An unquiet ocean

July 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

There must be something about being in Chile that makes me write blog posts. I wrote my last one here in September of last year, and now I’m at it again, a third of the way through a trip to Santiago and the south of the country.

My motivation this time is an important bit of international news that appears to have been neglected by English-language media, as far as I can see. This is, I suppose, understandable, given the extraordinary rush of major stories in the last month or so: Brexit, Nice, Turkey, Trump, etc. Still, I think it’s worth a few minutes’ attention.

I arrived in Santiago last Tuesday to find headlines declaring that Chile’s diplomatic relationship with its northern neighbour Bolivia to be at their lowest ebb in a hundred years. This is saying something: after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), fought between Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other, relations have never been exactly rosy. Indeed, the two countries have had only consular relations (rather than full ambassadorial links) since 1978.

A glance at a map of the region provides a hint as to why this is the case. As a result of the war, Chile occupied large parts of what had been southern Peru and western Bolivia, thereby cutting off Bolivia’s access to the sea. Bolivia and Chile only officially made peace in 1904, and that treaty establishes the border between the two countries, as well as Bolivia’s rights to use the ports of Antofagasta and Arica in Chile.

This all sounds quite clear-cut. Yet the two countries have never fully agreed on the interpretation of this agreement,  and they have been involved in a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over Bolivia’s access to the sea for a number of years now (the case is ongoing).

Last week, the Bolivian President Evo Morales sent a delegation including his foreign minister, David Choquehanca, to carry out an ‘inspection’ of the ports of Antofagasta and Arica, apparently to check that Chile was fulfilling its side of the 1904 treaty. It appears that the Chilean authorities were not informed of this visit (so they claim), and they reacted furiously, revoking the diplomatic visas of the Bolivian consular delegation.

The Bolivian government, for its part, declared that Chile was failing to comply with the rules of the 1904 treaty, and laid claim to the moral high ground by stating that it would not rescind the visas of Chilean diplomats in the country. It has also accused Chile of ‘conspiring against [Bolivian] external trade and development’.

What to make of these crossed diplomatic swords? Here are a few tentative conclusions (I won’t comment on the validity of the Bolivian accusations, as I haven’t seen enough detail to make a judgement. There is a suggestion on the part of the Chilean government that Bolivia has failed to make the required payments for its use of the ports).

  1. Bilateral trade agreements are fragile (post-Brexit Britain take note).
  2. Historic international grievances remain a useful tool for governments wishing to divert attention from domestic problems and/or regain support (both Morales and the Chilean President Bachelet have recently suffered a series of scandals).
  3. Once started, this kind of conflict is difficult to control, and may escalate beyond the purpose it was initially intended to serve (see above).

I haven’t seen any suggestions that this conflict is at risk of becoming violent, but it nonetheless stands as evidence that the move away from international cooperation and towards the nationalistic affirmation of self-interest that we’re witnessing in Europe and the United States is not limited to those regions.

It also shows, though, that efforts towards international integration (e.g. based on trade) always have their limits and undersides. Since 2011, Chile has been a member of the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc with some political integration, such as joint diplomatic missions (along with Mexico, Colombia, and Peru). Membership requirements include sovereignty over a portion of the Pacific Ocean; Bolivia is not a candidate for membership.





Capital city

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in Santiago de Chile since last Tuesday, gathering materials and ideas for the next stages of my PhD research. It’s proving to be a somewhat piecemeal process, moving forward in fits and starts, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

One of the pieces thus far has been Santiago’s annual international film festival, SANFIC, which ran from 25-30 August. I saw several really interesting films from Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere, and hope to blog about a few of them over the coming days. The first I want to mention, Showroom (Fernando Molnar, Argentina, 2014), is a pitch-black comedy about a man who, after losing his job, is forced to move his family out of Buenos Aires to the Tigre Delta, a fairly remote patchwork of waterways to the north. Desperate to pay off his debts to his uncle and return to the capital, he takes on a job selling apartments in a new high-rise development (via the showroom of the film’s title). While his wife and daughter grow more attached to the slower pace of life in Tigre, the man (Diego Peretti) becomes obsessed by his work and the aspirations he tries to instil in others. The results aren’t pretty.


