A Vaulted Dream

I have been thinking about the nature of the Paris arcades as Walter Benjamin employs them, and specifically how they relate to his conception of the dream, or the construct of the dream house.

When he writes:

“Arcades are houses or passages having no outside—like the dream” [L1a,1]

he is tapping an essential quality as to what the arcades represent for him, as an accomplishment, but also as a motif, a structuring structure that contributes heavily to a huge proportion his written thought.

The dream house is simultaneously an inner and outer fabulation—it exists in the mind but also as an outer space—yet one that is enclosed by impressively constructed boundaries, beyond which there is no exterior. The formulations intellected by Benjamin, which gift the arcades a secondary existence as an all-encompassing gestalt, preclude a world that does not participate in its ordering principles.

Many of his obsessions relate to this motif. Be it architecture, artistic movements, historiography, psychology, or language, it is the achievements of human conception—either material, abstract, or both—that form the boundaries which encompass the subjects he is driven to explore. The achievement of the arcades, which, as a reality unto themselves, manmade and humanly occupied, contains all the material one needs to analyze them. The extremes of their construction, and the limits of their ontology, are for him a metonym for the edifice of human accomplishment. His preoccupation with the orienting principles of that accomplishment, as well as the minute play of the particular observed within everyday experience, concedes that there is no exterior. We are always already within the colonnades of history. Outside of the that the dialectic does not exist.

Yet this is not a constraining limitation for Benjamin. The arcades are capacious enough to encompass the effectively insurmountable repository of data that emerges within the interior of the civilized edifice. Again, the qualities of his dream house reveal what procedures are enabled within it:

“. . . as we walked on, the ghost accompanied us from inside all the houses. It passed through the walls and always remained at the same height with us. I saw this, though I was blind. The path we travel through arcades is fundamentally just such a ghost walk, on which doors give way and walls yield.” [L2,7, my emphasis]

This is a vision of the interior realm ready for exploration. The arcades do not present barriers to investigation—they influence but do not impede, and movement between zones in pursuit of an objective, some form of apprehension, is unrestrained.

The arcade is effectively the—endlessly productive—ideal world that does not impede, does not pervert, and does not arrest attempts to penetrate and intellectually contend with its existence. Situated within this kind of idyllic model, no understanding is necessarily out of reach, and it is the task of the critic to explore and record. This is the premise which orients his ambition to delineate a thinkably unthinkable concordance of what the arcades contain.



Fragmentary, No. 11

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.

—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

♦ Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ

An Old Derridian Exercise

Let me trace an origin. “Trace” is a privileged word. As a verb it is how I am opening this piece and using it to set an intention and a process. The word denotes a nuanced spectrum of definitions, and these definitions superimpose upon one another to produce what then becomes complex. Possible readings proliferate. Exploring some of the more provocative connections that are inhered within trace, and by tracing that trace as an action of writing—as it unfolds and complicates itself through elaboration—will render something complete but unfinished.

Intimately and inextricably linked to movement, both figurative and literal, the first entry under “trace” in the OED defines it as “[t]o take one’s course, make one’s way; to proceed, pass, go, travel, tread.” As I trace, I “go.” The word is thus implicated in the progression of a journey, one without reference to genesis or telos, but instead simply a functional activity of “proceeding,” or “making one’s way.” This sense of the word dates to the formative years of the modern English language itself, 1400 CE, and it forms a core, a kernel of denotation. The word is inscribed with the connotations of taking action and progressing towards an uncertain outcome; but other permutations are quickly overlaid like a semitransparent tissue and further refine its meaning.

When we encounter trace’s second OED definition, it is more lighthearted: “[t]o pace or step in dancing; to tread a measure; to dance.” This is a different set of implications altogether, though not incompatible with the first. There is suddenly an element of grace included in the word: a co-ordination; choreography. To trace is not simply to travel, but can also be a kind of movement with its mind on form, on the intricacies of “treading” some way that is recognized as premeditated—a “dance” implies repetition; gestures that might be predicted and anticipated. Here we are introduced to the idea that to trace is not to perform an act that is entirely original, but that to do so might actually be to imitate or to copy.


So when we are told that to trace is also “to follow, pursue (instructions, example, etc.)” this elaboration can be read in such a way as to amplify the word again. Tracing may not be original in the sense that some source precedes the activity, some kind of a plan or a demonstration, but there is nothing to say that this “following” has ever been done before. To trace could conceivably be to be first, a kind of originary emulation or performance of something that has previously only existed as an outlined boundary, a stricture which has been delineated but never honoured; or a path never followed once blazed. To trace might very well to be to take the first step towards the production of a tradition or a rule, just as easily as it could be enacting a repetition that is tried and true; an action that contains no surprise or uncertainty, a rote presentation of the established.

