Muriel Spark to PiL: The Public Image reconsidered

PiL/Metal Box (1978)
PiL/Metal Box (1978)

Today is Saturday, there is a Red-shirt UDD protest a few blocks away in my Phra Nakhorn section of Bangkok, and I am told traffic will make it difficult to leave the area. So here I sit, listening to reverberating bass lines of one of my first “favorite” bands, and it reminds me of a book I checked out from the library in the 9th grade, before I ever read anything by Camus. PiL, or Public Image Ltd., the primary author of the post-punk movement of the late 1970s, is aptly named after the 1968 Muriel Spark novel The Public Image. I’ve been going back to the Metal Box (1978) CD a lot lately noting the complete sophistication of the minimal instrumentation. The more basic the bass lines are (and two-stringed guitar riffs), the more dominant the pulse or metronome of the music becomes. In this way, the music speaks not of itself, or the author’s creativity, but of some outside exterior force driving it. The mystical quality of this group of songs opens up a lot of other questions I’m currently dealing with. Metal Box was originally sold, upon its UK release, in film canisters containing three vinyl LPs to be played at 45 rpm—in those times, the record player apparatus itself translated the slow playing recording into its proper sped-up pace. All the way from song design, recording, production, to consumption and listening, Metal Box was and still is a cinematic relic—and it still sounds like the future of music. When the album was performed live, the band played behind images projected upon a white screen. The album begins, by slowing down the tempo of images depicted in the verse:

Slow motion/ Slow motion/ Getting rid of the albatross/ Sowing seeds of discontent


Muriel Spark’s novel The Public Image, the impetus for naming the post-punk and postmodern PiL a decade later, is similarly postmodern and cinematic. This is why, up front, New Statesman critic Leo Robson notes that any treatment of Spark work “would have to countenance the possibility that Robbe-Grillet or Marcel Proust was of greater significance than Derek Stanford, her one-time lover and collaborator.” With spark as another global coordinate for cinematic literature I’m revisiting, in Chapter 2 of my dissertation, Robbe-Grillet as the foremost of cinematic provocateurs in French literature of the 1950s (and some say incubator of the French New Wave of Godard and Truffaut), and Proust the inventor of books centered on the cinematic temporality of flashbacks and jump-cuts (i.e., the timelessness of narrative prolepsis). I especially like how my edition employs a slash mark in front of each chapter heading, signifying a “cut”. So for example, Chapter 2 reads like this: /II. But more than any of the cinematic threads that the author of The Public Image follows, I’m been recently drawn toward the concept of publicity by several memories: the 18th and 19th century’s gossip motif (from the blackmail letters of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to the final court trial in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to Rousseau’s Confessions designed to put his side of the story in the public realm); films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) or Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces (2009) that compile visual images that instead of becoming public become an individual investigation that remains unsolved; and, finally, more recent fiction about stardom and celebrity like Somerset Maugham’s The Theatre (1978), Siriworn Kaewkan’s “About A Person Who is Well-informed in Thai Movie Celebrities” (2004), and of course Spark’s The Public Image.

There’s also a practical context worth mentioning. My friend Pap works at a Bangkok-based research firm that publicizes what the sum whole of the trends it sends its employees out to photograph (mostly tight jeans and wing-tips, or downtown NYC in the 1980s—see Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (1982) or borrow it from me for proof. And all this reminds me of the French structuralist Roland Barthes, who set out temporarily to test his semiotics as an advertising consultant for France’s largest automobile producer, Renault. And then there’s the fact that people say we don’t live in an age of signs and signifiers, after the manner of Barthes, but of frames and screens: youtube, camcorders, self-publicity ‘enframed’ by self-timed shots and, maybe the most important of them all, self-complicity. Conceptual artist and film theorist Victor Burgin, in his book The Remembered Film (2006), calls this domain the “cinematic heteratopia.” From web-cams to memories of film shots, there are unique times and spaces where we ourselves are enframed, or where abrupt and arresting images are brought to bear on our own reflections.

Muriel Spark, author of The Public Image (1968)
Muriel Spark, author of The Public Image (1968)

Annabel Christopher, Sparks rising film star protagonist in The Public Image attempts to control the circulation of surrounding images and, in doing so, must manipulate a variety of figures including her husband. As these ‘masks’ become apparent (and here again I’m thinking of Maugham’s The Theatre), and due to the web of connections, the actress loses the ability to ‘manage’ this image. Here cinematic heteratopia is strikingly similar to the world initiated by sticker pictures that culminates with today’s digital camera technology:

In practice her own instinctive method of acting consisted in playing herself in a series of poses for the camera, just as if she were getting her photograph taken for private purposes. She became skilled at this; she became extremely expert.

I will leave a more sophisticated treatment of the novel for another time. But back to the band…

PiL’s lyrics that narrate this same dilemma: managing an image versus the overwhelming system that drowns the self-managing subject. My reading of the song “Poptones” is thus the overwhelming figurative ‘drive’ of soundtrack: “The cassette played poptones/ I can’t forget the impression you made/ You left a hole in the back of my head.” This is quite the defeat of a sarcasm expressed in their earlier album: “The public image belongs to me/ It’s my entrance my own creation/ My grand finale, my goodbye.” But all the same, they express a visual language, juxtaposed with the minimal but heavy bass driven repetitions, in place of story motifs. The song “Death Disco” therefore ends like this: “Seeing in your eyes/ I’m seeing through my eyes/ Words cannot express/ Words cannot express.”

In the end, the cinematic message of PiL is venerable in an age of surface. The song ‘Memories’ closes out this turning point, between image control and self-fashioning complicity to image technologies, as a critical rejoinder to Spark’s The Public Image: “Whatever past, could never last/ All in your mind where it all began/ You’re doing wrong, it’s not the movies and you’re old.” And if in need of a bit more personal direction, PiL sings this: “Seen through the window/ Calling through mirrors/ Don’t you listen/ Don’t interfere/ Ignore it and It will go away.”

French feminist literary theorist Helene Cixous so notes in her analysis of Spark’s The Public Image, “the human theater reveals the inhumanity of individuals” and the central dilemma of celebrity is “to live as an image and without a heart everything moves very well and fast as always, more or less.” (209) When I return to the first track off PiL’s Metal Box the cinematic first lines of “Albatross” speak volumes: “Slow motion/ Slow motion/ Getting rid of the albatross/ Sowing seeds of discontent.” But outside of my room the UDD “red shirts” are still protesting, and the reverberating speakers will sound a leader’s message until sometime past midnight, and I am going to cautiously go videotape them with “Albatross” playing through my headphones.

Spark, Muriel. 1968. The Public Image. New York: New Directions.
Cixous, Helene. 2002. Muriel Spark’s Latest Novel the Public Image. In Martin McQuillan, ed. Theorizing Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave. 204-209.

3 thoughts on “Muriel Spark to PiL: The Public Image reconsidered

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