I was interviewed and quoted by the Guardian‘s Christopher Knaus in his August 12 feature article Divide and rule? Gap grows between Sydney’s haves and have-lesses.
- An occasional series on the work of Iain Sinclair
The book Rodinsky’s Room (1999) is a collaboration between Iain Sinclair and British writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein. By focusing on Sinclair, it is not my intention to marginalise Lichtenstein’s contribution to the book and to he project behind it. Rather, I am using Sinclair’s treatment of David Rodinsky and his room as a way of assessing Sinclair’s larger, ongoing project on spectral London.
David Rodinsky, a member of London’s East End Jewish community, left his lodgings above the synagogue in Princelet Street, Spitalfields in 1967 and never returned. His room was discovered, untouched since his disappearance, more than a decade later. As motif, Rodinsky’s room travels throughout Sinclair’s work, and the book with Lichtenstein marks the apotheosis of an enduring fascination that began, in written form at least, with an article in the Guardian in the late 1980s. This article was later re-written as fiction to as a chapter in the novel Downriver (1991). Sinclair then turned the Rodinsky story back into non-fiction with references in Liquid City (1999), and in two dedicated volumes: the joint work with Lichtenstein, and a shorter small-press non-fiction Dark Lanthorns: Rodinsky’s A-Z (1999) which reimagines Rodinsky as a psychogeographer. Pieces of these numerous textual Rodinskys re-appear in a short story, ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’ (2000), in the non-fiction London Orbital (2002), and in the novel Dining on Stones (2004). Sinclair’s edited volume City of Disappearances (2006) shares the Rodinsky book’s approach to historiography, and even though its remit is far wider can thus be viewed as connected to the body of work on Rodinsky.
At its heart, Rodinsky’s Room is a ghost story (with elements of the detective genre) that is intimately connected with the social, cultural, and spatial history of the Jewish East End. Sinclair’s preoccupation with the spectral has not gone unnoticed, with critic Ian Penman (2001) noting, ‘Sinclair writes ghost stories, of a sort: whatever his subject, there is always a low, persistent note of something mourned, spectral, lost.’ I’m not so interested in the tropes of the spectral in Sinclair’s writing. I want, instead, to suggest that Sinclair’s deployment of the spectral —and I am including references to the occult within the category of the spectral—has a number of objectives.
When I was researching the Sydney chapter of Markets, places, cities, I came across a speech delivered in 1971 by Frank Lowy, founder of the global shopping centre behemoth Westfield, and republished in Australian Property Journal in 2006. In his speech Lowy situated shopping centres within a genealogy of urban marketplaces, declaring that ‘Shopping centres are essentially market places’. For Lowy, the shopping centre was not only the technological and teleological evolution of the market, it was the modern market place. When Westfield started building in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1950s, they were keen to emulate some of the sensory characteristics and experiences of place in markets (‘‘The shopping centre makes it possible for all who enter its exciting atmosphere to participate … to share an experience … through the visual, aural and touch senses’), as well as the functions of markets as sites of community and sociality. The picture that Lowy drew was of a socially inclusive space and place that met both tangible and intangible community needs.
The centre involves people of all ages – it makes provision for all age groups.
A shopping expedition is no longer a bore to children for the shopping centre touches their imagination as well. There are nurseries, playgrounds and all kinds of entertainment. Teenagers make it their gathering point. Their tastes in clothes, music and food are catered to. It is the hub of their suburban life.
From their inception, shopping centres in Australian suburbs included civic spaces such as community radio broadcast facilities, childcare centres, and open spaces (central atria and courtyards, rooftop gardens) where (potential) consumers could pass the time.
Westfield Southland, which was opened in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham in 1968, had a tranquil garden on its rooftop. However, by 2000, the garden was gone and the shopping centre had spread across the Nepean Highway via a pedestrian bridge to take over the former Lucas factory site. (Incidentally, after the Lucas factory shut down, a short-lived market was built on the site.) The current scale of the complex and its virtually non-existent interaction with the local streets and built environment, except as conduits to its car parks, are the antithesis of a marketplace.
When I first moved to the Randwick municipality, I was surprised that both my local library and early childhood health centre were located in a local shopping centre. The history of shopping centres in Australian cities illustrates that situating civic spaces within such a milieu is hardly unusual. It is also makes sense in that contemporary shopping centres in major urban centres in Australia are regulated environments, which means they are often clean, climate-controlled, well-lit and the presence of other consumers and visitors reassures and enhances a feeling of security. If you are not put off by artificial light, shiny surfaces, loud music, and the insistent multi-sensory clamour of consumer culture, their conditions provide good spaces for civic services. Walking through another shopping centre as a casual observer recently, I noticed that it was a site of lively, everyday conviviality where a diverse mix of people sat chatting in the few seating areas provided and in the cafes set up in the thoroughfares between shops. I could see that there were correlations between the shopping centre and the marketplace, as Frank Lowy asserted.
However, shopping centres are also quite different places to local markets. As has been noted widely in the literature on contemporary urban space, the shopping centre’s ambivalent status between public and private is problematic, particularly for whose capacity to engage actively with consumer culture is limited – groups like the elderly, the socially and economically disadvantaged, homeless people and teenagers. Moral panics regarding anti-social behaviour become the impetus to discourage or even prohibit certain groups from congregating, and ‘hanging out’ can very easily be reframed as ‘loitering’, and even criminalised.The primary social, spatial and material rationale for the shopping centre is consumption. Even if other types of making take place there simultaneously, they are subsequent to this overriding factor.
On the other hand, local markets and marketplaces form part of the consumer ecology in cities and towns, but they serve many purposes outside of consumption, a situation that is acknowledged,and even encouraged to varying degrees, by market vendors, consumers and managers alike. In Markets, places, cities, I talk about the atmospheres that emerge from place in markets.The atmosphere of the market comes not solely from the goods on sale and the presence of shoppers, but from multiple forms of making that emerge from correspondences between practices, materials, bodies, spatial relations, senses, affects and so on. (I am borrowing from Tim Ingold here with my thoughts on making.) The atmosphere of the market, which has multi-sensory dimensions, is frequently evoked when the marketplace is described in reportage, literature, visual culture and so on.
The shopping centre makes gestures towards atmosphere through its lighting, sound, climate control, visual cues. However, these are teleologically directed towards consumption, and as such a product. Atmosphere can only ever be accidentally emergent in the highly regulated environment of the mall, even when a marketplace is reproduced within it specifically for the purpose of creating and providing atmosphere and place.
On my first day at Frontyard, it is hard to sit in one place and write when there are places to explore here in the building,
outside on the street,and further afield in Marrickville.
