Megacity topic: Street.

Megacity topic: Street.

I’ve just come back from the TCS workshop on Megacity – a volume of the TCS-NEP New Encyclopaedia Project… Megacity is a term for those urban conglomerations that – ill defined as yet – have about 10 millions or more population, expand beyond the confines of the modernist city (whatever that means) and are something more, or different, from the ‘global city’ of a certain urban sociology…. I was asked to present on the idea of the street, and I wondered how a certain kind of urban anthropology might reconfigure what as yet seems a pretty inchoate conceptualisation of Mega… but I was happy to have a go. Here are some of my first, somewhat pedestrian, ground zero perspectives on the city as it transmutes from modernist to megalopolis… This is a proposed encyclo entry that will either canvass the street as a single article, or suggest a cluster with several authors (as is the format of the NEP).

It might be good to start by trying to reverse the perspective that framed the discussions of the first part of the day. These had been about how to conceptualise the megacity, how to map it, diagram it, how to represent that which ‘cannot be represented’ (Andrew Benjamin with a new context for the words of Marx from the 18th Brumaire). I do not disagree with attempts at abstract comprehension, but I wonder – given the task of ‘problematizing the urban’ what it might be to start – so to speak – at the other end. So I began with a phrase, with the idea of ‘the word on the street’.

The assumption to break with here, to challenge, is the idea that at ground level there is chaos and disorder. That an intrinsic disarray was articulated as the condition of the rampant growth of the city into megacity seems to me to have missed something important about urban space. There is order, and it can be examined – though this takes time. For me to hold onto an image that evokes this, I have this terrible trinket of a lighter-representation of the twin towers with aeroplane which reminds me, all too graphically (see pic) of one among the many striking scenes of that precipitous urban event of 2001: people on the street staring up at the towers in shock and awe as the planes crashed into the world trade centre on September 11, 2001.

Quotidian street protocol does not often include such moments – people look up at advertising hoardings, or the increasingly prevalent public screens of the city, but generally they mind their own business and carry on. Head down, sidewalk traffic, hustle and bustle, going somewhere. It was much more besides, but September 11 in New York was a neck strain, televised to all.

So I started to read the classic city texts – Whyte Street Corner Society, Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and newer ones like Duneier’s Sidewalk, and Berman’s On the Street, – which are each great – deeply worked, reliant on long fieldwork. And all that makes me wonder if we need to rethink the focus on the street in the megacity so as to be careful not to jump far too quickly to suggest uniformity, replication or a typology. The mass observation scenario of looking up on high as the image of the city transforms before our eyes is perhaps a reminder that life in the megacity cannot be grasped all at once or forever, that the city has many different and changing facades (sometimes brutal-tragic and sudden) and that the teeming cultural plethora of the city, for good or bad, is peopled by crowds of multiple provenance who come together on the sidewalk sometimes, but are otherwise also variously divided. The street is as complicated and complex here as it is, differently, just around the corner, or a few moments later in time. Would we need a reminder then that whether the aim is to plan, to theorize, to segment into creative or economic quarters, or to otherwise conjure the city, there will always be more, and more than a supplement or remainder, rather a glorious excess; a bleeding beyond the prescriptions of definition.

How would the protocols of urban anthropology look if we were to rethink them through the idea of the megacity? I wonder if we can ever think the street in a way that goes past those earlier renderings, updates them, or at least learns from their specificity. There have been many versions of urban anthropology that seek out the word on the street. The street is thought, a path of thinking; the street-map the synapses and dendrites of the mind (Simmel), an intersection a thought; if the road is a sentence (Derrida), the city is a text to interpret (Lefebvre); if the square or the crossroad is a node amongst flows (D&G), and traffic networks; labyrinthine plans and perspectives and views; transformed mapping with new technologies (Kittler), google earth and sat-nav replace the a-z, the imaginary city tracked through poster, project and propaganda, networked (AbdouMaliq Simone), the aspirational city of planning and commerce (Holsten) photogenic street-scenes to draw and attract; the vibrant, viral and virtual city which makes an image site of the street, overexposed (Virilio), heterotopia, hetero-dysfunctional.

