place

On Localism

Many thanks to everyone who came out yesterday and to all of the participants on the panel. Our next panel is on politics and will take place April 13. Steve Graham will be our special guest, with our focus the topic of his next book… Cities Under Siege. Video of today's panel will be up by the end of the day, or so I hope.

To me, the most interesting point raised by the panel was a distinction between localism and conventional ideas about local place. For many people today, localism is a counterpoint to globalization. "Locally-sourced" produce, local food (particularly slow food), and local crafts undo the sameness that globalization relentlessly imposes everywhere.

Localism is a reaction to the loss of place which, if we follow Marc Augé's definition from his book Non-Place, is a space with significance, a space in which meaning accrues out of historical activity. Think of a market in a town square to which the same people go daily to sell or buy produce. Over the years relationships build: children grow up, adults grow old, days gone by are remembered. For Augé, non-place, that is spaces of transit that we pass through, disconnected from others, is rapidly obliterating place.I've argued elsewhere that in the two decades since he wrote his book, Augé's non-place is itself disappearing: instead we live in an oversaturated world, and non-places become not spaces of disconnect but rather spaces in which we connect with others.

But localism isn't a return to place. For many of us, the necessities of a highly-specialized job market (how many architecture historians studying contemporary telecommunications do you know?) force us to move around too often to develop a lasting connection with a place. Localism is a simulation of the local. We make connections, we became regulars, we have intense but fleeting relationships with others, generally based around consumption (either with the staff at our favorite local restaurant or with the friends we go there with), but for most of us it's temporary. Soon we're on our way again. The ties break, or at best, are held together by the Net. Perhaps this accounts for localism's wistfulness. Place is tragic: a great hope shattered by the Fall. Localism is comic: a temporary reconciliation that everyone knows is momentary, a bit of light laughter that helps us forget the inevitable. 

On Death

I'm usually late in sending out holiday greetings and this year is no exception. We had planned to make a physical version of our annual family photo but didn't manage to do it in time for the holidays, so we wound up sending out virtual versions. At least there was snow. I sent out the photo to perhaps 150 friends and colleagues and received the usual 20 bounces. One bittersweet surprise was finding out that my friend Daniel Beunza has moved to the London School of Economics. I'm sure it'll be a great place for him—and he's closer to his home country of Spain—but I'll miss discussions about finance with this remarkable colleague. Much sadder was receiving an automated e-mail from Anne Friedman, another friend with whom I co-wrote the Place chapter of Networked Publics saying that she was on indefinite medical leave. I had received this same message a while back and was concerned, but I didn't get in touch. This time, I looked her up in Google news—just in case—and was saddened to hear that she died this October.

I remember Anne and I talking about how I had discovered that Derek Gross, a college friend who died on 1996 via his Web page. This was before the age of blogs, but Derek updated his Web page regularly and when I visited it to see when his band was next playing, I found he had died, together with a record of his experience. Certainly it's something I had never wished to see again, but just as surely discovering Anne's death via the net is not going to be the final time.   

Anne was a brilliant scholar, as evidenced by her books Window Shopping and the Virtual Window, as well as a great friend. She was crucial for not only my chapter, but also for the Networked Publics group and our book, articulating issues that were fundamental to the project, asking and giving me sage advice throughout. I could not have written the chapter of the book without her. Together we sat in our offices, she in her Lautner House, I in the AUDC studio on Wilshire Boulevard, and wrote the chapter simultaneously on Writely (now Google Docs). In so doing, we experienced the phenomenon of our voices becoming co-mingled, producing a third entity that was neither Anne nor myself. I am heartbroken that there will never be a sequel.

Unpacking My Library

"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." That's how Walter Benjamin begins the essay which, not surprisingly, he calls "Unpacking My Library." Benjamin, whose library has been packed in boxes during two years of instability caused by personal and political troubles, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls books out one by one. Each book reminds him of where he bought it, why he bought it, and his frame of mind at the time. Thinking of himself as a specimen of that twentieth-century type, the collector, Benjamin writes

…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

The library, Benjamin's passage suggests, is not only a data bank, it is an mnemonic device for an intellectual's life.    

Like many days this year, I find myself in the same situation as Benjamin. When we moved from Los Angeles, I decided to put most of my books in storage, leaving them in boxes in the basement. The official story I told was that we would be moving out of the place we were renting into a permanent home soon and it would be too much of a hassle to unpack all of the books only to repack them a few years later. Moreover, with a toddler around the house, the books would be sitting targets.

But this was only a ruse. I had decided long ago that it was time to rid myself of these things. Moving from Los Angeles only confirmed my feelings. After the movers had gone, I looked at my apartment and thought about the shelves that once lined them, stuffed full with books.

"The modernists had it right all along," I said to myself, "but damn them. They wrote too many books." I resolved to do something about this.

With three of my own books published last fall, my pace slowed from frantic to manic and I had some time in the evenings to unpack my library, but not to lovingly put it back on the shelves as Benjamin did. Instead, I would sell it off mercilessly.

