Splinters: March 2021 – short essays on the here & now

This month: Hall of mirrors...
'Tseuf tseuf' waiting to go: the English legislator and national disaster...
Black, grey, blue, green: how serious can Boris Johnson be?...
Submission to the Special Legislative Committee on reforming Canada’s Police Act: Part 1...

Splinters collective
1 March 2021, 2.22pm
Theo Inglis. All rights reserved.

Hall of Mirrors.jpg
Hall of Mirrors. | Author's image.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

Hall of mirrors
by Christos Tombras

In Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York Caden Cotard, the main character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theatre director working on a grandiose production that will capture life as it really is. Cotard’s project, autobiographical in its essence, would aim to represent each and every important moment in the life of its creator, Cotard himself, by painstakingly recreating it to be performed on stage in all its details. The theatrical performance would, thus, be a kind of detailed commentary on its director’s life, a narrative within a narrative, a meta-narrative of sorts, that would reveal the true essence of something.

As soon as the pre-production begins, in the film, the project turns out as an increasingly convoluted and all-encompassing scale model, an ever-enlarging and yet detailed structure that includes the original material, i.e. Cotard’s life, staged key moments of this life, a meta-reflection whereby the staged scenes are treated as material themselves and are presented in secondary stages alongside the originals, reflections of all this, and so on and so forth.

In short, an ever-expanding world-within-a-world fractal, a true synecdoche of New York itself.

* * *

In 2007, Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, had his own ambitious and audacious idea. Originally conceived as a biopic of Lev Landau, one of the most important nuclear physicists of the Soviet era, Khrzhanovsky’s project involved the creation of a more or less accurate replica of Landau’s research institute in post-war USSR. It would be staffed with scores of actors who would be living on site, walking, talking and acting as if they were indeed Soviet scientists, artists, visionaries, operatives, cold-war agents, support workers, cleaners, in post-war USSR. Their families would be living on site as well.

The DAU institute was finally built in a former Dynamo stadium in Ukraine, and with its 12,000 sq.m. became the largest film set in Europe. According to some sources, more than 300,000 (!) people were auditioned; and with the exception of four important leading actors who would represent Lev Landau, his wife, their son and the actual director of Landau’s Institute back in the day, every other person participating in the project, some 400 supporting actors and 10,000 extras, would be performing under their own actual names. Film crews would be operating on a 24/7 basis, using technology that would allow them to be as unintrusive as possible, and collecting material as if they were shooting a precise documentary. Shooting lasted for 3 years, between 2008 and 2011, and 700 hours of material were captured in total. So far a total of 15 films have been finalised, the longest of which runs for 6 hours.

The DAU Institute was conceived as a model that would allow Khrzhanovsky to study complex human interactions under his reconstructed version of the Soviet regime. The whole project was unanimously described as impossible to describe.

* * *

The idea of a creator who dreams of capturing an aspect of the world by creating and studying an appropriate and to some extent faithful replica of it is not new in art. James Joyce used the device in Ulysses. “I always write about Dublin,” he said at some point, “because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Limiting ourselves to cinema, we also can readily think of Felini’s 8 ½, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, even Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind.

Cotard’s project in Kaufman’s film, was going to be a doomed one. For one, there was no theatrical stage big enough to accommodate the original, plus its stage reflection, plus the reflection of its stage reflection, plus a reflection of that reflection, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, in a confusing and disorienting hall of mirrors.

Crucially, in Cotard’s project absolutely everyone was implicated and affected by it. The director himself, Cotard, but also the actor who would play Cotard in the staged performance, and the actor who would play the actor who played Cotard, etc. etc. In contrast to Khrzhanovsky’s DAU, where the institute was conceived as a kind of historical miniature, a petri dish facilitating a social experiment, in Kaufman’s vision, the experiment involved the experimenters themselves, affected them and was affected by them, to the extent that at the end it was not clear who writes the script and who plays the lines, as if they all existed, half-acting and half-acted, in some Schrödinger’s box, along-side the cat.

* * *

There can be no true, and complete history of the world, Kaufman is telling us, because there is no place one can stand on to speak about what we see. We are always a part of the reflection, a part of the picture we try to capture. While we can pretend that this is just a glitch, an insignificant restriction of our conceptual and observational devices, the unavoidable fact dawns on us at moments, that our structure is incomplete. In fact, it is destined – doomed if you prefer – to be incomplete, just like Gödel’s theorem illustrates – albeit in a different field. All systems of statements are inconsistent and incomplete, in that they will unavoidably contain self-referential statements which can neither be proved nor disproved within the scope of said systems. It’s not a glitch, though, it’s structural.

