The Situationists and the City (FT 12/6/10)
The Situationists and the City, edited by Tom McDonough, Verso RRP£14.99, 240 pages
Restless Cities, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, Verso RRP£12.99, 321 pages
Cities Under Siege, by Stephen Graham, Verso RRP£20, 402 pages
Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, by Sharon Zukin, Oxford University Press, RRP£17.99, 294 pages
For more than two centuries writers have attempted to interpret the city. They have treated it as if it were a book – a complex series of interwoven and juxtaposed stories; its streets and squares, neglected spaces and crowded thoroughfares a network of systems to be analysed, filtered and distilled. Authors such as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, JG Ballard, Italo Calvino and Paul Auster have turned the city into a character, while we, as readers, have become used to the idea of the influence of the city on the action, psychology and mood of a novel.
Ever since Thomas De Quincey wrote about his nocturnal rambles in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), London has been central in the development of what we might refer to as “City Lit”, that curious blend of fiction and fantasy, memoir, reflection and theory. Almost 180 years later, Peter Ackroyd’s millennial “biography” London (2000) concretised the image of city as protagonist, while Iain Sinclair’s work treats the metropolis as a kind of conspiracy, every graffiti tag and memorial hinting at a dark, secret history.
Four new books offer an intriguing collection of readings of the contemporary city. The Situationists and the City gathers the seminal texts of that mid-20th century French avant-garde group in a single, striking volume; Restless Cities compiles a series of insightful essays on aspects of urban existence; Cities Under Siege examines the creeping, sinister militarisation of the contemporary city and Naked City looks at the gentrification and corporatisation of New York. Collectively they present us with a question: how do we interpret the city today?
One city has been walked over and written about more than any other: Paris. From Proust to Perec, Paris’s writers have used its streets to read society and examine the way we live. The city was the set for perhaps the greatest study of capitalist modernity, Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project”, in which the writer used Paris’s covered passages, the neglected remnants of a golden age of production and consumption, as a cipher for the contemporary consumer society.
The writings of French theorist and provocateur Guy Debord and those affiliated wanderers and artists, writers and philosophers who called themselves the Situationists, remain the most widely cited in urban theory. But though extensively referred to, their actual writings are not widely read. In The Situationists and the City, these texts are brought together in all their occasionally brilliant, eccentric, always intellectual, Gallic glory.
The Situationists’ exploration of Paris in the 1950s and 1960s was both philosophical and political. Paradoxically, the city is seen as both a mechanism of oppression and as a facilitator of liberty and the freedom of anonymity. Their Paris – a city of agitation against colonialism in Algeria and the authorities in the 1960s – had been refashioned by Baron Haussmann a century earlier to monumentalise the power of the king and facilitate the movement of troops and suppress the city’s regular revolutions.
For the Situationists, the city was a colony waiting to be reclaimed by the people. Their modus operandi was not revolution, but walking. If Paris was a manifestation of state hegemony, the aimless urban walk was a way of bypassing systems of control and authority. This dérive (drift), as they called it, descended from the tradition of the 19th-century flâneur – the urban intellectual who wandered the streets in search of inspiration, losing himself in the crowd and dissolving into the city. But if the flâneur was a bohemian, the dériviste was a radical, undertaking a political act with each step. The aim was to walk around an area in order to divine atmospheres and particularities, to breathe in and absorb character. This entailed embracing all the detritus of urban life, from fly posters to dereliction and litter. Everything in the city became a symbol.
Restless Cities is a collection of quirky and occasionally superb essays by an eclectic range of writers and academics, which attempts to define new ways of reading the city and bring us back, by and large, to London. Michael Sheringham’s lovely essay, “Archiving”, sees the city as a repository of a particular language, made up of graffiti, signs and symbols. In her essay “Commuting”, Rachel Bowlby interprets the sleepy train or Tube journey from the outer suburbs as the quintessential city experience. Other chapters, entitled “Driving”, “Phoning”, “Lodging” and “Waiting”, attempt to refocus the reading of the city to a particular activity. Collectively they do an excellent job.
By contrast, British academic Stephen Graham’s Cities under Siege presents a fiercer interpretation of the modern city. Graham’s thesis is that the contemporary city has become a manifestation of what he calls the military/industrial/entertainment complex. The critiques of the surveillance city are familiar: the CCTV cameras, the increasing secret policing of the city generating an atmosphere of fear, not just of terrorism but also of crime from a growing, often immigrant underclass. The modern city is afraid of its own shadow.
