Thursday, 15 April 2010

master of all i survey

Shanghai, by Harry Kaufman

After the jump is a response to Mark Cousins' recent lecture series entitled 'the neighbour'...

“All knowledge of relations connecting or opposing beings to one another implies an understanding of the fact that these beings and relations exist… Every relation with a particular being assumes an intimacy with, or forgetting of, being. Moreover, how can the relation to a being be anything initially but the understanding of it as a being– the fact of freely letting it be as a being? To relate to beings as beings means to let beings be, to understand them as independent of the perception that discovers and grasps them.”
Emmanuel Levinas.
In French there are two terms that might be used to translate the English neighbour: le prochain (used interchangeably with the Italian prossimo) and le voisin. While the former was the subject of Mark Cousins’ recent lecture series, I want to develop an argument pertaining to the latter.

Prochain means ‘the next’ or ‘the near’, and is a description of physical relations between subjects. Voisin might initially be easily confused with prochain, since its Latin origin (vicinus) refers to ‘a collection of buildings that is found around a given point’. The temptation is to therefore classify voisin as a spatial relation, like prochain, between an individual and their vicinity.
But in only describing physical relationships, the prochain leaves open the question of the origins of those subjects. The employment of voisin, on the other hand, proposes an entire cosmogonic model, including the metaphysical assertion that there is a world in existence and it is capable of being known.

The justification of voisin as a statement of global apprehension would seem to rely on a common root with voir (to see). However voir stems from videre, not from vicinus. It is only in their shared Proto-Indo-European root vit (also wit and weyd) that the similarity becomes clear. Accordingly, savoir is not only to have knowledge of something, it is to recognise (acknowledge) it by sight. A single word that summarises well the connection between ‘to see’, to know’ and ‘to be present’ is the English descendent of vit: witness.

That this meaning of ‘seeing’ or ‘knowing’ is retained in voisin is demonstrated by Montaigne’s employment of voisin as “ce qui présente un trait de ressemblance, un caractère d'analogie” [he who presents a trait of resemblance, an analogous characteristic]. In other words, the neighbour is someone who is seen, known, and recognised and not simply in physical proximity.

This rather long explanation of why voisin means ‘he who I see, who I know’ and not only ‘he who is next to me’ is a preamble to introducing the neighbour as manifestation of the other. It should be pointed out that the presence of architecture in our assessment of the neighbour is purely coincidental. When describing either the ‘vicinity’ or the ‘proximity’ our own dwelling is not excluded. We do not partition our own property from the property of our neighbour otherwise we would have no way to indicate territory of an ambiguous or collective nature (for example, common amenities or the public realm). When we employ these terms we are describing a limited field that we have knowledge of, irrespective of the ownership of the objects and subjects within it.

Lacan writes on the development of babies during the Mirror Stage. He notes that at the moment of self-recognition the infant, far from exhausting its interest in its own image, engages in an exchange of movement designed to possess its image. Even before the formation of the linguistic ego the ultimate will of the self is to control everything within sight. Lacan goes on to argue that our fundamental frustration with the world is that, put simply, “it doesn’t do what I want it to do”.

When Levinas’ explains our response to confrontation with another being he calls it ‘the intimacy or forgetting of being’. Foremost, he says, is the necessity for us to freely allow the other to be, ‘as independent of the perception that discovers and grasps them’.

For the anonymous metropolitan this condition becomes almost impossible. His neighbour is the being that is near him, seen by him, but not controlled by him. Finding himself in the position of constant confrontation with others, even the decision to ignore the neighbour is a type of acknowledgement. If by accident he meets his neighbour’s eyes he becomes morally obliged to them, their sameness infringes his individuality and their otherness only reminds him of his fundamental struggle with an uncontrollable world. In short, for the metropolitan citizen the neighbour is the single greatest source of metaphysical stress.

The inescapability of what might be termed the metropolitan other arouses within the citizen a desire for solitude. As Heidegger puts it: “The quiet heart of the clearing is the place of stillness from which alone the possibility of the belonging together of Being and thinking, that is, presence and apprehending, can arise at all.”

The drive towards isolation from our urban neighbour is founded in ontological and egotistic thoughts: I must be the master of all I survey.


  1. Hi Jack,

    Enjoyed the post!

    Do you know if the lecture series you referred to is going to be available online?

    Also, just wondering if the the reference to Montaigne came from the essay on friendship or elsewhere?


  2. Thanks!

    Word on the street is that some time ago Mark Cousins found a bootleg DVD of his lectures for sale at Camden Market and since then has refused permission to put them online. They are available at the AA Photo Library - maybe send them an e-mail and see whether you can get a copy...

    The Montaigne quote comes from Essais, II, 33 the reference to which I found via La Centre National de Resources Textuelles et Lexicales (my knowledge of Montaigne is not actually very good).

  3. Bootleg lectures in Camden??? That's niche! I asked if I could get copies of some lectures from the AA before but no joy. Can't afford a membership at the mo so I'll just have to wait and see if anything pops up on the Web.

    Thanks for the citation. Unfortunately my grasp of French is pretty poor so I think I'll have to wait until someone gets me the Penguin edition of his essays. Likewise, my knowledge of Montaigne comes second hand. The post reminded me of the issues I was thinking about when I read Derrida's 'Politics of Friendship' a few years back.

    Good stuff!

  4. I liked your etymological probe into neighbor although I disagree slightly with the outcome. I think its important to say that a need for distance is one outcome of metropolitan life but not the only one - These guys are all talking about an exchange where the boundaries between people become blurred, it is only when you cannot accept the gift (sorry to sound wanky but thats the type of wording they use) of yourself/others that you feel the need to isolate and hide. So essentially I reckon your focusing on the negative of what is at its heart a search for connection and mutual exchange where both parties blend rather than divide.