A piece republished on my old v-2 site in 2003 and creakingly old even then, having originally been written for a magazine called neo my ex-wife and I published in Seattle circa 1994. It is soooooo Nineties in its framings and formal concerns, but kinda fun nevertheless. Enjoy!
Returning slowly to ordinary consciousness as you stagger out onto the sidewalk at quarter to two in the morning, you find yourself with a pair of gonging eardrums, hands covered in the fluid seeping from torn blisters. The high-pitched scream in your ears is the predictable aftermath of a show; the blisters were suffered (you can only surmise) while hammering on a 55-gallon oil drum with a crowbar.
It’s the blisters – and the stench of cordite and adrenaline and fear that still hovers in your nostrils – that testify to the fact that what you’ve just seen is anything but the average rock’n’roll show. You’ve survived your first encounter with ¡Tchkung!
Recipe for a ¡Tchkung! show: a little May 1968 guerrilla street theater, a few touches from Survival Research Laboratories, a surprising amount from the contemporary French circus, maybe a pinch of Leni Riefenstahl – and not very much at all from the hallowed iconographic menu of rock.
Oh, sure, there’s some people playing musical instruments up on a stage, and there’s a pretty light show flickering over them. But that’s about where the resemblance ends. ¡Tchkung! uses a variety of techniques to break down the wall between performer and audience, sideshow pyrotechnicians and roving self-piercers among them. There’s no identifiable boundary between observation and participation – here’s where the comparison to SRL comes in: you can either choose to join in the chaos or back away to a putatively safe distance. The experience almost manages to revivify the use-worn phrase “in your face.”
As your mind clears, you review the events of the evening. You can barely remember how you felt just a few hours ago, so total has been your immersion in the mood of the show.
You do remember getting into the opening acts, a bagpipe ensemble and a Taiko drumming group, and being disappointed that more people in the crowd didn’t seem to be paying attention. The Taiko drummers in particular impressed you with their sense of barely-contained energies, and you wanted them to go on longer. But that desire was forgotten as ¡Tchkung! took the stage, amid the martial clang of found percussion and a sudden cacophony of voices and instruments.
How many were up there, anyway? Six, seven? They launched immediately into a grinding dirge, and everything else was swept away.
A torchlight procession wends its way down from the stage, around the club and back again; drums and sheet metal are tossed into the audience, along with tools and rough pieces of rebar for use as strikers. The action is acentric: there’s stuff going on up there, yeah, but there’s a knot of people twenty feet away watching a man eat fire. Right above you, a woman is shoving a needle through her lip with an expression of calm concentration made more exquisite by the total clamor on all sides. And where you’d expect a mosh pit to be, people who have never met each other – some in full bodypaint – are locking arms and dancing in a circle like medieval peasants at Beltane.
You’re encouraged to participate in this laying on of hands.
It occurs to me that I haven’t said much about the music. In this, I join a growing line of reviewers, who have tended to talk about the “barrage” of “damage” and “ritual”, but not about tunes. So far, music has been surprisingly secondary to any discussion of ¡Tchkung!, whether you’re talking about their live presentation or their self-titled debut CD (Belltown Records). It’s not because the music is bad – very much the contrary – but because the experience seems to be so much larger than just the songs.
They collude in giving this impression, too. The CD insert gives none of the standard information about the personnel of the band, the instruments or samples deployed, the lyrics. Instead, what you find upon opening the booklet is a veritable smorgasbord of left-antiauthoritarian thought, with elements recognizably derived from the IWW, the Situationists, the Diggers and Luddites, French theory circa Baudrillard…
Some of it doesn’t hang together very well: this is one of the only places I’ve ever seen ecofeminist and pagan thought juxtaposed with the macho deep ecology of Dave Foreman. And what would Kropotkin make of Terence McKenna? I appreciate ¡Tchkung!’s desire to turn their audience on to the wellsprings of their thought – but you do get the feeling that most of the other verbiage would be unnecessary if the music did its job.
OK, then: the music itself. If you’ve just gotta have a label, you might put ¡Tchkung! in the political wing of the percussive, assaultive school of sound known as “industrial.” This would make them classmates of the Lower East Side’s Missing Foundation and the Bay Area’s Sharkbait. There also seems to be a little bit of the anti-statism and anti-Christianity of the seminal, and annoying, British anarchist band Crass. What all of these bands share musically despite their many differences is a deep appreciation of harshly rhythmic noise, found percussion, and the use of slogans (all too often shouted from bullhorns) as lyrics.
You needn’t consider ¡Tchkung! to be hemmed in by this description, because they do have the makings of a sound that would far transcend the limitations of the genre. Where other bands of this genre dig themselves a rut of anger and monotony, ¡Tchkung!’s music has elements that compel genuine feeling and memory, whether the haunting, soulful keening of an extraordinary female vocalist, the weird Dreamtime warblings of a didgeridoo, or the chain-gang cadences of a worker’s blues. Where they’ve fallen down so far is in the successful integration of these elements into a focused whole, and in fact their CD will make you think you’re listening to a compilation album.
And listening to ¡Tchkung! at home is difficult anyway. Our society is structured in such a way that, for most people, it’s next to impossible to devote time to music exclusively, and so you wind up listening most while taking care of other tasks. We listen while driving, washing the dishes, making love – but how often do you just sit back in an otherwise silent environment and savor music? Getting the most out of a song like the otherworldly invocation “Io Lilith,” requires just such attention.
Then there’s the undeniable fact that most of these cuts evolved as soundtracks to live performance art – participatory and unscripted, but performance nonetheless. They can seem inchoate and incomplete without their complement of live activity. That they still succeed as well as they do is evidence that there’s some talent involved, but it is a sore point. They need to figure out how to have the performance of the music itself be the show.
I have seen bands that have mastered this. One I particularly remember launched into a song about a homeless Vietnam veteran living and dying on Venice Beach. All I really remember of the evening is this song, with its visceral thrum of bass and drums beneath the parallel wailing of sax and singer. The sound conveyed with absolute precision and fidelity an oppressive sense of narrowing options and failing hopes — and somehow found an affirmation of possibility at the bottom of the well. This is something that the unadorned three-piece wasn’t necessarily capable of; it’s my belief that it was the room they made for the swooping, lacerating sax that took them over the edge into transcendence.
That’s what I’m looking for. I’m not suggesting that it can be found simply by grafting a sax or a second drum kit onto the rock unit; neither do I believe that it can be forced by the wholesale, disrespectful adaptation of instrumentation or time signatures from other cultures. I think it comes in the fusion, the cross-fertilization, the creative recombination of elements.
