Orientalism and the East (End): Review of Paul Newland's The Cultural Construction of London's East End
The Cultural Construction of London's East End: Urban Iconography, Modernity and the Spacialisation of Englishness Paul Newland (Rodopi, 2008)
The city as we knew it has disappeared. In its oldest, classical form, the idea of the city was always considered in relation to the question of the citizen: simply put, there was no city without citizens. However, citizenship was a suspect concept, implying a subject which, by entering into a citizenship contract, had suspended its political autonomy in exchange for security from the state. Though the city was an utopian project governed by shared rights under which all citizens were equal, the idea of citizenship required an exclusion of anything that was not desirable to the state, so that non-citizens, who did not enjoy these shared rights, were not even considered human. In less-civilised societies there still remained some room for otherness, a form of toleration, albeit contemptuous; within the city, however, those excluded from citizenship were barred from the very universality of humankind. Citizenship thus involved the construction of the non-citizen, a type of homo sacer, in Roman law a being without rights, whose killing would not be considered murder. Otherness thus stood for a type of action performed by one set of people in relation to another set. Though citizens, as such, may have resigned their power, it was resumed in the otherness of the non-citizens, in their lifestyles that fostered this otherness and the anxieties that it conveyed. What citizens encountered in such otherness was precisely the uncanny reminder of their own disinheritance by the state. Perhaps this is the very definition of racism -the idea that what was taken from us on our entry into the city was left intact in others, that their everyday tendencies are our lost freedoms, that somehow they stole these freedoms from us.
According to Newland, what middle-class citizens of London historically contemplated in their vision of the East End was precisely their own essence, torn away from them, turned foreign and hostile to them. This made for a collective bourgeois world whose reality was precisely the citizen's own dispossession, so that there was no contradiction between the city's struggle for the achievement of its own essence and the critique of the East End, for the notion of the East stood precisely for the "return of the repressed." In London fiction, the East End is a space where autonomous political tendencies, no longer our own, are returned to us as anxieties of potential revolt achievable in various guises: i.e. working-class and minority interests, political and religious extremism, sexual deviancy, etc. The true sense of any city must thus be predicated on such powers of otherness. We must scrutinise how a city handles the question of citizens, as it foregoes universality through its engagement with these antagonisms within itself. The citizen's hostility to the non-citizen traps the citizen in a sort of helpless passivity, attracted by images of the East End, but also frozen by the closeness of its own desires and fears. Thus, while spaces such as the East End had to be held in a type of proximity in order to be approached and understood, a certain distance also had to be achieved. For Newland, this process of creating distance was effected in Pre-Victorian England through a kind of apotheosis of the East End, by raising it to the level of the sacred (in the negative sense embodied by the homo sacer), to the level of fiction. This was done by constituting the citizen's gaze as a way of mediating and, indeed, constructing the East End, a way of understanding its images through their reduction to a representational kind of thought. Films such as Lynch's Elephant Man and the numerous Ripper movies encouraged the public to imagine the darkness that lurked in the streets of the East End. Such fictions held citizens in proximity to the 'real' of their own mortality, while their protection by the law allowed them to entertain ideas of revolt without getting too close. The fictional East End was thus a simulacrum of the real spaces of other, 'barbaric' lands, where one is promised the kind of brutality that only liberty can offer and where at any minute the arguments between tribes can easily turn on and consume the spectator, with the difference that in London a distance was achieved through the division between citizen as spectator and East End as spectacle.
