Ballicatter

Politics and Shelter

Site of Exchange

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1. The Tired Mind: Response and Responsibility

The poems, essay, and film submitted for this edition of Ballicatter were received well in advance of the recent natural disaster in Asia, but the final version of this commentary was prepared in its wake. We have witnessed a considerable international response to the massive need in areas struck by this enormous tidal wave. Some time must now pass before we are in a position to measure the adequacy of this response; it is for this reason, and others, that there will be no attempt here to provide any preliminary guesses.

It might even be that such measurement is beyond the powers of any one person — and that we unfairly torture ourselves when we interrogate ourselves as to whether we have done enough. I think quite a few among us would be compelled by this notion, and I will not casually brush it aside. It is always difficult to say, however, when such claims are forwarded out of a simple commitment to what is — and when they are motivated by a kind of powerlessness or weakness. Presumably, there is very often an honest scepticism about how much we can know of what we, together or individually, should do when it seems something needs doing.

There are those who think the problem is not so much that we do not know what we owe, but that the very notion of owing something is mistaken. Someone might say, for instance, that there is no sufficient or insufficient response to an event — and that whoever supposes there is suffers from an overactive moral imagination. Proponents of a view like this needn't be horrible people — and they certainly needn't advocate the omission of response to stimuli: if you find that you are touched by images of suffering human beings (or, for that matter, animals), then simply follow your impulse to respond (cry, write a cheque, change the station, write an article, etc.). The point is that a stimulus gets its response: there is no distance between what it gets and what it deserves. The principle ‘you get what you deserve’ is thus elevated to metaphysical status. We talk only about what is, and not about what ought to be the case.

This is to claim that our powers of response are exhausted at some point, that there is a fatigue natural to every happening. Such fatigue is often supposed to be proportional to the significance of the event, or to its gravity. If we take a naïve view of, say, the major American network television media, we might be inclined to think that their role is to pinpoint this moment of fatigue — to determine the moment at which the people must be shown something new. If the human being has the ‘potential’ to (re)act, this variable potency must be charged up again and again by encounters with other great forces: tornadoes, gang violence, corporate mergers, and so on.

The recent tsunami is a stimulus great in significance, and a historically significant response emerges to meet it. Yet the thesis that our action is but reaction — that our action is simple response to stimulus (Latin, derived from proto-indo-european ‘sti’ for ‘point, prick, pierce’) — is subject to debate. One who defends it can point to our inability, and in certain cases our lack of concern, to address lasting problems — be they problems related to wealth (manifested in widespread illness, starvation, or in the need for shelter), environmental abuse, or the disappearance of a certain kind of education in the west.

But does this crude physics of stimulus and response explain or distort our understanding of the plane of human intelligence? Without underemphasising the importance of feeling the pressure of the world on us — the call of the world for our response — can we avoid simplifying the problematic nature of what will constitute the response due? Can we resist the urge to seal off the question of our responsibility without surrendering our happiness thereby? Is the human spirit of a kind that can hold itself together without the certainty that it has ‘done enough’? Do we have the strength for that? How much rest, and what kind, might give us this strength?

These questions about rest are central to our consideration of the tidal wave that carried away with it so many vacation resorts for westerners. There will be no simple indictment here of those who take their holidays in the sun — none, anyway, to which we are not, most of us, subject. For our massive ignorance of the problem of when it is time for rest — and when for action — manifests itself in innumerable ways. If we can bring this problem into focus in these reflections, we can perhaps claim a small degree of success.

But what has this question of rest and action to do with politics and shelter? We are pressing on toward a response to this question, but one further digression is necessary.

2. Transformation

“A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered into smaller bits. Never does the stone attempt to react in such a way that it may maintain itself against the blow, much less so as to render the blow a contributing factor to its own continued action. While the living thing may easily be crushed by superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existence. If it cannot do so, it does not just split into smaller pieces (at least in the higher forms of life), but loses its identity as a living thing.”

