As solar eclipse approached, I was thinking about making an exit, an escape out of it, into the city, in hunt of the everydayness, the experience where the mundane collapses and coagulates with spectacular. There were gazers in Austin that did not make it into my objective; they were exchanging eclipse glasses, and one young pregnant woman stood with her swollen belly, bared, offering it to the sun obstructed by the moon, perhaps in search of some sort of connection for her unborn baby with the forces of the universe far exceeding the limits of our imagination and knowledge, with forces non-human, powerful and divine.
I was looking at the familiar space of the city that has been hosting me for the last six years, and these six years were a pinnacle in its existence: during this time Austin rapidly grew and skyrocketed to the first positions of all kinds of ratings, from most-desirable-cities-to-live in America to cities-that-offer-the-best-ratio-of-entertainment-fun-and-prices-for-rent, or so I’ve been told. Austin is continuing growing and will do so in the observable future, but it is no longer the pioneering city in terms of exchanging comfort for money or best prospects for young professionals. Austin is still one of the desirable place to live but its paradise-like attraction is nearing the end as it is gradually taken over by corporations and undergoes yet another after another wave of gentrification.
I am planning to document through photography several streets in Austin that encompass its spirit best, and I open this project with this series of photographs: Austin during the partial eclipse. The eclipse span nearly three hours, from 11:41 AM to 2:39 PM, with a pinnacle at 1:10 PM.
I enjoyed the light on this day, which seemed unusual to me–and finally I was able to free myself from the idea that I observed a partial solar eclipse before. If I observed the eclipse before, it was not during this earthly life (not that I believe in this shit).
Penski, Max. Three Kinds of Ruin: Heidegger, Benjamin, Sebald. Poligrafi, 2011.
Max Pensky analyzes “urbicide” of the European cities in the Second World War and the way urbicide was reflected in thinking of three key successive cultural figures: Heidegger, Benjamin, and Sebald. For Heidegger, it is a project of “re-pastoralization of Germany’s shattered cities,” Benjamin wrests “the power of the image of the ruin from the experience of the big city,” and Sebald seeks “to recuperate a discourse of the ruin as site of moral catechism.”
Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in the winter of 1926. Here is a map of places he mentions in his diary as shown on the today Moscow’s map.
Interactive link to google.maps: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1dVk5nX1H_0MyDt39L_m7HERYx60&ll=55.75893499535194%2C37.62163820000001&z=13 [retrieved 12/1/2016]
The same places marked on the map of Moscow as it appeared in 1925 (for the absence of a 1926th map available).
What is city? How does it function? Is it a mirror of Utopia? Is it an agglomeration of infrastructure of different types? Is it a mythical space? Enchanted vision? An embodiment of precarity and uncertainty? A system where affect circulates? Perhaps everything above and more.
People are infrastructure, according to AbdouMaliq Simone. Whereas “infrastructure is commonly understood in physical terms, as reticulated systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables.” (Simone, 2004, 407), “infrastructure” might be read in broader terms. For instance, like interactions of city residents that “engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. There conjunctions become an infrastructure—a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city.” (Ibid, 408).
However, when the talk is about people as infrastructure, I cannot shed the feeling that by nature of infrastructure (which does not generate itself, as it were, but is organized or at least repurposed, as repurposed ruins, for example), the subjects are exploited / used as infrastructure, rather than form infrastructure by interactions through their own volition.
But in Simone’s thought “people as infrastructure” construct themselves as such: “Such infrastructure remains largely invisible unless we reconceptualize the notion of belonging in terms other than those of a logic of group or territorial representation. People as infrastructure indicates residents’ needs to generate concrete acts and contexts of social collaboration inscribed with multiple identities rather than in overseeing and enforcing modulated transactions among discrete population groups.” (Ibid, 419). I wonder if another productive way of thinking about people as infrastructure would be, considering people’s relationships and interactions being structured in collaboration and negotiation with other agencies, not only them as acting subject. What happens to people as infrastructure when biopolitics is taken into account? How does that change our view of a city?
Susan Buck-Morss in the chapter “Dream World of Mass Culture” of “Dialectics of Seeing” draws attention to the urban space as an enchanted space: “In the modern city, as in the ur-forests of another era, the “threatening and alluring face” of myth was alive and everywhere. It peered out of wall posters advertising “toothpaste for giants”…” (Buck-Morss, 254). City is an enchanted place where allegories and myths unfold. French poet Louis Aragon whose work Buck-Morss analyzes in connection with the dialog between Walter Benjamin and Surrealism, suggests that industrialism, at least on its early stage, is mythic: “He acknowledges that the new gas tank gods came into being because humans “delegated” their “activity to machines,” transferring to them “the faculty of thought”: “They do think, these machines. In the evolution of this thinking they have surpassed their anticipated use.”” (260).
