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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 7

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER SEVEN

Let us go back again to the good being sought, whatever it might be. For it appears to be one thing in one action or art, another in another: it is different in medicine and in generalship, and so on with the rest. What, then, is the good in each of these? Or is it for the sake of which everything is done? In medicine, this is health; in generalship, victory; in house building, a house; and in another, it would be something else. But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. So as the argument proceeds, it arrives at the same point. But one ought to make this clearer still.

Since the end appears to be several, and some of these we choose on account of something else –for example, wealth, an autos, and the instrumental things generally– it is clear that not all ends are complete, but what is the best appears to be something complete. As a result, if there is some one thing that is complete in itself, this would be what is being sought, and if there are several, then the most complete of these. We say that what is sought for itself is more complete than what is sought out on account of something else, and that what is never chosen on account of something else is more complete than those things chosen both for themselves and on account of this [further end]. The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else.

Happiness above all seems to be of this character,  for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect and every virtue we choose on their own account —for even if nothing resulted from them, we would choose each of them —- but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. But nobody chooses happiness for the sake of these things or, more generally, on account of anything else.

The same thing appears to result also on the basis of self-sufficiency, for the complete good is held to be self-sufficient. We do not mean by self-sufficient what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political. But it is necessary to grasp a certain limit to these; for if one extends these to include the parents [of parents], and descendants, and the friends of friends, it will go in infinitely. But this must be examined further later on. As for the self-sufficient, we posit it as that which by itself makes life choiceworthy and in need of nothing, and such is what we suppose happiness to be.

Further, happiness is the most choiceworthy of all things because it is not just one among them —and it is clear that, were it included as one among many things, it would be more choiceworthy with the least addition of the good things; for the good that is added to it results in a superabundance of goods, and the greater number of goods is always more choiceworthy. So happiness appears to be something complete and self-sufficient, it being an end of our actions.

But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly. Now, perhaps this would come to pass if the work of the human being should be grasped. For just as in the case of the aulos player, sculptor and every expert, and in general with those who have a certain work and action, the relevant good and the doings of something well seem to reside in the work, so too the same might be held to be the case with a human being, if in fact there is a certain work that is a human being’s. Are there, then, certain works and actions of a carpenter but none of a human being: would he, by contrast, be naturally “without a work”? Or just as there appears to be a certain work of the eye, hand and foot, and in fact of each of these parts in general, so also might one posit a certain work of a human being apart from all of these?

So whatever, then, would this work be? For living appears to be something common even to plants, but what is peculiar to human beings is being sought. One must set aside, then, the life characterized by nutrition as well as growth. A certain life characterized by sense perception would be next, but it too appears to be common to a horse and cow and in fact to every animal. So there remains a certain active life of that which possesses reason, and what possess reason includes what is obedience to reason, on the one hand, and what possess it and thinks, on the other. But since this [life of reason in the second sense] also is spoken of in a twofold way, one must posit the life [of that which possess reason] in accord with an activity, for this seems to be its more authoritative meaning. And if the work of a human being is an activity of the soul in accord with reason, or not without reason, and we assert that the work of a given person is the same kind as that of a serious person, just as it would be in the case of a cithara player and a serious cithara player, and this would be so in a all cases simply when the superiority in accord with virtue is added to the work; for it belongs to a cithara player to play the cithara, but to a serious one to do so well. But if this is so —and we posit the work of a human being as a certain life, and this is an activity of the soul and actions accompanied by reason, the work of a serious man being to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is brought to completion well in accord with he virtue proper to it —if this is so, then the human good becomes an activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in accord with the best and most complete.

But, in addition, in a complete life. For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does on day. And in this way, one day or a short time does not make someone blessed and happy either.

Let the good have been sketched in this way, then, for perhaps one ought to outline it first and then fill it in later. It might seem to belong to everyone to advance and fully articulate things whose sketch is in a noble condition, and time is a good discoverer of or contributor to such things: from these have arisen the advances in the arts too, for it belongs to everyone to add what is lacking.

But we must remember the points mentioned previously as well, to the effect that one must not seek out precision in all matters alike but rather in each thing in turn as accords with the subject matter in question and insofar as is appropriate to the inquiry. For both carpenter and geometer seek out the right angle but in different ways; the former seeks it insofar as it is useful to his work; the latter seeks out what it is or what sort of a thing it is, for he is one who contemplates the truth. One ought to act in the same manner also in other cases to have nobly pointed out the “that” —such is the case in what concerns the principles— and the “that” is the first thing and a principle. Some principles are observed by means of induction, some by perception, some by a certain habituation, and other in other ways. One ought not to go in search of each in turn in the manner natural to them and to be serious about their being nobly defined. For they are of great weight in what follows from them: the beginning seem to be more than half the whole, and many of the points being sought seem to become manifest on account of it. ” (NE, 1097a15-1098b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does one have the feeling in this subsection that Ar. can FINALLY get into the real argument itself? Aren’t the digressions sort of the “hard work” prior to actually engaging in the much more rewarding, even joyful process itself? However, generally speaking, what is the point of an argument that is so strikingly formal in nature? For, aren’t we continuously speaking of happiness WITHOUT actually knowing what Ar. understands by it concretely? How are we to “fill in” this initial formalism; as Ar. himself acknowledges: “But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly”? Presumably when we finish READING the whole of the NE we will be much better prepared to fill it out? As a matter of fact, Ar. points out that ANYONE can fill it out? Isn’t this another example of clear Aristotelian humor? But then, wouldn’t this filling out suffer immensely if one simply SKIPPED parts of the text, as is generally the case with Books III (end) and IV on the moral virtues (seen as a simple apologetics of Greek virtues by a “duped” Aristotle)? And, generally, as well, why does Ar. once again REMIND us of methodological issues at the end of this subsection, and more perplexing still, now NOT calling them a digression? But most importantly, didn’t we already say that the end which hierarchically orders all others, IS that of THE political art? But then why does Ar. have us repeat: “But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else.”? Didn’t we already agree that it was the political art in subsection 3? But if so, why proceed in ways which, at the very least, seriously modify this initial political assumption? Isn’t this why Ar. says that this is a KIND of political inquiry? And further, how exactly are we going to square the public political art and the issue of individual human happiness? Will this question simply be relegated, rather, to the very end of BOOK VIII of the Politics, which ironically deals with a complex discussion of the ideal regime (almost in Platonic terms!)? Nonetheless, doesn’t Ar. want to KEEP quite distinct the investigation into the political and the investigation into the ethical? Isn’t his why he wrote SEPARATE books on these issues?  But, if the general movement is towards a demonstration of the limits of the political life, then: why does Ar. repeat once again here, that in terms of self-sufficiency we must not forget that we are NOT speaking of a solitary human, but rather —and the list is impressive— “what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political” (repeating for us here the famous preliminary claim found in the Politics? However, how does one KNOW that this is so BY NATURE? Didn’t Ar., just a few subsections before, say that the legal appears to be by nomos, rather than by physis? Does he think he need not back up argumentatively this assertion? But isn´t this what philosophy is all about? And further, don’t modern early political theorists REALLY think Ar.  does in fact  need some such backing up? Isn’t this why they BEGIN their political analysis from a radically different starting point, namely, that of the Social Contract? Isn’t THIS the debate which characterizes the American Founding, or more generally the confrontation between Ancient and Modern liberalism/republicanism? Moreover, wouldn’t this be THE key to our misunderstanding Aristotle as moderns? But be this as it may, if Ar. is in fact putting forth a realm beyond the political, how will it come to appear as we proceed along in the argument? And if so, how can one reveal the limits of the political, while simultaneously not destabilizing it? For, isn’t the destabilization of the political THE core point of the previous Aristotelian procedural digressions? And yet, isn’t Ar. pointing towards the possibility that there may appear a tension between the life of personal fulfillment, and the life of the political, of recognition, and of the adamant concern for justice and the power of law? Isn’t this why, in the discussion of friendship in BOOKS VIII and IX, Ar. will point out that the best of true friends do not require justice? Won’t this show up clearly also in the tension between the two peaks of the NE, namely that of the Magnanimous human (megalophuchos) and that of all the virtues covered under justice as akin to the North Star? And besides, surely we know too that Plato never married, and we need only read Xenophon´s humorous Symposium  to hear about Socrates´s ideas regarding “a wife and offspring”, don´t we? (not to mention the discussion of Ischomachus´s wife in the Economics!) Put another way, what finally is the human work (“ergon”) principally about: i) the fulfillment of individual happiness, the city being but a stage for THAT personal fulfillment, or ii) rather, understanding oneself fundamentally as part of a larger whole to which one owes a duty of self-sacrifice (be it the city, or perhaps even beyond, as part of the whole cosmic/divine order)? As assassinated (which is revealing in itself) President Kennedy famously put it; “Ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what, you can do for your country.”?But, if ——as Ar. has argued—— law seems to be by nomos and not by physis, then how is one to critically see oneself as part of a regime that may turn out badly? How exactly will we differentiate between the good citizen and the good human? And to conclude, why does Ar. waiver back and forth, as we have seen, between these two possibilities? Is he allowing us to think for ourselves the implications either way?

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CHANGE CHANgE CHa Ng E

You never step into the same river twice.”

