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Metaphysical London Dark

By Richard Marshall.


It’s Dark In London, Oscar Zarate, SelfMadeHero 2012

If London had been in Argentina, and only forty years old, with a completely different history, architecture, population and name – would it still be London? The madness of the question strikes home quickly. Without England, its specific history, architecture, population and name, surely there would be no London. London just is what those things (and others) compose. But then are not each of these accidental features, features that bear only a contingent relationship to London? Dickens lived in London, but surely it is possible that Dickens may never have been born. Would then London have ceased? Surely not. London would survive the failed birth of Dickens. Had Sherlock Holmes been real, would London have survived this new accidental Fact? Again, it seems likely that it would. And of each particular detail – including country, history, architecture, population and name (and others) are they too not all, in this sense, accidents? And if we can remove each individual one without removing London, then why not them all? For surely the fact of all the actual accidental features of London is itself just an accidental feature in the same way as each individual feature is.

This kind of thought raises the possibility of a metaphysics of London. Perhaps, below the accidental features of the city, are essences, properties that are necessary and that contain powers that result in non-accidental manifestations that would appear no matter the accidental details. These powers would then be fundamental. There are many truths about London, but the fundamental powers are truths that would survive even the disappearance of all accidental features. The forty year old Argentinean city would then only be London if it had London’s fundamental powers.


How would we understand these powers? Our intuitions are conditioned by our interactions with accidental features. Powers are not accidental, and so our intuitions about how to understand them are likely to be flawed. Philosophers have thought that perhaps we should stick to what works for purposes of control. Science has delivered astonishing news about the nature of nature. So people like Quine suggest we should stick to scientific methods. Investigating powers should be continuous with the methods of science. But the purpose and value of science is limited. Other purposes and values flourish, and these may well be connected closer to the powers of London than anything dreamt of in the scientific toolbox.

How can we discover metaphysical London, by which I mean, the fundamental powers of London? You might say this is crazy. There are no fundamental powers of London. The contextual relationships that bind the accidental features together exhaust the definition of London. We can have a successful theory about London without appeals to metaphysics. London would not survive the absence of too many of its accidental features. It depends on a conversational context and our interests. London is subjective. It is supplied by us. This suggests that London is not fundamental. But this book suggests a different story. An eerie darkness pervades London, a dark that seems ever present, a kind of necessary truth. The dark is a metaphysical truth being disinterred like some strange, ghoulish corpse bride, Lamia or the teeth of Berenice, and then Berenice.

But what is the role of powers in metaphysics? They ground objective similarity. What kind of thing does this? Universals ground objective similarity. What grounds Universals? Powers. Powers and their manifestations. They ground natural laws and causes. They ground necessary laws and what is possible.


Zarate calls his collection, ‘It’s Dark In London.’ So we ask: which is the power, which its manifestation? Manifestation is ambiguous: it can be a process and it can be a product. And a fundamental ontology may ground either: a manifestation can be the property of a substance, or it can be a process relationship. So, is the dark a manifestation of London power, where London is the power and the dark its manifestation? Or is the dark the power, and London the manifestation? And when does a substance make its powers manifest? What stimulation is required to bring out the promised power. A vase has the power of fragility. Yet it requires a hammer blow to stimulate that power. A vase can be heated so it melts in the time between being struck by the hammer and it manifesting its fragility. That the heat makes it melt instead of shatter shows that the power of fragility isn’t fundamental. Call such non-fundamental powers dispositions. We are not seeking dispositions, we are seeking powers.

But if cause and effect are simultaneous and perhaps identical then there can be no time lag between cause and effect. The account then preserves a sense of fundamentality. But this account threatens to be one of mereology, of merely a theory of part to whole relationships, where the idea of temporal succession is dropped. And London seems to require time. London accumulates itself. It’s writers form a procession, though also, it should be readily admitted, a kind of circularity, where each seems to borrow their own tongues without remainder. But a timeless notion of causal power seems to take us off on the wrong track. So a mereological account assumes the wrong kind of metaphysical backdrop. Metaphysics it seems can’t be done a bit at a time: it has to fit together with a whole picture. Metaphysical London requires a notion of time as well as dark.