I wanted to start with this film because, oddly enough, it helps me articulate some of the aspects of Santiago which I find disturbing. This is odd because Showroom is on one level a very Argentine film: Diego Peretti, the lead actor, is a renowned comedian in his country, and the film plays with a roster of national stereotypes: the uncle, for instance, is a typical vivo criollo, someone out for their own gain at the expense of all others, but who hides their individualism behind a  front of affability and backslapping.

The name of the new high-rise development the protagonist sells, Palermo Boulevard, is also a nod to a phenomenon specific to Buenos Aires: the ever-expanding list of subdivisions which have been added to the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo in an attempt to marketise place and atmosphere: Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood, Alto Palermo, Palermo Chico, Palermo Queens. This last one, it is worth noting, is simply the rebranding of a neighbourhood with its own historic identity: Villa Crespo.

So, much in Showroom has to do with the particular topography of present-day Buenos Aires. Yet in laying bare the ideology which presents quality of life as a form of capital, as accumulation of amenities (swimming pool, gym, security cameras) the film points at something which is easily visible on the other side of the Andes. In fact, as I walked out of the cinema last night, I passed a hoarding advertising a new development eerily similar to the one in Molnar’s film.

Santiago is, in short, a city full of capitalised spaces. The film festival took place in two enormous Hoyts multiplex cinemas, one of which is located in Parque Arauco, a gigantic, luxury shopping mall in a posh neighbourhood. An odd setting, perhaps, for a film festival. But then the organisers have little room for manoeuvre: there are, I think, three independent cinema screens in all of Santiago. One film I didn’t manage to see at SANFIC, Chicago Boys (Carola Fuentes, Chile, 2015), in a sense explores how this situation came about: how, under Pinochet, a group of economists helped turn Chile in a laboratory for free-market economics pushed to extremes.

I can’t leave things so downbeat, though. Santiago is not a city that lavishes its charms upon you at first meeting: it can feel a bit grey, a bit tired, a bit too in thrall to commerce. It holds back, demanding slower, more painstaking exploration. But the rewards are not insubstantial: today, for instance, I discovered the Barrio Yungay, full of elegant old houses and vibrant murals. There is, moreover, the constantly consoling fact that on a good day, you can stand facing north at any major intersection, turn to your right, and look up at the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.


May 3, 2015 § Leave a comment


A few months ago, I watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and have been wanting to write about it since. Coming back to my blog to do so, after an absence of several months, I notice some strange similarities between my last post (on the Scottish independence referendum) and the fragmentary thoughts which follow here: an underlying emphasis on difficult questions of identity, nation, and self-definition.

To be clear: Under the Skin is not a film about Scottish politics. Over its two hours, an alien in the form of Scarlett Johansson drives a white van through the streets of Glasgow, engaging in conversations with young men, some of whom she lures back to a warehouse where they are consumed. (It’s difficult to know how better to describe what happens: they are absorbed into a black, viscous substance which also collapses the spatial dimensions of the warehouse interior.) Eventually, however, the being Johansson plays deviates from this repetitive process and is pursued by her ‘minder’ (who takes the form of a man in bike leathers) into a forest, where the dénouement occurs.

So far, so oblique. The film certainly eschews any obvious narrative structure, and it is precisely its ambiguity that makes it so fascinating: what is Johansson? Why has she/it arrived on earth? What happens to the men?

In one sense, however, there is a relatively clear ethical movement in the film: the alien deviates from her programme because of an increased sense, and appreciation, of human intimacy (although it is never fully consummated). I won’t delve here into the theories of cinema’s use of the figure of touch as an emotive strategy that do the rounds with the academic sphere. Suffice to say that the close-up shots of textures and surfaces (from human skin to the ruins of a castle) grow increasingly frequent through the film.  At one point, the alien accompanies a man into his home, where she watches Tommy Cooper on TV and has a failed sexual encounter.