John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Whatever we think of Dewey's life/non-life dualism, we can appreciate that living beings do exhibit the capacity for converting hostile forces into themselves (or as Dewey puts it, into the means of their own further existence). Where we find a thing engaging in this transformation of energies, we are likely to ascribe a precious kind of identity. But we are stingy: Dewey suggests, for instance, that there are obvious cases of identity only in the higher forms of life.

We are exercised by this question of identity: whether a race or a culture can be said to have identity; whether only persons, or perhaps other organisms or complex systems that seem to exhibit identity, should have certain rights; which identities to protect and support, and on what conditions, etc. Any satisfying answers to these questions will need to account for the simple intuition we have, namely, that some things have, prima facie, a stronger claim to be called identical, even if ultimately all things identical are explicable in terms of a single principle. In other words, few of us doubt that there is something at stake here, and we are acquainted with the idea of the problem of a dynamic identity. For the stone simply and trivially is what it is, we think, and if it is shattered into a million pieces it will no longer be helpful to treat it as a single thing. But we experience loss only if we had a use for that stone; we do not mourn the stone for its own sake.

We must be careful, though. We used to think similar things about all non-human animals, and about some human beings. The point is not to insist on a hard division here between the stone and the non-stone, but to remind ourselves that there are identities in the world that strike us as precious — as examples of an unlikely maintenance of self-identity over time — against the possibility of no identity whatever. To count the value we perceive here as ‘intrinsic’ is a problematic, politically significant move, since once we have it, the move to inalienable rights (eg. against violation of any kind) is considerably easier to make. There are undoubtedly values ‘intrinsic’ to any system — and when we assert identity in a particular case, we do so because we suppose ourselves to have discovered a system that has achieved some qualitative status of distinctness: perhaps not self-sufficiency in an absolute sense, but relative independence, or independence from some specific object. The parts that could be employed in order to make an automobile functional have some degree of specificity — and we might therefore say we still have an automobile when it gets a flat tire (1). In certain cases, perhaps an intimate, loving relationship, we might say that a member is irreplaceable — that the infinity of relations that constitutes a loving human relationship is a paradigm case of singularity. The widow who outlives her husband does not, in his death, lose her own self — nor is she precluded from forming a new identity of a kind with another man — but there will be no question of simply replacing a part and reestablishing the same relational identity with another man.

It is now time to justify this brief adventure into the metaphysics of identity. The transformative act that Dewey attributes to life, or at least to higher order forms, is the act of forming one's own identity. To have form is to transform: to form oneself is to do so across (“trans,” Latin) the boundaries of one's own identity. It is to have relative independence, such that the system that constitutes oneself can be said to have an outside, an other — a challenge to its own being, which might well turn out to be too much. That which has identity only has such insofar as it sustains itself through encounters with whatever constitutes its outside: and so certain challenges must be met. That which exists stands forth (Latin, ex ‘forth’; sistere, ‘cause to stand’). Those ‘things’ to which we are more likely to ascribe identity seem, however, to decide where to stand (to avoid certain ‘challenges’ to their being), and to stand not brazenly (as a stone), resisting the outside with all its power — but to attempt to receive and transform whatever forces come to meet them.

It is instructive to think of shelter in Dewey's terms, as a kind of stone behind which what he calls a living thing might hide, when it decides that it is not strong enough now, or here, to meet the challenge that the outside presents. We can think of the snail or of the turtle, of the way the solution to this particular problem — the need for protection against motive forces that are approaching with too much speed — gives rise to further problems: the shelter presents itself not only as shield but as burden to be carried.

But does shelter begin there? Does the skin not provide shelter? The skull? Further, does the mother not shelter her child? That is: must we remain at the level of this simple life/non-life division, the soft and the hard, the animate and the inanimate, in seeking the meaning of shelter? Must that which protects the inside, and gives it time to rest, be material? Might a security system for a home, or a firewall for a computer, act equally to hold off the outside? And might these apparently less ‘dense’ or ‘hard’ forms of security bring with them a capacity to limit the exchange necessary between the inside and outside to such a degree that no communication is possible, that no challenges are received — that the precious energy from which a thing with identity sustains itself might not be received? Is it not precisely this which worries even those of us who would come under the cover of the proposed weaponisation of space?

