On Chipped Paint

September 29, 2011 § 3 Comments


There’s a photograph – I can’t reproduce it unfortunately, or others might know of whom it is – of a friend of a friend, stood in front of an upper-storey window in a flat in Leamington. (We never see the photograph of Barthes’ mother in Camera Lucida either – not that it’s that important a photo.) It’s an old-fashioned sash window, its cruciforms painted white, the paint visibly time-worn, grubby, chipped. Most of the student accommodation in Leamington is in a similar state: fusty 70s carpets, wardrobes & kitchen cupboards falling apart, bathrooms begrimed; the vantage over the street, the afternoon sunlight on worn-down surfaces, the walk up the narrow staircase from the pavement. I often used to joke that the decor of our house in north Leam demanded a sideboard with Blue Nun. It was part of what attracted many people – not that they actually craved threadbare fittings, but it suited their own sense of their lives: a bit ragged, rough round the edges, all their actions performed as if they were inconsequential, as if they weren’t, betting on the outcome of an encounter with “risk and danger”, a dice game for death. They constituted a self-contained social circle, mainly people from the English department, many of them artists of one sort or another (musicians, photographers, writers – ‘well, better to get it out their system while they’re young’), all orbiting a diffuse conception of bohemianism. Perhaps needless to say none of them, in pre-student life, had been pursued by any sense of the real texture of poverty, of an austerity they didn’t choose (& couldn’t opt out of). It didn’t surprise me much later to find most of them went to private school. This, of course, is where we are meant to put on our SWP Indignation Caps, or (it amounts to the same thing) quote ‘Common People’. (The latter’s essential truth hasn’t prevented it from becoming cliche, hackneyed.) This is a cop-out, a way of stopping before the moment of thought. No-one seems to actually want to think through the values involved in the hipster (& otherwise) fixation with vintage, the aesthetic current of gentrification. It is, at least in its more rigorous exponents, an interest in design of a certain nature, a fascination with certain materials (formica, chintz, bone china), certain patterns or features of design (human or animal-shaped jugs, chinoiserie, the cut of Norfolk jackets or 70s shirts), allied with a distaste for contemporary design. It is the kind of indiscriminate regard for objects touched by the hand of the past, in which, as Neruda puts it, “man’s nebulous impurity can be perceived”, or just made charming by their quaintness, the distance of their origins from the present. It is, up to a point, a question of utility: we actually were all quite poor as undergraduates, & most of us still are; several years off from the kind of middle-class jobs that they, at least, had some kind of promise of, there was no way that could have afforded the colour-supplement stuff in the weekend Guardians some of us read; when we broke crockery, when we needed blankets, clothes for theme-party costumes, we bought from charity shops (of which, happily, there are no small number in Leam). (The point at which it stops being utility is the homeware section of Urban Outfitters.) The remark that ‘poverty is sexy’ for the comfortably-off doesn’t seem adequate (although the point that certain forms of poverty are verboten for the hip is worth reiterating); rather, this being at home with chipped paint, standing attractively  & erectly in front of a window, wearing a luridly patterned jumper that doesn’t quite fit, but whose ill-fit seems in some way better, seems to encapsulate an entire relation with the world. John Berger contends, in Ways of Seeing, that forms of aesthetic vision are also expressions of ways of being-in-the-world, of relating to its material reality; oil painting, the perfection of whose techniques coincided with the rise of the new propertied classes & the gestation of capitalism, encoded a sense of propietorial ease, making palpable the material lustre of a universe of things that exchange put within reach. It seems to me that this way of being at home with chipped paint, with ‘ethnic’ food-outlets, with bric-a-brac – the eye under whose gaze poverty turns sexy – is also a way of relating to the world of commodities, of labour, of sociality; it’s a kind of comportment, a way of carrying yourself in that world, that expresses your relation to it. It isn’t precisely proprietorial in the old sense, in which (as Berger writes of Holbein’s The Ambassadors) “the world is there to furnish their residence in it”. It is, rather, an ease, a confidence of disposition, a sense that there is nothing troubling in the world. They move through life as if nothing can touch them, laughing. (Gatsby on Daisy: her voice is “full of money”.) This isn’t necessarily how the poor relate to their own environment, at least insofar as that environment is always embattled, broken down over the last 30 years & opened up to exchange – in the shadow of the jobcentre, the police station, the grimness of the discount chain-store. No-one seems to remark on the fact that gentrification latches onto areas where relatively self-contained forms of working-class life, & the concomitant, communal sense of safety & confidence that accompanies it, still thrive. There seems to be a form of mimesis going on here. This seems most obvious in those areas lacking in the ‘interesting’ poverty required for gentrification, which nonetheless have strong populations of students – Southampton & parts of Bournemouth come to mind – & those areas caught up in gentrification tipping from ‘interesting-with-slightly-more-money-than-they-had-before’ to ‘just-plain-vulgar-with-money’ (Lisa Blanning’s tweet about seeing a stretch limo trying to get down a Dalston street, some years after hipsters started moving into the area, gives you an idea of the distinction.) The hipster relation to objects – or at least to chipped paint & all that accompanies it – is untroubled, neutral, focusing simply on utility or aesthetics divorced from rarity or cash value, as if the whole mucky business of exchange has been erased – which, in a superficial sense, it has: commodities suppress all marks of the labour that made them; old commodities, divorced from the universe of the chain-store & dusted with the patina of age, doubly suppress it. The fact that this attitude, as Bourdieu remarks – the easy, graceful gait, the leisurely speech, the posture of the bourgeois all economically indexed – is itself is founded on a privileged position in the world of exchange is what gets forgotten. The problem is that the lumpen-Marxist attitude to gentrification – as Voyou remarks, “centering your analysis around anti-gentrification leads to moralism and bad politics” – of simply pointing out that there’s a material base to these attitudes that they obscure, & that this mystification must be brashly confronted, is a bit arse-about-face; they throw the baby of the attitude out with the bathwater of inequality. Some of us who grew up in ungentrified areas, who were formed outside the charmed circle of financial comfort, wished for gentrification; we wanted art, we wanted glamour, we wanted sex, but most of all we wanted confidence. I may have lived among gentrifiers for years, but there was never any mistake that I wasn’t of their genus (at least on my part); given the pattern of things over the last few months, I doubt I ever fooled them. The attitude – as Habermas & Adorno both said of the bourgeois ideal of selfhood – is something more than ideology – something, perhaps, to be universalised. The problem, as Voyou notes, is that gentrification is founded on scarcity, on inequality; in a society of common ownership, there would be no rich to colonise the poor. Bohemia is the dream of a society whose reality is fissured by exploitation. What is galling is its inadequacy: this love of the chipped, the used, implies no positive vision for society – only a universe of charming wreckage. But that it holds something: that is its seduction, & what mustn’t be denied.