Or, as software developers have long been known to claim, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.


'Tseuf tseuf' waiting to go: the English legislator and national disaster
by Iain Galbraith

Group of men pose with Tramcar No 13 outside Horton Bank Top depot, c. 1898. | National Tramway Museum. Some rights reserved.

It was in a Horton Bank Top back yard in early 1960s Bradford that I first met James Broadley. My Grandma had told me to go out and see my great-grandfather. A man was waiting outside the kitchen door, ready to go, where? But there he was, and here he is again, altered by memory no doubt, nonetheless wearing a black hat and coat. As I came out he smiled. It's true I was small, but I had never seen, nor will I ever see again, a taller man. He called me over and, from somewhere high up in the clouds, bent almost double to hand me a sweetie. Thinking of him I cannot help recalling the tall ageing porter played by Håkan Jahnberg in Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, much of which is filmed from a boy's perspective, or Carel Struycken's Giant Room Service Waiter in Twin Peaks, both of whom bend down in a similar manner. Memory and imagination seek the same underground channels, breaching in all the same places.

Born in 1874 James Broadley died shortly after our meeting. He had been a policeman, and before that, as a 1891 census records, a labourer and dyer. According to family lore he was employed dyeing leather upholstery for Bradford Corporation and had lost his job when the tram service gave way to motorbuses. But a glance at the history of Bradford city transport does not make it easy to locate when that point of transition was. His lifetime saw the introduction (1882) and passing (1902) of horse-drawn trams, steam-driven trams (1883-1903), then the full electrification of the tram service from 1903 (tramcar construction ending in 1931). Competing with trams and buses, Britain's first trolleybus service was introduced in Bradford in 1911 (a year in which a census recorded Broadley as a policeman). Later, from 1926, came the inexorable advance of the motorbus. This date is not without resonance in British history, and the advantages of more "flexible" privately run motorbuses were exploited by the City Fathers when tram drivers joined the General Strike that year. But with so much coming and going it is difficult to establish when James Broadley left dyeing to become a policeman.

My memory of my great-grandfather and his dyeing were revitalized recently by reading the Triestine writer Italo Svevo's 1913 essay 'A Short Walk to Woolwich' (translated by Carmine G. Di Biase), in which he remembers undertaking a business trip to London in 1901 as a representative of his father's company. Svevo's piece is a completely charming account of "men and things in South-east London" and more especially of the English eccentricities of the day as seen through a foreigner's eyes. But what initially surprised Svevo about London was that it seemed in one respect far behind the Continent: transport.

By contrast with France, where what he calls the "tseuf-tseuf" (his translator uses the same expression in English, although Italian "fare ciuf ciuf" means to chug, so chuff-chuff, though far less intriguing, would have fitted!) had "infested" the streets of even the smallest towns, petrol-driven transport was "almost unknown" in London. The first automobiles "had frightened the ever-diligent English legislator and so many laws and bye-laws had been hurled at the new machine that it had been immobilized." Perhaps, but only perhaps, the "legislator" was aware that there was no particular desire among the public for such a radical change to their way of life. Which was hardly surprising, when the "stench of fuel is such that everyone weeps, as if over a national disaster," or when "in the first month after the petrolization of the omnibuses 1,400 accidents occurred in London alone."

Yet Svevo is not only observant but astute. When the legislators eventually "loosened the reins" it was because they had discovered they needed cars – not so that "they might travel quickly but so that they might sell them." John Bull, "India's conqueror", had come to his senses to find France, Germany and America had "profited greatly" from the legislator's reluctance. By the time Svevo put pen to paper in 1913 to recall his earlier visit, the political obstacle had long been removed: "now for every automobile the United Kingdom imports, it exports ten." The rest, as they say, is history, or decline, or fall, or maybe even ... Looking at our screens and longing for a "return to normality", watching webcams of London streets empty of traffic or grounded fleets of aeroplanes, reading reports of 2020's plunging greenhouse emissions, with carbon from transport activity dropping 12% in the USA and 11% in Europe, we draw courage and think ... Yes, but only with the right legislators, holidays, rave parties and music festivals, also packed public transport, bars and football stadiums, are perfectly compatible with clean air and climate catastrophe avoidance.

Opening of Bradford Wibsey Tramway 9 October 1907. | National Tramway Museum. Some rights reserved.


