Category Archives: City Unseen

Alinsky on Existing Community Organization

I’ve been thinking so much lately about community and connection and reading so much about poverty and place and feeling so strongly about how wrong most of these authors get things looking into neighbourhoods from the outside and seeing only the absences of things, so I found this little snippet particularly interesting in Saul Alinsky. It’s a lot about seeing what is actually in front you, understanding that you are not operating in some kind of vacuum or emptiness, that organisation exists even if not in the form you expect or recognise.

The ghetto or slum in which he is organizing is not a disorganzied community. There is no such animal as a disorganized community. It is a contradiction in terms to use the two words “disorganization” and “community” together: the word community itself implies an organized, communal life; people living in an organized fashion. These people in the community which concern us may have experienced successive frustrations to the point that their will to participate has seemingly atrophied. They may be living in anonymity and starved for personal recognition. They may be suffering from various forms of deprivation and discrimination. They may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy. They may despair and feel hopeless about their children inheriting a little better world. From your point of view they may be representing a very negative form of existence, but the fact is that they are organized in that way of life. Call it organized apathy or organized non-participation, but that is their community pattern. They are living under a certain set of arrangements, standards, accepted modus operandis and a way of life. They may in short have surrendered – but life goes on in an organized form; even if it is as Thoreau described about most lives as being one of “quiet desperation.”

Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and create citizen participation it is in actual fact an attack upon the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community. Here I would like to state my first proposition; the first function of community organization is community disorganization. Disorganization of the accepted circumstances and the status quo of the arrangements under which they live. These circumstances and arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced with changed patterns providing the opportunities and means for citizen participation. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new.

This is why the organizer is immediately confronted with conflict. (115-116)

I am rather fascinated by this. I think he is missing here all the ways the women at least are more positively organized amongst themselves to work and keep the home together and keep an eye on the kids and find out about sources of support and all those things they have traditionally had to do and that often require help, particularly at the time Alinsky was working. And again, he overplays the conflict, always, there are other ways to go about this. But this is still worth thinking about, making sure you understand the patterns that exist, how people are surviving, seeing the strengths there and seeing what might hold folks back. Particularly important, it seems to me, is understanding that in how disrupting old patterns you better be damn sure you are building stronger, more supportive patterns in their place.

Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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The Urban and non-Urban Delights of Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth is quite wonderful in terms of the interesting, the beautiful, the strange. Its cult 60s upper floor brutalist diner.

Aberystwyth

Its interior decoration.

Aberystwyth

Its basement of books.

Aberystwyth

Its splendour of shop windows.

Aberystwyth

Its rumble of bikers on sunny days.

Aberystwyth

Its gangsters or the sweeney or the owners of the funicular railway?

Aberystwyth

The view over Aberystwyth in the UKs largest camera obscura

Aberystwyth

The view heading back down on the funicular railway:

Aberystwyth

A genuine welsh choir

Aberystwyth

A site of the first protest for the survival and revival  of the Welsh language.

Aberystwyth

The city itself charms, it is amazing the difference paint makes to pebbledash, which I can never find other than utterly grim when left unpainted. I care not how it weathers rain. The streets wind, open up on new vistas. There are a scattering of large stone buildings, some old beamed things. This old pub still has this small area in front of it expanding the public space of the street — once common here, or so the plaque says. Such a brilliant space.

Aberystwyth

And again I am reminded the importance of paint, but also the bow windows and the variegated surface, the light and shadow and interest this creates.

Aberystwyth

Aberystwyth

Beyond the castle rises Pen Dinas Hill Fort, built around 400 BC. Every town should have one of these. As we climbed, we were also able to look down on preparations for a day of horse racing. And we met the loveliest dog.

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Summer Solstice

I hated summer today. Sunburns everywhere like bruises. So hot, but unlike lazy Tucson days it felt as though here someone had picked the town up and shaken it so everyone clinging by threads or riding along any kind of edge had fallen out twitching and needing a fix. Men wandered the streets whip thin, shirts off and ribs sticking through badly tattooed skin. Excited with an edge of anger, voices raised even when they were just talking about haircuts, bicycles. Nowhere lives and early deaths marking their gaunt stubbled faces. Visible addiction here belongs only to them. Mass unemployment here now for a good few generations, the closing of pits and factories. My heart hurt and I wanted a drink, still, I wouldn’t be going round the Wetherspoons today. It opened at 8 am. It snapped and snarled and soppily swore at full capacity and anything could have kicked off.

