[NetBehaviour] book question

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Mon Feb 17 18:00:13 CET 2020


From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: Monday, February 17, 2020 10:56 AM
To: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Cc: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour] book question

Hi Johannes,

These are great images, and congrats on getting the right access for the under-construction photos!  Such moments are very helpful to have in one's internal collection I think.

It reminds me of a time some years ago when they were building a new addition to the local modern art museum, which was to be very contemporary and innovative.  There was a large open pit at one point as they dug out the foundation, which I liked a lot.  Just a large pit surrounded by a chain link fence.  Not being much of a photographer I wasn't sure how to "note" this in a way that would preserve my thoughts, impressions, associations, and the visual memory; say, which is perhaps to say, the story and image?  I knew the pit would soon fill in.  To somehow capture the transience of the moment, my own ambiguous emotional state (which was was what it was at the time for myriad reasons both utterly and completely separate from the pit and somehow reflective of it), and to articulate the "stage setting" as it were, I opted to try for a gesture or partially vague action.  This was to throw a lot of small pieces of marked paper into the pit from outside the chain link fence.  These would just be rained on and trod into mud within days to be sure.  They were to have been small pieces, about a half inch square, and on heavy paper so that they could be thrown over and ideally about 20 feet past the chain link barrier.  The marking on each paper would be a black circle with a slight x-y axis to mark each paper's planar location and rotation during flight, only on one side of course, and because a black dot is kind of like a mote of soil which the pit was.  I wasn't sure if I would take a photo or not, leaning toward not partly because of my aforesaid incapacity to see a good photo to be had.  The "documentation" would just be whether or not any worker in the pit or some passersby saw the papers, also necessarily inexplicable.  I never got around to doing this in time so it never happened other than as a story and image of sorts in my head, a personal parable about not really anything, occasionally related to others.

I've never seen the Rothko Chapel but it came up recently in my reading, in relation to what I'm not sure.  I do see the correlation with portals or passage-spaces to the infinite, or unknown, or uncertain, objects for contemplation thereof, in the black paintings.  I wonder if the Rothkos are landscape, portrait, or both?  The black square by Malevich has many references (not my favorite painting but maybe relevant) but feels almost antipodal to the Rothkos (which I haven't seen) in tone.  I'll have to re-read Exit West to find the mentions of doors as darkness but I'm sure there were a couple so I will track them down.

A door or doorway is an interesting thing.  It's not really a space to reside in, so it symbolises transit in a way.  It doesn't really correspond to a theatrical or painted space such as portrait, landscape, or proscenium.  There is an element of agency or choice (go through or don't go through), the "binary on/off switch" in your quotation, and aspects of time sequence (departing, returning).  Unlike the mentions of windows you cite, which are mainly to look through and allow in or keep out atmosphere (sound, temperature, surveilling eyes, and who knows, maybe even personal computing and internet content), doors are designed for human bodies to walk through -- they have the shape of a person walking.  Darkness can just be opaqueness, uncertainty, or emptiness of a highly spatially charged non-space.  As the book states, "We are all migrants of time."

Having finished the book now I see that some of the doors are definitely magical and benevolent, like the old man's shed in his backyard in Paris through which he follows the stranger to his art studio in Buenos Aires.  Hence doors of imagination and emotion perhaps are also invoked.  Might there also be references here to art itself, aesthetic existence itself, which cannot be merely a given set of circumstances but always involves an ingredient of translation, transportation, uncertainty, choice, and irrevocability?  Many of the doors in Exit West are indeed light or less dire, less unknown; daily habits or garments even, like Nadia's robe, which she used (some in my book group said) as a way to screen people out and gain an element of camouflage for her daily escapes -- not a door keeping her locked in but one screening others out and allowing her to move about more freely, literally and figuratively, just as Saeed had to wear the robe in order to enter Nadia's apartment as her sister, and hence without danger of death from the militants.  Some doors such as those of return to the memory of those lost are on the contrary glowing with color, detail, and light.  But there is also always the dire, the absolute darkness, finality, and inevitability of mortality, or what Saeed understood as "the inability to protect that which you love."

In any case I most certainly need to re-read the book and will keep an eye open for door references and, what I am hoping moreso to find, any architectural themes.  I can't recall any literary references off hand in Exit West which could be a conscious design decision.  There is a flat and elemental, yet mass-cultural, tenor to the life world in this book.  Perhaps Hamid is suggesting that nowhere is actually really anywhere, at least as it thinks it is, when you get right down to it?  Or maybe everywhere is at once everywhere and nowhere.  A kaleidoscopic panopticon shifting and refracting, never fully the same, and with no actual center or at least nothing much one could consider to be a seer at the center, something more like gravity or a clockwork, as easily rancid or putrid as noble or revelatory.  Personally I believe there is something other than the kaleidoscope, the something which is not it but moves through it, not wholly it even while wholly related to it.  I might at times try to call this "that which perceives the network lattice of the carpet but is not in it as anything that is not it, while remaining nonetheless something more and other than the carpet and even what the carpet represents."

Part of my motive (beyond curiosity and confusion) for reflecting so much on this book is that I did not pick it -- one of the happier accidents of the book club variety for this particular book club -- and part is that our next book is Calvino's Six Memos, which I did pick, and which is a book that to me makes superabundant and simple common sense but has been found by all the friends I've asked to read it to be dense, obtuse, and "about nothing."

Perhaps these two strange characters, Six Memos and Exit West, might have some kind of dialogue when next the book club meets or at least in my own jottings.

It would be interesting to hear what your students wrote or thought about the book!

