Wednesday, April 27, 2011

alone together: driving and crowds

 I blame it on life. Damn life! I am lagging behind in my reading of my favorite magazines -- The New Yorker and New York Magazine. As I worked my way through the Feb. 14th issue of New York mag yesterday, I began an article about U.S. soldiers, post-traumatic stress, and the laundry list of medications that ex-GIs are using to combat the internal war they face once returning home.

The first soldier (a former medic) introduced in the article is a poignant mix of introspective and heroic and broken. Like many of his fellow soldiers, "this war, because of its omnipresent suicide bombers and roadside explosives, seems to have disproportionately rendered [him] afraid of two things: driving and crowds." (Jennifer Senior, "The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War," New York Magazine, Feb. 14, 2011, p. 28)

Crowds and driving. Driving and crowds. These struck me as the two aspects of modern life that have always been most troubling... and most invigorating. Georg Simmel, the famously anxious sociologist, theorized that society is based on interaction and integration, differentiating him from prior 19th century thinkers who perceived society to function metaphorically as a biological organism. Simmel felt society to be more like a network in which cooperation and conflict were the two edges of the sword that cut through and defined an individual's modern experience. Simmel reflected that his contemporary society was much more fragmented than those of earlier eras -- thereby, the ease of cooperating and forming unified groups became much more difficult. According to Simmel, contrary to other times and places in history, modern life presents the individual with a need for self-preservation which fundamentally conflicts with the actions required and powers retained for the self-preservation of the group. Whereas, in many ways, modern life frees a person from the demands of the group (the tribe, the guild, etc.) and related oppressions, these oppressions manifest anew in modern life -- they manifest from within such that the individual becomes oppressed by forces of his own creation (or his inability to process all of the 'sensory overload' that modern urban life presents.)

Overstimulated by the commotion, confusion, drama, and frenzy of the modern city, man (saith Simmel) develops a psychological defense against this new infection and threat.... a defense required for modern survival. He becomes a sort of over-rational being; otherwise, the intensifications of sensory and emotional experiences would overwhelm and defeat him. He treats life and experiences more disconnectedly through intellectual processing. Consciousness is thereby magnified in man's new blase outlook. Sensory overload would undo the modern man without this protection. Stimuli, "through the rapidity and the contradictoriness of their shifts, [would] force the nerves to make such violent responses, tear them about so brutally that they [would] exhaust their last reserves of strength..." (Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," 1903) Calculating, practical, rational, individually self-preserved -- these are the qualities of the modern man. Consequently, modern people develop a new sort of personal freedom, one which, in part, is due to their greater awareness of the isolation in which they now live their lives. For this 'new protective organ' of intellectualizing life also separates man from man, forcing them to process much of life within. Freedom assumes a new definition.
Just as in feudal times the "free" man was he who stood under the law of the land, that is, under the law of the largest social unit, but he was unfree who derived his legal rights only from the narrow circle of a feudal community -- so today in an intellectualized and refined sense the citizen of the metropolis is "free" in contrast with the trivialities and prejudices which bind the small town person. The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons. (Simmel, 1903)
Perhaps the "freedom" of modern life is not so pleasant after all. Just as Ms. Swift sings: "It turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you." And what about the freedom of the sort that the crowd offers? The anonymity of being invisible amidst so many. The romance of being both a product of and spectator upon the flow of life -- Simmel's intellectualization becoming a strength that endows the observant flâneur with the freedom to reflect without the necessity of participating. As Amin & Thrift describe in their book, Cities: Reimagining the Urban,
...the city [is a] lived complexity... [thereby requiring the skills of a] gifted meditative walker, purposefully lost in the city's daily rhythms and material juxtapositions. The walker possesses both a poetic sensibility and a poetic science that is almost impossible to distil as a methodology for urban research... He [referring to Walter Benjamin] was not the naive and impressionable dilettante. He was armed instead with a transcendental speculative philosophy that allowed him to select, order and interpret his sensory experiences of the city... [such that he could] reveal the processes at work through the eye of a needle. (Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), p.11)
To return to the soldier... what happens, then, to those who are so traumatized that the crowd threatens once again... rather than invigorates? What happens if the "eye of the needle" is widened to reveal horrors and brutality and the power of raw naked fear? What is the "eye" becomes so vast it takes all of this in... is required to take all of this in? Have they lost the sensibility of intellectual distancing? Have they seen too much of another kind of crowd -- the kind more along the lines of LeBon's hypnotically dangerous sort wherein the individual is lost to a group think, a "contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction"*? Wherein the individuated isolation that Simmel imagined is seized by the group and replaced a vacuum of collective invincibility?

