the micro-history of things.

Listening to Nick Papadimitriou talk about the ‘interzones’ and liminal landscapes within a city is sort of like walking onto the set of an old dream, for me. When I was younger, those kinds of in-between places were the places I dreamed about. The dreams that featured those places are the only dreams that I still remember more than a decade later, and wish I could dream again but can’t. One of these imaginary places has embedded itself in my consciousness so deeply that even today I’m not sure if it was actually real or an invention.

The crass materialist inside me smirks somewhat when Papadimitriou talks about some underground, rusted pipe vibrating in emotional resonance to his presence*, but his poetry of these passed-over, neglected spaces has power to me. He is concerned with the history of places, and in particular the micro-history of places; he says he wants to have a history that includes a spider that drowned in a rain barrel in 1965, etc. This sort of micro-history resonates (again, that word) with me, and coincides with the fascination I have always had for micro-things; the life and history of ponds, the rise and fall of algal growth, the daily lives of oarsmen and boatmen insects, the spires of rotten wood and grass creating unmapped forests on pond-floors.

There is also a sort of pantheism in Papadimitriou’s conception of the city and his place in it. He talks about wanting to become the tarmac under a freeway bisecting drainage ditches, about becoming the rusted fence into a purification facility, becoming thick beetles waddling in a pile of piss in an alleyway opening up into a canal.

As an American coming very late to the party, it is uncertain to me how influenced the psycho-geographers/deep topographers were by the earlier work done concerning ‘edgelands’ by environmentalists like Marion Shoard. It is also unclear to me how much their interest is aesthetic, and how much is an environmental concern for ‘wildscapes’ which actually serve an ecological function. This whole concern with edgelands possibly feels played out in England; partly in its aspect as a protracted argument between the traditional, moorland lovers and the wildscape advocates, but also as a pop-cultural phenomenon well known enough to somehow include Russell Brand in an annoying and minor role. Yet it seems for the most part unfamiliar in the states, whose fetishistic self-concern extends little to its own ecology and landscapes.

I think the closest U.S. pop culture ever got to engaging with its own edgelands and in-between spaces came during the furor over what was called the “ruin porn” photography of Detroit. This was when photographers (often not native to Detroit) went into the city to snap its estimated 20,000 abandoned homes, its derelict school houses with their classrooms full of poignantly empty chairs, and so on, and then set up art galleries to display their work, or finagled book deals to publish it. What became known as ruin porn photography had one common aspect with edgeland and wildscape photography in that it depicted a certain languishing of human influence alongside the resurgence of nature. Yet the differences between the two are important: what was called ruin porn was mostly focused on interiors, on shattered glass on old floors and stunted trees growing in operating rooms; edgeland photography is more focused on exteriors, on outside habitats. Edgelands, and wildscapes in particular, are about growth, rejuvenation in unexpected places, the humming of life in furtive areas. American ruin porn was superficially interested in the sunflowers growing in the cracks, but all of its energy was actually invested in decay.

Nonetheless, it makes sense that this concern not only with micro-history, but with the genius loci of places, would interest me as a reader and would-be writer of horror and ghostly fiction. The fiction of haunting is just as much the fiction of place, and the haunting subject can’t be severed from the site which holds it in a sort of ontological escrow. The following statement from Simon Sellars makes this point clearer: “Throughout the Western world, edgelands form the same relationship to the built environment as the unconscious does to the human mind: as a repository of fear, desire, and repression.”

* When Papadimitriou says things like this, it reminds me of object oriented philosophy, although I have no idea if he has any interest or awareness in that.

3 thoughts on “the micro-history of things.

  1. I must say, I have never heard of Marion Shoard and maybe I should check it out. I stumbled upon your comments during an episode of ‘ego-surfing’ while avoiding work (there, I’ve admitted it!) and found it a pleasure to read your well-informed and thoughtful remarks – none of that knowing sneery noise so common on blogs.

    One thing, it is a constant source of frustration to me to be lumped in with the catch all ‘psychogeography’ label. This isn’t merely not wanting to be part of a crowd but rather a sense I have of charting my own course. I am extremely motivated in my researches, go to considerable lengths to write and eschew any ‘pop’ notions – I see myself more as a retro-modernist poet than anything else. I feel the language chosen must be sufficient to express the magnitude of encounter with place and never use terms like ‘liminal’ and ‘edgeland’. My fascinations (what I pick up on and notice or think/feel about) are under-processes, aggregates and accumulations. the world is not what we think it is – it is a different shape, the broader framework, the other thing.

    Hope this clarifies things

    Nick Papadimitriou

  2. Hello, Nick. Thanks for stopping by.

    I rather like the term ‘liminal’, though on reflection perhaps its meaning of being ‘on the threshold’ or in the middle of a ritual, devalues certain spaces by a presumption that their in-between state is a defect which will be improved upon by some kind of completion (such as development). It also sounds like ‘limited’ and has been popular in academia for some time. For these reasons, I don’t believe I’ve used it since this blog posting, though I often find myself excreting language I later come to be uncomfortable with, for trendiness or lack of precision.

    Apologies about the psycho-geography thing. I’ve still yet to pick up Scarp, and I suppose if I do I will get a better hold on what you mean by under-processes and aggregates. It is interesting you say “the other thing,” as I was just reading an Edwardian writer (J.D. Beresford) who spoke of “the other thing” and the difficulty of finding it amidst our wrong thinking of what the world is.

  3. Well, I will have to check out JD Beresford too!

    The Other thing manages to be evasive when you are not tuned into it – a vague or even pretentious concept born of affectation and self-importance. Then you grasp it again, (along a footpath, huddled under a motorway bridge during a thunderstorm, or just as the coffee and nicotine hits 5am as you pour over a book on the natural history of the Hitchin region 1935). Then you wonder how you ever doubted the Other Thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s