The Gospel According to The Texas Board of Education

CHAP. I

1 The problem with dinosaurs is that they all tasted like chicken.

2 So when you’re on top of the food chain, things can get pretty dull. Allosaurus for breakfast, tastes like chicken. Dimetrodon for lunch, tastes like chicken.

3 And God spake unto all his creatures, saying, ‘Humans taste like pork.’

4 In Persia, the Tyrannosaurus Rex Melchior heard the word of the Lord, and quoth, ‘What’s pork?’ Lo, in India the great Tyrannosaurus Rex Caspar sayeth unto himself, ‘What’s pork?’ And in Arabia, the great Tyrannosaurus Rex Balthazar sayeth unto himself, ‘I gotta get me some RIBS!’

5 And the three Rexes looked into the sky at night, and lo, a new star appeared. And the Lord spoke unto the Rexes and sayeth, ‘A Child has been born, and the Star will lead you to Him.’

6 And the Rexes each exclaimeth unto himself, ‘Baby back ribs!’

7 One by one, each followed the star to Jerusalem. They had a long road to travel and many times they got lost. It took them years.

8 And they left in their wake a trail of death and devastation. They ate every soul they encountered, yet still they could not be sated. ‘Chicken,’ they spat with disgust. ‘Always it tastes like chicken.’

CHAP. II

1 Like most children, Jesus loved dinosaurs. Of the waters, he loved best the Plesiosaurus. Of the air, the Pterodactylus, and when he heard the mighty Pterodactylus screech in the heavens, always he would jump for joy and run to the window to admire this glorious winged creature of the Lord.

2 But of all the dinosaurs, Jesus loved best the Tyrannosaurus Rex, though he had never heard one. When his father Joseph roared like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Jesus would giggle and roar back. Yet he had never seen the great T. Rex.

3 One day Jesus opened the door to their honest hovel and looked out unto the yard. ‘T. Rex! T. Rex!’ he cried, and jumped up and down. His father stopped his sawing. His mother stopped her washing. She ran to the door and swept up Jesus in her arms. She quoth to her husband, ‘The Child is never wrong. We’re going to have guests.’ And so she put up the beans to soak, mixed some sourdough to rise, and started her baklava.

CHAP. III

1 In the great city of Jerusalem, the dinosaurs met. ‘Lots of people here,’ noticed Melchior, ‘I wonder if they’re crunchy. Let’s start with the very best human we can find.’ So he went to the first man he encountered, and demanded, ‘Take me to your leader.’ The man led him to the great and glorious royal palace, where Herod awaited them.

2 Melchior asked Herod, ‘Do you taste like pork?’

3 Herod replied, ‘You are what you eat. I am the king of the Jews, and Jews do not eat pork. Therefore I do not taste like pork.’

4 Melchior was crestfallen. Yet Caspar, the wisest of the dinosaurs, exclaimed to the others, ‘He is not a child. The Lord sent us to find a Child.’

5 Herod asked, ‘What Child is this?’

6 Caspar replied, ‘He who will be King of the Jews.’

7 Herod asked, ‘Is he a Tyrannosaurus Rex?’

8 Whereupon Balthazar replied, ‘Nay! For he is a Child born unto Woman and unto God.’

9 So Herod gathered to him all his priests and scribes of the people, and asked them where is this Child who will become King of the Jews. They told him the Child was in Bethlehem of Judea, for so it was foretold.

10 And Herod bethought himself, ‘I can save myself a lot of trouble if I just send the dinosaurs to meet this Child.’

11 So sayeth he unto the dinosaurs, ‘Go thou unto Bethlehem in Judea, for there lives the Child of which you speak, and He will be tender and good.’

12 The dinosaurs were gladdened and they went together to Bethlehem.

CHAP. IV

1 Mary was just taking the pita from the oven when the dinosaurs arrived. ‘We have been expecting you,’ she cried. ‘Are you hungry? Come eat!’

2 The dinosaurs were confused, because they planned to eat, but not at a table. Mary was insistent. ‘Sit down! Sit down! It is a strong bench, for my husband hath made it, and it will support you in comfort! Eat at our board, and eat of our plenty, for you are kings, and we shall do you honour.’