If the street of the megacity is as likely to be a major thoroughfare such as Broadway Manhattan as it is to be a tiny, winding, obscure lane in Salt Lake City (Bidhanagar) the ever growing ‘edge’ of Kolkata. The point is that in such cities, people live. Questions of how they live (demography, quality, strategies), if its possible to live (adequate shelter, sustenance, services) and if its possible to live better (policy, organization), remain.

It may be that megacities are only coherent at a distance, as organisms that can hardly even be diagrammed. Sprawl/scrawl. When moving along the streets, when speeding along the city’s arteries, what we feel is the rush, and yet when on the street we can’t see the street we’re on (for all the street vendors, drug dealers, shop fronts, commuters, sweepers etc) but when we can see the whole of the street, we’re not really on it). The map is not the territory, the name is not the person.

Derive.

Walking down Broadway with Marx’s Capital in hand, reading the signs, or down Nimtollah Lane with a dictionary (my Bangla is poor), I am faced with the multiple character of the megacity when the sheer abundance of ways the life of the street connects not so much to other streets on an A-Z map of the nation, but rather direct to the global ecumenium. The megacity has streets peopled by citizens of the world. They might be going somewhere or staying put, even stuck; they might be movers and shakers or ‘illegal’ and on the run. The city though is global when the street hosts the peoples of the world. This heterotopia is to be mapped otherwise than in a national history – rather start with the idle flim-flaneury of Benjamin in Paris, the derive of the situationists, or Ian Sinclair’s London wandering. (see Robert Bond 2006 ‘Speculating Histories: Walter Benjamin Ian Sinclair’ Historical Materialism 14(2):3-28). This is not old fashioned, though some may be walking with eyes locked on personal or public screens, saturated space of advertising, walking with one’s eyes on an electronic horizon.
I have walked, and plan again to walk, the length of Broadway ‘as research’. The Walking Day. From fetish object to so-called original accumulation.

A vast apparatus.

I have to take account of changing neighbourhoods and the abundant sociality of the street, the community and the suburb. The street is the place of sociality, and so of people Sidewalk by Duneier, Everyday Life de Certeau, or Lefebvre, but also exclusions, the banlieues, the barrio, the reserve army/dormitory suburbs, the commuters, from cleaners to office staff, to transport workers. I think of street culture and creativity, and the culture industry entrepreneurs and corporate opportunists that jump on it for packaging. Parafunctional spaces (an essay by Nikos Papastergiadis and Scott McQuire I have to dig out, given at an ArtSpace conference in Sydney), decay and renewal, from warehouse to gallery-zone…

The people of the street are quintessentially the crowd, the masses of festivals, street party (lights out in New York), café’s (Ash Amin), conviviality, the rows of shops, the enticements to buy, the seductions of commodification that grab us and make as part of the all consuming apparatus. The street market, with its connections and flows – commerce to the illicit trades, drugs, street people, organized crime.

Infrastructure of the street. Power supplies – underground cables, roadworks, traffic disruptions; a massive network of material labour still produces the street.Lighting – streets as avenues of neon (Scott McQuire), CCTV (Jeff Heydon). Security guards, doormen (Jane Jacobs). Taxis (Virinder Kalra, Biju Mathew). In Cairo I am greeted by a taxi driver who says without taking a breath: “in my taxi I will take you anywhere you want to go to my brother’s emporium”. Cars. Delivery vehicles. Trucks and buses. The street also as the site of accidents, car crashes, stalled or too fast, traffic.We watch them from bars, cafes, as we munch street food (Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay). Amusement arcades while away the boring hours.

Pollution – rubbish – detritus held up to the gloaming by Siegfried Kracauer. Pollution – sewerage, drains, the gutter – garbage disposal – Boy George, rag-pickers (Kracauer was not the least of these, whatever Benjamin says). Who makes and maintains the street? Monsieur Hulot has been mechanized, the steamroller more rapidly paves what took aeons before, a team of pavers pave the footpaths and painters paint the signage in rapid time.

