Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Moving about in the city and in-between cities

There are many voices saying that no one knows any longer where the city begins and nature ends, or vice versa. The city extends by now over so many borders and beyond any concept of nature that a French writer visiting London would wonder when he has left the city even though a local could tell him he has passed in the meantime already through four different cities. Death to nature may be the major undertone of modern life in this extended city. To this had to be added all kinds of pollution, ugly surroundings, inhuman living quarters, alienated markets called now aptly supermarkets while in the air above airplanes circle over crowded airports until they receive finally landing permission.

It seems as if people are endlessly on the road while others stay only at home. In either case they have hardly a chance to meet the others. There exist no such intersections making possible lively encounters. Instead busy intersections prompt wishes to escape from such traffic flow. To this has to be added another component: transportation is getting more and more expensive while public services decline in quality and reliability. Thus everything seems to be pushing towards private solutions with regards to the transport question. As a result it is becoming a haphazard guess if one is going to arrive at a specific destination on time. It underlines the beginning of a modern confusion about commitment to progress when off-set by delays and impossibilities of being able to be at a meeting on time.

Sometimes people never arrive at all. The time wasted on the road and in traffic has not been calculated as of yet, but it can be termed as a different kind of consumption and therefore at risk to become an end in itself. The city appears as if not going anywhere.

For instance, time and distance have changed in relationship to a city. Today it is faster to take the train from Paris to London or vice versa than to travel in the London tube from the centre to Heathrow airport. The outer connections are getting rapidly shorter in time thanks to technological advancements, but not in terms of costs, while within the city time and hence distances in need to be covered depend upon traffic congestions existing or not. It can happen quite easily that in order to get from one point in the city to another it takes longer than what is needed to reach another city. That is an odd reverse of relationships with regards to distances and scopes of the world to be covered within a certain time. That is why it is so easily said that a city has a life of its own, but it is quite painful to see how many do not know how to get around and therefore leave before having discovered the city. They leave the city empty handed, that is in a void and determine through their outlooks but also value judgments more and more that anti-urban life components are pronounced in debates. This is why most of the solutions suggested for the city are mainly banal and beside the point.

To make things worse, philosophy has been unable to develop substantial new models to provide here with some orientation as to the direction in which to search for solutions. That is itself a remark about a deficit of culture prevailing. It leaves much of the life at the mercy of random solutions. The prevailing arbitrariness in a city is answered back by angry car drivers, intermingling with impatient taxi drivers trying to make a living in such a daily traffic chaos while everywhere the dependency upon the car is underlined by all kinds of car repair-shops existing and where mechanics are ready to make the car return into the daily flow after some necessary repair. Along with gasoline stations and auto salons, it makes explicit that everyone is connected with this mode of transportation: the car. Around it a cult and many forms of rituals even to the point of washing a car on a Sunday have developed. In many cases, the condition of the car is more advanced than the space in which people live. The difference is that the car is a part of the visibility as to what one can afford and therefore demonstrate to others while the personal living quarters remain out of sight, largely a private matter.

As many American films begin and end with someone driving in a car around town, this cultural paradox is demonstrated quite clearly in the public media and therefore shapes as much minds as it determines taste. It might not be an important observation, but it is certainly a part of the story. Andre Loeckx has rightly pointed out that with the car there has been created a kind of network based on certain connections. The car makes it possible that places which have been till now inaccessible to many people are now easily within reach, but as a result people may prefer according to Andre Loeckx to drive two hours on a highway to reach their favourite restaurant while they have no knowledge of the people who live across the street where they have their home. The car makes walking to a restaurant just around the corner superfluous or else accessibility defines itself through other components such as adventure by driving across town as being equal to putting a distance behind those things not liked within one's immediate surroundings. Always the illusion of being on the move adds to that theory of escapism which considers things on the other side as much better.

