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Political Topographies ebook

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I. Habermann: Introduction - M. Gardiner: The British Reliance on Identity – M. Tönnies: Northern Landscapes and Anti-Thatcherite Positioning British Colour Photography of the 1980s – N. Böhm-Schnitker: There is no such thing as political memory!? The Iron Lady (2011) as ‘psycho-geography’ – F. Hofmeister: A Fatal Attraction? Europe and the Failure of the English Regions – B. Schaff: Killing Fields and Poppy Fields. Towards a Topography of the Western Front in the British Cultural Memory – N. Pleßke: HMY Britannia The Spatial Semantics of the Royal Yacht - Reviews: Wolfram Schmidgen (2013), Exquisite Mixture. The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England - Gaby Mahlberg & Dirk Wiemann, eds. (2013), European Contexts for English Republicanism - Gert Hofmann & Snježana Zori??, eds. (2012), Topodynamics of Arrival. Essays on Self and Pilgrimage

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Sebastian Berg, Englisches Seminar, Ruhr-Universität Bochum,

Universitätsstraße 150, 44801 Bochum, Germany.

Rainer Emig, Englisches Seminar, Universität Hannover,

Königsworther Platz 1, 30167 Hannover, Germany.

Gesa Stedman, Großbritannien-Zentrum / Centre for British Studies,

Humboldt-Universität Berlin, Mohrenstraße 60, 10117 Berlin, Germany.

Dirk Wiemann, Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik,

Universität Potsdam, Am Neuen Palais 10, Haus 19, 14469 Potsdam, Germany.

Reviews Editor:

Christian Schmitt-Kilb, Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik, Universität

Rostock, August-Bebel-Straße 28, 18051 Rostock, Germany.

Editorial Committee:

Susanne Gruß (Erlangen-Nürnberg), Ina Habermann (Basel),

Jürgen Kamm (Passau), Jürgen Kramer (Dortmund),

Gerry Mooney (Glasgow), Anette Pankratz (Bochum),

Ralf Schneider (Bielefeld), Jutta Schwarzkopf (Hannover),

Merle Tönnies (Paderborn).

Advisory Board:

Sabine Coelsch-Foisner (Salzburg), Simon Frith (Edinburgh),

Stuart Hall (Milton Keynes), Richard Kilborn (Stirling),

Bernhard Klein (Canterbury), Bernd Lenz (Passau),

Gabriele Rippl (Bern), Roland Sturm (Erlangen-Nürnberg).

Guest Editors of this Issue:

Ina Habermann, University of Basel, Department of English,

Nadelberg 6, CH-4051 Basel.

Cover Design:

Gressenhall Enclosure Plan, 1813; document reference ‘NRO, C/Sca 2/133’.

The original of this parliamentary enclosure plan is housed at the Norfolk

Record Office. We thank the NRO for permission to use the image.

You can visit the journal on the internet at http://www.britcult.de/jsbc/


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Volume 20 · No. 2/13

Ina Habermann


Michael Gardiner

The British Reliance on Identity

Merle Tönnies

Northern Landscapes and Anti-Thatcherite Positioning

British Colour Photography of the 1980s

Nadine Böhm-Schnitker

There is no such thing as political memory!?

The Iron Lady (2011) as ‘psycho-geography’

Frauke Hofmeister

A Fatal Attraction?

Europe and the Failure of the English Regions

Barbara Schaff

Killing Fields and Poppy Fields

Towards a Topography of the Western Front in the British Cultural Memory

Nora Pleßke

HMY Britannia

The Spatial Semantics of the Royal Yacht


Wolfram Schmidgen (2013),

Exquisite Mixture. The Virtues of Impurity in Early Modern England

Gaby Mahlberg & Dirk Wiemann, eds. (2013),

European Contexts for English Republicanism

Gert Hofmann & Snježana Zorić, eds. (2012),

Topodynamics of Arrival. Essays on Self and Pilgrimage

Addresses of Contributors


Ina Habermann (Basel)

