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The Total City: An Interview with Will Self

Will Self interviewed by Jo Mortimer.


3:AM: Why did you shout ‘It’s just an image!’ at me when I was taking a photograph?

WS: Oh, well, for all sorts of reasons. I think we’ve reached peak image — rather like peak oil — in the sense that the invention of digital photography has meant that it’s now possible for people to produce a visual analogue of their experience almost in real time. You could walk through the streets taking stills or stop-motion video continuously — there’s no impediment to it, and it’s become a sort of weird prophylactic between us and experience. I’ve always felt that way about photography.

3:AM: Even when it was just 35mm film?

WS: Yes, I’ve always felt that it had that potential to encapsulate and neuter the experience; render it kind of void.

3:AM: 2D?

WS: Yes. It removes us from the experiential, and I think, particularly when we’re trying to ‘do’ psychogeography — whatever that is — we need to be where we are, and it’s a distancing thing.

3:AM: Do you think city spaces make people mentally unwell?

WS: Well, I think the people who feel better in the city are often people who have a sexual preference or ethnicity that makes them an object of attention in a smaller community. Particularly if you speak to gay people, they tell you that coming to cities — if they’ve grown up in small towns or villages — is an absolute liberation and a source of good mental health. You’ll hear it from people from minority ethnic backgrounds who’ve grown up in, you know, where there aren’t many people like them around, and when they come to the city, it’s better. So that draws my attention to two factors here. One is the physical environment itself, and the second is the psychic environment. There’s an interplay between the two. We know it, because when we walk around and we’re in a top mood like when we were out walking the other day – I think we were in a pretty good mood, and right at the end when we were over the river, that was actually kind of a – it’s not…it wasn’t a very nice place, actually.

3:AM: You pick out the nice stuff when you’re in a good mood.

WS: Yeah, but you don’t mind the bad stuff: you find it interesting because your mental health is good enough that you can be detached from it. The analogy might be, you know, you can watch a horror movie when you’re in a reasonably good mood, and the interest is in registering your disgust. But if you’re in a vulerable state you’ll take it personally, you know. So, I think a lot of what people find alienating in the city — and it is articulated in the built environment itself — is the anonymity. Being alone in a crowd.

3:AM: “The Man of the Crowd“…

WS: Yes, and that’s why that story is so significant; it’s because it’s a new phenomenon. He’s registering the birth of the anonymous city. Yes, I do think it’s an alienating place.

3:AM: But do you think that some people who have an acute mental health illness — such as paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — may also be having a great time?

: Do you think it legitimises their psychosis?

3:AM: Yes, quite possibly

WS: Well, I think that as long as you conform to the broad brush of the movements of the crowd, and again that is a bit like what Poe captures in “The Man of the Crowd,” it doesn’t matter if you do something. The Man of the Crowd is following the crowd, and anybody who realised that that was what he was doing would think, ‘so, you’re crazy’. But, of course, he doesn’t appear crazy because he’s in the crowd, and surely that’s the point. You know, the paradox of the city is if you feel ok, then you’re on your way to feeling alienated. But if you’re alientated already, you may feel better.

3:AM: You’ve got to the finish line.

WS: Yes, in a sense you’ve reached the right point. The moment when you really are mad in the city — and I have experienced it quite a lot — is when you try to insist on what are anonymous bonds becoming personalised, so, you know, when you succumb to the urge to talk to somebody on the Tube. I’ve lived in cities all my life, and there’ll still be moments when I feel the total madness of the no-talk rule. There’s always something in any conceivable sociable situation that it is perfectly legitimate to talk to somebody about, whatever it is. You know, something weird happens and you’re in it together. But the rule of anonymity is you’re only in it together in as much as you don’t identify each other as being individuals. ‘In it together’ mean annulling the possibility of personalised contact. So, that paradox is really kind of sharp inside you a lot of the time. There are moments…

3:AM: …and it’ll be physicalised as well. People fill up double spaces on the bus, until it’s not an option anymore. Eventually, someone’s got to sit next to someone else, then someone else will get off, and they’ll move.

WS: You’ve got to move, to convey to everybody else that you are prepared to uphold the convention of not being a person. Yeah?

3:AM: Yeah!

WS: You can walk through London Bridge or any Tube station at the height of the rush hour and, in a way, you won’t touch anybody. Actually, you will touch people physically, but there is even a way of touching people in very dense crowds that is acceptable and preserves anonymity. There’s a kind of jostling that’s acceptable. It’s the introduction of hands or recognisable gestures or motions that interrupts this view of humanity being corpuscular and just in a flow. People who study crowd dynamics are hydraulic engineers, they think of it in terms of water, so that gives you a clue as to the ideal state of lack of differentiation between individuals that the crowd aspires to. The crowd aspires to the condition of fluid — that’s how undifferentiated it is.