3. Escape

We have found a certain orientation to the original question of the relation between politics and shelter — an orientation that might itself threaten to seal us off from something important. We have developed the idea of the outside, and of the need for a certain exchange, a crossing of the boundary, required in order for there to be the growth that is the condition for a certain kind of being to be what it is. This has been, I think, a valuable exercise, not least because it is hard not to think that the idea of reaching the other with a good to be exchanged has obvious relevance — as the international community attempts to bring goods to those presently in need, wherever they might be. It is not a very original point to suggest that any hope of discovering meaning depends upon the drawing of certain lines, certain limits. Neither is it terribly original to suggest that a second condition be that one find escape from them. But can we find a way out?

Stacy Pawlowich has doubts. His short film Escape Routes Have Been Sealed Off, the best yet of his submissions to Ballicatter, explores not the problem that shelter solves but the problem it creates. A consideration of it might, therefore, provide us with a certain way out of the conceptual structure that we were building in sections one and two.

The title appears just before the end of the film, superimposed on the image of birds on rotisserie, as the door to the small oven in which they find themselves is closed. We begin here not only because in one sense at least, in the order of ideas, the film begins here, but because this climactic, comic moment might invite one to return to the apparently serious first three minutes of the film and discover a secondary ‘plot’ befitting of such a climax: in other words, rather than understand Pawlowich to be taking away in one flash the force of the previous arrangement of images, we should be patient enough to return to that arrangement with confidence that they merit a climax of this kind.

On first viewing, during the minutes leading to the climax, the film seems to be a reflection about the human being as perhaps increasingly ‘trapped’ as he or she matures. The adult who possesses full rights and freedoms under the law never seems to enjoy the kind of free play we find in the opening images of children outdoors, swimming and playing. This original, buzzing joy, is followed (in the ‘human’ narrative thread of the film) by domestic scenes in which children pray and are put to bed, and later by the woman in her kitchen, composed and in control. If she is free anywhere in the film, it must be here. Against the images of swarming bees, this human tale suggest that the film's subject is the human being's distance from its natural state — a distance which it is the business of domestication and education to support and recreate in the life of each person.

We can now see why the climax can be called comic. For it turns things around and shows us that it is not the human being but the bird which is in fact trapped — which cannot escape — and that our excessive attention to the problem raised by the ‘human’ sequence is unmerited.

Thus, on this reading, the film presents itself as a jab at the humanist, whose concern for the ‘happiness’ of the human being indicates a morally suspect bias against the natural world — the world which the human being appropriates, seals up in tins or toaster ovens, and prepares to ingest. Whether the film does in fact have this subversive edge to it, or whether we should take the joke naively, as a simple presentation of human beings and birds, organisms that in obvious ways are sealed off from a more natural state, is a question.

Perhaps the joke is simply the presentation of the unexpected. The simplest level on which it is funny, perhaps the original force of the joke, is this: where we expect a comment on the trapped human, it is, rather, birds, being cooked, which cannot escape. How shall we decide whether our original response is adequate — whether a full response does not require a review of the whole sequence of events in light of the switcheroo pulled at the end? How can we decide whether our intentionally generative, critical reading is a better response to the film? Before we can know which response is due, some time must pass, or at least, we must be prepared to doubt our reflex, and hold ourselves to the idea that there might be some way of distinguishing the right, or adequate response, from the inadequate. We will return to Pawlowich in a moment.

4. Circulation

Escape is perhaps a permanent condition of being. We escape to the inside from forces that would destroy us. Soon we long again for the very openness from which we close ourselves off, and we escape from the inside, from those self-imposed, or socially imposed, limits and restrictions designed to protect us. After some exposure, we need to recover, and we seek an inside — though perhaps not the same inside. Wolfe may be right that we can't go home again. Would we want to?

