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Re-Placing the Novel: Sinclair, Ballard and the Spaces of Literature

Author: • Oct 5th, 2009 •

Category: academia, Bluewater, Chris Petit, features, Iain Sinclair, Lead Story, Marc Auge, memory, non-place, psychogeography, Situationists, speed & violence

Ballardian: Iain Sinclair

Image: JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

by David Cunningham

There are few concepts in contemporary social and cultural theory whose meaning is so apparently nebulous, and whose historical novelty (or even reality) is so disputed, as that of ‘globalisation’. Yet, for better or worse, the questions that it serves to frame are ones that increasingly work to define a trans-disciplinary problematic across all the humanities and social sciences, as attested to by a range of celebrated publications in the last few years. In the case of the critical analysis of cultural and artistic production, perhaps of utmost importance has been the issue of the historical transformations being undergone by ‘local’ forms and practices in the face of the global generalization of capitalist relations of production and exchange; an issue which, for literary theory and criticism, goes beyond, and in some sense historically sublates, the specific problematic of post-colonialism.[1] As such, what is customarily thought to be at stake here might, in its broadest terms, be summarised in the following questions: If there is, for the first time, now (tendentially at least) a ‘single spatial ground to the definition of the historical present’, what happens to place as a spatial variable in such a new global economy of a capitalist modernity? How is it inscribed ‘in the [new] spaces of culture?’[2] And what critical ‘role’ can cultural forms and practices, that have been historically associated with the specificities of place and localised traditions, realistically hope to play at such an historical moment?

While then its qualitative historical newness has undoubtedly been over-exaggerated in some quarters, the emergent spatial dominance of what Castells terms the ‘space of flows’ that traverses the planetary ground of contemporary capitalist modernity — ‘flows of capital, flows of information, flows of technology, flows of organisational interaction, flows of images, sounds and symbols’ — clearly does bring radically into question the ontological character of what has traditionally been understood as spaces of place, whether ethnologically or sociologically; that is, a ‘locale whose form, function and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity’. It is the ‘concrete outcome’ of such an immanent negation that, famously, the French anthropologist Marc Augé, and, more recently, Hardt and Negri, have sought to articulate as new forms of non-place: the proliferation of spaces which ‘cannot be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity’, and which, indeed, resist all localised patterns of legibility. Materially, and most visibly, it is these spaces that are reproduced through the now familiar ‘glass phantasms’ of an ‘architectural Esperanto’ — the built form and ambiences of airports, motorways, corporate towers, and retail outlets — populating an ‘urban panorama’ across the planet, which progressively engenders an ‘inexorable sameness of…landscape that turns all travel into arrival at the same destination’.[3]

If such presently operative ideas — several of the most influential articulations of which I have rather bundled together here — provoke certain questions in relation to the specific concerns of this essay, it is, of course, because if there is one distinctive aspect of the work of Iain Sinclair — a formal and thematic principle that might seem to unify his entire oeuvre — it would relate to the intimate association it suggests between literary production and the particularities of place; in Sinclair’s own case the unique locale of East London. ‘The poet’, he claims in a 1979 interview, is distinguished by the way in which he or she is necessarily ‘drawn to a specific location; to activate a monologue that is already available there’: ‘Place needs the person to give it voice. Place activates the poet’.[4] Nearly twenty years on, such a poetics is re-iterated in Sinclair’s essay ‘The Shamanism of Intent’, in which the contemporary shaman’s ‘sickness-vocation’ is explicitly defined as the capacity to ‘re-enchant place’ through ‘working their own turf’. For the true artist as shaman: ‘The life-force of the city is measured in the candlepower of its keepers, the activators of place’. The writer is a chronographer, ‘hungry for place as expressively potent, place as experience…as a trigger to memory, imagination, and mythic presence’.[5]

