Friday, May 19, 2006

Robert Sheppard: Everything Connects: The Social Poetics of Iain Sinclair

part of a draft paper delivered to the Edge Hill University English Department’s Research Day on 15 May 2006
(photo of Iain Sinclair at Edge Hill, copyright Tim Power)

Iain Sinclair’s predilection for drawing divinatory lines on maps, in part, dictates his approach towards cultural formation and its poetics. In his 1975 poem Lud Heat, willed ley lines supposedly generate a wealth of supposedly occult materials for Sinclair to carefully counterpoint with local realist accounts. While he is careful to emphasize that his materials – including his map - act only as provisional confirmation of one another, of patterns of connection, the reader is marshalled by a relentless rhetoric of assimilation to accept that his chosen geographical sites are funnels of power for the gods, diffusing their influence through the ‘heat’ of named writers who once dwelt there. In later documentary, such as Lights Out for the Territory (1997) Sinclair’s walks across London are partly quests for the ‘reforgotten’ cultural workers of the capital – neglected London novelists as well as avant-garde poets. The pedestrian circumnavigation of the M25 that is the narrative occasion of London Orbital (2002) has not just the disappearance of the Millennium Dome as its miraculous aim, but the re-appearance of artists it finds along its route, such as the impoverished ‘visionary’ poet Bill Griffiths in his houseboat at Uxbridge, or Barry MacSweeney, who is presented as a modern ‘ranter’. Sinclair trudges the sites of the English Revolution and asks, ‘Was it legitimate to read that decade of samizdat publication (1965-75), poetry wars, readings above pubs or in disestablished chapels, as in any way analogous to the outpourings of the Dissenters (Levellers, Diggers, Ranters) in the years of the English Civil War …?’ (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Such authority Sinclair claims here derives from the connections he makes between the poets, between eras, and – crucially – between places (Uxbridge and the Diggers’ St George’s Hill are both visited in London Orbital). The disestablished chapels rhetorically function as the temporary location for the appearance of the British Poetry Revival’s festivities, but suggest a physically existing continuity with radical non-conformism. Peter Barry recognizes the danger, even in Lud Heat, of this rampant associationism, but also acknowledges Sinclair’s scepticism toward his own systems: ‘This overdetermined universe would quickly become unbearably claustrophobic, and perhaps ultimately silly, in the hands of any other writer.’

Sinclair ‘inscribing his own mental biro-lines on the tarmac, and then excavating and linking up the marked spots’, as Barry puts it, is the unifying activity of his intratextual oeuvre, in its multiple intertextuality. However, those wishing to create an exclusively avant-garde ‘tradition’ – say, a blostered-up version of the British Poetry Revival from which Sinclair emerged into the mainstream - will be disappointed to discover the stalking ground of Winston Churchill as well as JG Ballard’s bolthole en route in London Orbital, and in Edge of the Orison (2005) such artists are ignored in favour of John Clare and the family tree of Sinclair’s wife, which had fortuitously taken root in the vicinity of Clare’s long incarceration. The lines Sinclair draws explicitly complicate or refute existing lines of ‘influence’; they scribble over the maps of affiliations and allegiances, official and unofficial. They delete as well as connect.

The novel Landor’s Tower (2001) evokes the central metaphor for these eclectic acts of creative linkage. Alfred Watkins’ theory of the ley line, as outlined in his 1925 book The Old Straight Track, was popular in the 1970s when Sinclair appropriated its method in Lud Heat. Watkins argues (falsely) that the ancient sites of England and Wales are aligned with one another in a network of straight routes of communication called ley lines, which are also aligned with the movement of the sun. Watkins’ evidence, however dubious, is archaeological, and is suggestively presented in the form of maps with the straight tracks drawn upon them, not unlike the hieratic London map of Lud Heat. Sinclair’s description of the invention of ley lines is crucial to understanding his psychogeological and cultural poetics: Watkins ‘original revelation', is that 'everything connects and, in making those connections, streams of energy are activated’.

The poetics of modernist juxtaposition has been approvingly evoked, and utilized, by Sinclair: ‘Multi-voiced, lyric seizures countered by drifts of unadorned fact, naked source material spliced into domesticated trivia, anecdotes, borrowings, found footage.' This checklist, voiced by Sinclair’s avatar Norton, in Landor’s Tower, is describing a work like Ezra Pound's Cantos, but it would serve as well as a thumbnail sketch of Sinclair's own collage Lud Heat. Pound's technique of modernist juxtaposition and the ideogrammic method of the Cantos can be read as a literary equivalent of the ley line. Pound states that the juxtaposition of elements without syntactic linkage, by simple contiguous arrangement (if you like, by drawing lines between them) creates new combinations. However, the basis for this emerged from philology as suggestive but as suspect as Watkins’ archaeology. The alignment of the four Chinese ideograms for ‘rose’, ‘iron rust’, ‘cherry’ and ‘flamingo’, Pound attempts to demonstrate, combine to create the single ideogram for ‘red’. New meaning, like montage in film, is constructed from the juxtaposition of previously discrete concrete elements.

