February 3rd, 2011

S.C. Hickman

China Mieville: The City & The City

"What matters in post-Panoptical power-relations is that the people operating the levers of power on which the fate of the less volatile partners in the relationship depends can at any moment escape beyond reach - into sheer inaccessibility."
     -   Zygmunt Bauman

"The panpsychist view, namely, is that anything that exists must also perceive. But the view I have suggested is that anything that relates must perceive. Only by becoming a piece of a larger object, only by entering into the interior of a larger one, does an entity have anything like a psyche. This means that entities have psyches accidentally, not in their own right. For our model allows for entities to exist apart from all relations."
     - Graham Harman
Already there is the duplicitous double, a mirror world, a suture between T H E  C I T Y & Y T I C  E H T in the very title of China Miéville's new speculative fiction. He tells us of the precursors that have shaped this vision: Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alfred Kubin, Jan Morris, and Bruno Schulz.  Like a subterranean band of brothers (or ghosts? spectres?) each of these authors inhabits the interstices of this vibrant neo-noir world, each will wander among the ruins and hidden byways, the illusionary realms and facades dividing the cities from each other like zones of an open secret, a secret that can but should never be breached nor acknowledged in the order of the real that each citizen has chosen to believe in. For to breach the forbidden zones between these opposing realities is to breach the law that upholds the order of the real that each holds most dear: breached in the sense of an overdetermined meaning that disallows and disavows its own dark boundaries. For this is a world that can be breached only at the peril of those who would dare enter the dark maze of this funhouse neo-noir landscape, a non-relational inscape between corrupted and corrupting realities. Like a Borgesian fable this work wanders among its meanings like a victim of an age old crime, a crime that is always happening, but has never happened; an event, always about to cast a shadow over all things, but is always already both past and future and just beyond reach or access of the human. 

With the first quote from Bruno Schulz we know that this will be a voyage into the weird: "Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets." [1] This will be voyage into the broken maze of a weird realism - a place where almost anything can happen, even a breach across the impossible boundaries between the real and unreal. Like a funhouse carnival we enter this mirror world at our own risk, where trapdoors out of reality, hidden paths melt into other forbidden realms, broken passages open between alternate cities that lead us deeper into the mystery of circles within circles where we discover that at the center of this vast labyrinth there is no center or circumference; instead, we discover that this, on the surface, quaint tale of crime is itself the very thing, the object that forever recedes from our gaze into both the past and future, where beyond all our disparate glances to the contrary we uncover a secret city of the heart, a place both in and out of time, a place where being human means freedom.

We enter the maze by way of a crime and a mystery. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the European city-state of Besźel is our secret guide, a methodical purveyor of that ancient art of detection and reader of signs, a diviner of the everyday objects that surround us all, objects that we blandly let lie dormant and asleep among the dark puddles of existence neither comprehending nor even noticing as we wander like somnambulists in a faded dream. Yet, Borlú, unlike us sees into the things, sees objects as they are, knows that there is something different, astounding, something that can never quite be reasoned with in the volume of human thought, a remainder that is always just out of reach of our - oh so human, mind. For him things are not so much full of life - he is no panderer of that ancient doctrine of pantheism, nor even of its vitalistic descendants, but a seeker after the strange bird of the weird: a polypsychist, a creature who sees in the accidents of time and place a life of the psyche arise out of certain contacts between objects, even between cities, perhaps.

Two such cities are Besźel and Ul Qoma, cities that on the surface do not seem so much different as different and differing, for each sits on the boundary of the other like a dark cloud of unknowing; one, that if breached can cause havoc for all citizens involved. For to breach the forbidden zones between the cities is to bring down upon one's head the judgement of the Breach, an organization whose sole purpose (?) is to police the border zones, the thin red lines that divide one city from the other. Yet, at times citizens from one realm can and do peer into the forbidden zones of the overlapping cities. Yet, they look askance, seeing the other without seeing, knowing without acknowledging what is being seen; for to acknowledge what is seen is in itself a breach, and therefore forbidden. One remembers the eloquent phrase from the poet Wallace Stevens in his Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction:

It must be visible or invisible,
Invisible or visible or both:
A seeing and unseeing in the eye.

