Tag Archives: Marshall Berman

Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.


Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)


He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:




There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.




Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.







index‘Thinking about the city from the standpoint of a Marxist, and about Marxism from the standpoint of an urbanist, is fraught with a lot of difficulties’, says Merrifield, and he is right. Collected here in Metromarxism, however, are all of the key figures who have attempted this in some form or other. An engagingly-written introduction to Marxism and geography for a beginner, and a thought-provoking review for those well into it, with a chapter each on major thinkers. The only thing lacking in here is the ladies, their absence as critical thinkers apologized for by Merrifield. The folks in here are also all white. This raises some questions and concerns about both geography and Marxism, but I’ll leave those for now as I wrestle with that a lot.

It begins with Marx of course, and a few insights I quite liked that don’t immediately have to do with property. The way that action on the external world changes us internally as well, subject and object both mediated by practice. This revolutionary practice thus involves changing people and ideas and ‘ideas about ideas’, to ‘educate the educator himself’ (18, Marx 422). There follows a review of the dialectic, always useful. It primary characteristic that of change, with Capital as a study of movement. The roots of this constant change lying in contradiction, ‘incompatible elements within an entity that both support and undermine that entity’ (25). And he nails what I like most about Marx:

Marx asked us—we of radical bent, that is—to grasp the dual character of the world, to see it singly in its duality, to envision it simultaneously as a process and a thing, as a social relation and an object, an observable outcome with an unobservable ‘law of motion’. (27)

Of course, as Merrifield notes, Marx wrote very little on the city itself, or even property. This was really the province of Engels.

What Engels described in studying the slums of Manchester is so familiar to me given my knowledge of today’s slums, it is hard to find insight in it. In itself an insight. I love that he understood how poverty is really an act of violence against those living in it, what he calls ‘social murder’ (49, quoting p 127). He stripped the acts of city redevelopment of their social justifications, understanding that slum clearance – so often claimed to be the solution then and now by business and liberal reformers – simply shifted the problems elsewhere. ‘As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of the workers’ (46, Housing Q p 368).

I love Walter Benjamin, but my love for his work hasn’t helped me much in understanding the way that academics have tried to use it theoretically. I found this useful in the ways that Benjamin thought about the commodity and opens up the experience of the arcades, the spectacle of this aspect of the city, the crowds and the lights and the beautiful objects, as a commodity for further theorising. And this, on his relationship to Brecht and Marxism:

Thus, dialectical crudity and utmost theoretical subtlety would split Benjamin’s Parisian exposes: He’d proceed to mix the dignity of the library with wisecracks of the street, intellectual high life with everyday lowlife, rhapsodic verse with ribald curses. At its best, Benjamin’s Marxism of the city would get ‘the mediation’ about right, would give a new depth of experience to metropolitan Marxism, taking the dialectics of both to a new height, with a new richness, adding dream to the negotiation of the commodity form. Benjamin was the first Marxist to appreciate the capitalist city as a profane illumination, as revolutionary within the revolution, as a veritable city of light. With open wings and head turned backward, the angel Walter can help us understand the pile of debris that accompanies the storm of progress (68).

Henri Lefebvre is another theorist I love and struggle with, definitely someone requiring hard work to pluck the nuggets from the meanderings. I like Merrifield’s take on him, for example his thoughts on the everyday:

Everyday life, instead, possessed a dialectical and ambiguous nature. On the one hand, it’s the realm increasingly colonized by the commodity, and hence shrouded in all kinds of mystification, fetishism, and alienation….On the other hand, paradoxically, everyday life is likewise a primal site for meaningful social resistance, ‘the inevitable starting point for the realization of the possible’ (79).

Thoughts on contestation:

contestation was absolutely crucial; it helped ‘link economic factors (including economic demands) with politics’ (L 65). Contestation names names, points fingers, merges institutions and men, makes abstractions real, and is one way ‘subjects’ express themselves, ceasing to be ‘objects’. Contestation means a ‘refusal to be integrated’ (L67); it is ‘born from negation and has a negative character; it is essentially radical.’ It ‘brings to light its hidden origins; and it surges from the depths to the political summits, which it also illuminates in rejecting them’. Contestation rejects passivity and fosters participation. It arises out of a latent institutional crisis, transforming it into ‘an open crisis which challenges hierarchies, centers of power’ (L68, 87).

