New Year’s Smorgasbord: Three Thoughts to Carry into 2017

iur.jpeg
Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30

Happy New Year to all of my patient regular readers! I wanted to start off 2017 with a post that was more freeform than usual. Because my predominate mood the past few months has been healthy but painful uncertainty, I have been stretching out to find new insights and creative approaches to the problems I’ve been encountering. And to give the blog a loose and sketchy overture for the year, I will put down three brief snapshots of where my mind has been at lately. To make it more meaningful, I plan on revisiting these three core ideas and refining them a few times throughout the year. Maybe by the end of this coming December I’ll have settled into a more solidified mental state. Or maybe not, but at least I’ll have this post as a time capsule to dredge up in the future.

Vignette #1: The City Woman

The LGBT movement is an urban movement. Cities like Toronto are the only places where we can gather in large enough numbers to forge our own affinities and communities, at least offline. We don’t have one role in the concrete-and-glass thicket––some of us are prisoners, some are upwardly mobile, some are homeless––but the city is our shelter, our environment. Solidarity in urban neighbourhoods differs greatly from the alliances that are possible among subsistence producers in rural areas. Everything we do winds through the so-called cash nexus, leaving us without the option of “dropping out” or trying to be self-sufficient. Only visions and plastic dreams of self-reliance can persist here.

For our movement to thrive, though, it must grow out of the sidewalks and alleyways. Vitally, we have to cultivate groups of LGBT readers, eaters, walkers, lovers, and workers who can deal with fear. Our fears haunt us, but our politics are blind if we let fear tell us what to do. And as long as we see our problems as problems for the state to solve, our petitions will be cursed wishes. Forcing the state to make our lives easier has not been in vain, but as prisoners of the status quo we can only formulate our problems in terms that we think the state can solve. When the state solves problems it does so with armies of soldiers, teachers and bureaucrats. More of the same, more of the same. And then the curse takes hold, as our desires, filed with special officers, become requests for cops to take our sisters to jail, to “clean up the streets,” to ultimately squeeze ourselves out of the cities on which we depend.

We need a city consciousness––Municipalism is one word we could use. While I’m not suggesting that LGBT people of all sorts abandon national or revolutionary aspirations, we have to recognize what we can do in organizing and improving our neighbourhoods, apartment blocks, and cities. We have a global vision, and perhaps a national programme, but we would not survive in a city if we let it die and rot. Nor is survival the ultimate goal; rather, we have to build a new world within our reach. Not everyone is inspired by lofty and abstract goals, especially at first, and solidarity is often starts with proximity and coincidence rather than intellectual agreement.

Vignette #2: Proliferating

As I mentioned in the introduction, whenever I try to think or act lately I’m dogged by an unfamiliar ambiguity or uncertainty. I can ascribe some of that to a long period of inactivity during the winter, but not all of it. Problems I thought I had solved continually re-present themselves to me. Partly, this has to do with the fact that my graduate school demands mingle with the anxieties of gender transition. Learning goes in stages of proliferation and consolidation as early experiments give way to solidity, which again dissolves under the stress of new and potentially contradictory information. Here is a form of movement that is not exactly progressive. It’s expansive and twisting, with abrupt changes in speed that can throw the thinker into unexplored terrain.

The wrong response to this change is to batten down and resist it. For now, I am in the proliferating stage, seeking answers in unknown areas for questions I was unable to solve in the last time of apparent certainty. Political and intellectual certainties––not even mentioning sexual or personal identities––tend to self-destruct over time while leaving remnants of themselves. I suppose I was due for another storm. Change is usually good, but it helps to confirm this with a tight group of confidants who can challenge and shape your development in productive ways. After all, when one individual changes, the connections that person has will inevitably shift as well.

