Notes from Underground Car-parks

Ok, so here’s a version of a paper I presented at the Unfinished Business: Undoing Cultural Studies conf a couple of weeks ago. It’s called “Notes from Underground Car-parks: Critique from the Non-Place”. I’m hoping to rework it, as some of the ideas here are still a little problematic. Ballard meets Dostoevsky on the Loughborough or Heygate Estate possibly.

Elsewhere, my arch-nemesis Professor John Effra has posted responses to the #hackgate palaver and the financialisation of higher education on the University for Strategic Optimism’s pages. I had the real pleasure of responding to Guillaume Collett and Robin Dunford at the Beyond Spinoza series at Goldsmiths – the final one is next Tuesday and musn’t be missed. I’ve tidied the blog up too, and will be posting more material soon – I’m running out of notebooks….

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Above 1. Detail from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”, 1974.
Above 2. Part Two of Harley Cokliss’s ‘Crash!’ film 1971, starring JG Ballard and Gabriella Drake. Skip ahead to 5m 52 sec.

In this paper I want to present a choice: non-place or place? Before I begin proper, I want to outline a few proposals that this paper will present and problematise. Firstly, and developing a theme of this event, I want to dust-off and develop the French anthropologist Marc Auge’s term ‘non-place’, in order to suggest that neoliberal capitalism is predicated on negativity, and that negativity as a philosophical concept is an effective tool for thinking of financial capitalism and a viable opposition. Here we have unfinishing, undoing, unmaking and unfolding – and I want to suggest that this negativity or non-ness here reflects a loss of political control, a denial or disempowerment of communities and individual subjectivities. Non-places and non-people. Further, non-place crudely rendered into Greek is utopia, not-place. Places lacking identity, interaction, based only on private consumption fit into our ideas of utopia and do offer profound psychological rewards of safety, hygiene and control. In the end, I propose a choice for critical theory, either to embrace and make use of a critique from the non-place, or to recognise the personal limits of academic work, academia’s complicity in such negativity, whatever its radical postures. Instead I’m going to suggest a return to a cultural studies of the commons. Either, I hope, will present a great deal of political and critical potential.

To begin then, with the work of British author J.G. Ballard. “Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision, glimpse within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge, unnoticed structures?’

Although Ballard was speaking here in Crash!, a short BBC film by Harvey Cokliss in 1971, these thoughts would inspire and drive his 1974 work Concrete Island, through which I want to introduce my ideas. Surrounded by thick coarse grass and the tall ruins of cars, the decadent ruins of romanticism and the futurists, amidst the broken foundations of a quaint neighbourhood high street, polite Victorian housing, a flea-pit Hollywood cinema, a World War 2 air-raid shelter and the desecrated remains of a graveyard, Ballard’s Concrete Island takes us to the ruins of European liberal modernity. The novel describes what happens when Richard Maitland, a fairly ordinary middle-class advertising executive, crashes his car from one of London’s motorway flyovers and into an overlooked embankment. Surrounded by high-speed roads, he is unable to leave the island, and in his attempts to gain the attention of motorists he sustains horrific injuries. No passing car will ever stop to help us. High rise apartment blocks, motorway flyovers and distant shopping centres dominate the panorama, and the island is populated only by a savage and scarred circus-performer and a overly-sexualised hippie young woman. Ballard’s technique, especially regarding characterisation, is certainly blunt and his style at times resembles pulp fiction, or more appropriately a pulp b-movie, but his use of modernity’s psychological and cultural sub-territories marks his work as significant through his sources, and how he uses them. So what starts as a Robinson Crusoe set in London’s Westway in effect describes the psychic territory of the non-place and the non-person – and the psychological reasons why such a set-up benefits the modern individual. The ‘concrete wilderness’ of the island, its ruined machinery, its borderlands, become physical extensions of Maitland’s anatomy and psyche which he establishes control over and polices with ruthless violence and brutality – a metaphor for what happens when we find ourselves in a space stripped of control or civilisation. Ballard’s novels frequently use distinctly modern non-place settings – be it the motor-car in Crash, a luxury block of flats in High Rise, or an out-of-town anodyne M25 mall in his final Kingdom Come – to situate a strange and disquieting crime or trauma, which is then used to reveal deep-seated and secret desires for violence, cruelty, sex and death beneath bourgeois middle class life.