Lefebvre also began this theorization of the connections between real estate and capital, the way that surplus value could be generated through real estate investment and built environment, the investments in fixed capital that constitute a secondary circuit alongside that of production. In The Production of Space he began to examine how this secondary circuit worked, how space itself became ‘colonized and commodified, bought and sold, created and torn down…’ Back, as Merrifield argues, to Marx’s obsession with returning to the roots of things, to the process, to production. ‘The shift from theorizing ‘things in space’ to the ‘production of space’…mimicked Marx’s shuft from ‘things in exchange’ to ‘social relations of production’ (89).

Debord follows, situationist and a student of Lefebvre. Merrifield quotes Lefebvre on Debord, forgive my nerdiness but I love that. On the practice of derive (drifting through a city, psychogeography, etc) Lefebvre writes that it is…

‘more of a practice than a theory. It revealed the growing fragmentation of the city. In the course of its history, the city was once a powerful organic unity; for some time, however, that unity was becoming undone, was fragmenting, and the Situationists were recording examples of what we had all been talking about….We had a vision of a city that was more and more fragmented without its organic unity being completely shattered. (97)

Thus the ‘unitary city’ of the situationists, a battle against the fragmentation caused by planning and efficiency and market-driven development. A ‘disruptive and playful’ movement to reunite, bring together. This reconstruction of place is:

predicated upon spatial (geographical) appropriation: it reconstructs the urban environment ‘in accordance with the power of the Workers’ Councils, of the anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Thesis 179). This reconstruction would necessitate a ‘sense of place,’ a sense of what the place was, is, and what it might be. To detourn an urban context—to reappropriate it in other words—one needs to know what it possessed and what it lacked; one needs to know that place, that neighbourhood, that city (such was the point of ‘psychogeography,’ after all); and one needs to be able to straddle the dialectic between its particularity and its generality. (105)

I find that stuff more exciting than the society of the spectacle – as indeed it embraces the idea of the spectacle and how it is employed through urban form.

Castells! I read City and the Grassroots and was blown away, this helped me resituate it, regard it more critically. I’ve also read The Urban Question, but long ago, it is something I need to read again. I do remember his critique of Lefebvre for lack of rigor. But also for looking at how his theory of the urban revolution obscures the class revolution, as the motor is no longer worker exploitation but alienation. Castells argued for urban relations as an expression of social relations, not the source. Initially taking on Althusser’s ideas of complexity structured in dominance – which I find particularly persuasive and useful myself – and argued against Lefebvre

while the city threatened capitalism, it somehow had become more functional for capitalism. Indeed, the city, Castells writes, had become the ‘spatial specificity of the processes of reproduction of labor-power and of the processes of reproduction of the means of production’ (C443, 119)

Thus the state involves itself in regulating the urban in a way conducive to capital through planning. But Castells moves away from Althusser, Merrifield labels The Urban Question as perhaps too formalist, while City and the Grassroots is too skewed towards practice and too removed from structure. I loved that about it myself, starting where the people are is standard in my own tradition of popular education, so I’m not sure how I would judge it now that I am more fluent in theory and a believer in its value. At the time of this writing Castells had all but left the Marxist fold, but hearing him speak to Occupy at St Pauls I’m not sure if he isn’t back.

Of course David Harvey has a chapter. I’ve read much more of him than anyone else, and much more recently as well. I agree with the prodding to read his Limits of Capital, as it’s impossible to do justice to that kind of work in a single chapter. I always imagined he wrote it to work through a full Marxist theory of rent only hinted at in earlier works, and I was right. I also appreciated the distinction between his work and early Castells:

Havery’s Marxist theory, like Lefebvre’s, thereby accredits a much more offensive role for the city and for space under capitalism. Space and urbanism don’t just help reproduce labor-power, as Castells believed, in a relatively defensive manner: the very spatial dynamics of urban land and property markets, to say nothing about ‘fixed capital’ infrastructure…actually boost the accumulation of capital. Urban space under capitalism is an ‘active moment’, proactively productive and not merely passively reproductive; it is, Harvey argues, a unit of capital accumulation as well as a site of class struggle (142).

