Becoming Indigenous

David Anderson, Landscape and Subjectivity in the work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair

Oxford University Press, 320pp, £60.00, ISBN 9780198847199

reviewed by Niall Martin

Footage of a wrecking ball demolishing a coal store in London’s Nine Elms Lane, looped and ‘projected onto an unplastered white-painted brick wall’ takes on an almost totemic function in David Anderson’s Landscape and Subjectivity in the work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair. Shot in the winter of 1979-80, this GIF avant la lettre was the first film exhibited by Patrick Keiller, and, in Anderson’s words, embodies ‘a melancholy bound up with the act of settling for imaginative rather than actual change’. It’s this melancholy and its sources in a sense of political exhaustion that dominates Anderson’s account of the relationship between subjectivity and landscape as they play out in the work of the three figures in Landscape and Subjectivity. Three figures, it should be noted, who although frequently mentioned in the same breath, have never previously been mustered for review within the pages of a monograph.

As such, Anderson’s book is not only a valuable contribution to an understanding of the work of Keiller, Sebald and Sinclair, it is an invitation to consider what their conjunction says more broadly about the condition of culture in pre-millennial Britain. Anderson tackles the task of comparison with great panache, bringing an exemplary level of attention and care to reading both the canonic and non-canonic works of each of his fellow travellers. Each is allocated two chapters — the first focusing on early works and the second on the work that shifted their initially minoritarian modes of cultural criticism towards the mainstream.

By the end of the book their ‘commonalities’ are firmly established. Beyond a fondness for a pedestrian-eye view of the edge-lands and non-places of a landscape whose traumas reside in its banalities, their vision is all about ‘the foregrounding of contingency and subjective experience, frequently culminating in acute disorientation [and] the depiction of space as a rich archive of variously obscured and sometimes damaged histories’. Read together, Anderson shows, they establish ‘an ambivalent, transgressive space somewhere in between the smooth “flows” and “circulations” of contemporary logistics and the rough surfaces of first hand, often pedestrian experience’. They are, in other words, the laureates of an England turned granular through globalisation.

But in corralling these ambivalent psychogeographers into the precincts of a monograph, Anderson also opens up a vista onto a landscape which has previously been available only in a series of intermittent and fragmentary glimpses. He effectively presents us with a book about ‘England in the1990s’ — albeit an ‘England’ which, as he points out, is seen mainly from London and surrounding counties, and mediated through the subjectivities of ‘comparatively privileged white men’. Within these clearly acknowledged — and even diagrammed — limitations, however, Anderson makes good his claim that reading Keiller, Sebald and Sinclair together reveals a moment of ‘special cultural interest’.

Again, Keiller’s wrecking ball seems emblematic of that moment. It condenses in graphic form the preoccupations of a decade traumatised by the violence of the 1980s and Thatcher’s demolition of the industrial and social infrastructure of a Britain that still imagined itself both industrial and imperial. The preoccupations of a decade which has time to register and reflect on the meaning of globalisation for the texture of public life and public space before the urgencies of austerity and global warming shifted attention elsewhere. In Keiller’s endless loop Anderson sees a subjectivity whose confrontation, with the actual revolution of everyday life performed by Thatcherite neoliberalism, has thrown into crisis a sensibility reared on the promises of the transformative powers of imagination inherited from the European avant-garde. A real wrecking ball failing to demolish the society of the spectacle — forever. It’s an image, Anderson dryly notes, that ‘asserts the role of the imagination or altered perception in transforming environments while also forming an ironical take on the unlikelihood of any actual transformation occurring’.

The tone of imaginative defeat is heard most clearly in the militant diffidence of Keiller’s trilogy of ‘Robinson’ films. Keiller’s self-deprecating remark that his film London is a ‘joke about a man who thinks he would be happier if London were more like Paris’ marks his recognition that the Thatcherite brand of neoliberalism is characterised by a ‘petty provincialism’ that is directly opposed to the idea of the city as a space of imaginative experiment and invention. But it also marks a more general sense of coming ‘after Europe’ — a militant diffidence that encodes a recognition that surrealism is no longer viable as a language of critique within the political landscape shaped by Thatcherism.

