Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sites of imperfection

This is an old post I've been saving as a draft for some (no) reason. I actually forgot about it, and since I feel too lazy to write anything new.... I have examples to add from Benjamin and Darwin, but that'll have to wait since I don't have the books here in Ithaca.

The dialectic of public/private space is key to understanding Benjamin's style and theory. Interior spaces: the mind, apartments, rooms, dreams, are always immediately and complexly juxtaposed and interwoven within and alongside public frames of reference. What I find very interesting about the use of space is the half-finished or incomplete quality not only of the spatial dialectic employed but the material incompleteness of the spaces he chooses to focus on, i.e., their constructedness. The incompleteness or the open-ended construction of his work and the works he valorizes are what I would call, sites of imperfection. Imperfection is not meant here in the pejorative sense; rather, it is a pre-condition for the evolution of forms. By aligning imperfection with incompletion a series of dialectical constellations appear: interiority/exteriority: complete/incomplete, open/closed, these all have different,yet complementary, spatial valences. Thus, as correspondences, these constellations produce the mutable forms of Benjamin's critical/aesthetic work; they serve as both critical content and aesthetic form; that is, the works politics as well as its poetics is an ever-evolving (and necessarily imperfect) mode of production/construction--a dialectical evolution of form and content.

To my mind, the efficacy of multiple sites of imperfection is all over, to begin with, Darwin's theory of evolution. This is nowhere, as far as I know, explicitly stated in Darwin's theory. That is, he doesn't ever simply say evolution = imperfection. But it is everywhere implied. (It was in Cannon Schmitt's seinar on epistemologies of evolution that I first started thinking about imperfection as a useful tool for approaching aesthetic/cultural forms.) And it is in the radical forms of the avant garde that I think we may be able to put the concept to use. There are a lot of implications here, which I will try to unfold at some point. For now I'll just make a sweeping and general claim: for Benjamin, the perception/cognition of these imperfect sites produces modernity as the ground for new forms of living. Thus we have Benjamin the Surrealist.

(Justin, I'd like to hear what you have to say on this. I had you in mind when I wrote it, in a way.)


srt said...

There seems to be a doubling of the public/ private dialectic in thinking through it as an "open-ended construction." As you say, new "dialectial constellaions" appear but do not enfold or usrup previous formations. That is, the dialectics multiply and intersect with one another pointing to new (previoulsy unthought?) relationships. However, if I have understood this correctly, my question would be to ask if one formulation can *productively* intersect with another? In other words, does the completed part of a private space (ful)fill the incomplete of public space?

kfd313 said...

Yes, right, to the first part--it is a kind of doubling. But, as for, the private=complete, public=incomplete, that's not exactly how I see it. As pthey eash participate in and as a dialectical incompletness, both terms *construct* that valence or that oscillation. More simply put, they are productive precisely in their intersection becuase they equally contain components or forms of incompletion/imperfection/openess and completion/perfectio/closededness.It's not a a simple, static binary.

Does that work for you?

srt said...

I misphrased my question; let me try again. They do indeed each contain constellations within themselves, hence the doubling (multiplying); my question is though, does or can that which is complete/ incomplete in one complement or fill the incomplete/ complete of the other? I'm not positing static binaries but questioning if the gaps of one, at any given moment, can be fulfilled by the other.

JustinP said...

Hey K,

I WILL respond to this; I'm busy as get-out this weekend. But look for my comment in the near future (maybe I'm building this up too much...).

Luv - JP

kfd313 said...

Ah, no Justin. The anticipation is good. I will appreciate any response--negative or positive. Busy here as well; hope, for you, it's a good kind of busy.I know mine is. Think of you often...


JustinP said...

First, a question as a way in: where's temporality? I like your read on spatiality - but I think adding temporality would create new, interesting implications. I came across this quote from _Swann's Way_ just after reading your post; it occurs in the midst of Swann's paranoia concerning Odette: "that temporal superfluity which, even in days that have been most circumstantially accounted for, still leaves a margin of room that may serve as a hiding place for certain unconfessed actions." An elegant chiasmus, anyway...

