Towards the Everyday Remote. Andrew Fullwood and Maia Close, Hide Uganda Studio, RMIT LA, 2013
The word ‘remote’ might be understood in at least three ways: as an adjective, both geographically (or spatially) and conceptually, and as a noun – ‘the remote’. All three are relational in aspect and in all ways might prove instructive to landscape architectural discourse.
The institution of television and its role in middle-class Australian family life of an earlier generation as the surrogate teller of stories was fully attended by the instrument of ‘the remote’ – a device perhaps enabling the operation of multiple electronic machines from the comfort of one’s chair or couch. Crucially, however, the remote could be operated only by one person at any one time, hence bestowing the holder of the remote with power over the evening’s television viewing – an often contested power over the stories heard during the course of that evening.
Adjectivally, the geographical concept of remoteness – a place at a distance, somewhere ‘over there’ – is often objectified through stories of the exotic or romantic in landscape terms, and especially through tourism. We often visit places remote from our daily experience in order to recharge, to escape the everyday stories of our own existence in favour of commodified3 versions of an ‘other’ place or existence. Such places are related to our everyday experience in that they afford a means by which we may seek relief from that which we may perceive to be ‘reality’, to remove ourselves from it, to become purposefully remote. It provides a sense of distance from normality in order to be able, upon return, to once again function. Our experience of such places is often based upon expectations fostered through stories of place as encountered in travel media (particularly the advent of travel television) or through the experiences of friends or colleagues with whom we might share such things. Such stories, although often promising the new, the exotic or the novel, do little to threaten the language of our perception of the world as we know it.
Good little sunbeams must learn to fly, but it’s madly ungay when the goldfish die1
W. H. Auden
This concept of remoteness remains safe from both a bodily and experiential point of view – it is always relatable through the language of our everyday experience, through that with which we are comfortable. It provides the means by which we might, at least temporarily, overcome our everyday condition through a concentration on that which lies beyond it – an exotic counterpoint to the perceived banality of our own lived experiences – and yet remain safe within that very condition. The potential within the everyday, ordinary condition of life is usurped by the allure of the exotic and its possibly commodified stories. We become more remote from our own landscape of immediacy and its attendant stories, and in particular from any possibility of rewriting those stories. Constrained by the limits of our own known language through our own experiences, Bateson’s4 ‘ecology of bad ideas’ is potentially manifest in the absence of stories recasting our relationship to the everyday, stories that don’t ‘learn to fly’.5
Within the geographical or spatial remote, though, lies a conceptual sense of remoteness, which might be invoked to describe a disconnection or disjunction between concepts, ideas or experiences – a situation approaching the concept of ‘otherness’, that to which we have no obvious means of relating or even, in the conception of ‘radical otherness’, no obvious possibility of obtaining the means through which to relate. It is in this sense of remoteness that the possibility resides by which Auden’s sunbeams might ‘learn to fly’.6
There is an ecology of bad ideas just as there is an ecology of weeds.2
Roland Barthes7 writes of the dream ‘to learn the systematics of the inconceivable; to undo our own “reality” under the effect of other formulations, other syntaxes … to descend into the untranslatable, to experience its shock without ever muffling it’ in relation to the constraints of written language. Barthes here is alerting us to the power of one’s ‘own’ language of writing in constraining knowledge – the knowledge of experience – and the impossibility that this confers on the prospect of an understanding of anything beyond that which already ‘is’ or that which might be considered natural or normal. He points to how ‘beneficial it would be, conversely, to gain a vision of the irreducible differences which a very remote language can, by glimmerings, suggest to us’.8 In a way, Barthes is suggesting that to write and re-write our ‘own’ stories, and to understand the potential in doing so, we must engage with the remote – that other which is utterly remote from our everyday experience and yet which by its very difference holds the prospect of overcoming the normality of our everyday experience.
In particular, Barthes explores the inability of the novel, as the supposedly pre-eminent modern textual vehicle of story through the medium of the written language, to permit one to perceive, ‘discover or divine’ the ‘landscape’9 – here referring to a notion of landscape as that which might be remote to our experience but also that of our everyday experience. In this respect, Barthes argues that the novel (and our own written language) precludes the possibility of the experience ([of the story] of the remote other). For Barthes, the language, our language, as exemplified by the language of the novel, is at once empty and also overfull. In this age, we might of course add to the novel the television and a growing array of electronic media, all of which serve as instruments further distancing us from the experience of the remote and hence those relationships which might engage us further with the everyday.
Walter Benjamin10 in 1936 remarked on the growing remoteness of the storyteller (and hence any possibility of the story of the remote other) from our ‘living immediacy’. Benjamin argues that the storyteller has become ‘something remote from us and something that is getting even more [remote]‘. The value of the story for Benjamin lies utterly in the experience around which the story revolves and which is related through the story. In the increasingly remote relationship in which we find ourselves to the teller of stories, Benjamin argues that something extraordinary is being taken from us: ‘the ability to exchange experiences’. In this we find also a correlative remoteness to the experience of the everyday – to the very matter of the story and hence to the matter of landscape. The craft of the story lies in the elevation and achievement of the epic through the relation of this everyday – a lifetime’s vocation of the storyteller which eventuates in the capacity for counsel – a reflection of wisdom.
