Robinson in Ruins: a radical English pastoral

Robinson in Ruins marked the return of director Patrick Keiller – and a new green sensibility in his work.

Mark Fisher
Updated:

from our November 2010 issue

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

In Ellis Sharp’s short story The Hay Wain, a Poll Tax rioter in 1990 takes refuge in the National Gallery and “notices what he has never noticed before on biscuit tins or calendars, or plastic trays on the walls of his aunt’s flat in Bradford, those tiny figures bending in the field beyond”. Constable’s supposedly timeless painting of English landscape ceases to be a kind of pastoral screensaver and becomes what it always really was: a snapshot of agricultural labour. Far from being some refuge from political strife, the English landscape is the site of numerous struggles between the forces of power and privilege and those who have sought to resist them.

Patrick Keiller’s new film Robinson in Ruins – the long-awaited sequel to his two 1990s films London and Robinson in Space – performs a similar politicisation of landscape. Or rather it exposes the way in which the rural landscape is always/already intensely politicised. “I had embarked on landscape film-making in 1981, early in the Thatcher era, after encountering a surrealist tradition in the UK and elsewhere, so that cinematography involved the pursuit of a transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality,” Keiller wrote in 2008, as he was preparing Robinson in Ruins. “I had forgotten that landscape photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one.”

London (1994) was a melancholy, quietly angry study of the city after 13 years of Tory rule. Its unnamed narrator, voiced by Paul Scofield, told of the obsessive researches undertaken by Robinson, a rogue (and fictional) theorist, into the “problem of London”. London was the capital of the first capitalist country, but Keiller was interested in the way the city was now at the heart of a new, “post-Fordist” capitalism, in which manufacturing industry had been superseded by the spectral weightlessness of the so-called service economy. Robinson and his narrator friend surveyed this brave new world with the doleful eyes of men formed in a very different era – a world in which public-service broadcasters could commission films of this nature.

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

London was just as remarkable for the unique way it combined fiction with the film-essay form. It was composed of a series of striking images captured by Keiller’s static camera, which unblinkingly caught the city in unguarded epiphanic moments. Robinson in Space (1997) retained the same methodology, but broadened the focus from London to the rest of England; rural landscapes featured in the film, but as something Keiller’s camera looked over rather than at. In the first two films, Robinson’s interest was in the cities where capitalism was first built, and in the non-places where it now silently spreads: the distribution centres and container ports that are unvisited by practically anyone except Robinson and his narrator-companion, but which web Britain into the global market. Keiller saw that, contrary to certain dominant narratives, the British economy was not “declining”. Rather, this post-industrial economy was thriving, and that was the basis of its oppressive and profoundly inegalitarian power.

London was made in the wake of a political non-event, the general election of 1992, when change was supposed to come. The end of Tory rule was widely expected, not least by the Conservative Party itself, yet John Major was re-elected. Robinson in Space was released in 1997, the year the long-awaited change finally arrived. But far from ending the neoliberal culture that Keiller anatomised, Tony Blair’s government would consolidate it. With its focus on the banal, Ballardian infrastructure of British post-Fordist capitalism, Robinson in Space proved deeply prophetic. The England it depicted was still the England presided over by Gordon Brown a decade later.

The traumatic event which reverberates through Robinson in Ruins is the financial crisis of 2008. It’s still too early to properly assess the implications of this crisis, but Robinson in Ruins shares with Chris Petit’s Content (a film with which it has many preoccupations in common) the tentative sense that a historical sequence which began in 1979 ended in 2008. The “ruins” Robinson walks through here are partly the new ruins of a neo-liberal culture that has not yet accepted its own demise and, for the moment, continues with the same old gestures like a zombie that doesn’t know it’s dead. Citing Fredric Jameson’s observation in The Seeds of Time that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations,” Robinson nevertheless dares to hope, if only for a moment, that the so-called credit crunch is something more than one of the crises by which capitalism periodically renews itself.

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Perhaps strangely, it is the “thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and nature” that seem to give Robinson some grounds for hope; the most evident difference between Robinson in Ruins and the previous films is the emergence of a radical Green perspective. In part, Keiller’s turn towards Green themes reflects changes in mainstream political culture. At the time of the previous two Robinson films, Green politics could still appear to be a fringe concern. In the last decade or so, however, anxieties about global warming in particular have come into the very centre of culture. Now every corporation, no matter how exploitative, is required to present itself as Green.

The emergence of ecological concerns gives Keiller’s treatment of landscape a properly dialectical poise. In the opposition between capital and ecology, we confront what are in effect two totalities. Keiller shows that capitalism, in principle at least, saturates everything; in England, a claustrophobic country that long ago enclosed most of its common land, there is no landscape outside politics. And there is nothing intrinsically resistant to capital’s drive to commoditisation, certainly not in the ‘natural world’ – as Keiller demonstrates by way of a long excursus on how the price of wheat increased in the immediate wake of the 2008 crisis. Yet from the equally inhuman perspective of a radical ecology, capital – for all that it may burn out the human environment and take large swathes of the non-human world with it – is still a merely local episode.

Environmental catastrophe provides what a political unconscious totally colonised by neoliberalism cannot: an image of life after capitalism. Still, this life may not be a human life, and in this film there is the feeling that, like the narrator’s father in Margaret Atwood’s coldly visionary 1972 novel Surfacing, Robinson may have headed off into some kind of dark Deleuzean communion with nature. As with Surfacing, Robinson in Ruins begins with a disappearance – Robinson’s own. Paul Scofield having died in 2008, the narration is no longer handled by Robinson’s friend but by Vanessa Redgrave, playing the head of a group seeking to reconstruct Robinson’s thinking from notes and films recovered from the caravan where he was last known to live.