But leaving temporal questions aside for a future discussion/development, I agree with your Darwinian observations - imperfection as an important unsaid of Darwin's theory. In fact, as with much of Darwin, it's debatable and debated what "perfection" or "progress" may have meant for Darwin. Was he arguing for a kind of teleology? There's this eyebrow-raising passage from the grandiose final paragraphs of _Origin_: "[A]s natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection." At first, this sentence causes one to wince. But Darwin hedges quite a bit - "tend to" and "towards" suggests that a telos is never reached. Also, according to Gould and others, "perfection" or "fittest" for Darwin is relational (between the organism and the environment, which includes other organisms) and therefore this relation is variable and mutable. Instead of "perfection" and "imperfection," Darwin tends to use terms like "variation" or "difference." Evolution in the broad sense is the repetition of those errors, variations, differences, or imperfections that enable an organism to overcome its environment. Thus, what becomes "essential" in an organism (colorful plumage, an exoskeleton, webbed toes, whatever) is actually the accretion of error. The essential is then "miraculated" and posited as an immutable a priori ... but this, of course, obscures the process and reverses primacy. (As you may be able to tell, you missed out on a great D&G _A-O_ reading group!)

As for the "efficacy" of your argument - I completely agree. You formulate a "dialectical evolution of form and content" as, precisely, a "mode of production/construction." This evocation of Marx has implications for understanding what constitutes the sphere of economics - in other words, poetics, evolution, error, imperfection, inoperation, the avant-garde as political. All of these modes are potentially disruptive to capitalism, since these disruptions (or "imperfections") may produce "new forms of living."

Let me know if you do anything more on this line of thought - it's intriguing to me, especially as I'm trying to make my peace with "dialectics" (especially Benjamin's) after a fruitful discussion with Sarah.

Best - JP

kfd313 said...

OK, this is just to say, first off, thanks so much, Justin, for your considered and thought-provoking response; I really appreciate it. You are, as they say, a scholar and a gentleman.

Now, I'm going to have to think about this and get back to you in more detail since I'm operating on no caffeine at the moment, but I do want to say that your first point--what about temporality--is, indeed, a crucial omission on my part. I think about the implications of space so much, I often leave out the constitutive nature of temporality in that process. Problem is, I think I avoid it because I really don't understand time/temporality. Not that I get space either, really, but I seem to be able to think through its materiality, constructedness, plasticity, opacity etc. etc. (or, rather, the sense of space as material allows me to think through *it*)in ways that are unavailable when one approaches the issue of time. I really have to think that through in important ways in order to have any kind of coherent approach to either Benjamin or Darwin, so your question is very important.

Ok,let me continue this after coffee!!!!

JustinP said...

Another pertinent quote from Proust, the last two sentences of _Swann's Way_:

"The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years."

Proust (and you already know this, of course) seems to be one way into the problematic of time/space... _In Search of Lost Time_ itself indicates the imbrication of time-space, searching for time as a location in space; or conversely, realizing that space is a location in time. Time becomes accessible precisely through materiality (the infamous madeleine). Although this seems to approach a conflation of the two, I'm not sure it's that simple - I suppose because I'm interested in keeping them at least semi-autonomous or qualitatively different.

I wonder if I can appropriate Proust into the "Victorian era." Hmm...

kfd313 said...

Those are interesting, thanks for this, Justin.

