‘The sincerity of the other’ – a picture and a thousand words

My blog musings are mostly about meaning-making practices in the material world, about how significance is projected onto physical stuff. This short essay is about my recent re-discovery of a 25 year old print of M.C. Escher’s The First Day of Creation (1925 – above) which someone gave me many Christmases ago, and which – clad in a dusty clip frame – has lain unregarded in a box for most of its life.

Upon its original unwrapping I’d been seized with a wave of disappointment. I’d asked for an Escher print and I’d expected one of his mesmerising geometric conundrums. Instead I got a ‘straight’ picture of a fat bird flying over a brain-like planet. I’m sure I smiled politely, but inside I was already planning which storage box it could be consigned to.

But, this week this picture has finally (and rather suddenly) made sense. This short essay explains how, and in doing so skims across the suface of the deep worlds of alien phenomenology and object oriented ontology. But, like the fat bird’s flight, this is a skim. Those phrases won’t reappear.

Travels earlier this week gave me chance to read Graham Harman’s Towards Speculative Realism (2009) and Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog (1922). Each have helped me to find new meaning in this picture. Whether Escher intended the interpretation that follows doesn’t matter, this is about meaning-making as inference not as authorial implication.

Staring at the picture this week I saw a planetscape of worms and a bird, happy and satiated in its world. These worms were what the world below meant to it: what it saw, because that was what it was eternally searching out. I saw bird, worms and world in a network. And in the bird’s eye I sensed a sincerity of its project, it’s imperative:

“To recognize the other as other is to sense the imperative weighing on his or her thought…the imperative that calls me obliges me to understand the causes and grounds that unleash their energies within the world…we see the other ordered not by biochemical laws and cultural codings, but by a task.” (Harman, 2010: 15)

This led me to Kafka’s portrayal of the sensory life-world of a questioning dog. Kafka’s short story Investigations of a Dog, presents the pondering of a dog as he questions the unquestioning nature of dog culture and his attempts through absurdist (to us humans) experiments to determine where food comes from. Kafka gives us a glimpse of what it must be like to be a dog and to live under the influence of canine imperatives:

“Trembling with desire, whipping yourself with your own tail, you steal cautiously upon your fellow dog, you ask, you howl, you bite and achieve…contiguity, honest acceptance, ardent embraces, barks that mingle as one: everything is directed toward achieving an ecstacy, a forgetting and finding again…” (Kafka 1922, 321-322)

Kafka interprets the imperatives of dog-life as primarily a quest for food and inclusion, membership of a pack and validation through it. Enquiry other than pragmatic investigation related to those goals is literally pointless.

Harman (in his reading of Alphonso Lingis) takes imperatives beyond the sentient realm of living creatures, and into the inanimate (or at least the non-sentient) world. Just as we should appreciate the sincerity of the imperatives of other other creatures, so also should we take note of the imperatives of the other stuff of the world:

“Making room for one another …objects contest each other, seduce each other, empower or annihilate each other. Commanding one another by way of the reality of their forces, the objects exist as imperatives. Like fish hunting food or dogs playing with balls, it is possible that gravel and tar, cloth and magnesium wage war against one another, compress one another into submission, demand respect from one another.” (21)

Harman’s upscaling of these notions of imperatives, sincerity and respect is refreshing. It can also seem rather other-worldly. But Harman takes care to drag his point back down to earth, to the substances of the real, everday world wherever he can. He is not suggesting that we worship tarmac, and is not saying that gravel has a soul or a self awareness of its own imperatives. Rather, he is simply reminding us that the world is not just made up of ideas, of representations of stuff. It is also made up of stuff, and that stuff has weight upon the world. It affects, directs, shapes through inevitable interaction.

Harman’s work on speculative materialism does (at least) two important things. First it brings the material back into play (and links well with the attentiveness to hybrid assemblages of things of Bruno Latour and other proponents of Actor Network Theory) and secondly, it leaves open a role for culture and perception in human (and other) interaction with objects. Harman shows how the identity of an object is multi-faceted, and can never be fully known by any one viewer or perspective. He cites cubism as an attempt to show the ‘all angles at once’ depiction of faces, cars and other supposedly simple and singluar things. In reasserting the material, Harman does not got kill off the role of the perceptual. As the ‘full’ character can never be viewed or known, fractions of the object are all that can be known, and the fraction is that perceived  from the standpoint of the imperative guiding the speculator. The task at hand shapes what will be seen.

