in praise of shadows

in praise of shadows

There is an old song that says “the brushwood we gather — stack it together, it makes a hut; pull it apart, a field once more”.

— Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1977, p. 29)

My route home took me past some of the badges that I had left behind earlier in the evening. I checked on them, but with no expectations. It had only been a few hours. So I was excited to discover that one of them was already absent — and from the most mundane of spots: a gap between some wooden boards in a dusty, unpleasant corridor made of construction scaffolding. I felt a little thrill of connection, and hoped that I had brightened someone’s night.

Within the next 24 hours, six more badges disappeared. Ten days later, only three remained. I was fascinated by the inscrutable logic of it all — which ones went, and when, and why some never did. Every walk in my new neighbourhood became a part of the game, fraught with playful anticipation as I approached each of my remaining spots. And they did become my spots. Even now when I find myself in that neighbourhood again, each spot seems to wink back at me when I walk by.

For the next evolution of the game I stamped a pair of cryptic phrases and a phone number on those manila tags that had gone unused before, and attached them to the badges. This time I established a few guidelines before I left the house. I would distribute 22 badges, 11 on each side of the main street, between two points that seemed to mark the psychic, commercial and social boundaries of the area. I had also created some stickers to match the badges, and planned to put them up using the same rules. Conversely (and perhaps perversely), I had zero plans for what I would do if someone used the number on the tags to contact me. T1

T1:Twenty-two was not a number that I arrived at randomly. Rather, it was a reference to the Major Arcana of the Tarot, which contains 22 “keys” or cards. The Tarot has long interested me as a creative device, and has featured in several of my previous works. The Parallaxis could never quite make up its mind about the Tarot; even now the question remains open as to its relevance.

Compared to the magic of the first drop session, this second outing was a failure. The quotas and boundaries were oppressive, dictating placement rather than letting the streetscape make suggestions. The tags were clunky and prevented me from slipping badges into sly and secret spots; they also precluded places that might be exposed to rain. And the stickers competed with the badges for my attention, as they required me to focus on different aspects of the street. There was no flow, no fun, no frisson of deeper meaning. Perhaps the one welcome failure was that no one ever called that number.

But of course the evening wasn’t really a failure, in the larger scheme of things. Such is the appealing nature of experiments. I learned that my evolving rules were not about setting deliberate constraints to work within. Rather, they were tools for understanding the relationships at play within systems I created or encountered; an ad-hoc game of tuning in to forces that I would not otherwise perceive. T2

T2:Although I didn’t have the language yet to describe or even fully understand this method, I was working propositionally (Jones 2009).

After this “failed” outing I continued to explore my neighbourhood, with the badges and then also with my camera. As I explored I became aware of a shift: I was actually the player of this game. Or at least, I was one of the players. And perhaps — although maybe this is hindsight — the making of the game was actually the game?

With these nascent thoughts to keep me company, I drifted far and wide through new terrain. Up the high street, down the laneways, into the industrial hinterlands. Pushed and pulled by the magnetic force of place, I began to see and feel things differently. I learned where the light reflected and the shadows collected; where the stillness was stagnant and where it trembled with more. Rhythms, patterns, moods: the subtle city started to unfold. T3

T3:The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose prolific writing on the city has shaped much of the modern conversation on urbanism, observed this dynamic yet subtle patterning of the city in his theory of rhythmanalysis. ‘The characteristic features are really temporal and rhythmical, not visual,’ Lefebvre (1996, p. 223) writes of the city, and in particular of the neighbourhood. ‘To extricate the rhythms requires attentiveness and a certain amount of time’ (ibid.).

In the beginning this had been about the badges; about leaving them, about them being taken. But in the end the badges turned out to be like the rules I had created to distribute them: merely a device for tuning in to something more. The real game was between the streets and me. Together we played, and we made each other real. T4

T4:Here I return to Winnicott, who also believed that communication with a subjective Other fosters an experience of feeling real. This enriching interplay between self and Other is the basis of his transitional space, ‘an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute’ (Winnicott 1953, p. 3).

Here as well I introduce a proposition, which developed throughout my journey but only became lucid near the very end. This is what I’m moving toward:

Conversing with a psychological Other that is symbolic and implied may foster the capacity to perceive a phenomenological Other that is animate and present. When we engage with this animate Other our experience of feeling real moves from the subjective to the intersubjective — which is the realm of real magic.

inner, outer, middle

Winnicott (1965) saw the psychologically healthy individual as engaging in three different layers of communication, each with its own relationship to the “real” or hidden self. At the innermost was a silent communication with one’s own subjective reality; at the outmost an explicit communication with the world; and in the middle a ‘third or intermediate form of communication that slides out of playing into cultural experience of every kind’ (ibid. p. 188).

