Sunday, 16 October 2011

Seen from the window

In his autobiographical essay, ‘Seen from the window,’ Henri Lefebvre describes looking from the balcony of his apartment in central Paris on to a busy intersection over a period of several hours. After a while he starts to notice patterns in the apparently chaotic street scene: the rhythm of the changing traffic lights, the synchronised movements of vehicles and pedestrians, the contrast between feverish activity and moments of relative calm. In order to notice such patterns, Lefebvre suggests, you need the patience to watch mundane events unfolding in time:

The characteristic features are really temporal and rhythmical, not visual. To extricate the rhythms requires attentiveness and a certain amount of time. Otherwise it only serves as a glance to enter into the murmurs, noises and cries … Over there, the one walking in the street is immersed into the multiplicity of noises, rumours, rhythms … But from the window noises are distinguishable, fluxes separate themselves, rhythms answer each other.

I’ve been looking out of the window more often than usual lately. I am on a research fellowship this year so am not teaching, and my office at work is directly above a terrace where students and members of staff walk and sometimes chat between classes. I used to see people gossiping, laughing, exchanging cigarettes and lighters, and blowing their smoke into the air: that international, wordless language that breaks down the inevitable awkwardness between people who are not quite strangers and not quite friends. Now, because the terrace constitutes part of the building and is covered by the smoking ban, the smokers have been banished to the steps below the Anglican cathedral, where they sit on their own looking, at least from a distance, pensive and disconsolate. Now, instead of cigarettes, a hundred mobile phones flip open as soon as the students come out of lectures. You could write an MA thesis about the anthropological significance of the facial and hand gestures that people adopt when they are talking on their phones. The person on the other end of the line can’t see you, you know! And of all the windows in all the world, these little gestures, tics, glances and snatched conversations came to be seen by me out of mine.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.’ - Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I


  1. William Gibson / Zero History

    She hung up before he could say goodbye. Stood there with her arm cocked, phone at ear-level, suddenly aware of the iconic nature of her unconscious pose.

    Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that had once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones. Human figures, a block down the street, in postures utterly familiar, were no longer smoking.

  2. Wow, what a find. Thank you.

  3. You know that we can see you too, don't you? Ah, the mise-en-abyme of students blogging on their phones about their lecturer blogging about students blogging... etc.

  4. Or there's the humbling view through the window of the people doing 'proper' jobs: him sweeping up the leaves, her carrying our litter to the recycling bins, them building the extension. What must they think of us and our brooding over our laptops?