Saturday, 29 January 2011

Tokyo Compression

Alienation is one obvious masterplot in which to fix Tokyo Compression, Michael Wolf’s unsettling, voyeuristic images from the Odakyu line.

This certainly is how I first read these photographs, and how at first I framed them for others. his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind...the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another…the worker’s activity [is] not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self... (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts)

There’s no doubt Tokyo Compression provide us with a shock of recognition. Here’s one part of Tokyo’s “deep acidic loneliness…the city full of lonely people”, an unsettlingly specific catalogue of one part of everyday life which, to work, requires a sort of generalized lack of specificity, as commuters avoid eye contact or acknowledgement of physical presence in order to make it all bearable.

Rail networks link and connect, too; they’re prime sites for thinking through movements of people and goods, the working of a city and “the coordination of existential data (the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality.” These are images from a basic unit of Tokyo experience.

But masterplots lay traps. I sent these images on to a friend in Tokyo and got an angry response in return. She rejected the pity and disgust these photos worked to programme, the way they framed her as an outsider peering in on others, trapped like animals in a zoo display, presented without any agency or chance for choice or activity of their own.

I’d missed one obvious way of reading, mislaid by my own masterplot into a naïve, and patronising, underreading.

There is, to be sure, an ethical discomfort we should feel as viewers here: these are photos of people who clearly were uncomfortable being photographed (something Wolf has acknowledged and attempted to think through), and photos which place us in a very specific – externalised, cooly distanced – relation to what we’re gazing in at.

Remember, though: Glotzen ist nicht sehen.

I’d missed another point.

The city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time…Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequence of events leading up to it, the memory of past experience. (Lynch)

These are images at pains to stress their own framing and devised nature – beautiful, certainly, in their use of stray detail and compression to ‘hold’ a moment – and that very self-consciousness sets off other questions.

Where’s the movement? Trains contain commuters, but they also carry them: they transport, they connect. A nicely practical aesthetic question, then: what does it mean to look at still shots like this, to see a rail network as it stops? What might be missing?

That becomes another way of asking, as I think more on it, about the possibilities of seeing alienation on its own, or whether we need to reach for the wider, dynamic totality of which it’s a part. That’s one way of saying there’s more to cities:

To be modern…is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. (Marshall Berman)

Like everyone else I have felt the also the chaos of the metro and the traffic jam; the monotony of the ranks of houses; the aching press of strange crowds. But this is not an experience at all, not an adult experience, until it has come to include also the dynamic movement, in these centres of settled and often magnificant achievement. (Raymond Williams)

Is that, finally, then, again a question of politics?

The reactionary nature of any realist aesthetics today is inseperable from this commodity character. Tending to reinforce, affirmatively, the phenomenal surface of society, realism dismisses any attempt to penetrate that surface as a romantic endeavour…Film is faced with the dilemma of finding a procedure which neither lapses into arts-and-crafts nor slips into a mere documentary mode. (Adorno)

The rail unions in Japan are about to start their annual Spring Offensive. That points towards another masterplot, of course, and one I wouldn’t know how to narrate off these images. I’ve left them hanging here, with counter-quotations which came to mind as I bothered over my friend’s reply, and the shallowness of my own first way of seeing, as a way of trying to keep the questions which came up at work. They’re hard questions, but old ones.


Thanks for Michael Wolf for permission to reproduce these images, and to David McNeill, who drew my attention to them in the first place. You can buy Tokyo Compresion here.

The line on Tokyo as the "city full of lonely people" is from Carl Shuker’s masterpiece The Method Actors, p. 126.

The Adorno quote is from “Transperencies on Film”, in J M Berstein (ed), The Culture Industry (Routledge, 2001), p. 182.

Marshall Berman, All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity (Penguin, 1982), p. 345.

Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (MIT Press, 1960), p. 1

Williams, The Country and the City (Paladin, 1975), pp. 14 – 15.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Rent Due for a Skull

This is a political parable,
a harbour at low tide.

Like most self-absorbed bookish people, I was a particularly narcissitic and introverted youngster. Who am I? is, naturally, every teenager’s favourite question, and one with a particular charge for those of us located in social formations shaped by white settler colonialism.

This painting helped with that query, and it still does.

Dunedin Public Library bought McCahon’s Otago Peninsula in 1947, shortly after it was first shown at Modern Books, and it’s been with them ever since. In the late 1990s and early 200s I worked at the library and, each day, made sure I’d look at this painting. It moved me intensely then, and still does, as much for what it represents as for its own artistic achievement.

What it represents is where, more or less, I’m from, and is the part of the world I feel the greatest attachment to, but McCahon’s appeal as a tool for teenaged myth-making suggests other, more symptomatic, affiliations for me now.