§ 3 Responses to On Chipped Paint

  • Richmonde says:

    Le Bohemien – c’est une forme de bourgeois! You know, that’s exactly how we lived in the early 70s? Plus ca change! Partly because we were poor, working in “interesting” but badly paid jobs. And all around us we could see Modernism apparently throwing our entire past down a chute. We were trying to rescue a few bits of it. (And then retro became fashionable. It was called the “nostalgia boom”.) It’s not the stretch limo that upsets me – it’s the cafe full of ludicrously over-priced pastries on the opposite side of the green from an ugly council block.

  • . . . says:

    “The Bohemian solution is hardly viable at the best of times, and the notion that it could be achieved without a complete and final break with the university milieu is quite ludicrous. But the student Bohemian (and every student likes to pretend that he is a Bohemian at heart) clings to his false and degraded version of individual revolt. He is so “eccentric” that he continues–thirty years after Reich’s excellent lessons–to entertain the most traditional forms of erotic behavior, reproducing at this level the general relations of class society. Where sex is concerned, we have learnt better tricks from elderly provincial ladies. His rent-a-crowd militancy for the latest good cause is an aspect of his real impotence.”

  • dboon147 says:

    Not the same, but since we’re quoting:

    “Expensive reproduction. – Society is integral even before it undergoes totalitarian rule. Its organization also embraces those at war with it by co-ordinating their consciousness to its own. Even those intellectuals who have all the political arguments against bourgeois ideology at their fingertips, undergo a process of standardization which – despite crassly contrasting content, through readiness on their part to accommodate themselves – approximates them to the prevalent mentality to the extent that the substance of their viewpoint becomes increasingly incidental, dependent merely on their preferences or the assessment of their own chances. What they subjectively fancy radical, belongs objectively so entirely to the compartment in the pattern reserved for their like, that radicalism is debased to abstract prestige, legitimation for those who know what an intellectual nowadays has to be for and what against. The good things they opt for have long since been just as accepted, in numbers just as restricted, in their hierarchy of values just as fixed, as those of student fraternities. While they inveigh against official kitsch, their views, like dutiful children, are allowed to partake only of pre-selected nutrition, clichés against clichés. The habitations of such young bohemians resemble their intellectual household. On the walls the deceptively faithful colour reproductions of famous Van Goghs like the ‘Sunflowers’ or the ‘Café at Arles’, on the bookshelf the boiled-down socialism and psycho-analysis and a little sexology for libertines with inhibitions. Added to this the Random House edition of Proust – Scott Moncrieff’s translation deserved a better fate, cut-price exclusivity even in its appearance, the compactly economical ‘omnibus’ shape, a mockery of the author whose every sentence put out of action some received opinion, while now as a prize-winning homosexual he fills a similar need for youth as do the books about forest animals and the North Pole expedition in the German home. Also the gramophone with the Lincoln-cantata of some stalwart spirit deeply concerned with railway stations, together with some duly marvelled-at Oklahoma folklore and some noisy jazz records that make you feel at once collective, audacious and comfortable. Every opinion earns the approbation of friends, every argument is known by them beforehand. That all cultural products, even non-conformist ones, have been incorporated into the distribution-mechanisms of large-scale capital, that in the most developed country a product that does not bear the imprimatur of mass-production can scarcely reach a reader, viewer, listener at all, denies deviationary longings their subject matter in advance. Even Kafka is becoming a fixture in the sub-let studio. The intellectuals themselves are already so heavily committed to what is endorsed in their isolated sphere, that they no longer desire anything that does not carry the highbrow tag. Ambition aims solely at expertise in the accepted stock-in-trade, hitting on the correct slogan. The outsiderishness of the initiates is an illusion, they are merely biding their time. To see them as renegades is to assess them too high; they mask mediocre faces with horn-rimmed spectacles betokening ‘brilliance’, though with plain-glass lenses, solely in order to better themselves in their own eyes and in the general rat-race. They are already just like the rest. The subjective pre-condition of opposition, unco-ordinated judgement, is dying out, while its gesticulations continue to be performed as a group ritual. Stalin needs only clear his throat and they throw Kafka and Van Gogh on the rubbish-heap.”

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