‘Fixing a hole where the rain gets in’: everyday inundation and the assault of objects

“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,

And stops my mind from wandering”

The Beatles (1967) ‘Fixing a hole’

So, I pick up the phone. It’s my mother calling to tell me how the first day of having her hallway and landing redecorated has gone.

So, I listen to the radio and Paul McCartney is trying to stop his mind wandering.

So, Twitter talk gets me thinking about Thomas Dolby’s 1982 LP, The Golden Age of Wireless.

So, I’m skim reading Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and I’m beguiled by its wild talk of poromechanics and Tellurian lubes.

So, I’m sitting in a class listening to student presentations. A colleague, urges the participants – next time – to take a note of the weather on the date of inspection. One fresh faced youth asks me why this is needed.

I’m not sure.

But my colleague explains:

“You see how the building works when it rains.

You notice whether the gutters manage to channel water,

you see how it encounters the exposed surfaces,

and whether they are watertight.

And in the wet air and its collision with cold zones

you see condensation saturating window panes.”

In the occurrence of wetness, a dynamic is revealed. A creeping wave of action – staged upon an event surface – rises to prominence and material finishes and conduits alike are subjected to a trial by ordeal. This is an inundation battle-space.

My colleague’s calm but confident acknowledgement of the revelatory agency of occasional precipitation leaves me slightly stunned. All the books I’ve been reading recently about object oriented ontology and vibrant matter tell me – in theoretical terms – that nature should be seen in this way, as agentive. But my colleague already gets this, and doesn’t need theory to guide her there. For her, buildings sit exposed to the elemental. They can be abstractified by the designer’s plans, marshalled for utilisation and valued using sophisticated techniques. But their properties are put to proof by a humble, universal (and unpredictable) visitor: rain.

“The copper cables all rust in the acid rain”

So sings Thomas Dolby in an album saturated with brooding wetness. I’ve known these songs for 30 years. Certain phrases – like this one – hang eternally in my mind, hummed mantra like in idle moments. These images of metal or flesh succumbing to a surfeit of hydration. Drowning, flood, clouds of enveloping damp air, all rolling into the scenes affecting the surfaces that they inundate. Wetness assailing human agency, curbing or ending life or co-opted as metaphor to the spent exhaustion of a liquid-like love:

“End of our summer

Your body weightless in condensation

My heart learned to swim

And the feeling was gone again”

I’m back in the phone call from my mother. She has great powers of recall, taking me through – blow by blow – the occurrence of her day. The story is dominated by surfaces and their disturbance; of the spatial and material disruption of re-decoration and specifically of the unsettling of her smoke detector, a sealed unit with no access to the battery inside.

The decorator had spent the day removing the existing wallpaper, exposing the raw poured concrete of this house’s walls, walls that bend any nail that you attempt to drive into them. The stairwell had filled with steam, tiny airborne particles of wallpaper and cement dust and an attendant sulphurous smell – so my mother curtly describes it – “of vomit”.

All of this has proved to be too much for the isotope encased in the smoke detector, steadily degenerating in the tick-tick of its half-life. This device works on the principle that smoke will disrupt that steady decay and the local ionisation that it will charge the air with, and the perturbation causes the alarm to go off.

This device has become spooked today. It has – my mother tells me, with jaded weariness in her voice – been intermittently going off every few minutes for the past 12 hours. She has improvised a paddle with which to waft the soiled air away and calm the nerves of this sentry, but the miasma now permeating the hallway, hanging as stale fetid damp air, keeps goading this sensor. The air and the sensor are locked in a quarrelsome dialogue, within the hallway of this now unsettled house, and there is little that she – as human bystander – can do about it.

A telephone call to the manufacturer’s helpline elicits a blank response – indeterminate advice on the theme of opening windows, repeated air-wafting and a polite chiding of

“well, we always recommend

that fire alarms are removed before any decorating works,

our alarms have very sensitive sensors you know”.

Bit late to tell me that now, my mother mouths through gritted teeth as she stares up at the agitated flying saucer pinned to her ceiling.

Reflecting on my mother’s account of her day, what struck me was how the entire event had been a narration of thing-led events, with her playing catch-up to the awkward interconnections and knock-on effects unleashed in the house by disturbing its equilibrium. This was description of an everyday encounter with matter, and a description of the rich challenge of simply facing matter – this was not things standing as symbols of ideas, positions or activities elsewhere. This was a description of an event in itself, born of an encounter with things themselves (walls, air, dust, an isotope). In the account the smoke alarm and its random bleeping was the story, there was nothing beyond the sheer irksomeness (and loss of control) experienced in this encounter.

As I thought about this I recalled something Daniel Miller wrote about the inherent experience of sari wearing in his book Stuff: that accounting for human relationships with saris should not just seek to characterise the symbolic role of sari wearing within cultures to which that apparel is indigenous, but rather also seek to explore the direct relationship of the wearer to the ‘thing itself’ – to give an account of the wrappings, the weight, the shaping of movement of the wearer: the embodied experience of the act of wearing this garment.

The weight of the sari should be heard for and of itself.

The smoke alarm in my mother’s hallway found a way to make itself heard today. Tomorrow it will fall silent. It will be wrenched from the ceiling, taken outside by my uncle, and rudely put to death with a brick. As he carries the disc to its point of brutal disassembly, a waft of fuggy air will no doubt follow out in his wake, stale air drawn inexorably towards the cooler outdoors with the opening of the door. The house will exhale, and – as it wafts past – the tendril of fetid house-breath will perhaps look down disdainfully at the now-vanquished smoke detector lying like a crushed insect in the yard, its battery and isotope now leaking their modest wet danger into the gaps between the paving slabs beneath.

References

Dolby, T (1982) The Golden Age of Wireless, Venice in Peril/EMI (LP): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Age_of_Wireless

Miller, D. (2009) Stuff, Polity: Cambridge

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia  – complicity with anonymous materials, re.press: Melbourne

Image source: http://news.warwickshire.gov.uk/blog/2012/10/26/check-smoke-alarms-as-you-check-clocks/

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

4 Responses to ‘Fixing a hole where the rain gets in’: everyday inundation and the assault of objects

  1. Interesting as always Luke. Reminds me how many ‘modernist’ buildings appear to have perpetual leaking problems. I’ve not read this book this but came across this review recently which seems to tap into some of these themes: http://www.architectural-review.com/reviews/come-rain-or-shine-joseph-deane-on-weather-architecture/8651058.article The smoke detector incident also reminded me of of a recent radio news item on carbon monoxide deaths and the need for detectors in all houses. The interviewer made the assumption that new build/modern house would be less at risk as the dangerous objects (boilers etc) were new. However, the expert said that in many cases if there was leak (say faulty boiler or uncontrollable/undiscovered blocked flue) then a new build/modern house could potentially be more dangerous as it was more ‘sealed’. An older house would be more likely to have natural venting and draughts that would make a dangerous build up of carbon monoxide less probable.

  2. Thanks Fifepsy. Yes, there’s an irony here – that the sealed nature of modern buildings reveals to us that the draughts now denied by them were actually quite important. Edward Tenner writes of such ‘revenge effects’ in his 1997 book, ‘Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences’. Attempts to control something previously allowed to self-balance, may cause adverse knock-on effects, such that the assailed thing appears to be fighting back…

  3. Pingback: ‘Fixing a hole where the rain gets in’: everyday inundation and the assault of objects | occursus

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