The value of Ballard’s work is that it does not pose any kind of ‘essentialism’ that might suggest that such brutal landscapes and architectures could be abandoned through collective social change. Unlike the dialectical, redemptive communist universality critical theory moves for, Ballard does not flinch from the open void of the negative, however problematic or occasionally shoddy his position and writing. Instead his task as psychologist is to describe how our ‘modernity’, our sense of the now, emerges out of these architectures. Primarily this is a subterranean, savage, sexualised and unconscious one, ‘swamp-like’ as Benjamin once described Kafka’s work. Alongside Ballard, Kafka is the other seer of this psychological landscape, albeit a blind, lame prophet of its bureaucratic nihilism. A new kind of subjectivity emerges out of the architecture of the underground car-park, the motor-car, the gated community, the airport traveller, or to return to the Kafka analogy, the telephone network of the inaccessible call-centre Castle: a subjectivity that is impulsive, opportunistic, isolated, paranoid, depressed when its desires are unrealised – one fundamentally infantilised. We cannot escape our animalistic desires, and utopian progress beyond these is entirely illusory, so argues Ballard’s world-view, and yet it is a naïve utopian wish to think of ‘transcending’ these either. Instead his works point us to ask how such utopian non-places, however savage they might really be, psychologically work for us. What kinds of sexuality or reactionary, oedipal political desires emerge out of the car-crash, or the out-of-town shopping mall experience? What is the psychological experience of the non-place, of only experiencing time as an endless present?

Above 1. Airport Security offers a convenient image of wider standardisation, of which perhaps the dystopias of the 1970s – The Conversation, THX 1138, Logan’s Run, Westworld give us a sense of.
Above 2. A contemporary mise-en-abyme of immaterial interaction. Besides being a poor-quality image, it cannot capture the immersive experience of internet usage, particularly hand-held. We are in a space between text and image.

The anthropologist Marc Augé described back in 1990 how urban late modernity or ‘supermodernity’ hinged on a loss of ‘place’, a location with which we have an ‘anthropological’ and relational identity. This loss of place slotted very well into anxieties about the communal, experiential loss of ‘place’ against empty space in Henri Lefebvre, and the psychogeographical derives of the Situationists to which Lefebvre’s argument bears an unacknowledged debt to. Loss of place worried other Marxian academics from the 1980s onwards like David Harvey and Paul Virilio, reflected in Mike Davis’s apocalyptic corporatised spaces. We see it also in De Certeau’s defence of tactics and strategies, in Foucault – even in Sloterdijk’s return to the spatial and the atmospheric in the Spheres works. Why did place and its loss cause such anxiety? For Augé, ‘non-places are the real measure of our time’ – areas of the city defined by a lack of human interaction and solitary anonymity: the airport, the motorway, the hotel, the underground car-park, the shopping centre, the vast network of signs that direct, instruct and regulate the flows of these places, as well as communication networks. These interzones designate and dissociate humans into functions of ‘solitary contractuality’, so that points of public interaction, play, rest, are bled away as unnecessary or dangerous. The fear of crime comes to justify full CCTV panopticon surveillance and its concomitant self-surveillance. In the non-places of modernity our proper functions are revealed: to work and to consume, stripped of the burdens of identity. As Augé puts it, the citizen of the non-place ‘becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver…He tastes for a while…the passive joys of identity-loss, and the more active pleasure of role-playing’.

