Tuesday, May 19, 2009

an interim post, pending a better one

I am pondering the problems of parochialism versus localism (i.e., local spins on global issues that arise from ignorance more than from informed takes on local specificities, or escapist strategies that are unacceptably shallow versus escapist strategies that know they are escapist and believe that there is something worth escaping from) but that will have to wait. So will the review I actually intend to write of the Andreas Huyssen anthology of which a preliminary note appears below.

This was written for the readers of the joculum blog, most of whom come out of an intensive literature rather than visual art background, and since Huyssen's particular angle on the culture of specific global cities is informed by works of fiction, I pitched the review that way. Then I realized it would be both shallow and parochial to omit some of the amazing insights of the individual essayists, regarding Buenos Aires and Johannesburg and Beijing and all those other cities of which we know less than we think we know...just as we know less regarding Istanbul than we think we know because Orhan Pamuk has done such a good job of representing the city he remembers and sometimes inhabits, but one which is changing spectacularly even as I write these words....

So don't hold me to this preliminary draft, which I'll most likely delete once I finish something more substantial:

Last year Andreas Huyssen published a volume of collected essays (fruits of an earlier year-long seminar) titled Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age.

I have learned to live with the word “imaginary” as a noun, though it means that one has to make clear each time that an imaginary is not “the imaginary,” not the abstract concept of “that which is imagined,” and that an urban imaginary is no more imaginary than the rather physically organized social order that it governs.

We are ruled by our images and our ideas, which, as Bob Dylan sang of dreams in “Talking World War III Blues,” are only in our heads. But what is in our heads results in real deaths and real commodities and real hunger and real everything else.

Huyssen is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, which makes him the perfect person to compile data on global cities and the real reach of globalization as distinct from the statistically observable (or so they say) aspects of same. For Huyssen can perceive, at least to some degree, the imaginative structures that inform the dominant schools of theory.

In fact, Huyssen’s introduction to the volume is probably a quick way for literary types to get up to speed on the state of urban studies, since it begins with a glimpse of the sociological wisdom of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and gallops from there through the modernity studies of the 1980s and their subsequent incorporation of the impact of differing forms of imagination in global circumstances. Differences matter. (All cities are not the same; not everybody is McDonaldized in the manner that universalizing theoreticians would suppose; modes of resistance are not as uniform as they would suppose, either.) “An urban imaginary marks first and foremost the way city dwellers imagine their own city as the place of everyday life, the site of inspiring traditions and continuities as well as histories of destruction, crime, and conflicts of all kinds. [It}is the cognitive and somatic image we carry within us of the places where we live, work, and play. …Urban imaginaries are thus part of any city’s reality, rather than being only figments of the imagination.”

And as we thus “live by fiction” (to quote a once well-known book title), we also live in collisions of the global and the local, collisions that differ in the contexts of Buenos Aires, or Beijing, or Johannesburg or Mumbai, to mention only a few of the cities discussed by the seminar participants. The reality experienced by Okwui Enwezor’s globe-hopping consumers of the planet’s numerous art biennials is not at all that of…well, of anybody else, and this much is almost too crushingly obvious to point out. The genuinely globalized among us are few in number, and it is not necessarily a superior condition.

Huyssen assumes that the debate he analyzes is already known to his readers, at least in outline, but he does make reasonably clear what theories he and his fellow essay contributors are reacting against. This is a book to lend complexity and specificity to a discussion too often weighted in favor of vast generalities—of the immense forces that are indeed shaping the destinies of the citizens of the world’s many cities, but that are by no means the whole story.

In fact, the vast generalities are seldom a story at all, and that is why this volume ends with an excerpt from a lyric narrative of a city, Orhan Pamuk’s meditation on the dialectic between hüzün and melancholy and tristesse (the three terms not quite synonymous) in the Istanbul of only yesterday and how it shaped individual imaginations as well as urban imaginaries. (What has happened in the frantic postmodernization of recent years, followed by whatever the Great Global Recession has done, is not part of Pamuk’s story, nor of any of the other essayists in a volume that originated in the first years of our present century, already almost a decade in the past.)

As Huyssen’s citation of Calvino implies, the stories we tell ourselves are always already too simple. We never see reality whole, any more than we construct it all by ourselves. But we do construct it collectively and individually within the limits imposed by physics and biology, and we stretch endlessly against the limits imposed by history.

And Other Cities, Other Worlds is a useful volume for helping us to remember that and to better understand its implications.

No comments: