The Art and Writing of David & Ping Henningham
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We are delighted to announce we will be exhibiting at FREE VERSE, London’s pre-eminent Poetry Book Fair.

If you are a poetry reader you will probably already have this event in your diary, but we would urge anyone at all interested in Independent Publishing and Literature to come. It brings together some of the most vibrant and innovative small publishers and is a peerless introduction to contemporary poetry in all its forms. More than a hundred half-tables putting big publishers to shame.

Ten Years of Concertinas with Henningham Family Press and Sophie Herxheimer (12 noon)

Join us at 12 noon in the Brockway Room when we present a survey of our best concertina books from the last ten years, including a British Council commission printed live in Moscow. Renowned artist-poet Sophie Herxheimer will read from our 30 metre long The Listening Forest collaboration, and her dazzling new homage to Emily Dickinson: Your Candle Accompanies The Sun. Find out how this simple binding could help you disseminate your poetry and prose.

All Day Book Launch

Free Verse will also be your first chance to handle and buy our latest publication:
Your Candle Accompanies The Sun, My Homage To Emily Dickinson
by Sophie Herxheimer
Come find us at our table.

FREE VERSE
30th September, 11am-6pm
Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square
London WC1R 4RL

FREE entry

 

 

 

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I

Five metres from a slipper bath filled with ice and cocktails, discussing Modernist Art with Paul Mason, Jenny Broom, Aysulu and Anna (from British Council Russia) we found we had experienced the same epiphany as Paul at the Tretyakov Gallery that day. We had been confronted by an alternative narrative of the origins of Modernist figurative painting; confronted by a different version of Malevich’s Black Square than we had previously seen mediated by magazines and text books.

The black pigment of the square was parched so that yellow and red oblongs were visible through the cracks. Where the black persisted the surface texture betrayed numerous oblongs underneath that crossed the threshold of the famous square.

An X-Ray of Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square, 1915

The didactic square from art history turned out to be the completion of numerous false starts and revisions towards simplicity. That’s a very different story. Black Square was preceded and followed by masterpieces we’d never seen. Marc Chagall on an epic scale was a revelation for many of us at the table. Exhilarated, we began flicking through everything we know between Beveridge and Woolf, wondering if we had been sold a partial version of Modernist art history.

This encounter with The Square was emblematic of our whole experience of Moscow. The painting and the place, when mediated, are both abridged. The Black Square loses its texture and presence, just as Russia becomes reduced to its foreign policy and Putin fridge magnets. My ignorance of Russia’s view of itself, which is the result of Russian politics and British media, prevents me from understanding the spectrum of their fears and ambitions. The red and yellow oblongs under the square remind me of the striking diversity of peoples within the Russian Federation. Their government very consciously celebrates this, and a new park will feature all four terrains found within the Federation. However, this cosmopolitan theme was already commonplace under the USSR, evident in the regenerated park at VDNKh where pavilions were built from the materials and styles of different distant Soviet Republics. Today, Russians from some of these races find actual social mobility within the Federation does not live up to the ideal. How familiar. Yet what I found embarrassing is that such an important tension within Russia was news to me. And is this any surprise when on Russian TV their politicians do normal things, like look at their smartphones, but British media employs the same old newsreel shorthand of earnest white faces bobbing on a sea of little communist claps. Russian ‘alternative media’ does no better, piping out mirror image foreign policy to Anglo-American discontents who are still hoping for one accurate news source. Its fanbase would do far better to visit Russia and get a sense of its diversity, contradictions and tensions over Georgian dumplings.

II

The British Council delegation we belonged to was assembled to represent the UK as guests of honour at Non/fiction Literature Fair during the UK Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016, and satellite events in bookshops, museums and galleries. Over dinner Jonathan Coe made the kind of fascinating, nuanced observations about innovation in contemporary fiction you would expect from an accomplished novelist who is also B.S. Johnson’s biographer.

