The Intimacies of the Urban

Paris je t'aime Tuileries by Narfouette

Life in a city is permeated with peculiar, oft overlooked, intimacies with strangers. Take windows.  As you walk through the city, you may casually glance up and see someone on the phone, a father playing with his kid, a family eating dinner, everyone everywhere watching tv.  You might see someone wanking his willy but he's probably doing that so you can see so that doesn't really count.

But it's not just windows.  This intimacy is everywhere, all the time.  You can smell your neighbors' cooking, are privy to their parties, their taste in music, when they wake and when they sleep and when they go out. 

In Species of Spaces, Georges Perec has a great thing on apartments: you're eating your dinner and right on the other side of the wall is someone else's bathroom. Or mere feet from where you sleep, a stranger is sleeping, as well, your two heads almost touching.  If you think about it too much, it will freak your shit out. 

When we go to the bathroom at work, in restaurants and bars, in train stations and airports, we piss, shit, pretty ourselves, change clothes, groom our nose hairs as strangers come and go inches away.

In elevators, we spend time in an incredibly small space — with strangers and their smells and ticks!  Which is a little odd!

On streets and subways and buses, we are inundated with the private selves of strangers — those hangdog faces, those looks of exhaustion or interest or exuberance or malaise. Now think of all the conversations we hear all day every day about god knows what.

For the most part, we pass through these streets with one ear and one eye, if that. We have to let this teem pass us by, even if bits here and there ricochet into our consciousness.  I find it's usually the hilarious rantings of the insane that penetrate the veil.  The mad don't know the rules of space, of sound, and so their private worlds collide into ours with more vigor.  (I can still hear the old grey haired white dude, shirtless, ranting in the West Philly streets: "I'm gonna raise an army of lesbians and take over McDonalds!")

Sometimes, you catch someone looking at you longer than they're supposed to and with a bit more interest than is prescribed.  It's always a poignant, if understated, moment when your eyes meet and the other person looks away. The speed of the encounter is everything — did they hold your gaze for a moment or did they look immediately away?

As a little boy living in Manhattan, my mother always told me not to make eye contact with strangers. Crazy things happen when strangers lock eyes; it can have the most powerful effect, tearing down protocol and inviting sudden intimacy: violence, sex, laughter, understanding. 

When you think about all the lives that intersect us with surprising intimacy, it is overwhelming. It is an incredible skill we've all learned, this tuning in and out (mostly out), this ability to be ourselves within the impossible density of other people's lives.

I used to do my laundry at this laundromat on the corner.  I'd sit outside on a bench as my clothes tumbled. A young woman — 20-something — lived in the apartment across the way. As I'd sit there, she'd saunter back and forth in less and less clothes until she was naked. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the city, even if quite beautiful. But what was truly beautiful was when we'd see each other face to face, on the street or even in the laundromat, exchanging not even a glance but sharing this very strange kind of intimacy.

Sometimes, it's distance that affords a certain kind of closeness.

From a one angle, it may seem sad as if we're ignoring each other, turning a blind eye to humanity.  But it's not sad. On the contrary, it's amazing and beautiful: to be able to live amidst such a swarm of humanity, taking in snippets here and there, all without being swept away.


αλήθεια said...

"Sometimes, it's distance that affords a certain kind of closeness." This very phrase gives me chills Dr. Coffeen! Wow! I am amazed. Another pre-Socratic like, paradoxical phrase.

Imagine if someone makes a movie based on what you write in this article. While I was going over it, I was actually imagining that one day if I ever become a film director, how I would use the camera to capture scenes from everyday life that would project this notion on intimacy that you use in your article.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, it's a version of the phenomenological argument: habit, familiarity, breeds blindness — what seems like proximity is in fact distance. It is only by being a stranger than one can begin to really see and appreciate and know.

In this case — cities — the emotional and social distance allows people to act in ways they wouldn't with their friends. I mean this girl probably doesn't strip for her friends; it's the fact that I'm a stranger, that I am at a remove, that allows her to reveal herself, at least in the flesh.

