The Metropolis as a Theme for Reflection
“And so, to here we come to live”
—R.M. Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Why? There are many reasons, obvious and less obvious. The Metropolis may interest us as an object of touristic pleasure, an evanescent emotion because it is limited within time. In this case we will need no travel guides, such as the history of the architecture, a list of galleries or musicals, or places to visit or to avoid because they are considered “dangerous.” For the Metropolis might stimulate our thought because in it we perceive a kind of reflection of our daily life made of real problems, sensations, loves, angers, hatred. In this second case, which is the one that interests us most, the Metropolis becomes a metaphor in this sense: by studying it we sense the possibility of verifying our “moral tension,” our nervous life, that complex system of vibrations in which we see dancing fragments of our own identity. For this it is not at all necessary to live in the Metropolis. Those who live in towns or small cities are always, consciously or not, confronted with the Metropolis. The Metropolis fascinates us because its essence has very much to do with the disordered acting out of all our sensations, anguish, conflicts, ambiguities, and “wish of God” which characterize our epoch. There is no need to live in it to be confronted with these problems. They are always present, wherever we live.
There is no central square.
The Metropolis radically distinguishes itself from the City because it has no center, no Main Square, no point of (collection) re-composition capable of functioning as a synthesis of the multiple individual experiences of its inhabitants, The Square, the ancient agora as an image of the polis of the Homo Politicus, all this is sheer souvenir, (heirloom). The influx of the masses has destroyed the equilibrium of the old City, and the Center is forever unhinged. The City becomes a Metropolis by turning everything into periphery, by proliferating squares.
This first characteristic makes the Metropolis a social, political and philosophical reference which is totally peculiar. The “fascination” of the Metropolis lies precisely in its being a space of destructuralized life, deprived of its center and of its synthetical abstraction. The absence of the main square as a point of recomposition and synthesis of heterogeneous and individual experiences makes it immediately impossible to mythicize the Metropolis. The Metropolis is, first of all, a laboratory of our own thought. It cannot be mythicized because the problems it poses are humanly complex.
Whoever arrives in a Metropolis goes immediately through a shock. The first impact reveals itself most of the time as a sensation of opposition, despite the euphoria typical of discovery. We are frightened by the Metropolis not by the so-called criminological unknowns but by a more fundamental unknown: the irreversible deterritorialization of our social life deprives us of any certainty. Now we would like “to regard this certainty, not as something akin to hastiness or superficiality, but as a form of life” (L. Wittgenstein).
The shock unveils the death of the autonomy of our knowledge. You cannot rely anymore on your thousand sciences. The sciences that you need for your life can only be created on the ashes of your own certainty. Orphans without shelter, we are now confronted with our own solitude. By making us anonymous, the shock reveals its twofold characteristic: if we want to live in the Metropolis, we can only move from opposition to, to penetration of, the interiorization of its mechanisms. To live, not only to survive, in the Metropolis, forces us to make a choice: the anonymizing loneliness which provokes despair and isolation must be understood as a moment of possible discovery. While the “herd” still says: “He who seeks, easily gets lost, all loneliness is guilt,” you start to answer: “I no longer have a common conscience with you.” The strength we need to turn loneliness into solitude, the strength which makes the individual a movement, this strength is to be found in the decomposition of our own hopes. “Is it your wish, my brother, to go into solitude?” asks Zarathustra. “The time will come when solitude will make you weary, when your pride will double up, and your courage gnash its teeth” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, P. Books, pp. 62–3).
When the poet Rilke arrives in Paris in 1899 he tries to find in God the source of comfort and aid in the phase of the negative shock. “Lord, give back to everybody his own death,” give us back our identity, our name and surname (Il Libro d’Ore). Already a “man without a home,” Rilke confronts himself with the same Paris of Baudelaire. But for Rilke the fascination turns itself into repulsion. The new metropolitan reality, the destruction of the old City, still allows Rilke to invoke God as “pure interlocutor,” guardian of the “true life.” But the poet does not receive any answer from the “beyond” (the meta). God is incapable of giving back the identity that the Metropolis has burned. The Metropolis destroys metaphysics, forcing the subject to invent his own identity distinct from the one built up in the pre-metropolitan world, in the periphery. The shock wants us to speak without any mediation. Impossible is any clever use of the intellectual baggage hoarded in the churches of knowledge, in the family or in the community. For Rilke, the Metropolis is misery because there is no place for God, the transcendence, the possible synthesis.
Garcia Lorca, in New York in 1929, goes through this first shock. He is totally overcome by it. He cannot learn English and spends all of his time with Spanish friends. His New York poems are surrealistic a’la Dalí, something which does not appear as an escape in itself, but as an experiment which will reveal itself impotent in front of the future human and political problems of the Spanish Civil War.
