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David Ashford, London Underground: A Cultural Geography.

David Ashford, London Underground: A Cultural Geography, Liverpool University Press, 2013, pp. ix + 188, 70.00 [pounds sterling].

Haewon Hwang, London's Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. vi + 235, 70.00 [pounds sterling].

Since Edward Soja's Postmodern Geographies (1989) inaugurated the 'spatial turn' in criticism, (1) exhorting scholars to challenge the dominance of temporal, historical concerns in theory and criticism, cultural studies have eagerly investigated the relations between material spaces and their metaphorical counterparts, using an increasingly varied range of philosophical methodologies. Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (1958), Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space (1974) and Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) are all theoretical touchstones for the now not-so-new but still relevant spatial studies.

Haewon Hwang's London's Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915 and David Ashford's London Underground: A Cultural Geography both examine the space of subterranean London and the books have much to say to each other chronologically and methodologically. Both articulate representational 'maps' of the worlds below London and Paris, marshalling a wide array of historically situated cultural documents: novels, poems, advertisements, photographs, paintings, medical literature, graffiti, etc. Both acknowledge their debts to their forebears, Rosalind Williams and David Pike, authors, respectively, of Notes on the Underground (1990) and Subterranean Cities (2005). Both invoke Henri LeFebvre's idea of 'representational space', (2) its socially constructed nature, as a theoretical starting point for their investigations. Similarly, anthropological approaches and methodologies figure in both: in Hwang's case, Mary Douglas's theory of dirt as 'a matter out of place'; (3) for Ashford, Marc Auge's non-lieu/non-place. (4) Hwang begins with and Ashford ends with the role of Derridean 'revenance'. (5) Both studies are, unsurprisingly, interested in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1894) and E. M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops' (1909). And both consider at some length gendered experiences of the Tube.

Hwang's study, while ostensibly focused on London, is the more capacious in terms of sites analysed, discussing a range of underground spaces--sewers, cemeteries, the Tube network and other subway systems--in London, Paris and, towards the book's end, Russia and the United States. Hwang posits a necessary set of continuous relationships between conceptions of these underground spaces and 'surface modes of existence' (p. 2). Claiming that the 'subterranean consciousness' of Victorian London constitutes the 'privileg[ed]' and 'prevalent mode of mapping, experiencing and reinventing the city, Hwang is interested in why and how, until late in the nineteenth century, literature in particular 'elided the [underground] space for a more oblique and disjointed response to the vast changes occurring underfoot' (p. 201). This translates into the 'haunting' of London, above ground, by all that remains un(der)represented below ground (p. 4).

London's Underground Spaces begins with a discussion of 'the Incontinent City' (p. 19). Hwang links anxieties about hygiene that accompanied engineering efforts to more effectively dispose of London's copious refuse to a greater emphasis on 'class distinctions ... in the vertical representation of the city' (p. 23) and with parallel 'images of the abyss and the flow of factory workers that marched on endlessly, the underground depicted [as] the social sublime of a vast subterranean path towards a bloody clash of social ideals' (p. 35). In this formulation, the condition of sewers is inseparable from the condition of England and the threat posed by Victorian effluvia is the threat of waste in a variety of forms: both literal excrement and pockets of humanity, including prostitutes, foreigners and the mass of new urban manual labourers.

Hwang then moves to the Underground with a capital U, the form of transport that transformed Londoners' experience of the city above while remaining largely and conspicuously absent from mid to late nineteenth-century fiction, signifying a Derridean 'prevalence of ghostly traces that haunt the city in some of the crucial discourses of modernity' (p. 74; emphasis original). Fears about physical integrity and safety spawned by the Tube's construction and motion manifested themselves in representations of 'psychic disruption' and 'altered mental states, which in many ways anticipated the Freudian model of the unconscious' (p. 103). Hwang also looks at the relationship between the Tube and the trenches of World War I, a more specific and interesting analogue to the Freudian unconscious.

Sigmund Freud's 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1917) frames a chapter on London's cemeteries, shifting the book's focus from technological innovations to 'the sacred and the spiritual' (p. 117). The scientific and medical attempts to contain the contagions existing in the sewers also resulted in the removal of cemeteries and their decomposing bodies from the centre of the city to its margins. But even as death practices became more secular, Hwang argues, 'the underground space of death maintained an organic image as a place of rest from the confusion and turbulence of life above' (p. 117). Freud's melancholic, unconscious repetitions equate to another form of Derridean haunting: 'a recourse to the revenant and the spectre of the dead and the undead' that merge the subterranean and the surface (p. 118).

Hwang ends by exploring the paradox of a Victorian world filled with bombs exploding underground and literature about bombs failing to explode, between the Victorian 'media's conception of the [revolutionary] contagion sweeping Europe and the rest of the world' and literary depictions of ineffectual would-be terrorists (p. 161). 'The absence of concrete acts of terrorism' signifies a powerful critique and neutralising of 'underground' activity and organisations (p. 161; emphasis original). While, on the one hand, the 'submerged classes' associated with the sewers (including the Irish) took symbolic and material control of the very depths to which they had been relegated (p. 163), novels recast anarchist ideas as the purview of dissipated aristocrats (pp. 173ff.).

