Unfinished: Nathalie op de Beeck on Jem Cohen, Ben Katchor, Chris Ware and Walter Benjamin

This blog post was started months ago but was abandoned due to other commitments. It is, however, a relevant account of one article that was particularly important to the dissertation. 

Welcome back to those loyal regular readers who have missed me for almost a month. My apologies for the prolonged silence, but with the end of the academic term in France I’ve been somewhat occupied submitting design projects and relocating back to the UK. I’m now settled for the summer in sunny London, looking forward to the convenience of the the capital’s various libraries and galleries. It’s been several weeks since I started reading Nathalie op de Beeck’s 2006 essay Found Objects, published in volume 52, number 4 (winter 2006) of MFS Modern Fiction Studies. The article is available online for most academic institutions via the Muse portal.

With just a few weeks left of my semester here in Strasbourg, there was time for one last weekend trip before the final push towards the end of term. So on a warm Thursday evening I was at Strasbourg station to board train 64 to Paris: a ‘proper’ train of sparkling white and red German Railways carriages en route from Munich to Paris. This elegant old train arrived with a full service restaurant car and a rake of first and second class carriages, each offering big open saloons or more private six seat compartments. Why the importance of this train? Because this would be one of the last days that train 64 would operate. Just three days later, Strasbourg was to be catapulted into the twenty-first century with the arrival of the TGV Est Européen. Every one of the old fashioned trains will be replaced by modern high speed trains. The restaurant cars are going, the old passenger compartments are disappearing, and fares are being cranked up – on average by about 30-35%. Even the once-mythical Orient Express – which once connected London with Istanbul – is getting another leg chopped off its once grand route: from this weekend it will only operate between Strasbourg and Vienna, barely an overnight shuttle.

With a lingering nostalgia for a soon-to-be-antiquated form of transport, I found my reserved seat in a compartment. As we left Strasbourg, I considered that this was the ideal situation for me to catch up on some reading – on a leisurely four hour train ride through rolling countryside. And as we passed through Lorraine, I splashed out on dinner in the restaurant car, and drank to the death of ‘real’ train travel. An atmosphere of lingering nostalgia was suitably established.

op de Beeck introduces her essay by explaining how she sees Jem Cohen’s film Lost Book Found and Ben Katchor’s comic strip Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer through the “contemporary interpretations [ … that … ] relfexively intersect with Walter Benjamin’s critical theory.” (p. 808). Cohen and Katchor “critique contemporary existence by remaining closely observant to overlooked details, outmoded artifacts, memory and forgetting … they attend to the passage of time, the gradual obsalence of machines and functions, and entropic repitition in the urban space” (p. 808). op de Beeck classifies Katchor’s comic strips and Cohen’s films as aphoristic formats: “we read it fast, but the melancholic sensation lingers” (p.808). Similar, perhaps, to the effect of a train journey. Reminiscent also of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, and the cricket player seen from a moving train, running up to the stumps but out of sight by the time he bowls.

The essay has introduced me to a filmaker (Cohen) and a film that I did not previously know of (Lost Book Found). In Lost Book Found a wandering narrative is told by a pushcart vendor in New York City, who encounters a lone man fishing for detritus through street sewer grilles. The pushcart vendor is an invisible observer in the bustling city – an anonymous figure who becomes so recognisable that he is quickly overlooked and made part of the cityscape. Similarly, the real estate photographer Julius Knipl explores Ben Katchor’s re-imagined New York City as a near-invisible observer.

Their texts overlap in mutual appreciation of transience, futile gestures, and the human condition … both Katchor and Cohen contribute to a dialogue on the remembered past, with a critical eye on how antique artifacts and productive labor are understood…

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

As an architect, I am interested in the narrative techniques of urban observers such as the pushcart vendor and Julius Knipl: participants in a complex urban geography who, because of their profession or social situation, become extremely well placed observers and even chroniclers of the passage of time in a city. The idea of adopting the role of such a person in order to re-map urban spaces is nothing new in more progressive schools of of architecture, but it also presents many exciting opportunities to consider the understanding and broader presentation of architectural environments as they are occupied and changed over time.

Katchor promts readers to recognize the significance of each tiny detail, and in that brief wakefulness, to sense the overwhelming intricacy of modern life.

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

Cohen asserts his camera’s eye through the use of documentary-style cinematic techniques. Katchor, meanwhile, draws a complete fiction of a city with such attention to detail, and such a furtive and fast moving line that we are drawn into imagined but utterly convincing urban environments.

This false work of so-called memorializing – creating imaginary places, fake memorials to sympathetic people, and auratic objects analogous to actual artifacts – becomes crucial to storytelling, and to the cultivation of contemporary empathy despite mass distraction.

Nathalie op de Beeck, Found Objects, MFS vol. 52 no. 4, Winter 2006

Just like Garrison Keillor’s Tales from Lake Wobegon or Stuart McLean’s stories from the Vinyl Café, fictional environments and settings are vital to convincing storytelling. I extremely interested in Katchor’s tales of the city precisely becaue they invoke such powerful sensations of nostalgia and loneliness, even though they are set in places that never existed.

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  • ABOUT THE PROJECT

    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

    To find out more about the thesis, download the original dissertation proposal (pdf format) from February 2007 or the semi-formal first chapter (pdf format) from April 2007.

    Further research projects are in the works, and their dependence on human interaction and networking suggests more blogging will be inevitable when the time comes.


  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    At the time that this blog was created, James Benedict Brown was a fifth year Masters of Architecture student at the University of Sheffield. James' personal blog is here.

    James graduated in 2008 and now lives and works in Glasgow.


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    This project was supervised by Renata Tyszczuk at the University of Sheffield


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    If you want to correct me on something, offer an opinion on a particular artist or building, or if you'd like to recommend someone or something to find out about, please feel free to leave a comment. Just click on 'Comments' under the headline of the relevant post...


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  • CONFERENCE DIARY

    I've managed to miss almost half a dozen compelling conferences around the world so far this year, simply because I have no (more) money to travel and no time to escape my studies in Strasbourg and Sheffield. However, if I had a magic plane ticket and plenty of time, here's my selection of essential conferences to attend. Hopefully I'll be there for more of them next year... click here for the diary (updated every time I miss another one).


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