1. For Space1

In this issue of the JSBC, devoted to British political topographies, we publish a selection of papers given at the conference ‘Topographies of Britain’, held at the University of Basel in November 2012. The general aim of the conference, organised by the Centre of Competence Cultural Topographies, was to explore relations between identity and space in Britain. Taking our cue from spatial studies, an impressively productive field of cultural inquiry in recent decades, we argue that in order to understand the intricate relationship between material reality, discourse and social interaction in the construction of our living environment, the study of British culture needs to be informed by a “geographical sensibility” (Gilbert & al. 2003: 250). Translated into a critical practice, this means that we need to study culture in terms of topological structures, i.e. structures with a spatial index, attending to “the interface between social and natural worlds.” (Whatmore 2002: 2) In Henri Lefebvre’s words, this implies, firstly, “the physical – nature, the Cosmos; secondly, the mental, including logical and formal abstractions; and, thirdly, the social.” (1991: 11) In our understanding of space, we also follow Doreen Massey, who criticises a widespread tendency to flatten out, de-politicise and essentialize space, arguing that space should be recognised as a “product of interrelations” and a “sphere of the possibility of […] contemporaneous plurality.” (2005: 9) Space is always “under construction” and should be seen as a “simultaneity of stories-so-far.” (ibid.) This allows us to stop privileging time over space, and to consider the complexities of space-time.

Space thus emerges as intrinsically political, as a set of cultural practices and (local and global) power relations. Putting this insight in dialogue with Lefebvre’s well-known conceptual triad of spatial practice, representations of space and representational spaces (1991: 33; 38-9), or “the triad of the perceived, the conceived and the lived” (ibid.: 39), we can ask specific kinds of questions: what spatial practices result, say, from house prices in London? How do people fill the long hours on the Thameslink? What happens when former industrial sites are inadequately cleared of poisoned debris before being ‘redeveloped’ as family homes? And in terms of representations of space: which conceptions of the public good inform planning and development, or the touristic promotion of certain locations? This may concern the present situation, as in the recent selective investments in public transport in preparation for the Olympics, or the past, for example in slum clearances, the construction of garden cities, the emergence of suburbia, or the redevelopment of docklands. Does planning adequately reflect the ways in which spaces are gendered (cf. Massey 1994), or the ways in which spatial practices are shaped by ethnicity or class? And how does this tie in with representational spaces, with images and literary evocations of landscape, of ‘Old England’ or ‘the Highlands’, the significance of the sea for the British, or the deployment of national symbols? What kind of ‘union’ does Britain represent?

Finally, attending to the material aspects of space also allows us to criticise the romance of constructivism and virtual reality. Only recently, for example, the wider public has been reminded of the fact that electronic communication is material and subject to spatial politics, and that there is, for instance, a place on the coast of Cornwall where overseas cables are connected and can be tapped for data which purportedly serve the needs of Britain as a global player. In relation to this, as Doreen Massey insists, we need to recognise that ‘globalisation’ is made somewhere, and that it proceeds from the local to the global just as much as the ‘global’ in turn impacts the local. We need to abandon an “aspatial view of globalisation” (Massey 2005: 81, emphasis in original) which risks turning globalisation into a fact of nature, placing it “beyond political debate” (ibid.: 83), and thus beyond criticism and change. In this volume, we cannot answer all the questions raised above, which have been listed with a view to indicating the horizon of our inquiry.2 Instead, we will take a spatial perspective on British politics, starting out with a critique of British identity politics, both from inside and outside Britain, under the headings of “Britishness” and “Europe” respectively. This is then followed by negotiations of Thatcherism and British Euroscepticism as well as examples of special political topographies, such as Flanders Fields and HMS Britannia.

2. Britishness

Approaching Britain in terms of a cultural topography and looking for a ‘sense of place’, it becomes obvious, as Raymond Williams has already shown in his classic study The Country and the City in 1973, that the idea of ‘Britain’ is based on abstract wealth created by acts of territorial appropriation such as enclosure and conquest (Williams 1973: 282-3 and passim). It is a consciously political entity covering the older national cultures of England, Scotland and Wales, as well as various regional and local identities.3 Within this complex framework, explorations and assertions of ‘identity’ have been crucial, especially in the context of a post-colonial struggle for a more inclusive multicultural Britishness. In contrast to this supposedly emancipatory narrative, Michael Gardiner argues in his essay that identity is in fact a very problematic concept. ‘Identity’ in his view is not something that one should strive for, something to be achieved, but a form of reification, a kind of psychological enclosure which has particular currency within the framework of a British political philosophy that defines the citizen as property owner. Gardiner goes on to argue that the canon of English literature is a powerful expression of this ideology, and that recent developments in the educational system in fact represent a new kind of enclosure. In consequence, recent movements such as the student protests against high fees, Occupy, and the Scottish self-determination referendum should be seen as acts of resistance against British-style identity.

