Five Stops:  Homesick and Wanting in the Blue Republic

Mark Kingwell

1.  Nostalgia

The Greek roots of the word ‘nostalgia’ contain a doubleness that is lost, or concealed, in standard usage of the term to denote a yearning for some earlier time (often enough, to be sure, an illusory one).  Nostos algos is, literally, the pain associated with returning home—homesickness, we might say, thinking at the level of a disease.  But nostalgia is future as well as present pain because, lurking behind my longing to return home there is the additional pain of what returning home actually entails.  As that most famous of Greek nostalgists, Odysseus, reminds us, home is no longer home by the time we return.  And, moreover, we are no longer ourselves.  Odysseus comes in disguise, cloaked against his strandedness in time, having yearned for what was gone the moment he left.  Just as the past is never a dwelling-place, much as we strive for it, home is not the place we thought we knew.  Not all scars are visible, or physical, and not all desires are subject to sense.

Thus does pain double, and ultimately triple, itself, becoming finally the anxiety we feel for losing the lack that nostalgia allows.  We secretly wish to dwell in nostalgia itself, not in home or past, and so what we wish for is not the return but the continuation.  Nostalgia makes pathology into a mode, a delicious strandedness.

The two-person art collective Blue Republic have, over recent years, given concrete shape and expression to this nest of insights about desire, dwelling and time.  In works that are deliberately unstable, witty, and beautiful, they both acknowledge and dismantle the yearnings that are characteristic of a cultural moment whose predominant narrative is that it has no narrative.[i]  Here ‘the future’, once considered a debatable category, a site of (possible rational) plan and project, dissolves in layers of confused aspiration drawn from utopian politics and architecture.  Technology evolves from tool to threat, semi-organic and uncanny rather than calmly useful.  Garbage configures itself into shapes suggestive of personal space or urban dreams, not rescued and recycled so much as reorganized into revelations of situatedness.  Beneath it all one hears a thrum of play and possibility that may be the one and only valid meaning of that much-abused notion, utopia.

A retrospective of recent Blue Republic work is timely in both, or at least two, senses:  at once well-timed and time-conscious.  The three parts of their practice from which these works are drawn—Limited Activities, Simulations, and Alterations—present distinct aspects of reflection on everydayness that, together and apart, rise to a thrilling if unsettling climax.  Nostalgia for the Present takes us into its world of hyper-conscious engagement with materials, forms, found objects, structure, and measurement; and then returns us, expels us we might even say, back into the other world, the world of our ‘normal’ engagements, with a heightened awareness of all things urban and real.  Thus ‘present’ too opens up a double meaning, twining the usual sense of present as the now with the metaphysically missed present of presence.

By mirroring, miniaturizing, and reconfiguring the tools and garbage of daily experience—maps and paints rollers, injection molding and broomsticks, discarded toys and tools—Blue Republic rupture any smooth assumption of a world simply waiting for our perception or, still more, consumption of it.  The in-progress status of some of the best works here, especially Speeding from Beautiful Infections, the exhibition’s astonishing magnum opus, testifies to this ongoing destabilization.  There is always more to add because, by the very logic of order and control, the projects of order and control can never be completed.

This larger insight is composed of smaller ones, each wedded closely to the works presented here, such that the overall effect is refracted and reinforced with every step.  Our exit from the land constructed as and by Blue Republic is itself a blue journey, one that leads to a city in which maps no longer calmly indicate route and destination, where buildings are revealed as impaired erector-set dreams of a banal imagination, where dust and refuse signal new meanings and beauties.


2.  Contamination

Many of these pieces force us to reconsider the assumed liminal relationship of use and disuse, the firm line between stuff and garbage.  Beautiful Infections (urban) and Speeding, the two largest installations, sprout as complex installations of found objects, ready-mades, drawings on paper, wood, and wall, and shredded bits of magazine and book.  Paint cans, tin cans, balloons, and old bread are discernible in the latter; the former includes bits of Styrofoam, toy soldiers, a plastic model of an airliner, and elaborate structural achievements rendered in corrugated cardboard.  Both works create miniature cities of deliberately confused scale, with branching tape fractal patterns creeping along floor and up wall to induce a vertiginous pull-back of consciousness similar to those scalar films and books that rush from nanonomical to astronomical in the span of seconds or pages.