But by tracing you might yet reverse the direction of your action. Rather than being derived from you might be driven or drawn towards. Yet, another meaning of the word is “[t]o discover, find out, or ascertain by investigation; to find out step by step; to search out.” Tracing becomes the activity of the sleuth, of the inspector, of the scholar; it is a peering into things, a discernment based on evidence. It remains a kind of following, a dogging of hints or what might be derived as instructions, but there is novelty there, for nearby is an implication in this understanding of the word that denotes that the knowledge gleaned, though always there to be “discovered,” was either forgotten or unarticulated before. To trace, in this sense, is to enact a revelation by increments. As I trace this trace the whole of the project becomes more fully described.

The OED recognises that there has been an element of ambiguity within the word’s origin from the outset. The dictionary’s entry on the etymology of “trace” says that “[t]he primary meaning of the verb was apparently ‘to proceed in a line, course, or track,’” but this was by no means absolutely clear as “[t]he early sense-development in Old French and Middle English,” the identified linguistic sources for the modern English word itself, “is not very clear, and some of the senses attach themselves immediately to trace [the noun] in its sense of ‘mark left by anything moving, footprint’, itself a derivative of the [verb] in its earlier senses.” This close interchange between “trace” as a verb and “trace” as a noun remains, which makes it so much more evocative in writing when that duality can be exploited. “We must begin wherever we are and the thought of the trace,” writes Derrida, “has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely.” He, quite rightly, questions the implications of what he means by employing this bifurcated word, apparently naming a thing; but does he entirely exclude the action? Or are he and I counting on an inherent polyvalence to evoke a plurality of action and intent, or objective and process? The answers lie in the outline of the word.

When Not to Move

Countries and flags

Even the cosmopolis can feel confining.

I had harboured aspirations of striking out beyond the precincts of my ostensibly humble region and transferring my base of operations to somewhere fundamentally different; somewhere founded on a different design, a local perhaps perpetuated and driven by an ideology of a dissimilar tenor. The trajectory I envisioned, even from the point of my recent journey’s genesis—that first degree—took me up and out of my limited experience to environments diverse and challenging. Goodbye, Toronto! Goodbye, goodbye. Because really, how many jolly adventures can one have in the same local? Won’t the familiarity of a well-worn home lead to stagnation? Doesn’t the well run dry after ceaselessly drawing from it, year after year? And quite honestly, no one wants to be a parochial academic when the world beckons to ambition so compulsively. When you see yourself climbing up onto the shoulders of giants you imagine that giant standing at the epicentre of an unequivocally vital site, somewhere where they’ll see your banner snapping in the troposphere and it will mean something; the little people far afield might be driven to rally or flee.

Possibly, I exaggerate. If not, it’s still an indulgent fantasy. I came late to this.

I phoned a dear friend once many years ago, and I caught her at an unusual time. Her voice was thick with emotion, and as we talked she came to seem genuinely depressed. “My darling,” I said to her, “whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, it’s ridiculous,” she answered.

“Tell me,” I pressed.

“I’ve just finally realized that I’m never going to be a pop star.”

Hearing her articulate this epiphany was a minor detonation. There was a clear and lucid origin of perspective in its essence. Something had sunken in.

The allure of this particular pipe dream was relatively foreign to me. At that point in my life I saw myself as too unconventional, and too contrary, to be suited for any kind of status that relied upon mass appeal. The brand of success I entertained in my own reveries took the shape of a loving peer group and a chance to make a living creatively, but quietly and out of the way; and not so much out of pragmatism but rather an untrustworthy orientation toward brute reality. However, my friend’s realization, and what she was coming to terms with (however tongue-in-cheek) addressed a fundamental mythology that motivates a certain quantity of every project of self-determination. The spectre of destiny draws many of us forward; and it is seldom a modest phantasm that does the work within the formative imagination. Around the corner of the everyday is anticipation for a revelatory moment of discovery, a juncture where the avatars of forces which drive the world suddenly take notice, attend, and carry you off—transmute you from your station and install you within the charmed sphere of the relevant, respected, and adored.

The permutations of these fantasies are, of course, endless; and they drive the compulsive magnetism of celebrity. The public regards, but it also projects; and that delirious projection is a lot of what spurs much of the everyday toil through mediocrity. I suppose it’s most especially acute in the young, before the force of raw statistics begins to wear at your consciousness. However, at some point you have to mourn your chances.

I mourned early. I recovered.

And my ambition has evolved rather than degraded: I haven’t worn down—I’ve sharpened. I’ve fine tuned. This older self I have inherited, thanks to the inexorable dilation of time, entertains much grander designs than what my prematurely pessimistic ego made room for when I thought I was headed nowhere fast. I had always known that I would never be a pop star, but at some point I had become actually optimistic about the prospects of a more modest luminary position in the firmament. My dream machine has been steadily stoked these past few years, and where I would have been familiar tracing the inner contours of my psyche and discerning only resignation, instead I have adumbrated the shape and substance of actual desire; powerful objectives motivated. This is genuinely a surprise.

I blame positive reinforcement: the continuous encouragement of multiple successes after facing difficult odds.

So when my ambition to breach the national barrier surrounding me was forestalled last year, and my long range plans ran afoul of the very real odds stacked against me, I recalled my friend, anguished on the other end of the phone line. This will never be was stitched into the fabric of the sky, and I felt the destitution of a lofty dream aborted.

Never is a brutal oblivion; but never is also hard to ensure. In a universe that thrives on the proliferation of possibilities, of aleatory contingencies and powerfully interlaced probabilities, never is almost as unlikely as always. Not this one, no this time, is so much more palatable, and so much more credible, than never.

The dream can stand some adjustment. I do not need to be stationed in America to realize my ambitions. The well, here in Canada, in Toronto, has not run dry; and whatever arguments I thought made it imperative to shuck this city like an old skin have lost a lot of their validity under detailed scrutiny. Good things can come from familiar territories. Progress without movement can be an exciting way to examine personal morphology. One can trace new outlines over the old shapes on a map. The iterations might create a compelling palimpsest, a record and new manuscript simultaneously. The core of the exercise is solid, is estimable; familiar but still challenging. There are newnesses to learn from right here as much as there.

So I stay. So I commit to inscribing my mark with a fine point on a site that has asked me to use its surface. There are other ways to transcend boundaries and reach beyond one’s original sphere. The world becomes progressively smaller when it consists of continents of text. It can be nice to be at home and to travel without moving.

All Things Separate

indoor cloud

At times it can be hard to know what you’re looking at. Certain bodies have boundaries that are indistinct. An object identifiable but undefinable describes an inordinate range of phenomena if enough scrutiny is focused on categorical detail. Where is the limit of a cloud? How can you mark the border of an ocean? Classification and identification, as Nietzsche has written, can be described as metaphor based upon a metaphor. If the structure of reality is founded on the premise of recognizing the interplay between differences, surely there is a way to definitively state that one thing is not another, that the compartments are separate, that the world is an aggregate of isolated things piled limit to limit against one another, touching but sacrosanct.

We end up having to build artificial walls to contain the indistinct; boxes real or virtual but equipped with windows wide enough to observe what must not bleed into the immediate surroundings: a mountain, a city, a river, an intersection, a being, a book, a network, a cell, a molecule, an atom. Things irreducible? Things indivisible? Whole things, complete things, individual things?

Illusion. Deception. Conceit. Anyone who focuses their attention on the apparent ontology of things can recognise that they all exist in translation, transition, and transformation. The interrelations of all components make up the mutable and mutating structures that combine and shift to produce the fabric of existence.

I have felt isolated and apart for the past number of months. The project that began as a journey through a process, one punctuated with landmarks and milestones, was interrupted; and it has been an effort not to flounder; a herculean labour to remain connected to the give and take of a life that cannot (or will not) exist amputated from meaning or purpose. The work I have been committed to is the work of imbricating the apparently distinct, and the redrawing of provisional boundaries—walls with windows—around hybrid results so that correlative interrelations might be observed. This is the business of theorizing about the world. This is the complicated dance of pattern recognition in the play of cause and effect; complex systems giving rise to identifiable marvels. I want to study culture. I want to continue to study culture—and in a community, in a network that complicates the boundaries of where one thing or individual begins and another ends.

All this is to say that I have some idea of what I’m looking at when I stare at the letter saying I have been invited to begin my PhD. It may be a distinct thing but it is connected to a universe of generative inaugurations, influences, and reciprocal involvements that combine to make it what it is. This is the beginning of the end of a long journey, and though everything that I base my sense of purpose on might only be a sophisticated metaphor, to say “only” is a trivialization that belies the monumental nature of identifying a thing that implies another thing, one which lies closer to an inexpressible truth. Let us all be part of the attempt to identify what it is that we see, if only to share the joy of recognition with companion beings. Let us exchange perceptions and complicate the beginning and end of the singular object.

