The new infranormal

…So that exhaustive list is apropos of a curious sensation I’ve had, in riding, walking and busing the hills of San Francisco these last few weeks: more than once and more than twice, during this immersive reintroduction to the contemporary American cityscape, I’ve gotten the impression that the lion’s share of ordinary daily activity here consists of things I’d more usually think of as support functions. The traces of urban life which meet my eye seem overwhelmingly to be a matter of infra-, with very little remaining structure.

Maybe this is just what happens when place is captured by the “creative” (or spectacular) wing of a service economy, with all the fierce interiority that implies; you’d kind of expect a city of people beetling over Pro Tools, Final Cut, SketchUp and Ableton to manifest itself differently than one consecrated to the drill press and the bench lathe. But it really is startling — to me, anyway —the degree to which the things around me all seem intended to underwrite some other ultimate purpose, and give away so little clue as to what that purpose might actually be.

At mid-day, the traffic around me is largely buses, UPS and FedEx trucks, Comcast’s cable-installation vans, or, out in the neighborhoods, the handcarts of USPS postal carriers as they set off on their routes; the few walk-in businesses that seem to be thriving amid the largely moribund downtown retail storefrontage, AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile, are all dedicated to another kind of infrastructure. The rest is drugstores, dry cleaners, Starbucks: places to support, places that enable, platforms, platforms everywhere, but all of it seemingly ancillary to the proper business of a city or a life.

I don’t, honestly, know what I expected to find when I came back to the States. I can’t yet quite put my finger on what’s missing, on what, if anything, makes this quotidian parade any different from its equivalents in the London or Singapore or Barcelona of the moment, and I’m cautious of wanting to ascribe too much significance to what I’m perceiving. But I am trying to pay particularly close attention to this place at this time, and this is what I’m seeing. The Kwinter/Fabricius quote dovetailed nicely with my sense of a place so intensely animated by ghostly procedures, agreements, schedules and manifests that there’s very little else left to the public eye.

On exhausting a place

This latest bout of wanting and trying to be fully present to the city around me has a definite inspiration: the recent (and beautifully bound and packaged) translation of Georges Perec‘s 1974 An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris I stumbled across at Green Apple the other night. The book is nothing more, or less, than Perec’s somewhat telegraphic documentation of every single thing he saw during three days in October 1974, from a succession of observation posts taken up in the café windows of the Place Saint-Sulpice.

This kind of project, as you can probably imagine, appeals to me on a great many levels. First, there’s the seductive blend of the frankly sedentary with the insanely ambitious. There’s the concern for characterization and specificity nurtured in those same corners of my heart where long-banked embers of misplaced enthusiasm for the semantically correct self-description of everything yet find shelter & glow. There is the respect paid to the depth and richness of the everyday, the treasure the profoundly unremarkable unfolds into when one takes the time and trouble to be present with it. And there’s the reckoning, finally, with the impossibility of the tasks one has set out or chosen for oneself — with the inevitability of failure.

As at least one canny reader has pointed out, this exploration of urban “infranormality” might at first blush seem to retain little interest in our age of status-update overload; if you were uncharitably inclined, you might even compare the material here to a transcription of tweets posted by a particularly Aspergerian trainspotter. Viewed in this light, one could certainly read the Attempt as an simple inventory of the shopping bags, types of hats, apple-green 2CVs and Paul Virilios that pass through Perec’s field of vision. But I don’t, in the end, think that’s fair comment, and if you let that perspective sway you you’ll miss what’s really going on here.

I read the book, instead, as an anticipation of Henri Lefebvre‘s project of “rhythmanalysis,” an effort to perceive the order that reveals itself only in time. What the trained mind apprehends in the daily cycling of neighborhood noise and activity, Lefebvre claims, is nothing less than “social organization manifesting itself.” Pushing back against the modernist notion that to see something is to know it — a notion which inheres in the very idea of surveillance — he argues that the truth of the city is bound up in patterns of regular activity that unfold only along the t axis. Rhythms, in other words. “No camera, no image or sequence of images can show these rhythms,” he insists. “One needs equally attentive eyes and ears, a head, a memory, a heart.”

It’s easy enough to quibble with certain aspects of this conclusion — this passage apparently postdates Koyaanisqatsi, for one thing, a film which is nothing if not a “sequence of images” in which the rhythm of urban place reveals itself with extraordinary vividity — but there’s a deeper sense in which I take the observation to be true. And these are precisely the tools that Perec brought to his task. You still need to connect the dots yourself, but the patterns of “social organization” couldn’t possibly be clearer than the picture that emerges from his enunciation of small things and smaller events. It’s a melancholic little gem, autumnal in more than one register.

Next up is Werner Herzog‘s Of Walking in Ice, given to me by my buddy Frank, a detailed observational account of Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris over three weeks during November and December of 1974. (What was it about western Europe that fall? When Herzog, tramping through the outskirts of Munich, remarks that “It is nearing two o’clock” on the afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1974, it’s impossible for me not to hear the final, almost unbearably sad words of Perec’s Attempt — “It is two o’clock” — set to paper in the same time zone, a mere thirty-four days before.)

And all that pretty much outlines my project here in San Francisco during the two weeks remaining to me before I take off for Points (Far) East: ride, walk. Use the available infrastructure, particularly the bus. (“They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing a lot of attention. That was OK, I needed the air and the time.”) Notice. Think. If you’re in the Bay Area and you want to hook up for coffee &c., now would be a very good time to do so.

2 responses to “The new infranormal”

  1. Jamie says :

    Does Perec’s Attempt qualify as a special kind of constrained writing experiment?

    If so, can a rhythmanalytic account of a particular urban space also so qualify?

    If so, does it resemble the kind of Oulipan text where the reader has to work backwards to puzzle out the unstated, governing rule(s)?

    If so, maybe your current sojourn in San Francisco feels a bit like that.

  2. AG says :

    Heh. To your first question, my answer’d be “sure.” Sure it would. The rules are supple and loose, but they’re indisputably there: constraints on location, on time, on what is to be spoken of.

    The second: I don’t see any reason a priori why one couldn’t set up a rhythmanalysis inside the parameters of an algorithmic or otherwise constrained exercise. But the risk, of course, would be that your parameters would somehow cut across the very phenomenon you’ve speculated is there & which you’re trying to observe in the wild.

    I suppose, then, that there’d be a meta-artfulness in trying to devise constraints which served your purposes and did not somehow suppress your ability to discern whatever pattern was trying to assert itself. : . )

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