City space and emotion: Affect as urban infrastructure
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.