The illusion of being on the move is at times equal to moving things about. All the moving about belongs to the prevailing notion of how things can be done not merely in the city, but in larger units of existence. World trade developed out of that notion. There is even a joke about the European Commission as having a desire to see official papers being moved about from one region to another as an indication that at least the European networks are functioning. As the world has shrunk, one outcome has been in the jargon of such super-unities the slogan of 'think globally, act locally'. The latter does not really make sense if locality is dissolved by virtue of the car offering possibilities to connect with people two hours away, but not with the ones living just across the street. Local places hardly retain their unique meanings once that happens. As a matter of fact, more and more people are inter-connected and this irrespective of time and space. The Internet has made possible the existence of virtual worlds while 'information highways' and even gateways to further information systems suggest that like the cars in a traffic jam info bites have to wait till they can be up- or downloaded. And no one has anymore the certainty, if this is still a good way to ensure continuity of life.

A connection to the current philosophical controversy about post modernism can be made as the physical city is changing constantly due to introduction of especially new modes of transportation and innovation in the communication technologies. Both have the power and means to alter places of activities. That has consequences for investments to be made at concrete locations for they alter the view as to where profits can be made within a much shorter time spans than what used to be case. Profits are no longer calculated merely in terms of concrete outcomes, but refer as well to assets gained as a result of entering new collaborative schemes. The consequence is not merely the development of second homes and therefore an expansion of the city to its outskirts, but that the cities have to shoulder more and more costs all alone while people leave the city whenever they have a chance to do so. That explains as well the dead centres once business hours are over. The city appears then as something like dead capital. It is an indication that something is out of balance. Thus the post modern reflection as to what makes a difference seems outdated for nothing makes a real difference in such a virtual world ruled by arbitrariness or just money flocking to new locations in the hope for a quick profit and this without any commitment to concrete places and the people who live there.

Not deconstruction but destruction of a city's fabric leads to a loss of experiences. With it goes a particular negativity insofar a city attains a vitality if it manages to make work the critical memory people have. The best indicator of that would be the absence of violence and people having a strong sense of the continuity of life. Nikos Stavrolakis in his essay indicates quite clearly that a city like Athens lacks such continuity. Every possible trace of the past has vanished as if it is merely a matter of connecting 500 B.C. to the present equally neutral modernity made up of cement buildings and a lay-out so much reduced that even prime needs remain un-resolvable e.g. pavements too narrow for people to walk along. That means a city has lost the ability to set the terms for investments to be made. Insofar capital is given all the rights to put its stamp on a city, then merely at its own convenience, in neglect of human and social needs. An ample demonstration of that is given by SONY and Mercedes-Daimler in terms of how the once famous

Potsdamer Platz in Berlin has become after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the unification of the city just a random reason to let loose all these speculative powers. The urban conversion in Berlin taking place after unification reflects these new manifestations of power. They favour high tech solutions while no one seems to be bothered by all real opportunities being negated in the process as if within such a system only these high prestige solutions are conceivable. And everything is justified in terms of world competition which means literally silencing all opposition at home. Global capitalism requires another brand of nationalism, equally restrictive, if not more so in terms of articulation and creative solutions. The latter cannot be vindicated by calling for 'creative cities'.

One reason for the failure of such a concept as 'creative cities' is that any city without a culture enabling it to anticipate the future would be lost to the wrong kinds of investments. Such was the case of the media park of Cologne. The city made the decision for such a project prior to unification and thus failed in this venture as the sudden new investment opportunities altered the dispositions of companies. Likewise is the fate of former East German cities insofar as the collapse of the industrial sector and a complete alteration in importance to the overall societal structure leaves them at best guessing what new roles they can assume while the worst scenario would be not to overcome this predicament and people deciding to leave instead. Perhaps cities struggle all the time to remain and to become attractive for newcomers while wishing to lead a life of their own, and this completely independent from all external factors. But in reality these alternatives remain impossibilities as long as the city does not understand it gains only in reputation by being not subdued by false compromises and therefore avoids in giving in to such inward investments which seem not to care as to the impact they will have upon the existing or prevailing urban fabric.

