Precarious Urbanity, Linear History

Back in beautiful San Francisco, where it somehow turned back into summer while I was away. Balmy warm weather the past few days, yum! My week in New York was really interesting for lots of reasons, but one that has really stuck with me is the utter precariousness of the urban fabric. I was lugging my bags through the NYC subway, first the G line which looks like someone forgot it exists, then the L, which had a creek running down the middle of the tracks, and finally the A to JFK which was just my usual experience of the subway there. When I’m standing on a subway platform gazing at the crumbling iron beams or grimy track beds, especially with water dripping everywhere, I marvel that it all keeps going. Add to that the aging water system, the potholed roads, the overheated crappy buildings in the midst of too cold weather… it’s a wonder that the city doesn’t just collapse. Riding around NYC on bike, gazing from bridges at the endless sprawl of highrises and cityscape, there’s something mind-boggling and incomprehensible about all the human effort and just-barely-holding-on-ness that keeps the place running.

I’ve been reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which is a great book. He writes really well, breezily even, which is odd for a book that takes as its central pretense that all humans have vanished from one day to the next (rapture anyone?) and now he’s trying to see how nature and planetary ecology quickly or slowly recapture the artifacts and environments created by humans… from vast monumental architecture to centuries-old fields of cultivated crops, most of it goes really fast. He brings in a lot of good journalistic investigation, talking with scientists and technicians who know a lot about how things work and what it takes to keep it all going, from oil refineries and nuclear plants to agriculture and water systems. He also goes way back in geologic and paleolithic history to compare processes of succession at different periods with our own. From an historical point of view, this book is brilliant at reframing things in much longer terms…

I’ve been teaching a class in San Francisco history at New College this semester, which is terribly ironic if you know my own long disdain for college and mainstream history, but regardless, it has forced me to re-read a lot of good local history, and reconnect to the cycles that tangibly shape San Francisco’s history. The ebb and flow of class struggle is one, real estate speculation and development and its occasional crash is another, and after 150+ years of urban life here, we are starting to see a re-emergence of natural systems that define longer term cycles that far exceed our limited sense of time.

I’ve been a bit frustrated at how much time I’ve had to spend reading things I already know, but I still manage to squeeze in other stuff. Peter Matthiessen’s article in the latest NY Review of Books on whales, oil and the Inupiat-American life along the melting shores of Alaska is a good window on the climate change story as it relates to the oil industry’s rapacious expansion in the Arctic. But the ancient cultures of that region are undergoing shock treatment themselves, as their age-old relationship to large mammals is finally being destroyed by underwater sonar exploration and the receding icepack which is altering migration patterns. Another good read I picked up in New York from my friends at Autonomedia is the annual Sarai Reader, this one #6 on “Turbulence”. Francesca was repairing the carrying bag for my folding bike while I read her this article called “Remembering Communism: The Experience of Political Defeat” by Philip Bounds. I’m posting a lengthy excerpt here because I found it quite a lovely passage about time and revolution (though I don’t share the author’s enthusiasm for the role of contemporary Marxists in social-democratic countries’ politics):

Having squared their consciences with the grim realities of recent history (and having convinced themselves that the ‘socialist experiment’ was not entirely a waste of time), to what extent have Marxists been able to sustain their faith in Marxism? There is no simple answer to that question. At one extreme there has clearly been a haemorrhaging of the revolutionary left over the last 20 years. Thousands of people for whom Marxism was once a ruling passion have torn up their party cards, made their peace with the market and rued their youthful infatuation with the siren voices of utopia. These are precisely the sort of people to whom the postmodern theorists have drawn our attention – disillusioned, apolitical, despairing of human nature.At the opposite extreme, even in countries where Stalinism did its worst, there is still a substantial core of loyalists who insist (or pray) that socialism’s moment has not yet passed. Chastened by their failure to perform the “vanguard” role which Lenin assigned to them, Marxist parties still make an important and largely beneficial contribution to local and national governments in countries as disparate as India, Germany, France and Iraq. Some have even adapted themselves to the emergence of the so-called ‘anti-globalisationÂ’ movement, supplying an element of theoretical rigour and organisational skill which younger activists have not yet developed. The world is a better place as a result of it.