3 So they sat.

4 And Jesus was overjoyed that the dinosaurs had come, because he had never met the king of the dinosaurs, and now had he three right in his house! So the Child exclaimed, ‘Bless the dinosaurs, and especially bless the T. Rexes, for they art splendid to mine eyes. And bless this food that we shall eat, and bless the Lord my Father who hath given it to us.’

5 And so the dinosaurs ate of the fat of the land, of hummus and falafel, the olive and the hot pepper, and then of the baklava, dripping with honey.

6 Each sayeth unto the other, ‘Well, it doesn’t taste like chicken.’ Yet Caspar had his doubts. ‘I bet,’ he whispered to Melchior, ‘we’ll be hungry a half hour after we eat.’

7 ‘Nay,’ quoth Mary, who heard him, ‘for if thou eateth of the legume with the grain, thou maketh a complete protein, and thou shalt be nourished.’

8 But this was a little complicated for the dinosaurs to remember, and anyway they didn’t know how to cook. ‘And besides,’ she continued, ‘Food is love, and now thou art filled with love.’

9 Jesus was jolly during the meal, and sang his song. He sang, ‘I love you, you love me, we’re happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too?’

10 The dinosaurs were abashed, for Jesus glowed in the darkness as he sat in the arms of his Mother, who glowed likewise. They glowed with the purity of their hearts and the kindness of their souls, and lo, the dinosaurs found they did love the Child, and they did love the Mother, and even Joseph the Father, and had not the room in their hearts nor in their stomachs to eat them.

11 And when it was time to leave, the Child spake unto the dinosaurs, saying, ‘Go forth unto the world, and kill not, nor eat of thy brethren, for thou art beloved unto Me, and thou must be pure.’

12 And so it came to pass that the dinosaurs, who heretofore had lived by eating their brethren, ceased their murder and mayhem. Yet because they did not know how to cook, nor how to read a cookbook, they had naught to eat.

13 And that is why we have no dinosaurs today. Yet those who died were pure of heart, and blessed in the eyes of the Lord.

Unlearning Civilisation

The first step in unlearning civilisation is so simple that we instinctively reject it. It is to see with our own eyes and feel with our own hearts. We are deeply conditioned to distrust ourselves, preferring the massive data banks and lavishly-funded scientific projects of the industrial behemoth. We believe that we can accurately perceive reality only through the lens provided by the latest analysis. What we see with our unaided eyes is tainted with subjectivity, thus untrustworthy. Truth can only be perceived with the aid of the most advanced sensors, after years of computer modelling by teams of specialists scowling over endless data. To the civilised, truth cannot be perceived immediately, but must mediated through a set of well-tested filters that remove the stain of subjectivity to yield the smooth objective residue of truth. That odourless residue alone is trustworthy.

Writers such as Keith Farnish in the Underminers directly challenge the civilisational narrative. But the psychological tentacles that feed its life are very deep, deeper than the Tools of Disconnection he presents, though these work exactly as they are portrayed. While his tactics may well contribute to undermining the civilisational infrastructure, more concentrated effort needs to be spent on building the psychological and philosophical underpinnings that can replace the structures of meaning which civilisation implants in its subjects.

The flimsiness of this structure of consciousness-modelling becomes obvious once we inquire into the roots of our sense of certainty, the inner proof that truth presents us. These roots come from our experience of life, instincts we have built over years to guide our actions into a path that brings tangible rewards. When we look at our path through life, we see that we trust the truths of civilisation not so much because of our faith in scientific methodology than because of the premiums that such belief delivers. Believing in a technological methodology aligns us with the forces that control this world. It situates us in a hierarchy of power. While we may not occupy a prominent position in that hierarchy, nevertheless knowing one’s position furnishes us with an easily grasped sense of meaning. One plays one’s role in in a story one has come to share with those in the same hierarchy and feels proud of that role, a pride that is constantly reinforced with material delights.