Fragmentary, No. 8

[T]he four theses of modernity.

  1. We cannot not periodize.
  2. Modernity is not a concept, philosophical or otherwise, but a narrative category.
  3. The narrative of modernity cannot be organized around categories of subjectivity; consciousness and subjectivity are unrepresentable; only situations of modernity can be narrated.
  4. No ‘theory’ of modernity makes sense today unless it comes to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern.

♦ Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present

Notational, No. 15

Foucault saw psychoanalysis as an essentially sinister moment in the exercise of power in Western history. While psychoanalysis can certainly be shown to have served a massive power strategy of normativizing subjectivity, its very effectiveness in that inglorious role could be said to depend on the accuracy of the psychic profile it has drawn. The language of psychoanalysis has both served and demystified strategies designed to control human subjects. Its invaluable function has been to provide what seems to me a transhistoric account, at least for Western culture, of psychic mechanisms assumed and exploited by strategies of power. Its analytic and classificatory approach to the mind lends itself to both a disciplinary and liberating intentionality. If psychoanalysis has designed a mental map that can guide projects of political mastery, that very same map gives us the terms of a reverse discourse (an aspect of power exercises that interested Foucault very much) that can be used to resist projects of subjection.

♦ Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love”

Psychoanalysis emerged from a taxonomic effort that assumed the quantifiable existence of a psychic norm that could be studied as a referential model. Freud surmised that the heterosexual male psyche was the ur-consciousness from which society and culture emerged. It was thus an effort contiguous with the medicalization of the human being, the human being of course being a white man engaged with the direction of his own corner of the universe, however big or small that was, and the process of cataloguing and symptomatizing the aberrants of that being (which included everyone else) was indeed part of a larger process that aimed, consciously or not, at bringing the mental arena into the realm of regulation, diagnosis, and control. This is what a good Foucauldian might see when looking at the formative structures of psychological “exploration.”

Yet a radical decentering also emerged. Psychoanalysis’ central model may have been myopic, but the continued reading and rereading of Freud that has gone on for over a hundred years now has produced a cornucopia of insight, much of which has continued to inform and provoke the assumptions tacitly made about the nature and operation of the human mind. Theories simplified and enshrined as little more than knee-jerk sitcom punchlines in contemporary culture, under closer scrutiny actually disclose a tenacious relevancy when a reader with a little imagination goes back and investigates what exactly was written about the way one individual can come to know another, and in turn come to know about him or herself. The paths Freud cleared were (and are) openly navigable for all manner of quests directed toward self-awareness—and most are quite heterogeneously applicable. The perception that psychoanalysis attempts to produce a master narrative for the race, one that can churn out adequate and reductive assessments of an individual’s nature, and then prescribe adjustments so that that individual might better assimilate to the conditions of the status quo, has more to do with a conflation of the goals of what is now psychiatry and what has become analysis than the content of Freudian methods and perspectives.

By all accounts (some of which are psychoanalytic) subjection emerges from multiple points of origin, but the essential unit of its process is a Self aware of its own limitations, and oftentimes confused. The products of the project of making sense of what it is that we are, how and why we struggle to make meaning in a vast and complex system of interrelations, can and have been used in the service of power. But that which enables our compliance to arbitrary norms can also help us distinguish how they are norms, plural, and that our fundamental commonalities contain within their enumeration unquantifiable opportunities for othering as well as coming to terms with the reality that we are also all individuals, constantly attempting to create our own mould, even as we are shaped by it, so that we might fit into this world.


Notational, No. 12

If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.

♦ William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads

There must be a sense of play for poetry to work. There must be room amongst the litter of factive objects to dart; to squirm; to roll. After all, the empirical world was pulling at a similar cord to that of literary creativity in Wordsworth’s day. The science of oxygen and revolution were eerily contemporaneous: both materialized out of the same age of investigation and irrepressibility. A similar boldness as that which enabled Lavoisier to isolate molecules of air also led to the regime that would eventually sever his innovative head. The poets and the scientists were both treading uncertain ground, and asking daring questions, about what made the world the way it appeared, what moved and drove it in diurnal course. How exciting that we live now, when both still work towards that end, but we simply know more; and how disquieting to know that what we know, now, privileges us to much the same sum total of practical insight, as then.