Naturally a lot of pressure stems from prospects of loss of revenues but quality of management in terms of the resources a city does have, can make a difference. The same goes with top-down investments which tend to oust people rather than heed what has been built up over years at that locality. Wiping out the memory base of any locality is, therefore, not a viable option but an invitation to disaster. What is crucial after all that people can retain at local level access to resources and thereby manage to create an economic basis for their own existence, but one which is compatible with the urban culture. Thus critical becomes the dialogue people can uphold as to what is happening to the city and therefore they do elect mayors who do not follow merely the common trend, namely the destruction of the old for the sake of making way for the neutral new, but seek such solutions in which the constraint of the old becomes the reason for the city to be creative when seeking solutions to new challenges. That means, however, a political ability to distinguish true from false interests when giving space to forces seeking further development of certain things.

False interests seek predominantly cheap and easy solutions which tend to be in the final outcome one sided and mono-functional, e.g. only designed to capitalize on expected influx of tourism. As this leads to over dominance and negative dependency upon only one factor, entry or exit points of a city would be reduced to what lends a quick visibility to the city e.g. the cathedral in Cologne, the Eifel tower in Paris, the Big Ben in London. The inner/outer reflection needs of a city would be short changed or not be perceived at all. That means no more reference would be made to the people who live in that city and who have to carry the burdens of such one sided function. It would call very soon in question the sustainability of such a city. Like a ship which is beginning to lean, it would leave but one choice, namely to abandon the city as quickly as possible.

When discussing which interests dominate, then another aspect has to be taken into consideration. There are those with money but who seem to have no other purpose in life, but play a safe game of earning still more money. Out of this type of wishing the city to be something like a safe casino in order to elicit anytime from it money, this interest group will pressure the city by no other means but sheer coercion.

From a historical perspective these forces capable of ruining a city are well known, but in the contemporary setting it seems as if cities are blinded by what is called progress and which results out of multiple interactions. It will include in this conglomerate of private business practices individuals, groups, companies and institutions all seeking a role to play in begetting more money in order to continue doing the same as before, so they claim. That leads even to the establishment of life long connections in the interest to safeguard both reputation and the source of money, e.g. the City of London and how it manages financial deals. It is a conservative interest base open to only certain changes. At the same time, modernization comes at a prize. The city must adapt to these changes by taking the brunt of the costs for such transitions while the profit margin must remain lucrative for these interests groups in order to continue playing the same game.

Realistic is to describe life in cities with people coming and going as depending upon some basic agreements as to how the city can be capitalized upon without major impacts upsetting the life of the people too much. Hence this agreement depends upon radicals and moderates able to find a middle ground. Naturally such an agreement will only be upheld if the moral base of the city itself remains intact, thereby giving reason for civic pride and even belief in the city. Practically it means that people are paid for the work they do within the city and therefore not everything is capitalized for the sake of serving only money as would be the case with Rodeo Drive. The latter is a single street devoted not to consumption of things or commodities but primarily to consuming money itself. In case of the city showing limits to capitalization attempts and processes, it means the city succeeds in providing spaces where life is possible and things enjoyed there do not cost anything to the citizen e.g. public parks.

While it is difficult to imagine a city in which a life can take place without the need to justify everything in terms of money, man's freedom from such material and financial order requires imagined spaces in which the world can be explored and experienced independent from the need to valorize everything immediately. If only those things are valued which have a price and out of which money can be made, it would reduce the horizon of interest to such a low level, that the city would end up without any imagination and therefore confront an inability to question its man-made reality.

The ability to leave something alone and to just let life go on without exploitation, vanishes very quickly in places where valorization of everything takes over. Take the case of Berlin, where at first people would carry even from the fourth floor table and chairs down to the street in order to enjoy communal life, including making contacts with those passing by. Within a very short time this spontaneous gathering of sitting outside on the pavement was replaced by street cafes where to sit down, it would cost something. Once self created life styles are given up, an artificial life takes over in the city. It means that even the smallest of all things like sitting down for a chat will cost money. Apparently then nothing more can be enjoyed in public spaces and everything that does take place will happen only in private or semi-private public spaces. It leads automatically to a reduction of simple spontaneity. Especially the latter would include doing something for the sake of expressing a love for people. Quite different would be the interaction if done for the purpose of making some money out of this social need to be out in the open, amongst people, for people no longer would know anymore the difference between being approached out of interest in humanity or just for the sake of making money. Instead of trust distrust would undermine the urban fabric and leave people more or less forlorn in their dreams and stranded in their homes.