There is as well a review of his engagement with postmodernism, taking from it new understandings of race and gender and identity without relinquishing Marx.

The final chapter is on Marshall Berman, he was the only theorist I had not read at all and I regretted that immensely (I have since read him, find posts here on All That is Solid Melts into Air, and here on his thoughts on the role of the intellectual.). A return to the more creative, descriptive, literary theorization. Words thrown around like urbicide, the murder of the city. He was there during Moses’s bulldozing of swathes of NY and there is no better term for it. But I love that he seems to have thought about what happens after. The good that can come from it, the ways that people deal with it. Merrifield calls it a ‘Marxism of affirmation’ (170), and interestingly puts this into opposition with the work of Mike Davis. I think he is far too dismissive of Davis who I don’t think theorizes quite the ‘Marxism of closure’ or ‘urbanism evacuated of agency’ (171) that is stated here, but it is undoubtedly focused on the structures of power and its destructive force. I am looking forward to reading Berman, see if he manages to describe a city without doing that. It Is hard in this day and age I believe.

Marshall Berman on the Intellectual

I separated out this little section from Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air because in a way it is a little more personal, cuts a little more closely to the bone. I completed my PhD only a couple of weeks ago from an institution that is, for the most part, churning out highly educated kids of privileged background to fill positions in investment banks and other major corporations. There is still some wonderful research emerging from the place, and I still enjoyed teaching students where they engaged in learning. Yet in my quest for a position as an intellectual and a teacher that I hope will contribute to changing the world for the better, and yet will allow me to afford more than a tiny cold room in someone else’s flat while also helping to support my mum living in a stone-age society, so much of being an academic troubles me so deeply. Berman spoke in some really interesting ways to this conflict I see in my work and my politics. In discussing Marx he highlights this:

To bring out one of the paradoxes of their historical role: even though they tend to pride themselves on their emancipated and thoroughly secular minds, they turn out to be just about the only moderns who really believe that they are called to their vocations and that their work is holy. It is obvious to any reader of Marx that in his commitment to his work he shares this faith. And yet he is suggesting here that in some sense it is a bad faith, a self-deception.

The basic fact of life for these intellectuals, as Marx sees them, is that they are “paid wage-laborers” of the bourgeoisie, members of “the modern working class, the proletariat.” (116)

It can’t be denied I worry that my best efforts and greatest labours of love will be not just in vain, but also coopted and utilised. This points to the ways we need to seriously think about how we do our work and what work it is we do:

Bourgeois society, through its insatiable drive for destruction and development, and its need to satisfy the insatiable needs it creates, inevitably produced radical ideas and movements aimed to destroy it. But its very capacity for development enables it to negate its own inner negations: to nourish itself and thrive on opposition, to become stronger amid pressure and crisis than it could ever be in peace, to transform enmity into intimacy and attackers into inadvertent allies (119).

Not that Berman really has any answers, but I suppose this will do for a start:

As for the orthodox modernists who avoid Marxists thought for fear that it might strip them of their haloes, they need to learn that it could give them back something better in exchange: a heightened capacity to imagine and express the endlessly rich, complex and ironic relationships between them and the “modern bourgeois society” that they try to deny or defy (122).

The rest of my thoughts on Berman can be found here. I apologise for the overabundance of the word ‘love’, but I can’t be bothered to go change it.

