Close Encounters with Placeness: Enter the Zone

v.2.0

This three part essay is a revised and expanded version of my notes for a lecture and workshop with the same title I gave at last year's Occulture conference in Berlin.

It became centered around Randonauting but you may as well consider that a place-holder for many other kind of mindful ways of engagement with place. It has a meandering shape, covering a lot of thoughts I've had related to Spirit of Place or Placeness throughout the last years.

In the first part we explored our relationship with place in general, and the strange un-places in our minds. In the last one we dug into synchronicities, contingency and divination, and this final one we will look at deeper meanings of place and The Zone.

Chōromanteia

Another movie scene as introduction to this part. It is taken from the psychological horror movie 1408 that is based on a novel by Stephen King:

(The hotel room in question is haunted. But by what specters? None! It is itself a space with agency. An 'evil fucking room'.)

'Contingency needs place'. This idea which we ended the second part with rings a bell. A distant one. Far back in time. Let's leave randonauting for a bit and visit Ancient Greek philosophy that had already discussed similar concepts millennia ago. The bell that rings is a section from Timaeus, a philosophical dialog written by Plato:

The third type is space, which exists always and cannot be destroyed. It provides a fixed state for all things that come to be. It is itself apprehended by a kind of bastard reasoning that does not involve sense perception, and it is hardly even an object of conviction. We look at it as in a dream when we say that everything that exists must of necessity be somewhere, in some place [topos; τόπος] and occupying some space [chōra; χώρα], and that which doesn’t exist somewhere, whether on earth or in heaven, doesn’t exist at all. (Timaeus 52b)

What the English translation does not reveal as immediately, is hinted at by the bracketed words: Greek has two different terms for 'place':

  • Topos is used for a physical location that a material thing happens to occupy at the moment and that is independent of its being.

  • Chōra, on the other hand, is more of a field that gives room for localities and provides the contextual significance for things.

In colloquial Greek the term 'chōrai' was used for countryside, rural settlements - outspread but at the same time considered central. In Ptolemaic Egypt, Alexandria was described as 'polis' while the rest of Egypt was considered 'chōra'.

Cairo

Chōra is dynamically involved in a thing's being and as such is ontologically essential to what the thing is. It is 'place' as expressive, as a keeper of memory, imagination and mythic presence.

In Plato's Timaeus the term is used to mean the 'receptacle' (hypodochē) onto which ideas are in-formed or in-scribed to make their particular copies that occupy and give shape to the 'kosmos' or 'world':

Not only does it always receive all things, it has never in any way whatever taken on any form [morphē] like any of those things that enter it. For its nature is to be a matrix [ekmageion] for all things; and it is modified, shaped, and reshaped by those things that enter it. These are the things that make it appear differentat different times. (Timaeus 50b–c)

Chōra remains un-determined, characterless, formless, amorphous. It is neither intelligible, nor perceptible. It is a third kind (triton genos), where order emerges from chaos, coherence from disassociation, sense from nonsense.

The Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō (西田 幾多郎) was not satisfied with the ancient Greeks' failure to attribute any 'logical independence' or 'agency' to their notion of 'place.' Throughout his works he developed his own concept of 'place' or 'basho' (場所) as a self-forming, living creativity. In distinction from Plato's place as receptacle, Nishida's version of 'chōra' is self-formative formlessness, a nothing (mu) that gives rise to being (yū). The dichotomies: subject-object, form-matter, predicate-subject happen simultaneously in an empty field wherein determination takes place.1

For terms to interrelate, there must be a place (basho) that establishes their relationship. Physical things relate within a common space or, in terms of physics, a force field. And phenomena and acts of consciousness relate within the field of consciousness (ishiki no ba 意識の場). It is within that space of basho that we see consciousness and its object co-relating. 'Basho' is the standpoint vis-à-vis reality, the most concrete entailing the non-distinction between experience and reality, before the dichotomization between subject and object or the distinction between ideal and real. At its most concrete level, presupposed by all other levels, basho envelops and encompasses all a prioris, mental acts, categories, contexts, and perspectival horizons that constitute the world of objects.2

In his life-long attempt to analyse the underlying mechanics of synchronicity, Carl Gustav Jung came to the conclusion that:

Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable, transcendental factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing.3

This 'one and the same thing' is neither 'psychic' nor 'material' but prior to their differentiation. He named it: unus mundus ('one unitary world'), borrowing the term from alchemy. He might as well have used 'chōra'.