Much circulates in Crystal Hatfield's “Revenge Wears No Wristwatch” — a frantic piece of writing in which Hatfield is not interested to make things any “easier” on the reader: she chastises those who settle into a certain routine, who are concerned principally with comfort, with blocking out, hiding from, or escaping the following: 1) truth; 2) reality; 3) “displeasure” and/or pain; 4) sadness; 5) “failure”; 6) difference; 7) “the other”; 8) “the rare and real conversation”; 9) those individuals who seek to “expose their own truths/create healthier forms of being” or social interaction; 10) experimentation; 11) “inconsistencies”; 12) critical self-reflection; 13) self-creation; 14) “personal responsibility”; 15) “the future”; 16) and “choice”.

Thirst in the “hungry darkness of living” (a pit), as in The Clash's ‘Ghetto Defendant’, is in Hatfield's estimation thirst for 1-16 above, and perhaps for more. We thirst or are hungry for truth, difference, the other, choice — and we should be prepared to live in that pit, rather than to escape from it. But can any human being really live in such conditions? Might it be the nature of truth, otherness, sadness, absolute freedom for self-creation, failure, etc. not to be sufficiently hospitable to us? Not to receive us and sustain us? If this were to be so, we would need to be suspicious of the suggestion that we must either stay or flee, either seek shelter or escape into otherness. We would need to engage in the difficult task of finding ways, ourselves, to receive truth. It would be a question of establishing a certain kind of ‘communication’ — of community with that otherness or truth that resists our efforts to domesticate it and make it our own. And this might require a capacity to establish, and also to eliminate, the limits that separate us from the other — as we discover the need to recover (shelter ourselves) and to throw ourselves once again into the different.

Hatfield's frustration is real, and her reflections on the ways in which human beings ‘become company politics’ or ‘turn themselves’ into big business: submit to unknown and endless production, abandon their own ‘personal responsibility’ to maintain themselves as persons in the face of that which would consume them. She poses, toward the end, the question of how human beings ‘interact in nature’ — and challenges the claim that we are simply slaves to power, insisting that we are capable of transformative action that enables us to continue to “grow” or to be “healthier.” Our signals to each other have been reduced to ‘advertisements’ and the constructive act we engage in — the endless building of layers (“they're always building”) — is unknown to us, and somehow or other is not our own creation. Insofar as we do not know what we are building, it cannot really be our own.

What is at issue throughout the piece is action: action, reaction, interaction, and distraction. By framing the reflections in terms of revenge, the ultimate settling of the score, the destructive, reactive force of the outside, which has no concern for duration (though perhaps for timing), Hatfield warns that our collective, constructive/productive act of abandoning our capacity to interact (by abandoning ourselves to the ‘big business’ that consumes us and transforms us into lifeless objects) will not go unpunished.

This may be true. But the question is who/what will be punished? Hatfield's frustration is that those who submit their souls to the consumptive machine may never themselves be the targets of retribution. Indeed, there may be a metaphysical reason why: for how could that which no longer is — i.e. that which has surrendered itself, its identity — become the target of the reactive forces of being? Insofar as, to return to Dewey, we abandon the extraordinary burden of receiving and accommodating otherness, we become mere fragments of the great ‘system’ to which Hatfield refers. Our lives lose their ‘consistency’: commitments to each other over time do not endure; we do not draw a difference between what is good for us and what we desire now — and consequently we become nothing other than our fragmentary, transient desire. And if we have become nothing but a loosely arranged multiplicity of desires, we have no individuality to lose. We find the reason here for the indifference of destruction everywhere — whether of the environment or of communities. When we see the world as an indifferent multiplicity of disconnected fragments, we can hardly be moved to action by the threat that it would be further scattered. We, as an inert mass of bits and pieces, can no longer serve as witness to the destruction of that which is other than us — and yet which has identity of its own. Hatfield is right to reject endless escape, endless fleeing. For witness requires presence: it requires that we allow ourselves to become the field on which the differentiating ‘otherness’ can establish itself as unified, as something other than so many bits and pieces. Insofar as we are constantly distracted or ‘drawn away’ to the next image, the next ‘breaking news story,’ we do not enable the integrity of what is to manifest itself to us.