Heraclitus

________________

Famous philosopher Heraclitus has left us this remarkable fragment which has captured our imagination for over 2500 years. Just imagine your bare feet touching those cold flowing refreshing waters which never remain the same. Feel its rhythm. See those huge boulders and giant rocks the river slowly transforms into sediment as it moves downstream. Upon returning to the very same spot, one realizes, the river is not as it was. Perhaps, we will be lucky enough to realize, we too are not as we were. But it seems we are rarely like flowing rivers. As a matter of fact we rarely even think of our rivers. Our troubled, hardly flowing and lifeless Bogotá river is for us the prime example of our unchanging blindness. Not feeling the river’s rhythms, we are surprised ––as we have been in the recent terrible and costly floodings—– when the river takes back the channels and beds we have, in many instances, unwisely usurped. Could it be that we are more like the boulders and rocks that stubbornly resist personal transformation with their illusory sense of security and obvious grandeur? It seems so.

There exist many famous renown rocks, and business is not the exception. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006, was considered to be the leading expert in the market dynamics of the day. He was named to this powerful position by highly respected and quite loved President Reagan whose economic views have been summarized in his famous words from his First Inaugural Address in 1981: “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” Famous for his —-NOW seen to be—- extreme views of free market economics, and dead set against major forms of regulation of complex derivatives in market transactions, Greenspan even appeared in the cover of Time Magazine. The cover title said it all, Greenspan and his advisors were held to be “the committee to save the world.” Oedipus too was called on to save Thebes as the riddle-solver he was. But the river flows, and little was Greenspan prepared for its rhythms. Little wonder that once the world financial crisis became OUR river (of course, with exceptions such as that of Canada and the prudential practical wisdom of its banks), Greenspan became paralyzed by his own mind. And soon thereafter we had the opportunity to see a very different Greenspan; the powerful river´s waters had reduced the powerless boulder. Before a Congressional Committee, we witnessed a truly courageous public admission. Like a modern economic Oedipus, Greenspan was asked to respond to Representative Waxman’s “simple” question; “Were you wrong?” By answering, Greenspan allowed us to see for ourselves the fundamental basis of change: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.” Greenspan had understood: he had come to understand that he did not know, even though he once thought he did. Another famous philosopher once said something similar. And, in all honesty, how many of us can bear the simplicity of that question for ourselves?

However, we need ask; how could someone so intelligent, so wise and recognized by so many to be so; how could someone like that be simultaneously so resistant to changing his own views on things? Had he not read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex during his MBA training? Wouldn’t that have made a BIG difference? Perhaps, one could put it this way: there seems to be a kind of inverse relation between changes for personal success and success at personal changes. Following Boyle´s famous law of gases there can develop a powerfully blinding inverse relation between these. Why so? Because, it seems, as successful recognition is gained, the very erotic and self-questioning drive that pushed one originally TO succeed, slowly but surely in many of us looses its rhythmic power. Boyle’s law explains the inverse relationship between the volume and pressure of a gas. Think of a pressure cooker. In our case we could say: the greater the volume of the ego, the less the pressure to change. Think of all the famous bubble bursts of the economy. Ironically, it appears, the more intelligent we are, the less intelligent we are for change. Mintzberg’s call not to pay bonuses seems refreshing. We wish to remain boulders, but the river thinks otherwise. And it will let us know.

But, then, how could one become more prepared for the rhythms of change? For starters, by looking outside oneself. If only Greenspan had looked outside himself and his paradigm. If only he had had courageous friends, and not simply yes-sayers. Heraclitus learned these rhythms from the river, I learned about them partly from experiencing the seasons in my other home country, Canada. Evidently, Vivaldi too learned about them from The Four Seasons, as we all know. Wouldn’t Colombian managers gain much by experiencing the rhythmic presence of the seasons for at least a whole year? Or else, where have YOU learned about the rhythms of change from? And looking beyond, do you —–or your children—- know the beautiful Greek mythological story of the emergence of the seasons, a story whose main characters are Zeus, Demeter, Persephone and Hades? Did Greenspan?

What did I come slowly to learn? One must be prepared for the ever-changing cycles of nature. What “is” quickly turns into a “was”; what “is” quickly reminds one of what “will be”. Summer was just here, and now it has turned into autumn; autumn partly means preparing for the exigencies of winter. And the more you live this, the more you see the “was”, the “is”, and the “will be”; and, more importantly, the more you see the bridges that connect the beauty of their interconnected temporal presence. Or as Confucius put it, always reminding ourselves of China´s leading economic role in today’s world: “Study the past if you would define the future.” Living the seasons may help prepare you for something like this. Let us try.

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(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

On trees, deep ecology and poetry

1. Introduction

Most of us, if not all of us, have a particular fondness for and connection to living things. And since each of us is unique, we have greater connections to some living beings over others. This connection is very difficult to articulate. For example, some people have a fondness for dogs; still others for tarantulas. Dali was fond of flies, though most of us aren’t. I myself have always had a particular fondness for trees. I cannot tell you why exactly; I can only say that my adolescence was close to them. I was lucky, I got to know MANY diverse trees. But many other living beings were also close to me, and yet my fondness for trees stands out. This journal tries to articulate this connection.

But, fortunately, I am not the only one. Here at dA many people are fond of trees and flowers. One need only check out the photography category Nature to find thousands upon thousands of photographs being uploaded constantly. And I ask myself, what are all these deviants trying to say? Of course, not all such deviations are artistic, but they DO show that artists and non-artists have a strong and deep connection with the living.

But for some, it is poetry which is THE privileged art that opens this connection with the living more primordially than any other. This journal is also about this connection with poetry, with a poem that tells about our connection to trees. Once, one such poem came to me. It is a poem about trees. I am sorry, I must correct myself. It is a poem about A very unique tree. These are the opening lines of this poem entitled A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow. ”

(Salvatore Quasimodo; Nobel Prize, 1959.)

Poetry uses such deceptively simple words! I mean, I am sure most of us know each and every single word just read. So much so, that we think we have understood these few lines. But then I wonder, why would Quasimodo receive the NOBEL prize if things are as simple as they appear? Surely there is a mystery brewing here. Perhaps our complex modern lives have made us a bit hasty. We know too much and rarely pause.

Instead, I propose we listen “intently” again to the poem as this peculiar pine listens intently to the abyss. But this is not easy; for I am not sure if our capacity to listen is at its best. How could we listen being surrounded, as we are, by so much noise pollution? How could we listen if we are always talking? Have we forgotten to listen in our hectic age?

But much more importantly, and these are the VERY difficult questions which guide this journal: if indeed we CAN listen to the world of living things —–if we can listen to their Being— what would it mean to be able to listen TO them? I mean something not too complex. I mean, in part, this; the latest I heard, trees just DO NOT speak. Or, more to the point, how exactly can a poem speak for trees in an age in which trees are becoming extinct because of our technological encroachment? How can we humans –specially artists and philosophers— let trees speak? Or, can/should we just shed our technological understanding of the world, an understanding in which trees have lost their symbolic enchantment? How, indeed, to let them speak without Imposing our anthropocentric voice unto them?

This journal attempts to be a very incomplete preparation towards new types of encounters. Mainly, it is shared so that together we can listen more clearly to our fondness for trees and other living beings. But like the twisted pine in Quasimodo’s poem, before getting to the poem itself, we must —unfortunately— make some preparatory twists.

2. A puzzle

The previous questions carry with them a very perplexing puzzle; it is a puzzle which is of particular interest to us modern Westerners for we alone have brought about the demise of a mythological understanding of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. To this we shall return; but for now, how to express better this puzzle which I feel so intensely?

In one of the most beautiful Platonic dialogues –—the Phaedrus, which deals with erotic discourse— Socrates says something altogether puzzling to us moderns. Phaedrus teases Socrates by telling him that he rarely leaves the city of Athens for the countryside. In the countryside Socrates seems to be totally lost. Socrates seems to not be much of a hiker, as we modern city dwellers in our polluted cities have become. To this teasing, Socrates responds:

Forgive me, best of men. For I am a lover of learning (philomathes). Now then, the country places and the trees are not willing to teach me anything, but the human beings in town are. But you ….” (230d; Translated by James H. Nichols; Ithaca, Cornell University, 1998) ” (on the web a lesser translation, see:
[link]

(In this regard see the striking lack of reference by Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Ithaca, Cornell University, 1994) to Socrates’ studies in natural philosophy, a silence which points to the puzzling relation, to say the least, between “natural philosophy” and “political philosophy”.)

Socrates is of the city, rather than of the countryside. What could Socrates be getting at? But, is this true? Don’t we have anything to learn from trees? Isn’t Socrates absolutely wrong here? We might think about this possibility: Socrates just simply did not foresee an age in which the very existence of the Earth would come into play because of the powers we have harnessed as humans caught in our technological grids. Of course, Socrates knew VERY WELL the Greeks could destroy themselves. But for US humans to destroy the Earth, that, I think, was a situation Socrates could not have foreseen.

And yet, might not there be some truth to Socrates’ important point? To see what might be behind his point just consider a very simple question once again: when was the last time you actually spoke to a tree, and it actually answered back? By the same token, recall the opening lines of the poem above. The tree in Quasimodo‘s poem is NOT the tree which I see through my window. I bet you, the tree outside does not actually listen to anything, for it just does not have ears! So after all, it seems, Socrates has a point. Trees cannot teach us much. But, is this true?