Ouroboros

The Bulgarian-French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva contributed a new element to psychoanalyis called 'the semiotic', which refers to bio-physiological processes, akin to Freud's unconscious 'drives' but also associated with the musical, the poetic, the rhythmic, and that which lacks and precedes structure and meaning. Borrowing Plato's 'chōra' she coined the term semiotic chōra to describe the earliest stage in a human's psychosexual development in which they are closest to the pure materiality of existence. When children acquire language, they enter the realm of the symbolic but traces of the semiotic will always stay with them.4

In a sense this concept mirrors similar ideas Nishida attributed to chōra:

[For Nishida] the human body, mirroring the place of the world, is itself a chōra. As a microcosm, it takes part in the self-forming of the cosmic chōra. Both world and body, as macrocosmic and microcosmic places, are chōratic. [...] For Nishida, the individual body is the place of the existential contradiction between life and death. [...] [T]he mirroring of the cosmos's self-formation in the human body is simultaneously man's own active self-doing. [...] The human body is implaced and contextualized within, and mirrors, the world of meanings and its further implacement within an ever-receding and endless amorphous chōra sinking into the earth.5

Dance of Matter

Let's return and try to apply this mysterious placeness of 'chōra' to our field of inquiry: randonauting. Philosophical concepts such as the one revisited might seem like mere metaphysical speculations, detached from our everyday reality. Let me show you that is actually quite real: randonaut journeys often leave us with an uncanny but familiar feeling of the world being 'alive' and places somehow 'knowing' our most private thoughts. But if we accept the fact that our epistemological construct of a duality between 'world' and 'mind' is erroneous and follow Jung, Nishida, and Plato into an 'unitary world' where a chōra ceaselessly gives birth to meaning manifesting in ideas and material reality, then synchronicities seem much less 'weird' and rather a sign of attaining a healthier and more real sense of self and place.

Wilson

Anthropological accounts of human societies with an 'animist' worldview bear witness of embodied human experience and living in an 'unus mundus.' Before getting into one such account, let's quote from a research paper called Explorations in Animist Materialism by Harry Garuba to try to define more rigidly what is meant here by 'animism' in contrast to popular 'colonial' misconceptions of the term:

Perhaps the single, most important characteristic of animist thought — in contrast to the major monotheistic religions — is its almost total refusal to countenance unlocalized, unembodied, unphysicalized gods and spirits. Animism is often simply seen as belief in objects such as stones or trees or rivers for the simple reason that animist gods and spirits are located and embodied in objects: the objects are the physical and material manifestations of the gods and spirits. ... Within the phenomenal world, nature and its objects are endowed with a spiritual life both simultaneous and coterminous with their natural properties.6

Tim Ingold reports how the Ojibwe, an Anishinaabe First Nations people of Canada and the northern Midwestern United States engage with the world:

Mainstream Western philosophy starts from the premise that the mind is distinct from the world; it is a facility that the person, presumed human, brings to the world in order to make sense of it. When it is not busy making sense of the world, during ‘time off', it dreams. For the Ojibwa, on the other hand, the mind subsists in the very involvement of the person in the world. Rather than approaching the world from a position outside of it, the person in Ojibwa eyes can only exist as a being in the world, caught up in an ongoing set of relationships with components of the lived-in environment. And the meanings that are found in the world, instead of being superimposed upon it by the mind, are drawn from the contexts of this personal involvement. Thus the dreaming self in its nocturnal journeys, far from taking a break from the demands of coping with reality, sets out in search of meanings that will help to make sense of the experiences of waking life.7