Vignette #3: Four-Act Stories

On a more creative level, I have been writing a loosely linked series of stories in my spare time. Studying Satoshi Kon’s films and reading traditional Japanese poetry, I stumbled on the concept of kishotenketsu, which is a four-act mode of storytelling found in China, Japan, and some other countries in that cultural sphere. Kishotenketsu is obviously the Japanese name for this structure. In any case, however, my interest in it is that it is a form of storytelling that does not revolve around central conflicts between characters, themes, or ideas. Rather, it puts them into chaotic tension with each other, somewhat like the structure of a Western musical symphony with its scherzo, expositing premises and themes  and then introducing a twist that radically changes how the reader views the the established elements. While not for everyone, the form appeals to me because it shows that you can write plot without prioritizing conflict.

In fact, attempting to produce writing in this form-–poetic and prose––triggered questions about my own approach to politics. Though Marxism is traditionally explained in terms of a strong narrative conflict––different core groups of people within a society struggle over the allocation of power and resources, and this drives history forward. However, I’m increasingly skeptical of historiographies that are purely linear and can’t account for forms of (metaphorical) historical motion that are neither forward nor backward. Perhaps it’s possible to restate Marxism in terms that account for non-linearity and degrees of chaos and order, the tensions and twists that are not necessarily antagonistic but that nonetheless reshape history and our understanding of it.

***

Closing:

I’d like to wish all of my friends, friendly readers, and comrades a New Year overflowing with possibilities. With so much uncertainty suspended in the air this January, we can all use reassurance and solidarity as an antidote to fear. May all our order be tranquil and all our chaos be creative. And let us together build things we have not yet imagined.

56 Cities, Two Books

Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino's work.
Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino’s work.

Urbanization is one of the lifebloods of modern life. If industrialization is the hear of capitalist society, urbanization fastens onto its productive powers and, like a tsunami, creates a sloshing deluge where there was once relative stability. Social struggles have taken to the urban stage since before the French Revolution, though Revolutionary Paris represents their apotheosis in the capitalist core of Europe and North America. So talking about cities involves talking about social struggles. More specifically, cities are living and working spaces, playing spaces, channels for industrial goods, outlets for propaganda and advertising and every form of visual and aural production imaginable. Increasingly, the human race lives out its collective life in cities, leading many Marxists like David Harvey to call for a renewed focus on the character of cities and the political strategies necessary to making cities livable.

Having just moved to one of the larger cities on the continent, I have felt the pull of its acceleration, adding an experiential weight to some of the fictional reading I have been doing. Reading about cities and living in them are separate matters, but I find it helpful to take directions from fiction and other artworks as to what we should look for in cities. Two books in particular have left their marks, providing me with some cutting questions to ask of my new hometown.

1. King City by Brandon Graham

In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.
In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.

I read King City in a few days from the omnibus collection published by Image Comics. But attempting to read this book along a single plot thread is a mistake, since at the end the “comic book” climax of the story happens in a flash, making the ostensible narrative engine just another story among many. This makes the story not so much a single plot but a book of accounts showing how life is lived in a city warped by, among other things, extraterrestrials, magic cats, and the author’s hyper-dense reimagining of Los Angeles. The titular King City might have a central power core, a government of some kind, and a convoluted network of criminal gangs running the show, but when reading the book none of these things seems to take any kind of priority because Graham’s art is always letting us in on a hundred other stores, sometimes in the space of a single page. It’s a melange or mosaic of disparate moments connected by a certain logic––most of the time, that logic involves groan-worthy puns––that sets romantic tensions, life-or-death rescue operations, petty crime jobs, and supernatural apocalypse on the same level of relevance.

In King City, politics loses its meaning, or at least its collective character. Issues of class, nation, and gender don’t get much explicit discussion in the book. Power blocs form today and dissolve tomorrow, and life is precarious to the utmost. Individual struggles are what is important; the heterogeneity and acceleration of the city seems to render all connections temporary at best. Graham is showing us an important aspect of the modern city: the speed and visual overload people experience there renders the surface of the city a film of blurry fragments. Many jokes at the expense of New Yorkers start off with some catastrophe happening, raising only shrugs from life-weary denizens. Graham’s production here condenses that facet of the city and gives it a deeply weird and novel guise, drawing on anything and everything to pack in. And it looks to use like business as usual. Well, business as usual with a dose of scatalogical surrealism.

