Enframing, Inhabitation, Skateboarding
Every aspect of the cities in which we live are determined from out of the technological mode of enframing. There are sidewalks for walking, streets for driving, malls for shopping, as well as industrial zones for industry, commercial zones for commerce and residential zones for dwelling. Aspects of our buildings are determined from a building code which defines not only the constitution of construction materials, but of the outer aspects of the finished project as well. Stairs must be less than 7 1/2 inches tall, handrails must be 36 inches from the toe of each stair and must be continually grippable. Accessibility ramps must travel twelve feet for every foot of rise.
Even our public spaces are designed to elicit a certain kind of use — sidewalks are not just for walking, they are also for displaying consumer goods to a public of consumers, and even our city parks are increasingly designed to accommodate not the citizen, but the consumer, and, to elicit specific activities and uses that facilitate the business of consumption. The space of a city is therefore wholly determined from out of the mode of enframing complete with proscribed and prohibited activities, perhaps by looking at an errant activity, such as skateboarding in a public space, we can see a saving power concealed by our technologized urban landscape.
Skateboarding is an example of a prohibited activity where things are appropriated for officially defined inappropriate uses. The sidewalk and street are joined together as the occasion for the performance of tricks. The skateboarder asks not for what purpose is this object designed, but, what possibilities do these things present. A set of stairs or a handrail becomes more than a means to the end of safely negotiating a space, but issues a challenge to which the skateboarder responds. An empty swimming pool is not merely a thing to be filled so that it can be used once more, but its emptiness presents multitudinous possibilities. These things are freed from the enframing determinism of use and opened to the realm of possibility.
The realm of possibility represents a void within an enframed space that designates what purpose every thing is for. This void calls to us always and everywhere that the technologization of the world pervades. Not heeding this call can lead on into inauthenticity, to aesthetic dejection, to depression, and to despair. The cure offered by the enframed city is to consume material goods until the void within oneself is filled. Of course, one cannot fill the void in such a way, but this inability is good for business. The skateboarder, whose errant activity disrupts the business of consumption, hears the call and embraces the void presented by things.
In The Thing, Heidegger describes the making of a particular thing, a jug. In our ordinary understanding of the making of a thing, the thing is preceded by an idea, which contains the image of its outer aspect as well as its designated use; both parts of the idea present themselves in the object. A thing is merely an object, objects are that which stand against us as experiencing subjects. But, a thing, Heidegger reminds us, is a gathering into a self-sufficiency, in other words, a thing is possessed of its own durability, which is different from that which stands against a subject and relies on the subject for its presencing. A thing stands on its own.
A jug is gathered into self-sufficiency by a potter, who shapes the material around the void which presents the possibility of holding and of pouring out. This jug is our paradigmatic thing, things gather, hold and pour out. What is gathered, held and poured is the World, the World is built upon the stability of things, and things are made of voids every bit as much as they are made of material.
It is the empty spaces within a city that allow movement, it is the emptiness of a building that makes it a commercial space, or industrial space, or a dwelling. However, we are caught up in the technological mode of enframing if we think that building precedes dwelling as the cause to an effect, or as the means to an end. Instead, building is predicated upon our nature as the kind of beings who dwell. Heidegger states that “the manner in which we humans are on the earth is … dwelling”. Our neighbors, he reminds us, are those who dwell near to us, the near-dwellers. Our mode of dwelling is a dwelling together. Dwelling together presents the possibility of building. This holds out from an anthropological perspective as human communities precede the construction of such permanent things as buildings.
As such, we would be very much mistaken to believe that we dwell only in such buildings designated as dwelling places. Rather, we dwell within the bounds of the city, by pervading the city in which we dwell. What Heidegger describes of the lecture room in “Building Dwelling Thinking”, applies equally to the city:
He says “only because mortals pervade, persist through, spaces by their very nature are they able to go through spaces. But, in going through spaces we do not give up our standing in them. Rather, we always go through spaces in such a way that we already experience them … When I go towards the door of the lecture hall, I am already there … I am never here only as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the room, and only thus can I go through it”
A city dweller is, likewise, not an isolated locus of activity, rather, a city dweller pervades the city in which she dwells, and this creates the possibility of activity within that city, whether this is the prescribed activity of material consumption or an errant activity such as skateboarding. The skateboarder is not concerned with the ends for which objects have been designed, rather, the skateboarder engages with that which she is already experiencing, that which she already pervades. She reaches into the void of self-sufficient things, appropriating the possibilities presented therein. Things gather the World, and set forth the World. A setting forth that determines its bounds and uses enframes the World and conceals Being beneath objects, however, a setting forth that allows the self-sufficiency of the thing to shine allows for dwelling in the World and reveals Being. Even where enframing holds sway, the void calls forth, calling us from our isolated individuality into a mode of relating, a mode of dwelling.
