Hunger: Knut Hamsun

Of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Robert Bly writes in the introduction to this 1976 version:

How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character! Fewer and fewer, as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that the readers will feel at home. (15)

This made me laugh out loud. Until I realised that Hamsun surely felt he was a genius, and maybe that is what propelled his admiration for Hitler, his support for Nazi occupation, his enthusiastic meeting with Goebbels. We saw no plaques for Hamson.

He wrote Hunger in 1890. So I will just write about that. Because it is an extraordinary book. Most descriptions of it seem to start with the list of other authors who loved his work, including Isaac Baschevis Singer, so it must be all right.

I’m not sure,  though.

I didn’t really feel myself that genius was the point at all. Hunger was the point. Pride too, mental illness, and the way that starvation twists your vision and carves into your understanding. It is also a very different kind of Oslo (or Christiana or Kristiana as it was known then) than that of Ibsen, or even Munch.

All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana — that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him … (24)

Oslo is no longer a city that leaves such a mark, I don’t think.

Thoughts of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me utterly reprehensible of Him to block my way every time I tried for a job and to ruin my chances when it was only daily bread that I was asking for. I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty. My head became light and floating, I could no longer feel its weight on my shoulders, and I had the sense that my eyes were remaining far too open when I looked at anything. (37)

This catalogue of a writer’s possessions cut me:

…thinking all the time of my marvellous story…I decided to get it over with right now and move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief which contained two clean collars and some crumpled newspaper which I had carried my bread home in, rolled it all together with my blanket, and added my store of white writing paper. (49)

And little could ring as true as this description of an editor’s office — an editor with power of acceptance or rejection. How much more powerful when it is the ability to grant a few pieces of bread and a place to sleep, or hunger and Oslo’s great outdoors.

I looked around me in the tiny office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an enormous wastepaper-basket that looked as if it could swallow a man, bones and all. I felt sad, looking at this monstrous maw, this dragon — mouth always open, ready to receive more rejected articles, newly crushed hopes. (105)

Loved this:

A country preacher could not have looked more full of milk and honey than this formidable writer, whose words had always left long bloody marks wherever they fell. (106)

Felt sorrow at this:

I simply couldn’t starve any more the way I used to. A single day without food now could make me feel dazed, and I made incessant retching efforts as soon as I drank any water. (107)

He retched often and everywhere, turning aside as he walked as though it were nothing, a terrible aspect of this daily horror. None of today’s streets are somewhere you could slink along retching quietly. Yet we saw beggars stretched out face down in the rain under plastic sheeting, holding out cups for alms. One man kneeling. It seemed that this is how begging is done here, most abjectly.

Then there are the kids…I know kids like this, though very few in the UK. Breaks the fucking heart.

They looked up at my window with their little pale-blue faces and endlessly sad eyes. Meanwhile, the two diminutive enemies continued to hurl words at each other. Words like huge, cold-blooded reptiles poured out of their childish lips, frightful nicknames, whore language, sailors’ curses… (160)

Their mother sleeping with a sailor while the husband watched, the poverty of their existence still able to accommodate a starving writer after his rent fell due.

It is 2 St Olavs Plass where Ylajali lives — the woman the narrator falls for, torments and comes to fascinate. The scene is fairly heartrending where she suddenly realises he is not a mysterious drunkard with a swagger, but simply delirious from starvation — the scene she realises she might still love him but can’t handle all of that.

2 St Olavs Plass is now a Michelin rated restaurant named Happolati, another of Hamsun’s made up names taken from the book:

The irony of naming a michelin restaurant after a ranting in a book about starvation… hard to stomach. Especially since he became a Nazi. We still went to see the place where his suffering protagonist hovered, it was suitably grim, though with a sculptural watery sort of feature now.

