My partner Caroline and I have launched a new podcast, Take the Movie and Run. We're watching and discussing every film directed by Woody Allen, one at a time and in random order. The tenor of our conversations so far has been irreverent rather than academic. The first episode features the most recent Woody, Café Society. This is tangential to the usual focus of the site but I'll be linking future installments as they are produced, and you can also visit the podcast home page here.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: "Define Media Ecology."
The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.
This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.
In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.
Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.
McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.
McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.
Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.
There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.
Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments
Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.
In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.
Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.
Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media
Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.
Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.
In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm.
Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.
To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.
The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.
This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.
Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett
Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”
Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.
Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”
The Modern City as Public Realm
In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.
In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.
Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.
Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres
Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.
Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.
Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.
There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.
Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.
Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.
These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.
I used to live one street over from the Penn Plaza apartments, one of the last affordable housing complexes in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood. The other low income rental units and high rise housing towers, built as part of sweeping urban renewal projects starting in the 1960s, have all been demolished and replaced with market-rate apartments and retail space. In the summer of 2015, the 200+ residents of Penn Plaza received notices that the property owners had sold the land for redevelopment, and giving tenants 90 days to vacate the premises. Following uproar from tenants and other community members who were shocked at the manner in which this decision was made and communicated, the city intervened to delay both the evictions and the demolition (the second of the two buildings is still standing, and people still living there have until March to relocate).
The developer's plans for the Penn Plaza space was finally revealed this past summer: new high-end rental units and businesses including a Whole Foods grocery store. Whole Foods has earned ire for its expensive and sometimes outlandish offerings, is identified with an affluent-white consumer ethos, and has become iconic of gentrifying development (see the season-long gentrification arc on South Park in which the arrival of Whole Foods in a formerly divested neighborhood is treated as the catalyst for a demographic shift). The announcement that the Penn Plaza site was to house a new Whole Foods carried a particularly bitter irony because there already is a Whole Foods in the neighborhood, essentially across the street from the proposed location (calling it a stone's throw away seems accurate). The current Whole Foods store in East Liberty opened in 2002 amidst the arrival of similar corporate retail outlets and other new developments that heralded the neighborhood's rapid gentrification. The market was built as part of a suburban-style shopping center with accompanying parking lot that seems to be invariably congested and unfailingly irritating to shoppers, cars and buses trying to pass by on the street, and especially pedestrians using the adjacent city sidewalks. The new Whole Foods would include a larger parking lot, part of what a company representative described as "new opportunities to surprise and delight our expanding base of shoppers in Pittsburgh" (blech).
Last week the city planning commission unanimously rejected the developers' proposal for the Penn Plaza site. This decision was unexpected, and received cheers and ovation when it was announced in the commission meeting. Why had the commissioners resoundingly rejected the plan? Their decision seemed to hinge upon a perceived lack of community engagement. As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“It begins with and ends with the community engagement piece. And at the end of the day, I don’t believe there was any evidence that there were result-oriented parts of the application and presentation that proved that the community gave input,” said commission vice chairwoman Lashawn Burton-Faulk.
The representative for the developers disagreed with this assessment:
Jonathan Kamin, attorney for developer LG Realty Advisors, said afterward that he was disappointed with the decision, arguing that the proposal met all of the requirements needed for approval.
He disputed the commission’s contention that the plan lacked community input. He said the developer held more than 35 meetings with the various constituencies and groups, adding it was “public engagement like the city has never had.”
What to make of this discrepancy in interpretation? Why did the planning commissioners consider the level of community engagement deficient when the developer believed they had conducted an unprecedented degree of engagement? At issue is the very definition of community engagement and the standards to which such practices should be held. Community or public engagement has emerged as a procedural standard in urban planning and development, and while such engagement practices may fall short of realizing the ideals of deliberative democracy to which these terms seem to aspire, at the very least it has been accepted as part of the "due diligence" of the development process. In this most recent decision on the Penn Plaza development there is an evident contrast between standards of quantity and standards of quality. The attorney for the developers cited the number of public meetings held as evidence of "public engagement like the city has never had." The commission members, by contrast, cited a shallowness of responsiveness as indicative of the poor quality of engagement. Can one-way communication be considered sufficient "engagement"? In this case the planning board is arguing that it cannot; the developers may have held 35 meetings informing attendees of their plans, but their process did not reflect any substantive response to community input, and this was a crucial factor in the commission's rejection. Of course, one major question that bears asking in this case is: why was there no requirement for community engagement before people were displaced and their homes destroyed?
It remains to be seen what will become of the Penn Plaza site (as well as the ostensibly public park space situated on the lot), and although the planning commission's decision doesn't reverse the displacement of hundreds of East Liberty residents, I still find it heartening. This decision signals that city managers are taking community engagement seriously, holding such practices to a standard beyond a mere perfunctory formality, and requiring they be more meaningful than an empty gesture. I am currently working on a study of community engagement practices in another major redevelopment project in Pittsburgh, so I found last week's news of the planning board's decision especially salient. More than affirming my own interest in studying community engagement practices, it demonstrates that the theory and practice of public engagement can bear material consequences to urban development projects. I hope that this result will inspire planners and developers to raise their own standards for community engagement.
Last week two topics seemed to predominate in my news browsing: end-of-the-year "best of" film lists, and the Pittsburgh Port Authority's bus service changes. I didn't see many new films this year, so most of the titles on the critics' top ten lists were unknown to me. One film title that kept appearing on the year-end lists was Paterson. I gleaned from these mentions that the movie starred Adam Driver as a bus driver-cum-poet in Paterson, New Jersey. In a subsequent review I read that Paterson was directed by Jim Jarmusch, who's made some of my favorite films.
The other big news of the new year (in Pittsburgh, at least) was the many changes to our city buses. The port authority instituted several new policies and practices beginning on January 1st, including changes to how bus fares are priced and paid for.
In an editorial for the Pitt News, Amber Montgomery surveyed some of these changes and how changes to fare pricing in particular will affect riders:
While reading up on these changes and their impact I came across Buses are Bridges, a blog dedicated to "mapping the blueprint for transition in Pittsburgh." They have been writing about the impact that these and other urban developments are having on Pittsburghers. The provocative title of a post from new year's day caught my attention: "A bus is in itself a city." The author referenced William Carlos Williams, so I sought out the source of this evocative quote. The original quote is "a man is in himself a city," and it comes from William's epic poem Paterson. The poem was Williams' effort to do for Paterson, NJ what Joyce had done for Dublin in Ulysses. In addition to discovering a fascinating work of city poetry and urban romanticism to add to my reading list, I also realized that Jarmusch's Paterson film references and is likely inspired by Williams' poem.
But back to the transit transition in Pittsburgh. Blog co-author Helen Gerhardt relayed some conversations overheard at a bus stop on the day the changes went into effect:
The changes to fare prices and how they're paid are significant, and it is important to consider how these changes will affect low income Pittsburghers and other vulnerable riders who are reliant on Port Authority service. But I want to focus here on the change to the bus entry and exit system, because it directly impacts our local transit culture.
Like public buses in many other cities, Pittsburgh city buses have two sets of doors, one near the front and another set at about the midpoint of the vehicle. Unlike buses in other cities, the rear doors are rarely used on Pittsburgh buses. With the exception of stops at the busy downtown transit hub (and at times when the bus is crowded to capacity), riders boarding or disembarking from the bus only use the front doors. Accordingly, commuters during busy periods typically have to wait for departing riders to exit the bus before being able to board.