Marshall Berman: All That is Solid Melts Into Air

126985Marshall Berman ([1982] 1999)

I loved this book, loved Marshall Berman and his provocations on how capitalism and literature and our strivings in the world are intertwined, loved how a new dialectic is brought into Marxist thought and this is tied into our dreams for the future and our visions for a full life, loved that its is grounded in the pain, and yet excitement and vision too, of capitalist destruction. Entirely dialectical, restless, searching, wary of solutions and ‘end stages’ and static utopias. It is also entirely based on the voices of white men, frustrating, especially in the chapter on under-development. At the same time it manages to capture, I think, what is both great and what is terrifying about capitalism and its visions, and since these emerge from white men I forgive it this focus. I’m glad it’s done. I don’t think it needs to be done again.

It’s based around this wonderful quote from Marx:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, value, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities (13) for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something even as everything melts (13-14).

What I love about Marx, this book, and this aspect of Modernism itself I suppose, is the understanding that the drive to profit through exploitation must be fought, yet that everything is flux and process and overwhelming odds and even so we must ‘be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change the world and make it our own’. I agree in the feeling that this is something that has slipped away from many Marxists and many post-Modernists alike. Berman continues:

Meanwhile, social scientists, embarrassed by critical attacks on their techno-pastoral models, have fled from the task of building a model that might be truer to modern life. Instead, they have split modernity into a series of separate components – industrialization, state-building, urbanization, development of markets, elite formation – and resisted any attempt to integrate them into a whole. This has freed them from extravagant generalizations and vague totalities—but also from thought that might engage their own lives and works and their place in history (33-34)

He critiques the over-totalisation of Foucault as well, its all-encompassing microcosms of power without discussion of struggle against them, and this is where my own frustrations lie. I am all about how we fight I realise:

Foucault’s totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like the turn of the screw (34).

Berman has also convinced me to re-read Goethe. I was at most 17 when I last/first read it, and only remember it wasn’t the camp devil-meets-man-who-sells-his-soul I was expecting, so I am curious to see what I think now. Especially after Berman’s uncovering of so much of the soul of capitalist dreams here, their beauty along with their deadliness. This is such an amazing attempt to really grapple with the fascinations and promises of capitalism, so much a part of its longevity, surely one of its great supports alongside the misery and destitution and destruction it creates.

Faust begins in an epoch whose thought and sensibility are modern in a way that twentieth-century readers can recognize at once, but whose material and social conditions are still medieval; the work ends in the midst of the spiritual and material upheavals of an industrial revolution. It starts in an intellectual’s lonely room, in an abstracted and isolated realm of thought; it ends in the midst of a far-reaching realm of production and exchange, ruled by giant corporate bodies and complex organizations, which Faust’s thought is helping to create, and which are enabling him to create more (39).

This is an interesting insight as well, about how this process took place:

One of the most original and fruitful ideas in Goethe’s Faust is the idea of an affinity between the cultural ideal of self-development and the real social movement toward economic development (40).

There is a freedom for self-development promised by all of these vast and tumultuous changes capitalism was bringing to the landscape. I am sad that the only voice of women in here is via Goethe in the form of Faust’s love Gretchen, but Berman does draw out the tragedy of her situation and that of all women in the period bound up in strong webs of social rules and limits. She is a fairly flat and pathetic construction (I shake my fist at the sky), but embodies this process of modern times that is still happening today. I left home too, didn’t I:

Gretchen’s successors will get the point: where she stayed and died, they will leave and live. In the two centuries between Gretchen’s time and ours, thousands of “little worlds” will be emptied out, transformed into hollow shells, while their young people head for great cities, for open frontiers, for new nations, in search of freedom to think and love and grow…Unwilling or unable to develop along with its children, the closed town will become a ghost town. Its victims’ ghosts will be left with the last laugh (59).

Modernity contains this promise of self-fulfillment, that we can be

…like Faust himself, tätig-frei, free to act, freely active. They have come together to form a new kind of community: a community that thrives not on the repression of free individuality in order to maintain a closed social system, but on free constructive action in common to protect the collective resources that enable every individual to become tätig-frei (66).

Of course, this comes with huge cost. People stand in the way of progress, refuse to sell their land or give up their traditions. Two older people are murdered to pave the way for Faust’s plans, revealing that

It appears that the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development works (68).

