Topographics in Pursuit of Spirit:
A Post Hoc Artist’s Statement
“One can enter a zone of becoming with anything, provided one discovers the literary or artistic means of doing so.”[i]
“There is nothing we cannot say. That doesn’t mean that we can say everything; there is no ‘everything’ to be said. There is nothing we cannot know. That does not mean we can know everything; there is no everything, no totality of facts or things, to be known.”[ii]
“we are witnessing the collapse of the distinction between epistemology (language) and ontology (world) and the progressive emergence of a ‘practical ontology’ (Jensen, 2004) in which knowing is no longer a way of representing the unknown but of interacting with it, i.e., a way of creating rather than contemplating, reflecting, or communicating.”[iii]
Starting on the first of January 2017, I sat on the banks of the Providence River for about thirty minutes each day, for a few days shy of one month. The spot I claimed for the duration was beneath a willow tree about six feet from the water’s edge, though on some days rain and snow compelled me to move to a nearby bench beneath an open gazebo. I kept a journal of thoughts and descriptive sketches, and recorded about fifteen minutes of ambient sound from every session.
In February of 2017, I presented a solo exhibit titled Topographics in Pursuit of Spirit: A Month Spent Getting to Know the Providence River. A mixed media installation, it juxtaposed different modes of representing the river: the journal pages, the sound recordings, played in a loop; a bowlful of water, drawn from the river’s edge, and several dozen urban planning maps, cropped and mounted to the gallery walls.
My expressed goal in starting the project was to gain insight into “whether and in what ways my experiences of the place and its formalized representations might intersect.” Without pretending originality, I wanted to explore what abides in the gaps between map and territory, representation and experience, text and the material world.
About a year has passed since I started visiting the river, and this feels like a good time to reflect on what I learned from the experience. In the short essay that follows, I hope to convey both what those meditations taught me, and in what ways my operative assumptions going in have since been challenged. But first, let me provide a quick sketch of the Topographics exhibit, the tangible end-product of my idling among the ducks for so many days.
Topographics grew out of a research paper on the spatial transformations of downtown, Providence, Rhode Island, from the late 1950s to the turn of the millennium. The paper was narrowly focused on the legacy of urban planning and policy as inscribed in the built environment. But it also attempted to scrutinize the logics of planning as evidenced in several decades of downtown master plans. My research for both these foci involved spending a lot of time with maps, some claiming to show existing conditions, others peddling visions of improvement and renewal, but all representing the river as a static landscape feature.
The maps fascinated me — for their poetic efficacy as iconic-symbolic registers as much as for their estrangement from lived experience. I was inspired to do more with them than a thesis-driven history paper would allow, to study them more closely as media. I wanted to defamiliarize them, if only for my own sake, to articulate the chasm between signifiers and signified, and to see what might abide in that between-ness. This ambivalent curiosity toward the maps, almost all of which featured the downtown river, was the impetus behind the Topographics project — a fixation, in Stanley Cavell’s sense of the term as “something in me failing to to dawn.”[iv]
The river itself attracted me in a more complex, more relational way — as a presence, as a living system, as a semiotic locus, and in the dynamism of containing all those qualities at once. Granted, this could be said for many entities, from a mouldy loaf of bread to an island kingdom. So why the Providence River? Partly because my relation to it had become so freighted with other people’s stories, ones that privileged considerations of utility in emphasizing the role of the river as the “centerpiece” of an urban “renaissance.” I wanted to discover what it might mean to encounter this particular entity — of which I was fond but felt estranged from by immersion in such crass mythologies — as an unmediated presence, whatever that might mean. This is a point I will return to, but first (at the risk of defeating my own aims) to provide some orienting details:
The Providence River is formed by the confluence of two inland waterways, the Moshassuck and the Woonasquatucket. It runs between College Hill and the eastern edge of the city’s downtown, where it follows a narrow course bounded by stone walls and lined with public walkways. This configuration is relatively new: until the early 2000s, highway ramps lined both sides of the “Old Harbor” section. Prior to that, from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, warehouses and port facilities dominated the waterfront, while the waterways carried sewage and industrial waste from inland neighborhoods. For most of the eighteenth century, before infill and urban growth, wetlands surrounded the river, extending west over land since claimed for housing and commerce (the spot where I sat in January was underwater three centuries before).
Southeast of downtown, the river passes beneath a hurricane barrier, then feeds into Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. It is a stopping place for geese, ducks, and seagulls. Menhaden and other fish transit through in small numbers. Litter collects among rocks along the shoreline. The area is noisy during the day thanks to a surge of new construction along the path of the former interstate. People stroll along the riverwalks well into the night.