This sense of reward for our participation in the ‘story of progress’ has come to be a substitute for that instinctive sense of truth which arises from our inner being. Try as they might, the manipulators of meaning cannot expunge that inner sense even with all the perks of the social climb. In the end, the false sense of certainty with which we are infected also infects our sense of truth, the false always gaining its power from its distorted reflection of the true. But the ersatz truths proclaimed by the apparatus of language manipulation cannot attain a deeper sense of truth than that which is instinctual, because it must feed off the living blood of reality in order to give substance to its lies. Otherwise, the organs of distortion would have no referent to misrepresent and lose their power to deceive.

Before we can overthrow the external civilisational mechanism, it must be overthrown in our own minds, though these two operations are not necessarily sequential. Otherwise we don’t really understand what we fight and can easily find ourselves defeating the wrong enemy. My primary motivation in joining the struggle against the current civilisation is to end the violence that is its lifeblood – violence against the free individual, against true community, against the indigenous peoples, and against every biome that deserves to play its role in the entire web of life.

Unless we live from a moral centre larger than civilisational myths that treat breaking laws that protect corporate crime as the ultimate offence, we will not attain the freedom of action necessary to create a different world. We live within a system that treats its own preservation as the ultimate law. But resistance has to be founded on an unconstricted moral law, not the dissolution of morality. We must find a moral centre beyond the boundaries of civilisation if we are to be strong enough to mount resistance to the field of death.

We are born into civilisation and as soon as childhood’s blossom fades, we find ourselves fleeing as if from some disaster that no one can name. It is a race for position that promises the security of material abundance. But this security is dependent on measurable performance and sooner or later performance falters and the Leviathan has no mercy. Until we make real the lack of balance with the earth in our own lives, we cannot arouse the inner deadness long enough to break the increasingly implacable demands of productivity. These demands are precisely calibrated to ensure that we are barely able to emerge from work-induced lethargy. The inner energy of our being is as much their property as what bubbles beneath the cap rocks and its being drained from us just as efficiently.

Inner peace is not a commodity that can purchased within the borders of civilisation. No drug, no iPad, no vacation, no career triumph can assuage the unrest, the snake nest that keeps us in sleepless agony. What we seek lurks in death and solitude and will not show its face to us unless we are ready to accept real danger. And how could we take such risks when we are so glutted with conveniences and cheap pleasures? Yet something that will not die keeps gnawing away at every excuse we offer.

Once in a while a drop of balm falls on our soul and a sense of deep refreshment opens in us like the mighty river of justice that Dr. Martin Luther King so often invoked. We have no idea where it comes from, but the speaking waters have touched our lips and we feel a power that fills us with a sense of wholeness. For one moment, what civilisation has defiled is washed clean and we understand peace is something other than the cessation of hostilities.

After it fades, this refreshment makes us feel the sting of our enslavement all the more acutely and plants in us the seed of rebellion. But what does this refreshment consist of? From a civilisational viewpoint, it consists in the de-instrumentalisation of one’s existence. Everything in this civilisation is subsumed into the chase: raising production while creating a sustainable environment, ending violence through legislation, and getting the right numbers on the profit report. Each of these is a box that prevents the happiness it falsely promises. They are the result of a delusion that they can allay the anxiety that stutters through every decision and commitment. A reversal of this would be to feel the goal well up within us – instead of pretending to love each other for the sake of family peace, we seek peace because we love each other. We do not instrumentalise our love into a series of crowd management techniques, but find the richest avenue to express the love that waits neglected within.

In our depths, technique executes and wreaks its damage. Technique is the encapsulated experience of others long dead who once were alive and in that life, they reached out for some truth within their world. By letting go their love of comfort and routine, they grasped something new and made it their own. As they made it more and more real to themselves, they finally were able to formulate it in a way so that others could make their own as well. In doing so, these sharers extended the insight. But lurking at the foundation was an impulse both finite and mortal. It did not encompass all that we are able to become. The surge of life that once lived in the technique now has become a brutal slavery destroying the source of life. The brutality becomes more and more amplified, in a futile attempt to drown out the truth.

The lesson of the past 500 years is that if you work at technology long enough, with dedication and persistence, you can achieve predictable results. But predictability is nothing but ashes in the mouth if it doesn’t include the well-being of all our relations, as the Dakota people tell us.