Dream is a state of mind for Benjamin, and, it could be added, sleepwalking is a state of living. It is under the hypnosis of their desires, intentions, plans, and hopes, that citizens make everyday transactions.
Zeiderman, Kaker, Silver, and Wood begin their “Uncertainty and Urban Life” with another vision of a city, a city as a site of constant precarity, city called Octavia, whose dystopian image belongs to Italian writer Italo Calvino. To quote the article, “It is a “spider-web city” hanging over a void between a pair of steep mountains, “bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and cat walks.” Getting from place to place requires great skill, for there’s nothing but clouds below for hundreds of feet until you hit the valley floor.” (Zeiderman et al, 2015, 281). Johannesburg, also the field site for the authors, could be characterized by “contingency, fluidity, and unpredictability,” like markets—and in this flux, “uncertainty has become internal to ways of analyzing and interpreting cities as well as to ideas of how to create the cities of tomorrow.” (Ibid, 300).
Nagel Thrift introduces in the article “But Malice Afterthought: Cities and the Natural History of Hatred,” published in 2005, re-introduces the concept of misanthropy as the affect which circulates in the city spaces. Tracing the history of misanthropy, he remarks: “Thus, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, misanthropy was understood as a problematic state, but certainly not a state that was mad, iniquitous or perverse.” (P.9 of a manuscript downloaded from the author’s website). “But by the middle of the nineteenth century, such sentiments were fast going out of fashion in the face of a more pious stance to life which valued a controlled and benevolent heroism of the everyday and which increasingly regarded people-hating as a psychological affliction (often, indeed, caused by unrequited love) which must needs be combated by social programmes and self-restraint, although in mid- and even late-Victorian literature a series of radical or maudlin haters still continue to crop up as characters and attitudes, as instanced by authors like Dickens, Bronte, Eliot, Browning, Hardy and Conrad.” (Ibid).
I think this conceptualizing of misanthropy is fascinating but the reason the concept, quite unlike “melancholy” or “nostalgia” went out of circulation (and would not be returned) is that it dispersed into many different kinds of hatred, such as misogyny, misandry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sociopathy, xenophobia, etc.—directed at particular groups of people based on gender, race, social orientation, etc. Some of these “hatreds,” phobias, and dislikes, are pathologized and announced to be a mental disorder (sociopathy), while others tacitly (or publicly) approved.
Misanthropy thus indeed links to affects of the past, and evokes literature—thus, whole number of heroes in Russian literature: Onegin, Pechorin, Chatsky, Bazarov, etc.—those of Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, and Turgenev’s literary works—could be said to be misanthropes, romantic heroes full of disdain and contempt to the society for which they were excessive, which they knew all too well, and could, as deeply, in some sense, moral beings, although corrupted by cynicism and skepticism, no longer respect. It is not rare to encounter a young woman or a man in Russia now who would claim that they are misanthropes, but not unoften you would see the glint of life in their eyes, and a great interest and compassion to other people. In other words, misanthropy is more of a romantic pose taken on the way potions were drank for the purpose of making the face to appear paler.
Thrift criticizes the nonexistent understanding of what is affect: “I have been involved in investigations of urban affect or mood for a number of years now, but can say that touching this sphere remains an elusive task, not least because so many definitions of affect circulate, each with their own problematizations.” (Ibid, 6). Since 2005, there is not much of clarity in this regard, if not to the contrary the increasing complexity and bifurcation of what people mean by saying “affect.” On the one hand, it is great to have a notion in active discussion which everyone uses to the best of their capacity. On the other hand, the enigmatic and unagreed-upon nature of affect makes one think that when we are talking about affect, we are talking about a number of different things each of which deserves its own name. Thrift proceeds with giving his own curious definition, or rather a bunch of definitions, of affect—the definition perfectly working together with all the definitions of affect I had had insofar encountered, they all for some reason put incompatible and sometimes mutually exclusive characteristics together: “For example, affect can be understood as a simple or complex (cursive mine—V.O.) biological drive, a pragmatic effect of the pre-cognitive or cognitive interactions of bodies, a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by, the communicative power of faciality, and so on.” (Ibid). Of all those understanding only “a set of capacities for affecting or being affected by” links to Spinoza, who introduced affect as a philosophical category, rediscovered by Deleuze and Guattari, and redistributed henceforward.
