The Failures of Modernity in Keiller’s LONDON and Carol Ann Duffy’s “Stealing”

London Screenshot

Patrick Keiller’s essay film London (1994) explores its eponymous city through an elegiac and slightly bitter tone. Deregulation and privatization enforced by Tory politics have led to a dismantling of social security, producing a gradual decay of the city and its inhabitants. Speaking for his lover Robinson, the narrator (Paul Scofield) claims, “His job would be at risk and subjected to interference. His income would decrease. He would drink more and less well. He would be ill more often. He would die sooner.” London, according to Robinson, has become the “first metropolis to disappear,” a place defined by absence due to a civic void in the city and invisible social lives. Keiller makes his narrator and Robinson invisible as well. Rather than emphasize individuals or a bustling city life, Keiller turns to London’s deteriorating built environment. Poetic and historical fragments are interspersed throughout the narrative, as the narrator relays Robinson’s insights on the failed promises of modernity.

The overall mood and tone of the film may be more understandable if we consider Brian Larkin’s analysis on infrastructure and its affective attachments. Applying Walter Benjamin’s views on infrastructural relations, Larkin writes, “They [commodities, buildings, and streets] form us as subjects not just on a technopolitical level but also through this mobilization of affect and the sense of desire, pride, and frustration, feelings which can be deeply political” (333). If the politics of infrastructure are dependent on nationalist attachments to a built environment, then London explores the disillusionment with these attachments due to continuous ruination. And, this persistent decay is not only on the built environment, as Robinson suggests, for the onslaught of crime, homelessness, and pollution, demonstrates how infrastructural energies impact societal levels. Larkin argues for a poetics of infrastructure, in which we “rearrange the hierarchy of functions so that the aesthetic dimension of infrastructure (rather than its technical one) is dominant” (336). By doing so, our object relations are more discernible through modes of sensation and bodily reception. “Softness, hardness, the noise of a city, its brightness, the feeling of being hot or cold are all sensorial experiences regulated by infrastructures […],” Larkin writes via Mrázek (337). All of these tactile and ambient experiences encode an intimate attachment to a place and its inscribed meaning. Therefore, for Keiller, London’s persistent pomp and circumstance due to its veneration of the monarchy is seen at odds with the desolate state of the city itself, as well as its disintegration of communal life. Due to these paradoxical situations, contemporary London is depicted as a city of unknowing disavowal and detachment.

The narrator counters these conditions with the city’s utopic promises envisioned by late 19th century French poets (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire) and 18th century Romantics (Horace Walpole and Laurence Sterne). Collectively, albeit to varying degrees, these authors sought to produce the effects generated by an object or concept, rather than to describe that thing realistically. This turn inward to the affective attachment is key for how Robinson analyzes his relationship with London. Rather than fully analyze the poetry Robinson admires, however, allow me to quote in full a contemporary poet that aligns with London’s critical tone.

Written in 1987 on the year of Margaret Thatcher’s re-election, Carol Ann Duffy’s “Stealing” expresses a spiteful social commentary on the kind of person that modernity has created in an era of rising unemployment and income disparity. Vapid boredom, antagonistic loneliness, and a general lack of purpose create a meaningless existence for the poem’s narrator.


The most unusual thing I ever stole? A snowman.

Midnight. He looked magnificent; a tall, white mute

beneath the winter moon. I wanted him, a mate

with a mind as cold as the slice of ice

within my own brain. I started with the head.

Better off dead than giving in, not taking

what you want. He weighed a ton; his torso,

frozen stiff, hugged to my chest, a fierce chill

piercing my gut. Part of the thrill was knowing

that children would cry in the morning. Life’s tough.

Sometimes I steal things I don’t need. I joy-ride cars

to nowhere, break into houses just to have a look.

I’m a mucky ghost, leave a mess, maybe pinch a camera.

I watch my gloved hand twisting the doorknob.

A stranger’s bedroom. Mirrors. I sigh like this – Aah.

It took some time. Reassembled in the yard,

he didn’t look the same. I took a run

and booted him. Again. Again. My breath ripped out

in rags. It seems daft now. Then I was standing

alone among lumps of snow, sick of the world.

Boredom. Mostly I’m so bored I could eat myself.

One time, I stole a guitar and thought I might

learn to play. I nicked a bust of Shakespeare once,

flogged it, but the snowman was the strangest.

You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?

In this dramatic monologue, the speaker describes himself as a “mucky ghost,” which oddly evokes death and absence mixed with noticeable filth. He also expresses an out-of-body mentality in the line “I watch my gloved hand twisting the doorknob,” rather than merely stating “I twist the doorknob.” This level of hyper-aware self-consciousness demonstrates not only how the speaker is distanced from society but also how he is disconnected from his own sense of self. The ghost identification and bodily disconnect indicate a tension between permanence and transience that is also highlighted by the speaker’s practice of occasionally stealing cameras, since cameras create permanence through the effect of taking pictures. However, the speaker’s desire to steal cameras may also be rooted in his desire to deny an outlet for creativity or permanence to others. Most obviously, though, the association of snow foregrounds transient nature in the poem, as any attachments for permanence are rendered futile. Overall, Duffy’s poem conveys a sense of alienation and aimlessness in modern British society, in which even small acts of defiance fail to break the humdrum coasting of daily life.

Like Keiller, Duffy portrays the failed promises of modernity as generating a life that appears indeterminate and stagnant. The references to the historical past via poetry in London and the Shakespeare bust in Duffy’s poem suggest a debasement of the role of art in modern society to live up to its progressive potentials. However, by conveying the overall mood of their present moment, London and “Stealing” nevertheless critique the conditions of a lifeless political system that perpetuates despair and evaporates away any possibility for a worthwhile life to fruition.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you read the mood and tone of London? How might it compare and contrast to Thom Andersen’s essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself?
  • How does the narration function? More specifically, what is the effect produced by having a narrator filter another person’s perspective throughout the entire film?
  • How do you interpret Duffy’s poem “Stealing?” Do you see connections, like I do, to Keiller’s London?


Works Cited:

Duffy, Carol Ann. “Stealing.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Ed. Joseph Black. Peterborough, Ontario [u.a.: Broadview, 2006. 1028. Print.

Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42.1 (2013): 327-43.

One thought on “The Failures of Modernity in Keiller’s LONDON and Carol Ann Duffy’s “Stealing”

  1. This is wonderful work, Cameron. Your draw brilliantly on some of Larkin’s claims about the specifically affective dimensions of the poetics and politics of infrastructure in the service an absolutely compelling characterization of LONDON’s critique of Thatcher’s neoliberal privatization policies. As you observe, these policies, as Keiller understands them, determine to a great extent the “disappearance” of the metropolis–the civic void at the heart of the city. Where is the terrorism, or its threat, in the analysis of government that Keiller offers? I also admire the way you connect the tactile, affective, embodied appeal of literature to the utopian poetic project of the range of writers Keiller’s Robinson invokes in the film. Keiller’s formal decision to frame his critique through a nameless narrator and the Robinson character producers an emotionally complex film: at once disillusioned and detached, and yet faithful to a utopian poetics that, in the film, has to be treated with some degree of ironic distance. For me, these tonal ambiguities are most complicated in the Guy Fawkes Day sequence–the bonfire that memorializes failed revolutions and past insurrections. I’m very happy you brought in the Duffy poem, with which I was not familiar. I hear the echo that interests you between the ghostliness at the core of Duffy’s speaker and Keiller’s poetic voice. Excellent, wide-ranging, and yet focused work. Perhaps your strongest post in a semester of very strong posts.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s