But what are we to do, then, in this world — where images form an unending sequence along which we are carried by the media (if not by each other)? How can we establish any presence?

If we cannot stay still, then we must return: form a circle, circulate.

5. Motherland

Ants and bees belong, with wasps, to the class of insects known as ‘hymenoptera’ — a particularly social group of insects, which live in colonies and have a highly organised social structure. Pawlowich's choice of species is thus by no means accidental. We are familiar with the analogies drawn between bees and humans, and ants and humans: the worker bee, the ants marching. One could hardly observe these insects without thinking that there might be clues to our own species in their activities. Those of bohemian inclination, for instance, who think that food becomes artificial when it is stored in tins must account for the seemingly natural storage of honey in the hive. There are considerable points of similarity, and other important points of difference, between the basic life processes of these ‘cultures’ — human and insect. Pawlowich is no doubt interested to draw on some of these points — and his opening image of the children at play floods to mind as we watch the seemingly erratic behaviours of the insects.

Yet to follow this line of analysis through the film, determining the exactness of the analogy between the human and the insect, would be to deal with the film in the naïve fashion noted above. This account would belong to the film if it were not for the (rotisserie) turning point which forces us to return to the origin and deal with the film more carefully. To do this, we do not need to deny the feminist thread in the film — the queen bee, the mother who takes care of the little boy and puts him to bed, leaving the daughter to take care of herself (2), the mother who dominates her world, the kitchen, with an impressive array of technical objects: all of which takes place in the absence of the man. Whether the man is the support for this entire apparatus, providing the capital necessary for the woman to rule and raise the children, or whether he fertilises the egg and then disappears, we cannot say. We do not need to deny that the central event in the recent history of the sexual relation is the woman's insistence that she too have the power to come and to go, to stay and to flee — in short, to be in motion — which we discussed above, in suggesting that it is proper to the human being to have this capacity. The consequence of this, that the inside is no longer maintained with the same care, cannot be denied, wherever the responsibility for that inside should belong. Yet I shall allow these matters, which are of crucial importance and must be considered in anything pretending to be an exhaustive account of Pawlowich's film, to slip out of focus for the moment.

In so doing, am I reenacting the subjugation of ‘woman,’ brushing aside what is arguably the central issue to any discussion of politics and shelter? It would be unwise and morally suspect to discount this possibility. My sense is that Pawlowich himself makes this move of setting aside the problematic question of ‘motherhood’ and of ‘womanhood’ immediately after establishing it as central. We could justify our own move by claiming that we are following the artist, though to imitate him might be to repeat an error. As we shall see, we must be prepared to risk error of this kind. (3)

The home shakes: we get a close up of the doorknob to the house, and it is shaking. This is striking, coming, as it does, immediately after the image of some cans atop a counter, one of which is marked “Pressure Container.” When we see the inside of the home for the first time, thereafter, everything is calm and under control. Why would it be shown as shaking, as though a great, contained force were trying to escape? It is as though the home cannot contain the inside, and the energies that sustained the 1950's/60's home here were indeed released with the movement for the liberation of women (in part, a liberation from the home). But in this film there is no indication that the woman is trying to escape. Perhaps Pawlowich is suggesting, as we have heard some reactionaries do recently, that women never wanted to be liberated from the home in the first place.

But it is precisely against this that Pawlowich forcefully presents his film. We cannot ignore that he is making use of archival footage here. The original aim (not Pawlowich's) of at least some of this footage must have been to present woman as the master of her home, in order further to contain the pressure that was building during this era toward her liberation. Pawlowich manipulates the video to make the home seem to shake with a pressure that is not there in the original footage. We can say that he ‘returns home,’ bringing with him the liberated powers, in order to shake the original scene and expose the lie that some might want to tell themselves. In this more recent era, in which the family has indeed undergone an attack, in which the good of and for children is no longer immediately obvious to just about everyone, some are longing for what was, recalling a time in which these issues seemed less pressing — and in which, supposedly, human beings were happier. But this return home is indeed impossible. This nostalgic desire for an original past that never was (for example, that never was happy, at least not for many women) is extremely dangerous. We must find a way to recover those values that we have indeed misplaced in the course of emancipation, but to do so will be no easy matter.