We’re not limited anymore, in either the tactics or tools with which we approach making music. Punk rock famously urged us to Do It Ourselves. Hip-hop gave us the ideology of the sample; minimalism allowed us to derive structure from repetition of a few simple elements. Industrial taught us to explore the textures of noise and “world music” brought the planet’s entire history and heritage of musical experience to our immediate awareness. And digital technology means that whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Erik Satie, the throat-singers of Tuva, or a squealing circular saw we’re learning from, the lessons are as accessible as the nearest disc player.
So rise the new hybrid forms, born of new experiences: Parisian hip-hop, Gregorian ambient, Nipponese grindcore. Township jive touches down in Queens and Brazilian kids find out that speedmetal works especially well in Portuguese. It may not be exactly what McLuhan meant by the “global village,” but it’s as close as we’re likely to know.
I expect amazing things.
The musicians send forth waves of sound to break and crash over the audience; the response is immediate, sending bodies surging about like a throng of urchin dervishes. Sweatslick flesh presses in on you from every side, beyond individuality or gender. There’s an erotic charge in the air here, but also a palpable thanatos, a will to death and destruction that pulls on you like an undertow. Over the pounding beat, one of the singers is giving voice to a full, almost Old Testament wailing, a shriek of hopeless grief that recalls Diamanda Galas. It’s obviously a very intense and meaningful moment for her; the intensity comes across but much of her meaning is lost to you.
The air is thick with pheromones. The contrasts of the moment are dizzying: the singer’s grief, the exhilaration of losing yourself to the bodies on either side of you, the feral sexuality and the sense of loss.
They’re out on tour as I write, these offspring of Neubauten and Noam Chomsky, playing their harsh sounds out there in the American Night. I try to imagine them in Idaho, on this first night of the State Fair, mounting their full onslaught for what could be a room of fifteen, and fail.
I just can’t picture ritual percussion and onstage piercing playing real well in Boise. But maybe the world is changing faster than I think. According to a band member — the band speaks collectively or not at all — “the ranting and raving, they could take or leave, but they’ll stay through it just to hear the music.” I have to admit I’m surprised; after all, what will a nation used to Pantera and Snoop Doggy Dogg make of ¡Tchkung!, a band whose live sound could fairly be described as a discourse on the 1934 General Strike fused to the squeal of sawblade on aluminum?
But they’re not having too tough of a time getting their point across to audiences, and at that there is something appealingly homespun about them, something wholesome and (they’d hate it) deeply American. It’s a spirit somewhere between the Boston Tea Party and Andy Hardy shouting, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” None of which probably sounds terribly inviting, but I mean it as a compliment.
Avowedly anti-music-business, ¡Tchkung! claims “we’re doing something wrong if we get famous.” At the same time, they face the central dilemma of our mediated age — one never successfully negotiated by veterans of the punk rock moment such as Fugazi or Bad Religion: what happens when a subculture reaches critical mass?
If you believe in your message, naturally you want it to reach as many minds as you can. The way to those minds is through the gate of mass communications, and the gatekeeper is the big bad Media Biz. Because even such radically decentered communications tools as the Internet or the ‘zine scene speak to their own elites: a map of signals traffic along either of these networks would burn brightly over Hoboken, Berkeley and Georgetown, while leaving Jersey City, East Oakland or Anacostia dark.
The sad fact is that it’s the people who already have “access to tools and information” and power who know how to find relatively obscure artifacts like a ¡Tchkung! CD. Only the mass media have the ability to introject information into every fissure and crevice of our society. It’s a race and class and even cultural dilemma that ¡Tchkung! is sure to face head-on if they’re serious about getting their message across to the people who would benefit the most from a little self-empowerment.
The noise goes on and on and ON and you just want it to come to a climax or at least some sort of closure. After a while, you become aware that the stage is mostly empty, that the musicians are packing up their gear, and you’re not really sure at what point the show “ended.” The hammering din hasn’t let up in the least, and there’s still a good number of people locked into ecstatic dance.
Some perverse instinct compels you to wait it out, to see just how long it takes the crowd to ramp down from its ecstatic high. And so you wait and watch for things to end. But this show doesn’t; it just tapers off into guttering flames and one last screech of feedback, as dazed survivors reel across a dancefloor littered with “industrial” debris and shrapnel.
Seeing ¡Tchkung! left me feeling painfully ambivalent. On the one hand, here’s this band with a ton of energy, an awesome array of tactics to keep the audience involved, and (in the abstract, at least) politics I have little argument with. Those qualities have all proved vanishingly hard to come by in contemporary music. But what they have in sincerity, commitment, and intensity, they lack in focus and yes, discipline.
Because sometimes less really is more. Or more to the point: sometimes the energy that can sustain a show for three and a half hours at a given level could be used in more structured ways to produce a more vivid total effect in half that time. I know part of ¡Tchkung!’s intent is for each show to provide a door for the influx of chaos into the world — to create a temporary autonomous zone in which Anything Could Happen. But as it is, the Anything all too easily becomes boredom. And I resented it; the whole experience had raised a particular sort of energy in me — and then done nothing with it.
What did I want them to do with that energy? What might I have done with it myself? Alternately, what might I have done if only it was asked of me in that interval before the showbuzz wore off? Part of the problem here is that ¡Tchkung! is playing with fire, in more ways than the merely literal. The piercing, the firebreathing, the dervish-dancing, the relentless rhythms: these are all shamanic techniques for the alteration of consciousness, and there is no doubt but that they work. In their original contexts, they are all used by people undertaking specific initiatory journeys, when guided by others steeped in the traditions of their use. Of course, none of these conditions obtains at a ¡Tchkung! show. What happens when you put several hundred people into a suggestible state, in an environment filled with extraordinarily powerful signs of no fixed meaning?
¡Tchkung! obviously hopes that people will be empowered by the experience, moved to take back their lives from the entanglement of economic, social, religious, and political strictures that now binds us all. I share this hope, but I’m not so sanguine about the chances of such a mass transformation occurring spontaneously as the result of a three-hour carnival of noise. I could be wrong: for all I know, that’s the only way it could happen. But I’d bet against it.
¡Tchkung! is a band I like enough to come down hard on. They are a long way from where they need to be, I think, maybe even from where they want to be. And it sometimes seems — for an entity that presents itself as a musical group — that their music is entirely beside the point. But if they fall short on these counts it’s only because they have set their sights far higher than other acts you’ll see on the very same stages. They don’t seem particularly interested in providing an entertainment experience to an audience of passive consumers, which in itself is unusual for a band. They do seem interested in provoking the spontaneous creation of a community of desire, using any technique at hand. ¡Tchkung! wants you to determine the shape and direction of your own life. Despite some doubts about their tactics, there can be no higher goal, whether for a book, a speech, a magazine…or a rock band.
