All posts by Andrea Gibbons

Khadambi Asalache: poetry and place finished unfinished

We went to see Khadambi Asalache’s house today, and it was wondrous indeed. Poetry carved into wood, crafted into space. From the National Trust:

575 Wandsworth Road

This small, early nineteenth-century terraced house was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. In 1986, he began carving wooden fretwork to disguise a persistent damp problem in the basement dining room. He went on to embellish almost every wall, ceiling and door in the house with fretwork patterns and motifs which he hand-carved from reclaimed pine doors and floorboards found in skips. Over the course of a twenty year period he turned his home into a work of art.

He did not like for his friends to take pictures, because pictures mediate between you and the experience of place, and they also mediate your memories. Nothing could give you a true sense of what it means to be physically present in this house, so if you have the ability to come to London, to stand here, maybe stop reading now. Don’t look. But if you cannot get here, then a pale reflection can help you understand what follows.

I confess I liked being in this space without taking any photographs. But I also like these photographs from the website, for they frame and capture scenes in this place of almost overwhelming detail that allow you to isolate small portions and spend more time over them, to gain access to someone else’s framing of the space to see what others see.

A few things that struck me the most about this incredible place.

First the ways in which this incredible 20-year labour of detailed carving and fretworking and painting carved a space out of London that had nothing to do with London at all. Not an escape perhaps, but an alternate universe, a sidestep through a carved door into a place of beauty and safety and memory. Complete in itself, indifferent. It’s only the garden out the back that it calls on, its mimosa tree repeated and made soft, forever muted green in paint. Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often gray and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.

Our guides also mentioned how this house reflected Asalache’s philosophies as he carved a work that was beautiful, harmonious, forever unsymmetrical (though containing much symmetry) and forever incomplete. I think creating such intricacy across the whole of the house meant that not designing in a symmetrical way was more difficult — though this provoked laughter I am still a little hurt by. I don’t know why. But simply to mirror one half across another is easy, a mechanical operation that surely would have cut the time required (though of course to do it with machine like precision might not be). Instead, balance and harmony must emerge from some level of deeper awareness and attention as new forms are created to form a larger sense of wholeness that does not jar, that feels right and fitting in its difference rather than its sameness. This seems to me infinitely harder, worth a deeper appreciation.

He started in the kitchen, and he finished this room before moving to the next. There is an aspect to this house that made me initially think of obsession, made me think of the Watts Towers meticulously crafted over decades in a work that would never and could never be finished. There would always be more to do, more to add. The edges of things were all left rough, splintery, though they often incorporated smooth wood carvings rescued from jettisoned paneling and furniture in Lambeth’s great 1980s wave of gentrification and rebuilding. Almost all of the wood was found in skips, saved from this Georgian neighbourhood being gutted by money and development.

I love that Asalache could finish, and that part of that finishing was to leave sections unfinished. There is one shelf in particular in the dining room where fretwork adorns one half but not the other — left deliberately along with the other aspect of unfinishedness so as not to overwhelm his friends according to our guides. I stared at it…wanted to finish it myself. It is provocative, makes you think about this shelf as it fits into the room, fits into the house, fits into an ability to be incomplete, imperfect. The house is full of other examples, but none so marked as this one I think. A topic for discussion at dinner perhaps. I loved this long table, the conviviality it implied and memories it must hold of collective talk and laughter and breaking of bread together.

I loved how each room was different, loved the floors with patterns mirroring the rugs (the rugs were there first and the patterns painted in harmony with them), loved the doors decorated on only one side, loved the figures dancing, the multitudes of animals and birds carved and painted delicately on walls. Loved the beauty of the objects and the precision of their placement. Loved how this still feels like a space to be lived in, despite its beauty and fragility.

   I loved this house. To be here on a tour of only six, guided slowly by people who love it too, who know it so well, who can point out the parrot with a looking glass, the ancient Egyptians with a telephone, the painting of a man falling that a friend had snuck upstairs to do. All wonderful. I hope to come back, this is a place you will always find something new.

I found some of his poems too, though his most famous novel, A Calabash of Life, is sadly long out of print despite his role in an important period of African literature in diaspora.

From Prometheus (found in African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 66):

The shadow of sadness gently rolled down his tears
for now, between him and heaven, nothing but clouds
the grey procession moving into the silent afternoon
following a chink of light to close the path of escape.

His eyes followed this gloom, the puzzling fate,
like a drunken moment bringing its dark face
to come lower, lower, a fulfillment of stored hate
coming down to crush the hand of

From Conversations with a Suicide (African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 67):

the mind’s vault is walled
like a lake that has frozen round its shore, looks
pure. This is the frozen heart of the crystal
and the wind that blows hardens on
its face, shadowless

like a row of empty chairs in a waiting room
when you arrive the blank face of the wall
look away to avoid your stare-if you stop
to hit back you see only yourself, a dream
nothing more

if you were born under the sign of Neptune
the secret of your life is with stars
there is no answer for you here. Up
in the sky clouds gather to build
their own strength without fear moving
to make a search

And finally, just a curious little letter he wrote on the subject of ujamaa, which I am interested in from afar as a technique for collective liberation that parallels Freire’s popular education or what I learned about Friday in Denmarks Common Third, I find it curious that this is his reaction to it (written from a different house as you can see):

Dear Sir,

I have just been reading Messrs. Omindi and Mboya’s letters in your issue No. 11. Mr. Mboya’s article on African Socialism begins to be clearer. From afar mountains are misty. He must know what he says when he writes ‘these leaders . . . are those most likely to know what philosophy and principles underlie their policies?’ Many would take the point and feel suitably told off.

Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’

Yours sincerely,

120 Hurlingharn Road,
London S. W.6.

Letters to the Editor
Lennard H. Okola, Gary Gappert, Khadambi Asalache and Jan Knappert
Transition No. 13 (Mar. – Apr., 1964), pp. 5-7



Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development

sachs-sustainable-developmentThe Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs is a good, textbook sort of volume for what I believe to be the general consensus view of the totality of what we are up against, along with potential solutions from a liberal, Keynsian perspective. It is massive, as you might imagine.