Frontyard has set up in a building owned by the erstwhile Marrickville Council (now the Inner West Council, but that’s another story). Prior to its use as an arts space, the building was an early childhood health centre. When I mentioned on FB that I was going to be in residence here, one friend, a long-time resident of the area, commented that she had ‘spent many a teary time’ here when her now teenage daughter was a baby. She also pointed out that across the road is the SDN childcare centre, which was established in 1944 to provide care for the children of local female factory workers. The construction of the SDN building was funded by Marrickville Council and through fundraising by the local community.
These two spaces form part of the infrastructure of community in Marrickville, and in establishing an independent multi-disciplinary community arts space, Frontyard has recommissioned the building for the continued provision of that infrastructure. The types of making going on here go beyond conventional notions of what the role or function of the gallery or studio space might be. One of the directors told me that when they participated in the Marrickville Open Studio Trail (MOST) earlier this year, visitors were perplexed and disappointed upon walking into the space. They wanted to know ‘where is the art’? Frontyard is, above all, concerned with the future of the arts as grounded, emplaced practice and theory within wider communities, and part of that involves decommissioning the arts from the discursive positions into which it has been forced by neo-liberal political and cultural economies.
To recommission something is to give it a new commission or to validate an existing commission. It can also mean to put something back in service, thereby undoing decommissioning. Decommissioning can mean to take out of service or to render unusable; to remove or revoke a commission; or to remove or revoke a formal designation. There are multiple instances and intersections of recommissioning and decommissioning, both material and metaphorical, happening at Frontyard. I am sitting in one of the health centre’s old consulting rooms at a table with metal legs and a wood-grain veneer, which has surely been decommissioned from an institutional interior. From my chair at the recommissioned table, I am looking directly at a decommissioned heater that, design-wise, looks like it dates from the time of the building’s construction, (which Anna-Bella Silva at the Marrickville Council Archives tells me was in 1955).Another more overt example of recommissioning is the Australia Council’s research library, which has found a post-decommission home at Frontyard.Browsing its shelves I find a copy of Peter Read’s book Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership, the opening words of which ask, ‘How can we non-Indigenous Australians justify our continuous presence […] while […] Indigenous people remain dispossessed and their history unacknowledged?’ (Read, 2000, p.1). It is impossible to write about place in Marrickville (as it is to talk about place in Sydney, in Australia, and in other settler societies) without acknowledging the violence of displacement; in this case, of the Cadigal Wangal people. Read’s question is therefore directly linked to the task I’ve set myself whilst in residence here: to decommission discourses of place – particularly those attached to urban transformation, development and renewal – which efface or negate existing place, and which seek to install or produce places that re-affirm hegemonic agendas. Concurrently, I want to recommission place as a phenomenon emergent from processes of making that (with thanks to Tim Ingold) entail entanglement and correspondence between bodies, senses, spaces, materials and affects, and which are infinitely generative. Frontyard is an example of this kind of place.
One of the things I enjoy observing while walking a neighbourhood is the names of older apartment blocks. Some of the associations they bring up are unfortunate, like this one, which with its combination of name and spiked balcony design makes me think of Cromwell’s murderous rampage through Ireland and heads on stakes.
Others are in cool lettering and are often poetic or literary. They draw from a different set of references to the aspirational (‘prime’ , ‘icon’), literal (‘evoke’) or punning (‘divercity’) names given to contemporary developments. Mostly, these new names are all in lower or upper case, as if proper nouns are yesterday’s technology. They are spelt out in shiny, reflective signage which conforms to the charcoal palette that visually dominates Sydney’s built environment these days.
Some older ones can be quite literal, too, in their circumspection:
And many are still aspirational:
But many draw from the poetics of place and the material world, linguistically and in their design.
Sometimes they are named after people, mostly women. Maybe an homage to a loved one of the original developer? Or the name that they imagined for the type of woman who might live there?
One of my favourite genres of building names is those that deploy a particular set of associated place-images to produce meaning and place that are quite remote from the design or the architecture.
Below is my all-time favourite. It is poetic and deeply embedded in the material world at the same time.
This is a version of a paper that I gave at the Global Garbage conference hosted by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis’ (ASCA) Cities Project in Paris last year. It is included in the collection Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment, to be published by Routledge in December 2015.
At the end of each day, very little rubbish remains on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s affluent and middle-class suburbs. Through the night and early morning phalanxes of sanitation workers and scavengers, working in both the informal and formal economies, sort and clean up much of it. Some of that rubbish is handpicked and re-classified as waste, and bound for secondary markets where it can be sold and bought anew (Coletto, 2010). Informal and formal secondhand or ‘flea’ markets are a node within this network of secondary economies that generates valuable social, economic, and material infrastructure in cities (Evers & Seale, 2014; UNHabitat, 2010).
From 1979 until the end of 2013, the Feira de Antiguidades da Praça XV set up every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in an otherwise unused channel of land hemmed in on the sides and from above by roadways. The flea market took its name from a nearby square, Praça XV de Novembro, that is both national monument and tourist destination. The square and the area occupied by its namesake market are incorporated in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cultural Corridor’, a central urban precinct geographically demarcated because of its heritage and cultural attributes (del Rio and de Alcantara, 2009). Following Mary Douglas’ (1966) influential formulation, the flea market is ‘matter-out-of-place’ because it is at odds with the official place-image (Shields, 1991: 61-62) of historic, touristic Praça XV, and of Rio de Janeiro itself as an egalitarian, modern metropolis (Seale, 2014). The market’s conspicuous display of waste in the street resists hegemonic projections of what constitutes liveability in urban contexts (Coletto, 2010: 59). This, combined with the visible congregation at the city’s political, financial and cultural centre of market’s community of ‘urban outcasts’ who are usually pushed to the social and spatial peripheries of the city (Wacquant, 2008), is interpreted by some as a failure of urban governance (Hiebert, Rath and Vertovec, 2014). However, counter to the secondhand market’s discursive positioning within the representational and material orders of the city, Feira da Praça XV instigates order in an arena where many assume there is none to be found. The market as a space, a set of practices, and a community reinstitutes order amongst previously discarded objects through inventory, exhibition, and above all, commodification. The vendors at the market are entrepreneurial (Seale, 2014), re-incorporating waste back into circuits of exchange in a process that provides employment and waste management for the city.