3:AM: I wonder if a city’s personality differs depending on whether it has water flowing through it. The Seine, the Thames. If you took that out, would people move differently?

WS: Well, it’s an interesting idea, but the city is usually so determined to ignore its natural characteristics. The physical geography of a city is the last thing anybody talks about these days. The most interesting thing about Tehran is that it’s built on a hill. Well, it’s actually built on the flank of a mountain. So if you keep walking through Tehran and go up a mountain, you can go skiing.

3:AM: How lovely!

WS: Yes, but no one’s ever told you that about Tehran, have they?

3:AM: It’s not big on the world stage.

WS: No. All you get told about Tehran is that it’s full of mad Mullahs who go around beating up girls who want to wear lipstick. They never tell you about the physical realities of the city. Take London. You say, maybe the flow of the river is having an effect on the flow dynamics of the population. What made me a psychogeographer was an epiphany I had one day when I was in my mid-twenties — when I was working in Mayfair — and I went to work one day and the office was shut for some reason or other, and I realised that I had a free day. Out of nowhere, I thought to myself, I’ve never seen the mouth of the Thames. And then I thought, hang on a minute, I was born in Charing Cross Hospital, right next to the river. I’ve lived in the city all my life. If you went to the Amazon — if you went somewhere twenty-five miles from the mouth of the Amazon — and you found a peasant working in his manioc field, and you asked him, ‘What does it look like at the mouth of the great river?’ and they said to you, ‘Ooh, I don’t know, I’ve never been there,’ you’d say, ‘Oh, typical of the benighted Amazonian peasant’. That was me! I suddently realised that was me, the way in which human geography completely annuls the physical reality of the city.

3:AM: Despite having made it.

WS: Yes, so I got in my car and I drove to the mouth of the river.

3:AM: How was it?

WS: It was not what I expected. Admittedly, right at the mouth — so, as it were, when you get level with Southend, when you reach a place called the Isle of Grain — it’s kind of what you’d expect: it’s mud flats and very big open skies. But even four or five miles before that there is a definable river, with grassy banks.

3:AM: I like the sound of that. What do you think about the volume of Metro stations in Paris? They’re no nore than five hundred metres apart.

WS: If there hadn’t been the Roman Citadel in London — the Roman square mile — then London might be more like Paris. What defines Paris is the Medieval walls. That’s why you’ve got this very high density of Metro stations. You’ve still got a city operating within that idea of intra- and extra-mural. Whereas, once London has expanded beyond the square mile, which happens in the seventh century, it’s over, because there’s never another wall built. After 1066, there isn’t another invader, so there’s nothing to stop London from expanding.

3:AM: How do you get along in rural spaces? Can a city and nature really coexist? It seems to me that Paris doesn’t seem to manage it terribly well.

WS: Yes, I was going to say that Paris has, for a long time, aspired to the condition of what you might call the total city. In essence, it’s trying to anul the reality of its physical geography. Yes, the river goes through it; yes, you have the Ile de la Cité; yes you have the hills to the North and the hills to the South. Yes, of course, they’re all there, but the reality is that the totalising, the means by which you move around the city, and the furniture of the city, is incredibly consistent and well-designed. So, you know, there is a sense, and you see it in French chateaux and wealthy houses. The whole idea of French gardening is also very different to English gardening. The French don’t come up with the landscape garden. So the relationship between the urban and the rural in France is profoundly different. The English approach is to domesticate the wild by creating the landscape garden, and then move out into the simulacrum of nature, and then into nature itself. The French idea is to close something in walls and make it look like a room.

3:AM: That people aren’t allowed in.

WS: It’s like the gardens at Versailles — they’re like a floor plan of a house. So there’s a radically different approach to that relationship between the rural and the urban. Britain, or England, because it was the most heavily urbanised society in the world, earliest, has no real wild at all. Did you know that? There is no wild country at all.

3:AM: That must be fairly recent…

WS: Take Rannoch Moor. You think, come on, there’s nothing, it’s a wilderness, but it’s the result of neolithic slash-and-burn. Otherwise, it would be woodland — it should be woodland. The reason it’s covered in peat is because they chopped the trees down. It’s an anthropic landscape; all of the highlands of Scotland is an anthropic landscape. It looks that way because of stuff people have done to it; it doesn’t look that way naturally. And I think that’s embedded very deeply in the British psyche: the British know their country is completely anthropic. It means that the urban has psychic primacy. It doesn’t need to cover the physical land area. Everywhere you are in Britain, there is something immediately in your view to tell you about human activity, and by extension, the city. The city is omnipresent. And here’s another thing that ties the urban and the rural together in such a way as to eradicate the difference in Britain: the fox is artificially maintained to be hunted. It would have been eradicated years ago if it was that much of a problem.