How, then, does all of this relate to Scotland, and to politics? There are two moments in the film which suggest that the choice of location is not entirely arbitrary. One is an overheard snatch of radio on a Glasgow street, which locates the action in 2014 and mentions the upcoming independence referendum. The other comes much later, in a walkers’ refuge in a forest: inside, draped over one of the bare stone walls, is the Royal Standard of Scotland (the one with the red lion on a yellow background).

These moments introduce a sense of the documentary, of real’ place into this fictional narrative. In this respect, it is crucial to point out here that much of the footage of Johansson in Glasgow was shot covertly: so many of the men she talks to through her van window are not actors, and are not aware that they are talking to a Hollywood star (who is disguised with a black wig). The self-interested sexual desire on display is not always acted. The line between reality and fiction thus becomes still more blurred – there is little, for me, that matches the strangeness of seeing Johansson, in a leopard-print coat, wander past Claire’s Accessories in a Glasgow shopping centre.

My hunch, and I can’t yet articulate it as more than a hunch, is that in this film Glazer is making a subtle comment on people’s disengagement from the world, and from each other, in Scotland/the UK/the ‘West’. The blurb on the DVD jacket suggests that Under the Skin is ‘about seeing ourselves through alien eyes’. What we see is the unsettled, vertiginous nature of our relationships to each other. And this is what politics is (or should be) about: although after this general election campaign it might seem otherwise, there is more to it than the cutting of deficits and taxes. There is, fundamentally, the problem of what to do with one another.

Sadly, there seems to be little space in the traditional political forum for discussion in these terms. Is it entirely naïve to hope for a change?

For an unsteady image: Scotland and Britishness

September 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

A brief preface to this post: the referendum tomorrow is not my decision, but it is one that affects me, as a British citizen. It is, I hope, clear from the below which way I would vote if I could.

Watching Alistair Darling be thoroughly beaten by Alex Salmond in the second TV debate on Scottish independence, I found myself wondering, as many have over the course of the referendum campaign, why the ‘Better Together’ movement hasn’t found a more positive message. This failure was most obvious in the total absence from the debate of a particular word: ‘British’. That Salmond would want to avoid it is understandable, but why would Darling, defending the United Kingdom, not use the word which most succinctly expresses a shared identity?
There is a certain amount of irony here. Ian Bradley, writing in History Today, argues that Britishness, at least in its imperial, Protestant form, was essentially a Scottish invention. His list of examples is compelling, ranging from David Hume, who in the 17th century imagined a united Britain leading Europe against Iberian imperialism, to John Reith, a Scot who ‘almost single-handedly constructed one of the great modern institutional embodiments of Britishness, the BBC.’ During the Scottish Enlightenment, a group of contributors to the Edinburgh Review described their country as ‘North Britain’.

Why, then, has this enthusiasm disappeared both north of Berwick and south of Carlisle? Bradley suggests that the traditional British identity which the Scots expounded is no longer useful. This seems logical: we wouldn’t necessarily expect Scotland to take pride in its outsize role in creating and maintaining the British Empire given its difficult legacy, and the multi-ethnic character of the UK today. Similarly, the No campaign can’t base its arguments on nostalgia. So is it even possible to think of a contemporary Britishness?

To some, the question itself might seem suspect. What use is that abstract notion? Does it bear much or any relation to how people live their lives? In recent years, nonetheless, both the political class and the media have subjected this idea to repeated scrutiny. Is Britishness about democracy and tolerance? Or tradition and royalty? Football or cricket? Chicken tikka masala or fish and chips? These have all generated dozens of column inches. I would venture the suggestion, however, that there is no one symbol for British identity, however convenient such an image might be. The defining characteristic of Britishness is that it allows members of one constituent nation to participate in the culture and identity of another. I am English, but when I spent a few days in Edinburgh last month, I felt hugely proud of such a beautiful, vibrant city. I was very definitely not in England, yet I felt more at home than abroad. Some might say that this is just an example of the English colonial imagination, and that Britishness itself is nothing more than an useful vehicle for English domination. As we’ve seen, however, to do this is to ignore the historical evidence.