Best regards,


From: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Sunday, February 16, 2020 5:27 PM
To: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: book question

hello Max and all:

thanks for response. your beautiful reflections, on the metaphor of the doors, made me go back and wonder about what i had read.
and why I mentioned the "black doors".

I now reread reread the sections I had marked for myself and my theatre students,. And the doors are not black.
what happened?  when I went back to Mohsim Hamid's Exit West, i figured that i was probably confused, in my memory, by the black plastic bags
at the windows, hung up by Nadia (see my transcription below); but more interestingly, Hamid refers to contemporary art, and I may well have associated the
'black' doors with Rothko's black paintings.  In January, back in Houston, I went to the Rothko Chapel, as I do every year (on its walls are fourteen black color-hued paintings by Mark Rothko, the shape of the building is an octagon) – except that this time it was hollowed out, gutted, under renovation, all paintings gone.

 I sneaked in and photographed the empty walls.....

Please read the excerpt below. .

Black doors                                              [Exit West, by Moshin Hamid, pp.68ff]

One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.

Many windows were broken already, and the prudent thing would have been to remove those that remained, but it was winter and the nights were cold, and without gas and electricity, both of which were in increasingly short supply, windows served to take some of the edge off the chill, and so people left them in place.

Saeed and his family rearranged their furniture instead.  They placed bookshelves full of books flush against the windows in their bedrooms, blocking the glass from sight but allowing light to creep in around the edges, and they leaned Saeed’s bed over the tall windows in their sitting room, mattress and all, upright, at an angle, so that the bed’s feet rested on the lintel. Saeed slept on three rugs on the floor, which he told his parents suited bi back.

Nadia taped the inside of her windows with beige packing tape, the sort normally used to seal cardboard boxes, and hammered heavy-duty rubbish bags into place over them, pounding nails into the window frames. When she had had enough electricity to charge her backup battery, she would lounge around and listen to her records in the light of a single bare bulb. The harsh sounds of the fighting muffled somewhat by her music, and she would then glance at her windows and think that they looked a bit like amorphous black works of contemporary art.

The effect doors had on people altered as well. Rumours had begun to circulate that doors could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumours to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.

Nadia and Saeed, too, discussed these rumours and dismissed them. But every morning, when she woke, Nadia looked over at the front door, and at the doors of her bathroom, her closet, her terrace. Every morning, in his room, Saeed did much the same. All their doors remained simple doors, on/off switches in the flow between two adjacent places, binarily either open or closed, but each of their doors, regarded thus with a twinge of irrational possibility, became partially animate as well, an object with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desires of those who desired to go far away, whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.

Without work there was no impediment to Saeed and Nadia meeting during the day except for the fighting, but that impediment was a serious one. The few remaining local channels still on the air were saying that the war was going well but the international ones were saying that it was going badly indeed, adding to an unprecedented flow of migrants that was hitting the rich countries, who were building walls and fences and strengthening their borders, but seemingly to unsatisfactory effect.

The militants had their own pirate radio station, featuring a smooth-voiced announcer with a deep and unnervingly sexy voice, who spoke slowly and deliberately, and claimed in a decelerated but almost rap-like cadence that the fall of the city was imminent.


funerals were smaller and more rushed affairs in those days, because of the fighting. Some families had no choice but to bury their dead in a courtyard or at the sheltered margin of a road, it being impossible to reach a proper graveyard, and so impromptu burial grounds grew up, one extinguished body attracting others, in much the same way that the arrival of one squatter on a disused patch of government land can give rise to an entire slum.


From: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Sent: 16 February 2020 00:54
To: Johannes Birringer; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
Subject: Re: book question

Hi Johannes,

My book club was also very intrigued by the door image, which at one point in the novel was described as pure darkness, "the heart of darkness." Then somehow we morphed into a discussion of whether Nadia's robe was a door.  After some wrangling a few said yes, it too was a door.

I had an image of nested spheres rotating on various axes, doors alinging to open briefly then closing, leading to others a la the garden of forking paths.  The group was talking over a rather marvelous carpet at the time, of Persian design it seemed to me and very delicate, filigreed, such involutions of tracery.

It made me wonder, is the book a door, even a labyrinth?  Is the world, language, time?  So many choices, some forward some back, but time still irrevocable in what occurred to me as its "ambiguous benevolence."

I haven't read the second half of the book yet, looking forward!

All best,


From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Saturday, February 15, 2020 4:45 PM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour] book question


Ahmed Saadawi’s hallucinatory novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Mohsim Hamid's Exit West,
i have to say I was impressed and mesmerized reading these novels
The "Exit West" intrigued me much, as I started to read it during what was called the "refugee crisis" in Europe,
basically a large wave of migration, partly caused by the sectarian and military conflict in Syria, well, refugees
were all over, and when I tried to imagine what it must be like to live in a war torn land, or city, i got captivated by Hamid's story of
the two young people who come to imagine fleeing. the image that I told my theatre students to explore and work with
was Hamid's metaphor of the black door.  This door idea is wonderful, a rumor spreads in the city that people are seeing black doors
, or door frames, and when you walk through them, you exit, so to speak, and you end up in a very different place, california,
miami, stockholm, berlin.......  What a strange and interesting magical realist image.

Johannes Birringer

From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: 13 February 2020 18:02
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
Cc: Max Herman
Subject: [NetBehaviour] book question

Has anyone read Exit West?  It was the last selection in my local book club and pretty interesting from the standpoint of networks I think.

I've only read half of it so far though.  🙂
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