This makes me think of Marx’s lists – describing the lumpen in the 18th Brumaire – the discussion I visited in Zizek’s slum (HERE), and echoing Derrida’s list iterations on the voyous that I plan to elaborate, having started HERE). Derrida does not quote Marx’s great text in Rogues, but I think its clear he has it in his head as he writes:

‘Voyoucracy is a corrupt and corrupting power of the street, an illegal and outlaw power that brings together into a voyoucraticregime, and thus into an organised and more or less clandestine form, into a virtual state, all those who represent a principle of disorder … a threat against public order … This milieu, this environment, this world unto itself, gathers into a network all the people of the crime world or underworld, all the singular voyous. All individuals of questionable morals and dubious character whom decent, law-abiding people would like to combat and exclude under a series of more or less synonymous names: big man, bad boy, player … rascal … good-for-nothing, ruffian, villain, crook, thug, gangster, shyster … scoundrel, miscreant, hoodlum, hooligan … one would also say today banger [loulou], gangbanger [loubard], sometimes even outside the inner city, in the suburbs, the suburban punk [loubard des banlieues]’ (Derrida 2005:66).

‘The word voyou has an essential relation with the voie, the way, with the urban roadways [voire], the roadways of the city or the polis, and thus with the street [rue], the waywardness [dévoiement] of the voyou consisting in making ill use of the street, in corrupting the street or loitering in the streets, in “roaming the streets”, as we say in a strangely transitive formulation. This transitivity is in fact never far away from the one that leads to “walking the streets”… Today the voyou sometimes roams the roadways [voies] and highways [voiries] in a car [voiture], that is, when he or she is not stealing it or setting it on fire’ [stealing or setting it on fire!– those rogues, note they are soon to be linked to greater rogues, in a strangely transitive formula -JH] … Voyous might also, on an international scale, and this gets us right into the problematic of rogue states, be involved in drug trafficking, in parasiting, or actually subverting, as terrorists in training, the pathways [voies] of normal communication, whether of airplanes, the telephone, email or the Web’ (Derrida 2005:65).

I just want to remark on these listings. The transitive next next next that escalates. It moves from the small metaphor to the hyperbolic of global connectivity. Even way back in his 1967 book Of Grammatology was a call for a meditation on the road and writing: ‘one should meditate upon all of the following together: writing as the possibility of the road and of difference, the history of writing and the history of the road, of the rupture, of the via rupta, of the path that is broken, beaten, fracta, of the space of reversibility and of repetition’ (Derrida 1967/1974:107).

And then – having to show that this is not just JD mouthing off – on to Marx, writing of how Boneparte gathered together in the society of 10 December, the riff raff of Paris:

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither (page 63 18th Brumaire)

So, my version of the street will include an expanding list, not all deviants or miscreants: but those who play the rackets, the numbers, the dealers, the look-outs, with scams, pyramid schemes, passport and visa forgers, job search entrepreneurs, denizens of the doorstep, visitors to the soup kitchens, survival strategies of the many, street-peddlers, organ-grinders (!), Iskon krisna consciousness devotees offering free vegetarian recipe booklets, muggers, petty thugs, street-smarts, wise-guys, the cleaner, the fixer, marabout (Simone 2004:41), criminal slumlords, drunks, musicians, money-changers, carum players and pan-handlers, Reclaim the night, dykes on bikes, the strip, at sunset, and after hours, sex workers, meter maids, hawkers, buskers, vendors of sweets and treats.

Vertical

Lists, though, are Flat – and the City is High. Rossolini was apparently asked if he would make a film of New York, and replied that he would not do so as long as screens were not also vertical.

Maybe at this register the street must always be the horizontal plane if we are to see people there – if we go up the lifts of the towers, even those in the Eiffel tower, we see the city as plan, as flattened space. But this view from the gods erases diversity and community in favour of a privileged and sanitized position. On the horizontal plane, the issues are about sanitary drainage and the cacophony of the crowd.