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

If the Redgrave narration doesn’t quite work, that’s partly because there’s a feeling that Keiller has slightly tired of the Robinson fiction – or that it has ceased to serve much of a function for him. For what seems like large parts of the film, the Robinson framing narrative disappears from view, to the extent that it can be something of a jolt when Robinson is mentioned again. Lacking Paul Scofield’s sardonic insouciance, Redgrave’s narrative is often oddly tentative, her emphasis not quite matching Scofield’s assured mastery of Keiller’s tone.

In tracking the historical development of capitalism in England, and the sites of struggle against it, Robinson in Ruins shows a sensitivity to the way in which landscape silently registers (and engenders) politics – a sensitivity that echoes the concerns of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. As in Straub-Huillet’s films, Robinson in Ruins returns to landscapes where antagonism and martyrdom once took place, including Greenham Common and the woodland where Dr David Kelly committed suicide.

Inconceivable futures

Keiller’s decision to stick with film rather than switch to a digital medium carries more charge now than it did when he used a cine camera for London and Robinson in Space. In many ways, even in 1997 we had yet to truly enter the digital realm; now, with cyberspace available on every smartphone handset, we are never outside it. The return to film made Keiller appreciate the materiality of the medium in a new way. “Compared with videotape,” he has written, “film stock is expensive to purchase and process, and the camera’s magazine holds only 122m of stock, just over 4 minutes at 25fps. Film hence tends to involve a greater commitment to an image before starting to turn the camera, and there is pressure to stop as soon as possible, both to limit expenditure and to avoid running out of loaded film. Results are visible only after processing, which, in this case, was usually several days later, by which time some subjects were no longer available and others had changed, so as to rule out the possibility of a retake. I began to wonder why I had never noticed these difficulties before, or whether I had simply forgotten them.

“Another problem was that, with computer editing, it is no longer usual to make a print to edit. Instead, camera rolls are transferred to video after processing, so that the footage is never seen at its best until the end of the production process. This hybridity of photographic and digital media so emphasises the value of the material, mineral characteristics of film that one begins to reimagine cinematography as a variety of stone-carving.”

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

When we hear early on in the film that Robinson has made contact with a series of “non-human intelligences”, we initially suspect that he has finally succumbed to madness. Yet the “non-human intelligences” turn out to be not the extra-terrestrials of a florid pulp-science-fiction-inspired psychosis, but the intra-terrestrial life forms that an ecological awareness reveals growing with a silent stubbornness that matches the brute tenacity of capitalism. In one of the many slow spirals that typify Keiller’s approach in Robinson in Ruins, the lichen that his camera lingers on in an early shot, apparently for merely picturesque effect, will eventually come to take centre stage in the film’s narrative. Lichen, Robinson comes to realise, is already the dominant life form on large areas of the planet.

Inspired by the work of American biologist Lynn Margulis, Robinson confesses to a growing feeling of “biophilia” – which Keiller seems to share. While his camera lingers tenderly on wild flowers, the film’s verbal narrative is suspended, projecting us for long moments into this world without humans. These moments, these unnarrativised surveys of a non-human landscape, are like Keiller’s version of the famous ‘Straubian shot’, the cutaways to depopulated landscapes in Straub and Huillet’s films. Robinson is drawn to Margulis because she rejects the analogies between capitalism and the biological that are so often used to naturalise capitalist economic relations. Instead of the ruthless competition which social Darwinians find in nature, Margulis discovers organisms engaging in co-operative strategies.

When Keiller turns his camera on these “non-human intelligences”, these mute heralds of a future without humanity, I’m reminded of the black orchids in Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness (1985) – those harbingers of an ecology that is readying itself to take revenge on a humanity that thoughtlessly disdained it. Kennedy Martin’s inspiration was the anti-humanist ecology of James Lovelock, and Lovelock’s apocalyptic message seems to haunt Robinson in Ruins too. Keiller finds extinction looming everywhere – species dying off at a far faster rate than scientists had thought possible only a few years ago.

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

Robinson in Ruins (2010)

This emphasis on extinction means that the concerns of Robinson in Ruins rhyme with the preoccupations that have emerged in speculative realist philosophy, which has focused on the spaces prior to, beyond and after human life. In some respects, the work of philosophers such as Ray Brassier and Tim Morton restages the old confrontation between human finitude and the sublime which was the former subject of a certain kind of landscape art. But where the older sublime concentrated on local natural phenomena such as the ocean or volcanic eruptions which could overwhelm and destroy the individual organism or whole cities, speculative realism contemplates the extinction, not only of the human world, but of life and indeed matter itself. The prospect of ecological catastrophe means that disjunction between the lived time of human experience and longer durations is now not just a question of metaphysical contemplation, but a matter of urgent political concern – as one of Robinson’s touchstones, Fredric Jameson, has noted.

“As organisms of a particular life span,” Jameson writes in Valences of the Dialectic, “we are poorly placed as biological individuals to witness the more fundamental dynamics of history, glimpsing this or that incomplete moment, which we hasten to translate into the all-too-human terms of success or failure. But neither stoic wisdom nor the reminder of a longer-term view are really satisfactory responses to this peculiar existential and epistemological dilemma, comparable to the science-fictional one of beings inhabiting a cosmos they do not have organs to perceive or identify. Perhaps only the acknowledgement of this radical incommensurability between human existence and the dynamic of collective history and production is capable of generating new kinds of political attitudes; new kinds of political perception, as well as of political patience; and new methods for decoding the age as well, and reading the imperceptible tremors within it of an inconceivable future.” In amongst its requiem for neoliberal England, Robinson in Ruins gives us some intimations of those imperceptible tremors and inconceivable futures.

Access the digital edition

Back to the top