We are socially and culturally pre-disposed to view waste pejoratively (Elias 1978; LaPorte, 2000). Some of our rationale for marginalising it may have sound physiological basis. Nevertheless, waste is an obligatory, insistent, and above all, valorised component of global, neo-liberal capitalism. Waste is neither abject, nor excessive; rather it sustains capitalism’s growth. We might even say, as David Trotter does, that in capitalism ‘the success of the enterprise can be measured by the waste-matter it produces, by the efficiency with which it separates out and excludes whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes.’ (2000: 22) As indications of the status quo, we can look to the existence of a globalised industry whose driver is the management and movement of the catastrophic amounts of material waste we produce, or to the deliberate configuration of products to deteriorate or to become technologically or stylistically obsolete. To be measured successful, such industries and innovations are dependent on generating increasing amounts of waste. The disconnect between waste’s symbolic role and waste’s actualised role in global capitalism is what I understand to be the paradox of waste. Through diagrammatic reference to Feira da Praça XV, I aim to construct a theory of waste that acknowledges this paradox. Continue reading “rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste”
It’s been 20 years since Marc Augé’s work on non-places, or the spaces of super-modernity, was published in English. The non-place is a space which is ‘formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure).’ (Augé, 1995, 94) In other words, the non-place functions as a conduit for flows of human and material capital; it is negotiated, as opposed to inhabited, and as such it inhibits the development of, or identification with place.
The volume of bodies passing through it leave little impression, and in turn, those who pass through this space are left unmarked by their contact with it. The non-place is ultimately absurd because it is replete with the physical presence of humanity while effacing human inter-relations with the material environment. Jacques Tati in his 1967 film Playtime used the non-place – the airport, the office block, the hotel foyer, the convention centre – to comment on the absurdity of modernity and on the society of the urban spectacle (in a far more charming way than Guy Debord).
In Playtime the contemporary city is an agglomeration of non-places that eliminate the local and domestic, and by extension, the personal and the intimate. Playtime’s opening is set in a space that has characteristics of an airport, yet could be any other non-place where people are instructed by functionaries and signs on how to maximise the efficiency of flows. In this scene, language that is articulated outside the language of the bureaucratic and the regulatory is a global patois, belonging to nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
The airport is therefore a non-place par excellence. With the explosion in global travel, and increasing numbers of people moving through these non-places, airport designers have attempted to make the transit time experience more distinctive or pleasurable without really moving beyond the leisure/entertainment/consumption paradigm. Airports now have cinemas, swimming pools, koi ponds, butterfly enclosures, and giant slides. Some of these are articulated within a discourse of the local; for instance, locally inflected souvenir shops, chain stores, or services – such as a Thai massage at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. On the whole, however, these local iterations are placed within an infrastructure and architecture of consumption and mobility that connotes the global in its design and delivery.
At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (also known as Tokyo International Airport), the reference point for place within the archetypal non-place is the market. Haneda’s Edo Marketplace models the standard formula of airport consumer culture (shopping and eating) on the intimate scale of a market street in Edo-period (17th century) Tokyo. Dining options that offer yatai or Japanese street food can be eaten under the Nipponbashi Temple Bridge in emulation of a marketplace experience.
The spectrum of consumer options is typical for an airport, and their presentation is themed as historical, and therefore as belonging to a past urban landscape. However, the small wooden shopfronts with noren hanging at the entrance, and their organisation along narrow alleyways approximates the spaces and scale of the contemporary built environment one encounters in the backstreets of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods like Asakusa.
The market, as it is conceived in Haneda airport, is nostalgic, yet the involvement of architect Yoshiaki Nakamura, a specialist from Kyoto in Sukiya-zukuri design and craft, suggests a serious engagement with the construction of the market’s ‘streetscapes’, rather than merely creating a scene of historical re-enactment.
Edo Marketplace’s deployment of the scale, practices, and spaces of the local market is surprisingly successful in distinguishing Haneda from the average airport. Indeed, the airport’s experiment with place is ongoing through the staging of the festival, the market’s counterpart. The notion of a festival in an airport might seem bizarre at first, but if we think about it, the carnivalesque of the festival, its licenced, topsy turvy inversion of the hegemonic, is completely apposite for such a highly regulated environment.
Auge, M. (1995) Non-places. London: Verso.
Tati, J. (1967) Playtime.
Markets can help establish a sense of place for those who have been violently uprooted from their homes:
‘But perhaps the biggest complaint is the lack of bustle that would naturally accompany a larger population.
“Azraq still needs to get that sense of community,” said Andrew Harper, the top official with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan.
In addition to the more than 80,000 Syrians at Zaatari, a bustling street market created and run by the refugees has contributed to what aid officials and refugees call a sense of “dignity.”
“The market is where people meet and drink tea,” said Jina Krause-Vilmar, director at the Near East Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping vulnerable communities. “It’s where a sense of community is established.”
The street market at Azraq would go a long way toward relieving the bleakness, but it remains unopened […].’
There is a creative work by British artist Tacita Dean that pre-empts FILM, her critically acclaimed 2011 commission for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Kodak (2006) captures on film the last days of production at the Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saône. It is a mesmeric memento mori for the obsolescent technology of film, which is, of course, self-reflexively implicated and reflected in the almost extinct practices it records. Given Dean’s artistic and academic interest in the writings of W. G. Sebald (2003), it might not be such a stretch to claim that Kodak approaches a Sebaldian phenomenology of memory, in that it represents a technology of non-fiction whose material decline leads us to interrogate its mnemonic potential and effects. Amidst the pathos of the Kodak company, a metonym once for the practice and medium of photography, closing its remaining production plants and filing for bankruptcy, Dean’s elegiac meditation offers a fitting introduction to this discussion of Sebald’s use of, and response to analogue photography, itself now existing largely in and as memory. Sebald explores the problems of memory and non-fiction through the metonymy of memory and photography, in particular, a metonymical relation between the two that has historically been predicated on an assumption of realism, an assumption that Sebald, in an interview from 1997, does not necessarily discount: ‘the written word in not a true document after all. The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph. […] I use the camera as a kind of aide memoire.’ (Scholz, 2007) Yet Sebald’s textual deployment of photography in his novels is as ambivalent as his relationship with non-fiction and the memoir genre, as J.M. Coetzee observes: ‘Of course the “I” in Sebald’s books is not to be identified with the historical W.G. Sebald. Nevertheless, Sebald as author plays mischievously with similarities between the two, to the point of reproducing snapshots and passport photographs of “Sebald” in his texts.’ (2008: 147-8) The camera may function as an aide memoire but the memories that it produces are unreliable and unpredictable.
Metonymy, explain George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, ‘has primarily a referential function, that is, it allows us to use one entity to stand for another.’ (2003: 36) Broadly speaking, a metonym of the past, such as the photograph, is something that aspires to indexically invoke memory through substantiation. Susan Sontag has commented on this propensity to establish a metonymical link between the photograph and the past by observing that the photograph ‘passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.’ (2002: 5). Sontag’s ‘incontrovertible’ may be overstated in the age of computer-generated images. The epistemic shift from analogue to digital and associated developments in visual technology have resulted in an increasingly mediated photographic image. Regardless, photography still has, as Sontag noted some time ago, ‘the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile of the mimetic arts’ (2002: 51) and there continues a widespread tendency towards reading and relying upon photographs as factual evidence. Thus the photograph, at first glance, can reassure – even, paradoxically, when its image simultaneously shocks or unnerves – with its alleged veracity.
