Urbicide

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.”

Advertisements

Angel of History / Benjamin on Ruins

Benjamin, writing about the Klee’s “Angelus Novus” painting, portrays the angel of history, as it were, caught by the wind of time and being carried away by the force that exceeds the angel’s capacity to resist it:

“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin, 1968, 258)

The angel that we see in Klee’s painting is indeed disheveled.

angelusnovus

In his curls one might even see something resembling of Benjamin himself.

benjamin-sm

What interests me here, however, is not an imaginary or real semblance of the work of art and the portrait of the thinker who muses upon it. Perhaps as much as it is possible to claim that the work of art is always to this or that degree a self-portrait of the author, the work of art appropriated for an analysis (especially this far-winged as Benjamin’s analysis is) is also reading in the work of art of something to which the work of art serves as merely a pretext, that is to say, a self-portrait of sorts as well.

The past, which is constantly re-evaluated, by everyone, and in particular by the state, with some moments summoned and some, erased, appears in the image of a bunch of debris, detritus, floating in the wind of history (of progress) in Benjamin’s vision. The past, moreover, does not “exist” but is summoned. Not only every summoning of the past is arbitrary, divergent, creative, and interpretive, but there is no way “it really was” either, contradictorily to, or, rather, additionally to Benjamin’s assessment “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke)” (Benjamin, 1968, 255). History, written and re-written in the interest “of the ruling classes” (Marxist thesis), we see increasingly in the modern times, is but an agglomeration of myths. Public does sympathize with the victor, and will always be sympathetic of victors–however, from a metaphysical point of view, the true victor is the one who lost the fight, and in this case the sympathies are uncertain. However official propaganda would frame the events, there will always be a recalcitrant part of the society stubbornly empathizing with the “losers,” preparing the soil for the dragon’s teeth to grow into a new, tomorrow-victorious, army. (As an example might serve the Whites opposing the Reds in the Civil War in Russia. Despite the victory of the Red Army, the White cause was not entirely defeated, and although there is no point in history when it could win either, there were always sympathies during the Soviet times for the defeated, which is also connected perhaps with the Orthodox moral demanding mercy for the conquered.)

It is necessary to put “the pile of debris before” the angel–which are, despite that they are situated in front of his eyes, are the debris of the past, unequivocally, since he’s dragged by the wind into the future–in context with ruins Benjamin mentions in the “Exposé” of 1935 to The Arcades, the fragment that did not make it into the later, 1939 version of “Exposé”:

“Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie. But it was Surrealism that first opened our eyes to them. The development of the forces of production shattered the wish symbols of the previous century, even before the monuments representing them has collapsed. With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monumets of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” (Benjamin, 1999, 13).

To decode the Benjamin’s link onto Balzac, it is best to examine this piece by Balzac quoted in The Arcades Project under code C2a,8:

“The ruins of the Church and of the aristocracy, of feudalism, of the Middle Ages, are sublime–they fill the wide-eyed victors of today with admiration. But the ruins of the bourgeoisie will be an ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.”<Honoré de Balzac and other authors,>  Le Diable á Paris (Paris, 1845), vol. 2, p. 18 (Balzac, “Ce qui disparait de Paris”). ▯ Collector ▯                                  [C2a,8] (Benjamin, 1999, 87).

Here, regardless of how often the bourgeoisie’s palaces are seen in ruins, only for them, it seems, to be built anew with no regard to the proverbial past, Benjamin talks about the anticipated ruins, the ruins that are to be, the ruins that we can see in the future before they are ruins: about the material debris and traces of that present which is about to turn into the past.

Balzac is even more visceral in his description of these ruins: “ignoble detritus of pasteboard, plaster, and coloring.” One might expect decay and putrefaction in these amorphous piles that are indeed perhaps are better called rabble than ruins, in comparison to the ruins retaining form referring to the previous socio-political formation, that of feodalism. Like aristocracy is the ruling class of feodalism, bourgeoisie is the ruling class of the formation known as capitalism in the Marxist taxonomies. In the Balzacian detritus it is not difficult to see the Benjaminian pile of debris carried away from the face of the angel of history, also carried away by the supreme force of progress. But what it tells us beyond what it tells about unfulfilled dreams of progress and failed expectations? When does the production of these debris ends? In the impossible, ideal moment when the past is finally restored just “as it all was”, the dead resurrected, the mankind redeemed, and the final judgement of history has been irreversibly pronounced?