Buck-Morss, Susan. The dialectics of seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Mit Press, 1991.
Simone, AbdouMaliq. “People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg.” Public culture 16.3 (2004): 407-429.
Thrift, Nigel. “But malice aforethought: cities and the natural history of hatred.” Transactions of the institute of British Geographers 30.2 (2005): 133-150. (I quote this article here by the manuscript downloaded from the author’s website, hence different pagination and perhaps text discrepancies.)
Zeiderman, Austin, et al. “Uncertainty and urban life.” Public Culture 27.2 76 (2015): 281-304.
I think Sofian Merabet’s book “Queer Beirut” was the only book that I encountered so far, which had a selfie of the anthropologist included in the narrative. I think that must be a feature of the new ethnography as a genre.
“Queer Beirut” is an intricate and brilliantly written account of queer bodies and queer stories functioning and circulating in city spaces—beach, downtown, different locations, architectural fantasies, and other culturally important localities where socialities happen, like cafes demanding tight on money people enjoy intricately concocted “overpriced cappuccino” (Merabet, 2014, 30). It is an analysis of “ever-so-intricate exclusions” (13), novel in methods—as new, I’d classify two things: flânerie along the roads which are not supposed to be traveled on foot, and “ethnographic montage,” which, the author argues, serves to “assemble anew disassociated, yet very much related, elements in an effort to cover the whole panoply of the metonymies that define the complexities entailed in the practice of inhabiting socio-cultural space” (246).
I was interested in flânerie (first problematized by Benjamin drawing from Badelaire) as a method, which in Merabet’s justification is a particularly important way to engage with “urban jungle”: “It is, therefore, only as a person on foot in a city that almost makes natural locomotion virtually impossible that the observing anthropologist can start to think about distinguishing many of the urban spaces in Lebanon that bear the potential of creating alternative, and perhaps queer, discourses.” (7). I think it is fascinating in what way exactly and why only as a person on foot does anthropologist penetrate the overlapping layers of the city which are simultaneously a space weirding, space queering, space domineering, and space escaping, and a space yielding to understanding. As a connoisseur of city spaces and an untiring flâner myself, I could not fail to appreciate the take.
“Participant objectifier,” which Merabet creates by adapting Bourdieu’s “participant objectification,” becomes a welcome alternative to an overused anthropological figure of “participant observer.” Participant objectifier emerges as a gazer, explorer of one’s own enchantment. Merabet points out the readiness to flirt of a “queer stroller” as a social scientist conducting the field research—I could add, initially in Benjamin’s work, flâner was an easy buyer of a prostitute’s services. This is not a call to gleefully engage into participant objectification that we read here, but rather a call to participant objectification, that is to say, a fair assessment of the process already happening, the process which demands to be reflected upon rather than taken for granted.
On many staggering examples Merabet shows struggles of queer Beirut in which horror stories and funny episodes alternate, not omitting the pensive use of certain aspects of what might be called auto-ethnography, something which I think makes ethnographies deeper and richer.
These struggles are shown in their complexities—“Yet, by being a potential motivator, queer space and its production also function as a frustration device, namely in the shape of a catalyst that every so often reinforces the very social normativities it wants to defy.” (247).
Beirut, with its balconies and streets, protests and fights for prestige, little worlds which coincide and contest the space, visibly emerges, in all its glimmer and spectacular misery, out of this work.
Merabet, Sofian. Queer Beirut. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014.
In his book “The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), Partha Chatterjee rejects Benedict Anderson’s notion of a homogeneous time-space of modernity which politics inhabit, suggesting instead that such time is “the utopian time of capital” (6), and that time is heterogeneous, unevenly dense, since modernity is, in which he follows Foucault, heterotopia.
Foucault’s notion of heterotopia is evoked of describing the spacio-temporal characteristics of ambiguity, in which the subject finds herself in several places or points at once, for instance, looking at the mirror. To say that the modernity is heterotopic, is a productive way of speaking about modernity, in my opinion. Modernity is characterized by this ambiguity of positioning, when futurity and remnants of the past commingle and coincide, but also contradict one another and clash with one another.
