Through walls with wifi, Georges Perec and the IDF
July 29, 2012 4 Comments
“What happens behind the flats’ heavy doors can most often be perceived only through those fragmented echoes, those splinters, remnants, shadows, those first moves or incidents or accidents that happen in what are called the ‘common areas’” (Perec, 1978: 23)
Wandering through walls
I’m back in Torquay again on family business, back in that strange situation of being somewhere I once knew well, but which now feels a slightly strange place; a place which operates life differently to how I’ve become used to living it. This is a slower place (not that Sheffield is particularly fast). Here things follow slightly different rules and orientate around different hubs.
This is an old-world of ornaments, dusting and sweeping, net curtains, the ritual exchange of greetings cards and close observance of the ailments and decline of acquaintances. It is also a world largely bereft of wifi.
With the twitchiness of electro-withdrawal I went for a preoccupied walk around the local neighbourhood. My aim and preoccupation? Wifi squatting in order to download a suddenly longed for e-book.
I walked the streets searching for unsecured wifi signals bleeding out from the homes I slowly walked past. Eventually I found one and attended to my business. Most of the signals I detected were secured, and most retained their ‘out of the packet’ abstract machine names for their private networks. But a few had been personalised, giving a glimpse into each home’s deportment. From proud declaration of the identity of a family domain (‘The Bakers’) to compression of the postal address (‘the Laurels’) or a sign of a personal attachment or domestic-technical dominance (‘Mike’s). I’ve seen a fair few wifi names on my recent travels – and ‘The Wank Network’ takes the biscuit (so to speak). Yes, most of these networks are private – but whether or not they realise this their network names are broadcasting for all to read.
Anyway, this wandering cyber-snooping got me thinking about the ways in which we travel through walls, whether in making assumptions from a handful of external signifiers or via more sophisticated techniques and technologies. What therefore follows is a rumination on ways of going through walls.
Seeing through walls
“I put a picture up on a wall. Then I forget there is a wall. I no longer know what there is behind this wall, I no longer know what a wall is. I no longer know that in my apartment there are walls, and if there weren’t any walls there would be no apartment.” (39)
So writes Georges Perec in his 1974 essay Species of Spaces. Perec notes how by this adornment and functional obfuscation, the apartment wall’s function as a delimiter of place, of private and public, of ‘my’ private and someone else’s private is forgotten, rendered invisible. But it still operates.
I’m not a great fiction reader, but Perec’s essay has encouraged me to read some of his ‘novel’ Life: A User’s Manual (1978), a 600 page project in which Perec sought to remove the front wall from a Parisian apartment block and describe the image of each denizen, frozen in one moment on one day. I say ‘describe the image’ because Perec’s style is wilfully visual, his is storytelling as surveying. The reader is given depictive lists of the material content, arrangement and proportions of each room, and the rooms take on as much identity as their glimpsed inhabitants. Through this we get some sense of the independent lives of the building, the rooms and their material things.
So, in his novel Perec takes us via imagination (and a sense of the familiar) into these private, indoor spaces. Through his words we ‘see’ through the walls, but they are still there. The constellation holds. These places are not destroyed by this observation.
Walking through walls
But what of techniques that could physically take us (or others) through those walls? Here we encounter ‘home invasion’, a specific offence in the U.S. A crime born of simply invading a home. In contrast English Law enquires into the purpose and acts of the trespasser before finding a criminal offence, whether via theft (burglary) or – now in England at least – the squatting of domestic premises.
Before they graduated to murder, the Manson ‘family’ relished a lesser form of house invasion – they would break into houses solely for the purpose of rearranging the furniture there, thrilling in expectation that that subtle intrusion would upset the comforting certainties of the residents’ dwelling there.
For Hannah Arendt violation of the private sanctity of the home was a fundamental breach in the fabric of civilised, democratic life. Physical incursion into a home speaks to a fundamental violation, a deeply unsettling act at the heartland of identity and comfort. Home invasion laws seek to acknowledge this intangible ‘essence of privacy and home’. An essence we can find embodied in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and its (qualified) respect for a quiet enjoyment of “home and family life.”
Which brings me to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and its practice of ‘walking through walls’ when conducting ‘security operations’ in Palestinian townships, as investigated by ‘forensic architect’ Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land (2007), his masterful study of the architectural dimensions of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Weizman captures the normative destabilising effect of the IDF’s action by quoting one Palestinian resident thus:
“Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living room, which you know so well…And suddenly, that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the another screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they have come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else…[and pointing to another wall now covered by a bookcase, she adds] and this is where they left. They blew up the wall and continued to our neighbour’s house”. (195)
Weizman shows how those responsible for innovating the IDF’s urban warfare tactics found inspiration in Post-Structuralist thinking, turning Deleuze & Guattari’s notions of nomadism, smooth space and the rhizomatic action to a state’s advantage. Even social constructionism was co-opted, as one of the IDF’s strategists put it:
“This space that you look at, this room…is nothing but your interpretation of it…we interpret the alley as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because weapons await us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors…this is why we opted for the method of walking through walls…like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing…” (Weizman, 2007: 198-199)
Reading these testimonies of walking through walls reminded me of passages on floodwater ingress, in particular one that I’ve read recently in an account of the 1952 ‘great’ flood of the North Devon village of Lynmouth:
“The front door had been bolted and barred to withstand the pressure of the water. The fact that it was appearing around the back, showed that it was surrounding the cottages but no real alarm was felt until suddenly the front door, forced by a tree or boulder, crashed open to admit a waist-deep wave. As if to synchronize, the back door flew inwards and two surges of water met in the kitchen. There was no electric power and all witnesses agree on the feeling of impotence without light, and the deafening noise which intensified within minutes.” (Delderfield 1981: 31-32)
Whether by military action or floodtide, in each case the ‘privacy’ of the home was violated by a violent incursion from the outside, each forcing its way, ignoring (or assailing) the conventional forms of entry and/or exclusion. In each case the home was contaminated (materially and symbolically) by the arrival of things alien to it. In each case ‘home’ was invaded and despoilt.
I will now step back out into the street and see if that wifi hotspot is still unsecured. If it is you will be able to read this meditation on the fragility of walls and of their permeability…
Delderfield, E.R. (1981) The Lynmouth Flood Disaster, ERD Publications: Exmouth.
Perec, G. (1974) The Species of Space, Penguin: London
Perec, G (1978) Life, A User’s Manual, Vintage: London
Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow Land – Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Verso: London