No Bell Tolls
Let me say something strange. The city is a construct of the imagination that relativises our understanding of the world. (Stay with me). The city does not exist is what I am saying. (keep going). Henri Bergson can help us. He saw a replica city constructed of images of the ‘real’ city as a way of articulating what it means to experience duration — we recognise the forms and images of the city; can walk through it; touch it; map it; name it; experience it; but there is something missing. The infinitesimal, interconnectivity of entangled happenings that from the molecular to the macro never cease in their unique, always new, always different-in-themselves perichoretic* dance — pure ceaseless movement.
But let us stretch this a little in a different direction to suit our needs. Imagine walking through this image/inary urban landscape with a travel companion. Your task is to record what you see, a kind of written map. At the end of your journey you exchange travelogs. There are similarities, of course; but what strikes you is how different your fellow traveler has perceived the city. You were both drawn to very different images of the city.
The city is a collection of images. Not a city made of literal images, like a kind of architectural model, but a city onto which we project our images of thought. Of course you can say “well there are conventions for defining what a city is or isn’t, so the city does exist.” To which I would respond by saying “yes it exists as an idea. It exists within a certain set of constructed rules — numbers of people; cathedral; GDP etc. themselves the product of images of their inventors.”
Let me say something less strange but making the same point. Think of New York. What do you see? Think of London. What do you see? Think of Dubai. What do you see? We see as someone standing behind multiple layers of film reel flashing before your eyes — again borrowing a bit from Bergson’s idea of memory. You see, often in the case of urban areas like these a carefully constructed and crafted idea of the city. New York is x, London is y, Dubai is z. At its most basic this is what postcards are.
Before asking wether there is a right or wrong way to intervene in the city we must first ask ourselves a question: on what collection of images is my view of the city based? When considering urban interventions questions of right or wrong — modern; classical; postmodern etc— remain subjective rabbit warrens; for in us “no bell tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasps” it is then an “idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell” (James 1986). Instead we must ask a much dirtier question, make a much more immanent proposition, unhooked from the critical-realist skyhooks, and platonic ideals that much architectural and urban planning theory is based on — the idea of an ideal city: the sustainable city, the economic city, the connected city, the organic city, repeat to fade…..
This dirty question is not, is it right or wrong, but: what does this intervention do? What lines of flight does it capture, release, close down. Which voices does it silence, which minorities does it oppress. And then “immanently evaluating what relational effects it produces through its articulations” ask “whether we see grounds for concretely challenging the production of these effects or nor (Deleuze and the City 88).” This kind of urban analysis is genealogical. The “gray, meticulous and patiently documentary” process operating on “a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.” This kind of urban analysis “demands relentless erudition. [It] does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the meta historical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins’ (Nietzsche, Geneology, History, Foucault 1971).”
*By perichoresis I am not referring to the religious use of this Greek term. The word perichoresis comes from two Greek words, peri, which means “around,” and chorein, which means “to give way” or “to make room.” It could be translated “rotation” or “a going around.”