About Samuel Collins

I'm a professor of anthropology at a mid-sized, state university in Maryland, USA: Towson University. You can see my homepage here: pages.towson.edu/scollins

The Time of Seoul

The city is a tangle of temporalities; a privileged time-space where the physics of relativity and lived everyday reality meet.  It is not a mistake that Einstein chose a resolutely “modern” example like the “train thought experiment” to illustrate a relativist understanding of space-time.  Yet it’s not that the city is qualitatively different than either earlier, “pre-modern” or non-urban spaces, it’s that the city is sine qua non a space where different temporalities are produced.  Indeed, that may be the primary draw of the city, and the reason for its growing popularity–to the point where we are an urban species, so inured to the city’s ecologies that we cannot help but think about the “rural” as a series of negative values (cf. Raymond Williams, “The Country and the City”).  And in South Korea, a supremely urbanized nation (even in our urbanized world), it is no accident that travel to small towns and provincial cities during the holiday seasons is often likened to travelling back in time.  That said, though, it would be a mistake to miss the essential heterogeneity of urban time.
In other words, the urban gives us what me might regard as contemporary time, but also eddies of relativistic time.  This is at the core of LeFebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, where “linear” time collides with “cyclical” time.

The relations of the cyclical and the linear–interactions, interferences, the domination of one over the other, or the rebellion of one against the other–are not simple: there is between them an antagonistic unity.  They penetrate each other, but in an interminable struggle: sometimes compromise, sometimes disruption.  However, there is between them an indissoluble unity: the repetitive tick of the clock measures the cycle of hours and days.  In industrial practice, where the linear repetitive tends to predominate, the struggle is intense. (85)

LeFebvre’s focus on the chrono-struggle of the city is an important insight.  In the ruinous, “creative destruction” of the capitalist city, corporations wring value from the urban by manipulating temporalities.  One need only consider the recent investigative journalism from the New York Times on abuses at Amazon: the corporation exploits temporalities to a dizzying degree–to the lasting detriment of their employees.  But this “struggle” can take many forms; power (and exploitation) take on a different calculus in different examples.  This, of course, is another benefit to the city: it is both incubator and laboratory for temporal disjuncture, with, for example, different development strategies being examples of not only spatial experiments, but (and oftentimes disastrously), temporal experiments.
Let’s take these two photos taken along Seoul’s principle North-South axial boulevard, Sejong-no.

The first shows adherent of Falun Gong (法輪功) meditating on a corner of Sejong-no and the Cheonggye-cheon (청계천).  They’re there, of course, to both publicize the plight of Falun Going in the PRC, as well as gain new adherents. Given the importance of meditation to Falun Gong, it’s not particularly surprising that they would choose this method to spread their message.  However: the power of the practice lies (at least in part) in the juxtaposition of temporal rhythms: the rhythms of meditation against the linear rhythms of traffic and commuting.

The second photo shows Sejong-no from almost the same spot.  I’m standing just a few meters north of where the Falun Gong supporters were meditating.  It’s Seoul’s annual Lotus Lantern Festival (연등축제): thousands of people converging on the center of Seoul for a festival, huge parade, and various speeches from Korea’s 조계 (Jogye) order of Buddhism.  This year, the festival occurred close to Buddha’s Birthday (a cyclic event) during the year 2559 of the Buddhist calendar.

Of course, both of these involve religious ritual practice, and therefore carve out distinct temporalities from the urban flow around them.  But the similarities soon end.  Falun Gong adherents occupy a small corner of Sejong-no, sharing space with tourists, evangelical Christians, right-wing nationalists and others.  Moreover, they hold an extremely marginal position in South Korea society, with the government reportedly under pressure from China not to accept Falun Gong refugees.  The Lotus Lantern Festival, on the other hand, is a powerful spectacle of religion and nation: the entire street is closed down and festival attendees’ attentions are focused on the main stage stage set directly in front of the Gwanghwamun (광화문), with the festivities broadcast on a couple of huge digital screens for those of us without front-row seats. During the short time of the festival (and culminating here on Sejong-no), the different temporalities of Buddhism and nation coincide along a spatial axis that connects Gwanghwamun with the rest of Korea and with the world.  Indeed, the speeches themselves tied Buddhism and the Jogye order directly to the health of the Korean state–a nod to the importance Buddhism has held in the formation of Korea (despite its political and geographic marginalization during the Joseon Dynasty).

