Mar 13, 2018

Hidden Cities & Walls of Language (excerpts)

No More Masterpieces - A.Artaud

This may begin to delineate a line of scrimmage between making architectural objects and writing architectonic texts. - J.Bloomer

The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. - Wittgenstein

Does the visual image destroy the walls of language? The true significance of visual images must be rethought after thoroughly examining the thickness of the walls of language. - Abe Kobo

© PERfACTs "The ACTIVATION of the Traditional Games (Lojëra Popullore)"

** The text below is from William H. Gass's essay Invisible Cities, in his book Tests of Time, p. 37-68. The reading emphasis is mine. I have selected these excerpts (sometimes out of the original context) as a tool to make sense of Tirana now, to question the [in]visible gestures and mediated narratives found in the city. My main concern here is 'the scrimmage' between making and writing architecture (architectural forms / forms of our language) - and how we can 'activate' the line of demarcation between what is intrinsic and extrinsic to one and the other.

(Granted, W.H.Gass has written this book with Calvino's work in mind (and what it might teach us about the modern city), but some of the points he brings up cannot be ignored in today's neoliberal Albania. Thus, my interest in posting it. I recommend you read the original essay to draw your own conclusions.)

© PERfACTs "Theaters quietly unseat themselves and perform their plays outdoors." 

Think of the word polis – “city” – itself: a word which will be young still when every other city is a midden or in unsieved dust. It is the wretchedness of this truth, it is the injustice of any one word’s overweening reality which has made this truth so invisible.

Imprisoned by either walls or words, it is all the more important to try: to dream beyond the bricks; beyond the outer courtyard with its watchtowers, guards, guns; beyond the words which screen us from the world, beyond our own aims, fears, normally trivial aches and pains, which we nevertheless enlarge and objectify as bruises in hillsides, as knocks in walls, as cuts through mountains, as the leveling of plains.

Cities can be cleansed even of themselves when they do not understand the true nature of their inhabitants...

Scheherazade, staving off death with her stories, must borrow or invent...

[T]he camps of catastrophe, cities of sewers and open wounds... scalded by their atmosphere, whose admired autumnal sunsets are caused by clouds of foetid gas; cities where growths of garbage define the parks, and every alley is intestinal; the cities we can only forget, it seems, by repeating them, by reproducing… reinvesting, rebuilding, reinhabiting… by reenacting their several and similar hells, not smoothly and professionally, but stupidly and clumsily...

We have fables Aesop might have managed, not by imagining animals but by imagining cities.

From our journeys, we may return with other wares, but that won’t matter, for what will render them significant will be their placement on the pavement, the flights of influence they suggest, the orders they elicit from the eye … returning, not with these images alone, but with the wonder of their relationships. 

The chessboard is also the grid of every great city. It is only incidentally a set of paths, for these paths are principally corridors of power, influence, force.

What we frequently fail to understand is that the city is not an assemblage of buildings streaked by highways and streets; it is a subtle pattern of powers, like the board.

At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison with the game of chess.
[B]eneath the pieces the board is bare, the stones of all his cities’ buildings dissolve in the lines which bound them, and these run pointlessly – invisibly – off into space… On that slick ivory surface, on the fired clay, in that open square of wood which is at once a piece of playing field and a square of the city, what can one further see? the footprint of a pavement? perhaps a taut and angry fiber? the glaze of a dreaming eye? logs lazily adrift in a slow-moving river? a woman peering from an upstairs window? Every object is itself a cell which would contain us, yet every end has its outlet as well; and as we pass through a cave’s yawn to the hollow of a hollow tree, from that hollow to an open door or window, we cross one threshold to achieve yet another, even more wondrous, wider world.

When the concept of the city, with its concrete streets and concrete towers, has been replaced by that of the game, with its architectural grid and gun range, its system of implicit threats, its irregular spheres of influence; and when that game, furthermore, has been, in its interest, exhausted; then the materials of the contest, its dinky tools, the ivory itself, its fingered skin, the shape of the cross on the king’s crown, are entreated for results. A pillar becomes a tree, a tree a totem.

