Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Postmodern Nightmare

Milton Keynes: reflections on the city of reflections .. shining hope for a new social order or soulless space of crass consumerism?

When I first arrived in England almost twenty years ago I stayed a while in the ‘new town’ of Milton Keynes. Although nearly everyone I met was proud of living in this fine gleaming enterprise on the flat plains in the middle of the English countryside with all its modern amenities, I was surprised to discover its overwhelming emphasis on the centralisation of society around a massive shopping complex whose sole purpose seemed to be to invite a continual consumer spending spree in the shape of chain stores and fast food franchises.

Unlike other places in the UK I had lived as a child, this was an engineered city created in experimental manner to house workers from the now crumbling post-industrial northern towns who were moving south in search of job opportunities, and the ‘professional class’ of business people swelling outward from suburbs in London.

I was taken aback by the grid system of roads that, in the style of that intentionally unnamed street network of Salt Lake City (taking Detroit’s mile road markers a step further), went so far as to assign all routes a number and designate each artery as north, south, east or west. Every intersection was linked by roundabouts to maintain the constant traffic flow through the central shopping district and into and out of the housing ‘estates’ concealed behind the purposively designed tree-lined avenues. From the car window it appeared to be a sprawling municipality with no human inhabitants.

Some years later, I returned to live in the city of Milton Keynes. After a while I began to joke that if a person had only six months to live they should move to Milton Keynes, because it will feel like another six years. Unfortunately, for me that seemed to hold true, as life in that intentionally utilitarian sprawl was like a slow, painful and anonymous death. In spite of that, I decided to make a quick stop there while on a recent trip back to the UK, as if to remind myself what it was I had left behind in the dreary grey light.

At the geographical centre of this geometrically calculated conurbation of smoked glass, mirrored monoliths and indistinct rectangular office blocks is situated a leisure palace of arcades and cinemas called ‘The Point’.

When I first encountered this place it was the highest visible structure in the area, a deliberate marker from the M1 motorway that runs past the eastern edge of this interlinked complex of skeletal constructions that has now become a major city in the central southern region. This symbol of the outlandishly indolent inside out architecture that is embedded in this characterless municipality was my initial welcome to the postmodern nightmare that so much of this overly bureaucratic nation has become.

Architect and developer John Portman created the Bonaventure Hotel and Atlanta’s Peachtree Centre, as well as influencing the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, where I was the in-house disc jockey for several years in the late 80s - developed by James W. Rouse who built the first indoor shopping ‘mall’ in Glen Burnie Maryland in 1958, where I lived while working at the Hyatt, and whose vision helped create the concept of regentrification, particularly the creation of 'new towns' such as Columbia in Maryland and inner-city harbour places like the one in Baltimore that became such a success. Portman also designed the remarkable Renaissance Centre on Detroit‘s riverfront – where I once had the distinctly hedonistic gratification of a long weekend of Kabuki theatre and revolving rooftop restaurants.

These 73 floor-high twin towers of steel and mirrored glass with their people-movers (giant conveyor belts for transporting humans often seen in airports and now becoming popular in shopping centres everywhere, originally used in Disney World) and multi-floored escalators house a magnificent hotel, as well as executive offices and shopping arcades and restaurants (including the one on the top 3 floors accessible by glass elevator that rides up the outside of the tower like a tiny insect climbing a tall tree) and the usual accoutrements that go along with life inside the cityscape of a Wellsian future, or within the artificial bubble of the present.

Frederic Jameson wrote a wonderful article examining the impact of these colossal feats upon the fabric of city life and their influence on thinking about the way we interact in these new spaces – these total environments. Coated in mirrored glass skins, Jameson suggests, “when you seek to look at the hotel’s outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself, but only the distorted images of everything that surrounds it.”  What Jameson calls the ‘postmodern hyperspace’ is being replicated all over the world, and is most especially visible (or more accurately ‘invisible’) in the entirely simulated city of Milton Keynes.

Although much has happened in my own life since then, this new town has only continued to develop and grow in the same manner it started out, encompassing all the surrounding area in its relentless shining glass, concrete and metal expansion, turning the region into a massive reflection of its own pointlessly self-important ambiguity. This is a place without organic historical context – it grew from a need to find purposeful occupation and housing for displaced people that had lost meaning in their existence following the Thatcher years of financial cuts with the loss of associated jobs in manufacturing, and social disenfranchisement of the workers who had made the country a hub of industry.

