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'Archaeologies of the Future': Niall Griffiths - Pathways of the Urban

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In this chapter I use Niall Griffiths's 2005 novel Wreckage to illustrate what Henri Lefebvre calls the 'urban revolution', and examine its consequences on conceptualizations of space in literary criticism
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  C HAPTER N INE   ‘ A RCHAEOLOGIES OF THE F UTURE ’:   N IALL G RIFFITHS —P ATHWAYSOF THE U RBAN  J ARRAD K EYES   Ontologies of the present demand archaeologies of the future, not forecastsof the past. (Fredric Jameson  A Singular Modernity, 215)Is it the city’s boundary or the city as boundary that we refer to as anenvironment? (Henri Lefebvre The Urban Revolution , 186)   A major or established literature follows a vector which goes from contentto expression: a content once given, in a given form, one must find,discover, or see the form of expression suitable to it. . . . But a minor orrevolutionary literature begins by speaking and only sees and conceivesafterwards. (Deleuze and Guattari 1985, 591)In disdainfully noting the preference of selected “contemporary urbansociologists” for “the adjective ‘urban’ to the noun ‘city’”, Burton Pike(1981, xii) raises a commonplace of established literature and itsinterpretations: that “[e]ach   city receives its form from the desert itopposes” (Calvino 1979, 18). At the levels in question, that of the Englishnovel—whose content finds symptomatic expression in the polarization of “In the City” and “In the Suburbs” (Kureshi 1990)  — and its criticism—asexemplified by The City and the Country (Williams 1973)—the form of expression commonly deemed suitable comprises a fundamental dualismwhose relational difference is the imprimatur of identity. For example, the“static” city versus the “city of flows” (Pike 1981), the un/real city (Sharpe1990), or public and private space (Wirth-Nesher 1996). Yet suchapproaches are increasingly outmoded in a present bereft of the certitudefound in that noun, the city, a term traditionally invested as a spatially  Chapter Nine134 bounded, recognizable entity and object of analysis. For, in severalimportant respects, the urban is a different terrain (in the manifold sense of that term) to that associated with the city, symptomatic not of a qualitativecrisis of identity—as inferred by several recent academic readings (Keyes2007)—but of a nascent condition that “is becoming the overwhelminglypredominant way in which the world is experienced  by the majority of people whether they live in cities or not” (Skeates 1997, 6).First traced by Henri Lefebvre (2003), the exposition of the urbanprovides the context within which this article analyzes several texts bycontemporary novelist Niall Griffiths, with a view to engaging theinsufficiencies of conventional literary hermeneutics, particularly theirinability to account for the changing ontological and epistemologicalconditions that manifest in these works. Since they overlap in a number of areas, the works of Griffiths are justifiably compared to those of IrvineWelsh. Stylistically, each probes the shifting relationships between dialectand grammatical form, whilst thematically both are concerned withdiscourses of addiction, gender, and nationalist politics, aspects whichcompliment their mutual interest in the construction and enunciation of identity. Depicting a nation politically deracinated by Thatcherism, itslegacy of social atomism reinforced by the cynicism fostered by NewLabour’s “abandonment . . . of the symbolic aspirations of politics itself”(Bewes 1997, 3), Griffiths’ works—amongst them Grits (2001), Sheepshagger  (2002), Kelly & Victor  (2003), Stump (2004), and Wreckage (2005)—together resemble the political topography of  Trainspotting. Thematically informed by the lingering problems of the post-1973 “crisisdecades” (Hobsbawm 1994, 403-432), each explore—and finally reject—the divisive claims of identity politics. Where Welsh (1997, 234, 84)displays inherent misgivings “aboot countries” that, together with a wholesalerejection of British and Nationalist alternatives, prompt little “other than totaldisgust”, Griffiths adopts a more subtle approach, using Nationalist “talkabout nationhood, cultural unity, stuff like that” (2001, 31) as little morethan a white noise “of devolution fever, of millennial psychosis”indicative of apathy, “the Welsh disease” (2002, 226, 75). This similarityextends to a figurative convergence in the image of the tower block as adecaying vestige of utopian aspirations: once having “seemed so modern”,these “varicose vein flats” represent “a shantytown relic of a bygone era”(Welsh 1997, 256, 321, 256), whilst the plight of this once-vaunted “cityof tomorrow” (Le Corbusier 1971) is, for Griffiths demonstrative of arepressive modernity marked by “steel doors” and “windows reinforcedwith wire mesh” that symbolizes the ubiquity of “these fuckin barriers”(2003, 73).  