Archive for the ‘waiting’ Category
I had the great misfortune today of visiting the one masterpiece of London Brutalism that Owen Hatherley will likely never see the inside of: the American Embassy building on Grosvenor Square, designed by Eero Saarinen. I had been planning to phonecam the entire experience for the blog, having been away from the Heimat long enough to forget that the Permanent New Normal has resulted in the prohibition of mobile phones inside pretty much every US governmental edifice.
What would have featured in my photoessay, had I been allowed to stay high-bandwidth, were pictures of the waiting room where I spent nearly three hours. It’s a classic High-DMV affair: lots of uncomfortable chairs, broken scoreboards that should be telling you who’s being called where but are out of service, a Coke machine that eats pound coins returning no bottles of beverage, stacks of magazines that no one in their right mind would ever willingly read (one was called something like Expatria – it’s lead article was on up-armoring BMW SUVs) and pamphlets that tell you little more than that you’re bound to be in this room for a long fucking time, and screaming babies, some of them mine.
Waiting rooms are fascinating; it’s an obvious thing to say but even a relatively short amount of time spent in one re-confirms that hell would be just like that. Nothing to read, nothing to do, but wait for a number to be called (but the PA is too crackly to hear what they’re saying!) that never seems to get called. Someone has something that you desperately need but they have it on the wrong side of the glass partition and they’ve forgotten about you, and now there’s no line to join to let them know that they’ve forgotten you and thus you’re stuck there, in a little eddy of civilisation, forever and more.
I have a terrible fear of bureaucracy. Many of my nightmares and almost all of my worst waking fantasies have to do with the confrontation with someone who couldn’t care less about something that I couldn’t care more about. This might mean that I’m a bad socialist, I’m not sure. It does mean, I will confess to you now, that from time to time I have paid my way out of lines, paid what it costs to deal with someone who wants my money rather than someone who is structurally obligated to blow me off. I have a clear idea the price that I might one day pay for such behavior.
I’m about to start writing a piece (for a fairly swish collection of essays populated by all the better-known London psychogeographers and, erm, me) that will center on waiting rooms, the sort of thinking and desiring and fearing that goes on in them. One of the things that I’ll talk a bit about is the section in Walter Benjamin’s notes toward his theses “On the Philosophy of History” in which he expands a bit upon messianic time as a critique of social democratic ameliorism:
In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began. The ideal was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an ‘infinite [unendlich] task […] Once the classless society is defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity.
Just to be clear, I’m no fan of messianism. But Benjamin’s description of the temporality of non-messianic politics is frightening, hellish even. Democratic socialism, in this formulation, is a sort of waiting room in which one is destined to wait forever, all while believing that one’s number is about to be called, will be called in the next round, just when the bureaucrat behind the glass window gets around to it, must be coming soon, we’ve been in here longer than anyone else at this point haven’t we?
Still as persuaded as I am by this, after today I am ready to offer a less-than-allegorial counter-allegory.
After about a half-an-hour of waiting, which proved to be a fifth of the way through the time we spent in the embassy, something disturbingly marvellous happened. I’d just run through the last of my coins on a packet of Oreos which we were going to share two each for the three of us, when the loudspeaker in the room started to pronounce suddenly and in a firm tone a phrase that I have never actually heard pronounced save for on television:
DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER. AN ATTACK ON THE EMBASSY IS IMMINENT. MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS. DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER.
My fellow Americans seated in the waiting room were baffled, non-plussed, confused. Not a single person did a single thing except look towards the source of the words, the loudspeak, and wonder what was going on. Was it the kid who had touched the glass? Was it a false alarm?
DUCK AND COVER. DUCK AND COVER. IF YOU ARE NOT IN YOUR OFFICE, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MOVE TOWARD YOUR OFFICE OR WORKSPACE. STAY WHERE YOU ARE, DUCK AND COVER AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
Assuredly today wasn’t the day that someone rolls a truckbomb up against this basically undefensable redoubt of be-eagled Americanism! I noticed, however, that the embassy staff (who were behind a glass partion, like bank tellers) jumped immediately out of their seats and ran away from the places where they were standing or sitting. This, my friends, was unsettling and I began as swiftly as I could the process of moving my largish family away from the windows and toward the center of the building. And just as I did, ahead of anyone else on the civilian-side of the room, the other shoe dropped.
THIS WAS A TEST. THIS WAS ONLY A TEST OF THE EMBASSY’S ALERT SYSTEM. THIS WILL BE A TEST OF THE EMBASSY’S ALERT SYSTEM…. DUCK AND COVER, DUCK AND COVER. AN ATTACK ON THE EMBASSY IS IMMINENT. MOVE AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RETURN TO YOUR OFFICE OR WORKSPACE. THIS IS A TEST.
The truth of the matter is that even when the interruption comes, observation suggests that individuals will neither panic nor become resolute. Individuals, instead, will stand staring with a dreamy sort of awe. The impulse to fear ridicule from over-reaction will outride even the fear of death and disfigurement. Even if the messiah were to arrive, marked as such and announced by a thunderous voice, mostly people will stand an stare at the loudspeaker, trained to wait by the waiting room itself, fingering the ticket that they pulled from a machine and stuck in their pocket, numbly aware of just where they are and how things work where they are….
So I’m going to be writing a piece this summer for a very nice collection indeed (I’ll be the guy readers are like “who the fuck?” when they check the table of contents) on the theme of, well, urban waiting, on the sort of waiting that happens in cities. So, yes, Lefebvre-type constrained time, definitely: bus stops, underground trips, the walk to work. But not just that, not just that at all, as that’s been worked over quite a lot and there’s probably more interesting forms of waiting out there to discuss.
(Oh, and it’s supposed to be a personal essay cum lit crit and history type paper. Yum. Maybe even with photographs. Double yum. There’s a question in this regard at the very bottom of my post, so if you’d rather not read, would rather write, skip to the very bottom…)
For instance, there’s the implicit waiting that is the flipside of the shock, the event, in Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” the waiting that’s condensed in the imparfaitness of the first line: La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait. How long has he been standing there? How long as the street been roaring? How long do you have to stand around on a street corner before you get an un éclair? That sort of thing.
“Un éclair… puis la nuit!” The evental moment passes so quickly that there’s not even time for verbs. All the rest is waiting, compositional and retrospective waiting.
And then there’s my absolute favorite moment of literary urban waiting. Forgive me, a long quotation from a shady on-line translation is coming. It’s the bit of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale when Frederic is waiting for Madame Arnoux to show up while at the same time the revolution of 1848 is starting up just around the corner.
It was the students’ column which had just arrived on the scene. They marched at an ordinary walking pace, in double file and in good order, with angry faces, bare hands, and all shouting at intervals :
” Long live Reform ! Down with Guizot ! ”
Frederick’s friends were there, sure enough. They would have seen him and dragged him along with them. He quickly sought refuge in the Rue de l’Arcade.
When the students had taken two turns round the Madeleine, they went in the direction of the Place de la Concorde. It was full of people ; and, at a distance, the crowd pressed close together, had the appearance of a field of dark ears of corn swaying to and fro.
At the same moment, some soldiers of the line ranged themselves in battle-array at the left-hand side of the church.
The groups remained standing there, however. In order to scatter them, some police-officers in civilian dress seized the most riotous in a brutal fashion, and carried them off to the guard-house. Frederic, in spite of his indignation, remained silent ; he feared being arrested along with the others, and thus missing Madame Arnoux.
A little while afterward the helmets of the Municipal Guards appeared. They kept striking about them with the flat side of their sabres. A horse fell. The people made a rush forward to save him, and as soon as the rider was in the saddle, they all ran away.
Then there was a great silence. The thin rain, which had moistened the asphalt, was no longer fall- ing. Clouds floated past, gently swept on by the wind.
Frederic began running through the Rue Tronchet. looking before and behind him*
At length it struck two o’clock.
” Ha ! now is the time ! ” said he to himself. ” She is leaving her house; she is approaching,” and a minute after, ” she has had plenty of time to be here.”
Up to three he tried to keep quiet. ” No, she is not going to be late a little patience ! ”
And for want of something to do he examined the most interesting shops that he passed a bookseller’s, a saddler’s and a mourning ware-house. Soon he knew the names of the different books, the various kinds of harness, and every sort of material. The persons who were in attendance in these establishments, from seeing him continually going to and fro, were at first surprised, and then alarmed, and finally they closed up their shop-fronts.
No doubt she had met with some obstacle, and must be enduring pain at the delay. But what de- light would be afforded in a very short time ! For she would come that was certain. ” She has given me her promise ! ” In the meantime an intolerable feeling of anxiety was gradually seizing hold of him. Impelled by an absurd idea, he returned to his hotel, as if he expected to find her there. At the same mo- ment, she might have reached the street in which their meeting was to take place. He rushed out. There was no one. And he resumed his tramp up and down the footpath.
He stared at the gaps in the pavement, the mouths of the gutters, the candelabra, and the numbers above the doors. The most trifling objects became for him companions, or rather, ironical spectators, and the uniform fronts of the houses seemed to him to have a pitiless aspect. He was suffering from cold feet. He felt as if he were about to succumb to the dejection which was crushing: him. The reverberation of his footsteps vibrated through his brain as he tramped to and fro.
When he saw by his watch that it was four o’clock, he experienced, as it were, a sense of vertigo, a feeling of despair. He tried to repeat some verses to him- self, to make a calculation, no matter of what sort, to invent some kind of story. Impossible ! He was beset by the image of Madame Arnoux ; he felt a longing to run in order to meet her. But what road ought he to take so that they might not pass each other?
He went up to a messenger, put five francs into his hand, and told him to go to the Rue de Paradis to Jacques Arnoux’s residence and inquire ” if Madame were at home.” Then he took up his post at the corner of the Rue de la Ferme and of the Rue Tronchet, so as to be able to look down both of them at the same time. On the boulevard, in the background of the scene before him, confused masses of people were gliding past. He could distinguish, every now and then, the aigrette of a dragoon or a woman’s hat ; and he strained his eyes in an effort to recognise the wearer. A child in rags, exhibiting a jack-in-the-box, asked him, with a smile, for alms.
The man with the velvet vest reappeared. ” The porter had not seen her going out.” What had kept her in? If she were ill he would have been told about it. Was it a visitor? Nothing was easier than to say that she was not at home. He struck his forehead.
” Ah ! I am stupid ! Of course, this political outbreak prevented her from coming ! “
Mmmm. Yes. I was going to attend the G-20 festival of media-anticipated ultraviolence next week until I remembered that I might be having a kid, any day now, and my services could well be required at home.
But here’s the big question for all of you: do you have a favorite episode of literary or filmic urban waiting? I think, per the Flaubert, I am most (but not exclusively) interested in scenes of waiting that are bound up with sexual or romantic frustration: waiting for the lover, waiting because there’s no venue for love, that sort of thing. Or perhaps scenes of waiting, like those that I’ve described above, that seem to undercut or satirize the political event.