Such a simple statement from the Rio Declaration, 1992 — such a basic place to start: “development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations.” Such a massive failing of ours. The following summits moved to a more practical approach. The 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg looked to accomplish: “The integration of the three components of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection — as independent and mutually reinforcing pillars (WSSD 2002, 2).” (5)

Sachs adds good governance to this list, and sees this group of four pillars as complex systems — he explains:

sustainable development is also a science of complex systems. A system is a group of interacting components that together with the rules for their interaction constitute an interconnected whole… We talk about these systems as complex because their interactions give rise to behaviors and patterns that are not easily discernible from the underlying components themselves…. Complexity scientists speak of the emergent properties of a complex system, meaning those characteristics that emerge from the interactions of the components to produce something that is “more than the sum of its parts.” (7)

Thus the four complex interacting systems of sustainable development:

global economysocial interactions of trust, ethics, inequality and social support networks…Earth systems such as climate and ecosystems; and it studies the problems of governance… In each of these complex systems–economic, social, environmental and governance–the special properties of complex systems, such as emergent behavior and strong, nonlinear dynamic…are all too apparent. (8)

He is not one to discount the progress we have made or question capitalist foundations. I found it interesting that instead he outlines the history before and after the industrial revolution that has brought us into crisis. Before:

The world before 1750 was a world of poverty; one that could nonetheless produce beautiful treasures for human history, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Acropolis… Yet for all of those grand monuments, most people in most ages lived difficult rural lives, always on the edge of famine, disease, and early death. (73)


New technologies…were certainly vital, but many complex economic interconnections were needed as well. Rural areas needed higher food productivity to produce a surplus for the industrial workforce… Transport was needed to carry food from farms to industrial towns, and industrial goods such as linnens and apparel from the factories to the countryside. New ports and global shipping carried manufactured goods abroad as exports, to be traded for the primary commodities needed for industrial production. A worldwide supply system began to take hold. And these increasingly complex transactions required markets, insurance, finance, property rights, and other “software” and “hardware” of a modern market-based economy. (75)

This is such a curious reframing of past into a technological modernity. I honestly am amazed that anyone could argue that most inventors and scientists are in it for the money, but he does.

James Watts was after profits and the patent; his aims included intellectual property, glory, and riches. He was working in an environment in which he could succeed, because the beginnings of commercial law existed in England, as opposed to many other places on the planet where such property rights had not yet been recognized. (76)

Side note: Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations same year as Watt produced the modern steam engine — 1776.

Just to show he’s down with the left economists, if not the socialists, he quotes Marx and Engels in support of this view of historical progress.

The bourgeosie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls… (78)

He makes a distinction in this linear progression between endogenous growth and catch-up growth, unrecognised in much economic development theory:

The first is based on innovation; the second on rapid adoption and diffusion… (81)

I think political ecology has a whole lot to say about the politics of that small statement – about all of this. At least Sachs does acknowledge that most of Africa and Asia were held in stagnation by colonial powers, thus unable to even start trying to catch up. He also notes that the legacy of conflict and slavery in the Americas continues today, and the high rates of inequality around the world reflect a legacy of conquest. There is no questioning, though, of the beneficial nature of the economic growth emerging from these roots.

Modern economic growth began in the dark green temperate climate of England, and quickly spread to similar locations in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay)… We see that modern economic growth diffused not oly according to geographical proximity (distance from London) but also what we might call “climate proximity,” the similarity of a location to that of England. (117)

So to move on from how we got here to the crisis we face. I am happy, myself, to accept the science on the facts of climate change,  I think this is a great chart to summarise the multiple threats — what the Stockholm Resilience Centre calls planetary boundaries:


So I’ll move on to the social pillar, as I confess if the UN isn’t going to go full-on world-revolutionary-and-transformational, this is possibly as good as it gets.  So his definition of social inclusion:

aims for broad-based prosperity, for eliminating discrimination, for equal protection under the laws, for enabling everybody to meet basic needs, and for high social mobility (meaning that a child born into poverty has a reasonable chance to escape from poverty). (232-233)

Where does that exist I wonder? He continues:

… we must address the challenges of social inequality and human rights across several dimensions. Race, ethnicity, power, conquest, and individual characteristics are all determinants of inequality in society. So too are the political responses, the extent to which power is used to reduce inequality or the extent to which power is used to exacerbate inequalities. (238)

It’s got all the right words in it, you know? Sachs continues to list three of the fundamental forces behind widening inequalities in the

United States, several European countries, and many of the emerging economies around the world.

  • the rising gap in earnings between high-skilled and low-skilled workers

  • the increased use of robotics, advanced data-management systems, and other information technologies, which seem to be shifting income from labor to capital.

  • the political system, which in the United States has amplified the widening inequalities caused by market forces. (239)

He talks about deregulation, the weakening of unions, and throws in this chart on spectacular inequality:


So what is needed?

Education for All:

Yes. He describes the role for universities in:

helping society to identity and solve local problems of sustainable development … Every issue which which we are grappling — poverty, disease, climate change, new information technologies, and so on — requires locally tailored solutions, often based on sophisticated management systems. (273)

So top down. Ah well, he is an expert.

Health for all

Yes. It was way back in 1978 that World health officials adopted the Alma-Ata Declaration — universal health by the year 2000. (276)

We all know how that failed. Sachs can still celebrate the Millennium Development Goals developed that year though.

Food Security:

Yes. Achievable now, but political will? Sadly lacking.

The agricultural sector is in fact the most important sector from the point of view of human-induced environmental change. Many people imagine the automobile or perhaps coal-fired power plants to be the biggest cause of human-made environmental damage. And they are indeed major causes of global environmental unsustainability. Yet it is food production that takes the dubious prize as the most important single driver of environmental harms (SDSN 2013). (339)

Crazy. Another reason to support permaculture, or other locally based, minimal-footprint systems like Fukuoka‘s, or New Mexico’s acequia agriculture, which solve all kinds of problems while at the same time improving the planet rather than destroying it.

