the British Library
Jeremy Melvin, 16 September 2020
Last month British academics and intellectuals were regaled with a claim that the British Library is in a ‘state of emergency’. Many will have thought, what with the Tories in power and Boris Johnson as prime minister, how could a cultural institution be in any other condition? But maybe a few of soberer and more reflective frame of mind will have waited for the detail. Under the aegis of the chief librarian, the staff have declared that the institution’s state of emergency derives from its inherent racism.
The artworks in the St Pancras headquarters are apparently a particular cause of concern, along with other parts of the collections, especially the ‘Eurocentric’ maps. The ‘Decolonising working group’, citing the guiding principle that ‘racism is a creation of white people’, plans to develop and deliver ‘major cultural change’. Hans Sloane, whose long life spanned much of the second half of the 17th century and first half of the 18th, and whose collection by a complicated non-linear sequence of events became one of the founding constituents of the British Museum (from which the Library later split), had rather tenuous connections to slavery, thus negating his lifetime of collecting and the validity of all the objects he accumulated, whatever their origin.
That maps are almost always projected according to their cartographer’s point of view is hardly a discovery of contemporary anti-racists. Because the earth is spherical, no two-dimensional sheet can accurately represent it and so certain adjustments have to be made. Mercator, whose map-making techniques still inform most standard atlases published in the West, used a technique that squashed equatorial latitudes and over inflated ones towards the poles. This and its consequences – how those conventions shaped views of different parts of the world – should certainly be spelled out, especially as those conventions have had lingering effects. For this reason, removing such maps from the collection would defeat the ends of the decolonisers, allowing those conventions to infuse contemporary discourse without their origins and flaws being examinable.
It recalls the restrictions the Library once had in place for its pornographic collection: that readers had to have special permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to view its items. Apparently the senior churchman was able to determine whether any individual would be corrupted by the depiction of certain activities, with which most adults have some practical familiarity.
The absurdities of the ‘decolonising’ movement hardly need addressing, Suffice it to say that defining racism as an invention of white people hardly makes the facts about white-perpetuated racism worse – all too often they speak for themselves – though it might absolve the Mongols, Japanese and Arabs, for instance, from atrocities they committed.
But among the most egregious imbecility of this movement is its simple-minded foray into architectural criticism. The building at St Pancras apparently reinforces the projection of racism and imperialism through its resemblance to a battleship, for which the evidence is its round windows, supposedly a reference to portholes. More damningly, its architect, Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson, was a former naval officer – so obviously made these allusions as part of a deliberate plan to project a certain set of values.
Such self-evident twaddle would normally not be worth the digital bytes it takes to disprove. But unfortunately, it betrays a mindset that is all too common in the media and in wider public discussion where architecture is concerned. It needs to be refuted.
This might be characterized thus: because the viewer perceives a certain visual similarity between a building and something else – even as different as a ship – there must inevitably be a connection along the lines so perceived. That the architect had, through a brief wartime interlude, some naval experience, even in a department that had little or anything to do with battleships is irrefutable proof. This sort of thinking may be familiar to those who believe that the Knights Templar or Freemasons control the world, based on the scantiest of evidence but used to construct huge if unsound intellectual edifices. Operating around the level of ‘join the dots’, it is hardly enough to support the claims made.
I doubt whether the holders of this view recognize their affinity with Prince Charles, at least in the sophistication of critical method. He saw a resemblance between the British Library and a secret police headquarters.. Such ignorance bears out Coleridge’s comments on the rise of critics attending the fall of poets in public estimation, expressed in his Biographia Literaria.
Architecture is notoriously unspecific. Its ‘meaning’ if any, is subject to interpretation and discussion. A building’s form or some of its details may derive from its designer’s or client’s wish to refer to something else, as with Terry Farrell’s eggcups on the TVam building in Camden, a jokey reference to breakfast for the home of breakfast television. But far more often, the appearance of a building derives from a much wider range of influences, assumptions and sometimes coincidences, which makes simplistic single readings dangerous and misleading.
Moreover, buildings are not images (even though often taken as such): they are experiences informed by sight certainly, but also touch, sound and smell, all of which interact with imagination, as well as conscious and subconscious mental processes. Unlike any other art, the experience of use is important in shaping impressions. Unpicking all this is the proper task of criticism; leaping to glib one-liners is its enemy.
What underpins this latter form of criticism is a belief that the world is made up of and explained through synecdoches, a figure of speech that assumes a whole from a single part, such as the phrase 50 head of cattle to refer to a herd. Referring to livestock in this way may be harmless – heads, after all, normally are or have been connected to the rest of the body – but when applied to a discourse like architecture profoundly misleading. Round windows are, after all, simply round windows and require a certain context to become portholes, and a certain interpretation to go from there to expressing imperialism.
