American urban studies and planning education are heavily empirical. When and where theory does appear, it tends to be highly Americacentric in ways that highlight current public issues as they are understood from within the perspective of traditional cognitive conundrums. This blurs the distinction between “the city” and “urban culture.” There are thoughts on Los Angeles and Disneyland; there are hopes for urban neighborhoods and the fate of democracy at large; there are concerns about past industrial cities in need and reports on the failure of urban policy in general.
Such tendencies favor the cognitive over the felt. They are organized around issues of economic production and political governance and do not problematize overlapping issues of cultural presentation except as critique. Partly as a result of these intellectual habits, class is rarely an issue and it’s hard to notice the extent to which the custom of buying ourselves out of our longing is taken for granted. The language of the loyal Marxist opposition is too often contained by being accepted merely as the house critique. Similarly, desire finds its most ordinary expression within the territory of the still somewhat titillating but often cordoned-off realm of erotic potential, real and imagined.
Helen Liggett, Urban Encounters (x-xi).
Liggett uses this passage to introduce the European critics Walter Benjamin and Henri Lefebvre as sources of her critical methodology, as an alternative to the “traditional cognitive conundrums.” I don’t think she reaches escape velocity though; in fact, the blurred distinction between “the city” and “urban culture” is precisely why I questioned her appropriation of Lee Friedlander as a photographer with an “urban sensibility.” The problem of critique, however, is summarized powerfully in the second paragraph.
Jeff Rice’s trenchant critique of danah boyd’s observations regarding class springs to mind. The class struggle has long been diffused as “the house critique” and observing that it exists does little but state the obvious. People have different consumptive habits based on their position inside the culture—to bring the upwardly mobile facebook types back to the fold of the “arty” myspace types or vice versa isn’t a goal that anyone would endorse—but both movements (or trends, which is precisely the reason boyd was writing at all) are equally meaningless. To buy into “social networking” at either site is still a matter of “buy-in” to one hype or another. It indirectly gestures at the mechanics of networking, the creation of “territories” within what they called at C&W 2007, “virtual urbanism” but acts quickly to declare that there is a “gang problem” in the supposedly level playing fields of the Internet. Yawn. Is this the best that the “house critique” can offer?
Worse still is the “cordoned-off realm of erotic potential” — photographically speaking, I suspect that this really corresponds with Minor White’s extension of Alfred Steiglitz’s equivalents, which Mark Woods has been highlighting lately.
Some contemporary photographers, such as those already named, willingly acknowledge the fact that photographs mirror some state of feeling within the viewer. They include themselves here as viewers of their own photographs and viewers of the subjects they select. They accept the truth that photographs act as a catalyst, and consequently are a step in process, not an end product. They can remember that the mental image in a viewer’s mind is more important than the photograph itself.
The use of cultural presentations (read “urban art,” in this context) as metaphors for larger issues of desire and community ignores the possibility that the presentation of urban scenes (including Liggett’s work) are denied their fundamental resonance as artifacts of the real, not mythic landscape. My primary concern in the rush to “virtual” utopias is simply this: the writing and images on the web have the power to convey aspects of the real. I think this is a nobler goal than just another dream. I don’t say this to undermine dreaming; it’s just that I think the reality of the photograph is more important than the image in the viewers mind. A profound difference of opinion, nothing more.
Aaron Barlow’s critique of Andrew Keen scrapes off the thin veneer of professionalism in his writing about “the cult of the amateur.” But it misses the opportunity to really take on the issue of the cheap “eroticism” of pornography on the web versus the authorized (and peer reviewed) pornography of “high culture” (Minor White really springs to mind here). Maybe culture isn’t simply about what we consume to titillate or advance ourselves. Aren’t there more interesting questions to ask here? Culture is not simply creative products, nor is it a tool for the accrual of capital. Culture is what brings us together in groups. It faces both inward toward the erotic and outward toward our fellow man.
The question that I find most fascinating is figuring out why we face one direction or another together. I admire Liggett’s invocation of Benjamin, but I think it would be better balanced with Adorno rather than Lefebvre. Their conversation in the 1930s, while culturally specific, is much richer than most of the current discussion about the Internet regarding the end and ends of culture.