Jonathan Coe introducing B.S. Johnson

Jonathan Coe introducing B.S. Johnson at Non/Fiction

Like A Fiery Elephant executes the manoeuvre of engendering sympathy and admiration for B.S. Johnson, at times an unpleasant person, salvaging his life and his art without employing the unsatisfactory excuse that they are distinct. He did the same for a Russian audience in the UK Pavilion, briefly a revivalist tent where the majority pledged to read some Johnson. I hope they also read Coe’s new book, Number 11.

Jim Crace

Jim Crace

Jim Crace, author of Harvest, was another inspiring personality. He has what my Russian friend calls ‘a face accustomed to smiling’ and his conversation alternates between humility and encouragement. Much like Paul Mason, who is always animated, active, alert to whatever political events are unfolding and the fact that news can appear from anyone anywhere at any time. He often interrupts himself mid-sentence to greet a new arrival at the table, “Hi, we haven’t met, I’m Paul.” There were many more people like this. These Islands produce some impressive people sometimes, and we were enjoying all this from ‘the kids’ table’, with Emma Healey, whose novel Elizabeth Is Missing I enjoyed greatly, delightful children’s author and publisher Jenny Broom, and comic artist Tom Gauld. The latter two and ourselves also spent some time working with students at the British Higher School of Art and Design; Russian students, primarily, taught in English in Christopher Rainbow’s groundbreaking BA Illustration department.

III

British Artists were a bit late to Modernism. It was a reaction to what was happening over there. Less a response to Modernity, than a plaintive “why can’t modernity happen here?” emerging from a stuffy sitting room. What better subject for my lecture at the British Higher School than the link between one of Moscow’s most enthusiastic citizens, Kandinsky, and London’s avant garde. Edward Wadsworth praised and reported On The Spiritual In Art in BLAST! for the advancement of abstract painting in Britain. I also told the story of David Bomberg at the Ballets Russes, and London’s rejection of Italian Futurism. The students contrasted Marinetti’s machine worship with our blasé use of technology, contemporary interest in the hand made and ecological design. They were brilliant students.

Next day I led a day-long collaborative workshop in which we would design a system of simple cut-out glyphs that we could use to screenprint sounds commonly used in both English and Russian. I had sent a lesson plan to prime them for my arrival, but so well prepared were these excellent students that we had done the pre-lunch part of my plan by eleven. Just as well, as I’d not realised how long lunch would be. Three students had pretty much fully realised alphabets of their own before we began, so we had plenty to work with, but it must belong to all of us. We worked through strategic questions. Would our glyphs refer to Cyrillic or Latin or ignore them? Would they be diagrammatic? Would they, like Kandinsky’s art, be forms that refer to gut feelings or the elements of art? In pairs, we made cut outs representing different sounds that had been distributed. In response to these questions we critiqued our results. Finally, my lesson plan long exhausted and pedagogical improvisation taking its place, we extracted elemental flourishes we could all agree on, then used these to make a final stab at our assigned sounds.

The BA Illustration Students' Final Glyphs

The BA Illustration Students’ Final Glyphs

We stopped short of creating modifying punctuation marks. And just as well, as I suddenly realised I was no less than four hours late for my next engagement and I had lost my voice. (Which is normal for work like this. Often that phone in your hotel room will ring soon after you enter it, knackered, and someone who has been looking after you and that you are yet to meet will ask you a question that you cannot answer about where you are supposed to be). Yet our process of refinement could easily have gone on to create a very minimal set of shapes with modifying dots and circles to create a universal phonic set. How Modernist is that!

David discussing the students' phonics with Dame Marina Warner

David discussing the students’ phonics with Marina Warner

IV

A screenprinting workshop was built for us within the British Pavilion. While talks and signings happened we contributed to the general hubbub as we worked with our groups of students to improvise screenprints; composing, choosing colours, binding sheets. The drying prints bobbed overhead while the public witnessed and contributed to our process of creation and execution. A favourite exchange was with a man who works in a screenprinting factory who couldn’t believe we could print with so little equipment. “How are you doing this!” he kept asking, as if we were magicians.

