Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
-T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
The ‘thing itself‘ was this image1. Its making involved the manual creation of an object able to house a light source, able to go on long journeys to a series of locations, and able to maintain the desired round-but-not-spherical shape.
The making of this image also involved a camera, tripod, computer, car, bags and portable spotlight. Its part in a loosely defined group of images also implies the further manual creation of new objects, new cameras, tripods, laptops, cars, luggage and many new torches with their batteries and chargers. It is an image which takes its place among a series of photographs not yet complete, among my work, or that of other artists.2
The ‘image’ has been made manifest on a digital camera’s LCD screen and encoded in a memory card. It has taken the form of a .jpg file in many different resolutions, become prints (matt and gloss), photocopies and plastic glued to a wall. Through these manifestations, usually existing simultaneously, the ‘thing itself’ – the aim, image, the ‘real’ – has always been the one in my thoughts. The notion of an absolute image, a telos, is what I want to disrupt and deconstruct. The telos has never been ‘whole’. Let us look at its workings – or machinery, or codes.
i. Genesis of ‘the thing itself’
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone; and that is where we start.
-T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
The thing itself switches itself into being in a thought.3 I lie on the sofa. The TV is on in the corner of the room, the curtains are drawn and the sofa is too small for me so my feet dangle over one arm. The thing itself will later rest on the same arm to be photographed. Click.
The thing itself is held in my hands, in its pieces on the newspaper which covers the carpet, it rests in the plastic jug of thick, multi-purpose glue. The pieces adhere to one another, the lower layers almost stiff after drying during the night. The glue dries in the shape of drips, which share no direction of flow in common, having been rotated and upended. The white flesh of the thing itself looks pure on the sheets of news, local residents staring up, out of the pages. Click.
The thing itself is fitted into the boot of the car, ungainly, marooned, inelegant and absurdly without function. In the daylight its grubby edges stand out. The memories of a variety of locations stay with us, in the form of grains of sand, a trace of the scent of piss from that abandoned shed by the Cornish sea. I pick it up and rest it on my shoulder. It colonises one side of my body, hiding my arm – a bold excrescence making its way on the seaside streets. It’s too early to photograph on the pebble beach, the glow to catch in the puddles is absent as yet. In the tunnel opening from the side of the cliffs, the roundness of the thing itself will look too symmetrical. The torch will start to fade too soon, and the images will look overdone when I edit them on the computer. I will fall out of love with the perfectly centred composition, and wish the pictures I’d taken were different. Click.
The thing itself appears like a colonial agent, an emissary from a self-defined civilisation assuming the right to re-arrange the ‘locals’ in whatever way suits Him. Squatting amongst the dusty boxes, it glows. The boxes bear the square, handwritten inscriptions of their labels in mute response: MUM’S PAPERS; BREAKABLE; ASSORTED STUFF. Spiders quietly shift in the corners; the dust germinates, busily. Light travels slowly in this abandoned realm4. Click.
The thing itself slides out of the photocopier into my hand. The top-left section. I place it beside the top right section on the table in the hallway, next to the shredder and the recycling bin. I am self-conscious about people looking, wondering what it is, not being interested enough to wonder. I adjust the position of the original on the glass, double check the settings and press OK. The things itself slides out of the photocopier into my hand. Bottom-left section. It’s come out skewed. I pick it up and feed it into the shredder. I lift the lid and the original is momentarily stuck there. As it slowly peels away, the shadowy corner catches the light in a flash like a momentary negative of itself, light spilling from the dense areas of toner. It flutters face down onto the dust at the foot of the photocopier. I wipe it with my sleeve and restore it to the glass. I close the lid carefully, imagining the position of the image through the lid, under my hands.5 Click.