Most obviously, there are no people. That’s self-absorption again, sure (“people seemed rather profane”), but also it indicates a choice in political fantasies: South Island myth instead of “natural occupancy”. The fit between personal story and wider ideology seems so neat now, the gestures of affiliation so dishonest, I’m struck by how strongly they’re still felt.

Because, of course, this isn’t a landscape without people at all. The road out along the peninsula was built by convict labour and those convicts were prisoners of a one-sided war, victims of the government’s attack on the settlement at Parihaka in Taranaki. Prophets Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi led resistance to land confiscations and the assaults of the Crown on their people’s land.

The response, as today’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage gloss it:

In 1879 the government began to survey 16,000 acres of the confiscated Waimate Plain without setting aside Maori reserves. In response, Maori, led by Te Whiti and Tohu, began ploughing land occupied by settlers. Arrests followed, but the pace of protest continued to grow. Parihaka became a symbol for many Maori, and its people received food and other supplies from many tribes throughout the country – including those as far away as the Chatham Islands.

On 5 November 5 1881 a force of almost 1,600 Armed Constabulary and volunteers, led by Native Minister John Bryce, invaded Parihaka. The Maori inhabitants, numbering about 2,000, put up no resistance. Instead they greeted Bryce and his men with bread and song. They were dispersed and Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested. The soldiers then systematically wrecked the settlement, and Maori tradition speaks of brutality and rape.

We visisted the memorial to the fallen on our way out to Taiaroa Head.

Their followers were scattered in convict gangs around the country. In Otago they were kept, in what must have been awful - and awfully cold and dark - conditions, and many of them died building the road out to Portobello.

You can still see the secure doors into the hillside, reminders of this act of confiscation and war.

I’m shocked, and chastened, to think how often I’ve been driven unthinking past these signs of colonialism’s recent - and unresolved - foundational acts of violence.

In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.

Colonial violence manages to be both pervasive and invisible. Here is the memorial to the dead and their unmarked graves, in the Northern Cemetery not far from my parents’ house, and on the way to my old high school.

Recognising that, and reflecting on its implications for what comes next, is essential. Most of the sneering done against white liberal guilt is part of a rear-guard action opposing not guilt but recognition of historical wrong (cf local variations on what Paul Gilroy calls postcolonial melancholia). You can’t feel for this part of the world and not learn to see it historically; I can’t think back on my earlier veneration for McCahon’s Otago Peninsula without seeing now some unconscious evasion.

But this isn’t enough, is it? Guilt paralyses, disabling more productive political responses (to say nothing of ‘white’ or ‘liberal’, two other terms I’d reject for reasons I’ll leave for another day). And I still love that painting, and for some of the reasons I first loved it too. Recognition of historical wrong-doing is essential, as is reparation from those responsible and, within our movement, support for the struggle which continues. Remembering all the variations on “the stain of blood that writes an island story” is one task but isn’t, on its own, enough.

Another peninsula memory suggests itself. This season last year, just back from Tokyo, in Dunedin for a friend’s wedding, we stayed overnight at a crib (holiday house) at Ōtākou. It was a marvelous night: swimming in early evening sunlight, enjoying a barbeque, drinking and talking with friends under the stars. It’s hard to think of many other situations where people of the kind I know could afford a beach-front holiday house. That party and that largely Pākehā gathering’s relaxed sociability was possible, though, because we were on Maori land. I mean this quite literally: it's Ngāi Tahu land. Te Runaka o Ōtākou administer the land on which the cribs are leased, and it is their conditions - no fences, no expensive developments, accessibility - which makes the area so affordable and friendly, a centre with a rich history of working-class holidaying and recreation (my own grandparents in the 1960s had something similar). Ōtākou is a centre for Kai Tahu, of course, and, from it, they’ve created quite special possibilities for Pākehā.

That particular hospitality is not an experience from which I want to generalize too glibly but, given the status of the foreshore in current New Zealand politics, it feels like one which matters.

So that, readers, is how I spent my summer.

A Note on the South Island Myth

Since it’s deployed in the more-or-less orthodox fashion above, I’m putting a wee note here to indicate it’s more complicated than all that (all that being, among other things, Stephen Turner’s line from Quicksands we all seem forever to be quoting about how “the will to forget the trauma of dislocation and unsettlement has taken the form of a psychic structure”). There’s much more at work. See Richard Reeve’s very thoughtful piece on the myth and contemporary poetry.

I should also make it clear here, if the text above isn’t, that what I’m criticizing is my own initial imaginative investments in McCahon, not McCahon’s own relationship with Te Ao Maori, some of the tragic complexity of which Ian Wedde has explored elsewhere.