Another interesting chart:

greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-economic-sector-ipccAFOLU here stands for ’emmissions data from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)’ (342)

Instead of any minimally emitting and socially beneficial and extremely cheap systems, though, Sachs promotes more technology, more GMOs, making crops more drought resistant. Making crops more nutritious. All capital- and resource-intensive. And third, using ‘precision farming;.

Precision agriculture depends on information technologies, on detailed mapping of soil types, and often on global positioning systems that can tell a farmer exactly where that farmer is in the field and what is happening in the soil in that part of the farm. (351)

Soil mapping, testing, localized chemistry… Ugh. Nothing about environmental justice here either.

Resilient Cities

Ah, we turn to cities. Sachs gives a summary of the three major features of urban sustainability:

  • Urban productivity. Cities need to be places where individuals can find decent, productive work, and businesses can produce and trade efficiently. The basis for success is a productive infrastructure: the networks of roads, public transport, power … Infrastructure also includes “software,” like an effective court system to enforce contracts. When the urban infrastructure fails, the city is overwhelmed by congestion, crime, pollution, and broken contracts that impede business, job creation, and forward-looking investment.

Enforcing contracts? There will be no tampering with capitalism here, and cities are for business and development and trade.

  • Social inclusion. … (366) The social stability, trust, and harmony in the society (including political stability and level of violence) will be affected by the extent of social mobility. When it is low and falling, protest, unrest, and even conflict are more likely to ensue. Effective urban planning and politics can lead to cities in which people of different races, classes, and ethnicities interact productively, peacefully, and with a high degree of social mobility and trust. With ineffective planning, lack of civic participation, and neglect of social equity, cities can become deeply divided between rich neighbourhoods facing off against slums.

There is nothing here I disagree with actually, though I think a shift in the whole paradigm of effective ‘expert’ planners needs to happen before we can begin to create socially inclusive cities, never mind everything else that needs to happen.

  • environmental sustainability. … Cities need to make two kinds of environmental efforts. The first, mitigation, is to reduce their own “ecological footprint,” for example, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by urban activities. The second, broadly speaking, is adaptation, meaning preparedness and resilience to changing environmental conditions, for example, rising temperatures and sea levels (for coastal cities). (367)

On Climate Change

Ah, the energy sector, such a money maker! 7 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2013 as ranked by Global Fortune 500, are in the energy sector

1 – Royal Dutch Shell
3 – Exxon Mobil
4 – Sinopec Group
5 – China National Petroleum6 – BP
7 – China State Grid (396)

and then of course, 8 is Toyota, and 9 is Volkswagon — very closely related. I looked up the list for this year, not much has changed:

Fortune's Global 500 2016

The consequences of climate change are, of course, terrifying. There’s lots about that. And once again, Sachs’ solutions are more of the same — capital- and resource-intensive top down solutions that don’t really disrupt business as usual. He gives three. DESERTEC — a network of renewable energy production that links North Africa, the Middle East and Europe into a single grid (you can guess where most production happens, and where most consumption happens).


Second, to tap the wind power along the US coasts.

The third — finally destroying the Inga Falls in the DRC to build the great Inga Dam Project. Surely we can do better.

There is carbon capture, Sachs writes (and this is so damn revealing I think):

If carbon capture and sequestration (abbreviated as CCS) proves to be successful, then there is a wonderful way to reduce CO2 emissions without having to change out current technologies or energy mix! (431)

Yes! We can just keep on keeping on! That somehow really does seem to be the fatal flaw in all of this.

On to the loss of biodiversity. My heart breaks as we lose species after species. I suppose I care about the economic cost of that, but, actually, no. Not really.

So to summarise:

This chart is illuminating if nothing else…

ecosystem-services-and-wellbeing-wriIt sort of lays it all out there, at least. I will have to go to the source for a deeper critique, but I kind of hate one-way arrows.

At Rio 20+ there was a shift from MDGs (not achieved) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 10 of them proposed in 2013  by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) — there are now more.

Goal 1: End Extreme Poverty Including Hunger
Goal 2: Promote Economic Growth and Decent Jobs Within Planetary Boundaries
Goal 3: Ensure Effective Learning for All Children and Youth for Life and Livelihood
Goal 4: Achieve Gender Equality, Social Inclusion, and Human Rights for All
Goal 5: Achieve Health and Wellbeing at All Ages
Goal 6: Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity
Goal 7: Empower Inclusive, Productive, and Resilient Cities
Goal 8: Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy
Goal 9: Secure Biodiversity and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources
Goal 10: Transform Governance and Technologies for Sustainable Development

The 17 SDGs now visible at


He ends with a salute to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kennedy and the English Abolitionists. I suppose that is symbolic of this whole book given those last two were so flawed and highly problematic, yet none-the-less helped win some politically admirable goals. Some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff all mixed together, very carefully, so as not to really shift any of the broader structures or the profits to be made from them, just share the dividends a little more equally. Until we all die as how can this really stop the environmental crisis already at hand?

[Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Columbia University Press.]




House, Home and Homelessness: Kim Dovey

‘Home and Homelessness: An Introduction’ by Kim Dovey is a short book chapter, yet appears here at length — such great length, you have to be as excited as I am to read this and honestly, you’re definitely better off just reading the chapter, this is my most selfish need-to-write-to-digest post yet.

Why? Because I loved it that much in how it tries to grapple with the meaning of home and what it means to be without — a deeper understanding of homelessness, but perhaps a more true one that shouldn’t be ignored in the quest to ensure everyone has at least a roof over their head.

Like everything I am thinking about at the moment, this is looking at home not as discrete object but as a connection, as a relationship (and a dialectical one at that):

Although a house is an object, a part of the environment, home is best conceived of as a kind of relationship between people and their environment. It is an emotionally based and meaningful relationship between dwellers and their dwelling places. Concomitant with this distinction is the assumption that the concept of the “housing problem” is not identical to that of “homelessness.” Indeed, the housing problem can be, and often is, solved in a manner that creates homelessness.

I love that last sentence — building a house does not create a home, and in a nutshell this presents many of the problems of social housing or emergency housing. The point being not to get rid of either or to argue they are unnecessary, but to fundamentally change how we think about housing provision. The question becomes how?

