Urban Poetics: a Call from (and To) the Wild

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Urban Poetics:  a Call from (and To) the Wild


The architecture of urban life makes sustaining a dwelling place for the cultivation of subjectivity difficult, says Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space.  The flats of Paris have no roots, he explains, and the sky-scrapers, no cellars:  “From the street to the roof, the rooms pile up one on top of the other, while the tent of a horizonless sky encloses the entire city” [1]  Post-industrial homes have become “mere horizonality”: as a result, the different rooms that compose living quarters jammed into one floor all lacking the fundamental principles for distinguishing the values of intimacy.

Intimate space, for Bachelard, was the inverse of undetermined space.  The creation of “inner space commensurate with inner being” was Rilke’s forte, he claims; Rilke was also a master of showing “inside” and “outside” as one dynamic continuity, rather than a geometrical opposition. [2]

Art critic John Berger cites the mid-century rise of tenement housing in Manhattan as having radically reshaped domestic spaces that reflected the increasing scarcity, and thus increased value, of space as a commodity.  The barely-habitable spaces of tenement housing were no different from overcrowded peasant housing:  what made tenements different was their dissolution of the line between “store” (commodity exchange) and “home” (personal dwelling).  The time of the city—the time of wage hours—dominated these “private” spaces, and, one could argue, all post-war “homes”:  “The home never contained the fruits of labor, a surplus of either goods or time,” says Berger, and earned wages were exchanged for the unlived time encapsulated in the purchase of the tv set (an iconic “eternal present”), the “speed” of cars, and the time “saved” by modern appliances. [3]

The architectural apogee of any modern American city—the skyscraper—represents, for Berger, the ultimate collapse in the formerly preserved “frames” of a home’s individual rooms, bricks, and windows, replaced by the impersonal hypostatization of capitalism’s denial of space and time.

Oedipus’ Thebes, Augustine’s Carthage, Baudelaire’s Paris, and Dickens’ London irreversibly shaped the historical memory of those cities, as well as their sites of worship and historical preservation, such as The Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt, which flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and functioned as a major center of scholarship in the ancient world, housing original scripts by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and frequented as a place of research by the likes of Euclid, Archimedes, Aedesia, Pappus, Hypatia, Aristarchus of Samos, and Saint Catherine.  (The destruction of the Library by fire is attributed to Julius Caesar 48 BC:  after its destruction, scholars salvaged the remains in the Searpeum, a temple located in another part of the city).

Did Baudelaire, to whom nations were but “vast collective creatures,” represent the final frontier of “urban poetics,” to say nothing of the practice of flânerie, which makes art out of the refusal to be enslaved by a programmatic agenda (time)?  “The depth of life is entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary, that we have before our eyes, and which becomes the symbol of it.” [4]

The infintestimally vast (both internalized and externalized loci) shares a cognitive topography with infintestimally small, as perceptible by the body, and is analogous to language, wherein we encounter “vastness” and confinement in the sonorous and semantically ambiguous power of words.

Likewise, the senses of touch and sight were for modernist painter Francis Bacon connected:  he referred to the deterritorialized modern painting’s “tactile-optic” space as a field wherein the eye (judgment) is no longer subordinated to the hand, or vice versa, but working, instead, in unison:  “This pictorial fact that has come from the hand, is the formation of a third eye, a haptic eye.”  Deleuze describes this transcended duality between the tactile and the optic as the “reality” of the figural painting, wherein the heterogeneity of the manual diagram (pictorial field) and the visual whole (figure) “leaps” first from the eye to the hand, and then, from the hand to the eye.” [5]

Form fuses the properties of touch and sight for Susan Stewart, but also, hearing:  “The designating or giving frame [of praise poetry] . . . is derived from the face-to-face situation of the poet and his or her listener.  The frontality of face-to-face communication bears with it concepts of the behind as the past and the beyond and between as spheres of anticipation and heightened expectation. [6]

Touch, not sight, is for Stewart the paradigm for the reciprocal open-endedness of all art forms, as the hand touching its own or another hand must feel the sensation to know the bounded separation.  The personal agency or deictic “I” that effects that instrumentality is co-extensive with one’s body:  the identification of the “carnate body” or corps-sujet with one’s “I” as classically expressed by Marcel Merleau-Ponty’s example of the clasping or clapping of one’s own hands.