In Newland's analysis, the shift to this new type of city began in London's post-Victorian era. The project of contemporary London is a city without citizens, where the inhabitants actively explore, instead of being imprisoned by images of the other. The modern city has set itself the task of reversing the effect of citizenship on its inhabitants by restoring their self-consciousness and autonomy, as a way of resurrecting the city's true essence, the opposite of what has traditionally been known as city. Today's city reformers, urban designers and 2012 Olympics organisers are aware of the historical tension between the 'evils' of the imagined East End and the virtues of the true city, believing that the attempt to see the true, living essence of the city is at odds with this simulacrum of the East End. The changes that they are making suggest a shift in ontology, where inhabitants can become active legislators of a collective activity, instead of passive spectators, in the process disrupting the very idea of citizenship. The citizen's contemplation of the East End is the contemplation of the suffering provoked by the gaze's division between spectator and spectacle; the new London therefore avoids placing its inhabitants before the East End, proposing rather that they should be surrounded by its otherness, to give them back their collective energies. Cronenberg's Spider shows inhabitants surrounded by the nausea of inter-textual images, energies and bodies, making any notion of a fixed identity and narrative impossible. Here the old construction of distance that stood for the citizen's mastery of the East End is replaced by absorption into the power of otherness itself. The East End is no longer seen to represent someone else's otherness, but is now rather recognised as the otherness that lives at the heart of the inhabitant itself, a recognition which replaces the citizen as rational spectator with a denizen possessed of its true essence, no longer seeking to become more distant but attempting to lose any separation between itself and the East End, to leave the position of the spectator. The contemporary city becomes the only place where inhabitants can directly identify themselves with the collective, a community of self-presence opposed to the distance of representation.
Newland is content to end his study with these two contrasting constructions of East London, but let us boldly make a final conclusion of our own. We are in fact discussing the characteristics of middle-class domination and their allegories of inequality. In fact, it makes no difference how one decides to redefine the position of the citizen in relation to the other, for both positions are in fact the same: namely, that there is always one population that cannot do what the other population does. There is a persistent inequality, an unfixable asymmetry in which one has power and the other is always lacking. In the first construction, citizens are imprisoned by the lure of the frightful other, fictionalising the limit of their own narrative. In the second, it is precisely the new, empowered denizen that seeks to consume the other as their own, 'real' essence, previously hidden by the images of fiction. The first example is a sort of cultural production of the other, the latter a cultural consumption of the other. It is clear, then, that in the face of such inequality, true belonging must start from an opposite position to these two constructs, the position of equality. The key to the problem is in fact the gap between the two categories that Newland describes. This gap is discernable when we understand that both the fiction of the imagined East End, and its breakdown into an apparent 'real' non-fictional essence, are imposed from above as sets of coordinates or sensibilities. The distinction between fiction and reality is set up and distributed as the very domination of the state which subjugates the citizen. Thus what is needed for a politically active subject is a capacity to re-draw the distinction between what is fiction and what is not. Its understanding of its own 'truth' is not found either in the fictionalisation of its desire or in some false, temporal religious experience of self-recognition, a sense of transcending fiction through a mystical feeling of oneness. Rather, the subject's truth is captured in the moment when the real somehow breaks through fiction, when the logic of fiction is disrupted from within by the illogic of the real. This is the true motif of Englishness as political activity, seen not only in great 'realist' writers such as Brontë, Austen and Dickens, but also in romantic poets (Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, etc) and in the work of many contemporary English artists. Though such writers and artists may not intend to express a particular reality, their works capture the highly political intervention of such realities and thereby display their ability to change the relationship between the visible (citizens) and the invisible (the other), leading to a more democratic society. If London is to secure an ethical format for collective sensibilities that accommodate the living attitudes of all its participants, it need look no further for guidance than its own literary and artistic heroes. --Imran Javaid Butt
Review of David Gervais's Literary Englands: Versions of 'Englishness' in Modern Writing
David Gervais (Cambridge University Press, 1993; paperback edition, 2008)
One might think that the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner's curiosity would be particularly piqued by North Yorkshire's pre-industrial architecture, the unique layout of its hill-country villages, or its robust Norman fortifications, but a quick flick through the North Riding volume of Buildings of England indicates that he was interested in more than just the long-established elements of the built environment. Pevsner finds room to comment lengthily on the assimilation of Le Corbusier's modernism in the then-innovative design of Denis Clarke-Hall's post-war High School in Richmond, and even becomes animated about the Surrealist juxtaposition of RAF Fylingdales's anti-flash white, 'golf ball' radomes, and the austere moorland high above the Yorkshire coast. Such open-mindedness and enthusiasm for process over fixity underscores the gloomy fact that today, many contemporary discussions of Englishness have drifted towards a restrictive dogma about the country's cultural identity, one that attempts to ring-fence it against modernity's social and intellectual intrusions. In Literary Englands, David Gervais seeks to account for the difficulty faced by literature --and, by extension, other cultural forms -when it feels obliged to hold the meaning of Englishness up to scrutiny.