So, as I tentatively burrow into Harman’s work, I try to work through the implications for my own projects, experiences and preconceptions. As I stumble across an old picture, I view it through the frame of the throughts in my head, and for the first time I see a scene rich with meaning. The bird is in its world. It sees its world in terms of it’s imperatives – food and movement. We see its universe, and its place in that universe. We see imperative, sincerity, and it is good.

Picture source: M.C. Escher (1925) The First Day of Creation http://uploads8.wikipaintings.org/images/m-c-escher/the-1st-day-of-the-creation.jpg

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Going inside – the alien world of nooks, crannies and other non-human spaces

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“…the imagination, by virtue of its freshness and its own peculiar activity, can make what is familiar into what is strange. With a single poetic detail, the imagination confronts us with a new world. From then on, the detail takes precedence over the panorama, and a simple image, if it is new, will open up an entire world.”

Gaston Bachelard (1964) The Poetics of Space

This essay is about confined spaces that only reveal themselves to humans fleetingly (if at all). It is about the effect of noticing them and lingering to contemplate them. In spirit it follows in the footsteps of Gaston Bachelard’s meditations on the shelter-world of homes, shells and nests. But I will drift more towards man-made interstices, with the voids within walls, furniture and floors. Bachelard’s project was to enquire into the ways in which the creative unconscious and places of dwelling are linked in human minds and actions. I find myself drawn more towards the alienness of spaces that are non-human due to their size, location or other form of human inaccessibility. In what circumstances are these spaces noticed by us, and in what ways do we possess, know or colonise them?

Revealed by flames

Watching an old sofa burn earlier this week, it was the moment that the fabric panel beneath the arm rest rolled back in the face of the flames that caught my eye. For, in that unfurling, the inside of the sofa arm revealed itself to me as a cavity, a small cavern bounded by a wooden framework, iron springs and matting; an unknown hollow that I had spent many hours resting against. This was a place that had not seen daylight since it was enclosed by the upholsterer many decades ago. But for a few moments fresh air was able to rush into this once enclosed territory, flames then quickly following in air’s invasive wake, briefly filling this void with overwhelming heat and light before bringing about the collapse of the framing tiers of this now failing structure, and the extinction of this space.

This sofa’s fate was sealed by an incontinent cat. This furniture had to go, it couldn’t be passed on. So, it went by fire. During the life of this sofa this enclosed space was inhabited only by stale air, crumbs, dust mites, fleas (courtesy of our dog and cats) and perhaps holidaying viruses and bacteria migrating there from the surficial smear-strips of youthful residents or their guests. It was an alien ecology, a vibrant place (perhaps) for some life forms, but not a place of human habitation. It was, in human terms a ‘non-space’, a place beyond access, beyond the human everyday realm. I’d fleetingly glimpsed another world down the back of the sofa.

Looking in the wardrobe

We normally only venture inside our possessions when we are searching for something. A lost key causes us to explore coats, pockets and sofa crevices in a way quite out of keeping with our usual disregard for such locations. Briefly we pour over them intently, inspecting such cavities with unfamiliar intimacy, often with hesitancy. Contorted fingers venture tentatively beyond sight into foreign lands, fearing spiders, dirt or other unknowns. Then we withdraw once again from these spaces, they cannot be occupied permanently, the body and/or the mind could not stand it. To slide under a car or bed, to probe a sofa, cupboard or wall void, to climb into a wardrobe, attic or inspection chamber: all are challenging and thrilling, but they are temporary incursions. Daily human life could not be lived in these spaces.

And yet, occasionally humans do in extremis seek to dwell in such places: priests, fugitives and other refugees have all sought out spaces to dwell within the hidden portions of houses. In such situations the acquaintance with those spaces would energise otherwise liminal space. In a feint echo of this perhaps, hiding as a child, striving to suppress the sound of breathing whilst squeezed into the wardrobe you became strangely aware of the nature and features of that furniture. The grain on the door, the smell of the place, the occupation of this space by other stuff stored there and the resistance to your weight as it creaked to accommodate its new exceptional loading. For a few moments you might have glimpsed the sentinel-like essence of what it must be like to be a wardrobe. But then you stepped back into the real world, stood up straight and got on with being a human.