Instead of growing from an old-fashioned market town where traders, craftspeople and farmers came to sell their wares, it developed as a conscious plan to integrate a multiple strategy of builders and investors with the underemployed, government land rights allowances and highly lucrative overflow sector of bankers and commercial designers.

It took many years of building shopping malls and warehouse distribution centres before the idea of theatres and galleries came into mind (it was many years before the idea of a central church or ‘cathedral’ was considered – and when it was, although a cross sits atop its dome, the official name was that of a ‘multi-faith centre’). When it did, these art houses didn’t grow naturally, instead another planned centre wherein everything would be contained in one district was designed (against much critical scorn the gallery at least dared to open with an exhibition of Gilbert and George work) as another way to induce the people toward consumption.

A few places had already been operating independently on the fringes of the town, but once the developers saw the opportunity they created an area that once again overshadowed true grass-roots entrepreneurial insight, and everything turned to poured concrete and glass in another shadow play of idealised reality.

These Westfield shopping centres that are currently springing up around England, and American-style mega-malls such as Lakeside and Bluewater, intentionally create the appearance of consumer busyness while removing the perception of location and historical context, with their people-movers and interior gardens they suppress familiarity of the real and replace nature with artificial experience. They give the impression of clean and healthy environments yet with their factory produced air and greenhouse grown plants they are only the simulated practice of mass conditioning to a future without humanity.

So many of Milton Keynes’s city centre facades are glazed in mirrored glass, it is easy for individuality and character to vanish in the fragmented sense of spatial detachment. Lacking reference, people are lost in a hall of mirrors, surrounded by the growing complexity of consumer products and choices that remove imagination and replace it with standardised conformity.

The view these edifices yield to the eye is a reflection of the exterior of the building across the street, it too with a mirrored surface reflecting back the image of itself as seen in the opposite office block. This continual dialogue of emptiness referencing nothingness underlies the very fabric of existence in this city – an unimaginative recreation of reflective surfaces that replicates the shallow banality of life without history or raw culture; a continuous one-dimensional state of interaction without meaning.

The inside is outside and the outside exists as a parking area for the people to arrive at the fishbowl world of mirrors that reveal the interior as fathomless and a pointless vacuous shell. The metallic skin of this artificial landscape shines in the cold winter sunlight as another reflective surface offering limited opportunity for internalisation of significance – it is better to see the self from outside than explore personality within; style wins out over substance, and today’s fashion is a blank slate staring in a dark mirror.

Of course, during my visit there were a few first-class moments thrown in for good measure. I did see people I wanted to catch up with (though a few people I really wanted to meet with will have to wait till next time – apologies!), enjoyed entertainment I’d missed, and picked up a couple good books in English - though not amongst this superficial little collection of trash (as if these people don't get enough air time without pulping trees to transcribe their babble).

There were terrific homemade curries, and thanks to an Indian neighbour an authentic meal that really made me feel special. I did have my night at the pub with friends and savoured the satisfaction of real British ale – one of the sincere delights I had missed. Of course, it was a genuine pleasure to visit places I had not been for some time and touch base with friends and family to share laughter, good food and fine wine and tell tales of adventure.

We need narratives to guide us through the journey of life, to remind us who we were, who we are, to provide reference in a chaotic world where signs and symbols are in constant exchange and value is constantly debatable. It is this story of life that gives hope and encouragement to continue along the path that leads to a better tomorrow.

As Jameson writes it [postmodern hyperspace], “has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organise its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.” This removal of the map, this decentring of mind amongst the signs and symbols that mark the way from here to there and back again, is mirrored in our technology and communication that serves to distance us from each other as subjects in our own world.

I am a person who desires genuine contact and interaction, who believes in the stories and songs and wonder of life that connect us one to another in the great play of experience – I seek exploration knowing what I take beyond this life, if anything, will exist as mind or spirit, not as things.

I travel hopefully, in anticipation of enjoyable times and further knowledge of the world, to create a story, to live the narrative, to see within and beyond the expression of self. The sunshine and kindness of a more southerly locale is calling once again, and I look forward to returning to the vitality of life in a friendlier environment.

I know the sorrow of someone leaving, the pain of being left; I know there is always a sense of having been left behind while others move on, for I have experienced it many times. We do not make those choices for others, no matter how close, and can only respect the decisions they make as right for their lives at that time. However, I know in my heart I will ever wait for those who care, and keep the love alive for those who have touched me along the road that is this great journey of life.