This situation affects the 'Burgh bus riding experience in several ways. For one thing, it means that virtually every rider files past the driver when they depart the bus. This in turn has an associated effect on public transit behavior in Pittsburgh: it is common for riders to thank the driver as they leave the bus. For comparison, consider Philadelphia, our big city neighbor on the eastern side of the state. Buses in Philly operate on the same entry and exit protocols that Pittsburgh just adopted, where all riders enter at the front and exit at the back. For most Philly transit users, thanking the bus driver would be an unnecessary and even impractical gesture. Visitors from bigger cities often find our provincial customs quaint and frivolous: to the average New Yorker, saying "thank you" and "bye" to the bus driver seems like a profligate waste of time and energy. Yet thanking the bus driver is a quirk of our local culture that I relish, and I fear it is a quirk I am fated to be nostalgic for.
It occurred to me riding home last night (after the driver hollered "Back door" as I was making my way up to the front) that the Pittsburgh transit "thank you" is going the way of the dodo. If riders are to be exiting by the back doors, and no longer passing by the driver on their way out, then the customary expressions of leave-taking are surely on their way out. While I was initially excited about this change, especially as it seemed to update our transit policies in line with how things are done in"real cities," I will also miss what is lost in the transition. Is the new system more efficient? Almost certainly, and in many ways the new boarding system makes a lot of sense and seems like a long overdue change. But every gain is accomplished through an accompanying loss. Innumerable elements of local culture, folk knowledge, and vernacular practice have been eradicated by the inexorable march of order, standardization, and efficiency. In the larger scheme of things the loss of the "driver thank you" may be inconsequential, but it is indicative of the countless small things lost and forgotten in the wake of progress and unending urban transformation.
Five years ago I wrote a paper about an ongoing revival of interest in Marshall McLuhan and a recovery of his media theory following decades of mainstream academic misunderstanding and dismissal of his work. The paper was well-received and eventually published in the Media Ecology Association journal. In the time since I went on to PhD school and my research trajectory developed first through political economy and then urban studies, which is where my current work is rooted. When I saw that an ad hoc conference dedicated to the Toronto School's legacy and future was being convened at the University of Toronto I was intrigued and submitted a proposal. I attended the conference this past weekend and the event does seem destined to be seen as a landmark event in the history of the Toronto School of Communication and its contribution to media studies and other fields. More than twenty nationalities were represented by the participants, and the presentations were all high quality and generative. Children of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis were also in attendance (Michael McLuhan bears a somewhat uncanny resemblance to his father), as were colleagues and contemporaries of the Toronto School theorists, and some of the foremost scholars and historians of the tradition. During the opening ceremony conference organizer Paolo Granata posed the question, "Where is the Toronto School?" His answer was that it was in the room, embodied in the people and research represented in the conference. At the end of the weekend this certainly seemed to be the case.
My only major grievance with the conference was my inability to obtain one of the "cool medium" shirts made for the volunteers (the blue shirts visible front and center in the above photo). When I arrived at the registration tables on the first morning I was stunned to see all the staffers wearing shirts that read "I'm a cool medium." Since I have a certain attachment to that particular phrase I was fixated on getting one of those shirts, but alas it was not to be. I was part of a panel organized around the theme of "city as medium," and the presentations all offered insightful applications of McLuhan's media theories to urban design and development. I was aware of various McLuhan and Jane Jacobs connections around the Toronto nexus, but I was surprised during the opening remarks to hear several speakers include Jacobs as one of the members of the Toronto School. I was left considering the implications of this inclusion, and plan to develop these thoughts at the Jacobs centenary panel at NCA next month. The other takeaway from the conference (aside from the helpful insights and ideas, and unfortunately not a shirt) were the connections made with other attendees. I saw some familiar faces that I had met at past events, and made new connections including Toronto community organizers and activists. I hope to develop some research opportunities from these relationships, as I think Toronto is a wonderful city and it would great to include some of the developments there as a case study in my current research. It certainly occupies a unique position in the contemporary discussions of city policy and urban life.
While in Seoul, South Korea this summer I had the opportunity to visit Songdo City, one of the most comprehensive smart city developments in existence. Located about an hour-long train ride from Seoul, Songdo is located in the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) near Incheon Airport. As part of a Korean Free Economic Zone, Songdo is overseen and administered by IFEZ, and this gives Songdo a strange sense that it is not so much a municipality as an international corporate-financial project. Songdo is also a master-planned built-from-scratch development, founded on land that was dredged from the Yellow Sea.
Songdo administrators refer to the development as U-city rather than "smart city," where the U stands for "ubiquitous computing". Networked infrastructure and sensor technology is integrated throughout Songdo city. Our tour group visited the Cisco company offices where we saw demonstrations of this networked monitoring and surveillance. This demonstration included a dramatization of a child being reported missing in the city, and showed how the child's image and name could be displayed on screens throughout Songdo and RFID tracking could be used to pinpoint their location. In daily practice this monitoring appears to mostly concern traffic flow on the city's streets and other infrastructural maintenance.
Having come from the densely packed and winding streets of Seoul I was struck by the scope and scale of the Songdo development. It is a truly monumental space, in multiple senses of the word. The buildings aspire skyward in an ersatz Manhattan verticality that has also characterized new urban structures in places like Dubai and throughout China. Unlike Manhattan, however, the buildings of Songdo are not claustrophobically constrained between the geographical restrictions of the East and Hudson rivers. Rather these skyscrapers are spaced out around stretches of artificially constructed green spaces that explicitly invoke New York with names like "Central Park," and also evoke the monumental distancing of the national mall and similar spaces in Washington D.C.
There is an eerie incongruity between the scope and scale of this development and the comparatively paltry population visible on the ground. It seems as if Songdo was built all at once with the capacity to house hundreds of thousands, and now the buildings are sitting vacant waiting for residents to arrive. We talked with some Cisco employees who live in Songdo and they described some of the impediments to attracting new residents (such as lengthy commuting time between Songdo and Seoul), while also claiming that all available real estate was already filled, and the new construction was barely keeping up with demand. I can only assume that a significant portion of the available housing is owned but not occupied, as a form of investment by international parties for example. The affective result of this situation at street-level is uncanny, as broad avenues and expansive plazas appear to hold a fraction of the capacity they were evidently designed for.
We were also given a look into the "mission control center" of Songdo. This is the nerve center, the base of operations for U-city. As you can see in the photo, the control room is dominated by screens displaying hundreds of real-time scenes transmitted by surveillance cameras. In a continuation of the eerie incongruity between the scale of the environment and the number of occupants, we were surprised that such a complex control center was manned by only two people. Dozens of chairs and computer stations were vacant, and our guide explained that the other engineers of that shift were working "in the field," attending to the city's infrastructure. It was also striking to see so much concern for monitoring traffic flow when most of screens displayed images of empty streets during our visit.
This incongruity, the disparity between the aims of the built environment and how the space is actually used, was a definitive aspect of my perception of Songdo. There are many cases of such disparities throughout the history of urbanization. Many times there has been a disjuncture between the administrative rationality and the "eye" of top-down planning techniques on the one hand, and the quotidian needs and desires of lived experience on the other. The conflict between abstract representations/conceptualizations of space and the vagaries of embodied use of space finds a new expression in "built from scratch" settlements like Songdo and other examples of smart city initiatives around the world. The Cisco employees we met with described each of their company's technologies and services as "solutions" without exception. As our group traversed mostly empty streets and sidewalks, many of the innovations on display in Songdo began to seem like solutions in search of a problem. Shouldn't urban design and policy respond to the needs of citizens rather than impose pre-packaged prescriptive techniques for their own sake? As urban development itself becomes increasingly ubiquitous on the planet, it is worthwhile to interrogate how and why certain developments are considered "smart", and whether such approaches account for the inherently adaptive intelligence required for the navigation of everyday life.