It’s not rocket science is really my new favourite phrase, because none of this is. It is hard work though, and not profitable.

What better first step than a better understanding of what home means to us, how our relationship with it works. Like Bachelard, Dove’s approach is phenomenological, drawing on philosophy, geography, ethnography and literature.

The theoretical approach in this essay is phenomenological. Such an approach is suggested by the intangible nature of the concept in question. … My aim, however, is not to produce specific cause-effect relationships or explanations; it is rather to deepen our understanding of an intrinsically intangible phenomenon. My sources are several. First, I draw heavily on the literature of phenomenological philosophy and geography. Second, the cross-cultural studies of anthropological fieldwork offer an insight into the forms and experiences of home in the traditional world. Third, the world of literature reveals important and clear explications of the experience of home and the processes of its emergence.

I still hate Heidegger. I don’t think you can separate his philosophy from his actions, or from that Heidegger who dressed up in his Nazi uniform to go eat a feast. I don’t know what to do with that really.

Dovey looks at the spatial and temporal aspects of home as order, identity, connectedness and then the dialectics of home (bring on the dialectics), before moving on to look at homelessness and its causes in a way I particularly love.


The first of these properties is order, by which is meant simply “patterning” in environmental experience and behavior. Being at home is a mode of being whereby we are oriented within a spatial, temporal, and sociocultural order that we understand.

What is more important that understanding how we fit, where we stand?

Spatial Order

One of the most important contributions of the phenomenological approach to environmental experience has been a thorough reinterpretation of the concept of space that parallels the distinction between house and home. At the heart of this reinterpretation is an important distinction between conceptual space and lived space (Bollnow, 1967). Conceptual space is abstract, geometric, and objectively measured, a kind of context or ether within which places, people, and things exist. Lived space, by contrast, is the pre-conceptual and meaningful spatial experience of what phenomenologists call “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1962).

Lefebvre writes about this too of course, maybe a good way of not citing Heidegger.

Home is a sacred place (Eliade, 1959), a secure place (Rainwater, 1966), a place of certainty and of stability. It is a principle by which we order our existence in space (Dovey, 1978).

Temporal Order

Home as order is not only spatial orientation but also temporal orientation. Home is a kind of origin, we go “back” home even when our arrival is in the future. The home environment is one thoroughly imbued with the familiarity of past experience. It is the environment we inhabit day after day until it becomes taken for granted and is unselfconscious. This sense of familiarity is rooted in bodily routines…

I love the jolt this gives that familiar phrase, ‘to go back home’. It does make it temporal, does mean it’s the place you are from, the place you left and return to, it is a cyclical movement not a forwardly linear one.

Our sense of it is based on our past, structured by how we grew up, incredibly specific to time and places and all of their associated privileges or injustices.

Home as temporal order is not dependent on aesthetic attraction; it may be more accurate to say that the homes of our past set the ground for our very perceptions of attractiveness and ugliness.

At it’s best, it connects us to the environment more widely —

In yet another way, home as temporal order can extend to a familiarity with the past processes through which the forms of the environment have come into being. The experience of wood for instance connects with our experiences of climbing trees, sawing, chopping, nailing, and carving.

and it is perhaps a failing of modern society that it is ever more rare to have this rooted sense of materiality, and true cost to the planet of where we live.

Sociocultural Order

This discussion of home as spatiotemporal order has thus far largely omitted any mention of environmental form. This is because the forms in which this order becomes manifest are primarily sociocultural.

It’s different for everyone! Whew, unlike Bachelard there is no assumption of European houses with basements and attics, no hut fantasies. But acknowledgment that ‘home’ is intimately linked with culture… even when that culture is simply one of consumption.

The notion of home as social order is at once extremely flexible and yet conservative. It is flexible inasmuch as it is embodied not in a house or building but in the patterning of experience and behavior. It is a way of relating to the environment that may be transposed from place to place, and in this way the meanings of home may be re-evoked if the patterns are recreated.

I think of new life brought to neighbourhoods by migrants, my small attempts at color and warmth here in Manchester. It is a reminder of connections, history, culture — and a timely reminder that this is not always a positive thing.

Through being deeply rooted in the past, home also carries with it considerable inertia to change. Social hierarchy, injustice, and outmoded sex roles are difficult to question when they are embodied in, and evoked by, the taken-for- granted world of spatial patterning.

Home as Identity

There is an integrity, a connectedness between the dweller and dwelling. Home as order and as identity are strongly interrelated; yet whereas order is concerned with “where” we are at home, identity broaches the questions of “who” we are, as expressed in the home, and “how” we are at home.

Spatial Identity

This can be identity as in the western world of consumption — status and class and etc.

The social perspective tends to interpret the home as a “statement” of identity expressed through a shared symbolic language (Appleyard, 1979b; Goffman, 1971).

But home can be so much more than that.

My view is that the personal and the social are inextricably interwoven; that representation of identity in the home stems from both social structure and our quest for personal identification within it. The home is both a “statement” and a “mirror,” developing both socially and individually, reflecting both collective ideology and authentic personal experience… Individual interpretations often argue for a deeper connection between the home and the human spirit. Jung has argued that self-expression in built form is one way in which the self-archetype becomes manifest. He has described the construction of his own house as a “concretization of the individuation process” (Jung, 1967, p. 252), an approach that has been developed by Cooper (1974) and others.

Where it further from consumption, more closely tied to other forms of culture and self-expression, it is a bottom-up, rooted phenomenon in the natural environment. I think of a permaculture home, or hogans or adobes or constructions perfectly suited to their place.

The sense of identity embodied in the phenomenon of home has an important component of autochthony. Another way to describe this is as “indigenous,” the etymology of which means “to be born within.” Home in this sense is something that grows in a place rather than being imposed from without. It grows both from the particular personal and social circumstances of the dwellers but also from the environmental context of the place itself, its genius loci. Thus home has a key element of uniqueness, it is place based.