An interesting window opened up into why people do bad things, and how that stays within them. It is a personal choice, but also something larger:

But there is another motive for the murder that springs not merely from Faust’s personality, but from a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogenous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace (68).

I love, too, the understanding that it is not just greed or self-interest driving Faust, but vision. This seems to me one of the most important insights Berman gives us, allowing us to understand not just the tragedy of capitalism, but also the tragedy of those initially socialist societies we have known in our times:

If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism (72).

He uses Saint-Simon as an example, with his ‘long-range development projects on an enormous scale’, and states:

It is only in the twentieth century that Faustian development has come into its own. In the capitalist world it has emerged most vividly in the proliferation of “public authorities” and superagencies designed to organize immense construction projects, especially in transportation and energy… (74)

The section ends with this, a sentence that challenges us to think about where we stand ourselves:

Faust’s unfinished construction site is the vibrant but shaky ground on which we must all stake out and build up our lives (86).

Then he turns to Marx in a most innovative and provocative way that I loved as much as his analysis of Goethe. A few choice quotes that turn around traditional understandings of Marxist thought:

We will soon see how the real force and originality of Marx’s “historical materialism” is the light it sheds on modern spiritual life (88).

Marx can shine new light…he can clarify the relationship between modernist culture and the bourgeois economy and society–the world of “modernization”–from which it has sprung (90).

Although Marx identifies himself as a materialist, he is not primarily interested in the things that the bourgeoisie creates. What matters to him is the processes, the powers, the expressions of human life and energy: men working, moving, cultivating, communicating, organizing and reworking nature and themselves–the new and endlessly renewed modes of activity that the bourgeoisie brings into being (93).

I think this is precisely the power of Marx’s thought. And I love where this insight takes us:

Alas to the bourgeois’ embarrassment, they cannot afford to look down the roads they have opened up: the great wide vistas may turn into abysses. They can go on playing their revolutionary role only by denying its full extent and depth. But radical thinkers and workers are free to see where the roads lead, and to take them. If the good life is a life of action, why should the range of human activities be limited to those that are profitable? And why should modern men, who have seen what men’s activity can bring about, passively accept the structure of their society as it is given? Since organized and concerted action can change the world in so many ways, why not organize and work together and fight to change it still more? (94).

Going back to the main quote about melting into air, I think this understanding of what we fight is pivotal, because change is intrinsic to capitalism which benefits from it, but as part of our own interior selves it must also be part of what we build to replace it:

Our lives are controlled by a ruling class with vested interests not merely in change but in crisis and chaos. “Uninterrupted disturbance, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” instead of subverting the society, actually serve to strengthen it. Catastrophes are transformed into lucrative opportunities for redevelopment and renewal; disintegration works as a mobilizing and hence an integrating force (95).

If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid (100).

Thus where Marx sees a stable communist, collective sharing society that needs to be formed, Berman argues that these dynamic forces within us will still work to destabilize any future solidity, and any attempts to hold and control this change will only serve to damage and ossify what we have won.

But the problem is that, given the nihilistic thrust of modern personal and social development, it is not at all clear what political bonds modern men can create. Thus the trouble in Marx’s thought turns out to be a trouble that runs through the whole structure of modern life itself (128).

Another key understanding is the way that capitalism changes and survives through incorporation and subsummation:

When Marx says that other values are “resolved into” exchange value, his point is that bourgeois society does not efface old structures of value but subsumes them. Old modes of honor and dignity do not die; instead, they get incorporated into the market, take on price tags, gain a new life as commodities. Thus, any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible, becomes “valuable”; anything goes if it pays. This is what modern nihilism is all about (111).

This is just a lovely quote that summarises modern society:

How Marx ‘develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them: the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined: a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations (121).

Berman returns to literature specific to Paris as he examines Haussman and Baudelaire, the tensions between celebrating everyday life of the people, making the city better, redeveloping some things out of existence while creating the possibility for growth and positive change. This is from the poet Theodore de Banville’s tribute at Baudelaire’s grave:

He accepted modern man in his entirety, with his weakness, his aspirations and his despair. He had thus been able to give beauty to sights that did not possess beauty in themselves, not by making them romantically picturesque, but by bringing to light the portion of the human soul hidden in them; he had thus revealed the sad and often tragic heart of the modern city. That was why he haunted, and would always haunt, the minds of modern men, and move them when other artists left them cold (132).