While Winnicott maintained that explicit communication was pleasurable, he also associated it with the ‘false or compliant self’ of the split personality (ibid. p. 183). Conversely, he saw the silent communication of the inner self as essential to ‘the establishment of the feeling of real’ (ibid. p. 184). ‘Forever immune from the reality principle,’ he wrote, ‘it is, like the music of the spheres, absolutely personal. It belongs to being alive’ (ibid. p. 192). Winnicott believed that ‘in health, it is out of this’ inner communication that intermediate and explicit communication ‘naturally arises’ (ibid.).

What Winnicott describes is an innermost self that is able to be nourished and made real through an entirely subjective, interior experience of the world. When we are well we are able to bring awareness of this inner world into a middle zone, a liminal space. Here it manifests as creativity as we engage with Others that we inflect with meaning while knowing that these entities exist outside of our own making.

absence and presence

But who or what exactly are these Others? In the most literal sense they are the physical and conceptual objects of our symbolic play — whether the makeshift toys of the small child or the cultural artefacts and everyday encounters of the adult. However, this one-dimensional reading misses the true magic of play and other liminal experiences; a magic through which the liminal ‘simultaneously transcends and maintains reality’ (Varga 2011, p. 2). This magic lies in two complementary understandings of the object, both of which suggest that it also possesses subjecthood.

Extending Winnicott’s (1969) theory of object usage, philosopher Somogy Varga (2011) posits that the object as it exists outside of the subject’s inner world is more than just an inanimate intermediary between self and other. Rather, it is imbued with the presence of absent but implied Others. Indeed, Varga suggests that symbolic play relies upon ‘the sense of the continued presence of others in objects’ — and in fact ‘expresses a primordial indebtedness to the other’ (ibid. p. 4).

It is within this intersubjective field of play, ‘characterized by a strong sense of the presence or proximity of an other’ (ibid. p. 3) where psychology finds an unlikely counterpart in phenomenology. Using the language and conceptual framework of his own field, ecologist and philosopher David Abram expresses a relationship between self and Other that parallels the ideas of Winnicott and Varga:

‘And so I am brought, like Husserl, to recognize at least two regions of the experiential or phenomenal field: one of phenomena that unfold entirely for me — images that arise, as it were, on this side of my body — and another region of phenomena that are, evidently, responded to and experienced by other embodied subjects as well as by myself. These latter phenomena are still subjective — they appear to me within a field of experience coloured by my mood and my current concerns — and yet I cannot alter or dissipate them at will, for they seem to be buttressed by many involvements besides my own. That tree bending in the wind, this cliff wall, the cloud drifting overhead: these are not merely subjective; they are intersubjective phenomena — phenomena experienced by a multiplicity of sensing subjects’ (Abram 1997, p. 38).

A tree, a cliff, a cloud.

Graffiti, a loaf of bread, a little yellow badge. My creek walks and smiley face experiments were indeed the game of absent others that I had imagined them to be.


But what of the tree itself, the cloud, the shadows and the stillness? What implied Others do they invoke?

Here the phenomenological offers possibilities beyond the psychological, suggesting as it does an intersubjectivity that extends to a true Other. Abram articulates these possibilities through his field research on shamanism:

‘When a magician spoke of a power or “presence” lingering in the corner of his house, I learned to notice the ray of sunlight that was then pouring in through a chink in the roof, illuminating a column of drifting dust, and to realize that that column of light was indeed a power, influencing the air currents by its warmth, and indeed influencing the whole mood of the room; although I had not consciously seen it before, it had already been structuring my experience’ (ibid. p. 20).

Abram’s central thesis is an ‘ecology of magic’ (ibid.) that calls for a renewed human relationship with the ‘wild and multiplicitous otherness’ of the more-than-human world.

‘For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus upon. All could speak, articulating in gesture and whistle and sigh a shifting web of meanings that we felt on our skin or inhaled through our nostrils or focused with our listening ears, and to which we replied — whether with sounds, or through movements, or minute shifts of mood. The colour of sky, the rush of waves — every aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship fed with curiosity and spiced with danger. Every sound was a voice, every scrape or blunder was a meeting — with Thunder, with Oak, with Dragonfly. And from all of these relationships our collective sensibilities were nourished’ (ibid. p ix).

Tree, cloud, shadow, stillness.

If play amplifies our sense of the real through ‘the primordial presence of others’ (Varga 2011, p. 11), what frequencies might crackle into life if we attune to a more expansive field of Others?