To develop our knowledge becomes a necessary force, an immediate exercise that is not mediated by any autonomous science. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra accepts the invitation by the “foaming fool”—the man of the present—at the entrance of the Metropolis. But Zarathustra wants to go through the Metropolis, to pass it (“Thus spoke Zarathustra, and he passed by the fool and the great city,” p. 178). To live, much beyond survival, means to want the Metropolis, to want to dominate it subjectively. “If you would go higher, use your own legs. Do not let yourself be carried up; do not sit on the backs and heads of others.”
The Metropolis is a definition which goes far beyond the urbanistic aspect: a great city deprived of its own center where the synthesis and the shelter do not exist anymore. To learn how to live means to accept our own total solitude. We can find our shelter only in the boundless desert. It is not surprising that the first people who have grasped this peculiar characteristic of the Metropolis have always been the poets. Lyric poetry has in fact been the first form of expression capable of fully interiorizing the relationship between shock and experience. It is within Lyric poetry that we immediately find the course that the Metropolitan subject forcibly has to go through to realizerecognize its own negation.
It couldn’t be otherwise. Threatened by its own essence, yet always ready to sacrifice to preserve its authenticity, Lyric poetry becomes the vehicle of the interiorization of the shock. The shocks generates nomadic energy, a flux of moving molecules which turn themselves into the Language of the Shock. By separating shock from experience and by destroying the “superiority” of thought over shock, Lyric poetry allows the definite ex-plosion of the un-mediated language of shock. Of the shock only! Lyric poetry shows the Metropolitan subject speaking as shock! Language is now the end (Death) of any ideology because, in the separation of shock from experience, experience as such becomes the only moment in which the metropolitan subject can speak out. It is, in fact, the shock itself which speaks. The metropolitan individual subject is shock, is a shock!
In Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal) and in Edgar Allen Poe the crowd is seen as a mass of energy (The Market), the impossibility of its logical analysis, the beginning of silence. The metropolitan crowd becomes for the poet the market par excellence. “For the first time,” writes Benjamin, “the poet claims the value of the market.” The readership is the market, a market. The poet thus becomes an entrepreneur of himself, not the artisan (craftman), not the authentic interpreter, but the technician of form. The capitalist development Metropolis, to the extent that it initiates the agony of the dialectical relationship between production and consumption, at the same time, allows the bypassing of this dialectical separation. Ideas-information-travail sur contre la forme or are registered by the poet as the possible overcoming of Dialectic, of the separation (alienation) between work and consumption of products. Baudelaire and Poe’s disenchantment with the crowd in the Metropolis—the crowd seen as the market for all commodities, the art included—can transcend itself (see later). One could say that from Baudelaire, Poe, Rilke, Simmel, and Benjamin the death of ideology (the bridge between the present and the future) is not only the triumph of Silence and the dictatorship of the already-known-seen, the manipulation of tradition. It is much more than that. It is the beginning of a constructive thought (beyond Nietzsche and Wittgenstein).
The increasing interest for the great bourgeois thought from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein and for the historical experience of the Weimar Republic is probably due to our “will to know” the roots of the death of Dialectics. As the possible abstraction-synthesis characteristic of Hegel. In this search we want (—today—) to avoid the reimposition of Dialectics by Capital itself. We know that Capital can only exist on the basis of social antagonism. There is no development without struggle, no knowledge against antagonism. But we also know that this dialectical relationship between exploited and exploitees must be overcome by us, must accept the dimension of the post-industrial-dialectical epoch in order to discover Life, pleasure, love, in order to conquer the realm of desires.
So, if we need to go back it is only to go forward. Decadence must be production, otherwise it is “Death in Venice.” Yes, but how?
The anti-dialectical thought which inexorably leads us to Musil, Joseph Ruth, Robert Walser can be lived in the Metropolis. The destructivization of life, the deterritorialization of activity, the Balkanization of space so peculiar to the Metropolis educate us to life as “hanging around,” (vagabondage), promenade. Hanging out versus pilgrimage (as in Hesse). The promenade has no direction, no destination.
If we want to learn how to positively overcome the first phase of negative shock we have to learn how to enjoy the promenade, the fact that things happen. We have to overthrow the relationship between present and future. We can only tackle the future if we totally enjoy the present.
It is not coincidental that more and more young people choose to work here and there, work part time or off-the-books, deliberately renouncing the guarantees of normalized wage work. To work off-the-books and have immediately expendable cash “here and now” with no care for a pension or social security. Sure, the “underground economy” is also a sector of the economy dominated by super-exploitation, but it is also the perfect image of the Metropolitan process of production in which work is antagonism based on the re-appropriation of time.