The first step in unwinding the ache of civilisation is to step into silence. Once we shed our anxious need for constant distraction we come face to face with a deadness in ourselves and it is intensely painful. But if we have the courage to stay inside the pain, we will discover a healing power, a loosening of the tension that drives us. The machine has inflicted a false shape on living flesh, our flesh and earth’s flesh. It has mangled our inner being and the healing will take long, but it must begin in emptiness.

If you can hold still within the emptiness, not seeking to ‘enhance’ it or make it your possession, you will start to feel what you have long wanted to feel, but never allowed yourself to feel. Those feelings are the limp green leaves that lay along the brook which died from the effluent that streaked through the stream. The burning poison of work discipline that scalded the leaves within. Life fluxes within us and blossoms outside. The ecological revolution happens in our hearts, then spreads into the waterways, finding unknown springs of untouched water, those speaking waters which bubble with eternal freshness.

Within emptiness is the power of change, a change not limited by the categories of a dying world view encapsulated in the prison called ‘objectivity’. To be objective means to make objects of all that is perceptible. It is to draw a circle around those resonant presences that fill us with their joy and vehemently deny that they can reach beyond the limits of their ‘object’. The ability to transcend object consciousness arises from silence because objectivity is an attempt to silence the noise of life.

And when this happens, you needn’t twist your experience into the shape of a known religion. Instead religion cracks open to reveal a fire hidden within its petrified form. Belief is shown not to be a deception, but a promise, a promise that can only be fulfilled in sidelong glances, never displaying itself bare and whole. Matter becomes the outer crust of the inner spiritual volcano.

Block Power

People know what they do.
And most know why they do what they do.
But what they don’t know is what what they do does.
– Michael Foucault

Nobody went to jail. No one burned down the State House or forcibly removed the President of the United States from office. What a few people on our city block on the south side of Providence decided to do instead was something more radical, if less dramatic. We tried to get our neighbours to turn to each other a little bit more for personal support. As radical – meaning ‘getting to the root’ – as this idea and subsequent project were, I later discovered that one ingredient was missing from our community-building endeavour that would make it and perhaps thousands of similar trials happening elsewhere more radical, and possibly radical enough to push the world past a tipping point on the way to just, sustainable living.

The project

Before purchasing a two-family house on Gallatin St., my family lived just two streets away in a three-family limited-equity cooperative, which we had converted from a private residence owned by an absentee landlord. Like most city folks, we knew our immediate neighbours enough to greet them by name. The other block residents were mostly nameless faces. But when we purchased our new home I resolved to greet each new neighbour I bumped into, learn names and addresses and introduce myself. I met a lot of people and recorded each name on a map I created of the 36- household block. But early on I discovered that my new neighbours seemed to know each other a fair bit more than neighbours did on my old block. I learned that eight years prior to our move a college student living on the block chose to organise a block party to fulfil a requirement for a class he was taking. The party became an annual event and naturally created a greater sense of community.

A few years after our move, as I was getting to know more neighbours, and coincidentally rethinking my assumptions about social change, I became convinced that building community – local, very small scale networks – was a more radical path to social transformation and ecological sustainability than what I was doing in my vocational life. For work, I was feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, witnessing in direct action for peace and justice and trying, through coalition work, to get the government (and other institutions) to meet human needs and respect human rights. All the while I was living simply and riding my bike everywhere. These activities I was so devoted to (and still am to a degree) were important and useful, but not radical, not directly to the point of solving social problems much less of saving humanity or creating a better way to live.

Starting where I lived, I decided to take an active role in our informal, unincorporated, unnamed block association and encourage my neighbours to step beyond the more usual block activity and try to create a ‘consultation exchange’ directory. This tool would obligate residents, upon request, to provide initial consultation to a neighbour about something they are skilled at or know about. We reasoned that neighbors would enjoy sharing what they know in this way, but not be so inclined to actually do the work itself (to care for an elderly parent or replace a roof). It’s a first step to get neighbours to do for each other what many of us do for our friends and family – offer advice before seeking professional service. Of course, the initial help is sometimes sufficient and we are spared the need to spend.