When West Berlin still existed, the boundary of the city was defined by the existence of the wall. Everyone inside knew how precarious life was for everyone and hence things were shared. It made no difference whether rich or poor as everyone lived there under the same condition and thus all sat at the same table. Only once fake incentives induced differences between the privileged and the not so well off, then artificial borders were introduced and altered the social life. Berlin had already these artificial social borders up before the wall came down. It meant people no longer sat around the same table but distinguished themselves according to what could be afforded, what not. That is the real tragedy of Berlin. It followed suit like so many other cities in which liveable moments are seized upon as sole earning opportunities. Hence real life is falsified while fake entertainment and the like are upgraded as if authentic replicas of typical life in Berlin. Check Point Charlie has become an exclusive commercial enterprise with all the gimmiks, including men dressed up as if still East German border guards but ready to have a group photo be taken with them in the middle. That is like tourists taking a photo of a typical fisherman who no longer heads out to the sea but earns his money instead from such tourist enterprise.

All the projection upon him is more about his past while the present has become a 'swindle'. Such lies and even crimes committed to deploy things for a fake presentation seem to reflect a loss of interest in man's true history and life. And it comes at a prize as people tend to be less and less interested in how people earn their money; rather what matters more is how, where and when they are willing to spend it and the more the better.

Even a tourist destination like Greece tends to be interested more in high income tourists than in the rucksack, hitch hiking crowd which would be content to sleep down at the beach and therefore in no need of an expensive hotel room. And with the construction of more hotels, the natural beauty of the beach would disappear or as Socrates Kabouropoulos would attest, the stranger's love for a place would no longer be able to off-set how those wishing to make money off the location agree that the only way forward is the destruction of the real beauty while making believe those coming there that they are staying at a hotel besides a beautiful beach. That beauty has to do with empty space would never occur to them. It is hard to imagine how alone the Spanish coast was before endless high rise hotels were built there all designed to keep everyone in the illusion that they were able to make vacations in the South where not only sun and sea await them, but swimming pools, night bars and casinos as if the only forms of real interest to keep a passive mind active enough to realize life happening around one is but one exciting, although crafty swindle.

On the other hand, San Francisco and other enchanting places have managed until now to retain a flair of authenticity despite many beautiful cafes and bars having opened up. They retain an atmosphere due to a prevailing artistic community leading a life style set apart from the world of consumption. Yet they too will have to account their business in terms of breaking even or even making some money to be able to cover needs of new investments.

Interestingly enough is that such places are sources of energy which can be tapped in order to stay real. Naturally the reverse of that trend is the famous question 'how real is reality' to which only certain people find in turn an answer by focusing on specific questions in order to develop them further. Some of them like Joan Baez or Bob Dylan would span an entire generation of protesters to take them further, into the sequence of the next generations, but not so much with a love for lyrics of life as more into a different genre of musical styles linked not to Simon and Garfunkel's image of 'bridge over troubled water', but more to dance choreography transcending ballet and entering a new kind of militant protest against city life. Michael Jackson's clips refer to children abandoned in the streets or Al Capone like types who rule the new boulevards. Gangways become then upper floors of parking garages while headlights of cars flare up to transform the street pavement into a stage.

All the intertwines between one and the next generation leaves attitudes lagging behind real developments while social relationships undergo transformations at a collective basis. It reflects itself in artists turned into merchants to sell more wine than art works even though for a while they uphold the duality of these activities within one and the same space. The swindle seems to spill itself out into new ways of mixing artistic and commercial interests, private and public activities, to the extent that it all carries and conveys the promise of a new life style in the making. Functionalities begin to dominate as it matters of running an art gallery, driving children to school, working for a computer company, selling cars, washing dishes in a restaurant etc. All these activities may not achieve a historical outcome, as they supposed to be of temporary nature with those doing them promising themselves not to get stuck, but to move on later to more meaningful activities. Yet like the swimmer attempting to reach the beach despite the back-spill of waves crushing along the shores carrying them still further out into the sea, they grow increasingly tired of doing day in, day out much of the same activities they started out with but which were at that time highly innovative, artistic and socially skilled.