Feyerabend (who has written critiques of the Western rational method) has observed that in the case of children the unedited, or novelty of a thing the unknown is always generated by a disordered anarchistic approach, of half truth, truth, half sentences etc. First of all comes the game and then innovation. The beauty of the happening of hanging out, lies precisely in this overthrow of the rationale method typical of western sciences. The solution of our fundamental human problems (which are equivalent to the problems of science) can only be discovered accidentally, by accepting this game, (passage) method which is an anti-method and synonymous with imagination. Any search which is intentionally or aprioristically codified is in vain. Which might sound quite absurd but yet it is true that most of the time things just happen. And most of the time they are what we need. In fact, the Metropolis is the anti-method par excellence, the crisis of the rational method. Feyerabend for instance uses the slogan Anything Goes as a way of giving value or qualifying the nomadic, anarchist methodology in order to deduce something which has not yet been deduced.
Metropolis and Utopia
In the beginning of this century the metropolitan architecture explored a new relationship between the Metropolis and Man. “The new ambiance of glass,” wrote Sheerabend, “will totally transform man and we can only hope that this new civilization of glass (geasskvetur) will not be confronted with too many opponents.” The skyscraper of glass is a symbol of utopia because of two things: it wants to impose an aesthetic language which transcends our “micro” needs and on the other hand, the utopia of the skyscraper of glass is an aesthetic that destroys (transcends) our desire for a new new home, a new family, a new shelter. The skyscraper imposes its own language to the dialect of our needs and to the faltering of our desires. The glass is a utopia to the extent that its destructive arrogance between interior and exterior (habitat and street) always leaves open the possibility (through its transparency) of a rediscovery of our own autonomous home.
The film, Metropolis by Fritz Lang was realized in 1926, in the middle of the tragic experience (tragic because it was impossible) of the Weimar Republic. The end of the film is the “historic compromise” between Proletariat and the State. The peace is signed by the state and the proletariat hold the right hands of the politicians over their hearts. And Goering, the right hand of Hitler would call Lang from his headquarters in the Third Reich in 1932 to propose that Lang become the Culture Consultant of the Nazi Party. And paradoxically (because the movie was the wish of peace) Fritz Lang will leave the Headquarters and without going home to pack his luggage will take a train to the nearest port and leave for the United States. And again, this was the theatric creator who believed it was possible in the metropolitan space to have a peace between the conflicting entities. The peace is impossible, as much as the synthesis is impossible, as much as one goal is impossible and thus is the symbol of the glass in as much as it is an attempt to destroy the conflict between interior and exterior—this wish to peace in the metropolis, (Foucault describes bourgeois domination of architecture as based on the realization of the wish to realize the total transparency of power. The fact that the power is based on the fact that everyone can see and yet cannot see who is looking at them.)
The Metropolis and Desire
It has been said that life in the Metropolis is based on activating desires. According to current definition, desire distinguishes itself from need because its object is never attained. Why should I accept this definition of desire? Isn’t it too logical? I desire love, or a family, I desire a woman, even if I know I have no models adequate for this wife of mine in the metropolis. And yet, I don’t want to turn this desire of mine into need because the desire defines my only secret freedom. Desire transcends the lack of the other (la mancanza). It transcends the dialectical relationship between need and the object of your need. Need is based on something that you don’t have—you are hungry you need to eat and so on but desire is not determined by something that you don’t have—it is a post-dialectical term. Desire, love means to accept the fact that I can only be happy by juxtaposing myself to the autonomy of the person I love. Love is a juxtaposition of solitude.
O irresistible, with fleshless face,
Say to these dancers in their dazzled race:
“Proud lovers with the paint above your bones.
Ye shall taste death, musk-scented skeletons!”
Withered Antinous, dandies with plump faces,
Ye varnished cadavers, and grey Lovelaces,
Ye go to lands unknown and void of breath,
Drawn by the rumour of the Dance of Death.
—Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal
The same may be said for hatred in the metropolis. The blase (Baudelaire’s dandy) in Paris at the end of the century is a negative subject to the extent that he is capable of smiling ironically on the mundane. (Mundanity in Tialian means that you believe that going out at night is the fulfillment of your desire, pleasure etc.) This irony, typical of the blase or the dandy is that he knows that pleasure goes much beyond this illusion of pleasure. He wants a world inundated by pleasure which is why he is capable of being detached and never defining himself by the ongoing illusion of nightlife. Don’t believe that your nightlife is the realization of your desire for pleasure because in fact, pleasure is not there at all to the extent that by believing that pleasure is there you deny the possibility of having more pleasure.
There is even more hatred in graffiti painted by kids on the subways because in this case art is a wish to power by potentiating the element of nomadism in art. The graffiti becomes a symbol of deterritorialization, a battle ground. Like love, the hatred which you can see in the graffiti is powerful to the extent that it is juxtaposed to the enemy.