Sunday, 29 July 2007

"There's a Life Going On Underground" (Tom Waits)

We are used to encountering variations on Foucault's theme of the "heterotopia", but I wonder if anyone has yet attempted a scholarly, ethnographic study of the phenomenon of "urban exploration"? To my mind, such a study would do well to consider how representative of its participants it might be to speak in terms predominantly of libertarian anarcho capitalist IT contract workers, who view industrial technology as somewhat quaint. Furthermore, driven by "Fight Club" fantasies of "the society of the spectacle", the thrill arises from transgressing into forbidden places, attaining ego control in a histrionic context.

My hope is that such a study would reveal a wider cross section of participants, with a prominent role played by those interested in psychogeography, which typifies a more imaginative, creative engagement with the past, present and future. It strikes me that the more anarcho capitalist strand has eerie parallels with the production of films such as "Blade 2". The disturbing parallel there, as revealed in the dvd "making of" documentary, was that the production designers drew inspiration from the book "Dead Tech", which led them to in turn deploy the skills of Eastern European craftspeople who were both comparatively cheap labour to employ, and highly skilled in reproducing variants on the dead tech theme, given conditions of planned obsolescence of state industries in their cities. Filmmaking thereby becomes a form of colonialism, whereby the original Eastern European mythology of the vampire is reversed, to reflect the surplus value extracted from the workers themselves, as well as finding representation as the subject matter of the film's narrative.

The vampire thus becomes an allegory of capital, an entropic force desocialzed to an extent that it is more akin to ahistorical notions of "evil" or even a force of Nature. I have attempted to mine the significance of this implicit temporal suspension as an important characteristic oftentimes tying creativity to violence. Understood thus as a form of posthistoire, the spatialization of time also prefigures the significance of vast, empty, natural spaces such as deserts (for the white European imagination at least). The supposed neutrality, or emptiness, of such environments is read as serving an enabling function insofar as it is used to affirm that all significance arises from within. For example, one could easily extend Black’s argument by turning to Bauman, who has in turn followed Sennett’s The Conscience of the Eye in this regard by noting the attraction of wilderness for pilgrims and ascetics who experienced in these settings a limitless potential to their desire (Bauman 1995: 84). In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard expressed this experience in terms of what he called "intimate immensity":

"As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense…The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur unfold" and he approvingly quotes to this effect a desert explorer and deep- sea diver Philippe Diole, who wrote that "neither in the desert nor on the bottom of the sea does one’s spirit remain sealed and indivisible (Bachelard 1964: 207 cited in Reynolds and Press 1995: 204).

Such descriptions also evoke the familiar "psychology of Gothic geology" which so inspired the Romantic contemplation of the "wild beauty" of the Alps. They are of interest to creative action in that their logic holds that the sublime forces a sacrifice of the imagination (which is unable to comprehend "the infinite") to reason, which must be extended to cope with this powerful sensory information, ultimately meaning that the sublime is not intrinsic to an object of the outer world, but is instead a creative act within the subject/observer. As a consequence the self becomes measured against the seeming omnipotence of nature (Heath and Boreham 1999: 31). The most disturbing side of this logic is related to the way that such experiences can also facilitate the hyperbolic measurement of the self’s capacities against other people. As Simmel observed in a brief essay, "The Alpine Journey", "this pleasure remains completely egoistic and, therefore, the risking of life as mere enjoyment is unethical; indeed even more unethical since for the hire of a guide for fifty or a hundred francs one risks another’s life through possible accident." He suggests that the "alpinist" is comparable to the gambler, who does not look "for material profit but the excitement of risk and the gripping combination of the cold-bloodedness and passion of one’s skill and the incalculability of fate" (Simmel 1991: 98). It is this kind of commonality that I wish to develop throughout the course of this thesis: the reference to risk and gambling, the incalculability of fate, foregrounds precisely the features of contingency and the sociological thesis of individualization, the significance of which I am seeking to demonstrate for an understanding of violence:

"The less settled, less certain and less free from contradiction modern existence is, the more passionately we desire the heights that stand beyond the good and evil whose presence we are unable to look over and beyond…Whoever has once enjoyed this will yearn for the release in something that is simply other than the "I"- the "I" with its melancholy disquiet, full of the life of the plains, choking the exercise of the will. This is so more with respect to the mountains than the sea, which, with its foam waiting to drain away only to come flooding back in, with the purposeless circulus vitiosus of its movement, reminds us only too powerfully of our own inner life…Since not only the addition to the "I" through its opposite releases us, but also the sea as symbol and picture, shorn of all incidentals, mirrors our destiny and unhappiness, rather like a secret homeopathy, and discloses a reconciliation and a healing elevation over life" (Simmel 1991: 97).

In this analagous thinking, and one could also draw on Canetti here for its more extreme ramifications beyond the good and evil to which Simmel refers, the logic of the survivor asserts itself as a triumphalism which holds that if all others are dead, then the self must be alive. The wider context of his argument was an attempt to in part explain the Holocaust in terms of the destruction of German feelings of self-worth wrought by inflation following the First World War; the feelings of German self-worth sought to reassert themselves by totally devaluing the European Jewry through an organized campaign of murderous scapegoating, (Canetti 1987: 265). More generally though, Canetti suggests that an addiction to murder is a holdover of survivalism, and one might inquire in such terms into the socio-cultural significance of phenomena such as the Lake/Ng nuclear fallout shelter, (Coates 1987 [1995]: 183), which acted as an operational base for numerous serial murders, to say nothing of the apocalyptic vision of "helter skelter" associated with Charles Manson’s refuge in the desert hideaway of Death Valley. In such a context one could speculate as to why survivalism is self-defeating and can never attain its goals, given that "the "sole survivor’s" plight is no less a nightmare than death; after all, it shows what death is about, it is a mirror-image of death; moreover, only if reflected in that imaginary mirror can death be visualized in all its brutal truth." (Bauman 1992: 37).
The general impression garnered therefore from posthistoire texts is thus the spatiality that is indissociable from their apocalyptic tone. Here then also would be the kind of backdrop befitting the kind of haunting poetic melancholy found in the work of science fiction novelist J.G. Ballard - renowned for his surreal aestheticised imagery of abandoned buildings, drained swimming pools, and sprawling vast empty landscapes, which accurately conveys Bauman’s sense of survivalism as a mirror image of death:

"…when they reached the western outskirts of the city, it had become…inextricably confused with all the other spectres of the landscape they had crossed. The aridity of the central plain, with its desolation and endless deserts stretching across the continent, numbed him by its extent. The unvarying desert light, the absence of all colour and the brilliant whiteness of the stony landscape made him feel that he was advancing across an immense graveyard. Above all, the lack of movement gave to even the slightest disturbance an almost hallucinatory intensity" (Ballard 1965: 191).

Wikipedia entry on Ubran Exploration:

The Mexican Perforation:

Berlin Underworlds Association:

Urban archaeology:

The History Channel: Cities of the Underworld:

"Dead Tech" by Manfred Hamm.

Book Description

DEAD TECH is more than a book on industrial archaeology. The decay of our industrial monuments is both beautiful and sad. Hamm captures the decline of our mechanized age as he documents wartime gun emplacements, steam locomotives, collapsing piers, decommissioned aircraft carriers, abandoned coal and steel plants, and the grim piles of nuclear power plants. Dead Tech documents the deconstruction of the hubristic monuments of war and capitalism that surround us.

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