In these quasi-urban sites, with their echoes of Joseph Cornell and Kim Adams—the whimsy of the latter deepened by the pathos of the former—composition becomes a reflection on materials, as indeed it always is despite our ability to overlook it in familiar or ‘successful’ versions, where materials efface their presence in the service of form.  There are echoes, too, of Kurt Schwitters’s melancholy Dada collages, or the intricate toolkits and equipmental joking of Fluxus installations, with their slight inflections on use value and deployability.  No such effacement is possible here, and so we confront, again and again, the garbage of everyday life resuscitated as the stuff of building.  Indeed, the usual cordon sanitaire between safe and contaminated, between useable and used-up, is that which in these installations gets erased.  We see, even as we traverse, the threshold that holds the modern city together, an internalization of contamination in an extended, by always failed, attempt at hygienic control.

Sewers, dumps, and cemeteries now perform the function once reserved, more simply, for the city walls.  Instead of simply (and literally) ejecting foreign and rotting matter, the corpses and garbage of routine urban sloughing off, defending the boundary as indeed a military necessity, we attempt to manage garbage, and so make it vanish, from the inside out.  In a graphic and relevant parallel, especially given the predominance of ready-mades here, the toilet bowl famously rendered aesthetic by R. Mutt is a symbol of the modern inside-outness of sanitation-as-control.  Bodily waste will be disposed of inside the house, not in an out building; garbage will be removed from sight but not from site.

Thus do we attempt to manage a necessary threshold by making it, in effect, no longer a simple line but a kind of Moebius strip.[ii]  And thus, too, our horror when this subtle non-Euclidean geometry of sanitation is broken or ruptured—as when, for example, a hungry rat bursts into a café kitchen and so, from there, into what is known as the front of house.  The patrons shriek!  Now suddenly everything is contaminated!  And now, wrenched unwillingly in one direction, we must wrench ourselves back.  The economy of the cordon sanitaire, once exploded, can only be restored by collective forgetting.  ‘Control’ is revealed as not control at all, rather its opposite, namely, a surrender performed through a willed act of amnesia.

These are familiar insights, and the rescue of garbage for aesthetic interest is, by itself, a minor achievement.  If these works did only that they would not be terribly interesting.  But a new line of thought opens up when Beautiful Infections (urban) and Speeding are juxtaposed with four other works, the three Untitled pieces from Limited Activities, and the other Beautiful Infections piece.  This last, a winning installation of brilliant simplicity, presents a six foot high aluminum stepladder, apparently fresh from the hardware store, in the act of being colonized by a creeping invasion of ready-made plastic blocks, uniform in shape but multi-coloured.  Like Speeding, this piece seems to grow more complex, and more compelling, with every installation, such that the most recent version had the blocks not only infecting the ladder but running along the floor and even the wall, a sort of Lego trail of death.  The stepladder, once a means of our ascent, is rendered still and non-functional.  It appears powerless to fight off the encrustation of the blocks, a tool overgrown and so destroyed by this multitude of tiny construction units, whose bright colours twist together the benign appeal of toys with the bright menace of laboratory models of molecular viruses.  A beautiful infection makes a beautiful confection.

One thinks here, perhaps, of Douglas Coupland’s aesthetic play with scale and toys, as in his own Lego works, or the molded plastic soldiers rendered at half-human height.  But also, more deeply, of An Te Liu’s recent “sanitation architecture” installations, wherein whole miniature cities of buildings and streets are created on the white-cube gallery floor by arranging and stacking air filters and other technologies of purification in the standard matte white of the studio model or vitrine.  Again, Blue Republic’s related reflection is unstinting.  Nearby stand the three Limited Activities installations, witty and unnerving commentaries on dirt and control:  the demented quartet of industrial pushbrooms, forever thwarted in the act of sweeping; the pushbroom locked and limited in its wooden box; and especially the circled vectors of personal space literally carved out of a field of rubble, lumber, crushed concrete, and gyprock.