So I'm not sure if it's a paradox or an irony or neither.

αλήθεια said...

hhmm since your sentence used the two words, distance and closeness, it appeared to me to be a little ironic in the sense that when we are far away from one another we, in order to try to overcome the distance between us, find new ways to connect with one another. Those ways may perhaps be very different to the ones in which we treat our everyday friends or family. And it is this weird will to connect, or this weird magnetism between the two strangers that bases its relationship on the tension between the not yet known and the will to know and be known.
At this point I don’t even know if I am making sense. I think I am just over thinking a simple concept. I think what I was so excited about was the idea of the eternal magnetism between differences, or perhaps opposites that have the will to connect via their differences, and not with their similarities.

drwatson said...

Heidegger's essay The Thing starts by talking about how all distances are shrinking, but that this shrinking of distances brings no nearness - we feel less at home in the world according to him.

Just thought of that while I was reading the comments. Enjoyed the essay a lot.

αλήθεια said...

Exactly! I too was thinking of Heidegger while reading this article. I think he said something in this regard in his another work, Questioning concerning technology (I am not sure if that was the exact title of his work) And also in his work, Parmenides (most beautiful work I have read so far) when he talks about nature.
According to Heidgger we take nature for granted and end up using the things in nature as merely 'presences at hand' rather than 'readinesses to hand' (Heidegger and his weird vocabulary!) Which in simple words mean that the common everyday stuff that we use and see all the time is reduced to merely a means rather than a part of our life that needs to be experineced. And I personally think that for this 'experiencing of nature' to happen we need to distance ourselves from the common, whether it be through meditation (killing the ego within us, and sometimes leading a life without having a goal in mind) , or by simply experiencing Being (I still can't figure out how to do that!)
By distancing ourselves from the common, I don't necesarily mean spatial distance. I think what I mean by distancing is to let go of our everyday habitual thinking and using of the everyday common stuff present around us , and to look at the things with a generous gaze. Letting things be (letting them effect us for once rather than starting it the other way round).
To me this sounds much like a move towards instinctual philosophy that Bergson may have talked about (I read him recently so I don't feel comfortable discussing him much) But being fairly new to philosophy, I have recently encountered a problem, and I usually debate over it in my mind. The problem is that the Romantics have always had this inclination towards the instinctual, the child like, animal stage of human, but to me there is a difference between this child like position and Nietzsche's Superman. I think what I don't understand is the difference between the animal and the superman. Differences in thier characteristics.

dustygravel said...

@ αλεθεια::hmm two different ways to transcend the human all to human - or maybe there's more here, you speak of the romantic appropriation of the animal, is that a projecting of the nobelist traits of (man) onto the form of the beast? Then there's Nietzsche's superman, a disregard for the institution that is "man", that makes two, then there's Deleuze's anti-romantic becoming animal, where through participation with animal metabolisms your senses virtually become animal, hunters spraying dow urine on them selfs to attract bucks, sniffing the air and reading wild cat shit.(dog noses sniffing butts)

The hunter is only one species of man. The farmer, the teacher, the baker, the speculative stoke broker, all use their faculties in desperately different ways. Divergence rivaling that - no surpassing that of the sense between animal species.

You mention heidegger, the being for whom being is a question for its self, strange animal that is always looking back. Just like Bergson duration brain, an intuitive becoming of time. Heidegger though is stuck there grammarian sifting ancient texts for forgotten truth. The real thing in the sense that dulueze sees the real as encompassing the past in present in the form of virtual affects. Virtual affects are becoming affections in the things we feel so deeply for, the idea is that its not some kind of romantic feeling that a true artist can browed over alone tell he goes insane but is an entity that infects us with affections used present-at-hand and passed along. What I'm saying is that there is a Being that doesn't make its being a question for its self that is alway present-at-hand-with-us-as-the-world
and its name is Duration - I mean memory - I mean Difference and repetition - I mean Schizoid - I mean Super Man

Daniel Coffeen said...