Yet unlike Ballard’s motorways or underground car-parks, the paradigmatic site of exchange of our modernity is no longer ‘present’, unless in a digitised, immaterial sense. Those places which are not-places, and which define the constricted communities and commons of social, political and cultural exchange are now online – the invisible and distant financial exchanges for instance, facilitated by machinic algorithms, derivatives and other electronic financial products. More familiarly, to add to the spectral isolation and violent sexualities of the motor car and the car-park, we might add internet exchanges, and consider in our critique from the non-place how subjectivities and control are shaped in the management of information by a small number of very large international corporations – google, amazon, apple, microsoft, facebook – and the way we consume such information, increasingly in list-format on hand-held devices. Culture, media and information become digitised – processed in hand, and transmitted in a binary code, as the traditional workplace and desk disappear. So too then the hours of work disappear, and workers become like the furrow-browed, physically if not politically defective officials of Kafka’s castle, working day and night on unnecessary bureaucracies, indeed – and this may be familiar to anyone who has worked from home – doing work in bed, late at night or weekends, in our underclothes or undressed altogether.


Above 1. The now-demolished Trinity Square Car-park in Gateshead, 1967-2010.
Above 2. The Loughborough Estate, built early 1970s. The beton brute Modernism on the cheap of British architecture 1960s-70s was tested in the aesthetics of the car-park. Abandoning post-war social contracts in favour of surveillance and consumer compromise, the airport and the multi-story hotel would offer new testing ground from the 1980s onwards.

We can consider the utopia of the multi-story car-park as a dream of technocratic organisation, appearing across America from the late 1940s, making it possible for mass car-ownership, usage and consumption within these organised multi-story sites of privilege. There is something appealing in this homogeneity, as Ballard himself saw. Within an international alphabet of advertisements, a consistent logos of the logo, we find a paradoxical situation where, to quote Augé, even the foreign stranger can ‘feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains. For him, an oil company logo is a reassuring landmark’. But as Richard Sennett found in his 1974 ‘Fall of Public Man’, a sense of the public began to be lost when new architectures became open-plan, both in the open-plan office, and in the new urban spaces like the Brunswick Centre, now a dated Lanzarote-like structure plonked in Holborn. Open-plan made users feel watched, under surveillance, whilst architectures that enabled speed of traffic made citizens feel unable to stop or pause, compelled to carry on moving. We might think of traffic routes today, the disorientating spaces of Cabot Square in Canary Wharf, of the impossibility of walking along the Thames path or to north Greenwich, of standing still inside a tube station, or the circular roads that surround most UK city-centres and make walking impossible. But I want to ask if the disempowerment of place and individuals, of the loss of the public, might satisfy deeply-embedded psychological desires. The psychological pleasures of safety, in exchange for control and independence, speed, in exchange for public spaces, and homogeneity, in exchange for choices and mistakes, define how both material and immaterial places become increasingly managed, and how we come to desire this management. CCTV and armed police on the street satisfy a public fear of crime whilst at the same time exacerbates this fear further. So, in these cases of non-identities and non-places, a basic definition might be offered that capitalism negates the possibility of a public ownership and ‘place’ in new architectures, and replaces this with anxieties of security and safety; and so in the individual, this non-identity becomes the impossibility of privacy or independence. Non-places and non-people becomes a power relation whereby power is taken from the independent will of these groupings. The utopia infantilises, in the sense we no longer have control, and – here we have the ghost of Walter Benjamin in the background here – perhaps in this consumer infantilisation we passively come to desire the loss of such a burden.

Above 1. Laura Oldfield Ford – see her blog for excellent new work, one of London’s most important artists.
Above 2. Security on top of Warmington Tower, overlooking New Cross.

