In her wonderful book on love and translation, Kate Briggs describes the content of Roland Barthes’ late lecture course Comment vivre ensemble – How to Live Together:
‘There is an age at which we teach what we know,’ he’d said in the inaugural lecture. ‘Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research.’ In this digressive, excursive teaching (‘research, not a lecture,’ he’ll stress at the end of the first session), the practice was never to be exhaustive, or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalizing theory, an ultimate grand idea. Instead, to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of its small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, as Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be simulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life? As materials to think with, Barthes compiles this unlikely corpus – an unexpected collection of writings and novels: The Magic Mountain, Robinson Crusoe, the texts of the Desert Fathers, Zola’s novel set in an apartment building, André Gide’s account of the real-life sequestered woman of Poitiers. The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I’ll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. Like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I’ll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and for food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.Briggs, Kate. This Little Art . Fitzcarraldo Editions.
The texts are to do with sequestration, the Barthes’ method is a way of accommodating isolation and different rhythms of life, as I wrote a bit about in my post The Pram in the Hall.
Covid will change who we are – there’s been a lot about what doesn’t get unpicked after its ebb – preposterous to think, for instance, that we would go back to demanding face-to-face interviews for Universal Credit, and you’d like to think the 5-week wait would go too. Similarly, it feels like the practices and processes we put in place for work, to enable remote communication and collaboration, will maintain, and both for reasons of cost, and increasing ‘plane shame’ – the proxy reaction to climate change, corporate behaviour will change permanently. To link to that same post on women’s writing and the stylistic and physical spaces that can allow it, I would like to think this would enable a more various working environment, allowing for more diversity, not just in terms of gender, or background, but also age.
But as well as changing the logistics of how we get things done, it will of course change the ‘spatial and temporal’ structures in which we do them. Animals, bureaucracy, flowers, food, to quote Barthes’ list.
My domestic space, which previously had been a place in which to get up, to leave, to return, to eat and to sleep, and had a lack of care proportionate to that raw functionality, is now a place in which I live and work.
As a part of maintaining good contact and communications at work, we decided to have video conference calls as standard, rather than just the rather grim Skype for Business calls – leaning over squares of identity and interrupting each other. It’s been very effective – that’s one thing we won’t unpick.
But it also meant the weekend before starting home working ‘full time’ as it were, I decided that my bedroom space, which was also to be my workspace, needed sprucing up, lest people on video calls thought I lived a life of eremitic hebetude in some sort of weird monk’s cell.
So, in the spirit of Barthes, I will document it
Two posters from the Musée de Lodève near Montpellier, from a past love. de Chirico mannequins and Chagall’s flowing lines, which always also remind me of the church in Sussex with his remarkable stained glass commemorating the drowning of a beloved daughter of local landowners.
Something from Picasso’s blue period, which was already here when I moved in, in a not very pleasing place at the top of the landing, so that I didn’t notice what a powerful, simple and tender picture it is. Study of Two Ears and a Bat by Jusepe de Ribera (Lo Spagnoletto), bought after seeing the excellent Art of Violence Ribera exhibition at the Dulwich picture gallery. third, a gift from my partner – a dark blue mood, which immediately resonated deeply with a sense of how I have felt – at times, but often for quite protracted times – over recent years.
New cheap tables as an additional space to bring some brightness to an otherwise dark place in the room, directly behind me when I’m doing a video conf call. Cheap, rather ugly vase bought from Oxfam at the weekend, and daffs from the greengrocer. Also, I now see, a clothes brush.
Beautifully marine coloured woollen blanket on the bed, a Christmas present from a friend. Mainly used to drape around my shoulders if I’m feeling cold, but it helps break up the white spaces in the room a bit during the day to use it as a counterpane.
A picture I got from my mum for Christmas. I don’t really like it very much, so used it to fill a neglected space.
An Eric Ravilious number. When I saw it, at the end of an exhibition, it seemed to sum up and contain everything that I had seen before – of evidence of people in underpopulated and deserted spaces, of the machine of humanity (those vertical oars like standards), of spaces at the edge of living. After I bought the print and got it home, and since then, I’ve found it blank and a bit trite. However, it’s really found its spot here, and has come to life for me again.
A cheap, vulgar and rather gimcrack Chinese style wall scroll to do something about the v rented accommodation energy of the wardrobe. It’s great. Who doesn’t like pictures of distant strange lands, with jade mountains to get lost in, full of the potential for adventure – a changed landscape, a strange new Eden.
More flarze! Thistles, daisies and… idk are they violets? and something else. When I lived in Poland I used to like the way on a Saturday, the buying of flowers to decorate the home seemed universal. And another, rather unusual Ravilious. In fact, something about its strange city of gold, fire and fireworks and stylised figures reminded me of Wyndham Lewis’s wonderful painting the Surrender of Barcelona, of which I must order a print.
A cork board that was by my desk but now sits behind my head in webcam shot to break up the so-so. Bearded man is David Rudkin, who wrote Penda’s Fen and the very strange, very good Artemis 81. Ballard on the left-hand side, tutelary angel of transformed environments and organisms. A striking Wyndham Lewis portrait of his wife, a picture of a prostrate Sancho Panza, Blake, and a gift voucher for my local delicatessen-butchers.
And finally, but very much not least: