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Excerpt from Global Cities: Cinema, Architecture, and Urbanism in a Digital Age edited by Linda Krause and Patrice Petro
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"We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning." -Jean Baudrillard
For the contributors to this volume the dynamic size, diversity, and interconnectedness of cities complicate any argument for "more information" and "less meaning." The newly digitized relationships within, between, and beneath major metropolitan centers suggest the potential for place and community, and information and meaning, to expand and emerge in often surprisingly new configurations. This discovery of complexity within global cities links the essays gathered here.
To be sure, cities and their buildings have long carried culturally loaded meanings. Most famously, postmodern architect and critic Charles Jencks dated the demise of the modern movement to the implosion of the St. Louis Pruitt-Igoe Housing project on July 15, 1972. More recently, historian John Lewis Gaddis dates the demise of the post-cold war era, which he claims began when the Berlin Wall came down, with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. In an influential essay he explains, "We never had a good name for it, and now it's over":
The post-cold-war era-let us call it that for want of any better term- began with the collapse of one structure, the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and ended with the collapse of another, the World Trade Center's twin towers on September 11, 2001. No one, apart from the few people who plotted andcarried out those events, could have anticipated that they were going to happen. But from the moment they did, everyone acknowledged that everything had changed.
But has everything really changed? To describe these momentous events as ones that bracket an era and alter all that has come before is certainly compelling as rhetoric but not as historical argument. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the twin towers are obviously rife with multiple meanings and effects-the euphoria and then the fear surrounding the collapse of divisions and boundaries within cities and between East and West, for instance, or between the global flows of developed and emergent societies. Yet to limit our understanding of modernism or postmodernism or the post-cold war era to the dramatic events of the past few decades is to lose sight of the larger historical context of globalization and the place of cities and the built environment within a modernity, and within a modern movement, at once intractable and in transition.
This volume therefore sets out to survey cultural landscapes that extend well beyond the recent past. It argues that globalization is heterogeneous, diachronous, polyvocal, and uneven. And it maintains that cities, with their economic and cultural centers, their complexity, and their ultimate strangeness, offer the most compelling sites for realizing the potentialities of the present. Although several authors reference major metropolitan centers of international finance and business-cities like Tokyo, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, and Berlin-they are ultimately more interested in the spaces and places between and beneath major urban centers. This is precisely the difference between "Global Cities," writ large, which many urbanists have studied, and "global cities" and their representations in specific contexts, which are examined in this volume. Here the focus shifts from broad generalization to particular examples, from global networks to the ways in which they are experienced locally. In short, this involves a shift from an assumption of information overload (pace Baudrillard) to an examination of the possibilities for meaningful communication. What constitutes meaningful communication, of course, is a fraught and complex question. It is one that the authors consider here from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, spanning architectural theory and practice, film studies, sociology, literature, cultural studies, rhetoric, and political science.
The volume itself, however, is not arranged according to discipline but rather around a series of suggestive constellations regarding globalism and its discontents, modernism and its vernaculars, and the spaces and places where collective memory, locality, and ideas about authenticity complicate the dire predictions about the loss of meaning in the spaces of urban information overload. Architect-turned-theorist Siegfried Kracauer provides theoretical inspiration for the volume's organization. Taking a cue from his collection of essays on mass culture and urban experience written in the s, this volume begins with a "tracking shot" or "lead in" from a major theorist of globalization, who sets the tone for the explorations of cinema, architecture, and urbanism that follow. The volume concludes with another cinematic metaphor, that of a "fade-out" or "fadeaway," and some final thoughts from two prominent architects, who bring the question of global cities down to earth, as it were, by reminding us that they are inextricably linked to processes of economy, ecology, and local conditions.
Renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen frames the issues raised in this collection and opens the first constellation of essays with an essay entitled, "Reading the City in a Global Digital Age." In direct response to theorists such as Baudrillard she argues that cities continue to be key sites for the emergence of new types of political subjects, often arising out of conditions of acute disadvantage. For Sassen globalization and digitalization signal new possibilities for political action, and she convincingly shows how power has not dispersed geographically nor gone entirely virtual. The digital, as she points out, is never only technological. Even the realm of finance, which is perhaps the most highly digitized activity of our time, cannot be thought of as exclusively digital. Electronic financial markets require enormous amounts of materiel, not to mention people. Moreover, what takes place in finance is deeply inflected by culture, material practices, and imaginaries that exist alongside cyberspace. According to Sassen, the promise of the city in an era of globalization is precisely what the city promised in times past: "The other side of the global city," she writes, "is that it is a sort of new frontier zone where an enormous mix of people converge. Those who lack power-those who are disadvantaged, who are outsiders, who are members of minorities that have been subjected to discrimination-can gain presence in global cities, presence vis-à-vis power and presence vis-à-vis each other."
In her essay, "Collective Memory and Locality in Global Cities," sociologist Jennifer Jordan lends support to this argument, exploring two particular cities impacted by globalization-San Diego and Berlin-and showing how they not only retain but also regain a sense of place that springs from collective memories. In the San Diego example Barrio Logan's Chicano Park serves as an early instance of land reclamation, not in the usual sense of land having been reclaimed from a natural phenomenon, however, but from desolate tracts of urbanscape created by the interstate highway system. Jordan reveals how this unlikely (unprepossessing) acreage marked a site of struggle for the Latino community. Sparked by communal identification with the site, and seeded by other neighborhood development, Latinos both within and outside of the immediate area recognized Barrio Logan, and especially the park, as a cohesive cultural community.
Jordan then turns a critical eye to another form of reclamation as commemoration in post-cold war Berlin. Whereas in Barrio Logan a lively and vibrant Latino community could speak for its rights in the face of urban destruction, she suggests that in Berlin the voices of dissent had to speak for a generation lost to the Holocaust. Even before the Berlin Wall came down, there was intense interest in developing East Berlin. But alongside Sony's new headquarters in Potsdamer Platz, a carefully planned if sanitized urban space, there is another city-the Berlin that embodied and attempted to resist Nazi power. Memorials and museums had already marked this history in West Berlin and, indeed, throughout Western Europe and the United States. Yet, as Jordan reveals, it is the smaller "authentic" sites of human heroism that serve to personalize lived experience. She distinguishes between the large-scale, nationally and internationally funded, official memorials and monuments (one thinks of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum) from the commemorations organized by and about ordinary people. Jordan makes clear that in both San Diego and Berlin the efforts to preserve the collective memories of a place and to make it memorable are decidedly local. Their success, however, may point the way for other localities and, indeed, for other scholars to challenge the convenient claim that globalization defines a world filled with information but bereft of meaning.