In its emphasis on the narrator’s personal history, Sebald’s first novel Vertigo is an intimate meditation upon memory’s landscape, and as the title delineates, is the most explicit on memory’s role in Sebald’s aetiology of vertigo. It is the fragmented and febrile memories triggered by material metonyms of the past such as photographs that cause the vertigo of the title. For this reason, the discussion here concentrates on this text, though it also develops with references to Sebald’s other works. In Vertigo, the relation between photography and the past is problematic. Sebald indirectly signals this state of affairs in the book’s original German title: Schwindel. Gefühle. The two distinct parts of the title linguistically conjoin to denote ‘vertigo.’ Separately, however, they translate respectively as ‘swindle’ and ‘emotion.’ It is tempting to read this as an allusion to the affective ‘swindle’ that is perpetrated by memory’s metonyms. In Vertigo Sebald emphasizes the unpredictable action of memory when encountering the photographic image. Memory flickers, pulsates, reverberates. It instigates prodigal emotion when faced with its seemingly inert material counterpart, the photograph. As Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, the ‘photograph is in no way animated … but it animates me.’ (2000: 2)
The written word also has a metonymical relation to the past in Vertigo. Indeed, its narrator tells us that the impetus for one of the novel’s multiple journeys was, in part, the desire to textually recuperate and document the memories of a past journey. He explains that ‘seven years after I fled from Verona, I finally yielded to a need I had felt for some time to repeat the journey from Vienna via Venice to Verona… in order to probe my somewhat imprecise recollections of those fraught and hazardous days and perhaps record some of them.’ (2000: 81) The narrator (re)discovers that the endeavour to corral his recollections on the page and textually reconstruct the past is consistently thwarted by memory’s capricious movement. This time, the previously elusive memories return prodigiously and, as he writes, they ‘(at least so it seemed to me) rose higher and higher in some space outside of myself, until, having reached a certain level, they overflowed from that space into me, like water over the top of a weir.’ (2000: 82)
Sebald parallels the narrator’s vertigo with that experienced by Henri-Marie Beyle (better known to history as the writer Stendhal). In one of the many pilgrimages to the sites of memory—ruins, shrines, reliquaries—that engender the narrative trajectory of Vertigo, Sebald recounts Beyle’s visit to a war memorial. For Beyle, the return to the battlefield of Marengo, where he had fought with Napoleon’s army some years earlier, triggers ‘a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced’, precipitated by the ‘difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.’ (2000: 17) Vertigo is generated in the discrepancy between ‘the mean impression’ of the memorial and the fuller dimensions of Beyle’s individual memory. The incommensurability here between memory and its material metonyms undermines the epistemological certainty of material links to the past. This is again confirmed when the narrator returns to the town of his childhood and is shown an attic of forgotten objects, an experience that is worth quoting at length given its narrative salience.
The attic was indeed a daunting sight […]. In a corner a bass tuba still glinted from beneath the layer of dust covering it, and next to it, on an eiderdown that had once been red, lay an enormous, long abandoned wasps’ nest, both of them – the brass tuba and the fragile grey paper shell – tokens of the slow disintegrations of all material forms. […] I became aware of something like an apparition, a uniformed figure, which now could be seen more clearly, now more faintly behind the blade of light that slanted through the attic window. On closer inspection it revealed itself as an old tailor’s dummy, dressed in pike-grey breeches and a pike-grey jacket. […] Perhaps because it had been concealed behind the shaft of light that cut through the darkness of the attic and in which swirled the glinting particles of matter dissolving into weightlessness, the grey figure instantly made a most uncanny impression on me, an impression which was only intensified by the smell of camphor exuding from it. But when I stepped closer, not entirely trusting my eyes, and touched one of the uniform sleeves that hung down empty, to my utter horror it crumbled into dust. (2000: 223-7)
The friable uniform, indistinct in shape and languishing abandoned in a graveyard of material detritus dissolves at attempts to investigate it and thus refuses to point to its past. The residue coating the narrator’s fingers, ‘dusty and … blackened from that one touch, like the token of some great woe that nothing in the world will ever put right,’ is understood through the prodigal feeling it stimulates, rather than its inauspicious material form. As Carolyn Steedman’s work (2001) eloquently illustrates, dust is the trigger for great sentiment and imaginative thought, and this theme is reiterated by an interlocutor in a later Sebald work The Rings of Saturn (1995) who asserts that Gustave Flaubert saw in a ‘grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown … the whole of the Sahara. For him, every speck of dust weighed as heavy as the Atlas mountains.’ (2002: 8)
This affectively potentialised dust has a correlate in photography: the punctum. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes observes that ‘occasionally […] a “detail” attracts me. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value. This “detail” is the punctum.’ (2000: 42) According to Barthes, the punctum acts metonymically: ‘However lightening-like it may be the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion. This power is often metonymic.’ (2000: 45) In Vertigo, the idiosyncratic detail of an ex-lover’s simulated digit impresses itself upon Beyle’s psyche in a similar manner to the punctum:
On his writing desk, as a memento of Métilde, he kept a plaster cast of her left hand which he had contrived to obtain […]. That hand now meant almost as much to him as Métilde herself could ever have done. In particular, the slight crookedness of the ring finger occasioned in him emotions of a vehemence he had not hitherto experienced. (2000: 20-1)
The punctum is useful in understanding the aetiology of vertigo as experienced by Sebald’s narrator. Barthes even speaks of ‘vertigo’ when describing the phenomenology of the photograph (2000: 97). The punctum’s reverberations are so powerful that the photographic information surrounding it falls away. It is the residue that provokes thought, and by extension, memory. A photograph from the album which was a gift from the narrator’s father to the narrator’s mother provides an example of the Barthesian punctum:
In it are pictures of the Polish campaign, all neatly captioned in white ink. Some of these photographs show gypsies who had been rounded up and put in detention. They are looking out, smiling, from behind the barbed wire, somewhere in a far corner of the Slovakia where my father and his vehicle repairs unit had been stationed […] (2000: 184)
The accompanying image in the text shows strings of barbed wire cutting across a portrait of a mother and child. The woman’s smile is inexplicable, at odds with her imprisonment. Barthes writes that a ‘photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).’ (2000: 26-7) This smile is what wounds the viewer because incongruously it speaks of the horrors of Nazi genocide. The punctum of the smile concertinas multiple personal and collective narratives into a single detail – the woman’s internment, the fate of European gypsies in World War II; the narrator’s memories of his childhood, the history of his family – which due to the psychological impact of their affective and mnemonic intensity then spring back open, spilling over beyond the visual and material limits of the image. The woman’s smile struggles to withhold the excess of affective and narrative signifiers proliferating from its visual representation. The plenitude of signifiers, captured by what Susan Sontag calls the ‘insatiability’ of the photographic eye, saturate the image and appear stable, but meaning spills over, leaks. This excess in the end subsumes the punctum, therefore overwhelming the metonym’s capacity to contain the memory for which it is indexical.