Altogether if anything can be summerized and concluded, then most of these people who searched for an authentic man-woman relationship ended up in networks no longer basing intimacy necessarily on gender differences but on gender similarities and on those who can manage the networks even if they remain alone, by themselves and therefore highly vulnerable but which is only perceivable from another angle e.g. when they work without the security of any pension when older or any health insurance coverage when really in need.

It underlines the hardest of all premises of modern city life, namely no one can afford to be sick and therefore unable to function within these typical activities still needed to be undertaken, if the city is to exist at all as a functioning unit.

Simply said, modern cities seem to drive almost everyone into loneliness while people need really something else. According to Brendan Kennelly, people need 'solitude', if they are to explore their 'selfs'. For that they need to be free as well. Indeed, the birth mark of any great city was that its people managed to connect with history while giving the 'self' a chance to really exist, that is to express itself. Here Balzac may stand for a literary genre in the knowledge that a city stands to loose if people take to gambling; he considered it to be far worse than consuming too much alcohol. Yet even Balzac could not explain sufficiently the reoccurance of visions of destructions that would haunt cities at certain moments in history. Could it be that a city can be gripped by an overall resignation once more and more people realize they failed altogether to break out of loneliness despite of having moved into an urban space defined through crowded streets and missing links to nature? As a matter of fact, this failure has made cities stay and become even more ugly and hostile towards life. As they tried to shake off the imprint by one dominant ruler, a king wishing to expand only his vision, they settled into an agonizing process of searching for compromises between different interest groups where no compromise was to be found. Thus circumstances made it more difficult to overcome all the inabilities and short-comings when really an interest in the city was called for. Instead, as if an elongation of pain, the false compromise has reduced life as a complex process to an oversimplification of how needs are to be fulfilled. For while the centre plays still some functional role, it is assumed that all other needs are better fulfilled by delegating everything else to the suburbs. Such an extension even beyond the outskirts of the city can only be explained by this process promising to consume more than the case if people would economize space by staying together.

As stated before, such an expansion without the car would be inconceivable; this vehicle has truly created the thought that time and distance do not matter, when in fact the quality of life is altered dramatically if things are no longer within walking distance. Accordingly distances are now measured in terms of what it takes to overcome them within a certain time. That has forced the city to rearrange its time modus and reinforces a single measurement of its organisational capacities, namely how long it takes to get something done. The latter is called 'efficiency' and linked to what economists, and not only they would consider to be a key to greater competitiveness when compared to other places.

Thus if one were to return to the philosophical level of reflection, then the connection with modernity or even post-modernity can be drawn by perceiving that the physical presence of a city is no longer just represented by buildings, streets, traffic, people moving in and out all the time. Rather the introduction of technology has altered the communication paths and with it the knowledge of real distances disappears as they are overcome by artificial means, the car the best expression thereof. Moreover it seems that life depends not merely on money alone, but on one key factor: information. This is the result of the new communication technology spelling out even what is 'real time', what not. The distinction is made in order to ascertain such information by which money can be made compared to the same information being passed on five minutes later, but now merely a notification that this transaction has taken place. Seizing upon the moment to make a crucial difference has become the prime practice. It is reflected very much in what takes place at the stock market. But it can be also reflected on hand of a person driving a car and talking on the telephone at one and the same time. This make-up of communication technology is not only a part of the infrastructure to be seen, most of it remains in reality 'invisible'. That is becoming rapidly a major factor shaping life in cities but with uncertain outcome. An indication of its importance for the future is, however, that the European Commission has started to talk about the 'Information Society' in the making and thus has adopted already this concept as core orientation for its strategies into the future.