The thing itself is separated from me, from the world, from becoming, by no more than this sheet of paper. Blunt knife in my right hand, wet sponge in my left, I tease the paper away from the wall, I prise apart the image, the paper and the gallery wall. Mixing with water, the cheap ink runs in grey cascades, directing their flow down to the gallery floor. Later I will gather up the sopping piles, throw them away, clean the floor, and varnish the image on its wall ready for the viewers to bring their lexicons. I lean in to the wall, placing knife between the thing itself and the paper. Click.
The thing itself is folded into my backpack and tied with a ribbon against expansion. The tripod is tied with its strap and the camera and torch are with me. She is ahead of me, I don’t think I can walk much further. The distance seemed much less without the equipment. Finally the trees give way to the bare rocks, and at the mouth of the cave I can walk no further. We pile the bags on a dry patch of ground and sit down to rest. I open my eyes in the darkness, unsure of where I lie. The disadvantage to doing this in the summer is only that you have to wait for the dark before you can get started. At least it’s not cold. She sets up the thing itself into the right shape, pressing out its creases with her fingers and moving it around the cave, walking back and forth to find the right point of view. I sort out the tripod and the camera and the remote control. When the position is OK she comes to the camera and chooses the settings while I look back out toward the sea. Later she’ll get a professional camera and know how to use it properly, but this one is just a snappy, the one that gets lost in the bar in a few months’ time. The light comes out well on this one though and this is a good setting. Hopefully she’ll be pleased. When she says OK I press the remote shutter release. Click.
The thing itself is ready. It sits on the table in its folder, waiting to be handed in. My notes and sketches, rough drafts torn by the dog sit beside it in a pile. I can never decide what to do with all those leavings of writing. I sit holding my coffee, staring. On top of the pile is an image printed on a sheet of acetate, a trial run to see if the printing would work. It’s a print of the complete image, heavy black ink on the shiny plastic. It makes the light at the centre into the only part of the picture that’s not there, white light denoted by no-black-ink. Now it’s a hole when I hold it to the light. The image comes to life beautifully, the lines and cracks of the rock, the shapes in different tones. Immediately my eye refocuses to the vase I can see through the ‘gap’, the light from the window at just such an angle to bring out the thickness of the glass. I refocus on the light and it feels like my eyes move a great distance. I remember taking this picture, carrying the thing itself folded into my backpack all the way up that hill. Seeing the image flash up on the LCD screen and lingering over it, delighted but expecting a catch, looking out for it. And now the picture tells me that the object at its heart doesn’t exist. It is incredible that people credit photography with the ability to produce records, truth-as-we-saw-it, on the evidence of this. When I put the sheet down it becomes blacker, opaque and with a matt-textured surface where the ink lies. Really all that is visible is the hole, which reveals traces of my handwriting from the page underneath. It sits beside the folder on the open book where John Berger writes:
In a parcel, wrapped by hand, there is a message weighing nothing: the receiver’s fingers may unknot the string which the sender’s tied. In the post office I saw in my mind’s eye your fingers untying the knot I tied at Auxonne.
Ten days later I again stopped in the town, and went to the post office, this time to post you a letter. I remembered the day when I sent off the parcel and I felt a twinge of loss. Yet what had I lost? The parcel had arrived safely. You had made soup with the beetroots. And the bottle of distilled water from the flowers of orange trees you had placed on its shelf, above your dresses in the cupboard. All that had been lost was the little future of the parcel.
The man-with-the-parcel was as if dead; he could hope no more. The man-with-the-letter had taken his place. (Berger, p.33).
The woman-with-the-camera is as if dead; she can hope no more. The woman-with-the-manila-envelope has taken her place.
ii. The death of the author and ‘the thing itself’
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.
The sea howl
And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard
-T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages
The encounters with the thing itself examined in this text are with a book of images printed on acetate that attempts to illustrate a mode of deconstruction of the thing itself. From here, the thing itself refers to this book6.
[W]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. (Barthes, 1993, p.142)
Roland Barthes’ famous declaration of “the removal of the Author” (1993, p.145) is closely allied to his idea of the ‘text’. I want to investigate how far it is possible to make a reading of the thing itself as a ‘text’ without an ‘Author’ and to consider what implications this may have for the ‘Reader’.
