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?

References

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.

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Wallhunters: The Slumlord Project (Baltimore)

WallHunters: The Slumlord Project

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[Watch the 5 minute video here]

[this post follows up on previous posts on artist Gaia posted on this blog]

The project will install 15 large street art pieces with posted info that reveals/publicizes the ownership of dilapidated vacant houses.

Using radical methods, our project will unite three forces to catalyze discussion of Baltimore’s vacancy problem and how to solve it:

  • Wall Hunters Inc, a recently  created, street  artist run non profit organization
  • Baltimore Slumlord Watch
  • a film being made that gives voice to the ignored on the topic of vacancy and the power of street art.

In short, the project will bring together 15 artists from around the country, each of whom will install a large piece on a dilapidated vacant house. QR codes and text detailing the ownership information that is uncovered by Slumlord Watch will accompany the art. Voices of the people who live in these neglected areas of town, will be heard Continue reading

Urban Renewal Brochures

As one is wont to do, clicking here and there and avoiding grading and writing, I came across this blog and its very interesting current post containing urban renewal brochures from the 1950s. Most interesting to me is that the images from New York are so seemingly devoid of people. Where are the people? More importantly, after they lay this “abstract space” across the landscape  where will the people that live there go. . . .Thanks to dubravka sekulic for this blog.

http://arsenalofexclusion.blogspot.com/2012/04/urban-renewal-brochures-from-1956.html

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

CFP–new Journal of Urban Cultural Studies launched

Visit the new Journal of Urban Cultural Studies site here.

Call for Papers

The Journal of Urban Cultural Studies is a new peer-reviewed publication cutting across both the humanities and the social sciences in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities. The journal is open to studies that deal with culture, urban spaces and forms of urbanized consciousness the world over.

Although we embrace a broad definition of urban cultural studies, we are particularly interested in submissions that give equal weight to: a) one or more aspects of urban studies (everyday life, built environment, architecture, city planning, identity formation, transportation…) and b) analysis of one or more specific forms of cultural/textual production (literature, film, graphic novels, music, art, graffiti, videogames, online or virtual space…) in relation to a given urban space or spaces.

Essays of 7,000-10,000 words (including works cited and notes) should be sent by attachment to the Editor at urbanculturalstudies@gmail.com. JUCS is also open to proposals of special issues by guest editors working individually or in teams of two. All citations in other languages should be translated into English for the journal’s international reading public, in addition to including the original text.

While the journal does not publish book reviews, we do publish review essays—which should discuss 3-5 recent books on a shared topic or theme (or place) and run from 2,500 to 4,000 words. Review essays of urban-themed installations or other works of art are also welcome. These essays will be reviewed in house. Given our visual focus, we are interested in original, unpublished artwork on the topic of cities and in publishing articles accompanied by images where appropriate.

We encourage a variety of approaches to the urban phenomenon—the strengths of the editorial board run from urban geography to literature and film, photography and videogames, gender and sexuality, creative economy, popular music, Marxist approaches, fashion, urban planning, anthropology, sociology, Deaf culture, built environment, philosophy, architecture, detective fiction and noir, and more…

Gaia’s Street Art in Baltimore

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Following up on a post here (reblogged below)–that got me thinking more about the work of art (and a project I’m working on regarding Henri Lefebvre’s thoughts on what he calls ‘the work’ combined with his thoughts on alienation) and its potential, I looked more into the street artist Gaia’s work in Baltimore on Howard Street. Images that form part of the artist’s “legacy series” are above–large images of Robert Moses and James Rouse.

The artist states that ‘I am calling this series Legacy and it is a very basic attempt to reinscribe the figures who have shaped our landscape back onto the surface of their legacy, the infrastructure and policies that we have inherited and must navigate.’

Images taken from: http://www.unurth.com/filter/Baltimore#ixzz1vt2t4qHj

It seems to me that art realizes its potential–Lefebvre talks about the “creative capacity” of the artist, by which he means something quite specific–when it “starts with experience,” and when it brings together what are normally seen as separate, fragmented areas of experience (social, political, economic, etc.). Only in this way can it serve a disalienating function. Gaia’s work is such a great example of what Lefebvre points out.

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.