Let me recapitulate our progress. It is a pattern to be found in all the arts. We begin our pursuit of the city by examining the particular, the things that cities are made of – squares, streets, buildings, bridges, people, parks – allowing the least leaf to be engraved upon our faces as though it has been long pressed there. We endeavor to give to the shallowest saucer great depth, but we do so through the intensity of our attention, by dwelling on the small bob of its basin, the thin rule of gold around its rim, the cup which will squat there when the tea is finally ready. We collect facts. We describe things as we believe they really are. Not only our streets, but our lanes, our halls and closets, are named in this realm of reference, this freeway of denotation. The procedure will give us one sort of city: a city of idle odors and random sounds, a city of character, of what is popularly called “place.” Our city will have a personality, for we shall have rendered the gestures of its spirit, the way in which it resembles a young girl, a lecherous uncle, an old maid. Our city will be a richly human body made of countless bones. Many a corner will strike us like an elbow. Many a path will wear like a hole through our shoe. Many a brick will stiffen at our touch. The light will fall irregularly throughout the city, palely in this place, brightly in another, after the manner of our understanding.

Not content with this, we soon seek – in the playing fountain, the shaded courtyard, the kneeling man, the fan, in the look that leaps like a tree through the stone pavement – a pattern of powers, of influence and agitation; and like the Great Khan we withdraw toward the game, although it is still people we see moving about like pawns, and not yet pawns we see moving about like people. This method will give us still another sort of city, a city in which system is beginning to be born, in which terms are beginning to be replaced by relations, in which roles are beginning to define their representatives, and not the reverse.

The signifier has swallowed the signified, although you may still observe it as a swell in the stomach, like a bulge beneath the bedclothes of a bereaved and sleeping body.

What has really happened to us?

We have begun to listen to the sound of our own words, not merely to their meanings; we have begun to circle their shapes like a walk around a town; we have turned to the representatives of thought for sustenance, not to the thoughts themselves, or to the things those thoughts were presumably about; for just as trees are bark and leaves and light, and the forest is trees and leaflight too, so the city is made of millions of small forms and fine textures, of the very near and the quite far, and like the wilderness may have its own mountains, depending on place and point of views, tiredness and timing.

A city is a wall for words, misunderstood or simply imitated in spray paint; but it is a house for houses too, and so should have its doors and sudden windows, its stairs and stories, its halls and dining rooms and dens. We have explored our chosen city through dreams of its streets and derelict alleys, its suspension bridges and bridle paths. Now we remain with the mute sign itself. The map of the city is the city.

Shortly new words will begin to be heard in the sounds which old words make, as for instance in “swoon,” which I understand, now that I speak it clearly and listen with a pure ear, is not the languid faint I formerly feared, but the casual and quiet glide path of a paper airplane.

Not only are there cities which belong to the past, and are now invisible for that reason; but there are cities of the present whose existence is quite evident to any traveler with eyes alert and curious, but which are hidden to the inhabitants, who no longer need to experience their postboxes, their scented trees, in order to allow their dogs to piss against them on their twice-daily walks. A neighborhood may be missed entirely by a preoccupied visitor. I certainly do not notice now the soles of my feet, my weight, my restless or resentful ears, opposing opinions. … Great stretches of so many cities are indistinguishable, and even when we peer at them, they are simply stretches, highways which have thrown out little asphalt lots along them like oozes of rust on a pipe. Amid so much tastelessness, it takes a pretty tasteless gesture to create a locale.

But when are cities invisible because they have no identity, and when is it because of our indifference, our bemused eye?

Our cities are like seas, and it is not uncommon to see one building seize and swallow another like a shark.

All future cities are invisible as a matter of course.

