Tag Archives: Philadelphia

From the Archives #4: What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space? (November 2007)

The Cruise

The Cruise

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The fourth writing I’ve selected, titled “What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space?”, was posted on November 12, 2007, and was written during my first semester teaching at The University of the Arts. At the time, I was teaching a web design studio and assignment the students to explore the urban environment and translate that experience into a web-based project. The film referenced in the post has been a key prompt for getting students to think about their relationship to urban space.

We know this to be the case: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).

I recently watched The Cruise again, the near perfect showing of a nearly unmediated (yet crafted, I think) experience of New York City as performed by Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Then, I watched it again (twice, for good measure). In one particular scene, Speed embraces — unfolds himself upon — one of the great stone piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, gently patting it, touching his forehead to it, communing with it. (Years ago we talked about licking buildings in architecture school. I think Hillary actually did it.) There’s something about the way he settles into the city, the restless comfort, the awkward sensuality, that confounds a mediated relationship to his world. Watching it now, I feel that that moment must have passed and he can no longer relate to the place in that way.

Aaron (aka Director of the Dept. for the Investigation of ReHumanization) has described his experience as a soldier in the Iraq war as being unmediated — or at least as close to unmediated as he has ever witnessed. It follows, then, that the shock and stress (often diagnosed as PTSD) which soldiers feel upon their return home has everything to do with the transition back into the mediated existence of our “civilization.”

Is mediation a buffer from trauma? Is mediation a barrier to being fully human? I’m curious about the relationship between mediation and dehumanization. Here’s Paulo Freire in the opening chapter of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as a historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Mediation implies a distance, the “separation” that Debord finds perfected in modern industrialized societies. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.There must be gradations embedded in this notion of mediation. Can a distinction between mediation (ontological) and media (technological) be discerned? Does the latter necessarily determine the former? Is there any essential difference between a jug and a handheld computer, both technologies of utility which mediate our experience of the world? Gradations and scale (hello McCluhan) present complications…

Is there a post-spectacle society? Within this paradigm, are we unable to imagine something beyond Debord’s critique? And to what degree is Debord’s critique dependent on teleological, historically and technologically determined trajectories of human evolution? Is there a post-mediated existence? (Is there a proto-mediated existence, for that matter?) Not an existence without mediation, but an existence absorbed fully by mediation? Such a prediction feels apocalyptic, dystopian. It suggests a time of post-feeling, post-human, a world populated by cyborgs whose dreams are filled with memories of archived material pulled from the master database of text, images, sounds, and videos that we are now building on the Net.

The image of Speed Levitch persists: he hurriedly crosses a street and enters an urban plaza space. He spins around several times, arms outstretched until dizzy. He lies down on his back, equidistant between the two World Trade Center towers, and carefully extends his right leg up and out, as if maintaining equilbirium between himself and the buildings. “The buildings look like they’re falling down,” he muses. (A few years later, they would say that watching the towers implode and collapse was like watching a movie.) The Cruise reminds me of the angst of mediation, of being less than fully—. Of being behind the lens, behind the glass, separate. It reminds me to go outside and be there.

From the Archives #3: Not Utopia… (April 2006)

Planning the Delaware Riverfront in Philadelphia

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The third writing I’ve selected, titled “Not Utopia, or a Statement Regarding the Proposed Development of Slots Parlors on Several Post-Industrial Sites in Philadelphia”, was posted on April 13, 2006, and was written less than a year after my partner and I had returned to Philadelphia to live in the Fishtown neighborhood. At the time, we were just learning details of several proposed casinos in the neighborhood and were ramping up our work as community organizers in the effort to oppose them.

M. mentions boundaries—and she’s right. It comes down to boundaries, the objectification of the land, the measurement, the quantification, the reduction of space, the reigning in of the imagination (necessary, at times, in order for our small minds to combat the vastness of space). It’s how man imposes his dominion over the land. Control. And, then, who has control? Who has the right to ownership? A political body? A collective group of land-users? A moneyed individual? And, then, is the ownership of land transferrable? Usurpable? Or, indomitable? (One wonders if a collective group of land-users might propose its own brand of eminent domain?) What right does a group have to the land, in the interest of the common good?

