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From the Archives #5: Miscellaneous (September 2008)

The Poet

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002, used the Indexer help for my web design. The fifth writing I’ve selected, titled “Miscellaneous”, was posted on September 20, 2008. At the time, my wife and I were anxiously awaiting the birth of our first child (who had nearly been lost the prior month at week 24 of the pregnancy), and it’s strange to read the content and tone of this writing with that as the backdrop. There’s an energy here that feels palpably connected to that experience.

Today is Friday, September 19, 2008. The miscellaneous preoccupies my mind. An onslaught of fragments, non-discursive missives from the ether, synapses popping like fireworks after our team wins the series. Thinking in terms of Twitter and status updates, most of which are never committed to the Archive at all, yet linger in the halls like boys late locked out of homeroom. Simply, I am mixed. Not mixed up — mixed. It is the drawer in the corner cabinet in the back room into which we throw…

“(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

Borges, how wonderful it is to make a list! For what, for why? The most basic of organizational structures. A student reminded me today that even the analog reduces to the digital at a certain microscopic scale. Or was it vice versa? My brain feels digital, appears a thing separate, a digitized, pixelated representation of a thing we thought so smooth, of such fine resolution. A thing that should not be a thing at all, not something separate, not something to behold, to regard from a distance. Cleaved from consciousness by the Enlightenment and doomed forever to walk anti-animistically from point to point to point to point to point in Descartes’ denuded grid space. Then the gray beard

 emerges from the forest of Brookland — and why would I think of him now, after so long? — and his voice is familiar. We used to nod to each other on the ferry. It’s nostalgia doubled-down, I know. The swollen afternoons in a languid institutional classroom, a coolness on the faux wood laminate, the boisterous barks of an impassioned educator who gives you the bird, you bitch, cuz you just wouldn’t drive on through!

“The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Personally, I would have ended with an exclamation point, but my sense of timing is really so bad. A list is digital; it contains discrete elements. Patterns emerge. Provisional patterns. Patent, or tacit. I’ve looked for patterns, for meaning. The miscellaneous is lazy. The miscellaneous is a myth. One cannot escape the luxuriousness of the semantic web. With points for correct punctuation.

(What is — what has been — the voice here until this point?)

Whitman was an American poet, maybe the first. Melville was an American novelist. Near perfect contemporaries, they understood space. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy” wrote Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael. The story of the white devil VS. the demon savior Ahab is the story of America. America the abyss. When he spiked the gold doubloon on the mast, our fate was set, our free will annihilated — we would all go down in the sinking ship. All except one: the one who lives to tell the tale. Ishmael. “God listens” — what perfect literary symmetry.

So, who you gonna vote for? Everything I’ve ever read I regurgitate and spew forth. A chewed cud of vile taste, formless and without color. I can imagine the fluid scrape of the pen on bleached and blue-ruled notebook paper, an endless itinerary of ascents and descents, loops and crosses, but all I hear is the dull and plastic tick tack of branded backlit QWERTY keys. Could someone possibly have made this for me? An exercise: let’s make a list of everybody in this place. Tens of millions of people — people beloved, genuinely beloved, by Whitman — millions of ideas and loves and hates and all the rest. Now let’s organize our list according to two categories so that we can really understand these folks. Strawberry cola drinkers or blueberry cola drinkers but we all like cola of course. I know you, you drink blueberry cola. But in that other place they only have blackberry cola to drink and only drink it in small draughts in between shifts working at the branded backlit QWERTY keyboard factory. Honestly, I don’t drink cola much these days…

Patterns of coercion. Square pegs in round holes. A worldview we did not choose infected us and made us trust it implicitly as the natural order of things. (We fancied ourselves so sophisticated, so savvy, so cynical as to be unmoved but the paradigm was fused with our very fiber.) The great tumultuous accumulation of everyone who ever said “No!” beckons us to break those patterns, to suggest provisional patterns, other ontologies. Chop down the main-mast, shred the sails, melt down the gold… embrace the waves, the thrill of being tossed to and fro. Seasick at first, but finding sea legs soon enough. Again, the poet sings:

Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the
briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.

Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing remains miscellaneous.

From the Archives #4: What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space? (November 2007)

The Cruise

The Cruise

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The fourth writing I’ve selected, titled “What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space?”, was posted on November 12, 2007, and was written during my first semester teaching at The University of the Arts. At the time, I was teaching a web design studio and assignment the students to explore the urban environment and translate that experience into a web-based project. The film referenced in the post has been a key prompt for getting students to think about their relationship to urban space.

We know this to be the case: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).

I recently watched The Cruise again, the near perfect showing of a nearly unmediated (yet crafted, I think) experience of New York City as performed by Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Then, I watched it again (twice, for good measure). In one particular scene, Speed embraces — unfolds himself upon — one of the great stone piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, gently patting it, touching his forehead to it, communing with it. (Years ago we talked about licking buildings in architecture school. I think Hillary actually did it.) There’s something about the way he settles into the city, the restless comfort, the awkward sensuality, that confounds a mediated relationship to his world. Watching it now, I feel that that moment must have passed and he can no longer relate to the place in that way.

Aaron (aka Director of the Dept. for the Investigation of ReHumanization) has described his experience as a soldier in the Iraq war as being unmediated — or at least as close to unmediated as he has ever witnessed. It follows, then, that the shock and stress (often diagnosed as PTSD) which soldiers feel upon their return home has everything to do with the transition back into the mediated existence of our “civilization.”

Is mediation a buffer from trauma? Is mediation a barrier to being fully human? I’m curious about the relationship between mediation and dehumanization. Here’s Paulo Freire in the opening chapter of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as a historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Mediation implies a distance, the “separation” that Debord finds perfected in modern industrialized societies. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.There must be gradations embedded in this notion of mediation. Can a distinction between mediation (ontological) and media (technological) be discerned? Does the latter necessarily determine the former? Is there any essential difference between a jug and a handheld computer, both technologies of utility which mediate our experience of the world? Gradations and scale (hello McCluhan) present complications…

Is there a post-spectacle society? Within this paradigm, are we unable to imagine something beyond Debord’s critique? And to what degree is Debord’s critique dependent on teleological, historically and technologically determined trajectories of human evolution? Is there a post-mediated existence? (Is there a proto-mediated existence, for that matter?) Not an existence without mediation, but an existence absorbed fully by mediation? Such a prediction feels apocalyptic, dystopian. It suggests a time of post-feeling, post-human, a world populated by cyborgs whose dreams are filled with memories of archived material pulled from the master database of text, images, sounds, and videos that we are now building on the Net.

The image of Speed Levitch persists: he hurriedly crosses a street and enters an urban plaza space. He spins around several times, arms outstretched until dizzy. He lies down on his back, equidistant between the two World Trade Center towers, and carefully extends his right leg up and out, as if maintaining equilbirium between himself and the buildings. “The buildings look like they’re falling down,” he muses. (A few years later, they would say that watching the towers implode and collapse was like watching a movie.) The Cruise reminds me of the angst of mediation, of being less than fully—. Of being behind the lens, behind the glass, separate. It reminds me to go outside and be there.

From the Archives #3: Not Utopia… (April 2006)

Planning the Delaware Riverfront in Philadelphia

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The third writing I’ve selected, titled “Not Utopia, or a Statement Regarding the Proposed Development of Slots Parlors on Several Post-Industrial Sites in Philadelphia”, was posted on April 13, 2006, and was written less than a year after my partner and I had returned to Philadelphia to live in the Fishtown neighborhood. At the time, we were just learning details of several proposed casinos in the neighborhood and were ramping up our work as community organizers in the effort to oppose them.

M. mentions boundaries—and she’s right. It comes down to boundaries, the objectification of the land, the measurement, the quantification, the reduction of space, the reigning in of the imagination (necessary, at times, in order for our small minds to combat the vastness of space). It’s how man imposes his dominion over the land. Control. And, then, who has control? Who has the right to ownership? A political body? A collective group of land-users? A moneyed individual? And, then, is the ownership of land transferrable? Usurpable? Or, indomitable? (One wonders if a collective group of land-users might propose its own brand of eminent domain?) What right does a group have to the land, in the interest of the common good?