So: while temporality, power and religion are closely linked in any ritual, I would also suggest that, in the city, power inheres in the (temporary) alignment of different temporalities.  Perhaps this is one reason for the marginalization of Falun Gong.  With adherents quietly meditating on the corner, the practice stays bottled up in what onlookers might regard as an insouciant temporality.  But were it able to line up with other times?  What then?

Social latency and the end of the flaneur

Edgar Allan Poe’s story fragment, “The Man of the Crowd” (published in 1840 when Poe was living between Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia), begins with the narrator peering out onto a London street from a café, making observations about passersby: typologies of urban dwellers (“the tribe of clerks,” the “race of swell pick-pockets”), divisions of the population into age, gender, race and ethnicity.  Finally, though, his gaze alights on an enigmatic character that eludes easy classification: “decrepit” and “feeble,” yet “he rushed with an activity I could not have dreamed of seeing in one so aged”; “without apparent aim,” yet characterized by “blood thirstiness” and armed with a “dagger”.  Seduced by these paradoxical attributes, Poe’s narrator follows the man until sunrise, without, though, gaining any insight into the man’s history, nor of his ultimate aims.

            Within this brief fragment, we can see multiple approaches to the urban collide: the first, the assignation of types.  The second, an ethnographic approach premised on direct observation of a single individual walking the streets.  One approach attempts to make sense of the whole—to say something, in this case, about London’s (or Baltimore’s or Philadelphia’s) urban population and the growth of a heterosocial, public space in the mid-19th century (Walkowitz 1992).  The second, the specificity of the individual in a particular place: what one could call the “daily round” of the individual.  But both approaches prove inadequate to understanding the enigmatic man of the crowd.

            But what if Poe’s narrator had tried a network approach?  What if one could show that the man of the crowd’s apparently aimless wanderings were, instead, the outlines of a networked city connecting multitudes of nodes consisting of places and people?  What if one could analyze those connections?  As many have shown, the city is, literally, the sum of its networks, assemblages of place and connection that are simultaneously larger and smaller than the geo-political boundaries of the urban (Pflieger and Rozenblat 2010).  Within this concatenation, people and place can be connected in myriad ways: the “strong” and “weak” ties that form the basis of much of social network analysis, but also in the form of a variety of “latencies” that, as Haythornthwaite (2002: 389) suggests, multiply in the age information and communication technologies and add new potentials to the elaboration of the urban networks around us.  In a networked world, Poe’s narrator might be able to exploit these connections in order to connect to his man in the crowd and make sense of his world.

            And, indeed, this is what happens all of the time in urban life.  Armed with various ICT’s (information and communication technologies), people trace complicated networks that include physical structures, transportation, socialites, technologies, economies and symbolic communications.  But by tweeting, posting to blogs, utilizing geolocational apps and uploading photos and videos, people multiply possibilities for place- and sense-making, mobilizing virtual connections that might open up new possibilities for physical or spatial connections, that might make the strange into the familiar.

           This is an important difference from Poe’s time.  Poe’s “man of the crowd” and Baudelaire’s “flaneur” depend upon a uniquely modern condition: spending a significant chunk of one’s life surrounded by complete strangers.  On the other hand, in our ICT-inflected lives, nobody can be a “complete” stranger.  Rather, in the fuzzy logic of social media, people on the street present different quanta of latency, different potentialities of connection that we may or may not be able to exploit.  When we attend a rally and marvel at the disparate groups that (momentarily) cohere in a place, we’re witnessing the activation of some of those latent ties, and, most probably, their rapid dissolution.

                In that sense, a networked city is a striking departure from previous urbanities, particularly the alienated city of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the city that, by virtue of specialization, “makes one individual incomparable to another (Simmel), and the city that, in the absence of meaningful community, produces general normlessness (Durkheim).   Of course, this doesn’t mean that people don’t feel alienation or anomie in the city, but rather that our understanding of the city needs to move from something more Newtonian to something else—a general relativity for the urban.  Rather than parse off populations (or neighborhoods or institutions) as connected or unconnected, we need to see them as fields of potentiality, with a stranger not just a linear distance away (“six degrees of separation”), but as a simultaneity of probabilistic connections that are “latencies” whose significance cannot be predicted using linear models.  But how can we build a quantum model for social networks in the city?