Heat pump and patio, 2016. | Flickr/Snapshot heaven. Some rights reserved.

Black, grey, blue, green: how serious can Boris Johnson be?
by Rosemary Bechler

We might have hoped that waste and cock-up were confined to the UK government’s procurement response to a global pandemic. But this New Year brought the first earnest of what we can look forward to with climate change. November’s ’10-point plan’ for Johnson’s ‘green industrial revolution’ – a term lifted from one of Corbyn’s popular manifesto promises – will, he claims, create green jobs, continue the PM’s mission to ‘level up’ across the country, and help drive a green recovery from covid-19. Seventh out of ten was to be the installation in our homes, schools and hospitals of 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028, creating 50,000 new jobs by 2030.


At first sight, this was a heartening flagship commitment, since homes are responsible for 20% of UK CO2 emissions and a major opportunity to build back better to hit the zero carbon target. Heat pumps require a minimal level of electricity to power them, available from renewable sources: in short, heat pumps are green, a no-carbon option. It is also a massive commitment in job retraining, job creation and ramping up production, since the vast majority of the UK’s 29 million homes once surveyed will require upgrading – and that is without taking into account the need for wider retrofitting.

Boris’ promise includes no mention of retrofitting and who will pay for that. A bit like rolling out a massive testing programme without any provision for supporting covid victims to isolate, installing heat pumps in themselves is a wholly inadequate offer, when the level of heat they produce is less than we currently live with, so adding insulation, draught proofing and so forth to reduce the external heat required is essential to the success of any such scheme. Overall costs are estimated at more like £25 – 40,000 per home.

We began to see how serious Johnson was when the chancellor committed £1.5bn as a short-term economic stimulus for homeowners to launch its Green Homes Grant. The much-touted scheme, intended to last from September 2020 to March 2021, offered vouchers for up to £5000 to help cover the costs of replacing fossil fuel heat systems with renewable energy appliances in 600,000 green homes. Here in action was the neoliberal mantra that it is down to individuals rather than the Government to rise to the challenge. Take up seems to have been enthusiastic from renewable energy businesses recruiting staff for new green jobs and setting up call centres to deal with demand, as well as from eager potential customers.

Typically, details of the government contract to outsource the running of the scheme, awarded to a large American consulting corporation based in Virginia, were not published. But, the result was clearly disastrous. Applicants for vouchers and the installers who advised them found themselves tied up in bureaucratic processes for months on end. Only a tiny proportion were given the go ahead and work for these installations went unpaid. Customers began to give up, and small businesses to lay off their new green recruits to stay afloat. Insult was added to injury all round when the Green Homes Grant scheme wrote to thousands of applicants on Christmas Eve to say they were unable to verify their identity and that the quotes they had been given were too high. After four months, 20,000 homes seem to have received an upgrade. Talk of abandoning the scheme in April gave way to its extension to March 2022, but funding for the second year has been slashed to £320 million, taking a “wrecking ball to green jobs”, in the words of Frances O’Grady. It would be hard to think of anything more counterproductive by way of a flagship for a joined-up strategy that we are all participating in together.

The truth is, this was never seriously an option for homeowners to initiate. But a serious UK government, willing to put enough funding mechanisms in place, does have the agencies available. If the regulator put people on notice that this was what was required, local authorities and housing associations which now own the bulk of social housing would be the obvious partners to kickstart the process, using the grants to upgrade large amounts of housing, until this became the norm. They would have worked out the retrofitting standards on the way, ending up with a package ready for individual home-owners and the skilled workforce to deliver them.


Enter the alternative way of heating our homes – hydrogen, a low carbon rather than a no-carbon option – and the natural gas industry lobbyists. The big gas-producers, BP, Shell, British Gas, Centrica, point out that with some potential modification to address corrosion, hydrogen can be pumped through the existing gas infrastructure into people’s homes. Hydrogen is currently produced predominantly from coal – Black Hydrogen. But they promise a transition, replacing coal with the electricity that can be produced from natural gas – Grey Hydrogen – combined with largely-yet-to-be-invented “carbon capture” technology – Blue Hydrogen, one day leading to Green Hydrogen, although no-one knows how.

Look again at the 10-point plan which undertakes only a low-carbon option for homes and we see Johnson hedging his bets. There are significant commitments to hydrogen techno-fixes, a “world–leading” carbon capture technology, and an entire town heated only by hydrogen by 2030, a showcase for which the Government puts aside £500 million.