This approach depends on a certain system to sustain it. Though universally popular with the weak-minded because it relieves them of the obligation to think, and sometimes necessary for those who are not, systems which assume an inevitable and ineluctable connection between different points (ie one point leads inexorably to another with no proof needed other than being part of the system) can be dangerous and misleading. The late lamented historian Tony Judt, in ‘Rethinking the Twentieth Century’, a book he and fellow historian Timothy Snyder produced as Judt was dying of motor neurone disease, pointed out that this is a common conceit of the left. Despite himself being firmly of that persuasion, Judt suggests that this conceit scars much socialist thinking, while right-wing intellectuals lack such off the shelf decision-making techniques.
A more damning expression of the same point, which Judt quoted in an earlier essay, comes from the Polish-born thinker Leszek Kolokawski. In his reply satirically titled ‘My correct views on everything’ to a prolix and pusillanimous attack on him by EP Thompson for his odyssey from orthodox Marxism, to revisionism and finally to exile from Poland, Kolokawski wrote, ‘You [ie Thompson] say that to think in terms of a system yields excellent results. I am quite sure it does, not only excellent but miraculous; it simply solves all the problems of mankind in one stroke’.
Judt goes on to suggest that anyone who reads ‘My correct views on everything’ can hardly take Thompson seriously again.
One recent example of the application of this critical method can be found in the fifth issue of the ‘Journal of Civic Architecture’. One of its pieces is headlined ‘Bachelard, Bakhtin and the Architectural Colonic’. Leaving aside the impression that such a title might be equally suitable for the Lancet or the New England Journal of Medicine, it is a disappointment to find that such a pregnant banner heralds a mere single page of text amounting to a few hundred words, followed by a few tasty images of Ledoux’s saltworks. Quite what connection they have to Bachelard or Bakhtin is entirely unexplained. The subsequent article seems to equate Ledoux more with We Work and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than Bachelard or Bakhtin.
Evoking two of the biggest thinkers of the 20th century in this case amounts to a parallel with ‘virtual signalling’. Look how clever/woke I am, I can refer to Bachelard and Bakhtin and you, the poor reader, simply can’t keep up, just as you won’t keep up when I take the knee or express support for trans rights. Leaving aside the validity of those views, though the ardour with which they are promulgated betrays that they are part of a supposedly coherent system of thought, there is something more sinister than criticism by name-dropping at work here.
What this is, I suggest, is an attempt to create a system without substance. It is as though the mere mention of a name is enough not just to annex that person’s intellectual credibility, but to proclaim a status by doing so. No need to engage with the textual difficulty of Bakhtin’s essays like ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel’, or the – simpler – content of ‘Art and Answerability’; still less to trace any necessarily elusive connection to architecture. It is enough just to mention the names for synecdochal magic to come into play.
Here we can see how something like the ‘woke method of architectural criticism’ used at the British Library comes into existence. Use prejudice and aspiration to be seen to be superior to pick a few positions, and emphatically assert their validity and connectedness. There are enough simpletons to support almost any such assertion.
A parallel to this is the mistrust we have come to feel for rhetoric, despite it being the mainstay of western education for two and a half millennia. This may be because it induces a ‘false consciousness’, but at least it does this through considering and explaining evidence. Such nicety is absent from woke methodology, replaced instead by an intolerance of dissent in inverse proportion to the quality of thought, that would have made Stalin or Torquemada blush. It comes, in any case, very close to the intellectual methods the decolonisers claim to despise. Both impose clichéd ideas to phenomena in order to render them impotent and controllable.
The real problem both with JoCA as it likes to style itself and the British Library’s ‘decolonisers’, is that they profoundly misrepresent any meaningful concept of culture and its stewardship. The whole point of the British Library, with its origins in the 18th century when people really thought there could be a ‘key to all knowledge’ (the work on which Mr Casuabon was fruitlessly engaged in Middlemarch), is that it needs to be a compendium of, as Sergio Leone might have put it, ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ in all its Rabelaisian (to cite a favourite of Bakhtin’s) glory. We cannot rewrite the past any more than we can repick our lottery numbers once we know the winning sequence, but we can try to understand it. ‘Kultur’, as a German friends of mine once put it, ‘ist kein Wunschkonzert’ (culture is not a wish concert). Perhaps culture’s defining characteristic is its complex intermingling of varied ideas and events, the sum total of which shapes our own consciousness.
This means it can, on occasion, be dangerous as well as exciting and affirming. But to try to chop parts out which we find inconvenient is dangerous because it means they can never be understood. It amounts to censorship and other totalitarian methods. As outlined above, the Library does have a precedent for people who want to view subversive material. We may be more relaxed about viewing pornography than our Victorian forebears, but if anyone want to see the statue of Hans Sloane, in order to ensure that it doesn’t make them advocate slavery, they should perhaps need permission from some appropriate worthy. But who?