A Certain Desolation is Required
Occupying is having a space, before having a place. It is being on time, in time. It is the correspondence between an idea and a fact; a safe haven for affects, in a place that doesn’t yet exist. To occupy is to turn a place into a property. An insecure one, perhaps, but much stronger than any official residence. This is because one can be stripped of a residence, without losing one’s fundamental property, one’s ultimate property: the ability to produce space. A place is somewhere specific: either it is chosen, or it is imposed. All choices pass through various degrees of freedom, whose negative extremes – forced or voluntary, it doesn’t matter – are exile and reclusion. When faced with these extremes, it makes sense to ask oneself: can one “occupy” a place if one is in exile? Can one occupy, in the sense of making it one’s own, a prison? The question before us concerns the material context of life, and where life finds support. Can one find this “support” in a prison? In prison, is the experience of a return possible? In exile, is the experience of a return possible?
Support is a return after fatigue, which is essentially a matter of going outside and taking everything that is outside upon oneself. If a prison has no outside, no return is possible. And being exiled means living outside, the return can only belong to the place left behind. Prison brings inside all the fatigue that belongs to the outside, because this new inside is so alienated that there is no longer any rest, there can no longer be any possible experience of rest. That is why there is no space in prison. Exile means being dispersed in an endless outside, which however becomes an absolute inside, from which no detachment will ever be possible, meaning that there is actually no outside. Each time this sort of confusion arises between inside and outside, spatial occupation gets contorted. It becomes detention, and all correspondence disappears. Now, going outside no longer involves fatigue or exposing oneself, it means always being outside: a foreigner. Returning inside no longer involves resting without being scrutinised, it means always remaining inside: imprisoned. The correspondence in finding support after fatigue is like lying down; in addition to providing rest, this act is also, from an optical point of view, imperceptibly like crouching. When no one asks you to represent someone, only to be just as you are, in the untamed state of an animal sleeping, then you are being supported, then you have found your place. You are occupying it. Of course, in prison too one reaches this kind of extreme intimacy, but it is simply the only way to live. We are foreigners to ourselves in those places where we must continuously answer the most basic questions raised by our senses, some of which come far before words, such as the senses of smell and touch. To truly occupy, we must be in tune with our deepest senses, because being supported is a largely animal condition. The intellect is required to define what part of our occupation must become an answer to the questions raised by our senses and affects. The intellect is required to adorn occupation. Adorning is an act performed by our intelligence that explains a place to our senses. This is a vigorous act, comparable to cultivation: it is a gesture laden with future.
In the history of primitive populations, objects have a striking excessiveness, something that goes well beyond what they were used for. Even in a situation of poverty, the form of a vase always represents much more than its function as a container; the decorations seen on fabric exceed its usefulness as clothing; the most humble furnishings intended for daily use had a form that far outshone their usage. All of this leads us to think that ornaments had a different function than objects: celebrating. Not only objects used for worship, but also objects intended for daily use are adorned, because the frequency with which they are used suggests that we celebrate the relation we create with them. This is a relation of trust, an alliance. It is a way of honouring daily gestures. It is a way of celebrating a minimal life, a periodic life, which would otherwise be condemned to plunge into the shadowy abyss of repetition.
The tendency to search for forms, above and beyond an object’s function, appears throughout the history of humanity until the industrial revolution, which introduced a breaking point in the history of adornment. A ruinous moment, but also a proliferation. Ruinous, because singularly manufactured or objects, many of which were custom-made, were no longer requested; and a proliferation, due to objects produced in series, that compensate their darkly anonymous and generic nature with a huge abundance of forms, abnormal and independent, similar to nature.
Adorning means possessing an object not as pure and simple property, but through a form that celebrates the gesture, which is the acme of the object’s usage, including its wear and tear over time. All of this is as true of a hoe as it is of a jewel; it cannot, however, coming back to our extreme example of the prison, be applied to cells decorated with photos, newspaper clippings and excavations. Here, celebration becomes a parody, a callow deception, completely impotent, above all incapable of interrupting coercive cycles.
