There’s a whole lot more on this over at the sublime BLDGBLOG. There the blogger supposes “Alternatively, you could create a videogame that reprograms itself as it’s played â€“ forming new and unique levels, none of which ever repeats itself â€“ and the maps you try to make… look like these.” Which is an element of what Hellgate: London promises… but can it deliver?
Hmm, so I was a little bit opaque in last weekâ€™s ramble, at least when I hit the parts about suburban life in the developed world. A few people picked up on what I was getting at, while others saw me as yet another writer going for the easy caricature of the suburbs as bland and homogenised.
Perhaps I was – it’s fun to poke at the soft belly of the middling classes. But I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a crude stereotype, and itâ€™s certainly not one that I want to deploy carelessly. Because I’m a permanent resident of these residential districts and Iâ€™ve never really lived in a big city. Iâ€™m not a metropolitan head scoffing at the ring-development masses: I am one of those plump suburbanites, and I enjoy writing and talking about the culture and predicament of the people who share my world. It’s clear that there is an enormous economy of weirdness and variety in suburbia, and we see that in the best reporting, as well as the best fiction. A cursory examination of contemporary culture unearths all kinds of strangeness in the ‘burbs. You donâ€™t have to look far to see it. There are plenty of writers and commentators who do understand the richness of what suburbia provides for the modern imagination.* In fact the best book of 2002, and possibly the century so far, was about the M25 and all the de-centralised life that spills around it. London Orbital is a churning, ugly mosaic of a book. Sentence by sentence genius and a blisteringly magical examination of the commercial estates and cul-de-sacs. The fact that I’ve taken more from that piece of writing than thousands of pages of more outlandish writing says something, I’m just not sure what.
Anyway, I have the distinct delight of living just outside the orbit of London, in the disorganised and plan-free suburbia of a British market town. Itâ€™s an area of obvious, over-stated history, quite unlike the near-timeless residentially revised landscapes of many American suburbs.
The psychological effect of living in these different places is part of what interests writers like Sinclair. But there’s another side to it: this is what interests me about the diversity of suburbia – that there are always strong themes that bridge the differences between suburbs, no matter how diverse. Each might have its own idiosyncrasies, ethnicities and esoteric topographies, but there is also a shared need to live life free of major disturbance. Suburbanites quietly conspire to create existences that are padded and protected from what goes out outside their area of concern. Most of us want to remain safe and comfortable. And we want our loves ones to be safe and comfortable. And we can afford for them to be: this is why were are here, grounded in suburbia, away from a certain level of noise and influence that is inevitable in cities. (Raising a family, swelling up like clumps of moss.)
These kinds of concerns are what create the enormous gravity of suburban existence. And it is gravity â€“ gravity that levels and brings things to rest. As if, as Aristotle explained, it were the force that simply puts things where they were meant to be.
Thereâ€™s a lot of that with suburbia. You get people complaining about large buildings, industrial structures, even energy-saving windmills. But quiet suburban houses generally remain free of criticism, as if we accept them as a given. They seem like they were meant to be there: people need somewhere to live, after all. Why not here? That string of bungalows has far less impact on the scope of our thought and vision than that block of flats, even though their power, their reach, their gravity, may be far greater.
Yeah, the gravity of the suburbs is what causes the desperation I mentioned elsewhere. There is an element of homogenization and blandness, because there has to be control for us to get on with whiling away our years in moderate comfort. There has to be some sit-down-and-shut-the-fuck-up in order for families to feel safe and unpredated by a larger world. And so, as a University lecturer said to an eighteen-year old me in an off-the-cuff manner, â€œitâ€™s taken for granted that the middling classes will accept a bit of oppression if it means they get their peace and quietâ€. It shocked me to hear someone say that. Iâ€™d never thought about it before. But it was self-evident, and appalling. And it is accepted. Hell, for all my snide journalistic remarks, my political postings, my membership of activist groups and contributions to charities, Iâ€™m still glad of the control and the quiet. Glad of the gravity that keeps events in my backwater in check.
