Out on a Limn: Space-Time in a plural World

By John Parman

Since 2006, the anthropologist Vasilina Orlova has studied a “new village” in the orbit of Irkutsk in Siberia, in an area that was transformed by the Bratsk Dam, the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by the Soviet Union. As her Siberia Project documents, Anosovo, founded in the 1600s, was one of many villages that was moved and rebuilt in the 1960s when the vast reservoir created by the hydroelectric dam subsumed the Angara River, part of an effort to industrialize this area of Siberia.

Orlova’s fieldwork reveals why villagers in Anosovo choose to remain there despite better prospects elsewhere. As she explains, nostalgia in this context is a complex emotion, caught up in what amounts to a utopian vision of a Soviet-Siberian future that didn’t work out, yet remains present in the village’s decaying infrastructure and alive with affect for the cohort that experienced it. Attached to the outer world by a weekly ferry and dodgy web service, these aging residents still identify with a cause larger than themselves—a collective endeavor so significant that the poet Yevtushenko felt moved to celebrate it in his epic poem, “Bratsk Dam.” That it failed, that Anosovo lives in its aftermath, abandoned by the Russian Federation, is incidental to the solidarity of purpose the villagers once experienced, of which every fragment is a reminder, Orlova argues.

Orlova’s grandfather was one of the village’s pioneers, drowning when his bulldozer fell through the ice of the diverted Angara River. She too is tied to it, as her photograph above of her grandfather’s grave in Anosovo attests. Orlova writes movingly about the arc of her life—from a late-Soviet childhood through the unfolding stages of the post-Soviet era. Her thesis states that the Soviet “collapse” is ongoing. As her fieldwork demonstrates, its utopian vision—the promise of postwar Soviet Union—also continues. Orlova’s account exemplifies Walter Benjamin’s idea of now-time, the term he coined to suggest the fluid, layered character of experienced life in which fragments of the past and future mingle with a liminal present.

In his early book, Time & The Art of Living, Robert Grudin made the point that time has qualities in common with space. We can shape time, he argues, but we rarely do so, treating it as a separate medium in which we happen to find ourselves. Living in space-time as we do, we fail to see time’s currents work for and against us, so we miscalculate, navigating life haphazardly.

Thwarted and finally hounded to death by his opponents, Benjamin struggled to realize his remarkable projects while keeping a roof over his head. His modus vivendi within space-time was to improvise in the face of resistance and reversals. He was guided in this by his insights into time and a synthetic sense of the world around him that resembled what the Dōgen scholar Hee-Jin Kim calls a radical nonduality: a refusal to divide life arbitrarily into categories, especially where time is concerned. Modernity, Benjamin determined, could be traced back from 1930s Paris to Baudelaire, a proto-modern flâneur in the city’s 19th-century arcades. It took a mind like his to grasp that the Arcades contained the history of an entire era, but as an archive of fragments that successive generations would have to take up anew and reconsider.

All of this is prologue to the thought that liminal space-time is our natural habitat or human condition. Cities, buildings, dwellings and products ground us in the illusion of something to be bridged, an in-between stage like trading bedclothes for street clothes. The landscape architect Linda Jewell noted to me that plants are in constant flux. It’s all in flux, in reality, but we imagine otherwise. Time unfolds and we lose sight of the fact that we’re unfolding with it.

Everything we do is ephemeral, yet one irony of Benjamin’s life is that, despite everything, most of his writings still exist because others managed to preserve it. Even the Nazis, after they seized the contents of his Berlin apartment, couldn’t bring themselves to destroy it. All that seems forever lost is the suitcase he had with him at Port-Bou when he killed himself. Even this will surface, my daughter believes. Our lives and works are ephemeral, yet resilient.

In New Investigations in Collective Form, California College of the Arts’s recently published first book, Neeraj Bhatia quotes from Hannah Arendt’s great book, The Human Condition.

“Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.”

I was struck by this. We live at a time when to be cosmopolitan in this local-global sense is to run risks. What’s breaking down as the world shifts to regional parity is a willingness, as individuals and as societies, to be understood by others and to acknowledge “each human being distinguished” in our speech and actions. The root of this, as Arendt noted, is our unwillingness to admit our equality—we might say, our radical equality—with others, which takes human distinctiveness as a desirable given, the essence of our humanity.

Arendt’s ideal of human pluralism seems almost crazily optimistic in the current climate of rising tribalism. Yet, we see traces of it in movements like Hong Kong and Moscow’s street protests against nationalist authoritarianism, in the Green New Deal and high school students’ politically-aware push for gun control and an end to the threat of mass extinction.

Her ideal suggests that Seattle is equal to every other city-region and yet, distinct from them. These differences are crucial to understanding and being understood, and ARCADE’s allegiance to them—its hyper-local focus—speaks to the dilemmas and responsibilities of the liminal city.

The dilemmas center on a misunderstanding of the local and liminal as a present that unfolds with no real sense of its past and future. The responsibilities center on our awareness that we are all citizens of the cosmos, living in a space-time—now-time—that’s open at both ends.

John Parman is a Berkeley-based writer and co-founder of Design Book Review (1983-2002). John thanks Vasilina Orlova, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. The first three paragraphs of this article draw on and gloss a research project of Vasilina Orlova, a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. For details on her work on the village of Anosovo, see http://www.vasilinaorlova.com/about-this-project.html