Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The giant mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide—extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space.

Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe that is constantly exploding. In it are inscribed the architectural figures of the coincidato oppositorum formerly drawn in miniatures and mystical textures. On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a giant rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production.

To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong? Having taken a voluptuous pleasure in it, I wonder what is the source of this pleasure of “seeing the whole,” of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 90-91)

De Certeau assumes that the “totalizing” view always comes from above. I’m not so sure. The view through the keyhole delimits a cone of attention which holds a voyeur rapt with the private erotic experience of its symmetry. The horizontal sweep of the prairie immobilizes the expanse of the Midwest, forcing a different sort of reading—both skylines and vistas constitute horizons. The Midwest discards its past nearly as quickly as both coasts, at least in urban centers.

It is more than a little weird to read this description of the WTC as a sort of panoptic ground zero; this point of view no longer exists.

2 thoughts on “Horizons”

  1. Our group in the Catholic Biblical Association read “Walking In the City” for the meeting last summer, and a number of members were taken aback at just this point — the cognitive shock of thinking about cities and space as Certeau suggests, the emotional shock of recalling the fall of the WTC, and the poignant irony that the essay casually presupposes the availability of a viewing-place that we can never again visit.

  2. Your skepticism may be warranted – the passage breathes the orgasm not so much of reading as of mastering. Order imposed, from above, by the plenipotent panoptic eye. The dreamy juissance of the lecteur is perhaps precisely that: a dream of legibility. In which case, the cancelling of the platform (WTC) is its awakening.

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