In an 'animist' worldview neither 'mind' is something outside of 'the world' nor is 'meaning' added onto it, but both are immanent in the intentional engagement, in perception and action, of living beings with the constituents of their environments. Both 'the world' and 'its inhabitants', dwell in, engage with, and even embody a constantly self-forming formlessness: 'chōra'. Again paraphrasing Nishida:

Instead of simply being projectors of meaning on the world, we are born into that world of pre-given meanings receding into non-meaning. Meanings are contextualized, and these contexts are contextualized by the succession of further hidden contexts withdrawing from our grasp. In negotiation with that everreceding environment, we are also actively shaping contexts and meanings as well. But as meaning-giving and receiving subjects, we find ourselves thrown into that contextualizing environment, enveloping the flux of contextualized realities. Eventually the contexts and meanings sink into the a-meaning of nature, earth, contingency, and finitude with which we must come to terms.8

Pazuzu

Randonauts constantly interact and communicate with the chōratic unconscious that connects everyone and everything, material and imaginal. I believe that using randomness from a QRNG serves as acknowledgement of the fundamental principle of contingency and by sending an intention out and getting a location back, physically moving to that location, finding meaning and perhaps requesting another location, randonauts give 'biofeedback' to the larger field of consciousness that surrounds everything. When chaining random points by going to suggested places and generating more entropy from there for a subsequent coordinate the randonaut kind of gives the 'spirit of place' co-agency in modulating our intent for generating the next point.

It feels like a dance between the individual consciousness and body and the chōratic consciousness field and its body, which is the physical world itself. It very much resembles the notion of 'place in movement' that Nicoletta Isar discussed in her analysis of the Byzantine discourse of the term chōra. The term designated the space that is the 'matrix of the Incarnation', the dwelling space of the uncontainable God, a space 'which occupies space, and does not occupy space'.

There is a sense of movement contained in the Greek word chōra, which is linked to the verb chōrēō having two senses: first, it means to withdraw (give way), to make room for another, like in the Homeric Hymns: "The earth gave way from beneath (gaia d'enerthe chōrēsen)". The sense is of withdrawing, while inscribing the space in its withdrawal. Chōrēō means also to go forward, to be in motion or in flux, like Heraclitus said when he referred that nothing in the world remains still, but rather everything moves (panta chōrei). According to the context, the word chōrēō indicates either a movement with the sense to go forward, or to retreat, withdraw or recede, in both cases having the effect to "make room for", generating a particular kind of space. [...] The discourse of the Byzantine chōra space is the discourse of its trace, which appears only in the movement (chorōs). [...] Chorōs (chōral dance) was a performative means that gave structure to the sacred space of the church, and by which the sacred mystery (the Eucharistic rite) was enacted. Chōra space is as much about movement as it is about containment; it is a contained movement or a moving container. True to its etymology, the Byzantine chōra space is a space in expansion and movement.9

Hagia Sophia

Isar suggests that the chōra was a sacred space of presence and 'presencing', a verb rather than a noun. This was not a mere physical extension of space, but a living body of liturgical experience, hence the type of realization of sacred space was the dance, chorós. Whereas a space of 'sacred containment' suggests a distinction between 'contained space' and 'container', those terms actually stand in the way of sacred space that makes room to the power of creative imagination.9

Enter the Zone

In the act of randonauting, it is often the journey to the coordinate rather than the place found at the coordinate that feels 'thickened' with synchronicities and meaning. The 'sacred space' a randonaut encounters while moving about in 'diviner's time' is distributed along the contingent pathway of the randonaut journey and allows a participation of being in the wholeness of the universe and in 'Being' itself.