2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.
Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.

Now this book, unlike King City, is more properly “literary,” being a collection of what I hesitate to label prose poems interwoven with bits of dialogue. Despite that pedigree, I believe it qualifies as “speculative fiction,” seeing as its goal is to explore the affective and imaginative aspect of cities.

Calvino’s conceit here is that Marco Polo and Kublai Khan have met in the Mongol capital. Polo regales the Great Khan with tales of cities from all across the vast span of the Empire. Khan, plagued with worries about the coming dissolution of his realm, looks to Polo for a sign, though whether that sign is a confirmation of his own decline or the contrary remans unsolved. 55 cities pass through our minds, page by page, unfolding like nautilus spirals. Because the Venetian and the Mongol do not share the same language, at least initially, Polo has to resort to describing cities with objects from them, sketching often fantastical and anachronistic portraits. On his journeys, he has apparently passed through at least one airport and one American-style suburb, not to speak of the more classically Orientalist constructions.Even though every city Calvino describes is nothing more than an assembled fiction, its components find their origins in real cities or legends of cities. The mystical quality of the book comes from its strangeness. Example: one city’s citizens built a replica of their city underground, burying their dead in the same poses they assumed in life.

The entire structure of the book reminded me of Kino’s Journey, a Japanese animated show about a nomadic woman and her talking motorcycle visiting countless cities that embody human virtues, vices, desires, and ideals. Here we have no protagonist in the present tense: all of Marco Polo’s “expeditions,” if they ever happened (and Khan has no reason to believe they did), seem to have been ages ago. So what we have here is a book party archaeological, partly poetic, and partly speculative, and if I could identify a single virtue it would be in expanding our conceptions of what cities are and what they are capable of being. It also shows us quite directly how we conceive of cities in modern times: repositories of buildings, yes, but also stories, images, and desires, not to mention refuse and leftovers.

For Marxists, obviously, the matter does not rest there. We see cities not as fixed or swirling without coordinates, but evolving according to social needs and the dictates of those with political power. In other words, cities are only perceptible through a historical and materialist vision. But I would argue that both of the works in this post offer compelling insights into the nature of urban living today, regardless of their various mystifications and tendencies to treat those social struggles in an oblique way. Like cities themselves, they’re not pure illusions, but products of social labor and embedded processes within their respective industries. Let’s ponder the questions they raise and celebrate the positive aspects of the visions they evoke; we have a long road ahead, after all.

Editor’s Note: Escape to Chicago

Image

Many of you reading out there might not know this, but before I found my weird psychic connection with Alexius I spent the majority of my life in the Chicago area. One of the Windy City’s many nicknames–besides “The Windy City”–is the City with the Big Shoulders. Chicago puts those shoulders to wonderful use distorting nearby Indiana’s time zone structure, but its muscularity and beauty are magnetic.

I currently live in a rural area of Southwestern Ontario when I’m not at college. While I don’t believe in a Panacea that’s going to solve all of my problems, I think my personality would be significantly improved if I lived here. Ever since moving out of the United States, I’ve missed precious little, and I never thought I would miss American cities. Nightly local news in Chicago was a sickening sideshow featuring senseless gun murders, failing public schools, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and the occasional criminal governor. Nevertheless, and I say this as someone not predisposed to romance, I caught Chicago Fever. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be terminal, a chronic illness affecting the remotest parts of my brain.

Luckily, however, I’m going to be spending the next four days there. I’ll be giving brief daily reports if possible, giving Alexius a bit of a rest. The cultural focus will still be there. I’ll have some reading materials and a probable visit to the Art Institute to write about. I’m looking forward to posting!