BA Illustration class continues in the UK Pavilion

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Preparing to print

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Learning to Screenprint freehand

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Two print stations running simultaneously

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Drying the prints

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Each colour represents a beat in the spoken rhythm. Each shape a phonetic sound.

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Reviewing the first print and composing the next design with cut out paper.

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Strips of five feet being bound into one book.

 

The dry prints were made into a massive book, five foot-long pages in each line, like the five metrical feet of Shakespeare’s Iambic Pentameter; ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM. Here is a decoding of the concrete poem we wrote as we went, which became a kind of picture story about love, with two characters, or souls, living on a mountain in the spring. A betrayal leads to quarrelling, one soul leaves for the sea. Sorcery, dreams, comfort eating and finally forgiveness and reconciliation. How Shakespearean is that!

весна душа гора душа весна
мечта весна мечта весна мечта
весна душа гора измена весна
измена мечта измена мечта измена
гора душа хула душа коралл
душа гора хула коралл душа
гора немой немой немой коралл
гора ворожба мечта измена коралл
еда мечта немой мечта еда
мечта еда немой мечта еда
весна ворожба прощай измена весна
весна душа прощай душа весна
прощай душа гора душа прощай
село село маяк село немой

spring soul mountain soul spring
dream spring dream spring dream
spring soul mountain treason spring
treason dream treason dream treason
mountain soul reviling soul coral
soul mountain reviling coral soul
mountain dumb dumb dumb coral
mountain sorcery dream treason coral
food dream dumb dream food
dream food dumb dream food
spring sorcery forgive treason spring
spring soul forgive soul spring
forgive soul mountain soul forgive
country country lighthouse country dumb

Of course, in the original, the colour panels are like a tapestry creating rhythm through repetition and their position in space in a way that text on a page alone cannot. The panels are more like characters moving on a stage than tiny printed words. It concludes with a nod to Mayakovsky (маяковского), no stranger to recording tempestuous love affairs in print, in the form of a lighthouse (маяк) set in a landscape.

V

Representing Britain. The British Council (and Literature) made this easier, representing as they do the best of British. One Russian cab driver welcomed Brexit as a sign that white people everywhere can now federate at arms length in championing their ethno-national interests. Most Muscovites were far more cosmopolitan in their views. But international opinions I heard brought one moral dimension of Brexit to mind; envy.

The thing about coveting your neighbours wife, or their ass, is that the fantasy never includes the process by which it could come to pass. Fantasy demands the suspension of logistical realities. A person may think they’d be happier if they were married to the woman next door, but once the work of obtaining an ex-wife, breaking up the neighbours’ marriage, traumatising the kids, moving house, alimony and so on and on – it can hardly be the same dream in the end. Many, though not all, of British referendands displayed this kind of self-delusion about what we would get in terms of money, resources and trade outside the EU. Politics isn’t merely about declaring ones own wishes, but pursuing a civil society that includes those on the breadline and EU citizens now at home in the UK; those with the least say by volume and set to lose the most. Should the United Kingdom remain.. Can the United Kingdom remain united.? Apparently not.

This is a lesson from literature, from Shakespeare, where for centuries actors have committed the same mistakes, lusts and treasons, imagined the same delightful ends and fallen short with foolish means, staged twice daily so we don’t have to. What is the point in rehearsing tragedy when all the world insists on being a stage? And, in this era of global citizenship, will geriatric Britain be content with dishing out Cowerdly put-downs it believes give an air of sophistication, when in fact they betray British insecurity? The UK merely tolerated for the money it generates? Or conceals? Yet Britain, for now, is still admired for its culture; our biggest “export”. Is culture, like most exports, rarely consumed by the natives?

One Official, dressing wisdom as wit like a Shakespearean fool, made a speech in which they declared that we will unite the world through art. Solidarity! I agree. Building society is what art is really good at, delineating a territory for objective human cooperation and appreciation.

Our delegation’s experience would be valuable for all. Our Government can support the pioneering work of the British Council by cancelling costly visas, Russia could begin by making holiday and trade visa concessions to Moscow and St Petersburg. This would allow a groundswell of humanity to take root and bypass the old discredited, divisive diplomatic channels.