I rarely weigh in on national politics on this blog, and this post is not intended as an endorsement or a denunciation of any candidate. Although this post responds to recent remarks made by Donald Trump, I'm not interested in joining the pile-on critiquing his overall rhetorical style or campaign message, which seems overly easy and even superfluous at this point. Rather I want to focus on Trump's comments at the first one-on-one presidential debate last week regarding "law and order" and the "stop and frisk" program. These are topics I've thought and written about in regards to the use of "urban disorder" rhetoric in U.S. policy and policing practices. Trump's positioning himself as the "law and order candidate" and his appeals based on unruly "inner city" conditions recalls previous campaign rhetoric such as Nixon's 1968 campaign (see the above video). Furthermore, his support of "stop and frisk" policing directly ties his statements to a history of U.S. urban policies based on an order/disorder dichotomy.
Discourses based on a dichotomy of order and disorder have long been applied to urban spaces. In his classic historical survey of urban settlements, The City in History (1961), Lewis Mumford traced the development from early, “organically” developed Greek cities to more structured Hellenistic cities. Mumford describes this process as a transition “from supple ‘disorder’ to regimented elegance” (p. 190). A 2016 opera titled A Marvelous Order centers on the ideological struggle between urbanist Jane Jacobs and mayor Robert Moses in 1960s New York City. This battle of wills between Jacobs and Moses is seen by many to be emblematic of a historical opposition between urban planning schemes designed to order and regiment city spaces and populations, and the disorderly and unplanned activities and interactions that have long been characteristic of city life.
Cities and citizens have been “ordered” not only through planning schemes and infrastructure, but also through public policies and discourses. One aspect of my research focuses on how the term “disorder” has been employed across various discourses and analyses of U.S. cities, and how these discourses have influenced or supported policies of urban development. Through employing the language of disorder, these discourses have functioned pathologically to conceptualize certain citizens, spaces, and practices as either harmful or beneficial.
Writers such as George Simmel, Robert Park, and Louis Wirth wrote about the turn-of-the-century American metropolis as a site of sensory overload and radical diversity. Disorder in these accounts was variously understood as criminal behavior, unregulated or unruly spaces, and perceived failures of integration and communication among different ethnic groups. Park in particular was concerned with broader problems posed by isolated ethnic enclaves and the weakening of social ties among city dwellers, as evinced in his analyses of immigrants and African Americans in U.S. cities. The sociology and criminology of the period was concerned with diagnosing and remedying the causes of disorder, and this diagnostic approach developed into the “social pathology” perspective.
In his infamous report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965) applied the social pathology perspective to theorize race relations in U.S. urban communities. Family structure was prioritized in Moynihan’s analysis, claiming that at “the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family” (p. 6). Moynihan emphasized incidences of unmarried and divorced women, “illegitimate” births, and the number of women-headed households to support his claim that “the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable” (p. 7). Throughout the report, Moynihan refers to a “tangle of pathology” in which black women and children are ensnared, leading to the dissolution of families and thus the increase of violence and disorder in urban centers.
The Moynihan report has been cited as an important influence on the domestic programs enacted under President Lyndon Johnson, initiatives collectively known as The Great Society project. These programs focused on poverty and racial injustice, and also involved urban renewal and redevelopment efforts. Johnson outlined his vision of the Great Society in his 1964 commencement address at the University of Michigan. The Great Society, Johnson said, “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” and “is a challenge constantly renewed.” Johnson placed the state of urban America at the forefront of his Great Society vision, saying “our societies will never be great until our cities are great.”
In response to the urban race riots that occurred in several U.S. cities throughout the 1960s, President Johnson commissioned a working committee called the National Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission is also known as the Kerner commission, after Otto Kerner, chair of the commission and then governor of Illinois. Johnson directed the commission members to answer three questions in relation to the riots (Kerner, 1967, p. 1): What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? In their report, the authors referred to the riots that occurred in Detroit during the summer of 1967, stating that the riots “again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear, and bewilderment to the Nation” (p. 1). One of the report’s best-known statements is that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white,” and that the recent race riots had “quickened the movement and deepened the division” (p. 1).
In the recommendations section of the Kerner report, the authors dedicate a section to the issue of housing. In addition to calling for provisions for affordable housing in cities, the authors recommend against the further building of high-density “slum” housing projects. The building of such housing projects represent further attempts to impose rational order onto what were seen as chaotic and disorderly spaces, as seen in the modernist urban planning schemes of the 20th century. This philosophy of architecture and urban design is exemplified by the work of modernist designer Le Corbusier. The architect of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project built in St. Louis in the 1950s was directly inspired by Le Corbusier’s architectural style and philosophy.
While the modernist housing aspirations embodied in the Pruitt-Igoe project ended with collapsed walls and broken windows, students of urban life in America were soon preoccupied with broken windows of another sort. The broken windows theory of urban disorder was a significant influence on urban sociology and criminology for decades, and the implications of its approach to disorder can be seen today. In an article titled “The Urban Unease” (1968), J.Q. Wilson reacted to the U.S. urban riots of the 1960s with a view of cities rooted in the tensions between order and disorder.
Wilson eventually developed these ideas of neighborhood disorder into the broken windows theory, first outlined in an article written with collaborator George Kelling (1982). The authors encapsulate the broken windows perspective by stating “if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken” (p. 2, emphasis in original). As with broken windows that go unrepaired, the authors argue, “’untended’ behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls” (p. 3). Wilson and Kelling are not exclusively interested physical manifestations of disorder such as litter, graffiti, and buildings in disrepair, but present a larger argument that visible disorder (whether stemming from the built environment or from individuals inhabiting it), if left unchecked, will spread throughout a neighborhood.
Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows article proved very influential, and is credited with inspiring the implementation of policing practices implemented in cities throughout the United States. These policing programs have been referred to as “broken windows policing,” “zero tolerance policing,” and also, using Wilson and Kelling’s preferred term, “order maintenance policing”. In the 1990s, order maintenance policies based on broken windows theory were implemented by the New York City Police Department under police commissioner William Bratton and mayor Rudolph Giuliani. These policies were adopted as part of the city’s broader “Quality of Life” initiatives. During this period crime rates in the city decreased, and New York gained a reputation as one of the safest large cities in the country. In a 1998 address titled “The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil Society,” mayor Giuliani praised the benefits of broken windows theory and zero tolerance policing, saying “broken windows theory works”. Describing the theory as the view that “the little things matter,” Giuliani called broken windows theory “an integral part of our law enforcement strategy”.
Trump's deployment of disorder discourses, and his appeals to the virtues of stop and frisk policing, recalls this history in starkly similar ways. A recent Trump campaign mailer includes a close up of Hillary Clinton's face juxtaposed against images of urban disorder: a brick building with boarded-up windows, and a pile of detritus including splinters of wood and chunks of concrete. The reverse side bears the message: "Donald Trump will strengthen our communities and protect our families. The first step is rebuilding, revitalizing, and reigniting our cities - like yours." In light of the epidemic violence in the historically segregated areas of Chicago (which Mr. Trump is correct to emphasize), and the recent and ongoing protests against police violence in cities such as Ferguson and across the country, these appeals should be considered within the context of the history of disorder discourses in U.S. urban policy. Much of the strain between vulnerable urban populations and police officers evident today can be seen as the legacy of policing practices instituted under the support of these discourses. With the urban unrest of the 1960s being evoked in political rhetoric and recalled in televised images of protests, we should consider carefully what is being promoted with calls to "reignite" our cities.
This past June I was in Seoul, South Korea for the Communication and the City conference. The event was held at Yonsei University and co-sponsored by the Yonsei Communication Research Institute and the Urban Communication Foundation. It was a truly international conference, with participants hailing from around the world. Speakers included academic researchers, architects, urban planners, and Seoul city officials. Over two days presenters spoke about topics including risk factors facing urban populations, the role of storytelling and community media in neighborhood life, and the rise of the Asian megacity. I was particularly interested to learn more about the history of Seoul, and recent developments in its ongoing urbanization. This was my first visit to the South Korean capital, and I was overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the sprawling metropolis.
