Her Feet were Made for Voting

Her Feet were Made for Voting

Fri 09 Mar

WALKING VIRGINIA WOOLF’S LONDON: An Investigation in Literary Geography by LISBETH LARSSON. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

CONSTRUCTED SITUATIONS: A New History of the Situationist International by FRANCES STRACEY. London: Pluto, 2018.

On 8th June 1920 an old beggar woman sat against a wall in Kingsway holding a mongrel in her arms and singing aloud. The writer Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that there was a recklessness to her. She was singing for her own amusement, shrilly. Then fire engines came by singing shrilly, too. “Sometimes every thing gets into the same mood; how to define this one I don’t know.”

In the mid-1980s on my daily journey to Charing Cross Road, I would get off the 38 bus on the corner with New Oxford Street. Every morning I would see an old woman huddled in the doorway to what is now a building site. Enthroned on her rags, oblivious to her surroundings, she had stopped caring. In Woolf’s diary that day she said she was overwhelmed by the dead walking the city streets. I wondered where this woman came from and how she had settled on this doorway as her home. Perhaps another of Woolf’s ghostly tenants had passed down the leasehold to her successor.

The concept of the aimless wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life, was first taken for an outing by the French poet Baudelaire. His flâneur was an extension of himself: an aesthete and dandy, wandering the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris noting down graffiti and advertisements and listening to snatches of conversation, on the look-out for visual rhymes. Traditionally, the flâneur was a male since women were confined to the domestic sphere, and any such constraint is inimical to the wanderer’s aim.

Lisbeth Larsson is Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. In this volume of literary geography, she argues that Virginia Woolf’s novels are about a woman dreaming of walking alone and independently through London. Tension is caused by a simultaneous yet contradictory vision of a woman walking arm in arm with a man. Woolf, writing in the early twentieth century, a time of newly minted suffrage for women, created a new awareness of female consciousness. In her novels, this consciousness is played out on the streets of London and the interiors that contain her characters.

It is through their walks that Woolf explores London’s psyche, its inhabitants and relationship to class, gender, places and space. She writes, says Larsson, “about who is able to move around where, how and when”.

An example of Woolf’s mapping of the city comes in her first novel, The Voyage Out.

“On the whole, what I should like best at this moment, Terence pondered, "would be to find myself walking down Kingsway, by those big placards, you know, and turning into the Strand. Perhaps I might go and look over Waterloo Bridge for a moment. Then I’d go along the Strand past the shops with all the new books in them, and through the little archway into the Temple.”

Larsson parses this walk as follows:

Kingsway: a grand boulevard (quite uncharacteristic of London) constructed in the dawn of the 20th century to connect north to centre. To make room for it, all the old alleys and houses of Old Holborn were demolished. Kingsway, named after Edward VII, was a way into an expanded and modern city centre. It was not just a thoroughfare, either. It was built in two dimensions, with tunnels for trains and the underground. The opening of the road in 1909 was a great national celebration. Edward Elgar wrote a musical accompaniment to the poem “The King’s Way” written by his wife. “The newest street in London town / Who’ll pace it up and pace it down?”

So Terence is marching into the future where the city is bright and spacious, and where anyone can walk freely and go about their business.

The Strand, too, with its new books and new businesses and new publishers was a harbinger of a more democratic era. But then, Larsson notes, Terence reverts to type. He ends his fantasy walk in an area redolent not just of the past but a very masculine sort of past. The Temple, the famous legal district of London, was the former domain of the Knights Templar. By the 1900s it was no longer emblematic of religious patriarchy but it was an “exclusively male zone”. Old habits die hard, and Terence’s London ends with an assertion of masculine power.

Mary Datchet in Night and Day takes a different route. Mary is a young, working woman living in a room of her own northwest of Temple. Her walk takes her to the office for women’s suffrage in Russell Square. She, too, walks up Kingsway. However, she walks in the opposite direction, away from Temple and towards Bloomsbury where Woolf and her friends were inventing Modernity. As she walks she thinks about her work:

“And directly she had crossed the road at Holborn, her thoughts all came naturally and regularly to roost upon her work … She was thinking all the way up Southampton Row of notepaper and foolscap, and how an economy in the use of paper might be effected.”

In another passage, Woolf considers Mary’s thoughtful progress through the city.

“Strange thoughts are bred in passing through crowded streets should the passenger, by chance, have no exact destination in front of him, much as the mind shapes all kinds of forms, solutions, images when listening inattentively to music.”

A sentiment that might have been shared by the Situationist International. Whereas for Woolf, walking brought her female character to suffrage, Frances Stracey argues that the wandering stream of la dérive, or “drift”, was a revolutionary act for the Situationists. Stracey, who was Senior Lecturer in the History of Art Department at University College London, sadly died in 2009. If Constructed Situations is her last critical work, she leaves us a book that mixes academic exactitude with a heartfelt homage.

The Situationist International posited a revolution against a capitalist society that not only exploited the worker / body but colonised the mind and spirit, too. In the way that emojis stand in for the articulation of feelings and nuanced responses, images produced in a consumerist state standardise the consumer’s responses, impulses, spontaneity, any expression of individuality. It’s all been done for us. All we have to do is watch the advert and buy the tee-shirt. The Situationist International, based in Paris throughout the Fifties and Sixties, watched a new Society of the Spectacle being predicated on the exploitation and subjugation of the whole of life.