Ballardian: Iain Sinclair

Image: Iain Sinclair in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

In its literary origins, such a poetics of place is in fact most immediately traceable in Sinclair’s work, not to the present resuscitation of the politicised European avant-gardism of Surrealist re-mappings and Situationist psychogeography, with which it has been latterly associated, but rather to the largely occluded influence of a certain post-Poundian, mainly American poetry that played a crucial role within the so-called British poetry revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps most important, in this respect, would be Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, centred around his home town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and their poetic conception of a ‘new localism’; a modulation of Poundian epic ambitions in which writing, as the construction of spatio-temporal matrices capable of generating form, becomes what Eric Mottram describes as a ‘locationary action’.[6] Nonetheless, whatever the distinctive cultural roots of such an ‘action’, as it manifests itself within Sinclair’s writing, it is fair to say that its somewhat belated mainstream fashionablity has coincided with a far more culturally generalised ‘poetics of place’ which would seem to draw together a bewilderingly wide range of different artistic forms and practices of the last few decades, and which appears — if we are to judge by current academic discourses — to have reached a certain fever pitch in our own contemporary moment. To note this is not to diminish the singularity of Sinclair’s work. Rather it is, I want to suggest, to provide a necessary interpretative framework for the kind of critical reflection that may serve to bring forth this singularity all the more forcefully within its contemporary context.[7]

Potential examples of the contemporary ‘hunger’ for place are various: the proclaimed return in architectural theory, after the final disintegration of the Modern Movement, back towards what Christian Norberg-Schulz terms ‘the “vocation” of place’ and the regulative ideal of the genius loci;[8] the increasing dominance of site-specific works within post-conceptualist art practice of a type that would seek ‘to animate old sites … reoccupy lost cultural spaces, and propose historical counter-memories’;[9] the seductive melancholia of W. G Sebald’s books that conjure a ‘heartache…caused by the vortex of past time’ accumulated on the sites of Liverpool Street Station or the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold;[10] and what might best be described as the pseudo-Situationist and Benjaminian aspirations of much contemporary urban theory.[11] The desire for what the architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton calls a critical regionalism, whose ‘salient cultural precept’ would be that of ‘place creation’, is seemingly rampant in our time.[12]

Yet what cultural function does such an apparently ubiquitous ‘precept’ serve in a resurgent globalised capitalism? As one recent commentator on contemporary art has put it, it is certainly hard not to suspect, given the increasing ‘historical loss of distinctions of place’, that ‘the ideological function of site-specific work’ is ‘now to manufacture such distinctions artificially, in order to compensate and cover over the loss’. For if, in the words of Hal Foster, ‘the local and the everyday are [commonly] thought to resist economic development, they can also attract it, [insofar as] such development needs the local and the everyday even as it erodes these qualities, renders them siteless’. The renewed importance, within globalised capitalist development, of ‘monopoly rent’ — the ‘exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradeable item which is in some respects unique and non-replicable’ — gives rise to a very contemporary form of what we might call the ‘capital of location’, and to new forms of financial speculation that follow from it. In a familiar pattern, the regeneration of the East End of London, with which Sinclair has long been concerned, might well be understood as exemplary in these terms, promoting itself on the basis of a collective symbolic capital deriving from its distinctive (spectacularised) history and myth (from the distant pathos of Huguenot and Jewish immigrants to the gothic frisson of Jack the Ripper and gangster chic). Yet, as David Harvey observes, this process rapidly heads ‘deep into contradiction’. For ‘as opportunities to pocket monopoly rents galore present themselves on the basis of [this] collective symbolic capital … so their irresistible lure draws more and more homogenising commodification in its wake’. It is the tension at work here that determines the cultural politics of globalization in general.[13]

Explicitly resistant, then, as his work may well be to the contemporary construction of literature’s latest ideological role as an effective branch of the heritage industry — fetishising the quirky and mildly exotic signs of ‘local colour’ for a global market — the marks of such a problematic complicity with the forces of investment capital cannot be entirely erased from Sinclair’s own works, as he is clearly aware. Indeed it is an alertness to the danger of such complicity which is increasingly, even obsessively, self-reflexively enunciated, in a familiar narratorial conceit, throughout the pages of a novel like Downriver. ‘Would it be ethical to make our discovery public?’, the narrator asks at one point. ‘To endanger this time-warped reservation?’. For to ‘make public’ is always to risk feeding those who need ‘a mythology to underwrite property values’; the ‘standard pre-development scenario’:

When artists walk through a wilderness in epiphanous ‘bliss-out’, fiddling with polaroids, grim estate agents dog their footsteps…The visionary reclaims the ground of his nightmares only to present it, framed in Perspex, to the Docklands Development Board .[14]