A skateboarder not only breaks the law with his errant activity, but also violates the rank order that designates the proper usage of objects by individual subjects as he dwells where the mode of engagement is limited to consumption.
Former professional skateboarder and professor of history and architectural history, Ocean Howell notes, in The Poetics of Security: Skateboarding, Urban Design, and the New Public Space, that literature on cities consistently speak of the importance of public space, and allude to public space as the birthplace of democracy. “Its purpose is to facilitate interaction between all citizens, not just consumers; it exists to foster debate — even conflict — among the various competing interests that are represented in the citizenry”. Despite these lofty observations, Howell notes that the public space has always been a space of exclusion. From the ancient agora, from out which democracy was born, to the modern downtown plaza and today’s suburban park, public space has always covertly operated within a dialogue of exclusion. Howell argues “that in industrial America there has been a movement from a kind of paternal, Olmsteadian public space that welcomed large segments of the public on certain disciplinary conditions, towards a public space that excludes subordinate people outright and more strictly disciplines even the dominant classes.” Howell notes that “To attract the upscale public while deterring the masses has been a primary urban design goal of recent years.” And, the result is public spaces that are really not that public at all.
Skateboarders are entering the dialogue concerning the public space whether or not they intend to, and whether or not they are informed as to the content of this dialogue. Howell says: “Skateboarding is not protest or activism, but is more like what Michel de Certeau described, in The Practice of Everyday Life, as a ‘spatial practice.’ Skateboarding is ‘a certain play within a system of defined places’. As the public space of the Central Business District (CBD) becomes more authoritarian, skateboarding ‘‘authorizes’ the production of an area of free play on a checkerboard that analyzes and classifies identities. It makes places habitable’.”
In her highly influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs reimagined the public space and its potential, she rejected the idea that the design of a public space contains the meaning of the space; “Let us turn this thought around,” she wrote, “and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred on them. This is more nearly in accord with reality, for people do confer use on parks and make them successes — or else withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure.” Public spaces requires inhabitants to not only put them to use, but to go beyond mere use and engage in the creation of meaning. It is in this creation of meaning that the public space finds its completion, not as object standing against the consumer/citizen/subject, but as free area to be moved through, to be dwelt within, to permeate. It finds it completion as a self-sufficient thing.
As the construction of public space, and the city in general, increasingly becomes a technologized, use/consumption oriented space, where every square inch is determined according to a ideology of exclusion and use, where objects are only what they have been intended for, we need to recall a few important things. The World emanates from out of the self-sufficiency of things, this self-sufficiency relies on human beings to confer meaning upon them through thinking or through a practice. In order to confer meaning one has to be attuned to the possibilities of meaning, in being so attuned we dwell with the things, in the spaces between the things, in the void of possibility. From out of this void we are able to unconceal the World, and Being, from beneath the determinism of enframing. Simple rebellious acts taking place in the public sphere can recall us to this way of thinking and of dwelling.
The skateboarder who violates the law, and simultaneously violates the rank order of enframing, always already pervades the city in which he lives, he occupies the public park that designates appropriate uses. Because he already pervades the park he is not only able to move through it, but has already entered into a relationship with the park. This relation calls to him to appropriate not only the space of the public park, but the meaning of the public park itself. As he pervades the park, he already pervades the possibilities presented by the park. City officials may decry the apparent destruction of ledges and rails, and an individual skateboarder may simply be driven by angst-fueled rebelliousness; nevertheless, the skateboarder accomplishes the transformation of a mere use object into a worlding-thing which he can inhabit. The skateboarder, moreover, in heeding the challenging call of the urban terrain which he already pervades utilizes technologies in a manner that authentically appropriates, and unconceals, the World in which he dwells. Thus, the skateboarder illustrates Hölderlin’s assertion that “where the danger grows, there the saving power also”.
Heidegger famously says that “To be is to be in language”. The prescriptions that define city and its environs form a sort of language in which the city dweller resides. But, just as language can be used to define, describe, and delimit, language can also be used poetically to evoke meaning. Skateboarding is the kind of poetic activity that reaches out to the possibilities present, but concealed, within the things in the city. A skateboard thus furnishes us with an example of the kind of thing that not only proceeds from out of a determining technologization, as an engineered commercial product, but also which opens a myriad of possibilities and meanings already present in the World.
The skateboarder illustrates this by reaching into the self-sufficiency of things. Self-sufficiency is not determined through intention alone but by a self-sufficient presencing through which possibilities for authentic appropriation and relating shine over and above intention. These possibilities call to the human being who already pervades the spaces between, and through, the things of the World.