Not that this needs be unchanging. We are a connected world — I think of all the wondrous architectural and social hybrids that could flourish through travel, sharing, learning, improving our relationship to and reducing our impact on the land we live on. Why haven’t we done it that way?

Temporal Identity

Home is a place where our identity is continually evoked through connections with the past. Although temporal order is primarily concerned with familiarity, temporal identity is a means of establishing who we are by where we have come from. The role of the physical environment in this regard is that of a kind of mnemonic anchor.

All that is lost to the migrant. A tremendous, implacable loss.

Home as Connectedness

You know I  love this:

The themes of home as order and identity that I have presented thus far are summarized in Figure 1. Home is a schema of relationships that brings order, integrity, and meaning to experience in place—a series of connections between person and, world:

  • Connectedness with people: both through the patterns of sociocultural order and through the role of the home place in the symbolization and representation of identity

  • Connectedness with the place: first, through being oriented in it; and second, through the ways in which we put down roots and draw an indigenous sense of identity from each unique place

  • Connectedness with the past: through having memory anchored in the forms of the home place and from the experience of familiarity and continuity that this engenders

  • Connectedness with the future: when power and autonomy permit directly and hopes to inform environmental change

Hell yes to all of this.

Home then is an integrative schema that is at once a bonding of person and place and, a set of connections between the experience of dwelling and the wider spatial, temporal, and sociocultural context within which it emerges. Home orients us and connects us with the past, the future, the physical environment, and our social world.

Dialectics of Home

Too static you say? Not enough process, movement, change over time? Dovey agrees.

The picture of the phenomenon of home presented here has one critical weakness—it is too static. It does not convey an understanding of the dynamic processes through which the order, identity, and connectedness of home come into being. These processes are fundamentally dialectical.

Spatial Dialectics

Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world (Dovey, 1978). It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. These oppositions can be subsumed under the rubric of order and chaos. Home certainly has the properties of order as argued earlier; yet it is only through the dialectical interaction that its meaning develops. Home as mere order and identity can well become a prison, a hermetically sealed world devoid of chance.

Social Dialectics

it participates in the negotiation and representation of identity through the oppositions of self/other, identity/community, and private/public.

Dialectics of Appropriation

This is particularly important in thinking about power — what power you have to shape your home and your environment, the extraordinary lengths to which we go to try and take hold of that power. What happens when we lose that battle. and the impact that has on us.

This is a very difficult yet fundamentally important notion—because “it goes to the heart of the concept of home as a mode of being-in-the-world. I use the term appropriation in the general sense of its etymological root, the Latin appropriare, “to make one’s own.” … It involves both a “caring” for a place and a “taking” of that place into our own being (Relph, 1981).

Dovey turns to literature to look at this, those brilliant passages from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the transformation of the Palace Flophouse — I remember that this is precisely one of the reasons why this is one of my favourite Steinbeck novels. Margaret Mead’s autobiography is the second example used to evoke that sense of what he calls ‘becoming-at-home’.

I quite love that phrase. Need to read Relph.

So finally the properties of homelessness — not the status of being without a house, but what strips our possibilities of becoming-at-home.


Rationalism and Technology

The immediately obvious advantages of technological change, in this case improved efficiency and cleanliness, can serve initially to mask the loss of intangible meanings.

These meanings are lost as priority is given to ‘the abstract conceptual modes of “space” as opposed to the meaning-centered mode of “lived space.”‘


The belief on the part of both producers and consumers that the home is the house trivializes the concept of home and treats it as an object to be instantly consumed.

If I could underline this whole section ten times I would, I think commoditization is at the heart of all of this. But I like the other sections as well.

Commoditization has its main eroding effect not in the quality of house form but in the quality of the relationship of the dweller with the dwelling. The house as a piece of property implies a legal relationship between the owner and the place, a relationship embodying certain legal freedoms. Home as appropriation, on the other hand, implies a relationship that is rooted in the experiences of everyday life over a long period of time. It requires adaptability, control, freedom, and security of tenure. A contradiction emerges here under conditions of absentee ownership or rental.


Whereas home is the kind of order that flows upward from the opportunities and problems of each unique place and context, bureaucratic order flows downward. A centralized order is imposed across diverse particular cases according to typical situations and contexts (Crozier, 1964, pp. 183-184). Likewise, bureaucratic organization has its own identity that, in the case of housing programs, becomes stamped upon the landscape at the expense of the diverse identifications of the dwellers. Housing becomes symbolic of the organization that produces it, spatially regular and temporally regulated places that may not be easily adapted to the uniqueness of each situation or to changes that occur over time. The complexities of the experience of home and the role of the dweller in achieving it are beyond the capabilities of bureaucratic structures to deal with.

Scale and Speed

The scale at which environmental and housing problems are framed and tackled and the speed at which environmental change is implemented are two properties that are closely linked to those outlined previously, and they contribute to the erosion of the experience of home. Bureaucratic organization, for instance, develops to ensure the remote control necessary to implement largescale programs. Big problems would seem to demand big solutions. Housing, however, is not so much a big problem as it is a large collection of small ones—many people with a desire for shelter, roots, security, and identity, yet with a multitude of dreams, forms, and social patterns within which this might be realized.

The Erosion of Communal Space

The public realm has become a place where it is difficult if not impossible to enact personal or collective appropriations. It is a place where “they” are responsible for control and maintenance of a rule-bound status quo. At the personal level, this loss of a shared common place as a context of the home brings a subtle yet profound erosion of the dialectics of home/journey and private/public. The home becomes the sole area of personal control and security; its boundary hardens, semiprivate edge areas disappear, informal appropriation and surveillance across the interface weaken, and crime proliferates (Newman, 1972). … As the communally shared realm has been eroded, so the private realm has expanded to fill the void, leading to an inordinate demand on the home to fulfill all of one’s needs. Herein lies a dilemma—without the broader sense of home extending into community life, the experience of home contracts and loses meaning; yet at the same time increased demands are placed upon this depleted experience of home.


Strong forces within the architectural profession mitigate against the emergence of a sense of home. … A home cannot be someone else’s work of art.

Thus we have mass housing that hasn’t worked, urban renewal that transformed landscapes, destroyed networks, house seen as technological fixes never becoming homes.

