Let England shake : the politics of the August Riots

Soundtrack : A Preliminary Note


If the social unrest of late 1970s Britain was best captured by the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash’s London Calling, then I think that is possible to argue that the violence of the summer of 2011 is imperfectly reflected in PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake.

The Sex Pistols and The Clash were an explicit reflection of what was taking place in Britain in the late 1970s. They represented the anger and violence of Britain in the throes of massive social and political transformation under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments. When Johnny Rotten shouted « No Future » towards the end of God Save the Queen and The Clash sang « white riot, I wanna riot » in White Riot, they encoded the social and political unrest of the British population in popular cultural form.

In other words, the Sex Pistols and The Clash were a kind of popular cultural effect of Thatcher’s project to transform Britain into a post-industrial, high tech, society. They represented the alienation and despair of white urban youth who felt abandoned by their society and could not express their feelings in party political form because they had never been a part of the traditional labour movement comprising the working class unions and the Labour Party. Although PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is very different from the punk classics, Never Mind the Bollocks and London Calling, I think that it similarly speaks of the disenfranchised other in British society.

Unlike the Sex Pistols and The Clash records, PJ Harvey’s album is not explicitly about social and political despair and alienation, but is instead an anti-war record that traces the horror of England’s relation to war over the last hundred years or so. However, in these post-political, post-historical, times perhaps PJ Harvey’s album may also be understood as a representation of the real England, which is essentially at war with itself, without being able to openly admit this fact to itself.

In other words, in a period of savage cuts to social services and other austerity measures, PJ Harvey’s record speaks of war, destruction, and violence to a people who have lost the language to be able to explicitly speak about the kind of social systemic violence which is currently being enacted by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition government.

There is nothing in particular about Let England Shake that would make one think of the August riots, but I think that what makes it the soundtrack to the summer of the riots is the way it recalls a kind of strange, gothic, version of England. Against the official England, the neo-liberal capitalist utopia where everybody is middle class, Let England Shake reminds us that there is an other side to contemporary England. Listening to PJ Harvey’s record this other England emerges into the light of day, transforming the normal, civilized, vision of England into some other place, a place of horror and destruction, a place of violence, death, and despair.

In much the same way, then, that Freud spoke about the uncanny effect of particular objects and images, I think that we may listen to Let England Shake as a kind of uncanny record because of the way in which it renders the normal, civilized, homely, England a strange, violent, unhomely place characterised by death, destruction, and chaos.

There are, of course, other cultural texts which perform a similar function in contemporary British society, including the horror movies Eden Lake, F, Mom and Dad, and Heartless. Although these texts may differ in the ways in which they understand contemporary Britain, I think that what unifies them is a common sense of the monstrosity of our Dis-United Kingdom. In my work I try to employ this methodology – the methodology of PJ Harvey and the Directors of what have become known as « hoodie » horror films – because I think that in order to really understand what is happening in contemporary society we need to disrupt over everyday, normal, understanding of reality.

I think that we need to employ this methodology, which is similar to Salvador Dali’s paranoid critical method of painting, because violence, destruction, and despair have become acceptable aspects of life today that we no longer really critically recognise. They are normal and we live with them to such an extent that in order to recognise and understand them we have to find imaginative ways to bring them to light. We have to find ways to realise them. This is exactly what the Frankfurt School writers, such as Adorno and Horkheimer, sought to achieve with their idea of the thought image, and I seek to produce in this work by calling my discussion of the August riots, Let England Shake.

(Mancheter, 2011, august 27th)

Texte © Mark Featherstone – Photos © DR

Inédit : Bloody Winter / L’Hiver sanglant

Workshop proposé par D-Fiction sur le thème de l’émeute, tiré du journal de travail de Mark Featherstone :

Part 1 : Let England shake : The politics of the August Riots
Part 2 & 3 : Let England shake : Reasoning Riots in the English Context
Part 4 : Let England shake : The Rioter as Lumpenproletarian
Part 5 : Let england shake : The Looter as Desiring Machine
Part 6 : Let england shake : The Sick Society
Part 7 : Humanité de l’insurrection : Paris (germinal – prairial, an III), Londres (août 2011)
Part 8 : Let England Shake : Rats and other Vermin, the Pathological Other
Part 9 : Let England shake : Une émeute de rêve
Part 10 : Let england shake : The Normality of Crime

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