Thursday, 24 May 2007

Touching Memory

The other day, I accidentally erased all the photos on my hard-drive, which stretched back to photos taken in the previous century. That is to say, to another life. I say “accidentally” but I do not rule out the possibility of an unconscious death-drive compelling my manifest actions, especially given that it was my birthday when the photos were formatted. After all, becoming overly attached to photographic images carries with it a gradual removal from the content itself, so that what appears in the photo is simply that – an object. At any rate, now that the photos of previous places, people, and scenes have been digitally eroded, I am forced to rethink the appearance of the past. This means being obliged to think beyond and around the photos, which, until now, acted as signs to the pre-formed past. Without the photos, it is tempting to think that past itself was reduced to nothingness. In evidential terms, there is perhaps some truth to this. After their erasure, there is nothing to say that such a past occurred, other than having it confirmed by other people, most of whom I am no longer in contact with. Stuck, then, with the transition from image to memory, the same past seized as an object now emerges without the visual glare, now decomposed as a scene comprised from the kinesthetic remnants of a blurred image.

The touch replaces the eye. I do not remember, but my body does. With that shift, a horizon of undiscovered experience is undiscovered. During last week’s Architecture and Phenomenology conference in Haifa, architect Juhani Pallasmaa spoke on the singularity of the body as a receiver of architectural experience. As he writes in The Eyes of the Skin: “Even visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body remembers who I am and where I am located in the world.” (p. 11). As with Bachelard, there is a seduction to this peripheral account of place and memory, a scene of plenitude and continuity. At the same time, however, there is also a recognition of what is absent in the “defensive and unfocused gaze of our time” (p. 13). Because of this, Pallasmaa’s argument for the depth of architecture derives from a singular notion of the human interacting with his or her environment. The benevolence of this vision is clear enough in Pallasmaa’s account of the sacredness of silence, a silence experienced as revealing the unity of appearances, and confirmed by Pallasmaa’s claim that “the real measure of the qualities of a city is whether once can imagine falling in love in it.”

Of course, on the one hand, all experience of architecture is fundamentally delimited by a human exchange, so forms a relational whole. On the other hand, unless this relational whole retains a dynamic instability, then the danger grows of pre-forming an experience of place in advance. Note, for instance, that the same benevolent silence which Pallasmaa experiences in place is experienced in Levinas as an anonymous, rather than human, presence: “The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric destiny, a plenitude of the void, of the murmur of silence” (Levinas, 1987, p. 46). Later in his lecture, Pallasmaa hinted at this dynamism through a consideration of fragments and ruins. In particular, Pallasmaa touched upon the discursive and vague formation of memory, whereby “my body remembers” what is otherwise forgotten. Such a line of thought would seem to have great promise, insofar as the experience of place, especially liminal places, makes us aware of our bodily and kinesthetic immersion in the world precisely through disrupting a habitual dwelling pattern.

Yet neither habitual bodily practices nor those which displace us from those patterns are complete in themselves. Both the familiar and unfamiliar, and the inside and outside must co-exist in order to form a whole. Pallasmaa is clearly engaged with this co-existence, yet there is an overriding sense in which those dualities constitute a normative understanding of place. So, when Pallasmaa speaks how “the city dwells in me, as I dwell in the city,” the impression of a “horizon of emancipation and imagination” coincides with a definite image on what constitutes architectural plenitude. Such a disjunction between experience and value suggests a (creative) tension between phenomenology and architecture. Yet if architectural design and experience is to retain "a fidelity to appearances," then questions concerning what architecture embodies, how personal identity is formed, and to what extent is memory a confluence between imagination and place, must all be open to the absorption of otherness, temporally and spatially.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The History of the Body

As the body carries with it imprints of previous actions, so it leaves its own movements in the places in which those actions occurred. This is a retroactive gesture of stretching, a desire thwarted by movement and distance. Often the desire is concealed, made aware only as a hum of disturbance, and fully exposed as a chance encounter between the environment and self. In this way, the world becomes impregnated with the traces of the body, discarded and forgotten moments of want and pleasure. The bringing back of the world—the spitting into a river—carries with it a sedimented consistency. The river and its bridge, then taken as a nocturnal image, re-appear, only now as an iron-rail overlooking the ocean, with a grey sky above, and ships on the horizon.

The history of the body: a history of partly assimilated events, centralised points of fixation, and a gradual formation of self-estrangement, all mapped out by the intentionality of desire. Symptoms of a lack of resolution, no doubt caused by the underground surging of history, force the body to retreat: “Existence is tied up,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “and the body has become ‘the place where life hides away’” (Merleau-Ponty, p. 190). There is no opening here, only the accidental recovery of an event seized from oblivion.