Considering what we’ve learned so far, these non-places are sites that strip us of public or individual power or identity, where we become at best consumers or ‘human capital’, and where the needs of architecture become organised around speeds of movement, both of materials and of information, if we recall Ballard. This leads to a key problem: if architectures are built for the purposes of speed, then the domain of time is compressed and lost, in terms of instantaneous consumption of media, news, products, and also in the impossibility of rest or free time. This leads to what Ivor Southwood calls in his 2011 study of precarity a ‘non-stop inertia’. Southwood’s personal account of precarious labour rides on insecurity, paralysis, depression and restless mobility in the anxiety machines of the contemporary work-place, defined by its temporary and casual nature. We might think of Virno’s concept of ‘virtuosity’, the worker is now a ‘performing artist’, performing in their CVs, job interviews and working lives as positive, dynamic individuals using a language of interactivity, progress, choice and success – like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, racing to the bottom of on-demand obsequious self-debasement, valuing and loving this debasement.

A sped-up, non-stop inertia becomes the existential condition of financial capitalism, an abstracted ontological machine of flows, where the individual worker – now entirely lacking a substance, a ‘dividual’ as Deleuze terms her, becomes a non-place of performance, completing necessary tests, working from home at all hours, re-applying for jobs. Wealth is now considered in terms of money, which itself has become less a relational value and increasingly a commodity form in its own right. I think existential time is a political issue. Alongside a defence of working rights and contractual labour, of the public etc, I want to politicise inertia against the non-place, using an unlikely source, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Last of all, gentlemen: it is best to do nothing! The best thing is conscious inertia! So long live the underground!”

We should consider instead a willed and ‘conscious inertia’, to borrow a phrase from Dostoevsky’s psychological masterpiece, of slowing-down to read, to think, to learn, to eat, to spend time with our friends and loved ones. We might consider wealth as something instead based on how much time we possess, rather than money, a time free of commitments, of work. This is a problematic definition, but a thought that might be interesting to discuss some more later.

Given that we’re undoing, unmaking and unfolding cultural studies, and discussing non-places, non-people and immaterial labour, we should make a comment about negativity and negation. Negativity is one of the most effective ways of thinking how neoliberal capitalism undoes points of resistance, be it in the public, in the independent individual, in the community of workers. We find this reflected too in current critical ideas about capitalism. Ben Jeffery in his forthcoming ‘Anti-Matter’ speaks of a ‘depressive realism’ in our culture reflected in the popular misanthropic novels of Michel Houllebecq. We still keep reading and referring back to Mark Fisher’s haunting Capitalist Realism, which speaks all our concerns about a ‘reflexive impotence’ and a feeling of hopelessness against capitalism, that it’s easier to imagine an apocalypse than a revolution – through our contemporary psychological landscape of control through fear and depression. A media language of austerity, cuts, celebrity breakdowns, ecological meltdowns, sacrifice, fear, precarity and flexibility reflect how the lives of workers become increasingly effectively managed and subordinated by capital, as the work/life balance of disciplinary power is replaced by a sped-up, intensified, work-consume existence of Deleuze’s control society. Sadomasochism becomes the paradigmatic political form of this non-stop inertia and negation of the individual and the community, as we entrepreneurs of our destinies, in our call-centres, our airport service or security jobs, as escorts, cleaners, cab drivers, au pairs, porters or as the guardians of underground car-parks all compete with one another, adopting neoliberalism’s business ontology, and squander our mental resources on squabbles and internal domination strategies, with no clear political desire or real strategy for emancipation or social transformation.

Above 1. New Covenant Church, Camberwell. Countless examples of these around Peckham, Old Kent Rd, Camberwell, Tottenham etc.
Above 2. Siempre Secos FC, Latin American football team from South London. Again slightly reductive and voyeuristic examples taken from what’s online – real interaction and study required here.