A piece I was commissioned to write earlier this year for the catalogue for Juha van ‘t Zelfde’s exhibition Dread: The Dizziness of Freedom, opening at De Hallen Harlem in the Netherlands on 06 September 2013. I hope you enjoy it. (You can find out more about the show and the catalogue here, or purchase it direct from the publishers.)
When I was 18, I moved in with my first real girlfriend, to a draughty ground-floor apartment on East 7th Street between Avenues B and C. This was the winter of 1986-87, a time at which the edges of Manhattan Island (or, for that matter, its core) hadn’t yet been subjected to the concerted pacification campaigns of the Giuliani years. The act of choosing to live downtown, if you were among those for whom it was a choice, still meant accepting some level of risk and physical danger into your life. This was especially true in the neighborhood where I lived, in Alphabet City, where a common rule of thumb had it that A stood for adventurous, B for brave, C for crazy and D for dead.
And it was true, or felt true. Those were the days in which crack cocaine and the 9mm semiautomatic handgun first came to prominence in the psychic life of New York City, the years of the Guardian Angels, “subway vigilante” Bernie Goetz and of Michael Griffith being hounded to his death in Howard Beach. The tension was just something we lived with — more of a constant thrumming note in the background than anything else, though it occasionally crescendoed to apocalyptic-feeling levels. (Early one morning, my girlfriend and I woke to an unusual sensation of heat in our ordinarily-freezing room; it was the five-storey squat in the block behind us, whose backyard butted up against ours, burning to the ground — in fact, being watched as it did so, by the evidently unperturbed personnel of the Fire Department and the HPD, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)
However it may have swollen, crested and then receded from day to day, the predominant emotion I remember from those years is fear. I was afraid of cops. I was afraid of skinheads. I was afraid of the pack of Puerto Rican kids who used to tool through the neighborhood on BMX bikes, hassling Chinese-restaurant deliverymen and the occasional unwary NYU student. I was afraid of the ubiquitous Missing Foundation graffiti that confronted you on every block, the shadowy band’s sigil of an upside-down martini glass enormous in ashy black Krylon on every second building front, bracketed by the legends PURGE and THE PARTY’S OVER.
Most of all, though, I was afraid of the Avenue C end of my own block. In fact, I’d rarely wander any further east than the bodega directly across the street from our apartment, which, but for a few cans of Goya beans, dusty bricks of Bustelo and cartons of island-grade bug spray, never seemed to have much on the shelves. (My housemates and I were certain it was a front for a crack-dealing operation.) It was as if some vast and only semi-permeable membrane had been stretched across the roadway, a thickening of the dread in the air to the point that it was physically difficult to pass through; in all the time I lived on East 7th, I only once recall walking the few blocks to the river. The cold grey light of that single occasion remains hypernaturally vivid in memory, which is what happens when what ought to be uncomplicated everyday experience is etched in the neurons by a jittery endocrine surge.
Like most of the people I knew, I armored myself against the streets in a drag of Schott biker jacket and chain-wrapped combat boots. It was, for the most part, sufficient. I was able to convince myself that I looked tough enough to constitute a disincentive to anyone inclined to hassle me — in fact, my armoring may well have contributed to others’ discomfort more than it alleviated any of my own. But I also made a concerted effort to perform everything the leather jacket and boots implied, as if along with my clothes I had to strap on a set to the shoulders and a walking gait capable of warding off the various bad but never quite fully-imagined things that might happen to me.
In time, all of this taught me something valuable about the nature of life in cities. When fear is an everyday thing, it becomes a habit that settles into the bones. It conditions the hours at which you leave the house, the routes you take, the way you hold your body, the things you carry. And utterly groundless though the great majority of my worries may have been — however precious and pearl-clutching it was for this bourgeois kid to quail at circumstances the overwhelming majority of my neighbors confronted every damn day of their lives, without even the option of picking up stakes and moving to a less fraught neighborhood — I could no longer pretend that the city was in any sense a safe theater of operations for me. Or, by extension, for anyone else.
And that was the crucial insight. It may have been the first time in my life I fully and directly understood the calculus some enormous percentage of people living in every city on Earth are forced to perform every time they walk out the front door. For not a small number of us, the mere act of walking out onto the street is an act that brings us face to face with our own precarity, and not merely the economic precarity we’ve all gotten used to in these austere days, but the deeper contingency of our very being in the world. Under conditions like this, the need to perform the most basic daily operations — shopping for groceries, say, or doing the laundry — becomes something that must be weighed against the risk of being mocked, harassed, mugged, beaten, or worse.
This calculus, unsurprisingly, weighs disproportionately on the elderly, on immigrants, on the homeless, on those who are by fate or choice visibly different than the majority population of a neighborhood, and above all on women of all backgrounds and descriptions. The right simply to be in public, secure in one’s bodily integrity, is and can never be taken for granted by anyone who belongs to any of these groups. And though a great many things have changed in the world since I managed to connect the dots and figure this all out for myself in the winter of 1986, the reality of fear is sadly not among them.
When people live this way, their access to the city’s nominal opportunities is radically curtailed. All of the urban amenities that might exist — not just in theory, on paper, or in principle but actually exist — are simply not present for them in quite the same way as they would be to someone who didn’t have to account for the perception of threat. The landscape is permeated by invisible gradients, boundaries and lines of force, and you disregard these only at your own peril.
If you yourself are an immigrant, of course, or disabled, or queer, or fat, you understand all of this immediately, implicitly, without needing to have it explained. It’s only a revelation to those who are lucky enough never to have felt the burden of any such fear — and such people tend to get prickly and defensive when the subject is raised, as though their interlocutor means to park sole and exclusive blame for this set of circumstances at their feet. Mention any of these facts in polite company, however diffidently, and you can surely expect to be accused of indulging yourself in the worst and most hyperbolic sort of left-wing rhetoric. Even to utter the word “privilege” is to chance having yourself dismissed as a hectoring scold.
And so I learned to talk not of the moral dimensions of this failure, but of its practical implications.
My understanding of the cost of fear starts with my reading of American sociologist Mark Granovetter’s landmark paper of 1973, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” “Weak Ties” concerns the diffusion of information in social networks; Granovetter’s thesis is essentially that we learn the most from people we know the least — more precisely, that because we generally share a very wide range of beliefs and assumptions with those we’re closest to, we tend to receive truly novel information from people to whom we’re only loosely affiliated.
A big city, of course, ought to be wonderful at generating just the kinds of weak ties Granovetter’s paper described. The encounters that take place while waiting at a bus stop, over the counter of a deli, the happenstance conversation with the next person in line at the supermarket — these are, at least potentially, hinges between entirely different ways of life, and moments at which information might pass through the membrane. But these are precisely the opportunities that drop off when fear is the order of the day, for reasons that are both physical and psychic.