It is perhaps only by accident and lack do we discover the unity of motion, since interrupted by time. The body's failure is also its emergence. What is to say that we occupy the same body which took us into a particular place? Yet things persist. The total body is not left behind, but brings particles into the present. Fragmentation, Lacan’s “le corps morcelĂ©”: the body of parts: body-parts, the wounded body. An agency, so far unregistered in the present, enters the body, giving a certain tautness to its movements. But the tautness is not solely physical, but rather breaks the continuity of habit. A force enters, mutating the limits of familiarity. Habit memory, so innocuous to Bergson, precisely because of its immanence, becomes the site of rupture, as imbued with fervent desire as it is with loss.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

The Departed

I have been here before: above the earth, but carrying with me the bodily inflection of a hangover, which persists as an after-effect of an event now thousands of miles away. Despite this distance, the body—my body—has become the carrier of a series of barely registered events. A shadowline of obscurity. I grimace with each re-experienced and re-awoken moment. Voids in memory, filled in by black ale. Hangovers of distant events are infinitely melancholy in this way: they point to the unresolvability of time. Of course, I am aware of this pre-emptive disquiet before it occurs: in the Missoula bar, amongst strangers, who are bearing their souls to me. There it is! Bearing their souls to me, intimately and unguarded. Perhaps I will never speak to them again; perhaps less even see them once more. And yet—. After the plane departs from the landing strip in the midst of mountains, the people, their friends, the existence which is a world, and the tales they have told me with enthusiasm and concern will suddenly cease to exist, as though exiled to another world. The intimacy loses its presence. This, too, I am aware of in the Missoula bar.

Homesickness. A sudden pang for the grey diffidence of Britain. The world of grizzly bears and mountains presses down in its otherness. The talk—becomes white noise. Enough of conversation. Soon after, I am somewhat struck, as occasionally happens, by a nostalgia for the image of Inspector Morse. Further than that, in the remoteness of my presence, I am anchored by the crystalline sobriety of Morse’s face: the image cutting across the dark wood and wilderness of the bar.

Fatigue, no doubt. Fatigue of movement, fatigue of academia and its side-effects. A desire for quiet, a desire for solitude, a desire to write and not speak. Today, I am looking out toward the white horizon of clouds above and patches of isolated land below. Somewhere over Pennsylvania, perhaps. Further travel and exchanges loom ahead: commitments, events, etc. But for now, in this pocket of the sky—a sparsely populated DC9-30—there is some respite in the hovering presence of a world in which memory and conversation is only scarcely accessible.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

A Storm in Heaven

Professor Alphonso Lingis has come here to Duquesne to give a talk regarding the “compulsion” to escape toward nature. He spoke at length on the a priori desire for coral seabeds, unmarked continents, remote forests, nocturnal caves, mountainous peaks and so on. Befitting to the topic, Professor Lingis gave the paper, as I gather he is accustom to, in an African poncho with tribal music droning in the background. The results were intriguing. For instance: the manner in which Lingis spoke, the inflexions and affectations, correlated with the rhythm of the tribal music, producing a kind of urgency as absurd as it was captivating. Inside the conference hall of the Fisher Building—these academic buildings which occupy one place but become interchange in another—with its low ceilings and harsh lightening, the performance offered itself up as a ritualistic affirmation of spatial and musical tonality: in effect, a return to the primordial and a spiritual retreat from the jagged sky-walk of the Fisher Building.

Crustaceans, of course, have their place: Professor Lingis’ performative aesthetics is proof of this: his retreat from the hall abrupt. There is a nostalgia to this performance. Kant knew this well, and for this reason crustaceans play a central part in the free-play of imagination and understanding. But crustaceans are not an aesthetic end in themselves, despite the teleology of their playfulness. The sea withdraws, recedes, land comes caving in. Turbulence. The darkness of the sky. The displacement of marine life.

But here is nature, here is marine displacement: the departing gate of Detroit airport. Through it, many connections to other places emerge. I am caught on the multi-coloured enclosed travelator. Stuck in this evolving prism of colours and seized motion. As with Lingis, the tunnel is singing in motion, producing an artificial sanctuary far from the grey terminus of the airport as a dead-zone. But the wilderness passes, the travelator’s movement is re-animated, and once more I am being urged forward, toward time. Many connections. With each connection from the East Coast, the planes get smaller and less crowded. By the time I’m flying to Missoula, the plane has become miniaturized, vacated, and the weather has become volatile. But this does not mean there is refugee. Far from becoming a non-wilderness, the plane has become nature’s guardian. As the air-conditioning whirls into power, the plane takes off, releasing a stream of amber light to break through the brown cabin of Northwestern Airlines. Air and Light: the plastic hose of the air-conditioning and the thick layering of the airplane window. A tele-visual experience played out against the storm-clouds, which have been deployed on the Montana border. I’m flying above the shadowline of the storm, away from the future of Eastern Standard Time, toward the past of Mountain Standard Time.