In The Rings of Saturn, a vintage picture postcard from the once prosperous English town of Lowestoft is reproduced (2002: 54). It shows a group of fisherman standing with their prodigious catch of herring. The souvenir enacts a bereavement for the now extinct narrative detail contained within the frame: the expired lives of the photograph’s subjects; their obsolete practices; the halcyon days of the herring industry leading to an unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. The theme of excess resonates in the fish’s history, its excessive capacity for self-propagation, the excessive extent to which it was fished. The history of the herring, its excessive numbers ultimately insufficient to protect against depletion over time, can be read as an allegory on the destiny of the illimitable signifiers of the photographic image whose excessive signification has swelled to subsume the punctum. The single detail that captures the viewer and triggers a forgotten memory is lost amongst the excess of detail. The subsuming of the punctum triggers melancholy. Meaning has spread out across and beyond the limits of the photograph rather than being condensed in the punctum. The photograph, a material compression of the immaterial, struggles to withhold the overflow of affective signification pressing at its borders. The boundless details that were, at the instant of the photograph’s creation, replete with meaning, now exist only as chemical residue on treated paper. Captured by the insatiable photographic eye, they saturate the image and appear immured, secure in their plenitude, but now mimic the herring’s fate. A series of dialectics are rehearsed within the frame of the photograph – material/immaterial, fixed/ephemeral, past/present, absence/presence – none more so than excess/insufficiency. Photography dialectically dramatizes the metonym’s excessive insufficiency and/or insufficient excess as an apparatus of capture. The metonym’s surplus and deficit mark a double failure to correspond to the past that it claims to represent.
The resulting ‘ruin’ of the metonym thus ruptures any totalising account of photography as a non-fiction, as ‘proof’ of the past. To an extent, the photograph too can be interpreted as ruin. Initially, it seems to represent the mortification of time and space, but it is, in fact, a reminder of the forward pull of temporality that is quite different to metonymical structures that in some way attempt to reconstruct the past – sometimes through the use of photographs. The photograph dramatizes temporal instability through its inextricable relationship with the contingent; it is an actualization of what can never be again. In addition to serving as a catalyzing trigger, the punctum’s other function is to puncture ‘unary space.’ (Barthes, 2000: 41-2) A unary space, as delineated by Barthes, is one that is uniform through conforming to acculturated expectations regarding its generic features and communicative objectives. The ruin replicates the function of punctum in that it punctures a certain type of unary space, that is, the unary space of historical narrative. As residue of the past the ruin is a spatio-temporal aberration that carries with it the potential to explode a linear logic of historical consciousness. It represents temporal and spatial ambivalence, and does not try to replenish history in the aspirational manner that the photograph attempts. In Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz (2001), a character remarks that the edifices of imperial powers are designed to survive as ruins, to be the eternal markers of great civilizations (2001: 19) Yet, the image of imperialist or totalitarian architecture such as Antwerp’s Centraal Station wasting away is a potent denial of the immortality of empires and signals the impossibility of the master narratives of history which deliberately and invariably overlooked the true repository of history, which are the texts of the quotidian.
It would appear then that Sebald’s reading of the ruin is aligned with that of Walter Benjamin in the influential essay On the concept of history (1940). According to Susan Buck-Morss, Benjamin read the ruin as a critique of ‘the mythic immediacy of the present, not by inserting it into a cultural continuum that affirms the present as its culmination, but by discovering that constellation of historical origins which has the power to explode history’s “continuum”’ (1989: x). Benjamin’s understanding of the ruin assumes no stable discursive ground on which closed, totalizing narratives can take purchase such as the reconstruction of the battlefield of Waterloo in The Rings of Saturn. The diorama assumes an omniscient fixed viewpoint for history. ‘We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once’ writes Sebald, yet such a perspective is far from convincing because ‘It requires a falsification of perspective [and] still we do not know how it was.’ (2002: 125) In order to affirm this counter-narrative of historical consciousness, the landscapes travelled by the narrators of Sebald’s novels are strewn with Benjaminian ruins. The windmills of East Anglia in The Rings of Saturn are particularly poignant. Cervantes’ hero tilted at windmills believing them to be a mighty foe, but these windmills in their enfeebled state are easily ensnared by the photographic eye. (2002: 30)
‘Photography is a mode of bereavement. It speaks to us of mortification’ writes Eduardo Cadava (1997: 7). Sontag elaborates: ‘Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. … All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out the moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ (2000: 15) The photographic images inserted in Sebald’s texts corroborate Cadava and Sontag’s position. Many of the images reproduced in Vertigo illustrate the futility and folly of human action in the face of the intractable pull of history. Photography, by portraying what has already become extinct, prophesizes humanity’s eventual demise. According to Sebald’s worldview, humanity’s (self)destructive trajectory is coupled with its destruction of the natural environment. It is the denial of natural which has led to this piteous state. Sebald has a certain sympathy for Franz Kafka’s philosophy, that if ’we were to open our eyes … we would see that our happiness lies in our natural surroundings and not in our poor bodies which have long since become separated from the natural order of things’ (2000: 158). Vertigo closes with Samuel Pepys’ account of the Great Fire of London (262), an image of man-made urban conflagration. In The Rings of Saturn, an ostensibly innocuous and picturesque snapshot that purports to be the narrator in front of a Lebanese cedar assumes a melancholic aspect when we learn through the accompanying written text that this tree has been lost, along with fourteen million like it, to the ravages of pestilence, insect infestation, or extreme weather conditions (2002: 262-8). (The image is actually a photograph of Sebald that has been incorporated from his own archive in an instance of what Coetzee identified as the author’s textual playfulness. Thus the notion of bereavement that informs the image is unintentionally amplified by our knowledge of Sebald’s untimely death in 2001.) Such scenes of destruction remind us again of Benjamin’s essay on history and the ‘angel of history’ whose ‘face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.’ (2003: 392) Benjamin’s angel is conjured by Sebald in a series of essays collected under the title On the Natural History of Destruction (2003: 68), and can be detected in the words ‘[g]li angeli visitano la scena della disgrazia’ that visit the narrator’s lips in Vertigo. (84)
The logical medium for recording these morbid processes, says Sontag, is the camera: ‘Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing.’ (2002: 15-6) The photographs displayed in Sebald’s books tell stories of decay, decline, death thereby resisting the application of photography in the commemoration of life and posterity. Indeed Sebald, through Beyle, cautions against the dangers of the metonym put to such service because the memory of the metonym can supercede the memory of the past.
