Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

8. Sights and sounds of a city - about opportunities and direction of development

Poetry used to be affected by the social question, and more concretely by social injustice, by urban squalor. It meant a kind of revolt in an attempt to gain at least a glimpse of a poetic life. With the loss of a poetic life, there disappeared as well the social question in poetry. Instead it became more self centred, or rather an abstraction of the self.

If that is still today the case, then that needs to be answered by those who follow poetry very closely and who also know that the question of social justice is most difficult to be answered. It is remarkable that most of the political parties have dropped it from their own agenda. That leaves the planners wondering where to gain insight into how to articulate best the humanistic perspective. This is where poets come into the picture, especially when they begin to denote the sights and sounds of a city.

Sights of a city may be a thrill when observing glittering lights, while certain sounds can be best revealed by unique poetic expressions. Usually poetic observations about life in cities reveal a special relationship. It is one between creativity as a search for something and persons dumbfounded many senseless confrontations. Out of emerges a life dominated by use of cars as well as people just simply rushing by. Katerina Anghelaki Rooke would add to all of that the simple question as to ‘why’?

The sounds of the Blues have certainly highlighted cracks in the cement walls of ghettos just as a wailing electronic guitar rips off illusions like the wind the posters. Revealed are then ghosts haunting empty backstreets, if only to be scared off again by a note of optimism with Louis Armstrong singing ‘Hello Dolly’.

But there has come into existence the graffiti. It tends to highlight more than cover up those naked cement walls making up negative or empty spaces e.g. pillars of a highway running above or abandoned train sheds. What takes place in these negative spaces is an attempt to use a new calligraphic description of what brings especially a youth clad in ‘running shoes’ to these places to let out a scream! Alone this type of shoe suggests that they all wish to be like Hermes, namely a message bringer of peace. That is missing in a city which never sleeps.

The odd thing out in such a city is that all expressions are about having no space left for ‘mercy’. Things have taken on a status of autarky. The parking has no relationship to what else goes on in life or more precisely what is happening beyond the shopping centre. Everything seems to acclaim something, as if pretending to know what life is all about. Yet the message is that life is simply crude, very bitter, and at best a pain staking process of not merely survival, but constantly mixed in with other strives.

One of the great dangers is as Nikos Stavrolakis explains, the risk to fall back on civilization by turning instead again to violence. That tendency becomes evident once it has become nearly impossible for certain individuals and even groups to extract out of life in a city any meaning. There seems to be no end in sight to all the pain felt. However, this pain is not clearly enough expressed, in order to know how to resolve it.

As Munch’s painting underlines, and what all German Expressionists criticized, are the lies in the city. Mendacity means screaming is not enough. If one is to combat all the lies in a city closing in on people like a giant spider web, then another kind of urban culture is needed. Otherwise people will not have the substantial knowledge needed to sense and to realize in which direction things are heading. Developments will then take place without citizens either interacting to create a critical memory base for measuring its impact or being directly involved to give shape to what is to follow. Making money off people seems to have become the overriding priority, while many citizens especially at the lower echelon are by themselves without such means (and here in particular cultural ones) to fulfill basic requirements to live in the city. One of the most important prerequisites for not merely staying alive, but consciously develop is to stay human and to be free so as to be able to give to everyone else an equal chance. Opportunities are shaped by people interacting with each other while developing together future perspectives for themselves and the city.

Impatience makes then the shop owner snap fingers at the sales personnel apparently just lingering around. Yet that impatience grows as ends have to be met, a business deal completed and some more money desperately needed, if only to make it to the next round. Always they know around the corner there await new financial obligations e.g. the tax collector. All this and more strengthens the conviction that the string of negative things shall never end.

It is usual that the stranded congregate around a park bench before deciding what to do, but like idle motors, they do make noises, use up if not gasoline then time and if not directly polluting the air create not a beautiful sight. Much of their idleness relates to boredom, itself an outcome of a lack of perspectives. To this has to be added an inner insecurity. The latter seems to grow over time as they make more and more similar experiences, namely that such barriers exist in the city which they shall never overcome despite all promises of the city to be open and to give opportunities to everybody.

There prevails an urban consciousness deep inside of everyone that one paradox predominates, namely one between the city and people realize over time. While the city fosters a make-belief all opportunities await one, they experience that life is after all pretty much pre-determined. That is why Martin Luther King’s statement about “I have a dream” was such a powerful message to those still wanting to believe they have a chance despite all odds in the city working against such an inner most conviction to make a difference.

Andre Loeckx would say the historical city is defined through fragmentation. There are, for instance, all the suburbs which lack any real connection to one another. They exist at the edge or fringe of the city and create the backbone for the new networks beings created by the ‘flow economy’. It makes the city into a synthesis of forgetting and remembering only some parts. Houses, streets and entire blocks are transformed into an arbitrary collection of what has been left behind by previous generations and a contemporary generation not sure where to go to next. It reflects the uncertainty about what value the city still entails for the future. It creates as much doubt as confusion. A child may then dash across the street without being aware of the danger posed by the oncoming truck. But taking that risk presupposes to forget the value of life. It makes the confusion more perfect. From a certain angle it can be said, therefore, that the city can be destroyed as much from within as from outside.

By the end of the twentieth century, it might seem odd, but the fragments of Parmenides in which he describes the city still hold. There is still a matter of what transport one selects to leave by the city. There is also the question what will bring about or else evoke a ‘unity of perception’ (if not ‘apperception’ – Kant), if the senses are not unified by a city. To stay within the city’s boundaries and even walls means to be alienated from nature and from cultural landscapes which include hidden dimensions of nature. Thus it shall never be easy for mankind to realize ‘unity of perception’, especially not if divorced too long from nature and thereby from a positive way of self-forgetting only to be experienced when watching water falls or a horse galloping over the meadows.


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