It is this ambivalent questioning which moves me to try to listen more carefully to what trees might say to us humans in an age in which trees are continuously fallen and seen as standing reserve ready to be cut, rather than as the wilderness of which we are an integral part. This is why, in contrast to Socrates’ words, I must let you listen to Tolkien’s words. In particular, we listen with deep gratitude to how Pippin tried to describe his encounter with the Ents, the oldest inhabitants of Tolkien’s symbolically rich world:

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leagues of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground –asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (BOOK II; ‘Treebeard’, pg. 77)

How could we not learn from such creatures? How could we not wish to become like them? I mean ; “enormous wells with ages of memory of slow thought and a sparkling present as surface”, who does not seek something like this before death arrives? We moderns in particular; how could we not learn from beings whose motto, Tolkien tells us, is “do not be hasty”?

It is the pull of these two views, summed up in the contrasting words of Socrates and Tolkien, that move me to write this journal. I am extremely fond of trees, but I do not want to simply project my fears upon them. If they do indeed have nothing to teach me, I prefer to know.

3. Two understandings of trees; secular biology and sacred wisdom.

To better understand this puzzle, which I myself find difficult to grasp and even to share with you, one can bring to memory certain stories. Think of the role trees play in two very important events in human history. One concerns the origins of Buddhism; the other, the origins of our modern scientific approach.

It is said that Siddhartha, at the age of 29, was forever transformed when he came upon the sight of four very special humans: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. The sight of suffering and the search for a meaning to such suffering, became the meaning of his life. Years later, it is said that while sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

“But, what does all this have to do with trees?,” impatiently you ask. Very much. The Bodhi tree plays a central role in the story; Siddhartha could just as well have been meditating in the shower when he reached Nirvana. Or under an orange tree. But that is not how the story goes. Instead, there is something in trees, specially THIS tree, which brings us closer to certain fundamental and sacred truths about ourselves and the universe. No wonder in Buddhism the bodhi tree is considered to be THE tree of wisdom; it is both sacred and its name literally means “supreme knowledge”. ([link] ) Scientific nomenclature itself has been so struck by this that it calls the tree, using its binomial categorization, ficus religiosa! [link]

(If you come from a Christian background, as many of us do in the West, you might ponder about our very own initial myth, that of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2; 9; For a consideration see Thomas Pangle Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham[link] )

But we modern westerns also have another, very different story about trees. It is the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree. ( [link] ) It is said that the apple that hit Newton on the head allowed him to think anew our relation to the universe and its fundamental laws. The privileged realm above in the heavens could now be understood by the very same laws which were applicable to the natural world right here in our Earth. Of course, this might not have happened exactly as the story goes, but the myth has greatly become part of our understanding. And I ask myself, can you sense how different roles the trees play in each of these two very important stories? What Newton discovers is not wisdom in the company of a wise tree, but his universal mathematical understanding over and above any tree. For ALL trees are covered by the laws of gravity. In contrast, in Buddhism, NOT ALL trees are wise trees. Newton and Siddhartha sought the comforting shadow of trees for two VERY different reasons. [link] .

What this story reveals then, if I am right, is that we can no longer safely move without reaching into BOTH stories. Trees, in the West particularly, have definitely lost the strong symbolic powers which once attached to them and linked them directly to the Gods. It would seem that this is simply a loss. But I do not think so. The story of yet another tree may help us to understand the necessity of both discourses. It is the story of the neem tree.

On the one hand, ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries of its multileveled benefits. They are so many that it is actually called the “village pharmacy”. So a pre-scientific understanding has already gained much. But the biological-scientific understanding seems to provide the possibility for this tree ‘s playing a central role in the defense of complex ecosystems themselves:

“Of primary interest to research scientists is its activity as an insecticide. Many of the tree’s secondary metabolites have biological activity, but azadirachtin is considered to be of the most ecological importance. It acts by breaking the insect’s lifecycle. Research has increased in the past few years as the desire for safe pest control methods increases and it becomes apparent that this tree will be able to play a role in integrated pest management systems.“
[link]

It seems, then, that both discourses have MUCH to gain from their interaction. And yet, at the same time, we are overly conscious of the destruction of trees and rainforests in our world. We no longer have the confidence we once had that the solution to our technologically generated dilemmas can be cured by the use of technology itself. We recognize that something has gone wrong with this scientific-instrumental view of nature. We fear, rightly, that it does not have the tools to pull itself out of the dangers it generates.

And the tension of our initial puzzle, which I hope has progressively become clearer, returns. On the one hand it is WE humans who are disrupting the planet and therefore humbly must take into consideration the symbolic relevance of other living beings. But on the other hand, we somehow sense that WE alone have consciousness of the world and know what it would actually mean to SAVE or DESTROY this living world of ours. Perhaps if we try to understand more closely the dangers of instrumental reason we can get clearer still on this difficult puzzle. Here, the aid of some philosophers is much required.

4. Instrumental reason and deep ecology

To see how deep we are into this scientific model of understanding nature, we can do an exercise in memory. Biology courses provide a great example. For, it seems, we moderns take it for granted that the way we classify nature and seek to understand it, is THE primary way of access to the world. A standard biological definition of a tree reads: “A tree can be defined as a large, perennial, woody plant. Though there is no set definition regarding minimum size, the term generally applies to plants at least 6 m (20 ft) high at maturity and, more importantly, having secondary branches supported on a single main stem or trunk.” [link]

That we do not feel any uneasiness at this view of trees, should indeed make us a bit uneasy. This understanding of trees is quite unique and problematic. Don’t you see something odd here? First of all, it is indeed odd to even try to define trees. Of course, biology requires it. But, is this mode of access the PRIMARY access to trees we must adopt? What this model emphasizes is not without problems. We classify, categorize, measure and analyze. Don’t you feel you are objectively being told what a tree is, as if the tree were being observed from above, rather than the tree being a participant in a complex ecosystem? And such definitions usually continue by telling us what we westerners seem to love, they proceed to speak of superlatives. We are immediately told about the tallest, the widest, the oldest, constantly seeking in reality what we can quantify analytically. However, as for the height of trees, it is interesting that we are told: “the heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much (often wild) exaggeration.”. Trees serve our purposes for recognition by others; we want to have the tallest tree near US, so we can stand out much taller than we actually are.

But how to quantify what for others is the sacredness of certain trees? The Bodhi tree does not seem to stand so much physically apart from all other trees as it does spiritually. To have been the one tree under which marvelous events occurred, what more could a tree wish for? A more comprehensive, a deeper, understanding of trees is required. Trees must be allowed a voice beyond their classification. Poetry, as we shall see, is such a possibility.

Many philosophers have likewise pointed out how strange this view of reason is; primarily because it begins its processing by severing our access to the world of living things. For it to work accurately and cleanly, it must begin by separating us form the world. This is a non-starter for many of us. This strangeness can be revealed as well in our modern maps. This type of reason is known in philosophical circles as “instrumental reason”: It has a complex history of its own connected to the rise of the new science defended by Bacon and Descartes. Among other things, when one speaks of instrumental rationality the idea is that we consider the means without thinking reflexively about the ends to which this means might lead us. Production must keep increasing even if there will in the end be nothing to produce with. We seem caught in this self-destructive dynamic. Underpinning this view of the world is the preponderance of a cost-benefit analysis and in general a utilitarian outlook to ourselves, others and nature. Taylor sums up the issue quite well:

“Instrumental reason has grown along with a disengaged model of the human subject, which has a great hold on our imagination. It offers an ideal picture of human thinking that has disengaged from its messy embedding in our bodily constitution, our dialogical situation, our emotions and our traditional forms of life in order to be pure, self-verifying rationality. This is one of the most prestigious forms of reason in our culture.“ (“The Ethics of Authenticity”, a MUST read for ANY artist, pg. 102)

Disengaging ourselves from trees, easily we topple them. We might say to ourselves: “They cannot engage in dialogue; so much the worse for them.”

To this position the Romantics, among many, revolted. They pointed out the dangers of this separation between humans and their natural world. Art became a way to bridge the disconnected parts which conformed a mechanical view of the universe. To make a very long story short, what has come out of such critiques is what is known as a stance called “Deep ecology”. This position stems from a reconsideration of what language reveals about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Under it, living things place a demand on us humans which moves us beyond our anthropocentrism into a view in which we “let things be”. In an article entitled “Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology”, Michael Zimmerman writes:

“Buddhism, Heidegger and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one from the spontaneous compassion towards other beings human and non-human alike. One ´lets things be´ not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things” (pg 263-264)

It is not by chance that it is Buddhism which leads the way here. Siddhartha knew much about trees, or so it seems. Now, this perspective in itself is not without problems, but it stands as a powerful critique of the anthropocentric view which sees humans as dominators of nature, rather than as one of the highest expressive possibilities of the natural.

Deep ecology reconsiders seriously the role language plays in our relation to the world. Instead of using language to classify the world, words become the way to disclose things and allow them a voice beyond our own. Having language center exclusively on humans likewise makes it impossible to hear subtler languages which open humans to realities beyond their own anthropocentric paradigm. Our initial puzzle seems to have found a possible response. Although it is WE humans who have language, it is by changing the way we understand language, that we can hear the voice of the living things to which we belong. Something like this is what Taylor is trying to get at with the use of the term “epiphany”:
“what I want to capture with this term is just the notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals” (SotS pg 419)

Art in particular provides the human possibility in which epiphany can be realized. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s poem about a very unique tree.

