Knocked down without the option (The Bed Sitting Room notes, part 4)

[part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here]

The long trek

This possibility of becoming an object or animal and thereby escaping the shittiness of being human in this post-apocalyptic world, becomes desirable in response to two conditions.

The still-birth room

First, the end of the sexual reproduction, the No Future birth crisis resulting from both radioactive sterility/mutation and, more importantly, the refusal of the prospective mother, Penelope, to bring her baby into this "wicked world." She carries "little Rupert" around in her for 17th months rather than birth him to this life, and he is born still-born - or murdered - at the hands of the National Health Service. This issue of post-apocalyptic birth crisis is a huge one, both here (of the three women we see alive, two are post-menopausal, and the third isn't sure she wants to even be a mother) and throughout the scattered examples of the genre. For the moment, we defer the issue: it is better addressed elsewhere, in a different context (zombies and overproduction, posts on this to follow in the near), and it is arguably the least interesting aspect of The Bed Sitting Room's apocalyptic imaginings, functioning as the sort of non-option magically restored at the end.

The second condition, the one around which this investigation has been circling, is the constancy of movement and the inability to resettle. These are neither the hardy survivors clinging tooth and nail to a last outpost, nor hardscrabble settlers starting anew in a Mad Max outback. Scattered across the space of ex-London with as much care as the rest of the refuse and broken things, those who were situated leave those spaces (the traincar, the bunker) to join the rest of the permanently itinerant. It is only when Lord Fortnam becomes a bed sitting room that this changes.

The bed sitting room to be drags himself toward Paddington

It is not incidental that this transformation gives the film its title, for the bed sitting room itself is the center of its arc, the site of hope, and the casualty of ruling order's destruction of that hope. If salvagepunk represents an attempt to think lost social relations via relations to discarded objects, in this version, we witness this process in reverse, in a very particular way: the social parasite - the aristocratic Lord Fortnam who slept blissfully through the Bomb - becomes a site of ultimate use-value, shelter from the nuclear storm. In becoming object, he becomes the direct inversion of his social role (the one who stands above the poor and their need for temporary housing) in the material form of a site for collective social relations, for (in a bad and literal pun) post-nuclear families to take shape.

Not that he is happy about this in the least. We meet him far before his long march, when he visits the doctor to complain that he is worried of what he suspects is his imminent transformation.

"Get your hands out of my drawers!"

(In this he differs very much from the mother, who seems relieved to become a cabinet, insofar as it lets her rest for a minute, as well as becoming a sexually desirable "thing" again: the great "get your hands out of my drawers, I'm a mother" joke as well as the later sounds of pleasure as the long-suffering doctor steps inside of her.)

Lord Fortnam, on the other hand, is rather frightened and quite pissed-off by the prospect, as in the following exchange with the doctor on what he can "take" for his condition of becoming a place of lodging.

"What can I take for it?"
"Three guineas."
"Three guineas."
"Three guineas… for your rent."
"Rent! I… I don’t want rent! I want to be cured!"

Even after his transformation, he remains a bristly curmudgeon, reluctant to accept not only the fact that he is a lodging for the poor but that he stands in what would have been the Paddington borough ("That’s pretty bad news, I’m afraid. Paddington."), a zone not up to the aristocratic standards of the ex-lord. In response, he demands: "Put a card in the window. No coloreds. No children. And definitely no colored children."

Red sky at morning

But in spite of these protestations, these lingering poisons of the old social hierarchy, the bed sitting room is a constitutive break in the logic of this self-repeating, self-consuming world of the nearly dead. While the characters speculate that Lord Fortnam's disappearance might be the result of the "first act of post-war murder", what we see instead is the first act of settling. Echoing the Mao and PM treaty to fix the rent of the apartment, this is co-habitation beyond money, a dismantling of the structures of rentier capital that freeze wealth into a site for the constant bleeding of wages from the already destitute. The doctor's response to finding the lord as bed sitting room - "I’d recognize you anywhere, my lord. I must say it suits you” - is at once a jab at the idiotic pride of the lord and the mark of a genuine move forward: what suits the lord now is the total unmaking of what that would have meant, not via an act of purgative destruction but by an act of construction. Nuclear or magical it may be, but it is nevertheless an immobile outpost for life above ground, a solid point of resistance in the wind-swept open expanse, opposed to the pocket underworlds of bunkers and subways we've seen so far.

In other words, a new topology in its barest, shoddiest incarnation, a fixed node that can't "keep moving" and around which a community could crystallize. Or, at the very least, around which something like a community could even start to be thought again. The New, here, is far from utopian, or at least in its form of positing an other world. It is simply taking the world - and "taking the room" - as it is, settling for and settling down.