This is why we must be careful not simply to replay the women's liberation movement, through this footage, as though the conditions we have today can be understood analogically with those of the 1950's. Pawlowich is introducing a difference into the story; he is not simply retelling the same story, but placing the accent elsewhere, forcing us to determine, for instance, to what degree our own attempts to seal ourselves off from change or to provide us with the security to which we aspire might seal off the possibilities for change for other organisms, or systems. We need not read Pawlowich's rotisserie joke as post-feminist vegetarian irony. Neither should we take Pawlowich's film as a polemic against the enslavement of honey bees. This film does not crudely play in the ethics of mastery and subjugation. It is, as its title suggests, about the impossibility of exchange — about contained pressure and the need for life to find ways in and out of the immediate.

6. Synegein: Truth and Fiction

Israel, as David Lobel presents it, is not given as a ‘motherland’ or as a ‘fatherland,’ although there is nevertheless a return to origins: after a long history of wandering and persecution, the Jews suddenly found themselves in a position to receive a reparative gesture of considerable importance: the gift of their homeland. The cry that “Not just anywhere will do!” which Lobel suggests is ‘emblematic of the nature of Jewish yearnings,’ is crucial. Lobel focuses on the connection of physical reality to mythological space which explains the Jewish yearning for Jerusalem, and I do not wish to disagree. (4) A glance at the problems between Israel and Palestine — and indeed, in the larger Middle East, generally — suggests that if the only issue of significance were the capacity to protect a people, the decision to reject Labrador for Jerusalem would be inexplicable.

One could say that, had the Jews accepted Labrador, they would have thereby accepted further wandering: driven off to a land that at the time, and down to today, is not easily negotiable for human beings. That Labrador would have been thought of as ‘free space’ — and not as land to which aboriginal peoples had some claim — cannot be forgotten. But from the Jewish perspective, this region of what might have been thought ‘unoccupied’ (or at least underoccupied) land must have appeared not as a space of freedom, but as no place at all. If the giving of a homeland was to be a restorative act, a response adequate to the historical injustice that finally gave reason for such a gift, it had to clear space in the very centre of ‘occupied’ being itself.

We see thus the unstated premiss of the reception of this gift: the bringing together, the synegein, of the Jews had to be a cradling of the Jewish community in the midst of certain other communities. The question of justice can be addressed only when those with a claim are brought together with those against whom they have a claim. This synegein, not of those who share an identity, but of those who share a difference, is the condition for justice. The claim that ‘not just anywhere will do’ is, among other things, an insistence that the act of returning to the Jews a certain mappable physical space is not itself the act of justice, but the opening of a possibility for negotiating that act. That opening was itself violent — as every opening is — and thus created new claims of justice, such as those suggested in Lobel's carefully measured conclusion. We should recognize here that there will be no final escape, no final ‘refuge’ (Latin: re, back, fugere, flee).

Yet we desire this kind of finality, the silencing of the difference, the complete domestication of otherness: we want to possess justice once and for all, so that the violence can forever be ended. The synegein of differences is thus not easily maintained: the limit that separates those of us on the inside from the other compels us. If we are poor and needy, we are drawn erotically toward the fullness of being that pulses beyond our door. If we ourselves are rich, we flood beyond our own borders and into the space beyond us. If we despise the other, we are threatened by it, and work either to seal ourselves off from it, or to transform it into a likeness of ourselves. If we love the other, we are compelled to hide our differences and pretend to be of one kind with it — only later to discover that we have no way of containing in our precious unity the multiplicity of differences that refuse to be denied.