Alexander Bird says powers are fundamental dispositions and sparce. Non-fundamental dispositions are profligate and familiar, like the fragility of a human bone. Fundamental dispositions are metaphysically necessary. According to Nelson Goodman, powers carry ‘a threat or promise’ of some manifestation. What manifestation? The laws of nature themselves, understood as governing properties (or relations between such properties) in response to some stimulus. The powers are ultimate. The laws of nature are metaphysically necessary but explanatorily inert. Only powers have metaphysical explanatory potency. Their potency seems in inverse proportion to their rarity.

Subjective conditionals express the powers of dispositional properties. If the hammer is applied to the bone, the bone will be disposed to smash. But finks can afflict subjunctive conditionals. If between the impact of the hammer and the splintering of the bone the bone is melted then the bone doesn’t smash. Finks can make dispositions inexpressive. Finkish interference does not afflict powers. A fink is a deeper level of mechanism than the affected disposition. But powers are the final depth of explanation. There are no deeper levels. Nothing can alter the intrinsic state of a power from one moment to the next. There could be no explanation justifying a detour between stimulation and manifestation. Therefore powers are resistant to all finks.


Iain Sinclair’s ‘Scarlet Tracings’ investigates the territory of powers not dispositions. His Ripper story is one that operates with tropes of murders, found letters, lost addresses, lost places, buried knowledge, secrets and half lit conjectures that Zarate is calling, as accurate and simple as a cut-throat, dark. Sinclair is in the place of London power, drafting his extraordinary psychogeography into a hellish pitch that is a genuine, forensic maze of blind alleys.

Some scientists puzzle over the nature of ‘laws of nature’. Some suppose that they are contingent facts. They think the laws could have been different. We can imagine other worlds where the manifest properties revealed in response to stimulus are different from those on our actual world. But then we can ask why we suppose laws of nature to be more important facts than any other contingent fact. If Blackstock Road had been the next road down then would it still have death dancing through the unlit story of Graeme Gordon and Dix? Why when we suppose we’ve lost everything don’t we suppose we’ve lost the laws of nature along with everything else? Or the ability to scream in terror. Or else just silently feel the dread.

Alexander Bird fancies he has the answer. Laws of nature are metaphysically necessary. They are merely whatever the promises – or threats – of powers necessarily deliver. As powers, they are necessary and so exist in all possible worlds. The laws of nature, being necessary manifestations of these powers, are also what exist in all possible worlds. Alan Moore stalks Highbury, tracking the oxymoronic traces through gravediggers’ bootprints high on a hill. He sees disappointment in Karl Marx’s eyes. Marx’s scientific laws seem weaker than those of the physicist, even of the moon necromancer. His own counter-legals recall Marxist anthropologist Semenov proposing a version of dialectic historicism which made it imaginable that, with tweaks, there would have been no Revolution. How weak, his sad eyes register, is the necessity of Utopian historicism. Ehrenfest, in another bar, or library booth, shows that had electric force been a tad stronger then nuclear force would have been too weak to hold protons together in a carbon nuclei. Both Marxism and carbon-based life rest more on luck than any absolute.


Sighing into this fleeting moment, Moore agrees, sees London as a bedlam where madmen try to hallucinate the end of carbon with doxies and scandal, and plunges into further darks. Poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in this case, wander down the Holloway Road wondering that had gravity declined with separation cubed then planetary orbits would have been unstable. Unsteady with his chemists’ stew, the poet trembles by the sex shops, antiques emporia and hot street food with a vision of glassy, dark, vampiric forces in a dark ice river falling to hell round about the Lea.