My lasting impression is that Muscovites and Londoners can scarcely ever have been so similar as we are now, and we must not let the populist opportunists and the politicians who pander to them keep us apart.

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The Times Literary Supplement, ‘the leading international forum for literary culture’, has published a celebratory review of ‘An Unknown Soldier’. You can read the review here:

Against Unremembering

In the review David Collard puts our poem into context, saying:

Henningham’s mordant wit and avant-garde flair is part of another poetic tradition stretching back to Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and the Dada pranksters of Zurich, although the first truly modernist treatment of the conflict in English emerged only in 1937 with the publication of David Jones’s In Parenthesis.

He says our current exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library, which continues until January 4th 2015:

brings a much-needed sense of indignation and disgust to present-day rituals of commemoration and gives a voice to the anonymous war dead of all nations without tapping into simple patriotic sentimentality.

Anyone interested in snapping up one of the remaining copies of the Paperback version of An Unknown Soldier will find it here:
Buy Now via Book Price 24 From £11.59
Buy Now on Amazon From £8.81
About An Unknown Soldier paperback

An Unknown Soldier paperback version

The exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library shows all the works to date associated with An Unknown Soldier:

The Saison Poetry Library,
Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
Southbank Centre
London SE1 8XX

FREE

Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Contact: David Henningham

An Unknown Soldier (detail)

An Unknown Soldier (detail)

An Unknown Soldier (installation)

An Unknown Soldier (installation)

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An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

There will be a FREE Opening Event on Friday 7th November, 7.30pm at which we will be giving out a small, free limited edition print, and reading an extract from An Unknown Soldier with the assistance of James Wilkes and Erica Jarnes. Booking is essential by email to:

specialedition [at] poetrylibrary [dot] org [dot] uk
Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

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We are very honoured to announce that the Saison Poetry Library, which is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry, has invited us to stage a solo exhibition of all our work from An Unknown Soldier to date. This will be part of the Southbank Centre‘s programme of First World War Centenary events. This will be a mini-retrospective of dozens of prints and books made between 2011 and 2014, some on display for the first time.

First World War casualties can now be identified with saliva gleaned from postage stamps on their letters home. This DNA technology unintentionally transforms the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey forever. In his anonymity he had stood for those lost to the destructive power of industrialised war. In our poem An Unknown Soldier we reconstruct him as a body of text, interrupted by trench-like letter forms, and ask: Has the Unknown Soldier, in the DNA age, become a symbol for our failure to learn from the past?

The exhibition will also include the four screenprint editions from our SGM Lifewords commission. The original 43 million Active Service John’s Gospels came off the same presses that printed recruitment propaganda, yet Father God and Fatherland presented contradictory visions of peace, both contending for the allegiance of soldiers in the form of printed words.

Details on Poetry Library website
Details on Southbank Centre website

An Unknown Soldier Project Page
An Unknown Soldier Blog Thread

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You are an Artist. You graduated from art college more than two years ago, but opportunities seem to be drying up, or at least are a bit chaotic. Occasionally local things come up, but you fear involvement with ‘community art’ will effect your credibility with the gallery system. You haven’t achieved gallery representation yet and you suspect you never will. And you’re probably right; research shows that two years on your chances are basically nil. You keep a studio, but it isn’t much more than a status symbol, you barely get there two days a week, what with your part-time job. You still call yourself an artist when you meet new people, but you are beginning to believe you have failed.

Zuidervaart sees things differently. He says that an Artist’s gifts have benefited from training in our Institutions. This creates a calling for all Artists to spend at least some of their time in the paid service of Civil Society, even if they have gallery representation. This is also appropriate because the greatest demand for art is located in Civil Society. Zuidervaart’s version makes sense of this situation by exposing the fact that Art in Public is extremely important and a more natural workplace for most contemporary artists coming out of art school; itself a Civil Society Institution. In fact Civil Society always needs more artists and provides opportunities encompassing local and national institutions. Zuidervaart also dismisses the notion that Civil Society is second-best to the private gallery system, it is more likely to be the other way round, even. This claim is a bit of a wake-up call when you consider how market obsessed Art Colleges have become. It is possible to graduate with a Fine Art MA without the slightest idea of the existence of anything outside the Contemporary Art Gallery System, despite the fact that it will deliver so few opportunities to their alumni. Zuidervaart offers a better standard against which to judge if you are an artist, than selling your art. Consumer choice isn’t especially good at ratifying good art. People often love art, even, that they wouldn’t consider taking home. And collecting art is very difficult. People quite rightly prefer public institutions they trust to collect art on their behalf.