5. A poem about a unique tree: “A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds”

Do forgive so many twists and turns. Now, finally, to Quasimodo’s complete poem. A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds, reads:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

Let’s listen to it a stanza at a time. We must remain open to see what poetry can reveal and transform as it reveals. It reveals complexities, even if made up of the simplest of words. As few other arts can, it reaches origins.
.
First Stanza

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.”

The poem opens by distancing us from what appears is its main character. High on a cliff, far away, one sees a tree. But this tree is not just any tree. It could have been a maple, or a eucalyptus. But no. It is a pine. “Why a pine?,” you might ask. Only later shall we see. We must be patient and not skip the lines of the poem. We must not be hasty as Tolkien’s trees remind us. But then we puzzle a bit. This pine is no ordinary pine; it is instead, twisted. But tell me: have you ever seen a twisted pine? Aren’t pines the straightest of trees? Why does Quasimodo do this?

Perhaps that this special pine is twisted tells us something. It is a pine which has undergone a transformation. Its nature is no longer what other trees of its species take for granted. It has mutated. It stands out. And we imagine all other pines blushing somewhat at the sight of such abnormality. In contrast, Siddhartha would not have mocked this tree. .

Having described the tree and its location, we are now told what it actually DOES. Trees aren’t really the most active of creatures. But this tree is special. It is a listening tree. It listens with its twisted trunk. How does it listen? This tree listen INTENTLY. It is an intense twisted tree. What does it listen to? It listens to the abyss. It listen to the depths; to the depths of time and the darkness of origins.

And through the magic of words Quasimodo suddenly transports us from the distance on the high cliff afar, to a certain closeness to this tree. We are moved , with a few words, to focus on the shape of its trunk. The tree trunk provides the solidity of a tree’s very existence. Just remember the biological definition of trees. It is the trunk which holds the branches, not the other way around. Surely a tree without a trunk is like a person without a spinal chord. And this tree’s trunk has a special form; that of a crossbow. And we puzzle at Quasimodo’s choice of words. A crossbow for what? This pine intently listening is both a pine and a crossbow. Now we suddenly understand why it MUST be a pine. For a pine has the form of an arrow. This pine listening intently projects itself ready for flight as an arrow thrown from its very own being towards itself. But how can this be so? Have you ever seen a tree move? How can it move while remaining in its place? Trees seem to have a certain magic to them.

Second Stanza

“A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.’

Quasimodo gives us pause to rethink what has happened. And while we do so, we return only to suffer a move towards the inside. This fantastic tree, shunned by other trees in their upright existence —–which does not mean this tree is not itself upright, only that it is so in a very different way— has a peculiar function. It is the tree chosen by the surrounding birds. It is a refuge for life. Bent, it can carry the birds which upright trees might not. These winged friends flock to it at night, when the light of day is gone and great perils arise. Waiting in time, probably remembering its own rings, suddenly this tree resounds in the darkest of moments. And we look carefully at Quasimodo’s choices upon the many which opened before him while writing. This tree “resounds”. Why not simply say that this tree “sounds”? Why emphasize that it RE-sounds. Perhaps because this tree has sounded before, and will sound again at midnight as long at it lives and there are humans to tell the story. Other trees seem soundless in comparison.

It resounds at a specific time; at the time in which much of night has gone by, and still much of night is still to come. One needs strength to survive until midnight and great hope to survive afterwards. For dusk is long past, and dawn is far away. How can we be sure dawn will in fact arrive? This tree has no songs of its own, though its rings have the memory of countless singing inhabitants it has outlasted. This unique tree resounds with the fluttering of wings. Swiftly the birds ——who take refuge in it as a home—– give it motion and musicality. Instead of simply lying asleep within the tree, they keep it close company. It is as if the birds —-in gratitude towards this special tree— want to take the crossbow which this twisted tree is, directly into flight. Unable to fly, this tree is now prepared, because of the presence of fluttering birds, to fly. For we are truly grateful to refuges; particularly to those refuges which took us in the midnight hours of our lives. Specially those refuges who gave us shelter based on the DIFFICULT maturity of true generosity. Grateful as Siddhartha must have been before he became another; a much better other.

Third Stanza

“Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

And we catch our breath for we are heading towards the end. We began far way, only to enter into the very branches which hold these birds within. But now, suddenly, WE appear to ourselves for the very first time. The twisted tree OUT there in the cliff, the birds OUT there in the twisted tree, becomes the tree IN which WE live. We are not the tree, but we are close. Have you ever been close to a tree? Quasimodo tells us that even our hearts have a nest here. But we KNOW we are not birds If you have doubts, try to fly into the abyss. And yet, a bit like birds, we create our nests from the twigs and small branches of our lives. Furthermore, for Quasimodo the nest is not primarily for our brains, or legs; though it is ALSO nest for them. It is primarily a refuge for our hearts. This twisted tree is a refuge for artists who value our emotional human existence as a privileged way of accessing the world which surrounds us in constant immediacy.

Quasimodo is grateful as well; even HIS heart has a nest. This is why he shares this poem with us. He does not simply want a nest for himself, but rather a nest for US. But this nest, we are told, lies suspended. It lacks a firm grounding which guarantees total safety. Total and firm grounding is not a possibility for us moderns, as it was possible for earlier times. Our access to nature as moderns cannot have the grounding we once knew in earlier mythologies which allowed for a direct connection between trees and gods. We know of science and its understanding. This is why our nest lies suspended in the darkness. .A strong and compassionate refuge is required precisely in such times. It is in darkness that the generosity of shelter becomes a gift. Suspended in the darkness and close to the abyss, Quasimodo’s poem allows us to reconsider ourselves and our relation to the world of trees.

And then the MOST puzzling aspect of the poem appears as a lightning bolt. Quasimodo briefly adds “and a voice”. Not the tree’s voice. Not the birds’ voices. Not Quasimodo’s voice, for he could just as well have said “my” voice. And yet it is A voice. This voice does not have the presumptions of possession, but rather discloses, in the darkness, the possibility itself of a language in which things are freed unto themselves for us to hear them. And what does it say? Nothing; for our human voice may perhaps have said too much. Instead, it is open to the difficult activity of listening beyond our own speech. This voice is open to the disclosure of nature in the very words of the poem we are reading together.

In contrast to so many voices, this voice lies speechless; it awaits the time to speak, to open itself in renewed speech. It listens, as once the twisted tree we knew at the beginning of the poem did. Awakened, it has allowed this tree access to language. Our consciousness –liberated from pure instrumentality – becomes itself a crossbow which projects the tree as an arrow into the abyss. This voice, the voice of the poem itself, resounds ever again as we feel the pull to return to the beginning, to its origin. Perhaps in it, awake at night, we might feel the echoes of a faint refuge for us humans, specially of us artists. Instrumentality has seen the possibility of a depth beyond its dangerous limitations.

6. Conclusion

This has been, once again, a long journey. I am grateful if you have been a refuge to my weak words. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen for calls which we might otherwise miss. Perhaps at least this call must be heard; the tree of life must be heard before we continue climbing up the tree of knowledge. For it seems we know much, but live well little. Perhaps together we are now better prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s deceptively simple words. Let’s listen intently:

A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

(RIFUGIO D’UCCELLI NOTTURNI

In alto c’è un pino distorto;
sta intento ed ascolta l’abisso
col fusto piegato a balestra.

Rifugio d’uccelli notturni,
nell’ora più alta risuona
d’un battere d’ali veloce.

Ha pure un suo nido il mio cuore
Sospeso nel buio, una voce;
sta pure in ascolto, la notte
. link )


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(Note: FOR AN ALMOST IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

On Space, Western Architecture and 9/11

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1. Introduction

Perhaps the best way to surprise oneself is to look a bit more closely at what seems totally obvious. Looking at it more closely may surprise and can give us great pleasure. What was always there, suddenly appears for the very first time. For instance, if you use glasses, you know you never actually see them. Until you loose them; THEN you go into “panic” mode. One such deceptively simple reality lies behind the concept of space. We move through space as fish through water; we rarely even notice it. Again, we seem to do so only negatively, that is, specially when some object obstructs our movements and we trip. Suddenly we find ourselves cursing the thing which made us “think” about space itself!

Or you might wonder at spatial realities we take for granted; for instance, that the space in the classroom —-or in prison, or in the hospital, as Foucault points out—- must be set in such and such a form. If the classroom is simply a set of rows, then the teacher appears as all-governing; if the chairs are set out in a circle, then the teacher becomes a participant, although still a privileged one. And for sure, in many cases there may be no chairs because of poverty. But the issue concerns not simply objects out there, as in the classroom, but even the very way we relate to others. In the previous example of the classroom, the space between students and professors in North America has strict legalistic and prohibitive boundaries; meanwhile, in Latin America teachers and students require a certain closeness which sometimes even involves the comfort of benign touch.

But isn’t space just something quite easy to understand? Under a common view, a view to which we moderns have become accustomed to, the puzzle behind space is easily “answered” by being equated to the distance between things. Want to know the space between two things? Well, just measure it. The measurement gives 2 meters, that’s the space between stuff. (However, even when space is quantified, we cannot agree as to how to do it; some of us use meters, others who are more powerful use feet.)