Homi Bhabha, according to Chatterjee, formulated heterotopic ambiguity around the axes of nation in which “the people were an object of national pedagogy because they were always in the making, in a process of historical progress, not yet fully developed to fulfill the nation’s destiny” (6), yet at the same time, “the unity of the people, their permanent identification with the nation, had to be continually signified, repeated, and performed” (6). Chatterjee announces it to be an inherent feature of modernity, or “modern politics itself” (6)–and one might agree, but there is no big contradiction here, it appears. Both these statements describe the nation in becoming, in flux, in progress. What does contradict each other though, is that the people in the making and in process are simultaneously already perceived or framed as nation today, already–the nation which has a glorious history and bright future; which is a key feature of nation building. Apart from having the future, the past, and the present, nation is as a rule relates somehow, sanctioned by divine providence and blessed by God. To evoke the specter of Vl. Solovyev: “The idea of nation is not something that the nation itself thinks about itself in time, but something that God thinks about it in eternity.” (Соловьев, 1911, 3)–a standard motif of governmentality engaging into what might be called “narrativization of the nation.” (“efforts to narrativize,” as Chatterjee puts it, 8).
The analysis of the untouchables in India, affords for understanding that “Citizens inhabit the domain of theory, populations the domain of policy.” (34).
Chatterjee shows that Lockian idea of two types of citizens–sound-minded citizens who get to govern and those who should be governed because they could not be subjects of consensual politics–is deeply ingrained into structures of democracy; this is indeed modernity’s constitutive, foundational idea, and not some glitch or malfunction happening occasionally.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Соловьев Вл. Русская идея. М., 1911.
What could be learned by “learning from Lagos” (Gandy, 2005) a megalomaniac city stretched as a “continuous urban corridor” (Davis, 2004, 73), “the biggest continuous footprint of urban poverty on earth” (Davis, 2004, 76)?
First, that things are not what they appear to a Western eye, which vision is predicated on linguistic ideologies of post-Enlightenment ethnocentrism, privileging “a single conception of the good” (Scott, 1999, 220): what appears to be an agglomeration of squalor, dirt, debris, detritus, rubble, garbage, and ruins, turns out to be “heaps of similar materials and colors. The actuality taking place was actually not a process of sorting, dismantling, reassembling, and potentially recycling” (Koolhaas, 2002, 117)—the reality which merits two “actual” in the sentence, in a tautology perhaps subconsciously reflecting on the surprising quality of such discovery. Hence the inadequacy of habitual Western tools of dealing with the new worlds, emerging cities and futures, which resist being captured and described in categories and notions of “traditional” architecture as well as social thought. And therefore, there is a need of new lexical inasmuch as socio-political apparatus of cognition in order to dealing with the alternative reality of what Davis calls “urban poverty ‘Big Bang’” (Davis, 2004, 77). I am sympathetic with this claim, but I am unsure how we can say that our tools of thought are not applicable if for saying so we use these exact tools of thought—linguistically, politically, socially, culturally, and otherwise.
The practical approach to postcoloniality requires a new language, a new subject grappling with the legacy of the colonial, imperial world saturated with metropolia-periphery and colonizer-colonized dichotomies. New kind of figures emerge in the process of “self-fashioning,” to use Scott’s impression. It is not a Benjaminian flâneur who takes precedence over political imagination of bourgeoisie expurning out of its stratum a city dweller, but Fanonian ruud bwai (rude boy), as David Scott offers (Scott, 1999, 195)—young, black, impoverished, angry, armed with hand-made or illegally acquired armor. Ruud bwai is the masculine figure whose body, by very virtue of its untamed existence, becomes a site of violent struggle with the colonial implications in the process of confrontation of the new kind of selves: colonial versus post-colonial subject, rather than colonized versus colonizing subject. A native of the urbanity for the conversation of whom the current language and mindset of social science is dramatically lacking in precision, the inhabitant of the new loci of “collective dwellings” (to use Benjaminian expression for the lack of a better term), such as dancehall, in a seeming disorder of movement, rhythm, gesture, and movement, which, again, might turn out to be just a new type of order, a clandestine order of things.