I think you do get it — as you so freakin' eloquently put it in this last post.

Instinct is not opposed to "culture." For Nietzsche, the artist is the one who trains his instincts, uses his body like a canvas, molding it into something beautiful.

Of course, that may still beg the question: whence the instinct to discipline one's instincts?

I think Nietzsche does a great job of eliminating the distinction between man and animal — man is a beast among beasts, a passing phase like the ape. But that doesn't mean human animalness is the same as, say, tiger animalness. The human animal does some peculiar things — it invents conscience as a way to protect itself from the stronger human animals. The human animal invents concepts — for the same reason.

But conscience and concepts are not solely for the weaker human animals. The stronger human animals make use of concepts and conscience, too, to bond together, form packs.

So I think the superman is an animal but an animal that's been well bred, the weaker genetic makeup weeded out.

drwatson said...

@Dustygravel - I'm not sure I would say Heidegger is stuck in his, admittedly exhausting-at-times etymological project. Heidegger was the first writer that ever really showed me what thinking looks like, so I have to defend.

But I'm really curious about the rest of the paragraph. Can you give me an example or a virtual effect becoming affections in the passed along. It's an incredibly provocative phrase - just need an example to make sure I'm following.

drwatson said...


Here's a take on Heidegger that might be interesting to some. Always appreciate feedback. (Coffeen - hope you don't mind I use your blog to advertise.)

dustygravel said...

@drwatson -

This is the "virtual effect becoming affections in the passed along" a la Deleuze,

"Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts, and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived. They could be said to exist in the absence of man because man, as he is caught in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensations and nothing else: it exists in itself."(whatisphilosophy?p.164)

Affects are beings because they "is" ; ),
they are becomings because they are the change that is happening in any encounter. "sensory becoming is otherness caught in a matter of expression".
They are virtual because being real they exceed the actual.(This point I'm not totally 100% on)
Affects so long a they are "in the absence of man" are (relatively)antonyms beings, but as they pass into "man" they become affections then as they pass back out of man they become affects again to be passed throw another something or other.
This could be a sunflower that is moved to a canvas(from affect to affect) or an orchid that touches the sex organ on another orchid, what I mean is that the middle term here the artist, the wasp are in a sense conduits or mediums for the affect to travel. Thats part of what I mean by the pass along

The next part I totally botched because when I said present-at-hand what I meant was ready-to-hand.
(Its so hard to keep heideggers terms strait)
And had I done this the right way then it would have read, What I'm saying is that there is a Being that doesn't make its being a question for its self that is always ready-to-hand-with-us-as-the-world
and its name is Duration. By which I would have meant that time, flow(herbert dreyfus), flux(Coffeen)
Is incontrale of every thing in a unconscious way.
You know but I would be joking. The idea is to be used like the characters in Deleuze's b(o)w chapter in thousand plateaus, its the will of power working through us.

As for what I said about heidegger Being-stuck I didn't mean it derogatorily I was just trying to have fun. What I really was trying to bring forward is that reflection is always a retrieving from the past, and that the question of being is the question of memory. And I might add that memory is Duration and Duration is really in control here. Fate. amor fati.

@Coffeen;But this blog is about proximity. Becoming stranger. I wander how 4 inches of drywall and fiberglas affects a becoming? What is the becoming of privacy? How does privacy skip over us in its affective passed along?

drwatson said...

@dustygravel - I love the language - and I've actually read some of those passages - but what I"m looking for is an example. I'm sort of following the sunflower example - but "affect to affect" makes me want to dig my nails into my my palms. I mean the way I see the artist and art is that they co-create each other - so I'm a bit worried about calling the artist a conduit. It sounds like to me you know what you're talking about but I'm not grasping something. Actually as I reread I'm almost positive the lack is on my side of this equation - so sorry for that. (I hope that doesn't come across snotty - it's not how I mean it at all).

I like Heidegger's terms because I've read enough people, usually not Heidegger, who are nice enough to go "Well you know it's like when you try to open a door and it's locked. You look at it as an object in a way you usually never notice it. And that's what Heidegger means by...." If that makes sense.

dustygravel said...

