Exercising Freedom

There was a point raised by Gail Lewis at a recent screening of Twilight City, a film by the Black Audio Film Collective…

The film, made in 1989, explores a changing London, along lines of race, class and finance capital. It’s a beautiful, meandering film essay that demonstrates a striking metropoetics, emerging from the gaps in the city’s spatiotemporal authoritarianism. In a discussion after the screening, Lewis focused on two moments in the film in particular, which she thought resonated most with our situation today, almost thirty years later — one was a comment made by the author David Yallop, interviewed for the film, in which he laments the dying culture and community of the white working class in Clapham; the other is a comment from Lewis’ own younger self, in which she champions the new confidence with which black communities are moving around the city.

These two moments aren’t related in the way you might assume, having put them next to each other. Yallop blames property developers for the withering of London’s white working classes rather than the growth of any other racial minority, but his view of the future is nonetheless negative (and perhaps perceptively so). Lewis, however, in recognising the inherent violence of black communities claiming and embodying their own space — a necessary violence in which a community claims a space of their own rather than confining themselves to space they have been given — champions a more positive view of that moment.

The imposition of black communities under a widespread societal racism had waned over generations — which is to say, emboldened senses of self growing despite racism’s ever-presence — to the point that the youth of the day found a new confidence in calling this country home, demonstrating how necessary it is for maligned bodies to carve out their own space.

This is something instilled in everyone who lives in London, I think, under the constant threat of the privatisation of space. I’m shocked, having lived here two years, how it is changed the way I walk through most busy public spaces, whether in London or elsewhere.

Any walk through central London on my lunch break is ruptured by a negotiation between other Londoners and tourists. Tourists are oblivious to everything, clogging up space like driftwood, whilst everyone else walks with a kind of purposiveness that demands you get out of their way. It is the London mindset that you have to walk straight and confidently and with self-determination, or else you find yourself battered by the city’s flows. (Everyone moving in this way, of course, only makes everything worse.)

I too tend to walk around like an arsehole these days — fast, in straight lines, scowling — making people move around me. You have to drive in much the same way in this city. It’s always worse in the most affluent spaces, in which the rich seem to count themselves as too good to turn left or right. I have no issues with bumping into some shiny-suited cunt stepping out of a £100 luncheon if it serves to remind him you can’t buy everything in this city.

I never used to be like this or think like this. I never had to. Up north, cities might be just as busy but no one manoeuvres themselves with the arrogance of a Piccadilly prick. Most of my walks through urban centres were once defined by a bobbing and weaving, a constant moving out the way of others’ trajectories — in part out of an attempt at conscientious politeness and a lack of confidence in my own existence.

In London, there’s no space for such a self-deprecating skittishness. You either hold your ground or end up under a bus. This is one thing to observe about central London but in the rest of the city’s boroughs, the vibe is somewhat different. As Lewis highlighted, it’s a new and necessary confidence; a situatedness that many of the city’s more maligned communities have had to grow and strengthen over decades. It’s an attitude which may intimidate and make many uneasy but it is necessary. The swirling processes of gentrification make many people believe that money is all you need to belong. This city’s black and working class communities dismiss any such sentiment, attempting to alienate those who make a living through alienation. However, whilst Yallop’s melancholy connotes a mourned loss, Lewis’ optimism shows an innate acknowledgment of and willingness towards adaptation.

I thought about all this again last night, reading Bataille’s On Nietzsche in bed:

It is the positive exercise of freedom, not the negative struggle against a particular oppression, that elevates me above mutilated existence.

1 Comment

  1. Love On Nietzsche. Books that can make me feel happily lost are rare and always memorable.
    Passages on communication are fascinating:
    “‘Communication’ only takes place between two people who risk themselves, each lacerated and suspended, perched atop a common nothingness.”
    And later:
    “By not communicating, we’re annihilated by the emptiness of an isolated life. By communicating we likewise risk being destroyed.”

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