Location: Carnaby Street, London
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Soho has lost a lot of its neon fantasy lately - but some lives on in spectacular form. I started off thinking: I’m sure I’m meant to criticise this. But after some reflection: nah. I’ve got time for it, weaponised Instagram-bait as it is. Here’s why.
Amazon is hollowing out our high streets and replacing human-facing shop jobs with warehouse drudgery that leaves workers mere servants to a machine. It is hollowing out our material culture into price-arbitraged Alibaba drop-shipped disposable trash. And the media that might object to this turns instead to affiliate links and “service journalism” to stay afloat. An entire section of New York magazine is just an Amazon catalogue now. High street shops shutter and people stay away and the decline accelerates.
Meanwhile, Tinder and Deliveroo and Netflix (and high alcohol taxation and stagnating incomes and NIMBY-ist anti-nightlife zoning) mean our generation have… turned inwards. Culture shifts from the public to the domestic and digital, & away from the press of bodies in a crowded room to the tap of thumbs on a Twitch stream. This is bad for love, joy, solidarity and resistance. Bodily presence and shared experience are irreplaceable. People do better participating in the world. Hikikomori aren’t #goals.
This Christmas Visa did a full on feels-ad with local shopkeepers singing “All I want for Christmas is you.” And this neon spectacular is the same: it’s another big 'Fuck you Amazon', and the fact it’s retailers & a multi-millionaire rock band reminding us of this doesn’t mean they’re wrong. You will not remember the brown cardboard box of your 32nd Prime delivery next year, but you might remember this.
Sure, it’s designed to transmute into a spectacular digital image & circulate accordingly. But note how everyone takes their own photo, whatever the quality of their phone cam, rather than posting professional promo shots. This says: it matters that this was my experience. And in that, a germ of hope.
Work to be done yet on sustainable retail & imagining the city centre beyond consumption & bringing about the end of capitalism, sure. But the city I want looks more like this than it does an Amazon warehouse.
Location: Lobby of the Langham, London
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Placeholder for a desire to think more about hotels.
Perhaps it comes from participating in Precarious Gossips last month at Hotel Zoo, Berlin - or seeing that Helen Hester has been writing about them lately too (on rather more defensible, labour relations grounds). Or perhaps it’s because I’m reading ‘Tender Is The Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a caste defined by the fact they live out of them, anywhere and nowhere.
The department store of the 1880s was instrumental in the production of modern subjectivity: it was “conceived as a technology of self-invention” through consumer choice, says Joanne Finkelstein (2007). Pace Lukacs she notes how “the inner self has been hollowed out and made into a subjectivity that becomes an object - to be groomed and improved.” Felix Guattari writes of the court of Versailles that subjectivity itself is understood to be a commodity. It’s all a performance of sensibility and taste; the flâneuse, rather more than the flâneur, “the real model for the modern consumer subject” – Kevin Hetherington, 2011.
The hotel, though… It seems as though it should be the same sort of space as the department store, a cosmopolitan public - and perhaps its bars and restaurants are, but the hotel really is not. It is something the opposite, a place of escape and avoidance.
But it’s nonetheless also productive of a subjectivity too. So of what sort?
Location: York Minster, northern England
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Over dinner, my uncle asked me how I felt about the future. “Personally optimistic, globally pessimistic,” I replied. Climate change, of course - and more so the political & human horror that will accompany it. If the ice sheets were to melt into the oceans without taking democracy and human rights with them, I might take that deal.
We talked about what it takes to feel invested in the future beyond your lifespan. To my aunt it was inherent, it just made sense. “Children,” said my uncle. He didn’t think he was so invested, if he were honest (we’re all three child-free.) “Money,” I said. Perhaps it’s a luxury to be able to care about the future. Many are one paycheck from disaster and have more pressing concerns.
I talked about how crisis-averting change is possible (ecologically, economically) and impossible (politically, perhaps psychologically). We in the West do not live in a system that can act beyond the financial quarter or the electoral cycle. Time discounting is a cognitive norm.
But, I said. There are also systems that take a longer view. The Native American principle of thinking for seven generations. Japanese thousand-year corporations. And a cathedral a hundred yards away that on just three panels lists its archbishops back to 314.
