Overgrowth - Amica Dall - Very Much Reality
Overgrowth
September 17, 2019
Overgrowth

Very Much Reality

Martin Parr, "The Leaning Tower of Pisa," From Small World, 1990.

Go, go, go, said the bird: Humankind
Cannot bear very much reality
—TS Eliot1

It’s about 10am on a Saturday morning at Stansted airport and I’m about 300 bodies in to what must be a 1,000 person baggage-drop queue for a Ryanair flight to Palma de Mallorca. The sour taste of cheap burnt coffee is mixing with toothpaste, and fragments of the rolling ache of John Wieners’s lyrics are flashing before my eyes like a divine revelation in a sea of plastic wheelie cases, premature bikini tops, denim shorts, and what looks like several netball teams worth of teenagers bound for Magaluf. I get my phone out, take a picture from lower than eye-level, google the Wieners poem against grammatical or line break error, copy it into my notes, and send the picture and one line to the uninterested friend left in charge of my houseplants:

an artificial paradise it is Hell to get into.2

I felt less alone but I also felt worse. The poem is called “Cocaine,” and it’s the kind of poem you swallow whole and that sits in your stomach for days like undigested meat, a block of solid longing, of loss, of the loss that feeds desire, of the escape which is only another, grimmer return.

And I have known
despair that the Face has ceased to stare
at me with the Rose of the world
but lies furled

in an artificial paradise it is Hell to get into.
If I knew you were there
I would fall upon my knees and plead to God
to deliver you in my arms once again.

But it is senseless to try.3

The queue moves, a little, and I allow myself a sigh, which is also a groan. The problem with queues is that you can’t be in a queue without also becoming part of the general problem of the queue, just as you can’t you can’t go on holiday without becoming part of the amorphous global Holiday problem, even if amorphous global problems were exactly what you wanted a break from. Mallorca: salty pine forests and slightly bitter wine, solitude, heat, coffee, oranges. I have a case full of paperbacks, herbal tea, loose clothes, vitamins, prescription sunglasses. Mallorca, the rose of the world. A rose by any other name. What follows from here is a catalogue of complaint, but is it also a love story.

Like in the world of love stories, Holidayland is place where names don’t seem to matter too much. But in Holidayland, rather than being deliberately overlooked, they simply slip away—they lose the histories and specificities, sliding around like deckchairs on a sinking ship. This starts as comedy: almost everyone has a story about a friend, or a friend of a friend, who arrived in the wrong country, or even continent following a spelling error. The BBC recently carried a story about an elderly pilgrim from Newcastle who accidentally drove to Rom, a small town in north Germany, instead of Rome. But the disappearances become faster, lighter, and more troubling. The increasingly vast and deep networks of holiday infrastructure are smothering over everything difficult and particular like a semi-translucent techno-lubricant, allowing us of the queue to slip seamlessly across not only names and check-out times but borders, histories, geologies, realities. To swim in seas in which others drown. Vacation of a Lifetime, a collection of writing by Andrea Brady, drifts slowly into my mind.

Distance is a trance of clarity4

I think maybe it was the title, as much as the lyric that brought me to her, and she is funny company for a time like this. Her best poetry, probably all her poetry, thinks about the way language intersects with power and how power intersects with bodies. The first poem of hers I read was a response to the uproar around Lynddie England, the US Army Reserve Solider whose cell-phone images of casual torture pulled many of us over a new frontier of horror, and recentered how we think about violence. The poem, “Saw Fit” explores the spaces language opens up for concrete actions that we wish were unspeakable. But it is also a poem about escape—about choosing not to see the horror you have sanctioned by omission, choosing not to ask what sustains your empire.

In Brady’s hands, English is always an instrument of Empire, even in moments of radical compassion, or explosive sexuality. And English is also the official language of Holidayland. I'm often so self-conscious about using English when travelling that I’ll choose pretty much any other language, local or distant, even if I’m several times less likely to be understood. A real feat of self-deception, active for no one but me. A rose by any other name. A fiction for one.

Holiday may be a vast tangle of interlocking fictions tending towards disaster, but the mythic force which moves these fictions is anti-tragic. If the Greeks can be read as set of meditations on the impossibility of escaping from the forces we ourselves set in motion, then the mythology of Holiday works in exactly the opposite direction. In a classic tragedy, the story unfolds towards the point of dissolution like a stone sinking through water. The world closes in over our heads. However, they are also about mutual recognition, about seeing each other directly, not through the medium of the gods. In this, they bring us back each other, to dwell in the cavernous spaces of feeling and being inside our own bodies and between them. Holiday, by contrast, is premised on the possibility of escape, on the idea that there is always an elsewhere just over the horizon. It’s a myth which moves us not towards each other, but away from where we are.

But every “away” is always someone else’s “here.” There is no edgeland, no periphery, no margin that isn't also a center. To go on Holiday is usually an attempt to take yourself out of the various systems of quantified exchange in which your life is so enmeshed. But you must pay for this leave of absence with fruit from the same, ailing tree. With this thought, Andrea Brady gives way to Elizabeth Bishop, perhaps the patron saint of all holiday writers, writing of her arrival in Santos, Brazil, several years into a decades-long self-imposed exile from the United States:

Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately,
After 18 days of suspension?5

Throughout her life, Bishop wrote continually about the strange tension of finding yourself not quite finding the thing you came looking for, or sometimes finding it, but it somehow not giving you the transformation you were expecting. Bishop is, beyond everything, a poet of difference, a poet whose power emerges from the awkward ruptures between what you expect to see and what is really there. Her often sparse, light-handed lyrics ask us to see past the stories we tell ourselves, to see something (or someone) we couldn’t yet have imagined. Oddly, and to my long-term fascination, much of Bishop’s work was originally published in the New Yorker, often alongside droll cartoons of life in mid-century New York, in volumes which also hosted adverts of travel agencies, airlines, and hotels at the very moment when such things started to enter everyday consciousness. One of my favorite of her poems is the first in her collected works, “The Imaginary Iceberg.”]6 While poems are never really about one thing, this one is, at least in part, about US isolationism at the beginning of the Second World War:

We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.7

If the specter of climate breakdown and resource collapse has the capacity to show us anything, it is that there is no action without consequence, that there is no outside. For icebergs and ships both float in the same sea. Standing on either, we breathe from the same atmosphere. Perhaps Bishop has come back to me now because once again, we are living through an age when the myth of US Exceptionalism (or at least the way this myth is refracted through the dissolution of international accords) has radically undercut the possibility of the kind of global solidarity we need to survive the future, the future which, in the meantime time, we are all still building.

In Down to Earth, Bruno Latour argues that the disparate forces of emergent nationalism, climate denial, and rising inequality can be brought together and understood not a diverse forces, accidentally colocated in the present, but as different expressions of the same reality-denying tendency in contemporary culture.8 Accordingly, the techno-optimism of the colonization of Mars and carbon capture are part of the same project; a project which refuses to recognize that we are all connected to and dependent on each other, that we will all be subject to the same future. This is escapism on the scale of the Gods: an escape not only from geography, but from time.

The logic that binds these two radically different kinds of escapism is that the world, our world, is literally not enough. What we are looking for is not somewhere else, but a no-where created by the fantasy of unending wealth and possibility; a single world made of the many worlds we would need to actually experience this unendingness, this lack of division. This is what Latour can teach us like no one else, but even he can’t recapture the feeling in the way John Wieners does. The prolonged, excruciating pull towards another experience of life, or the belief in the possibility of another way of holding, apprehending life; the temporary abatement of the forces that pull us through it, of terror and boredom, of fear and desire. Wieners’s poem is a poem of grief, grief that the escape from the present has finally proven itself exhaustible. Holiday once seemed a more stable, reasoned kind of escape. One a year, maybe two, enough to keep the stones grinding. How do we start to feel our own grief, think a way which is closer to the actual exhaustibility of the planet?