Rather than being a monolithic construct, Britishness is founded on a sense of difficult participation, on the conviction that a national community can exist while being near-impossible to visualise. It is precisely this difficulty which is worth preserving. Britishness is an obstacle to nationalist thought, both because of its negative imperial associations and because of its composite, unsteady nature. It is nearly always impossible to pin down, only occasionally coalescing around certain institutions: one example might be the NHS, when US Republicans dare to criticise it (that right being reserved for British citizens).

This need not be seen as a weakness, though. I am suspicious of any projection of national identity which is easily defined: particularly suspicious, therefore,of the distinctly Orwellian resonances in the name of Argentina’s new Ministry of National Thought. There is no such thing as British National Thought, and for that we can be very grateful. Robert Colls pushes this idea further, suggesting that ‘in 2001 there was no ‘manifest doctrine’ of Britishness as there had been in 1851 or even in 1951. It was not so much that the British people had ceased believing in themselves; it was more that over a very short period the conditions of that belief had evaporated. Between the Festival of Britain and the Millennium Dome, say, British national identity was no more.’

This is, I think, an overly apocalyptic statement. Perhaps I am unduly optimistic, but I would hope that it is possible to conceive of a national identity that does not depend upon a ‘manifest doctrine’. Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith in Cumbria, has eloquently argued for the relevance of a modern border identity that is neither English nor Scottish, but which draws upon the traditions and heritage of both nationalities. His writing poetically makes the case for a Britishness which admits its borders, its fractures, as essential to itself. Viewed in this way, British identity is not defined against an other (to use the terms beloved of humanities teachers), but rather created through cross-border encounters. The borders involved here need not be physical marks in the earth: they are also between cultures, religions, and generations. This is not the stuff of everyday politics, of concrete policy recommendations, though it might be used as the foundation for them. Rather belatedly, Better Together is putting forward a vision of a federal Britain, the ‘devo max’ option which is in a sense the logical conclusion of Stewart’s ideas. It seems like the only way to save the Union may be to loosen its bonds still further.

That would not be altogether surprising. Britishness is a confused, amorphous, difficult thing. A ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum would be the triumph of a simplistic, nationalist image over a cloudy shared identity. The SNP presents a series of ‘certainties’ about an independent future: high North Sea oil revenues, free universities, free NHS prescriptions. It is a compelling picture of a progressive Scottishness, but one which is so clear as to seem fantastical, a kind of Scottish exceptionalism. By contrast, I have no clear image of Britishness, but rather a collection of fragments, a shifting collage. It is a scrapbook I hope we keep, even if it needs some rearrangement.

Wallander’s beach

August 4, 2014 § 3 Comments



Can you imagine a community? The title of Benedict Anderson’s influential book, Imagined communities, suggests so. For Anderson, a nation is ‘an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’. A community, in other words, that is not dependent on regular face-to-face interaction, on physical gatherings of people. Is it really possible, though, to imagine, to picture such a thing? And does it matter if we can’t? The ‘online community’ of users of social media has become a commonplace in our language. Yet I’ve started wondering if the communities established over Facebook or Twitter really serve the same function as their ancestors, which had physical centres in the forum, or the church, or the pub.

I suppose the suspicion I am harbouring is that virtual face-to-face interaction (an encounter that you can simply switch off) doesn’t provide the same exposure to other people, to the annoying fact of their existence, as its real-life equivalent. I’m thinking here along lines drawn by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who ascribes a particular ethical force to the face of the other (though his conception of the face is rather complex, stretching beyond the visible). In our digitised age, we can manipulate our Facebook news feeds to remove unwanted faces and presences, unfollow people we no longer like on Twitter.