The study takes an approximately chronological approach, whilst providing for a degree of historical overlap between its featured authors. Chapter One offers a broad survey of the nineteenth century, a period in which writers were, for the first time, required to portray an England that could no longer be imagined in the reasonably simple terms of pastoral. Gervais's selection of Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, Richard Jefferies, and Thomas Hardy as exemplars of this phenomenon allows for an overview, both of the poetics that were deployed to cope with the trauma of industrialisation and its concomitant population shifts, and of the ways in which some forms of writing looked to assuage the pace of change and thereby retain a resemblance to traditional pastoral. Arnold's doubt-ridden poetry excels in the former respect, somehow evoking an England in the throes of very technological turmoil even when superficially describing a foreign country. The discussion of Hardy, meanwhile, focuses on how his semi-mythical Wessex allowed him a fictional space in which the effects of this upheaval could be minimised.
Literary Englands persists with this dialectic throughout, often pairing up writers to demonstrate how modern Englishness can productively be understood as the product of competing urges: to perform nationhood according to the likeness of some always-evaporated idyll, and to subject such nostalgia to critique. Edward Thomas leads the study out of the nineteenth century. Gervais deftly springs Thomas from the simplifying clutches of his anthologisers, arguing convincingly for an 'epistemological bent'—in the wistfulness of poems like Old Man—that speaks volumes of Thomas's contemporaneousness with Proust:
"In writers like Henry Newbolt and Kipling, the thought of England is often little more than a brazen assumption. Thomas is different because his England is never just an actual thing, a fact: it is partly hidden in time and only visible through memory. There can be no slogans such as more imperialist writers rely on. The search for poetic experience often becomes the poetic experience itself. "
Next, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence's efforts to visualise political and social futures for England are investigated, leading to the assertion that fictions such as Howard's End manifest the small-'c' conservatism that is the dominant tendency within English liberal humanism. For Gervais, who never seems afraid to write critically about authors whom he clearly admires, Forster's way of using the country house theme to address the question of the inheritance of England implies a rather limited circle of inheritors. Lawrence, whose mining upbringing meant that he "never thought of the […] countryside as offering a retreat from the present," is less attached to the maintenance, via the pastoral, of a cohering national identity, and is capable of showing in the Lady Chatterley novels that exile is as likely to be experienced 'in the heart of England itself' as in Mexico or Tuscany. Chapters follow on the simmering antagonism between T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, and on George Sturt -a rather obscure subject for a book that laments its own inability to treat figures as significant as W.H. Auden, Henry Green and Basil Bunting in any depth- before Gervais gets to the thirties, when writers finally began to "see the country as truly contemporary rather than timeless." Orwell and Waugh are the focal point here, although it might have been helpful to discuss the revitalised interest in pastoral forms that is visible in some of the late modernist poetry affiliated with the New Apocalypse.