Such self-conscious marking out of the changing socio-economic processes which would culturally enframe and threaten his poetics of place — the reshaping of London by the ‘occult logic of “market forces”’ which serve to dictate ‘a new geography’ — is a persistent feature of the ironic distance apparent within the narrative voices of Sinclair’s recent prose; a specific modulation of the kind of reflexive commentary that ‘is so thoroughly interwoven with action that the distinction between the two disappears’.[15] Indeed, something of the distinctiveness of Sinclair’s recent works is precisely to be found — unlike in, say, the ultimately conservative pleasures of Sebald’s superficially similar writings — in the ways in which they immanently register a certain crisis within their own mode of literary production. For if it is indeed a certain ‘magnetism’ of place that activates the ‘poet’, the historical loss of distinctions of place clearly raises questions about the contemporary possibility of poetic experience in general, as Sinclair conceives it. Moreover, and as such, this problematic comes to constitute far more than a mere historical ‘backdrop’ or thematic ‘context’, but necessarily manifests itself as an immanent problem of form; rendering visible within its own formal structures, and stylistic constellations, the social contradictions that it engages.

If, therefore, the conception of literary production as ‘locationary action’ is evidently one that persists, in a certain continuous fashion, through all of Sinclair’s writings, up to the present day, it must also be thought of as subject to, and as immanently registering, an irresistible transformation. The stories and forms of poetic experience engendered by what Patrick Wright describes as ‘the precipitations of history, rumour and memory which were still clinging to the streets of Whitechapel as Sinclair knew them in the seventies’ — and which provide much of the material for Lud Heat, Suicide Bridge and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings — are, by the early 1990s, presented as progressively fragile in the face of the ‘deregulated energies’ unleashed by Thatcherism. In the pages of Downriver and Radon Daughters, one previously ‘disregarded landscape’ after another is ‘dragged from cyclical time’ to the ‘pragmatic time’ of capital accumulation.[16]

Ballardian: Iain Sinclair

Image: JG Ballard in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

What might be at stake in this for the politics of contemporary literature, more generally, is something that I want to consider here through the staging of a ‘confrontation’ between the very different — in some sense, opposed — manifestations of the contemporary novel’s spatial and formal possibilities to be found within the oeuvres of Sinclair and of J.G. Ballard. Such a confrontation is not one that is imposed from the outside. It is, crucially, internal to Sinclair’s writings of the last five years, and, I want to claim, serves, in part, to mediate their developing relations both to the history of the novel form and to the contemporary problematics of place and non-place, of spaces of places and spaces of flows. Yet, as such, this textual presence of Ballard is a rather more disturbing presence within Sinclair’s writing than are the familiar allusions to Blake, Dickens, Conrad, et al. For Ballard’s own style and concerns, in their tension with Sinclair’s, mark something like an introjected point of resistance (which cannot simply be digested or overcome) to the poetics of place upon which the latter continues to insist.

In London Orbital, Sinclair records an actual meeting with Ballard at his home in Shepperton — an act of ‘homage’, he suggests — but we find the first explicit staging of this confrontation a few years earlier in the short book on Crash, written for the BFI Modern Classics series, in which Sinclair addresses, at some length, his particular interest in Ballard’s definitive ‘fascination with a frozen aesthetic of motorways, business parks, airport hotels … A present tense world of swift, sharp sentences’. This is a fiction that ‘grows out of [an] undisclosed, over-familiar urban landscape. Ballard’s trick [is] to forge a poetic out of that which contains least poetry’ (Crash 77). In this way, Sinclair argues, Ballard’s writing conforms, in its own idiosyncratic manner, to a poetics of place. Like the areas of London that, in Lights Out For The Territory, Sinclair parcels out to the likes of Angela Carter, Allen Fisher and Aidan Dun, this fiction can be sited, insofar as it is a particular place, Sinclair claims—’the transitional landscape of gravel pits, reservoirs and slip-roads that surround Heathrow’ — that activates Ballard the poet. The ‘psychogeographical field’ of Crash ‘was posited entirely on the London perimeter, the Heathrow pentagram that Ballard knew so well’.[17]