Niall Griffiths—Pathways of the Urban135 Yet an important difference emerges in their literal use of the city:where Trainspotting moves between Edinburgh and London, Griffiths’oeuvre undermines the experiential centrality of the capital city by movingrecursively between Liverpool and Aberystwyth: a “vague South of England locale” is but a place from which “none seem to have been or gobut from where many srcinate” (2002, 16). This diminishing experientialsignificance of capital cities—locations seldom mentioned—indicates, firstly,that the specificity of the city in general   is waning; as will become apparent,their once-obvious identity can no longer be taken for granted. Furthermore,this changing structure of feeling is not, indeed cannot be, localized. Theincumbent identity entails a new epistemological problematic that cannot becontained within the strictures of relational difference; its premise, that the“general question of the relationship between the city and the countrysideis far from being resolved” (Lefebvre 2003, 8).So the city’s soul rises on vast and tattered wings from the flat rust-coloured sea. It rises and soars and hovers and casts shadow over streetsand square and gargoyle and cupola and a million different bloods. It payswitness to despair and design, purpose and futility. (2005, 70)A leitmotiv of these representations is the emergence of identity withinconstitutive matrices of violence. Any attempt at dissembling Liverpool’s“genesis in sludge”—”built on and sunk in sumps of blood” (2005, 69)—is thwarted: inasmuch as the “city’s soul”—an analogue of thetranscendent idea of the city—”rises”, it is a compromised ascent upon“vast and tattered wings”, besmirched by a quotidian foundation within “amillion different bloods”. Contrary to the Platonic valorisation of “thehighest expression of man’s reason and sense of his own community”(Raban 1974, 8), this image of the city and its development does not attestto the progressive diminution of violence, merely its transference intoinstitutionally sanctioned forms: “All the streets around here, the docksthemselves are named after slavers . . . we christen parts of ar cities in thernames, honour them” (2003, 331/2), to the detriment “of those who werebroken to build this city’s parts, those enslaved” (2005, 187). As Griffithsrepeatedly emphasizes, violence is the product both of history andeducation (2005, 26-55, 81-165). Nor, however, does it represent thedegradation of a historical apex of identity, of the present as a decline . Rather, it undermines such teleological readings by being positionedinterrogatively athwart various discursive constructions of identity,reiterating that the city is not a tabula rasa by re-inscribing the “historicalquality” (the “memory”) of its construction (Barthes 1973, 142). Liverpool“pays witness” to numerous appropriations; to “despair” whendystopically inscribed for reasons of political expediency (see Skeates  Chapter Nine136 1997, 14), the “focus for the wrath of obsessed rulers” and “paw-thorn fora system built on and devoted to the maintenance of privilege andpositional power”. A “positional power” exploited for political ends:subject to utopian “design” and reactionary “purpose”, Liverpool is “like amicrocosm of the wider country”, “deeply divided” by “unequaldistribution” and “the oppositional aims of Tory rulers and militant left-wing radicalism” (2005, 69). Thus, Liverpool is an unstable signifier,subject to numerous appropriations which remind us that space—far frombeing a neutral category—is subject to relations of power. The violenceinherent to spatial organization—as “the city’s buried memories of war”(2005, 69)—is here repeated, at an epistemological level, through theprocess of inscription, a homology that underlines a vision of Liverpoolstridently not aestheticized as a “giant holiday home” (Coillard 2002), nor“marketed as offerin thee ‘Authentic Liverpool Experience’” (2003, 257).For the idea of an authentic experience brings with it the trappings of authenticity: the idea that, beneath its dissimulation, resides a true identity.For certain strains of Romanticism