Yet the truly interesting people are neither the believers nor the disbelievers (the stubborn revolutionaries and the cynical reactionaries, so to speak) but those who come somewhere in the middle–the scores of men and women who retain a yearning for Enlightenment values but no longer call themselves Marxists. The most poignant representatives of this group are those who wallow in a spirit of remembered political passion. Their defining characteristic is a sort of bittersweet yearning for the political certainties of their youth, combined with the melancholic realisation that they can never be recaptured. Like William Wordsworth in early middle age (tearfully affirming that “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” even as his faith in the French Revolution crumbled), they can be moved beyond reason by the memory of a strike, an eloquent speech or a long-forgotten comrade, only to find themselves snapped back to reality by the high winds of postmodern cynicism.

There is an extremely affecting example of all this in Wolf Biermann’s great essay “Shaking Hands with the Zeitgest ” (1992), which describes what happened when Biermann was introduced to Mikhail Gorbachev at a reception in Hamburg in the early 1990s. In spite of the fact that he had not called himself a Marxist in many years (not least because the ruling Socialist Unity Party had expelled him from East Germany for dissident activities), Biermann could only think of one thing to say when Gorbachev stood before him: “I am a Communist”. For some moments an electric current of political nostalgia passed between the two men, enough to induce a “romantic revolutionary spasm” in both their bodies. But Biermann’s whole point was that the mood could not last. As Gorbachev shook his hand, “he squeezed meaningfully and tragically, communicating what we both know very well: it doesn’t matter any more”(16). For anyone who fell under the spell of the Marxist left and lived to see the socialist countries collapse, there is something almost painfully moving about the last two sentences of Biermann’s essay: “So we stood there, two survivors by the open grave of a fixed idea. Then we went on our way”(17).

But it would be wrong to end on such an agonistic note. Chronic nostalgics like Biermann should not simply be dismissed as the casualties of a shattered utopian dream. In a curious way, even as they reconcile themselves to a life without political hope, they continue to resist some of the modern world’s most disabling illusions. As has often been pointed out, not least by the great Marxist critic John Berger, nothing has been a greater source of psychological anguish over the last two centuries than our strictly linear conception of time. At some point in the early 19th century, largely because of the rapid and cataclysmic changes which industrial capitalism brought in its wake, men and women began to behave as if time consists of a series of discrete moments which disappear forever as soon as they pass. The prevailing assumption is that all of us have been liberated from the enormous weight of history; and that each set of circumstances is eventually cancelled out by the events that succeed it, leaving no traces in the sands of time. However, as Berger has repeatedly argued, this unquestioned emphasis on linearity leaves far too much out. By emphasising the pristine newness of every moment we experience, we have begun to lose the sense that the human personality is defined as much by “ineluctable” and “continuous” events and dispositions as by the realities of social change. Blinded by neophilia, we compromise our understanding of “birth, sexual attraction, social cooperation, death”(18).

Moreover, there is an obvious sense in which the modern idea of time deprives us of the crucial experience of “timelessness”. If human beings are to enjoy any measure of happiness, or so Berger implied, they must somehow believe that their most important experiences, values and relationships are destined to last. No one can thrive on the assumption that every change of circumstances casts him adrift from his past. The great problem with the modern age is that it has no language in which to talk of such things:

The 19th-century discovery of history as the terrain of human freedom deposited the continuous within the flow of history – i.e., the continuous was that which had a longer duration than the ephemeral. Previously, the continuous was thought of as the unchanging or timeless existing outside the flow of history.(19)

The virtue of the post-Marxist nostalgics is that their whole way of life is an affront to linearity. Nearly all of them seem to live in two periods of history at the same time. Acutely aware of the bleakness of the modern age, the very texture of their experience seems to hark back to a lost world–a world of endless meetings in draughty halls, intensive study of dog-eared ‘Marxist classics’, impassioned conversations in city streets, awestruck obeisance before the power of the working class.(20) It is impossible to read a page of their work without experiencing the past as a living force, reaching down into the present and providing a residue of remembered hope. Even as they withdraw from politics and retreat into their memories, men like Biermann remind us of the overwhelming power of our revolutionary traditions. It is an irony which Marx himself would surely have appreciated.