To return to the exhibit, in the planning stages, I faced the question of what kinds of official representations to include from among decades of capture in diverse media, as well as my own recordings in text, sound, and image. In the end, I decided against including any photographs or video footage of the river environs. This was a purposeful absence meant to short-circuit the satisfaction that “registers of the real” tend to produce: of getting a sense for the place, of getting the picture. Instead, the walls were arrayed with details of maps concerned with zoning, development, landscaping, traffic flow, sedimentation, pollution, and fish populations, and other things. However, the maps’ keys and legends were mostly cropped away. The intent behind this occlusion of message was to foreground the mediality of the maps — and as such their contingent, somewhat arbitrary, often strange, and unstable nature.
The journal was presented on a small table beneath one wall opposite a sweep of maps. For each entry, I included a timestamp, weather metrics, and a log of what I had consumed on that day, followed by an open-ended sketch of the experience. The form of the journal, and the accompanying sound recordings, was influenced, like the New Topographics photography of the early 1970s, by the logic of “systems-based strategies,” whereby, as Greg Foster Rice describes, “unification is not through the continued exploration of an expressive or thematic model but adherence to a system whose rules are given at the outset.”[v] These ritual constraints helped to keep the project alive against the dissipative temptation to do too much.
I talked about “embodied knowledge” often in describing the aims of this project to myself and others. But what does the term “embodiment” actually mean? In Nicole Boivin’s rich exploration, it rests on the proposition that “all human thought is to some degree rooted in somatic processes and embodied activity,” and emphasizes “the continuity between mind and body,” as well as the experience of “being in the world.”[vi] Negatively, it often signals an effort to escape the pathologies of false detachment that typify discourses of authoritative knowledge, and which practitioners in so many fields, whatever their leanings, find themselves locked into; what Isabelle Stengers diagnoses as “a general conquest bent on translating everything that exists into objective rational knowledge.”[vii] Accordingly, the idea of embodiment resists the Baudrillardian horror of total virtuality by plotting escapes from the snares of overcoding in search of the unextended body, or sensorium — its telos, which it claims as a preserve of the real.
Topographics was part of my own attempt to understand what embodiment, and embodied knowledge, might mean in practice. It was a means of withdrawal from the suffocating representational logic of planning and policy documents, and arose from a desire to “break up” with the idealist ways of thinking that those source materials enacted.
Does embodiment, in a world enmeshed in logos, signal an epiphanic return? I was secretly hoping for as much on the banks of the Providence River, even or especially on those occasions when the cold rose up through my tailbone and my fingers started to numb. Nothing extraordinary happened, though, or at least, nothing about the experience felt extraordinary. My back ached, my stomach groaned and the buzz of my phone reverberated through my thigh.
What I sought was a kind of embodiment perhaps, but not this. There were moments of feeling an expansive sense of connection, but just as often I felt disconnected, alone in my sensations — embodied in a private sense, separated from others by sensations not shared[viii]:
“My attention returns again, it seems, to the body after 35 or 40 minutes. I wonder if this is a wall that I can break through (now my phone buzzes). The wall is not the body per se but the present limits of my attention (1/4/17).”
Was what I sought in fact a desire not to more fully inhabit the body, but to transcend it? Perhaps, but the kind of transcendence so implied leads right back to the thickets of the dualisms that I wished to disavow. Perhaps my sense of “embodied” disconnection in those moments of acute discomfort (not to mention those passing states of crankiness, haziness, and anxiety) had to do not with the tyranny of the flesh but with the hyperactivity of the mind, of consciousness, which in its fixations, its constitutive tendency to seek things in need of doing, makes it seem as if the problem at hand is all that matters, ever more so when the problem is ignored. The body is almost incidental here: in moments of pain or discomfort, the focus of consciousness will of course reside within the body, but it could just as easily reside without. I am prompted to this line of thought by Gregory Bateson’s essay “Conscious Purpose, Versus Nature” in which he writes :
“Each additional step toward increased consciousness will take the system farther from total consciousness. To add a report on events in a given part of the machine will actually decrease the percentage of total events reported.”[ix]
It is not the leg’s pins and needles but the mind’s fretful speculations about what might result — the anxious leaning into possibility — that makes one feel out of sync, what Eduardo Kohn describes as “the weight of all possible futures opened up by the symbolic imagination.”[x]
Thinking about the body leads me to recognize the fact of privilege. Were I not fair-skinned with European features, would I have had the freedom to loiter at the same spot for almost a month, here in the United States, noticed by police but never once questioned? If the shared world is woven in webs of predation, as Kohn suggests, and the semiotics of one’s very presence are never entirely or even largely chosen, then claiming space in the way that I did was an exercise in privilege of a very high order. And unlike some of the other people who lingered on those January days, I had a warm, private place to return to with a well-stocked pantry, and on those couple days when I felt sick or exceedingly wary, I chose to stay home.