The great beast himself, Aleister Crowley, heroin addict and asthmatic, is in a house of a Highbury printer, and supposing that even had he managed to alter electricity and gravity, the various truths of maths and the metaphysics of space and time, the fundamental dynamical laws linking the forces of motion and the law governing composition of forces would all remain unaltered. Moore wanders his beserker mind through this demonological brood, lightens up with the quack-drug antics of a 1925 Arsenal team looking for cup glory that ends in spectacular defeat before zooming in to Dorothy Squires in the Tempo – ‘where the Garage is today’ – she’s singing badly whilst Roger Moore is Alan’s ungracious double, ‘Ivanhoe with a chivalric bypass ’ before spirits howl from inside Holloway Prison and he scuttles away.


Is it all necessary? Or is it just accidental? Or maybe the themes make a point of standing somewhere in a grading, from necessary to accidental and everything else in between. We ask; why does it seem that some laws show more counterfactual resilience? This is the centre point of the volume. It is a restless piece of metaphysical fragmentation, climbing out of its once-rejected backwater, (ditched there by logical positivism and the linguistic turn for a brief while) and making it back to semi-decency again. These stories form the sinewy tentacles of the metaphysical Kraken, the same that ruined Melville after his Leviathan formed first his lived obscurity. This is writing looking for its afterlife.


Metaphysics rejects the eighteenth century conviction that all sources of knowledge are empirical. It reverses the perspective of 19th century positivists who thought that metaphysics was an intermediate stage before science. In the eighties logical positivist and Tottenham fan AJ Ayer argued with the youngest heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson over some sex need and it becomes a metaphor: Tyson the metaphysical power confronting the supposed constraints of the merely seen. Science becomes second order work, merely the investigation and codification of the laws governing the manifestations of stimulated powers. Powers were the explanatory, metaphysical ultimates. Powers were, like Tyson, power.

Metaphysics rejects the linguistic turn associated with Wittgenstein also, where problems of metaphysics and philosophy are reduced to linguistic analysis. Wittgenstein thought metaphysics an illusion caused by systematic confusion of grammar rules.

Rejecting empiricism and language philosophers, the metaphysician determines to ask questions about fundamental truths without apology or embarrassment. But once onto it, the writers steeped in London lore identify the dark as the essence power of London, the rare constant, breeding nightmares. Neil Gaiman locates the once notorious Centre Point building as the spot where Queen Elizabeth 1st’s Lord mayor caught a fox. It became a rookery – ‘ a warren of houses jerrybuilt onto houses, lightless courts, alleys and dead ends; a true warren – you could enter through a door of one building, leave through a door in another, far away, which made a rookery the perfect place for people who didn’t want to be arrested.’ This was part of the wildness of London, a metaphysics ruthlessly denying that everything was as it seemed, that actually the powers were deeper than the law, deeper than those in New Oxford Street who complained of the rookery’s stink. ‘ … a hundred and sixty years later, the streets are cleaner, and the buildings have water and drains’ comments Gaiman, but ‘There are still the hunters, and there is always the prey.’


The sequence of narratives, drifts, half-maps and ghost-details raises issues of how we could ever know this complex maze. It seems the daemon writer, in knowing the complexity, must be as complex as the universe containing it. And so we face a book working like a mise en abyme, a Droste Effect, an image containing its own image containing its own image seemingly continuing forever (Think the cover of Pink Floyd’s Ummaguna, Escher’s mapped spiral images and of course the Dutch cocoa powder image after which the effect is named). Think of a mirror reflecting another mirror. Each story, each sentence, each picture is such that we seem to be able to predict all our futures but how can just knowing things now have such a power? These are more than just stories: they are what the powers manifest: London dark.

And the secrets within the stories generate a further paradox, a paradox of knowability. A single unknown truth q yields an unknowable truth – that is: q and no-one knows q. Think of the unknown heinous crime, at the Court, Kensal Rising, Highbury, Centre Point, Holborn and then everywhere else. Read about it and then realize the impossibility of all this. That knowing that there is an unknown heinous crime is itself unknowable.

