Bridges and Doors

"Highway damaged by the Northridge earthquake, California, January 1994", from Bruce Mau, Massive Change; (2004)

Georg Simmel, in a short text called ‘Bridge and Door’, writes of the dual nature of reality: as simultaneous fully connected and entirely disconnected.

“The image of external things possesses for us the ambiguous dimension that in exernal nature everything can be considered to be connected, but also as separated. The uninterrupted transformations of materials as well as energies brings everything into relationship with everything else and make one cosmos out of all the individual elements. On the other hand, however, the objects remain banished in the merciless separation of space; no particle of matter can share its space with another and a real unity of the diverse does not exist in spatial terms.” (1997: 170-71)

Clearly, Simmel is thinking here of disconnection in Cartesian space. For him, space is the medium of connection and disconnection. His assertion that things cannot occupy the same space relies on the assumption that the things in question are made of exclusive lumps of matter. If we make allowances for this, however, permitting a broader conception of ‘things’ that doesn’t presume a spatial medium, there’s a nice resonance here with Graham Harman and Bruno Latour’s perspectives on the separation of objects, and the concept of a total referential contexture (Harman’s term).

I’ve been reading Timothy Morton‘s Ecological Thought (2010) and discussing it with students. It’s a nice way into speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, because right at the very outset it presents a simple, intuitive concept with deep rabbit-hole potential:

“The ecological crisis we face is so obvious that it becomes easy – for some, strangely or frighteningly easy – to join the dots and see that everything is interconnected. This is the ecological thought. And the more we consider it, the more our world opens up.” (Morton, 2010: 1)

I’m really enjoying my conversations with students about this. Some students (perhaps a slight majority), saw this as an intimidating proposition. One conceded that it might be a possible way of thinking, but asked if it’s a useful one from a human perspective, and others commented that it gave them a sense of placelessness (how do I position myself in this infinite tangle?) and disempowerment (because the lack of grounding in concepts like Nature or Society gave little to push against). Against this, one student suggested that in fact, this was an empowering understanding, because it meant that things were actually connected and we could therefore have actual effects on the world. Because everything is connected, everything can possibly be affected.

It’s important to balance the idea of connectedness, I think, with the observation that things are only connected because a connection is established. Connections are made. While interconnectedness is a matter of fact, it is a contingent fact: things that are connected, could possibly be disconnected as well (I like Meillassoux’s idea that contingency is the only necessity – that the only thing that is certain is that things could be different to how they are). Simmel presents this dual condition nicely. He refers to the way that bridges and doors are both connectors and separators, revealing decisively, “how separation and connecting are only two sides of precisely the same act” (172):

“Precisely because it can also be opened, [the door’s] closure provides the feeling of a stronger isolation against everything outside this space than the mere unstructured wall. The latter is mute, but the door speaks.” (172)

Simmel clearly can’t remotely be considered as an object-oriented-ontologist avant la lettre. His essay goes on to argue that it is an essentially human ability to connect things, and allied to this is the observation that it is only humans who separate things: “Only for us are the banks of a river not just apart but ‘separated’… Because the human being is the connecting creature who must always seaprate and cannot connect without separating – that is why we myst first conceive intellectually of the merely indifferent existance of two river banks as something separated in order to connect them by means of a bridge.” (171-74)

One of the most subversive and powerful strategies in the object-oriented toolkit is to ask the question, ‘but why only humans?’. Simmel is wrong about the privileged role of humans in separation and connection, but he’s not wrong about the importance of recognising their simultaneity. If we substitue the more general ‘objects’ for humans in Simmel’s text (mad-libs style), we have a fascinating picture of their efficacy. Objects stand in the doorway, as it were:

“Life on the earthly plane, however, as at every moment it throws a bridge between the unconnectedness of things, likewise stands in every moment inside or outside the door through which it will lead from its separate existence into the world, or from the world into its separate existence.” (174)

Harman, G. (2006). Tool-Being. (Chicago, IL: Open Court).

Meillassoux, Q. (2008). After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. (London, UK: Continuum).

Morton, T. (2010). The Ecological Thought. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Simmel, G. (1997). Simmel on Culture. (London, UK: Sage).

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