On Haussman’s work in Paris:

…it opened up the whole of the city, for the first time in its history, to all its inhabitants. Now, at last, it was possible to move not only within neighborhoods, but through them. Now, after centuries of life as a cluster of isolated cells, Paris was becoming a unified physical and human space (151).

And it is here in Paris we meet the ‘modern man’ (and man it is), see the obsession with crowds, traffic, movement, change:

The archetypal modern man, as we see him here, is a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal. The burgeoning street and boulevard traffic knows no spatial or temporal bounds, spills over into every urban space, imposes its tempo on everybody’s time, transforms the whole modern environment into a “moving chaos.” The chaos here lies not in the movers themselves…but in their interaction, in the totality of their movements in a common space. This makes the boulevard a perfect symbol of capitalism’s inner contradictions: rationality in each capitalistic unit, leading to anarchic irrationality in the social system that brings all these units together (157).

This was so reminiscent of the film Cairo Drive it was a little spooky. This life and art to be found in traffic is such an interesting thing:

…poets will become more deeply and authentically poetic by becoming more like ordinary men. If he throws himself into the moving chaos of everyday life in the modern world — a life of which the new traffic is a primary symbol — he can appropriate this life for art (160).

And I love this way of thinking about streets, how they have changed, how they are defined by us and define us, how they make new ideas of collectivity possible:

For one luminous moment, the multitude of solitudes that make up the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people. “The streets belong to the people”: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own. For a little while the chaotic modernism of solitary brusque moves gives way to an ordered modernism of mass movement (164).

I like thinking about the shifts in how encounters take place in the street:

for most of our century, urban spaces have been systematically designed and organized to ensure that collisions and confrontations will not take place here. The distinctive sign of nineteenth-century urbanism was the boulevard, a medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth-century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of mdoernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism’s name (165).

And I really like what he likes about Baudelaire, though there is more to dislike:

a will to wrestle to the end of his energy with modern life’s complexities and contradictions, to find and create himself in the midst of the anguish and beauty of its moving chaos (170).

It is a desire to live openly with the split and unreconciled character of our lives, and to draw energy from our inner struggles, wherever they may lead us in the end. If we learned through modernism to construct halos around our spaces and ourselves, we can learn from another modernism — one of the oldest but also, we can see now, one of the newest — to lose our halos and find ourselves anew (171).

There’s a whole chapter on St Petersburg, which gave me a long list of Russian authors to read or revisit (you know I loved that), and was interesting but I didn’t feel it compared to the first two chapters. Perhaps because it is looking at those societies who haven’t gone through this upheaval, who are stuck or behind in terms of development. A good thing to do, but he tries to make the same kind of sweeping statements, using Russia to potentially understand the rest of the world which I think is a really bad idea. Really. Bad.I won’t go into vastly different histories of ‘discovery’, colonialism, slavery, genocide, centuries of outside exploitation, the solidifying of structural racism and etc.

That said, I was quite delighted to find a discussion of the impact that Crystal Palace, South London’s own Crystal Palace, had on some key Russian authors (why don’t I remember this from Dostoevsky?) and utopian thought. I’m looking forward to thinking more about that. There was also an amazing word brought from English into Russian:  infiltrazya – Soviet word expressing the fear of the ‘flow of new words and things from other shores’. Awesome.

Anyway, this comes back to its own when it comes back to NY and Marshall Berman’s beloved Bronx, destroyed through these very forces he is working to describe. He wrestles here with what made the destruction of his neighbourhood possible, and I haven’t really read people wrestling with this before though I think it is so vital:

It is easy to dwell endlessly on Moses’ personal power and style. But this emphasis tends to obscure one of the primary sources of his vast authority: his ability to convince a mass public that he was the vehicle of impersonal world-historical forces, the moving spirit of modernity (294).