Human engagements with non-human space

Clearly we can never actually come to know what it’s like to be a wardrobe, or even what it’s like to be a creature whose natural habitat is such spaces. Yet fictions of miniaturisation, like The Borrowers, Mrs Pepperpot or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids embrace this alienness. The humans are for some reason shrunken, and find themselves exploring the familiar home-world in new ways. Everyday objects become functionally mutated. A shoe becomes a house or a boat, a puddle a lake. As a room becomes a continent, an alien landscape is glimpsed in all its now-apparent jeopardy. And then a full-size human appears and the mini-people have to flee the ‘giant’s’ footsteps, as that giant goes about his everyday engagement with mundane spaces and things. If the mini-people are lucky they will manage to reach the relative safety of a mouse-hole, and will enter the wall cavity.

These mini-people get to go where the full size humans cannot. To explore floor voids, cavity walls, rafters – to see a house from the truly-inside, to scurry sideways through a house like a mouse or a spider. I’m jealous. The closest I’ve come is in a videogame adaptation of Disney’s Ratatouille film, in which players get to venture, like a rodent Laura Croft amidst the cavity wall of a Parisian town house. To see the wall from the inside is to see the way that plaster oozes there in sensuous bulges through the lath strips. On the outside the plaster is all smooth and neat, but on the inside it is the epitome of disorder, irregularity and an excess of matter. The quest for epic smoothness on the exterior, requires this secret opposite effect inside the wall. There is something Dorian Gray-like in the banishment of imperfection from one zone into another. But this by-product effect isn’t meant to be seen by the human eye.

The authenticity of the invisible

And yet the invisble stuff seems important, or at least it does to me. I recall a recent work meeting. A gathering to view a nearly complete 3D virtual reality model of a house, designed for building surveying students to practice upon. During the meeting the presenter was keen to assure his audience that this simulation was a replica of a real house, and that the design of the model was one strictly shaped by adherence to ‘real world physics’ (which meant the students could not levitate, walk through walls or otherwise use super powers in their engagement with this place). But it was an abrogation of real world matter-detail that irked me. I asked whether it would be possible to lift up the floorboards, to search for the wiring, to observe the runs of the central heating system or the remnant traces of the gas lamp piping. ‘Um, no’ came the reply, ‘building surveyors don’t report on those systems’. So, that aspect of detail would be ignored, partly because in disciplinary terms it was considered irrelevant and partly because of the vast coding and data resource that would be entailed in depicting hidden features of the house that might never actually be searched for.

At the level of logic I understood, but at gut level this felt like a serious dent in the authenticity of this depiction of the house. Like an obsessive dolls house maker I felt the need to paint walls it would not be possible to see, to fully populate this model. To strive to include everything, even the invisble stuff. Eventually, a concession was offered. A few bounded zones of subsurface detail could be added, places where the students could chase out mold, damp or other building pathologies. Students would there have the equivalent of ‘dig here’ prompts, and could mine at those locations into the ‘relevant’ interior detail. This was a token nod to the invisible realm, but better than leaving the invisible entirely unrepresented.

The hidden portions of a house have always fascinated me. Pulling up a floorboard a few years ago I discovered fragments of a bell wire run in an attic bedroom, the remains of the maid calling apparatus. Then there was the time that I pulled up some floor boards in an old house and found a marble fireplace dumped below. Occasionally in fitful dreams I uncover unknown rooms beneath my known house. Bachelard tells me this is all quite normal, reading via Jung the cellar as disquieted unconscious, such that:

“If the dreamer’s house is in the city it is not unusual that the dream is one of dominating in depth the surrounding cellars. His abode wants the undergrounds of legendary fortified castles, where mysterious passages run under the enclosing walls, the ramparts and the moat put the heart of the castle into communication with the distant forest.” (20)

But Bachelard seems to be conflating two different drives here, and neither is what I feel. In Bachelard’s quote there is a concern with escape from the house, and with colonisation beyond its borders. But what drives me to pull up floorboards, or to look in the wardrobe, each so that I can sleep better at night is a desire to fully know the house that I’m in. I don’t want to escape or to invade next door. I just want to be fully connecting to my own home.

Rewiring, plumbing and exorcism

I’ve come to realise that there is something ritual in my floorboard-thing, and yet I usually end up looking into floors or walls for pragmatic DIY reasons. The soul-resting bit usually comes as an afterthought, a realisation that I know have made peace with an otherwise alien void space. It has become known, claimed. It is part now of my home, rather than a brooding alien presence within the fabric of my house. Yet this resulting purging effect does have a feel of solving (or at least salving) a haunting.