One of the things most horrifying about spending time in any of the places which have been finally conquered by the kingdom of Holiday is the final and absolute dominance of human interactions by money. I’m not just talking about paying for things that shouldn’t really be for sale, like access to the sea, clean water, or basic, person-to-person hospitality, but also the way that people are reduced in each other’s eyes to economic agents. I had that feeling most powerfully in one of the premier backpacker destinations of the world, during an argument over a bottle of water. I owed the face that grimaced at me more than I could ever pay, her life, her land back. Some fairer way of sharing the riches we were both born to, which the geographies of rabid pleasure seeking have ripped apart. Anyone who has caught glimpse of themselves in this dark mirror should hold on to its strange, dislocating bitterness, should bury it somewhere safe, against the day their own well of empathy starts dry.

It’s easy to focus on natural resource extraction and industrial style-labor exploitation, but the subtler, cultural damage of tour-ism, the Grand Tour democratized as package holiday, Gap Year, luxury break, is perhaps the most profound violence of Holiday. Holiday offers Jedi training in the techniques of studied ignorance, a range of opportunities to become accustomed to thumping blind into other people's realities as if they were little more than a lamppost to a drunkard. Please not now. I'm only here for the weekend. Or a week. Or a year. But still.

I once went on a date with a youngish Canadian lawyer I met on a beach in the South Pacific, where we were both hauled up waiting for an unstable-looking weather system to pass. We hadn’t been waiting for a year, of course, but time had certainly started to slip. The date was memorable partly because, eschewing any traditional after-dark “I’ll paddle you home” rituals, he departed straight from the beach with flippers, mask, and snorkel, a bobbing flouro-pink silicon splash guard disappearing into the darkening waves. In the half an hour or so prior, after we had covered hopes, fears, families, and the relative rental costs in London and Toronto, I had drifted into a rather a long ramble about how weird it was to feel so relaxed swinging on a hammock seat at a beach bar when I had spent the morning in fits of desperate confusion while walking around a community-run holiday resort on the other side of the island. The resort looked like a somewhat haphazard reconstruction of an idea of a south sea island that might have been gleamed from at 1950s pop song, but was thick with neglect and struck through with accidental reflections on the real difficulty of contemporary life on the island. I wondered, out loud: The more thorough the displacement and over-writing, the easier it was to take? My new Canadian friend looked at me with eyes full of what I realized was genuine pity. “Now that,” he said, putting his hand on shoulder, “is a very good way to ruin a holiday.”

The thing is, I’m actually quite good a ruining holidays. In fact, I’ve made something of a project of it. Most of my adult life I have lived with a feeling for the profound, often irreversible cultural and social violence of tourism. I have lived closely, if briefly, with people fighting to protect themselves and their environments from both well-meaning volun-tourism and the ravages of the eats-everything locust-storm of coach tour-ism. These relationships so often started on what seemed like the right foot, a bargain where you start out as the merchant and end up as Faust. But somehow, despite my more-than-adequate apprenticeship, the real grimness of the thing (if “thing” can be used to mean “everything”) never really kicked me in the chest quite as hard as it did during an unplanned visit to Phi Phi, a beleaguered Thai island located just a few kilometers away from The Beach of Leonardo DiCaprio fame, which is now, somewhat unsurprisingly, significantly more accessible, and consequently, something less of a paradise.

Phi Phi was, of course, swarming (actually swarming) with people who looked, sounded, and dressed like me. The thud of cheap sound systems filled up the relative quiet between the thundering grind of exposed engines on longboats, all roaring like the end of the world. I could feel my skin burning after about thirty seconds out of the shade, insects everywhere, welts leaping up around my knees and ankles. Somewhere between desperate and curious, perhaps closer to desperate, I set off on the half-kilometer climb up to the newly instantiated Tsunami refuge point.