And this spirit of modernity twisted in odd, and I think fairly terrible ways. Killing one of its sources:

the makers of the post-World War One “modern movement” in architecture and urbanism turned radically against this modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, “We must kill the street.” (317)

Le Corbusier is on my list, but I have read Jane Jacobs, I like what Berman finds of import in her writings:

Much of her intellectual authority springs from her perfect grasp of the structures and processes of everyday life. She makes her readers feel that women know what it is like to live in cities, street by street, day by day, far better than the men who plan and build them.

But our critique is much the same:

It seems to me that beneath her modernist text there is an anti-modernist subtext, a sort of undertow of nostalgia for a family and a neighborhood in which the self could be securely embedded, ein’feste Burg, a solid refuge against all the dangerous currents of freedom and ambiguity in which all modern men and women are caught up…

And really the problem?

…no blacks on her block. This is what makes her neighborhood vision seem pastoral: it is the city before the blacks got there. Her world ranges from solid working-class whites at the bottom to professional middle-class whites at the top… (324)

Ironically, one could say the same about Berman really.

Returning to what makes wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods possible, one of the things I loved most — and that must have been so hard to write — is the soul searching he does, wondering if his family would have voluntarily left the Bronx if they had not been evicted. If it had not been destroyed by Moses, would his family have followed the same path of white flight/ advancement with all of their neighbours? Would the Bronx have been destroyed through this flight of resources just as surely as other areas?

For the Bronx of my youth was possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility. To live well meant to move up socially, and this in turn meant to move out physically; to live one’s life close to home was not to be alive at all. Our parents, who had moved up and out from the Lower East Side, believed this just as devoutly as we did–even though their heart might break when we went. Not even the radicals of my youth disputed this dream…when you see life this way, no neighborhood or environment can be anything more than a stage along life’s way, a launching pad for higher flights and wider orbits than your own (326-327).

Rethinking this, better planning for it or I think better yet changing it, is something radicals certainly need to think through.

I leave you with the last sentence:

I believe that we and those who come after us will go on fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air (348).

[For even more on Berman and the role of the intellectual, you can read here. Also I apologise for not having the willpower to go back over this blog post and removed the overabundance of love that it suffers from perhaps.]


Restless Cities

9781844674053-frontcover-83c085449c453716ce5cb8062d23e61eEdited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, 2010. Verso.

A wide ranging collection of authors writing about the different ways we live, experience, traverse the city — and thus also serving as a possible model to write about and try to understand those things. They are a very accessible series of meditations really, no footnotes or endnotes, a list of readings at the end of each chapter rather than bibliography. Each is centered around a verb: Archiving, Bombing, Commuting, Convalescing, Daydreaming, Driving, Falling, Imaging, Inhabiting, Lodging, Phoning, Potting, Recycling, Sickening, Waiting, Zigzagging. Interesting that each author approached these themes far differently than I would have — a good counterpoint to my interior voice and pointing the way to my enjoyment. A new way of thinking about the city in connection with a way of being or acting within it. Depending on the author, and, to be fair, my own preoccupations these days, these were more or less rewarding encounters.

Archiving is one current preoccupation, and I love thinking of the city like this so I shall spend some time with Michael Sheringham’s piece. The opening line: ‘One of the city’s archives is its detritus’ (1) was unexpected and I wanted more of the strange maps of rubbish, but we soon moved onto the familiar ground of authors charting the dirty depths of the city. Calvino, Hugo, Dickens, Joyce, Perec, referencing Defoe and Poe and moving on to Sebald and Benjamin and Baudelaire and Sinclaire and etc. I like this cannon but really, I think they are a little exhausted by now, their insights well explored, and the incredible diversity of cities deserves some new voices that reflect it. Still, I unequivocally like this, though I am still thinking it through:

For Derrida, the archive is first of all a physical location, a place of deposit–like the Archivo de los Indios…Secondly, for Derrida, the archive is the site of a conflict between the urge to preserve and the urge to destroy, between remembering and forgetting. Archival action consists in the activities of accumulation, classification and consultation: it happens in the present, but its true time-frame is the future. Archives are always of the future; what we make of the pasts that we are made of. The cityscape, its streets, monuments and open spaces, its slums and beaux quartiers, are all the products of accretion, juxtaposition and transformation, but this history is made available to us at the surface. The city wears its heart on its sleeve (12).

