May 8, 2016 Leave a comment
“What is there under your wallpaper?” – Georges Perec (1973) The Infraordinary
Earlier this week, I was a presenter at the AHRC/University of Sheffield symposium on Georges Perec’s Geographies. I’m not a Perec scholar, but was invited because – so I was told – my work has an affinity with Perec’s methods and chosen point of focus: the infraordinary. In opening the event Richard Philips (University of Sheffield), pointed out that much that is labelled ‘psychogeography’ these days has an un- (or under) acknowledged affinity to Perec’s literary project, and perhaps even a stronger connection to Perec than to the Situationists. I think he has a point – and I can certainly see more of Perec than Debord in (for example) Nick Papadimitriou’s writings.
The cast for the event featured a great spread of disciplines. The literary types drilled into Perec’s body of work (across text, stage, radio and film) and drew out connections, disjunctures and influences. Perec characterised his writing as having four modes: the ludic, the narrative, the biographical and the sociological. We saw how each piece of work brought one or more of these to the fore, but each time with a sombre, restless searching lying somewhere beneath the surface – no matter how playful the project in hand seemed to be. In the early 1970s Perec engaged in a variety of projects seeking to exhaust the everyday spaces of Paris – seeking to describe everything that would normally be left out of anyone else’s depiction of any place, on the grounds of being unremarkable. Thus his Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris (1973) is a 40 page account of watching buses, people and pigeons come and go at the same Paris street-corner over a three day period.
Having paid £10 for this slim book and sat down avidly to read it in my prep for the symposium I was left underwhelmed. In this text Perec resisted any urges to find a narrative – storylines – to join these observations together, or to follow their hints towards more interesting conjectural spaces.
This and the other projects of that time mapped the groundwork for Perec’s novel Life: a User’s Manual (1978), which he started writing a couple of years later. In his influential extended essay Species of Spaces (1974) Perec had alluded to this embryonic project, stating that he would write an exhaustive account of the life of an apartment building, its residents, their rooms and lives.
The gist of my presentation (as shown in the slides below) was to note that Perec’s sociological mode, to the fore in Attempt sharply fell away in Life, and that instead a narrative concern took over – the denizens being giving stories which intricately interconnect them into the lived totality of this place. This narrative imperative is – I think – inevitable. Who would read a 600 page stream of pure observational data? But I think this set of choices emphasises the impossibility of capturing everything and that some frame or other will have to apply to the infraordinary’s infinity.
In my talk, I went on to reflect on how Perec’s approach in Life might speak to contemporary urban exploration. In conclusion I presented at first a positive – that Perec reminds us of the importance of people and their making of place through myriad actions and daily concerns. Contemporary urban exploration writing often foregrounds the solitude of the lone explorer or the place itself and these wider connections to a social world of living, feeling, otherwise-preoccupied people gets lost. But my second concluding point was the inverse of this Perecquain virtue – and which, I concede, is a point that comes into being in the early 21st century in way it possibly could not in 1970s French literary culture – is the paucity of attention given to the apartment building and its materiality and its other residents. Perec’s focus in Life is almost exclusively a human one. I illustrated this by complaining about the ease with which Perec dissolves the apartment’s exterior wall in order to ‘see’ the people inside. I then ruminated on techniques (literary, artistic and technological) that would enable a lingering within the wall.
And it was at that point that I got out a power drill and suggested drilling into the lecture theatre’s wall to insert there a borescope – a probe for cavity inspection. Borescope also offers up a nice Perecquain duality – both the name for the probe, but also a new name for Perec’s infraordinary investigations: of scoping (intently looking into) the boring.
I closed out my talk by contrasting the wall-noticing (and multiplying) work of Gregor Schneider, who modifies residential buildings, principally by shrinking their rooms and thus creating ‘spare’ voids beyond the reduced rooms. These are then unsettling extra spaces – some accessible, some not – that disrupt the otherwise homely feel. These spaces emphasise the spaces of the walls rather than effortlessly passing through them.
Schneider gives a fascinating account of his work in this 80 minute lecture from the Architectural Association: