A New Jerusalem: Laura Grace Ford on William Blake

It seems that Laura Grace Ford will always find an opportunity for a dérive, even when she’s standing still.

Last night, on 28th November 2019 — William Blake’s 262nd birthday — Laura discussed the poet and painter’s work in an explorative and wonderfully meandering talk to coincide with Tate Britain’s current exhibition and a conference focusing on Blake’s artistic legacy and body of work.

Laura described Blake as “spectral force”, exceedingly relevant to the city of London today. She focused, at first, on his poem written about the city, noting how, in its original graphic form, it takes on a “sociogeographic” sensibility — not psychogeographic, all too concerned with the affects of a landscape on the individual, but sociogeographic in the sense that Blake’s poems fold and unfold the city’s “psychic infrastructure”, in much the same way that Laura hopes to do with her own walking practice.

The influence of Mark Fisher on Laura’s thinking last night was palpable and beautifully put to use in a way that did not simply reference his writings but put his ideas to use and take them on a walk elsewhere. I was struck by her descriptions of a weird London, where “the edge of the city is folded in” constituting a “liminal centre”.

For Laura, Blake foreshadows many of the diagnoses that Fisher made his name articulating. He foresaw “our contemporary psychic binding” so effectively that to read his poetry is to feel like he is still writing for a “people-to-come” — not us but a people still beyond on a postcapitalist horizon.

In light of this, Laura noted how Blake’s most famous poem, Jerusalem, the anthem for a million Women’s Institute meetings around the country, is not some ode to the Christian daydreams of suburban mundanity but a call for the sacred. Jerusalem, in Blake’s poem, is a city-to-come, a city to be built among “dark Satanic mills”. His Jerusalem is an emptied Christian signifier for a newly collective city experience, a city of the sacred.

The sacred here is undoubtedly the Bataillean kind — his term for that ecstatic experience that explodes outwards from the everyday. The sacred, however, is not an individualised experience. It always occurs, for Bataille, through the collective. This understanding transforms Jerusalem, as Laura explained, “into a commons.” She described how Blake “was violently against the Enlightenment concept of the individual” and so Jerusalem becomes Blake’s term for “an England of collective joy”, accessible through the deployment of his “early capitalist counter-sorcery”.

Laura went on to invoke Mark Fisher’s essay “Baroque Sunbursts”, and particularly its endlessly evocative conclusion:

‘From time to time’, writes Fredric Jameson in Valences of the Dialectic, ‘like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays of from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces are still possible.’ This psychedelic imagery seems especially apposite for the ‘energy flash’ of rave, which now seems like a memory bleeding through from a mind that is not ours. In fact, the memories come from ourselves as we once were: a group consciousness that waits in the virtual future not only in the actual past. So it is perhaps better to see the other possibilities that these baroque sunbursts illuminate not as some distant Utopia, but as a carnival that is achingly proximate, a spectre haunting even — especially — the most miserably de-socialised spaces.

For Laura, in line with this, rave is Jerusalem, as are the impositions of Extinction Rebellion that pry open the psychocapitalist infrastructure of this city and others like it.

I was intrigued by these references and the renewed importance of collectivity to Laura’s practice in this context and wondered how these elements could come together anew.

Describing walking through London “as an experience of sensory derangement”, she emphasised the importance of walking to her own creative practices and the practices of others — most psychedelically noting De Quincy’s London as an opioid labyrinth. But drugs are not an escape from the binds of the city. (Mark knew that well.) It is having the right to roam that is most central to an expansion of collective consciousness. She described how walking, for Blake in particular, seemed to be “a prerequisite for visions”. Mind and body must be able to share in that exercise of exploration.

I started to think about the Kinder mass trespass and the mass trespasses of rave across the Home Counties, propelled by the gravitational slingshot newly provided by the M25 Orbital. Extinction Rebellion’s more recent trespasses have, instead, repeatedly provoked controversy. Trespassing is for hopping country fences and occupying sites of natural beauty to make them accessible for all. Extinction Rebellion are fighting for the same thing but to walk through the city to fight for it has ruffled many feathers.

I tried to ask a question about this during the Q&A but garbled it. Laura was gracious enough to try and respond to my half-baked musing anyway. I suppose I was left wondering: To what extent are communal walking practices — collective aphertopic dérives — still possible? Is a mass dérive still a mass dérive if it has to be sanctioned by permit? Is trespassing still a viable political act? The die-ins and sit-ins of recent decades have certainly helped raise awareness of issues but I wonder if the necessity of staying still, even feigning death, is a sign of the times.

The squats have gone. Westminster protests seem ineffective. Laura’s call for the collective — itself chiming with a chorus of other voices who have recently placed the possibility of the communal above all else — is all the more necessary now because the movements through which we are able to enact it have been been stultified without us knowing. We must make room again for Blake’s people-to-come, referred to by Laura via Deleuze and Guattari. Perhaps we also need a new kind of unlawful “assemblage”, again in a Deleuzian sense — not a non-sanctioned gathering but an ontological grounding of fluidity, exchangeability and multiplicity — the very sort of collective becoming that the infrastructure of the city itself has been constructed to arrest.

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