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.