The recent history of Seoul's development includes distinct periods of rapid modernization. One of these periods involved the demolition of traditional Korean homesteads and the displacement of residents from entire districts (this happened under the administration of a leader nicknamed "Mayor Bulldozer" by the locals). A second period is characterized by sustainability concerns, and is marked by the 1997 IMF economic crisis. In the wake of the economic crisis' ramifications, Seoul continued to modernize and developed some of the most advanced transportation infrastructure in the world. The drive toward modernization and investment in dedicated "economic zones" has resulted in networked urban districts like Songdo City, sometimes called the first full fledged smart city (or "u-city," with "u" designating ubiquitous computing infrastructure). In future posts I will share my thoughts and photos from my visit to Songdo, and some more thoughts on Seoul.
Earlier this month the mobile-app game Pokémon Go was released in the U.S., and the game has been ubiquitous ever since. Aside from being a sudden pop culture phenomenon, the game's success poses some significant implications. First of all, this is clearly a breakthrough moment for augmented reality. Pokémon Go is not the first augmented reality game, nor is it the most ambitious, but it has undoubtedly brought AR into mainstream consciousness. Secondly, the success of Pokémon Go has led me to reconsider all my previously held assumptions about the uses of mobile apps and gamification for interfacing with urban spaces. I have historically been cynical about the prospect of using mobile games or AR interfaces to interact with urban space, since they usually strike me as shallow and insignificant, typically resulting in a fleeting diversion like a flash mob dance party, rather than altering people's perceptions of place in any lasting or meaningful way. Pokémon Go satisfies all the requirements of my earlier preconceptions, yet despite my best critical instincts, I really like the game.
The buzz about Pokémon Go had been building on various forums online, and after it was released it was virtually impossible to avoid Pokémon Go-related posts. Save for maybe 10 minutes with a friend's Game Boy in the late 90s, I've never played a Pokémon game and I preemptively wrote off Pokémon Go as yet another cultural fad that I would never partake in or understand. Curiosity got the best of my wife, however, and she downloaded the app and we walked around our neighborhood to test it out. To my surprise, the game was a lot of fun; our familiar surroundings were now filled with digital surprises, and we were excited to see neighborhood landmarks and murals represented as Pokéstops, and wild Pokémon hanging out in the doorways of local shops. We meandered around discovering which of our local landmarks had been incorporated into the game, and each discovery increased my enjoyment of the app. Yes, the game is simple and shallow, but I was completely charmed. I downloaded the game so I could play, too.
Reactions to Pokémon Go have been as fascinating as the game's widespread adoption. Many news articles sensationalized the inherent dangers of playing the game: distracted players wandering into traffic or off of cliffs, people's homes being designated as Pokéstops and besieged by players, and traps being laid (using the games "lures") to ambush and rob aspiring Pokétrainers. There have also been insightful critical analyses of the game. An early and oft-shared article by Omari Akil considered the implications of Pokémon Go in light of recent police shootings of black men, warning that "Pokemon Go is a death sentence if you are a black man":
I spent less than 20 minutes outside. Five of those minutes were spent enjoying the game. One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop. I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked “suspicious” or wondering what a second amendment exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff.
Others questioned the distribution of Pokémon across neighborhoods, suggesting that poor or black neighborhoods had disproportionately fewer Pokémon and Pokéstops. Among urbanists, however, reaction to the game has been mixed. Mark Wilson at Fastcodesign declared that Pokémon Go "is quietly helping people fall in love with their cities". Ross Brady of Architizer celebrated the game for sparking "a global wave of urban exploration". Writing for de zeen, Alex Wiltshire boldly states that the game has "redrawn the map of what people find important about the world". City Lab contributor Laura Bliss proclaimed "Pokémon Go has created a new kind of flaneur".
Others have been more critical of the game, with Nicholas Korody at Archinect retorting: "No, Pokémon Go is not an urban fantasy for the new flaneur". At Jacobin, Sam Kriss implores readers to "resist Pokémon Go":
Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.
Some, like Jeff Sparrow at Overland, drew direct parallels to the Situationists.
Writing for the Atlantic, Ian Bogost mediated on "the tragedy of Pokémon Go":
We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.
Pokémon Go's popularity has led to many online comparisons to the Star Trek: TNG episode "The Game," in which the crew of the Enterprise is overcome by a mind-controlling video game. The game in Star Trek is not strictly-speaking an augmented reality game, but does involve projecting images onto the player's vision similar to an AR-overlay. Previous gaming and gadget fads have been compared to the TNG episode, notably Google Glass (for it's similarity to the eye-beaming design used to interface with the game in Star Trek) and the pervasively popular Angry Birds game (as evident in this parody video). The comparison has regained cultural cachet because, unlike Angry Birds which can be played on the couch, Pokémon Go is played in motion. This, of course, has contributed to the perception of the game's zombie-fying effects; we've grown accustomed to the fact that everyone's eyes are glued to a smartphone screen in our public spaces, but now there are whole flocks of people milling around with their eyes on their devices.
My cynical side is inclined to agree with the critics who see Pokémon Go's proliferation as proof positive of the passification and banalization of our society; the visions of Orwell, Bradbury, and Phil Dick all realized at once. But there's something there that has me appreciative, even excited about this goofy game. As my wife and I wandered our neighborhood looking for pocket monsters, we noticed several other people walking around staring at their phones. This is not an uncommon sight, but it is re-contextualized in light of Pokémon Go's popularity. "Look," my wife would say, "I bet they're playing, too." After a while she had to know for sure, and started walking up to people and asking, "Are you playing Pokémon Go?" Every person she asked was indeed playing the game. Then we were walking along with these people we've just met, discussing play strategies, sharing Pokéstop locations, spreading word of upcoming lure parties.
One night around 10:30 last week we went into the Oakland neighborhood, home to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon's campuses and a hotbed of Pokémon Go activity. When we arrived, at least 20 people sat along the wall in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, smartphones in hands. We walked around the base of the Cathedral of Learning, where dozens of people in groups of two, three, or more were slowly pacing, stopping to capture a virtual creature. We crossed the street to Schenley plaza, where still dozens more people trekked through the grass, laughing and exclaiming and running up to their friends to share which Pokémon they had just got. Sure, most of these people were only talking to their own groups of friends, if they were talking at all, but it was still a cool experience. For me, the greatest thing was not which monsters I caught or XP my avatar earned; rather it was the energy, the unspoken but palpable buzz generated by all these people walking around in the dark of a warm summer night. Yes, I was giving attention to my smartphone screen, but what I remember most from that evening are the stars, and the fireflies, and the murmuring voices. Pokémon Go is promoting a sort of communal public activity, even if the sociality it produces is liminal at best. Yes, it is still shallow, still commercial, still programmed, but it's something; there's an energy there and a potential that is worth paying attention to.
Pokémon Go is not the be-all-end-all of augmented urban exploration, nor should be it considered the pinnacle of how mobile technology can enable new ways of interfacing with city space. But the game's popularity, and my personal experience using it, has given me hope for the potential of AR apps to enrich our experience of urban spaces and engender new types of interactions in our shared environments.
The Department of Transportation has selected Columbus, Ohio as the winner of the Smart City Challenge. The winning city will receive a $50 million grant to fund the development and implementation of networked and "smart" transportation infrastructure. From the Columbus Dispatch:
Columbus’ application includes several other transportation innovations, including an autonomous vehicle test fleet at Easton Town Center that would pick up passengers at the COTA terminal and deliver them nearer to jobs at the shopping center.
Columbus also wants to increase electric vehicle access in the city and improve communication between vehicles and infrastructure, which could help reduce crashes.
A key point in the city’s bid was how the money could be used to improve Columbus’ infant mortality rate. Officials have said that improving transportation options in poor neighborhoods could better connect new and expectant mothers to health care services.
As a Pittsburgher who has been following the contest for several months, I was very disappointed that Pittsburgh did not win. Not only would it have been a welcome victory for the city and local industry, but it would have been perfect for my dissertation project.