I almost always felt more than I could say, but what lay behind the alien-feeling words that I had come to rely upon in describing this place? Words not only failed to express, they led me adrift from the experience for which they had been summoned, such that the effort of trying to put certain perceptions into words was self-defeating. The search for words in effect impoverished my perceptions: “My mind begins to generalize landscape features and withdraw attention from what it cannot yet describe. I don’t know how to break through that hardening filter yet (1/16/17).”
Did another language, another grammar lay in wait? One that could express the “spirit” rippling through me there? My sense of something sacred, because elusive, risked capture within a narrative of declension, of my saying that this-once fertile place is deadened by infill, pollution, and dredging — that it awaits redemption. That may be so. But the spirit that attracted me doesn’t reach from across a temporal or teleological divide. Neither does it abide in spite of the built environment, or seem clearly delineated from the same. It is in the minnows, ducks, and tractors; the willow tree, and the old remaining highway lights. It rides on bird sounds, lapping water, bus motors, and distended beats from car stereos.
The spirit of the river, or of the river-city assemblage, seemed to “body forth” through these thousand extensions, at least when I felt attuned to it. Which may be why, without ever fully believing it, I wanted to test whether trawling so much minutiae into words might bring what felt like spirit forward from behind it all.
The phrase in pursuit of called to something secret and epiphanic, constitutive but inexpressible. Something like “spirit,” the stated object of the whole endeavor, but the word slips and fissures the more I try to own it.
A journal entry from January 19th keeps falling out of the binder. It reads:
Wind picking up — the surface of the water ripples freely, the reflections of light elongate and merge.
Smells? A slight brininess — very slight. Cold air pleasant as it enters the nose, [but] slightly uncomfortable as it rises to a space behind the brow line, at least a few inches back.
Lone duck flies past, low to the water, quacking hoarsely, eastbound.
Machinery from different directions. Car motors dicing air.
River generates the city. City writes itself onto the river. Contiguous with the sea, and every body of water that feeds it. Unitary molecular body. Deferred habitat.
I don’t remember writing this passage, but it speaks to me now as maybe containing the kernel of an insight. Was my pursuit for something more like an awareness of “multiplicity,” in the sense intended by Deleuze and De Castro, than an encounter with “spirit”? The former defies description, but it doesn’t point to what purports to lie beyond the sensible — rather, it is always already the condition of being. As “the mode of existence of pure intensive difference,” a “less than one,” it gets at something close to what we sometimes mean, or at least what I kind of meant, by “spirit” — an animating principle, not defined by extensive boundaries — without reproducing the old dualisms that send the eyes skyward or make of this world a veil.
Toward the end of an evening spent away from the writing of this essay, I came across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s Claim of Reason that speaks to this semantic-epistemological impasse, and plots a way forward even as it seems to retreat:
The spirit of the wind is neither smaller nor larger than the wind; and to say it is in the wind is simply to say that it exists only where there is a wind. If I say the spirit of the wind is the wind, I wish to be understood as telling you something not about a spirit but about the wind. (I claim to know nothing about spirits that you do not know.) On that understanding, then: The spirit of the body is the body.[xi]
Which is not, in my reading, the same as saying that the word spirit does nothing other than mystify the fact of the sensible exceeding description (which it always does).. Even less does it merely express some ill-fated desire for transcendence of this-the-only-reality. “The spirit of the body is the body.” Perhaps what this proposition modifies, most of all, is what we mean by body — the ontological finitude of the term, or the fixity of its extensive boundaries, which give way to something like a circuit of becomings of which we only perceive an arc.[xii] I don’t mean to be obscure. Cavell’s radically non-dualist speculation is echoed in Deleuze’s notion of “pure intensive difference.” When perception is allowed to shift from lines of contour to lines of force (which is no small feat when the edifice of one’s language leans away from it), the realm of something like spirit opens up.[xiii]
An archive of the Topographics project can be found at samuelcoren.com
[i] Daniel W. Smith in Introduction to Deleuze, Gilles, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (London: Verso, 1998), xxx.
[ii] Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford, 1999), 239.
[iii] Eduardo Batalha Viveiros De Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology, trans. Peter Skafish (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014), 105.
[iv] Cavell, Claim of Reason, 369.
[v] Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach, Reframing the New Topographics (Chicago, IL: Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago 2013), 61.
[vi] Nicole Boivin, Material Cultures, Material Minds: The Impact of Things on Human Thought, Society, and Evolution (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), 68, 66–67.
[vii] Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux journal, no. 36 (July 2012): 2nd page.
[viii] This diagnosis was informed by Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford, 1999).
[ix] Gregory Bateson, “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (U Chicago, 1972), 438.
[x] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Univ of California Press, 2013), 48.
[xi] Cavell, Claim of Reason, 400.
[xii] See Gregory Bateson, “Conscious Purpose” and other essays in Steps to an Ecology of Mind.
[xiii] See De Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, 111: