Thursday 26 June 2008

The Emergence of Social Space

The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, by Kristin Ross (Verso Radical Thinkers III Series)

During the Paris uprisings of 1871, the houses in the areas appropriated by the Commune were gutted so that:

Insurgents can move freely in all directions through passageways and joining houses together – the enemy is frozen and stationary

Street fighting, writes Ross, depends on mobility and permanent displacement. It involves transforming houses into passageways, reversing or suspending the division between public and private space. This formidable and exhilarating sentiment pierces the epicentre of the impressive The Emergence of Social Space. Through her mixing of tenses to simulate an eviscerated ‘spatial’ interpretation of poetry, politics and human activity, her constant assertion is of Rimbaud’s own professed dialectic, that he be taken ‘literally’ and ‘dans tous les sens’ (according to all possible meanings).


Paris Commune, 1871, dans tous les sens

Ross spends a good deal of time constructing a highly persuasive argument that the 1871 commune, with Rimbaud’s poetry at the centre, should be observed from a spatial critique, with some startlingly comprehensible results. When discussing Marx’s opinions about the commune, she notes that his original dismay at their seemingly misguided actions (toppling the Vendome column but ignoring the Banque de France) was revised when he considered their actions as existing outside the space of contemporary society – ‘a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life’. The actions of the commune exist in a space divorced from extant reality, since they aren’t contingent on the parameters of civil society which dictate, to a greater or lesser extent, not only the action, but the interpretations of those who were not involved. The purpose of the commune is inextricably bound up within the shifting of parameters between what Freud would have termed the innenwelt and umwelt – not only in its existence in and for itself, but the resultant comprehension by others of a union of public and private space.

To garner a sense of what is meant by social space, Ross invokes Feurbach against the more usual critical dimension: ‘Time is the privileged category of the dialectician, because it excludes and subordinates where space tolerates and coordinates’. Our tendency is to think of space as an abstract, metaphysical construct, as the container for our lives rather than the structures we help create. The analysis of social space is described as an ‘ethics of combat’, one that poses space, not time, as the terrain of political practice. If an action is judged within the terms of its spatial execution, it negates the temporal problematic of historiographical subjectivity – space is a composite of the acculturation of ‘successive modernisations’ – and as such can encompass that action both ‘literally, and dans tous les sens’.

The actual, practical consideration of poetry’s function in contemporary society is unclear. On the one hand, poetic forms inform and shape so much of our daily experiences – not merely art, but political rhetoric and corporate advertising (unfashionable statement, but unfortunately true). On the other, poetry in itself is increasingly sidelined, an impractical medium often relegated to the playground of whining adolescents and self indulgent middle aged hippies, or academics poring over the poetry of yore. This statement is purposely polemicised to highlight my own ignorance, because the further I read into The Emergence of Social Space, the more I realised I had been considering the problem in entirely the wrong way. What Ross is advocating is not an overhaul of poetic critiques en masse, but rather a particular methodology for approaching one specific, bewitching and rather maddening poet; Mr Arthur Rimbaud.

Her assertion is relatively simple – Rimbaud does not stand so much in time, as he stands in space. Less of a person, more of an event in his own right, Rimbaud is the enigmatic symbol of antiestablishment, a boy who wrote all of his poetry between the ages of 15 and 21, who enhanced and destroyed the lives of those around him, and became the poster child for the idealised free spirit adored by the likes of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. Reading Rimbaud’s poetry in spatial terms, though, Ross attempts to rescue him from the sterilising notion that he is in some way ‘immature’ (the same argument is established when she establishes dialogue between the early and later works of Karl Marx), and through a series of close readings, compiles a beguiling picture of a poet operating consciously in a simultaneous torrent of polysemic chaos and concrete social application.


Kristin Ross

In a chapter entitled ‘The Right to Laziness’, Ross cites Blanchot’s location of Rimbaud’s texts within a constellation termed récits – one that includes among others Ulysses and Moby Dick.  The récit is an anti-genre, in opposition to the novel; ‘not the narration of an event, but that event itself… an event that is yet to come, and through whose power of attraction the récit can hope to come into being too’. Citing Lukacs and Sartre (in a wonderful example of strange bedfellows) Ross explores the notion that the novel, or more specifically the novel of acculturation, describes the telos of the genre as ‘the reconciliation of the problematic individual, guided by his lived experience of the ideal, with concrete social reality’. The novel of acculturation, or apprenticeship, dictates as its subject and form the notion of acceptance – of the integration of the central character to a world at which they originally set themselves against. The metier of form in other words, is identified as an acceptance of state apparatus, and one’s place in the grand scheme of things. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that Arthur (‘I have a horror of all trades’) Rimbaud, will consciously seek to divorce himself from both. Like the tortured voices of Dante’s Inferno or Eliot’s The Waste Land, Rimbaud’s texts exist in perpetuity, grounded in a spatial immediacy that requisitions the historical actions of context, and the contemporary activity of the reader to explode into being.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Ross’s book for me personally, was the identification of a systemic reality extant to our own, that was neither championed nor condemned. The dislocation of people from the normative tropes underpinning civil society are exhaustively interrogated by sociological praxis, yet this is a perspective that adopts neither a positive nor negative standpoint. In general, the form of social disarticulation practiced by the Commune and by Rimbaud himself would be flagged under one of two banners – Retreatism or Accidia, forming the societal definition of what would otherwise be termed ‘Absurdism’. Broadly speaking, the Retreatist is a nostalgic, caught up in a longing for the past and apathy for the present, which manifests itself in a temporal shift away from society’s requirements, to be reunited after a period of comparative isolation; whereas the Accidic is a perpetual outsider, unable to engage with the positive and negative sides of society’s value continuum who subsequently dismantles all their existing normative functions, and exists entirely within a state of disengagement antithetical to civil society. 

In a standard temporal critique, the Paris Commune and Arthur Rimbaud could easily be shoehorned respectively into both categories – in fact, if the critique were temporal, it would be impossible not to do so. Allowing the acculturation of contingent modernisations that comprise a liminal space, however, and then analysing the effects of the unification of this space both in and for itself, and of its relationship to us, Ross has attempted to free the Commune and Rimbaud from such constrictive and didactic apparatus, and consider them where they were originally intended – in a spatial location that revolves in a space extant to our own, and can only be understood through the unification of literal translation and chaos.


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