The rapid post-industrial urbanization that the Third World lives through, was once a utopian project of Soviet empire. After the construction of Bratsk dam in Eastern Siberia in 1961, for the clearing of territories for the Bratsk reservoir (currently the second-largest people-created water reservoir on the planet), in the Bratsk district alone sixty-three settlements were consolidated into six towns (Chepel, 2014), as the state plans of consolidation were moving inhabitants of the villages into newly built urban-type settlements of what might be called “nascent urbanity,” the prospective cities of the future. Half a century later, with the dismantling of the Soviet project, these prospective cities represent the zones of abandonment. Not only the economic dream of prosperity was not fulfilled, but the transformation of environment in the absence of infrastructure led to revelation of the bare bones of Russian neoantiliberalism in a very literal sense. The level of water in the Bratsk reservoir have been lowering down for the last three years for reasons not altogether known. Aside from barren shore, of rock and stone, appearing from under the water, old cemeteries were being exposed, graves burst open. In a number of rural places, during the summer of 2016 one could see bucolic and Apocalyptic landscapes: children playing with skulls and bones on the shore of the retreating river.
Thus “rural-urban continuum” (Davis, 2004, 73) undergoing a social and ecological transformation, unfolds as a theater of a spectacularly uneven distribution of power, income, and rights. Which in different sense (that connected to a massive outburst of population and to a slow dwindling down of a community, respectively) is likewise apparent in slums of Lagos and streets of a Siberian village.
Davis, Mike. Planets of Slums. New Left Review, 26 March-April 2004.
Gandi, Mathew. Learning from Lagos. New Left Review, 33 May-June, 2005
Chepel, M. Preparing the Bed of Bratsk Hydro Power Plant Reservoir for Water-Flooding of a First Stage (1956 – 1961). Thesis. Bratsk, 2014.
Koolhas, Rem. “Fragments of a Lecture on Lagos” in Under Siege Four African Cities, 2002.
Scott, David. Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality, 1999.
To combine two things about Pokemon hunting so far–one, remark that Pokemon Go created a new kind of flâneur, and the other, observation that it might be dangerous for a Black person, especially male, to play the game because his seemingly goalless meanderings might look suspicious (Akil, 2016), we receive a picture of flânerie as of a social practice accessible to a limited population, an elitist and classist pastime.
To be sure, Baudelairian-Benjaminian flanerie was a privileged practice from the start: Flaneur is an urban journeyer and sojourner-taker who crosses streets and squares cutting corners, stopping at deadends, returning and advancing through the magnetic new and new corners, passing galleries of display windows, cars, blinking buses, people, cafes, in search of inspiration, distraction, and entertainment. He (he is a he back then, certainly; women are present in the urban space of his imagination almost exclusively as prostitutes, and then they are faceless and nameless–although in modern cities no doubt many females indulge in flanery by way of endless goalless walks) belongs to a certain class; he has time, money to satisfy hunger and thirst, a profession which does not require excessive investment of efforts; is able-bodied to endure hours of strolling, and, quite possibly, relatively young and good-looking, at least he is curious about fashion: the goal of goalless walk is not only to see and explore and return and discover, but also to show yourself, to look at your own reflection in sleek glass and steel surfaces, to meet old acquaintances and take a pleasure of adventure in serendipitous encounters.
To be a flâneur haunting (or haunted by) Pokemons, is to be, just as a Baudelairian flaneur, engrossed with oneself; only the search is less ambiguous and the goal is “visible” (to you); but there is a racial cut–even a high social positioning won’t make the Blackness of the actor unnoticeable or less suspicious in the eyes of voluntary neighborhood watchers–and also a technological cut, which will produce certain age- and again class-related social silhouette of the Player.
Akil, Omari. Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man. Medium.com. July 7, 2016
View story at Medium.com
Bliss, Laura. Pokémon Go Has Created a New Kind of Flâneur. Citylab. July 12, 2016 http://www.citylab.com/navigator/2016/07/pokemon-go-flaneur-baudelaire/490796/
#anthropology #blacklivesmatter #flâneur #player
It is probably advisable that I reblog it
Austin is the capital of the American Renaissance of the beginning of the twenty-first century. The explosive construction of bridges, ramps, roads, buildings; the flow of creative, inventive, and resourceful people from all over the world—it all creates a space like no other.
When you live in a city like Austin for five years, it still feels longer than it does elsewhere because Austin in the 2010s grows faster than it is possible to comprehend. The projects, places, ideas, and people come and go. The city rapidly devours its empty spaces (parking lots in the center are suffering) and demolishes the small old enterprises, restaurants and stores, as it constructs in their place new, mirror-like skyscrapers for offices and apartments. By no means a veteran in Austin, I still remember the shining absence of the newest multistory buildings in the downtown area; now they are ingrained in the landscape…
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