Of the 36 households on our block (demographically, about 80% African-American, 10% Latino and 10% white, including working class, middle class professionals and families surviving on public assistance), 33 participated in creating the directory. Carolyn, the mom of the former college student who organised the first block party, needed herself to complete a service project toward a college degree and conducted most of the interviews. She simply asked, ‘What do you know about? What do you know how to do that you might share in some way to help out a neighbour?’ Many residents were slow to identify a skill or something they know that could be of use to a neighbour. They could make a list of needs they have or problems in the neighborhood, but they needed some prodding to name something they know about worthy of sharing. We needed to convince some that their skill/knowledge might potentially come in handy. I went ahead and listed ‘philosophy’ as something I know about, anticipating that one of our neighbours might just return from her first semester in college and declare to her parents that she wanted to major in the subject. Then I get the call and the troubleshooting begins. Unlikely, but you never know.

Project significance

We compiled a list and directory, with names, addresses and phone numbers and what each know or could do. The range of ‘gifts’ hidden in our houses – ‘unwrapped’, as John McKnight would say – provided a fresh perspective on who we were and what we could do. The survey process itself tightened the block, building relationships, bringing the block into living rooms and then back out.

In most every way, this city block is indistinguishable from the others. But the cumulative effect of the parties, exchange directory and other community-building activity we’ve engaged in makes me draw this distinction: at the very least, the neighbours on this block are disposed to come together and tackle big challenges as a group. In the 1930’s, when the economy crashed, all the economic parts were in place to meet people’s needs – the tractors, the factories, the trains, the workers. But the systems that connect all the parts and make it all deliver smoothly fell apart. If the systems fail again, and we’re all left hanging, I can imagine my old neighbours on the other block frantically using their private telephones to get relief from various downtown agencies. But on Gallatin St. block one, I imagine 120 people of all sizes standing together in the middle of the street, holding out their hands, vaguely in the direction of each other, and asking, ‘What do we do now?’ This is the kind of block environment I want my family to live in. A block of very different people, all gifted, who are disposed at the very least to come together, turn to one another, for help and support. It’s a safer and more secure living environment, and it’s a happier one.

Lessons

Radical isn’t always dramatic. And it’s not always a matter of getting to the root of a problem. Sometimes it’s about getting to the root of what we need to do to get what we most want out of life. Block parties and consultation exchange directories don’t do much, in the wider scheme of things. But efforts like these point in a direction of a life we might prefer to live over what we have now. They are baby steps in a direction. So, for example, on the Gallatin St. block of 36 households, there are four men who either live in one of the homes or regularly visit as a relative or friend whom I personally served meals and/or shelter to at the centre I worked for when I moved onto the block. They made me wonder, what if our block community provided these four men the support they needed so as to dismiss their reliance on the nonprofit agencies? What if their gifts were deployed on the block and in exchange they received the support they needed? A burden shared widely enough ceases to be a burden. And what next, if we decided to roll up the paved street and created a garden, play space and block ‘living room’ in its place? And shared cars parked on the block’s edge? What if we tried to feed ourselves?

The community way is radical because it represents a categorically different way of meeting needs and enjoying life than the systems we mostly depend on now that are grounded in relatively impersonal and hierarchically structured institutions and driven by the production and consumption of products, including service products. Genuine communities place members in a circle of support rather than in a pyramid powered by interpersonal competition for external rewards. Because wealth is defined in terms of relationships as well as place in a natural world and local geography, and in terms of affirmation, belonging and celebration, community systems are not inherently expansive. They present an organisational context that is conducive to human contentment as well as ecological sustainability.

The Way I Walk is Just the Way I Walk

Our vexed relationship with ourselves as nature

When a drum beats, what makes the sound? The stick that beats or the skin that resounds?

There is a widespread assumption running through many human epistemologies of an implicit predominance, according to which we are either ‘masters’ or custodians of the earth. Whether beneficent or tyrannical, a hierarchical relationship between humans and the rest of nature is implied.

This may be an inevitable result of our ability to reify intellectually and to express the nature of our reifications on the one hand, and on the other of our vertical bipedalism, enabling us to look down as effectively as we look ahead. In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit draws attention to Wordsworth’s ‘construction of the natural’, which relativises the experience of walking in nature as a contemplative pursuit as being as ‘artificial’ as the urban ‘drift’.