All three works suggest some deranged but fundamental janitorial impulse that is constantly confronting its own limits, indeed its in-built defeat.  Dirt forever encroaches, and every act of cleansing is another sign of dirt’s domination!  We may hold out against this power, and so define ourselves, but we can do so only negatively.  That is, we understand ourselves as, for the moment, holding the line—not giving in.

3.  Measure

Incomplete projects of control and domination are thematized in a different way in the evocative works from the Simulations series.  The best of these, Measuring the Meter, establishes the rich theme of measurement and mapping deconstructed as desperate attempts to find a priori regularity in a contingent, even arbitrary natural world.   The standard unit of measurement, a length so sacred it is established by the speed of light and held in trust in the headquarters of French bureaucratization, is mapped off with bits and pieces of found elements, suggesting both the meter’s vulnerability and its necessity.  There must be a unit, if measurement is even to be possible; but any unit is no more than a sign of assumed consensus or, sometimes, applied force.  The meter’s authority is established in its policed uses, not in some transcendental fixity.

The work, here offered in homage to Jane Jacobs, also recalls Michel Foucault’s remark that there may be a category of the contingent a priori:  not the self-contradiction it seems, rather an awareness that all practices require presuppositions which, from within the practice, can be neither defended nor questioned but must be always already assumed.  The notion further echoes R. G. Collingwood’s suggestion for a ‘descriptive metaphysics’ that does not seek to justify, only to identify, the absolute presuppositions of a given practice.[iii]  Only on the basis of these are the relative presuppositions of the practice—the rules of the game—available for use; and only on the basis of those relatively assumed notions are propositions, or moves in the game, possible.  Thus the proposition “The table is 1.5 meters long” rests, as it were, atop an unspoken relative presupposition, namely that my ruler is an accurate rendering of meters.  That in turn sits upon the assumption, so deeply unspoken as to sound bizarre if phrased, that measurement is possible because there is a unit of measurement.

Collingwood is what we today would call a quasi-realist.  He is content to describe this layering of truth claims, and approve its local functionalist, without feeling any need to justify the practice independently of itself; whereas Foucault reminds us—as Blue Republic likewise do—that these taken-for-granted elements of practical life are among the most contestable political sites we know.  Or rather, we don’t know that because our knowledge—both what counts as knowledge, and the individual elements thereof—is disciplined by a “regime of truth” that renders its deepest presumptions invisible.  Measurement, so apparently innocuous, is one of these, arguably the dominant modern one.  Here, Foucault’s distinction between conaissance (generated surface knowledge) and savoir (assumed depth knowledge) offers a useful level.  Savoir, he says, may also be understood as episteme:  the assumed project of a disciplinary knowledge hygiene.  In the modern, which is to say post-Cartesian era, that hygiene is one of rendering the world of lived experience into an abstract space that can be subjected to a grid-based logic.  The ancient world harboured this dream as mathesis—a universal science of measurement and order—but only Descartes’s modern triaxial geometry made it possible in practice.[iv]

Mathesis is the link between meters and maps, and so from Measuring the Meter to the map-based Simulations, especially the perforated and shredded city maps of Untitled and NEWTOPKA.  Here, the mapping project is literally dismantled or punctured, taken apart.  Mathesis disciplines knowledge but, by the same token, it also serves to discipline subjects:  maps render individuals into locations, such that one’s position can always be found on the relevant document, and one can, in principle, be addressed as a set of coordinates.  On the map I am never without such coordinates, even if I am in constant motion.  So powerful is this Cartesian desire that many cities, especially in the New World, will adopt its conceptual grid as their own physical reality, carving the natural site into hard right angles and regular rectangular lots, numbering rather than naming the streets and avenues.  And so the map because the ultimate form of panopticon technology, making everyone and everything localizable and subject to spatial determination.