* Gustave LeBon, Psychologie des Foules, 1895

Yi-Fu Tuan writes of how crowding and spaciousness are opposites and yet highly interconnected.
Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world. Spaces lies open; it suggests the future and invites action. On the negative side, space and freedom are a threat. A root meaning of the word "bad" is open. To be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable. Open space has no trodden paths and signposts. It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed. Enclosed and humanized space is place. Compared to space, place is a calm center of established values. (Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), p. 54)
Much like the difference between a "house" and a "home." Is this part of the problem? That place, for these soldiers, has splintered back into mere empty space. Yes, I certainly recognize that there are direct linkages establishing crowds and driving as threats. Roadside bombings, suicide bombers, the unpredictability of those in a crowd... the unpredictability of anything. As Senoir writes in her article: "Movie theaters, subway cards, densely packed spaces all can pose problems for soldiers, because marketplaces are frequent targets for explosions; so can any vehicle, because IEDs are this war's lethal booby trap of choice."

At the end of the article, Senoir speaks of how the aforementioned soldier still lives a "cloistered life." But Senoir speaks of him as a 'success story,' a soldier who is on the path to healing (though healing may be a "glacial process") because he "hasn't vanished from sight, or pretended he's fine, or numbed himself with whatever substances he has at his disposal. He hasn't totaled his car or crashed his motocycle; he isn't hitting his kids or screaming at his wife." I guess the have-nots win out here, success being defined by what this broken soldier is now able to avoid. Does modern war so break its participants that the open wounds can never heal? That there can be no real re-introduction into the fundamental features of modern life?

Crowds and driving... and traffic. In both a crowd and in traffic, one can often be more isolated than any other time. Is the extreme proximity of urban life necessarily disruptive and estranging? I have learned the steps of the dance along a New York city sidewalk. They are complex and require a unique kind of focused attention -- attention on your own movement amidst, against, and betwixt the flow of the crowd. Your mind isolates your body and finds its own path through the chaos. We are perhaps more alone together... more alone than ever before.

Richard Estes
Which brings us, interestingly, to Richard Estes -- an artist whose hyper-realism captures this sort of hyper-isolation and illusiveness. When something becomes "hyper-real," reality is heightned in such a way as to transcend its own realness. Thus, it becomes something once again very unreal -- threatening perhaps -- at the very least, illusory, reflective... an image on the glass rather than a tangible hold on existence. And yet the illusion is part of reality? Not an illusion that tricks, but an illusion that structures... an illusion mirrored on the glass of the buildings we race by each day. Pop art created a commercial pile of commercial images and played upon our comfortable relationship with irony. Hyperrealism did not speak with sarcasm or irony but too much reality, such that within "the commonplace horror which grew more dense with every step, photorealism unleashed willy-nilly a violence more intense than any accusation: from Candide to the Accidents of Warhol, the resolution to avoid judgment had proven itself, and it was enough that Richard McClean showed, in the decor of a countryside under cellophane... an elegant horse mounted and held by a pair of human devoid of grace to the point of provoking a vague discomfort..." (Jean-Claude Lebensztejn & Kate Cooper, "Photorealism, Kitsch, and Venturi," Substance, vol, 10, no. 2, 1981) The kind of realism that sticks in your throat... the kind of realism that confronts with violence... the kind of realism that is reflective and slippery and impossible to find the place of humanism within it. Perhaps it isn't that the soldiers returning from Iraq are not doing particular things that is so successful, but that they are... that they are seeing with a sharply perceptive, with a trained eye... with an eye to the violence within all reality.. to the isolation within which we are all trapped. Perhaps they see better than anyone. Perhaps that is why they fear the traffic, the crowds, the horrible reality of what we can become we when become ugly... and the impurity, the unresolved, the constant perturbation that results. They see authentically, no longer blinded to "the empty incarnation of an inauthentic feeling." (Gilo Dorfles, Kitsch, 1988, p. 177) No heroes here. We are so alone... together.

Richard Estes

Richard Estes, Car Reflections, oil on canvas, 1969


  1. Would like to find out where that picture of the crowd scene in rain slickers came from - there is no attribution

  2. Images here remind me of the movie, Koyaanisqatsi.

    Talk about being alone, together.