Do I have anything further to add to this list a whole three decades further? Maybe a little more about financialisation and globalisation of capital, but fundamentally, I don’t think so.

Implications for future research?

I like this list too:

  1. the development and application of design patterns or guidelines that embody understandings of the experience of home.  … good examples being Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1977; Cooper Marcus & Sarkissian, 1985; Zeisel, 1977 (ooh, who is Zeisel? Here I think)
  2. Participatory Design
  3. understanding and undercutting the properties of homelessness outlined in the second part of this essay

And to finish, maybe a bit cheesy but true — English is a terrible language for speaking about deeper meanings in:

Finally, a change in attitude and understanding is required of designers. This involves an enhanced understanding and a celebration of the experience of home and the processes of becoming-at-home that exist in every place and every community. The goal here is not only to create a sense of home, but rather to recognize and preserve it in its myriad of processes and forms. Its processes are seldom visible, and its forms are not always beautiful; yet beneath them lie the seeds of a deeper sense of home, struggling to flower.

[Dovey, Kimberly (1985) ‘Home and Homelessness: Introduction’, in Altman, Irwin and Carol M. Werner eds. Home Environments. Human Behavior and Environment: Advances in Theory and Research. Vol 8. New York: Plenum Press, 1985.]



Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

New York - Central Park

More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…





Gaston Bachelard: The House in Literature

Bachelard The Poetics of SpaceIn Chapter 2 of The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard moves from phenomenology (see part 1) to a tying of philosophy to particular kinds of spaces (see part 2) to read houses and rooms written by great writers.I have gone very Walter Benjamin on these posts, they are mostly strings of quotes to ponder. At least what follows is not all from Bachelard himself. For example, the poetic epigraph from Paul Eluard, Dignes de vivre:

Quand les cimes de notre ciel se rejoindront
Ma maison aura un toit.

(When the peaks of our sky come together
My house will have a roof.) (39)

I swooned away just a little there. Bachelard turns to poetry and fiction because how else to understand how space transfixes us?

In this dynamic rivalry between house and universe, we are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms. A house that has been experience is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space. (47)

He describes how Bosco’s Malicroix works to help us understand the power of that which surrounds us:

the world influences solitary man more than the characters are able to do. … the cosmos molds mankind, it can transform a man of the hills into a man of islands and rivers, and that the house remodels man. (47)

Quotes William Goyen from novel House of Breath:

That people could come into the world in a place they could not at first even name and had never known before; and that out of a nameless and unknown place they could grow and move around in it until its name they knew and called with love, and call it HOME, and put roots there and love others there; so that whenever they left this place they would sing homesick songs about it and write poems of yearning for it, like a lover … (58)

I have thought a lot about this from friends with The Circle Works, not about the creation of home, but the creation of warm, welcoming spaces that serve to foster human beings and community growth. Bachelard writes

But I now believe that we can go deeper, that we can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. (69)

There is more to be found here, this is a book I look to come back to. But in the meanwhile, Bachelard makes me wonder if I would not do better to quote single lines from my favourites poems, like this one, another poem fragment from Milosz:

L’odeur du silence est si vielle

(The odor of silence is so old…)

To end? A copyrighted picture of Bachelard in his beautiful library…oh the thoughts I could think in such a space!




Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space

Bachelard The Poetics of SpacePost two of three on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space — if you need a refresher on phenomenology maybe read post one. I’m in Wales at the moment doing fieldwork — three interviews today, several hours on rural buses, and I sit in a corner room staring out over a line of cottages to the sea, the ceiling curving gently overhead… one cider and this level of tired and I realised I won’t be working on rewrites as I should.

So Bachelard it is.

Chapter 1.

the house.
from cellar to garret.
the significance of the hut.

… if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

I love this connection between home and the safety for dreaming…

Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world. Before he is ‘cast into the world,’ as claimed by certain hasty metaphysics, man is laid in the cradle of the house. And always, in our daydreams, the house is a large cradle. A concrete metaphysics cannot neglect this fact, this simple fact, all the more, since this fact is a value, an important value, to which we return in our daydreaming. Being is already a value. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house. (6-7)

The way we read dreams, memories, selves, through the shape of the home, the way we can map ourselves onto them…

Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in daydreams. A psychoanalyst should, therefore, turn his attenion to this simple localization of our memories. (8)

The way we can read space in the same way, but mediated through our own experience:

It therefore makes sense from our standpoint of a philosophy of literature and poetry to say that we “write a room,” “read a room,” or “read a house.” Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is “reading a room” leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. (14)

It is interesting to think about what it means for us, the depth to which we connect to the earliest spaces of our inhabitation.

But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all the other anonymous stairways; we would recapture the reflexes of the “first stairway,” we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house’s entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. (14-15)

This emerged very strongly in the interviews/sessions that Clare Cooper-Marcus did with her respondents, and the ways in which people are forever responding to what they loved — or what they longed for — in these spaces of childhood.

In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting. We are the diagram of the functions of inhabiting that particular house, and all the other houses are but variations on a fundamental theme. The word habit is too worn a words to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house. (15)

I like thinking too, about how childhood — and particularly the richness and freedom of it dreaming — can be usefully evoked by space:

It is on the plane of the daydream and not on that of facts that childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us. Through this permanent childhood, we maintain the poetry of the past. To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.  (16)

You know I liked this observation on poetry and its connection to dreaming — and in this context then, its connection to space and the freedom and magic of childhood.

