Academic journal article New Formations

Split Level, or, the Predicament of Dwelling

Academic journal article New Formations

Split Level, or, the Predicament of Dwelling

Article excerpt

This essay stages a dialogue between a handful of writers and artists whose works dramatise what will be called the 'predicament of dwelling'. Soren Kierkegaard, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Charles Baudelaire, and Gordon Matta-Clark shared a common sensibility with respect to the difficulties of modern life. Benjamin's 'destruction of experience' and Adorno's 'damaged life' evoked images of modern subjectivity as something as deranged and mutilated as the creatures in Kafka's stories (Gregor Samsa and Odradek come to mind). Matta-Clark's lacerated homes and buildings combined the despair and disrepair of the city with complex images of intrusion and redemption in ways that echo the enmeshment of melancholia and delight in Baudelaire's flaneur, in Kierkegaard's interieur.

Perhaps it would do to regard these as elaborations on the experience and the ironies of modern alienation, but what interests me here is the way we are presented with a subject that is ruptured, lacerated, and split, and whose splitting is reflected in the places and spaces in which it attempts to eke out something like a life for itself. I am going to suggest that we become reacquainted with the concept of 'dwelling', which in times past encompassed more than what its diminished meaning today manages to convey. Drawing from Aristotelian themes, dwelling at one time marked the intersection of life and the political--in the parlance of early Critical Theory: the intersection of 'experience' and the conditions of its (im)possibility. In The Arcades Project Benjamin archived nineteenth-century dwelling (interiors, furnishings, city planning, etc.) as a way to grasp the transformations of subjectivity in modernity. And in Minima Moralia, Adorno defied good, Hegelian dialectical procedure by arguing that in the twentieth century one had to begin with the subject and private life, with the problem of dwelling, if one was to grasp the nature of the Whole. Particularly for Adorno (who occupies the centre of my argument), dwelling became a metaphor for his controversial style of politics. Dwelling today (Adorno emphasised today-ness in what I believe was conscious disagreement with what he thought was Heidegger's a historical treatment of dwelling) was the location of catastrophe where both socialist dwelling and private life were made impossible, and we drudge daily amid the failure of the 'good life' to have taken hold. It is where we pose the question of what forms of life, and what form of the political, are appropriate to the conditions in which we live.

I explore the relation between dwelling and the political, inquiring into the politics of dwelling, or, politics as dwelling. Adorno's 'negative utopianism' stands in stark opposition to more robust and optimistic political philosophies in the past and the present, whether those of traditional Marxism, or the more liberal-minded sensibilities of subsequent generations of Critical Theory, or the neo-orthodox movement today, which promotes renewed commitment on the part of philosophy and politics to the notion of the Event. Adorno's entire philosophy is oriented rather differently around the idea that 'the chance that might have saved was missed' (from the opening lines of Negative Dialectics, but repeated elsewhere). In opposition to those who call for fidelity to some redemptive event, and to those who urge faith in the promises of the Enlightenment, Adorno concerned himself with the question of what it means to inhabit life gone awry, and his word for such inhabitancy was dwelling.

Modern dwelling, then, is the site of something amiss, it registers the ruptured conditions for 'life' and 'experience', for modern subjectivity, and serves as a paradigm for political life. In Adorno's hands the question of how one is to dwell in one's home doubles for the question of how one is to dwell after the end of history. In each case we are conjuring a post-apocalyptic landscape where the hopes and dreams of the grand ideologies of socialism and liberalism are in shambles; one has crumbled into violent excesses, while the other, claiming to be more successful, peddles the semblance of prosperous private life in a way that barely conceals its underlying emptiness. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.