Yet it is worth noting that there is — by contrast to Fisher or Dun, who fully subscribe to their own versions of an Olsonian poetics of place — a rather deliberate elision of certain key aspects of Ballard’s own self-understanding apparent in such a reading; an elision which is, for example, revealed in discussion with Sinclair’s sometime collaborator Chris Petit. As Sinclair relates the latter’s conversations with Ballard around the possibility of making a film of Crash, he recounts that a major problem for Petit concerned his difficulty in imagining it ‘being set anywhere except the isthmus between the Westway, Heathrow and Shepperton’. The implicit basis for such a view is re-iterated in Sinclair’s own judgement on the David Cronenberg film that was eventually made, where, he writes, ‘the strange particulars of London that Ballard pressed into a Blakean mapping of his own…dissolve into the netherworld of … Toronto’. Yet, as Sinclair is also compelled to acknowledge here, such disappointment was emphatically not shared by Ballard himself. Indeed Ballard would love Cronenberg’s film.[18]

Now, the dissensus at this point can, perhaps, precisely be conceptualised in terms of the dialectic of space and place at work, respectively, in Ballard’s novel and in Sinclair’s reading — or, rather, creative mis-reading — of it. As Petit relates, Ballard himself saw ‘Crash as much a Tokyo novel or a Toronto novel as a London novel’; the reasoning for which is made quite evident in Sinclair’s own interview with the writer:

The areas peripheral to great airports are identical all over the world. You can land at any airport these days and for the first twenty minutes, as you take your cab, you go through a landscape that is identical … Two-storey factories, flat housing, warehouses.[19]

Ballardian: Iain Sinclair

Image: JG Ballard in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

In this sense, for Ballard himself, the ‘spatial field’ of Crash, and of the novels that followed, is not, in fact, related to a ‘place’, as Sinclair might like to imagine, but to a necessarily generalised non-place, in something like Augé’s terms. The spaces of Ballard’s fiction are those populated by ‘the same car-rental agencies and hotel rooms, with their adult movies and deodorized bathrooms’. As one of his characters says of the central ‘location’ in Cocaine Nights: ‘Estrella de Mar isn’t anywhere’.[20]

In exemplary ethnological fashion, such spaces of non-place are taxonomised by Augé himself as including ‘air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called “means of transport”…the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, and large retail outlets’, both ‘transit points and temporary abodes’, ‘holiday clubs and refugee camps’, as well as the spaces ‘where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce’.[21] I will not be entirely the first to note that this check-list in fact reads like a thematic summary of Ballard’s own fiction, from the concrete dystopias of High-Rise and Crash through to the decadent, gated communities of Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes.[22] And the spaces of such fiction cast a considerable shadow over much of Sinclair’s recent work, most obviously London Orbital, obsessively returned to throughout its pages. Indeed, this latter book might well be read as a kind of self-conscious encroachment upon, and rewriting of, what Sinclair regards as Ballard’s own territory, from the Bluewater shopping centre — described as a ‘Ballardian resort’ — to the ‘enclaves with no memory’ that constitute the new housing estates ringing London, to, above all, the M25 itself.[23] The echoes of Ballard would thus seem entirely deliberate. Compare, for example, the following two fictional ‘spaces’, selected almost at random; the first from a recent Ballard novel, the second from London Orbital:

Despite its title, the Pangbourne Village estate was not built near the site of any former or existing village…[It] has no connections, social, historical or civic with Pangbourne itself…Secure behind their high walls and surveillance cameras, these estates in effect constitute a chain of closed communities whose lifelines run directly along the M4 to the offices and consulting rooms, restaurants and private clinics of central London.

A colony of the disenchanted in a panorama of disenchantment. Amnesiaville…Chafford Hundred thrives because it is not really there. It’s displaced, not placed: 2,000 (and rising) pristine, anti-vernacular units. Scimitar-shaped Draylon-grass carpets. Second cars. An empty-by-day enclave with no centres and no purpose.[24]