And we should not forget that these dream values communicate poetically from soul to soul. To read poetry is essentially to daydream. (17)

But then, of course, he brings it all back to himself. White, European, male — a very different experience of home and of spaces than my own, yet of course treated as the norm. Of course, much of what is wrong with the world today can be traced to the greed, neuroses, and crazed power dreams of European men, so it is interesting to look at this sympathetic view of how they have grown up in and experienced space. Urban space:

But in addition to the intimate value of verticality, a house in a big city lacks cosmicity. For here, where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings, the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees. (27)

Home space, in a ‘normal’ European house:

To bring order to these images, I believe that we should consider two principal connecting themes: 1) a house is imagined as a vertical being. It rises upward. It differentiates itself in terms of its verticality. It is one of the appeals to our consciousness of verticality. 2) a house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appeals to our consciousness of centrality. (17)

cellar and attic…how many people never have those? I have no vertical themes, everything in this schema is thus thrown off. I do not feel myself to be oneirically incomplete — but suspect Bachelard might find me so. He writes:

By way of antithesis, I shall make a few remarks on dwellings that are oneirically incomplete. (26)

Like, you know, the hut. The dreams of the other and other problematic things:

“hut dream,” which is well-known to everyone who cherishes the legendary images of primitive houses. But in most hut dreams we hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares… the round house, the primitive hut, of prehistoric man …  (31)

‘I live in a round house’ I wrote in an essay once. These sentences are a bit calculated to make me roll my eyes. I hate this use of the ‘we’. While this next thing holds true for me:

We are hypnotized by solitude, hypnotized by the gaze of the solitary house; and the tie that binds us to it is so strong that we begin to dream of nothing but a solitary house in the night. (36-37)

I know those for whom solitude is terrifying. I wish we had better ways to write about these things.

What follows in chapter 2 is House and Universe — as illustrated from quotes drawn from literature…post three. I wanted to keep the rest together though, the meditations on very particular, intimate spaces within a house.

3 – Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes

I rather love that this is the title of Chapter 3. I rather love sentences like this one, that I have no affinity with whatsoever:

As is well know, the drawer metaphor, in addition to certain others, such as “ready-made garments,” is used by Bergson to convey the inadequacy of a philosophy of concept. (75)

This underlines for me the fact that some people have lived in a world of the intellect where they assumed that everyone was just like them. Throwing around Bergson. Seeing things in drawers that I never will. How curious.

These rapid remarks are intended to show that a metaphor should be no more than an accident of expression, and that it is dangerous to make a thought of it. A metaphor is a false image, since it does not possess the direct virtue of an image formed in spoken revery. (77)

I am unsure of this distinction, but like the reaction it provokes.

I will perhaps grant him one universal truth, and it is this:

Does there not exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe? . . . .  (78)

Because yes. Also yes to this:

…for psychoanalysis this is a clear sign … When we dream of locks and keys there’s nothing more to confess. But poetry extends well beyond psychoanalysis on every side. (84)

He ends with the effacing of dialectics! Again I felt that this sentence sparked a million contradictory thoughts, I am not sure what to do with any of them! But I liked that.

Chests, especially small caskets, over which we have more complete mastery, are objects that may be opened. … from the moment the casket is opened, dialectics no longer exist. the outside is effaced with one stroke, an atmosphere of novelty and surprise reigns. The outside has no more meaning. (85)

4 – Nests

For the world is a nest, and an immense power holds the inhabitants of the world in this nest. (104)

I do fucking love nests. A whole chapter on nests.

5 – shells

With nests, with shells — at the risk of wearying the reader — I have multiplied the images that seem to me to illustrate the function of inhabiting in elementary forms which may be too remotely imagined. Here one sense clearly that this is a mixed problem of imagination and observation. I have simply wanted to show that whenever life seeks to shelter, protect, cover or hide itself, the imagination sympathizes with the being that inhabits the protected space. The imagination experiences protection in all its nuances of security, from life in the most material of shells, to more subtle concealment through imitation of surfaces. (132)

I loved all of this.

6 – corners

I also really fucking love corners. Passageways leading to the unknown…just around the corner.

The point of departure of my reflections is the following: every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house. (136)

This evoked Alexander’s Pattern Language, or Cullen’s Concise Townscape. Though if I remember rightly, for them the magic of a corner was its mystery revealed through movement…I enjoyed the contrast with Bachelard’s vision of the corner:

That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined.

To begin with, the corner is a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly — immobility. It is the sure place, the place next to my immobility. (137)

7 – miniature

Happy at being in a small space, he realizes an experience of topophilia; that is, once inside the miniature house, he sees its vast number of rooms; from the interior he discovers interior beauty. (149)

Ah, the brilliance of tiny rooms. There are some dialectics going on here too between inside and outside, but I’ll be damned if I quite know what they are in this example.

Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world. The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness. (155)

There is, too, the quality and hours of workmanship that the miniature requires for its very existence:

I haven’t the advantage of actually seeing the works of the miniaturists of the Middle Ages, which was this great age of solitary patience. But I can well imagine this patience, which brings peace to one’s fingers. Indeed, we have only to imagine it for our souls to be bathed in peace. All small things must evolve slowly, and certainly a long period of leisure, in a quiet room, was needed to miniaturize the world. Also one must love space to describe it as minutely as though there were world molecules, to enclose an entire spectacle in a molecule of drawing. (159)

An attention to detail, an attention to space — what can we not learn by performing this, or at second best, describing it and learning from it?

Many a theorem of topo-analysis would have to be elucidated to determine the action of space upon us. For images cannot be measured. And even when they speak of space, they change in size. The slightest value extends, heightens, or multiplies them. Either the dreamer becomes the being of his image, absorbing all its space or he confines himself in a miniature version of his images. (173)

I don’t know what this last quote means at all, but I like it.

8 – Intimate Immensity

In this direction of daydreams of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being. (184)

Ah, the awesomeness of bigness. We become greater than ourselves in admiration.

9 – the dialectics of inside and outside

Philosophers, when confronted with outside and inside, think in terms of being and non-being. Thus profound metaphysics is rooted in an implicit geometry which — whether we will or no — confers spatiality upon thought; if a metaphysician could not draw, what would he think? (212)

The spatiality of thought — what is not to like in that? There is a richness here that I would like to ruminate over, play around with. If I can find the time. I should have drunk more perhaps. But doors…gateways, of course there are volumes to be written about doors.

But how many daydreams we should have to analyse under the simple heading of Doors! For the door is an entire cosmos of the Half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. (222)

10- The phenomonology of roundness

Philosophy makes us ripen quickly, and crystallizes us in a state of maturity. how, then, without “dephilosophizing” ourselves, may we hope to experience the shocks that being receives from new images, shocks which are always the phenomena of youthful being? (236)

This explains why we should read more philosophy… the final post, why we should read more literature.


