Digital Humanities and Cities: Hypercities project

There are some really interesting collisions happening in the growing interdisciplinary area of the Digital Humanities.

This one concerns urban cultural studies in particular.

Check out the developing Hypercities project:

Built on the idea that every past is a place, HyperCities is a digital research and educational platform for exploring, learning about, and interacting with the layered histories of city and global spaces.  Developed though collaboration between UCLA and USC, the fundamental idea behind HyperCities is that all stories take place somewhere and sometime; they become meaningful when they interact and intersect with other stories.  Using Google Maps and Google Earth, HyperCities essentially allows users to go back in time to create and explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.

There’s also a “Digital Cultural Mapping” NEH Summer Institute at UCLA during Summer 2012.


Earthquake Bolts in Charleston (and José Martí on the 1886 Earthquake)

Earthquake Bolts:

On August 31, 1886, Charleston was struck by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded on the East Coast. Its epicenter was in Summerville, some 25 miles northwest of the city, and shocks were felt as far away as Canada. Hundreds of buildings in and around the city were badly damaged or destroyed. Buildings that could be salvaged were repaired or rebuilt, using long iron rods for reinforcement.The iron rods were run through walls and anchored with a washer-type device, known as a gib plate, and a large iron nut. These can still be seen on many Charleston buildings and are called “earthquake bolts.” Though earthquake bolts were made in a variety of shapes, they were fairly plain. Some building owners chose to disguise them with cast iron decorations, such as lions’ heads, or stucco. The effectiveness of earthquake bolts has never been conclusively determined. They may have been a brilliant scheme which has kept many important buildings in Charleston standing since 1886, or, as one local skeptic has suggested, they may have been a brilliant scam by an enterprising earthquake bolt salesman. Scam or scheme, their effectiveness during another big quake is very much open to question. Photos linked below illustrate various types of earthquake bolts around the city. [From Charleston’s Public Library Site].

Cuban Revolutionary [the late-nineteenth-century revolution…] and canonical author José Martí wrote a piece just after the 1886 earthquake in Charleston that you can read here [if you read Spanish].

See more photos of earthquake bolts here.

Urban Voices: The Situationists, Psychogeography and Drift


Formed by the coming together of a number of avant-garde European groups in 1957 and dissolved in 1972, the Situationist International “developed an increasingly incisive and coherent critique of modern society and of its bureaucratic pseudo-opposition, and its new methods of agitation were influential in leading up to the May 1968 revolt in France” (Knabb, “Preface” ix). Guy Debord’s work The Society of the Spectacle (1967), which was to become the most recognized written work produced by a member of the SI, explored the city as itself a commodity-form riven through by capitalist ideology in material form. Consisting of 221 numbered entries, ranging from a sentence to a length of several paragraphs and organized under nine chapter-headings, the work seizes upon the Marxist trope of totality to explain the spectacular nature of contemporary urban and social life: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (#4, p. 12); “Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production […] it is the very heart of society’s real unreality” (#6, p. 13). Though perhaps revolutionizing Marxism to a certain degree, arguably reformulating a schism between base and superstructure equated with traditional Marxian thought, the focus on the dialectical relationship between thought and action, ideology and material production as well as concepts such as alienation, capital, commodity fetishism, the class character of society, and the triumph of exchange-value serves to reestablish Marxism as an appropriate lens through which to view even those more contemporary qualities of capitalism which Marx himself was perhaps unable to articulate.

The Situationist (psychogeographical method? — drift

“dérive (drift): A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances. Also used to designate a specific period of continuous dériving.” (Guy Debord, “Definitions” 52).

The role of art?

There can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of these means. (Guy Debord,”Definitions” 52)

[both quotations are from the Situationist International Anthology. Ed. Knabb. Berkeley, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. 51-52.]

See an online text library here.

Here’s a 1983 Interview with Henri Lefebvre discussing the Situationists, with whom he shared ideas and had arguments.

Baltimore syndrome

wikimedia commons: Iracaz (talk). Original uploader was Iracaz at en.wikipedia

In the March 2012 Wired, an article on the Jerusalem syndrome, the religion-related psychosis associated with visits to Jerusalem (“The God Complex”).  The article doesn’t really develop any new angles on this culture-bound syndrome, but its appearance in Wired is important.  My thought: while we may never travel to Jerusalem, our future will be the Jerusalem Syndrome.  Now that we have crossed the tipping point of urbanization (over 50% of the world’s population as of 2007), all of us have an opportunity to be overwhelmed and enraptured by our urban lives: the Baltimore syndrome.

Generally speaking, discussions of the Jerusalem syndrome devolve into a discussion of religion, psychology and (more recently) neuroscience.  That’s certainly the case with the Wired essay (it’s the limbic system!), but there are several interesting asides here, especially those moments that move beyond psychologism to the power of the city:

The Old City is a mosaic of sacred spaces, from the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to the well-trodden stones on which Jesus supposedly walked.  Like every city, it’s the combination of architecture and storytelling that makes Jerusalem more than just a crossroads.  Great cities, the places that feel significant and important when you walk their streets, always rely on stagecraft–a deftly curving road, finally wrought facades, or a high concentration of light-up signage can all impart a sense of place, of significance.  (Nashawaty 2012: 117)

That is, psychology aside, there’s a lot coming together in a city like Jerusalem: discourse, place, architecture, history.  Something, in other words, more akin to genius loci, the spirit of place, then to the overactivity of the limbic system.

But does this “complex” only exist in Jerusalem? Many point to the “Paris syndrome,”  where it’s the art and architecture of the city that overwhelms.  And, indeed, the psychological anthropologist Yoram Bilu seems to locate the power of the city in the depths of its history: “The city is seductive, and people who are highly susceptible can succumb to this seduction.  I’m always envious of people who live in San Diego, where history barely exists” (117).  But this seems unfair.  People in San Diego (or Baltimore, or Busan) live suffocated under the overdetermined weight of the city–its spaces, its discourses, its histories.  Of course, if this triggers some “syndrome,” then it is a syndrome of humanity, with a majority of us living in urban areas.

What this “Baltimore syndrome” needs is not a neuroscience of religious psychosis, but something more along the lines of Benjamin’s ruins, a way of apprehending the city that bring together the assemblage of discourse, time, self and space–a cultural analysis of the spirit of place.  We will all be “overwhelmed” by the spirit of place; that is, the city will continue to bring us up against assemblages that overwhelm the self.  We will variously sink under the waters of the city’s deep significations. Of course, very few of us will exhibit symptoms deviant enough to warrant professional help, bit all of us will need to understand the genius loci around us.


Nashawaty, Chris (2012).  “The God Complex.”  Wired (March):112-117.