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.



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.