But, like hygiene more generally, the map’s peculiar spatial hygiene fails just to the extent it succeeds.  Considerations of scale, deployed here in the poster pieces 8.000 years and Check Your Vision as well as in features of the large installations, make the point vibrant.  The branching, map-like elements of the installations hint at it too, fractal mathematics being, in one sense, a recognition of the paradoxes of scale.  A map must accept, as one of its relative presuppositions, a relevant scale; a map that depicts everything is a nonsense relic out of Lewis Carroll, the 1:1 scale map that is so large is covers the entire county it seeks to represent.  The relativity of the scale presupposition depends on, but also unsettles, the absolute presupposition that accurate mapping is possible.  Once scale is chosen, things are left out and so not covered by the map.  The map can only present its truth under the aegis of a larger falsehood, or suspension of disbelief.  Its comprehensive provisionality is masked by the air of authority it offers; but that mask may be removed to uncover the desires in which mathesis is rooted.


4.  Cities of Desire

Desire itself is thematized throughout the exhibition, letting us know that this republic of blueness, of wry but melancholic reflection, may also be a site of therapeutic investigation.  The cities and scales, the tools and trash, here put into play are all, in their different fashion, implements of desire.  They carry our wishes, but at the same time show that those wishes—for direction, for control, for hygiene—are liable to be thwarted, or stalled, or turned back upon themselves.  The future yawns before us because we fail, over and over, to possess the past of our longing.

But what, after all, is desire?  It is as much an avoiding as it is a seeking-after.

“The paradox of desire,” says Slavoj Zizek, “is that it posits retroactively its own cause.”[v]  That is, we confront, and think we understand, our desires in terms of their immediate objects, which we then label as the origin of the desire:  the woman I cannot have, the car I must have, the victory I long for.  But these are not the origin of desire, merely its coagulation or fixity.  We know this, in part, because desire is constantly failing to be satisfied, even in its satisfaction, and so renewing itself.  Indeed, the paradox is deeper that just this one of cause; desire’s satisfaction is also its death, and so we enter into a dangerous game whenever we satisfy a desire.  Desire met is desire killed, and so satisfaction is necessarily dissatisfaction.  This is more than just a matter of being disappointed with what we get, or finding victory anti-climatic.  The economy of desire makes for a constant reproduction of longing in the space we call fantasy.  Desire itself is what we desire!  Thus there is an endless circulation around what Zizek (after Lacan) calls the objet petit a:  the trace of the Real of desire, which fantasy conceals.  There is a hole, or gap, which resists complete symbolization, even in fantasy:  we cannot confront directly that which we really desire.  We can see it only through a skewed view, a looking awry.

Desire’s own perversions offer such a view, as do these artworks that cast their sidelong glances, their peripheral vision, along the traces of nostalgia’s longing.  Consider boredom, that “paradoxical wish for a desire,” as Adam Phillips calls it.[vi]  Boredom, so common in the very urban experience of selfhood and scene depicted in these works, is desire stalled within itself.  At one level, boredom reveals the nature of desire as suspended within temporality and meaninglessness:  I cannot start anything, because nothing seems worth doing—nothing worth the casting of my self into the future which is desire’s project.  And yet, time still passes.  Thus, as Schopenhauer put it, “boredom is direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.  For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom:  mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us.”[vii]  As its is, desire is instead constant and mere existence insufficient.  Boredom thus marks both the withdrawal of meaning from the self, and the endlessness of desire.