However, while this approximates a crucial sense of the salvagepunk aesthetic (taking the dead world as it is), it also cuts back against it, in a willful betrayal of this possibility that comes to fruition in the deep dystopian core of the "happy ending" that is anything but. For what we see here in the bed sitting room itself is a tendency caught between, on one hand, the idea of making do with what cannot be undone, colonizing better, and settling down, and, on the other, the fantasy of creation out of nothing, out of starting totally anew, a birth of life and light, the transformation of the species, the new in all its messianic eschatology of the world (and its occupants) becoming unlike itself.

The bomb, redux

The deep intelligence of the film lies in recognizing not just the hard work of salvage but the extreme difficulty of holding out one's right to the ruins of the old world against a political order quick to snatch up any advances, any new models, any new knowledge produced from below. It requires not just the innovations of those barely scraping by but the destruction of those innovations, their energy and kernels of new thought blasted apart and swallowed into the rhetoric and administration of the ruling class. Concretely, in The Bed Sitting Room, you wait for the wandering poor to learn how to settle down before destroying their settlement. And you wait for them remember the Bomb for you before you become the embodiment and inheritor of what the Bomb means.

In this case, it takes the form of following through on the doctor's warning to the lord/bed sitting room: “try not to look conspicuous or you’ll be knocked down without the option”. In a rather hectic sequence, our raving bunker pervert is talking about the salvational properties of "the rubber" before concluding, “that’s why He dropped the bomb!”. Immediately following the vocalization of "the bomb", those two unspeakable syllables, a flurry of shots, in which each character, tenuously or with a rising joy, repeats: the bomb?

At this very moment, the wrecking ball of the police bulldozer smashes through the wall of the bedsitting room. Panic ensues, as the Bomb (the memory of the total, anonymous destruction of the nation) becomes the willful Bomb (the fact of the conscious destruction of what was built without the sanction of those who claim to rule). And then this exchange, starting with the booming voice of Lord Fortnam, cutting through the melée.

LORD FORTNAM: "Stop. Stop. Stop in the name of the Lord."
POSTMAN: “It’s God. He’s come back on us. Good, good old mate. For he’s a jolly good fellow. He’s a socialist, you know.”
LORD FORTNAM: "Quiet, labor scum.”
POSTMAN: "Ah! He’s… he’s a bleeding conservative!”
DOCTOR: "Now hold on a minute, you don't sound like God, you sound like Lord Fortnam!"
LORD FORTNAM: “I also, I uh, I also do impressions”

This is followed by various pleas for God to save them from "the dreadful radiation", to give back her dead child, and to be saved generally, with the promise of giving up atheism. After further confusion, the "real" voice of God steps in: the floating police inspector, to whose first words the doctor responds, “That’s God. I recognize the voice.” (Of interest here, among other things, is that if anyone is to step in to the role of the new God, it will not be the icon of the old social order. It can only be the voice of the post-apocalyptic sadists we have heard from the start, waiting for the rest to remember so he, and the emergent biopolitical regime, can claim to be what everyone was waiting for all along.)

The face of things to come

The speech he gives - arguably the high point of the film's already razor-edged writing - needs to be included here in full. The full brunt and cut of British late 60's satire - from Monty Python's Flying Circus to Steptoe and Son - deploys here, pitch perfect in both its nastiness and tone of the sort of things we hear all too often.

I expect you may be wondering why I’ve invited you all here this afternoon. I’ve just come from an audience with Her Majesty, Mrs Ethel Shroake, and I’m empowered by her to tell you that, in the future, clouds of poisonous nuclear fog will no longer be necessary. Mutations will cease
sine die and, furthermore, I’m the bringer of glad tidings. A team of surgeons at the Woolwich hospital have just accomplished the world’s first successful complete body transplant. The donor was the entire population of South Wales, and the new body is functioning normally. I, myself, saw it sit up in bed, wink, and ask for a glass of beer.

All in all, I think we’re in for a time of peace, prosperity and stability, when the earth will burgeon forth anew, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the goat will give suck to the tiny bee.

At times of great national emergency, you’ll often find that a new leader tends to emerge. Here I am - so watch it.

Keep moving, everybody, that’s the spirit! Keep moving!

