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Flows (i)

7 May

Mark C. Taylor describes flows in terms of the changes wrought upon the metropolis:

In the city, place is transformed into the space of anonymous flows. As technologies change first from steam and electricity and then to information, currents shift, but patterns tend to remain the same. Mobility, fluidity and speed intersect to effect repeated displacements in which everything becomes ephemeral, and nothing remains solid or stable.

(Mark C. Taylor & Dietrich Christian Lammerts, Grave Matters (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), p. 19.)

 Charles Baudelaire’s work holds a central place here, with its emphasis on the ephemeral and the permanent. Taylor notes how this fluidity in modernity is associated with the emphasis in philosophy on becoming over being:

The infatuation with becoming issues in the cult of the new, which defines both modernity and modernism. The cultivation of the new simultaneously reflects and reinforces the economic imperative of planned obsolescence. In the modern world, what is not of the moment, up to date, au courant is as useless as yesterday’s newspaper.

(Taylor & Lammerts, p. 19)

The price of this, for Edward Casey, is ‘the loss of places that can serve as lasting scenes of experience and reflection and memory’. This in turn has led to the search for theories of belonging, dwelling and being-in-place, as can be found in the rather different projects of Martin Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Yi-Fu Tuan.

Place in contemporary thinking occupies many ‘sites’ that are the consequences of the rush to modernity, among them the postindustrial wasteland, the high-rises and ‘concrete islands’ described in the fictions of J.G. Ballard, the abandoned high street, the migratory routes of tourists and vagabonds, and the ‘non-places’ analysed by Marc Augé. These non-places are echoed in Beatriz Sarlo’s discussion of the ‘decentered city, in which she posits the out-of-town shopping mall as the quintessential example of a site for the contemporary consumer-subject to get lost. As Sarlo points out, displacement is happening here on more than just the physical level: ‘the mall is part and parcel of an evacuation of urban memory.’ Zygmunt Bauman, meanwhile, points to the slipperiness of any sense of space within ‘liquid modernity’. In another kind of evacuation, we are also asked to consider the escape from ‘real’ place into the hyperreal space of simulation and the ‘placeless places’ of cyberculture described by Taylor:

The placeless place and timeless time of cyberculture form the shifty margin of neither/nor […] In this ‘netherzone’, ‘reality’ is neither living nor dead, material nor immaterial, here nor there, present nor absent, but somewhere in between. Understood in this way, cyberspace is undeniably spectral. The virtual realities with which we increasingly deal are ghostly shades that double but do not repeat the selves we are becoming.

(Taylor & Lammerts, p. 20. The notion of the ‘netherzone’ comes from the artist Eve André Laramée.)

Before we lose sight of the actual citizen, however, we should think of how one responds to such developments in everyday life. Common to a number of the arguments presented above is an assumption that the city operates as an ideological pressure upon the subjected citizen, who is born into a time and place and must adapt to their situation. This immediately raises questions of negotiation between citizen and city, between dweller and dwelling place.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan begins his exploration of space and place with the body, describing a world which is made sense of spatially as a user moves through it. Tuan also presents space as a dialectic of freedom and constraint, shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. Place, meanwhile, is distinguished as ‘enclosed and humanized space’.

Tuan makes the point that space can be both desirable in offering freedom and frightening in threatening loneliness. He is talking here about open space (against which the city might be built and defined) but the point also holds for certain city spaces. The inhabitation of space that produces place relies on a certain amount of imaginary relationships with objects. There is a temporal as well as a spatial dimension to this process. Place is not just the taming of space but a pause in time. Objects, as well as familiarizing us with space, ‘anchor time’ and provide a relationship between person, space and time that is intimate:

To strengthen our sense of self the past needs to be rescued and made accessible. Various devices exist to shore up the crumbling landscapes of the past. For example, we can visit the tavern: it provides an opportunity to talk and turn our small adventures into epics, and in some such fashion ordinary lives achieve recognition and even brief glory in the credulous minds of fellow inebriates. Friends depart, but their letters are tangible evidence of their continuing esteem. Relatives die and yet remain present and smiling in the family album. Our own past, then, consists of bits and pieces. It finds a home in the high school diploma, the wedding picture, and the stamped visas of a dogeared passport; in the stringless tennis racket and the much-traveled trunk; in the personal library and the old family home.

(Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008 [1977]), p. 54.)

There is an obvious correlation here with the process of remembering pioneered by Joe Brainard and discussed in a previous post. Tuan also reiterates a point made by Georges Perec about the memorian’s project, that it is meaningful even when (perhaps especially when) others do not share the specifics of the intimate moment; there is something about the process that is recognizable beyond the personal. It is worth positing, then, that what Brainard attempts for time, Tuan does for space. This relationship is even more notable in Bachelard’s ‘poetics of space’, where the intimacy of the poetic line finds its mirror in the intimacy of the domestic sphere, itself a microcosm of the broader relationship between body and world.

Nostalgia, for Tuan, is not simply a passive process to be opposed to agency; rather, the question of whether one feels nostalgic is intimately related to questions of power and control over one’s destiny:

In general, we may say that whenever a person (young or old) feels that the world is changing too rapidly, his characteristic response is to evoke an idealized and stable past. On the other hand, when a person feels that he himself is directing the change and in control of affairs of importance to him, then nostalgia has no place in his life: action rather than mementos of the past will support his sense of identity.

(Tuan, p. 187.)

Mindful of theories of nostalgia and how they reflect or are challenged by supposedly nostalgic practices, I am not sure whether we can import this suggestion of Tuan’s wholesale into an analysis of cultural practices (such as fado) that, having taken nostalgia as their bedrock, have developed more nuanced and even agency-oriented versions of longing. In Fado and the Place of Longing, I offer a discussion of the work of Carlos do Carmo that suggests it is possible to imagine a progressive, agency-oriented programme that deliberately and explicitly uses nostalgia as its base.

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