I was genuinely impressed and even moved by Pittsburgh's video component of their proposal, which presented a people-first approach that acknowledged past planning mistakes and continuing concerns about disparities among residents. You can watch the video here.
You can watch the other finalists' videos and read the full proposals at Network World.
A colleague who watched each city's video presentation agreed with me that Columbus' video pitch was the weakest, though he cautioned that the videos are ultimately irrelevant in relation to the process of selecting the winning city.
The DOT has pledged to help the other finalist cities implement their proposed transportation initiatives, and Pittsburgh leaders have also declared their intent to follow through with their Smart PGH plan.
For a change of pace this week, I thought I’d write about affect in relation to the urban condition. Specifically I am going to focus on Nigel Thrift’s chapters on spatialities of feeling from his book Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Thrift begins the first chapter by characterizing cities as “maelstroms of affect,” and asserting the “utter ubiquity of affect as a vital element of cities” (p. 171). Thrift questions why “the affective register” has not formed “a large part of the study of cities,” and states “to read about affect in cities it is necessary to resort to the pages of novels, and the tracklines of poems” (p. 171).
I have to question what Thrift means by “the study of cities,” particularly in relation to the history of urban sociology. There is a lengthy history in this tradition of studying the affective register of cities, from Weber’s anomie and Simmel’s blasé attitude, through the emergence of modern criminology and social scientific studies of urban anxiety and the fear of crime.
There are, of course, prolific approaches available for studying cities. In addition to approaches from fiction and prose, and the aforementioned social scientific methods, there abound philosophical, psychogeographic, and theological engagements with urban life. One approach to the study of cities that has been especially amenable to the affective register is the domain of urban design and planning. Practitioners and commentators from this realm (who often, erroneously and unfortunately, mistake their practice for urbanism entire) have long used affective language to describe and design urban spaces: happy streets, friendly spaces, menacing buildings, etc.
Thrift is not explicitly discussing “smart” urbanization projects, but of course much of the analysis across these two chapters is directly applicable to such initiatives. Shockingly, Ernst Bloch also says much of relevance to smart cities in his 1929 essay “The Anxiety of the Engineer”. Thrift’s summation of Bloch’s “apocalyptic” vision of cities from that essay reads like a ripped-from-the-headlines encapsulation of contemporary urbanization trends: “Transfixed by the idea of a totally safe and calculable environment, the capitalist city is fixed and unbending in the face of unexpected events: ‘it has rooted itself in midair’” (p. 198). It’s a fantastic connection to make, though I despair at my ever-growing reading list.
Lastly, I want to touch upon Thrift’s discussion of the misanthropic city. My first reaction was to respond that cities aren’t misanthropic, people are; but then I recalled my recent trip to Las Vegas. Returning to the affective register of urban design, I must say that Vegas is certainly a misanthropic city. It is a city built for money, not for people. To the extent that it is built for people, it is designed not to affirm or edify humanity’s highest qualities, but is rather constructed to amplify our basest and most animalistic aspects. Compulsion, lechery, and stupefaction are the human attributes “celebrated” in that space. From an urban design perspective, Las Vegas is among the most misanthropic of cities.
Of course, Thrift is not referring to misanthropic urban design (although the invocation of infrastructure is an interesting, and perhaps fecund, reference point for urban affect), but to misanthropic attitudes and behaviors among urban denizens. I do not ascribe to calls for kindness and idealized sense of community in the city, as I find they are often simplistic and embarrassingly maudlin. Indeed, the disconnectedness and universal strangeness that has long been decried as manifestations of the inherent disharmony of urban life, are in fact principal among the reasons that I love life in the metropolis. Nevertheless, I do appreciate that amidst the anxiety and imminent catastrophe of urban life, Thrift finds spaces for kindness and hope.
Radical black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde found productive potential in anger. According to Lester Olson, in his article "Anger among allies": “Lorde distinguished between anger and hatred, and she salvaged the former as potentially useful and generative” (p. 287). Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred is developed in a quote from her remarks: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 298).
In a quote from her address titled “The Uses of Anger,” Lorde uses the metaphor of the virus to describe hatred:
“We are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people - against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.” (emphasis added)
This thematic link between hatred and disease is also present in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. While the film’s characters never state the distinction between anger and hatred as explicitly as Lorde does, the film makes many associations that establish a difference between the two. The action of the film takes place in a roughly 24 hour period, during the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn, New York. The temperature is referenced throughout the film, and the link between the heat and character’s emotions is made early on. Anger is associated with heat: characters talk about “getting hot” as a euphemism for getting angry. By extension then, the hottest day of the summer could also be understood as the angriest.
Hatred, on the other hand, is continually linked with sickness and disease. Early in the film, when pizzeria owner Sal arrives with his two sons to start business for the day, his son Pino says of the pizza shop:
“I detest this place like a sickness.”
Sal admonishes his son, saying: “That sounds like hatred.”
This connection returns at the end of film, again in front of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which at this point has been reduced to a smoldering shell. Mookie seeks Sal out to ask for the wages he is due from the previous week’s labor. Angrily, Sal throws $500 in $100 bills at Mookie, twice as much as he is owed. Mookie leaves $200 on the ground, telling Sal that he only wants what he has earned. There is a stalemate as the two men stare off, the $200 between them, and each of them waiting for the other to pick it up. Apparently not understanding why Mookie would leave the money lying on the ground Sal asks him:
“Are you sick?”
Mookie replies: “I’m hot as a motherfucker; I’m alright, though.”
Mookie’s response here should not be understood merely as a comment about the weather. Yes, he is hot because of the summer heat, but the associations presented by the film make clear the deeper meaning of this exchange. Mookie is angry, angry as a motherfucker; having endured the ordeal of the hottest day of the summer, culminating in his throwing a trashcan through a shop window, and now he finds himself the following day with his various responsibilities still in place, but now without a source of income. But he does not hate Sal. He is not infected by hatred. He is not sick.
If the film associates hatred with sickness and disease, how does it relate or portray love? The radio DJ character, Mister Senor Love Daddy, seems like an obvious connection. Another important component is the name of Senor Love Daddy’s radio station: We Love Radio 108 (“Last on your dial, first in your heart.”). The name of the radio station not only presages Clear Channel Communications’ eventual rebranding to I Heart Radio (kidding, of course), it also establishes a connection between love and another of the film’s characters: Radio Raheem.
Radio Raheem is arguably the character most closely associated with the concepts of love and hate. Raheem has custom brass knuckles on each hand: the word “LOVE” on his right hand, and the word “HATE” on his left. Through the presence of these words on his knuckles, and his performance of the accompanying story about the struggle between love and hate, “the story of life,” Radio Raheem recalls Reverend Harry Powell from the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Reverend Powell has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles: love on the right hand, and hate on the left. He also tells “the story of life,” which, although using different language than Raheem, tells essentially the same account of a struggle between hate and love, where hate has the upper hand for a while but is eventually beat out by love.
In Night of the Hunter, Reverend Powell’s performance of pious geniality conceals a dark secret: he is a serial killer, traveling the country seducing widows whom he soon murders before absconding with what wealth he can steal. In Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem is not revealed to be a serial killer, but he is done in by a sort of serial killing: the recurring killing of men of color perpetrated by police officers. The characters of the film react to Raheem’s death in a personal way (“They killed Radio Raheem!”), but it is clearly also a reaction to this serial killing of black men that contributes to the crowd’s reaction (someone is heard exclaiming, “They did it again!”).
