Wednesday, 24 October 2012

By the Seine

Bassin de l’Arsenal, Paris. October 21st, 2012.

At the tip of the Voie Georges Pompidou, the boulevard by the Seine slowly opens onto the Canal Saint Martin, a great expanse of shipping activity in the midst of Paris. Yachts owned by retired corporate investors from as far afield as the United Kingdom and certain parts of southern Italy, can be seen mooring here daily. Beside the Canal, a gloomy underpass beneath Pont Morland leads to the Bassin de l’Arsenal, where if you continue to go up, you will end up in the Bastille. It is possible, however, to proceed around the Bassin de l’Arsenal and continue along the Seine in the direction of Pont d’Austerlitz.

As the walkway beneath the Voie Mazas diminishes in width, you will experience the familiar melancholy of panic. For you, this reduction of the walkway is coexistent with the elimination of space and time more broadly. You are on the walkway, leaving the entrance to the Canal Saint Martin and heading toward Pont d’Austerlitz. The walkway is getting smaller, narrower, and the edge of the Seine is beginning to creep up from its depths below. You have left the wide boulevard beneath the Voie Georges Pompidou and are now in a different terrain. Your balance must be far steadier than before. Now, you must watch where your feet are placed, lest those same feet assume a life of their own and decide to drag you into the waters below. 

Space and time are withdrawing from you. You will be alone, and the void that holds your world together will be exposed on the banks of the Seine. The recession of appearances begins. Your body has started to crumble; your feet can no longer be trusted. Instead, you rely on your hands. Fearing that you might be swallowed by the river, you grip the walls of the walkway. They are stained with piss, perhaps from tramps that use the shelter as protection from the elements above. Your hands, now laced with tramp’s piss, grip the concrete wall. But the attempt to steady yourself provides little reassurance. An impasse forms: you cannot decide to take the risk and continue along the pathway, hoping to find a point of exit before Pont d’Austerlitz or to backtrack upon yourself, returning to the comfort of the Bassin de l’Arsenal. 

The indecision worsens your anxiety. Between agoraphobia and claustrophobia, your body loses its orientation. Your pretence at being placed in the world suffers from the brute force trauma of the anxiety you thought was a fragment of your memory, albeit a memory to be treasured. Your orientation in this cosmos is as easily dismantled by your proximity to the encroaching shoreline of the Seine. Your hold on reality, meanwhile, is maintained simply by dint of aesthetic reasoning alone. For you, this involuntary experience—deprived of its dynamic conflict— assumes the level of an aesthetic moment, in which you are the principle player. The body, fending off its own corporeal dissolution, transforms its contingency into an act of sublimation. Indeed, that you covertly embrace this surprise return of your panic is, for you, a welcome emergence. It binds you to the materiality of the world, securing your place in the world despite—because of—the body’s very disorientation.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Alien Origins


“Life,” so Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space, “begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house” (Bachelard 1994, 7). Bachelard’s remarks are directed critically against “certain hasty metaphysicians,” not least Heidegger, for whom, as is well known, life did not begin so well. In fact, it begins by being thrown into the world and thereafter confronted with the anxiety that one exists in the first place. Indeed, that one exists in the first place is a point of omission for Bachelard. He leaps from nothingness to life without any disruption in-between.

The grounds for disputing Bachelard’s claims are manifold, both theoretically and practically. This is not the place to address them. Nevertheless: Life begins. Of this, we have some (vague) certainty. But instead of propelling forward to the bosom of the house, phenomenology benefits from hovering in a space of origins. Why the elevation of the origin in phenomenology? Two reasons. One, epistemologically, the origin is the event where things are rediscovered in their original strangeness long before they’ve been tied down to the habitual and archival domain of human experience. Two, because of this edifying strangeness, the origin reveals the pre-reflective constitution of the subjective as being shaped by irreducible alterity and alienage. 

The alien origin, strange, impersonal, and anonymous—a point of pre-existence resistant to representation and yet nevertheless manifest in the phenomenal realm as what Merleau-Ponty will term “hostile and alien, no longer an interlocutor, but a resolutely silent Other” (376). Does this account already presuppose a thematic significance to the role of the origin? Put another way: how can phenomenology in its search for origins—emblematically framed by Husserl as the “perpetual beginner”—approach this pre-world without already defacing it with the world of habit?

The methodological problem is one of access. In its most extreme form, phenomenology ties us to an inseparable relation to the world, which is not only structurally suffocating but existentially claustrophobic insofar as it colours this relation with a pre-established harmony. Being-in-the-world. However it is phrased, the symbiotic relation of body and world retains a dialogical role, in which both body and world co-constitute one another. They remain intertwined, two sides of the same face, unable to tear themselves away. 

The world of plenitude, the realm of intercorporeality and its adjoining union with a misappropriation of nature as a conduit for the self to discover itself. All of this must be discarded if we are to attend to the origin as a site of alienation. Inhuman phenomenology—an origin of phenomenology that turns against itself, against its history, employing the body and the world as foreign matter with no ethical substance attached to it—would be one way to approach the origin. Germs and seeds have already been planted. Already in the extant works of phenomenology, the brood of a future phenomenology dormantly awaits cultivation.