Therefore, a return to the more poetic theme of 'invisible cities' would mean to discuss much more future options for cities in terms of the Information Society and what this implies. It includes the creation of 'invisible infrastructures' to ease the accessibilities to the Information Society everywhere, at all times. The realization of these technical options depends upon how practical a usage of these new resources can be made while the city stays manageable through its various organisations and institutions. Exactly the management of resources is not self-understood nor can people relate easily to things they do not see, smell, hear or even feel, never mind taste as would be the case with food. But now driven by the need to become more efficient, this abstract sense seems to be counter productive in most cases as many things end up being more inefficient as the time wasted to go to work and make it back home can tell a gruesome story people live through every day. Certainly the availability by phone can speed up things, but the need to keep up with all the ongoing changes demands more than a mere flow of information. For this the Information Society as envisioned has no vision even though it does refer to the need to take care as well of contents.

Thus from a poetic point of view it would mean picking up changes in people's lives even to the extent that someone would be inclined to hire an agency to phone him while on a business lunch only to appear being high in demand. The exploitation of the new means of communication can be extended quite a bit and even go beyond one's imagination. Yet this story about a man being phoned for the sake to appear busy is not just a mere anecdote but reveals what people think it takes to survive. That they will adapt and include technical means and extended through all kinds of tricks, that is after all human reality. Survival means here recognition in order to get the contract and therefore the chance to produce something whether or not others find it useful or not. Once such a contract has been obtained, then financial prerequisites and payments to be made according to delivery have been clarified. All is spelled out in the contractual obligations. In short, a lot of survival depends on such business deals.

Since Phil Cooke has mentioned already in the discussion we had in Iraklion at Forthnet about 'technology and culture', it is now evident that the future of the city does depend upon how it fulfils this 'concept of recognition' not merely at overall level, but more so within individual terms. Here the poet can describe the struggle for recognition at individual level whereby this struggle is antagonized by the fact that this culture seems to recognize only success in overt and superficial terms. Here things are in need to be differentiated, since there are things which are not a fake and do mean something works e.g. a pilot being capable of landing a plane or not. If such image creations prevail to make artificial things appear to be successful, then such culture is highly misleading. It would be up to an authentic culture to show equally not everything works but what does is successful on its own account. Hence the poetic account of an individual has to differ from what a culture perceives as a successful pattern to advance in knowledge and fulfil at the same time human aspirations with regards to a fulfilled life. It matters how these terms are taken to reveal a successful story.

Cities struggle as well for recognition. They need to attract especially outside investors, while being innovative enough, in order to keep up with the latest technological developments. Thus they are under great pressure to subscribe to both the written and unwritten laws needed to be heeded prior to closing down some lucrative business deals. It can include a new plant being opened by one of the big automobile concerns or else lobby work succeeds in persuading all others to locate a specific international institute in that city e.g. UNESCO in Paris. The aim is, of course, to reach a lasting business deal. Here long term interests are at stake. Usually in political terms while the search goes on and negotiations for specific deals have started, it is always a question as to what room is left for further improvements in the terms to soften if at all possible any negative impact. Again Phil Cooke speaks here of a minimum of ethics in need to be observed, if the business deal struck is really to the benefit of the city and its citizens.

There is the well known novel 'Great Expectations' and equally others which describe the fate of mayors in European cities. That may well be known by those who have read these novels, but as texts to understand contemporary settings they may not suffice. Hence a clearer literary insight into the lives of cities is needed, in order to understand how recognition of a city is linked to how its legal representative, the mayor, presents the city to the outside world. Of course, there are many others who can and do act on behalf of the city's interests. Poets are not well atuned to this difficult game being played when it comes to making such business deals. Nevertheless whatever their views on this topic, these are valuable since they can perceive very quickly what is amiss in such deals. That is all the more the case if a remark by Juergen Eckhardt is taken into consideration, namely that planners work in most cases quite far removed from reality, that is outside any public view and participation. News about the plans leak out only once the contract between them and the politicians has been signed and when the agreed-upon is set into motion, that is implemented regardless countless objections. Im Germany most telling is that state recognition implies at the same time, the state has the authority and force to ram through a decision ('Durchsetzungsgewalt'); if not, it would be deemed weak and therefore a threat to a society depending upon a strong state. As this would be a clear subscription to suppression from above to those below, it marks as well the peculiar state-city relationship existing in so many European countries and which upsets any chance of democratic governance from below.



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