Knowledge was one of the battlefields of the Cold War. So was non-knowledge, read also: obscurantism. After the official end of this war the victorious powers created a new object: the Black Box East. Yet, as political theorist Neda Genova explores in her contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” the dividing lines of ideologically constructed dichotomies that the Black Box stands for irretrievably dissolve upon closer inspection.
We live in a three-storey shared flat on a commercial street. You can take out your rubbish at any time during the day or night and simply leave it by the streetlamp in front of the house. When you enter through the front door, you take a long, carpeted corridor that leads you up the stairs to the first floor (where the badly lit kitchen and the adjacent living room are), and then to the ones above it.
On the landing between the ground and the first floor is another door, guarded by a stuffed black panther, which gets you to a garden. We use the panther to stop the draft in the winter, but also to spook out visitors. From its position on the landing, its glassy eyes watch over the staircase of the still, silent house.
Perfect black box
We receive the perfect black box while musing over a tiny garden snail stuck inside of two stacked glasses in the kitchen. The bell rings and we stomp down the stairs to find the box in the hallway.
The first odd thing about it is that it is there. It must have arrived with the post, because when we first catch sight of it, it is lying on the stained carpet under the letterbox, on top of a couple of blue envelopes, pizza delivery leaflets and The Evening Standard. “How the hell did it pass through the door slit?”, we wonder. We tiptoe closer, past the misaddressed junk, and look at it again. This doesn’t make us any the wiser though – that is, besides determining how black and perfect it is.
We carry it upstairs, hurdling over the panther.
The second odd thing about it is that we can’t say how big or small or wide or heavy or thick it is. It is now lying on the kitchen table, which probably means that it is smaller than the tabletop. However, when we were sitting down just a minute ago, the perfect box seemed to loom over us so high, that we could no longer see the greasy ceiling – and yet the box most certainly remained cube-shaped. We stood up and it shrunk down. We sat down and it rose back to the height of the ceiling.
I reach under the table, pretending to be picking up a breadcrumb, and cast a furtive look at the table’s underside.
At the end of the oilcloth
“Can you see this?” – I ask. I notice one of the dark cube’s corners protruding through the table’s underbelly, and more crumbs scattered on the linoleum than I can possibly count. I stand under the table, gaping at the cube’s semi-transparent corner, which flickers through the wooden surface above me. Her voice reaches me as if from a distance: “perhaps”… “Perhaps what?”, I wonder, but the words simply bounce off the end of the oilcloth and fall next to me.
The third odd thing that we find out about it (once I am back from under the table), is what it does to light. The longer we keep the perfect black box on the table, the more lustrous it becomes. It is feeding off the kitchen light and eating away at the room’s details. First go the symbols above the hob control knobs on the oven. “Good riddance”, we agree, as they blur out and eventually disappear.
The white fugues dividing the square tiles on the walls also fade out, and so do the lines between fridge and worktops, cupboards and stove. The light in the room is so dim now that from where we’re sitting we can no longer figure out the snail inside the stacked glasses.
The darker the kitchen, the more intolerably radiant the black box becomes.
At some point, we are able to see right through it, and this is the fourth odd thing. The dark glistening surfaces of the box are now transparent and, looking through its sides, we can clearly make out the outlines of fridge, cupboards, drawers, stove, and wall tiles behind it. Their lightly drawn silhouettes are trembling almost imperceptibly, and this grants them with an expressive, almost rhythmic vibe. At times, two or more lines vibrate in sync, before suddenly taking off in opposite directions and adopting a completely different tempo.
At times, a certain line’s frequency becomes so passionately erratic and irregular that all the others slow down, falter, as if taking a break to admire its virtuosity. At times, though, the spaces between the lines – that is, the flat surfaces of kitchen furniture like panes and tiles and doors and worktops – start plotting their own thing. Their texture, seen through the transparent black box, becomes oily and fierce. It appears as if it is the surfaces that push and pull and shape the lines, toying with them, forcing them towards each other, and then apart, carving out a rhythm, accruing a volume, layering intensities, inserting breaks, short cuts, moments of rest.
I don’t know how long we stay there, glued to the black box. We feel bedazzled and a bit tired, as if at the end of a long hot day spent outdoors. I think I can even sense a warm breeze pouring in and out of the box. When we reach toward it once more, we discover the fifth odd thing about it. Its surfaces are neither warm nor cold, yet our hand palms soon start sweating and leaving wet smears all over it. Instead of flowing downwards, the droplets of perspiration begin to collect inwards and to spread obliquely, liquifying the surfaces, adding texture to them.
Glittering ridges, treacherous cracks
The black box’s sides are no longer clear and translucent: they are becoming corroded and opaque. Its surfaces cease to be flat or regular or even countable but are murky and ambiguous. Fissured and continuous at once, they engulf what makes the black box a box, turning it into something else altogether. Some areas on it are now reflective: glistening ridges, treacherous cracks, deceptively serene plains that simply flicker on. Other sites continue sucking the light in even more intensely. These small zones of attraction, these vertices and whirlpools, have no margins or any clearly defined function other than coaxing in and storing all available light.
We are studying the source of this brightness – pondering if it’s generated on a nearby plateau or drawn from the surrounding room – when we notice the sixth odd thing about the perfect black box.
“Why can’t we open it?”, she asks. We examine its sides, the edges, the corners, we look into its fissures and ridges, tilt it sideways, letting its corner sink a little through the wooden table surface. We hurl the box to the floor. The loud thud it makes when it hits the linoleum drowns out the sound of the doorbell. We jolt up when we hear the buzzer and run down the stairs.
“What the…?” There is a perfect black box lying on top of some junk mail, just under the letterbox. “How the hell did it pass through the door slit?”, we wonder and carry it up, past the black panther, and to the kitchen table.
Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de