Resting for a little while on the edge of the crumbling, roughly poured concrete slab at the top, I fantasized about a research proposal for a project about the architecture of tourism. Looking up into the night, the town below me blurred into a single disaster, with wild secretions of paint, timber, breeze blocks, crazy paving, and corrugated steel smothering every visible surface like the work of some giant psychotic hermit crab let loose in a scrap yard. Only it’s not the crabs who are suffering from a desperate, collective delirium. Visions of the roving crowds of backpackers suddenly crescendoed in my mind into a famous scene from David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II on spider crabs, where hundreds of thousands of them bundle in the same place, creating vast, seething mountains, all trying to shed their shells under the relative protection of several other thousand crabs also trying to shed theirs. It’s funny to think of all these young adults, from all over the world, all crowded here, shedding histories, inhibitions, maybe even names, but also growing, in the process, ever thicker skins.

What is critical thinking but an undeterrable predilection for alternatives?

That is, I think, from the opening page of Design Crime and Other Diatribes, a short collection of Hal Foster’s essays, and he is quoting, if I remember rightly, Edward Said. I couldn’t be certain, my copy is a hardcover (too heavy to bring on holiday) and its not available on Kindle. A gap in the web. But the book seems to have come with me anyway. It’s a disquieting thought. Isn’t critical thinking a kind of Holiday, too? The Vacation of a Lifetime. What is all this thinking really doing, other than protecting me from dangerous, painful identification with crowd which I am, after all, most definitely inside? Does knowing what you are doing change anything about the fact that you are doing it? Does exercizing a critical capacity do anything more than let off the head of steam, like a pressure release valve, allowing us all to go storming on anyway?

I start to feel like I might be suffering from some kind of sunstroke. My legs itch. After putting my head under a tap (NO FOR DRINKING!!), I started walking down. As I dropped round a particularly steep corner, ducking under another string of ragged, multicolored prayer flags, I get an accidental glimpse between two buildings directly down into the courtyard of a what looks like a mosque, a white tiled floor surrounded by high brick walls, lit by the sulphur orange glow of street lights. There was an older looking man, bent over on his knees, and a group of young boys who couldn’t have been older than six or seven, chasing each other towards a gate, the smallest one, at the back, trailing a book bag. It was totally ordinary, but I’ve never felt a harder jolt of intimacy, complicity, fear, or love from looking at a stranger. I’ve never felt so clearly the utter absurdity of thinking, the falseness of the comfort of self-consciousness.

Expansionist colonialism isn’t dead, but it has dispersed into a crowd-funded, open-source project; a web of distributed actions which makes nineteenth and twentieth-century-style corporate imperialism look stolidly accountable. For those of us who merely joyride the frothy top of the wave of contemporary political thought, Holiday is probably best glossed as a kind of nightmare-mirror of the participatory regime, where instead of voting on budgets we vote with either our sandaled or ski-booted feet, each step tying a few more knots in the networks of exploitative entanglement in which we are all, eventually, choking. What Wieners knew, which we seem to have forgotten, is that the relief fuels the problem. Holiday denies limits. Our discreet dreams of infinite longing trap others indiscriminately. And at some point, the dream becomes a nightmare. The tentacles of this monster of our own making are wrapping back round to get us, too. A friend recently told me about a reoccurring lucid dream. In the dream, he wakes up in his own bed, and when he realizes he’s dreaming, he tries to go back to sleep, only to wake up again in another dream.