But what of the sub-atomic truism of the cosmic dust of which we, the planets, and everything are composed, the corresponding narratives of golems, humans fashioned from the earth, and the curative powers of ‘holy wells’, whether generating water or mud? Equally, the Wintu, a Native North American culture change the terms used to denote the left and right-hand sides of their body according to which direction they are facing, making self-definition a relation between the person’s body and their environment. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost [whence the Wintu reference derives], Solnit mentions Hopi creation myths ‘where humans and other beings emerge from underground‘.

Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism refers to the toll of the ‘dérive‘ [urban ‘drift’] ,which gives a flavour of the reciprocal nature of our engagement with our environment, and the demands it can make on us. Arguably, in part, these demands are attributable to what is involved in tracing a route carved by others, excavating the accretions of past time and the experiences sustained by people not ourselves. The cosmic immanence of our non-analytic communication between external nature and our inner nature is mirrored in this social immanence.

Naming as classification and as comfort

In naming the way stages of our journeys, from the First Australian songlines to the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross, we create trajectories that guide us through the landscape by objectifying and marking significant events and landmarks. This interpretation suggests a degree of insecurity, that we are the golems of a self-creating cosmos, rather than ‘masters of the universe’.

Landmarks and symbols are of course mnemonics, for the places arrived at in a literal or conceptual journey. There is also a parallel with Walter Benjamin’s citation in The Arcades Project of a plan to name the Paris streets after different global locations, “the symbolic on a scale that made [it] not a scale model but a vast expanse of the world” [Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 75].

The uses and ownership of thin air

Walking is essentially political, inasmuch as it is a process based on a passage through, rather than an appropriation of, an environment. A ‘pure’ nomadism extends this anti-teleology infinitely, making a mockery of a class society predicated on settlement and surplus, and cocking a snook at the later development of nation states.

Trespassing also highlights the absurdity of property, as an act of occupying nothing more than ‘thin air’. What is stake, from the Undercroft in London to the riots stemming from the proposed development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, is who controls such space and what it can thus be used for.

The last couple of decades in London have witnessed the progressive encroachment of the walkway or private pavement on to what had previously been regarded as public space. This enclosure of ‘property’s foreshore’ has, with particular reference to the Thames and locations such as the Isle of Dogs, made the experience of walking an interrupted and discontinuous experience.

Selective blindedness

As daily life becomes increasingly confined to indoor environments, researchers have identified a progressive shrinkage of human sightlines, which for many people now tend to be largely confined or constrained to the dimensions of a vehicle or a room, and thus lose the visual poetry [in either urban or rural context] of vanishing perspective. With reference to landscape and mnemonics, maybe we should consider whether Wordsworth’s allegedly prodigious memory was the corollary or the result of the lengthened perspectives of spending so much time outdoors in ‘heroic’ landscapes.

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is the ultimate teleological act, whose purpose and motive is defined before it is started. The goal invests the activity with meaning, and also relegates it to the status of a means to an end.

However, these means in turn could be described as sacred praxis, where the synergy between human and environment expressed in the act of walking creates a coincidence between the profane/synchronic movement though physical space and the a-chronic site of the sacred.

To arrive, for example, at Santiago de Compostela, is an act of uniting the soul with the divine. The will and the determination to realise such a destiny, enables the pilgrim to supersede the experience and effects of contingency, such as boredom, blisters, banality.

We could also argue that the Catholic and the pagan externalise and thus universalise the sacred, while the Protestant seeks revelation in the contemplation of inner space.

Walking and ludus

Solnit, in Wanderlust, draws attention to the pleasure of walking as an end in itself, which could perhaps be a minimal definition of ludic activity, shared with self-created and open-ended games and erotic non-procreative pleasure. This is, of course, a sublime waste of productive time, and thus subversive.

There is a correspondence between walking and gambling, which is not limited to the potential role of chance, but to the potential for anticipation to be as or more pleasurable than arrival. For example, the analysis of neurological patterns of gamblers’ brain behaviour sometimes indicates that ‘near-misses’ can be more pleasurable than winning. Notionally-desired outcomes play second fiddle to the playing of the game, and associated risks, even when realised, are not sufficient to erase this differential.