A final question: Is Do the Right Thing a polemic? I find it interesting to consider the question in light of the definitions offered by various authors. In her article on Larry Kramer's polemical form, Erin Rand writes of polemics:
“Hence, polemics refute dominant ideologies and modes of thinking by rejecting the primacy of reason an invoking explicitly moral claims. In polemics a moral position is not simply advanced through rhetoric, but morality actually does rhetorical work.” (p. 305)
Rand traces the meaning of “polemic” to the Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike", and when Lee’s film was released many reviewers and commentators were concerned that it amounted to a call for violence. I am not sure the film satisfies Rand’s four elements of rhetorical form, but I do believe it satisfies the rhetorical move that Olson calls shifting subjectivities:
“An advocate articulates a shift in the second persona of an address, wherein the auditors or readers occupy one kind of role initially and then, drawing on what is remembered or learned from that position, are repositioned subsequently into a different role that is harder for them to recognize or occupy, but that might possess some transforming power.” (p. 284)
As film critic Roger Ebert recounted in an essay about the film:
“Many audiences are shocked that the destruction of Sal's begins with a trash can thrown through the window by Mookie (Lee), the employee Sal refers to as “like a son to me.” Mookie is a character we're meant to like. Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.” But the movie in any event is not just about how the cops kill a black man and a mob burns down a pizzeria. That would be too simple, and this is not a simplistic film. It covers a day in the life of a Brooklyn street, so that we get to know the neighbors, and see by what small steps the tragedy is approached.”
Some critics and audience members objected to what they interpreted as Lee’s call for violence, and at least an implicit approval of property destruction. We heard similar rhetoric last year, when protests in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became characterized by media emphasis on incidents of property damage and looting. The state response to protests is always characterized by a tolerance so long as demonstrations are peaceful and “civil,” and when this line is broached it functions to demonize and dismiss the “protestors” at large. Is this not evocative of the white woman who purportedly said to Audre Lorde, “Tell me how you feel, but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you”?
The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: "Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars". This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:
My first visit to Croatia was a curious mixture of the strange and the familiar. A country I had never been to, and a part of the world that still seemed foreign to me, yet also a place that I had often thought about for many years. The feelings of familiarity stemmed from my surprise at how traditionally European much of the culture was, and also the fact that Croatia was the cite of my rendezvous with family and friends. But precisely because the context for these encounters was entirely new territory, the sense of familiarity was at times disorienting. The experience was akin to déjà vu: whether you chalk it up to a trick of the mind, echoes of a half-remembered dream, or genuine precognition, the passing sensation of surreality is there all the same.
The time spent reconnecting with my friend David exemplified this tension. Anyone who's ever caught up with an old friend after a long absence should be familiar with feeling simultaneously that no time has passed at all, and an acute awareness of how swiftly flow the days. David seemed essentially unchanged from our college days, but of course his life has changed significantly, mostly through the addition of important people.
I relished both aspects of my reunion with David: meeting the person I remembered and spending time with my friend in much the same way we passed time together in college; and getting to meet his wife and daughter in their home, taking in the view of Zagreb and the surrounding mountains from their flat's balcony, and meeting the roosters who live out back.
On my last morning in Zagreb, I met Z outside the national theater. I had previously mentioned to her that I wanted to ride one of the city's blue streetcars, and so she escorted me to a Tisak kiosk in the main square to buy a tram ticket. We rode the tram down Ulica street toward the plaza nearest the family's apartments. It was Saturday, and the city squares were filled with carts and stands bearing wares for the weekend open markets.
When we arrived at the apartment, there was a full brunch spread laid out on the table. Soon family members began to assemble: first Z's sister, then her niece and nephew, and finally her parents. I then learned that this generous brunch was not arranged solely in honor of sending me off; it was also the grandfather's birthday.
So we gathered to eat, commemorate the end of my visit, and celebrate a patriarch's birthday. Fortunately my misplaced package had since been recovered and delivered to Z's apartment, so I was able to distribute the gifts sent by my mother-in-law. This was a great relief, as I didn't know how I would've faced my mother-in-law had the gifts gone undelivered. We ate, we sang, we had cake and exchanged presents. I said my goodbyes to the family and Z drove me to the airport.
I spent less than a week in Croatia, and only part of it with this adopted family. From the moment I passed Croatian customs control, Z and her family made me feel as warmly welcomed as possible. My sojourn in Croatia was one of the great trips of my life, thanks in no small part to their kindness and generosity. I've known Z less than a year, and spent perhaps a combined 72 hours in her presence; nonetheless, when we bade farewell at the Zagreb airport it was a touching and tearful goodbye.
On my second full day in Zagreb I met up with my college friend David. We met around noon so we headed into the city center for lunch before leaving for his house. I've mentioned in a previous post how my initial encounter with Croatian cuisine came in the form of cheese burek shared with David and other friends during our time together in Los Angeles. So when we met in Zagreb and David asked what I wanted for lunch, naturally I asked for burek. My answer dumbfounded him; why would I want burek, of all things? Surely a slice of pizza was a more sensible selection. Eventually we settled on a bakery just off the main square where David could get his pizza, and I could get my burek.
I ducked into a nearby grocery store and picked up my first Croatian beer: Ozujsko, perhaps the most ubiquitous brand of Croatian beers.
The burek wasn't the cheese filled pastry that I had known enjoyed in my college days, but a delightfully flaky and greasy envelope of meat and cheese. I waited several years for this burek, and it was worth it.
That evening I rendezvoused with Z and her sister at the national theater. We explored central Zagreb, eventually making our way across the Bloody Bridge to Tkalčićeva Street. Tkalčićeva Street is a long, winding street that is lined with restaurants, bars and cafes. The weather had been perfect since my arrival, and it was another beautiful evening, so the outdoor patios along Tkalčićeva Street were packed with locals and tourists alike enjoying the mild climes.
Once we chose an establishment for dinner I indulged in some classic Zagreb fare: breaded chicken cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese, along with cevapi with grilled mushrooms.
This was the end of the perfect weather during my visit. As it turned out, everyone out on Tkalčićeva Street that night had been enjoying the last night of summer. The following day, autumn was in full swing. This meant persistent rain for the rest of my stay in Croatia.
After a day of conferencing, and a socialist sightseeing excursion conducted under increasingly inclement weather, I found myself alone in my rented apartment. I had a bunch of kuna burning a whole in my pocket, so I went down the block to the nicest restaurant in the neighborhood and treated myself to a posh dinner. I decided to broaden my experience of Zagreb cuisine, so I tried a different stuffed meat dish: Zagrebački odrezak, veal steak stuffed with meat and cheese. I also switched beer brands, washing down my pomme frittes with Karlovačko.
After the final day of the conference, a cohort of attendees went for after dinner drinks and dancing at Club Spunk (there might be a mishap of translation here...but then again, maybe not).
David met me here when he got off work around midnight. He had not only been a DJ in Croatia (one of the biggest for about a year, he told me), but also managed a successful party promotion business. So David is intimately familiar with the local nightlife, and he wanted to share his experience of Zagreb after dark. I reminded him that I had a flight to catch in the morning, and needed to get at least some sleep beforehand. He assured me that he understood, and that we would only be out for "a couple of drinks."
We first went to his friends' apartment on the outskirts of the city. There was a small group there celebrating their friend's 24th birthday; they had been partying most of the day, and the birthday boy's intoxicated state was well advanced when we arrived. As with virtually every Croat I met in Zagreb, they all spoke excellent English, and were very interested to meet David's American friend from college.They welcomed me into their home and we sat in a circle in the living room, passing around beer and homemade rakija. They wanted to know if Southern California was like Beverly Hills 90210, they wanted to know my opinion of Donald Trump, they wanted to know what I thought of their country. For at least two hours we talked enthusiastically about these topics and others. Finally we made our fond farewells and departed, having picked up two new compatriots accompanying us to the nightclub.