Leaving aside the issue of how surprising it is that our bodies are fit for space (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor marvels continuously at this taken for granted issue), and leaving aside the very important Kantian discussion of space, it must be stressed that the relation of the artist to space is quite unique and privileged. Here in dA, specially in the area of photography, one constantly sees amazing photographs of architectural landmarks. Architecture is THE foundational art that deals with the issue of space, in particular, modeling those lived spaces in which we humans inhabit our meaningful spatial world. In this sense, the first cavern which was inhabited was no longer simply a cavern; it had already become a primitive home affording the security of a shelter which allowed for the appearance of symbolic painting, for communal language and for a concern with the divine.

This foundational role of architecture was ironically captured by Frank Lloyd Wright who, while constructing the Guggenheim Museum, had to deal with letters by renowned artists who complained about the impossibility of their art being displayed on the curved walls and low ceilings of the, then, very controversial museum. Wright —-exemplifying his personality—- responded: “If the paintings are too large, cut them in half!” Such words allow us non-architects to acknowledge that architecture has an understanding of space which most of us lack. However, to reflect on the conceptual nature of the space which is the concern of architecture, is a task not all architects may have the skills to do. For this, some philosophers are needed. It is in this respect that architects –one could even say in general those many artists interested in issues of spatiality— and perceptive philosophers —trained in the difficult process of clarification of conceptual realities– must work together to get clearer on the perplexing nature of space. Perhaps in their combined efforts they might cross those spaces and boundaries which separate them. We political philosophers feel the need for such collaboration; do artists and architects?

Furthermore, it seems clear that the way we inhabit space is transformed historically and reflects our political regimes. The architecture of a democracy is not that of an aristocracy; the castle is not the place for a voting society. The architecture of a theocracy, such as that of Iran, is not that of a parliamentary regime. As our brilliant Colombian Architect Rogelio Salmona –creator of the inspiring Virgilio Barco public Library in my beloved Bogotá— wrote: “the architectonic is the path which I followed in order to find that modernity begins with a new perception of space … he who wants to produce another system of figuration, representation and construction of space, must know its evolution and know the moments ruptures are produced.” Spatiality has a history and therefore it is traversed by temporality. In this respect one should not expect the architectural spaces of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Modern Canada, and that of the Inuit’s to be identical. But more primordially, the representation of space by the modern West becomes a topic unto itself.

The political question on the nature of modern spatiality becomes all the more urgent if one attends to the events of September 11, 2001. But you might ask: “what would the way we decide to inhabit space have anything to do with politics (a common theme of all my journals)?” Well one could do an exercise in imagination. The atrocious and cowardly attacks of 9/11 on the USA specifically, and on the West in general (e.g., the later infamous attacks on Madrid in 2004) —–it seems to me—- could be seen as attacks on some of the elements of the Modern Western conception of space. In this respect, the guiding questions for this very tentative journal is: If our views of space not only have personal or artistic values, but more primordially political and theological ones, then: Are the attacks of 9/11, which transformed the world radically, an attack on the very concept of space which guides the western view of spatiality? And connected to this question: Is there something that can be seen as arrogant, even hubristic, about some of our North American architecture, in particular of our financial institutions who have sought to reach the sky through the building of ever taller and taller skyscrapers? But if there is some truth to this, as the anti-globalization marches seem to portray, can we just simply let these institutions collapse without attending to the dangerous repercussions of such positions? More importantly; isn’t the emptiness we all felt after the 9/11 attacks, the very condition which allows us to reconsider our sense of space?

And going further still into very difficult and dangerous territory: does this sense of space as radically secular come into conflict with a sense of space permeated by the presence of the divine? “What do you mean,” you might ask. Well this; a Muslim’s sense of space is radically different from that of a secular westerner. For instance, if you are a secular unbeliever you might consider: have you ever thought about having to kneel down in prayer five times a day –according to the position of the sun— and forcing your body to direct itself towards a spatial reality which is the foundation of your faith, of your very sense of being and of your connection to the divine? [link] Do we westerners —even those who are believers— ever stop five times to reach out for the divine through the positioning itself of our bodies? Or consider the following: a pilgrimage is the way a believers traverses worldly spaces towards a certain reconciliation with the divine. Now, each and every Muslim ––with some monetary and health related exceptions— must do one in his/her life? In contrast: where does our western pilgrimage head towards? Unsure of myself, I ask, can two such different views of space actually find a space to meet? Or must space be obliterated continuously by the two parties, making it a real impossibility for us to inhabit the very same Earth which is our only spatial possibility?

Fortunately for us, there are within our western traditions, architects who have seen the issue very clearly. Among them, Kahn, Wright, Niemeyer, and Libeskind. In this respect perhaps it is worthwhile to remember what Wright thought of modern skyscrapers, the symbol of North American economic power: “Wherever human life is concerned, the unnatural stricture of excessive verticality cannot stand against more natural horizontality.” Words by Wright that could not have foreseen the unacceptable atrocities perpetrated on 9/11 by extremists intent on simply obliterating space.

2. The philosophy of western spatiality; our maps.

So, how could one go about seeing what is behind these different concepts of space, if in fact we move through our spaces as fish move through water? I once asked a young boy how fish took a shower if there were already in water. He was puzzled. I laughed a bit, but I feel the same way with regards to our notion of space. In this respect I laugh a bit at myself. If we are “immersed” in our spatial being in the world, how to find a way to surprise ourselves? Here, recourse to history is one fundamental possibility.

If our understandings of space have a history, then ours is the history of the radical and, hardly questioned, compression of time and space. If previously the distance between us and others we loved was mediated by letters which took long periods of time to reach their destination —-think of how difficult it was to arrange battles as the succumbing of the Spanish Armada shows—-, now the instantaneous connection of those near to us is easily achieved via email, internet messenger, blogging and SMS. Cyberspace complicates the picture even more given that the space of truly realistic video games further deepens our puzzles. The amazing spaces “within” such games, and the spaces shared by those playing on-line is non-existent. Even money and financial transactions have lost their spatial touchability; e-commerce allows virtual reality to guide our everyday transactions. Many of our work relations are likewise mediated by cyberspace, a strange kind of space which we know is nowhere. Just puzzle a bit about our own dA; it allows for the instantaneous communication through thousands of kilometers with fellow deviants who share paintings and photographs that are “spaceless” images repeated constantly and instantaneously (well, almost!)

All in all, it seems as though the reality of spatiality becomes obliterated in our virtual world. I firmly believe this is why, in a world guided by images, the fall of the Twin Towers was perceived by many as a “movie”; which it CERTAINLY WAS NOT. No wonder it is harder and harder for us to even think the question itself. As David Harvey in his amazing The Condition of Postmodernity puts it:

“As space appears to shrink to a ‘global village’ of telecommunications and a ‘spaceship earth’ of economic and ecological interdependencies —to use just two familiar and everyday images —- and as time horizons shorten to the point where the present is all there is (the world of the schizophrenic), so we have to learn how to cope with an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds.”

For many this tendency began historically with the emergence of science which required a quantifiable view of space as providing the basis for the certainty of objective data needed to develop a scientific understanding of the world. . But I cannot deal with this issue here (though many, including Taylor, have dealt with the issue extensively; see his “Overcoming epistemology”.)

But, how to get at this problematic if one is not a “trained” philosopher or architect? Well, I will try to show you a way to do it. I will tell you where I live. Goggle maps provide us with the possibility of pinpointing the very exact space which we inhabit. So here is where I live; approximately, just in case any deviant wants to get back at me for having to read such long journals!

http://amelo14.deviantart.com/art/Journal-Space-2-19526771

You look and find everything all too familiar. THAT is part of the problem. But do you have a sense that there is something very limiting about this representation of space? “Well, “ you could reply, “how else can one go around places then?” And I wonder worried, “so you do not see it”. Well, I must not give up and try to allow you to see what is so strange here. Take a look at another period in time in which other types of relations to space existed. Take a look at some early medieval maps:

Paris Map 1250

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Chronicles of St. Denis 1364-1372

[link]

Now you at least see that OUR maps are profoundly different. You look a bit startled. And of course you laugh a bit and say to yourself: “Poor people they were so ignorant then, they just simply did not have the technology to map out correctly their maps.” And I agree, in part: I mean, look at those little houses, well, was that drawn by children? Did Klee draw these maps?

But maybe, you might just start to ponder whether it is YOU who does not see what those maps take for granted. A bit worried, you start to realize that the medieval maps were not guided by the x-y coordinates of the Cartesian grid. In contrast, early medieval maps represent the world in terms of the world’s significance to the inhabitants of these spaces. What mattered was not the distance between the houses, but the houses; and if a given place had a special significance, well, it was actually drawn to stand out. The church, the castle, Prince Amelo’s retreat, were much larger than they actually were in reality. And besides, you might just start to see how your modern eyes are connected to a secular way of seeing the world. The Chronicle of St. Denis is a mapping which involves the stages of the life of a Saint. Remember what we said at the start of the Muslim pilgrimage? Our maps certainly have no sense of any pilgrimage whatsoever; their function is to get us around as quickly and efficiently as possible. Harvey summarizes well the issue: “Maps stripped of all fantasy and religious belief, as well as any sign of the experiences involved in their production, had become abstract and strictly functional systems for the factual pondering of phenomena in space” (249). Charles Taylor, the architectonic foundation of my Ph.D. thesis, adds: “A way is essentially something you go through in time. The map on the other hand, lays out everything simultaneously, and relates every point to every point without discrimination”. (176)

And we wonder how come we have never seen this before. What else might we not be seeing? What else might we not even want to open ourselves to seeing? A firm conviction of the Socratic uneasiness which sets itself up against those who simply know they know, motivates me to write this journal, to face up to my own ignorance of myself and of the spatial world I inhabit daily.

