(landscapes of avoidance)

In 1824, when Charles Dickens was 12 or 13 years old, his father was arrested for debt and incarcerated in the Marshalsea prison in Southwark. The young Charles was sent out to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory (located in Hungerford Stairs, then Chandos Street) and found himself living alone in lodgings on Little College Street in Camden Town.

In John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens (1875), which was based in part on autobiographical fragments given to him by Dickens himself, we read the following description of life at Warren’s:

The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.

A few pages later, Forster quotes Dickens again, this time describing his adult responses to the site of his childhood trauma:

Until old Hungerford market was pulled down, until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warren’s in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blacking-corks, which reminded me of what I was once. It was a very long time before I liked to go up Chandos Street. My old way home by the borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak.

In my walks at night I have walked there often, since then, and by degrees I have come to write this. It does not seem a tithe of what I might have written, or of what I meant to write.

It is not uncommon for post-traumatic landscapes to be structured by strategies of avoidance – of places, people or activities which trigger memories or thoughts of the traumatic event. Let’s say that someone undergoes a traumatic experience in Berlin.   In the first instance, they may simply decide never to return to Berlin and thereby avoid putting themselves in the situation of being confronted with disruptive memories they would rather not have.  They may also, however, decide  to cut all ties with friends who live in Berlin, for they remind them when they speaks to them of what happened there. They may find it difficult to answer the phone or read their emails, in case they bring news from Berlin. They may become uncomfortable or upset when watching the news on TV and an item about Berlin comes up. If Berlin is in the news, they may decide to no longer watch the TV, listen to the radio or read the newspapers. They will look away from the news stands, their heart racing, in case the front page carries an image or a story that reminds them of the traumatic event, or presents any new information about it. They may be forced to make changes to their professional practice and networks in order to avoid attending conferences and meetings in Berlin, or perhaps meeting colleagues from Berlin in conferences and meetings elsewhere. A newsagent’s decision to stock a German-language newspaper means that a whole detour has to be invented, in order that they do not put themselves in a situation where they might accidentally see a headline that perhaps has a resonance with what happened to them before.

As what happened in Berlin – and Berlin itself – present themselves to them in so many ways, and as their strategies of avoiding anything to do with Berlin proliferate and become more complex, so – to others – their behaviours and responses become more oblique. Avoidance (like trauma, perhaps) is perceived only in the constellation of behaviours and responses that coalesce around it. Sometimes, avoidance behaviours seem so far removed from the original trauma – (why are they refusing to go into the newsagents to buy a coffee from the machine? Why are they making us cross the station to buy a coffee somewhere else, when we’re already running late for our train?) – that they defy understanding, causing others to be irritated, impatient, curious or even angry.

The relief that accompanies the avoidance of trauma reminders is fleeting (though gratifying in the immediate present); each new day threatens the subject with a series of mnemonic and associative dangers. The post-traumatic landscape is constantly and vigilantly re-mapped. As more and more experiences and previously neutral stimuli present themselves as potential dangers, the number of ‘safe routes’ through the landscape is diminished. A space experienced as benign may, due to the spiralling, rhizomic association of perceived dangers, be re-cast as off-bounds.  The world becomes significantly smaller.

Dickens felt more able to be near the former site of Warren’s factory only when ‘the very nature of the ground changed’. The transformation to which he refers took place in 1831, following an Act of Parliament that ordered the demolition of the increasingly insalubrious buildings of the Hungerford market area (of which Warren’s was one) and the incorporation of a new company to oversee the site’s redevelopment.

“Old Hungerford Market (from a view published in 1805)”. The bust of Sir Edward Hungerford (d.1711) is visible set into the north wall.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OldHungerfordMarket1805.jpg
“Hungerford Market, from the bridge, in 1850” (1878)
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HungerfordMarket1850.jpg

The new Hungerford market was a dramatic and ornate construction that had little in common architecturally with the site Dickens had known as a twelve year-old child. And yet the site is clearly sticky with its past. The Hungerford name lingered in the area, lending itself to a new hall, a street and a bridge; but perhaps more importantly, the affective resonance of what happened in that place continues to play out. When, as an adult, Dickens finds himself taking the same route he used to take as a child, he experiences involuntary responses that are both embodied and emotional. It is interesting too that the site of trauma bleeds beyond its original spatial containment. Dickens avoids Chandos Street, where Warren’s relocated, because the smells coming from the business’s new premises remind him unbearably of the place where he worked as a child.

Although he mentions the area around Warren’s in his notes to Forster, he barely spoke of this early traumatic experience during his lifetime. His family found it equally difficult to address and articulate what had happened to him: ‘My father and mother had been stricken dumb upon it’ (The National Archives, 2010). Even as the adult Dickens walked those streets, learning, somehow, to absorb the mnemonic shock of the place, he found himself unable to put those place feelings into words. Instead, they play out in a sensory, affective register, the marks of which can be read only obliquely through his scarred spatial practice.