Oslo -- St Olavs Plass

He also wanders throughout these places in part 1 (the names pulled from Hunger and from a book about Hunger):

Our Saviour’s Place, Graensen street, Palace Park, Pascha’s Bookstore, Pilestraedet Lane, Cisler’s Music Store,  University Street, St. Olavs Plass, Karl Johan Street, the Students’ Promenade, Stortorvet Square, Aker Street Ullevaal Road St. Hanshaugen, Kirke Street, Haegdenhaugen district, Majorstuen, Bogstad Woods, Jaernbanetorvet Square, the Steam Kitchen, Gronlandsleret   Street, Møller Street, Christ’s Cemetery, Oplandske Café, Torv Street, the Arcades.  

We wandered them too, though I imagine the feel of them is much changed, though pictures of these old central areas seem very similar.

A final picture of Oslo city streets, and a happy reminder about genius.

Oslo

[Hamsun, Knut (1976) Hunger. London: Picador.]

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Oslo Streets

Oslo is a lovely city, a wonderful city to wander — we didn’t realise how big it was until we took the ferry out to the Viking ship museum (zomg the viking ship museum, amazing), but it feels human size, liveable. I think partly it is because only a short walk from the center you reach areas where you find things like this:

Oslo

I’ve not been to a city with quite this shape — a yard or second road and houses tucked in behind them. It creates variety, interest, surprise — all the things Cullen and Alexander described as key to an interesting human environment. The above picture isn’t the most picturesque, but the only shot that managed to capture some of the contrasts, and just how cool a space this is.

Then there are the old streets of wooden houses. But I have already sung their praises.

There are balconies that seem well used, cafes spilling out onto sidewalks, coloured lights and tables and chairs inviting you to enjoy any summer evenings you can manage. Lots of street furniture too, in pallet style though I am fairly certain that is not cheap pallet wood upcycled.

It is also almost all mixed use and plenty of small shops, like this fruit and veg vendor protecting his wares by a small sacrifice to the birds. There are parks and green spaces all over.

Oslo

There is a museum dedicated to Labour — we walked up the Akerselva to the old working class neighbourhoods to get there (I confess, they don’t really feel working class any more).

Oslo

Lots of cobbled streets still. I love them, though I love them more since I stopped wearing heels.

The museum itself is small, nice, not quite enough about Labour and a little too even handed in describing the workings of capital, but we’re biased. It was worth a visit, and had we not gone we would have missed these splendid waterfalls in their entirety. They appeared nowhere in my admittedly quick search for weird and wonderful things to see — that turned up the mini bottle museum (closed), but not this beauty?

Oslo -- Akerselva River

This was the centre of Oslo’s industry, the museum had an exhibition on of paintings of the Aker. These waterfalls once powered sawmills, later textile factories. A vision of it as it once was below:

Oslo -- Akerselva River

Heading out towards the Munch Museum we passed what felt more like the current environs of the working class. Nice, I love these balconies, with their built in window boxes.

Oslo

There is street art everywhere, here off of Tøyengata we found a beauty, along with an impressive diversity and some old buildings and cracked walls and lots of tags and stores that sell everything with brand names you don’t recognise that made me feel right at home.

Oslo

Perhaps what I loved best was how massive luxurious modernity was squished into its own small section — though modern building is spread through out the city. This ‘landmark area’ still felt more vibrant and interesting than say Salford Quays (though we didn’t venture in), but they’ve actually done very interesting things with long narrow buildings lines all up in a row. I like them confined this way.

Oslo

With wonderful plazas, a parade for each day we were there, some of the best public art I’ve seen as well as awesome (often anti-fascist) graffiti and stickers, I enjoyed Oslo immensely, despite the rain. Just reminded us of home I suppose.

Oslo

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Oslo’s Old Wooden Houses

We found two streets of old wooden houses — Damstredet and Telthusbakken — saved from the wrecking ball and brought back to beauty and life. I loved them more than I can say, and only wished I had had more time to explore the city and find more of them. We found other old wooden homes scattered here and there across the city’s face.