3. The Cartesian model of spatiality in modern architecture: Le Corbusier
and the city of
Brasilia.

But, what does this have to do at all with architecture as the privileged art dealing with space? A lot. The Cartesian gird which informed our maps, itself informed the construction of architectural reality. Even Descartes understood that his method, set out in his Discourse on Method —–the pillar of early modernity—– implied that cities should be ordered rationally by truly rational city planners: “..and the way they make the street twisted and irregular, one would say that it was chance that placed them so, not the will of men who had the use of reason.” (Part II). And what is most intriguing about this whole story, and to be as brief as possible, is that architects like Le Corbusier, in their defense of modernity, tried to implement in their works the presuppositions of this type of rationality based on an overconfident sense of technological progress which would, allegedly, allow for the realization of noble social projects. The rational and efficient use of space is seen clearly in Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris:

[link]

It is a spatial layout which reminds us of images in the famous documentary Koyaanistqatsi, and of images of the inner city projects in North America which later decayed progressively in contrast to the initial intentions of their creators.

But perhaps the single most impressive attempt to instantiate this model is the creation of a capital city itself where nothing stood before. Such is the case of the absolutely amazing example of Brasilia, capital of Brazil, which was built from scratch. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasilia#A_planned_city It was built during 4 years, starting in 1956, and followed Le Corbusier’s ideals of modernism. As a modernist project, it was built as a totally new beginning, so as to point how modernity is a radical new start which sees previous ages with a bit of disdain. Medieval maps of course appear a bit inferior, they appear as the products of dark ages. Furthermore, to emphasize the radical importance of political space, the capital was built in the very centre of colossal Brazil, in order to ensure the unity of the Nation as was established in the constitution itself.

Brasilia under construction

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But as with our modern maps, the meaningfulness of those inhabiting Brasilia itself took second place. This is why today nobody can go to places in Brasilia without having to deal with excessively long walking distances for the city was designed with an unquestioned and naïve view of the role of automobiles in our modern city streets. As citizens in Brasilia put it in a popular saying that points out the deficiencies of this model of spatiality: “(in Brasilia) the inhabitants are born with wheels instead of feet.” (Turning further North for a second, we are dismayed as 6 smog alerts have already covered the space which is our Toronto this year; precisely, in part, because of the excessive use of cars. This is a stark reminder that the way we decide to inhabit our space has everything to do with our day to day quality of life. My dear Bogota is ahead in this respect with its car-free days, model public transportation and famous limiting of cars by their license plates.)

And to have a better grasp for what was on the mind of the architects of the time, their utter optimism with regards to technology, Brasilia itself was made to be seen from above as resembling a modern airplane!

Brasilia: City Plan

[link]

This is certainly an extremely cruel irony when one thinks of the disastrous outcome which resulted from the hijacking of the US airplanes on 9/11. It showed the world the possibility of using aircraft as destructive weapons of the very space which embodies some of the very important ideals of the West.

4. Deconstructing our modernist spatiality

So how can this perception of space be transformed? It has actually already been done for many years by postmodernists architects and their critiques of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier; as well as by well-known architects such as Wright (see his Fallingwater house, [link] ), Kahn (see his National Assembly in Dacca Bangladesh, ), Gaudi (see his Sagrada Familia, [link] ) and Niemeyer (see his Niteroi Museum in Rio, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Niemeyer). Harvey once again provides a good summary of some of the broad differences: “Above all, postmodernists depart radically from modernist conceptions of how to regard space. Whereas the modernists see space as something to be shaped for social purposes and therefore always subservient to the construction of a special project, the postmodernists see space as something independent and autonomous, to be shaped according to the aesthetic aims and principles which have nothing necessarily to do with any overarching objective, save, perhaps, the achievement of timelessness and ‘disinterested’ beauty as an objective in itself”. (66) Another way to put is as Wright does: “Beautiful buildings are more than scientific. They are true organisms, spiritually conceived; works of art, using the best technology by inspiration rather than the idiosyncrasies of mere taste or any averaging by the committee mind.” Or elsewhere: “Organic buildings are of the strength and lightness of the spider’s spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.” Positions which are beautifully captured in the most famous house in the world:

Fallingwater

[link]

But given that my concern is to bridge the space constantly separating artists and philosophers, I will briefly look indirectly at the work of Martin Heidegger who, of all philosophers, stands only second to Nietzsche on his writings on modern art. In his very difficult Being and Time, using his very complex language, he dedicates numerals *22-*24 to the issue of a reconsideration of Cartesian spatiality. There he says some truly odd and difficult things to understand. For example, Heidegger says: “In Dasein there lies an essential tendency towards closeness. All the ways in which we speed up things, as we are more or less compelled to do today, push us towards the conquest of remoteness.“ *23, (106)

What might Heidegger be getting at? Well, primary and negatively, he is all for an intelligent critique of our conception of space as being guided by the Cartesian framework in which space is what can be simply measured; a methodological framework which presents the world as something out THERE to be objectively considered. Instead, for Heidegger in our everyday going about spatially in the world, we are ALREADY moving in space in a primary way which is rarely questioned. This is why Heidegger speaks of our primordially already “being-in-the-world”. Heidegger loves to use examples of everyday utensils to bring out what is obvious, but has been lost from sight.

Those utensils we actually use in our dally lives are never found in independent spaces, but rather are found in a network of spaces which interconnects them. Things occupy a space in this web of significance which is never questioned except when something goes wrong. We all remember our mom “freaking out” when she found the basketball in the living room. “THAT is not its place,” she constantly reminded us. This normal affair partly reveals how the spaces we humans inhabit are set up in ways which provide meaning to our surroundings Or think of what happens when your remote control is nowhere to be found. We rarely pause to think about it, but not finding the remote upsets our moving about in the world in such a way that, for the most neurotic of us, we just can’t go on. We can’t even continue watching the movie, or even pause to turn on the TV ourselves!

The multiplicity of spaces in which we move about daily conforms a network of meaning which goes unquestioned just as we saw with our modern understanding of space itself. We could not even question the maps we use daily; it is for this very same reason that we cannot see anything strange or deforming about them. For while we move in space, we cannot think about the issue; we just move. We simply use the map, and that of course, is what they are there for. Can you imagine trying to get to the CN Tower and suddenly some philosopher starts to talk about the x-y grid! We would never get anywhere!

I fear I have lost some of you in mapping out this last section which I have compressed beyond what is acceptable. So because we are all artists here, let me try another example from literature. The work of Albert Camus allows us to get a better grasp for what Heidegger might mean. If we remember spaces which we inhabited once and no longer do —- the houses of our childhood, the countries we have left, the parks we used to play in, the farm we used to visit, our first apartment—, if we try hard to imagine them, we might see what is so odd about a Cartesian view of spatiality. Remembering them, the network of signification stares us directly. Camus allows us this return in his Return to Tipasa:

“Yet I persisted without very well knowing what I was waiting for, unless perhaps the moment to go back to Tipasa. To be sure, it is sheer madness, almost always punished to return to the sites of one’s youth, to relive at forty what one loved or keenly enjoyed at twenty . But I was forewarned of that madness … I hoped, I think, to recapture there a freedom I could not forget” Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays, “Return to Tipasa, pg. 196. Vintage Books, 1983.)

Revisiting the spaces which formed us, requires revisiting ourselves as we once were. This is not easy, for the places might no longer be the networks of significance they once were. The old family house is now simply a broken-down store; the park where we played, condominiums surrounded by pavement; the farm, a guerrilla outpost. But as Camus writes, we are simultaneously reminded of the very freedom which allowed us to leave these places in the first place. For in some cases —–more than just “some cases” I fear is more accurate for the lives of artists and philosophers—– these places might have become a bit like caverns or cages. According to Camus, we remember through this exercise in imaginary revival the courage it took to embark ourselves towards new spatial possibilities. This, some immigrants, specially those who have thought through their courage a bit, know all too well. It is this same courage we need to undertake in order to reconsider our own modern spatiality which came radically into question after the horrifying collapse of the World Trade Center Towers; now, their space can no longer be filled by anything except a memorial of what once was, and is no longer there.

5. Conclusion

What is obvious has the tendency to surprise us the most because it is the most hidden from us. Because it is so “obvious”, we rarely have the courage to confront it. Something similar happens within families. But thanks to the combined work of artists and philosophers we can start to move towards reconciling ourselves, not only with ourselves, but with other cultures by means of a critical dialogue in which both parties argue intelligently about their unquestioned presuppositions. For this task, the help of philosophers, specially artistically-inclined philosophers, is required. For this task, the help of artists/architects, specially philosophically-inclined artists, is required. For it is clear we do not want to become the inhabitants of the deadly space which surrounds the doomed panther in Rilke’s famous poem :

“His tired gaze -from passing endless bars-
has turned into a vacant stare which nothing holds.
To him there seem to be a thousand bars,
and out beyond these bars exists no world.”