At this point I should declare my particular position: I am writing this from a place which can be seen as a remnant of the sorts of ‘old-fashioned’ communities I mentioned above: a Cambridge college (St John’s). So perhaps that is skewing my viewpoint somewhat. There is certainly a danger of drifting into nostalgia here. The human impulse to look wistfully back on an imaginary whole is well known, and communities that appear perfect and homogenous were (are) frequently founded on exclusion. At St John’s we were reminded of this in a sermon given by Teresa Morgan at the annual Commemoration of Benefactors service in May. Professor Morgan insisted that we remember, along with the members of the college who died in the First World War, those people who because of their social background, or gender, could not even dream of being a member of the college.

I am certainly not advocating a return to the intensely stratified society of the 1910s, or earlier. But I will admit that I am glad to be able to belong to an easily identifiable body of people. I worry that when our belonging becomes ever more mediated by various forms of technology, it also becomes more superficial. The powers of empathy involved are diluted. When, for example, you can add your name to a political petition at the click of a button, are you really joining a community? To what extent are you really involved? And what are you involved in? Is it possible to picture it?  These questions seem important to me. Then again, perhaps my longing for bodily participation and belonging ignores the fact that we are all now cyborgs (in Donna Haraway’s terms), beings for whom there is no clear dividing line between body and machine. Nonetheless, I am doubtful of the efficacy of our technological prostheses, however advanced they may be (Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus virtual reality technology was widely reported).

Strange as it may seem, I recently found an elegant example of a nostalgic desire for unproblematic, whole communities, and hint of their impossibility, in the  the Swedish detective drama Wallander. In the final series of this drama, which is based on Henning Mankell’s novels, Kurt Wallander’s life slowly and inevitably falls apart as he comes to terms with the fact he has Alzheimer’s disease. This is interesting from our perspective as Wallander is often presented as taking the side of those excluded from full participation in society, such as a young offender released from prison, or an Eastern European prostitute. Yet his efforts to remedy their situations are thwarted, more often than not. Though some critics therefore see Mankell’s work as longing for an impossible wholeness, it seems to me that Wallander’s failures, and his Alzheimer’s, are a tacit recognition on the part of his creator that such unity is always imaginary, even when it relates just to one person.

What I mean by this is that we are never entirely ‘at one’ with ourselves. The image that we present to others (and to ourselves) of who we are can never be definitive, and at times we are so different from day to day that it is a struggle to claim our actions as really ours. Social media exaggerate this process, creating stark divides between our online selves and the ones we inhabit. The stubbornly liminal existence of both community and self in Mankell’s world is apparent in the TV series through a recurrent visual motif: that of Wallander wandering along a beach, gazing out to sea. The implication might be that we always feel, to some extent, that we are poised on the brink of nothingness, that our communities or selves are on the edge of disintegration, or already fragmenting. Alzheimer’s disease is a particularly brutal realisation of our fears.

This all seems very gloomy. Yet it is possible to see this a more positive light. At the end of each episode of Wallander, a song by Ane Brun & Fleshquartet filters its way into the soundtrack: ‘When there’s so much darkness closing in / Just swerve around slowly / You’ll find an opening. / A light will appear like an animal between the trees / There you’ll find your pocket of peace’. The accompanying images are, frequently, of the detective on his beach. So if we and our communities are disintegrating, splintering into hi-tech fragments, perhaps this process provides us with an opening to redefine some terms. If we want to keep the concept of community alive beyond 2014, we need to consider what we want from it.

Writing twilight

April 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have a favourite time of day, but I couldn’t tell you when it is. It’s the point when daylight has faded so that everything has a kind of matt dullness, but it’s not ‘dark’. The sun might be behind the horizon, but there’s plenty of leftover light tingeing the sky. Streetlights are flickering on, but seem out of place, or mistimed. You can’t fix this moment to a point on the clock.

The photographs of Gregory Crewdson capture this spectacularly:


Gregory Crewdson
Untitled from the series ‘Beneath the Roses’
Digital chromogenic print
Width 2236 mm x height 1148 mm
Private Collection, courtesy White Cube
© Gregory Crewdson


Gregory Crewdson
Untitled from the series ‘Beneath the Roses’
Digital chromogenic print
Width 2236 mm x 1148 mm
Private Collection, courtesy White Cube
© Gregory Crewdson


There is an erosion of the categories of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ here, which becomes an erosion of the categories of ‘dream’ and ‘reality’: the scenes depicted are drab and suburban, and yet also otherwordly.