@ drwatson: Thank you for you're generosity. I have to let you know though that I'm trying to find a way to make concepts in an experimental way, unpremeditated. The mess is expected, so don't feel bad if you think something I'm saying is stupid.

Yes it's true one always has a choice to resist the force of affect. People fight their feelings, but to fight feelings is to denial ourself. We don't have to eat but the affect of food has a force on our hungry bellies. The food wants to pass through us, not in a self conscious way of course but in the way that Heiddegger talks about the ready-to-hand(without theorizing) using us like a hammer. The affectional pass along doesn't ever stop or brake down so it has no need for the present-at-hand mode of being.(or maybe the present-at-hand is braking up of affects into smaller entity in order to move around and reorient them selfs.)

I don't think the turchered artist has the anxiety of choice like Kierkegaard. The will of affect works over the artist and drive him.

The play of affects often offers us a choice in the mater, "do I want sleep or food?" but they do inevitably have their way with us. Coffeen talks about seduction but I think the power of affect is more often a subtle affair. And at any rate we can't anticipate where affects are leading us even in the case where were aware enough to know what's happening to us. Affects like events too are deferred like Derrida.

Well any way maybe the power we have is the power of selection and the power of effect is a real force. but isn't that true also of a conduit?
Good art should take on a life of its own. Yes thats it! but the life of it's own is the affective pass along.
We can trace the history of an oviera and we can trace the history of an Affect in its pass along, we usually call it influence but we attribute it to the pioneering artist but isn't that kind of funny because the real influence is the affect its self, a certain bend of a sting, tiny little brush strokes. It's a bad artist that does something only because some one else dose it the real influence is in the affect itself. It's not that I want to down play the roll of the artist or wasp I want to emancipate the power of affect. So what I want to do is see these affects as entities moving through the more familiar figures.

Think of it! The Affects are beings too. They are beings that we love, and hate, trust and have faith in. The force is in the smile of your loved ones. It is the smile of your loved ones. It is your loved ones!

P.s. thanks for humoring me.

drwatson said...

@Dustygravel - this is wonderful - incredibly helpful. Thank you. Seriously, great examples.

dustygravel said...

Oh man and there's so manny ways to think of these things.

There is a theology in all this, a logic of deities and their influence on the human world. In-fact this logic is even better then platonism in explaining the divine because these forms are not static but dynamic. This is what Duleuze means by demonology. The root of all religion is animism. Animism is another way of explaining the affective power of material objects. The affects are deities because of their power over us. Incantations and rituals literally somen the power with in material objects through the dramatic movement of bodies and the affects are loosed upon and through the event. Thats what it was all along and we haven't by any means moved past it. Art is this play of effects. Deleuze rejects the theater in favor of a desire factory. But the theater he's rejecting is the theater of representation. We can't forget how much of his understanding of the production of desire comes from Artued, a play wright. The point is that the drama of affect is always on the plain of imminence, on the stage of the theater of cruelty. There's no stock characters just movements and the power that cores through them. But what of the Affect as character? Is that just totemism? Maybe thats what I'm looking for a way of seeing that can morph from vitalism into totemism into materialism into phenomenology into realism into idealism.

So lets think of an Affect and name it.
In music these are genres. Think of the way a particular affect moves across subjects in punk rock.
There is a snarl in the lip that moves from elvis to johnny Rotten to Billy idol joey romon. But think about the way that snarl interacts with the world, it insights a seen where ever it goes regardless of the subject it inhabits. You might say that its a way of taking up the world but it's also taking us. the punk snarl isn't the only entity that moves like this there's all sorts of these entities, loudly smacking gum in the mouth, fingers adjusting a tie, clearings of a throat, swagger in a leg, oh and the way a parent will use their child's full name then the kid is in trouble.
There is a whole war between these entities right there in our every day life. Richard Dawkins calls them memes but this is one Theodicy that he cant escape.

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