I’d imagine that those who may have experienced an actual infestation – a wasp nest or some other living, breathing and breeding alien presence within their home – would have that sense of release in even greater measure. The antagonistic pest co-resident banished at last from somewhere within the recesses of the home, must make the home feel fully known and possessed.

And perhaps to get rid of that alien presence a specialist was procured. Someone well versed in inspecting, reading and probing these non-human voids. Someone who knows the ways of these spaces, understands their ecology and/or the infrastructure that passes quietly through them. The humble pest exterminator, plumber or electrician is not so humble when viewed from this perspective, for these are the silent custodians of an arcane knowledge, the product of a daily acquaintance of many hundreds of homes’ hidden voids.

Were those professions more literary we might have legion of psychogeographically inclinded accounts of chasing pests, pipe and wire routes through these alien zones. We would be able to sit, read and marvel at the ingenuity and accumulated place-reading skills of those liminal technicians. We would hear tales of strange items, sensations, sounds and smells encountered in the deepest recesses of our homes. But sadly these technicians do not (to my knowledge at least) commit these thoughts to paper.

Going backstage – thoughts on searching for a small room

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This is one of those essay ideas that springs to mind and meets an immediate voice of caution. No one else does it, so neither should you. No one writes essays about the expeditionary practices of navigating your way ‘backstage’ in a search for a cafe or pub’s toilets. But I’m afraid the temptation to venture into this barren zone was too great to bear. So, here it is. A reflective journey on half-remembered searches for the sanctuary spaces buried deep in someone else’s private territory. It is also about why these islands of public convenience exist and why it feels odd to venture in search of them. Rest assured that, in what follows I don’t dwell on the toilet. The piece is largely about the liminal space encountered in the search. The journey is the interesting bit, not the arrival.

‘I may be some time’

For me the best part of a trip out to a pub, cafe or restaurant is the opportunity to sneak off to the toilet. No, this is not a confession of cottaging or drug dependency, rather a celebration of the opportunity to pass beyond the public face of a commercial establishment that searching the bowels of a building for its loos presents.

Often the journey starts with a 360 degree survey of the scene, trying not to be too obvious or to intrude into the private jollity of other parties in the room. Then, hopefully, a sign or a pattern will emerge in the way that occasionally people walk off stage into areas that are not the entrance/exit. If lucky there will be someone else in your party who has already made the trek. Ask them in a whisper if they will point you onward. But before asking them, or the staff here, first perhaps a conscious pause for thought about which of the many words you carry around for ‘the bog’ is suitable for this establishment.

Then, with a route set, you are off and walking increasingly purposefully across the room, gliding between others’ tables, trying to make it all seem perfectly natural (which it is). But – still – on the way there and on the way back you can’t help but feel that everyone is watching. Everyone knows what you are up to.

After an eternity of room-gaze crossing you are there, at a turn, a doorway, some other change of scene that announces that you are at the threshold, at the brink of ‘backstage’. The transition is signalled by a narrowing of passage, a sudden chaotic density of space-use: watch out for the buckets, the stores, the equipment occupying this narrow indoor lane. And in contrast to the room you were just in – the commercial space – the here you are now in is empty of people. Sounds echo out from the kitchen, a clatter of pots, the hum of an extractor fan, tinny fragments of voices or music from a rusty radio drift towards you – but no-one ever comes out into the passage. And for that you are glad, because you don’t feel entirely sure that you have the right to be here. This anxiety spurs another rapid visual survey, a reflex anticipated by the more considerate establishments, who will have posted some ‘onward’ instructional signage. Although often this may have more of a feel of telling you which turns not to take: the ‘private – staff only’ commands on every door you are not meant to stray through.

The best loo-hunting journeys require a tour of long winding corridors, with bends and puzzling junctions, then stairs – an up or a down – some more winding walking and eventually (at the moment you are about to doubt either your own navigation or the sincerity of the signage that you have been putting your faith in) the destination is upon you.