Firstly, why, in dealing with a series of pictures, would it be meaningful to try to consider the possibility of a ‘text’? Susan Sontag, in discussing Barthes’ book ‘Writing Degree Zero’, states
…anything can be subjected to the ahistorical, apsychological methods of structuralist analysis. A text does not mean only a literary text, as language is not the only “system of meaning.” Thus […] Barthes has increasingly turned his attention to the extra-linguistic languages (1984, p.xx).
The idea of the removal or denial of the ‘Author’ is problematic for literature and art, which historically has placed a high premium on authorship and, through it, authenticity (and authority): authentic truth or authentic visual and literary art. So what happens when we start to refuse this route of meaning? Barthes suggests that the birth of the reader depends on the death of the ‘Author’, that our placing of the origin of meaning in the figure of the ‘Author’ has closed off the creative experience of the ‘Reader’ (or ‘Viewer’). The ‘Author’, as God within His (and it is usually a he) created world directs and originates meaning as its author, authority and genitor. In an age where belief in a god is severely problematised and impossible for most intellectuals and ‘Authors’ (including the Author of the thing itself), where do we locate meaning and on what authority can we claim meaning? The collective choice to deify the ‘Author’ locates the production of meaning within a capitalistic individualism in which the Author-God provides the genesis of a determinism of the particular incidents, circumstances, experience and inputs that exist at His origination and of Him. If we locate the origin of meaning elsewhere, do we have greater possibilities? The ‘Reader-Viewer’ who exists as recipient of the ‘Author’ is assumed as an archetype, as fixed as the ‘Author’ Himself, whereas after His death, reader-viewers are multiple and plural with agency and their own diversity of interpretative lexicons. If we claim that reader-viewers are able to originate meaning, we have available an unlimited potential for plural interpretations.
I want to use Barthes’ idea of the death of the author and application of structuralist analysis to non-textual cultural productions to make a reading of the thing itself as a text whose author is in the process of ‘removal’ and whose meaning is available to be produced by the reader-viewer.
This desire generates a number of problems with attendant questions as to how to proceed. First, the problem of textuality – is the thing itself a text? Does it seem possible to claim this given Barthes’ descriptions of the ‘text’ and its functions?
I want to suggest that the thing itself can be read as a ‘text’ because ”the work can be seen […] the text is a process of demonstration” (1984, p.167). The implication of this is that we cannot see the entirety of the work in one go, its very form denies the ability to see simply, engagement involves enacting a process of demonstration. This in turn, requires activism and agency from the reader-viewer who must take part in a reflexive process rather than simply viewing. This requires them to bring to the text their own questions of authenticity and experience rather than receiving those of the ‘Author’ and so, the thing itself, ”is experienced only in an activity of production” (1984, p.157).
Second, the problem of the ‘removed’ author – can the author be removed in any useful sense and what effect does this have on the ‘text’? In order for the thing itself to be readable as a ‘text’, is the removal of the author a necessary condition? Is the ‘Author’ the barrier in the desired shift from ‘image’ to ‘text’?
Plainly, there is a problem, as the ‘Author’ of the thing itself, to examine this question. I have demonstrated its multiple ‘Authors’ (those assisting and constituting that which has led up to its current manifestation). There is an ‘Author’ of the piece of writing with which you are currently engaging as a ‘Reader’ as surely as there is an author of the thing itself and as surely as Barthes was the ‘Author’ of Camera Lucida. But Barthes goes further, ”it is language which speaks, not the author” (1984, p.143). So what seems to be a paradoxical act, the authorial-suicide of presenting the static images (fig.1 & fig. 11) as the thing itself ceases to be paradoxical. It is rather a knowing authorial stepping-aside, an abdication which enables the transition from ‘image’ to ‘text’, an idea which will be further explored in the engagement with the Derridean ‘trace’ which follows. The choice of presentation of the thing itself is an authorial engagement with enacting it as ”a methodological field” (1984, p.157).