Zuidervaart, instead, refers Artists to the concept of Relational Autonomy and asks them to hold their Autonomy in tension with their Social Responsibility. ‘Art in Public’ asks of us, are you capturing the public imagination to create solidarity, not mere sensation? Are you communicating in a way that simultaneously equips the audience to be able to speak?

Is your art turning conformity into solidarity?

At last! A definition of success that looks at your work, rather than your bank balance. It appears a little vague at first, but I think this partly explained by our dependence on economic qualifications, and also because it is a relational measure rather than an individualistic one. But then measurement is all about relativity.

Yet it won’t be an unqualified relief for artists to be measured against their work (in public), rather than the flow of their personal wellspring of genius or their proximity to the summit of the gallery system. An Artist in Public is thrown into a vortex of political and personal relationships. Artists can’t function like this alone, garret-bound; they need the support and mediation of Arts Organisations. You see Zuidervaarts argument suggests artists be paid for public work, not just for being artists. This satisfies the best of the arguments on the left and right in the States, one demanding public spirit, and the other autonomy. Robust Arts Organisations provide colleagues for an artist. They are essential because they:

  1. connect the artists with Civil Society groups and communities.
  2. make public money accountable, but also free from government interference
  3. give the work credibility as a cultural, non-economic, undertaking

Zuidervaart was president of the very impressive Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. A group begun by artists that included non-artist members. His experience helps him identify what makes for a good Arts Org:

  1. Involve local residents at every stage of the planning
  2. Democracy is messy and time-consuming, but yields the best long-term results
  3. Think globally; Act locally
  4. Artists shouldn’t be left on the margins, but involved in making a compelling vision

But to conclude, here are some of my own observations of assumptions we can make about Arts Organisations. First, we often assume that artists need to get together for mutual support, which may be helpful. But what Zuidervaart reveals is that this is unlikely to be where an artist achieves most. It is more important for Artists to be spread out and active amongst other citizens, where directly or indirectly their art can create solidarity.

We also tend to see Artists as charity cases, and Arts Organisations as a way of helping them. But the truth is that artists usually have the lowest commercial rents going. Often a fifth or tenth of what a design studio would be paying. There are certain aspects of an Artists work that could actually benefit from a dose of market forces. Exhibiting an Artist’s work in your building isn’t going to help them get a gallery unless you have a great touring reputation and a list of art collectors. What you have isn’t a gallery; it’s a room. What would really benefit an Artist is your purpose. A chance to discharge their responsibility as an artist towards Society with you.

Which leads to our last observation; we assume that Arts Organisations are organisations about art. Organisations to preserve art or make it happen. These do and should exist, but Arts Orgs often tackle a social agenda but are active through art. UICA is a non-profit organisation that ‘fosters’ art in public. They are a public gallery, workshop and film theatre. But their purpose was cultural regeneration of the downtown area. They didn’t want redevelopment at the expense of residents creating a heartless non-community. They wanted a resurrection. They wanted economic improvements accompanied by meaning and purpose, and artists provided that meaning and purpose.

Art in Public, Lambert Zuidervaart
Edited from a lecture I gave in 2013 recommending this book at a symposium on Sphere Sovereignty. The link above will help you buy this book.