Sinclair’s cultural poetics operates on the premise that ‘the official map of the culture, at any time, would always fail to include vital features. Too many good writers are left out of the canon’. If the cultural explorer cannot trust received cultural mappings, the only way to establish a working map is empirically, to walk out into the culture (literally in Sinclair’s case) and gather what the walking reveals, to go beyond the official map to find the cultural operators who are off the radar, either because the radar is faulty, or the cultural mandarins are lazy and dismissive. The narratives of the walks in Lights Out for the Territory or London Orbital become bejewelled with significance, and spark with potential cultural connections, like Pound’s ideogrammic nodes, dotted ley lines for the reader to follow outwards. If enough connecting lines are ruled across what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the field of literary and cultural production (in his own spatial metaphor), and if the work can make connections between these vital nodes of local or repressed cultural activity, then the ghostly template of an alternative culture may become visible. This attempt to connect areas of the restricted economy of the literary field disrupts what Bourdieu calls the position-taking of artists within the field, in order to align their dispositions in a new way, by force as it were. ‘The space of literary or artistic position-takings … is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital.’ Sinclair tries to ignore the larger forces at play in the field of culture as a whole. The (relative) autonomy of the literary field is high in avant-garde practice, replete as it is with inwardly-regarding accumulation of cultural capital, as Bourdeiu explains.

The more autonomous the field becomes, the more favourable the symbolic power balance is to the most autonomous producers and the more clear-cut is the division between the field of restricted production, in which the producers produce for other producers, and the field of large-scale production, which is symbolically excluded and discredited.

Sinclair’s elevation - or consecration, to use Bourdieu’s vocabulary - of Derek Raymond as the epitome of extreme and mesmerising pulp fiction, as well as Bill Griffiths as exemplar of the consecrated avant-garde, attempts to negate the dominant world of Booker Prize- sustained literary fiction and the culturally validated Sunday paper reviewing poet. Robert Bond argues that ‘Sinclair represents the contemporary poet or artist working without regard for his own self-preservation.’ Outside the field of large-scale social power, Raymond and Griffiths are sustained in different parts of the field of restricted production, both supported only by the cultural capital of their cultic energies, their ‘heat’, in Sinclair’s persistent metaphor, and constellated with one another, in a Poundian node, only by the ironic consecration of Sinclair’s prose.

It is fascinating to hear Sinclair operating occasionally within Bourdieu’s field of large scale production, rather than at the interface between larger scale and restricted, which is where I surmise his critique to be currently positioned (if I were to succumb to the charm of one of Bourdieu’s diagrams). His attempt on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme in February 2004 to change the positioning of the work of the British Poetry Revival poet JH Prynne in the larger culture by de-consecrating the work of the canonised Philip Larkin was a peculiar failure of effect, even though he ‘played his advocacy pretty straight’ in my public email estimation of the time. The interviewer, operating as the normative cultural evaluator, the voice of commonsense, simply poohed-poohed his expression of the unthinkable. (Bourdieu theorises such acts of de-consecration as part of the normal shifting power-games of the literary fields, but has no theoretical machinery to deal with the intractability of the Movement Orthodoxy.)
Sinclair’s cultural poetics reveal a brave but risky strategy. Like all empiricism it is the slave of what is discoverable, and what Sinclair finds first are his artist-friends and immediate associates, and JH Prynne was one of the earliest and most extraordinary. Prynne has had the bitter-sweet distinction of appearing twice, as Skofeld in Suicide Bridge (1979), and as Simon Undark in Radon Daughters (1994) and Landor’s Tower. When the connections are forced – David Rodinsky, the Whitechapel hermit pushed hard against Harold Pinter the apostle of silence, for example, in Rodinsky’s Room (1999) – the results can become wilful, even desperate. In Edge of the Orison, where the bourgeois distraction of genealogy intertwines with a search for traces of Samuel Beckett and for his unfortunate lover, Lucia Joyce, incarcerated like John Clare, the revealed linkage does not repay the effort (although Sinclair does avoid some of his more repetitive tropes). For Sinclair, though, there can be no alternative method; the risks of being wrong or irrelevant are outweighed by the almost utopian connectivity of the imagination.
concurring with its constructions.

