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Patrick Keiller
A lesson in historical materialism

1) 'An object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as the object's rescue.'
(W. Benjamin, On the Elementary Doctrine of Historical Materialism, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, 1999), p 476)

The mission, this time, is to make a peripatetic study of the problem of England. Biographies, places, labour histories, philosophers, authors connect up as if England was a surrealist's exquisite corpse. And, low and behold, it is. Historically a distinguished seat of capitalism, slavery and colonialism, today its connections to international business, to sources of energy, to garbage, all but out-do the wonder-filled literary connections over time and space so romantically conjured here. We see all of these things in Robinson in Space, but what is privileged, I think are what Ben Jonson would call the underwoods of its identity: those anonymous, ubiquitous sites that move our current economy.

2) 'History decays into images, not into stories.'
One problem of England for a modernist like Robinson is the disjuncture between how it works and what we see. The visible industrial economy, ports that employed hordes of permanent labour that were centrifugal forces of cities, for example, the manufacture of innovatively designed cars, for another, no longer feature. The modern crisis of old was concerned with how industrial labour estranged us from the products of our labours. The Taylorist mode of manufacture, characterised by rationalisation and repetition, replaced artisanal labour, labour whose pace allowed for contemplation, boredom, and story telling. Noisy alienating mass production changed everything for the worse, so the story goes. Now Robinson and the narrator look back on that mode of production with nostalgia, for the situation deteriorates still further. Manufacture, commodities, and labour are all but invisible and noiseless. Industry, for all its sensate violence, was at least dynamic and visible.

The film gives names and history to the otherwise anonymous structures that organize our world and they are largely windowless, apparently unpopulated, the labour hidden, exploited, and massive in scale. Prisons, electricity, coal, manufacturing plants, ports, Robinson presses on, and in the quiet of the fixed frame, we see architecture as an archive from which history might emerge.

Still from Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller, 1997
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