March 2, 2008

The Arcades Project (Reading 1)

Starting at a random place in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project I came across this:

"What a pleasure for the resident of the South of France to rediscover, in the names of the various districts of Paris, those of the place where he was born, of the town where his wife came into the world, of the village where he spent his early years." - JB Pujoulx, Paris à la fin du XVIIe siècle [p. 522]

When I voyage around a city in the course of a day, walking, cycling, taking transit or driving, I am constantly drawn into nostalgia or imaginary wanderings that relate to the landscape. Different cities, different neighborhoods, different circumstances all bring about a stream of experience that's worth being aware of and writing about. Sometimes it's a memory directly connected to that place, sometimes it's a situation that references a film. Or a film that produces a memory. Sometimes it's a smell that collapses a span of 20 years. But most of the time my movements in Vancouver don't connect at all to "the village where he spent his early years." I feel no ownership over the street names I encounter, and I reinvest very little into the city itself. The network is my home. The landscape around me is a stage for my mind which I put into art, journals, this blog, into conversations and into my work for others. The street names (Granville, Burrard, Broadway, Hastings...) have no other meanings to me. Sure, they remind me that this is British Columbia, but mostly they are ways of forming a path from here to there. From there to here: I am, like you, the product of my connections to other places at other times and the choices I made along the way. Places and choices, few of which are represented in the city itself.

Vancouver is my Second Life map.

I think the pleasure that Benjamin is quoting above has to do with a sense of belonging and connection. I wonder if Paris is called "Ile de France" because of how it embodies to all aspects of the nation. It is a microcosm of a larger whole and is tied to an identity that, once taken on can nourish, entertain, situate and support a person. Somehow that idea of the old street names of Paris creating a model of home away from home for the French citizen relates in my mind to the act of logging onto the internet. The offline neighborhoods of old are kept tenuously alive through electronic pulses. The pleasure of nostalgia and shared belonging can be sought through the mediation of software that regroups the mind and regroups time.

The "rediscovery" Benjamin quotes speaks of how one might voyage away from one place and towards a new centre to find echos of what once was. Leaving one's childhood village and eventually making one's way to the big city is something of an archetypical journey. To make that journey only to find a neighborhood with the same name is an experience that I know through its suggestion in books like The Alchemist and Siddartha. That departure and return is something like the reconnection through FaceBook with the online ghosts of old friends. Online experiences like that are perhaps comforting, but so thin. They resurrect a part of us, but it's the same old story: we go, we go, we go, and the past pushes its way back across our path like a fierce rumour and then it's gone again.

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