Perhaps most intriguing is the chapter on John Betjeman and Phillip Larkin. The chief representative of the Movement's turn against literary complexity is rightly taken to task for using Englishness as a crutch for his anti-modernism, the nation becoming the object of an "unfocused spirituality" in the poetry. Larkin created "new little myths for a new little England," and constantly manufactured spurious reasons for limiting the aesthetic horizons of English -and British- culture in the years following World War Two. Like his peers Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, Larkin was a skilled publicist who promoted his own poetry in a manner that gave it the sheen of historical necessity, when in fact there was still plenty of room in the austerity era for more formally ambitious writing. By contrast, Gervais reveals Betjeman as less parochial with regard to tricky ideas than was convenient for his poetic followers in the Movement to admit, a critical gambit which implicitly recommends that we be wary of easy associations between the one-time laureate and a completely unthinking conservatism. In the final chapter Gervais makes a similar defence of Geoffrey Hill, a poet whose urbane awareness that "etymology is history," that language is never free of complicity in the violence that his poetry evokes with a list of half-forgotten battles ("Recall the cold/ of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn/ Wakefield, Tewkesbury"), places him firmly within the modernist camp.
Literary Englands could perhaps have been slightly less prone to the lack of confidence in Englishness that it diagnoses. Gervais is affably readable, but he occasionally seems overly concerned to pre-empt potential attacks on the partiality of his argument. It is surprising to be told, in a book that contains more than its fair share of valuable (at times subtly iconoclastic) readings, that it "will have achieved its object if what it says about the writers that it discusses sparks off thoughts about the writers it appears to ignore." This point is made in other ways elsewhere, but does little except make us wonder about what a more audacious range of countenanced 'Englishnesses' might have done for Gervais's argument. Everyone will have their own suggestion here; I would like to have seen more on Bunting, particularly given the fascinating, yet underdeveloped, suggestion that there is a "quite good case for saying that the modern writer who seeks to depict England needs to be a regionalist […] rather than a metropolitan." Bunting's long poem Briggflatts, a sort of Northumbrian Waste Land refracted through the still more uncompromising poetics of Louis Zukofsky and Ezra Pound's Cantos, is but one example of how less well-known writing from the second half of the twentieth century made an appeal to English themes of history and cultural continuity, and did so by more drastic methods than our Larkin-fixated anthologies care to recognise. Literary Englands is a fine piece of criticism, but it might have said more about the reasons why the theme of Englishness has become associated in lay-critical circles with a lack of technical ambition. --Joe Kennedy
Forgetting Empire: Review of Simon Featherstone's Englishness
Englishness: Twentieth Century Popular Culture and the Forming of English Identity Simon Featherstone (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)
We occupy a Cartesian universe, void of a 'subject of certainty,' without a god who has the power to answer our hysterical questions about our own existence. There is no way of confirming, as Descartes would say, that what we see is the truth; we are doomed to think forever with the limited knowledge that our position gives us, i.e. sophistically. Thus sophism stands at the heart of the question of identity and its recognition. In the absence of certainty it is precisely through the complex relation of inter-subjectivity between people—through shifts in contemplation that allow us to adopt the perceptions of others— that we find the means to engage in the recognition of identity. Extending this analogy, can we not place England's own identity in a similar position, bedevilled by a type of world sophism? England seems compelled to constantly gaze upon the US as an ideal star of democracy, power, and Western ideals, yet the US itself exists in apparent isolation, with no real gaze of its own. Outside this narrow England-US dynamic, the US and England are watched by the rest of the world. Is not the inter-subjectivity of such bodies held in a similar type of forced silence, imposed by their own individual interests and secrets? In such a context, how is England to forge its own identity and sense of nationhood?
This is the best way to approach Englishness: Twentieth-Century Popular Culture and the Forming of English Identity. For Featherstone, England refuses to equate nationhood with the obvious processes of nationalism. Nationhood is usually created through the construction of codes, cultures and practises, and thus a type of autopoiesis, of self-mythologising. It is a process where the absent centre of a nation is filled with the representation of its own history. However, England's refusal of nationalism is tied in with a strange type of repression of its history, for such memories are accompanied by the guilt and embarrassments of an old imperialist power. Featherstone is therefore not surprised that the few books that do contribute to the study of Englishness are all based on the premise of England as an unknown, lost, sought-after nation. His book aims to add to this genre by examining how performances such as films, songs, variety shows, dances, sport, strikes and politics represent the type of self-narratives that England has been telling itself. In Featherstone's analysis, then, such performances hold a specific significance for the representation of identity. But what exactly is this significance? We cannot simply state that a nation without nationalism can fill the void of national identity by specific practices— for what would be the nature of such practices? They cannot be based on the personal or historical materials of our past, since such memories are governed by the same structures that England denies in its forgetting of Empire. Nor can such performances stand for an impersonal, globalised content, for the only thing worse than England's disphoria of waking up without a nation is its obvious fear of waking up as another nation altogether.