How we imagine is the key. Poets sleep in the spaces between galaxies now; between an electron and a nucleus; climbing the ladder of DNA between proteins. The implications of vision are conjoined with physical enterprise in a way that inspires both the writer and the lab technician. There is poetry in everything, just as science can be brought to bear on every iota of phenomena. Where do we come from? This question signatures every project of inquiry. Let’s all play.

What? Good.

As murky and undisclosed as the root motivations that drive the liberal arts can sometimes seem, there are some tacit assumptions and ambitions that do begin to take shape amongst the arena’s composite disciplines, collectively giving definition to the field of inquiry. Upon examination, “our lives, our world, and our future prosperity” are clearly central concerns that inhere at the very core of liberal arts research. By virtue of the commonalities there are to be found between the heterogeneous approaches to scholarship, analysis, and discourse that traverse the bodies of work found in the study of modern languages, history, philosophy, linguistics, et al. a clearer picture of what might be called the investigation of human enterprise, the study of the human sciences, emerges.

If we are to live in a world dependent upon the transmission of information, where not just functional literacy—the capacity to read and write an alphabet—is essential to gain access to the higher functions and institutions of our society, but also a symbolic and figurative literacy—one that allows the educated to gain some perspective about where and how the subject is situated in the larger world, and that that world has a reality that includes more than the present moment, but also a barely fathomable past and an receding horizon of contemporary cultures and concerns—then it is essential that the expressions and products of human perception and thought are studied. Our culture is the aggregate sum of its parts, past and present, and, when catalogued, the means an individual has to make sense of its existence can seem to be quite meager. A staggering amount of the information that bombards the mind of a contemporary ego relates to immediacy, to navigating and surviving the ever-shifting currents of a surging, interdependent ocean of things-which-must-be-done. What the liberal arts exist to do is to call attention, from within the moment, from the vantage of the perpetually ebbing present, to the patterns that emerge: the way that they replicate; how they imply sources; how they describe and prioritize hierarchies of concern that exist outside of the individual, and rather traverse the space between individuals, construct meaning, and define purposes.

The objects and expressions that humankind produces and has produced—from writing, to sculpture, to architecture, to visual arts, to music—all these things contain within them manifest and latent content. Just as Freud said of dreams, so is it true of all productions of the human mind. Objects that have been bequeathed to us from previous generations, due either to intention or happenstance, reverence or serendipity, these things comprise the substance of our enterprise as a self-referential species. Everything we have that has emerged from human impulse is not only record, but code. In the attempt to understand these objects and the ideas they articulate better, we are breaking a cipher that obscures every unexamined convention, every rote decision, every cultural moment of panic that threatens the cohesion of our collective project.

We are a cooperative species. This cooperative nature is more profound than our economic and national ties. What we read, how we converse, the stories that inspire us, the images that absorb us, the spaces we reside, gather, and celebrate in all contribute to how we prioritize and understand the world that we are constantly creating. Without an attempt to articulate the magnitude of what we express, and what we have been expressing from the beginning of recorded time, we have no hope of escaping dread of the future, or dissatisfaction with the past. Fear is the product of ignorance. This has been true of every region approached by human thought and then subject to resistance of comprehension. Just as we need science, mathematics, and medicine to render the world more approachable and livable, so do we need the liberal arts. Without an attempt to understand what it is that we do, what it is that we have been doing, and how it is that we mean to mean something to ourselves and others—how this project has been a driving force behind living a life worth living since a human being articulated “why?”—we are destined to live on the cusp of an ignorant panic, confounded by the symbols and structures of our own history. The liberal arts are what keep our lives and our world integrated with who we have been, and, increasingly, with who we are today as they study what transmits meaning, on an individual to global scale. The prospect of prosperity is dismal without meaning. Such a way of living can only promote an appalling transience, where the inhabitants of the now perform drastic acts of vivisection on the operations of society that carry the promise of a tomorrow capable of carrying on any insight from its predecessors. Ignoring the necessity of evaluating our connective tissues—the records of human expression—robs potential answers from any member of our race who dares to draw a question mark after doing something (anything) for its own sake.


Despite having to write, on command, a blistering set of formal explications to unanticipated dilemmas over the past three days—all in order to provide a material record that will allow me to be evaluated at this, my final point of contact with the undergraduate system—I find myself remarkably well disposed. Looking back on the last four years I have to say three things: it wasn’t so bad; I did quite well; and goddamn if I didn’t work it all out successfully into prospects for the future.

Not so bad for a late bloomer.