This reminds of the "flow" state of positive psychology, a term coined in the 1970s by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to describe the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time. Another term that is commonly used for "flow" is "being in the zone". In terms of randonauting it is even more appropriate due to its nature as a spatial descriptor.

Zone comes from the Greek word 'zōnē' which means the peripheral belt of contact between the womb of the mother and the body of the child. The womb can be seen as a symbol of chōra. The word 'zone' evokes a sense of liminality and temporality. That's also how it is mostly used: for a continuous area that differs in some respect, or is distinguished for some purpose, from adjoining areas, or within which certain distinctive circumstances exist or are established.

During the practice of randonauting one enters 'the zone' - not only in a new-agey psychological sense of 'flow' but in the very sense of the various liminal capital-Z 'Zones' that have been popularized in cultural discourse, literature and film:

It is in a way the Temporary Autonomous Zone envisioned by Hakim Bey:

It lies at the intersection of many forces, like some pagan power-spot at the junction of mysterious ley-lines, visible to the adept in seemingly unrelated bits of terrain, landscape, flows of air, water, animals. But now the lines are not all etched in time and space. Some of them exist only “within” the Web, even though they also intersect with real times and places. Perhaps some of the lines are “non-ordinary” in the sense that no convention for quantifying them exists.10

In a sense it is the same Zone that Thomas Pynchon described in his 1975 novel Gravity's Rainbow where the term is used for occupied Germany in the anarchic weeks and months immediately following the collapse of the Third Reich. Former national boundaries have been obliterated, the armies of the victorious Allies are jockeying for position, entire displaced nations are on the move, spies, black-marketeers, and free-lance adventurers dodge back and forth across the ruined landscape. But the collapse of regimes and national boundaries, it turns out, is only the outward and visible sign of the collapse of ontological boundaries.

The Zone is often the site of the ontological shifts which occur in these diegeses. [...] What the Zone permits is a collision between worlds and thus between different ontological states. In the Zone "a large number of fragmentary possible worlds coexist in an impossible space"11

It is also the interzone that William Burroughs writes about in his masterpiece Naked Lunch: a vast, ramshackle structure in which all the world’s architectural styles are fused and all its races and cultures mingle, the apotheosis of the Third World shanty-town, where the edges between the wake and material world are indistinguishable from psychotic and paranoid daydreams and where it is not even clear whether is is a real place or an imagined one.

The Upside Down

Also the "Upside Down" in the Netflix Series Stranger Things is in a way such a Zone. JF Martel wrote in his essay Reality is Analog:

The Upside Down that we experience has a subaqueous, vegetal texture. It doesn’t seem an ethereal "echo of our world" so much as an even more earthly version of it: overgrown and murky, wild and visceral. Its topography is that of [the town in which the series takes place,] Hawkins, with the same woods, houses, and swimming pools; only, this is Hawkins without its human apparel, Hawkins restored to primeval forces to which it has always belonged. It is this primal nature that is right next to us though we don’t see it, as the [Dungeons & Dragons] game manual suggests. The Upside Down is the non-human aspect of the human world—the primordial stratum of instinct and the unconscious hiding beneath the dayworld of rational subjectivity.12

Most of all it is the mysterious Zone from the brothers Strugatzky's novel Roadside Picnic, an area that - after some unexplainable event called 'visitation' got infested with deadly phenomena and littered with mysterious objects with various properties whose original purpose was incomprehensible by humans and so advanced that it bordered on the supernatural. The only people exploring the zone illegally are legendary freelance agents called stalkers, hunting for strange artifacts to sell.

That's the Zone for you: come back with swag, a miracle; come back alive, success; come back with a patrol bullet in your ass, good luck; and everything else—that's fate.

