12.26.2014

How We See in Cities: Fear, Power, and Infinity


In a city, building become walls to block the infinite sky with finite structures.
I'm sitting this morning in a café in San Francisco. I look around and I'm struck that almost everything I see is not only man made but is either for sale or in the service of selling. Yes, I can see some trees on the street but they have a funny effect: they block the sky. Which is what I suddenly understand buildings are for: to block view of the infinite sky and keep us focused on human commerce in every sense. 

In his exquisite essay, The Intertwining, Merleau-Ponty argues that we don't see the world from afar: we don't stand here and see a world over there. On the contrary, the very fact that we can and do perceive the world is precisely because we are not at a remove. I am stuff and the world is stuff; perception is an interaction between stuffs. When I look at the chairs and people and croissants in the café, they come to me as I go to them. We interact; we intertwine. 

Think about it for a minute. Is vision active or passive? When you read these words are you seeing them — you as subject, the words as object? Or do the words go to you and have you see them — they become the subject and you become their object? Or is vision an act of a different nature all together, taking place between and among both subject and object, in fact effacing the very distinction between subject and object to make everything part of the same, continuous fabric? 

What we see enters us, literally. We are packed full of images. Everything we've ever seen is folded into us — into our blood and dreams, into our tissue and memory, into our sense and organs. This is why it's important to be careful what you witness. It becomes part of you. I was at the Louvre 15 years ago and I still can't shake all those awful Renaissance rape paintings. I feel the same way about the Kentucky Fried Chicken I ate three days in a row, 20 years ago. Both the paintings and that chicken are clogs in the flow of my metabolism, my thinking, my digestion. They both left me dyspeptic, perhaps permanently (or at least until a merciful death).

I find looking at the sky — at the clouds but also the open expanse that exceeds but includes the clouds — exhilarating. To participate in a line of sight that goes and goes and goes can't help but extend internally, as well. I feel my body, with its seeming skin limit, filling with the infinite universe. If when I see a chair, that chair folds into me, when I see the sky, the sky folds into me. Suddenly, I have the infinite blue and black and grey and glowing ether pulsing through my veins. Often, it is the only thing that can clear the dyspeptic onslaught of images that is my life, that is life today. 

Now, cities are complex mechanisms of control. Many have written about the gridded streets forming a gridded body politic, everyone and everything in its place, organized and numbered. What's your address? The city tags and hedges us, literally steering us this way and that. 

I am not saying this is bad per se. Everything is a mechanism of control, hedging the flows of desire and need, of capital and dreams. There is no neutral space. In this sense, a city is no different than a ranch. But a city and a ranch are quite different in that they hedge and steer bodies, desires, capital, dreams, and infinity in very different ways. I've not spent much time on ranches so I can't speak to them; cities are another matter.

Cities construct tall buildings which have an interesting double effect. They block the sky for pedestrians and those on the lower floors. Living in Manhattan, I often felt like I was living in a dome — no sky, no infinite horizon, just buildings densely looming. Even the views of the sky are bound by the buildings. And yet for those who get to live and work on the higher floors, the tall buildings offer the infinite horizon of space ('views' are a commodity, after all). 

But why block out the sky? There are, of course, ideological reasons. People who are looking into the infinite sky, folding it into their being, tend not to get caught up in the finite human-all-to-human work-mortgage-romance-anxiety complex. After all, if you understand yourself as continuous with the infinite cosmos, if you've swallowed the infinite horizon of deep space, the chances are you're not really going to be so eager to crawl out of bed every morning at 6:30, wrestle traffic, only to sit behind a desk for the next nine hours navigating fluctuating streams of idiocy, banality, and cruelty.  

Such is the way of capital. As William Burroughs points out, if money can be counted, summed up, it's not infinite (I realize mathematicians are bristling at that). Infinity doesn't breed more capital. Making sure people keep working and spending is what generates more capital. And to keep them doing that, you have to keep them looking down, literally, onto the human world. 

But to pin it on capital or capitalism is meaningless. Sure, there is a power structure and ideology at work when we build these walls just as there's always power and ideology at work. So whence this particular will to blot out the sky. Why build walls? 

Doesn't every stoner who's ever listened to Pink Floyd know the answer? Fear. We build walls because we're afraid. Fear of the infinite is fear of being out of control which is fear of death. To enclose the infinite within ourselves, we must abandon our egos and all the bullshit that supports it — a sense of self-worth that comes from the words of a boss, the eyes of others, from family and lovers both actual and would-be. We prefer the safety of endless anxiety to the joy of infinite becoming. The walls of fear keep us looking down, walking the city grid, sweating our asinine jobs and spouses.  We hinge our very selves along with our entire economic and cultural edifice to these fickle things as we ricochet between malaise, depression, boredom, and happiness. 

This fear exceeds material construction. It works diligently and relentlessly at the level of cultural production, as well. Consider the fear that drives the medical complex and Big Pharma in particular. Why is Abilify the number one selling drug? Because it keeps people from looking at the sky, keeps them functioning in their tiny, enclosed, idiotic bourgeois lives of rent, phone bills, work, vacations, dentists, health insurance, kids, homework, traffic. Keep people looking down and you keep them depressed, annoyed, dyspeptic, grumpy, deranged because you keep them searching the finite for a peace that will never come — but you keep them feeling safe. Needless to say, this is insane. But so it goes. 

This is not to say there aren't other opportunities for real life, for infinite life, within the city walls. Art, for one, offers these moments of infinity within finitude as entire universes flourish within discrete frames. Music, dance, humor: they all open up the finite closures of life to the infinite play of the cosmos.

I want to say there's love, as well. But love is rare. After all, love is the embrace that accepts everything — that is to say, an embrace that's infinite, an embrace that says, And this, too, yes, yes, yes ad infinitum. Love doesn't run into the walls of judgment. Most people, because they're so enmeshed in the finite, can't do that. They relentlessly judge themselves and their lovers — too fat, too lazy, too stupid, too poor, too stinky, too horny. They open their arms to love but run into the walls of the city. In order to feel other than dependent or lustful, in order to love,  you have to contain infinity: you have to look at the sky.

3 comments:

Daniel Moss said...

Splendid!
I've grown up in a city that is indistinguishable from desolate and barren. It is a colloquialism here to put the city on a stage and roast it for all of it's imperfections. There are hardly any trees, it's dry, windy, etc.
But the skies...
It's so expansive.
When I travel I find myself on edge in bigger cities. My comportment has become deeply claustrophobic over the years. I crave open spaces.
I wonder now and again how this way I've come to be through my environment had influence the avenues and routes taken by the traffic of my thoughts. To what extent do I intellectually crave philosophical architectures and edifices which are fundamentally open and expansive as opposed to densely detailed complexes stacking details upon each other.
I am soon to be enrolled in an M.A. Program for philosophy and I hope to inch closer to understanding the impulses of my own conceptual persona (pace Deleuze) in the process.
Once again, brilliant piece here!
-Daniel Moss

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment — and for the props, of course!

It's amazing how little we consider we environment considering how much it impacts us, every day, all day. Nietzsche was obsessed with this, considering it one of the major philosophical questions: where do you live? And does that place fuel you or weaken you? It seems obvious and yet....

Good luck in your program.

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