notes on keynote address at UNESCO forum "Music as a Catalyst for Dialogue and Communication"
Music that is Impossibly Loud and Unbearably Silent: notes and video

Quiddity: a distancing perspective, an elemental definition, an object of Psychogeographic meaning

Human activity etches meaning onto the landscape, which is then later excavated through Psychogeographic activity.  ‘Landscape’ has meaning, and ‘The Landscape’ has meaning.   The word itself  has a meaning, and the expanse of space described is also redolent with meaningfulness.   I derive the concept of a Quidd as a unit of Psychogeographic meaning.


Vladimir Nabokov used the word Quiddity in a description of Lewis Carroll:  thus, from Strong Opinions (p.183) 


“ Alice in Wonderland is a specific book by a definite author with its own quaintness, its own quirks, its own quiddity.  If read very carefully, it will be seen to imply, by humorous juxtaposition, the presence of a quite solid, and rather sentimental world, behind the semi-detached dream.”  


Nabokov is using  Quiddity to describe a special ambience, the ‘real’ as a lure for the exotic spaces of the brain.   He also describes in Pale Fire “ “my vision reeked with truth.  It had the tone //  The quiddity and quaintness of its own //  Reality.”


In scholastic philosophy ,  Quiddity  identifies the ‘whatness’ of an object, vs Haeccity, or the ‘thisness’ of an object.  Quiddity is the Class, while Haeccity is the Instance, to steal some jargon from my Object Oriented Programming friend(s).  A cup of tea described by George Orwell, against this specific cup of tea upon which my morning depends.    


These concepts are adumbrated (by the luminosity of the modality, no doubt) when James Joyce writes ( chapter 14 of Ulysses p. 394) 


“And as no man knows the ubicity of his tumulus nor to what processes we shall thereby be ushered nor whether to Tophet or to Edenville in the like way is all hidden when we would backward see from what region of remoteness thewhatness of our whoness hath fetched his whenceness”  (My italics)


I had to look up most of this sentence.  Ubicity is ‘whereness’, perhaps the Ontology of place - I’ll have to check with my Heidegger-reading friends (are they the same as the Object Oriented Programmer acquaintances?).  A tumulus is an ancient burial mound.   Tophet is a location of old testament child sacrifice:  Edenville appears to have associations beyond the biblical garden.    Nobody knows the where (or when) they will find their grave, or the manner (whatness)  of life that will precede it following the accident of birth.


Later entries in the  Oxford English dictionary define Quiddity as a  legal mater of hairsplitting distinction.  And from there, it seems an easy step to crotchety, eccentric and possibly just a little bit mad. 


But in between, William Blake uses “Quid” as a character in An Island in the Moon - this Quid is a regular sort, a common chap, a fella about whom Blake says he was “ chewing his Quid of Bitterness”:  quid refers to the bloke as type and as name, as well as to the chump of chaw he was chewing on.   


Martin Amis refers to Quiddity in Time’s Arrow.  The retro-traversing heroic conscience describes his bodies' experience (p.49) in a crowd as 


“with rapture and relief he elides with the larger unit, the glowing mass.  He sheds the thing he often can’t seem to bear:  his identity, his quiddity, lost in the crowd’s promiscuity.”   


Quiddity in these later writings has evolved  to something  equal to the innermost essence of a character.  That  essence is arrived at through the distillation created by distance:  the ‘humorous juxtaposition’ that Nabokov refers to.   In  the Amis piece, that distance is  rendered through the explicit fact of the man’s ‘identity’ watching the previous events of  his  life unfold backwards, contained within his body but unable to do other than watch.   The patterns of life that we take for granted (eating, emptying our bowels, making love, the shape of a relationship, birth, death)  are imbued with magic - the novelistic perspective allows us to perceive Quiddity.


This perspective is essential for the poetic apprehension of Quiddity - which after all, is the Psychogeographic stance.   ‘Distanced’ - whether by time, nostalgia or raw liquor - is the Psychogeographic perspective.   Auden writes, in The Crux left of the watershed 


Who stands, the crux left of the watershed, 

On the wet road between the chafing grass

Below him sees dismantled washing-floors, 

Snatches of tramline running to a wood, 

An industry already comatose, 

Yet sparsely living. ......


The poetic placement gives the watcher (the stander) a perspective on the lines where land meets lane     It is the perspective that allows the watcher to see the patterns of the land, etched in by natural forces and by the technological manipulation.  In the earlier  quotation from Ulysses, Joyce had the whatness/whereness  available only when we can “...backward see from what region of remoteness...”


The view in Auden’s poem  is of  a landscape that has been given rough treatment in sketch and tone.  The land itself is ‘cut off, will not communicate’.  What remains are the memories of human life, physical corpses and the debris of our industrial activity.  These totems litter the land, and now shape the actual landscape as powerful as ley lines or geologic formations.  Perhaps inseparable fro them, part of the ancient access paths to archetypal connection.


The same Quidds also reflect our own preoccupation and inner psyche.  These preoccupations are the  poetic gestures of quiddity.  And clearly Quiddity is an accumulation of awareness, literary, historical, idiosyncratic.   That process is an odd one, a poetic process, a process of Poesis.   Quiddity is a creative mechanism, an outpouring of imagination:  a romantic  overlay of internal psyche and external landmarks. 


A Quidd is the psycho-geographical insight into  a man-made artifact that resonates/casts a shadow of meaning on the landscape around.  A quidd is an object around which the human psyche has deposited meaning - a measurement of Psychogeographic value functioning like carbon decay in reverse. 


In London Orbital, Iain Sinclair writes about the bridges of the M25... his walk around the M25 is many things, but it is also an act designed to extract the Quiddity from the landscape.  He writes of exorcism, Thatcherite ghouls and Blairite meanies:  as if his walk pulls the ancient strength of the land, the alternate reality, the Quiddity of the place.  The M25 forms a loop around London, and as such must  cross the Thames twice.  The language Sinclair puts in place is a good example of a poet extracting quids: (p.252/253)


“ On the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, road dominates.  The tidal Thames is unwalkable, unswimmable, impossible.  Literally suspending disbelief, to drive over the broad span of water, as it opens (storage tanks and container ships) to the World Ocean, marks you.  You die into what you see.  You purchase vision at the expense of mortality.  You relish the play of cables as they flick against riverlight.  You feel younger, stronger, elevated by a section of motorway that isn’t motorway:  the only point in the circuit where imagination overrides the M25’s compulsive reductionism”


Sinclair also brings in (p.164) the writing of J.G.Ballard, especially his seminal work  Crash.


“ J.G. Ballard came to Watford to make a television documentary called Crash! which preceded his notorious auto(mobile)erotic novel by two years.  “There are an enormous number of multi-story car parks in’s the Mecca of the multi-story carpark.  And they’re quite ornate, some of them...they were iconic structures.  I was interested in the gauge of the Psychoarchitectonics”.


That phrase, “Gauge of Psychoarchitectonics”,  means I think something very similar to my Quiddity:  Quidd as a unit of Psychgeographic measurement, Quiddity being  the correct measurement of insight.  Psychogeography is the uncovering patterns, a kinaesthetic connection to body, land and cosmos.  The valence of this activity is the Quidd.