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Posted: Thursday January 29, 2015
Seventh Report on the Instability of Cities

Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in 2015), recently completed a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. In this series of dispatches from London, Canty shares his reflections on some of the city’s foggy history and the sometimes foggy process of writing. (Those who have missed Canty’s early lines, and his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth reports, are invited to consult Meta-Talon, the Talonbooks blog, where they are being serialized with suitable delay.)


Once upon a time, it took weeks or more to cross the Atlantic by boat. This report and those that will follow reach you with an oceanic delay, honouring the old distances.

The news of my return has been exaggerated. I did manifest, over the last few weeks, as three furtive apparitions in the home country: in a Quebec hotel room, a classroom at Université Laval and, more discreetly, a board room in Old Montreal.1 The public announcement of the first two events no doubt engendered the confusion. Our networked screens – we take their uncanny powers for granted now – allow us to extend our worldlines, leaning over images as though we could glide by the darkened faces gathered intently listening to our reading and vanish backstage, in room 1609’s toilets … why not perturb the pompom of the snow-hatted young man dozing off in the first row of the classroom? or energetically challenge, with table-thumping intent, the edicts of the recalcitrant client, invisible to the left of the interface, who feels free – after all, he seems to be talking to an image – to say whatever he wants? Despite its transparency, the screen, from any way you look at it, reaches a dead end. It keeps us from the excesses of presence.

I will admit that in London, one daily feels the need to be in many places, and therefore many times, at once. The prospect of my departure is a constant afterthought. The moon-like snows which, I am told, now cover the province, instill an astronomical vertigo in me. Moon and timeA fear of landing nowhere … The daily imposition, on my neighbourhood’s horizon, of Canary Wharf’s glowing silhouette, begs the question of whether Canada, and Quebec within it, are not, in a very concrete sense (pardon the pun), versions of the future. And it is not only the enigma of returns that leads me to say this. In the pre-neo-liberal era when our patriotic hopes for our belle province, our pays incertain, still seemed founded, Jean-François Lyotard was writing his bestseller on the end of history, The Postmodern Condition (1979) with funds from the Parti Québécois. Also, the first pages of Baudrillard’s very own America (1985) – these Frenchmen decidedly entertain funny ideas on our ideas of us – evoke the metropolises of the USA by describing Montreal’s downtown core.2 Semiotics and literary theory have always seemed to me like some kind of genre literature, a branch of science fiction – that speculative literature, encumbered by neologisms – peopled by conceptual characters. We live in times where ideas are becoming embodied all around us. Did the Gallic prophets of immanence know that a handful of irreducible real-estate developers, benefiting from the foreclosure of all Grand Narratives, would usurp the role of the alien invaders, planting the same concrete and glass obelisks all over the world, like the motherships of our cinematographic nightmares, and that a double of Place Montreal Trust would one day rise over of East London’s skyline, a nightly column of light cutting through the industrious neighbourhoods that History, with the complicity of the eastbound gale, seemed to have placed under a permanent pall?3

I had a thought, some weeks ago, for J.G. Ballard’s architectural Robinson, stranded, following a car accident, on the concrete island at the confluence of three highways.4 I had chosen to ride, on my way westward, the Dockland Light Rail system (DLRdee-ell-are), tracing southward on suspended tracks, over quilted neighbourhoods, peopled with immigrant families, extending around the basins of the former international docking zone. The name of each quay evokes an old member of the Commonwealth – West India Quay, Canary Wharf, Canada Water – and every time I ambled along this postcolonial line, I had the impression I was gliding over the surface of a world map. The DLR was built in time for the 2012 Olympics and traces a quiet circuit in London’s southeast. Its logogram reinterprets the symbol of the Underground, in the appeasing turquoise tint that is oh so trendy in contemporary information design. I admit to adoring the silent sliding of the train as it espouses the arc of the rails in its gradual approach – it feels like some kind of elevation – toward Canary Wharf’s futuristic horizon. From there, the trains travel toward the far orient of the city, onward to Greenwich across the Thames and beyond. The train docks under an ellipsoidal geodesic dome, in the cut at the foot of vertiginous, shard-like, mirrored façades, enveloping enough to make us forget, as we set foot on the platform, that we are stepping outside. Everything on this civilizing island rises in opposition to the evidence of the elements. At night, the electric light emanating from the after-hour cubicles, imbricated in the repetitive window work, the vector-based cadastre of the buildings, seems intent on convincing us that Canary Wharf is haunted by another light than the saturated software glow that gave shape to the image of the future surrounding us.