In this way, Ballard’s work provides something like the intertextual point of mediation for Sinclair’s own engagement with the contemporary dialectic of place and non-place; that is, with what is earlier figured by the ‘sorry meniscus’ of the Millenium Dome, Canary Wharf’s ‘crystal synthesis of capital’ — ‘Treeless, broad, focusing on nothing’ — or the ‘discreet tyranny of “now”’ established in the ‘money lake’ of the City of London’s archetypal space of flows. The British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, Sinclair writes in London Orbital, ‘is universal…In supermarket heaven, you’re at home everywhere’. You are, in other words, lodging in Ballard’s home; a home which is, it might be said, no kind of home at all. Just as Sinclair seeks to re-read Crash through his own poetics of place, so we might say, more generally, that he thus seeks also to re-place the fictional spaces of Ballard’s novels through what is described as a tenuous act of re-enchantment. In doing so, the formal and conceptual dialogue between these two poles of contemporary British writing is rendered internal to the text, allowing the remorseless absences and solitudes of Ballard’s own spatial configurations to immanently inscribe the historical limitations of Sinclair’s poetics; a kind of dialogic imperative which, collapsing the distinction between form and reflection, allows the dialogue to debate the very basis of the work itself. Ballard’s stripped-down language of dislocation, with its unvarying stylistic register, comes to be dialectically entwined with Sinclair’s own characteristically dense prose style and its encyclopaedic accumulation of literary and cultural allusions, as if the lexical variety and richness of the latter might overcome the emptiness that it confronts; re-vivifying place through a Rimbaudian alchemy of the word. At the same time, if the imagistic intensity of Sinclair’s prose, with its dazzling expansiveness of diction, would seek, in an act of memory and ‘counter-magic’, to re-instate the image of place within the space of flows, the present-tense ‘images’ of Ballard’s writing, and of its ‘willed limbo’, provide its opposition and resistance. As Vidler writes of Martha Rossler’s (very Ballardian) photographs of American freeways and airport terminals, they ‘assert’ that ‘not only is no orientation possible in the technically determined scheme of road and vehicle [or passages and ramps], but that no amount of image proliferation will restore orientation’.[25]

Ballardian: Iain Sinclair

Image: JG Ballard in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).

At the structural heart of this tense conjunction is, of course, the endless dislocated space of the M25 itself. ‘Out here on the motorway rim’, Sinclair writes, ‘there were no memories’. ‘Back stories’ are ‘erased’; history is ‘revised on a daily basis’.[26] The great gambit of London Orbital is to try — against all odds — to re-form the images and paths of place and memory within this kind of non-place that Ballard’s texts so powerfully render; creating, through a familiar urban metaphorics of the body, the organic pump of blood that would circulate around the tourniquet which might otherwise kill the city.[27] For Augé, contemporary ‘traveller’s space’ is ‘the archetype of non-place’. The artist’s ‘counter-magic’, the ‘pedestrian circuit of London’s orbital motorway’, thus might be understood as a re-placing of the anthropological ‘route’ or ‘path’ — what, for Bakhtin famously, was the pivotal ‘space of encounter’ for one of the novel’s dominant historical chronotopes — in the exemplary non-place of the continuous motorway.[28] Although Sinclair claims, in his conversations with Kevin Jackson, that the ‘road is the river, the M25 is the equivalent of the Thames’, he must know that in fact an unbridgeable history divides them. (The trick is, if only for a moment, to bring them together). For if the rivers and roads, that are the sites of the journeys in Downriver, still (just) retain a liberatory passage to past and future — in the ‘posthumous brilliance’ of their history — the endless, circular ‘ribbon’ of the orbital allows for no such opening. Perhaps its most obvious prefiguring in the earlier novel is found in the central metonymic image of the nineteenth-century establishment of ‘railway time’ in chapter six, which, pressed forward by the capitalist ratio, already abstracts and negates the temporal nuances of place. Yet, even here, the train itself provides a novelistic space of encounter and narrative production — Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Woolf’s ‘Mrs Brown’ — that the ‘mobile cabins’ circulating the motorway cannot.

Following Bakhtin, in his 1998 ‘atlas’ of the nineteenth-century novel Franco Moretti asserts that ‘in modern European novels, what happens depends a lot on where it happens’; ‘without a certain kind of space, a certain kind of story is simply impossible’. Hence what he describes as the ‘place-bound nature’ of the novel (what Reiner Hawsherr calls Ortegebunden) — its ‘peculiar geometry, its boundaries, its spatial taboos and favourite routes’ — a ‘platial’ character which he traces through its relation to the formation of the modern spatial configurations of the nation state and the nineteenth-century metropolis. It is the changing ‘chronotopes’, formally constitutive of the novel, that serve, Moretti argues, to explain its historical development in complex relation to ‘an actual material reality’. Citing the exceptional moments of the late nineteenth-century Russian novel of ideas and post-war Latin American Magic Realism, ‘in both cases’, he asserts, ‘the new model is the product of a new space…A new space poses new problems — and so asks for new answers’.[29] Yet what new stories might the spaces of non-place and of flows provoke? What answers might be given to the problems that it poses? The M25, as Petit states in the London Orbital film, seemingly ‘resists any kind of story’. Without beginning or end — a kind of purgatorial eternity — no narrative or image can finally stick. ‘What other than a surveillance camera’, asks the soundtrack, ‘would want to record its ceaseless undramatic motion?’ In the absence of the orientations of place, the dynamics of story are displaced by the perpetual, un-editable loop.[30]