Third, the problem of meaning – does the thing itself have a meaning? Does it contain signifiers which we might be able to identify as constructing meaning? Who is perceiving any meaning? With the assistance of the authorial abdication, the thing itself enacts the Barthean ‘birth’ of the reader-viewer by bringing their lexicons to bear upon it. I will argue in section iv, that this is best understood in the context of the Foucauldian notion of heterotopias.
iii. The ‘trace’ of ‘the thing itself’
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.
-T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Using the Derridean notion of the trace, ”which is itself the very condition of nonpresence of the present,” (Derrida, 2005) I want to investigate how far it is possible to read the thing itself as a visual manifestation of the trace. What might this mean for the thing itself as a text? Is it only possible to approach the trace as an abstract notion or is it possible to make its gestures manifest as a visual text such as the thing itself? Can this idea of the trace enter into a dialogue with the thing itself?
[I]t should be recognised that it is in the specific zone of this imprint and this trace, in the temporalisation of a lived experience which is neither in the world nor in “another world,” which is not more sonorous than luminous, not more in time than in space, that differences appear among the elements or rather produce them, make them emerge as such and constitute the texts, the chains and the systems of traces. These chains and systems cannot be outlived except in the fabric of this trace or imprint (1997, p.65).
Derrida puts to us the notion that at the origin, the originary moment, of meaning, there is a lack, or a presence of absence. The possibility of presence is suddenly no longer available. Knowledge of the world and of perception becomes unexpectedly uncertain as our ability to clearly constitute meaning and to express it is thrown into question. The trace is the presence of every other meaning that we have developed and constructed, and it seems to allow us the space to claim our involvement in the constitution of meaning. Our recognition that words and sounds are similar, or close, or claim the same letters in the same formation but to a different end perhaps we can claim the right to bring with us our Barthean lexicons and insist that they bear on our understanding of signs:
The unheard difference between the appearing and the appearance [l’apparaisant et l’apparaitre] (between the “world” and “lived experience”) is the condition of all other differences, of all other traces, and it is already a trace. (1997, p.65)
Derrida invites us to distinguish between the world and our own experience. So for this project, the world becomes the thing itself and our own experience is an interpretation of it; there is objective and subjective meaning, subjective truth is weakened and objective truth may be real but is unreachable. We have arrived at the deconstruction of the thing itself which is the function of this embodiment of what was a stable photographic image with all its claims to objective authority. Deconstruction has enabled a shift from ‘image’ (fig. 1) to ‘text’(the thing itself).
I need, therefore, to allow – in my imagination – a space that is neither definitively the world nor my experience in or of it. This space will already be a trace. The thing itself shows me an ambiguous space which cannot definitively be “in the world nor in “another world” (Derrida, 2005). It is made of a code which has been enacted in the sensor of a digital camera, originated by other people and their “lived experience,” interrupted by an ‘author’ and their lexicon, processed by a computer, a printer, and two hands. It may be a composite of traces, of multiple authors. This status, surely, prevents it from “appearing” – it is not strictly the “world” nor strictly my authorial “lived experience.” It is already a trace:
The trace is in fact the absolute origin of sense in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of sense in general. The trace is the differance which opens appearance [l’apparaître] and signification (1997, p.65).
Appearance is opened, the ‘work’ is not ‘authored’ by an originating authority who has possession over meaning. The author is dead or has been removed by the action of the trace, always already present, which in turn puts ”into question the authority of the present” (Derrida, 2005). Our concern, therefore, turns to the temporality of the thing itself and the problem of reading this deconstructed text: we know and remember, however fragmentedly, our pasts and believe we have futures (for Berger we have seen it as the condition of life itself ”What we mourn for the dead is the loss of their hopes”). And yet, in a Cartesian sense, we exist only in the present, a present which deconstruction has critically wounded:
In everything there is the trace, the experience of a return to something else of being returned to another past, present, future, a different type of temporality that’s even older than the past and that is beyond the future (Derrida, 2005).
