civil wars and Nicaraguan revolutions, seemingly doing it all with no money nor with any fixed abode. We hear nothing about their writings; indeed, they seem to have given up the act of writing altogether. Their poetic blush is now living, alive, inscribed into practical everyday verse, viscerally real. As one testimony put it, theirs is “the riddle of the poet who’s lost and survives.” The truth is “I don’t remember anymore, but don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die.”

Ulises shows up twenty-years later, still apparently youthful but he must be in his forties now, prowling Mexico City’s Parque Hundido, with its floral clock, a shadowy poet fugitive who has an affecting rendezvous, a pure make-believe rendezvous, with old man Octavio Paz, by then a Nobel Laureate. Paz is accompanied by his faithful housekeeper who recounts the secret event. Lima and Paz shake hands, sit down on a park bench. “How long did they talk? Not long. And yet from where I was sitting it was clear that it was a leisurely, calm, polite conversation.” They spoke of Cesárea Tinajero, whom Paz remembers by reputation. A little later we find out what really happened to Tinajero, because The Savage Detectives flips back in time, to New Year’s Day 1976; we’re on the road again, a day on from where we left off, all those pages ago, with Ulises and Arturo and Juan and Lupe blasting along in Quim’s Impala, hurtling through the Sonora desert.

Ulises has learned how to drive like Dean Moriarty and Juan returns as a Sal Paradise narrator. They bivouac in the fictional border town of Santa Teresa—centre of action for Bolaño’s final, incomplete novel, 2666—where they at last encounter Cesárea Tinajero. “She looked like a rock or an elephant,” Juan writes. “Her rear end was enormous and it moved to the rhythm set by her arms, two oak trunks.” She’s lived on her own for years in a modest adobe house in the middle of nowhere, a tragic woman who seems content; she radiates “immense humanity.” She hurls herself at Alberto, helps kill him, though takes a bullet in the chest doing so, losing her own life. They bury her afterwards and discover her valedictory poem, her only written poem. Did she ever need to write another?

Amazingly, it’s just a few rows of lines, lines not words. It’s wordless, made up of straight, wavy and jagged pen movements, zigzags resembling life’s elemental path, verses of ups and downs and powerful feelings. What does the straight line mean, they wonder? The horizon, maybe, calmness, still seas? And the wavy one? Hills on the horizon, movement, change? And the jagged? Shark’s teeth, mountains on the horizon, choppy seas tossed by a gale? The poem says it all. It’s also where The Savage Detectives trails off. We’re none the wiser about what happened to its stars, whether they lived beyond the 1990s? Is it true that poets never die? The closing sequence of Bolaño’s great book lingers, the dénouement to a novel of exquisite artistry that’s finished yet unfinished. We watch the detectives even while we’re kept guessing, even while we never quite know what they were investigating. “What’s the mystery?” somebody asks. “Then the boys looked at me and said: there is no mystery.”

The Savage Detectives filled my head for the remainder of my stay in Mexico City, spent looking at its golden Angel, at the crumbling pyramids near the Plaza de la Constitución, at Diego Rivera’s stunning mural on the stairwell and walls of the National Palace, depicting Mexico’s ancient and modern history. And I wander into more bookstores, dozens of them, along Calle Donceles, chaotic, dusty bookstores that don’t seem to have acquired much new stock since the mid-1970s. I venture further east, to the edge of Mexico City’s historic district, to the traditional market of Merced, a vast roofed labyrinth of narrow alleyways piled high each side with fruit and vegetables; with chillies and chillies and more chillies; with mountains of beans and onions; with garlic and herbs and cheeses; with giant cacti leaves—nopals—whose spines little old women sit around slicing off, skinning them. Then I wander outside, along Anillo de Circunvalación, where there’s a sidewalk bazaar—a super-kinetic tianguis in full motion and commotion, with “unofficial” street hawkers peddling their wares, their jeans and tee-shirts, their mobile phones and candy, their quesadillas and tostadas, poor people selling to poor people. Huddled discreetly in doorways, meanwhile, are scantily-clad young prostitutes, touting business in this renowned “tolerance” zone.