Haythornthwaite, Carolyn (2002).  “Strong, Weak, and Latent Ties and the Impact of New Media.”  The Information Society 18: 385-401.

Pflieger, Geraldine and Celine Rozenblat (2010).  “Introduction.  Urban Networks and Network Theory.”  Urban Studies 47(13): 2723-2735.

Walkowitz, Judith (1992).  City of Dreadful Delight.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Time of the City

Along the walls of Seonreung Subway Station (선릉역) in Seoul, Tesco HomePlus (a popular shopping chain with corporate headquarters in the United Kingdom) has put up photographs of 500 commonly ordered products in a style similar to their display on the shelves of a physical HomePlus.  Subway passengers can scan accompanying QR codes with their smart phones; the products will be delivered to their homes that evening.

Yes, yes–this is certainly convenient and suggests the degree to which Seoul is well on its way to becoming a ubiquitous computing city (or u-city)–and well ahead of cities in the United States.  But this also offers a more complex view of the occasionally simplistic logic behind the u-city.

When we look at cities and their built environments, we can identify what John Urry calls different “mobilities” that bring together people and objects in different spatio-temporal configurations: riding the subway versus driving an automobile versus walking down a wide boulevard versus sitting at a cafe (Urry 2007).  Each divulges a different temporal rhythm.  This is partly because of the temporal regimes that have been built into these systems–subway schedules, speed limits, the timing of traffic lights, etc.  And this is also partly due to the ways people have engaged these spaces through their own temporal practices (Lefebvre 2004).  Through these manifold technologies, we share temporalities with others–waking in the morning, the daily commute, breaking for lunch.  Commuting into Seoul from Ansan in Gyeonggi-do, you really get the sense of people marching lock-step in both time and space.  But the variations in those temporalities are the most noticeable.

In fact, it is at those precise places where different temporalities collide that have been the most interesting for urban dwellers: the entrance to a Seoul subway station where people wait for each other or sell gimbap.  A pojangmach’a (포장마차) (harder to find these days!) set up in alleys where people move by according to different temporal practices–walking from work, socializing, touring, going to class at a nearby language institute.  Vast urban markets like Namdaemun (남대문시장) where people alternately sit, scurry, stroll.  Isn’t at least part of the charm of these urban oases the confluence of difference?  And not only difference in the way that we usually think of it in anthropology, as differences in identity or social class, but differences in temporality–the difference between people caught in the rhythm of work versus those pursuing a variety of modern pleasures.

Of course, these same temporal differences can lead to all sorts of frustrations–when you climb into a car or taxi and find yourself jammed in on Jamsil Brigde (잠실대교), too annoyed to take in the view of Seoul’s skyline.  Or when waiting exceeds the 30-minute mark and turns to frustration.

Image from the Urban and Regional Innovation Group (http://www.urenio.org/2010/09/26/u-city-new-trends-of-urban-planning-in-korea/)

But what happens when we are in constant, real-time syncopation with the built environment around us?  As Seoul moves to ubiquitous computing, the frisson that comes from the confluence of different temporalities would seem to be threatened.  After all, the whole point of ubiquitous computing is the adoption of integrative, networked technologies that span these spatial and temporal differences, creating a vast syntagmatic exchange of information.  The dream, then, would be seamless networks that stitch together city services, transit, consumption, together with our home- and work-lives.

And yet, that may not be how ubiquitous computing develops into urban contexts at all.  When we look at the HomePlus installation at Seonreung Station, its success depends not on the homogenization of different temporalities, but on their exploitation.  It’s precisely because there are different mobilities in subway transit–descending into the tube, walking to the platform, waiting for the train, standing in the subway car–that there’s a temporal residue for HomePlus to exploit.  In other words, it’s the between-ness of the subway station that makes QR-code shopping at HomePlus an attractive option.

In the future, I would expect these temporal disjunctures to be fertile grounds for ubiquitous computing; and, perhaps, these may result in the concomitant multiplication of these temporal differences rather than their transcendence.  That is, the temporal dissonance between different formations suggests durational spaces for networked action.  With them, perhaps, an awareness of heterogeneous temporalities that may lead to new possibilities for human interaction in the interstices of the temporal formations we inhabit.