The passenger who, like myself, seeks to reach the nearby Underground station, must venture through the electro-lit corridors of a series of subterranean shopping malls, where the Empire’s luxury prêt-à-porter brands (although the bulk of its industrial production now comes from the colonies of old, the English still now how to stitch and cobble some very expensive suits and shoes) alternate with the common fare of international retailing and globalized fast food, to eventually emerge on the central plaza of the futuristic Wharf, where food trucks and corporate bars welcome, at the cinq à sept half time, a Brownian retinue of jacket-and-tie- and power-pants-wearing drinkers, destined soon to swarm toward their faraway homes, returning to their other lives as if to another city. At the corner, the news of the day and the financial indexes parade live on the tickertape gracing the frieze of the Reuters building. Days go by/endlessly/endlessly pulling you/into the future.5 Dealers in financial futures can at all times raise their head from a glass of warm beer to confirm the hour’s urgency. We find ourselves, at this very moment, at one of the concrete crossroads of capitalism, where shares transit at vertiginous speeds, their apparently immaterial flow subtle as the passing of neutrinos, determining the immediate fortune of some, and the far-off misfortune of others. Human operators are reduced to the role of binary agents, triggering or interrupting the torrential transactions, where a microsecond of hesitation can amount to losses and gains of millions of dollars. When confronted by such facts, what can a man do but order another beer? A man from London, in any case, can count on the local climate. The trading floors of New Jersey and Tokyo have recently deployed a data transmission technology using lasers.6 This allows for very profitable gains of a few nanoseconds. In London, the speed of these light relays is affected by the interference of drizzle, imposing a tad of lateness to the local transactions that, in my opinion, perfectly agrees with the much-touted phlegmatic character of the English nation.

But let us come back, at long last, to my land-bound journey. Canary Wharf is as pretty as an image, but it only exists behind glass, captive of its self-imposed reality – there, all realities are not immediately accessible. Actually, tonight, the patios are even more over-packed than usual. An impracticable queue – an English specialty all its own – congests the awning leading to the Underground station, members of which mill about at the head of the overlong escalators guarded by the London Transport personnel in their blue uniforms and orange-y overalls. Something has happened. The voice of the Underground is repeating that “an incident involving a passenger” – nothing may be known about his or her thoughts or feelings – “forces us to suspend service for an indeterminate duration.” Here I am, stranded in Canary Wharf, on an ordinary workday, where the loss of a life, if we consider the apparent good humour of the crowd, can seem a reality as far away from reality as, say, a human sacrifice from the Age of Iron.

Over the façade of the Reuters building, the financial databases continue their vain chase after the whims of the day. There is no place for me amongst the workaday crew, crowding the corporate drinking halls while awaiting the end of the interruption. I cross the footbridge leading to West India Quay, the neighbouring islet, to find a seat in a subterranean bar, a sort of plastic version of an English pub, housed within the cavernous vaults of a former maritime warehouse. The cost of a pint of Guinness runs higher than in my post-industrial neighbourhood, where a certain feeling of authenticity is still accessible at a rebate. The classic rock (reasonably) booming through the room keeps me from registering the accents of the scattered drinkers (two young ladies on work leave, an Asiatic couple, a young blonde strongman and his date of the hour…). Our reciprocal presences are opaque. In fact, this bar seems to me like a displaced double of the establishments one finds gracing, from west to east, Canada’s ski resorts, and which, one can reasonably suspect, are owned and managed by the same social constructs and secret alliances that built Canary Wharf. If the mountainous majesties of Whistler or Mont Tremblant differ, their planning, however, obeys the same plot, conforming to the same profit curves, and I would not be astonished if I could walk out of here in the shadow of the Rockies or in the heart of the Laurentian forest. There is a lot of money to be made among les feuillus tolérants.7 I was writing – a “this is London” card for my niece and nephew, and some friends, notes for this – and soon I was writing about my powerful feeling of déjà-vu. It was certainly not because I was feeling at home in this imitation bar, but rather because I was haunted by the notion of my imminent return. What is my land’s true likeness? “The Jubilee Line should soon resume service.” It is getting late in London. This architecture is nobody’s future – merely a stopping point in time. A man threw himself across the rails, cutting off the flow of time in himself. As I step out, I do not even verify whether the Underground is back on. I prefer to ride the future train in reverse, and to head back to the comforts of my current home. Those who thought up this island are right about one thing: time, however we choose to look at it, is a precious thing.