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The recent collection of WG Sebald’s biographical writings, entitled A Place In the Country, invites us to consider the influence of six great writers that were dear to Sebald during his life, the implication being that he too belongs on the list. The six greats are ‘tormented souls,’ and it is ‘their absolute failure to accommodate life and art, to which Sebald returns again and again.’ The priority for this collection is the window it may open onto Sebald’s own corpus through his analysis of ‘those who devote their lives to literature, “the hapless writers trapped in their web of words.” Caught between a ‘nostalgic utopia’ and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’. But I was surprised to find there was a far more definite connection running through these essays than that of the clairvoyant Romantic artist cliché, who apparently risks being claimed by this generation of scholars as a sort of first-trimester-Psychogeographer. The floppy word ‘life’ in the introduction obscures the word economics, a concern which comes up metronomically in these essays; the chief repetition that makes it clear that they form a complete work together.

This is economics in the specific sense of coming to terms with the demands of nature upon us; οἰκονομία (household management). Sebald meditates on how the artist should arrange their living while the shifting terms of our truce with Nature exacerbate an already precarious position. This very valuable book oscillates between two poles, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. As we pass (roughly) chronologically with the six authors through these paradigm shifts Nazism looms, of course. But when we reach it Nazism is viewed through the lens of a German Agricultural political heritage, managed with a mailed fist.

Yet what is most interesting is the way in which Sebald returns so deliberately to this economic theme in each essay but completely fails to interrogate its significance, like a face-blind man confidently and repeatedly showing you a photographic portrait. What is absent is an account of the role capital has to play in making utopia affordable; some would say inevitable. The commemorative arts in antiquity encircled the Polis, and belonged to a way of life where ‘household management’ had been taken care of. For the Greeks this was when you could enjoy the scrutiny of your peers, or in the Modernist era, when you could afford a room of your own. Literature is life After Wealth. In these essays Sebald erroneously applies the Romantic Sublime to the overbearing endurance of capital; wealth that outlives its accumulators; a financial process that has been impiously elevated to the immortality of nature. The tiny human figure in this new picture doesn’t stand on top of a mountain – he stands on a mezzanine overlooking a vast Chongqing factory floor.

What inspires Sebald’s vertigo inducing vision of capital is his conflation of the Terror of political revolution with the Industrial Revolution:

There lurks the fear of the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control. When the young Mörike (1804-1875) begins writing, he has at his back the revolutionary upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, while the terrors which herald the new age of industrialisation are already silhouetted on the horizon, the turmoil unleashed by the accumulation of capital and the moves towards the centralisation of a new, cast-iron state authority. The Swabian quietism Mörike subscribed to is – like all the Biedermeier arts – a kind of instinctive defence mechanism in the face of the calamity to come.

In the short-term this is an opinion that has its merits. The uprooting and redistribution of muscle power around the British Isles was a social calamity with effects that some argue are still felt today (I have no idea if the same was true in Germany). Political revolution and Industrial revolution both open up periods of innovation and experiment that bewilder and exploit those that live within them. Yet it seems clear enough that Sebald sees this ‘spinning out of control’ as an inherent and enduring property of Capitalism, rather than an extension of the disdain that landowners had already felt towards the working classes for generations. Yet the ‘precariousness’ of life in this new paradigm seems to me to be nothing more than the experience of its novelty.

Sebald’s view that capital is destabilising and spiritually corrosive is unconvincing given all the energy that has been harnessed and labour saved so far. I doubt any system has liberated more individuals to be able to enter education and spend time on the arts as Capitalism. I am one of those fortunate enough to have received the general life-long bursary of industrial commonwealth. Even unsuccessful artists like myself can persist in making art without starving to death. Mörike’s ‘defence mechanism’ is merely an inability to understand the forces at work, and the same nostalgic ‘wishful utopia against progress’ we find amongst the Stoke Newington Set.

But Sebald is not without insight into the ways that humanity can practice old sins with new capital. Keller’s character Heinrich describes the elaborate domestic rituals by which his mother lives on almost nothing. Sebald demonstrates ingeniously how this tale, which deliberately evokes saintliness and the legendary, does not provide an alternative to capitalism as it first appears, but is an exemplary case of capital accumulation. Keller (1819-1890) was ‘obliged to experience first hand how what has been painstakingly saved up by means of self-denial is carried over to the next generation as debt.’ The mother has created a perverse kind of ancestor worship whereby she can watch over Heinrich for the rest of his life even though they both know she cannot see him beyond her grave.