Phillips is not so pessimistic.  For him, what Schopenhauer describes is not boredom itself but the “nihilistic waiting” which marks a stage of despair when boredom gives way, or gives up.  Boredom itself is still a struggle, and hence not yet nihilistic; it is experienced as frustration, and hence as an active (if perverse or paradoxical) desire.  Boredom is, in fact, what philosophers call a second-order desire, a desire about desires:  I want to want something.  In this sense, it is akin to other second-order desires and likewise related to various conditions where first- and second-order desires are in conflict, such as addiction, procrastination, weakness of the will, and so on.  Boredom still negotiates hope through expectation; it still wishes.  But it is clutched in its wishing, an engine running without the gears engaged.

One common reason for this is not, as we often imagine, a lack of object but rather a lack of obstacle.  Desire cannot know its object until it is thwarted; then the object I do not have arises for me as the ‘cause’ of the desire.  Desire needs the obstacle more than it needs the object—one reason why virtually anything, sometimes the strangest things, can be an object of desire.  Having an obstacle allows me to avoid the two terrors that attend all personal economies of desire, and explain why wanting is so important to the very idea of self.  On the one hand, I fear the merging of my self with my desire, such that there is no distance at all left between me and the objects of my wanting.  This is a species of self-dissolution, or disappearance.  On the other hand, however, I likewise fear the isolation of my self and my desire, such that I set myself against desire and is objects.  This is a species of self-abnegation, or suicide.

Both outcomes are kinds of death, whether I am swallowed up by my desire or so far repudiate them as, in a final exercise of self, kill off the self.

What is the optimal distance between merging and isolation?  Well, that is just what a self must negotiate.  Personal identity requires obstacles more than satisfactions, because the ego’s projects must be both thwarted and satisfied; obstacles are a link to the world, to knowing ‘where we are’ and ‘where we are going’.  They tell us who we are, and how we are faring.  Without them, we are not just cut adrift, we are literally nothing at all.  And so desire must forever renew its dissatisfaction, its being blocked and challenged.  Boredom is a hint at this forever, an illuminating hiccup in desire’s otherwise apparently smooth functioning—especially in social economies of desire, where consumption is urged on us at every moment, a fever of longing and its satisfaction.  This social economy requires, beneath its bright surface, a structure of swift discard and in-built obsolescence.  We must be constantly throwing things out—clothes, or tools, perhaps even trends and ideas—in order to consume new ones afresh each day.  The city becomes a mechanism for this economy, a massive machine of desire-circulation.


5.  Hope

And yet, beneath the dust and chaos of the city, within the forever renewed excitations of longing, there runs a current of hope.  The works offered here extend a critique of current economies of longing, but they may do something even more valuable:  they exhibit the elements of play that are boredom’s antithesis and rescue.  Boredom is not vanquished, merely postponed, by exciting a new desire.  Only play, with its roots in undirected and non-utilitarian desire, its utopian overtones of refusing to assimilate or end or be located, can free us from the stalls of self.  We cannot escape the economy of desire, for that way lies death, but we can re-negotiate our engagement with it in a self-fashioning, open-ended manner.  This is where desire transforms itself into the specific kind of non-nihilistic we call hope.

Jacques Derrida defines hope as “the affirmation foreign to all dialectics, the other side of nostalgia.”  By which he means that hope is the unresolved remainder, the forever left-over, in any process of rational assimilation.  The dialectic project shows itself most clearly in its failure, not its success:  there is always something more, some further antithetical gesture, that forces it onward.  And this more is that which constantly evades the project, just as the possible future reiterations of my speech or writing are mutually destabilizing.  The past use of words and phrases makes possible my present use, but also all other present and future uses, and these in turn render mine not so much finite (for this is obvious) as spectral and uncontrolled, unlimited.[viii]

As with words, so with ideas:  the principle of universal democratic inclusion, for example, is revealed most clearly—perhaps exclusively—in its limit moves, at the very moment it goes beyond what was previously accepted.  Just as the success of the map is given only in the moment of its twinned failures of edge (what lies beyond) and of scale (what is not shown), universality is never invoked as a stable achievement, only as a demand to expand the circle, to allow more in.  Once more, the more is everything, for universality is an empty signifier except for it.  Universality is as it were, visible only in its forward movement, which is to say in its previous failure.[ix]

