Genius Loci: Session 3
Writer and senior editor of Cabinet magazine
Artist exhibiting in No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia
Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Yale University; radical cartographer
Writer; author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City
The blooming of our own thousand interpretations of place, as Sukhdev has it, over the last few days has taken us in several intriguing directions. It’s also complicated attempts at anything like a neat synthesis of our various approaches to the topic. But our last round did seem to contain a handful of potentially reliable through lines. I’d like now to push on one or two of these to see if they might be helpful as we gather up our positions into some kind of articulable theory and/or effective practice—the latter of which seems to have emerged as the discussion’s leading concern.
I’m sympathetic to Sukhdev’s repositioning of an impulse that perhaps looks superficially like “nostalgia,” but which instead of operating as a surrender to an irredeemable order, instead implies a spectrum of attitudes and practices that add up to something akin to care for or attend to. It argues for conditions that allow us to think about future-directed sociospatial methodologies. What kinds of activities—which social, political, or, indeed, artistic tactics and strategies—most effectively resist cultural, political, and spatial co-opting, the weird foreclosures that seem to be the price for our heightened “connectivity”?
I was surprised to discover that the word nostalgia as originally constructed isn’t so much about a longing for the past, but a sickness (-algia) for home (nostos-). Is there something in this that might prove useful to us? Home not so much in the sense of a geographically defined site, but rather a psycho-spatial construct that fosters meaningful connections with others in time and space—one that emerges from the real labor of place-making and place-sensitivity (per Bill), from lateral imagination (per Bani’s astute construction), and which in the breach produces precisely the kind of symptoms we all variously seem to have diagnosed. While we may have to agree to disagree about the word itself, it seems to me some of the impulses we have been trying to describe are starting to converge in interesting ways.
I feel like I have been maybe too focused on locational distinctions—and on a particular kind of scale—and not enough on the various localized behaviors and activities that provide that experience of place with its particularizing foci: cooking, say, or singing or dancing; or, as Perec had it, opening doors, going down staircases, sitting at a table to eat, lying down in a bed to sleep. In some sense, it’s in these intimate activities (to call these “spatial practices” now seems to wrongly privilege the space over the actors in it) in which the most tangible notions of place are caught. Bill rightly highlights the at once personal and interpersonal character of our place-making and place-use; it seems to echo Bani’s observation about the paralleling operations of negotiation in both its spatial and interpersonal contexts. Can we accept a certain level of atomization but instead understand ourselves as nevertheless having real agency? You may know the terrific exhibition (and book) that the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal produced a few years ago—Actions: What You Can Do With the City—or Nato Thompson’s exhibition (and catalogue) The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere. This subject has, as Sukhdev says, been in the air for a while now.
I also like Perec’s advice on a place to start: Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.
Following on from Jeffrey’s elegant summation of the various ways in which we may think of nostalgia, I suppose I think of it as being for the most part a kind of strategic essentialism.
Another brief thought: Michael quoted Will Self arguing that disorientation is a luxury, a preserve of the West—that seems to me like blunt, old-school essentialism. Amit Chaudhuri has written really well about modernity and urbanization in late-19th and early-20th-century Bengal, and how spatial energies (both good and bad) inspired all sorts of activities—drifting perambulation and experimental writing among them—that sound a lot like the avant urbanisms that Self seems to think of as belonging to the Atlantic world. Of course poor people want money and a measure of confidence that the future has something in store for them; that doesn’t mean they don’t also want kicks, to feel dazed and blissed out, aroused by the shock of newness.
Describe. It seems so simple, even boring. But this is a mighty word indeed, and I think it speaks to many of the threads of our conversation. Unlike its more heavily theorized cousin representation, description evokes a certain naïveté, an almost anti-theoretical simplicity. Description immediately suggests a kind of non-committal neutrality in a way that representation—with its double resonance as both visual and political—has a hard time pulling off. Notice how much is packed into the idea of a “mere” description, and how calling something “descriptive” is often a polite way of saying that no important truths have been revealed. Descriptions also seem less weighty precisely because they are so bound to a certain time and place: they freeze a single moment, quickly sketch a scene, and set the stage for the real action to come.
But there are several reasons why description might be crucial to our discussion of emplacement. Perhaps most of all, descriptions are both a practice and a product. Describing is not something we do once and for all; it is something we need to keep doing again and again, both to keep ourselves up to date and to keep our voices audible among many others. (One of the biggest changes in cartography in the 19th century was the shift towards governments granting their mapping agencies a dedicated budget rather than treating each map as a one-off project with a definite end date. In 1945, the British elevated this further into a new policy of “Continuous Revision”—instead of making a map, they began simply mapping.) Descriptions are also heterogeneous: the god’s-eye view of the map always mingles promiscuously with text, images, speech, and day-to-day life. Description is therefore a useful umbrella for talking about active place-making of all kinds, from census atlases to urban performances to wayfinding in Karachi.
In the previous two posts, I wrote about my life in Karachi, the city in which I have spent most of my life. In stark contrast to this is my relationship with my current home, which is Berlin. These are places in which I have varying levels of investment, and in which I exist differently. I’ve been living in Berlin for two years now, and still have only a very basic comprehension of the German language. I also find myself eternally conjecturing about what Berlin connotes and how Berliners are different to other Germans. It’s been a constant guessing game, since so much of the personality of the place is embedded in language—a language I don’t speak. So when it’s said that Berliners have a particularly dry sense of humor, I look blankly at the claim, as the jokes certainly don’t translate well into English.
On the other hand, the Arab immigrant community within which I live in the neighborhood of Neukölln has a purely functional relationship with the language of its adopted country, and is not desirous of a deeper one. Its members’ real sense of finding their place comes from being able to transplant as many facets of their home countries onto the chilly, grey streets of Berlin as possible. They have gone to the extreme of customizing the names of all the streets in the neighborhood by giving them Arab names, which are unofficial and only exist in the common parlance of that community. They have created another layer of city on top of that which already exists in order to feel “at home.”
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