vrijdag 13 januari 2012

The gloom and grump of the Soft City

The city ... breaks down many of the conventional distinctions between dream life and real life; the city in the head can be transformed, with the aid of the technology of style, into the city on the streets. To a very large degree, people can create their cosmologies at will, liberating themselves from the deterministic schemes which ought to have led them into a wholly different style of life.

[Jonathan Raban in the Soft City (1974) offers no redemption: in the city everything is fake, the people are actors, surface is everything. ] 

There can be no doubt that the unreality of the city, its prolixity and illegibility, its capacity to exceed all the imaginative shapes we try to impose upon it, enables its citizens to treat it with terrifying arbitrariness. 

[Raban is all gloom and grumpiness but as the book enfolds I find offers enough originality to momentarily forget about his Calvinist all-is-rotten-in-the-city mood.]  
The city dweller is constantly coming up against the absolute mysteriousness of other people's reasons... I feel about the road much as a primitive tribesman might feel about a dangerous ravine with a killer river given to unpredictable floods. I personify and apostrophise it, I attribute mysterious and malign volitions to its traffic, and it frequently disturbs my dreams. 

[Refuting the rationalism of the city as a designed culture cherished by urban planning.] 

For most of their inhabitants, cities like New York and London are nature, and are as unpredictable, threatening, intermittently beautiful and benign, as a tropical rainforest. That they are in fact constructs is a might and eluding irrelevance.  

[Up against the wall motherfucker, this is a stick-up.]

As surely as any mountain face, the city throws us back on ourselves; it isolates us, both as people and as tribal groups. Just as it constrains the expression of individuality, threatens us with absorption into total anonymity, so it makes self-assertion and projection into overwhelming necessities.

[Hey! Was raw nature not supposed to turn us into savages, making us act on our basest desires only (the Heart of Darkness), rather than turn us into schizophrenic actors acting a different role in every different social situation?]    

Raymond Van Over, the editor of the most widely available edition of the I-Ching, says in his introduction: 'form is a mere illusory manifestation of underlying causes'. It is the same consoling message that the Situationists and the Hare Krishna people preach: believe it and the city, with all its paradoxes, puzzles and violent inequities, will float away before your eyes, a chimera to delude only the hopelessy, cynically earthbound. 

[Surely this is strangest thing ever written about the Situationists, the least you can say about them is that they at least were never proselytizing.] 

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret hopelessly in a synthethic wilderness of our own construction. We need - more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes - to comprehend the nature of citizenship to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.

[We still live in cities in badly but without the innocence.]

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