As I unpack a book, I evaluate it. What are the chances that I'll want to read it again? If not (and in most cases I am not going to read a book that has sat in a box for two years anytime in the near future), I enter the book's ISBN code into a Web page on Amazon.com, describe its condition, and assign a price, which according to an unwritten code shared among the more honorable book sellers on Amazon, will be a penny less than the least expensive exemplar of that book already on sale. When an order comes, I have a procedure set up. I print out the packing slip, put the book in an appropriate envelope, weigh it, and then print out a mailing label on a label printer. On average I sell a book or two a day, but as I put more of my library up for sale, the number of books I sell rises. The curious can see what I have for sale here

philip johnson's library 

[not my library but rather Philip Johnson's] 

Into my thirties, this would have been foreign for me. My father is an artist and a book collector although he prefers the term bibliophile. His collections are not insignificant and are on display in Vilnius, Lithuania in a museum dedicated to them (together with his art work) and have been the topic of a dissertation at Vilnius University. Emulating him, I began collecting books as a child, although sadly all of those were discarded over the years by my parents (from a psychoanalytic point of view, I suspect my past and present attitude toward book collecting is related to this loss). From the 1980s through the late 1990s, I built a small library of art, architecture, and theory books, perhaps four or five thousand volumes, along with a reasonable collection of records and CDs. In this, I could empathize with both Benjamin and my father. 

But things are different now. Benjamin was only twenty-five years older than my father and they shared the same world. Book were precious objects, defined by their scarcity. The bookstore, particularly the used bookstore run by a keen-eyed bookseller in a large city, was a shrine for them. 

My moment is quite different. Today virtually any book is available on the Internet for a few dollars and a few days wait. Used book stores are disappearing. London's famed Charing Cross, mecca for the book lovers from around the world, is all but defunct.

 another image of Johnson's library 

 [another image from Johnson's library]

The musty smell of the used bookstore fades from my memory. I can't recall the last time I went into one for pleasure. Perhaps a decade ago in Los Angeles? I remember the bitterness that I felt when I tried to sell a box of art boxes to that bookseller and he offered me twenty dollars. I knew that I had spent dozens of times that amount on the books within and I knew he would retain a substantial margin. Of course he had to eat and he employees and rent to pay, but nevertheless I left in disgust. I was a good customer but I wouldn't return. On Amazon, my books sell for a sizable fraction of their original price. Some books, out of print but still in demand, sell for much more.

Today if I need a book, I can guarantee that it will be here in a matter of days. So why should I hang on to it when I am done with it? It's better to pass it on into the hands of someone else who wants it enough to pay for it.    

superstudio image 

There is no question that I lose memories as I sell off my unwanted books, but there are other considerations. My father is proud of his collection—after all it is part of the Lithuanian National Museum now—but he is also melancholy. The amount of matter to haul around and preserve weighs heavily on the soul. Selling my books allows me to realize, if even partially, Superstudio's greatest dream: life without objects.      

The global continuum of information and product flow that we live in means anything is available to anyone at any time. When that is possible, the need for permanent ownership ceases. Does life become a constant field of variation, our possessions an endlessly reconfigurable but minimal set of objects?     

Place, Revised

One month ago, I announced that I'd re-introduce the Networked Publics book to my readers, chapter by chapter. In the meantime I've been hard at work on that book, the Johnson Tapes, and the Infrastructural City. Networked Publics achieved another milestone yesterday as MIT finished my corrections to the copy edits that they made to the text. So far, my experience with the press has been stellar. I'm a big fan. 

Today I'd like to turn to the text that Anne Friedberg and I co-wrote on Place. To introduce it, I'd like to recall a conversation I had with Mark Shepard last night. Mark is a brilliant professor with a joint appointment in architecture and media studies at the University of Buffalo. His Tactical Sound Garden is an amazing project that employs locative media while it avoids the kind of heavy-handed instrumentalism that so many locative media projects embrace (aside: I really hope it gets realized for a broad audience with the opening up of the iPhone SDK). Curiously, Mark and I were in architecture school together at Cornell, sitting two desks away from each other. But circumstances are just that, the milieu certainly did little encourage us in this direction, unless perhaps it provoked a counter-reaction.

In any event, Mark clarified my own framework to me when he suggested that the model of network culture that Anne and I lay out in the Place chapter of Networked Publics is spatially distinct from the one that Jameson lays out in Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism. In that model, which was so crucial for us for so long, Jameson takes the Bonaventure hotel as his rhetorical object. Jameson sees the hotel's notorious interior as an analog to postmodern hyperspace, its bilaterally symmetrical interior simple in plan but impossible to navigate in reality. For Jameson, this condition represents the postmodern entanglement of the subject in a system that has no exterior, a system that the subject can no longer take an outside vantage point in order to map. But this is still a Euclidean space. Being inside it is the reason the subject can't map it. In contrast, Mark noted that the condition of spatiality that Anne and I describe is entirely different. In this model (even if this is an AUDC project and goes unmentioned in the Place chapter), my rhetorical object is One Wilshire (which has indeed been as important to me as the Bonaventure was for Jameson), a structure that seemingly exists in one space but in fact defines many superimposed simultaneous environments. 

So, Mark pointed out, at the very core of Jameson's theory, we find a condition that is very different from ours. To be sure, we'll continue mapping, something I suggest in this essay, but placefinding is going to be a very different thing indeed under network culture. 

All that said, there have been some revisions to the text in the last iteration and I'm quite happy with the chapter and the voice that Anne and I developed during our year at Networked Publics. See here for Place.  

 

 

 

 

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