The class and racial hierarchies of the megacity are visible at street level as much, if not more, than in the high-rise and boardroom. An equally important but less uniform global heterotopia assembles at street level – in what Koolhaus called a culture of congestion – the urban jungle is worryingly described as a ‘potent yet troubling term’ (Cairns 2000:125 – ‘jungles’ 125-7 in Thrift, Nigel and Steve Pile City A-Z New York: Routledge) but there are reasons to both valourize and worry over this scene.

The ethnicity of the street scape is apparent, but cannot be adequately discussed without reference to shifting articulations of racial hierarchy, national chauvinism, communal politics and geo-imperial consequences such as the war on terror or economic restructuring. Los Angeles as city of migration is differently diasporic than the migrations that have swollen Mumbai or Shanghai

Immigrants – the megacity is always one of movement and babel

Street Pirates – the island in New Cross.

Later I want to write of street politics, the police and control. Of reading the word on the street on the side of the Buses. And of house-to-house street fighting, the Arcades and Benjamin on the street and war. Also, of course, the sci fi streetscape: those imaginary simplistic multiculturalisms at the bottom end of Bladerunner and Fifth Element that deserve a much more critical (all too exotic) argument…

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Comments

  • jane  On 27/01/2007 at 21:55

    might be worth a look at the interview with Mitch Duneier in CUCR’s Spring 2006 issue of Streetsigns.

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  • Anonymous  On 29/01/2007 at 19:51

    Hi John

    I was so knocked out by a weirdly anthropologically astute piece of reporting by someone called Eric Konigsberg on the back page (page 26) of the International Herald Tribune, Friday January 26, 2007, that I thought you should “blog” it–or I could contribute my “take”, trying not to sound too rabid. The article is longer than usual with a lot of nitty gritty. It concerns the vexatious behavior of chauffeurs–not called that any more–blocking traffic and causing “dangerous” situations for their five year old charges whom they drive three to five blocks in limo sized black SUVS to kindegarten or pre-school in the morning on the Manhattan’s Upper East Side, such schooling being an absolute pre-requisite to getting into the “right” private school and ivy league college where where bums like me, the court jesters, are paid peanuts to teach them to become either like their fathers, managing hedge funds, or artists set up in a pad in Chelsea or Berlin. A major obstacle to changing this dropping off circus is that it has become a status ritual, related to the size of the car and who knows what else. The fathers are part of that new breed that has in the mere past decade basically taken over the world–the hedge fund manager. Wasn’t it not so long ago that bankers were seen as not only the scum of the earth, prostitutes to money in grey suits, but also the greatest boors (remember Mary Poppins employer)? How has it happened that now making money out of money is now seen as not only not a bad thing (and I remember R H Tawney on Karl Marx as the last of the medieval Schoolmen, renowned for their hostility towards interest) but somehow sexy? This strikes me as important as global warming, the invention of the computer chip, and the strange fate of the sexual revolution. The article in the Intl Herald Tribune captures this well, far better thasn a direct frontal approach.

    mick

    ps I should also point out that the super rich are not alone in this status anxiety about kids and cars in a city with abundant public transport. The schools in the poorest sections of Manhattan also abound in supersizing display of double and triple parked SUVs

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  • John Hutnyk  On 30/01/2007 at 09:30

    |Hi Mick – The kindergarten run piece is indeed interesting and smart as a way to get into a critique of class formation in the city. I guess in the not so long ago old days kids would impress each other with their latest yo-yo, marbles, ball-card collection, skateboard or dragstar bicycle etc. Like all things I guess this has escalated with the bloated commodity system and now the kids (the dads) impress each other with much bigger toys. Trouble is, with the lower level set of toys – marbles, skateboards etc – it was also necessary, even crucial, to have some motor skills and be able to do tricks. Lots of practice honing that wheelie or 360 deg spin, or the ‘cradle’ on yo-yo, sorted out a hierarchy in the school (who was cool) and the aspirational wannabees were all practising like crazy to try and struggle up the ladder. But what tricks can you do with a monster SUV? There will be a corresponding decline of motor skills and physical dexterity among the rich – but I’m afraid that won’t be enough to kill them off; just makes them Borg than ever. – John

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