Yet Sebald goes on to repeat the erroneous mantra of this book, ‘Keller was one of the first to recognise the havoc which proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.’ The irony is that Keller’s critique does not go far enough for today’s reader. If one were to scale up the mother’s mode of living on almost nothing, as we find in the slums, we would discover it is in fact a highly inefficient and polluting way of life. Not only does she hand over an emotional debt to the son, these legions of modest dwellings deforest and pollute the natural world. What Sebald fails to appreciate in all of these essays is that Industry is the art of making a high standard of living available to billions, while reducing their effect on the environment. Capital creates thriving cities which reduce the area humanity occupies, while providing for their needs with far less energy. Capital dissolves social castes and provides myriad alternatives to prostitution in deprived zones. Capital allows people who were destined for the production line to obtain an emotional, intellectual life. The question isn’t how capitalism can be slowed down to an acceptable pace for middle class Europeans, but rather how we can get over ourselves more quickly while capital gives access to commonwealth for these others we once, perhaps we still consider inferior to ourselves. The more people involved in this process globally, the sooner climate and conflict can be resolved.

The middle class fear is that if all mod cons are given to everyone the planet will choke, but this is wrong-headed. The process of delivering technologies to the masses demands their constant reinvention – new forms that do the same work with less effort.

True gold, for Keller, is always spun with great effort from next to nothing… False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.

No. These common sense instincts are factually flawed, just as the observation that the sun goes round the earth is an anthropocentric illusion. Keller’s alternative to capitalism is a system of barter exemplified by Frau Margret who owns a junk shop. Junk is brought by customers who pay tribute to her with consumables, their pre-capitalist Matriarch (also idealised by Engels). No, Keller can keep his tribal obsequiousness. And his junk can be sorted into the fruits of Work and Labour, the latter to be scrapped and recast in better, life-affirming forms.

This praxis of living on nothing is reprised in Sebald’s praise for Robert Walser, (1878-1956) a transient exigence imposed to some extent by the Nazis. Walser’s life story testifies that when the world goes mad you must enter the asylum. Walser was key to Sebald’s realisation that ‘everything is connected across space and time’, which is the true kernel of his writing practice; currently being trudged into the mud by the new breed of professional psychogeographers. They can even obtain a Chair in Psychogeography in a respected university, not that they would dream of sitting down. One such synergy is ‘Natural history and the history of our industries’ – this is a profound connection of two categories usually treated as opposites, prominent in After Nature, and this is surely Sebald’s most rewarding observation about capital – that the rigours of nature, harnessed, are at the heart of Industry. This seems obvious, but most people behave as if nature is a gentle equilibrium that needs to be defended from our interventions. Sebald sees nature as something temporary on the face of the Earth, a senseless botcher that undoes the marvel it achieved blindly moments before. Industry exports this chaotic genius from the automatic operations of our cells. Motor proteins are directly related to motor cars. Sebald’s error is to be intimidated by this and join with these other great authors who claimed Agriculture as a stalemate; a compromise with nature. The allotment garden seems a good place to get off, and it is no accident that many academics hope to be allotted a quiet room where they can tend their books and papers like vegetables in a greenhouse. But there is ‘never a stop’, and as successive generations of engineers take it in turns to kick Malthus in the balls, we will find widespread equality, freedom and cooperation demand automation.

It is hard to explain why Sebald sees frustrated wisdom in these agricultural obsessions. He even goes on to explain that allotment settlements in Berlin in Mörike’s time were created as an expression of a desire to extend the Fatherland and create German colonies in Africa and Tahiti. In this case it is Agricultural idealism, not the manic stock market, which is fertile ground for nationalistic tyranny. Nazi Germany hid a beating industrial heart behind an Agricultural screen of blood and soil. German factory workers would mail-order peasant outfits from Nazi periodicals to wear at the weekend. So why does Sebald double-back and describe centralised state authority and capitalist accumulation as bedfellows when they have an inherent antipathy? Surely Germany was a very peculiar case in harbouring both. Without the failure of capitalism, stock market crashes and war reparations, it is hard to imagine Nazism would have had so much appeal. The slavish sameness of the Nazi production line isn’t one of productivity worship – it is emblematic of the death of the individual, consummated in death on the battlefield. The robot is their ideal citizen. The Nazi attitude to butter is famous: I can’t believe it’s not bullets.