And so again, as words and ideas go, so go forms and materials.  The nanoarchitectural experiments of these works, the sustained micro-reflection on the act of building and the fact of built forms, presses us toward a precipice of awareness about our macro-level acts of urban dwelling.  We use materials according to the sum total of their previous uses, and so subject them to the same iterational (il)logic as words, making a given use unstable even (or especially) when apparently firm; but we also, sometimes, expand on their range of uses and so shift the limit, both of use and of experience thereof.  Stuff becomes garbage and garbage becomes stuff.  Consumption is produced even as products are consume.  And so, finally, the constraints of personal space, the inside and outside of individual consciousness, are further folded in, or suspended within, these tangles, creating the rich, funny, and disturbing layering of thought that marks this exhibition.

Still, what of hope?  Derrida suggests it is the other side of nostalgia, and here we might follow his argument along lines like these:  nostalgia is criticized as false hope, the longing for a never-was harboured by someone in a never-is.  John Berger, in a sub-Benjaminian insight, associates nostalgia with glamour, the quality, he says, of reflected envy.[x]  The glamorous do not possess an essence or intrinsic quality so much as they sit at the centre of a reciprocal economy of desire, a node of envy.  My wanting to me you (or what I imagine, via mediation, you to be) is what makes you into the glamorous person.  Glamour is a positional good.  Unlike other, more straightforward position goods such as taste—i.e., my sophistication in art or sport enjoyed precisely in the act of being demonstrated as superior—glamour, like cool, has the peculiar feature that it can only be discerned by the entire desire economy.  The glamorous, in other words, need the non-glamorous in a manner as tight and inevitable as Hegel’s dialectic of lordship and bondage.  You are not envied for some talent or skill or possession; you are envied simply for being enviable.  And so, absent the enviers and there is nothing left to envy.

From this vantage, nostalgia is just a generalized envy for, and so glamorization of, an imagined time or condition.  Nothing is revealed in it except the aimlessness, indeed emptiness, of our yearning.  If the economy is reciprocal in this fashion, nostalgia, even under analysis, simply throws us back upon ourselves and our now revealed lack.  Nostalgia is indeed a sickness, but not homesickness so much as sickness at heart.  We want to believe—we want to want—but every moment of our wanting is forever turned in upon its own energy, negating and cancelling it.

And so ‘nostalgia for the present’ once more doubles and re-doubles.  Longing for a past moment is experienced in a present one, and so determines our constant, inevitable entry into the future.  Engagement with things and their effects—with systems of measurement and design—is revealed as ontologically nostalgic.  We can never recover the originary presence that orders those very systems.  We can never, any more than we can return to the longed-for past, penetrate the systems themselves to find, or uncover, what lies beneath.  The message of this exhibition’s sustained reflection on sense-making and scale is not merely that access to originary presence is blocked.  It is, in addition, that there is no beneath or origin, any more than there is a truth to the recalled and cherished golden moment—a moment that is, by definition, golden only in the glow of memory.  By the same token, presence is basic only in being the desire for solidity we experience as a result of the lack in instability’s heart.  Presence is always felt in being gone.

There is a more hopeful possibility, to be sure, and that is that nostalgia will precipitate its more robust, indeed robustly political, cognate of hope.  Perhaps we can work through nostalgia, not to lay it to rest but to perform a sort of autopsy of our heartsick condition.  Hope is the most activist of virtues—not because it always issues in action, still less because it is motivated or guided by a total dialectic understanding.  No, rather because it remains by definition open-ended and incomplete.  Hope is a variation of what Derrida means by hospitality:  the waiting and welcoming that does not demand the answer or insist on the resolution, but makes a space of receptivity for whoever may come to visit.