this was the promise offered by nature,invested as the antithesis of received and institutionalized practices of thought. Such an approach, with its gentle rhythms of pastoral innocencetypified by Wordsworth’s iconography of “always rolling hills and thisloveliness” (Coillard 2002), is incompatible with the “endless drama of tiny deaths played out in miniature among mountains” (2002, 6), arestlessness which rejects both timeless beauty and the dissociation of urban violence/rural virtue. “Another village” is little more than a hamlet, a handful of old stone whitewashed houses and ageneral store/post office. Characterised by leaf and bark, this small placebuilt among trees, a forest once large. Shadow and harbour and hidingplace and anchorage and sanctuary (2004, 58) The generic connotations of “another village” undermine the eternalbeauty of “Fudge box Wales” (2001, 367) together with Romanticism’scult of nature, in its eschewal of the “separation and observation”considered key to the “very idea of landscape” (Williams 1973, 120),whereby all traces of organization are removed from it. Reintroducing themetadiscursive notion of inscription, this diachronic chain of receptionsposits nature—like Liverpool—as an unstable signifier, a commonality of identity that undermines forms of critical distance predicated upon theirrelational difference. It is “shadow” inasmuch as it functions as the city’sobverse, drawing upon the etymological derivation of country from contra, meaning against, opposite (Williams 1973, 307). This derivationinforms dualist forms of identity based upon “unresolvable division,  Niall Griffiths—Pathways of the Urban137 absolute separation, programmed segregation” (Lefebvre 2003, 144),wherein the relationship between the structure (the form) of inquiryremains unchanged, regardless of context. “Shadow” is thus also apenumbra, an eclipse or “hiding place” whose timelessness assumes therole of “sanctuary”, “harbour”, and “anchorage” when invested as ametaphorical retreat, a pastoral “antidote to the pressures of urbanizationand mechanization” (Merchant 1980, 9), or an irrational, “female” (Easlea1983) realm at odds with the city’s rational logos. When Lefebvre (2003,14, 169) writes of the onset of “urban reality” as being that of an“implosion-explosion”—with its connotations of centripetal andcentrifugal motion—it is within the context of the “fragmentation” of particular forms of inquiry and of identity. Since “models, plans, [and]programmes” are associated with the preceding “period”, “when the urbanproblematic becomes predominant”, the new approach involves a non-programmatic “search” for an “elaboration” of identity, aware that “athreshold will have to be crossed” (Lefebvre 2003, 5). This “threshold” isprecisely that of relational difference—otherwise referred to as “organictotality”—one of “the features . . . inherited from the previous period”, a“residue” lost as the “ urban    fabric grows, [and] extends its borders”beyond the limits of past conceptualizations (Lefebvre 2003, 3, 14).Akin to this refutation of “finality” (Lefebvre 2003, 67), is Griffiths’figuration of nature as no more the “sanctuary” from the city in terms of being its innocent, idyllic “shadow”: brooking no ‘point’ external to the“susceptibility to erosion”, these images do not countenance forms of critical distance ignorant to “the commonality of slow disintegration”(2001, 195), for the antinomies of established thought are henceforthinured by “a restlessness which will allow no permanence” (2001, 49).Typified by “creeping necrosis”, “blight and canker . . . putrefaction [and]decay” (2002, 83, 27), the “unifying principle” of these representations isthat “pain and horrer’s in every blade uv grass” (2001, 387, 293). Asagainst the timeless iconography synonymous with “  Homes and Gardens ”   (2001, 350), the countryside appears compromised: the endemic“proximity uv death” (2001, 322) redoubled in images of pollutedviolation, the fertility of nature undermined by a “local lead mine . . .steadily sweating its sly venom” into “slow poisoned rivers and earth”(2002, 82), ‘her’ typical colour not that of rolling green pastures but of darker, more tainted hues: a “Bruise-coloured sky” (2005, 197), a “brownand swollen river” (2004, 164), and the sun that “rises to shine a tarnishedsilver” (2002, 150). Using the “distorted figuration” (Jameson,Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1984, 79) of technology, Griffiths obliquely introduces—and explores some of the
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