The power of Ballard’s writings — no doubt, in some sense, for Sinclair himself — come, then, from the ways in which they imply the irresistible submission of the novel’s narrative modes to the contemporary forms of a present-tense ‘information loop’ that characterise a globalised commodity culture. The attempt to locate a sub-Benjaminian agenda of redemption here in a kind of ‘technological uncanny’ — such as is apparent in, for example, Roger Luckhurst’s (otherwise very useful) book on Ballard — fails to engage what is most challenging in this work:[31] its absolute self-dissolution into a contemporary language of abstraction and dislocation, of advertising copy, technocratic jargon and cheap pornography. As Tafuri writes of Mies van der Rohe’s post-war sheets of reflective glass, Ballard’s texts ‘assume in themselves the ineluctability of absence that the contemporary world imposes on the language of forms’. They ‘negate dwelling as they reflect the metropolis’. For Ballard, in Adorno’s withering phrase, ‘dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible’. Against this, the danger inherent within the current obsessions with memoration, as supposed ‘act of resistance against the totality of spectacularisation’, is simply that, as Stewart Martin argues, it in fact becomes an art of forgetting; a forgetting of real historical movements and of the changed conditions of present. In a world of heritage, retro and Rough Guide-style ‘alternative’ tourism, to evoke the flâneur or the rag picker (or, even, the Situationist dérive) is, without qualification, to fail to understand the road historically travelled. Sinclair’s force as a writer comes from his (only rarely acknowledged) refusal to do so; re-asserting a poetics of place only through the textual introjection of that which would historically challenge it.[32]

It is not here a fatuous question of choosing between Sinclair and Ballard — as if such a thing were possible — but of tracing, through their immanent confrontation, the role of writing, and of cultural production more generally, at an historical moment marked by the particular spatial relations generated by the dialectic of places and flows; an historical moment in which ‘the relationships between the local and the global are all in flux’. If, as Adorno once suggested, it is part of the modern novel’s distinctive fate to incorporate its ongoing dissolution within its very form, then it is perhaps as a new stage in such a process that the (dialectically inseparable) novelistic forms of space and time inscribed within the singular prose styles of Sinclair and Ballard might best be understood.[33] What, in time, will come to re-place the novel remains, of course, an open question.

Ballardian: Iain Sinclair

Image: JG Ballard in London Orbital (dirs. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002).


This essay was first published in Robert Bond and Jenny Bavidge (eds), City Visions: The Work of Iain Sinclair (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007), pp. 134-146. Reprinted with permission.