But this is not a humanistic gleaning, no this is as Stevens reminds us something more

"The trouble with humanism is that man as God remains man, but there is an extension of man, the leaner being, in fiction, a possibly more than human human, a composite human. The act of recognizing him is the act of this leaner being moving in on us." [2]
Do not confuse this with some superior form of the Nietzschean Ubermensch either; no, instead we might ask rhetorically, along with Stevens, "And in what covert may we, naked, be Beyond the knowledge of nakedness, as part of reality, beyond the knowledge of what Is real, part of a land beyond the mind?" Have we truly been cut off from the other city? Is this city in itself not a fable of the real, a parable of our inability to access those forbidden objects just beyond the mind's imposed limitations? Is not Miéville's tale about the need to break free of those imposed limits that divide us from each other? And, thereby, to discover that what lies just beyond the mind is nothing more, and nothing less, than the force of the real objects that we all deny and disavow in our daily lives? And, just who imposed this strange law of the boundary between mind and mind, object and object, body and body anyway? Maybe like Stevens we too need to begin that quest for "savage transparence", seeking just beyond the "pediment of appearance" the transcendent real that has always been awaiting us like prodigals returning to our alien and alienating homeworld and knowing the place as it is for the first time: as stranger and weirder than we ever imagined. Yet, can we ever attain a vision of the real? Or, are we forever to be cut off, bound to the chains of a law that binds us within a prison house of language and mental constructs, cut off from "the thing itself" (CP, 349). Yet, there is hope, and like many things we are attracted, allured into the other realms beyond us by objects which appear to be "Pure coruscations, that lie beyond / The imagination, intact / And unattained" (CP, 349).

This digression from Miéville's tale has helped us understand that there is more to a tale than its surface structure reveals in and through the troposphere and the tropological dance of its tropes and metaphoric splendours; there are also those strange layers within layers that lead us beyond its surface tension and into the hidden life of its "volcanic core" - to use a phrase from Graham Harman - where as reader's of the tale we form a new bond, a new object between our vital core and the intentional or sensual objects within the texts' dark contours.

Already from the beginning there is a problem with vision, we listen in on Inspector Borlú as he enters the scene of the crime. He is unable to "see the street" or "much of the estate", because he and the other members of his team are "enclosed by dirt-coloured blocks, from windows out of which leaned vested men and women with morning hair and mugs of drink, eating breakfast and watching us." This seeming indifference to the activities in their midst of the citizens of this estate, their apathy at the death of another human in their midst seems to portend a greater terror than the death itself. These men and women who are more preoccupied with their protected lives, that seem to be situated beyond the actual world, cut off in their alcoves, spectres or spectators of this unreal fated realm lying just below their manicured and pedigree existence in a staged world of horror where crime and drugs and sex are nothing more than the cinematic affects of a spurious flickering non-existence. These citizens of the estate look on as if they were mere spectators in an ongoing show, a circus affair, sitting in an arena watching some deadly sport happening for both their benefit and pleasure; as if this were a natural everyday occurrence, and not to be either worried over nor denied, but to be accepted as part of the natural order of things they'd all come to accept as the one and only reality.

 Miéville's interlocutor comments on the topos of the land in the immediate vicinity, as if it were some no-man's land between divergent worlds, something that "pitched like a golf course - a child's mimicking of geography." It is a nether realm that neither the citizens watching on from their protected estate, nor the teenagers who seemed to float among its squalor more concerned with their daily rituals of drugs and sex, notice with any depth nor even care about beyond the surface play of its corrupt life. But it is here in this ruinous wasteland that a woman is found near a concrete skate-board park amid trash bins and detritus. A woman without a name, to be named, to be discovered, to be awakened out of her dormant, sleeping death and back into the records of two cities which both seem to have had a hand in her demise. 