But, ironically, perhaps disingenuously, I think we should be suspicious of such negativity. There is a danger in lamenting the decline of the public, or in these diagnoses of the ‘non-place’. These analyses, in denying the ontological reality of these sites of labour, in a sense deny the experiences of workers there. Rather than dismissing the “place-ness” or lack of, we need to ask what makes such places seem inhuman, contractual, stripped of social relations, even ‘soulless’ and ‘depressing’ as they are commonly thought of and referred to in modern parlance. So against the long-running discussion in social geography of space and place, we ask instead what are the cultural and psychological effects of these new places? Furthermore, what are the cultural and psychological effects of people constantly plugged into a network of immaterial labour, socialising and shopping? The political, sexual, economic? We might therefore establish what makes these sites unique in terms of power relations: the necessity of purchasing, or purchasing technology, in order to access them; the prevalence of surveillance, and therefore self-surveillance; increased anxiety, fear, depression, cynicism, debt; and specifically relating to physical non-places like car-parks and malls, the impossibility of being able to rest or sit, as per Sennett’s descriptions of the decline of the public.

We should also reconsider some of Ballard’s earlier non-places, such as the Tenerife holiday apartment block of The Atrocity Exhibition, or the brutalist social housing blocks of the UK, which have since the 1960s enjoyed a re-embrace and perhaps reclamation as “places” of culture. We might consider this in TV comedy like Benidorm, in recent British cinema, such as “Beautiful Thing” (1996); “Fishtank” (2009), “Misfits” (2009-present), or more problematically in District 9, and more recently in Attack the Block, or in the working-class white and black British young voices of grime and garage music, increasingly academically reclaimed under Derrida’s auspicious term ‘hauntology’. In Owen Hatherley’s defence of British socialism in its brutalist social housing blocks like Thamesmead, or in Laura Oldfield Ford (aka Savage Messiah)’s apocalyptic drawings of riots against yuppiedromes and gentrification beginning in abandoned housing estates like the Heygate, a new political potential is found or defended in these earlier derided non-places. Perhaps rather than considering our modernity in terms of an intrinsic negativity or non-ness, we might instead direct research towards sites that continue to act as community places and identify how these succeed, or how these non-places are reappropriated as places. Such a cultural studies might attend to how communities form around amateur sports and football teams, community centres, local pubs and “caffs”, voluntary groups, or religious congregations: places that bring together a wide range of individuals but which also define a specific community, be it for example, based on race, nationality, a common disability, or simply being from the same area. We could look around us – the Old Kent Road nearby offers many examples here – of how surplus spaces are reclaimed by new communities and religious groups. We see this in two kinds of ways: artists take over disused shop spaces often in fairly declining urban high-streets, and reappropriate them into galleries, bookshops, social centres. More substantially, former pawn shops, pubs, community centres and industrial premises are taken on for their cheap rents by Christian and Islamic communities, forming new public and private communities precisely in the dilapidated spaces of the urban non-place. Other phenomena like parkour, graffiti, urban golf, urban farming, although increasingly white middle-class urban outsider pursuits, suggest ways of considering how control of a place is re-established.

The academic popularity of the non-place might reflect the rootlessness of academic and intellectual labour: teachers and students often live and work in towns where they have little personal or social ties; whilst the solitary and immaterial nature of academic work encourages a remote if alienated perspective on communities and events. Furthermore, social networks amongst middle-class professionals tend to be based around work or common interest, so that the interactions of a more widely-dispersed and different set of individuals in community places is missed out. Critical theory – critique – is an intrinsically political enterprise, a fact that those academics calling for a post-hegemonic cultural studies dangerously overlook. The danger of embracing the non-place entirely is that academics end up in awe and, in a sense, being complicit with neoliberal capitalism, masochistically (if unconsciously) willing its destructive powers, as in the Accelerationism of Lyotard, Baudrillard or Nick Land, retreating into theoretical masturbation. Such an argument here is hypothetical and speculative, but hopes to direct further research and debate back towards community interactions, not on the terms of the academy, but on the terms of communities themselves. As well as hopefully generating interesting research, it might also enable academics to formulate a more effective defence of place, the public and the commons based around specific examples. Authors, film-makers and music-producers, alongside the experiences of individuals and communities within contemporary capitalism will become our guides in these new psychic subterranean landscapes of control in this brave new digitised world.

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