The sense of place and time

21 March 2023

So daytime is supposed to be equal to night-time, today, in my hemisphere. What does that mean? Do we experience anything differently on days like this? And does our location matter – other than in reference to the Ecuador, which determines the distances.

I can’t say that I experience anything differently today, because of the equinox. But what I can say is that the event has made me reflect on time – and place, more than on a regular day. And for some reason, I find myself thinking back to New School and Columbia University, where I spent a term as a research fellow, almost twenty years ago.

Many will know that Heidegger paid a lot of attention to the way in which places help orient us towards being – and references to this abound in his work, from the early Dasein and Lichtung, to Ereignis and Erfahrung, later on; not to mention the abundance of references to paths, pathways, travelling and sojourns, throughout his work. I’m not going to engage in a thorough review of the range of meanings, these various terms entail (that would probably require more structure, and certainly more space!) What I would like to use here, is simply the notion that certain places are special – not just because they relate to special moments in the course of our life (a field I would propose to describe as ‘horizontal’ to suggest that everything is flat within it); some places may be special for us at existential level – one that I propose we call ‘vertical’ to suggest that it might be marked by life-changing events, such as a ‘revelation’, a coming-of-age or sense of achievement in the process of self-creation that makes feel we finally know who we are, and can actually be that person, with everything that being that person entails – including sacrifice, unexpected choices / behaviour, and even (what might appear to be) madness. A simple example should suffice. To take a simple example, Rorty’s move, from a philosophy to a comparative literature department, might appear strange to some; but it makes perfect sense in the context of his beliefs that conversations and literary commentary have a better chance at capturing truth (or meaning) than philosophical theories.

The New School. For me, synonymous a new life – renewed, at the very least. The small seminars rooms, here, had the same (if not greater) effect on me, as the large amphitheatres at Columbia University, beaming with the light of an intellectual life that has the potential to facilitate the kind of thinking that Heidegger thought, might re-orient us towards that, which helps bring things out of concealment; that, which can help us be who we are. A real place in the world – that kind of world, which helps things make sense again.

Camus spoke at Columbia, in French, in front of 1,500 people, one evening in March 1946. He spoke of la crise de l’homme. He started by saying that he was more interested in reflecting, than making categorical statements, and he had no claim to truth. The crisis he refers to is not unlike the one described by Heidegger, in his later writings – a crisis of bureaucracy, efficiency, and technology, over genuine human contact. “One no longer dies, one no longer loves, and one no longer kills – except by proxy. This, I suppose, is what is called good organisation. (…) The crisis is also about replacing real men with political men.” We can no longer avoid politics – that is, the tyranny of the collective, over the individual.

Speaking of politics – Robert F Kennedy, too, gave a talk at Columbia, as he was embarking on his campaign for Senate, in 1964. They asked him then, why did he choose to run from the state of New York (as opposed to Virginia or another state). And he said it’s the place he feels a strong sense of identification with. A whole suite of frank and open exchanges followed after that, which can testify to the fact that something quite extraordinary was happening, yet again, in this place.

Jump to December 2020, when the UN Chief Antonio Guterres gave a speech at the World Leaders Forum, on the State of the Planet. “An existential threat” is how the President of Columbia described the current challenge related to the climate change, in his introductory remarks. Guterres speech was pitched as a call to action. And if one carefully listens to him, one is struck by the talent he has at balancing notes of despair with those of hope. Striking that balance, I would argue, is a sign of success – a sense of something really significant happening there, other than either a mere description or a hopeless lament.

Guterres, by the way, had given another speech earlier that year – this time, at the New School. Indeed, this happens to be my place of becoming myself, whilst in New York, more than any other place. And in that speech, the UN Chief said “I thank the New School for helping to uplift us and give meaning to our lives. No place is better than the New School for me to explain our view on women and power” – the topic for that powerful speech.

Speaking of women – although I’m not a political philosopher, watching Nancy Fraser speak on just about anything, was an experience akin to an awakening. The same goes for Richard Bernstein, and Julia Kristeva. And closer to home, in more ways than one, David E. Cooper.

But this is not meant to be a ‘who’s who in philosophy’; rather – a where is that, which can help me be myself, in a way that matters (and does no harm). So, here’s the list: Paris (quite early on); New York (especially the Graduate Faculty at the New School); Heidelberg – with its Philosophenweg; Durham – which had such an impact on me, that it would be no exaggeration to describe myself as ‘before’ and ‘after’ Durham, with a similar weight (albeit differently done) than ‘before’ and ‘after’ the communist Revolution.

But I should stop, before anyone accuses me of shamelessly disguising a personal list of Shangri-La’s as anything to do with philosophy. (Although there might be a case for the value of that, too, in existential terms). This equinox may not speak to me, itself; but it has become a time for reflection, and for a moment or two, a place where a special connection has occurred – remembering a special place or two, has become the occasion of a visit from above – like the one that may have occasioned these verses by Czeslaw Milosz (On angels):

“Short is your stay here:

now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,

in a melody repeated by a bird,

or in the smell of apples at the close of day

when the light makes the orchards magic.”