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A Coney Island of the Mind

Norman Klein explains why California will shortly declare independence

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2007
'A hundred years from now children will dress as Americans for Halloween'
by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2007
'A hundred years from now children will dress as Americans for Halloween'

In Norman Klein's newest book, Freud in Coney Island and other Tales, the Los Angeles-based writer and academic provides yet more effervescent proof that you can take the boy out of Coney Island but you can't take Coney Island out of the boy. Klein's prodigious imagination seems to have been nurtured by urban decay, haunted by the ruins of a spectral amusement park towering in the background of his recollected youth.

Klein's earlier books include The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, a perceptive and provocative appraisal of his adopted city that reads like a combination of Mike Davis and Walter Benjamin (quite literally in one of the text's docufables outlining Benjamin's alternate future, escaping Nazi persecution to become both an exile in Los Angeles and an expert on b-movies and noir), and his magnum opus The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, a kind of intellectual rollercoaster ride in which he explores the complex ideological, epistemological and ontological codes of 'scripted spaces', those immersive environments that range from Renaissance churches to shopping malls and casinos: spaces designed like games, constructed to control your responses and to maximize the removal of money from your pocket. Sure, Klein understands that everyone is more or less aware of this kind of manipulation and that they usually agree not to care too much about it. Regardless of such apathy, Klein sees his critique of these power structures as a necessary part of his self-confessed role as 'a barnacle' clinging to the side of the sinking ship sometimes known as the United States.

For a cultural historian, Klein is refreshingly funny. His disarmingly conversational lecture style is almost always guaranteed to generate sustained smiles and the odd belly laugh from appreciative audiences. He was in suitably serio-comic mode in London this week for a conference at the Tate Modern on animation. He also held an open seminar at the Architectural Association School of Architecture on the imaginary history of various 'inversions' currently transforming cities. At the AA, he fired off a series of aphorisms that ricocheted between practiced Woody Allen one-liners and perfectly pitched screwball self-help wisdom. After warning architecture students of the design perils of spending months at a laptop 'polishing the jelly bean', he advised that 'if it looks wet, jump in, you can invent water on the way down'.

The event was held in the Georgian splendour of what is still known as the AA's Front Member's Room, an elegantly scripted space colonized since the 1920s as part of that ferociously independent school's main hub in leafy Bedford Square. Formerly a quiet zone reserved exclusively for eminent architects to spill brandy while concocting utopian variations on yet more scripted spaces, nowadays the room is primarily used for exhibitions. The current show consists of John MacLean's photographs of Brasilia - that paradigmatic modernist city constructed in half a decade in the middle of the jungle. Instead of literally concentrating on the concrete, MacLean's photographs capture the everyday interaction of people with the urban environment. While the images avoid clich?©s about the dehumanizing effects of modernist architecture (where those brandy-stained utopian projects got wrecked on post-WW2 material realities) the occasional dazzling splashes of colour create a sense of a subtly encrypted advertising campaign being launched for an as yet unnamed product.

Noting the ornate fireplace and the crystal chandelier cascading towards an antique table on which various books and cards were spread, Klein confessed that it felt like entering a war room where strategies for the next campaign in the Boer War were to be thrashed out. Maybe the collision of times and styles in the room could have been a potential port of entry when the conversation opened out to the twenty or thirty students (from ten or twelve countries) sat around the room's edges. But when Klein referenced the likelihood of California breaking away from the rest of the US and declaring independence, it seemed like the past really was another country and that right here, right now, he was asking us to accommodate the new social imaginaries already recoding twenty-first century anxieties. Indeed, raising the possibility that 'a hundred years from now children will dress as Americans for Halloween', Klein got the biggest and most uneasy laugh of the entire talk.

Photograph ©Valerie Bennett/Architectural Association

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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