Shamefully, I’ve been in Paris now almost two years and I hadn’t paid my full respects to the Tour Eiffel. So A. and I went with our friend Miruna and her two children by metro to the Trocadero, and there I finally looked the thing in the eyes.
It is still surprising: to be confronted with it in all of its gigantic intricacy, like experiencing some gloriously detailed and incomprehensible dream. The thing that strikes one most is its evident, its monstrous, its impossible uselessness. Nineteenth century architecture, whether of the railroad station or the factory, inclined towards wrapping massive ornament around some central utility – for use was the codeword of the century. Utilitarianism leveled the very planet to the question of use and exchange value, and conceived of human society globally as a vast cluster of users. We – living in the age of petrochemicals and entertainment – have followed in those footsteps, and simply added a horror movie dimension. But if one of those railroad stations or factories got up and kicked a jig, it would provoke the same kind of astonishment that the T.E. provokes – all that engineering, that crosshatching of intentionality writ large and in metal, those well laid stresses and balances, the netting, the internal busywork, to produce a thing like no other. Underneath the familiarity of it, the hundreds of millions of reproductions, there is still the fact that it adds itself to our vocabulary of things as itself alone – not as another skyscraper, or pyramid, or obelisk.
Donald Norman, in the Design of Everyday things, claims that the average person in America has a vocabulary of around 30,000 ‘readily descriminable objects’. He takes the end-user’s perception of the object to be determined by three design categories – affordances, mappings and constraints. Scissors, for example, present us with holes attached to blades, and the holes ‘call out to’ our fingers – they map onto our fingers – while the size and number of them operate as constraints, and the result of the mapping and constraint gives us an affordance – the aspect of use that separates the scissors from the butterknife, say.
The T.E., however, is beautifully alien: there are no holes to slip our fingers through here. We can go up it. We can go down it. And we can make use of it – we can send radio signals from it, we can make it into a tourist destination. But these are uses we cast over it, not uses that its structure calls for. We can domesticate it, but we can’t claim any native right over its heart.
So: down the steps and out of the Trocadero, and out to the Champs Mars, where we met some more friends and had a picnic. Afterwards, I went with the kids, Julien and Constanza, up to the second platform, leaving the adults below. I have the same view of high buildings as Jimmy Stewart has in Vertigo – which made this a bit of an ordeal. The kids clambered, jumped and in general pointed to things far below us, and I told myself that the stairs, guard rails and fences were not going to suddenly give way. The truth is that there is something also a little trippy about acrophobia. It is a hair’s breadth from being stoned. And it certainly helps you understand the menace that the massive steelwork represses. I knew that I would feel like this before I took the first step, but I also wanted to test myself. And I was right proud to be on the second platform. However, I would have to have very strong opiates administered to me before I’d even think of taking the elevator to the top. So, to Julien and Constanza’s disappointment, we did not go any higher.
High enough, though. You know, the gods don’t just demand respect – they desire that little token of fear. I gave it. Thus, the gods and I are even for one day.