The book retreats before this inevitable screw-up, knowing the danger too well to fall for it. So the narratives come on as fictions, close-by cousins of a world of ‘if-then’ conditionals. A clever conceit. As fiction, it no longer has to be as complex as its world. But the paradoxes of prediction and unknowability hover around in the shadows like texts that could have been always do. Pierre-Simon Laplace reviewed these works back in 1814, his mind inhabited by a demon with an intellect which at a certain moment knew all the forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, an intellect vast enough to submit these data to analysis, embracing in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; and so for such an intellect nothing was uncertain and the future was like the past, present before its eyes…. – and so, at the moment the demon understood the paradox of complexity, prediction and unknowability, she came to a terrible self knowledge, shrieking ‘I am merely conditional…’ to disappear into an inky dark self-cancellation. This demon Borges gave a name to: the Aleph, and in so doing endowed it a sinister and uncanny tribute.

Powers shimmer their manifestations in lurid dark, cross-fertilized at the sanctum regnum of British legend, Kings Cross. As Aiden Andrew Dun has it: Blake’s ‘Golden Quatrain holds the key to this: ‘The fields from Islington to Marybone/to Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood/ were builded over with pillars of gold,/and there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.’ The metaphysically necessary is gridded out by Blake here: the Old Church of Saint Pancras is the oldest church in Britain, ‘ The Head and Mother of all Christian Churches, under Highgate, near London’ whose foundation stone was, like Glastonbury, laid by a twenty-something Jesus himself during his ‘lost years’. Attested to by Pan-European medieval literature, it is out of this that the luminous Aiden Andrew Dun finds the poems of Rimbaud’s Illuminations filtering a poetic essence through an obscure mystical geography of hills surrounding Kings Cross in his insideous ‘Rimbaud, Psychogeographer.’

So again, the question posed by this collection is whether the dark of London is an essential power of London or not. Or vice versa? One direction of questioning continues to doubt: even if London possesses its dark necessarily, it doesn’t follow that dark is an essence of London. London is necessarily in the singleton set containing London, but ‘being in that set’, though necessary, is not an essence of London.


But what if the dark will always exist in London from now on, because the dark is something that cannot end, once acquired? Wouldn’t that make it an essence of London? It for sure would be something that London can’t exist without. But no, it wouldn’t follow that dark was London’s essence, even were this true. Darkness may be a quality that persists and may be something that, once existing, persists forever. In such a case London, having acquired the quality of darkness would never be able to exist without it, because of the supposition that darkness persists forever. But many such qualities might not have been acquired. If the dark might not have been acquired then it isn’t a necessary acquisition. It would be merely an accidental feature that persists forever. So is London’s dark such an accident? Or is London the dark’s power made manifest?


The treatment of the dark in this volume, and throughout the range of works developed by these writers and artists, gives inordinate weight to this accidental fact. That it is a fact being taken to have such significance suggests that rather than being an accident is at least more necessary than merely accidental. The writings suggest not just that the dark will persist forever, but that it could not have been otherwise. In other words, perhaps the better way of seeing this dark clearly is to reverse the cause and effect: darkness persists forever, and one of its necessary manifestations is London.

So the writings here are exercises in a metaphysical not an epistemological dark. It’s certainly no matter of quaint picturesque. In other words, Zarate and his crew – Josh Appignanes, Steve Bell, Dix, Stella Duffy, Jonathan Edwards, Carl Flint, Neil Gaiman, Melinda Gebbie, Graeme Gordon, Tony Grisoni, Chris Hogg, Stewart Home, Ilya, Garry Marshall, Dave McKean, Alan Moore, Chris Petit, Woodrow Phoenix, Warren Pleece, Alexei Sayle, Iain Sinclair, Yana Stajno, Carol Swan and Chris Webster are not asking about what we know about dates, times, places, people, events but rather relating their sources to a modal, non-epistemological form of enquiry. These are stories about necessity and possibility. All the names, locations, rumors and narratives are accumulated not in order to clarify names, locations, rumors, and narratives, but rather as an attempt to know just what is ultimate.