Mexico City literally brims with intense life everywhere; everybody hustles, usually quietly, frequently courageously. Life is a song and dance without much song and dance. I’m sorry I’ve got to leave, sorry I’ve got to put Bolaño down. But I know I’ll come back to him again and again even if I can’t come back to Mexico City again and again. He’ll be my perpetual upper in times of downer. Perhaps it’s just me, but those downers seem more frequent these days. It’s not a great moment for humanist poets, for visceral realists intent on art and literature. Of course, there’s never really ever been a good time for humanist poets; there aren’t too many job openings, never will be. Ulises and Arturo teach us that we should forget about whether there are job openings or not, forget about expectations of “success”—why should a society that rewards liars reward us anyway?—and get on with practicing our art while living our life, creating something that resists by the very nature of its own honest creation. In that sense, it’s true, poets never die, because their spirit will always live on; their art will prevail come what may. Bolaño creates a crazy world of restless romantic dogs, inspiring for younger guys out on the mooch, but likewise inspiring for older guys, too, for people like me, who still want to keep our noses close to the ground, spending our days digging for buried bones.

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Death and Life in Knausgaard

This essay first appeared in Review 31 on 24th January 2017

Storytellers, the late John Berger was wont to say, are ‘Death’s Secretaries’: they borrow their authority from the dead. Death hands storytellers the file, ‘full of sheets of uniformly black paper.’ ‘All the storyteller needs or has,’ Berger reckoned, ‘is the capacity to read what is written in black.’ The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Death’s Secretary after Berger’s own heart. His bestselling, 3,600-page ‘autobiographical’ blockbuster, My Struggle, which has been translated into 22 languages, is an epic story scrawled in black. The sixth and final volume – its thickest at over a thousand pages – is set to appear later in 2017, one of the most eagerly awaited literary events of the year.

Midway through the first book, A Death in the Family, Knausgaard says ‘writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.’ The dark shadow looming large over My Struggle, and over Knausgaard’s life, is the death of Knausgaard’s father – a brooding, unpredictable and menacing alcoholic whose death tore son Karl Ove apart. He hated his father, was terrorised by him, psychologically and emotionally. And yet, when the grownup boy heard of his father’s eventual demise, he cried. Why did he cry? Who was this father? Who was the son? What had the son become now that he, too, was a father – a father writing about his father?

The search for answers became Knausgaard’s quest for self-clarification, his attempt to find wholeness again – or perhaps to find wholeness for the first time. It was a literary quest as much as anything else: how to find the right words to represent a life, prompted by a sudden insight into death. Writing wasn’t and still isn’t cathartic for Knausgaard; he insists on that. It is torture, a twisted medium that buys time, that somehow offsets death. My Struggle became Knausgaard’s personal struggle, his trial, perhaps even The Trial. Only here K. is Knausgaard himself, and The Trial in question is one in which Knausgaard – let’s henceforth call him K. – is both judge and jury. The case that follows is to prove his own innocence – or guilt. In My Struggle, K. accuses himself.

At first, he tried to fictionalise things. But that didn’t work. It only pushed events away from K., made it sound phoney, remote. For years it also prompted writer’s block. K. couldn’t advance with the standard novel in a standard manner, creating characters; he had to go elsewhere. The stakes were higher. K. had to bring things closer, inside himself. It’s not what happens there, he says, not what actions are played out there; it’s the there itself: ‘There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?’ So he starts writing in the first-person, compiling his own diary of a madman, wondering if what he was saying was any good. He kept going, was encouraged to keep going by his editor-friend Geir Gulliksen, despite the latter’s balking at the work-in-progress’s title, Min Kamp, like Mein Kampf.

The constant feeling of humiliation

Before long, K. started to reconstruct himself as he reconstructed past years. In order to move forward he went backward, in search of lost time, buried memory. Proust was the writer who’d made the greatest impression on K.; he’d shown K. so many possibilities. But K. makes it clear that his work doesn’t create beautiful art, like Proust’s, using beautiful words and luscious prose. My Struggle isn’t so much about creating beauty as finding meaning. K.’s words are ordinary and plain, nailed to the page with a fierce, sometimes searing honesty, with graphic intensity. This isn’t writing that grabs you by the collar: it’s literature that singes your backside. Still, we’re not talking about anything realist; K.’s work transgresses realism: it’s that which gives My Struggle its artistry, its Proustian flair.

In a way, Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist and playwright, about whom K. has written admiringly, is a better guide. Handke’s novella A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972) deals with the suicide of Handke’s mother and similarly addresses the problem of representation. Its ‘plot’ is likewise a struggle to express death in language. K. quotes Handke describing his method, which might equally be K.’s method:

‘I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience.’

For all that, My Struggle is K.’s Dream Beyond Sorrows; it’s not a book about despair. K. was glad his father was dead. Yet memory is a weird thing and isn’t ‘a reliable quantity in life … It is for the simple reason that memory doesn’t prioritise truth. It is never the demand for truth that determines whether memory recalls an action accurately or not. It is self-interest which does.’ For K., the sound of the crack of a sledgehammer enters his head, the memory of his ruddy-cheeked father banging away outside their house, pounding rock, breathing heavily. Rural Norway, 1976. An eight-year-old boy runs across the grass because he’d seen death in the sea, on the TV news, bounding over to tell dad. Don’t run across the grass, Dad scowls, sledgehammer in hand. ‘I stared at him. How could he know I had run?’ His back was turned. ‘And shut your gob,’ dad says to son. ‘You look like an idiot.’ ‘You’re a waste of space.’

Another time son returns to find the house ice-cold. ‘Can’t we put on the heating?’ son asks dad. ‘It’s freezing in here.’ ‘Fweezing?’ dad mimics, ‘We’re not putting on any heating, however fweezing it is.’ ‘I couldn’t roll my ‘r’s,’ son says in his text. ‘Never had been able to say “r”, it was one of the traumas of my late childhood. My father used to mimic me, sometimes to make me aware that I couldn’t pronounce it. But I just turned and went back upstairs. I did not want to give him the pleasure of seeing my moist eyes.’ What struck the teenage adolescent was ‘the constant feeling of humiliation.’

‘Nor did he go to any of the innumerable football matches I played in as I was growing up.’ ‘He was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home games.’ On one rare occasion he did come, by default. ‘He drove me to the shale pitch in Kjevik, he was going on to Kristiansand, we had a practice match against some team from upcountry. We sat in the car, as silent as ever . . . Then I had a sudden inspiration and asked him if he wanted to see the match. No, he couldn’t, he had to go on, didn’t he. Well, I hadn’t expected him to say yes, I said.’

But later, ‘when the second half was nearing an end I spotted his car by the sideline, behind the piles of snow. Could vaguely make out his dark figure behind the windscreen.’ With only a few minutes left, son had a chance to score a final goal, receiving a perfectly weighted pass. To his left foot, his wrong foot. It skidded off. He’d fluffed his opportunity. ‘You didn’t put your chance away,’ comments dad later. It was the first thing he said to son. ‘I didn’t think you’d mess that up.’ ‘Oh well, I said. But we won anyway. What was the score? Two-one, I said, glancing at him, because I wanted him to ask who had scored the goals. Which, mercifully, he did. Did you score then? he asked. Yes, I said. Both of them.’

A chill wind

And then in 1998, the 30-year-old son hears dad is finally no more. Dad’s life had imploded; over the years that K. had grown estranged from him, a spiral of decline hit, worse than son ever imagined. Once upon time, dad was an upstanding local schoolteacher, a relatively normal lower-middle-class parent. Mum and dad were together. But their marriage failed. Mum moved to Bergen, son went to school in Kristiansand, lodged a while with grandma, dad’s mother. Dad moved to northern Norway, with a new partner, had a daughter; then they split, partner leaving dad who began drinking heavily. Dad lived alone, drank even more. Then he went to live with grandma, and kept on drinking, drinking with grandma. He had no job. He drank away everything. Bloated, he no longer ate. Then, one day, grandma finds him dead. ‘Dad is dead,’ writes son, with his own italics. ‘A chill wind blew through me.’

Some of K.’s most harrowing writing in My Struggle, the denouement of Book One, describes him and his elder brother, Yngve, sorting out dad’s funeral. They had to go to grandma’s to put dad’s affairs in order, little imagining the nightmare soon to befall them. ‘The smell inside the house was unbearable. . . What is that bloody stretch? . . . I turned and went into the living room.’

‘For as long as I could remember, it had been used on church holidays and special occasions. Now dad’s huge TV was in the middle of the floor and two of the large leather chairs had been dragged in front of it. A little table swimming with bottles, glasses, pouches of tobacco and overflowing ashtrays stood between them. In front of the three-piece suite by the wall lay some articles of clothing. I could see two pairs of trousers and a jacket, some underpants and socks. The smell was awful. There was excrement on the sofa, smeared and in lumps. I bent down over the clothes. They were also covered in excrement. The varnish of the floor had been eaten away, leaving large, irregular stains. By pee? I felt an urge to smash something. Lift the table and sling it at the window. Tear down the shelf. But I felt so weak I could barely walk.’

A week later, at the funeral parlour, K. sees his body.

‘And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the table lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.’

In delving deeper into dad, and deeper into himself, K.’s real struggle unfolds, a struggle that gives body and soul to My Struggle, to books that destroy linear time and conventional narrative flow, that shift between past and present, memory and intuition, observation and conjecture, fact and feeling. A boy-island struggles to become a man, a man in love, a man who dances in the dark, a man who struggles to become a husband who struggles to become a father who struggles to be a writer, a better writer, giving order to his disorder, bringing sunshine to the falling rain. My Struggle becomes a struggle with the inexorable fragility of being wholly human.

Ever so steadily the spectre of death is shrugged off. Death gives back a sense of urgency that we know belongs uniquely to life. If we can read the torrent of K.’s words, get beyond the tedium of some of the detail, we can glimpse a modern-day Bildungsroman, a coming of age portrait of the artist as an ordinary man. He quits school in 1987, goes off to be a supply teacher in a village on a northern island, planning to write his novel in the evenings, saving enough money to travel around Europe as a free spirit. But he’s accepted onto a creative writing course in Bergen, where, despite dreams of an itinerant life, he stays put for nine years, learning his craft, writing music criticism for a student rag, publishing his first novel, Out of This World (1998), which wins the Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He moves to Malmo, to Stockholm, has a kid, eventually marries another woman, has three more kids and ends up in rural Sweden, in a tiny village called Glemmingebro.

A literature of boredom

In K.’s hands, mundane everyday life gets represented as . . . well, mundane everyday life – and somehow it assumes an epic quality, like Brecht’s great play about his great hero Galileo: ‘GALILEO: (washing the upper part of his body, puffing, and good-humoured:) “Put the milk on the table”…’ Oftentimes it’s a literature of boredom we’re reading, or frustration, the woes of a writer without time to write – though having the time to tell us. K. lets us enter the familiar world, the world we all recognise and live out, and then, without us really seeing how, he wrenches us out of this familiarity, takes us elsewhere. Everyday objects, acts and images – making coffee, smoking a cigarette, staring out of the window, the light, the rain, people’s faces, changing nappies, kids’ parties, walking down the street – all the routine trivia and décor of daily life becomes, for K., an existential quest, a metaphysical drama. Little is portrayed directly as we inhabit it. Instead it becomes a world of shudder and dread, of nothingness and ecstasy:

‘While the muted winter light that had forced its way through the clouds seemed to draw all the colours and flat surfaces towards one another and minimise the differences between them with its greyness and fragility, this clear, direct sunlight emphasised them. Around me the town exploded with colour. Not the warm biological colours of the summer but the mineral colours of winter, cold and synthetic. Red brick, yellow brick, dark green bonnets, blue signs, an orange jacket, a purple scarf, grey-black tarmac, verdigris metal and shiny chrome. Sparkling windows, glowing walls and glinting gutters on one side of the building; black windows, dark walls, toned down almost invisible gutters on the other.’

At times when we hear K.’s internal monologue – some of his most compelling writing – we’re reminded of Sartre’s anti-hero Roquentin and the nausea he feels touching door knobs, glimpsing gnarled tree roots; the shock of recognition, the spinning of the head, when he, a fully conscious human being, encounters the inanimate coldness of things. K. feels this Sartrean nausea, as nothingness needing to be filled, as isolation and dislocation screaming out for meaning. K. gives our world meaning by writing about it, by having to write about it, by filling the void with words, making it whole, somehow intelligible and above all communicable. That’s why we read him; that’s why we find his books strangely hard to put down.

K. admitted recently that for a long time he’d thought literature lay elsewhere, in the centre not in the periphery, not in Norway, in Bergen, or rural Sweden. He said this in 2016, in his tender foreword to the 100th-anniversary edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the periphery, K. once believed, little happened; there, things were without significance, unworthy of being written about, inconsequential. ‘History belonged to others, literature belonged to others, truth belonged to others.’ But after reading Joyce, K. recognised ‘the true essence of literature is that the conquest of what belongs to the individual alone, what is special and characteristic, and to Joyce’s mind unique, is also what belongs, and is unique, to us. Literature is never the preserve of others, and it knows no centre – which is to say that its centre is any place at which it exists.’ Great literature can happen anywhere, anyplace we find ourselves, anyplace the human spirit is touched, anyplace authentic experience is expressed, shared.

