An ace mall with quite a nice stadium attached

Two reports from the society of the spectacle.

In his new book The Beach Beneath the Street, McKenzie Wark makes a strong case for the "contemporary resonance" of situationism, in particularly the theoretical writings of the Frenchman Guy Debord. In his masterpiece The Society of Spectacle (1967), Debord wrote the following: "The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life."

Two pieces in today's Guardian provide melancholy evidence for the claim that the commodity has indeed achieved "total occupation of social life" in this country.

Exhibit 1: under the headline "Welcome to London 2012. But first take a walk through the shopping centre", Esther Addley reports from Stratford in east London, where work on the Olympic stadium and adjoining mega-mall is going on around the clock:

No matter which sport you are going to see when the third London Olympics begin, a visit to 2012 park will mean one thing - walking though a very large shopping centre first.The high-speed Javelin train from King's Cross - set to deliver 25,000 spectators an hour to Stratford International - exits to a busy row of shops and restaurants, constructed by the Westfield Group. Crowds arriving at Stratford's tube and mainline station can exit either via a concourse leading directly into Westfield's complex or walk across an elegant rusted steel bridge - again built by Westfield, again delivering sports fans into the heart of the retail development.

Years ago there was a now notorious advertising campaign for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in which posters carried the strapline "An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached". You might say that the "Olympic Park" in Stratford is an "ace mall with quite a nice stadium attached".

Exhibit 2: the intellectual historian Stefan Collini unpicks the dismal, economistic logic of the higher education white paper, which encourages the students currently scrambling for university places to "think of themselves as narrowly focused consumers, searching for 'value for money' among different forms of employment-directed training". This government understands very well the logic of Lord Browne's crudely utilitarian, unabashedly economistic review of higher education that was published in the autumn. As Collini puts it:

Whatever view you take of this government's macroeconomic policy, the truth is that the new higher education system will not reduce public expenditure in the short or even the medium term. Indeed, the reason why the white paper now proposes a more centrally controlled system than at present - in terms of determining how many students with particular A-level results universities will be able to take - is because the government has belatedly realised that the new fees will otherwise increase public expenditure in the short term. In fact, the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, which published its analysis of the proposals this week, thinks the government is still underestimating the cost to the public purse of the new system. The measures are clearly being introduced for political reasons, to install the simulacrum of a market and to make universities serve the economy more directly.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear