More on Playtime, mobile culture and the city

I just finished watching my new copy of Tati’s Playtime for the second time, Mike having hipped me that it would reward close, sustained and purposive engagement.

He’s absolutely right, too: there’s so much going on in the apparent disorder of each frame that I cannot imagine anyone catching even half of it upon first viewing. Even knowing what to expect, though, after seeing the film a second time I still found myself hungry for insight beyond that offered by the primary text itself, something that might frame and contextualize what’s up on the screen, so naturally I turned first to the materials Criterion’s included in the two-disk set.

Unlike some Criterion editions, where the pamphlet you get approaches the average graduate thesis in length and ambition, Playtime features only a brief essay, by the Chicago Reader‘s chief film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Despite the brevity of Rosenbaum’s commentary, though, parts of it were so provocative that I want to quote it here at length:

Mobile phones have sadly made the sense of public urban space as it exists in Playtime almost archaic, a kind of lost paradise. The utopian vision of shared space that informs the latter scenes – beginning in the new Royal Garden restaurant at night and continuing the next morning in a drugstore and on the streets of Paris – is made unthinkable by mobile phones, whose use can be said to constitute both a depletion and a form of denial of public space, especially because the people using them tend to ignore the other people in immediate physical proximity to them. Nevertheless, given his capacity to keep abreast of social changes, I have little doubt that Tati, if he were alive today, could and probably would construct wonderful gags involving the use of these phones. And if he were making Playtime now, I suspect he’d most likely be inventing gags for the [film’s] first part that involved mobile phones, and then would have to find ways of destroying or disempowering them to make way for the second part.

There are a few notable things about this argument. Firstly, to my mind it’s about as clear a restatement as one is ever likely to find of the conventional humanist position on the impact of mobile technology on metropolitan experience. Though I’d differ from Rosenbaum in laying the blame on the mobile phone exclusively – the problems he identifies go back at least as far as the original Sony Walkman – I think many of us who consider questions of urban life and mobile technology from a nominally user-centered perspective would have to cop to holding some version of it.

But secondly, it’s striking to me that Rosenbaum explicitly asserts that mobile phones (and here I believe we can safely read “any mobile or ambient interactive potential”) must be destroyed or disempowered before any kind of sensed solidarity between user/citizens can again take root in the city. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recognize that for Rosenbaum any hope for the (re-?)emergence of such solidarity is located in and identified with the extended restaurant sequence, during which all sorts of physical and social barriers literally collapse, and “the customers and the employees of the Royal Garden eventually manage to carve out a common social investment in an establishment that’s gradually disintegrating around them.”

What Rosenbaum is clearly decrying here is the asymmetry that haunts mobile interactions and tends to undermine psychic investment in the immediate physical landscape. I’ve generally referred to what happens when someone moves through the city while simultaneously engaged in some kind of remote interaction as “multiple adjacency,” but of course it’s really no such thing: so far, at least, only one mode of spatial experience can be privileged at a given time in any such interaction.

And as long as the user isn’t stumbling into open manholes or trying, all Frogger-like, to survive having waded into multiple lanes of traffic, we can be pretty sure the privileged mode is not the one through which he or she is moving physically: if “cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone,” it sure as hell’s also the “place” you are when you’re indulging your Blackberry habit.

For a variety of reasons, it’s difficult if not impossible to participate in both of these realms at once, to the clear detriment of street life. Rosenbaum’s solution would appear to be the relatively maximalist one of somehow force-disabling the mobile device, allowing the physical city to reassert its prerogatives. (At least, this is what he suggests happen within the confines of an imagined filmic experience; I don’t want anyone to think I’ve taken this piece of writing as a literal policy statement, and I’m not at all convinced he’d endorse the same logic IRL.)

This line of argument is increasingly striking me as misplaced. Instead of surrendering to the determinism at its core, wouldn’t it be better to ask ourselves if the city can still be a meaningful platform for solidarity, whatever that word means? And if we answer in the affirmative, how might the technologies daily metropolitan experience is now founded on give rise to same, both as designed and used in ways that cut against the intentions of their designers? (This is, of course, the project of The City is Here For You To Use.)

Of course, poor Jonathan Rosenbaum can’t be held responsible for any of my free-associative ranting. Nevertheless, I’d insist that any from here on out, any project aimed at the restoration and enhancement of a meaningful urban public sphere that treats mobile interactivity as the enemy is already a loser.

5 responses to “More on Playtime, mobile culture and the city”

  1. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Great post, Adam.

    In response, I would start by saying that many of the Criterion Collection’s inserts are written by leading experts (cf. Laura Mulvey’s essay in Criterion’s release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, for example). So I would certainly say that the majority of these essays are more authoritative than the average graduate thesis. The average graduate student would do very well indeed in consulting some of these materials in support of an argument.

    It always interests me how people choose to tackle Tati’s Playtime. It often is cited as an example of a cinematic predilection towards architectural critique. However, I would certainly look to Mon Oncle for a more sustained and meaningful take on modernism’s guises, whether architectural, Taylorist, etc. Playtime is too ravishingly beautiful for me to consider critical. Following on an impulse you stated in a previous post, if you choose to live in Wiesler’s plattenbau, I choose Tativille in a heartbeat.

    Rosenbaum’s assertion is a little watery, and I think you are right in that it does confirm the “conventional humanist position on the impact of mobile technology on metropolitan experience.” I would also hazard that your own response, that mobile technologies can augment the metropolitan experience in positive ways, follows a trajectory that some have issued in response to comments similar to Rosenbaum’s. To wit: when fax machines were first introduced in 1970s, critics took this as the death knell of cities. Really. With fax machines, offices would become a thing of the past. And because one could work from home (thanks to said fax machine), this meant no traffic, no pollution, better living, ad nauseam. The result would be a confirmation of urban designer Melvin Webber’s idea of “cities without propinquity”: urban areas that would become decentralized due to the efficacy and proliferation of social and economic networks. The end result is the creation of a “non-place urban realm” (Webber’s words, not mine). Webber’s 2006 obituary in The Guardian puts it as follows: “His overall approach is summed up by the title of his paper ‘Order in Diversity: Community without Propinquity’ (1963). In it he was examining, and finding not to be wanting, the seemingly amorphous, repetitious sprawl characteristic of the booming, postwar American metropolis. In ‘The Urban Place and the Non-place Urban Realm’ (1965), he argued that automobility, freedom to choose and have access to whatever the modern city offered, were more important to people than the provision of distinctive “urban” places that are the essence of architecture.” Although the end results of these trajectories may lie in different places (you are a passionate advocate of urban living; Webber implied that people like living without propinquity), the reliance on technology is salient and meaningful.

    Yet as Matthew Drennan (once of my professors from my Urban Planning days at UCLA) indicated, the advent of cheap fax telephony reinforced the need for “old fashioned” street-and-avenue urbanism. It is somewhat fitting (and I guess ironic) that the idea of a city without propinquity increased the need for bicycle messengers . It was the daredevil singletracker, and not a fax machine, that could transmit architectural drawings and other forms of graphical material from point a to point b with ease.

    In the quote you provided, Rosenbaum implies that mobile technologies create a sense of distraction that impedes the metropolitan experience. And although you see this as a trend that originates with earlier technologies, such as Walkmans, I would only suggest that the idea that distraction is a by product of urbanism is a well-worn path. Quoth the mighty Joan Ockman:

    Once the dynamics of modernity fatally undermined the authority of the senses as an instrument for apprehending reality, a permanent struggle was instigated between attention and distraction. As capitalism unleashed its unending flood of new products and information into the marketplace, culture had to develop new techniques of managing and regulating their perception. The emergence of television, video, and computer imaging over the last several decades has escalated this struggle. Increasingly a function of push-button technologies, contemporary visual experience is characterized by ever more disjunctive and distracted modes of reception and, in the ensuing competition among various ‘channels’ for audiences, ever more attention-grabbing strategies. In this context, the possibilities for transforming the contemporary experience of distraction into the critical spectatorship imagined by Benjamin and his contemporaries hardly seem good…Yet if the original analogy between the perception of film and architecture appears naïvely idealistic today, an artifact of the revolutionary social aspirations of modernism, it nonetheless remains suggestive, offering a historical reference point for a theory of twentieth-century experience.

    And to perambulate back to the beginning, the above quote is from Ockman’s essay, “Architecture in a Mode of Distraction: Eight Takes on Tati’s Playtime” in Mark Lamster, ed. Architecture and Film (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000): 176.

  2. speedbird says :

    Heh, “perambulate back.” Just so.

    As usual, Enrique, so much to chew on in your comment. I’ll confess to not being as familiar with Webber as I should be – having stumbled across him solely in the context of a search for ’90s ambient dub unit (and Muslimgauze collaborator) Nonplace Urban Field – but I’m reminded of some of the thoughts expressed here. I’ve since only become more fascinated by what happens when urban form maps literally to economic geography, but regrettably haven’t had the time to do any proper reading. It strikes me that we should go for a long coffee next time you’re in town. : . )

    At any rate, my canned answer to attempts to compare metropolitan urbanity with “non-propiniquity” is that the latter is completely dependent on cheap energy – and is therefore maybe not such a great idea for the century now in progress.

    And as to “distraction,” I’d argue that what we have in mobile interaction isn’t precisely that, but something new and different. The experience of multiple adjacency (I’ma keep calling it that for now) certainly isn’t a competitor for resources of attention in the way Benjamin imagines. It’s more of a sovereign-posture thing, cognitively – along the lines of the way, due to the subliminal flicker of its refresh rate, you simply cannot not attend to a videoscreen in your field of vision. I’m not a cognitive scientist, of course, so it won’t be me that does the work to establish a body of theory around this, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that’s what’s going on.

    (I took the liberty of converting your Ockman quote to a blockquote, BTW. Forgive me.)

  3. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Well put, as always …. and yes, a long coffee is in order :). Thanks for the great commentary, Adam. Your site is a real joy to read. Tout bientot!

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  1. Tuesday gazette « space and culture - 31 August 2007
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