Saturday, January 2, 2010

Working the Borders

When I decided some months back that I wanted to start the new year off by teaching about creation, it was the symmetry of the idea that appealed to me: New year, new beginning, fresh start, all that. I had assumed that I would focus on the second creation story, in Genesis 2, the one involving Adam and Eve, because that story is so rich in in allegory and offers so much in the way of material about knowledge, fall, human frailty, sexual relations, etc.

But damned if spirit didn’t stop me at Genesis 1.

In the first creation story, the one told in Genesis 1, God creates heaven and earth and everything they constitute and contain by speaking. With his first words, “Let there be light,” establish both something that did not previously exist and a distinction between that new thing and a thing that apparently did exist previously, darkness (we read before God’s first words that “darkness was over the deep.”) There is a lot to consider in those first three verses of Genesis: The paradoxical notion that the word “light” existed before the thing “light,” for example, a notion that Borges has contemplated in his writings on the Kabbalah. Similarly, as one reads these words closely, one sees that the concept of depth and the thing it describes, water, are primal, that they exist before God begins issuing the series of commands that constitute the six days of creation. Doctoral dissertations could be -- and I suspect have been – written about the paradoxes contained in these lines.

But I want to focus right now on what God does with his words in Genesis 1. Through the act of creative speech He establishes a set of divisions and distinctions: Light//darkness (1:3), day//night (1:5 and again, with more particularity, in 1:14), the water above//the water below (1:6), land//water (1:9), sun//moon (1:14). In the midst of these oppositional pairs, he establishes plant life, animal life and finally humans.

Humans are created with a built-in oppositional pairing: “Male and female He made them.” (1:27). Presumably, He also built gender distinction into most animal life as He created it, although this is not mentioned.

Thus, it is possible to view the creation story in Genesis 1 as the establishment of a set of borders and boundaries. And in this light, the subsequent history of humanity can be seen as an effort to both maintain and traverse these borders.

I want to make a brief point here, before I move on. Although these pairings are set up in opposition, there is built-in tension in that each is dependent on its opposite for its meaning. Light would have no meaning were it not contrasted with darkness. Thus the very act of setting up distinctions and borders enfolds a unity, in that the distinction cannot be maintained except by the breaking down of a unity that nevertheless remains comprehensible. Paradox is built into the system.

I can’t tell you why, but thinking about the Creation led me back to a book I had bought a while back and put aside: Mark C. Taylor’s Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Taylor is chairman of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and a noted deconstructionist writer. I had first heard of him, and read a few articles by him, back when I was in graduate school in Architecture and was introduced to deconstruction as a way of looking at and thinking about buildings. I wasn’t ready for Taylor at the time; the density of his arguments baffled me. But reading him now, I feel I am getting a sense of where he is coming from and what he is after in his writings.

In this book, Taylor tackles the dissolution of oppositional distinctions in a complex and fascinating way, focusing on the dissolution of the Godman boundary in Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophy. He’s not particularly concerned with architecture in Erring – he addresses that topic directly in later works such as Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion – but nevertheless this thinking and reading about boundaries and borders led me back to concepts in my architectural training that now begin to make greater sense to me.

In writing about the oppositional distinctions in Genesis 1, I used the typographical mechanism of the “double pipes” (//), to represent the separation of concepts. The reason for double pipes rather than single is that I want to make the point that the border comprises its own territory. There is space here, between day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea. And that space is in some ways analogous to the space marked and encapsuled in the architectural edge.

Architecture can, in some ways, be thought of as the creation of boundaries, insideoutside being the most obvious, but by no means the only one. But those boundaries take on a variety of forms and qualities that gives architecture its meanings. Solid borders – stone walls, for example – form one sort of barrier, both physical and visual, while glazing, windows, doors, ledges, curbs provide a quite different edge condition. Some of these borders can be transected visually; some allow the passage of air and/or light; still others invite transit, physical crossing.

Architects often like to think of themselves as creators of space, but in fact space is a result of the erection and manipulation of boundaries. As stated, those boundaries encompass a broad spectrum of permeability. And many of those boundaries are themselves alive with activity.

In modern constructions, the walls, ceilings and floors generally encapsule the “works” of the building: The wires, pipes, ducts and other conduits and mechanisms that enable the building to operate. Other architectural boundaries trap space in distinctive and useful ways: Alcoves, closets, cabinets, benches, shelves, window seats, stairways. These are often seen as elements that give an architectural work its character, that make it more than just functional as shelter.

I look at the boundaries created by the God of Genesis 1 in a similar way. Between darkness and light, between day and night, land and sea, sun and moon is the space of the mind, the “works” of human existence. We move back and forth across these borders through thought, speech, writing, art, music, science. And in the process we both reinforce the borders and violate them.

Our repeated passage stitches the oppositional pairs together in a way that can be, I think, compared to the stitching that join two pieces of fabric, or to writing that contrasts and compares seeming opposites, finding in them both common ground and areas of irreconcilable difference.
In architectural, one of the most powerful occurrences is the corner, the place where two barriers meet. Corners are often the site of extraordinary attention, of reinforcement and emphasis in both structure and detail.

I would argue that here is a similar kind of power that exerts itself in the crossing of multiple generative borders. Consider, for example, the experience of sunrise or sunset at the beach. Many people find an ineffable spiritual energy in the space of this dual border crossing. Baptisms, weddings and other holy ceremonies are often conducted in this temporalspatial meeting place. X marks the spot of transcendence.

These crossings, of course, bring to mind the metaphor of the New Testament cross, that instrument of death that is seen by believers to give eternal life, the means of execution and fulfillment for a being acknowledged as both heavenly and earthly. Since the image of the cross has often been a problem for me – putting as it does a focus on torture and death rather than resurrection and life – the understanding of the cross as a metaphor for the human challenge in this alternate way is comforting.

There is a lot more that can be said on this topic, and I hope to say more as I continue preparations for my class next Sunday.

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