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.

References

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

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