The good enough life

Visions of Suburbia
March 28, 1997

How shall we react to our cultural studies as currently practised? One way is to exhale a loud blast of exasperation at these essays on suburbia. Here again are the madly extended titles, the dire puns ("hedgemonic'', "frocks pop'', "lawnnui'', ho ho), the routine misspelling and illiteracy, the deadly political cliches ("gendered sexuality'', "possessive individualism"), the mouth-filling jargon, the short list of sacred texts (Bourdieu, Foucault, Said, Macpherson). The writers may, on the evidence of this volume, be quite unable to read T. S. Eliot properly, but they have the beginnings of a grasp on why Reginald Perrin or David Bowie matter as they do.

I would say, a bit shyly, that the end of the 20th century marks a moment of sharp cultural ripping. The accelerating obsolescence of narrative, itself caused by the global competition of television, means that it is increasingly difficult to hold on to continuity. We are afflicted by a lightness of being, as Kundera said, because our historical tales no longer have the specific gravity to keep our feet on the ground.

The book's contributors, limited as they are in talent, subject matter, command of prose and the sheer scope of their reading, have a feeling for this drastic change in our cultural metaphysics. I do not think they understand it (theorise it, they would say), but they feel it strongly. Hence a touch of hysteria from time to time, and quite right too.

Routledge, the publisher, is also committed to the same intuition, although no doubt with an eye on profit. These collections of essays are like single-issue periodicals (though they come out a damn sight sooner and are on much better paper). They mark the moment at which an issue becomes academically visible. Sometimes the issue will go under the historical tides in a trice, sometimes not.

The implicit issue in this book is the victory of the quite new class precipitated by the old historical can-can of the end of cold war, the new turbo-capitalism, the technotronic civilisation, Greens, women, and Lord Knows What.

Like all new classes, this one has its long gestation. Its womb is suburbia. John Archer takes the gynaecology back as far as Lawrence Stone does, deep into the 18th century. Anthony King apologises for his "somewhat conventional, formalistic'' history of the bungalow, but no need; it is exactly what is needed. Bungalows may often be aesthetically horrible but Charles Voysey's were lovely. The good life may as well be shaped on those verandas and beneath those little cupolas and gables, for all that the white monsters of A Passage to India once lived in the same designs.

The sunniest and nicest members of this new class read, I'm afraid, the Daily Mail; but just now seem likely enough to vote Labour notwithstanding. They live, according to this volume, along the endless sprawl of the Victoria coastline (cultural studies is so prominent in Australia exactly because the children of the new class sometimes have jobs in universities), where genteel international rock, smooth English lawns, tasty Vietnamese cooking, stylish Japanese cars and solid Australian wines shape themselves into that much-mentioned brilliance, "identity".

So the book is more celebration than analysis. It starts from nowhere and goes nowhere. But its authors see plainly that the past pieties of the old left about the dreadfulness of the petit bourgeoisie, some of whom are still Poujadistes and some bikers, may no longer be intoned. Homi Blabha, asked to lend his famous name to the collection, almost puts it like this but is writing too fast and too briefly to think. The others, struggling to find somewhere to put down their intolerable baggage of mere attitudes, still manage to catch hold of airy domestic words and give them a bit of weight: Lynn Spigel on "home'' for instance, a blank in any volume of professional political theory; Simon Frith, plain and decent as ever, on "safety'' (ditto). John Hartley, in among some preposterous arm-waving about Kylie Minogue, has a sudden, sharp vision of a practical, local politics.

These worthy people need a different reading list - the classics of arts and crafts for instance; Bachelard's masterly meditation on space; Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers; Nan Fairbrother; the paintings of Fred Williams and the movies of Michael Powell. There is an intellectual and oral tradition there to work with, and as we wait for the new world order to be born in the teeth of the gangsters offering to be its midwife, we should hang on for dear life to the men and women who spoke its speech.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Warwick.

 

   

Visions of Suburbia

Editor - Roger Silverstone
ISBN - 0 415 10716 4 and 10717 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 313

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