Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Shifting Shorelines #3: Atlantikwall

A fragment of bunker that has toppled from a cliff above and is slowly being pushed into the sea by coastal erosion. Normandy, via Flickr.

Today’s post concludes the Shifting Shorelines posts and is a cerebral journey through time and space…
If you're new to the series, start at the beginning.

The goal of this mini-series was to examine Western conceptions of space, and hopefully to show how our understanding of place in time is really quite flawed. From London to New York, the final geographical focus is the shoreline of Europe between Norway and Spain.

I am talking about the Atlantikwall, the massive system of military reinforcements and installations that the Nazi’s built way-back-when, and the subsequent subject of several fascinating analyses, namely by Ballard and Virilio.

The metropolitan bookends of the Atlantic demonstrated what happens when an object (a building, say) is fixed, and the shoreline or city moves around it. By contrast, the action of time on the coastal defences is exactly the opposite. Hitler’s unintentional eternal architecture is moving. Shamed by its parent it is creeping year by year towards the sea, and out of the limelight of history. Since space and time (according to Einstein) are completely relative, the two processes are consequently identical; it simply depends on your point of view.

The basis of our understanding of space is the cardinal (or Cartesian) crosshair: a three-dimensional matrix of x, y and z co-ordinates. It relegates any particle in the universe to a very specific point in space (which is an ether, or a vacuum, that is then filled with matter). But there is an essential paradox: space is defined by its volume – which is abstract and empty – and not by the matter that occupies it.

69, the Hackney Road will always be 69, the Hackney Road, even if the shady striptease that occupies the site is demolished, because in occidental terms the place is defined by its point relative to another place, and not by the materiality of the building. The building, by contrast, is restricted by its materiality. If the striptease is demolished, even if the same owner builds another striptease, we call that a new building, and demarcate it as different from the ‘old’. This is called a cadastral mentality. In China, certain thinkers would tell you that when the new Freedom Tower is finished, it will be the same tower as the one that occupied the site before – that is, there is a continuity of building identity, even when there is no material continuity.

It is, therefore, a relative universe we live in. Our precision about the location of material in space (and its associated properties of volume, velocity, etc.) is dependent on where we set the 0,0,0 of out cardinal grid, which is arbitrary. The basis of all perception of space starts with two points. So it is that we navigate our own planet (longitude and latitude), where the two fairly arbitrary starting points (Greenwich and the equator) thus determine the identity of all places on the planet for all time.

Take a white room with no doors or windows – it could be anywhere, and for precisely that reason it is nowhere or everywhere. Its lack of referents renders it aspatial. By contrast, the smallest aperture immediately infers context and location. It positions the room somewhere and therefore permits for the conditions of genus loci, or the particularities of a place.

But, given that matter is in constant flux, and that everything in the universe is constantly moving, how can one choose an Ultimate 0,0,0? Even Greenwich is spinning round at over a thousand miles per hour (or a little bit faster than the speed of sound), and the planet itself is revolving around a star, and that star is moving in the galaxy, which is… and so on. So there can be no objective stationary point, and therefore no ability to claim that one point in space remains the same over time.

The eventual difference is between place and location in space. We tend to use the two interchangeably, but I think it is fair to make a distinction. A location in space is the occidental way of saying “a position relative to me and my body whose definition I understand and accept, and which I believe exists in time, immutable”, while a place is something we recognise as completely subjective, and changeable, susceptible to our experience and relation to it. It may be linked to personal associations or a sense of identification. The adult that returns to their childhood home to find it has become a ruin recognises that it is no longer the same place – that the place survives solely in memory. By contrast, once the house is restored that adult may be tempted to view it as once again the place of their childhood, even though materially it is quite different.

Finally, I think Borges excellently outlines the absurdities of our belief in the absolute referential system of space over time, by reversing the situation – by making time the constant and space non-continuous. I have mentioned the fable before, but it bears repeating:
"The hypothetical case of nine men who on nine successive nights experience a sharp pain. Would it not be absurd, they asked, to pretend that the men had suffered one and the same pain?"

The continuation of a similar pain in the same location over nine nights is coincidental, and not evidence that it is the same pain. The same would be true of an object: a coin seen in a room by nine men over nine successive nights is, materially, equally non-continuous. Further, to claim that a lost coin on monday and a found coin on friday (that bears the traces of having spent several days in the rain) are the same coin is nothing more than the 'association of ideas'. Classic Borges. This is why the spirit of place is non-continuous in time, but exists only for the moment it is experienced. Try returning to any childhood holiday site and see if the essence of the locale remains...

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