A way through chaos and confusion

This expression can even be voiced from the tiny Swedish village K. now calls home; literature doesn’t have to play away from home. It’s a message conveyed in K.’s latest work in English, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game (2016), at first blush a book about football, about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a series of letters K. exchanged with his Swedish writer-friend Fredrik Ekelund. Ekelund went to Brazil and sends K. tales of matches and soccer heroes, sunshine and beaches, primary colours and caipirinhas, crazy parties and bustling cafés, exuberant people and exotic outdoor life; Fredrik’s world is hot and high-spirited, extrovert. K.’s, meanwhile, is family-oriented, introvert: he falls asleep watching games on TV.

Yet Home and Away is much more than about footfall: it’s full of nuggets on life and death, on culture and class, on the task of the writer and the location of literature. In one letter (12 June 2014), K. explains to Fredrik his need for stability, for structure and repeatable patterns: ‘routines have been a way through the chaos and confusion, and this has worked well, we are fine, all of us.’ In another (25 June 2014), he tells his friend how he had to crash, exhausted, before France versus Ecuador was over.

‘Woken at half past six by Anne [his youngest] making disgruntled noises. I fed her, put her on the changing table and placed a mountain of clean clothes in the cupboards, emptied and filled the washing machine, changed the bedding and tidied the rooms…then I made lunch for the girls—fried fillet of chicken, pepper and a wok sauce with noodles, and then fruit, slices of bread, water, pear juice, yogurt and pancakes…and at half past nine I drove the girls to the theatre, stopped at the local shop and bought our lunch, then sat and worked on an essay for two hours, one page. . . Such is life here. Nothing spectacular, nothing memorable, a life filled with children, cooking, driving, football on TV and sleepy evenings, all set in countryside full to bursting with gentle beauty.’

When it comes to the crunch, K. writes (4 July 2014), ‘being a writer is about only one thing: sitting down behind a desk and looking at an empty page and knowing it has to be filled with something, from nothing. That is where the excitement is, the pleasure, but also the doubt, the uncertainty, the fear of failure. If you don’t want that, if you have had your fill and are better off without it, you are no longer a writer. Success has nothing to do with this.’

Fredrik, we hear, roots for Brazil, with their poetic ball-play. K.’s team is Argentina; Brazil isn’t for him. Argentina never does anything beautiful for the sake of beauty, he says; they’re always well-organised defensively and sometimes even a bit cynical, drawing on an opponent’s weaknesses rather than their own strengths. The first World Cup K. remembers was in Argentina – 1978, as a nine-year-old. ‘I was spellbound,’ he says. ‘Argentina, both the country and the team, represented an adventure for me. . . There’s a lot of romanticism in this, but it is a different kind from the romanticism I see in your letters. For you Brazil is lived, it is alive. Argentina for me? I have never been there, it is no more than a dream, a fantasy, anchored nowhere else but in the books I have read.’ You know, he tells Fredrik, he’d originally wanted My Struggle to be called Argentina. Not a treatise on megalomaniacal world-historical domination, conquering everything and everybody, but a stoic, unheroic struggle for self-knowledge, for inner meaning, for finding life in non-life, for unearthing a yes from a no, an Argentina from a Brazil.

This is perhaps one reason why, over the past year, during 12 months that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump, terrorist explosions and trucks ploughing into innocent people, I’ve found a strange pleasure and peace reading Knausgaard, absorbing his struggle into my own little struggle, reading him when I could barely face reading anything else, least of all a newspaper. His words leapfrog across national boundaries, transcend specific times and spaces and enter into you directly, almost by osmosis, as authentic human experience, above and beyond politics. Where Knausgaard begins his great masterpiece is what he leaves us with at the end of it all: a beating heart. Sooner or later it will stop; he knows it, we all know it. But in the meantime, its pounding action belongs to a precious life-form in which we are constantly surrounded by phenomena from the realm of death. Knausgaard brings death back to life. His is a literature not of release or avoidance but relief: a hushed Nordic scream that struggles to help us struggle on.

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