There is more here than can be digested without somehow capturing just how it feels to hear these words at the end of watching the film, triumph, disgust, bile, and laughter. We can, nevertheless, draw out a couple points to situate this within, and largely against, the salvagepunk strain of post-apocalyptic thought. This speech itself is an apocalypse, the third of the film (the first and second being the nuclear war and the Bomb, respectively), for it is the revelation of the hidden, the laying bare of the not-so-covert violence of coercion with a more vicious sense of what had been out of view, namely, that this was managed from the start. The post-apocalyptic crisis as the willful creation of a condition to wear down the resistance of the last remnants of the old and the excuse to smash up the first remnants of a different new order, the gaping hole of the bed sitting room. The management of the "necessary," the declaration of a "national emergency", even when there is nothing of the nation left beyond that very emergency: is there no better vision of this state of exception, of claiming extrajuridical power, than this form of defending the nation against the already existent fact of the nation's total destruction?

On top of that, biopolitics removes its facade and show itself, the full horror of calculating the value of lives. Echoing Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, here we find an entire population recombined into a single body, a fact calculated both to represent the moving forward of the world from here (if not birth, then Frankensteinean undead life out of the assemblage of corpses) and to make clear what kind of world it's going to be: if too conspicuous, you'll be knocked down, if not conspicuous enough to matter in the global order, you'll be hacked up to make one new post-apocalyptic citizen.

New birth, now with no waiting period

On top of that, the hyperfecundity of the new order, the hybrid laying with each other forming the backdrop for the sudden birth of a new child for Penelope and Alan. Foreshadowing where we'll go with zombies, this is a world both of the possibilities of overpopulation (the teeming spheres of the babies "out of nothing", in zones that cannot support them) and of the false necessity of total decimation. Whatever threads of salvagepunk that remain at the end of the film - which is the cynical tale of what we lose when we agree to let ourselves be told what the apocalypse means - are a resistance to, and deep suspicion, of this world. Salvagepunk is a kicking back against these visions of the rational management of life and death, of the industrial subcurrents hidden behind state care and humanitarian interventions. It is a different cartography of the already dead not even buried, surfaces we forget only if we stay below ground.

Walking off to walking off to the sunset

Cruellest of all: Keep moving, everybody, that’s the spirit! Keep moving! Where walking off toward the sunset means walking away from the only real hope for life. This is repetition compulsion not of the pathological individual but of History itself, the obscene brutality of doing it over and over: “Great Britain is a first-class nuclear power again.” And so, like the Mad Max trilogy and like so much of salvagepunk, the deep, wracking sadness of knowing what will be forgotten and who will die, a feedback loop of rotting waste piling high toward the sky, too often overwhelms the adversarial role of salvage we have been advocating, the productive, innate-venom-releasing work of organizing minds, bodies, and needs better through sharper relations to the past.

It is a problem, ultimately, of what mode of "the negative" we use. Salvagepunk is fundamentally a negative - thought here not in the affective sense but in its relationship to what is given - operation, even at its moment of construction, because it deals with non-wholes. The goal is never the restoration of a positive entity, but rather an assemblage of negatives: cast out by the system or, in the longer task of montage, cut out to be put together otherwise. To celebrate the given and inherited by doing necessary violence to it. It is always haunted, to be sure, by a bad negativity of grey sadness, just staring blankly at the piles refuse yet never refusing.

Yet that is a risk to be run, given that the affirmation of the positive is decisively the side of the enemy, the often asubjective structures giving shape to regimes and their historical moment. The positive, as we see it in The Bed Sitting Room and in the ruling ideologies of late capitalism, is at once a rejection of the New in favor of preserving (and restoring) an old social order that has seemingly been lost in the rubble , and a defense of the New (as the ongoing process of making new whole beings out of nothing) as the thing to be restored. In other words, the New as restoration itself (what is new is "new leader" emerging, the police inspector's face as the guarantor of going back to how things used to be), and the restoration of the New (the orders of domination are restored by a biopolitical and messianic language and practice of newness, from the earth burgeoning forth anew and babies created out of the air, to the era of new peace and new nuclear power status). "Progress" means making one whole positive body out of the severed corpses of an entire population, burying the work of negation under the fantasy of the "transplant", of the metamorphosis of the undifferentiated into a single positive entity. The body politic made singular and manageable.

Salvage turned against itself: the ruling order learns its aesthetic lessons

Even the sublime gag of Mrs. Ethel Shroake, the closest relative to the queen, awkwardly astride a horse beneath an arc de triomphe of debilitated washing machines cannot fully mitigate this sense of defeat. Our graveside smile is one thing, the prospect of halting the ceaseless graveyard march another. Salvagepunk knows damn well that the issue is not to stop repeating and to fall into the logic of the enemy, the logic of the New restoration. The question is, has been, and will be how to repeat differently, how to make from the broken same the livelier constructs of something other.

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