March 23, 2005

The Tragedy of

In the suite of Text Festival images available to the media, the one by me most often picked up is the tragedy of althusserianism (here’s a good place to look at it ). The key moment in this visual poem is the following line, he is. One of the things the poem seeks to do is replicate the experience of mystery – the majority of readers (even if they have heard of Althusser) will not know what althusserianism is, or what the tragedy of it is. If that mystery is lived with, the question next is: is ‘he’ Althusser? Or is ‘he’ someone else? This set of questions is actually what the poem is about. You can stop there, you don’t know, that is the tragedy.

Louis Althusser was a fascinating figure and he and his wife Helene are frequent references in my work. In the 60’s he was a major figure in French Marxism. Ten years his senior, Helene had been a communist fighter against the Nazis. Reading his autobiography The Future Lasts a Long Time you get the sense that her real politics substantiated his academic Marxism. She comes across as deeply emotionally dependent on him and it is difficult to find him sympathetic with her low self-esteem battered further by his blatant infidelities. Throughout his adult life, while being this major theoretician of Marxism, he suffered bouts of mental instability resulting in frequent institutionalisation. One night Althusser emerged insane from their apartment at the Sorbonne having strangled the woman he loved. There was some speculation at the time that their relationship had become so sad that Helene had actually wanted him to kill her. He was judged too ill to be tried for murder instead being committed to a mental hospital. From being a public philosopher in the French intellectual mould, he went to being an insane killer. At the centre of the story is the tragedy of the love between Louis and Helene which he destroyed without knowing why. In philosophic terms there is also the lesser tragedy that althusserianism was destroyed with Helene. I found that in the last page of the autobiography he diminished himself even further because he implies a hope that readers will sympathise with him; and there is the actual terrible instant when the love of Helene is lost completely. And so the tragedy of althusserianism… he is.

Manchester’s City Life Magazine used the poem to accompany their coverage of the Festival, but edited down the middle so the word althusserianism is not there! I am delighted: I have been working on ways to represent greater depths of his tragedy and what could be better than complete erasure? Mis-attribution of the poem itself - the caption says it's by Bob Cobbing.

March 19, 2005

Text Day!

Today the Text Festival opens. The staff have done a remarkable thing to get it ready in time - special mention must be given to Laura Minta. The run up to opening has been characterised for me by end-to-end press and media work - Amusingly the Guardian story today simplifies the complex issues of text to poetry by personifying it into an argument between me and Andrew Motion (someone who I have never met and I expect has never heard of me), and an unfortunate seeming direct attack on Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Anyway, BBC Radio 4 have done a great piece on Friday's Front Row arts programme.

March 07, 2005

A Town That Shall Remain Nameless

A satellite of the City and a northern Metropolitan borough, the town has been a regeneration priority attracting government development funds for more than a decade. Early on when local government had little idea of how to regenerate the funds were spent on clearance and highway improvements; so the first phase was manifest with amble parking and empty plots. Later the landscape architects got their drawing boards on it so that new spaces were created with the human interest of walking through a diagram. I remember a great visiting sculptor commenting that the town landscape architect designed in two dimensions rather than three. As the years of urban banality carpeted the town, a separate thread was pursued through the arts; major and minor public art works were commissioned around the town. There came a point where the town was a neatly laid out as it was going to be and the real question of what the town was for as its manufacturing base declined became increasingly obvious. In the context of globalised culture, there is no reason (except lack of imagination) why any town can’t generate its own 21st Century identity and purpose. This town had already works by some significant international artists and had a working relationship with one of the leading figures of international architecture. There had been the opportunity to commission a radically new type of cultural facility and with it work had been done to create a new concept of social cultural provision, but the inertia of bureaucracy and lack of imagination allowed the chance to slip through the town’s fingers. So only the new school was left as a possibility. It would probably be the only public building erected in the town within the foreseeable future and it would influence the social development and educational achievement of generations of the town’s children. As private developers became increasingly attracted to the town, a high quality 21st Century school, architecturally ambitious, would be a landmark symbol of the level of town’s aspiration. There had been a proud history and there could be a new future; local councillors appreciated the argument without necessarily knowing how to think about their town as more significant than in their experience of it declining. Despite the Education Department’s promises of pursuing models of best practice, there was an obvious and ominous silence about the process by which an architect would be engaged with the project. Then at a meeting of Officers last week, a ‘design team’ was mentioned - in passing quickly on to the subject of the importance of laying out the new playing fields. A Design Team? Who are they? They are … we were given names of individuals. What was the company? Something and something Partners. They had built a sixth form college somewhere nearby. It was noted that this hardly excited the prospect of the project being delivered to the previous commitment for a landmark building. The Education Department’s defence was that these architects had been recommended by the Direct Works Department! Hilariously at this point said Department declared that the criticism of these architects was unfair - they were “reputable”. Reputable. Not exciting, innovative, ground-breaking, contemporary, or award-winning even. The new school’s architects are reputable; interchangeable with the other words you can use for the town’s municipal efforts – neat and banal and off-the-shelf.

I will never live in this town which will remain nameless (in every sense) and will never have children go to its school. If I did the quality of my life would be diminished – the more so since but for laziness, inertia and limited imagination it could have been so much better.