According to Graham, the world, but particularly the US and Britain, is increasingly turning to Israel’s advanced security industry to buy products that have been researched and tested on Palestinians. These products range from the screening devices now familiar from airports and schools to the armoured bulldozers adapted to destroy homes that were used to devastating effect in Jenin. But, Graham says, it is not just the hardware that is being exported but also certain attitudes: the idea of ghettoising the dispossessed “other”, the walling off of the poor and immigrants as well as the politically and economically disenfranchised. Israel’s terrible “security wall” has already inspired another, across the Mexican/US border, a scar across the cities of the south from San Diego to Brownsville.
The US brought these techniques to Baghdad in its Green Zones and ethnic dividing walls in what the author terms the “Palestinisation of Iraq”. French thinker Michel Foucault wrote powerfully about how the methods of repressive colonisation were brought back into the city, and how Haussmann was influenced by the military engineers fortifying Algiers to secure it as a colony. Graham writes persuasively about the reappearance of this imperial urbanism, and how such techniques are now aimed at immigrants, who are made to appear as colonials in their new home cities.
Around the globe, from Baghdad to Palestine to Grozny, war is being waged as much against cities as against governments. Graham builds on the writings of Mike Davis and Naomi Klein who have attempted to expose the hidden corporate and military structures behind everyday life. In one superb essay, Graham traces the military fetishism of the SUV and how its martial aesthetic makes it appeal to suburban types who like to feel they are travelling through war zones, from their gated green zones through streets of gangland terror. Together with the popularity of computer war games, the author argues that the city is being transformed into a psychologically militarised realm. In a sinister twist, we learn that the modern machinery of war, the controls for military drones for instance, is increasingly based on Xbox consoles.
In its forensic rage, Cities under Siege is in some ways close to the spirit that provoked the Situationists to rebel against authoritarian Paris in 1968. However, the few contemporary responses to the phenomenon outlined in Graham’s book – guerrilla art, for example – seem weak and intellectually lacking compared to their French forebears.
Naked City was the title of a 1948 film noir by Jules Dassin, one of the first to be shot on location in New York rather than in a generic city-shaped studio lot. Sociologist Sharon Zukin has appropriated the title for her encomium on the loss of authenticity in the contemporary city, which, to a New York academic, means New York. “In the early years of the 21st century,” she writes, “New York City lost its soul.”
The heart of the problem, according to Zukin, is the corporatisation of the city street. Zukin’s main inspiration is a 1961 book titled The Death and Life of Great American Cities by urban critic Jane Jacobs. That book was a study of the complex social structures of the street, which suggested that their success, safety and liveliness were the result of a certain kind of traditional architecture and planning. Those definitively American stoops and mom’n’pop stores, communal stairwells and the sidewalks created an elaborate ecosystem of social exchange that was being destroyed by tower blocks and freeways driven through working class districts in the 1960s, marginalising and isolating their residents. Within a generation, those brownstones and industrial buildings, once seen as obstacles by city planners, have become prime real estate, fetching extortionate prices. This is a city where formerly vibrant, ethnically mixed proletarian neighbourhoods have become bankers’ ghettoes, characterised by corporate coffee chains and drugstores.
This is happening, and it is a problem, but it is because of the intellectual middle classes (the intended readership of her book) who colonised these places that they have become so desirable and expensive. While reasonable, articulate, and right, Zukin’s critique becomes a little wearing and self-pitying, and her relentless documenting of local action and politics makes the book parochial in a way that Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, published last year, was not. New York City was surely always a rapacious place and it is precisely its ability to reinvent itself that has kept it on top. As urbanist Lewis Mumford said: “New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.”
There are hints of new readings of the city in these books, but they are tantalising glimpses, nothing more concrete. Each book is in some way nostalgic, fondly remembering a more ideal city of the past, a time when shops were lovelier, streets livelier, property was cheaper and there was more freedom. This is compared to the controlled, surveillance-heavy, sterilised corporate city of today. Modernity is continually perceived as the enemy.
And what of the flâneur in our age of surveillance and cloned streets? For those who know where to look, the city is still an exciting place to read and interpret but, perhaps, after all these years of urban wandering, we can forgive him for looking a little tired.