As David explained, we were not going to a standard nightclub. This was an "underground" event, taking place in a commercial center after hours. Apparently it was a special event with a renowned German DJ presiding. When we arrived, the area was shrouded in darkness; we passed what appeared to be shops, cafes, and restaurants, but they were all closed and unlit. In the center of this shopping complex was a tennis court; I would have to see the site in daylight to really make sense of it. We moved toward the throbbing sound of deep bass, following the music up a flight of stairs where a burly bouncer stood sentinel, collecting our kuna cover before allowing us in. The music was deep and loud, the room sparsely lit with dull red bulbs and a solitary disco ball. Sadly my only photos of the event are murky and fail to capture the ambiance of the event, but I've included a few indistinct snapshots to at least convey the spirit of the scene.
After spending some time taking in the scene, and downing a few more beers, David asked if I was ready to go. I said I was and checked my watch: it was nearly 5 AM.
When we got back into central Zagreb David drove past my apartment, explaining that there was a place nearby with excellent sandwiches. Alas, they were not open this early in the morning and would not be serving for several hours. We ventured a little further and found a cafeteria that was open all night.
Perhaps it was the early hour, perhaps it was the fatigue of the long day, but Coke and room temperature pizza have never tasted so good.
David pulled up in front of my apartment and I said thanks and farewell to my friend. I had long imagined our eventual reunion in Zagreb, and it had finally come to pass. Feeling simultaneously drained and invigorated by the evening's events, I climbed the stairs to the apartment and slipped inside, easing onto the bed as dawn brightened the sky.
I’m not sure what I expected Croatia to be like. I knew about the Dalmatian coast, renowned for its natural beauty and Mediterranean character. It’s the most visited part of the country, having been a tourist hotspot for decades for precisely those reasons. I knew about the Istria region, where residents of the seaside towns are as likely to speak Italian as Croatian, but only through the lens of Rick Steves’ TV show. I had seen the ancient and lovely walled city of Dubrovnik, but only in its role doubling for King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. Compared to the coast, cities like Dubrovnik or Split, or even the national parks with their awesome waterfalls, the capital city of Zagreb is unexplored country. So I really didn’t know what to expect from Zagreb, and I had intentionally avoided learning much about the city before my trip. But if I’m being honest, I did have preconceptions about what I’d find in Zagreb: I expected it to be a bombed-out socialist shit hole. The first shock to my presumptions arrived before even setting foot in Croatia; it was the surprise of seeing Zagreb from the air.
My first surprise was how big Zagreb was. Although a relatively small urban center, the metropolitan sprawl of Zagreb was vaster than I had anticipated. This was Europe, but a part of Europe I had never visited before, and throughout my stay in Croatia I experienced a mixture of the strange and the familiar, and overall there abided a feeling of otherworldliness, an invigorating sense of being in uncharted territory. When we landed at Zagreb airport, the only other planes on the tarmac were an Aeroflot flight (Russian airlines) and an Abu Dhabi carrier.
I’ve detailed before the series of Croatian connections that have crossed my life throughout the last decade. Well, the synchronicity police seemed determined to mark the occasion of my trip, and the coincidences continued right up to my departure. The week prior to my trip, the European migrant crisis became headline news around the world. At first I was just seeing consistent coverage on BBC World News, as the Hungarian government began hurriedly constructing border fences to shut out the stream of refugees. Soon the story was getting daily coverage on CNN, with live reports from Zagreb and throughout Croatia. Based on the stories typically covered on American TV news, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the world ended at the United States’ borders. So to see Croatia mentioned daily on mainstream cable news, right on the eve of my journey, was quite a surprise.
Through following the migrant crisis news coverage, I had learned about the Schengen Zone, wherein travellers can move through western European countries without passing through passport control. It is the Schengen Agreement that has robbed me of much-desired stamps in my passport during recent European sojourns. Luckily, the Schengen rules wont be fully implemented in Croatia until next year, so I enjoyed the pleasure of waiting at passport control to receive the coveted stamp.
As previously mentioned, I’ve married into a family with deep Croatian roots, and now have an extended network of in-law relatives living in Zagreb. Because I was the first representative of the American side of the family to visit the ancestral homeland, my mother-in-law asked if I would take some gifts with me to give to the Croatian relatives. I had to pack the gifts in their own box and check it as luggage. Upon arriving in Zagreb, I awaited my parcel at the baggage claim, only to eventually be directed to file a claim for lost luggage (a “baggage irregularity” in airline parlance).
While my package wasn’t awaiting me at the airport, my aunt Z was. The excitement about my visit was evident on Z’s face; smiling broadly, she embraced me the moment I was clear of customs control. Z helped me file the baggage irregularity report, giving her own local address and phone number as the contact information. Once that was finished, we were out of the terminal and into her sedan, speeding toward central Zagreb.
Traveling from the airport the city center, you pass through “Novi Zagreb,” or New Zagreb. This is the area outside the historic center, the realm of the socialist housing blocks built between the 50s and 80s, and home to other modern developments. Then you cross the Sava river and enter central Zagreb.
This was a European city center, and I was surprised. Again, I don’t know exactly what I expected to find, but I was caught off guard to find Zagreb a properly European capital city. Historic Zagreb often reminded me of Italy, and I learned that locals refer to their city as “Little Vienna”. And, as a jaded Pittsburgher, I was immediately envious of the public transportation in Zagreb: not just buses, but also trams! And the streetcars are all painted in Zagreb-blue.
As Z steered us through the city she was constantly pointing out landmarks and giving some background information. She pointed out the controversial Academy of Music building, a modern structure completed in 2014, and a point of contention among locals who tend to either embrace it as a contemporary addition to Marshal Tito Square, or loathe it as an out-of-place architectural aberration. We also passed the National Theater, where Z and her husband spend much of their time (both work in the theater), and where we would later end up that evening.
We arrived at Z’s flat, in a modern building near the city center, and situated on a hill with an expansive outlook on Zagreb. It was a spacious and beautiful apartment; I was particularly in awe of her study, which she lamented not being able to spend much time in on account of being busy in the theater. We repaired to the balcony to take in the view and toast my arrival with some fine varieties of rakia.
Soon more members of the family arrived. I met Z’s father, sister, and nephew. Z’s husband, a theatrical actor and director, had prepared lunch. It was humbling to receive such generosity from people I was meeting for the first time, and to be in the presence of such happy and loving people. They were the very image of the archetypal European zest-for-living and appreciation for life’s simple pleasure…it was enough to make you sick!
The first course was anchovies, one variety called regular and one called “super-salty,” though both tasted thoroughly salinated.
Next was marinated salmon with capers.
The main course was a seafood stew, a type of brudet with eel, grouper and rockling.
Dessert was vanilla ice cream with wild berries that had been picked that morning.
Before taking me to my lodging, Z informed me that there was to be a movie premiere in the National Theater that evening, and we would be attending. She explained that it was rare for the national theater to host a film premiere (she knew of only one previous occasion), but this film was receiving special treatment. The film is Zvizdan, translated into English as The High Sun, and is a Croatian production (with some Serbian and Slovenian backing) that received the Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year, and has been submitted as Croatia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Z had asked the event organizers if the screening could include English subtitles, for my sake, but it was not possible.
As it sounded like a special occasion, I decided to dress up and wear my blazer. It was a good thing that I did. When I walked from my apartment to the theatre that night, I found that the front entrance had been given the red carpet treatment, literally. TV news crews interviewed the film’s stars as they arrived, and the Zagreb majorettes flanked the front steps. It was somewhat overwhelming for me, especially since I hadn’t slept for nearly 36 hours at this point, but Z knows everyone of note in the Croatian film and theater world, and was constantly introducing me to Croat stars of the stage and screen.
The inside of the theater was ornate and beautiful; you can get a sense of the building’s baroque style from the exterior. From our box seats we had an excellent view of not only the movie screen that had been erected on the stage, but also of the lavishly painted ceilings, and of course the who’s-who of Croatian art and politics who had turned out for the premiere. Z surveyed the crowd and pointed out people of interest: there’s the film’s producer, there’s the son of the most famous Croatian actor, and a whole host of ministers from the national government.
“Ah,” Z said, “even the prime minister has come out tonight. It’s only because there’s an upcoming election, of course. He wants to be seen everywhere.”
“Milanovic is here?” I asked.
“You know Milanovic?” She said. “Oh, you know everything!”
Of course, I had just learned the name of Croatia’s prime minister just days before, through the news coverage of the migrant crisis. Only two days earlier I was learning Milanovic’s name through his announcement that refugees would be welcome in Croatia, and then there I was sitting in sight of the prime minister at the home field premiere of the nation’s biggest film in years.
It was a struggle to remain awake during the screening; I was sleep deprived and trying to follow a film in a foreign language. I nodded off several times, but managed to make it the entire screening without snoring. I was able to grasp the broad strokes of the plot; Zvizdan is an artistic exploration of Serbo-Croat relations as modeled through three stories of forbidden romance. It was a good film, I look forward to seeing it with subtitles.
After the film screening, and the perfunctory adulation for the assembled cast and crew, the party started. It was absolutely packed, elbow-to-elbow, both inside the theater and especially out on the veranda where revelers attempted to smoke cigarettes without scorching the surrounding smokers with their burning butts. As we wove our ways among the crowd, Z introduced me to even more artists, industry icons, and politicians. I didn’t get to meet Milanovic, but it was no matter; it had been more than enough excitement for one day.
Croatia and I have been circling each other for some time, a dance of circumstance and coincidence that finally culminated in a long-awaited rendezvous. The connection began when I was an undergraduate student in southern California. Two of my best friends during college were a pair of brothers from Croatia. With a Croat father, and an Oklahoman mother, the brothers grew up in Zagreb but also spent time stateside, and attended college in Los Angeles.
Our paths crossed via mutual interest in media. In my freshman year I signed-up to DJ a late night music and talk show on the campus radio station. Predictably titled “Night Owl,” we broadcasted from midnight to 2 AM once a week. It was there I met David, the older of the two brothers. David was majoring in television production, which meant most of his time on campus was spent in the opposite end of the communication building from myself and the other print journalism majors, but he also DJ-ed a music program that aired directly before my Night Owl shift.
I honestly don’t remember what, if anything, I knew about Croatia prior to meeting David. Overtime I developed a fascination with the country, driven by my natural curiosity about a part of the world I had never seen, and sustained by the effervescent charisma of David and his brother Daniel. My fascination with the Croats and their homeland flourished through descriptions of life during the Croatian war of independence, the mischievous sharing of violently nationalist football chants, and especially over frequent meals of cheese burek at the Aroma café in west Los Angeles. In a media studies course I took in my senior year, students chose a country to focus on, elaborating on various aspects of their media ownership throughout the semester. I of course selected Croatia, mainly focusing on the state-controlled press during the Tudjman era.
Years later I had moved to Florida, got a job in a bookstore, and began dating a co-worker (my superior, even). About a year into our relationship, I traveled with her to meet her family over the Thanksgiving holiday. As I got to know her family, I eventually realized that this was a family of Croatian immigrants. Her grandfather was present that weekend, and he told me about how he emigrated from Croatia following the close of the Second World War. Her mother had grown up speaking Croatian in their home. We dined on Croatian sarma as part of the Thanksgiving feast, and the following month I rejoined the family to make Croatian breskvice cookies to send as Christmas presents. Alas, no burek!
Even more years after that, I married into this family of Croatian immigrants. My mother-in-law’s cousin, from the side of the family that had remained in Croatia, traveled from Zagreb to attend our wedding. Following the ceremony, on the eve of her return to Europe, we got to speak at length about her life and work in Croatia, the current political climate there, and my own history with and knowledge of the country (she seemed slightly embarrassed at the football chants my friends had taught me). I told her how intent I was on finally visiting Croatia, and teased out some possible research areas that I might explore to provide an opportunity for traveling there.
Merely half a year after this meeting, I was immersed in a research program studying urban development and city life through the perspective of media studies. Always on the lookout for conferences and journals geared toward this area of analysis, my interest was immediately piqued by a call for a special conference on urban media studies. And where was this conference on media and the city to be held: where else, but Zagreb, Croatia?
Mark Seltzer: Serial Killers (II): The Pathological Public Sphere
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 122-149
Seltzer’s essay on serial killers and the pathological public sphere immediately calls J.G. Ballard to mind. Eventually Seltzer does cite Ballard, but it is in reference to Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, a selection that renders the author’s omission of Ballard’s subsequent novel, Crash, all the more conspicuous (Crash was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996, the year after Seltzer’s article was published). The article’s introductory anecdote about Sylvestre Matushka, who engineered train wrecks and claimed to only achieve sexual satisfaction when witnessing these accidents, is obviously evocative of Crash. Ballard’s story follows characters who are sexually excited by car crashes, and stage car accidents and recreate famous wrecks. Seltzer cites The Atrocity Exhibition in order to borrow Ballard’s phrase and relate it to his own notion of the pathological public sphere: “spectacular corporeal/machine violence, a drive to make mass technology and public space a vehicle of private desire in public spectacle: the spectacles of public sex and public violence” (p. 124). Though he never refers to Crash, Seltzer’s language here could have come direct from the book’s dust jacket: “The coupling of bodies and machines is thus also, at least in these cases, a coupling of private and public spaces” (p. 125).
Seltzer’s argument is also evocative of a different Crash: the identically-titled but textually-dissimilar Crash, a 2004 film exploring race relations in contemporary Los Angeles through the interweaving of multiple characters and plotlines. Los Angeles is famous for its iconic freeway system, and the city is often regarded as the apotheosis of car culture, an alternatingly visionary or dystopic manifestation of car-dependent society. The film Crash uses the city’s freeway network as a thematic device, beyond the relation of the story’s interweaving plot threads and intersecting characters to the on-ramps and cloverleaf interchanges of L.A.’s freeways as seen from above. The film opens at the scene of a car accident one of these L.A. freeways, and the first lines of dialogue (spoken by a character riding in a car involved in the accident) establishes the thematic significance of the film’s Los Angeles setting:
Graham: It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Compare this sentiment with these words of serial killer Ted Bundy quoted in Seltzer’s article:
“Another factor that is almost indispensable to this kind of behavior is the mobility of contemporary American life. Living in a large center of population and living with lots of people, you can get used to dealing with strangers. It’s the anonymity factor.” (p. 133)
Seltzer does cite a Los Angeles-based film in his discussion of public and private space: the action-thriller Speed, a sort of wish-fulfillment Hollywood fantasy for Angelenos where the city’s congested freeways are cleared of all traffic and the hero’s speedometer never drops below 50 miles per hour. Seltzer notes the film’s use of “public vehicles of what might be called stranger-intimacy” (p. 125): elevators, buses, airplanes, and the city subway system. Seltzer’s highlighting of transit systems to illustrate the collisions of public and private space resonated with my own research in this area. Seltzer cites urban sociologist Georg Simmel’s account of “the stranger” in urban life; Simmel’s theories have influenced a great deal of urban studies, including theories of transportation and public space.
Toiskallio (2000) applied Simmel’s sociability to an analysis of “the interaction between the taxi driver and the fare as an example of an intensive urban semi-public situation where feasible and face-saving social interaction is needed” (p. 4). The term “semi-public” refers to that are neither public nor totally private, as taxicabs are neither public nor private transportation, but “paratransit” (p. 8). Such distinctions are further complicated by the recent advent of “car-share” or rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft. These services are essentially hired car services, and function much like taxicabs, but with significant differences. Most relevant to the current discussion is the fact that rideshare drivers do not drive company vehicles as taxi drivers do, but operate their private vehicles to transport customers. This situation transforms a person’s private car into a space of stranger-intimacy. There are consequences here not only for transformations of public and private space, but also the coupling of bodies and machines, as well as implication for affective labor and transportation services.