PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR. THANK YOU

In Paddington (2014), after the eponymous bear encounters “a spot of bother with the facilities” at the Brown family home (read: he flooded the upstairs bathroom), he is relegated to a cold moonlit attic. It’s by a fogged-up window that Paddington begins writing to his Aunt Lucy, who is in an old-bears home back in Darkest Peru.

After an earthquake ravages the bears’ home and claims the life of Uncle Pastuzo, Aunt Lucy ships Paddington off to London in search of an English explorer who made a promise to them forty years ago: if the bears ever found themselves in London, they had a home with him. Forty years is a long test of time for a friendship, but Aunt Lucy doesn’t waver; she assures the young bear that he can turn up at any train station and a family was sure to take him home.

Luckily, with much compassion from a stranger called Mrs. Brown (and vehemence from her husband Mr. Brown), Paddington finds a home, and a bathroom to flood, for the night.

As Paddington writes of the Browns, who soon begin helping him find a permanent home in London with the elusive explorer, a dollhouse in the attic is shown opening up to a cross-section of the Brown flat. The camera tracks through each room in the house as Paddington introduces the family, each of whom has gone to their respective spaces in the house, in his letter to Aunt Lucy.

The Browns are fragmented in the same space, visualized by the cross-section. The walls, gutters whose innards are made of brick and pipes that maze around the house in-betweens, separate the home and its inhabitants from each other. Mrs. Brown returns to her illustrations, which are set in underground sewers. The daughter Judy holes up in her room, too embarrassed of her mother who is, in her very teenage words, “weird.” The younger son Jonathan plays with rocket ships in his room, away from his risk-averse and “boring” father. Mr. Brown, a risk analyst, is crunching numbers to make amendments to their house insurance policy. And there’s the elderly Mrs. Bird, determinedly soldering away at the broken bathtub on the third floor. Paddington and his spot of bother with the bathroom have caused quite a rift in the family in the span of just one evening, and the halved image of the house shows it.

The family is in fragmented proximity. Connection is lost through the gutters that fragment.

Gutters

Gutters line our screens. Screens embrace the gutter. The gutter generates.

In comics, the “gutter” refers to the space in between panels of images. These blank spaces hold within them their own meaning-making potential. Meaning created in absence, in empty space. If the first panel shows a finger pointing, and the following panel shows a bird on a wire and a floating speech bubble gesturing to an off-frame speaker saying, “There it is!”, the mind generates that narrative link. The bird is found by the one who points. The gutter generates.

A particular gutter that has haunted me for the past year takes on a neon-green shade. On the Zoom video chat and conferencing platform, a green border pops up around the box of whoever is speaking, the “Active Speaker.” It eliminates any surrounding gutters by taking up that empty space with its green presence. Gaps between people (or: moving digital images of broadcasted selves on screens) are sealed as the Active Speaker talks. The gutter is filled. The once-blank, now-green space in between conveys virtual, remote, long-distance communication and connection.

Work is conducted and executed with the help of such virtual gutters, as they work to connect us while we cannot yet do so in person en masse. Rites are now necessarily informed by such gutters: Zoom funerals, virtual weddings, online birthday parties with breakout room games. The gutter generates. Life under pandemic lets the gutter generate a semblance of connection in a time where there are few safe alternatives, proximate to the real thing.

However, the past year is an attestation of how artificial that process of generation can be, how ultimately fragmented in some cases. The gutter is not actually filled; only a semblance of such distance-closing happens. There are uncanny markers of this semblance:

  • The green Active Speaker box frantically jumping from one person on the Zoom call to another as multiple people try to talk at once
  • Image/audio stutters, lags
  • One too many beats passing when one can’t tell if the other is done speaking
  • Losing connection
  • Reconnecting

In these instances, the gutters still generate—only, they begin to generate a sense of loss, even anguish (of a type, as loss is all too prevalent these days, all days, all the time). You, on my screen, a contained image moving and living in its box—self, contained—makes more acute the distance we are trying to reconcile by the very same screen. It makes more acute the anguish I feel when I end a video call, when the distance opens back up, and the real gutter burrows deeper.

