Friday, July 13, 2012

Mortal Engines

In Philip Reeve’s steampunk classic Mortal Engines, predatory Traction Cities roam a world that has become a vast wasteland, devouring each other and destroying everything in their path. The parallel with the Olympics is all too apt. Every four years the great Olympic Traction City lumbers across the plain to launch an attack on some new site, carelessly flattening the inhabitants as it hoovers up power and money from the local state.

The Olympic appropriation of money is insultingly obvious. The Olympic appropriation of power is perhaps more insidious. To complement the massive police operation, the full monetary cost of which is not yet known, the Crown Prosecution Service recently announced that it will be creating a special category of “Olympics offences” and operating fast-track courts that will sit for up to 24 hours a day – an innovation that is explicitly based on the “lessons” learned by the CPS during its brutally draconian response to last summer’s riots. Olympic sites are also being militarised, with the deployment of up to an estimated 16,500 troops – 7,000 more than are currently serving in Afghanistan – and the use of warships, fighter jets and surface-to-air missile units, including in residential areas. This is in addition to Locog’s own notoriously hostile security personnel, provided by the private security firm G4S.

All of this is for our own good, of course, and the triumph of Olympian doublethink is that the Games are viciously mugging us while pretending to be doing us a favour. The Olympic legacy involves a great deal more than just buildings and infrastructure: one of its more under-publicised aspects is the security legacy, which has been a key feature of all Olympic Games since at least the mid-20th century. Tokyo 1964 and Seoul 1988 both left a legacy of private policing; Sydney 2000 gave the police enduring zero-tolerance powers to move people on; and Athens 2004 left a shiny new security infrastructure, including an extensive CCTV system that was subsequently used against the city’s uprisings. The nature and scale of the 2012 security legacy is not yet (publicly) known, although it’s certain to include the privatisation of parts of the police force: G4S already employs about two thirds of Lincolnshire Police’s civilian staff. The post-Olympics British state will be increasingly privatised and increasingly authoritarian – all supposedly with the consent of a docile and grateful public.

The buildings themselves, however, are another story. It’s become a popular online pastime among Olympic sceptics to poor scorn on the notion of the Olympic Legacy by posting photographs of abandoned and decaying stadiums, especially the Athens site. These photos are usually presented as icons of failure and betrayal. But we prefer to see them as utopian windows. Such sites are atoposes or worthless places in the Surrealist sense, rejected or forbidden zones where strange encounters are fostered and obsessions acted out, where transformations take place and the repressed returns with a vengeance. When the Traction City finally discards London and lumbers away towards Rio, the physical wastelands it will leave behind will be full of utopian possibilities, a poetic munitions dump where we will be able to scavenge weapons for our resistance against the Olympics’ more enduring and dangerous legacies.

Atoposes or non-places are also portals to the nowhere of utopia. Even extant buildings are haunted by the spectre of their own ruin; chaotic fertility, vegetal abundance, anti-social deliria, ostentatious uselessness are all waiting for their chance to take over before the concrete is even dry. In this sense the Olympic Village is already pregnant with what Ernst Bloch calls the utopian surplus, the excess that spills over the limits of the status quo and reaches out towards the Not-Yet.


Finally, these decaying sites are also a reminder that the Olympic Traction City is a mortal engine, and its own rapaciousness will ultimately be its downfall. Destructive consumption is not a sustainable basis for society, or for life. The riotous assembly of worthless fauna and flora – among which we include humans of the future – will repopulate the wasteland, and plant a new forest of desires.

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