This deep thread of continuity in place is something close to the heart of my personal sense of Englishness. It’s one of the things that makes Europe (and Japan, and China) different to America.
Continuity does not mean ethno-nationalism, though. Just look at these names. The ruptures within them.
From the Romans Eborius and Paulinus to the Celtic name Chad, to the Angles of the Kingdom of Northumbria: Wilfrid, Egbert, Aethelbert. The capture of York in 867. Wulfstan I, who played off the Vikings vs the Wessex kings. The Danes Oscytel and Oswald. 1066, conquest. 1071, a new Norman dynasty of names: Thomas. Bastard offspring of royalty (Fitzherbert). Kin of kings (Plantagenet). In 1514 the common son of a butcher, Thomas Wolsey.
This list of archbishops ends (for the moment) with John Sentamu, 2005—, who was born in Uganda.
In order to have a future, we need a new conception of time, which has been present all along
Location: Luzia, a bar in Kreuzberg, Berlin
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Reading Hemingway negroni in hand is absolutely undoubtedly definitively a pretentious thing to do - but there are also passages in here that make your head spin and blood rush, and if you can heighten that then so much the better.
Five pages on the matador Maera, “so brave that he shamed the stylists that were not,” and his last year in the ring, knowing he was dying of consumption, when he fought bulls as though, “I thought that year he hoped for death in the ring but he would not cheat by looking for it.” My god.
So yes, I really liked ‘Death in the Afternoon’ (1932), an account of why bullfighting is art (and why writing is a lot like bullfighting) - even though it’s twice as long as it needs to be, and it’s not clear Hemingway’s quite cognisant of the target at which he jousts.
“I was trying to learn to write,” he writes early on, “commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death.” Hemingway is trying to write what’s there and nothing more - and this is hard: “I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing what you really felt rather than what you were supposed to feel and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things which produced the emotion you experienced.”
The tragedy of this book lies, perhaps, in the way he misses.
Or so argued Max Eastman in his review in the New Republic, ‘Bull In The Afternoon’ (1933). “It is not death that Hemingway writes about or travels to see, but killing. …He has got into it an enthusiasm for killing - for courage and dominating and killing. Hemingway cannot feel - he cannot even see - the hero of his ‘tragedy’ staggering towards death in blood loss and bewilderment.” The bull.
Yet ultimately Eastman so deeply and sympathetically eviscerates Hemingway’s book that it becomes something greater than Hemingway perhaps knew, as among, “...those confessions of horror which are the true poetry and the only great poetry of this generation,” who fought and lived through the Great War - “And it does not matter much whether Ernest Hemingway knows this fact or not.”
When they met in 1937, Hemingway punched him.
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Let me tell you how this book found me.
Two copies were posted to me from Finland by somebody I don’t know, on the request of someone else I met only once in New York in March 2014.
A few weeks after that encounter I moved back to London, and you’d think that would’ve been that.
But we didn’t unfollow each other on social media because take just a little care and then that isn’t necessary. And I had gotten to know his friends online and started supporting their radical media project, $10 a month. I still liked his work. 18 months later I found, quite suddenly, the work of my own.
Life went on. A month or two ago, @inhabit.global crossed my Instagram feed. I recognised something there. I DM’d. A reply. A network of other people - complete strangers - mobilised to share resources. To post books internationally. To meet at Defcon for a conversation.
This is possible.
That’s what this lil book is about. “Imagine a life that reaches past your individual borders. You change the way you move through your environment to intentionally come into contact with others. Fleeting encounters become real relationships. You wander through your neighborhood, stopping by friends’ houses on the way to the cafe. You meet up nightly at the park to work out. You walk each other home. You share each others’ cars. You go camping and learn how to start a fire together. You pool money for a collective rainy day. The idea of private property starts to get blurred. You begin to understand yourselves as something more decisive than a group of friends.” Step one.
It’s ‘Instructions for Autonomy’. Up on http://inhabit.global
Book 25 of 2018. Take a look back at Book 21, ‘Now’ by the Invisible Committee, for more notes along related lines.