The first is a matter of simple availability: you obviously can’t contribute to, or derive benefit from, a milieu you’re not in in the first place. The second has to do with your receptivity, your openness to the unpredictable. Divining the intentions of those with whom we’re unfamiliar, personally or culturally, is hard work. When you’re always on alert — pre-emptively cringing from the violence you assume and believe is headed your way eventually, from one or another direction — it’s exhausting to submit every chance encounter to an on-the-spot risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. It’s safer, and certainly easier, not to drop your guard. And so we stay in our comfort zone, and default to engaging people with whom we’re already more or less similar.
Which is to say that I was denied learning anything from the people down the end of my block of East 7th, and they from me. I don’t want to get sentimental about this and suggest that we need have been best friends, sending choruses of “Kumbaya” pealing into the air of the Lower East Side and so on. But neither was that what Granovetter was getting at. All that is necessary for information to flow is simply exchange.
In this regard, I don’t even think “exchange” means anything particularly declarative. I mean the casual intelligence that two or more people cannot help but impart to one another simply by virtue of being copresent: the way we do, or do not, respond to the utterance of a well-known name. The expressions that cross our countenance upon hearing certain words or ideas, before we master our facial musculature. The way someone holds a bag, a phone, or a newspaper; the pocket in which they keep their wallet; the particular style with which they address the task of locomotion. All of these things are, at least in potential, the makings of urban savoir faire.
There’s a way of quantifying what is lost when we withdraw from the possibility of such exchanges: Metcalfe’s law. This is a notion drawn from the theory of telecommunications, which states that the value of a network rises as the square of the number of connected nodes. The very first telephone, in other words, is entirely worthless: what of value could you possibly do with it? But it leaps in value the moment a second telephone is brought into existence. The number of potential connections, and the aggregate value of the network as a whole, expand geometrically with each additional phone that is added to it. What does this terribly abstract framing of things imply for city life? It means that every one of us who connects to the network of possibilities that is any great city benefits from it — benefits more, in fact, the bigger and further-flung that network is — but that the network’s power, capability and value are tremendously enhanced by the fact of our connection. And to a very great degree, we connect to any such urban network physically, by being bodily present in it and to it.
And that’s why it matters, concretely and in terms the hardest-knuckled quant can respect, whenever someone is prevented from full participation in the city by the gnawing sense that they are a target. I am convinced that every such event is a double loss, doubly felt. Because Metcalfe’s law has an inverse, too. Every person that huddles behind a triple-locked door — or who does make it onto the public way, but only as a timid presence, tuning out everything but the mission at hand — does not simply shut out the city and its possibilities. They represent a corresponding, exponential loss to the city. Not only is the person deprived of the things the city can do for them, in other words, but the city is deprived of the perspectives, skills and capabilities they might have offered the collectivity. You don’t need to acknowledge a moral dimension, or find the language of privilege and exclusion particularly resonant, to understand why this is an outcome we might wish to prevent.
And if weak links do, counterintuitively, turn out to be the thing that binds the whole city together as any kind of psychologically recognizable entity, we’re actually indulging much more damage than we think in allowing these conditions to persist. Or at least that’s what seems to be implied by my reading of Metcalfe and Granovetter: if what you want is to disrupt a city’s overall social cohesion — and limit its ability to conduct novel and potentially vital information from one community to another — there’s nothing more effective you can do than sunder the weak links.
By contrast, though, what if you’re interested in improving the city’s ability to benefit its citizens, and benefit from them in turn? There’s a potential point of intervention at the threshold of public and private, whenever people are faced with the choice of fully committing themselves to the public way or remaining in an environment they perceive as offering them shelter. What might outweigh fear, at such a moment? Awareness of the actual conditions someone might confront, and of the resources they may be able to draw upon in doing so. Confidence in their own capability. Bonds of solidarity — the idea that whatever threats do exist in the world, no one is forced to face them alone. In a word: information.
There’s nothing information can do about that fear per se, especially once it’s set itself up in the body. Not being the kind of thing that can be refuted, it remains beyond the reach of mere facts. But practical informational tools can and do give people the strength to act and to be in public regardless of their fear.
For example, some women I know use Google’s StreetView on a regular basis to scan the neighborhood around destinations that are unfamiliar to them, especially if they’re planning to arrive there after the fall of dark. They use the service ahead of time to determine points of particular vulnerability, and plan routes with more lighting, population, and activity. It gives them a sense that they’re more in control, and that often turns out to be just enough to coax someone out the door.
Or consider a mobile application called Stop and Frisk Watch, developed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and translated into Spanish by a group called Make the Road New York. “Stop and Frisk” is a policy instituted by the New York City Police Department; in theory, it permits a police officer who has reasonable suspicion to believe that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, to stop and question that person, and search them for any weapons they may be carrying. In practice, the NYPD’s own records show that nearly nine out of every ten of the more than four million New Yorkers subjected to such street interrogations since 2002 — the overwhelming majority of whom were black or Latino — have been completely innocent.
If you are young, male, and black or Latino, in other words, you have a nontrivial chance of being stopped by the police every time you step out of doors, and if you think that doesn’t contribute to people’s sense that their very personhood is being called into question, you’ve never met a New York City police officer. By giving those subjected to the policy a way to record and report their experiences, Stop and Frisk Watch helps them resist, even a little, the sense that power in the world is exclusively arrayed against them and there’s no recourse or succor to be found anywhere.
What’s at stake in both cases is the basic right to be in public. To be sure, constraints on this right are experienced in different ways by different populations, and to varying degrees from one individual to another. But what so many of these abrogations all have in common as a ground note is the experience of bodily dread. And if we’re to take “Weak Ties” and Metcalfe’s law as our guides, this dread, when surrendered to, quite literally undoes the bonds which make any city what it is — weakens its resilience, hampers its ability to convey vital information from one neighborhood, district or community to another, and corrodes its own ability to respond effectively at moments of crisis.
It’s precisely Granovetter’s weak links, in fact, that turn out to furnish cities with an unusual and highly desirable property: that of getting stronger under stress. This is the quality Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “antifragility.” You may find Taleb fatuous; I certainly do. But antifragility is a terrifically important idea. When a city is confronted with some sudden external shock — a Blitz, a Fukushima, a Sandy — it’s the tenuous relations that get activated, the nodding acquaintances that are based on very little more than recognizing a person from one or two prior encounters. It’s these, and not the stronger bonds of affiliation and existing affinity, that wind up furnishing the grounds of cooperation under the most difficult circumstances, and that can in turn make the difference between a community’s survival and its disappearance. And these are the relations that never come into being when we let fear shut us in, off or down.
Any means of which we can avail ourselves, therefore, that dispels our fear, and does so without adding to the burden anybody else is forced to shoulder, is something that can only strengthen our cities, our selves, and their ability to mutually reinforce one another. And this is something that we all ought to agree is desirable, whether or not we ourselves are moved by the moral dimension of dread’s persistence.
The following short piece was commissioned by Beeker Northam at Dentsu London, for a Newspaper Club project they were planning to do on the Soho district, but which for whatever reason never happened. Textual references date the piece to some point late in my tenure at Nokia, but it otherwise stands up pretty well, and as it’s never seen the light of day I thought I’d share it with you here and now. Enjoy.
For the past two years, I’ve found myself working for a gigantic and rather dowdy global corporation, an organization whose sterile pile of a headquarters is tidily located on a nowhere-ish expanse of motorway. For better or worse, this is where most days of my life take me.
By way of compensation, perhaps, our London office is nestled in the heart of Soho. For a lover of urban texture, of course, this is nothing less than a dispensation of grace: depending on the particular corporate-approved hotel I happen to be stashed in, my route to work will see me cutting beneath the Pillars of Hercules, past John Snow’s water-pump or the hallowed 100 Club. And not infrequently, loping down a narrow lane lined with Korean restaurants, courier services and “licensed” sex shops, past an unremarkable-looking strip club called the Windmill.
I had some sense of the postwar Italian wave, of course, and the tutelage in coffee, wine, sharp suits and scooters that particular wave of immigrants brought to the district. I knew that Soho, as one of London’s premier red light zones and later its gay ghetto, was a lazy byword for louche. The things that happened in these streets in blistering ’76 and the Jubilee summer of ’77 — these were all stories I learned growing up an ocean away in Philadelphia. And of course, as a consequence of my work, I am unavoidably and intimately familiar with the more recent gloss of ad agencies, consultancies and new-media shops that’s settled over the district like a hip miasma.
But for the lattermost set of circumstances, though, I had all this knowledge intellectually, by way of books and films and an obsessive, near-lifelong interest in the Mod and punk subcultures. It wasn’t and isn’t body-knowledge: in its phenomenological, affective and kinesthetic particulars, I could no more reconstruct an average pill-driven night of Soho 1963 than I could the evening of an Etruscan grove. Except in the most pallid, attenuated way, those sensations and experiences are lost to history.
What happens, then, to places — and this neighborhood more than most is filled with them — where what happens on, at, in and to the body is the very point of their existence? Their stories are lost to history in a most particularly annihilating way. You’d never, ever know it from the sad table-dancing club that currently occupies the site, but in twentieth-century British history, the Windmill turns out to have been one of the more important such places.
Behind the rather aggressive touts stationed at the door of the club lies a place where the daring, the salacious and, I’d argue, a particular modern conception of female beauty were engineered. Like Anna May Wong‘s ferocious performance as Shosho the Chinese Dancer in the 1929 silent Piccadilly, the “girls” of the Windmill moved as though they were willing modernity into being with their bodies, beneath what was then still the high-technology glamour of electric light.
The club’s audaciously nude tableaux vivants just skirted the indecency laws, made erotic entertainment safe for consumption by the middle class. (The gentry, of course, had always had a pass.) The sense you get from contemporary descriptions of the audience is one of delight in their own naughtiness, Thirties London’s equivalent of the nervous, giggling New York couples of 1975, who rushed to see Deep Throat so as to earn their bona fides as true children of the Sexual Revolution.
And there’s no way for any of us who came of age afterward to know what any of that felt like, to experience the deep-down, giddy-electric, liberatory thrill of it. The meaning of the place didn’t stick to the stones, to the point that years later I could walk down Great Windmill Street and not have so much as the foggiest clue of all the things that had transpired mere meters away. Those experiences would have had to have been continuously reanimated, reinscribed with acts of the living body, and were not and are not — today’s strip club, in fact, by offering just about the least interesting gloss on the site’s history, quite thoroughly inverts the meaning of what came before.
Who among us who was not there can really say what this Soho felt like in the bones, whether in the blacked-out days of the Blitz, as it came to an espresso-machine boil at the end of the Fifties, or during the anarchic summers of punk? Those brassy coffee bars, narrow doorways and dark chthonic stairways, even where physically extant, just don’t mean the same thing. Even if we were able to interview them at length, those with the relevant memories would find — no doubt to their own dismay as well as ours — that they can no longer quite conjure up the gestalt.
I point this all out not by way of licensing nostalgia but, if anything, just the opposite. What I’ve understood from my immersion in Soho’s history is that we are all of us making and remaking the places we live in on a constant basis, speaking them into reality through the things we say and the comments we leave on blogs, knitting them into being with bicycles and cars and our own two feet. We bring them to life with our custom and our traffic, our peregrinations and the exercise of our habits. And if we want to leave legends behind, we’d better get busy. These particular streets, richly shrouded in story as they are, demand no less.
So of course Russell’s spot-on here, about the terrible things that await us as poorly-considered game-like logics are superimposed over everyday life. He never comes right out and says it, but I assume he’s reacting to Jesse Schell‘s recent epiphany about networked life, gaming tropes and the motivational mechanics they afford when brought together, and maybe the recent popularity of Foursquare, with its badges and mayorships.
Schell’s argument (or one of them, anyway) is that the everyday environment is now sufficiently instrumented and internetworked that the psychological triggers and incentives developed by game designers to motivate in-game behavior can be deployed in real life. A poster on MetaFilter puts it in a nutshell: “points for brushing your teeth, doing your homework, eating your cornflakes. Gain levels for riding the bus instead of driving. Net-integrated sensors in every device to keep track of your score and upload them to Facebook or wherever. Tax incentives if you get a good enough score on your kid’s report card or read the right books.”
And this is more than passing scary, because these motivators work. Just as food designers have figured out how to short-circuit our wetware with precisely calibrated doses of fat, salt and sugar, game developers trip the dopamine trigger with internally-consistent, but generally otherwise worthless, symbolic reward systems. That they’ve (knowingly or otherwise) learned how to play this primordial pathway like a piano is attested to by the untold gigahours gamers worldwide spend voluntarily looping out the most arbitrary actions, when most of them presumably have a choice of other pretty swell things they could be doing. Like, y’know, their partners.
What happens when incentive mechanics like this leak out of gamespace and into the world? In the long run it may be for the best that ad agencies remain so densely provisioned with the manifestly unclued, because this way of doing things would be nothing short of terrifying in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. The short term picture, though, is clearly less reassuring; as Russell puts it, “we’re going to encounter a bunch of crappy sorta-games foisted on us.”
You think he’s jumping the gun, assuming the worst, maybe being a little hyperbolic? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Exhibit A.
But fortunately, there are other games to be played, much cleverer and more interesting ones. Bruce Sterling offered a lovely vision of networked rewards in the real world in his 1998 short story “Maneki Neko.” The story has dated badly in some ways — in a precise inversion of what came to pass, it’s amusing to see the story’s Japanese wield sleek, protean “pokkekons” while their clunky American counterparts suffer with clunkier Silicon Valley PDAs — but in other ways it’s clear that Bruce had the notion sussed.
His depiction of a sweetly networked gift economy, in particular, makes the Schellian universe look tawdry. “Maneki Neko” would seem to argue that you don’t need “points” and meaningless achievements unlocked to motivate behavior, when enlightened self-interest and the joys of participating in reciprocal agalmics are sufficient.
I think we could all see it coming the moment Schell’s DICE2010 talk went up on the technology blogs. “See”? You could practically smell the agency nation bruising its collective index finger on the mouse key as it raced to scrub through the half-hour video in search of bullet-pointable content for the next morning’s PowerPoint. Russell’s probably being too generous by half: I think we’re in for a Laird Hamilton-sized wave of pointlessness, as too many not-bright-enough parties fall all over themselves trying to enact and deploy incompatible, mutually incoherent Schell-style solutions.
In some ways, it really is too bad. Given that vice is generally its own reward, that they need to be incentivized at all suggests to me that there’s nothing inherently wrong with most of the behaviors such structures are designed to motivate. For that matter, I tend to be favorably inclined toward any incentive system that begins, however tentatively, to jimmy our lives from the grip of the money economy. I just wish fewer people had described Schell’s video enthusiastically, as “the most mindblowing thing I’ve seen all year,” and more as “something potentially troubling, that we need to think carefully about.”
Because the dopaminergic system can be an inhumanly powerful force, beside which all our notions of “will” are laughable, and where it can take a person is not at all pretty. I just don’t like thinking of it as a tool available to someone bent on designing my life for me. And with all due respect, especially not to a community dedicated to the proposition that “reality is broken [and] game designers can fix it.”
That’s a heavy place to wind up, and here I’d intended this post to be both briefer and lighter. But maybe some of these notions could do with a bit of taking seriously.
You’ll have heard me rave before about jjimjilbang, Korea’s answer to the sauna, the schvitz and the day-spa. It’s a treat for the senses; a true jjimjilbang experience starts with a cleansing shower and proceeds through hot tubs, whirlpool baths, tea- or eucalpytus-scented steam rooms, and radiant-stone dry saunas, before ideally concluding with a vigorous massage.
One of the aspects I really love about the experience is that it’s a social, multigenerational thing: the whole family comes, and spends the whole day (or night). The larger jjimjilbang are richly provisioned with different functional areas or zones, so there’s always some way to relax close at hand whether your preferences run to shiatsu, robot massage chairs, “color therapy” (with your choice of seven LED color washes), or beer and TV. I sincerely believe that the the full-service jjimjilbang has got to be numbered among the highest accomplishments of the human species, and in any sane world there’d be a good one down the end of every other block.
Up until last night, though, I always had trouble imagining this kind of thing working particularly well in New York. It just seemed far too culturally specific, nontransferably bound up with the profoundest sort of unstated beliefs about custody of the body and comportment in public – I’d try to envision a big ol’ spa on, say, 34th and Lex, and I’d invariably fail.
And then we went to Inspa World.
There’s something about being operated under the protective aegis of the Korean immigrant community – an existing audience, and a grounding familiarity with the form and its rituals – that seems to function as guarantor. Inspa World works brilliantly, right here in polyglot Queens.
Upon checking in, you’re issued a two-piece cotton uniform, just exactly as you would be in Seoul. The uniforms – “orange for women and blue-gray for men, sort of like an ultra-low-security prison,” in the Grey Lady’s felicitous phrasing – are utterly sexless, which strikes me as being an important part of what makes the whole thing hang together, socially. (For an American, it can be a little odd to contemplate that hedonism and sensuality can be pursued, and quite ardently, without a single note of sexuality in the mix. If it’s the latter you’re interested in, Korean society of course offers the usual array of options, at least if you happen to be male, but that’s just not what the jjimjilbang is all about.)
Before you even get that far, though, you’re issued an RFID bracelet, and this will be your constant companion over the next several hours. I’m, inevitably, fascinated with how rapidly and how unremarkably RFID technology has been folded into the proposition. In a place like Inspa World, your bracelet is quite literally key to the experience: you use it for your (separate) shoe and clothing lockers, but more importantly you use it to purchase all of the additional products and services the place has on offer.
It’s an ideal technology in this context, for a whole bunch of reasons. The bracelet is both waterproof and resistant to the entire range of temperatures you’ll encounter, from cold plunge to the hottest sauna. It lives comfortably – in fact, all but unnoticeably – at the surface of the otherwise un- or lightly-clothed body. And it’s there to meet whatever desire should arise in the course of your sojourn here, from frozen yoghurt to facial treatments to an inner tube for the rooftop pool, all of which are additional charges on top of the $30 entrance fee.
It rather reminded me of the network of ubiquitous scanners in Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, in which each citizen of the universal state wears, from earliest childhood, a metal bracelet bearing their unique identification “nameber,” and when you want to “buy” something from a store, you place first the item desired and then your bracelet against a scan-plate to authorize the transaction.
Inspa World is like that, but in Korean, and lacking (most of) the creepy dystopianisms – and in this, it’s a reasonably good preview of how u-City life is supposed to work. I have to say that I was both pleased and chagrined to see my argument in Everyware borne out: when the act of purchase is as thoughtless and painless as waving your wrist past a scanner in the presence of the thing you desire, let me tell you, shit adds up quickly.
Just so you’re not taken unawares, as well, it must be said that Inspa World’s idea of “relaxation” is as inflected by the contemporary Korean experience as everything else here – which means that the “relax zone” is a darkened bay of sixteen massage chairs, each of which is equipped with its own not particularly quiet television, looking out onto a wall swept by light in every color LEDs can be tuned to. Outside the sauna spaces proper, the air is filled with a cacophony of synthesized-voice and deedly-ping signalling: the massage chairs welcoming you to sit down, half a dozen phones going off all at once as the family tries to track down halmoni, etc.
Nevertheless, nevertheless. What a gift to the city this place is. For all that it’s a hassle to get to, way out there in a lobe of Queens with no public-transit options whatsoever, I’d rank it a Must – both to do nothing with a day but enjoy your body, and to get the tiniest taste of what loud, happy, particolored ubiquity Korean-style looks and feels like.
Call me sentimental, but I’m the kind of guy that believes that everyone – every single last soul – has a little über in ’em somewhere.