Thatcherism, the period of ‘democratic deficit’ in Gardiner’s terms, represents an important moment in this development towards enclosed, reified identity since Thatcher “combined her monetarist politics with a rhetoric of national recovery, and of true British identity” (Wright 1985: xiii), thus inaugurating a new phase of neoliberal globalisation. As Doreen Massey puts it in her fascinating book World City, published in 2005 and predicting the ensuing financial crisis:

While among the working class in the North and the West, and in London’s docklands, the decline of the production and material trading bases of Empire continued to create poverty and unemployment, the financial side of that imperial role in its tightly knit class cohorts, operating from London, had woven a basis of social relations and international lines of authority upon which it might reinvent itself. (2005: 3)

This privileging of financial services, for which there is historical precedent, as Gardiner shows, was continued under New Labour and into the present day. In this volume, we offer two contrasting medialised views of Thatcherism which epitomize specific historical moments: in her essay, Merle Tönnies discusses documentary photography from the 1980s which moves from the then dominant black and white to colour, in order to portray the drab landscapes of consumerism, focussing on economic and cultural decline and on those marginalised by the neoliberal narrative of progress. While these photographs may be taken as a quite representative contemporary visual expression of political critique, the bio-pic The Iron Lady, released in 2011, may be equally representative of the view which is currently becoming dominant. Nadine Böhm-Schnitker argues in her essay that Margaret Thatcher is being turned into an iconic figure increasingly relegated to cultural memory and the private sphere, which is symbolised in the film by Thatcher’s confinement to her flat, her memory impaired by dementia. Mainstream media representations of this kind, along with many admiring obituaries after Thatcher’s death, threaten to belittle the violent aspects of neoliberal globalisation, mystifying the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 and making it more difficult to develop alternative political visions. But as Doreen Massey argues, it “is a ‘local’ politics that asserts and actively politicises both the fact of multiplicity within and the essential openness of place to the beyond” (Massey 2005: 217), thus conceiving of a different kind of global connectedness tied back to the local. In her preface “After the Crash”, added in 2010, she insists that we “must not go back to business as usual.” (ibid.: ix) The present government certainly has not heard, nor heeded, this warning.

3. Europe

The British, and especially the English, have always been reluctant Europeans, which is partly due to the geographical fact of British insularity, and to the strong links with the US and the Commonwealth as part of the legacy of the British Empire. Still, for better or worse, they have always been Europeans. Splendid isolation is a myth, fostered by the ideology of the nation state, since there has always been traffic and exchange. Yet this myth, prominently expressed during World War II by the notion of ‘Britain Standing Alone’, has played a crucial role in the construction of British national identity in the twentieth century and beyond. As Robin Cohen argues, British self-assertion gains a particularly urgent quality through the existence of several ‘fuzzy frontiers’ within Britain, among them the Celtic fringe (Cohen 1994), so that the discourse of exceptionalism serves in fact to gloss over the lingering suspicion that identity was never monolithic, but has always already been fractured. With a view to Britain’s reluctant and belated entry into the European Community, Sir Stephen Wall, a high-ranking civil servant, calls his autobiography A Stranger in Europe, acknowledging Britain’s special status and yet coming to the conclusion that “wholehearted participation in the EU is strongly in Britain’s national interest” (Wall 2008: viii). To this day, Britain’s political leaders cannot find it in their hearts to really embrace this insight, as the current conflict over the Euro crisis and the Prime Minister’s recent intervention about a special deal for Britain both demonstrate. As David Cameron put it in January 2013, once again relying on the time-honoured geographical symbolism:

[I]t’s true that our geography has shaped our psychology. We have the character of an island nation – independent, forthright, passionate in defence of our sovereignty. We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel. And because of this sensibility, we come to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional. For us, the European Union is a means to an end – prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores – not an end in itself. (Cameron 2013)

Due to this well-rehearsed position, the history of relations between Britain and the EU (and its predecessors) is often a story of missed encounters. As Chris Gifford argues in The Making of Eurosceptic Britain, British Euroscepticism is “a manifestation and consequence of a distinct post-imperial crisis.” (Gifford 2008: 1; see also Shore 2000) Gifford’s recent study offers an excellent overview and summary of the issues at stake, showing that “Euroscepticism has become the dominant and hegemonic position within the British political order.” (Gifford 2008: 148) This attitude, and this policy are epitomised by the failure of the English Regions in Britain, as outlined in Frauke Hofmeister’s essay in this volume.