3:AM: Ok, moving on. Why do you think there is such a tendency to use medical and anatomical words and phrases to describe the city? I wonder if it’s a way of owning and influencing a space, and if it’s also a way of understanding and belonging…

WS: Yes. It may go back as far as Saint Augustine and the City of God, because Augustine divides all of the cosmos into the City of God, which is the realm of the spiritual, and the City of Man, which is the area of the corporeal. In a way, the City of Man becomes synonymous with the human body. But I think that what we’re actually doing when we use a lot of bodily and anatomical metaphors in relation to the city, is we’re acknowledging the fact that you cannot understand the city while you cling to the notion that it’s full of autonomous individuals. It doesn’t make sense. If people really, really are deciding to do whatever the hell they want to at any moment of the day, why does the city run with such regularity? And the answer is that people aren’t autonomous. It’s back to flow dynamics. We’re always trying to keep at bay the fact that we know that the city, by definition, deprives us of our autonomy. So once you’re deprived of your autonomy, you relocate your feeling body in the city itself. Since you’ve been annulled, you’re just part of this flow — what are you flowing through? So the way to humanise the fact that you’re dehumanised is to infuse the city with corporeality. I don’t think anybody does it at a conscious level. If you stopped somebody in the Metro, in the rush hour, and said, ‘Do you realise you haven’t chosen to go down here? You haven’t chosen to go to work, and you’re not even choosing to go home now, you’re not acting out of free will. You have no more free will than a drop of water,’ they’d look at you like you were completely mad, right? Nobody wants to be conscious of that fact. I’m saying that it operates at a subconscious level, that people start talking about the city like that.

3:AM: Do you think that came about as soon as cities came about?

WS: No, I think it happens in the nineteenth century. That’s very important, and it’s to do with what I call the industrialisation of space-time. It’s not until you have completely regularised time, and completely mapped space, that there is this total loss of autonomy. Before that, there are sill plenty of places left in the city where time runs slower. You can be yourself. It’s like the city freeze-dries into being at a certain point — it’s total — and then you have to practise psychogeography in order to escape from it. You can’t do it just by hoping to do it — you have to take practical measures.

3:AM: Do you think you could extend the metaphor of the human body and anatomy to death?

WS: In what sense?

3:AM: In terms of terminality.

WS: Cities certainly can die, though what’s more interesting is how resilient they are. I mean, Tokyo. A quarter of a million people killed in a single night by the United States Air Force, burnt to the ground. All the German cities after the Second World War, Henry Morgenthau and the Morgenthau Plan: his idea was that the cities were all to be razed to the ground completely, and it was to be solely an agricultural society forever. Well, that didn’t happen — that’s why Berlin is such a fascinating city. Berlin was killed and then remained in suspended animation until 1989. It was put on life-support and it’s only beginning to come back to life again — properly — now. So you can see all of that happening in Berlin. I think cities — the life and death of cities — call attention to our autonomy, because it’s not about what we do. As Marx said, history is made by the great mass of individuals. There’s nothing you can do to affect the destiny of the city unless you’re part of a mass of individuals who are thinking the same and behaving in the same way.

That’s another paradox of the city. If you lose autonomy and accept the rather savage, draconian psychology of the city, and you abandon your autonomy, then you can’t die. You don’t really exist — you exist as the Man of the Crowd. You don’t exist as Jo anymore, in a way. The conception of the flâneur and the idea of viewing the city as something to engage with in a ludic manner — in a kind of disruptive manner — is a privilege, really. I mean, it’s not open to most people for obvious economic reasons. They just can’t indulge in it. What I’m always trying to encourage people to do is to nonetheless make the steps necessary to see what the city is like when you don’t regard it in that utilitarian, anonymous, Man in the Crowd way. You step aside from it. The original flâneurs who come out of the original bohemian conception in Paris were young people; they were just hippies, basically. They were just young people getting stoned and hanging out. We can’t all do that, clearly. Or not as much as we’d like to.

Read our 2008 interview with Will Self here.


Jo Mortimer recently moved to Paris, where she is currently finishing a Master’s. She intends to stay and write.

[Pic: Will Self in Paris by Jo Mortimer.]

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 30th, 2015.