The large pink house was also once a stable for writer Henrik Wergeland’s horse (I think. Again,  I confess a total inability to read plaques in Norwegian)

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Henrik Ibsen — At Home and At Work

We went to see Henrik Ibsen’s home on Friday. In Oslo. We were in Oslo! It was cold for a summer day, quite rainy, never did really stop raining the whole time. So all my photos have a tremendous background of grey skies and water. Still, Oslo is a lovely place.

Reading Ibsen again was good too — I confess I read him too young. I read The Doll House I think, long long ago. Didn’t really understand it, what could I know of bourgeois emptiness and the disfigurement of women under hypocritical middle-class moralities? Like another planet, and a fairly boring, if not downright nasty one. I remember not liking it.

I like Ibsen so much better now — I worry, perhaps, that I know too much now about bourgeois emptiness. But still only from the outside. I can see, though, why Eleanor Marx would work so hard to translate them into English, why she wrote of seeing Hedda Gabler (1890) in the theatre and emerging transfixed. It was my favourite of these three. There are women here who save, and women who destroy, but all of them feel like real women. Rounded. Fighting their boundaries and the customs that hem them in, even if like Hedda, they don’t have the self-awareness to fight well. This is the tragedy of women who have not found meaning in life, but know that it is missing. Know that the narrow role allotted them is not enough. Hedda wasn’t brave enough to strike through to the centre of things — maybe she wouldn’t have been a nasty bully if she had. I wonder. But she was too brave to live constrained under the power of a man.

The there is The Pillars of the Community (1877). Here Lona has returned from the New World to the Old to shake out the stuffiness and the hypocrisy. She knows just what she wants, is comfortable in her own skin. The New World continues to be a place for Europeans to reinvent themselves, escaping the constraints and disfigurings of middle-class society. Here, the possibilities it offered and the woman who has grasped them, win a happy ending for everyone.

It felt a bit didactic, but I quite loved it as exemplary of that Victorian capitalist who long ago ceased to exist — the one who grew rich on others’ misery yet who was firmly anchored in position and place. This led to a paternalism, a sense of duty, a sense of being a pillar of the community. While it is entirely hypocritical to say that their investments were disinterested, they still had a care to ensure their investments could be seen as building and growing their community.

Hell of paternalistic and hypocritical though — here he has secretly bought up all the land where he is trying to bring a railway line in:

Karsten Bernick: See, I have risked this for the good of the community.

Lona Hessel calls him on it. You have to like her.

Karsten Bernick: And isn’t it the community itself that forces us into crooked ways? What would have happened here if I hadn’t dealt secretly? They would all have thrown themselves into the concern, divided it, scattered it, mismanaged and bungled the whole thing…That’s why my conscience absolves me in this particular case. It is only in my hands that these properties can become of permanent benefit to the many people they will provide with a living. (97)

He is, of course, in the process of replacing workers with machines, forcing them beyond their capacities, and almost commits murder. But at the last moment he is saved from his own self, which allows him to see himself truly and repent. Come out to the community he has felt so constrained by, even as he comes clean. A nice moral.

I liked the The Wild Duck (1884) better. Liked that the wealthy idealist in this play does more damage than good. Is as blind as his avaricious father, but in different ways.  I loved how this play turned The Pillars of the Community on its head in a sense, complicated the value of truth, showing its destructive power. I particularly loved this interchange:

Relling: While I remember it, young Mr Werle — don’t use that exotic word ‘ideals’. We have a good enough native word: ‘lies’.

Gregers: Do you mean the two things are related?

Relling: Yes. Like typhus and typhoid fever. (244)

I’m still thinking about Relling’s ‘medical’ use of the ‘saving lie’. Just another way towards misery, but whether more or less miserable is a difficult question. Hjalmar Ekdal is a vain, weak man. Perhaps What was best was whatever kept little Hedvig and the wild duck alive.