Benjamin makes further temporal links between the epic and historiography. He is careful to note, however, that the storyteller is no mere historian, the ‘burden of demonstrable explanation’ having been ‘lifted from their own shoulders’. For the storyteller, the place of explanation or verity is ‘taken by interpretation, which is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world’. The ecology of ideas, perhaps, is passed on through epic stories.
The notion of the epic has a spatial correlation through the concept of Morales’ terrains vague11. These spaces are posited as existing as residual interstitial spaces in the city, spaces of relational otherness contradictory and remote to the otherwise rationally understood city and its ‘concatenation of definite events’ that sees the logical filling of empty spaces. Attention to such everyday spaces of the city allows an alternative story to be told, demanding an alternative treatment of the city as a whole. Drawing on Goethe, the philosopher Richard Rorty12 identifies great works of literature as having a singular characteristic: the ability to produce ‘shudders of awe’, a characteristic achieved as an oppositional position to what Rorty calls ‘knowingness’. In the remoteness of the terrains vague, knowingness is held at bay through a holding forth of paradox, fragility and contradiction, all vital elements of the story. In the stories of the terrains vague, Georgia Daskalakis and Omar Perez13 see the capacity to produce ‘shudders of awe’, the ‘strange mingling of dread and wonder that can move our intellect and our emotions’ to allow the everyday to assume the proportions of the epic. It is this elevation to the status of the epic through the telling of the story that allows a reframing of the treatment of the residual city with a contradictory complicity that seeks to preserve the elements that maintain its continuity in time and space.
The Australian interior might be characterised similarly by conditions of perceptual emptiness and yet, simultaneously, a ‘knowingness’ expressed through rational languagederived systems which seek control. Geographically remote from the experience of much of mainstream Australia, the well-documented dominant narrative or story has historically been that of post-colonial control – the heroic taming of the land through exploration framed by the language of a particular way of knowing. Knowledge thus produced achieves a suppression of fragility and contradiction – a heroic story perhaps, but not one that achieves the status of the epic. Indigenous ways of knowing, particularly the oral story tradition with its language relationship to landscape, seem to offer a position to remoteness analogous to that of the stories of the terrain vagues. The epic nature of these traditions allow a bringing forth of contradiction and paradox, preserving in the landscape the capacity to produce Goethe’s ‘shudders of awe’. These stories are those of the everyday experience, elevated through telling and re-telling to the status of the epic, such that the concept of reality or of what is real is shifted. The anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner,14 in his essay ‘The Dreaming’, wrote of such stories that through their telling, reality is seen as a ‘joyous thing with maggots at the centre’ – a conceptualising of experience redolent with paradox and fragility, and suggesting a relationship to landscape so utterly remote to that of ours.
As landscape architects, we are tellers of the story of the future. As such it is incumbent upon us to overcome the remoteness of everyday experience, indeed to ensure that this experience is raised to the proportions of the epic, to foster the paradoxical and fragile, and to transcend our own remoteness. The power to grasp the remote is ours and within this lies the potential that we might ‘learn to fly’.
The written language, in particular of the novel, disallows the conception of the limits of the language by which we might claim to contest it. Rather beautifully, Barthes suggests that such is akin to ‘trying to destroy the wolf by lodging comfortably in its gullet’.
- M. Goula, ‘Tourism’ in D. Colafrancheschi (ed.), Landscape + 100 Words to Inhabit it, Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2007. For a reading of the complex relationship between tourism and landscape.↩
- W. H. Auden, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003. This is W. H. Auden’s long poem offering an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This late Shakespearean text explores themes of art and religion, along with illusory relationships between nature and civilisation, primarily through the characters Prospero and Caliban, borrowing from an earlier work of Montaigne. For a further reading of this and the relationship between civilisation, the ‘otherness’ of nature and the invocation of a pastoral Golden Age presupposing early manifestations of American ‘manifest destiny’ in Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’, see A Critical Commentary on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ by the landscape historian and theorist, John Dixon-Hunt. The work is considered to be Auden’s ars poetica, a poetic re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s work that contains possible errors of fact or truth.↩
- Bateson, ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’.↩
- Auden, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’.↩
- G. Bateson, ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, quoted in F. Guattari, The Three Ecologies, London: Bloomsbury, 2008. Guattari quotes Bateson, who was concerned primarily with the habits of the mind that underpin ‘efforts to maximize single variables (like profit) rather than optimizing the relationships among a complex set of variables’. Bateson influenced the work of both Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Guattari’s Three Ecologies advocates the extension of the conception of ecology to incorporate environmental concerns, but also social relations and human subjectivity – a poetic re-interpretation of Bateson’s work that contains possible errors of fact or truth.↩
- R. Barthes, The Empire of Signs, Richard Howard (trans.), New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.
Barthes writes here of Japan and ‘The Unknown Language’, dreaming of knowing a foreign language and yet simultaneously not understanding it in order to know the impossibilities of one’s own.↩
Again, inviting an engagement with the remote in order to understand the extent of the limitation of our own system.↩
- W. Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, in H. Arendt (ed.), lluminations, New York: Schockenbooks, 1969.↩
- Ignasi de Sola Morales, ‘Terrain Vague’, Quaderns, 1996, Issue 212.↩
- R. Rorty, ‘The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature’, in R. Rorty (ed.), Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in TwentiethCentury America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.↩
- G. Daskalakis and O. Perez, ‘Projecting Detroit’, in G. Daskalalis, C. Waldheim and J. Young (eds.), Stalking Detroit, New York: Actar, 2002.↩
- W. E. H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2011.↩