Sometimes, it is better to travel pleasurably than to arrive, and the anxiety generated by the possibility of not reaching our planned destination can challenge the enjoyment inherent in the experience of the walk itself. Let us then travel without maps. or with maps of terrains distinct from those we are traversing.

The human and the technological

Walking has the specific attraction of being an activity that does not require the mediation of technology, although Flann O’Brien makes a poetic and persuasive case in favour of the symbiosis of human and bicycle.

Place, space, and memory

Space as the repository of our memories: sites for future encounters with our present thoughts and experiences expressed as recollections.

Other than in the sense of mechanistic recall, Solnit is wrong to assert that ‘memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions‘ [Wanderlust, p. 77]. Perhaps the proposition should be inverted in order to challenge the limitations of what ‘imaginable’ might include, in relation to all three entities. Arguably, the lack of boundedness, infinite ‘meta-extension’, and the capacity to ‘double-back’ on themselves are the crucial characteristics that all share.

Drawing lines in space: Benjamin, Paris, and Port Bou

It appears that Benjamin’s most passionate later intellectual engagement was with The Arcades Project, an exhaustive and idiosyncratic genealogy of Paris as political, historical, aesthetic, and social space. Amongst other things, Benjamin examined Haussmann’s reduction of much of Paris to an effective extended grid, and the nature of the arcade as an interzone between the outside and the inside. Analyses of lines through space. There is thus a tragic irony that his suicide was impelled by the fear of the power of a truly arbitrary and imaginary line drawn in space – the border between Spain and France, in a territory that shared a pre-French and pre-Spanish identity as Cataluňa.

Body and mind

In Wanderlust, Solnit summarises Edmund Husserl’s view of the movement of the human organism through space as representing the fixed point [the body] in a turning world. This reduces human perception to an intellectual and visual experience, disregarding all the minor organic variations of each body in movement [including eyesight], such as heat/cold, fatigue, etc.

For some post-modernist thinkers, all that can be relied on in terms of describing mutually-recognisable entities are intellectual constructs, whereas everything else is too compromised by subjectivity to be epistemologically reliable. And so, as humans, we make our extension through space a negative attribute, and become a form of anti-matter.

There is an irony operating here, in that despite being proud inheritors of the anti-Enlightenment tradition, the post-modernists both embrace Cartesian dualism and champion the primacy of thought [and thus rationalism, however qualified] over extension and experience.

Fragmented time, activity, and space

The rise of industry impelled the acceleration of urban development and rapidly disrupted long-experienced modes of rural social organisation. And yet, nomadism as the logical extreme of a loss of loyalty to ‘homestead’ continues to be perceived as the enemy of capitalist values.

In reality, even hunter-gatherer cultures typically constrain the range of their wandering, maintaining defined, albeit large ‘demesnes’ within which to live. In contrast, the potential distribution and terminus of communities forced into diaspora by economic imperatives tends to be both less predictable and far more distant from the point of departure.

Capitalism fragments the twenty-four hour day into work and leisure, the working day into an artificial homogeny of repetitive tasks [the division of labour], and the social being of the individual into worker/parent/partner, etc.

It replaces the life of the home-proximate or home-based individual share-cropper or crafts-person with the forced intimacy of the slum-dwelling proletarian, and for the petit-bourgeois escapee mirrors the division of social roles with a greater physical distance between urban workplace and suburban home.

The apotheosis of this process of fragmentation is of course the de-pedestrianised strip mall, which reduces the home to the place in which one attempts to take some rest between work and consumption.

To re-visit Wordsworth’s fetishism of nature, the suburb is the sterile microcosm of the world of nature, controlled within the built environment. The UK, as the originally suburbanist culture was, of course, the first to comprehensively industrialise. It would be instructive to map the chronologies of industrialisation against the degeneration of national and regional cultures’ relationship with cuisines that might be described [in shorthand at least] as ‘less mediated’.