Ibsen’s house and the museum attached was by far the priciest thing we saw in Oslo, apart from perhaps Engebret Cafe, where Ibsen ate on occasion along with Grieg and Bjornstjerne Bjornson and etc (and where Munch was kicked out of, after accusing staff of stealing his gloves and scarf). It was delicious however, and all paneled wood, which you know I loved.

 Oslo - Engebret Cafe

I failed completely to get a good shot of Ibsen’s home’s exterior… here is an oblique shot, where this wonderful statue faces the park where the palace sits:

Ibsen in Oslo

What it once looked like:

We had walked across the park to get to the museum from one of the precisely ten thousand Scandic hotels scattered across the city. It was bought when Ibsen was old and famous and rolling in funds — and so he ended his days in a setting very much like one of his plays:

In face he did all the decorations himself, like his own stage set. It is quite opulent. The dining room and salon (with colours all off due to the light):

Ibsen in Oslo

His amazing study — his wife used to sell tickets to see it after he died, people would line up. She lived here until her death in 1914. It was turned into dentist offices before being returned to almost its original state:

Ibsen in Oslo

They even rescued the bath from a farmer’s fields.

Ibsen wrote five hours every day. Exactly.

One one wall of the study, Ibsen hung a huge portrait of Strindberg — his mortal enemy. I read Strindberg before our Stockholm adventure, and never got round to blogging that. While I quite liked The Red Room, his plays had me raging over the treatment of women. I prefer Ibsen.

Ibsen in Oslo

Suzannah died in this chair  (on the right behind glass) in the lovely but very little library, sitting up as she had wished

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

In addition to his plays with interesting women, there are the lovely hand drawn certificates he made for his wife Suzannah on special days:

Ibsen in Oslo

That was from the museum, full of fascinating odds and ends:

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

We didn’t go direct from his home to the Grand Cafe, where he went every day. But we did go. Here is Munch’s drawing of Ibsen at the Grand Cafe:

Oslo

It has changed quite a bit, but still feels very expensive and rather glamorous. We drank wine.

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

While wandering we also accidentally passed the location of his first house (I think, it’s in Norwegian) that his wife Suzannah hated, said it was cold and all corridors…

Ibsen in Oslo

I could end with his grave, which we found in Vår Frelsers gravlund…

Oslo -- Vår Frelsers gravlund

But instead will end with the cafe, where we actually found a very decent cup of coffee:

Oslo

Grief

For him she got clean. For the baby, when he was tiny, still inside her.

She’d tried before. Her mom went and got her. She tried. Went back. Tried again. Family in pieces around her. Love for that man a big pull, heroin a big pull too. You will lie, cheat and steal for both of them. They were something to hold on to in this world that hates Black women, I guess. Something.

Lucky for all of us, love for her son proved stronger than the others. Love for herself seemed to come with it, and that was beautiful to see.

He was born too early, so early, still in his birth sac, a miracle baby. A tiny, beautiful thing.

For him she stayed clean. Counting day by day as you do. Fighting week by week, month by month. Celebrating every anniversary. She stayed clean.

For him she got it together, got a job.

For him she ate better, celebrated filling out again, getting healthy. Had just gone vegetarian. Celebrated her skin clearing. Wore bright red lipstick and amazing great big green-framed glasses and they looked so damn good on her. She had the most beautiful smile.

Two years her family and friends had her back, with life and hope ahead of her.

All for him.

Now lost. The doctors told her something like stomach flu, sent her home. But night before last she died in hospital. Completely unexpected. Total shock.

Lost to her parents, lost to her son, lost to us.

My heart a little more broken.

This morning I woke up to the news because they couldn’t get hold of me yesterday, and I thought how the US just keeps taking and taking. Just keeps killing its children, young mothers and fathers — grandparents still raise our next generation. I am too far to be any help, I grieve at an immeasurable distance.

This morning too I woke to the news of the attack on London Bridge, the deaths in borough market. Just as two weeks ago I woke to the Manchester bombing. In our world torn apart by war and wracked by addiction I know every morning is this morning for so many. If only our love and solidarity could end this. I know we can only do our best, but I want to end this and I know I am not alone but I cannot see our way.

Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s vision of Social Capital

Putnam Bowling AloneRobert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) is the great classic of social capital, referred to in almost everything that is dealing with community and connection.

Everything.

Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this

1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous  threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)

So what is social capital?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)

This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:

Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)

And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.

Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)

This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:

Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)

I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.

Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:

our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.

So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:

Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)

But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:

The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.

The Great Declines

Declines in Political Participation

I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between

social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)

And Putnam does find a decline.

Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)

Declines in Civic Participation

Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):

bowling-alone-23-728(p 54)

On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)

Declining religious participation

I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.

Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)

…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)

The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)

Yep.

Informal Social Connections

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)

I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.

Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)

Despite this,

we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)

Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —

These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)

And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.

Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy

The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…

Reciprocity, Honesty & Trust

There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)

This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.

Small Groups and Social Movements

Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.

Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)

Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)

Why the Decline?

Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)

Pressures of time and money

Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.

Mobility and sprawl

First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.

Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)

A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:

Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)

Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)

He looks at commuting:

Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in  community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)

Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)

He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)

Technology and Mass Media

Television

Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)

So What? Why We Should Care

Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)

That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.

  1. social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.
  2. … greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy … everyday business and social transactions are less costly.
  3. … widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fate is linked… Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others… (288)
  4. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals.
  5. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individuals’ lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. (289)

Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)

There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.

child welfare and education:

— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)

healthy and productive neighborhoods,

Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks

economic prosperity

support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc

health and happiness

huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)

democratic citizenship and government performance

higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…

The Dark Side — Babbitry

Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?

So, social capital.

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Space: 2017 Prix Pictet in Photography at the V&A

The exhibition of The Prix Pictet shortlist and winner at the V&A was superb.

Prix Pictet is a global prize that aims to highlight sustainability and environmental issues through photography….The theme for this cycle is Space.

The winner Richard Mosse for his series entitled Heat Maps — enthralling pictures, only two of them on display here. Huge  composited black and white film pictures and heat photographs showing refugee camps, showing metal cars glowing and human bodies incandescent, this use of military technology against military technologies to bring alive the scale of the camp, but in so much detail… Like a Bruegel Mark said and it was exactly what I had been thinking but the technology of it also means it comes in and out of focus a bit, like an enormous charcoal with sections in crystal clarity but but others blurred as though a careless fist rested there. Figures also burred white but caught in fragile intensely human moments and motions, there is a vividness here, a humanity unvarnished, a poverty not picturesque. These are landscapes of tents and metal and ripping wire, and a fragile battered environment of water, trees.

Carceral spaces at scale, but with humanity foregrounded. They were incredible. A visceral call to dismantle all of it, a recognition of the spirit of those within it.

The full list of photographers, all of their work is wonderful.

Mandy Barker (United Kingdom) Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals
Saskia Groneberg (Germany) – Büropflanze
Beate Guetschow (Germany) – S Series
Rinko Kawauchi (Japan) – Ametsuchi
Benny Lam (Hong Kong) – Subdivided Flats
Richard Mosse (Ireland) – Heat Maps
Wasif Munem (Bangladesh) – Land of Undefined Territory
Sohei Nishino (Japan) – Diorama Map
Sergey Ponomarev (Russia) – Europe Migration Crisis
Thomas Ruff (Germany) – ma.r.s
Pavel Wolberg (Russia) – Barricades
Michael Wolf (Germany) – Tokyo Compression

Another set of pictures of the migrant experience from Sergey Ponomarev, pictures of this massive movement of humanity that seems so remote to London even as I read of camps and deaths, even as I contribute food and money, even as I cry over boats tumbling over themselves and spilling children into the sea.

From Ponomarev’s statement:

Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.

I loved the recentering of the world onto these journeys that these pictures achieved. This new world they are creating.

Pictures of faces against glass in Tokyo’s subway, condensation, patient suffering. It feels infinite here.

