Within Arm's Reach
Infrastructure is generally understood as the grand master plan. Our cities and towns are supported by large-scale productive systems that thrive off relentless predictability. It is the mechanical function, the ribcage of society. However, the small, elusive gestures of the everyday are as much the flesh of our contemporary society as the grand installments of progress, efficiency, and order. Three literary works ignite narrative through musings on a writing desk (Adolfo Bioy Casares & Jorge Luis Borges), a series of habitual objects (Daniel Spoerri), and on intimate living quarters (Georges Perec). These human-scaled conditions confirm the virtue of an infrastructure within arm’s reach. They beg the question, “How do the tangeable subtleties of the everyday amount to a profound influence on our psyches?” The infinite details of familiar objects and personal spaces uncover a network of associations, memories, and interconnected lives that render our very understanding of the world.
“An Evening with Ramón Bonavena,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, describes a journalist’s encounter with a fictional author who wrote a six-volume behemoth, “North-Northeast,” describing the north-northeast corner of his writing table. The journalist observes two notable objects set on the author’s desk: a carpenter’s rule and a magnifying glass, no doubt a reflection of the author’s compulsive attempt to describe his small world in meticulous exactitude. The author’s immodest explanation is as follows, “It has not been my intention to instruct, to uplift, to entertain, to gladden, or to move. My work is beyond that. It aspires to the humblest and highest of all aims—a place in the universe.” (Bioy Casares & Borges 1976, 32)
An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (Spoerri 1966 English Edition) is a droll index, an early Fluxus exquisite corpse of items from Daniel Spoerri’s chaotic worktable captured at an insignificant moment in 1961. Each entry is echoed by a series of footnotes, each footnote authored by one of his colleagues: Robert Filliou, Emmett Williams, and Dieter Roth, with illustrations by Roland Topor. Like the game of telephone, each reference is further removed from the present descriptive moment, elaborating on the memories and incidents of the contributors. A rumination on a box of matches, for example, is uncoiled to reveal one person’s memory of personified veal chops, which prompts a recollection of the muggy weather in Düsseldorf, followed by a reference to the longest word in the English language, “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis.” It is not so much about the initial thing (a matchbox, a chunk of stale bread, a pen); they are mere “junk-objects,” as Diether Roth says. Rather, each is an entryway into the bowels of our memory. In the 1978 novel, Life: a User’s Manual, author Georges Perec suspends a moment in time—June 23, 1975, just before 8 pm—at the fictional apartment block of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier in the very real city of Paris. In relentless detail, Perec navigates his literary fingers over every object, texture, and quality of light in every room and residence of the building, orchestrating a cross-section of characters and a manifold of narratives.
Chapter One: On the Stairs, 1
Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous way, in this neutral place that belongs to all and to none, where people pass by almost without seeing each other, where the life of the building regularly and distantly resounds. What happens behind the flats’ heavy doors can most often be perceived only through those fragmented echoes, those splinters, remnants, shadows, those first moves or incidents or accidents that happen in what are called the “common areas”, soft little sounds damped by the red woolen carpet, embryos of communal life which never go further than the landing. The inhabitants of a single building live a few inches from each other, they are separated by a mere partition wall, they share the same spaces repeated along each corridor, they perform the same movements at the same times, turning on a tap, flushing the water closet, switching on a light, laying a table, a few dozen simultaneous existences repeated from storey to storey, from building to building, from street to street. (Perec, 3)
Our world is increasingly immaterial; interactions are encoded in numerical data stacks carried over vast distances and received by other humans or machines. We are becoming untethered from physicality and thus our conception of reality is more and more abstracted. Yet there remains undeniable value in the immediate details that can be touched, seen, and heard. To invest the utmost significance in one’s possessions, however, borders on idolatry and shares with it the desire to reveal an authentic, unyielding truth. In the tactile medieval city, touch was the reliable sense to find one’s way through life: moving down narrow circuitous streets on uneven ground or reading the ridges and depressions of an intricate craftwork.
Touch was direct reception, a corporeal interpretation of experience without abstraction or intellectual convolution. Touch was truth-hunting. Today, it is undeniable that our lives are largely supported by enormous, highlyengineered systems. However, what lies within arm’s reach is where we seek meaning, where, as individuals, we find a “place in the universe.” (Bioy Casares & Borges 1976, 32)