For me, the work of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño achieves the same effect in prose. Everyday objects are granted an unsettling, dream-like luminosity. And el atardecer, dusk or twilight, that point somewhere between afternoon and evening, is a time (a place?) his characters frequently inhabit. One of his stories is called ‘Últimos atardeceres en la tierra’. It gets called ‘Last Evenings on Earth’ in English, which lacks some ambiguity.

I’m reading his mammoth, posthumous novel 2666 at the moment. There are plenty of moments in it which evoke the otherworldliness of twilight: in its light, the city of Santa Teresa becomes a ‘ciudad fantasma’ (‘ghost city’), and colours become like ‘mariposas gigantescas danzando mientras la noche avanzaba como un cojo por el oeste’ (‘giant dancing butterflies as night limped forward in the west’). It is not an entirely comforting time, either: the dusk sky is described as ‘una flor carnívora’ (‘a carnivorous flower’).

It is Bolaño’s skill in painting that half-light in words, in evoking the utter strangeness of those fleeting moments, that makes reading even a 1,000-page novel by him a pleasure.

The problem with ‘world cinema’

March 23, 2014 § 6 Comments

the rocket

So that things are clear: I will yield to no one in my love for the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. It’s a great cinema with a really good mix of commercial and arthouse films, and has a brilliant student membership scheme (and a bar!). I was one of the more than 15,000 people to sign a petition protesting at the Competition Comission’s decision to force Cineworld to sell it off. I don’t know what the outcome of that process was, by the way, but for the moment the Picturehouse is still with us.

All that said, a page on their website raised my hackles the other week. It was the description of a film from Laos called The Rocket, which, the Picturehouse tells us, is ‘a feel-good world cinema treat’, and ‘shot through with vibrant local colour’. Both of those phrases are, for me, indicative of a worrying attitude to foreign film productions.

‘World cinema’, in much the same way as ‘world music’, most often seems to denote non-Western cultural production, and as a result, creates a kind of us-and-them approach to cinema where, bizarrely, Anglo Saxon productions are not seen to belong to the ‘world’. It is an apparently meaningless phrase which hides, I think, a fetishisation of what is seen to be ‘exotic’. An assertion of superiority, in other words.

The conversion of ‘local colour’ into a marketable commodity is perhaps even stranger. The transnational nature of cinema makes this inevitable, of course, and I am glad that a film from Laos can be seen in the UK. And not having seen The Rocket, I don’t want to suggest that is guilty of what some films in the ‘world cinema’ category, such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, have been accused of: offering a glamourised version of severe hardship as ‘local colour’ to the international market.

The reason the phrase ‘local colour’ unsettles me is because it reminds me of a rather surreal experience I had in Malaysia in September of last year. I was in Malacca, a fascinating old city, by myself for a few days. There are plenty of historical and cultural sights on offer, but one day, after a busy morning of museums and ruins (and two weeks of travelling prior to that), I decided to go to the cinema.

The cinema was to be found in an enormous shopping mall just beyond Malacca’s historic centre. Wherever I’ve seen them, these super-malls seem to have the same design: several floors of shops, with a food court and then a multiplex cinema on top (I imagine the blueprint is probably from the US). The food court in this one is what I found particularly strange and sad.

Malaysia is justly famous for its street food. My favourite thing about visiting the country was, without doubt,  trying the huge array of dishes available, usually for about 80p, from makeshift stands in places like Malacca and George Town. In this mall, the food court was designed to resemble one of these street markets, complete with mocked-up stalls made from moulded plastic. Needless to say, the prices were rather higher than in the real-life equivalent, there were fewer people, and it was all, for want of a better phrase, much more boring.

It is this co-option of  tradition into bland international culture that is in a sense lurking behind the ‘vibrant local colour’ of ‘world cinema’. It probably has to happen, to an extent, for traditions and local particularities to survive. But I wonder if abandoning that particular terminology might not be more helpful.