(The Sarai Reader is a remarkable journal publishing in New Delhi, India. I have them all, which you can get from Autonomedia, but the contents are all online too at their website that I linked to above.)

Living during our long, surprisingly slow decline in America, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger historic dynamics unfolding unless you make an effort to seek out sources for such perspectives. I still like Asia Times as a daily news source, in large part because they so often publish intelligent, long essays that put things in historic perspective, see global events without the narrow blinkers of U.S. pundits (even pwogwessives in the U.S. tend to ignore or remain blind to global processes that exceed the self-regard of Americans).

It must also be noted that there are historic developments unfolding right in front of us here all the time too. These days there’s a nearly year-long sit-in occupying some oak trees at UC Berkeley. The university has now enclosed the protesters inside two fences, gotten a court order to end the protest, and just yesterday a solidarity rally that marched to it led to several arrests. By coincidence I was attending a lecture on campus (by Jean Pfaelzer on her excellent new history about anti-Chinese violence in the western U.S. Driven Out) and took a stroll over to the protest perimeter afterwards. Here’s a couple of photos:

This protest, which resembles some of the direct action in the redwood trees of northern California over the past decades, as well as the anti-roads movement in the UK, has a simple goal of deterring the university from ripping down some old oak trees to build an athletic facility (this spot happens to be a stone’s throw from the Hayward Fault, which runs beneath the nearby Memorial Stadium and perpetually threatens a number of radiological sites on campus). While this has been going on, the University has signed a heinous deal with the oil giant BP to accept a half billion dollars in exchange for allowing BP to have its own private lab on campus, to do research into GMO biofuels, and to own the results of the use of this public facility. (This deal is a harbinger of much more to come, thanks to Senator Dianne “Bush’s most reliable Democrat” Feinstein and her husband, UC Regent and war profiteer Richard Blum.)

Well, I guess I’m now offically rambling beyond any reasonable length… if you read this far, you must really be bored at work! I’ll stop now, but for the sake of a Nowtopian conclusion, I’ll throw up some images of the new 9th Avenue sidepath in NYC for bicycles:

I had a bunch of photos of more NYC graffiti too, including a mural of street writers, but I’ll save it for another time…

1 comment to Precarious Urbanity, Linear History

  • Deborah

    Hi Chris,

    Greetings from an avid reader and fan in Copenhagen (and old time friend!). Really got a lot out of todays blog – very interesting ruminations on “linear history”.

    One thing the excerpt you brought from “Remembering Communism: The Experience of Political Defeat” didn’t touch on, but which I often experience in Copenhagen (and which makes me barf in big buckets), is another type of Marxist nostalgia. Namely the kind espoused by members of the “68-genration” (as it is called in Denmark, a.k.a. baby boomers like myself) who now sit comfortably in elite positions in society (for example tenured University professiors, business leaders, civil servants), with their house in the suburbs, cars, summer houses, three week winter vacations in Thailand and huge pensions, and who haven’t changed an iota of their ideology/social critqiue in the last 30 years, but who have no connection between their talk and their walk. They especially like to pontificate on all aspects of world politics when they have had too much to drink at Auntie’s 80th birthday, and boy do they have all the answers!

    Many thanks for the great work from an ex-Commie who has no nostalgia for the doctrine of “the ends justify the means” (very, very linear), but still believes in a critique of capitalism, love of nature and the power of the bicycle!


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