Instead I felt like spending the cool of the evening going to throw rocks at the original captain-of-industry’s ‘castle’, raging against the violence of this wealth extraction and abandonment — its chemical decimation of generations and its blight upon the earth.

Tomorrow I get to go home.

A Terrible Walk

This miserable town. Boredom, hopelessness, despair drip as condensation down its every surface to deaden the skin and the eyes, light up a thousand cigarettes. Defeat’s miasma curls wood, strips paint, shatters windows, repairs them again with superglue and uneven squares of  plexiglass. Or leaves them jagged stars. Watches beautiful buildings sag and fall in a slow moaning plea for new use, truncates facades gawping at the sky, metals up entrances as it sends roofs slowly collapsing into the mildewed black holes beneath. Closes up all but the cheapest pubs, strip clubs. Ensures anger and violence always simmer just beneath the surface, marks couples by angry words, makes bodies spread wide or condense into hardened addict knots of wasted flesh. Faces too old.

Here and there a brave effort tries to rise above it. One holds knock-off china of a poorly-executed traditional pattern and cakes no one will ever eat embalmed in its windows. There are no bookstores. There are many people who do not embody poverty and despair here as foil to the rest, but they will not be found walking here after five. They disappear in cars to pockets of relative prosperity after picking up groceries at the giant Asda, carefully avoiding its predecessing poverty-stricken brutalist arcade next door. The two buildings together must have claimed a large section of the city center.

It is as miserable in the heat as it was in the rain and December’s freezing chill.

I hoped to escape, to find a mountain I walked up a broad paved path through a park, garbage winking at me everywhere beneath a welcome cover of riotous summer growth. It was isolated, trees and high banks to either side, beautiful old trees. Defeat running through their sap, their leaves keening. This is no safe place, there is nowhere to run but a preordained forward or back. A shuffling figure ahead of me, zombied with spice, dragging something from the bushes. Forward or back. Forward. No fear. It is some kind of jacket left here some time ago, he has dragged it into the middle of the path. Forward, he tries to see me but his eyes can’t focus, his lips can’t move to shut the gaping mouth over rotting teeth. His skin is mottled, I would not recognise him again because there is little of him here. It must feel like hours between thought and jerking steps. My heart breaks. Three others up ahead. Two young and one old, none of them have many teeth. All way too fucking thin, sinews standing out, anger simmering, arguing. Still walking with purpose, intent. Homemade tattoos stand out against white flesh.  Only the old (prematurely old) one sees me, at my nod he makes way. ‘Sorry, love’ he says. I like his smile.

And then I am on an estate. A wide sprawling one, semi-detached houses that have all seen better days. Nothing else here. A sense of barrenness. Isolation. No plants, gardens. A place strangers never come, I can tell by the way cars slow with their music blaring, by the curious gazes of the children. I feel myself curling up inside because there is nothing about me that belongs to this place. This is somewhere so long cast out from belonging they belong only to each other. I am familiar with these places, knowing one makes you no more welcome in another. The mountain is getting closer. I swing my way through stares like wet concrete.

I approach what I suddenly realise is a motorway. No way over to escape to the mountains, you must go under. A fucking underpass, here. No way to walk alongside the road. No way to safely cross it. I can already smell the underpass. There is only forward and back. The air is horribly sickly sweet but underneath is human waste. Two fires have been lit here, I would guess to burn the sum of someone’s meagre possessions. Charred shapes rise from the ground, they feel alive, malignant. The underpass is actually a series of bridges. I stared, you cannot see from this place of safety what lies beyond. The tunnel that must be there.

Forward or back.

It was back. Had to be.

Past the same eyes, wading through the same concrete for the worst of it. I did manage to bypass the ‘park’ and instead curved down another road that opened up views across the valley — I had no idea how high I had already climbed. It should have been beautiful, but wasn’t. Down I went.

 

 

Hunger: Knut Hamsun

Of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Robert Bly writes in the introduction to this 1976 version:

How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character! Fewer and fewer, as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that the readers will feel at home. (15)

This made me laugh out loud. Until I realised that Hamsun surely felt he was a genius, and maybe that is what propelled his admiration for Hitler, his support for Nazi occupation, his enthusiastic meeting with Goebbels. We saw no plaques for Hamson.