More than a buzzword for shared feelings or ideologies, “intimacy” begins on a corporeal level when a split subject experiences their body as whole:  we experience “intimacy” with other people and our surroundings as a result of marking and keeping fluid the boundaries between other whole bodies and our own:  “the dialectics of the I and the not-I grow more flexible, the phenomenal world too becomes a part of the with-me, with-us.” [7]   The Freudian uncanny seems strange, after all, because it is familiar (like the Kantian sublime, in which the alterity of the object rails against reason’s capacity to integrate it), though often the cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to this paradox results in a rejection of the object that resists rationalization (Kristeva’s abjection).

The modernist drive toward schematization (following the classificatory urge of structuralism, and, before that, rationalist empiricism) can therefore been seen as a way to create cognitive models for the body’s internal geographic and means of orientation and demarcate “inside” and “outside.”

Largely confined to semantic models today, schematic representations were once mimetically scaled to the body and consciousness:  the Porphyrian tree, medieval mappaemundi and even Deleuze’s rhizome represent not “places” but encyclopedic image-schemas that serve as regulative hypotheses for the structure of the mind, memory, perspective, and the limits of human knowledge.

But what about the actual outside world, or for that matter, the actual body of the text?

Can the work of embodiment studies and multimodal literature (metafictional and intertextual, foregrounding of materiality, innovative typographical layouts), work to reconstruct reading practices, the shattered signifiers of poetic and narrative texts, and the body of the text itself?

The digital archive crisis threatens traditional forms of literary preservation (the codex) but it also brings renewed focus to the value of oral histories and performative art (live theatre, fluxus, dance, walkabouts, reenactments) whose terms are not the archive, but the repertoire.

Postmodernism’s derealization of the body is co-extensive not only with the derealization of the other, and the spatio-temporal order, but the cities we live in, and the buildings and homes in which we work, sleep and dwell.  But before post-apocalyptic literature’s tropes of environmental devastation, alien mutiny, and a culture of simulacra and simulated beings, there existed a far more ancient trope:  that of cryptology, the cultivation of internal or external spaces in which the self and the other could dwell.  Shakespeare, Poe, Daniel Defoe, and Paul Auster are among the poets and writers for whom language itself was a crypt, whose “code” was anything but literal or merely analogical, but rather a welter of images and sounds rife with double-meaning, allusion, and play.

“Urban poetics” takes place at the ripped seam of these intersecting discourses of inside/outside, self/other, “objective”/”subjective” realities, which adhere on the level of individual cognition, spatial orientation, sensation, and judgment, and therefore can’t be codified or defined.  It can, however, be reintroduced into poetic discourse, as a bridge to begin the work of looking “outward,” in terms of praxis or politics, rather than just “inward,” in terms of theory and aesthetics, again.

A return to the outside world is also a return to the material body of language, not just as a chain of arbitrary signifiers but as a syncretic whole, and the body’s epistemology of protensive and intensive senses.  This is the work, not of calculating reason, but the mind’s and the body’s forms of gestalt apperception, without which not only poetry, but incipient forms of desire (eros) and imagination, have no home.

[1]  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Trans. Maria Jolas (New York:  Beacon Press, 1994) p. 27.

[2] Ibid, p. 230.

[3]  John Berger, About Looking (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1980), p. 98-99.

[4] Qtd. in Bachelard, p. 192.

[5]  Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota

Press, 1995), p. 128.

[6] Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 149.

[7] Bachelard, p. 188.

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