It was a severe disappointment, Beyle writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraving entitled Prospetto d’Ivrea and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving. This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. (2000: 8)
Curiously, Sebald ignores Beyle’s advice. The narrator of Vertigo laments ‘the view from Burg Greifenstein is no longer the same. A dam has been built below the castle. The course of the river was straightened, and the sad sight of it now will soon extinguish the memory of what it once was.’ (2000: 42) Yet a photograph of the dammed river is inserted into the text, thereby ensuring that the altered vista is impressed upon the reader’s mind.
Perhaps Sebald is warning of the perils inherent in photography. Photography, the metonym, is the dangerous supplement to memory. For Jacques Derrida
the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence. […] As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness […]. This presence is at the same time desired and feared.’ (1976: 145, 155)
Following a similar path, Barthes maintains that ‘[n]ot only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory. … The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.’ (2000: 91) Ultimately, Sebald undermines the prevailing photographic double in Vertigo by also including a photograph of a paradisiacal Danube ‘before The Fall’, so to speak, that is, before the desecration caused by the dam.
In doing so, Sebald draws attention to the photograph’s spectral quality. Photography’s eidola, vertiginously hovering between presence and absence (Derrida: 2006), are all the more affecting given that the technology of photography as represented in Sebald is an obsolescent practice for which the material tools are increasingly difficult to obtain and conserve. Thus his books are now haunted by the concept and practice of photography they represent. Memory outlives and exists independently to the technologies designed to capture it, as the fate of analogue photography, and the book for that matter, exhibits. Photography can only hope to trigger memory, and it is this inter-relation between the seductive ostensible readability of the photographic image and the precarious dimensions of that triggered memory that induces ‘vertigo’ (Sebald, 2000; 21). The traces of memory dwell most vividly in the chiaroscuro of our minds and are not accountable to the technically reproduced metonyms of our past. In the final pages of Vertigo, the narrator spies a butterfly. His memory of it is as unanchored to any material object as the butterfly’s autonomous movement:
I could hardly believe my eyes, as the train was waiting at a signal, to see a yellow brimstone butterfly flitting about from one purple flower to the other, first at the top, then at the bottom, now on the left, constantly moving. But that was many months ago, and this butterfly memory was perhaps prompted only by a wishful thought. (2000: 260)
Roland Barthes, 2000, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage).
Walter Benjamin, 2003, ‘On the Concept of History,’ trans. Harry Zohn, Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Press) pp.389-400.
Susan Buck-Morss, 1989, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press).
Eduardo Cadava, 1997, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP).
J. M. Coetzee, 2008, ‘W.G. Sebald, After Nature’ (Melbourne: Penguin) pp.145-154.
Tacita Dean, 2003, ‘W.G. Sebald’, October 106, Fall 2003, pp.122-136.
Jacques Derrida, 1976, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP).
Jacques Derrida, 1994, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of the Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge)
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 2003, Metaphors We Live By, (Chicago: Chicago University Press).
Christian Scholz, 2007, ‘“But the written word is not a true document”: A conversation with W.G. Sebald on Literature and Photography’, Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G Sebald ed. Lise Patt (Los Angeles: Institute for Cultural Inquiry) pp.104-9.
W. G. Sebald, 2000, Vertigo, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions).
W. G. Sebald, 2001, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House).
W. G. Sebald, 2002, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (London: Vintage).
W.G. Sebald, 2003, On the Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin).
Susan Sontag, 2002, On Photography, (London: Penguin).
Carolyn Steedman, 2001, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester UP).
The story of London is the story of its markets.
– Iain Sinclair, 2006
Michel de Certeau writes, ‘Stories […] carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places. They also organize the play of changing relationships between places and spaces.’ (1984: 118) This is what Iain Sinclair has been doing in 40 years of writing about East London. Sinclair’s writing provides a salient case study on how literature produces, and is produced by, place. His distinctive voice and singular eye offer a complex account of spatial and cultural transformation in the city’s east from the 1970s up to the London 2012 Olympics. Sinclair’s sustained literary engagement with the affective, mnemonic, temporal, spatial and political dimensions of place in East London incorporates documentary modes of research, reportage, and interview, and relies on observed details of the everyday practices, texts and encounters that create and communicate a sense of place.
In explaining his gravitation to East London as subject matter, and as a place from which to write, Sinclair cited the street market as an influence: ‘Here was my raw material, a job for life, picking at a mythology of place: subterranean conspiracies, lost writers, the action in street markets.’ He goes further, ‘The story of London is the story of its markets.’ Sinclair’s positioning of the narrative of the market as metonymical to the narrative of the city is a recognition of the existential intertwining of the two. Historically towns and cities have developed around, and depended on the market for their identity.
There are few public spaces that are more universally touted as indicative of local ‘flavour’ than markets. Tourist guidebooks exalt the parochial qualities of marketplaces around the world, yet Sinclair’s representation of the local street market as integral to place goes beyond the travelogue’s quest for local colour and the market as site for touristic modes of consumption. Consequently, his depiction of the market avoids the type of objectification of the city that Henri Lefebvre detected in contemporary textual mediations of the urban:
[The text] takes the form of a document, or an exhibition, or a museum. The city historically constructed is no longer lived and is no longer understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for an aestheticism, avid for spectacles and the picturesque. (1996: 148)
For Sinclair, the market is not a site for observation or participation from a consumer’s point of view as is often the case in travel writing. It is the location of the everyday: Sinclair had a secondhand bookstall at Camden Passage in Islington for years, and in his years as a bookdealer, markets such the ones on Cheshire St off Brick Lane were a source of his wares.