This German heritage of agriculture and aristocratic authoritarianism is hinted at in Sebald’s essay on Hebel (1760-1826). He was the editor and principal contributor to an almanac, the Hausfreund, which can be considered emblematic of the importance of ‘household management’ to that particular writer.

At no point were his hopes and philosophy directed at a violent and bloody reversal of the status quo. His concern was only ever for the practical improvement of the living conditions of the people, such as promoted by Karl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden.

This member of the Aristocracy advocated the ideas of the French Physiocrats, whose ‘economic philosophy’ centred on Agriculture. Sebald’s judgement is that this group wished to inoculate the German Aristocracy against revolution with a dose of ‘Bourgeois rationality’, conserving the natural order of benevolent despotism. Germany would become ‘a large and flourishing garden’, where the lower orders were too blessed and busy to think of a revolution that could only return to terrorise them in turn.

Everywhere peace and satisfaction would reign, “If only all men would cultivate the fields and provide for themselves with the work of their hands”. In such nostalgic utopian views was the educated middle class wont to articulate its discomfiture at the rapid spread of the economy of goods and capital it had itself created, and which was now proliferating year on year.

These astute comments on middle class hypocrisy remind me of the comments of Engineer D in After Nature, who has lost his belief in the science he always served:

the revolutions of great
systems cannot be
righted, too diffuse are
the workings of power,
the one thing always
the other’s beginning

Again both Industrial and Political revolution are invoked in one stroke. But further, in Sebald’s marvellous poem the natural process of evolution, both iconographer and iconoclast, becomes identified with the technical ingenuity conjured up by the human mind. Industry is an extension of Evolution in the mass of interconnected entities. This is true. Metabolism is at the heart of cells, combustion engines and household management. Sebald demonstrates that evolution is not the more gradual, comfortable cousin of revolution; great systems cannot be righted. Nature has always threatened to overwhelm Civilisation, but now the same powers have been invited within the city walls by Industry.

Perhaps the life of Rousseau (1712-1778) weaves these threads together best. He shared the Physiocrat faith in Agriculture. When invited to draft a constitution for Corsica his ideal was to create a non-hierarchical society administered through rural communities. Bartering, again, would replace the monetary economy, and agriculture was seen as the ‘only possible basis for a truly good and free life’. Luckily for Corsica, Rousseau couldn’t face the journey from Ile St-Pierre that would be necessary to realise this dream. ‘A utopian dream in which bourgeois society, increasingly determined by the manufacture of goods and the accumulation of private wealth, is promised a return to more innocent times.’ But by depicting this as an ‘inherent contradiction’ between utopian nostalgia and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’, Sebald overlooks the possibility that the powers unleashed by capitalism may improve the standard of living generally, and that ‘private wealth’ may increase individual freedoms. The question is really how these benefits should be managed with equity, and it seems inevitable Rousseau’s rural communes would become a way to distribute lack fairly rather than create prosperity.

Even the Bible, the handbook of so many Agrarian idealists and Adamites, bars the way back to Edenic innocence with a flaming sword. The future is a Holy City, furnished with parks; Eden was always a peaceful garden surrounded by wilderness under the rule of nature; its natives plucked fruit in the equatorial fashion; Adam didn’t need to delve or Eve to spin until they were in the muck. Agriculture has just as much toil about it as Industry, and the labourers in both field and factory either receive a safer, easier working life from machinery, or the chance to go to University. The word unemployment implies that employment is the natural order of things. I suggest disemployment. It makes it harder to justify these elitist tuition fees.

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