Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-century Culture

By Dai Vaughan


Peter Wollen’s sequence of essays, Raiding The Icebox, was originally published by Verso in 1993; and its re-issue is to be welcomed. From the start, we are plunged into a maelstrom of erudition encompassing fashion, cinema, politics, the visual arts and much else. Following a discussion of the Orientalist vision of the harem, with its solitary despot counterposed against an undifferentiated mass of women, we find that “there is a strangely similar fantasy of the male as singular and the female as plural in Poiret’s work. For the 1925 Exhibition of Decorative Arts he placed three elaborate show barges on the Seine, one for fashions, one for interior design and perfume, whilst the third was a floating restaurant. They were named Amours, Délices and Orgues, the three words in the French language that are of masculine gender in the singular, but feminine in the plural.”

To read this is like watching a flying trapeze performance for the mind.

Most of us will surely learn a good deal along the way. For my own part, I did not know that Gramsci had been an enthusiastic proponent of Fordism and its presumed consequences for the human psyche. More subtle is the fresh light cast upon matters of which we were aware but to which we have probably given little recent thought. Thus it may seem strange, now that the Ford-style assembly line has been largely replaced by full automation, that it should for so long have provided the paradigm for people’s perception of ‘the masses’. After all, there were always large sections of the proletariat - coal miners, railway workers, domestic servants, mariners - who, though clearly victims of exploitation, were never quite reduced to uniform, cogs-in-a-machine status as satirised by Chaplin in Modern Times (or, some years previously, by René Clair in À nous la liberté ). And, at the level of detail, it is curious to be reminded that there were many who saw cubism as a step towards a machine aesthetic: an interpretation that would scarcely occur to us today unless perhaps in relation to the early work of Léger, inspired as he was by the sun glinting on the breech block of an artillery piece.

Confronted with the plethora of detail through which Wollen plots his argument, we may, if only from a certain exhaustion, begin to ask whether there might not be an infinity of possible histories, of possible ways of joining the dots. To take a crude example, it is easy to imagine an account of Pop art which might elect to trace its beginnings to the famous Bass trademark which appears in Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergères’. The chapter devoted to the multiple influences bearing upon the career of Jackson Pollock may leave us feeling that, if we were to zoom in to a higher degree of magnification, we would find, as with a Mandelbrot set, an equal complexity at play on every level. Wollen is aware of all this, and remarks succinctly, ‘Endings rewrite beginnings.’ The complicating factor is that what he is engaged upon is a history of the histories, a rewrite of rewrites, the story of our culture re-enacted like old campaigns with battalions of lead soldiers on a sand tray. It is for the reader to decide what significance and what implications to accord to the narratives proposed here. But to engage with them, and with such energetic prose, is never less than stimulating.

Raiding the Icebox is published by Verso books.

Dai Vaughan is a novelist, critic and poet.