Inspector Borlú describes the young murdered woman like some strange and alien being: "She looked up at us from below a fluttering fringe. Her face was set in a startled strain: she was endlessly surprised by herself." It is as if in this moment of meeting, this accidental bringing together of the Inspector and Corpse that something unique happens: the inner wealth of this young woman's life awakens translating her force, her very hidden reality to the mind of this Inspector creating out of this tension a new object, a momentary recognition between two realms of being revealing a truth-event that opens up a new layer of existence only revealed in this accident of time and place.  Graham Harman tells us that "Space, time, essence, and eidos. All four of these dimensions belong together, since all arise from the tension between unified objects and their tangible qualities. In this strange realm between relation and non-relation something happens, things make contact with each other in a space that is in itself an event. This weird fluctuation within an event brings about the tension between "intentional objects and the accidental, specific, changing ways in which they are manifest." And what the Inspector reveals in this encounter with the dead corpse of this young woman is her eidos, which is the tension between the woman as a unified whole of his experience and the myriad real moments she possesses. What is revealed is the essence of this woman's being. As Harman states it "within real objects themselves, there is a tension between the unity of a thing and the numerous central features that it unifies. This tension between a unified system and a plurality of traits is what we mean by the essence of a thing." And when you bring together time, space, essence, and eidos, you "present four separate but related asymmetries between the two kinds of objects and the disjointed balance between them." Harman goes on to ask: "How do different types of psyche probe the fourfold structure of the world in different ways? How does the human mind drill into the cracks of the world any differently from monkeys, zebras, dolphins, viruses, flames, or quarks? To answer this question, we would need a new sort of philosophical discipline. Speculative realism would have to give rise to a speculative psychology." [3]

To go into speculations of such a speculative psychology would take me far beyond the present essay, and I have already stretched the limits beyond what I'd intended in my exploration between Object-Oriented Philosophy and the aesthetics of reading this fine novel by China Miéville.  Instead I leave one final shock from the first chapter that opens an even stranger realm of being. Inspector Borlú happens to notice an older woman walking away from the crime scene:

"An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking. ... With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrasz at all, and that I should not have seen her." 

Surprised and flustered by his breach of protocol the Inspector looks away, and "she did the same, and with the same speed." Like the shutter on a camera closing: the speed of the eyes flickering shut, turnining away, escaping each others gaze and world; both participants leave the scene of a crime that never happened, but that both know within, in the dark recesses of an unacknowledge breach, did happen: and, this knowledge will gather into a knot that must be unravelled before the story and the crime can be solved. The Inspector turns from the woman to watch an airplane on its final descent, then after a few moments he looks back, "unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away" and instead of looking directly and carefully at her "in her foreign street" he glances at the "facades of the nearby and local GunterStrasz, that depressed zone."

It is this double vision, this knowing and unknowing in what is seen and unseen that will haunt us as we follow Inspector Borlu into these strange realms, where the relation of a woman's death and the troubling relations between fordidden zones of reality that can neither be acknowledged nor disavowed will haunt all involved in a duplicitous vision that is itself a darkening of the human. This double bind, this schizo-analysis of lives caught within opposing realities, parallax lines of thought and modes of being: a tension in objects at the heart of both the Inspector's own life and those around him is the core quest and dilemma at the heart of this novel as it weaves its mysterious tale between inaccessible realms of the real.  One needs only a topographical map of the fantastic to follow him into the maze's secret depths, hidden and away within this dark world, until one finds that strangest of objects: the enfolded real that is forever receding beyond all access to our human desires. Here in the silent chambers of this weird fable we disover what it is to be and not to be human. China Miéville's vision is complex and multifarious and needs a closer inspection, which this short essay can neither afford nor explicate, yet it acknowledges an empowering vision that teaches us about the alluring appeal of all objects as they lean toward us out of opposing realms, and awaken within us those strange relations that both disturb and energize us, awakening us out of our own deep dormancy, striking a deep chord within us all which is the sign of all great art as it offers us a revisionary sight of those weird zones in which we all live and have our being.

1. Schulz, Bruno, The Cinnamon Shops and Other Stories (Macgibbon & Kee 1963)
2. Stevens, Wallace, The Collected Poems (Library of America October 1, 1997)
3. Harman, Graham, Intentional Objects for Non-Humans (2008)