Lobel is fascinated by the “continuity between truth and fiction” which seems to him to account for the undeniable repetition in Jewish history, the “foundational myth cycle” which culminated in the “1948 re-emergence of a Jewish state”. It is the notion that myth mirrors history that seems to draw Lobel to this formulation of a ‘continuity’ between truth and fiction. But which of myth and history is to be the true and which the fictional? If history is governed by structures imposed by myth, then we should say that the myth is true, and the historical a sort of copy, a likeness of the myth. If, on the other hand, the historical is the true, as most would suggest, the myth is the fictional copy of a set of historical events — a copy applied again and again in the course of history in the attempt to understand novel sets of historical events. Lobel aims, of course, to overcome this dualism by the use of the term ‘continuity’. But what is the nature of this continuity? And does the privileged place of religion, as that which mirrors historical truths and even futures, overcome the above dualism, or does it suggest that myth (or religion) is the true? I cannot answer these questions here, but I wish to flesh them out some and then finish with a word about truth, action, and shelter.

Much seems to ride on the conception of likeness — of mirroring. Behind the false dilemma above, the two accounts of truth, is the notion that the fictional is the reflected image, while the true is the original image. One can consider a more complex notion of the true, as the relation of resemblance between two images, neither of which has priority over the other. Here a true ‘continuity’ between the true and the fictional is possible, since any two images will have a certain ‘degree’ of truth, depending upon the degree of similarity between them.

Others would object to the idea that truth has anything to do with resemblance, and might better be discussed in terms of the manifestation or revelation of that which is of a different kind from the material through which it comes to be revealed. This radical break would preclude any discussion of ‘continuity’ and invite speculation about the unity, perhaps, of an act of knowing with an act of being.

This third conception of truth might be impossible without a capacity to copy an original, and to measure the similarity of the one to the other. If that were true, there would be no question of dismissing certain conceptions of truth in favour of others. But why might this third conception of truth as manifestation be important in the context of this paper?

Perhaps because it refuses the final closure that we discover with attempts to measure one image against another: it respects truth as that to which we can give place through our action, whether the production of film or of myth, or the generation of children, but which we cannot possess once and for all. It might suggest that there is no final solution to the question, “How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?”, since we find ourselves endlessly in the presence of the strange, whether because we ourselves must go out and seek that which we need, or because we must allow the strange(r) entry, in order to sustain ourselves on the inside. To sing may be to honour and to manifest the sacred — but we must learn to sing in the presence of the stranger, even with the stranger, if we are to sing at all.

7. Silence

We can thus see that one determination of Politics is its business of sorting out the claims that emerge from these many voices. Politics is concerned with the conditions under which a stranger is permitted to enter into the community, with the harmony of the various voices within, and with the noise of the outside, which must sometimes take precedence over our own music.

But as soon as we conceive of things in such terms, we are in danger of forgetting those who have no voice. They are many. Now and again, something of great significance happens and their cries reach a volume that captures our attention. We began these reflections with reference to the tsunami disaster.

John Morris Healy, with his poem “Shelter & Politics,” inverts the title for this edition of Ballicatter. The move must force us to reflect on the aim of this site, which is principally to expose some truth about the nature of politics through a consideration of something else — in this case ‘shelter’. Healy draws attention to the question of the priority of politics as it appears in Ballicatter. My original concern, that refusing to delimit the range of phenomena that could be considered ‘political’ might in fact do more to hide the nature of the political than to help us to uncover it, is not what seems to concern Healy. Instead, his inversion of Politics & Shelter invites us to wonder whether it is not the nature of shelter that is hidden by our attempt to understand it en route to an understanding of politics.

This is an important thesis, especially if we consider it in the light of our above reflections on justice. For what we are doing is trying to draw together (synegein) two terms (or perhaps two phenomena) which might or might not be able to share the same territory in such a way that the nature of each can manifest itself. It might be that one is collapsed into the other, or that one dominates the other — that one of the two falls silent in order to let the other be heard.

