Books: Best of 2013

T. J. Clark

Phil Cohen’s cantankerous, meticulous, jam-packed investigation of the coming of the 2012 Olympic Games to East London, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics (Lawrence & Wishart), took me by surprise. It is the kind of guide to present-day Spectacle I had been waiting for. Back in the 1960s, Cohen was the most brilliant of the early English readers of French Freud and the structuralists. I remember pages of his impatient handwriting peppered with Lacanian algorithms aiming to reconcile, or at least analogize, the structures of unconscious repression with differential class language use, and hence (this was the ambition) with the epoch’s emergent youth subcultures. Already at that point Cohen was deeply involved with the East End. He was fascinated and horrified by the psychic landscape thrown up as London’s classic working-class neighborhoods—the tight worlds of Hackney, Stratford East, and Bethnal Green—fell apart. He thought they might turn out to be the terrain of a new class struggle. On the Wrong Side of the Track? is at one level a continuation of that old inquiry. Partly it is a study of last year’s implantation of the Spectacle of Sport in (of all places) this wrecked and polluted proletarian non-site. The book, unsurprisingly, is no friend of Olympic puffery: Its two-chapter analysis of movie director Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies is unsparing. But partly Cohen’s volume is a call—directed very much at people like me, who left town in a hurry as the Olympic torch fumed closer—for an end to dismissive generalizations about Spectacle, and the start of real “ethnographical” work trying to understand what the arrival and departure of such quasi-events do to a social fabric, and how Spectacle is perceived and resisted in practice by those whose world it invades. As the Brazil World Cup approaches (through clouds of tear gas), Cohen’s book is required reading.

T. J. Clark is Professor Emeritus of modern art at the University of California, Berkeley.