Soon the realisation hits you, that you have strayed deep into the backstage area. Visits to Berlin from the West must have felt this way (sort of). Here you are, in a public enclave deep in foreign private territory. Perhaps you are no longer even in the same building. Did those stairs and winding passages take you out of the pub? Have you, Alice-like, been lured into some parallel universe, one like an earnest early 1970s sci-fi film where all the humans have disappeared and you will spend you remaining days solely in the company of the rusty radio, catering sized tins of baked beans and dull polished metal surfaces?

Within the loo cubicle there is some womb-like comfort born of universal functionality (all loo china-wear looks the same even if there is marked diversity in states of cleanliness). But there will also be varieties and ages of hand dryer, paper towel dispenser and ventilation ducts. How many decades have these things been this way? Time moves more slowly out the back. Surfaces are more approximate. This a world of ‘make do’, in contrast to the annual upgrade and daily wipe clean of the commercial space that you have now strayed from.

Looking at these devices you may try to date their designs. You may linger over the manufacturer plate riveted onto the dryer as it blows water from your hands. ‘World Dryer Corp’, and their HQ in a mid-west  industrial US city that you’ve never heard of, where they seem to  breed dryers at a world dominating rate. A whole city devoted to producing a clone dryer army. Maybe.

Then perhaps the window catches your eye, slightly ajar. Is that because of the thick layers of paint on the metal frame now prevent it from closing, or is this an attempt at ventilation? If sufficiently open, there may be a chance to peek though it and glimpse a yard area beyond. A private little, tumble down world that is not designed to be viewed by patrons, and yet if glimpsed tells you so much about the manner of this place.

For me the best images glimpsed from these window slits are of delivered piles of stores: bulk and boxed legion of ingredients. A catering supply delivery, a surfeit of stuff, more than a life-time’s horde of ketchup sachets. That abundance, stripped of any presentational flair, is naked commerce. What you are glimpsing is the reception point where everything is tipped into this building, this business, and will eventually appear heated, portioned and presented in the eating zone. Things are instigated here and from this point forward value is ‘added’.

But hey, you can’t stay here all day. So thoughts turn to the return, and its uncertainty. Why do these places often have less directional signage on the return journey?  Is one stumbling trek really sufficient to have done away with the need for return-ward pointers? In the worst cases there will be doors, identical in colour. One will be the way back into the living, commercial realm, the others will lead who knows where (the kitchen probably). In moments like that you may wish for an Ariadne’s thread. Or maybe you could have sprinkled bread crumbs. But either would be very hard to explain if you did encounter some backstage staff.

The origins of these reluctant spaces

The experience of delving into an alien territory – of going backstage – doesn’t arise with purpose built venues. There are no winding corridors, no intriguing staircases, no over-painted window frames. In short, there is no journey. The toilet zones of multiplex cinemas (for example) are close to hand, designed into the building from the start. They are not an afterthought that requires an expedition.

No, it is older buildings and their provision of their sanitary conveniences in areas other than the core commercial zone that have these enticing effects of taking you ‘backstage’. In these places these toilets were once private, this area was never designed or intended for public gaze. And yet a requirement came along and had to be accommodated. Backstage had to be opened up because loos had to be provided for the patrons. Access was therefore reluctantly inserted into the static layout of the building, and the public permitted to pass into the backstage solely for the purpose of  reaching them.

And the origin of those requirements? Well, there is a widely held view that cafes and bars must provide WCs for their patrons. Digging in, to try to find the root of this requirement, I find earnest parliamentary debate about public toilet provision, I find legislation and I find British Standards. The best picture I can glean is that the (splendidly titled) Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 empowers local councils to take action against owners of establishments at which food and drink is served if they fail to provide sanitary conveniences. But the 1976 Act does not compel this, local authorities do not have to crusade in favour of such provision, and therefore (according to the British Toilet Association [yes there really is one]) local enforcement practice varies wildly between different local authority areas. Some care strongly about enforcing this, others don’t. Public toilets in such places therefore exist either in vague rumour based anticipation of possible council requirements or as a result of actual intervention.

Whatever the specifics of the origins of this optional legislative control, it is (for me at least) instructive to think that the oddness felt when venturing backstage in search of the toilet is actually a liminal experience for all concerned. For the environmental health officer ‘it depends’ on local practices and policies, for the owner he’s left unsure, for the patron he feels uneasy as he steps backstage.

A trip into backstage areas in search of the loo is thus an opportunity to savour the materialities of these public/private, voluntary/mandatory, welcoming/reluctant, old/new  ambiguities in regulators’, owners’ and users’ engagements with place.