This temporal problem can be explored, and at least partially resolved, by an engagement with Foucault’s heterotopias, to which I wish to turn next.
iv. Towards a heterotopology of ‘the thing itself’
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
-T.S. Eliot, East Coker
Michel Foucault puts forward his idea of heterotopias – ‘other spaces’ – in his text Of Other Spaces. The heterotopia is a variety of space which is highly ambiguous, which is produced by every sort of culture, and which somehow has the ability to represent, contest and invert all the “real sites that can be found within the culture” (1986, p.24). It may be possible to make a reading of the thing itself as a form of heterotopia. Heterotopias are real, identifiable spaces. Foucault gives the example of the cemetery, the rest home, the psychiatric hospital, the prison, the retirement home, the theatre, the cinema, the garden, the museum, the library, the colony, the ship. Heterotopias are
…places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted (1986, p.24).
A heterotopia, therefore, is a real place “outside of all places” (1986, p.24) that gives simultaneous access to experiences of different states of living. They are communally created quasi-institutional places with a collectively agreed meaning. Each incidence of a given heterotopia may be diverse and multiple but each mimics the agreed idea of that type of heterotopia in which heterogeneous symbolic spaces and meanings co-exist as irreducible to one another. For example, the garden is heterotopic because it represents the natural, wild environment from different parts of the world and overlays them within a context which can be as easily urban as rural. The original environments are unchanged and the garden is not a synthesis of the wild and the urban, the origins of the plants, it is unique, “absolutely different from all the sites that [it] reflect[s] and speak[s] about” (1986, p.24).
Subjecting the thing itself to a dissection of its origins, a Barthean ‘removal’ of the ‘Author’ and a Derridean deconstruction under the exercise of the ‘trace’ has resulted in a fragmentation and a profound anxiety about the possibility of reading. These have been projects which introduce doubt, skepticism and silence into the text; the Foucauldian heterotopology seems to offer the possibility of a space in which the thing itself can simultaneously remain as fragmented and problematised as it has necessarily become and be intelligible or at least approachable. To investigate whether this is fruitful, I will examine the thing itself in light of Foucault’s six principles of ‘heterotopology’.
First heterotopic principle: “heterotopias obviously take quite varied forms, and perhaps no one absolutely universal form of heterotopia would be found” (1986, p. 24).
As we turn the pages of the thing itself, it seems that some depth to the depicted space builds up in the left hand image. As we look, then, we exist in relation to the visual space. We view from the position of being between the images already viewed (the past) and the images yet to come (can they be called the future?). As the left-hand image deepens, it seems that more distance comes to exist between the reader-viewer and the point at which they ‘entered’ the image. This may be a movement in time, in that they spend more time inside the image and therefore see more of it than when viewing a two-dimensional image (fig. 1 & fig. 11). Whether it can be a movement in space is more problematic, as the viewpoint has not changed and the image also seems to have one orientation, which is not changing. As the reader-viwer spends time in the image, they are not seeing in such a way that a totalising meaning is possible or emerges from the pile-up of successive images. Information about the thing itself may be multiplied, the engagement may be more active, but the perspective remains as constrained (or ‘framed’) as the vision of the slave chained in Plato’s cave, who can only look in a single direction.
I am not suggesting ‘the cave’ which partly constitutes the thing itself is a heterotopia as a category like ‘the garden’ or ‘the cemetery’ (which indicate not individual instances of the category but all, every instance). I am suggesting that the thing itself is a rendering, visually, of the experience of a heterotopia. Therefore, although there is no definitive form for a heterotopia, the thing itself is not a heterotopia in the sense that Foucault would have invoked, this principle can be brought to bear in reading the thing itself.
Second heterotopic principle: “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion” (1984, p.25).