NOTES

[1] See David Cunningham, ‘Notes on Nuance: Rethinking a Philosophy of Modern Music’ in Radical Philosophy 125 (May/June 2004), 22-26.
[2] Peter Osborne, ‘Non-Places and the Spaces of Art’ in The Journal of Architecture 6, 2 (Summer 2001), 184; Saskia Sassen, ‘Analytic Borderlands: Economy and Culture in the Global City’ in D: Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory, Volume Three (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), p. 5.
[3] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 442, 423. See also pp. 408-9; Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London & New York: Verso, 1995), pp. 77-8. See also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 216-7; Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co, Modern Architecture/2, trans. Robert Erich Wolf (New York: Rizzoli, 1976), p. 339; Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 173.
[4] Iain Sinclair, unbroadcast interview with Paul Green for BBC radio (1979).
[5] Lights, pp. 246-7, 252; Orbital, p. 101.
[6] See Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris (eds.), Poems for the Millenium Volume Two (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press 1998), p. 102; See Peter Barry, ‘Allen Fisher and “Content-Specific” Poetry’ in Robert Hampson & Peter Barry (eds.), New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1993), pp. 198-215. The Olsonian character of Sinclair’s early poetics of place is clearest in the opening piece of Suicide Bridge (1979), ‘Intimate Associations: Myth and Place’ (Lud/ Suicide pp. 147-154).
[7] For even if it is a question here of resisting the facile appropriation of Sinclair’s work in the name of some fairly dubious forms of cultural politics, then it must be in relation to such a context that this resistance is articulated.
[8] Christian Norberg-Schulz, ‘The Phenomenon of Place’ in Kate Nesbit (ed.), Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995 (New York: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 426.
[9] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1996), p. 197.
[10] W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin, 2002), pp. 182-3. See also W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (London: Harvill Press, 1998).
[11] See, for example, Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity, 2002); Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift (eds.), City A-Z: Urban Fragments (London & New York: Routledge, 2000); Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Alicia Pivana and Jane Rendell (eds.), Strangely Familiar: Narratives of Architecture in the City (London & New York: Routledge, 1996).
[12] Kenneth Frampton, ‘Prospects for a Critical Regionalism’ in Nesbit (ed.), p. 482.
[13] Peter Osborne, ‘Installation, Performance or What?’ in Oxford Art Journal 24, 2 (2001), 151-2; Foster, Return of the Real, p. 197; David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), pp. 395, 406.
[14] Downriver, p. 397; Rodinsky, pp. 66-7; Downriver, pp. 16, 265.
[15] Theodor Adorno ‘The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel’ in Notes to Literature, Volume One, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 34;
[16] Patrick Wright, ‘Rodinsky’s Place’ in The London Review of Books 9, 19 (October 29 1987), 3-5. In his conversations with Kevin Jackson, Sinclair remarks that, in the 1970s, Brick Lane in London’s East End ‘still had the ambience of the Late Victorian era, a derelict area with the brewery as its focus’ (Verbals, p. 71). By the 1990s, of course, the brewery, in which Sinclair once worked, had stopped brewing, having been ‘redeveloped’ as a complex of bar, offices and studios; Downriver, pp. 158, 33.
[17] Crash, pp. 37, 77. Lights, pp. 145-6; Crash, p. 15.
[18] Ibid., pp. 87, 11.
[19] Ibid., pp. 87, 48.
[20] J. G. Ballard, Cocaine Nights (London: Flamingo, 1997), pp. 10, 17.
[21] Augé, pp. 79, 78.
[22] See Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between the Walls: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997), pp. 129-31.
[23] Orbital, pp. 388, 136.
[24] J. G. Ballard, Running Wild (London: Flamingo, 1997), pp. 11-12; Orbital, p. 400.
[25] Downriver pp. 276-7; Lights pp. 91, 107; Orbital p. 262; Ballard, Cocaine Nights, p. 34; Vidler, Warped Space, p. 175.
[26] Orbital, pp. 141, 123-4.
[27] Given the organicist tendencies which always underlie the metaphor of city as body, Sinclair’s admiration for the liberal Christian account of the city to be found in the work of Richard Sennett is perhaps less surprising than it might otherwise seem. See Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), especially chapter eight on the anthropomorphic projections in urbanism derived from Harvey’s work on the circulation of blood (pp. 255-281).
[28] Augé, p. 86; See Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 243-5; Verbals, p. 135; Downriver, pp. 6, 170-1.
[29] Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (London & New York: Verso, 1998), pp. 70, 100, 5, 196.
[30] Soundtrack to Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit, London Orbital (Illuminations Films/Channel 4, 2002).
[31] See Luckhurst, p. 135. Luckhurst’s argument for an uncanny return of the repressed at work in Ballard rests on the evidence of a fairly short passage in the novel Concrete Island — in which the central character stumbles upon the half-buried ‘grand-plans of Edwardian terraced houses’ — and draws (all-too-typically) on that conception of the ‘outmoded’ to be found in Benjamin’s 1929 essay on Surrealism. But there is, it seems to me, little ‘revolutionary nostalgia’ at work in Ballard’s fictional world, little sense of an alternative future figured within that which lies derelict and discarded in ‘the interstices of new economies’, only a rigorously non-nostalgic vision of a coming desert in which all ‘cultural accretions’ are finally erased.
[32] Tafuri & Dal Co, p. 312; Massimo Cacciari, ‘Eupalinos or Architecture’, trans. Stephen Sartarelli, in K. Michael Hays (ed.), Architecture Theory Since 1968 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 400. See also David Cunningham, ‘The Phenomenology of Non-Dwelling: Massimo Cacciari, Modernism and the Philosophy of the Metropolis’ in Crossings: A Counter-Disciplinary Journal 7 (Fall 2004), 156-8; Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London & New York: Verso, 1978), p. 38. As Sinclair acknowledges in London Orbital, for Ballard the ‘“local” was finished as a concept’ (Orbital 177); Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Neo-Avant-Garde and Culture Industry (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. xxv; See Stewart Martin, ‘W. G. Sebald and the Modern Art of Memory’ in David Cunningham, Andrew Fisher & Sas Mays (eds.), Photography and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005), pp. 180-201.
[33] Harvey, Spaces of Capital, p. 226; See Adorno, ‘Position of the Narrator’, pp. 30-36.


