Thursday, May 17, 2007

Cities of Panic

In an article on “the urbanization of panic,” Franco Berardi argues that panic increasingly “tends to become the urban psychic dimension”:

During the past centuries, the building of the modern urban environment used to be dependent on the rationalist plan of the political city. The economic dictatorship of the last few decades has accelerated the urban expansion. The interaction between cyber-spatial sprawl and urban physical environment has destroyed the rationalist organisation of the space.
It seems doubtful to me that “rationalist organization” was ever a reliable bulwark against urban anxiety, not least because Kathryn Milun argues so convincingly in Pathologies of Modern Space that the “intense emptiness” of the 19th-century city’s rationally planned public squares created a near-epidemic of agoraphobia.

It’s not clear what Berardi means by “panic.” He has a firm idea of what causes it, though:
The social organism is unable to process the overwhelmingly complex experience of metropolitan chaos.
Maybe not. But then, the social organism has no obvious need to do this. On the contrary, we function by not processing all the stimuli that come our way. We may indeed be overstimulated or confused or anxious, but it’s not certain that this is simply because urban life is too “chaotic” or “complex”; some city dwellers may be panicked because they hate their job, or can’t afford to pay their medical bills. After all, man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Or so I hear.

Berardi goes on to insist that cities produce “a stimulation too strong and too rapid” for human beings. Granting that urban life has some intractable problems, this seems a little highhanded. Speaking for myself, I’ve noticed that some people seem to be…well, happier in the city. But perhaps it’s only because they don’t understand their abject subordination to "Semio-Kapital":
Semio-Kapital…is not about the production of material goods, but about the production of psychic stimulation. The mental environment is saturated by signs that create a sort of continuous excitation, a permanent electrocution, which leads the individual mind as well as the collective mind to a state of collapse.
”The mental environment is saturated by signs,” eh?

Why am I always the last to know these things?

Honestly, it’s a little late in the day to assume that cities are inherently productive of alienation and anxiety or “a state of collapse,” whether or not they’re interacting with “cyber-spatial sprawl.” As I see it, Berardi’s critique is not all that different from the Nazi critique of Weimar cosmopolitanism. Which is to say that it’s one-sided, at best.

What I find interesting about these anxieties is not the extent to which they’re causing minds to collapse, but the extent to which they’re holding them together. There’s a fairly obvious link between panic and escapism (and between cultural theory and escapism, for that matter), and what seems like a nightmare to you or me may be preferable, for some people, to a far more intolerable reality.

While traveling in the Midwest recently, I spent some time talking to a self-professed libertarian at a coffee shop. He told me he lived alone on 40 acres about an hour outside the city, and had a good-sized stockpile of weapons. He was prepared (i.e., yearning) for the breakdown of society, and if “they” came to get him, he was willing (i.e., hoping) to go out in a blaze of glory. His vision of human nature was fairly dark, even by my dour standards. But it seemed to make him happy, and the more apocalyptic his scenario became, the more he seemed – in Charles Mackay’s fine phrase – “to delight in hearing his own organs articulate it.”

In my experience, that attitude is a lot more common among suburban and rural dwellers than urbanites. At Eschaton the other night, we were talking about what it was like to live in NYC on and after 9/11 (as I and many other regulars did). Several of us felt that there was far less panic among New Yorkers than among Americans who lived thousands of miles away (in the suburbs, usually) and were at little risk – then or now – of falling prey to terrists.

Thinking about it today, I wonder if these people simply felt left out, and were jealous. One thing I do know is that downplaying the threat of terrorism in general, or of some specific weapon like botulinum toxin or EMP, tends to make them angry. They seem to want more panic in their lives, not less.

Maybe it’s not panic at all, for all I know. Maybe it’s desire, dressed up in an emotionally acceptable disguise.

Over at Subtopia, Bryan Finoki uses Berardi’s article as a jumping-off point for a far more compelling discussion of “the implicit panic in structures like border fences and detention centers, bunkers and nuclear shelters, urban conflict zones, foreign embassies, paramilitarism and slumaphobia, etc.”

If we want to, we can find “implicit panic” in everything from seatbelts to non-slip shower mats. I think that what’s important about Bryan’s examples of “architectures of control” is who they represent as a threat (i.e., the poor, minorities, foreigners, and so forth), and to what extent we experience that representation as gratifying or convenient or what have you. From this standpoint, one could argue that Berardi is wrong because he misses the point that “cities of panic,” far from being too complex, are too simple, inasmuch as they tell us what we want to hear. (Unlike, say, the somewhat more ethically demanding City of Refuge.)

Bryan suggests the possibility of viewing “panic as a new prototypical capitalist form,” which I think begs the question of what capitalism has been based on up 'til now. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that a system that treats competition as a quasi-religious duty is going to be fueled to a huge extent by panic. In concentrating on the city “as an architectural weapon to enforce behavior” – as something imposed on us, in other words - I think we run the risk of ignoring the extent to which “cities of panic” are where we want to live, perhaps because (as I’ve argued previously) there’s a lack of meaning elsewhere.

(Illustration: "Apocalyptic Landscape (Nr. Halensee Railway Station), 1913" by Ludwig Meidner.)

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