The sun is rising to warm the Mediterranean as spring approaches, and I know that someone somewhere is seeking a smile that echoes hopeful guidance from the twinkling light of the stars. As two individuals seeing eye to eye in meditative purpose are like two mirrors that penetrate deep into the soul of each other through an honest understanding, we see the substance of union as a referential reminder that all in this world are connected; a oneness, rather than a meaningless simulacrum of insignificant reflection that merely glides over the surface as shining gloss on the exterior of separate lives.

As I head to the edge of the map once again, following my heart on new voyages to encounter other lands, I sense happiness in my soul, for I know the truth of existence is in discovering the reality of the authentic spirit of life.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Above the Clouds

.. A Silver Lining

Leaving anywhere one has lived for a sustained period of time is always emotionally difficult and complicated. Saying goodbye to people we have grown to love, respect and trust, even for a short while, is never easy. Friends wonder if they are being left behind and question the reasons, motivations and purpose of any journey. But what the seasoned traveller knows in his or her heart is that a new adventure is waiting, and one day, maybe soon, a return is immanent.

See yonder little cloud, that, borne aloft So tenderly by the wind, floats fast away Over the snowy peaks! ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As I take to the sky, free from the restraints others place on themselves, I know I shall not be forgotten, for those who stay in touch are the dearest of friends. We communicate because we recognise a kindred soul, touch each other to the marrow, and can see in the eye of the other that clear window through the clouds of every day living to the heart of each intention. We are like-minded and drift far and high, not aimlessly, but definitively, with the purpose of arriving at our individual destination, regardless of how long it takes to get there. I am on the way, and destiny draws me ever onward towards the edge of the map.

My land is bare of chattering folk; the clouds are low along the ridges, and sweet's the air with curly smoke from all my burning bridges. ~ Dorothy Parker

Across the horizon a light shines, it attracts me, and I am fulfilled by it. The journey is the point I seek, and the reason is the adventure. What is life if it brings nothing new, nothing that challenges and nothing that reveals an original or unique idea? That combination of experience, wisdom, creativity and ingenuity drives us on, and we as we live with our heads in the clouds of romantic attachment, our feet remain firmly rooted in the traditions of verifiable theory and empirical investigation. What greater knowledge can there be than that which proves the reality of love; a truth that never dies, inspiring each successive generation in different yet equal ways, simply can’t be wrong.

I owned the world that hour as I rode over it; free of the earth, free of the mountains, free of the clouds, but how inseparably I was bound to them. ~ Charles Lindbergh

There are many kinds of love. Love of a brother or sister, a parent, a child, a friend or compatriot, the person who shares our bed, the one we gave our heart to. There is the love of art or argument, the love of truth or God, the love we feel when under the influence of its power we recognise the transcendent amongst the hazy billowing clouds.

Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? By th' mass and 'tis, like a camel indeed. Methinks it is like a weasel. It is backed like a weasel. Or like a whale. Very like a whale. ~ William Shakespeare

But what of the impact of this dreaming – my environmental credit, the damage to our world these mighty craft perpetuate as they jet around the globe. I try to do my bit, the usual vegetarian habits, the walking when driving would be easier, the recycling and turning off the lights, but is any of that enough to offset my impact on our fragile planet? I don’t really think so.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm,
But, to add colour to my sunset sky. ~ Rabindranath Tagore

As witnessed over the past week and in recent years, the earth is in a terrible state of chaos, perhaps an irreversible decline due to the natural course of change and human interference in the balance of life. We have created a situation where oil is constantly being sucked out of the bowels of the earth and the burnt carbon residues spewed into the atmosphere. The earth has responded by shifting and realigning the plates that float on that delicate surface, and we feel the shaking beneath our feet. We simply can’t maintain this cycle. Yet, we will until the end of our days, for what can the average person do to reverse this state of affairs?

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. ~ John Lubbock

In Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico we have seen what happens to the waters when oil is spilled in massive quantities, in Haiti, New Zealand and Japan what happens when the earth quakes and in Banda Aceh, Japan and other places the results of tsunamis are evident, and what still of New Orleans? What is causing these tremendously violent events? Is it simply nature’s age-old way, or is it something we have caused? I think there is a combination of factors at play here, but we, in the few thousand years of our meaningful existence have wreaked havoc on the earth with devastating results.

A pessimist only sees the dark side of the clouds, and mopes; a philosopher sees both sides and shrugs; an optimist doesn't see the clouds at all: he's walking on them. ~ Leonard L. Levinson

There are no simple answers, and I am inclined to believe we are at a turning point in our short span of human history.