In the UK, foraged food is the province of the ‘adventurous’ middle class. In many other European societies, such as Italy and Spain, people collect snails and pick wild mushrooms because these are free resources historically associated with peasant food.

Labyrinth and maze

The experience of travelling through the city on foot more readily approximates following the labyrinth rather than the maze, at least in urban environments not completely dominated by vehicles. As Solnit notes, random encounters are more likely, and we are sometimes faced with culs-de-sac, and unexpected diversions to our route.

Spectacle and the city

The tenor of a disproportionate amount of writing about London is Gothic – de Quincey, Dickens’ Night Walks, etc. Whatever the flaws of Peter Ackroyd’s post-Reformation Catholic mysticism, he at least allows for the magical, and is inheritor of Chtcheglov’s organic sense of the city as being suffused in history and immanence.

It is perhaps no surprise that the concept of the Spectacle originated in Paris, a place not only exhaustively photographed at different historical junctures, but also subject to ‘review’ [images of the same vistas pre- and post-Haussmann, Doisneau’s visual hommages to Brassaϊ, etc], resented and represented throughout the development of capitalism.

The female sex worker and the flaneur

In Wanderlust, Solnit supplies a necessary corrective to the inaccurate and lazy correspondence that Walter Benjamin draws in The Arcades Project between the [male, bourgeois, non-working, unmolested, wealthy] flaneur and the female sex worker. Solnit also adds that, in her reading, a proportion of these women prefer the freedom they experience on the streets [despite elevated risks] to the incarceration of the brothel.

Dissolution and self-realisation

As we merge and become more fully our ‘natured’ selves in the non-built environment, so we merge identities with all the anonymous others [past and present] in the city, that most constructed ‘human’ environment, designed variously for utility, display, and profit.

Speed and movement

High-speed travel radically compresses pace into progressively smaller pockets of time, and depends on our physical immobility and psychological passivity. The primal referents that define out corporeality, our size and physical capacity, are rendered irrelevant, in much the same way that a hospital in-patient is immobilised in bed.

Get lost!

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit enumerates the characteristics and possibilities associated with getting lost as an active decision, rather than an error or a mishap. These might be summarised as:

  • Allowing ourselves to live with/living with uncertainty/contingency
  • Seeking that with which we are not familiar
  • Allowing for self-transformation through the incorporation of new perceptions

The fruitful loss of certainty

In an anxious and acquisitive culture, loss has a primarily negative association, namely as a diminution. In contrast, the apparent absurdity of Zen koans throws down a challenge [as did the Dadaist attack on language itself], namely that to learn the reality behind the agreed appearance, we have to cast aside the certainty of the notionally ‘rational’.

Multilingualism makes the truth other than an essentialist and invariant ‘eternal verity’. However, ‘shades of the truth’ retain a relationship across languages, to the extent that the reality being described is recognised at some level by all parties to the conversation. Equally, ‘within’ a given language, inference and allusion act as elliptical references to a given things, in order to minimise [for any number of possible reasons] the sharp edges associated with the direct expression of a term.

With the right tools, human interaction is a liminal space, not Babel, as some post-modernists might rather have it. As such, subjectivities are not unmoored and discrete, but retain a cultural specificity, within the overall range of human experiential possibility. What we lose in translation is balanced by what we gain in terms of new understandings of human perception.

Loss, gain, retention, and colonialism

The implantation of familiar practices within the colony by the coloniser is used as a form of compensation for the loss of certainty represented by migration from the ‘homeland’, and acts as a form of rejection of the potential gain that could be derived from such change. The alternative strategy to deal with this scenario is of course to allow oneself to become absorbed by the new and to ‘go native’.

The unanswerable ontology of death

Ultimately, two things prohibit us from fully being able to consider a world from which we have been expunged. Firstly, it is conceptually impossible to imagine an entity that lacks our consciousness as a constituent element, when it is that consciousness that is the mechanism by which we perceive the wider entity.

The second is a more emotional factor, summarised in Leszek Kolakowski’s phrase ‘the phenomenon of the world’s indifference‘. The waters will close over us.

And so we walk the earth in order to reassure ourselves of our continued present reality, reflected in our consciousness of the world around us.