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Patrick Keiller
A lesson in historical materialism (continued)

3) 'Wherever a dialectical process is realised, we are dealing with a monad.'
The sixth journey culminates with a series of shots of the US signals intelligence base. Gigantic white spheres disappear out onto a desolate landscape, and in their repetition and round perfection, grand form supersedes diabolic function. The seventh and last journey begins with a series of aerospace plants, some working, some demolished. If one doesn't perk one's ears up when the narrator says, 'Robinson says that Blackpool holds the key to his Utopia', certainly one's eyes are startled. Street trams, people walking, amusement park rides, these are scenes straight out of early actualities when our much lamented public sphere wasn't yet theory. Here, colour is rich, space is deep, ambient sound loud and the crash of waves participates in the same revelry as the Ferris wheel. The products of culture seem there to serve and amuse rather than abuse us. One gets the feeling however briefly, however untimely, that this would be a good place to stop.

4) 'The materialist presentation of history carries along with it an immanent critique of the concept of progress.'
Unlike Blackpool's warm brew of nature and urban machines, the rest of this trip shows nature and second nature in violent contrast. Radioactive waste, Trident submarines, power plants, are interspersed with stunning natural beauty, mountain lakes, a phone card sporting a picture of such beauty. The future, given unthinkable levels of radioactive pollution, is dire and archaic. Two more images: the rock art once again (see the Clouds) whose contours remind us of another kind of life that progress has eroded, and finally, a symphony of bridges transporting all manner of things back and forth. And while the narrator cannot tell us where Robinson finally found his utopia, surely it is where progress stops and vehicles more congenial to the transport of intimacy and imagination take over. They go back and forth, not forward.

5) Historical materialism bases its procedures on long experience, common sense, presence of mind and dialectics.'
This last dictum sounds like something the narrator was trying to explain to Robinson while waiting for a bus. While Robinson in Space seems to answer Benjamin's prescription in full measure, its didacticism isn't about history but about seeing. For here, the antimonies of melancholia and utopia combine to fuel a historical materialism that is sensate in its essence. Keiller remarks in Dilapidated Dwelling that to change life, one must first change space. Surely, the sensual retraining at work in London and Robinson In Space begins such a task.

Rachel Moore
Rachel Moore is a writer based in London and author of 'Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic.' She is also a Lecturer at Goldsmiths in the Department of Media and Communications and is grateful to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for support in her current project, "In the Film Archive of Natural-History".
Still from Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller, 1997
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