Semblance is illusion, and the actual physical distance that the gutters signify only work to highlight that chasm between. Or in the case of Zoom, the gutters highlight that chasm in neon-green grout.

And so, the gutter de/generates

Thought #22 from the Gutter

Here are the ways you are fragmented to me:

Audio-visual: Can you say that again? You were frozen for a bit.

Framing: Your video chat box chops you in half - where is the rest of your body, your long hair?

Timezones: But what time is it there? How many hours ahead am I of you? The sun has set on me.

Non-verbal communication and cues: Do you believe me? Do you understand me? Do you take me at my digital, virtual word?

Neither a-chronic nor a-spatial

Primary friendship: primary because it is the first to present itself according to logic and rank, primary according to sense and hierarchy, primary because all other friendship is determined with reference to it, if only in the gap of the drift or the failure.
There is no friendship without confidence (pístis), and no confidence which does not measure up to some chronology, to the trial of a sensible duration of time (è de pístis ouk áneu khrónou). The fidelity, faith, ‘fidence’, credence, the credit of this engagement, could not possibly be a-chronic.

—Jacques Derrida, “Oligarchies: Naming, Enumerating, Counting”1

Space and time, arguably interchangeable, find immanence in friendship. Derrida refers to Aristotle’s figure of the primary friendship and its characterization by time. Time is trial—it is our days, it is our nights, and it contains both the wonderful and the trying that we all face. Friendships that go through the latter, the trying, and resurface time and time again are friendships that build mutual confidence. I go through something, you choose to stay and help me through it. I find that I desire to extend the same love to you, when life and time tries us again. This is the chronology of a confidence built through trials; this is the confidence necessary for friendship. These are repeated acts of fidelity, of faith: "the indefinite repetition of the inaugural instant"2 from which the friendship was born. Each time a primary friendship finds itself tested, the trial is endured together and endured on purpose. And this is why friendship could not possibly be “a-chronic.” Time accumulates love, care, attention, decision, reflection. All of these things take time.

And what of space, time’s verso? Just as friendship finds itself sketched by time, so too does space have a hand in the strokes. I find myself thinking of physical referents and their inextricability from time. For one, I’m bound to timezones when calling distant friends. “Where are you?” is also “When are you?” Pacific Standard Time, Greenwich Mean Time. When their face pops up on the video call, I see their late afternoon sun, they see my dusk. I’d prefer it altogether though if we were under the same sky; I’d prefer it even more if I could give a hug and be held in return.

And so, just as it cannot possibly be a-chronic, to me, friendship cannot possibly be a-spatial. Space and distance mediate my friendships, translates and embeds them with meaning and heft. Especially during this pandemic and ensuing quarantine, it is screens and gutters that put space and distance at the fore. It is finding myself being that moving image for another, just as they are to me, that has become time’s current trial on my friendships.

A cross-section of the fictional Parisian apartment building in Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. In this novel, the reader is taken through a decades-long history of the characters that make up the building’s past and current residents. Space and Time are the storytellers in this book about neighbours, about friends.

The video call gallery view is a cross-section of friendship in chasmic space and nebulous time. I see you in your third-floor room, others are down in the basement. One of us tells the rest about their day (though with a bit of a lag), another shows off their dinner (though the frame freezes for a couple of seconds right before they tilt their camera down to the table), and yet another asks for screen-share access so everyone can see the game board (it’s a bunch of pixels).

This is proximity through fragmentation. Disruptions to space and time are taken in stride for there is nowhere else to take them for the moment. I accept these temporary gutters as narrative links in my primary friendships’ timelines. Points in a chronology. I embrace these fragments that give me a semblance of proximity to the people I love and miss and hope to see soon.

  1. Derrida, J. (1994). Oligarchies: Naming, Enumerating, Counting. The Politics of Friendship (pp. 14). Editions Galileé.
  2. Ibid.