This is a very useful remindder of my own interest in the relation of space and time to my readings of Proust, so this is very helpful. Here's a few things I was thinking about last year in terms of evolution, space, and time, which you have helpfully reminded me of. First a quote from Robert Smithson's *Entropy and the New Monuments*:

"Many architectural concepts found in science-fiction have nothing to do with science or fiction, instead they suggest a new kind of monumentality which has much in common with the aims of some of today's artists. I am thinking in particular of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol Le Witt, Dan Flavin, and of certain artists in the "Park Place Group." The artists who build structured canvases and "wall-size" paintings, such as Will Insley, Peter Hutchinson and Frank Stella are more indirectly related. The chrome and plastic fabricators such as Paul Thek, Craig Kauffman, and Larry Bell are also relevant. The works of many of these artists celebrate what Flavin calls "inactive history" or what the physicist calls "entropy" or "energy-drain." They bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age, and would most likely confirm Vladimir Nabokov's observation that, "The future is but the obsolete in reverse." In a rather round-about way, many of the artists have provided a visible analog for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness. The "blackout" that covered the Northeastern states recently, may be seen as a preview of such a future. Far from creating a mood of dread, the power failure created a mood of euphoria. An almost cosmic joy swept over all the darkened cities. Why people felt that way may never be answered."
Doesn't this last part remind you of the blackout over the midwest and eastern seaboard 2 years ago that we all experienced, and which had a particular relevance in Detroit, I think, for what Smithson is saying. The "mood of euphoria" was fairly pervasive. WE were "off the grid" for a few ecstatic moments.....

These are all initial ruminations I posted on my old website (periplum)... here's stuff from just after beginning reading Grosz's _Nick of Time_ last year that, I think, resonates w/ the Smithson:

"Darwin makes it clear, indeed a founding presupposition, that time, along with life itself, always moves forward, generates more rather than less complexity, produces divergences rather than convergences, variations rather than resemblances. Descent, the continuity of life throught time, is not the transmission of invariable or clearly defined characteristics over regular, measurable periods of time (as variuous essentialisms imply), but the generation of endless variation, endless openness to the accidental, the random, the unexpected. He thus makes temporality an irreducible element of the encounter between individual variation and natural selection, the two principles that, in interaction, produce all of life's organic and cultural acheivements." (7)

That descent equals "the continuity of life through time" is fundamentally altered from how we might normally conceive of it once that continuity is defined as a process of becoming. Time, for Grosz and of course by implication, for Darwin, is "intricated" within and upon the bodies through which it enacts its own particular nature. But this might not be right, for my statement, perhaps merely poorly worded, seems to imply that time itself has a nature. How can time be in some way, ontological in its own right? Does that even make sense? Not that I think this is where Grosz is going with a discussion of temporality. The difficulty in any discussion of temporality is that we must rely on representations of its effects on bodies, beings etc. As Jameson says, history is only present in its absence. But I don't think Grosz quite lines up here. She is attempting to discover some attributes of time that can be extracted from the dialectical axis (I think). At least in light of the meagre reading I've done so far, this is what she seems to be attempting. she moves us further away from Jameson, so it may not be correct to conflate history (or rather History) with temporality. Might it be correct to say that temporality precedes history? What good would this statement do in terms of explanatory power? This is a vast thicket....

Then theres this quote from Bergson and my attempt to link all this to Proust: "The alternations of generation and decay, the evolutions ever beginning over and over again, the infinite repetition of the cycles of celestial spheres - this all represents merely a certain fundamental deficit, in which materiality consists. Fill up this deficit: at once you suppress space and time, that is to say, the endlessly renewed oscillations around a stable equilibrium always aimed at, never reached. Things re-enter into each other. What was extended in space is contracted into pure Form. And past-present and future shrink into a single moment, which is eternity." [Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution] To look at the Vinteuil sonata as a fragment is to look at it in terms of memory, and the relation here would be that it 'represents' the fragmentation of memory as well. It is then, not only a metaphor but a metonym. Perhaps.

Hey, wait, I think I'll just re-post my intial musings on Proust (for a presentation I did in Jonathan's the Moden Novel seminar) and maybe we (I) can re-think this stuff through all the gobbledygook I have there. Thanks for the inspiration.

One more thing. What has struck me in re-reading these quotes and rablings about time/space and imperfection is that I seem to have a particular (and relatively) unthought love affair with material decay. I have become more and more interested in what Diderot called "the poetics of ruin." This is the anti-progressive fatalist in me. But one wonders--where is hope?