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.


Last week, I started reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. A casual survey of other students in the same class suggests that they don’t really see its utility; it seems hopelessly vague, for one thing. There are also problems with the terminology used—relatively “normal” words like strategy and tactics are repurposed to different ends. But the term that troubles me most is the use of “panoptic” or “panopticon”— this term is name-dropped by critics all the time to signify so many different things that it has really lost its luster. Though de Certeau really traces a twisted path from this keyword compared to most, I really wonder if it is a meaningful point of departure for the sort of experiences that he tries to group around it.

The worst case for “just not getting it,” however, was something I heard on an Art: 21 program, Structures, last week. While the introduction to the program by Sam Waterston was excellent, the first artist up really made my head explode—and not in a good way. I have nothing against the artwork of Mathew Ritchie, it was his description of the odd continuum without boundaries experienced by a young child as a “panoptic synergy” that baked my noodle. It sounds like a plausible combination of words, but it really isn’t. It’s a total misunderstanding of what “panoptic” (at least in the meaning suggested by Bentham or Foucault) signifies. Panopticism is all about the avoidance of synergy by isolating the individuals into bounded cells which can be viewed from a singular perspective.

Continue reading “Structures”