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

Abstract This essay stages a dialogue between a handful of writers and artists whose works dramatize the 'predicament of dwelling'. Soren Kierkegaard, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Charles Baudelaire, and Gordon Malta-Clark shared a common sensibility with respect to the difficulties of modem 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 storie. 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 flâneur, in Kierkegaard's intérieur. 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 live. What is the nature of such living, and of the subjectivities appropriate to it?

Keywords Theodor Adorno, dwelling, Gordon Matta-Clark, Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, interior

This essay stages a dialogue between a handful of writers and artists whose works dramatise what will be called the 'predicament of dwelling'. S0ren Kierkegaard, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Charles Baudelaire, and Gordon Matta-Clark shared a common sensibility with respect to the difficulties of modern iifè. 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 flâneur, in Kierkegaard's intérieur.

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 ahistorica) 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. …

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