Land ownership was/is the myth of the inalienable right, of existential certitude. To own land is to be—fully. It is the dream. A dream, however, built upon the foundation of sand (not of rock). The American myth (space is ours to divvy up and a small slice is available for all who can obtain it). Quick sand, quickly dispersed like sifted silt. Gold remains. Gold to gamble. Fortunes found. But I digress—what I meant to say was: Land cannot be owned unless it can be measured, described, and sold. The land of many controlled by an elect few. Where is the common good in all of that?

This is somewhat abstract. More precisely: What if we claim the land for ourselves, we the collective land-users? How might we stake such a claim. Before time, the land was not owned. Once, there was a time when the land was still not owned, but the land was used. Not used; tended, cared for, felt and understood. (Oh, this is an ecological issue, too!) Those people who tended the land were coerced and cajoled. One value system came from across the great waters and corrupted, displaced another value system. Then, the land was owned. And it was exploited, and it was abused. But it provided some with a livelihood and it provided even less with great power and wealth. The subjugation of the land and of the land-users became unnaturally natural. And we’re still paying down that debt.

From where do we draw our strength? The American myth of land ownership has coupled wonderfully with the other great American myth—the myth of the (empowered and determined) individual. (It is who we are; I feel it even now, writing this.) Alas, so was born a great schism in the American consciousness: I am an individual, I have a voice, yet that voice is no more (or less) significant than the voice of my compatriots. (This does not sit well with many of us. So we inflate our meager voices with shouting, kicking, bribing, hating, stealing… the list goes on.) One voice, one vote; not quite enough it seems. Many voices, many votes—the collectivization of individual wills. (Are we moving left or right with this?) Maybe democracy, maybe socialism, maybe even anarchism—all depends on the particular form. Not monarchism, not totalitarianism, not even oligarchism (I’m talking to you, Dick). The collectivization of individual wills. For the common good. (Not for the State.) A collective action with common cause.

Back to boundaries, because that’s where I started. Put them aside—hypothetically, of course–and imagine a boundless space free of trespassers (because there is nothing to trespass upon) and open to meaningful use. I’m thinking of a place, a place of openness, of enjoyment, of respect, of debate, of disagreement, of frustration, of comraderie, of trust, of accountability. (Hey, it’s a place where your dog can take a crap—and you want to clean up after it.) It’s a place of cyclical occurrences, where things grow and pass away, and as many things flow in and out. It changes, because we change, because everything changes. It’s a symbolic place, but we use it like we use our front yard. It’s a place we want to be. It’s a public place. You know this place.

In 2004 the State of Pennsylvania passed legislation allowing slots gaming in Pennsylvania, and two gaming licenses have been designated for Philadelphia. Three of the potential sites are located on the Delaware River, approximately 1-2 miles from where I live in the Fishtown section of the city.

From the Archives #2: On Browsing (April 2005)

Photo: New York Public Library Archives

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings — one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The second writing I’ve selected, titled “On Browsing”, was posted on April 6, 2005, and was written while I was living in Champaign-Urbana, IL. At the time, I was teaching part-time at a community college in a town just on the Illinois-Indiana border, and I recall fondly spending down time in the college’s tiny library browsing in the manner described in this post.

Browsing is one of several activities that have been reinvented in the maturation of the Internet era (think sending and opening mail, buying something at a kiosk, posting a notice on a bulletin board). Open up your web browser of choice and just follow the mouse, browsing your way through the vastness of cyberspace into the far reaches of information oblivion. Of course, browsing is never as unstructured and limitless as we might assume. There are frameworks in place which constrict the range of our reach and guide our virtual paths. The web becomes increasingly smaller when we fall into habitual routines of use — we visit the same news sites and web portals and read the same blogs (in my own private blogosphere, I’m always amazed that the same handful of blogs link to the very same factoids and all link back to each other — the circle is rarely broken). Recently, I’ve found del.icio.us to be an increasingly engaging point of departure for more expansive browsing, but even there you find the same kind of conglomeration of particular locations on the web.