For this is the world of those who perpetrated 9/11 and left for thousands of unsuspecting victims only the reality of collapsing space and timeless grief.

Libeskind’s plans for WTC: “Memory Foundations”

[link]

Appendix: secular and/or divine spaces?
Briefly in what follows I put forward, as a result of the previous exercise, some tentative parallels on some plausible differences between a space guided by secular reason, and one founded upon the faith of the divine, particularly, though not exclusively, as seen in Islam:

Secular
1. Notion of immediacy and compression of space through continuous technological encounters via cell-phones, email, messengers.
2. The space of the individual as the paramount foundation of meaningfulness; giving authentic meaning to my spaces is done through my direct participation.
3. The skyscraper as the outstanding achievement of western architecture, symbolizing the economic strength and political unity of the most powerful reaching, as high as materials can, to a secular sky above.
4. A Cartesian model of spatiality conforming to Euclidian geometry which makes of reality something detached and scientifically observable.
5. Earth as the unique and sole spatial abode which requires of our human care.
6. Architecture as the art which dignifies our secular presence in a world which famous architects transform in the search for a certain kind of immortality, that of creation. As Philip Johnson said: . “All architects want to live beyond their deaths.” [link]

Divine
1. Notion of space mediated though the presence of the divine as can be seen in the importance and lay out, for instance, of the Mosque and the parts which conform its architecture, including the Mihrab and the Minbar. http://www.islamicarchitecture.org/architecture/themosque.html [link]
2. The space of the individual takes a secondary role, overshadowed by the divine moral commands which include specific roles for the body; kneeling, fasting, preparing for pilgrimage, among many others.
3. The temple as the architectural summit: the Mosque as the greatest architectural achievement in praise of Allah.
4. Marveling at the possibility of geometry by including geometric patterns repeating themselves infinitely in great architectural works. These attempt to lead us through perception itself to the unity of the infinite in God: “Driven by the religious passion for abstraction and the related doctrine of unity, the Muslim intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between they material and the spiritual world” http://www.islamicarchitecture.org/art/islamic-geometry-and-floral-patterns.html [link]
5. God as the unique reality beyond any spatial finitude. God as spaceless and yet the sole creator of space.
6. The only true architect is God as exemplified by the poetic psalms of impressive King David: Psalm 31: 1-3 ”In thee, O LORD, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in thy righteousness.; Bow down thine ear to me; deliver me speedily: be thou my strong rock, for a house of defense to save me.; For thou art my rock and my fortress; therefore for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me.”

 

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(Note: FOR AN ALMOST IDENTICAL  PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

On the City, Graffiti and Property

1. Introduction

There are indeed some journals one never thought one would ever write. This is one of those journals. It concerns the nature of street art in general, and that of graffiti and the issue of its legality in particular. Why ask this question, you might wonder. At a personal level I have, a bit to my surprise, found myself impressed by the works of graffiti one finds all over the gorgeous and welcoming city of Toronto. These are for the most part beautiful and complex works of art usually found in city spaces where an “artistic” atmosphere prevails; such is the case of famous Kensington Market. Talented artists have clearly left their mark, for the most part without upsetting the space of public institutions. But at a more general and political level, there is currently a “debate” within Toronto itself —between its political leaders and graffiti artists— regarding the very legality of graffiti. The fundamental question revolves around the question as to whether graffiti is a form of art which beautifies the city and expresses certain discontents among its citizens, or whether it is a criminal activity which damages the private property of citizens whose rights are in this manner trespassed without consent.

But the issue, I believe, goes beyond the status of the law. The impact of Graffiti is felt by the totality of citizens within a given city. Graffiti is out there to be seen, even if only in some neighborhoods. One need only recall the infamous Berlin Wall; hardly anyone would have denounced THAT graffiti. As a citizen of Toronto perhaps I myself might contribute to the debate. What can we learn from the constant appearance of graffiti in modern cities prone to the difficulties which overwhelm them at times; social inequalities, discrimination, pollution, bureaucratic indifference? What indeed could be learned by all citizens alike? It is my hypothesis that the best of Graffiti may teach us something about how we should reconsider our understanding of the role of private property in our society. In this respect one is led to ask what seems to be an utterly incredible question: can the love Graffiti artists show to the forgotten walls of the city, point to a different way of inhabiting our modern cities and of relating citizens to each other? This is the question to be considered here which, I repeat, necessarily move us beyond a mere consideration of the legality of graffiti. This journal is but a brief and inadequate attempt to deal with the complexity of the issue.

But first, I must let you have a taste of the graffiti which I have been photographing lately here in Toronto. I have only photographed a minimal amount —–for reasons some of you know— but it will help as a starter. This is an exercise in imagination, faculty crucial to the resolution of conflicts. Politicians may learn this from artists.

Toronto Graffiti

Now imagine yourself walking down a busy downtown area, underneath massive skyscrapers, and finding yourself suddenly impressed by the bluish tones of a sidewalk which has been taken over by a street artist which allows us to reflect on what sidewalks might be good for. What are sidewalks for? Obviously for walking; for safeguarding pedestrians in a world dominated by cars. But you would never know it from what the following street artist, with his exceptional ability, has brought to life. The sidewalk has become the temporary canvas for the appearance of heroes that govern the imagination of many. Batman and Batwoman arise as those heroes who safeguard precisely the common interest of an imaginary city; the conflict-ridden city of Gotham with all its evil Jokers. Check him out and be briefly humbled, let yourself be open to what this artist provides to our city without demanding much in return:

frame-132-3262gi_580x435

(For other examples see the graffiti found at Keele metro station, one of the subway stations here in Toronto: [link] )

Perhaps now you understand why I had the need to try to understand my attachment to these artists, though I myself know little of Graffiti and unfortunately could never paint one because of my lacking such amazing abilities. And of course, the issue in question regards ONLY great work by talented artists. We are not speaking here of simple tagging which merely destroys the very possibility of intelligent graffiti by truly creative and thought provoking artists.

And more importantly this walk generates an incisive question: whether Graffiti in particular allows for a reconsideration of the way we understand property rights. To put it very directly; would YOU allow for the presence of such art within your own private area? What would YOU do as political representative if your voters disliked graffiti? To this issue of property we will return below. But the issue of property rights goes beyond the issue of graffiti and therefore this argument might later be extended to other areas. You can think of the following debates: Windows vs. Linux and the GNU project; shareware vs. freeware applications (e.g. such as Photoshop vs. Gimpshop, Open Office vs. Microsoft Office, Pixia vs. Illustrator); ourmedia.org vs. privately owned media; and of course, decisively, political debates regarding the role of property in society and the question of just distribution.

2. The debate

2a. The law

As in all debates two sides deck it out. On the one hand, political representatives in multiple governmental agencies –usually at the level of cities—have sought to produce laws which portray graffiti as a criminal activity. One such example is provided by “New York’s Graffiti Laws”. As the law reads, in some excerpts provided below:

§ 10-117. Defacement of property, possession, sale and display of aerosol spray paint cans, [and] broad tipped markers and etching acid prohibited in certain instances. (my emphasis)
a. No person shall write, paint or draw any inscription, figure or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure or any other real or personal property owned, operated or maintained by a public benefit corporation, the city of New York or any agency or instrumentality thereof or by any person, firm, or corporation, or any personal property maintained on a city street or other city-owned property pursuant to a franchise, concession or revocable consent granted by the city, unless the express permission of the owner or operator of the property has been obtained (my emphasis)……
§145.05 … a person is guilty of criminal mischief in the third degree when with the intent to damage property of another person, and having no right to do so …. (for the compete law see: “ [link]

This law as well establishes the creation of an “Anti-Graffiti Task Force” whose purpose is to clean the city of graffiti. It: ”assesses the scope and nature of the City’s graffiti problem, examines the effectiveness of existing provisions of law aimed at curbing graffiti vandalism and proposes amendments to strengthen such legislation. (Title 10 § 117.1)”

Now it would be fine and well if we could just destroy the law and consider it simply an arrogant proposition by the citizens who question graffiti, many of whom I am sure are not simply rich folk. But this is a dangerous and self-destructive proposition. Again, just imagine if you —if you indeed own a property— were to see graffiti on YOUR walls. I think at least two things should be pointed out from the law so as to curve the passion and anger of some artists. One the one hand, it clearly specifies that it is applicable “in certain instances”. But the issue is whether politicians, or for that matter the police, are artistically educated so as to judge in which instances Graffiti has in fact broken, or not, this law. A second concern might be that of older graffiti which has already been painted without consent; in New York some have had to actually erase their work if they cannot find the owners who once consented. Perhaps in this case the solution might be to ease the legislation retroactively.

The third problem the law states is much more important, it clearly specifies that the central issue is the damaging of private property. It is against the law to “damage property of another person, and having no right to do so.” Of course, defenders of Graffiti might point out that in many cases, and herein lies a deep irony, they have been asked to paint the very walls which have become their canvases in truly forgotten neighborhoods. One need only recall that Canadian commercial in which an inner city school is compared to jail because of its lack of green spaces, among many other lacks. But isn’t the law blind to a certain reality which street art expresses? Isn’t this particular law somewhat blind as to the more positive role Graffiti may play within a society in crisis? Will erasing walls erase the malaise? Isn’t it clear that some owners may actually want graffiti on their grounds, as is clear from walking around places such as Kensington Market?