*

I was witness, upon my last foray to Canary Wharf, no later than a week after the incident related above, to a strange occurrence in the waters at the foot of the Reuters building. It tends to confirm that time is riddled with holes. A kind of illuminated tunnel, about a meter in diameter, had opened up, facing the sky, in the dark waters of the pool.


Canary Wharf, 2014 (Photo by Daniel Canty)

It seemed like an uncannily clean, misaligned sewer drain, tracing a straight line to the depths. Its interior surface was covered in multi-coloured diodes, blue, pink, white, giving it the appearance of a futuristic airlock, leading to the subaquatic mothership, or the secret hideout of a network of subterranean Londoners, threading, under all obvious surfaces, the tunnels of an emergent city. This incongruous passageway did not generate much interest amongst the passers-by, who saw it as a mere decorative gesture, a simple lighting accessory, and I was alone, leaning over the balustrade, in considering its oddity. Parallel realities are fragile. They enter this world through passing images, the pinhole of the mind’s eye, as precious to our gazes as they are vulnerable to our questions.

I wonder if the distraught passenger also wore the powersuit of office days, or if he came from elsewhere, some minor culture, fallen here as if from nowhere? I know it is too late, but I still wish him a surfeit. If he had waited a week more before leaving the world, he could have found this shortcut to the Underground, plunged into the black waters, raised himself to the mouth of the manhole, and slid – oh! – down the luminous duct, broken through the surface of an image, to where nobody knows, and where time, next to time, gushes forth.

Daniel Canty, transtemporal agent
20.12.2014


Notes

1 The Québec en toutes lettres festival had invited me to occupy a room in the very chic Hotel Pur, where I had slept, once, two summers ago. I asked that the lights be dimmed, that the water be left to run behind the water closet’s door, while I floated in the flat screen. At Université Laval, I was invited to close a semester dedicated to L’Écriture des formes brèves (Writing the short form) with a conference on my “indisciplinary” practice. Finally, I attempted to speak in the name of a building with an assembly of gentlemen whose métiers are supposed to share in the care for living forms. My contractual obligations, alas, constrain me to anonymity.

2 One of my professors es letters of old, Jean-François Chassay, well aware of Monsieur Baudrillard’s vacations, noted this discrepancy.

3 For reasons that seem related to ontological determinism, there are more right-handers than left-handers in the human Universe. Likewise, the dominant winds, carried along by the dextrous rotations of the world, blow eastwards, casting the smoky pall of industry over the poorer reaches of cities, which are invariably located there.

4 Concrete Island (1974) is the second volume of Ballard’s Concrete trilogy. It tells of the Robinson-like car wreck of a genteel architect of the postmodern persuasion. The novel follows upon the motophiliac pornography of Crash (1973) and the sacrificial ascension of Highrise (1975), where a totemic new development, cut off from the surrounding city, reverts to an atavistic battleground. I read these books during adolescence. They did not contribute to my appreciation of civilization.

5 Laurie Anderson, apparently by way of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“White Lilly”, Home of the Brave, Warner Bros., 1986).

6 Donald Mackenzie, in The London Review of Books, enjoins what I surmise are his fellow nationals to be “Grateful for Drizzle” (vol. 36, no. 17, 11 September 2014, p. 27–30). Online readers and printers can see www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n17/donald-mackenzie/be-grateful-for-drizzle.

7 Conrad Kirouac, the good friar Marie-Victorin, author of La Flore laurentienne (Les frères des écoles chrétiennes, 1935), beautifully baptized the deciduous woods surrounding Montréal “la zone des feuillus tolérants” (literally, “the zone of leafy tolerants”), an excellent nickname for all even-minded, politically dainty Canadians and their maple-flagged country.


Daniel Canty’s eighth report will be published one day, as well.