“Yet you could feel a vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods. Perhaps it was an awareness of time passing, the last summer of the decade. Sometimes I just wanted to raise my hands and stop. But stop what?”
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Reading Just Kids (2010) I was struck by how, as the world keeps changing irrevocably, our struggle to make sense of it, to predict it, impedes our ability to act. Having just lived through the ‘cultural revolution’ of 1968 it’s easy to see why Smith would sense a feeling of anticipation, anxiety excitement. Her writing reflects on a great period of historical and cultural change, but it does not offer it shape or meaning. Like the characters from her memoir we are all constantly on the edge of a historical precipice, which once we have fallen from, we will never be able to claw our way back. Things move quickly and are forgotten, our norms, our beliefs, our ways of seeing are radically overhauled and in the chaos of the everyday it slips our collective consciousness. Seductive technologies reduce humans down to machines. Governments and business measure, monitor and control our inputs and outputs, maximise our processes, find new ways to reshape and remould us, to manipulate our desire. The mystery of the universe, the magic that vibrates within us has been reduced down to a science, only knowledge exists now.
What do the vibrations in the air mean? Is ‘History’ taking an important turn or is it experiencing its last hurrah, a final stab at glory? I say this in light of recent Olympics mania and the great narratives surrounding it, it was for many a truly incredible historical moment. Yet it feels difficult to be part of a community, country, world where outrageous politics continue to fester and capitalistic forces dominate and control every aspect of our waking lives, right down to the clothes we wear, the words we use and the food we eat. This phenomena is not bound to the Olympics, transnational capitalism has been dictating how we live our lives for decades but its process mechanisms have been beautifully crystallised throughout the Olympics.
Grassroots sports, local regeneration, economic development: the main lies that the Olympics has propagated to justify and complete its accumulation of capital. Obviously ‘the Olympics’ have no agency, they are a historical phenomena, the scraping up of huge amounts of either inhabited or radioactive land and ‘taxpayers’ money to be smothered in branding and sold back to us can not be blamed on an ancient Greek tradition (although Greek traditions can be blamed for much of Western politics and philosophy) . To understand the politics of this event we have to step away from representational theory and think about actors, networks and processes. The main sponsors of the Olympics are the obvious targets: politicians, London Transport, and all the people that profited from this takeover of a historical sporting event and the city of London. It is interesting to see what have been the essential processes of capitalism propagated here; colonisation, accumulation, exploitation of labour, huge profit margins, hoarded by the very wealthy and underhanded dealings. The relentless need to accumulate profit at the expense of the environment, social issues and economic justice or sustainability. The big companies rush in, take everything they can and then leave. Abandoning an area that has been changed beyond recognition, spatial and social relations destroyed, production and distribution disrupted, environment damaged, no jobs and obesity levels rising with kids hooked on cadburys, McDonalds and Coca-cola.
With youth unemployment on the rise and less and less opportunity to access higher or further education it’s hard not to be cynical, building hope is the challenge, its hard to feel powerful or entitled when public spaces are commercially owned, social housing is being sold off, the cost of living is astronomical and minimum wage has hardly changed in years. Sometimes being positive can feel like a betrayal. If things seem bad now its nothing compared to what will happen once the full force of the cuts and changes to the welfare system come into play. Will London become another city where the rich live in gated communities and the poor live in slums? Just walking around you can already see that homelessness is on the rise and then witness the grotesque extravagance of the wealthy in places like Canary Wharf . What now? More riots? Class war? Terrorism? Without getting carried away with the romanticism of the post-apocalypse, it is worth acknowledging that we are always in a process of change, but we don’t know what these new changes will bring.
Where do you place yourself in relation to the world? What do you accept or let slip? What do you feel you have to stand up and shout against, to rage in the streets and tear your hair out for? When do you decide to make the best of it, patch up what’s left and keep going? Time keeps running away from us,the tide turns, the war is won, the battle is lost. Truth evades us, escapes us, mocks us. We are left to make sense out of uncertainty, to face change, to make choices. We rely on the stories we tell to give us meaning and purpose, because it is narrative, tales of heroism or feats of wonder that eventually unite us, empower us, change us. History will always throw up the unexpected but we can use language, like ribbon, to tie ourselves together, to fix a position, to find a voice. With so much going on in the world it can be hard to listen, to think, to concentrate, to know when and how to speak and act, but it is the dialogues we have with ourselves and each other that lie at the heart of what happens next.