Monday, 17 January 2011

“There is someone in this room.”

“It is the Other’s being-there; i.e., that concrete, historical event which we can express by the words, ‘There is someone in this room.’”

(Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 277).
Wading from one hallway to another in a series of homogenous hotels, offices, and transit terminals, it is sometimes the case that human beings find themselves in rooms populated with other people. Such experiences can occur in a range of environments, from hospital rooms to seminar rooms, from off-world space stations to deep-sea submarine bases. In each case, there is a moment of hesitation at the threshold from one room to another. The body necessarily pauses at the doorway leading to a room, the active intentionality of the body taking time to ingest the facticity of a new room. And the pause in movement is a moment of precarious uncertainty. When I stand at the threshold of a room, my body reaches out into this foreign landscape long before “I” have set a foot in it. My body will assess this room in advance of the “I” who experiences it. As to its new findings, often I will only be in a position to survey the work of the body retroactively, once the room is seized as a partial memory. Until then, every act of entering a room is form of blindness, in which human beings must rely on a tacit faith that the room will mould itself to the contours to the body.

Here is a room and a doorway. I have seen it before. Inside it, a large plant, some cupboards, a window that overlooks a grey cityspace, and a woman sitting behind a small desk, her head held in the palm of her hand. Still at the threshold to this room, my body is nonetheless in the midst of a dynamic correspondence with the irreducible aura permeating from this corner of the world. The woman is not looking at me, and yet the room’s being stems from her presence. Everything within the room occupies a specific relation to the woman, and her presence is foreground in this field of intentionality despite her being objectively less visible. More than one thing among many, the woman commands the room without even raising her eyes in the general direction of the room’s spatiality. Things in this room revolve around the body of the woman, such that if she were removed, then those same things would lose their bearings and thus become inanimate.

The dynamic interplay of the women in the room does not limit itself to things she possesses within the room. The reason being: when I enter this room, then I do so knowing that the act of orientating myself in the room must in the first instant involve a dialectical standoff between the spatiality of my-self and my-other. Sartre writes: “We are dealing with a relation which is without parts, given at one stroke, inside of which there unfolds a spatiality which is not my spatiality; for instead of a grouping toward me of the objects, there is now an orientation which flees from me” (254). Sartre’s point makes it clear that space is not homogenous, but forever marked by a tacit claim of ownership achieved by the look. Even without directly looking at me, the women in the room seizes the room in the same way as “when there is a rustling of branches, or the sound of a footstep followed by silence, or the slight opening of a shutter, or a slight movement of a curtain” (257). The look possesses. In other words, the woman directs the spatiality of the room, such that I am brought into her own sphere of being while recognising “a decentralization of the world which undermines the centralization which I am simultaneously effecting” (255).

This relationship between a centralized and decentralized world means that the look carries with it an estranging affect. In entering a room, the universe slides away from me. Doing so, a new bodily mood is conceived, which has less to do with getting placed in objective terms and more to do with adjusting to the material conditions under which the look is presented. To be looked at is to commit to a dialogue not only with the other but also with the environment in which that exchange takes place. The look means recognising that “I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I cannot in any case escape from the space in which I am without defence—in short, that I am seen” (259). At the heart of this disturbing affectivity is the non visual perception of both the room and the other’s look, each of which have contribute to the other’s agency. In each case, it becomes possible to speak of being seen by eyes without a face, a look that is taken up as much in the posture of the woman as it is in the d├ęcor of the room.