When Sinclair, in 2002 or 3, was asked by Kevin Jackson, ‘Are you a materialist or not?’ Sinclair replied, ‘Not. Not at all, no. Far from….I’m absolutely one of those mad Welsh preachers who believes that … deliver the speech and you’ll change someone’s life.’ This hesitant refusal, with its affirmation of a divinatory power of utterance, does remind us that to read Sinclair sympathetically, to respond to his magnetic notions, one must often maintain a critical resistance to its pull. As in reading Blake or Yeats, it is important to take the unpalatable with the palatable, since it is arguably through such strange perspectives that we can judge ourselves, and our values, as we engage with the powerful otherness of these texts. ‘While affirming the other as other … I encounter the limits of my own powers to think and to judge, my capacities as a rational agent,’ as Derek Attridge puts it in his brilliant The Singularity of Literature. Additionally, Sinclair’s texts, to use one of his own metaphors, operate as windows for readers’ imaginations rather than as mirrors for their self-regard. Robert Bond recovers a distant, even desperate, socio-economic politics from this, despite Sinclair’s evident resistance to materialist formulations, and one which reinforces Sinclair’s focus on the restricted field of culture. Sinclair, he says, ‘needs to assert the imagination as a force which, if exercised freely, creates products that are not easily assimilable within an economy organized around interested exchange. He also wants to assert the potential of the imagination … to stand in an oppositional relationship to the political status quo.’

Nevertheless it is important to balance the weaknesses and strengths of Sinclair’s unique perspectives, particularly as they relate to the cultural poetics that is at its most explicit in the non-fiction, but is everywhere in Sinclair’s vast intratextual project. The strengths lie in the way the cultural scene is charted first hand, as far as that is humanly possible, which may not be very far, as Sinclair’s Radio 4 appearance suggests. It is the unofficial guide, with as few of the pre-existent social valuations inherent in any field of cultural production, as possible.

The weaknesses lie in the project’s reliance upon such contingency, personal experience, the mystical and the numinous, and its eschewal of (overt) theoretical or sociological positions. One of the few riches of cultural capital that avant-gardists exchange is their writerly poetics. When, in the introduction to Conductors of Chaos, Sinclair celebrates the sheer facticity of small press publications – ‘you don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers’ – it is difficult not to believe that we are in the presence of a fetishist, reconciled at last with his diminished materialism, but he pays little attention to that other materiality, of literary practice itself on the treasured pages, other than the remark that ‘If these things are “difficult”, they have earned that right’. Sinclair is aware of the irony of his own fame as a writer publishing in the literary mainstream being the generous vehicle of consecration for more marginal figures. However much Sinclair’s cultural poetics can attempt to rescue the re-forgotten from obscurity, he is not adept as an interpreter of the technical poetics of textual obscurity, of that work of the British Poetry Revival. In a real way he could be described as an enthusiast. Bond identifies the centre of ‘Sinclair’s notion of enthusiasm as the compulsion to exercise the imagination without regard for the exigency of self-preservation’. Yet this is an economy Sinclair himself is partly liberated from, by his mainstream status as the chronicler of these others, as Bond also suggests. Despite this positioning, Sinclair’s critique often operates at the interface of the fields of restricted production and large-scale production. As he registers the avant-garde cultural capital of what Bourdieu calls ‘a generalised game of “loser wins”, on a systematic inversion’ of mainstream values, and projects that image against (or onto) the mainstream, the strategy risks the danger of reversing the inversion, as it were, of de-consecrating his chosen elect. Bereft of aesthetic value – their textual poetics unexplained – but replete with mythological potential, they can be dismissed simply as interesting people – characters - Sinclair has met along the way, rather than as exemplary artist figures who also ‘stand in oppositional relationship to the political status quo’.

Page 500

One of the reasons I’ve been slow with posting pages on Pages is that I thought I should emit an editorial to celebrate Page 500, but I haven’t.

Other pieces on Sinclair may be found through the archive 489: Robert Sheppard: Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat, (access that here

Lud Heat is once again available here

My book Iain Sinclair may be bought here. Or Here: Iain Sinclair | Liverpool University Press

My account of Dining on Stones is featured here

My critical volume When Bad Times made for Good Poetry has some further thoughts on Iain Sinclair's work. 

Suicide Bridge is also back in print and may be bought here.  This reprints my 1980 review of the book!

Here is an account of Iain Sinclair celebrating Malcolm Lowry in Liverpool in 2014.

Here is Iain Sinclair's poem 'Patrick Hamilton' on Pages.