Lefebvre, Henri (2004).  Rhythmanalysis.  NY: Continuum.

Urry, John (2007).  Mobilities.  Malden, MA: Polity.

Going Around the Wire: A Review of Beilenson’s Tapping Into the Wire

It has been 10 years since David Simon’s “The Wire” premiered on HBO.  A product of Simon’s long-time partnership with Ed Burns, a retired Baltimore City homicide detective, “The Wire” presented Baltimore through the lens of police officers, drug dealers, troubled children, educators.  A Dickensian drama-from-below, Simon’s series grew more and more complex through its five seasons.  Actively working to challenge easy interpretations of Baltimore’s problems, Simon refused to indulge in the usual media reduction of urban life to pathologized caricatures.

Over those 10 years, some anthropologists began to include “The Wire” in their courses, presumably because they found it ethnographically interesting.  And it is, but not because it offers an empirical “window” onto the lives of Baltimore’s urban poor.  Instead, “The Wire” is interesting because it presents the complexities of white, middle-class perspectives on race and social class.  It lays bare the tortured contradictions, the logical inconsistencies of dominant theoretical perspectives, from the neo-liberal, rational choice theory used to interpret some of The Wire’s more larger-than-life drug-dealers, to the structural interpretations examining the inequalities of education in the city.  Ultimately, though, the series remains trapped in the puzzle-box of Continue reading

Future Tenochtitlan?

File:Tlatelolco Marketplace.JPG

Tlatelolco Marketplace, Wikimedia, Joe Ravi, Creative Commons License CC-BY-SA 3.0

There’s an interesting piece in this year’s Nebula Awards Showcase, a lively short story about an alternative future premised on Aztec culture, “The Jaguar House, in Shadow,” by Aliette de Bodard.  One of the biggest challenges to those of us trying to imagine and evoke alternative futures is precisely what animates de Bodard’s story: can we come up with futures that aren’t already colonized by Western modernity?  As she writes (185):

“Part of the challenge (and what had frustrated me with the earlier attempt) is making sure that “modern” doesn’t end up equating “twentieth-century Western culture”; and equally making sure that the Aztec culture doesn’t turn out to be an ossified version of what the conquistadors saw.”
De Bodard struggles with this premise, ultimately sketching a future Tenochtitlan that is at turns archaeological speculation and Aztec steampunk.  Maglev stations, nanotechnology, religion, traditional drugs, Aztec ball courts.  It all pushes the story forward, and beyond: the ending makes me suspect that there’s a novel in the works.

But is this really an alternative future?  Or is this just Western sf playing in the ruins of Tenochtitlan?  De Bodard’s protagonist, Oballi, breaks into the house of her own Jaguar order in order to rescue her friend, a feat enabled by various physically extending drugs and technologies, including nanotechnologically enhanced finger-nails.  “She extended, in one fluid, thoughtless gesture: her nails were diamond-sharp,  courtesy of Atcoatl’s nanos, and it was easy to find purchases on the carving” (192).  It’s that juxtaposition of Aztec carvings and nanotechnology that gesture to the limits of this “alternative” future.

Contrast this to Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain (2010), a decidedly non-fictional evocation of an “alternative future” that is premised on what Pickering calls (after the work of Bruno Latour) “nonmodern” ontologies.

“What I want to suggest is that the ontology of cybernetics is a strange and unfamiliar one, very different from that of the modern sciences. I also want to suggest that ontology makes different—that the strangeness of specific cybernetics projects hangs together with the strangeness of its ontology (17).”

In the performative ontologies evoked in cybernetics, the world appears less as the transparent workings of a Cartesian universe than as a series of black boxes that we interact with in a performative way–with frequently surprising results.  Examples of cybernetics as an alternative epistemology for knowing this black-box ontology abound, but one of my favorites (and, I think, also Pickering’s) is Gordon Pask’s 1950’s work on Musicolour.

“Materially, the music was converted into an electrical signal by a microphone, and within Musicolour the signal passed through a set of filters, sensitive to different frequencies, the beat of the music, and so on, and the output of the filters controlled different lights.  You could imagine that the highest-frequency filter energized a bank of red lights, the next-highest the blues, and so on.  Very simple, except for the fact that the internal parameters of Musicolour’s circuitry were not constant.  In analogy to biological neurons, banks of lights would only be activated if the output from the relevant filter exceeded a certain threshold value, and these thresholds varied in time as charges built up on capacitors according to the development of the performance and the prior behavior of the machine” (316).