Tokyo Compression

Shinjuku Station is used by an average of 3.64 million people per day, making it the most crowded train stations in the world in terms of number of passengers. I spent more than 60 weekday mornings photographing passengers during their commute into Tokyo. All portraits were taken at one train station along the Odakyu line, during rush hour between 7.30 and 9 am. At intervals of 80 seconds, a train already packed to the absolute limit pulled into the station. Even more people pushed their way into the compartments until the commuters were jammed like sardines in a can. Day in day out, millions of commuters must endure this torture, as the only affordable housing is hours away outside of the city center. Is this a humane way to live?

The collision of housing crisis, work, public transport. The everyday pain of it.

Saskia Groneberg’s pictures of plants filling offices, curving towards light, peering round blinds. They start banal and by the end of the series have given you a feeling more ominous than that, as though humans are not just absent but gone.But I think that is very much my own impression, too many movies, too many references to the Triffids.

Benny Lam’s pictures from Hong Kong, staring down at people in tiny rectangles — the length of our vertical axis — only enough room to sit and barely enough to lie down. The rooms’ heights  stacked vertically, the sum of people’s possessions around them. I remember my tiny room in London on New Park Rd, spacious in comparison (you could have got three or four people lying down in there, a new spatial measure), similarly stacked high, this feeling of being trapped yet also of safety because it is still yours… Nothing to this. I am humbled. Again we must question just how this is the world we have created.

Benny Lam Trapped 03, 2012, Series: Subdivided…

The tiny space in this house compels you to do everything on or around the bed: sleeping, washing vegetables, having meals, writing letters, and watching TV. For some people, it is also where the children do homework and play games. Living here is like being trapped in a cage. Dilemma is what it’s all about. If you need to catch your breath, stay in this trap and entertain yourself.

Sohei Nishino’s amazing montages of London and San Francisco, space expanding again. Myriads of images collaged together into a larger sense of the city, a vertiginous wandering through cityscapes that resemble the city you know but with some jarring differences.

Sohei Nishino: Diorama Map San Francisco, 2016, Series: Diorama Map, 2010-16

He writes:

Rapid cultural and economic development creates a continuous process of amplification and accumulation within cities. I walk through these cities, camera in hand, capturing multi-facetted [sic] views that I then combine,in accordance with my memories, arranging them into a map that portrays all the singular aspects of the place. The result is quite different from the denotative expression of a map; it uses photographs of concrete objects or shapes as units to recreate a geographical representation, expressing the city through human memories and images. This means that the finished work is anything but an accurate map, it is simply the town as seen through the eyes of a single individual, a trace of the way in which I walked through it, an embodiment of my awareness, a microcosm of the life and energy that comprise the city.

Fascinating exercises in psychogeography, though perhaps a little too stripped of situationist rebellion…

There is earth being scorched by fire, tied to agricultural ritual and both literal and cyclical space in Rinko Kawauchi’s pictures. I loved this hill, this sense of rebirth and the barrier between life and death, the theme of connection across space in this kind of time.

Beate Guetschow. Brutalist concrete crumbling against landscapes that I had to be told were composites to create new landscapes. That needing to be told…that fascinated me.

Her statement brought together a lot of the things I have been thinking about (I mean, she quotes Georges Perec, she is clearly playing with the idea of city here as well…):

Cities grow, and in doing so they occupy increasingly large amounts of space – the built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm. A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders. These are mainly conceived and put in place by man. The walls and virtual boundaries around spaces usually have some form of opening that define one’s own position and allow one to enter a different space. Georges Perec describes this perfectly in his book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”

In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures. My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism. A key characteristic of modernity was an unshakable belief in progress – the idea of a process of sustained growth that would ultimately lead to a perfect society. In terms of its clarity and functionality, modernist architecture symbolises this faith in rationality. In my images, these very structures are shown to be crumbling; their substance is rotten.