Ashford's London Underground: A Cultural Geography focuses more specifically on representations of the Tube and the subsurface railways that preceded it. If the scope of Hwang's book lies in its range of spaces considered, Ashford's lies in the length of its temporal arc, moving from the late nineteenth through the beginning of the twenty-first century. For Ashford, the Underground connects modes of production across time, rather than modes of experience along vertical axes. Taking Auge's idea of the non-lieu as his animating trope, Ashford examines forms of mediation at issue in the Underground's history. Ashford conceptualises the Underground as 'a transitional form, linking the alienated space of production created by the Industrial Revolution to the fully virtual spaces of capitalism that emerged following the Cold War' (p. 2). The second chapter of this study discusses Theodore Dreiser's posthumous novel The Stoic, published in 1947, its protagonist based on Charles Tyson Yerkes, an American who financed the Metropolitan District Railway at the turn of the twentieth century. For Ashford, the novel demonstrates the Underground's movement from provincial transport system to an ideological crossroads of global consumer capitalism.

Ashford begins, however, by looking back into Hwang's territory, claiming that cultural perceptions of the Victorian Underground derive from responses to the nineteenth-century British railway system rather than from more conventional ideas of a classical Underworld: 'the modernity embodied by the Underground seemed to pose an existential threat to the individual' (p. 21). Like Hwang, Ashford traces the images in the popular press of urban destruction and annihilation associated with the construction of the Tube and the forms of freedom the new transport system offered to women.

Most of Hwang's chapters end with necessarily abbreviated considerations of Modernism's relations to the Victorian Underground, spending the most substantive time, unsurprisingly, on the Futurists and their veneration of the speed enabled by locomotives and the Tube system. While acknowledging the more obvious connections between Futurism and European subway systems, Ashford's interest lies in the relations between the Tube and Modernism's Vorticists. Calling Vorticism a 'highly cartographic art' (p. 72), akin to the iconic 1933 Tube map by Harry Beck, he asserts that Vorticism's 'physical reordering of the visible part of the modern world' (p. 73) evolved out of Imagism's belief that the Underground was 'a technological space that has to be transformed into a metaphor through the moving spirit of the artist', rather than obtaining aesthetic status by virtue of technology alone (p. 68; emphasis original).

From Modernist visual engagement with the Tube, Ashford moves to twentieth-century virtual space in the commuter suburban area along the Metropolitan Railway known as Metroland. A place created out of nothing except train stops, in Ashford's reading, 'The Underground garden suburb is an imaginative elsewhere' (p. 111) that undermines modernist distinctions between 'town and country, house and garden, transit network and pastoral idyll', resulting in 'an intensely ambiguous artifice' (p. 109). At stake in the wholly artificial world of Metroland, Ashford suggests, is a somewhat ironically fertile patch of figurative ground for the human imagination.

Ashford's discussions of popular culture's more recent exploitations of the underground's imaginative possibilities end the book, in readings that link the ideas and tactics of the Situationist International to graffiti, punk music and film. Claiming that 'Tube-writing', as opposed to graffiti more generally, is the 'ultimate urban form', 'achieving maximum exposure while remaining instantly ephemeral', Ashford argues that the 'political urgency' of London Tube-writing persists as a powerful force in British urban culture (p. 154), part of a revitalised, if 'partial', Situationist protest (p. 162). Where Hwang foregrounds Derridean haunting operating throughout the Victorian underground, Ashford finds Freud's uncanny and Jacques Derrida's spectres particularly useful for understanding more contemporary imagery in and about the Tube. In the end, Ashford calls for us to 'imagine how we might inhabit rather than haunt the Machine' (p. 181; emphasis original).

In the middle of this study, Ashford (re)reads World War II 'Tube shelter' photographs and a painting by Henry Moore in terms of their interventions in the depiction of children at mid-century. This chapter seems particularly anomalous, taking the Tube as its setting but lacking any clear connections to either the material surrounding it or to the larger frame of the non-lieu established at the start. This problem points to a more general concern at issue in both books. Without asking for some single, unifying narrative of the Underground's cultural significance, I cannot help wondering if Michel Foucault's concept of the heterotopia might have rescued both books from the sense of being--at points--a collection of very interesting observations. (6) Hwang gestures towards the concept but quickly leaves the idea behind (pp. 9-10). There are myriad narratives about the underground, both upper- and lower-case, here and Foucault's heterotopia might have provided the authors with a theoretical means of reconciling them. The heterotopia is a real space, 'capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible', in the process highlighting the 'illusory' nature of other real spaces. (7) Foucault himself identified cemeteries as heterotopias --a fact that Hwang notes (pp. 116-17)--but the underground spaces of London more generally fit the category and more extensive consideration of how that broader heterotopia works could have helped in bringing these rich cultural histories into clearer focus.


Beth Wightman

California State University, Northridge

(1) Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York, 1989), p. 16.

(2) Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicolson-Smith (Oxford, 1991), p. 13.

(3) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo (London, 2002), p. 44. qtd. in Hwang, p. 10.

(4) Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London, 1995).

(5) Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London, 1994), p. 37.

(6) Michel Foucault, 'Of Other Spaces' trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 17 (Spring 1986), 22-7.

(7) Ibid., p. 25.
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Title Annotation:London's Underground Spaces: Representing the Victorian City, 1840-1915
Author:Wightman, Beth
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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