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Heading out on the phenomenological road

Posted Feb 17 2011 7:27am

Two weeks ago, I attended a one-day conference in Copenhagen entitled ”The City is the Machine: Sociological and Architectural Perspectives on Spaces of the City, Materiality and Sociality” (orig.: “Byen er maskinen: Sociologiske og arkitektoniske perspektiver på byens rum, materialitet og socialitet”).

The panel of speakers comprised two architects, a literary theorist and three sociologists, and unfortunately the debate didn’t succeed in escaping the foreseeable cliché-ridden divisions of scholarly disciplines. In his first sentence, an architect claimed he had never read a book in his life; it was followed by the small correction: “well, I’ve read one book in my life and that’s it”. It might have been an attempt at a joke (I think it was), yet an unproductive differentiation between ‘the practitioner’ (supposed to be the architect) and ‘the theorist’ (the social scientist) was settled. Personally, I do not see a point in making this division. It only makes it more difficult to reach a point where the interdisciplinary discussion can flourish.

The architects were speaking of the historical development of the city, how the size of the population has changed over time and how awareness of human life and architecture has been brought together during the last couple of decades.

The relationship between human life-world on the one hand and architecture on the other was in fact presented as yet another dichotomy which has been happily united and therefore has disappeared during the last decades. In fact this unification of materiality and life aspects was presented as a love story — thereby making a somewhat needless distinction between humans and the city; between life and matter. As I discussed with one of my colleagues: What will happen if we refrain from accepting such divisions?

The sociologists were speaking of experiences of public and private spheres, objects functioning as rites de passage, zones, in-between spaces, unfamiliarity and familiarity, density, diversity and liveability.  Anni Greve from Roskilde University seemed to be engaged in an interesting research project on sanctuaries in Japan.

I was surprised by the most unsurprising speech: A textual reading of the city presented by Lilian Munk Rösing . I owe Munk Rösing my deepest respect in many fields – especially her dealing with literature, film, art and theatre. She’s a brilliant book reviewer, but maybe she should stick to literary debates? I was surprised by her interpretation (over-interpretation I might add) of the Copenhagen department store Magasin du Nord and the Jewish Museum in Copenhagen as representing the mother’s womb (the uterus) and a fling of the lacanian Real (a circumcision), respectively. I had and I still have to laugh when recalling Munk Rösings speech. Truly speaking I found the story entertaining, but it’s difficult to imagine that anybody could believe in such a traditional psychoanalytic reading of the city. I’m not sure if Rösing does (she might), but wouldn’t it be a simplistic world, if every phenomenon were causatively explainable just like that? If the world was simple and understandable, we wouldn’t keep striving for a still more accurate comprehension of what’s happening in our surroundings, would we?

”The fountain is placed on the street – not in the bedroom”. So the response from Henning Bech on Munk Rösings talk. Nothing more was said about that theme afterwards.

The final remarks were devoted to the problematization of the tendency within sociological research to follow and replicate all sorts of Grand Theory — the consequence being either to politicize the city or to explain the city and peoples’ behavior in lines of innate desires and the like.

Pointing at the immanent aesthetics found in the city, Bech described the city as the sexuality par excellence. Not in the sense of a pre-shaped sexuality like the libido, which Munk-Rösing discussed, but far more like a sexuality which is created and recreated by specific spaces and places in an ongoing process. This kind of sexuality has to do with sense perceptions, moods, atmospheres, lighting, distances etc. In the city, people aesthetisize with and (in particular) for each other. People play aesthetic tricks and games with their gender, race, age and so forth. In the search of these aspects of life, the ‘world’-term used by the late Heidegger was suggested as a source of inspiration.

For me there seems to be an analytical point in heading out on a phenomenological road. It seems to offer a sensitive approach to the presence of the world. Here no analytics are prescribed and no universals are to follow. The challenging task is to get closer to the lived life – life consisting of humans, materials and all the like. Everything is existing in one big mess. In one occurance which is to be experienced in all its differences, shapes, qualities and sensous materialities.

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