He wrote Hunger in 1890. So I will just write about that. Because it is an extraordinary book. Most descriptions of it seem to start with the list of other authors who loved his work, including Isaac Baschevis Singer, so it must be all right.

I’m not sure,  though.

I didn’t really feel myself that genius was the point at all. Hunger was the point. Pride too, mental illness, and the way that starvation twists your vision and carves into your understanding. It is also a very different kind of Oslo (or Christiana or Kristiana as it was known then) than that of Ibsen, or even Munch.

All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana — that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him … (24)

Oslo is no longer a city that leaves such a mark, I don’t think.

Thoughts of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me utterly reprehensible of Him to block my way every time I tried for a job and to ruin my chances when it was only daily bread that I was asking for. I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty. My head became light and floating, I could no longer feel its weight on my shoulders, and I had the sense that my eyes were remaining far too open when I looked at anything. (37)

This catalogue of a writer’s possessions cut me:

…thinking all the time of my marvellous story…I decided to get it over with right now and move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief which contained two clean collars and some crumpled newspaper which I had carried my bread home in, rolled it all together with my blanket, and added my store of white writing paper. (49)

And little could ring as true as this description of an editor’s office — an editor with power of acceptance or rejection. How much more powerful when it is the ability to grant a few pieces of bread and a place to sleep, or hunger and Oslo’s great outdoors.

I looked around me in the tiny office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an enormous wastepaper-basket that looked as if it could swallow a man, bones and all. I felt sad, looking at this monstrous maw, this dragon — mouth always open, ready to receive more rejected articles, newly crushed hopes. (105)

Loved this:

A country preacher could not have looked more full of milk and honey than this formidable writer, whose words had always left long bloody marks wherever they fell. (106)

Felt sorrow at this:

I simply couldn’t starve any more the way I used to. A single day without food now could make me feel dazed, and I made incessant retching efforts as soon as I drank any water. (107)

He retched often and everywhere, turning aside as he walked as though it were nothing, a terrible aspect of this daily horror. None of today’s streets are somewhere you could slink along retching quietly. Yet we saw beggars stretched out face down in the rain under plastic sheeting, holding out cups for alms. One man kneeling. It seemed that this is how begging is done here, most abjectly.

Then there are the kids…I know kids like this, though very few in the UK. Breaks the fucking heart.

They looked up at my window with their little pale-blue faces and endlessly sad eyes. Meanwhile, the two diminutive enemies continued to hurl words at each other. Words like huge, cold-blooded reptiles poured out of their childish lips, frightful nicknames, whore language, sailors’ curses… (160)

Their mother sleeping with a sailor while the husband watched, the poverty of their existence still able to accommodate a starving writer after his rent fell due.

It is 2 St Olavs Plass where Ylajali lives — the woman the narrator falls for, torments and comes to fascinate. The scene is fairly heartrending where she suddenly realises he is not a mysterious drunkard with a swagger, but simply delirious from starvation — the scene she realises she might still love him but can’t handle all of that.

2 St Olavs Plass is now a Michelin rated restaurant named Happolati, another of Hamsun’s made up names taken from the book:

The irony of naming a michelin restaurant after a ranting in a book about starvation… hard to stomach. Especially since he became a Nazi. We still went to see the place where his suffering protagonist hovered, it was suitably grim, though with a sculptural watery sort of feature now.

Oslo -- St Olavs Plass

He also wanders throughout these places in part 1 (the names pulled from Hunger and from a book about Hunger):

Our Saviour’s Place, Graensen street, Palace Park, Pascha’s Bookstore, Pilestraedet Lane, Cisler’s Music Store,  University Street, St. Olavs Plass, Karl Johan Street, the Students’ Promenade, Stortorvet Square, Aker Street Ullevaal Road St. Hanshaugen, Kirke Street, Haegdenhaugen district, Majorstuen, Bogstad Woods, Jaernbanetorvet Square, the Steam Kitchen, Gronlandsleret   Street, Møller Street, Christ’s Cemetery, Oplandske Café, Torv Street, the Arcades.  

We wandered them too, though I imagine the feel of them is much changed, though pictures of these old central areas seem very similar.

A final picture of Oslo city streets, and a happy reminder about genius.

Oslo

[Hamsun, Knut (1976) Hunger. London: Picador.]