Land ownership was/is the myth of the inalienable right, of existential certitude. To own land is to be—fully. It is the dream. A dream, however, built upon the foundation of sand (not of rock). The American myth (space is ours to divvy up and a small slice is available for all who can obtain it). Quick sand, quickly dispersed like sifted silt. Gold remains. Gold to gamble. Fortunes found. But I digress—what I meant to say was: Land cannot be owned unless it can be measured, described, and sold. The land of many controlled by an elect few. Where is the common good in all of that?

This is somewhat abstract. More precisely: What if we claim the land for ourselves, we the collective land-users? How might we stake such a claim. Before time, the land was not owned. Once, there was a time when the land was still not owned, but the land was used. Not used; tended, cared for, felt and understood. (Oh, this is an ecological issue, too!) Those people who tended the land were coerced and cajoled. One value system came from across the great waters and corrupted, displaced another value system. Then, the land was owned. And it was exploited, and it was abused. But it provided some with a livelihood and it provided even less with great power and wealth. The subjugation of the land and of the land-users became unnaturally natural. And we’re still paying down that debt.

From where do we draw our strength? The American myth of land ownership has coupled wonderfully with the other great American myth—the myth of the (empowered and determined) individual. (It is who we are; I feel it even now, writing this.) Alas, so was born a great schism in the American consciousness: I am an individual, I have a voice, yet that voice is no more (or less) significant than the voice of my compatriots. (This does not sit well with many of us. So we inflate our meager voices with shouting, kicking, bribing, hating, stealing… the list goes on.) One voice, one vote; not quite enough it seems. Many voices, many votes—the collectivization of individual wills. (Are we moving left or right with this?) Maybe democracy, maybe socialism, maybe even anarchism—all depends on the particular form. Not monarchism, not totalitarianism, not even oligarchism (I’m talking to you, Dick). The collectivization of individual wills. For the common good. (Not for the State.) A collective action with common cause.

Back to boundaries, because that’s where I started. Put them aside—hypothetically, of course–and imagine a boundless space free of trespassers (because there is nothing to trespass upon) and open to meaningful use. I’m thinking of a place, a place of openness, of enjoyment, of respect, of debate, of disagreement, of frustration, of comraderie, of trust, of accountability. (Hey, it’s a place where your dog can take a crap—and you want to clean up after it.) It’s a place of cyclical occurrences, where things grow and pass away, and as many things flow in and out. It changes, because we change, because everything changes. It’s a symbolic place, but we use it like we use our front yard. It’s a place we want to be. It’s a public place. You know this place.

In 2004 the State of Pennsylvania passed legislation allowing slots gaming in Pennsylvania, and two gaming licenses have been designated for Philadelphia. Three of the potential sites are located on the Delaware River, approximately 1-2 miles from where I live in the Fishtown section of the city.

Chapel of Industry

Chapel of Industry, photographed at the Max Levy Autograph building in Germantown. This now vacant building is one of the sites being addressed in the Gray Area project, which will use three Philadelphia “buildings as laboratories to push the boundaries of preservation, examining their history and roles in the neighborhoods that surround them.”

In praise of the tall office building

So, this is actually the Stephen Girard Building, located on 21 South 12th Street, and it, of course, carries the namesake of one of the most prominent and wealthiest Philadelphians — or Americans, really — of the past few hundred years. Strange, but I swear I never noticed this building until the day I snapped this photo, and I’ve walking this block thousands of times in the last twenty years. Look up once in a while and see the city! Clearly an impressive structure, it does however live in the shadows of the International Style behemoth across the street, the PSFS Building.

Learn more about the building and be very entertained by this bit of Philly architecture bloggin’ at Philaphillia:

It all begins with Stephen Girard. He was the great-grandpappy of super rich motherfuckers in the early 19th Century. He was literally the Bill Gates of his time, the richest man in America. Luckily for us, Girard was also a huge Philaphile. He loved the city and ended up giving over almost his entire fortune when he died to a trust dedicated to the betterment of Philadelphia and its citizens.

Philly love.