Write here, write now? On the vertigo of you and me

We live and move and are still in a series of interlocking and overlaid spaces, none of which can be abstracted from the other. The temporalities that govern and constitute these spaces are complex and enfolded. What I write now, online, is more or less immediately available all over the world, to unimaginable numbers of interlocuters. Time and space have, in this sense, contracted. And time itself has at once, paradoxically, become more compact and more diffuse. As I write now online, in this present of my writing, I engage the future perfect: this writing will have been. To publish online is to open Pandora’s box. The infinite reproducibility of the text, its proliferation and circulation (in fragments or in its integrity) contribute to the legacy of the text that survives the obliteration of the original. We’re all acutely aware of this. The internet affords us the opportunity to spread our words and images as we have never been able before, but we know that what we make available online is at once insecure (in terms of intellectual property and the integrity of the text or image) and durable (in the sense that once it has been published online, it is virtually impossible to erase – it becomes an obdurate fact, threatening always to leak into the refreshed present). This is not, of course, a new thought. But what I would like to note here is how the technologies we use to communicate and disseminate our thoughts have the effect of temporalising space and of spatialising time. My present is the present of the globe; and yet that present remains multifarious. I encounter in my present presents which are not my own, and which cannot be reduced to my own. The present of communication constellates, rather than homogenizes. In the encounter between my present and that of my interlocuters, new lines of flight are produced, projecting other futures and unpredictable meanings. Also at stake, of course, in this encounter of presents is the (shared and contested) meaning of the past.

We can no longer speak only of a space-time contraction. What we are talking about here is something infinitely more vertiginous, like the effect produced by Hitchock’s signature dolly zoom (in French, le trans-trav). Our perspective dramatically changes (what was here is now there, what was there is now here) while our locational, embodied existence remains the same. We struggle very viscerally (for this does not take place, in the first instance at least, at the level of reflection) to make sense of the conflicting clues that present to us as we write and engage online, with others. Here, we occupy that very space ‘where bodies cannot be fully anchored in the site they occupy’ (Christine Ross, 2012).

Another effect of this spatialisation-temporalisation is to create a sense of openness, of vulnerability. While I am here (in this room, in front of this computer), I do not know where and when you are. I am not talking here about the collapse of Euclidean space, but the disjointed plurality of spaces (national, cultural, juridical, judicial, virtual, topological) that extend beyond and point back towards me, temporally deferred, always possible, never certain. What kind of relations do I develop with others who are more or less relational to me in that space where the physically/corporeally located conflagrates with the virtual? What kinds of assemblage are produced (or constituted already) between technology and the users of technology? Between me (a subject who writes – who will have written) and you?

The internet and social media have produced a commons that is not in itself, but articulates and produces itself continuously.  This commons is un/written and coded into being every day. It is a political space, in that it brings a community into play. It is unequally distributed and it is far from being uniformly shared. But what interests me here is specifically the way in which the online commons configures the relationship between you and me. It is easy to think that in the era of ‘selfies’, blogging, micro-blogging and social media more generally we have become a generation of narcissists, concerned only with promoting ourselves, our image and our views online. And yet, as Jean-Luc Nancy wrote in The Inoperative Community (published in the original French as La Communauté désoeuvrée in1986; English translation by Peter Connor et al, 1991), ‘the mode of existence and appropriation of a “self” (which is not necessarily, nor exclusively, an individual) is the mode of an exposition in common and to the un-common’; ‘“To be exposed” means to be “posed” in exteriority, according to an exteriority, having to do with an outside in the very intimacy of an inside’ (xxxvii). To have access to what is proper to my own existence requires an expropriation, ‘“my” face always exposed to others, always turned toward an other and faced by him or her, never facing myself’ (xxxvii).

So as I write, right here, right now, I expose myself to you. What I write (my face) will be reassembled in the no/w/here. There are many reasons I write this, and these involve no small sense of disciplinary anxiety, a sense of exposure, of being adrift in a sea of transversal spaces. Of not really knowing who I am (for me, for you) anymore.

Call for papers and interventions: Post-Traumatic Landscapes (Sheffield, May 22 2013)

In the third of our series of cross-disciplinary symposia, we’ll be exploring post-traumatic landscapes.

The symposium will take place on Wednesday May 22nd, 10am-4pm. There will also be a screening of Detroit Wild City (dir. Florent Tillon) at the Showroom Cinema on May 21st, as part of the symposium programme.

The topics we would like to cover in this symposium include (but are not limited to):

socio-geological approaches to post-traumatic landscapes; physical traumas on the landscape and how they’re erased/covered over; contamination as a post-traumatic trace; the politics of erasure, regeneration, ‘moving on’; aftermath (consequences or after-effects of an event; second growth); ruptures in forgetting; photograph as a post-traumatic artefact; blankness and invisibility; absorption; landscape and PTSD – hypervigilance, structures of forgetting, avoidance; plasticity (cognitive reformatting, etc); affect, vibrant matter, materiality; the geologic now; the archaeology of the contemporary past (Victor Buchli, Gavin Lucas); beyond the ruin

If you would like to submit a proposal for a 20-minute paper, screening or small exhibition, please email Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson (a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk) by April 25th.