The markets Sinclair depicts are metonymical to the historical perception of East London itself – the menacing, unknown, exotic, dirty ‘other’ to the London of political and financial power, and the London on tourist postcards. Sinclair’s first novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) is an investigation of the mythopoeia of place in the East End using the subcultural milieu of the secondhand book trade. In this work, markets are marginalized arenas where waste and commodities mix promiscuously. The bookdealer/ragpickers in White Chappell are an unfortunate, blighted lot barely existing on the leftovers of others, and Dickensian allusion is satirically applied to accentuate the comic pathos and degradation of their lives:
Dryfeld growls through the vans, pokes into sacks, storms among the sheds of rag pickers, elbows over terminal waste-lots, where old bones have been spread out to dry, more for exhibition than with any serious expectation of a sale. He snarls back at the caged animals, bird yelp, rancid fish tanks, heavy jaw’d fighting beasts dealt, as they have been for over a hundred years, under the railway arches. The sentiment of the local inhabitants flattered by having some creature whose existence is even worse than their own. (1995: 38)
Similarly, in an essay from 1997 ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’ Sinclair’s prose is infinitely inventive in characterising the goods at the now obsolete Farringdon Road secondhand book market as refuse:
George had, over the years, dispersed acres of country house libraries […]: remorseless tides of salvage. Rare Victorian pamphlets, plump Edwardian bindings, railway fiction – he graded the lot, hemp sack or auction table. He kept the culture of print in flow. He served it like a pest controller, a water bailiff. Perched above the Fleet ditch, he shovelled the failed remnants, the picked-over dross, into the corporation’s dustcarts. These Farringdon Road barrows were the court of final appeal. After the frantic ceremonies of the predators there was extinction. (1997: 19)
As hyperbolic as Sinclair’s portraits appear, the recognition here is that markets are potentially heterotopic spaces, where the heterogeneity of identities, encounters, practices and goods indicates a Lefebvrian right to the city (Lefebvre, 1996). The market celebrated by Sinclair metonymically enacts the types of sociality and recognition of difference that the city enables, and to an extent, requires. Historically, this is characteristic of the marketplace as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White explain.
[a]t once a bounded enclosure and a site of open commerce, it is both the imagined centre of an urban community and its structural interconnection with the network of goods, commodities, markets, sites of commerce and places of production which sustain it. A marketplace is the epitome of local identity (often indeed it is what defined a place as more significant than surrounding communities) and the unsettling of that identity by the trade and traffic of goods from elsewhere. At the market centre of polis we discover a comingling of categories usually kept separate and opposed: centre and periphery, inside and outside, stranger and local, commerce and festivity, high and low. In the marketplace pure and simple categories of thought find themselves perplexed and one-sided. Only hybrid notions are appropriate to such a hybrid place. (1986: 27)
Sinclair’s interest in erstwhile markets does not necessarily equate with substantiating nostalgic memories of the East London street market. In fact, nostalgia can negatively affect the wellbeing of the market. In City Publics: The (Dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters (2006), Sophie Watson documents a London microclimate fractured by the politics of resentment, which are played out in the local street market. In Watson’s case study, the territorial disputes are about a sense of entitlement to the market based on perceptions of whether groups of migrants in the area have assimilated or not. The evident decline in the market’s fortunes was attributed to those who didn’t ‘fit in’. The disenchantment was in part triggered by a detrimental nostalgia amongst certain members of the market community about an acknowledgment of the other in the past that did not undermine an imagined sense of localism. Watson noted that in addition to being an inaccurate reflection of how interactions between the various stakeholders were conducted in the past, the nostalgia blocked recognition of social diversity in the present day.
Significantly, Watson’s study reveals that the state of the market functions as a barometer of the social cohesion and resilience of the community who use it. In alignment with Sinclair’s aphorism, the story of the market forms a metonymy with the story of the neighbourhood. Similarly, the social, cultural and historical narratives of East London’s markets are encoded with narratives on the effects on place as the city’s east undergoes transformation from an industrial, working class area to a globally visible site of postindustrial urban renewal.
One metonymical example is the fruit and vegetable market relocated in 1991 from Spitalfields where it had been since the 17th century. The noise, crowds, refuse and congested roads in spite of their authenticity lost their appeal for newcomers buying up the area’s Georgian heritage in the 1980s. The significantly redeveloped site (image above) now houses office space, upmarket eateries and boutiques, chain stores and a market selling handicrafts and antiques, which are a better match for the consumer habits, tastes and incomes of Spitalfields’ current residents.
Another metonymical narrative is that of the Saturday flea market at Hackney Wick Stadium whose ‘scavengers’ Sinclair described as ‘electively third world, trading in things with no value, curating trash.’ The market disappeared when its terrain was swallowed up by the Olympics site, a not uncommon disappearance in the development of the London 2012 brand.
Kingsland Waste market, about which Sinclair has written ‘it lives down to its name […] intensely local and of diminishing interest to outsiders’ (2009: 101) , also enacts a metonymy of place. Its used furniture and clothing stalls barely exists on the edge of Kingsland Rd where they are under constant scrutiny from the local authorities who claim health and safety concerns as a means of regulating the market. Its real offence is that its mess and disorder is contrary to the ‘place-image’ of East London in the lead-up to 2012. It is worth quoting Rob Shields (1991) at length on the complex and labile mechanics of place-image:
Through a process of labelling, sites and zones associated with particular activities become characterised as being appropriate for exactly those types of activities. Other activities are excluded, forced into the wilderness or barren spaces “outside” of civilised realm, or they are associated with their own dichotomous spaces. […]
[Place-images] are the various discrete meaning associated with real places or regions regardless of their character in reality. Images, being partial and often either exaggerated or understated, may be accurate or inaccurate. They result from stereotyping, which over-simplifies groups of places with a region, or prejudices towards places or their inhabitants. A set of core images forms a widely disseminated and commonly held set of images of a place or space. These form a relatively stable group of ideas in currency, reinforced by their communication value as conventions circulating in a discursive economy. […] Collectively a set of place-images forms a place-myth. Thus, there is a constancy and a shifting quality to this model of place- or space-myths as the core images change slowly over time, are displaced by radical changes in the nature of a place, and as various images simply lose their connotative power, becoming ‘dead metaphors’, while others are invented, disseminated and become accepted in common parlance.
Opposed groups may succeed in generating antithetical place-myths (as opposed to just variations in place-images) reflecting different class experiences […].(60-61)
Another metonymy of place in East London that Sinclair has commented upon is one that is consistent with the London 2012 place-image. The Saturday market that has been held at Broadway Market in Hackney since 2005 is an emergent ‘other’ to the vanishing East London markets.
For Sinclair it is a rudimentary example of gentrification’s attendant monoculturalism.
Hackney Wick [flea market] disappears into a pre-Olympic limbo of exaggerated promises and present suspension of liberties. But in another part of the borough, Broadway Market, jellied-eel mythology gives way to a pastiched Islington. No 50p tat here: discriminations of olive oil, fancy breads and a stall selling lush volumes by notable photographers.
According to Sinclair, in a piece that appeared somewhat ironically in the ‘Property’ section of a Sunday newspaper, Broadway Market is located in one of the socially ‘embattled areas’ of the East, ‘a limbo of local cafés and barbers, [that] was promoted, overnight, as the new Portobello Road: bistro to retro.’ Sinclair even claimed in an interview that the transformation of Broadway Market triggered the genesis of Hackney: that Rose Red Empire, his 2009, 600+ page homage to pre-Olympics Hackney.