Thus such performances must be examined using a radically different template. Instead of suggesting that they occur as a representation of national identity, we must begin by suggesting rather that they occur at the very limit of such representation. In this way we can claim that such performances (film, music, politics or sport etc) stand, in Freud's words, as the "representation of representation." Featherstone makes this term clearer when he states that "England…remains in search of itself as nation and that search has been an integral part of its culture and politics for over a century. The truth that there was nothing to be found remains a secret…" What he means here by 'nothing' is precisely the lack of representation. These performances are markers that stand for an impossibility of self-identity. Rather than symptoms that stand for the trauma of self-identity, they refer us to a lack within us: in fact, these performances are what is missing, revealing the very impossibility of representation and of identity itself. They are not semblances that suture over this lack, but rather ruptures that split open any illusion of identity that we may have created for ourselves. Such performances make us come face to face with our own alienation. Thus we are left with a straightforward conclusion: that Englishness was never something repressed under the weight of its traumatic force, but rather was never in consciousness to begin with. In fact, it never existed. That is what Featherstone means by the secret of its nothingness. This takes us to the next, inevitable question: Why does the English subject look for itself, if there is nothing to look for? If there is no lost origin of Englishness, what is the basis for these performances that Featherstone claims have been taking place for over a century?
To answer this question we should re-examine the original problem of alienation that haunts Englishness through an example of performance that Featherstone himself deploys. In David Lean's film Brief Encounter we see a married woman's attempt to have an affair with a dashing doctor whom she meets at a railway station. However, everything they do is touched by embarrassing failure, from arranging assignations to consummating their relationship, and, finally, to parting forever at the station in one final cinematic glory à la Casablanca. Lean's film stands as a performance of the very impossibility of mimesis or representation. In the otherwise textual, mechanical modes of representation that lie behind the scenes of this seemingly monotonous narrative, such failures perform the exciting story of the fundamental alienation that constitutes the strangeness of our own being. This apparent failure or impossibility of representation leads to the marking of alienation as difference, as pure affirmation of the performer's unrepresented presence in the real. The alienation that breaks through in these failures is thus in fact the triumph of difference itself. Yet this is more than the simple idea that there is some true hidden being that emerges from behind all such representations. Rather, what each performance gives us is a moment of realisation—it captures something that disturbs its own failure, an elusive something perceptible to its audience, which explains why we watch it. These performances appeal because they capture a moment when the subject sees itself from an external perspective.
It is precisely this disturbance, this radical diversity or shift in perception, that takes us back to sophism and our question about our national identity. As mentioned before, English performance does not stand for a representation or expression of identity, but rather for the limitations of narration and the failure to narrate identity, capturing the very alienation of Englishness itself. Thus English identity can be said to happen at the moment when contemplation itself is suspended, when the search for one's being is suddenly disrupted and switched with its opposite, the identification of its own alienation. This is the sudden affirmation that I do not exist, that because of the very groundlessness of my own existence, I must exist only as a lack, a marker, an empty space. It is the perception of one's own lack of existence precisely as existence. What English performances do, then, is illustrate ways in which England, in its transnational context, makes meaning outside the established patterns of nationalism; Featherstone concludes his book by saying "It is in these networks of difference and diversity that England and its Englishness can be best understood and developed."--Imran Javaid Butt