Of Interstitial Spaces

In the last few years, I have spent a lot of time on buses travelling down to the south – Oxford, in the main, as well as London and its environs – to conduct research. Transit is a strange thing, for it often occurs early in the morning, whilst you’re tired and dozy, watching the sun rise, or late at night, when you watch the lights of streetlamps dissolve in water-streaked coach windows. Travel also means spending a lot of time at interstitial places, sites where you switch between transport vehicles. One such place was Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station.

Last week, I talked about place as the product of meaningful interpretation. But Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station is exemplary of a very particular kind of ‘place’: a strange inbetween sort of site, which exists only by virtue of where it isn’t.

Such spaces are perhaps a kind of heterotopia*, a real site outside of other real sites, in which those everyday locales are represented, contested and inverted. Whilst I do not agree that such heterotopic sites are outside of reality (I might suggest instead that they serve a different “shadow” function within it, and are the means by which that reality exists in the form we know), I do agree that there are places whose function is to reflect and challenge the mundane.

Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station represented reality by echoing the motif of travel, and having leaflets about the places you could travel to. It was, in that sense, intertextual and hypertextual, resting on a bed of other places which allowed it to exist: and the station itself allowed for their imagining, and, in actuality, their possibility.

It contested reality by forcing you to think about the nature of travel, and the other places to which you might go. At that set of tin sheds on Silbury Boulevard, you had to consider what your particular journey meant, and what travel more generally actually is and means. It also contested the idea of a bus station itself, for it was never intended to be in any way permanent. In fact, it was in operation for more than two years. As the New Town of Milton Keynes demands an answer to the question, ‘What is an old town?’ – and indeed, what is a town – the Interim Station required an ontological consideration of stopping places, service stations, and permanent bus interchanges.

It inverted reality by opposing the idea of travel and movement, in its state as a place of waiting and stasis. In Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station, you couldn’t move. You could walk around, of course, but you couldn’t continue the journey you were on. As in all stations, you were held at the whim of the transport timetable.

Marc Augé would probably understand Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station as a non-place, somewhere not relational, historical, or concerned with identity.** But I would argue for its thorough emplacement: for me, it was related intimately to the places to which I was headed, to the buses on which I was travelling, to the places I was coming from, and to Milton Keynes itself. It was a moment in historical time – a middle period, certainly, between the demise of old and the rising of the new station – and provide a set of moments in my own personal history. It was a place, too, that was concerned with its own identity, and that of Milton Keynes – for it made that town seem even more interstitial and uncanny. And it was part of my own identity building, for it fed my interest in spaces, places, and what they mean.

Milton Keynes Interim Bus Service Station doesn’t exist anymore. It was replaced with the new Bus Station in December 2010. I never took any photographs of it, so it now exists, as far as I know, only in my head, and in the heads of those who passed through it. But because it still colours the way I think about space, location, and embodiment, it still means. It may now be a paratext only, but it is still, very definitively, a place.

*Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16(1), 1986, p.24

**Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, Verso, Londom and New York, 2008 (1995), p.63

Of Place, Industry and Red Skies

On Sundays, I often go walking around my local area of mid-Leicestershire. I live in a village tucked between the city itself, and Loughborough to the north. Half suburban, half rural, it has a varied landscape, and can be surprisingly dramatic at times.

This weekend past, I walked down the road from my house, and onto the lane that comes, via Crow Wood and the Reservoir, from Swithland to the west. I wandered north, and cut through Cocklow Wood, emerging at Mountsorrel Quarry, where two centuries of workers have dug deep into the defiantly pink granite of Charnwood. Usually, when I go there, it’s silent,  but this weekend, trucks were rolling by, and the air was tainted with the scent of tarmac.

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I can’t quite explain why the Quarry affects me in the way it does. I find in it a fascination, produced by the sensory and intellectual distance built upon my lack of knowledge about what occurs inside those Gothically industrial towers and stacks.* This ‘unique phenomenon of distance’ produces an aura about the place, the allure of the artwork.**

In ‘The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins,’ Tim Edensor spoke about the ‘edgelands’, the repressed and marginal sites which hide behind the city.*** We can see the Quarry in these terms, for it is a place behind the world, one of the hypotexts upon which the everyday rests. It is a place which denies the easy dichotomy between aesthetics and industry, between art and function. It is a place where we see into the depths of the simplest things, and which reveals the maw of the world’s time.

For there are traces of both past and future here. This landscape is Palaeozoic, with some of the oldest rocks in England. The Quarry itself dates back to the early 1800s. These conspire to give a vist there a sense akin to that of touring a ruined or musealised landscape or industrial site. But the quarry is working now, and will continue to do so into the forseeable future, albeit somehow partitioned from the visible running of society: aggregate and concrete are cultural black boxes. It is a place almost out of time: a little ‘out of joint’, a hinge point on the edges of the present.****

I suppose that these things are what make places places, rather than just sites and spaces. The word “place” implies meaning, the consequential impact of a locale on the corporeal and cognitive being of a sentient creature. On Sunday evening, at about 4pm, we looked out of the living room window onto a sky the colour of living coral, and couldn’t help but connect the pink dust thrown up by the Quarry with those scattered rays of the setting sun.

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*‘What fascinates us robs us of our power to give sense. It abandons its “sensory” nature, abandons the world, draws back from the world, and draws us along. It no longer reveals itself to us, and yet it affirms itself in a presence foreign to the temporal present and to presence in space.” Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p.32

**Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Hannah Arendt, ed., Illuminations, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968, 217-52, p.216

***Tim Edensor, ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23, 2005, 829-849, 833

***Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, New York and Abingdon, Routledge, 2006 (1993), pp.21-22

Unfolding Xanadu

Starting these things is always hard.

Do I write about the point of this blog? No, that is covered on the main page, and in any case, I hope it will grow and change. Purpose is often emergent.

Do I write about me? That’s less than interesting.

Do I, instead, write about things? The things I like, the things which interest me?

Yes.

But what are those things? They are manifold. To be truthful, I am interested in the performative aspects of the everyday: or, you could call me over-analytical. Both are true.

I am interested in language, how both speech and the written word perform, how they interact with their audiences, and how and what they come to mean. I am interested in what language is, and what the philosophy of language can tell us able the other communicative aspects of life: in other words, everything that a sentient being can imagine to be meaningful and significant.

It isn’t just words which communicate, but imagery, expression, visual, aural and tactile manifestation. So I am interested in physical, embodied, and material culture: how the body is decorated and manoeuvres itself within space, how that space is enacted, decorated and performed, how objects within it are laid out expressively, rhythmically, consequentially. I am interested in written literature, comic books, museums, theatres, films, music, and games because they embody all of these communicative elements.

If I want to build a relationship with you, I have to show you the things which matter to me. So, in the coming weeks, you will be introduced, piece by piece, moment by moment, to my favourites of these things: my favourite prose, long and short, fact and fiction, my favourite poetry, comics, museums, dramas, theatrical spaces, movies, songs, sonatas, rags, and my new experiences in computer games and tabletop RPGs. After that, the blog will change, as blogs always do: but you will, at least, have a better idea of me.