Saturday, 24 April 2010

Pascal’s Abyss

Pascal had his abyss that moved along with him.
(Baudelaire, “The Abyss”).

Shortly after he was nearly thrown into the Seine in his coach, Pascal became fixated with the idea that he saw an abyss on his left hand. The incident had scarred his bodily awareness of space, such that the geometrical proportions of a room took on a renewed significance, now endowed with a “great hole leading who knows where; I see only the infinite through all windows” (Baudelaire). How is space moved from the materiality of its geometrical proportions, delineated through reason and abstraction, to space as an expression of “the eternal silence” felt through the contours of the body?

In Léon Spilliaert’s drawing, “Vertigo” (reproduced above), this collision of geometry and anxiety produces a supra-real landscape. Contours become punctuated with massive voids, angles lose their solidity, while the exposure leading from above to below becomes a plight of terror. The face of the human in the drawing is darkened, an amorphous hole where the eyes should be peers out from beneath the hood. There is motion in the person’s movement, the scarf caught in the breeze. In this scene of movement and deformed geometry, Spilliaert depicts tremendous hesitation in her movement. Indeed, more than hesitation, the figure is frozen between steps, with her body orientated toward the top, from where her “spirit, haunted by vertigo, envies non-being in its insentience” (Baudelaire). Baudelaire’s characterisation of Pascal’s abyss establishes a dilemma that the figure in Spilliaert’s drawing viscerally confronts: to commit to descent, would risk exposure to the precipice separating one place from another. Whereas, remaining stationary eschews one phobia for another, claustrophobia: the pathology of having no place to escape to.

How will phenomenology contend with Pascal’s abyss? How, that is, will phenomenology contend with the abyssal experience that is no longer reducible to the objective components of space? Of course, phenomenology has already accounted for the experience of space, which is less reliant on points, grids, and measurements, and more concerned with the affective relation we have with the intimacy of the “home.” Phenomenology’s orientation toward being “at home” in the world thus attests to a relationality bridging experience and world into a unitary phenomenon. That this relationality tends to privilege “felicitous” instances of dwelling does not, however, preclude the relation being redirected toward the experience of abyss. For what is at stake in this relation, is the animism of space, the very birth of place’s genius loci. More of which next time.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


An apartment in Brooklyn. Your body is pressed against the cooker. Rice is boiling on the stove, and your brow has begun to excrete half-a-dozen beads of sweat against your dark skin. The life of fire and warmth has been lit in your kitchen. Your body is animated, and your kitchen is alive. I am watching from the corner of the room, my head is directly under the entrance demarcating the kitchen from the hallway. I remember nothing, except for the moment I enter the kitchen. I brush by your body, you flinch, and I retreat: we have shown one another the ending that lies in wait. Our bodies have met in space, but not touched one another. Your body is alien to me, its mass of flesh and bone carved beside the American cooker, a monument of an era now consigned to archives. Your body is inhospitable, no longer of this home: at certain times, it is no longer clear where your body ends and where the anonymous ruins of this Brooklyn apartment begin.

When, asks Anthony Steinbock, is a home a home? In time, an answer forms: “The homeworld…is a privileged world since it is not merely one world among others, and our homecomrades are not simply individuals who happen to occupy the same space” (P. 232). We are (re)turning to Bachelard’s “inhabited space,” only now thrown into an intersubjective, experiential realm of spatiality, in which, after all, space is not enough. (Cf. Heidegger: “the real plight of dwelling does not lie merely in a lack of houses.”) Other creatures are met in the hallways and rooms of the places, in which we sometimes dwell. And now these bodies must confront their fate: do they exchange glances in order to reciprocate the other's corporeal being or objectify one another? If we are lucky, then a transformation takes place, beginning with the body which, for Steinbock, “takes on the styles and habitualities of comportment unique to our cultural values….Indeed, this is so much so the case that it might not be too strained to speak of the lived-body precisely as a ‘home-body’” (P. 232-233).