But if the silence of one is the condition for the other's voice, then how can we elicit again the voice of the silent, except by silencing the other? The original aim for Ballicatter, when the site was launched in 2004, was to have a forum in which all that fell silent in the copying act could be recollected, so that ‘justice’ could be done. Yet we did not, those of us who contributed to Ballicatter, ensure that this recollective act could occur: we have not yet done enough. And it is fitting, perhaps, that in the final edition of 2004 — which has stretched into the first edition of 2005 — John Morris Healy reminds us of silence, of justice as what for us has proved to be “unsought impossibility.”

Do we have the strength to sustain ourselves without the certainty that we have done enough? Not naturally, no. We are hungry and begging, humbly, for nourishment. There is no guarantee that what little we receive we will not squander, for it is not only the ‘street lonely’ who gives in to the infinite — the never enough. But without this act of bargaining, the attempt to secure exchange, what hope have we?

Hazardous Terms:

Dispossession:
We are endlessly in process of giving up what we have. But how much of what we ‘have’ is rightly called our own? When so many among us have so little, might we dispossess ourselves and others of what we have? Or does this term ‘dispossess’ suggest, wrongly, the negation of possession — whereas in some cases, there is no rightful claim to possession at all?
Architecture:
The passing of the American architect behind the famous ‘glass house’ reminds us of the disappearance of a distinction between the private and the public — between the inside and the outside — first powerfully expressed in the twentieth century by Hannah Arendt. That this distinction was in full force among the Ancient Greeks and that they championed architecture as the most profound form of art is no coincidence.
Homeless:
The lack of a home and the lack of shelter must not be presumed to be the same thing. Neither should we presume that one is the condition for the other. It is troubling indeed to see how alienated — how ‘outside’ — so many children in wealthy communities have come to feel.
The Streets:
In her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, economist Jane Jacobs attempts to rethink the possibility of having our streets as the extension of our homes. Rather than build parks for children in major cities, she suggests extending sidewalks up to thirty feet out from apartment buildings, increasing lighting, and having tenants ‘take care’ of their area, serving as a real presence, as surveillance for the area. What are the proper limits of our activity? To what extent are these determined by our visibility?
Low-Income Housing:
In the context of our discussion, it should be immediately obvious that, despite the genuinely valuable move toward such housing, the ‘low-income’ — or the poverty of what, from the outside, gets through these front doors, remains crippling. What emerges from such homes into adulthood is too often compromised by the lack of value that the community has managed to put in.
Dog House:
The notion of the ‘dog house’ reminds us that there are conditions for remaining on the inside — that there are certain acts which are corrosive for the interior and which will not be tolerated. Used metaphorically, of course, what it suggests is that there is no simple inside — that any ‘inside’ is populated by any number of further limits which are variable, but which must be maintained to some degree, if the integrity of some grander limit is to remain effective.
Hideout:
From what position do we write or create films? To what extent is the work of art something to be exchanged between human beings, and to what extent is it that barrier that separates us?
Volunteer:
The notion of the volunteer is extraordinary. The volunteer participates in complex networks of exchange, just as does the employee, though the richness of the value in motion is more easily perceived, since vision is not blinded by an artificial bottom line. The volunteer accepts that, however poor one is, one is not without will.
Poverty:
There is some power in poverty, too. The lack of any knowledge about what to do in any particular case is precisely that by which we relieve ourselves of guilt about non-action. One must constantly attend to the ways in which one evacuates oneself of what one has.
Weather:
A single name for the ultimate power of the outside. The storm, or the tidal wave, the thunder: these limiting cases of otherwise relatively ‘stable’ systems should remind us that we are here, but barely.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind:
More and more of our world is becoming visible. Are images losing their power to attract us? Were we wrong to stake so much on bringing light to the darkness?
Property:
Still hardly thought. Even here, where we have considered the weakness of human beings, and their need for home, we have only barely begun to address the question of property. Who owns what, and by what right? What kinds of things can be possessed, and in what ways?

Endnotes

Respond to “Site of Exchange”

Editions