Jack the Ripper may not be the person we think he is, and we might work out ways of discovering his true identity, but that kind of enquiry would be merely epistemological. Had the actual individual who was Jack the Ripper had parents different from those he actually had, would he have still been Jack the Ripper? Was there a dark essence of the Ripper that was essential, necessary rather than being an accidental feature of circumstance, biology, culture, hereditary madness or whatever? That’s the modal, metaphysical investigation repeated here in this volume again and again. Think of the old joke: ‘You want to know how to get from here to Neasden? Well, first of all I wouldn’t start from here…’

If metaphysical London dark is a power, and a power is a necessary disposition, then setting that power in motion produces laws which may be investigated as scientists might the analogous necessary laws of nature. They are metaphysically necessary because they are necessarily produced by necessary metaphysical powers, but they explain nothing. The power explains. So these narratives are what the London dark manifests. They explain nothing but are themselves explained by powers of dark that they manifest. Zarate and his crew are metaphysical writers seeking out the threats and promises of London’s necessary power. Both dark and London are necessary in a strict sense. London dark is the ultimate power manifested by the narratives of writers who dare show what the necessary dark promises.


London is therefore rare, for powers, unlike non-necessary dispositions, are scarce. Literary, artistic, necromantic, metaphysical stimulation produces necessary manifestations of darkness, analogous to the laws of nature discovered by scientists. Psychogeographic urges trance out these metaphysical rounds. It is no accident that nothing here is surprising. Regularities can chime true but not all regularities correspond to laws. This is what again and again these writers test themselves with as they write: setting out their narratives they then scrutinize what is happening to ask: ‘but is it a law?’ It’s the test of their truth.

Iain Sinclair has it almost down to a riff now, a ritual that seems  to be on automatic pilot. Gaiman and Alan Moore are more various, they strain their content wider to see how far the dark extends: they ask how much counterfactual resilience is there in their content. Both stray much more into transmutational stories of magik and divine ordinance, developing cracked hallucinatory narratives where we are invited to wonder how much their alternative realms can retain familiar features.

Duns Scotus argued for a haecceity, a non-qualitative property necessarily possessed by exactly its possessive individual. So London’s dark may be its haecceity rather than any qualitative property. It is ‘in’ London as an essence of London itself, a power, rather than a property manifestation caused by powers.


A curious anomaly in this is Stewart Home. It occurs to me that perhaps of all these writers his brutal laughter is the laughter of the Platonist. He writes as if essences are unlikely. No region is essentially anything. All truths are truths about the non-temporal/spatial Forms. These never change. They are knowable. Home’s laughter is the brutal laughter of the Ancients scorning the medievalist. Medieval metaphysics, especially their powers metaphysics, sets constraints that Plato and his gang don’t.

The Truth about London’s dark is a Form, and as such it would never change and is located nowhere. Instead of essences and haecceities, Home asks what things relative to the Form Dark are here, now? Reading Home you sense that his Platonic Forms are just a belief in all the facts. As such, he goes all brutal on the modern philosopher king: ‘If there’s one thing I hate more than an artist it’s a right wing wanker who writes philosophy books’ snears the character Luther Blisset in ‘Too Late’. In this story, the Heideggarian councillor shoots himself to prove his humanity. Karen Elliott murmurs that they arrived too late.

The secret of the story is again a question of what was necessary. Was the councillor’s death caused by his own hand? At first glance it seems so. But then consider that had he not shot himself, Karen Elliot would have bricked him to death. Explaining causal powers in terms of ‘if he’d not pulled the trigger, he wouldn’t have died’ won’t work here, because even had he not pulled the trigger, he would have died. The Heideggerian philosopher dies as a metaphysical jokee. And it is is a very dark joke indeed.

This is an extraordinary graphic collection of short stories lighting up the dark, like a match on oil.



Richard Marshall is biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 7th, 2012.