Home-body: You have left the apartment and I am lying motionless on your floor. My body is home-less in this place you call “home.” My body falls through this place, circumvents the brown bricks, dark doors, and iron railings leading to this point in space and time. Way above me, the sky has turned dark and my back is arching toward the ceiling. From this angle, I can see the grooves that your shoes have made in the floor, the scratched surface a testimony to your commitment to this corner of the planet. You have been here longer than I have. Your body is attuned to this place. The shadow of your body pours into the depths of this furniture and cutlery: when I move to the kitchen in your absence, then I can taste your skin on the knife I use to slice bread into smaller pieces. Here your body lingers where you yourself have long since departed.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

At Home

Bachelard: “All really inhabited space bears the essence of home” (p. 5). Much remains unsaid in this important claim. Much is already contained in this phrase, chunks of which can be disproved with recourse to empirical experience. After all, it is manifestly not the case that inhabited space is a necessary and sufficient condition for what we would term being “at home.” There are occasions in which unity, harmony, belonging can occur in the glance of an eye, when moving from place to place. Conversely, a prolonged inhabitation of space need not result in the experience of being “at home.” Over a long duration of time, the feeling of being a visitor in one’s “home” is symptomatic of a rupture exceeding temporality, from which no inhabitation can resolve.

“All really inhabited space bears the essence of home.” This formulation must be returned time and again. From whence does the feeling of being “at home” emerge? Anthony Steinbock’s reading of the generative emergence of homeworld/alienworld in Home and Beyond is a good place to begin plotting this emergence. The critical question here is: is familiarity to be identified with normality, and thus home? (p. 175). Steinbock turns to Maurice Natanson, who “notes that what is typical for myself is immediately familiar to me, that is, has its roots in my life in ‘silent familiarity’” (p. 174). Silence is also a mode of inconspicuousness: nothing protrudes in this familiarity, but instead reinforces the bond between silence and typicality. Here, too, others and other things become incorporated into my lifeworld, all serving to place me within a normal context. Husserl writes: “Everyone newly emerging into my circle is apperceived according to my likeness, and now he is called normal when the general prefiguring of the horizon…accords to me in the general structural style” (Ibid.). This is a telling passage. At first sight, it looks as though “normality” gains its normative dimension through the egocentric focus of the “I,” a point that Steinbock is critical of. Things become incorporated through an already perceptive reciprocity. Only then, is the formation of the “alien” (unhomely) possible, given its co-dependence on the normative centre, as Steinbock writes: “The ability to typify is the essential means of human normality to ensure against the existential shock of having to the see the world the way it is” (sic, p. 175). Unfamiliarity is the condition of familiarity, and the dialectic of inside and out (which Bachelard would speak) is the basis upon which the hold of the lifeworld forms. Ultimately, Steinbock will point to an account of being at home that places intersubjectivity central.

In any case, the co-constitution of familiar/unfamiliar and home/alien points to what Steinbock terms “liminal” notions, liminal in the sense of being “mutually delimited” (p. 179). Without venturing into Steinbock’s discussion of “appropriation” and “transgression,” a distinction to Bachelard’s onus on “inhabited space” is already evident in this discussion. We have moved from a static account of home, as figures large in phenomenological architecture. Take Juhani Pallasmaa as an example:
Home is an individualized dwelling, and the means of this subtle personalization seem to be outside our notion of architecture. Dwelling, a house, is the container, the shell for home. The substance of home is secreted, as it were, upon the framework of the dwelling by the dweller.

Home is an expression of personality and family and their very unique patterns of life. Consequently, the essence of home is closer to life itself than to artefact.