Thus we shift our attention from the standard Heideggerian demand to be at home, to achieve dwelling and so thinking, into a more demanding, project:  making our home available to the other.  This is the extra-dialectical logic of the gift, offered without expectation of return, the stranger welcomed without question or demand.  Odysseus returns and we do not ask to see his scar; we assume that he has scars, as we all do, and simply offer him a place.  As they have with a variety of past works, Blue Republic redeem the idea of the Present by insistent play with its meanings, thematizing the cultural and material force of Past and Future into in rich textures of humour and insight.  The gift of this complex and moving retrospective exhibition is to make us feel at home in our worldly moment even as it recalls just how homely and unwelcoming the wider world remains.


About the author:

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.  He is the author of nine books of political and cultural theory, most recently Nearest Thing to Heaven:  The Empire State Building and American Dreams (Yale 2006).  His writing on art includes catalogue essays for the painters David Bierk and James Lahey and the photographers Edward Burtynsky and Geoffrey James.  His articles on architecture and design have appeared in, among others, Harper’s, the Harvard Design Magazine, the New York Times, Canadian Art, Azure, FORM, Perspectives, Bite, Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail, and Queen’s Quarterly.  In 2000 Kingwell was awarded an honorary DFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design for contributions to theory and criticism.  He is currently at work on a book examining cities and consciousness, called Finding Your Way.

[i]  It is a small irony of naming and necessity that ‘Blue Republic’ is also, as of the moment of this writing, the name of a political weblog dedicated to progressive liberal causes in the United States, a nation whose present includes a struggle between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states.  A legacy of demographic mapping and (presumably) the American political palette, ‘red’ states are conservative and Christian, ‘blue’ states progressive and secular.  The resulting map, with blue patches concentrated in the Northeast and California, and red dominating the Middle West and South, is just the sort of attempted sense-making visual document that Blue Republic—the artists—would find worthy of perforation.  Indeed, it is a short step from this red/blue splitting of a nation’s consciousness to the satirical remapping of North America, proposed by a Swiss cartoonist, into two psychographic nations:  the ‘United States of Canada’ and ‘Jesusland’.

The rich layers of meaning that cling to blue—a separate investigation—are examined brilliantly by William Gass in On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (Godine, 1976).  Begins its long opening sentence (also repeated near the end):  “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stocking, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skins when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear…”  Blue is the colour of desire, but also of desire’s renunciation; thus it speaks here.

[ii]  For an extended meditation on this project of control in the modern urban, see Dominique Laporte, History of Shit, Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury, trans. (MIT, 2000); orig. Histoire de la merde (1978).  Among other insights, Laporte notes how the underground sewage system is a kind of subconscious echo of the circulatory economies of the ‘legitimate’ surface, the movement of bodies, goods, and money along the streets and shopfronts (nowadays, also phone lines and swipe systems) of the city.

[iii]  R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford, 1998; orig. 1940).  Collingwood’s position, a direct challenge to the logical positivism of A. J. Ayer and others, successfully updates, without the transcendental commitments, the Kantian understanding of practices as having to have elements which are always already the case.  Simon Blackburn’s recent influential defence of quasi-realism, against the presumed challenges of postmodern relativism, works over similar ground; see, e.g., Essays in Quasi-Realism (Oxford, 1993).

[iv]  Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Alan Sheridan, trans. (Random House, 1971); orig. Les mots et les choses (1969)—a bad English translation of the title, which forebears from endorsing, because it wishes to investigate, the regime of ordering.  Foucault’s historicism is often tendentious, however.  Ian Hacking, while generally sympathetic with the archaeological project, takes issue with the conaissance/savoir distinction in “Michel Foucault’s  Immature Science,” Nous 13 (1979): 39-51 at 42.  And in a recent conversation (June 2006) Hacking noted that the plausible-sounding assumption of a pre-modern ‘universal science’ or order and measurement was unfounded, and Foucault’s historical interpretation therefore flawed; also that, in contrast that English dictionaries that list numerous historical citations of ‘mathesis’ as a poetic usage (in Alexander Pope, e.g.), in French the word is labelled ‘rare’ and the dictionary citations are all to Foucault!

