week 2

This week’s readings were fairly hard to digest — not because their language was incredibly convoluted, I think, but because ontology is a hard topic to wrap your head around. It can so difficult to articulate and comprehend the essence of things when it’s not something you think about often — even when an author uses plain words like “things thinging”, the concept is convoluted. The lecture clarified a lot of that opaqueness in the readings; hearing these concepts in a different light, with some background and historical context, is extremely helpful as we’ve already discussed in class. Interestingly, Arendt’s definitions of labor, work, and action, felt maybe more clear to me in the reading and lecture than they did during the in-class exercise; as if I could absorb them just fine, but once I had to use or assign them myself, they suddenly felt blurred. Later I realized I’d been imagining these definitions in their non-industrialized, dated conceptions: labor as a 19th century farmer harvesting crops by hand; work as a Renaissance sculptor chipping away at the marble block; action as men in powdered wigs discussing the French Revolution. Trying to place these concepts into our time and space — into my own life, or the apps I use — was a lot trickier. I don’t gather my food, but I do prepare it; is it labor when I cut a carrot to cook it into soup? Can anything I do constitute labor if I have the capital to acquire it ready-made (even if I choose not to)? It feels harder to draw the line when our world is so fragmented, when money is so entrenched in our lives, when comfort and necessity are hard to distinguish.

Some of the other concepts that stood out to me in the readings were self-domestication (in Sloterdijk) and the invasion/pervasion of our designed environments (in Willis). Willis’ quote, “”If we pervade buildings, they also pervade us – entrances, corridors, stairs, lifts, large rooms, small rooms – all design our modes of spatial occupation and our movements through spaces, allowing some, not allowing others” took me back to an incident I had that made me feel this so deeply, before I could even have articulated it as a concept. When I was 16, I studied abroad in England for two months before the start of my last year in high school. It was the first time I was alone for prolonged periods of time; I had a close friend from home also studying in the city, but at a different school and not living particularly close to me. Even though I was fluent enough in English by that point, I still had the challenges of navigating the world by myself. One time while shopping alone at a Marks & Spencer, I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and looked for the exit — the first one I found turned out to be the fire exit, which I didn’t realize until I’d closed the door behind me, and couldn’t open it again. I had no choice but to go down the emergency stairs, eventually hitting the ground floor and opening the only door available, which sounded a horribly loud alarm. This door led to a parking lot behind the store, and once I was able to close it (it jammed on the pavement for a couple of excruciating minutes) I found myself trapped. The parking lot was fenced and gated, and the “In case of emergency” signs pointed me around an alley towards another door — which was also locked. I was suddenly hyper-aware of the containment of human spaces, fences and doors, designed to enclose and direct us. I felt so transgressive, worrying people would think I was there because I was shoplifting, and worst of all fearing that I’d be forced to transgress any further (“I’ll probably have to climb the fence to get out of here”).

Looking back, I realize I felt guilty for appearing to break my own domestication by being in the wrong place, even though it was a simple and honest mistake. I was also blaming my physical body more than the environment around me — “if only I were taller and stronger so I could climb this fence quick before anyone saw me.” But of course the fence wasn’t always there: it was put there, designed to be there, part of this human process of taming nature, creating confined spaces and private property. Similarly, the concept of “being in the wrong place” is entirely artificial: if I got there, and was able to get there, and didn’t hurt anyone in getting there, how could it be wrong? In the end, I found a technological rather than physical escape route: I spotted an intercom by an office building that shared the parking lot with the Marks & Spencer, and embarrassingly explained the situation to someone who then opened the gate for me. I felt a rush of relief being back on the street, a regular space, where I was allowed to be. It’s been almost ten years now, but I still remember the shock of the whole thing so vividly — and though I’d been able to articulate some of what was going through my mind in the years since, this seems like the first time I can really tell what distressed me so much about it.