Monday, 3 May 2010


At times, boundaries between places can act as thresholds from one experience to another. From inside to out, from door to hallway, window to table, a world’s terrain is explored, thick in its detail and rich in its depth. Once inhabited, those boundaries become porous, and the experiences undergone in one place become incorporated into the body as a whole. And it is true: space is an extension of us, but the reverse is also the case: we are an extension of space. Within this dialectical interplay, the body as “holding-sway,” is thought of as being the “zero point” of orientation, from which notions of being “at home” spring forth (Husserl). More than this, the body as the locus of experience is never left behind, never entirely expired, even when consciousness has ceased to be conscious of the body. The body continues even when—especially when—we experience a rupture between self and world.
In the street, a kind of murmur completely envelops him; similarly he feels deprived of his freedom as if there were always people present round about him; at the café there seems to be something nebulous around him and he feels to be trembling; and when the voices are particularly frequent and numerous, the atmosphere round him is saturated with a kind of fire, and this produces a sort of oppression inside the heart and lungs and something in the nature of a mist round about his head (Minkowski, cited in Merleau-Ponty).
Murmuring, freedom, nebulousness, trembling, fire, oppression, midst: each of these terms mentioned in Minkowski’s account of anxious spatiality, points to a collision between the lived experience of the world and the formal, objective characteristics occupying the same space. Space becomes transformed by the subject’s placement in the street: equally, the subject himself undergoes transformation as his body becomes enveloped by the street. Both are caught in the prism of an anxious being-in-the-world. But does the experience of bodily anxiety arise prior to being in the street? Does the street touch upon an experience that is already coiled within the subject’s body? The question hinges on a phenomenological analysis of thresholds, of crossing the street.

Structurally, the street as an emblem of anxiety is marked by its identity as being between places. As proof of this, the threshold demarcating the street from the pavement is not determined by the objective fear of risk, such as being hit by a car. Rather, it is within the structure of the street (quite apart from its contents) that anxiety literally takes place. Between places, the street assumes a level of uncertainty assuaged only by proximity and attachment to the aligning pavements. Proximity and distance from is a dynamic that depends in large on the admission of finality. Less a “crossing,” the opening becomes more a leap dividing worlds. This is the impasse of vertigo and claustrophobia I spoke about previously. In the street, vertigo becomes a horizontal experience, understood as the sense of swaying on land. And rightly so: for if we take the bodily experience of being “at home” to refer to a mode of being-in-the-world that is fluid and coherent, then where that unitary phenomenon is disordered, the materiality of space loses both stability and orientation.

Existentially, the street is held apart from the rest of the world in its strained phenomenality. Consider the experience of looking outside of a window from your bedroom: the materiality of the world is not only cast in a different atmosphere, but its very reality is of a different order, somehow more susceptible to dis-appearing. Recall Freud, too: “According to the evidence of my senses, I am now standing on the Acropolis, but I can’t believe it.” Disbelief coincides with a loss of reality, and a loss of reality sets in place a different kind of materiality—beyond touch, beyond perception, forever evading the body that crosses it. The very stuff of being—a street linking places—is no longer enough to secure the validity of the external world, no longer enough to prove the idea that there is a world in the first place.