I took a contract, as you do, for a totally different kind of book […] Then, one morning, I was going through Broadway Market and I met about 20 people I knew, but from all over London, all buying a loaf of bread and a bag of tomatoes for 20 quid, and I thought: this is it. I’ve got to start now, or it’s gone.
As Sinclair outlines, Broadway Market in its current guise sells products that are not about necessity or custom, but about cultural capital and aspirational consumption: vintage clothing, handmade crafts, artisanal produce.
It is synonymous with the inhabitants of and visitors to the ‘new’ East London, those whose work and leisure are represented by the creative industries, so much so that the market has become a lightening rod for backlash against the new social demographic.
This is how a satirical Tumblr blog Hackney Hipster Hate parodied the population shift in East London.
At the same time, the Broadway Market website evokes nostalgic ideas of the East London barrow boy, albeit grown up, on its homepage:
The accompanying text reads:
Barrow boys have been welcoming shoppers to Broadway Market in Hackney since the 1890s […]. John and his mate Tony […] may be the last in the line. John started selling fruit and veg on the market nearly 50 years ago. [… N]ow his barrows are the centrepiece of the revived Saturday market.
John and Tony’s inclusion only draws attention to a discrepancy between the residents from the adjacent areas who frequented the previous market and the clientele of the reconceptualised Market.
Sinclair reads the new Broadway Market as ‘a version of the Notting Hill effect kicking in. You’ve got astonishing pockets of real wealth and cultural aspiration.’ Indeed, James Meek’s piece for the LRB in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots situated Broadway Market as exemplary in exhibiting the propinquity of deprivation and affluence in the city. He wrote ‘When Broadway Market actually becomes a market on Saturdays it is as if the council-owned tower blocks and estates behind, around and in between the gentrified patches, where less well-off and poor people live, belong to some other dimension.’ On the Saturday I visited, I watched those coming up from the surrounding estates avoiding the stalls – except John and Tony’s – to use the local Costcutter, the Post Office, and the betting shop.
A YouTube video about the market captures the disjuncture Meek and I observed with an exchange between the market’s managers and a local resident who complains about prices at the market, to which the market’s organisers suggest she go further afield to Chapel Market in Islington or Ridley Road in Dalston.
As the video shows, the Saturday market’s community also deployed the rhetoric of place and the local. Indeed, the politics of whose idea of place has more literal and symbolic authority in Broadway Market are not as simple as Sinclair’s metonymy of place based on a schema of gentrification and urban renewal suggests. Although Sinclair writes that ‘Nothing is quite what it seems in this place; contradictory memories of the same events haunt a [Hackney] now determined, if those in authority get their way, to obliterate the structures and mythologies of a difficult but fondly remembered past’ it was left to his friend and collaborator Patrick Wright to explore the complexities of this particular East London narrative in the 2009 re-issue of his 1991 book Journey Through Ruins.
According to Wright’s account, the Saturday market that replaced the desultory previous street market was an initiative that came from shopowners and traders themselves, and faced opposition from Hackney Council and from the developers to whom the Council had sold off commercial properties along the street. Broadway Market activated complex ideas of belonging and mobilized stallholders who had a level of self-reflexivity about the implications of their presence, and were sufficiently concerned about the social plurality of the area to be actively involved in protesting the rent rises and evictions faced by long-time residents after the sell-off.
However, as Meek points out, ‘Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it.’ For many urban dwellers, the possibility of spontaneously encountering the other in the streets is not an attractive proposition, except as an abstract notion, or within zones demarcated specifically for that purpose of which the market is one. Meek quotes Slavoj Zizek (from his book Violence) who posits this social insularity as essentially neo-liberal in character:
Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other … My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that Ishould not get too close to him, intrude on his space. […] What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society […] is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.
Broadway Market on a Saturday is an example of the condition Zizek describes. Due to its association with the customary, notions of place can veer towards the conservative and nostalgic, and certainly when it is under contestation or under threat the discourses that mark place can be read as reactionary, exclusionary and/or territorial. The narrative of Broadway market is about contested rights to place, but is also one of resistance to the implications inbuilt in the ostensibly ‘progressive’ discourses and practices of ‘renewal’. In The Battle of Broadway Market, a doco by Emily James, the third-generation proprietor of the pie and mash shop compared Broadway Market in the 1990s to Beirut. So certainly there was some room for regeneration of the existing infrastructure as Wright’s history of the market concedes. Yet urban renewal often has the effect of degrading, in rhetoric and in practice, what was there before as Neil Smith points out:
The language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance suggests that affected neighborhoods were somehow devitalized or culturally moribund prior to gentrification. While this is sometimes the case, it is often also true that very vital working-class communities are culturally devitalized through gentrification […].’ (1996: 32)
Processes of urban renewal and gentrification view place as an optional attribute that enhances ‘lifestyle’ and thus property values, but if it is in conflict with these then its manifestations must be marginalized, transformed, or even eradicated. These processes manage place, to the extent that it can become a space on which to build something else. Place is still something that is alluded to for cultural authority or authenticity, but only through the contained space of the tokenistic metonym, or quotation as Sinclair calls it; public art, blue plaques, a carefully placed piece of renovated industrial detritus, an East London barrow boy in a reconfigured marketplace.
Traditionally the East London market has been a space where what Watson (2009) calls ‘rubbing along’ with difference and otherness has contributed to a sense of place. It has provided something beyond the temporary thrill of embodied street theatre for middle-class shoppers, that is, ‘a form of limited encounter between social subjects where recognition of different others through a glance or gaze […] has the potential to militate against the withdrawal into the self or private realm.’ (Watson, 2009: 1581) This is the East London market that Sinclair has written about. In this sense, markets can potentially provide what London lacks in the wake of the 2011 unrest, an antidote to what Zygmunt Bauman terms ‘mixophobia’ which ‘manifests itself in the drive towards islands of similarity and sameness amidst the sea of variety and difference.’ (2003: 31) Broadway Market in its current incarnation moves the market towards the mixophobic. In order to counter this it needs to be about grounded everyday practices and expressions of place that do not merely substantiate the dominant, official narrative or place-image about urban renewal in East London.
Zygmunt Bauman, City of Fears, City of Hopes, Goldsmiths College: London, 2003.
Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Rob Shields, Places on the margin: alternative geographies of modernity. London: Routledge, 1991.
Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, London: Vintage, 1995.
Iain Sinclair, “Skating on Thin Eyes,” Inventory 2.1 : 8-12. Also published in an extended version in Lights Out for the Territory, London: Granta, 1997.
Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, London: Penguin, 2009.
Sophie Watson, City Publics: The (Dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters, London: Routledge, 2006.
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