You know what I mean, right? It’s-lashing-monsoon-rain, your-shoes-are-full-of-tidal-slush-but-Ride of the Valkyries-is-booming-in-your-skull-and-you’re-damn-well-going-to-knock-down-that-last-hundred-meters über. You’ve-been-up-for-two-days-putting-the-project-to-bed-but-you’re-hellbent-on-shutting-the-club-down über. She’s-never-looked-twice-at-you-but-there’s-not-a-chance-in-hell-you’re-leaving-work-tonight-without-getting-her-number über. Yeah, you know what I mean.
Everybody’s got their own personal flavor of über, of course. I’m no different. Trouble is, I haven’t seen mine for awhile. Too busy writing a book, building a practice, developing a curriculum, flying from hither to yon. It’s all rewarding, but it leaves precious little time to…to kick my own ass, I guess, is the best way to put it.
Today I woke up and decided on the spot that I’m tired of being soft, I’m tired of being overfed, and I’m tired of letting mi vida loca provide me with manifestly “reasonable” excuses for a sundered acquaintance with my own body. I used to be fairly hardcore, after my own pencil-neck fashion, but those days feel like they’re dwindling in the rearview even as we speak. This state of affairs, it hardly bears saying, is suddenly striking me as but-thoroughly UNSAT.
I took two concrete steps. On my buddy James’s recommendation, I went over to Crossfit NYC, thinking I’d see what they’re all about. Turns out that one of the partners in the studio is a great guy named Court Wing I knew like fifteen years ago, when I worked an espresso concession inside Seattle’s Scarecrow Video. In all honesty, I hadn’t thought about Court through all those years until last week, when I (somewhat uncannily, it now seems) wondered what he was up to, more or less out of nowhere. Crossfit bills itself as a “hostile workout environment” – between that and the oddball coincidence of running into Court, this is all the confirmation I need that I am in the right place. The über, yes, is strong here.
Three hours later, at Fahey‘s behest, I registered for this Prospect Park duathlon. I used to do Bay to Breakers and Philadelphia Distance Run fairly regularly, to say nothing of all the running I was doing in the Army. But by now it’s been, oh, say
eight years since I’ve run any kind of race at all. [How could I forget the 10K around the Imperial Palace I knocked down with Raye, summer of 2003?]
This should be good: I’m almost certainly an even match for anyone in my age group on the run, but bikewise I’ve got only the one speed to my name. And if competing on that basis doesn’t kickstart me into something resembling high gear, no pun intended, then something is truly amiss.
Oh, hell yeah. Even thinking about it feels great. So this is how one goes about getting one’s fugitive über back.
Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood.
– Old Fred
I think I mentioned the other day that I’ve been reading Iain Borden’s essential Skateboarding, Space and the City, which I’m enjoying immensely, both as a detailed social history of a domain I’m more than cursorily familiar with, and for the way it frames skating as a performative critique of the urban condition. In Borden’s reading, a skater, in physically addressing the various spaces and surfaces offered up by the city, reclaims them from their ostensible or official purpose, reassembling them into nothing less than an alternative and highly personal telling of place.
We’re not too far, here, from what the Situationists originally meant by “détournement,” but there’s also a delicious, inescapable viscerality to this particular act of appropriation that I recognize immediately. Here’s Borden describing the thrill of skating an emptied swimming pool:
First…skaters encounter the wallness of the wall, sensing how the pool presents itself as a surface changing from floor to wall under their very feet…[T]he higher up they go, the more vertical, the more wall-like that surface becomes. This involves a quadruple movement of body and architectural surface: initially comes the sudden compression of body hitting the bottom curve of the transition, where terrain is felt to press back on the skater, translating momentum into a forced acceleration of his or her trajectory up the wall; at this point the second stage arrives, tense compression is released, and the skater feels the enclosed concave curvature of the transition give way to vertical flatness, and to a corresponding sense of speed and expansivity of space. The third stage is that stalling space-time where the skater reaches the top of the trajectory, hangs momentarily, and begins the kickturn – for the skater, this is a highly physical yet simultaneously fantastical and dream-like experience, where space-time are conflated and frozen into a dynamic-yet-stable instance.
I’ve never done that, but I’ve skated enough to know that Borden gets it just right, in a mode I might call the physical-lyrical. Here, as in the rest of the book, what I like about Borden’s writing is that he appropriately insists on the granular, the momentary, the local and the specific. A material culture can only emerge from a description like this if it’s properly characterized, right down to details like the precise composition of a pool surface and the particular Santa Monica and San Fernando Valley schoolyards first appropriated for skating. (Actually, it doesn’t have a hope at all of so emerging: we all know that these are things that can only be fully understood if lived. Only the most tenuous smear of a subculture’s nature will ever be conveyed to those distant from it in space, time or sensibility. And even then, only if the details are spot on.)
Borden deserves recognition for taking the (occasionally ridiculous) artifacts and cultural apparatus of skating as seriously as any anthropologist ever did a tribe’s rituals and fetishes; I confess that I get a great big kick out of reading a solid ethnographic account of transitions that I lived through, like the shifting fashions in deck widths, wheel durometer readings and graphics that accompanied the turn from pools, ramps and parks to street skating in the mid-80s. But, frankly, one of the things I am enjoying most about Skateboarding is that it has given me permission to re-examine a parallel domain of physiospatial experience which, despite being considered at the distance of what is now quite a few years, might yet shed some light on the broader urban condition: my time as a bike messenger for San Francisco’s Aero Special Delivery.
I hasten to point out I was the world’s worst and least representative bike messenger. What’s more, I enjoyed this status for a mere half-year or so, between my arrival in San Francisco at the tail-end of 1990 and Aero inviting me inside to work order entry sometime around July of the following year. (Hey, it was a much better wage, and I already knew I was no good on the bike, or at least distinctly nonoptimal. What would you have done?)
Notwithstanding the brevity of my experience, I feel that it served to adequately instill in me enough of the messenger worldview, ethos and sense of space/time that I can unapologetically relate some of its essentials to you here.
The messenger and the city
For the bike messenger, the city is a particularly rich and complex terrain, in which anything reasonably smooth and approximately horizontal can become a thoroughfare, however interstitial and whatever its legal designation. Onto this terrain the messenger subconsciously maps the contours of an economic geography – known sources and sinks of courier assignments, or “tags” – and a threat landscape, this latter comprised of blind corners, cable-car and metro tracks, and traffic lanes sufficiently wedged up against parking lanes that the risk of being “doored” is increased.