To adorn is to provide ways of leaving and coming into life according to forms. It is the need to overcome necessity, thanks to an excess of ideas. It is an attempt to bring forms into our way of being, as Fernand Deligny used to say when speaking of autistic and mute children and their areas for remaining, where a respect for forms was required more than ever.1 It may be a way to overcome, like madmen, our condemnation to an allotted reality; it may be brushing off what we know, to reach a condition of strenuous bewilderment. The pain, mixed with euphoria, that results from being out of orbit.
Possessing a base where one can remain and rest means recognising – and being recognised in – a place, formed and prepared by ways of living that came before one’s own birth or one’s own actions. All of this may not exist, or may no longer exist. In that case, one must occupy and adorn, that is, one must bring one’s sense of possession into line with a period of time that covers a single lifetime, not an epoch or an era. This means beginning to form, or rather inventing the very reason for which one begins to form, a place, on an earth one does not possess, within a home one does not have. How to reduce the time required to prepare a peace between one’s own life and a foreign environment? The stronghold of one’s affects and scents must be invented, anywhere far from home. The great human migrations of our times are prophetic for those who remain at home as well, because in any case one must search for an intersection between a locality that is given (a place of birth, a place that meets one’s needs) and an invented locality; between long-term history and individual history; between a flow and a place. This sort of intersection is not found in any local belonging or identity, in itself, today.
Occupying and adorning are the two essential verbs of inhabiting. If one of the two terms is missing, one does not inhabit, one is detained. If one occupies without adorning, one is in jail. If one adorns without occupying, one is in exile. Occupying a foreign place, which is not owned, not defined by walls or culture, and yet is as solid as a piece of architecture, even without walls; adorning it like an elaborate recipe, even though it has no tradition: all of this is to invent, and to bring to completion. This lack of possession must be explained, and turned into a starting point for a practice of occupation and spatial adornment, in which, these days, even the calendar should be reformed. There is a need for regularly recurring occasions, that is, occupied and adorned days, just as much as places, because the traditional ones have disappeared and many relations have become false. Sociology tells us that new public occasions have replaced the old ones: holiday shopping, lotteries and sports as a spectacle for the masses. But they do not have the solemnity that creates a distance between people, and between things. Solemnity that creates distance is a form that brings together celebration and desolation. A certain desolation is required for any true solemnity, because this way of being left alone corresponds to the return of what is dense and intense, that is, what is inexplicably one’s own; it corresponds to feeling the strong emotion that arises when a form belongs to you. A certain desolation is required, both to clarify the dawn of property in the dingiest forms of housing, and to have no fear of a basic solitude, nor to flee from it. The solemnity required has to do with this basic solitude, which is a way of placing one’s actions in time, as reflected in forms and decisions, in order to ponder and gaze upon the life of another, in oneself. The thunder of the closest breath. Our neighbour, I would say.
Developing some degree of comprehension, individuals will not delude themselves into thinking that any amount of adaptation to the environment will be able to protect them. On the contrary, they will recognise that many kinds of behaviour that superficially seem to provide protection are actually destructive.
(Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart, 1960)
Henceforth the arts remained aloof from use (…) big technology was to reign, an easing, cool, bright democratic “luxury” for everybody, a reconstruction of the planet earth striving for the abolition of poverty, the hardship taken over by machines, centralised automation of the unessential, making leisure therefore possible. And great expression was to reign, decoration was to become profound again and to guarantee pure ornaments of solution to the voice of inner concern instead of the silence of outward care. (…)
Architecture, as the interior of the home space, continues to figure in an ever more humane construction space, which much be created today for the first time, as the anticipating expression of a “tat twam asi,” there you are. As an encounter with the self in the painted objects. You are this, that is “in your intimate essence, you are identical to the invisible substance of all things,” a formula attributed to Brahmin Aruni.
(Ernst Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia, 1923)
Translated by Brent Waterhouse
1 “… we attempt to put forms into our ways of being and we have called this the adorned, which is an attempt to feel respect for something and not someone.” Fernand Deligny, I bambini. I loro atti. I loro gesti, p. 67, trans. Maria Rosa Ortolan, Spirali Edizioni, Milan, 1989.