Foucault discusses the “strange heterotopia of the cemetery” (1984, p.25) to illustrate the changing relationship between the community and this heterotopia. I will briefly examine the church as such a heterotopia because there is a clear analogy between the church and the image fragmented in the thing itself. It has been the focus of community life for centuries, the location of sacred mysteries in which ahistorical moments are invoked (prayer and sacrament) and now as a tourist attraction, a place of worship, a block of flats, a nightclub, a restaurant and in all of these subsequent uses a place in which its previous dedications can be imagined and invoked. I want to tie the idea of the heterotopia to the specific place, the fetishised building, in which these existences within time and space are overlaid as there is a direct analogy to the fetish of place invoked by the placing of the light within the cave, within the thing itself, the heterochronic implications of which will be discussed below.
The idea of change as ‘history unfolds’ seems to be implied in the thing itself. This will not be history proper, but perhaps a ‘brief history’ of the time spent inside the ‘text’. In time the thing itself is built up in layers of ink, layer by layer; and also taken apart by the same process.
Third heterotopic principle: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incomplete” (1986, p.25).
Foucault describes the theatre, which “brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another” (1986, p.25).
The image-space of the thing itself seems to juxtapose other sites. The transition from ‘primal space’ (fig. 1) to ‘dereliction’ (fig. 11) enacted in the thing itself suggests the potential for each site to exist within its opposite, ancillary, supplement or other, perhaps through the exercise of the ‘trace’. One will keep giving way to the other, and back again, as we look.
There is also a sense in which the image-space of the thing itself is so nonspecific that it becomes universal, thereby implying all caves, all derelict buildings – with one as the ‘trace’ of the other. Each reader-viewer, after the death of the ‘Author’ can bring their lexicon of images to the thing itself, analogous to W.G. Sebald’s exploration of this phenomenon:
Memories like this came back to me in the disused Ladies’ Waiting-Room of Liverpool Street station, memories behind and within which many things much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine vaults I saw in the dusty grey light, and which seemed to go on and on forever. In fact I felt, said Austerlitz, that the waiting-room where I stood as if dazzled contained all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained, as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the end-game would be played, and it covered the entire plane of time (2002, pp.192-3).
As a reader-viewer who has been a historian of architecture, the lexicon of the character Austerlitz incorporates his experience of the place, his mental imagery and professional expertise to produce a new, personal space which no one else can access. This space is not real, identifiable as in Foucault’s principle, but is real in the experience of the viewer.
Austerlitz also notes his confusion and indecision as to the status of existence of the space he is occupying. “I remember, said Austerlitz, that in the middle of this vision of imprisonment and liberation I could not stop wondering whether it was a ruin or a building in the process of construction that I had entered. Both ideas were right in a way at the time since the new station was literally rising from the ruins of the old Liverpool Street” (2002, p.191). Its transitory status opens up a greater emphasis on the present moment; he cannot account for the space as a stage in a linear progression and therefore must accept it as the present only, with no ‘scaffolding’ of future with which to support it.
This private, experiential juxtaposition of sites is the way that Foucault’s third principle of heterotopias can have a bearing on our viewing of the thing itself.
Fourth heterotopic principle: “Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time – which is to say that they open onto what might be termed […] heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (1986, p.26).
I wish to employ W.E. Connolly’s conception of time to underscore this heterotopic principle in relation to the thing itself:
I […] reject the cyclical image of slow time adopted by many ancients. But I also find myself at odds with progressive, teleological and linear conceptions of time set against it. Against these four images I embrace the idea of rifts or forks in time that help to constitute it as time. A rift as constitutive of time itself, in which time flows into a future neither fully determined by a discernible past not fixed by its place in a cycle of eternal return, nor directed by an intrinsic purpose pulling it along. Or, better, time as becoming, replete with the dangers and possibilities attached to such a world (Connolly, p.144) [emphasis added].