Bike messengers – or at least those in San Francisco at the very beginning of the 1990s; your mileage, as ever, may vary – are paid by the job. We called this “pulling tags.” The faster, the more cannily you are able to exploit the city’s fabric of possibilities, the quicker you can close out one tag and pick up the next. The upside of this constraint is that it gives rise to an extraordinary repertoire of creative and only incidentally illegal uses of space, in which just about anything can be transformed into circulation. The downside is that a slow or otherwise incompetent messenger can easily reach the end of the day having earned something less, when averaged out, than the legal minimum hourly wage; at one particularly bleak point in my brief career I calculated that I was paying out more in calories than I was bringing in by dollar equivalent.
Key to the messengering proposition, at least in the technosocial milieu obtaining fifteen years ago, was that we were radio-dispatched from a central office. Fitted out with the predictable variety of self-styled sobriquets and callsigns, we wore clunky walkie-talkies fixed to the straps of our bags by elastic webbing, and received from them the stations of our daily transit of the city.
The relationship between a bike messenger and his or her dispatcher is simultaneously curiously intimate, intensely political (your livelihood depends on staying on their good side!) and thoroughly mediated. I worked a solid – efficient and remunerative – month with a replacement dispatcher I never once met in the flesh. I was delighted to see William Gibson attempt to limn this relationship, and just about pull it off, in his 1993 Virtual Light.
As I remember it, the specific magick of the competent dispatcher was to weave together for you a customized and maximally efficient selection from the series of tags crossing his desk in something pretty close to real time, based on what he knew of your current position vis à vis both other available (or soon-to-become available) messengers, and the destination. In this way, he’d impose a coherent narrative on your day, a thread connecting the end of one run with the beginning of the next.
(“He” because my dispatchers, at least, were invariably male; I specify “what he knew” of your position because it was entirely self-reported, which is just one of the many aspects of the messenger experience which cannot help but be undone by the advent of ambient informatics.)
Sometimes, of course, it was politic to fudge your actual location. Some intersections were particularly dense with architectural, engineering or legal practices, television stations, and the like, and you could invariably count on proximity to these to generate a high volume of tags. Either you were angling to pick one of these up when you were properly out of the catchment basin, or – for me, anyway, unusual among messengers in that I generally privileged the prospect of spare time over the three dollars I might pick up over the afternoon’s last tag – dissembling the fact that you were no more than a block from triple-five Cal when a superhot tag lit up the board at ten minutes to six.
It’s only now, with heat maps and other sorts of sophisticated information visualization edging their way into the broad public consciousness, that the bike messenger’s internalized and therefore “intuitive” macro/micro read of the urban surround might find a representational strategy capable of conveying its nuances. For me, it was something that ultimately found its most accurate map in the arrangement of my nerves and muscles.
The messenger’s body
I once described what happens to the body in Basic Training as the “yoga of organized violence,” and so it is here: efficiently linking micromaneuvers like trackstands and bunnyhops (which I suck at) with the larger pattern of drifting and weaving through traffic entrains a certain way of being-in-the-body that I can only think of as the yoga of urban logistics.
As with many varieties of yoga, this one begins with a becoming-conscious. When you’re whipping through a labyrinth of very large, very hard things in unpredictable motion, all too unable to forget that force = mass x acceleration, microfeatures of the traversed terrain and of the bike itself weigh heavily in your situational awareness. An unseen rut an inch across or a marginally underinflated tire can mean a blown tag, even a broken collarbone; coming to recognize the timing of stoplights is all-critical. You learn, and learn quickly, to model the world in four dimensions, to run that model ahead of real time, and to project optimal traverse corridors into and through a situation which is at the threshold of becoming actual.
But that’s all between the ears. That awareness corresponds with another one, this one musculoskeletal: the characteristic patterns of tension and relaxation that take up residence in the messenger’s body. These are stereotypic, keyed to certain stock situations, and once they’ve receded from conscious thought you can string them together pretty fluidly, building an appropriate response to the emergent pattern of fact around you just as you can make of words you use everyday a perfectly valid sentence that’s never before been uttered on earth.
(Some trace of this survives in my body/thinking to this day. Biking crosstown is largely uncomplicated, but it turns out that I have a specific bodily strategy for riding each of Manhattan’s avenues – a trace of which I never became consciously aware, until starting to write this paragraph.)
And finally there physical facts like sunburn, soreness, stiffness, and the persistent feeling of never quite having had enough to eat. These are by no means univocal, in that they speak simultaneously of your poverty and your exposure to the elements, but also of your freedom. And trying to unpack all of that leads inevitably into a consideration of the precise nature of the network(s) the [you+bike] assemblage is embedded in.
The messenger mesh
Here’s where messing really helped me understand something like actor-network theory.
Whenever you utter the words “bike messenger,” you’re really talking about a exemplarily rich domain of activity, in which regalia, patterns of affiliation, codings of class and ethnic origin, nomenclature, etiquettes, syndromes of muscular development (and occupational injury), the manufacture and marketing of bicycles and bicycle components, the economics and technics of dispatch, the perceived need for same-day crosstown transport of distinctly LTL-scaled shipments, the formulation of municipal code, habitual and even stylized patterns of substance ab/use and a whole lot more besides are all folded into one package.
This package is passed whole from person to person every time it’s invoked, and only rarely held up for examination. The human being, the actual messenger, stands as synecdoche for a sophisticated human-machine interface, which in turn lies at the heart of a broader nexus of ideas about cities, transportation and logistics. Sometimes this human being’s hard-won body/knowledge is fed back into the system that implicates him or her, as personal efficiency, as methodological innovation, or as offerings to a shared repository of culture. On other occasions, that system retrieves from individual practice some flag of identity only to mobilize it somewhere down the line as a fully commercialized signifier of notional freedom or rebelliousness. (A mildly interesting article on the popularity of Timbuk2 bags in last week’s New York Times Magazine only scratches the surface of the possibilities here. Full disclosure: I carry a Timbuk2 now, sure. In the day, mine was a Zo.)
Whatever else it means, whatever other functions it serves, though, messing is a way of knowing the city that comes to be written in the sinews and tendons, in the curve of a quadriceps and the permanent scarring where gravel has once embedded itself in the flesh. Having been a bike messenger even for so short a period of time is still and always will be a source of tremendous pride to me, but it’s also something I remember at a level far deeper than words. And (not to get yet another dig in or anything) it’s precisely the sort of possibility this exultant bodily knowledge represents that is foreclosed by any transposition of the urban into the virtual. There is little doubt that there are inequities, frustrations, and imbalances beyond number bound up in the figure of the bike messenger, but I despair to think what cities would be without the specific quality of their exertions.
This is truly profound: “‘I don’t think aging is a random process – it’s a program, an anti-cancer program,’ said Dr. Norman E. Sharpless of the University of North Carolina.”
I’ve never been a life-extension guy – actually, the prospect of an indefinitely-prolonged lifespan strikes me as thoroughly revolting – but in this announcement I do hear the sound of tumblers turning in ancient, enigmatic locks.