4. Political Topographies

Thinking about present and future topographies of Britain, observed from our vantage point on the Continent, it is certainly interesting to note which kinds of considerations will decide the outcome of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, which conception of British ‘identity’ will win the day, and how Britain will negotiate its relationship with the Continent and the European Union. In the final part of this volume we will move from politics and its negotiations in the media to significant topographical aspects of cultural memory, focussing on two special topographies which negotiate the nexus between British cultural identity and memory: the fields of Flanders as an extraterritorial lieu de mémoire, as discussed in the essay by Barbara Schaff, and the HMS Britannia, analysed in Nora Pleßke’s contribution, as a resonant symbol of Britishness. These extraterritorial spaces of the nation can be seen as representational spaces in Lefebvre’s sense, “space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols”, overlaying “physical space, making symbolic use of its objects” (Lefebvre 1991: 39, emphasis in original). We start with killing fields turned into poppy fields, and finish with the ship as a powerful emblem of Britain. Simultaneously representing and carrying ‘Britannia’, the ship is imperially and allegorically female, a triumph of engineering, obliquely hierarchical and class-ridden, seemingly self-contained and insular, mobile, global in outreach, and ready to sell itself as a heritage attraction that nostalgically evokes the times when Britannia ruled the waves. By placing such representational spaces alongside more straightforward considerations of politics, we hope to show the multi-dimensional quality of relations between identity and space and to highlight the important role of the imagination in the way we live space.


Cameron, David (2013), EU Speech at Bloomberg, delivered on 23 January 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg (30 August 2013).

Cohen, Robin (1994), Frontiers of Identity. The British and the Others, London: Longman.

Gifford, Chris (2008), The Making of Eurosceptic Britain. Identity and Economy in a Post-Imperial State, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Gilbert, David, David Matless & Brian Short, eds. (2003), Geographies of British Modernity. Space and Society in the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Blackwell.

Habermann, Ina (2010), Myth, Memory and the Middlebrow. Priestley, du Maurier and the Symbolic Form of Englishness, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lefebvre, Henri (1991), The Production of Space, transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell. [French original Production de l’espace, 1974]

Massey, Doreen (1994), Space, Place and Gender, Cambridge: Polity Press.

– (2005), For Space, Los Angeles et al.: Sage.

– (2007), World City, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Nairn, Tom (1977), The Break-up of Britain, London: New Left Books.

Shore, Cris (2000), Building Europe: The Cultural Politics of European Integration, London: Routledge.

Wall, Stephen (2008), A Stranger in Europe. Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Whatmore, Sarah (2002), Hybrid Geographies. Natures, Cultures, Spaces, London: Sage.

Williams, Raymond (1973), The Country and the City, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, Patrick (1985), On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain, London & New York: Verso.


1 This heading quotes the title of Doreen Massey’s important book (Massey 2005) on the philosophy and politics of space. – I would like to thank Sebastian Berg, Susanne Gruß, Sabina Horber, Peter Burleigh, Jasmin Rindlisbacher and Michelle Witen for help with this volume.

2 Some of these issues will be addressed in another collection of essays which emerged from the conference, to be published as Topographies of Britain in Rodopi’s Spatial Practices series in 2014.

3 For a brief summary of the debate about Britishness and Englishness including detailed bibliographical references see Habermann 2010: 3-8 as well as Nairn 1977 and Wright 1985.

The British Reliance on Identity

Michael Gardiner (Coventry)

Not long ago, progressive-minded people almost automatically described the perceived rights of specific British groups in terms of identity. Especially in England, this register is still common. In the establishment media and for much of the cognitive elite who made up education, the rhetoric of identity lingers not much changed from its 1990s height. The BBC are absolutely welded to the term. But now as the whole ground of the British-progressive comes into question, it is possible to look back on the heights of British power and ask why identity was so central.

In many materialist readings, identity arises as a result of a concentration on the already done, on the commodity, rather than the doing, which constitutes the personal. Persons are measured by the market value of their production rather than their experience of production: they are kept from their own experience by abstracted exchange. Identity is the subjective form, which corresponds to this commodification, and must always be separated from an active, experiencing self (cf. Hardt & Negri: 326-330). Identity is fixed, impersonal, third-person, and reliant on representation in the apparently universal market terms, which are made to seem so instinctual that they seem to be born of a simple realism. So John Holloway has described personal relationships, which challenge the assumed reification of identity as an “anti-realism of anti-power”, acting against an understanding of value “regarded as being permanent”(2005: 18). The fixedness of identity makes sure that the exchange value of work remains the term in which persons are measured, and that these values are regarded as natural and permanent. So much is understood of the commodity and identity. But here we are discussing Britishness, and does not the commodity rise to prominence everywhere? Maybe, but this does not mean that its penetration is even, or that it has an unchanging relationship to government. What has often been missing from critique of British culture is the particularity of the relation of the state to the commodity: British culture arises quite specifically from the ‘financial revolution’ widely acknowledged as the world’s first modern military-commercial power: the communication of British unification and the tremendous credit-based expansion of the seafaring empire are mutually dependent from the turn of the eighteenth century. Or put otherwise, the British Union – not England, not the British Isles, but the British Union – has been the world’s greatest exporter of money as identity: the global rise of money as a stabilising power and the global rise of the British Union and empire are closely interwoven.

