Over the past few months I’ve been considering what it means to be subjects in and subject to place. I’ve wondered if this condition of inter-subjectivity is responsible for whether and how our surroundings influence who we are and what we create.
On the one hand, influence is explicit when we make representative art as in landscape painting or poetry and prose whose subject is Emerson’s lake water whipped
rough for a trout;
Or bathers, diving from the rock at noon;
Or listening to the laughter of the loon;
Or, in the evening twilight’s latest red,
Beholding the procession of the pines
In this instance it is easy to spot the muse as she is the context, literally the groundwork, upon and within which we design our vision. Our sensibilities are filtered through the eyes of Emerson’s red deer, a square mist and his meteor light. But how can we account for the moment when the curve of a woman’s hip reflects the contour of a mountainside, when the lilt of a voice described in verse carries the subtle echo of a Vireo. This is the valley between subject and object where influence lies or rather; this is the valley between subjects that gives rise to influence.
There is a lot of talk lately about the importance of place and about how place does more than merely inform our work. It has been suggested – and indeed I agree – that place directly influences what and how we create. But before we can understand how this co-creative moment arises and how we arrive at it, we ought to linger a moment on the practical difference between place and space.
I think of space as an abstract concept rather than a location – it is quite apart from a grounding or a dwelling place. Space is empty of corporeal or sensual, organic characteristics – it is how we describe a vacuous anti-terrain that can be entered and appropriated and ultimately left without disruption to what may have been contained in there, and without any incitement of our own passions that may have been caused by our foray into it.
Place is a different matter altogether, it is what emerges when sentiment, longing, desire and story all inhabit space. Space then – in this more infused condition – becomes place. We talk of resting places, familiar and special places, of ownership that is often sentimental as in: this is our place. Spaces are void perimeters, infinite and empty, in contrast to places that are where we locate our humanity.
To talk this way about elements and beings (sentient or not, organic or not – because I do mean to take into account boulders as well as trees along with bobcats and women) inhabiting place, makes it sound as though the world of things – of objects and identities and of beings – all contain a measure of desire. After all, to inhabit is to be drawn towards something, to desire it and then to be subject to it. This raises the question of whether this condition runs just one way or do the places we inhabit – in turn – inhabit us?
In these so-called places, what are we to each other? What is the nature of this intersection where the rough bumpy ground meets flesh, meets world? At bottom, it suggests that we don’t exist alongside a world of static objects separate from ourselves. But rather that we are in a continual state of coproduction with the world through our presence in what has been called a corporeal poetics of everyday life. This style of dwelling and of understanding ourselves as subjects in and subject to the world infuses – becomes fused – with our creative manifestations and helps to turn back towards my initial question of how our surroundings influence who we are and what we create. Here in the midst of what I would call radical subjectivity we are entrained, caught up in the flow of our work and in our worlds. In this condition we are positioned in reaction to the notion that we are subjects acting on an objective world as independent agents. But rather that I am conscious of my body via the world, I am a hollow, a fold which has been made and can be unmade.
In order to turn towards the world, to disclose ourselves and in turn to bear witness to its disclosure, we must (I think) resist a kind of empirical disembodiment. This severance, this alienation, runs counter to realizing ourselves in the context of the world. I propose instead that we celebrate the reciprocal giving-over that joins thinker and thought-about, admirer and admired, lover and loved, self and other. In this rhythm we can begin to understand how the lived world draws us forth and in turn how it is drawn into what we make (our poetry and our painting, a photograph). The world infuses us with its own being and we, who are being given the world, interpret and draw out its edge through our own creative process, before we deliver it back into community, in the form of our own self-expression. A tripartite process of what is given, literally what is submitted, what is received in the exchange that is soon re-visioned, re-imagined and given back as an offering.