The SI was founded in the early Fifties by the almost canonical French revolutionary Marxist, Guy Debord. Stracey is quick to stamp on any hint of personality cult however and presents the group’s oeuvre as a result of collective actions. Staged interventions that existed only in the moment are hard to exhibit or anthologise. In valuing experience and memory over the production of an object, the Situationists have achieved an almost mythical status due to the lack of artefacts they left behind them. La situation construite is defined as “a moment of life, concretely and deliberately constructed by a collective organization”. These situations were envisaged as provocations towards an alternative, non-capitalist, poetic way of life. Stracey’s book serves almost as a keepsake or gallery of journals, excursions, évenements, and artworks. It excites and frustrates by turn as she describes a process whereby art is created from the destructive / recycling mash-up of détournement, “re-routing” of found images such as newspaper photos, or their “hijacking”. The effect of such art is mesmerising. If, as a reader, you get into the spirit of the movement, all subsequent art looks redundant and tame. The incendiary anti-art Stracey curates is where the energy of an original vision sparks and splutters.

She has to concede, though, that when it came to exploitative images of female bodies, the Situationists failed to liberate their collective gaze from its male-ness. But Situationism has its own momentum. Maybe, in the 21st century, female artists will divert us from conventional representations of the female form. On the other hand, as “voice 2” utters in Debord’s 1952 film without images, Hurlement en Faveur de Sade, “the art of the future will be the overturning of situations or nothing”. If “nothing” means Kim Kardashian’s selfies, then “voice 2” is right.

The Situationists liked action, or as Stracey puts it, “the SI were active supporters of all forms of self-determination through autonomous acts of revolt.” The best artworks that spoke against the Society of the Spectacle were those created by the oppressed themselves. In March 1966, in the tenth issue of their journal, internationale situationniste, the SI published an article called “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”. It was about the riots in the Watts area of South Los Angeles that took place for six days in August 1965. As intellectuals the SI thought it their responsibility to “theorise the truth of an event they did not take part in”. The rioters had delivered their own theory-in-practice by their actions, now the SI were adding critical theory as a supplement to critical action. In effect it was a détournement of the riots. But it gave the event a new layer of memory and language that ran counter to mainstream representations of those six days.

As an anti-capitalist revolt, the issue of Watts was not just about the conditions of American blacks, but instead, “the conditions of America, which merely happens to find its first expression among the blacks.” I doubt if that would go down well in Watts. But, for the SI, the Los Angeles riot as an expression of discontent, shared the same significance as Algerian uprisings against colonialist France, anti-Vietnam protests and student strikes and sit-ins. It was a “potlatch of destruction”. In other words, a type of Indian gift.

Stracey spends a lot of time on the concept of the potlatch. The term arises in the anthropological work of Marcel Mauss. In 1925, Mauss defined the potlatch as an archaic or pre-commercial form of ritual exchange and destruction. The term itself comes from the Nuu-chah-nulth word “paɬaˑč”, to make a ceremonial gift as part of an exchange. Mauss identified this exchange taking place among the First Nation tribes of British Columbia and Alaska. The SI were keen to give the Watts rioters some ancient roots and saw their destruction of a supermarket as a potlatch. The word means “to consume” in the sense that the gifts presented at these ceremonies are destroyed by their receivers as a mean of asserting their wealth. (Another version of the potlatch shows rival tribal leaders giving away their goods. Whoever gives away the most is the winner, so to speak. This speaks of a society in which the status of any given tribe is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources.)

The SI read the rioters’ destruction of commercial property as the lumpen proletariat’s ability to indulge in wasteful extravagance in order to shore up status. To make their presence felt, they destroyed the gifts of capitalism, namely a supermarket. It was an interruption of the logic of capitalist exchange, a reclamation of the streets.

But the Situationists weren’t just sitting around all day, thinking up fancy notions. The most famous of their eruptions was the 1968 Parisian uprising, the largest wildcat strike in history. As Stracey demonstrates, le mouvement des occupations can fruitfully be seen as a collaboration between members of les Enragés movement and the SI themselves. Originally, the radical sans-culottes of the 1793 French Revolution, les Enragés emerged in 1968 among students at Nanterre University. They were heavily influenced by the Situationists, and used slogans inspired by them.

“The more you consume, the less you live!”

“I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.”

Les Enragés began by creating disturbances on campus, targeting their “fascist bourgeois” professors, hurling insults at them. They made demands for, amongst other things, co-ed dormitories and the destruction of imperialism. Of course insults became pebbles and the rest is history.

Stracey highlights the graffiti that sprung up around the city at the time.

“Il est interdit d’interdire” (It is forbidden to forbid).

“Sous les pavés, la plage!” (Under the paving stones, the beach.)

“Vivre sans temps mort”, to live your life beyond the dead time (of nine to five).

“Jouir sans entraves” – to enjoy yourself outside the constraints (of convention).

These last two statements are not imperatives, but more like raising a glass in a toast, or a motto for life. Stracey makes the poetic point that graffiti’s inbuilt impermanence was integral to the Situationists’ purpose: to create ephemeral passageways on the ruins of the spectacle.

“Eternity is the grossest idea a person can conceive of in connection with his acts.”

Graffiti is also an act of vandalism and thus illegal, so it is packed with anonymous and subversive potential; “the anti-proprietary form of graffiti makes it a form of anti-writing”.

Stracey pays homage to a movement rich in poetry if only because it liquidates language and destroys itself with impermanence thus ensuring its existence stays in play.

Review by Lilian Pizzichini, editor of The Revisionist.



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