Paradoxically, a guiding claim of Britishness from the days of the great Whig revolutionaries who included Locke and Defoe – we might say the British ideology – has been that the state has avoided abstraction and kept a strong relationship with the land: the land seems to loom large in ‘English Literature’ (British Literature), and after the Romantic era, the British ideology has a wider remit. But in terms of government of money, this is perfectly misleading: precisely because of its need to stabilise money to stabilise possible futures, Britain, then the United Kingdom, has been forced to disallow those actions which suggest a territorialisation of the personal, a binding of the person to a specific place, potentially with rights and a national compact beyond money; instead it must always turn action back towards the static ideals of identity. This of course helps explain why the ideology of the land must be both so strong and so vague, and to be pressed more strongly in empire than in the homeland itself. A British constitution, which sets itself against active definition, and indeed against writing, then becomes bound to the eternal, the natural, the unpindownable and the resistant to action – which means that it is structured by a perpetual and unreachable precedent. This also means, since the constitution has no historical registration, that it must be underwritten by cultural forms – the constitution finds a shadow-form which would become known as English Literature (reflecting the slippage of territories, since in its dependence on British union, English is precisely what it is not). English Literature, or British tradition, then takes many of its canonical assumptions from the apparently eternal realism of the commodity, allowing it to become universal, to become currency.

Britain’s specificity in money terms has been thoroughly described by historians and economists, though rarely in terms of the rise of unionist culture. An exception would be the description of the time-specificity of the incorporation of an aspirational English middle class into a British ruling establishment in Tom Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain (1977), itself emblematic of a New Left mode of thinking about the growth of expropriation as culture, and a study that stood behind much of the subsequent struggle for national self-determination within the UK. More widely we know that the debates during and after the Whig-parliamentary ascendancy during and after the Civil War from the 1640s-80s led to a codification of the citizen as a property-owner (cf. Nairn 1977: 16-22; Hardt & Negri 2009: 40), in a form able to withstand the later ruptures of the French Revolution. By the time of the British Acts of Union (1706-1707), an expanding imperium had been well established as relying on a franchise credit, stable money, property as that which could be extracted from common ownership by individual labour – as described perhaps most signally in John Locke’s Two Treatises, raison d’état for the 1688 financial revolution. Citizenship as credit-based property would gather in the culture of the ‘financial’ eighteenth century, as the ‘British’ label was pressed and, through the stability of state-underwritten finance, made to seem eternally stable. The 1688 revolution (now described as a restoration) allowed Britain to be empowered informally, that is, to avoid the action needed to create a codified constitution, and to take on an ideal timelessness beyond personal time. Such a timeless tradition would later be bolstered against revolution, after the threats of rebellious peripheries (Scotland, America, Ireland) had been quelled, and would be pressed even more strongly against figures like Edmund Burke and Burkean Romantics including S.T. Coleridge.

British identity, or citizenship as ownership, thus has its beginning in the beginning of Britain itself; the union of parliaments is in a sense the last great act of the financial revolution, since it stabilises the local imperium – and helps stabilise money. A budgetary debt ran from 1692-93 – requiring greater powers for parliament, which regulated its flow – the Bank of England was established in 1694 to look after a budgetary deficit and the Bank of Scotland soon after, a tremendous financial civil service was built up, and modern political parties began to broker power on behalf of the whole people. Daniel Defoe was forthright in describing the shared fate of the two kingdoms as a financial pact (1970). This new financial empire presents the clearest case we have of monetary and identitarian terms being imposed for ‘national’ use (in what Political Scientists sometimes call a ‘state-nation’). There was neither a British ‘primordial’ national impetus, nor any serious British civil society: the unifying ground was pragmatic and financial, and was described by Defoe and fellow Whig radicals in terms of an imperial Protestantism promoting labour as righteous self-interest, a financially-structured parliament as the natural protector, and a ‘positivist realism’ demanding that the existing situation at any given time be seen as the normative one for all time. Stable money was the key to identity – so as George Caffentzis has argued, for John Locke the epistemology