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Space: 2017 Prix Pictet in Photography at the V&A

The exhibition of The Prix Pictet shortlist and winner at the V&A was superb.

Prix Pictet is a global prize that aims to highlight sustainability and environmental issues through photography….The theme for this cycle is Space.

The winner Richard Mosse for his series entitled Heat Maps — enthralling pictures, only two of them on display here. Huge  composited black and white film pictures and heat photographs showing refugee camps, showing metal cars glowing and human bodies incandescent, this use of military technology against military technologies to bring alive the scale of the camp, but in so much detail… Like a Bruegel Mark said and it was exactly what I had been thinking but the technology of it also means it comes in and out of focus a bit, like an enormous charcoal with sections in crystal clarity but but others blurred as though a careless fist rested there. Figures also burred white but caught in fragile intensely human moments and motions, there is a vividness here, a humanity unvarnished, a poverty not picturesque. These are landscapes of tents and metal and ripping wire, and a fragile battered environment of water, trees.

Carceral spaces at scale, but with humanity foregrounded. They were incredible. A visceral call to dismantle all of it, a recognition of the spirit of those within it.

The full list of photographers, all of their work is wonderful.

Mandy Barker (United Kingdom) Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals
Saskia Groneberg (Germany) – Büropflanze
Beate Guetschow (Germany) – S Series
Rinko Kawauchi (Japan) – Ametsuchi
Benny Lam (Hong Kong) – Subdivided Flats
Richard Mosse (Ireland) – Heat Maps
Wasif Munem (Bangladesh) – Land of Undefined Territory
Sohei Nishino (Japan) – Diorama Map
Sergey Ponomarev (Russia) – Europe Migration Crisis
Thomas Ruff (Germany) – ma.r.s
Pavel Wolberg (Russia) – Barricades
Michael Wolf (Germany) – Tokyo Compression

Another set of pictures of the migrant experience from Sergey Ponomarev, pictures of this massive movement of humanity that seems so remote to London even as I read of camps and deaths, even as I contribute food and money, even as I cry over boats tumbling over themselves and spilling children into the sea.

From Ponomarev’s statement:

Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.

I loved the recentering of the world onto these journeys that these pictures achieved. This new world they are creating.

Pictures of faces against glass in Tokyo’s subway, condensation, patient suffering. It feels infinite here.

Tokyo Compression

Shinjuku Station is used by an average of 3.64 million people per day, making it the most crowded train stations in the world in terms of number of passengers. I spent more than 60 weekday mornings photographing passengers during their commute into Tokyo. All portraits were taken at one train station along the Odakyu line, during rush hour between 7.30 and 9 am. At intervals of 80 seconds, a train already packed to the absolute limit pulled into the station. Even more people pushed their way into the compartments until the commuters were jammed like sardines in a can. Day in day out, millions of commuters must endure this torture, as the only affordable housing is hours away outside of the city center. Is this a humane way to live?

The collision of housing crisis, work, public transport. The everyday pain of it.

Saskia Groneberg’s pictures of plants filling offices, curving towards light, peering round blinds. They start banal and by the end of the series have given you a feeling more ominous than that, as though humans are not just absent but gone.But I think that is very much my own impression, too many movies, too many references to the Triffids.

Benny Lam’s pictures from Hong Kong, staring down at people in tiny rectangles — the length of our vertical axis — only enough room to sit and barely enough to lie down. The rooms’ heights  stacked vertically, the sum of people’s possessions around them. I remember my tiny room in London on New Park Rd, spacious in comparison (you could have got three or four people lying down in there, a new spatial measure), similarly stacked high, this feeling of being trapped yet also of safety because it is still yours… Nothing to this. I am humbled. Again we must question just how this is the world we have created.

Benny Lam Trapped 03, 2012, Series: Subdivided…

The tiny space in this house compels you to do everything on or around the bed: sleeping, washing vegetables, having meals, writing letters, and watching TV. For some people, it is also where the children do homework and play games. Living here is like being trapped in a cage. Dilemma is what it’s all about. If you need to catch your breath, stay in this trap and entertain yourself.

Sohei Nishino’s amazing montages of London and San Francisco, space expanding again. Myriads of images collaged together into a larger sense of the city, a vertiginous wandering through cityscapes that resemble the city you know but with some jarring differences.