Rather than treat music, sound, cognition, perception as divisible parts rendered knowable by science as discrete data, Pask developed a machine that encouraged the adaptive coupling of diverse systems to each other, a kind of performative epistemology that was, as Pickering points out over and over, both a “theater” and an example of what might be called a non-modern ontology: the world construed not as divisible, objectified parts, but as complex systems loosely coupled to each through feedback, where the goal is not to dominate and exploit but to interact, cope–to negotiate a truth rather than command one.   The point, of course, is that this is ultimately an alternative modernity (or, as Pickering writes, a “nonmodern” epistemology).

It’s all interesting, and Pickering hits on what excites me most about cybernetics: it’s capacity to interrogate the assumptions that have guided technological development up to now, and possibility for “lines of flight” within the hegemonic discourse of objectivist science and the domination of nature.  Indeed, Pickering reflects on cybernetics in the wake of Deleuzean “nomad science,” and finds the work Beer, Pask, Bateson and others to anticipate much of the Deleuzean turn. Of course, Pickering uses that problematic “nonmodern”–I am not nearly so sanguine that we can escape the modern by emphasizing a performative ontology, since the message here is that it was implicit in the cybernetic modern all along.

And this gets me back to de Bodard’s story.  Can we evoke a truly non-Western future?  Is there a “nonmodern” modernity?  Can we simultaneously imagine a future and escape from that future’s overdetermination by, perhaps, the most central characteristic of modernity itself: “futures thinking”? We can see de Bodard’s writing as part of the answer–imagining non-Western futures–although I wish she had spent some time looking at actual Aztec futures, as in the Mexican environmental groups and sustainability techniques that have been developed off of insights into Aztec irrigation and farming. Or even at the interesting (and tumultuous) world of Mexican sf (see Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz’s Biografias del Futuro: La ciencia ficcion mexicana y sus autores (2000)).

The other part, though, must be examining Western futures themselves as multiple, or, more precisely, as a virtual field of difference through the potentialities Pickering sketches.  Perhaps we can approach that alternative future through multiple estrangements.  First, undermining our own assumptions about the future by excavating “roads not taken”–cybernetics, Bergonism, etc., while struggling to understand non-Western epistemologies.  Second, the fuzzy coupling of alternative futures, non-Western futures, sublimated utopia: in other words, the performative ontology Pickering lionizes performed on a grander temporal and spatial scale.  Ultimately, the goal is less prediction and control than adapting to these shifting, swirling, Musicolour constellations.

There’s a story about his time working in a VA hospital that Gregory Bateson told in a 1971 Naropa Institute lecture that I explore in a 2010 article (Collins 2010: 60):

“At the request of the ward superintendent, he invited a new patient to his office and, in way of initialing conversation (and building rapport) offered him a cigarette. The patient took a few puffs and then, looking Bateson straight in the eyes, dropped it on the carpet. The next day, he again met with Bateson, took a cigarette, lit it, and dropped it on the carpet. Only this time, he decided to take a walk. Bateson followed him for 100 yards or so, and then couldn’t take it any longer. “Look, man, I’ve got to know what that cigarette is doing!” They turned back to retrieve it. On the third day, the same thing, only this time, when the resident got up to take a walk, Bateson palmed the cigarette and followed behind. A few yards out the door, Bateson said, “Ed, I think this is your cigarette, isn’t it?” Ed laughed, and Bateson felt that he had been admitted in (if only fleetingly) into the resident’s world.”

What is the point here to Bateson’s enigmatic parable?  First, that understanding here is not premised on control.  It’s not about forcing the patient into the Bateson’s cognitive schema.  Instead, it’s about creating cybernetic couplings that interact along “lines of flight” that gesture to something else entirely.  Could this be a metaphor for strange (and estranging) futures?


Collins, Samuel Gerald (2010).  “‘An Electronic Buzzer is Laughing’.”  Cybernetics & Human Knowing 17(3): 45-64.

Pickering, Andrew (2010).  The Cybernetic Brain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.