Reflection on the essence of home takes us away from the physical properties of a house into the psychic territory of the mind. It engages us with issues of identity and memory, consciousness and the unconscious, biologically motivated behavioural remnants as well as culturally conditioned reactions and values. (Via).
I remember hearing Pallasmaa express similar sentiments in 2007 in Haifa. I looked down, and realised I was clenching my fist in a non-conscious act of resistance. It is a seductive mode of thought that would sooner retreat into a myth of primordiality than contend with the ambiguity joining the indifference of materiality with the human patina applied to that materiality. “At home” must also face its antithesis, its awkward birth in the alien and unhomely. No longer being at home, exile. The home marked by the residue of memory, the rupture of dreams that have been transposed from night to day: a waking alienworld, from which the phrase "I remember" damages the structure of experience. “Because we are home we ‘belong to’ to the alienworld in the process of co-constitution, but again, precisely by not belonging to the alien as being ‘home’” (Steinbock, p. 181). Home implicates alien, and vice-versa, establishing a porousness of borders, from which the question emerges: is it possible to be an alien in one’s “home” without already being “at home” amid that alien environment?

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A Disturbance of Memory

On a still day, Simon Srebnik is returning to Chelmno: “Even, I, here, now…I can’t believe I’m here.” Faced with the ruins of the Acropolis, Freud joins Simon Srebnik in failing to reconcile time and place. “So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!” There is a concurrent trauma in this refusal and resistance. The facticity of everyday phenomena exceeds its own appearance, establishing a fissure between materiality and experience. Too good to be true: this tacit pessimism in the face of things reveals another side. “According to the evidence of my senses, I am now standing on the Acropolis, but I can’t believe it.” Freud’s unnerving response to the Acropolis concerns less a tension between anticipation and experience, and more a rupture between place and embodiment.

When the fabric of the world ceases to be of this reality, then do I take “leave of my senses?” Does my body lie in wait, its sensory awareness momentarily suspended? What remains: the bewilderment of an experience without a memory, or a memory with no experience? In each case, the experience of things—the Acropolis or Chelmno—becomes defined as a negative space, suffused with a derealized sensation. Just as with Srebnik in Chelmno, Freud’s encounter with a derealized world centres on the markings left by ruins. In the traces left behind, an excess in matter is produced, serving to remind the visitor that beyond the appearance of presence, estrangement and otherness ensue.

Beyond appearance: contrary to phenomenology’s onus on what gives itself, Freud and Srebnik’s derealized experience of time and place damages the body’s intentionality toward the world. The body is seized in its tracks, and a semi-realised reality is the result. In such a case, disbelief becomes a privileged experience, pointing to a tension resistant to logic and reason. “Even, I, here, now…I can’t believe I’m here.” This phrase haunts the experience of derealisation, its spectrality co-dependent on the placid banality of things: in a word, uncanny. Ultimately, therefore, Freud’s psychodynamic explanation for derealisation—explained with recourse to “the punitive agency of our childhood”—falls short. Phenomenology—phenomena—survives derealisation, and its persistence is at the heart of estrangement from things.

Yet structurally speaking, Freud is right to identify the temporality of childhood as central. After all, the de-realization of the world presupposes a prior mode of world to deviate from, both spatially but also temporally. Derealisation is also a doubling and, as Freud points out, a doubting. More specifically, a doubting of a former mode of being, which, through being confronted with its other, is now effaced. Thus, Freud’s example of the paradoxical behaviour the last ruler of Muslim Andalucía, Boabdil when hearing about the fall of Alhama is telling:

“Letters had reached him telling that Alhama was taken. He threw the letter in the fire and killed the messenger.”

Far from paradoxical, however, the (re)-action attests to the body’s orientation toward a particular world—marked in Boabdil’s case by disempowerment led by the end of rule—which is now dissolved. Denial of the destruction of the world is as evident in trauma as it in ecstasy. In both cases, a displacement of self serves as the mark of a de-realised world (noting here, of course, the alignment between Heidegger’s etymology of temporal ec-stasis as “standing out” and the loss of bodily function as a doubling of the out-standing quality).

Saturday, 3 April 2010

From Bolinas

"The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands." (H.P. Lovecraft)

"It is the Howard Hughes of towns": more information on Bolinas here.