It is this rift, which Connolly sees as actually constituting time, which signals the championing of the present. Connolly describes Hannah Arendt’s formulation of the rift:
Arendt also embraced the idea of a rift or ‘gap’ in time. She too thought that without such rifts ‘the new’ […] could not surge into being. With the rift, our established narratives, rules, explanations, and sedimented codes of morality are periodically subjected to surprising jolts and shocks. Drawing upon Kafka and Nietzsche, Arendt says that the present is the gap through which life flows from past into future (Connolly, p.146).
The rift is embodied in the thing itself, along with the past and the future. Although our looking always takes place in the present, our experience of the thing itself as a heterotopia incorporates all three stages simultaneously. Thus we experience the heterochrony of the thing itself.
Fifth heterotopic principle: ”Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable” (1986, p.26).
Like the cemetery where its function depends upon the successive opening and closing of the ground in order that a space where the living and no longer living can find a physical representation of their non-temporal co-existence, so the thing itself must be opened and closed like a book for the trace of differance between the acetate leaves to create a non-temporal space in which the heterotopia is experienced. This is a process of alienation from the simple (though violent) framing of the static image on the wall. Heterotopias are places of confusion and complication; or rather, places where complication and fragmentation can be read.
Sixth heterotopic principle: ”[Heterotopias] have a function in relation to all the space that remains” (1986, p.27).
Their role is to ”create a space of illusion that exposes every real space […] as still more illusory” or to create ”another real space, as perfect, as meticulous […] as ours is messy” (1986, p.27). The thing itself is a space of illusion, created photographically and creating extreme skepticism about our knowledge of the world. In addition to this skepticism, which is brought about by the Barthean and Derridean deconstruction at work, it must be observed that, even as a static image, it represents a realistic rendering of an illusory space which is at once intelligible as a ‘real’ space, and sensibly we know that it cannot possibly exist. Despite this, we understand it because our experience includes other heterotopias and other real spaces in which we experience heterochronic perception, be that the sacrament within the church or the epiphany at Liverpool Street station.
What does it mean to draw these six strands of reading together within our reading of the thing itself and to do so in light of the Barthean and Derridean projects applied to it?
The thing itself is barely any longer a thing; even the ironised conception of this borrowed phrase can take us no further.
Having undergone the process of removal, I am now liberated from the ‘tyranny centred on the author’ (Barthes, 1984, p.143). I am able to become a Reader once more (although the ‘Author’ never stops being a ‘Reader’), without the constraints of providing or originating meaning in the thing itself, and ‘read’ the thing itself as a visualisation of a heterotopia, in which the trace of differance disrupts temporality and opens into my lexicon.
‘Oh, a huge crab,’ Jacob murmured – and begins his journey on weakly legs on the sandy bottom. Now! Jacob plunged his hand.
-Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was
-Philip Larkin, Church Going
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Click. When I can walk no further I lie down in the place where I fall. In the darkness my surroundings are no longer visible to me, except for a sense of tall trees. I open my eyes in the darkness, unsure of where I lie.
My feet are numb and my legs are heavy – I have walked until I could walk no more. In front of my eyes the ground, my cheek pressing on the gravel. I roll onto my back. The numbness in my legs makes it difficult to stand, and my feet are sore and bleeding.
I reach out my left hand and it touches the wall, a wall of vertical stone, damp to my touch. I press my left hand to a dark wall, and then take a step and lean my shoulder against it and then my back. I feel the need to walk further, to see.
To my left there is darkness, to my right, darkness. But the darkness at the left has the quality of a city hanging just beyond my sight, making its presence discernible by a faint luminous gradation of the dark running along the horizon, visible when the mind becomes accustomed to its surroundings. I move in the direction of this would-be presence.
The walls around me are jagged, scored with crevices and cast in the shape of somewhere else; a memory of rocks. The faint glow strengthening, a globe of light comes into my view as I pull forwards. I am in a tall, open space bounded by rocks and my body joins the ranks of jagged pillars of stone. Together we displace the waiting air as our shadows criss-cross on the walls and sandy floor. The light cleaves to the inhospitable stone, the damp walls, and draws shadows among the thousands of tiny pieces of grit on the ground.