Sohei Nishino: Diorama Map San Francisco, 2016, Series: Diorama Map, 2010-16

He writes:

Rapid cultural and economic development creates a continuous process of amplification and accumulation within cities. I walk through these cities, camera in hand, capturing multi-facetted [sic] views that I then combine,in accordance with my memories, arranging them into a map that portrays all the singular aspects of the place. The result is quite different from the denotative expression of a map; it uses photographs of concrete objects or shapes as units to recreate a geographical representation, expressing the city through human memories and images. This means that the finished work is anything but an accurate map, it is simply the town as seen through the eyes of a single individual, a trace of the way in which I walked through it, an embodiment of my awareness, a microcosm of the life and energy that comprise the city.

Fascinating exercises in psychogeography, though perhaps a little too stripped of situationist rebellion…

There is earth being scorched by fire, tied to agricultural ritual and both literal and cyclical space in Rinko Kawauchi’s pictures. I loved this hill, this sense of rebirth and the barrier between life and death, the theme of connection across space in this kind of time.

Beate Guetschow. Brutalist concrete crumbling against landscapes that I had to be told were composites to create new landscapes. That needing to be told…that fascinated me.

Her statement brought together a lot of the things I have been thinking about (I mean, she quotes Georges Perec, she is clearly playing with the idea of city here as well…):

Cities grow, and in doing so they occupy increasingly large amounts of space – the built environment is the greedy counterpart of the natural realm. A space is defined only by differentiation from another space, for which it needs walls that serve as barriers or borders. These are mainly conceived and put in place by man. The walls and virtual boundaries around spaces usually have some form of opening that define one’s own position and allow one to enter a different space. Georges Perec describes this perfectly in his book Species of Spaces: “To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself.”

In the S series I investigate urban space, whereby I am particularly interested in architecture as a representation of ideology and in the international equality of built structures. My photographs present cities that do not exist in reality. I use computer software to assemble new cityscapes from buildings I have photographed all over the world. The resulting images are visual utopias that reflect modernist thinking, its desire for structure and its idealism. A key characteristic of modernity was an unshakable belief in progress – the idea of a process of sustained growth that would ultimately lead to a perfect society. In terms of its clarity and functionality, modernist architecture symbolises this faith in rationality. In my images, these very structures are shown to be crumbling; their substance is rotten.

Mandy Barker’s study of plastic, a Victorian labeling within a tiny glass cabinet combined with these pictures of wonderful circles — views through a microscope, new views on the plastic that is filling the earth and all the living things within it beginning with plankton.

Micro to macro, Thomas Ruff’s pictures of Mars. Proper space:

ma.r.s.08 II, Thomas Ruff. © Thomas Ruff

Landscapes just as arid, just as likely to be found in Arizona where I grew up as in the strip of land between India as shown by Wasif Munem in ‘Land of Undefined Territory‘:

The chosen area of land in this series is a mere observer of nearly a hundred years of land disputes, which saw colonization, 1947’s divide of the Indian subcontinent and mass-migration with Partition, and 1971’s liberation war of Bangladesh which created the current border tension with the neighboring country, India. Absence of any profound identity for its existence never diminishes its presence, and its body carries the wound of aggressive industrial acts, such as stone collection and crushing. … Wasif’s work is not a definitive act of understanding the totality of deeds, rather deliberately ignorant of them with the help of an unconscious camera, to merely show land’s lone existence over a period of time.

And finally, Pavel Wolberg on the barricades.

The barricades are architectural elements that instantly appear and change existence around them. They are made out of tiles, barrels, blocks, and sacks of sand against which human beings seem to blur And become insignificant.

The barricades are the instant, moment-to-moment, concretization of separation of lives, identities, and ways of being. It is here that political, social and above all, religious believes are conjured up into a violent confrontation frontline made out of piles and multitudes. These barricades become turbulent focal points in the landscape where space is constantly reshaped and re-conquered and always remains chaotic.

Brilliant exhibition, and we caught it on the last day and almost didn’t see it at all as there were lines to main entrance — the security guard we were talking to told us of the other entrance round the side — not a soul around. good thing too, as who wanted to see fucking Pink Floyd or the Balenciaga exhibition? Everyone else apparently, which was all the better.

We also took this opportunity to enjoy a view of Tipoo’s Tiger. Worth stopping by even if you don’t see anything else there at all.

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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.

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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 = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/phenomenology/>.

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