2b. The position of one Graffiti artist: Zephyr
[link]

Zephyr, a well-known artist from New York, expresses great concern in a defense he wrote against the city law. I would simply like to point out the idea that Graffiti artists are extremely talented artists, not simply wall painters from a hardware store. If you want to have your house painted, well that almost anyone can do; but to have an engaging mural done, well that very few can do well. These are some of Zephyr’s words:

“The attacks on the graffiti “muralists” is probably the most troubling and disturbing new twist to an already frightening situation. These modern-day Picassos specialize in multi-artist, and sometimes multi-day, productions. Elaborate masterpieces replete with scenes, figures and symbolism. Huge sprawling paint jobs that can run full city blocks. The neighborhoods where they’re most common are neighborhoods where they’re most welcome. Take, for example, the South Bronx. The local communities embrace and protect many of the “graffiti murals” painted there. Many of the works inspire joy and unity-and represent how a simple gesture with the right energy is capable of manifesting a measurable positive transformation on. It is this ability for communities of color to empower themselves through public art, that poses a threat to the racist regime of the Giuliani administration. The right for a community to paint their own neighborhood falls outside this mayor’s fascist rules of “appropriate behavior.” [link]

His acute argumentation is clear. Graffiti artists are amazing artists. This I have tried to portray myself above. However, the very language in which the position is expressed —–allusions to “racist regime” and “fascist rules”—– can only deepen the suspicion of authorities. In this respect both parties can polarize the debate only to the detriment of them both and, specially to the citizens themselves. Much more can and should be said in defense of graffiti and public art, but instead I would like to focus on the question of property itself. (Source of the debate: the incredibly instructive and “featured” article in wikipedia: [link] )

3) Some brief considerations on Graffiti and property

One of the roles of Socratic political philosophy, perhaps the single most important one, is to curb anger. The violence which ensues from enraged parties ruins cities, and even nations. Anger may disrupt the political as no other deeply ingrained emotion can. One need look at my dear Colombia. A political philosopher might aid in reaching alternative positions which may broaden the debate. This is why I want to focus on an issue dear to me as a political philosopher, the question of property.

Since the fortunate, and long awaited fall of communism, the idea of collective property has been shown to be a dangerous and illusory proposition. Stalin was, is and will be a nightmare; as was foreseen by Plato over 2000 years ago. In my dear Colombia, the FARC (infamous Guerrilla forces who tag the walls of my beautiful Bogotá) have not received the message yet. So it seems the permanence of private property has been shown to be crucial to the stability of a functioning society. In general, one could say that there are two broad models of the role private property might have in a given political society. They are not mutually exclusive, but require a certain degree of balancing out for the good of the political community. In this sense there might be two very broad and ideal models for private property. I will call one, the “inward looking” view of property, and the second, the “outward looking” view of private property.

3a. The “inward looking” view of private property

Historically one could consider the work of John Locke as the basis for this perspective on property. It is the founding conception of modern views on the role of property within political society. To put it as briefly as possible, the emergence of modernity goes hand in hand with a given comprehension of private property and the role of the individual with respect to its accumulation and utility. Under this view of private property, emphasis is placed not only on the fact that the property is radically MINE, but in a more radical development, that I am free to do in the private sphere as I desire. We have grown so accustomed to this view that it is hardly seen as problematic, except of course, by those who lack the very private property defended by our liberal societies. It is to something like this conception of property that the political leaders against Graffiti hearken because they obviously see street artists as trespassing what is a fundamentally the possession of each individual citizen. The political sphere, and specially the law and its enforcement organisms, are there precisely to safeguard our private rights. It is therefore no surprise to see graffiti as a criminal activity. The law is clear; graffiti damages the property either of private citizens or of the city itself bent on safeguarding the security of its citizens. And I bet that even graffiti artists will defend this view of property when their own property is actually abused by others. For example, if there were a break in at a graffiti artists’ house, I am pretty sure he/she would call 911.

I say this view of property is “inward looking” for it seems to promote, in a disproportionate manner, the defense of the private over the role of the public; the ‘mine’ overruns the ‘ours’. Contrast the ideal view of healthcare in the US and Canada to have a feel for this. The radicalization of this view can be easily seen in many examples of unquestioned practices which have become normal for us: the impossibility of generating carpooling in North America where possessing a car is the mark of freedom (not to mention in Toronto the lack of funding for PUBLIC transportation), the inward separation of the house into ever more private and inward looking spaces (one constantly hears in North America that young people argue: this is MY room.), the constant search for MY space in interpersonal relationships, a blind eye towards the homeless as radically unsuccessful citizens precisely because they have not been able to create the conditions for a private home(thus burdening individual tax payers who have lost sight of the sense of the whole), the flight to the suburbs where privacy is the dream, and finally, the dismissal of claims of property from Native Americans (see for example James Tully’s powerful Strange multiplicity .)

3b. The “outward looking” view of private property

But there are other traditions of political thought besides this liberal Lockean one. Very briefly, and in very general terms, one could call this view the “outward looking” conception of private property. One could say it is best expressed originally by Aristotle. (See his Politics Book II; a text which lays the foundation for an understanding of the city and its citizens as no other). In discussing private property he argues that the best of possible worlds would be one in which property were actually possessed privately, but could be used publicly.

This view is “outward looking” for, although it likewise safeguards the possession of private property for individual citizens and their families, it nonetheless seeks to reactivate certain interpersonal ties amongst citizens; the ties of generosity and friendship without which a community may not generate the best of conditions for its excelling over others. Under this view, the radical privatization of citizens may lead to the overall malaise of the society of which they themselves are part. Think again of the rush to the suburbs and the creation of inner cities; a problematic which has slowly been changing as a more conscious model of the interrelation of citizens has been taken up. In a sense, politically speaking, we are of the city, rather the city simply being for us. It is in this respect that the city I was born in, Bogotá, has become a model for the developing capitals of the world. This is due to its civic education model, its concern for the public space, and its demand for a redressing of class inequalities. (exemplified in its model public transportation system ––called Transmilenio—, its gorgeous public libraries, and its Sunday bike day where millions take over the city street in bikes). The city as a whole becomes healthier, beautified and populated by better citizens capable of taking on –as intelligent and alert citizens should– a questioning perspective.

Now, if all this is even partially true, then graffiti allows us to
break down the usual way of perceiving property simply as that which is my own. Mothers may teach us to share as kids; but they seem to be fighting a loosing battle in our society. Street artists, I repeat, particularly the great ones— seek to make art become public at the very edge where the private meets the public. By placing their work at this border (the wall is private, but the message is public) they call our attention to the dilemmas previously noted. They might just be reminding us that the city is more than the sum of its individual houses and privatized walls.

To rephrase it; what seems to be terribly uncomfortable about graffiti is that it lies in a privately-owned wall, but its expression is simultaneously meant to grab the attention of ANY public citizen walking the city streets. Now, if our society is one which concerns itself simply with an “inward looking” view of private property, then of course, graffiti is seen ONLY as damaging and criminal. But if our society recognizes the value of private property, AND AT THE SAME TIME concedes that our modern malaise may lie precisely in not having concerned itself with other possible, and perhaps more “generous” relations to property, then the common interest of the city and its good may start to become a central concern for us all. Graffiti in this respect would be both pointing to the tension and to its solution, for it beautifies the whole city by giving expression to an “outward looking” perspective of property which might provide the conditions for the good of many, if not all.

4. Conclusion

To conclude, perhaps the debate can become more interesting and open-minded if both parties recognize the different view of property they emphasize. In this respect the city has every right to protect its citizens from unwanted graffiti; and at the same time graffiti artists must seek to convince other citizens to allow for the creation of their paintings in the shared public space. The crucial problem is with that graffiti which already exists; those works must be looked and assessed by dealing with each particular case to see which stays and which goes. Graffiti artists must be willing to take the time to argue for some of their creations. For instance, the graffiti at “Keele station” is now a landmark; this is also true of the work found in unique and historical “Kensington market”. Others might go, and yet others might stay. And perhaps those who know the city well –usually dedicated politicians— can provide artists with other spaces to express themselves and reach out to the community. (Of course, sending the best of graffiti artists to an “indoor” warehouse does not work, precisely because the issue is the outward looking public space; however, this might help for aspiring graffiti artists who want to practice their skills.)

In sum, this journal has tried to understand —-at least in small part and by someone who is neither a politician nor a graffiti artist—- the debate over graffiti and its possible positive role within our cities. By letting ourselves be open to its appearance, it reminds us of possibilities regarding our own unquestioned understandings of property which might make of our cities, and of us involved citizens —the very life of cities— much more outward-looking, solidarity-prone and generous beings. In this respect, perhaps the street artist AND the city may find some common ground from which to resolve their impasse in favor of the benefit, not of this or that faction, but of the community as a whole. Will we be able to find our common interest, acknowledge it, and work to understand the basis from which each position springs? Or, will we make the problematic idea presented by Plato —expelling the poets from the city—a reality in the 21st century?

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