…:: Previously on Ballardian:
+ ‘When in doubt, quote Ballard’: An Interview with Iain Sinclair
+ ‘Obeying the surrealist formula’: Iain Sinclair & Hermione Lee on Ballard
+ ‘His personal horizon’: Sinclair and Self on Ballard

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  1. […] writing by David Cunningham on a Ballardian website — extracted below, full essay can be read here. The piece goes to the novel, rather than to poetry, although Charles Olson, Eric Mottram & […]

  2. Rough guess – the author of this essay is on the English/Humanities staff of some university? Love your stuff, Simon. Not a fan of this type of thing, though.

  3. What’s it got to do with me, Ian? This is not my post, nor my thread. And the site is about much more than my work. For what it’s worth, I think this is a fine piece of scholarship that has deepened my appreciation of the complexities in Sinclair’s writing.

  4. While I wouldn’t rate ‘London Orbital’ as one of SInclair’s best books, that Amazon reviewer doesn’t half sound dim. I’ve certainly never found him a difficult writer to read – unlike the above, I’m sorry to say. Still, I did learn something that I didn’t know before – that ‘problematic’ is actually a noun.

    I’m not sure what the ‘moral validity’ of a writer’s ‘methods’ might mean either.

  5. Interesting article. On a first reading I thought it tailed off in interest towards the end, but that’s probably because it’s more directed at Sinclair’s writings than Ballard’s – as Simon recognises in his comments.

    More constructively, I think it would be interesting to look at the article in the light of Sinclair’s comments about place and mythology during his discussion with Mike Moorcock and Alan Moore earlier this year, a video of which can be found (in two parts) at http://www.multiverse.org/media/MMLondon1.wmv and http://www.multiverse.org/media/MMLondon2.wmv; (the comments are in the second part, in response to a question from the audience 10 minutes 25 seconds in).

    I was particularly struck by Sinclair’s comment about the need to create a mythology in order to avoid getting overwhelmed by other people’s mythologies. That, it seems to me, is similar to the underlying thread that runs through Ballard’s novels of suburbia, and especially “The Unlimited Dream Company” and “Kingdom Come”, that we need to use our imagination or we will be devoured by somebody else’s imagination (all too graphically devoured in UDC!). In a sense, the problematic that Sinclair and Ballard address is the same, but their ways of finding a way out are different … to simplify, Ballard’s starting point is typically to accept the external and then initiate change from the internal. But perhaps it’s moot how much Sinclair’s “creation of mythologies”, if that’s what it is, really differs from Ballard.

  6. Jolly good, Henry. Have a biscuit.

  7. […] David Cunningham’s 2007 essay on Iain Sinclair, J.G. Ballard and the contemporary novel has been posted by Simon Sellars on his splendid website The Ballardian. Read it here. […]

  8. […] [4] Nearly twenty years on, such a poetics is re-iterated in Sinclair’s essay ‘The Shamanism of Intent’, in which the contemporary shaman’s ’sickness-vocation’ is explicitly defined as the capacity to ‘re- enchant place’ through ‘working ….. John Howe (London & New York: Verso, 1995), pp. 77-8. See also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 216-7; Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co, Modern Architecture/2, trans. …Continued […]

  9. […] The areas peripheral to great airports are identical all over the world. You can land at any airport these days and for the first twenty minutes, as you take your cab, you go through a landscape that is identical…  read more […]

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