[v]  Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry (MIT, 1991), p. 12.

[vi]  Adam Phillips, “On Being Bored,” in On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored (Faber, 1993).  Phillips’s account of boredom is a mostly orthodox late Freudianism extended, via clinical reflection, into this key area of contemporary experience.

[vii]  Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence,” in On the Suffering of the World, R. J. Hollingdale, trans. (Penguin, 2004; orig. 1850), p. 19.  Boredom, for Schopenhauer, is characteristic of modernity because it marks the awareness that we no longer need struggle with the bare facts of existence, and so lose the meaning, however primal, offered in that struggle.   It is accurate to suggest that for him there was no such thing as boredom, though there may have been inaction and even leisure, prior to the nineteenth century.  It is a fortiori true that the contemporary city is a prime site for boredom, since it is a scene of constant desire-excitation combined with manifold stalls to desire.  (Stalls must be distinguished from frustrations, for reasons suggested in the main text above.)

[viii]  See Derrida, Limited Inc. (Northwestern, 1988) for his notorious engagement with the hygienic speech-act theory of John Searle as defended in Speech Acts (Cambridge, 1969).  Searle, claiming an inheritance of the project from J. L. Austin as set out in How to do Things with Words (Harvard, 1962), engages in an extended exercise of containment, trying by the methods of analytical philosophy to eliminate the lacunae and slippages in Austin’s original discussion of performative utterances.  The attempt reveals its truth in its failure, and Austin’s own ironic awareness is, as so often, lost in Anglo-American translation.  A good overview of this triadic engagement is found in Simon Glendinning, “Inheriting ‘Philosophy’: The Case of Austin and Derrida Revisited,” Ratio 13:4 (2000): 307-31.  Christopher Ricks, meanwhile, alertly chronicles the untidy literary tropes and tics that run through Austin’s prose in “Austin’s Swink,” University of Toronto Quarterly 61:3 (1992): 297-315.

[ix]  A fine discussion of this point may be found in Judith Butler, Excitable Speech (Routledge, 1997), which attempts with limited success an amalgamation of Derrida’s insights about reiterability with Louis Athusser’s powerful concept of interpellation—the way I am established in identity by the literal call of the other, including the frightening limit case of being hailed on the street by a shout of “Hey, you there!”  For Althusser and Butler, interpellation is always an act fraught with threat because I may be hailed as a miscreant or delinquent—that is to say, someone recognized at the moment of exceeding limits, in this case of the law.  Althusser’s extended autobiography/self-defence (including an attempted justification of murdering his wife) is, appositely for present purposes, The Future Lasts a Long Time, Richard Veasey, trans. (Chatto &  Windus, 1993); orig. L’avenir dure longtemps (1992).

[x]  John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1972).  Walter Benjamin’s more nuanced, and far more extensive, engagement with nostalgia is featured throughout his works, both in lovely exercises in it (e.g., A Berlin Childhood (Harvard, 2006)) and in deconstructions of it (passim. in The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans. (Harvard, 1999)).  Benjamin, who for better or worse gave the world of cultural theory the notion of aesthetic ‘aura’ in “The Work of Art in An Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (orig. 1934; in Illuminations, Harry Zohn, trans. (Schocken, 1968) )—a staple of analysis for Berger and many others—nowhere isolates the insight about positionality that is at the heart of Berger’s too-brief discussion.  Here there is useful joining of Benjamin’s cultural awareness with the brilliantly but sometimes overbearing reductionism of Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).  For Veblen, aesthetic judgments always, and usually swiftly, reveals themselves as claims of status; but even without going so far we can accept the power of reading many ‘qualities’ or ‘essence’ as, in fact, claims of position.  But even Veblen did not see what we can now observe everywhere:  positional goods don’t even need to be goods, in the sense of material bearers of status; position can be established by reciprocal proxy, that is, by being  judged enviable or being thought cool.