Mandy Barker’s study of plastic, a Victorian labeling within a tiny glass cabinet combined with these pictures of wonderful circles — views through a microscope, new views on the plastic that is filling the earth and all the living things within it beginning with plankton.

Micro to macro, Thomas Ruff’s pictures of Mars. Proper space:

ma.r.s.08 II, Thomas Ruff. © Thomas Ruff

Landscapes just as arid, just as likely to be found in Arizona where I grew up as in the strip of land between India as shown by Wasif Munem in ‘Land of Undefined Territory‘:

The chosen area of land in this series is a mere observer of nearly a hundred years of land disputes, which saw colonization, 1947’s divide of the Indian subcontinent and mass-migration with Partition, and 1971’s liberation war of Bangladesh which created the current border tension with the neighboring country, India. Absence of any profound identity for its existence never diminishes its presence, and its body carries the wound of aggressive industrial acts, such as stone collection and crushing. … Wasif’s work is not a definitive act of understanding the totality of deeds, rather deliberately ignorant of them with the help of an unconscious camera, to merely show land’s lone existence over a period of time.

And finally, Pavel Wolberg on the barricades.

The barricades are architectural elements that instantly appear and change existence around them. They are made out of tiles, barrels, blocks, and sacks of sand against which human beings seem to blur And become insignificant.

The barricades are the instant, moment-to-moment, concretization of separation of lives, identities, and ways of being. It is here that political, social and above all, religious believes are conjured up into a violent confrontation frontline made out of piles and multitudes. These barricades become turbulent focal points in the landscape where space is constantly reshaped and re-conquered and always remains chaotic.

Brilliant exhibition, and we caught it on the last day and almost didn’t see it at all as there were lines to main entrance — the security guard we were talking to told us of the other entrance round the side — not a soul around. good thing too, as who wanted to see fucking Pink Floyd or the Balenciaga exhibition? Everyone else apparently, which was all the better.

We also took this opportunity to enjoy a view of Tipoo’s Tiger. Worth stopping by even if you don’t see anything else there at all.

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Khadambi Asalache: poetry and place finished unfinished

We went to see Khadambi Asalache’s house today, and it was wondrous indeed. Poetry carved into wood, crafted into space. From the National Trust:

575 Wandsworth Road

This small, early nineteenth-century terraced house was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. In 1986, he began carving wooden fretwork to disguise a persistent damp problem in the basement dining room. He went on to embellish almost every wall, ceiling and door in the house with fretwork patterns and motifs which he hand-carved from reclaimed pine doors and floorboards found in skips. Over the course of a twenty year period he turned his home into a work of art.

He did not like for his friends to take pictures, because pictures mediate between you and the experience of place, and they also mediate your memories. Nothing could give you a true sense of what it means to be physically present in this house, so if you have the ability to come to London, to stand here, maybe stop reading now. Don’t look. But if you cannot get here, then a pale reflection can help you understand what follows.

I confess I liked being in this space without taking any photographs. But I also like these photographs from the website, for they frame and capture scenes in this place of almost overwhelming detail that allow you to isolate small portions and spend more time over them, to gain access to someone else’s framing of the space to see what others see.

A few things that struck me the most about this incredible place.

First the ways in which this incredible 20-year labour of detailed carving and fretworking and painting carved a space out of London that had nothing to do with London at all. Not an escape perhaps, but an alternate universe, a sidestep through a carved door into a place of beauty and safety and memory. Complete in itself, indifferent. It’s only the garden out the back that it calls on, its mimosa tree repeated and made soft, forever muted green in paint. Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often gray and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.

Our guides also mentioned how this house reflected Asalache’s philosophies as he carved a work that was beautiful, harmonious, forever unsymmetrical (though containing much symmetry) and forever incomplete. I think creating such intricacy across the whole of the house meant that not designing in a symmetrical way was more difficult — though this provoked laughter I am still a little hurt by. I don’t know why. But simply to mirror one half across another is easy, a mechanical operation that surely would have cut the time required (though of course to do it with machine like precision might not be). Instead, balance and harmony must emerge from some level of deeper awareness and attention as new forms are created to form a larger sense of wholeness that does not jar, that feels right and fitting in its difference rather than its sameness. This seems to me infinitely harder, worth a deeper appreciation.

