Saturday, 6 February 2010

Cities of Stories...

While reading the art blog Lines and Colors a while ago I came across this excellent stop-motion animation. It was produced by Apt Studio in 2009 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Harper Collins imprint 4th Estate. 

The film immediately caught my imagination as the small character, animated on the pages of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, escaped the book's pages as the closed upon him, and stepped out into the bustling intertextual metropolis beyond. That figure is of course the reader. Bauby himself was not able to share the privilege of escaping his own story. Having suffered a stroke in 1995 he was afflicted with a rare condition known in his native France as 'maladie de l'emmuré vivant'. A literal translation into English would be 'walled-in alive disease'. Otherwise completely paralysed, Bauby's only means of communicating his life story was by blinking his left eye. As his transcriber repeatedly read the alphabet aloud Bauby would blink to signal the letter he intended them to write. Proceeding in this way the book took ten months to complete. Bauby died two days after its publication in 1997.

Watching the film I was reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein's analogy between language and the city in his Philosophical Investigations:
Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.
Wittgenstein's reason for making this analogy was to undermine the idea that a language, or our grasp of it, need be complete in order for us to use it meaningfully. For Wittgenstein it was sufficient that we are able to successfully navigate the elements of the language we do have in order to convey meaning. With regard to the city, would London be any more or less complete, any more or less navigable, once Renzo Piano's Shard has been built? And what about after its demolition, perhaps to make way for a new tower? We might need to stop and get our bearings of course. But there would be plenty of other sign posts and landmarks around to help us...unless everything changed at once. With regard to either language or the city, we generally get on fine making do with what we've got. He goes on to suggest that "to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life". Likewise with the city. So what form of life does the city in the film support?

On first sight the figure of the reader emerging from Bauby's book appears to be a kind of flâneur; a solitary stroller out to botanize on textual asphalt, to paraphrase Benjamin's assessment of Baudelaire. Without any particular commitment or care the flâneur is free to take each story as they please: the consummate consumer then; more a biblio-tourist than a bibliophile? Not perhaps an ideal friend. 

On the contrary, the reader the film celebrates would be the bricoleur rather than the idle flâneur. Both are consumers but only the latter remains passive in that act; merely a roving eye (?). True the bricoleur may also read selectively, 'poaching' what they want as they go. Their distinction is their inclination to creatively re-combine their pickings in order to create new narratives. Moving around the city those stories are put into circulation. They find new audiences, new storytellers, and can generate affects beyond the scope of the imagination alone. In this way the film can be read as a condensation of the practices of walking and reading explicated in Michel de Certeau's book The Practice of Everyday Life, and an allegorisation of the 'tactics' constitutive of both.

What I particularly like about the film is the way in which it suggests that the city is more than just infrastructure and architecture. Amongst other things it is a place where stories are developed and shared. Following Wittgenstein's cue I suggested above that to imagine a city is to imagine a form of life. I wonder to what extent concerns over form of life would inform the daily work of urban planners and architects? And also, where might we look to find the architectural equivalent of a dead language?

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