References

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Schoken Books, New York, 1968.

Map of Benjamin’s Moscow

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]

benjaminsmoscow

The same places marked on the map of Moscow as it appeared in 1925 (for the absence of a 1926th map available).

The link: http://retromap.ru/m.php#l=0619251&z=13&y=55.762394&x=37.617643&leftkml=https://sites.google.com/site/gdomnenko/benjamin_moscow.kml&lang=en [retrieved 12/1/2016]

benjaminmoscow1925

 

 

Queering Queer Beirut

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.

 

Reference

Merabet, Sofian. Queer Beirut. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014.

Bare Bones of Neoliberalism

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.

 

References

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.

Resurrection of Flâneur: Between the Figures of Player and Wanderer

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.

 

References

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

Communal Living

Communal dwelling was envisioned as a solution accommodating the needs of all, supposedly providing high standards of living. As the art theorist Gabriel Désiré Laverdant in his work “La Mission de I’art et du role des artistes,” quoted by Benjamin, advocates: “We must make it possible not only for a few privileged individuals but for all people to live in places. And if one is to occupy a palace, one should properly live there together with others, in bonds of association.” (Benjamin, 1999, 139). The realization of the idea, however, proved to be not enjoyable, to say the least.

Svetlana Boym suggests: “If the American dream is pursued in the individual family house, the Soviet dream can only be fulfilled in the communal house. Our central archeological site of Soviet civilization is the communal apartment. It is at once a memory of Soviet collective home, the institution of social control, and the breeding ground of the grass root informants in Stalin’s times.” (Boym, 2012)

Further on, she paints the picture of communal living with the recollection: “As a child, I would often play with the peacefully reclining and heavily intoxicated uncle Fedya, with his fingers and his buttons, telling him tales to which he probably did not have much to add. This time we were all in the room, listening to music to muffle the communal noises, and my mother was telling our foreign guests about the beauties of Leningrad. “You absolutely must go to the Hermitage, and then to Pushkin’s apartment-museum and, of course, to the Russian Museum . . . .” As the conversation rolled along, and the foreign guest was commenting on the riches of the Russian Museum, a narrow yellow stream slowly made its way through the door of the room. Smelly, embarrassing, intrusive, it formed a little puddle right in front of our dinner table. This scene, with the precarious coziness of a family gathering, both intimate and public, and a mixture of ease and fear in the presence of foreigners and neighbors, remained in mind as a memory of home. The family picture is framed by the inescapable stream of Uncle Fedya’s urine effortlessly crossing minimal boundaries of our communal privacy, disrupting the fragile etiquette of communal propriety.” (Boym, 2012).

The carrying on physiological functions of the organism is the gist of communal living, its annoying counterpoint and the pinnacle. The coordination of multiple rhythms of the human bodies produced a many-headed living being, a new organism of a community, a system of balances and disturbances forming the fragile and resilient equilibrium.

The reminiscence provided by poet Vitaly Pukhanov (Pukhanov, 2001; translation is mine), points out the same conundrum:

 

Untitled

 

I came to believe in existence
Of the parallel worlds,
In a communal apartment,
In one such evening.

The kitchen was spacious–
Gas, telephone, light.
A common behind-window view
And the damp toilet.

We met in the kitchen
Every day on the sunrise.
And–sometimes–in the bathroom.
And–never–in the toilet!

 

To which I could not help but add my own ultrashort memoir about Professor Kirill Nikonov telling us, his students, once during the lecture at Lomonosov Moscow State University: “Were it not for the need to go to the toilet, we would not have needed homes.”

 

References

Benjamin, Walter.

  1. The Arcades. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, the Belkman Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England.

Boym, Svetlana.

  1. Soviet Everyday Culture: An Oxymoron?. 1-30. http://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/russian_culture/8 [retrieved 1/1/2016]

Pukhanov, Vitaly.

  1. Neprikasaemoye. Oktyabr, 10.

One Wishes