Situationism and spectacle in London's East End

A dérive around Limehouse with McKenzie Wark.

Associated with a diverse range of figures including Thomas De Quincy, Walter Benjamin and present day psychogeographers such as Stuart Home, the dérive is a difficult concept to explain concisely. It was popularised by the Situationists who used it as a way of challenging a rampant capitalism they believed to be infringing on every aspect of contemporary life. The group are the subject of new book The Beach Beneath The Street. I recently met its author McKenzie Wark to go on - if that is the right way to put it - a dérive at Limehouse.

On the day, before talking to Wark, I looked over our meeting place at Limehouse train station. Composed partially of old red brown brick and steel girders, it is one of London's oldest having opened in 1840. But it is also essentially modern; the only trains that pass through it are on the relatively new DLR. Limehouse's history is however one of stark contrast.

Once a central hub of London's trade networks during the industrial revolution, Limehouse today is dominated by the buildings of financial corporations that attest to Britain's position as (until recently at least) the financial capital of the world. Swapping the shipyards and cranes for giant glass skyscrapers, it is now a monument to how Britain sought to reinvent and maintain her power after the fall of the Empire in the aftermath of Second World War.

But the transition from industrialism to finance was not smooth and between these two periods there was another Limehouse. It was this Limehouse - a place associated with poverty and crime - that was in its prime when the 4th Conference of the Situationist International (or SI, as it came to be known) met in 1960.

Upon meeting, Wark and I meander through areas of poverty, algae-covered canals and old style tower blocks but soon become lost in the areas of redevelopment that have become commonplace since the 1980s. We discuss many of the topics he touches upon in the book and - given the recent London Riots - the Situtationists' understanding of civil unrest as inextricably linked to the city and wider political economy.

We don't know where we are or where we are going but I think that is the point. As Wark describes in his book, a dérive was seen by the SI's members - comprising individuals such as Asger Jorn, Jaceuline De Jogn, H P Zimmer and, most famously, Guy Debord - as part of a twin project to understand and challenge capitalism's unrestrained growth. It is a wandering "about in the space of the city according to [one's] own sense of time," and finding "other uses for space besides the functional." The time of the dérive, he adds, "is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. Leisure time is often called free time. [I]t is free only in the negative, free from work ... what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive." Debord's Society of the Spectacle, in explaining how the commodity - the fundamental unit of analysis in Marxist theory - had been replaced by the "spectacle", and within it the drive to commodify all forms of human experience, added further theoretical depth to the SI's position.

That the Situationists in 1960 met at a place which was to become a central site of the "spectacle" goes beyond mere serendipity. As they sat debating the Spectacle at the 4th Situationist International, having chosen an area renowned in society for its criminals, it's almost as if they knew what was to come.

After an hour and a half of walking, almost predictably yet unexpectedly, we find ourselves at the centre of towering banks in Canary Wharf. It seems to be a fitting place to end our dérive. Screens of market data on the sides of buildings show the markets are in the middle of another catastrophic day. Nobody seems bothered.

Originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, you can listen to the interview with McKenzie Wark as we embark on our dérive around Limehouse by clicking on the soundcloud player below:

 

 

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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