Holiday is one of many machines of contemporary culture which conjures such dreams, dreams of a world close to but not quite like the one we actually inhabit, which we step an inch further away from with every escape. These dreams constrict because to escape is to run away from difference, from challenge, from discomfort. Such dreams enable us to learn to ignore each other, and other things too, like the theft of water, the theft of land, the ravaging of the environment, the sanitization of difference into chewable packages with clear information labels. A bodily virtual reality, but only virtual in the sense that it is conjured into being by absent labor—absent sweat, absent blood. The biggest trope of Holiday terror, holiday disgust, is the phone photo of the cockroach on the pastel-shaded tiled floor or pressed white sheet—gross! Gross? Gross is the 320-million-year-old real, the persistent, the biological, the undisappearable.

If I go ahead with my fragmentary visions, the whole world will have to change for me to fit into it.9

How do we break out of our own, fragmented dreams, the patterns and habits of thought that structure how we relate to the world, and to each other? To unlearn our learnt blindness without become completely submerged? I’m writing this in Barcelona. Its mid August, and its fiesta time. Down the road, every night for a week, drifting masses of chaotic, colorful bodies clutching plastic cups swell up around homemade stages, sound systems, buildings decked with paper flowers, steamers, and plastic bottle lanterns. It is not really a party, and there is a thick, almost listless feeling. No one seems to be standing anywhere; every street feels like a queue for the next one. Everyone looks about twenty. The neighborhood is temporarily overthrown by Holidayland. My friend, seeking temporary asylum, is sitting on the sofa in the apartment I'm looking after. The streets down the road are numbing. He remains another continent, his own history as deep as geology. I’m reaching out, but I’ve no idea how to arrive there.

Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps—
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

… We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.10

It isn’t that we shouldn’t travel. The question is more how to arrive: how to encounter the places we go to as different, as singular, and as real as the people we love. The ones whose realities we just can’t ignore, because when me move, even only with our intuition, we knock into them like waves hitting a shore. Arrival requires that we strip ourselves of the illusion of escape, that we stop dreaming in an age whose collective, industrialized dreaming has brought humankind close to the brink of something we haven't met yet, but which certainly isn't paradise.

Anti-holiday is a bit like the anti-romance: it is an attempt to stop looking for more, to land in a place, a particular place, however strange, crumpled, imperfect, and not to dissect it, but to be with it. This is a practice that we might call coming back down to earth. Bishop’s poems ask us to become careful readers of difference, able to dwell in the spaces of possibility opened up between what we were expecting, and what is really there. Not just to listen, but to be told.

×

Overgrowth is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Oslo Architecture Triennale within the context of its 2019 edition.

Amica Dall is a founding member of Assemble, and also teaches undergraduate design studios at the Architectural Association and the Bartlett.

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Notes - Very Much Reality
1

TS Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets, (Harcourt Books, 1943), 14.

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2

John Wieners, “Cocaine,” Selected Poems, 1958–1984 (Black Sparrow Books, 1986).

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3

Ibid. Also available as audio, read by J. H. Prynee, .

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4

Angela Brady, Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt Books, 2001), 28.

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5

Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel,” Complete Poems 1927–1979, (Chatto and Windus, 2004).

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6

Ibid.

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7

Elizabeth Biship, “The Imaginary Iceberg,” Complete Poems 1927–1979, (Chatto and Windus, 2004).

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8

Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, trans. Catherine Porter, (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

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9

Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to GH (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988 {1964}), 3.

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10

Elizabeth Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” in “Questions of Travel,” .

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TS Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets, (Harcourt Books, 1943), 14.

John Wieners, “Cocaine,” Selected Poems, 1958–1984 (Black Sparrow Books, 1986).

Ibid. Also available as audio, read by J. H. Prynee, .

Angela Brady, Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt Books, 2001), 28.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel,” Complete Poems 1927–1979, (Chatto and Windus, 2004).

Ibid.

Elizabeth Biship, “The Imaginary Iceberg,” Complete Poems 1927–1979, (Chatto and Windus, 2004).

Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, trans. Catherine Porter, (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).

Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to GH (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988 {1964}), 3.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Arrival at Santos,” in “Questions of Travel,” .

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