The story has been beautifully turned into celluloid by Andrei Tarkovsky in his epic 1979 movie Stalker. The main protagonist who is one of these explorers leads two archetypal but broken figures, the Writer and the Professor to the center of the Zone to the legendary 'Room' - entry into which, it is rumored, will grant the wayfarer the fruition of his innermost desires. It is accessible only to travelers who have survived the invisible terrors of the 'Grinder' anomaly.

Here is a scene from the movie when the protagonists enter the zone:

What is beautifully similar to randonauting is the way the stalker journeys through the zone. He cannot go in straight lines and direct paths, but has to carefully traverse the territory in circumambulions and by means of following randomly thrown metal bolts. The stunningly beautiful landscape is contrasted with the wayfarers anxiety as they wander from bolt to bolt. The stalker constantly warns his companions of the utterly contingent dangers around them and it is never quite clear how much of that paranoia is actually justified and how much of the danger is actually real or imagined. But eventually it does not matter, because it is already the the overly humble and respectful journey through the zone, combined with the the mindful hyper-awareness and paranormal expectations of the travellers that turn the zone into the zone: an enchanted living place of contingency and magic.

Just like the stalker, the randonaut traverses the zone, from random point to random point, searching for anomalies and artifacts. Randonauting is an act of re-enchantment of the world, or rather of the reality tunnel that prevented the individual to see that the world is, has always been and will always be a deeply enchanted and weird place. It also opens one's eyes to the reality that 'life' is not the 'spectacle' sold to us by 'empire', but the magic that happens everyday when we pay attention to it by going about our journeys. Tim Ingold beautifully articulated a notion of 'life as lines':

Contrary to the assumptions of cartographers and cognitive map theorists, life is not contained within things, nor is it transported about. It is rather laid down along paths of movement, of action and perception. Every living being, accordingly, grows and reaches out into the environment along the sum of its paths. To find one’s way is to advance along a line of growth, in a world which is never quite the same from one moment to the next, and whose future configuration can never be fully known. Ways of life are not therefore determined in advance, as routes to be followed, but have continually to be worked out anew. And these ways, far from being inscribed upon the surface of an inanimate world, are the very threads from which the living world is woven.13

It is an almost initiatory gnosis that randonauting brings about on multiple levels of reality: from the expansion of a personal reality tunnel, sudden awareness of the false dichotomy between mind and matter, to facing the contingent and ever flowing nature of life itself that will always evade predictability no matter how much we are determined to contain it in any kind of humanly constructed pattern or 'stasis field'.


Shoutouts to T & E, Dax & Occulture, the RSBerlin coven, JF & Phil, Comrade & the Randonauts, and the Nyx of the Spree


Part 1 | Part 2


  1. Krummel, John W. M. Nishida Kitarō's Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place. Indiana University Press, 2015. pg. 204 

  2. Ibid. pg. 25 

  3. Jung, Carl Gustav. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works Vol. 8. Princeton University Press, 1970. par. 418 

  4. Schippers, Birgit. Julia Kristeva and Feminist Thought. Edinburgh University Press, 2011 

  5. Krummel, John W. M. Nishida Kitarō's Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place. Indiana University Press, 2015. pg. 205 

  6. Garuba, Harry. Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society. Project MUSE, 2003. Academia.edu 

  7. Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000. pg. 101 

  8. Krummel, John W. M. Nishida Kitarō's Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place. Indiana University Press, 2015. pg. 205 

  9. Isar, Nicoletta. Chorography (Chôra, Chôros, Chorós)-A performative paradigm of creation of sacred space in Byzantium. In: Hierotopy. Radunitsa, 2004. S. 36-38. 

  10. Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z. Temporary Autonomous Zone. Ontological Anarchy. Poetic Terrorism. 2nd edition. Autonomedia, Anti-copyright, 1985, 1991. pg. 110. hermetic.com 

  11. Bukutaman, Scott. Terminal Identity. The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Duke University Press, 1993. pg. 163 

  12. Martel, JF. Reality is Analog. pt. 3. metapsychosis.com

  13. Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000. pg. 242 

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