This is an aerial image of the highway system close to Newark airport in central New Jersey. I took this on my recent flight to L.A to attend the MLA conference. That the early morning sun and the snow on the ground made everything look golden and silver at the same time is one thing, but how the roadway looks like a giant squid (with a jug handle) is quite another. It confirms my suspicion that roads are really tentacles and all the seemingly inanimate, inorganic objects that make up most of our civilization bound world are all oddly alive in a way that we will never really see or know. To figure out the sense of the one mortal life that each of us is charged with in relation to the other mortal lives around us seems overwhelming enough, to add the life of the inanimate to the list would seem all together too much. Yet, that is where literary-philosophical thought seems to be progressing.
Non-human lives and post-humanism seemed to underwrite a lot of the papers I heard at the MLA. The point there was not so much that we need to accord humanity to non-human things but that our version of the human is shaped by the inanimate, non-human, technologically animate things that we surround ourselves with. To understand ourselves we needn’t locate the center in us any longer, or start with ourselves any longer but look at the movements, affordances and appurtenances which occasion our humanity. The heliocentric universe was supposed to have dislocated the earth and its inhabitants from the false presumption of centrality in all things but the sun is too powerful a metaphor to not inhabit or give up to the margins. So the call is to decentralize, put power in the tips of the tentacles and all along its way, to know that the automotive-ants that crawl along it crawl with a kind of mechano-life that we would do well to acknowledge as our own.
Yesterday, for a few minutes, I stood on an overpass above freeway 405 in L.A. Even through the wire safeguard it felt oddly thrilling to be standing in the face of high speed oncoming traffic. Cars whooshed by like dangerous electric fish in a loud dark river. Having been inside a car speeding up exactly this same freeway, going under this same overpass, I marveled at the perspectival differences of the two experiences. It is like being in the moment of its ordinary passing and then getting a chance to reflect on it in the context of a bigger picture. At each instance it is a different story, but each instance gives depth to the other. The imperceptible layering of perspectives, so that the narrative of one instance is richer for the sub-conscious knowledge of the other, is what makes even ordinary instances complex. So, briefly, yesterday evening I had a vantage view on passing life. It is not enough that I inhabit passing time, not if I want to narrate it too.
I like to photograph reflections on tarred roads that have films of leftover rainwater. The gritty mosaic of a metalled road made slick with water is a good combination of texture and gloss that can articulate a surprising amount of detail. This road is by the Bergen harbor in Norway. The bare rigging of an anchored vessel caught gazing upon itself was like walking into the dressing room of an unprepared moment. Not wanting the moment to turn around and catch me looking, I stayed out of the reflection and waited, brooding on the reflection.
Reflections play with perspective, loosen the hold of what we know and lead us into uncertainty: to sink, flail or catch the first straw of certain knowledge and return to the harbor unchanged. Sometimes there is an unpredictable moment of insight, a momentary reprieve from the tyranny of what we already know and see. Then it is a moment of looking down on a tarred road and a puddle with a crest fallen half-a-yacht to find a broken piece of the night sky. I picked it up and brought it back with me.