Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Setting Up a World

Phenomenology and Cultural Amnesia in General Orders No.9

In this article, Tina Richardson reviews General Orders No.9, written and directed by Robert Persons and released in 2009, and reflects on the geography of loss and forgetting:

On its website, General Orders No. 9 describes itself thus: “An experimental documentary that contemplates the signs of loss and change in the American South as potent metaphors of personal and collective destiny”. As a psychogeographer, the word ‘loss’ is not lost on me, since a wealth of psychogeographical accounts and related literary texts exist on this very subject. Written and directed by Robert Persons, the award-winning General Orders No. 9 would make for a very neat analysis along the lines of nostalgia, haunting and memory – quite possibly one of a deconstruction.

Despite this ‘call’ to me from General Orders No. 9 to write about these themes directly, I will be exploring them rather more indirectly through the concept of centring, in particular under the rubric of cultural forgetting such that it is concerned with ideas around concealing and revealing. By comparing the idea of ‘man’s progress’ (in regards to its impact on ‘nature’) with Martin Heidegger’s example of the Greek temple in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, I will discuss how this forgetting operates through an ideological ‘naturalness’ that enables humans to operate with a high degree of amnesia when it comes to environmental impact.

In his essay Heidegger states that the temple reveals little in terms of its content – it is what it represents that is important because ‘god is present in the temple’ (2000: 89). It is this understanding, and the power invested in the temple by the people, that designates its authority. The temple’s centre of power forms the nexus for the connections and relationships which guide the lives of the people and frame their future. In Persons’ film, this centre appears as the Courthouse in the centre of the Town, which is in the centre of the County, which is in the centre of the State of Georgia in the United States:” Here there is a sense of order. From above and below, from within and without. This shall be the centre of the world. The pillar of heaven” (Persons 2009).
Heidegger’s temple serves many functions. It constitutes the law, society and culture, it is the central point of socio-cultural connections, and it is also the originator of truth and knowledge. The temple “makes visible the invisible” (2000: 89). As Heidegger explains, the early morning light lands on the temple marking the beginning of the day to the people. The form and order of their world is thus defined and the citizens go about their day within this pre-given framework. Later, the sunset signals the closing down of the world, and the people return home having made meaning and sense out of their day. So, too, the people of the Town are guided by the clock tower on the Courthouse, which informs their day, being a reminder of where they are and where they should be. The Courthouse represents order and form, and the Town’s citizens make meaning from this in the same way that the Greeks made meaning from their lived experiences via the temple. The temple/Courthouse “clears and illuminates” (ibid.) by providing delineated physical and existential boundaries, and a well-recognised centre: “The Courthouse is the man and the County is the world [and] the roads of the County meet like the spokes of a wheel and it appears as a world entire” (Persons 2009). This is what Heidegger calls “setting up a world” (2000: 91).
But, this all changes with the development of the new interstate, which scythes its way through the County, coming within half-a-mile of the Courthouse: “The interstate does not serve, it possesses. It has the power to make the land invisible to our attention” (Persons 2009). The City eventually appears at the locus of three interstates, becoming “an image that suggests a centre…but it is a false centre” (Persons 2009). The City has displaced the Courthouse. Yet, the City is unrepresentable and cannot be made sense of in any way that provides meaning to the citizens. The lack of a physical centre has the effect of decentring the postmodern individual, leaving them open to a fluidity that exposes them to unpredictable networks and flows. The film’s narrator (William Davidson – his voice spookily reminiscent of Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, in Apocalypse Now) explains to us that he searches for “Some level of communion, some sign of belonging, the realisation of one’s part to the City’s whole” (Persons 2009). This new temple no longer “gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves” (Heidegger 2000: 89). Heidegger’s god has now “fled from the temple” (ibid.). The temple is ruined: “You’re not a witness to the ruin. You are the ruin. You are to be witnessed” (Persons 2009).

Providing the citizens believed that the temple still contained their god this process of revealing and hiding of the world continued to remake the world anew every day. They needed to be content in their forgetting of the fact that they were actually the builders of the temple in the first place, and were the ones responsible for placing their god there. G. Spencer Brown, a mathematician and expert in boundary algebra, explains: “Thus the world, when ever it appears as a physical universe, must always seem to us, its representatives, to be playing a kind of hide-and-seek with itself. What is revealed will be concealed, but what is concealed will again be revealed” (1972: 106). And it is through this concept of hide-and-seek that cultural amnesia takes place.

The temple had been created by the people for their gods, but in that very act of creation, in that singularity that denoted a new moment in history (and saw representation as symbolising knowledge), man had forgotten that he was the creator of the temple. In a bizarre kind of mass forgetting the temple as representation was forgotten and instead formed the ground upon which man based his life, it became “the naming power of the word” (Heidegger 2000: 91). The temple became the primary position from which all other positions were related (logos), so did the Courthouse. It is through this naturalising process of ideology (Louis Althusser) that the Greeks collectively forgot they were the creators of their temple and thus relocated their power there. Heidegger says that with the “temple-work” the material (the concrete phenomenological matter) does not disappear but causes itself to appear as if for the very first time in the opening of the world (2000: 91). This concretisation of ideology in the temple itself is continually reproduced in every moment. The temple in its “setting forth” (ibid.) out of the material of its manufacture emerges from a ground position. The Greek people, and the citizens of the Town, simply (and self-reflexively) glanced at the symbol of their respective temples, thus actualising their self-created ideology and completing the circle of praxis.

But, this is a double forgetting. The citizens also created the City.
Spencer Brown explains how this takes place: “we somehow cleverly obscured this knowledge from ourselves, in order that we might navigate ourselves through a journey of rediscovery, consisting in series of justifications and proofs with the purpose of again rendering, to ourselves, irrefutable evidence of what we already knew” (1972: 106). This self-reflection is echoed in the film when the narrator says:” At some point we accept that everything – your ideas, your certainty, even what you think is right – they are all deceptions of greater or lesser degree” (Persons 2009). So, we have a glimmer of a revealing that comes to us in moments of clarity, when the game of hide-and-seek with the world becomes a game of existential hide-and-seek: “we somehow cleverly obscured this knowledge from ourselves through a journey of rediscovery, consisting in a series of justifications and proofs with the purpose of again rendering, to ourselves, irrefutable evidence of what we already knew” (Spencer Brown 1972: 106).
But, the lens then closes, the light dims and the world’s course becomes, yet again, inevitable. The realisation of what we have done to the world is pushed aside and we return to that place of security, the knowable centre: “there is only one thing. Nothing else matters. This is the one thing. The County is at the centre of the State. The Town is at the centre of the County. The Courthouse is at the centre of the Town” (Persons 2009).

The film ends.

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