Perhaps thatâ€™s my real point about the Ballardian future of boredom. No matter how outlandish or leftfield you or I, or anyone else wants to be, the majority are still pulled in by the larger project of making as many people as possible comfortable for the short time they are alive. Thatâ€™s pretty much been the task of the West since the Enlightenment. A utilitarian project, what sensible and boring writers took from Mill and Bentham. We find ourselves annulled and distracted.
So we are set to be bored on a grand scale. Itâ€™s why ephemeral things have become so important: constant superficial change keeps the mind busy, keeps the dust from settling. (Dust?)
Hereâ€™s an apt extract from Georges Barnanoâ€™s Diary Of A Country Priest:
â€œSo I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this â€“ one does not see it immediately. It is like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it and it is so fine that it does not even scrunch between oneâ€™s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off. That is why people are so restless.â€
Thatâ€™s where the desperation comes in, because in the conspiracy to keep life okay for the suburbanites there are people getting lost. People are searching desperately for something to them interested, distracted, engaged.
What does that even mean? Part of the problem with this is the formlessness of the predicament suburbia faces. This kind of boundless boredom is not romantic or dangerous, and itâ€™s not even properly defined. Lars Svendsenâ€™s A Philosophy of Boredom sums up the vagueness of the subject quite astutely: â€œBoredom lacks the charm of melancholy â€“ a charm that is connected to melancholyâ€™s traditional link to wisdom, sensitivity and beauty. For that reason, boredom is less attractive to aesthetes. It also lacks the obvious serious of depression, so it is less interesting to psychiatrists and psychologists. Compared to depression or melancholy boredom seems too trivial or vulgar to warrant a thorough investigation.â€
Boredom, though, is the important problem for suburban communities. Thatâ€™s part of the reason why many of the fashionable subjects that are bounced around by the technophiles and futurologists are simply irrelevant: because so much of what is about to happen in the next century will be based around the suburban bored â€“ people who donâ€™t travel beyond packages to Barcelona, and only understand these new technologies to the extent to which it alleviates their boredom. They are the filter feeders, and their stories could end up being the important ones in the next hundred years.
*JG Ballardâ€™s short story The Enormous Space is probably my favourite â€˜lost at home in suburbiaâ€™ fable. It was recently turned into a short film on the BBC, â€˜Homeâ€™.
JG Ballard at full power in The Guardian, with some extended architecture riffs on bunkers and the like:
The Atlantic wall was only part of a huge system of German fortifications that included the Siegfried line, submarine pens and huge flak towers that threatened the surrounding land like lines of Teutonic knights. Almost all had survived the war and seemed to be waiting for the next one, left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death.
Death was what the Atlantic wall and Siegfried line were all about. Whenever I came across these grim fortifications along France’s Channel coast and German border, I realised I was exploring a set of concrete tombs whose dark ghosts haunted the brutalist architecture so popular in Britain in the 1950s. Out of favour now, modernism survives in every high-rise sink estate of the time, in the Barbican development and the Hayward Gallery in London, in new towns such as Cumbernauld and the ziggurat residential blocks at the University of East Anglia.
But modernism of the heroic period, from 1920 to 1939, is dead, and it died first in the blockhouses of Utah beach and the Siegfried line. Yet in its heyday between the wars, modernism was a vast utopian project, and perhaps the last utopian project we will ever see, now that we are well aware that all utopias have their dark side.
This one is definitely worth a read.
And just for reference this is a drawing of one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons (referenced by JGB):
And this is an essay by Aldous Huxley about such things:
It is said that the first idea of the Prisons came to Piranesi in the delirium of fever. What is certain, however, is that this first idea was not the last; for some of the etchings exist in early states, in which many of the most characteristic and disquieting details of the Prisons we now know are lacking. From this it is to be inferred that the state of mind expressed by these etchings was, in Piranesi, chronic and in some sort normal. Fever may originally have suggested the Prisons; but in the years which elapsed between Piranesi’s first essays and the final publication of the plates, recurrent moods of confusion and acedia and angst must have been responsible for such obscure but, as we now see, indispensable symbols as the ropes, the aimless engines, the makeshift wooden stairs and bridges.