For as long as this transition takes, it keeps intact the otherwise doomed market for natural gas. This might well be after Johnson leaves office. By then we may be more conversant with the formulae behind his jokes, but may never know how serious he was about cutting that 20% of UK CO2 emissions.


Unknown copy.jpg
London demonstration, 1985. | Some rights reserved.

Submission to the Special Legislative Committee on reforming Canada’s Police Act: Part 1
by Samir Gandesha

I am an Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Director of the Institute for the Humanities and founding Vice-President of the West Coast Coalition Against Racism, the recently formed successor to the BC Organization Against Racism, an organization that was instrumental in combatting racism and white supremacy in this province in the 1980s.

While I have lived, studied and worked in many parts of the world, I spent my formative years in this province after having emigrated here with my parents from East Africa as an infant in 1965. During that time, I experienced what can only be described as racial-profiling due to my ethnicity. Being a member of the South Asian diaspora living on the North Shore made me of particular interest to the police.

It was often a matter of a minor infraction such as a broken taillight or failure to signal while changing lanes that led me to be pulled over and typically ticketed in ways that my white friends were not. I’m sure, however, that the fact that I was middle class (both of my parents had been educated in the UK and were small business owners), enabled me to get off much more lightly, and generally without incident, than had I been working class, a turbaned Sikh, a black or an Indigenous person.


As a student on my Junior Year Abroad in 1985-86 at the London School of Economics, I experienced, with countless others, the brutality of the London Metropolitan Police who routinely used kettling – the tactic of forcibly, sometimes quite brutally, confining members of the public to a small space – as a way of breaking up lawful protests against the racist South African apartheid regime in Trafalgar Square, just kitty corner from Canada House.

It was this same LMP that protected members of neo-fascist political parties about a decade earlier as they marched malevolently through predominantly South Asian communities in London neighborhoods such as Southall and Tower Hamlets.

These South Asian communities, in contrast, were forced to rely on themselves, as well as the solidarity of anti-fascist and community organizers, to defend themselves from brutal attacks also known as “Paki-bashing” at the hands of racist skinheads and football hooligans.


That significant elements of the military and law enforcement in this country today (I’m thinking of former Manitoba reservist Patrik Matthews who crossed the southern border to join up with the far-right group, The Base), and, as we saw during the attempted Putsch on Capitol Hill, in the United States, are tied to far-right organizations, sadly, comes as no surprise to me whatsoever.

Neither does the fact that, as reported by the Global News, this past September, the RCMP stood by and watched as anti-racist activists were threatened by members of the Yellow Vests, Soldiers of Odin and other far-right organizations in Red Deer, Alberta.

Nor am I surprised at the way in which the RCMP’s zeal in our province to enforce an injunction on behalf of a foreign company (CGL), contrasts so markedly with its apparent lack of interest in serving and protecting the embattled Mik’ Maq against the violence of the commercial fishers in Digby and Yarmouth counties last fall.

In fact, as the Guardian Newspaper reported on 20 December, 2019, RCMP commanders authorized the use of lethal force in order to gain access to Wet’suwet’en territory.

I recall watching with horror several episodes of over-policing to quell legitimate protest and dissent from APEC in 1997, through the G20 Summit in Toronto and the Winter Olympics in this province both in 2010.

I was present when Indigenous and non-Indigenous land defenders, my colleagues Lynne Quarmby and Stephen Collis, students and friends, including the Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, were arrested in 2014 for peacefully seeking to halt construction on the TransMountain Pipeline through a protected wilderness site on Burnaby Mountain – just steps from SFU’s main campus.

One year later the government passed a deeply flawed anti-terror law which would have effectively rendered such an act of civil disobedience a “terrorist” act.

In each of these cases, law enforcement used what could only be described as dictatorial methods to shield the deeply damaging policies of global neo-liberalism from critical scrutiny and peaceful opposition by the very citizens it was supposed to serve and protect.

So, I have both a personal as well as an academic interest in policing.

I want to make clear from the outset, however, that I do not appear here as an expert on policing. I am not a criminologist.

My area of expertise is as a political philosopher. As such my role is less to provide answers than to ask questions – ­often difficult and uncomfortable questions – of institutions.

The institution in question today is, of course, the institution of policing. And my role is to ask about the nature and legitimacy of power that such institutions wield; and about how such legitimacy relates to our liberal-democratic system of government.

Next month Part Two : A question of power.

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