Where Keiller’s melancholy springs from a sense of coming-after-Paris, Sebald’s is located firmly in his relation to the Germany of his youth. Sebald’s walks around Suffolk and East Anglia are landscaped by the Frankfurt school, and Keiller’s Baudelaire is replaced by Benjamin in Anderson’s account of Sebald’s ‘saturnizing gaze’. It is an account that powerfully conveys the sense of asymmetry that leads the German emigré to seek an antidote to his horror of totality in the landscape from whose airfields the bombers had departed to raze the city in which he was born. Thatcher’s demolition sites form a resonant echo with a childhood where cities and ruin seemed synonymous. As Anderson shows, Benjamin’s storm blowing from Paradise is a constant presence in Sebald’s perception of the dereliction and ‘run down places’ of England’s East coast as a refuge from narratives of progress and humanity’s terrifying thirst for knowledge.

Sinclair, always more interested in America than Europe and ‘wankers quoting Derrida’, marks something of a break with the melancholic theme established in the reading of Keiller and Sebald. This is registered in Anderson’s unease with a ‘venom’ that on occasion turns into ‘self-satisfied cynicism’ in Sinclair’s more psychotic version of psychogeography. An unease perhaps due to the fact that Sinclair’s profound sense of the implicated subject — of a text which is half in love with that which it denounces — problematises Anderson’s implicit depiction of landscape as an object of contemplation. Sinclair’s fascination with the mesmerising commerce between aesthetic and financial value re-inscribes the dynamic between landscape and subjectivity within a register that is less melancholic than manic and demonic.

But the glimpses of impatience with Sinclair that Anderson occasionally reveals may also be due to the fact that his work is the best known of the three. For, one of the great strengths of Anderson’s book is the way in which it reconstructs the place of his authors’ works in a wider textual ecology — ranging from the tradition of the English journey from Defoe to Beryl Bainbridge and from local histories to continental philosophy, with particular attention to the ‘spatial turn’ instigated by Henri Lefebvre. Because Sinclair’s work are comparatively well-trampled they offer less opportunity for disclosing the previously unrecognised ‘elective affinities’ in which Anderson’s book abounds.

Given his encyclopaedic knowledge of the texts that resonate within the work of his authors it is striking that Anderson seems unaware of Paul Gilroy’s seminal work on post-colonial melancholia in post-war Britain, citing Gilroy only as a ‘journalist’. But Gilroy’s reading of melancholia as a symptom of Britain’s disavowal of its colonial past is also indicative of its comparatively minor role in Keiller, Sebald and Sinclair’s depiction of the post-Imperial present. Apart from Keiller who lifts his eyes momentarily while in South London to register the Rodney King riots in LA, the role of racial and cultural difference in Sebald and Sinclair is focused mainly on Jewish and Huguenot immigration. Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, and its role in shaping the cultural texture of contemporary Britain, is a thesis whose time had yet to come.

So what then is the value of this moment of ‘special cultural interest’ from the perspective of the second decade of the new millennium? In its breadth, Anderson’s study captures in great detail a powerful sense of the 1990s as a decade caught up in examining the ways that globalisation had problematised landscape both as an aesthetic category and as a space of imaginative renewal. Problems that have worked themselves out in much more immediately political terms in the intervening years. Keiller’s prescient diagnosis of the virulent anti-cosmopolitanism of Thatcherite neoliberalism, for example, heralds the rift between town and city in an English political culture that has now made ‘urban’ synonymous with ‘black’. So too Sebald’s meditations on the wastelands of East Anglia prepares the affective and moral topography for the contemplation of environmental destruction on a much vaster scale. More generally, however, it is difficult to avoid the sense that the celebration of opacity and locality within the work of each of these authors marks a turn towards indigeneity, if not insularity, as a response to the disorientations of accelerated globalisation subsequently taken up in much more familiar narratives of British, and indeed global politics.

Niall Martin teaches in the department of Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Ian Sinclair: Noise, Neoliberalism and the Matter of London.