This sculpture is a 16-stringed, 6ft, pendulum-shaped instrument, with a stainless steel resonating chamber, that is suspended from the ceiling and played using a cello bow to bring out upper partials. The Stamenphone hums and wails empyrean melodies, evocative of whales and cellos and mermaid songs.
It does sound pretty remarkable.
Via Kircher Society.
6am. And 1000 years too early.
That was a bit of a strange week. Some psycho-drama nonsense going on with friends and relationships, lots of time spent thinking about 21st century life and how Northern Europe can manage to be quite so cold and grey. Also caring for a sick cat.
Other things too, oblique and yet central to current projects: the churning vitality of central London restaurants, the vast silent vaults behind huge buildings in the West End. Archives, institutions, massive preservation set against my usual storm of ephemera. Games and MP3s that dissolve into nothing in the space of afternoon. I fire off another 1000 words on something with a colon’d name “Super War: Battles Of Fire”, writing a quick 6/10 epitaph, as if thatâ€™s my way of forgetting this thing exists. We have to move on.
Itâ€™s been useful to listen to the likes of Bruce Sterling talk (22mb mp3) about their contemporary future perspective out there in Austin. Sterling seems to have created this intellectual techno-future fantasy and made it a reality for himself and thin tier of peers. Iâ€™m there with the borderless human-amongst-the-data-flow stuff, and yet I not comfortable with Sterling’s way of talking about it. No matter how anchored these speeches are intended to be, they still seem to miss something. Sterling is hyper-nerdesque, but also politically driven and observant. Heâ€™s paradoxical to listen to: excitingly aware and yet missing something crucial. What? I donâ€™t know what. I think heâ€™s getting an outsider perspective, but one that delivers its sermons from a tight-knit club of outsiders, all of whom share a certain ideological filter. Their mirror of the world has a certain sheen that worries me.
Echoes of Josh Ellisâ€™ Grim Meathook, I suppose. But itâ€™s not that which really concerns me. Iâ€™m more concerned by the way all this stuff (from the bright shiny geek theory to the starving refugee story) slides off the suburbs and backwaters of the developed world. I canâ€™t help thinking the strongest aphorisms of the 21st century arenâ€™t to be found in Sterlingâ€™s â€˜nation borders are like speedbumpsâ€™ and â€˜Iâ€™m living out of my laptopâ€™, or any of the grim analysis about disease and prejudicial madness in the poorest regions. Instead I find myself catching the occasional observations made about a rather more mundane future faced by millions â€“ the Ballardian future of local boredom and widespread repetition. Itâ€™s The New Quiet Desperation, these masses. Theyâ€™re working in the offices and commuting home to a hillside development near Canterbury. Itâ€™s a small suburban home. Hermitic and yet engulfed. Fish out the mobile phone and order three types of vegetarian pizza (illusion of comparative health value judgement in junkfood) to eat while watching Lost, or Invasion or some other sophisticated entertainment. And these middling classes need to be distracted, so theyâ€™re all getting good at filter feeding: weâ€™re bottom dwellers, down in the cultural silt â€“ rapidly getting sensitive enough to root out the most nutritious, the most interesting sediment, the most worthwhile jetsam that floats down from the higher strata. And it doesnâ€™t have to have a jot of intellectual bulk, we can live on spectacle alone. As long as the flow is steady.
Cutting back to my hack work and I wonder if thatâ€™s why videogames are â€˜a little bit of the futureâ€™. If society is going through disorder and fundamentalist to reach a homogenous bland of a balanced future, then the parts of the world that have the time and technology will need to find ways to sink emotional excess into something exciting and escapist. If weâ€™re going to be calm and quiet while we wait for the rest of the world to finish tearing itself to pieces then weâ€™re going to need profound distractions, re-useable distractions. Themeparks arenâ€™t versatile or lazy enough, books are too much like edification. And we do need to waste time on needless adventure â€“ the crazies are all doing itâ€¦ and donâ€™t we envy their release?
Take a look at this beautifully documented photo essay of the hi-rise architecture of Hong Kong, by Michael Wolf.