City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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01
Jul2013

Something along this line, part 1

A muffled, halting engine sound and the front of a train carriage peeking through a tunnel, making its way to a station platform. Coming to a still, the train opens its doors to an inflow and outflow of bodies before taking off once again. There might very well exist no image that is more exemplary, no experience that is more stereotypical of a feature ascribed to the urbanite the world over: movement.

Each and every experience surpassing the capacities of human scale is daunting for those who go through it. It is a simple enough statement, yet to fully comprehend it still helps us encompass the near-entire set of tragedies that befell humanity in the past century, if not further back: the tragedy of mass extermination relied upon the spatial concentration and containment of the camps; it relied, that is, precisely upon the curtailing and repression of the human need and desire for movement. Banishment and migration, on the other hand (read: the unwanted spatial and border transgression undertaken by exiles and refugees) consists in its essence of undesired movement –– and it is this enforced experience that throws humans off, preceding and causing their pain of disorientation and loss.

Disorientation and loss: for all the differences in her circumstances, the contemporary urbanite only too often expresses feelings of pain similar to those whose lives changed for ever, even if her own life appears entangled and trapped in an otherwise orderly, cyclical, repetitive normality. This is the ultimate paradox of the urbanite of our present time: even if she moves along little other other than the retrogressive trajectories of commuting, the level of her disorientation nevertheless seems very much comparable to that experienced by her ancestors who crossed a vast amount of physical, geographical space in their lifetime. Only too often, we come to think of the source of the urbanite’s disorientation to be the matter of scale and distance. We attribute an inherently spatial quality to it, a seeming incapacity to adjust to an environment that is inhuman in its sheerness: beyond the human scale in its build, non-traversable by non-mechanical means in its stretch.

But is this so? Think, for a moment, of Wittgenstein’s famous fly pondering in its glass bottle. For this, for the fly, the bottle is a transparent cage that traps it, barring it from roaming the rest of the world. At the exact same time, this bottle is the fly’s entire world. The bottle, tells us Wittgenstein, is language: what allows us to comprehend and to communicate, to see into a world we can otherwise never quite fully reach. In the urban realm, Wittgenstein’s fly is the commuter –– and her medium of urban transportation is her transparent bottle: allowing her to see the world that surrounds her, this is the exact same medium that nails her, that traps her inside it. The commuting medium is what helps her comprehend the existence of an entire world, the urban whole, that she can never quite physically traverse in its vast entirety.

In its essence, one would have been tempted to play down, even ridicule the retrogressive rote of the commuter as a source of disorientation or loss –– particularly when compared to the sheer devastation of migration, or exile. And yet: the everydayness of this disorientation, the endless back and forth appoints time ––read, better: speed–– as the primary source of the urbanite’s misalignment from her environment. It is not the environment itself; it is not the sheer spatial vastness that disorientates –– it is the ferocious tempo at which this space is traversed, making the urbanite dazzled, anxious and confused. And so, speed becomes the quintessential urban experience of our time. The everyday cycles of urban life cut through, interrupt, ignore and surpass everyday life’s cycles: it is this precise relentless array of interventions that mystifies and disorientates the urbanite, that throws her off, sends her at loss.

Pace, tempo, cadence rhythm... So many of our attempts to grasp our moments of existence in the city place this exact existence in accordance, in juxtaposition to the rhythms of the city itself. Think, for a moment, of one particular scene: the sun rises over the edge of an open square, its near-engulfing buildings that surround it now bathing in its abundant light. Standing somewhere near its middle, the urbanite takes in the morning rays as a comforting assurance that the environment surrounding her is somewhat natural –– that it is, then, somewhat comparable or even compatible to the span of her own life cycle, corresponding to its own evolution. But here, the space around the urbanite becomes both a decoy and a container. Stand at the same vantage point with her in the square, for a second, and look up. You will see nothing but an illusion. There might be one exception, unlikely to change any time soon: it is the ground below you –– and even if it doe change (in its paving for example), it will do so slower and more gradually than anything on top of it. Think of the rest of the elements making up your urban environ, one by one: the ground below you, the buildings around you, the vehicles and your fellow urbanites. For that split-second of the moment that you stood in the middle of the square, the illusion may have kicked in that your environ is unchangeable, or at least, that it changes in accordance to your own pace of change. The space around you, public space, contains every single element comprising the urban –– and it total, it serves you with the decoy of stasis, of immovability.

And below you? Below you lies the epitome of urban trans-port-ation –– leaving one urban nodal “port” to somehow, supposedly, instantly enter another one: movement that is so constant, that becomes an instant; ferocious, seemingly endless and chaotic, but in its very essence orderly to the extent that it establishes urban order. For Agamben, in order for the destruction of experience to occur, “humdrum daily life in any city will suffice” (1993: 13). A humdrum, that is it, precisely what it takes to break off human scale and to sink the urbanite into the endless back-and-forth hidden in the word’s sonority, a killing of experience through its endless, pointless repetition._


References

Agamben, G. (1993) Infancy and history: the destruction of experience, London: Verso

Wittgenstein, L. (1953)[1997] Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...