He started in the kitchen, and he finished this room before moving to the next. There is an aspect to this house that made me initially think of obsession, made me think of the Watts Towers meticulously crafted over decades in a work that would never and could never be finished. There would always be more to do, more to add. The edges of things were all left rough, splintery, though they often incorporated smooth wood carvings rescued from jettisoned paneling and furniture in Lambeth’s great 1980s wave of gentrification and rebuilding. Almost all of the wood was found in skips, saved from this Georgian neighbourhood being gutted by money and development.

I love that Asalache could finish, and that part of that finishing was to leave sections unfinished. There is one shelf in particular in the dining room where fretwork adorns one half but not the other — left deliberately along with the other aspect of unfinishedness so as not to overwhelm his friends according to our guides. I stared at it…wanted to finish it myself. It is provocative, makes you think about this shelf as it fits into the room, fits into the house, fits into an ability to be incomplete, imperfect. The house is full of other examples, but none so marked as this one I think. A topic for discussion at dinner perhaps. I loved this long table, the conviviality it implied and memories it must hold of collective talk and laughter and breaking of bread together.

I loved how each room was different, loved the floors with patterns mirroring the rugs (the rugs were there first and the patterns painted in harmony with them), loved the doors decorated on only one side, loved the figures dancing, the multitudes of animals and birds carved and painted delicately on walls. Loved the beauty of the objects and the precision of their placement. Loved how this still feels like a space to be lived in, despite its beauty and fragility.

   I loved this house. To be here on a tour of only six, guided slowly by people who love it too, who know it so well, who can point out the parrot with a looking glass, the ancient Egyptians with a telephone, the painting of a man falling that a friend had snuck upstairs to do. All wonderful. I hope to come back, this is a place you will always find something new.

I found some of his poems too, though his most famous novel, A Calabash of Life, is sadly long out of print despite his role in an important period of African literature in diaspora.

From Prometheus (found in African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 66):

The shadow of sadness gently rolled down his tears
for now, between him and heaven, nothing but clouds
the grey procession moving into the silent afternoon
following a chink of light to close the path of escape.

His eyes followed this gloom, the puzzling fate,
like a drunken moment bringing its dark face
to come lower, lower, a fulfillment of stored hate
coming down to crush the hand of

From Conversations with a Suicide (African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 67):

the mind’s vault is walled
like a lake that has frozen round its shore, looks
pure. This is the frozen heart of the crystal
and the wind that blows hardens on
its face, shadowless

like a row of empty chairs in a waiting room
when you arrive the blank face of the wall
look away to avoid your stare-if you stop
to hit back you see only yourself, a dream
nothing more

if you were born under the sign of Neptune
the secret of your life is with stars
there is no answer for you here. Up
in the sky clouds gather to build
their own strength without fear moving
to make a search

And finally, just a curious little letter he wrote on the subject of ujamaa, which I am interested in from afar as a technique for collective liberation that parallels Freire’s popular education or what I learned about Friday in Denmarks Common Third, I find it curious that this is his reaction to it (written from a different house as you can see):

Dear Sir,

I have just been reading Messrs. Omindi and Mboya’s letters in your issue No. 11. Mr. Mboya’s article on African Socialism begins to be clearer. From afar mountains are misty. He must know what he says when he writes ‘these leaders . . . are those most likely to know what philosophy and principles underlie their policies?’ Many would take the point and feel suitably told off.

Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’

Yours sincerely,

KHADAMBI ASALACHE.
120 Hurlingharn Road,
London S. W.6.

Letters to the Editor
Lennard H. Okola, Gary Gappert, Khadambi Asalache and Jan Knappert
Transition No. 13 (Mar. – Apr., 1964), pp. 5-7

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