I read an article last week that suggested a way to solve global warming would be to set off a series of limited nuclear explosions. I gasped in shock and horror, yet I’m sure there are those in positions of power and influence who will seriously be considering this as an option or alternative solution to several problems.

For some it will make complete sense, a reasonable method to solve the environmental crisis, rid the world of a few enemies and reduce the burgeoning population. Whether we survive as a species in the face of all these threats to our security is a real question considering all the obstacles to regeneration of the planet – she doesn't need our help I’m sure, as she will continue without us.

Far clouds of feathery gold, Shaded with deepest purple, gleam like islands on a dark blue sea. ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

I try to remain optimistic about our chances for finding a way through this serious situation and as many people live my life in expectation of a brighter and healthier future for my children, though all is clearly not well in the garden. I felt my first earthquake a few years ago and it woke me in the night. At first I thought it was the early twinge of new love in a dream, but it was another of the birth pangs of a restless world shrugging us off to begin again.

I have felt the earth moving twice since, and each time it is a bizarre sensation of losing stability; blizzards and forest fires are frightening, hurricanes and tornadoes terrifying, but to feel the earth move beneath our feet is truly disconcerting - imagine the still air of a full solar eclipse with an incessant rumble and imbalance in the forces of nature as our awareness of that which holds this reality together rapidly disappears. It isn't just a physical sensation, it's as though the mind is suddenly no longer fixed in place - an awesomely startling insecurity.

Perhaps I feel much the same as most others do when thinking about the dangers of the world today, for I recently posed this question to my students when discussing the ramifications of global environmental damage: do you feel hopeful for yourself or the world today? To a person they responded by saying they were hopeful for their own life and future, yet felt pessimistic about the future prospects of the world.

God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees,
and in the flowers and clouds and stars.
~ Martin Luther

The main concerns for these adults were the continuance of environmental damage (even that of so-called eco-tourism - yes I acknowledged my part of the responsibility), wars and the potential nuclear threat, and an economic situation that favoured the accumulation of wealth over all else.

I believe all sensible and thoughtful people recognise the same flaws in the system today. But where is the righteous leader to challenge the conglomerates that build weapons, that refuse to invest in environmentally sound methods of transport and who betray our future by lining their pockets with silver from the profits of industry without a thought for those who live in poverty?

It seems true that power corrupts and as long as the golf course is maintained those in the positions of trust will exploit the system to the continued benefit of the few. Naturally, these same people claim to love God and the world and their fellow man and ask us to give them four more years or rain bombs down upon our heads in response to any demand for change.

The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm. ~ Albert Camus

It is always easier to generalise about our need to give or receive love, to promise we love everyone, than fulfil its calling and love one as ourselves. To sacrifice ourselves for love is the ultimate demand, but submission to the whims of another is surrender not love; and to give up our own reality for the misplaced fantasy of another is to transgress against true love.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. 
~ Edward Abbey

Over the past year I have visited many new places, and quite a few old places too, but still I hunger for the unattainable. I walked in fields with flowers I didn’t recognise, swam in seas that were warm as a summer day, ate fruit picked from the vine and shared many travels to see wondrous things with friends who asked sincerely for my companionship and attention, yet still there is one I reminisce about.

There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds. ~ G. K. Chesterton

Even when the one we love has moved on to another life or simply no longer wishes to follow that dream to the ends of the earth as once promised, the quest for peace in our hearts continues. That search for resolution and consummation of desire may remain forever, but eventually we accept that the love we have is not reciprocated by the one for whom we carry that torch. However, life goes on and we grow in strength through spirit, knowing we nurture the hope of tomorrow.

I would not fear nor wish my fate, but boldly say each night, tomorrow let my sun his beams display, or in clouds hide them; I have lived today. ~ Abraham Crowley

In tomorrow our dreams are true, and the discovery of new lands, new friends, new ways of living give encouragement to the thought that one day we might be able to move beyond the hurt of an unrequited love that burns the heart. I share this path with many, for I meet countless others who tell the same story, and we travel together. We are the wanderers and wonderers across this beautiful earth, sure of the strength of our passion and the ability to share that exploration and ambition with a soul mate; the fruit of our shared years blossoms in a hopeful future yet to be achieved.

I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above ..
~ William Butler Yeats

I, as those who share my fate, await the homecoming of that spirit and continue to fly beyond the stormy clouds of today in anticipation that wherever I might arrive those I meet on the way will help maintain the faith of love to convey the truth of freedom in my heart.

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