Muhammad Ali teaching Superman New Tricks

I know this comic by Neal Adams and illustrated by Denny O’Neil is old news, but not to me until now that I finally got to read it. I pretty much loved all of it, even that liberal spin that if we all just got a fair shake and did our best everything would be all right. It wouldn’t, but it would still be a nice first step. What they should have written was the story that made the analogy between the red sun’s effect on superman and smashing the effects of white supremacy and privilege, but. Well. An enjoyable story all the same. Because it had Ali actually explaining his moves:

Though I don’t get why it couldn’t look more like him, since it had his blessings. I also loved this spread of aliens coming for the big fight…too bad it’s all blurry, and you can’t see the fried egg dudes or los crazy chickens:

At the end they have this awesome audience who are all real…Cher’s in there, lots of DC people, lots of boxing people, Gerald Ford. There was a key, but it’s more fun without.

Gaston Bachelard: phenomenology and the poetic image

13269 Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was lovely, and a very real change of pace from most of what I’ve been reading about space — though it shared  refenerences to the psychology Jung in common with Clare Cooper-Marcus. But this is a phenomenological approach, not a psychoanalytic one. At one point in the book, he writes

…the unhurried reader — I personally hope for no others … (160)

This is definitely a book to be read as an unhurried reader, especially if its been a while since you read any philosophy or French theorists expanding at length on their favourite  topic, and extra especially if you had to remind yourself  what the hell phenomenology actually is. I found this useful from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Phenomenology is commonly understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy, or as a movement in the history of philosophy.

The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.

And the movement?

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy—as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology.*

gaston-bachelardEvery now and then I dip my toes into philosophy, but I haven’t read much of these. It probably would have helped to be informed about the canon, though reading Heidegger — well. I did try briefly once, but life might be too short to read his nazi ass. Still, as a novice I found so much to think about.

I liked this, on life as a series of flows in time and of course in space:

Referring to Anna Teresa Tymienicka’s book Phenomenology and Science, we can say that for Minkowski, the essence of life is not “a feeling of being, of existence,” but a feeling of participation in a flowing onward, necessarily expressed in terms of time, and secondarily expressed in terms of space. (xvi)

I quite loved this approach to how we experience images —

I now seek a phenomenological determination of images … How — with no preparation — can this singular, short-lived event constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought, content in their immobility?

It seemed to me, then, that this transubjectivity of the image could not be understood, in its essence, through the habits of subjective reference alone. Only phenomenology — that is to say, consideration of the onset of the image in an individual consciousness — can help us to restore the subjectivity of images and to measure their fullness, their strength and their transsubjectivity. (xviii – xix)

He is speaking of those images that burst upon us, that break down barriers so we can start to understand how that works. The word ‘image’ is used loosely, a sudden view, a picture, the image evoked by words and poetry:

… this appeal is clear: the reader of poems is asked to consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for such an object, but to seize its specific reality. For this, the act of the creative consciousness must be systematically associated with the most fleeting product of that consciousness, the poetic image. (xix)

This is a process that involves both body and soul (the non-physical register in which images have impact, though I am aware there are centuries of philosophy and writing evoked by this mind/body distinction)

The language of contemporary French philosophy — and even more so, psychology — hardly uses the dual meaning of the words soul and mind. … The word “soul” is an immortal word. In certain poems it cannot be effaced, for it is a word born of our breath.  … The poetic register that corresponds to the soul must therefore remain open to our phenomenological investigations. (xx)

I quite loved this though…this use of resonance and reverberation as a way to understand what images do to us, how they change us:

Since a phenomenological inquiry on poetry aspires to go so far and so deep …. it must go beyond the sentimental resonances … This is where the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions must be sensitized. The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being. … The multiplicity of resonances the issues from the reverberations’ unity of being.  Or, to put it more simply … the poem possesses us entirely. (xxii)

For this to happen, some suspension of the critical mind is required — I might just like this because this has traditionally been my approach to life in general, but it does help you get much more out of it. Just by the way, though, I hate the use of the word primitivity here, but that last sentence I truly love.

…a sincere impulse, a little impulse toward admiration, is always necessary if we are to receive the phenomenological benefit of a poetic image. The slightest critical consideration arrests this impulse by putting the mind in second position, destroying the primitivity of the imagination … the joy of reading appears to be the reflection of the joy of writing, as though the reader were the writer’s ghost. (xxvi)

So all of this to understand the spaces we love, and why we love them, and how this works to transcend and perhaps beat back the commodified market value of space. Felicitous space is quite a lovely phrase.

…the images I want to examine are the quite simple images of felicitous space. In this orientation, these investigations would deserve to be called topophilia. They seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space we love. For diverse reasons, and with the differences entailed by poetic shadings, this is eulogized space. Attached to its protective value, which can be a positive one, are also imagined values, which soon become dominant. Space,that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor, It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect. (xxxv-xxxvi)

This is, then, a project much along the lines of that taken on by Yi-Fu Tuan on topophilia, but from a very different direction. For the most part it is a look at intimate space and at the home. Bachelard writes of the connection between the home and self:

Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are “housed.” Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms,” we learn to “abide” within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them, and the play is so varied that two long chapters are needed to outline the implications of house images. (xxxcii)

I am saving those for the next post. A last reminder on the difference between phenomenology and psychoanalysis a la Jung:

A psychologist will say that all my analysis is to relate daring, too daring, “associations.” And a psychoanalyst will agree to perhaps “analyze” this daring  … A phenomenonologist has a different approach. He takes the image just as it is, just as the poet created it, and tries to make it his own, to feed on this rare fruit. He brings the image to the very limit of what he is able to imagine. (227)

I think I too prefer to above all feed the rare fruit.

As an aside, a reminder to all academics:

When we are lecturing, we become animated by the joy of teaching, and, at times, our words think for us. But to write a book requires really serious reflection. (xxxix)


*Smith, David Woodruff, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.