I loved Beaumont’s acknowledgment of convalescing and its altered state, the sensitivity and betweeness and the newness of everything and how that changes what and how we see. The chapter on Daydreaming almost made me like Debord and the Situationists again:

As for Mumford, so too for Debord, the ideal city was one in which all human creativity would be maximized. It would be an imaginatively suggestive space, not a streamlined or spectacular one. Such a city would be to some degree structured like the unconscious, a realm in which all elements would exist in an open relationship with one another. It would be a multi-layered space, difficult to control, impossible to plan, the ultimate success of which would be gauged by the ‘situationist possibilities’ it made possible. What is more, the Situationist dream city would be inimical to daydream to the degree that it would do away with the need for it, re-dissolving spectacle back into situation, and fantasy back into play (91).

I’ve enjoyed thinking about how that would work, what that would look and feel like, if I feel threatened by a city that is inimical to my daydreaming. I can’t visualise myself without my daydreams, they are so much a part of me, particularly when I ride public transportation. They are where I work out stories and when my unconscious works best to unknot that problem I’m having in my thesis or my writing.

Driving seemed to miss the joy, the music turned up all the way, the warm wind blowing through your hair, the road before you, the power to go anywhere, the control over your small domain, the pleasure in hugging curves and shifting gears smoothly. In short, the awesome visceral experience that driving can be…though it too often is not, especially in this country. I’m remembering those trips from Tucson to the mines near Green Valley to deliver maps for my dad, driving our boat of a buick older than I was down the windings of Mission road, a two lane highway through the res with its shot up street signs and its lack of traffic. I guess I was lucky. And I suppose that is not driving in the city, nor is Tucson a city in any European sense.

‘Falling’ I loved, Marshall Berman I love because he understands the meaning of home and of losing home, the power of city governments to tear down and destroy and ruin and lay waste and the echoes and unending sense of loss that it leaves in the lives of hundreds and thousands of people. Urbicide. The death of buildings, urban fabric, community, and individual hopes and homes. I like Patrick Keiller as well, his essay ‘Imaging’ is included in his latest collection where I first read it — though I can’t read anything he writes without hearing it spoken by the narrator of the Robinson films. Which I enjoy greatly I confess.

I quite adored ‘Potting’ by Kasia Boddy, a history of the geranium from its early rarity and thus high class beginnings through its sensual teens (just think lips of geranium red) to a long history of bright colour and sturdy uprightness loved by some and despised by others. I was sad to hear William Morris was of the latter. We can’t all have gardens, we can’t all escape the dirty concrete city into a backyard or a summer home or a holiday trip. We can all have a geranium on the windowsill. The geranium through literature is a barometer not just of gender relations, but of class-inflected feelings (and judgments) about the city and the home. This was a brilliant exploration of the city through the popularity and use of a flower.

The final essay on ‘Zigzagging’ by Mark W. Turner was also very powerful, a cry against the straight lines of City Beautiful and le Corbusier, the careful planning and rationalisations of the whole of life made possible by creating a perfectly rational environment. It is a celebration of the bent, the queer, the spontaneous, the unplanned, the poetic. It echoes Dart in some ways, but questions our adherence to that cannon (hurrah!), drawing instead on the glories and dangers of living itself, of cruising, of queerness, of encounter. I loved it, and the importance of the message and the passion of it were a good way to end the collection, as not all of the essays were quite up to that standard. There’s one about perfect coffee and donuts that name drops a stay in every cultural capital of the world…and it is dismissive of Effra Road here in Brixton. But never mind.

There is a lot to think about here, and it will change the way you see certain things. Geraniums at the very least.

For more…