2.27.2011

Towards a Soft Architecture: Some Thoughts on Lisa Robertson


For the past year or so, I've become quite taken with the poet — I think that's the right word — Lisa Roberston. Her writing articulates a certain phenomenology — not what phenomenology is, as Merleau-Ponty does, but how a phenomenological perspective speaks.

Yes, this seems absurd, as everything spoken, by definition, is a phenomenon. So what I mean to say is that her writing bends language to flow with the chiasm of the visible and invisible, relentlessly performing the intertwining of concept, affect, and thing. So while a philosopher operates mostly with concepts (and affects and things, too, but less so) and an artist tends to work with affects and things (and concepts, too, but less so), Robertson's writing moves amongst all more or less equally.

The effect, not to mention the affect, is astounding.

My purpose here is to advance into
the sense of the weather, the lesson of

the weather. Forever I'm the age 37
to calm my mind. I'm writing sentences here
of an unborrowed kind. The sky is
mauve lucite. The light lies intact and
folded. You can anticipate the wind.
(from "The Weather," p. 24)

It's hard to pull a quote from her. The prose is ceaseless, even when staccato (especially when staccoto), because the world is ceaseless. Being can't be summed up because it's always becoming. You find a hint of this in Merleau-Ponty's prose, in sentences that wind, relentlessly qualifying themselves. But in Robertson, this winding is of another nature — it has no need to wind back on itself because it's not trying to explain anything (as Merleau-Ponty does). Her writing keeps moving with the world, along its curves and undulations, its planes and plains.

Here is a passage I pull, beginning mid-stride and ending mid-stride — watch how it moves from conceptual pronunciations (that are never universal, always local: "flow implicates us") to statements of physical fact ("the hill slopes up") to statements of affective fact ("we accept the dispersal"):

..The hill slopes up. Our pearls broke. We are watching ourselves being torn. It's gorgeous; we accept the dispersal. It's just beginning; we establish an obsolescence. It's petal-caked; flow implicates us. It's so still; ease of movement is possible. It's very hot and fine; where does this success come from? It's wild; culture will fit now. It's chilly; we try to shape culminations.... ("The Weather," 33-34).

In another book, she writes on behalf of the Office for Soft Architecture. I am in love with this phrase and have written about it before. It begins with a manifesto that, like all her writing, is particular and hence it's hard to pull a passage:

Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archaeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica's black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us.

Now that's a sentence! Space is infused with things, with time, its bears its past and its now, it is stuff and affect and ideas grand and small, little moments, streaks of thought. There is no space that is not shaped, that is not affective. For Robertson, the world is not a stage. The world is always happening. It is not a hard stage upon which the softness of human lives and dreams and incidents and affect take place. No, the architecture is soft from the get go.

After the Soft Architecture Manifesto, there are a few essays and then the book is structured by a series of seven walks. The walk: in motion, interacting with the world, perceiving the world. This is not Descartes locked in his room. This is philosophy in motion and art in practice and something else entirely — life, perhaps. The walker — not Baudelaire's flaneur (but akin), not the middle aged mother doing as her doctor ordered, not the geologist taking up specimens of ground but some combination of all three and more.

Lisa Robertson's writing is a lesson in language and becoming and teaches us, or teaches me, how to walk with the world.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks, Daniel, for your wonderful observation on Robertson's book. I was wa/ondering around Powells Books in Portland looking for some texts on which to base a First Year Writing course on the concept of walking and I was drawn to Robertson's little book so much so that I paid the $20 and went home and started to read it. Like you I found the prose a delicious tangle. As I read I began to make connections to other works and then, to my surprise, I saw in the endnote that she had already listed these works as sources. It's a magical little book that one should take time to read--slowly.