The cave is cold but to rest now, to lie down, to feel the strange light casting its shadows onto my skin feels like a compulsion that is at once unresistable and of my own desire. I reach down, my left hand touches the shadows among the grit, joining the shadows between my fingers to these infinite, tiny shadows, which run across the floor like a wave, divided by the pebbles and their fragments, then up to the walls, over, up to the dark crags of the roof above. A serious house on serious earth it is, in whose blent air all our compulsions meet, are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete…
With the wave comes a coldness, a tiredness that covers me and grows from me into air that has filled with this quiet light. I am lying on my shoulder and my hands reach out, spread amongst the ground-shadows. The light occupies me and the skin of my cheek turns over the gravel floor. The light is like the full moon in a cloudless sky. I am lying on the floor in my mother’s cellar, hiding in some sort of game.
Continuing to lie, unmoving, as my name is called from up the stairs, my shoulder pressed to the hard wall. I reach out my left hand and the damp rock touches my fingers, damp from the approaching waves as I rush to avoid getting my feet wet.
I am at the rock pool, pulled like the waves by the moon, which hangs to the right, just below the horizon. I will suffer even a telling-off from my mother to ensure I can plant my feet in the warm water nestling between the damp rocks.
Take a run and leap onto the first rock, and jump down into the cloudy water. The rock was one of those tremendously solid brown, or rather black, rocks which emerge from the sand like something primitive. Instantly, people are lying beside you and you run with a panic down from the rocks and pelt across the sand, eyes blurring and large. Run towards mother who has waves rushing around her skirts, but she is not mother. She was a rock. She was covered with the seaweed which pops when it is pressed. Open your eyes unsure of where you stand. Tears wet your cheeks. Out of the corner of your eye a gleam signifies something white. Run again across the sand, the white becoming pointed, edges – a skull… perhaps a cow’s skull, a skull, perhaps, with the teeth in it. The September sunshine gives this small absence its shadows, eye sockets deep and crags of seams running across the bone’s white surface. There on the sand not far from the lovers lay the old sheep’s skull without its jaw. Clean, white, wind-swept, sand-rubbed, a more unpolluted piece of bone existed nowhere on the coast of Cornwall. Reach out your left hand, touch the shadow where the jaw once was. Click.
1 I am taking Wallace Stevens’ interpretation of this Kantian conception of the platonic Noumenon, as expressed in Not Ideas About the Thing but The Thing Itself, as my starting point:
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow…
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache…
The sun was coming from the outside.
That scrawny cry–It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
2 ”No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order […] will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.” (Eliot, p.15)
3 I wish to engage directly with the absurdity inherent in attempting to ‘speak’ as the author of this image about the impossibility of authority. This ‘great difficulty and responsibility,’ to reappropriate Eliot, involves undermining and revising a process, through its recounting, which removes the author. It is a revision, an experiment in whether such a revision can have value, a deconstruction of teleology which risks falsifying as well as examining. I have attempted to deconstruct the image in a number of ways. It is an attempt to prevent the ‘end product’ ever being referred to as such. This involves taking the image apart to its constitutive elements (by one method possible among many) and denying its ability to appear as a whole image. This denies its teleological power, as does writing which exposes the processes through which it was created. I therefore attempt to deny its ability to appear as simply an image. It becomes a point in a system of production, not a telos. But to do so,we engage with the violence of the Derridean frame; violent in its presentational choice but also available for deconstruction. So the voice enacting these deconstructive processes is mine (along with a series of after-the-fact intertexts) even as that voice takes up its demoted role as one reader (writer) amongst many, even as I claim the speaking authority within this deconstructive text.
4 ”…occasional rays of light fell into the waiting-room, but they were generally extinguished again halfway down. Other beams of light followed curious trajectories which violated the laws of physics, departing from the rectilinear and twisting in spirals and eddies before being swallowed up by the wavering shadows.” (Sebald, p.190)
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