To illuminate the landing of a stairway, panels of stained glass foresee the development of the city. Which are the true forms and which the false? We can ask this question even when we believe we know which is the solid city and which the reflection.

I live, myself, in a city of defeated expectations, a city of inept lies.

When will shopping centers become warehouses if warehouses are already galleries, ateliers, or rifle museums? Theaters quietly unseat themselves and perform their plays outdoors.

But the falsehoods began when the first earth was moved.

Not every building remarries readily.

There are timeless cities, not because they seem eternal, but because everything about them is the same age, like the nose, ears, chin of a face.

[Invisible Cities is a book about still another book, Dante’s Inferno, composed as nearby to The Travels of Marco Polo. The nine sections of Calvino’s text resemble the nine circles of Hell through which Virgil escorts Dante, although Marco Polo carries the khan with him largely by turns of the wheel of the word. There is a definite, not to say plummetous, descent from the first part, which opens with “Cities and Memory,” to the final one, which begins with “Cities of the Dead,” after which we fall more precipitously toward those cities which are said to be “hidden.” In Calvino though, we meet cities on our journey, not Dante’s miserable men.] 

Below that point we found a painted people,
who moved about with lagging steps, in circles,
weeping, with features tired and defeated.
And they were dressed in cloaks with cowls so low
they fell before their eyes, of that same cut
that’s used to make the clothes for Cluny’s monks.
Outside, these cloaks were gilded and they dazzled;
but inside they were all of lead, so heavy
that Frederick’s capes were straw compared to them.
A tiring mantle for eternity!
[Inferno, canto XXIII, 11, 58-67]
The technique of this magical and fabulous fiction concerns the recognition of the Real, which is its insistent subject. … Reality does not consist of things, their collections, or their shallow denominations. Reality is not a set of simple situations, nor is it one shade of anything. It is not even a single system of relations – invisible as they all are. The experience of the city exceeds our experience of Proust. A great city’s life lies in the details, in the details as they fulfill a whole. Consider what a little grass does to a set of steps, and then multiply… multiply…. Consider what a crack of light does to the dungeon, and multiply for freedom and for sky. Consider the multiplication not only of niceties but of vulgarities as well: signs, poles, wires, trash, broken glass, peeling paint, rotting boards. And multiply… multiply….

Isn’t that what happens to the elements of a successful city: they satisfy our needs, allow our lusts, remind us of our past, inhabit our future, encourage our reveries? What is a text but a community of words?

We have seen cities clothed in colored tiles, courtyards composed of images and ancient scripts and antique statuary, streets lined with streams, lined with inclining tables and dissipated awnings… A single building can sometimes overpower an entire city and, become more than an emblem, more than a feat to be admired: a conscience to be obeyed. [The cities] the text takes us through, including those that disappeared ahead of history and before we reached the title page; governmental cities too, capitals with a capital C, and those which will be paraded by our absent or our sleeping eye as the text turns silently inside itself, thinking like a drill bit does, bringing more aspects to inner view … continuously, invisibly.

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born.” Yet cities come to an end when they lose their boundaries, when neighborhoods, districts, regions flow together with the sameness of a flooding river, masses of indistinctly different men covering the country.

[Lastly] the unjust city, a meat grinder… Here, hidden, the just recognize one another by their manner of speech … Here, however, within the very virtues of the just and their secret city, lies the sense of their superiority like the celebrated canker in the rose. To realize that your righteousness deprives you of the pleasure and privileges the unjust enjoy drives you to despise justice and resent your own virtue. By means of this grim dialectic another unjust city, hidden beneath the hidden, begins to grow, a cancer called “just cause.”

In the unjust city – our cultureless world – the just – the cultured – recognize one another as citizens of the same secret city, but their very isolation and the protections of superiority they must adopt to survive encourage a bitter hubris, which costs them the esteem they have fancied was their fitting reward.

Notice how the same lesson lay unlearned in this city...


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