Browsing the book stacks in the library is limited as well, although in different ways. A single library lacks the near-infinite scale of possibilities of the web (that said, though, go ahead and try to exhaust the resources at your local library) and one is always subject to the practical organization of its material holdings, a system of classification grouped by subject matter and ordered alphanumerically. You pop into the 800′s or maybe the ND’s (depending on which system is used), crane your head to the side, squint your eyes, and begin to decipher the titles and authors and editors and volumes and editions. Cloth-covered hardbacks with frayed and faded spines may have the call number penned in some long-dead librarian’s neatest script, or plastic-laminated trade paperbacks with their machine printed call stickers so easy to read shimmer in the florescent light. Then, one spine in particular piques your interest and you place your index finger on the top of the binding, tentatively tilting the book out of its place so that you may view the cover. A quick glance later you have either pushed the book back or pulled it entirely out, fanning the pages with your thumb or scanning the table of contents. You might even sit down in the aisle to read a few pages before borrowing the text.

My tactile appreciation of book browsing may suggest a bias against web browsing and a trite sentimentality. This may be true, but the fact of the matter is that I am a perpetual computer user and web browser. Since finishing my graduate degree a few years ago — a time during which I made daily trips to university libraries and spent long hours in their assorted institutionalized interiors — I am at best a part-time academic (pseudo, at that) who doesn’t have the freedom or necessity to spend so many hours in the stacks. A wireless laptop and a broadband Internet connection have compensated this change in my scholarship status for the most part, and replacing my wonder at having access to countless rare and under-exposed texts is the ease at which I can instantly conjure up information in response to literally any query that occurs to me. There is a distinct sensual element, though, in my computer use — I do appreciate the tactile and aesthetic qualities of browsing the day away on my iBook (Apple is betting on that, too).

A recent layover in a nameless airport recently has had me thinking about the journey from desiring information to possessing information, which speaks to the notion of “browsing.” Airports have become — out of necessity — informational nodes where travelers may reconnect with the world in between the strangely disconnected and isolated experience of flying in planes, riding on trains, and driving in cars. The compressed nature of waiting in the airport (psycho-spatially, it seems) along with the saturation of information highlights two kinds of access to information: the colloquial and the technological (my terms feel inadequate, but I’ll do the best I can with them). Technological access to information is the most obvious: with computer on lap and cellphone in ear we are empowered by the pervasiveness of information and feel confident in the control we have in obtaining it; information is ubiquitous and seemingly democratic. On the other hand, colloquial access to information is generally super-local, face-to-face, handshake-to-handshake. This process involves quite a bit more work and is never entirely in our control. We may have difficulty finding a person both in possession of the information we desire as well as willing to share that information. We may have questions about the reliability of that information or the subjectivity of the informant. In short, physically walking up to an individual and asking him or her a question can be ripe with uncertainty.

Back to browsing. Information is information, whether a PDF on a website or an article in an anthology. Putting aside the question of authority or legitimacy, the information contained in each form is identical. However, it is the path followed to obtaining that information which is so markedly different in each case. I ask: Specifically, what is the character of that journey from not knowing to knowing? Who is met along the way? What distractions or dérives reshape our initial questions and open up unforeseen doors leading to unexpected answers? We need not place one mode in opposition to the other–virtual vs. physical–but can embrace difference as just that: difference.

So, today I am browsing in the library and my gaze stumbles upon a title, God’s Own Junkyard,which strikes some chord with me and I grab the book from the shelf–a slim, hardcover with lots of interesting photographs of things I’m interested in: the built environment in the US. Next to one of the photographs is a brief quotation of Gertrude Stein — ”In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is” — someone who I’ve always wanted to read more of, and then I’m on Google searching for the reference. It’s from her book A Geographical History of America which this library doesn’t own, but I venture into the 800′s where a few other books by Stein are shelved and I pull down a compact but thick volume of her collected writings and then leaf through the pages; it’s one of those perfectly sized little Modern Library books from the 50′s. And this is the little gem I find:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system of pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

From her piece entitled “Tender Buttons.” The difference is spreading — the journey from not knowing to knowing is a remarkable passage.