This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)
“Paris changes! but my melancholy
Has not changed at all! New palaces, scaffolds,
Bricks, old suburbs, it all becomes allegory to me.” – Charles Baudelaire, “The Swan”
In July 2001 I sat with a musician in a café in Soho in Lower Manhattan, who I was interviewing for a magazine. Having gotten over pleasantries, my interviewee, a long time inhabitant of the city, expressed his total alienation from what Manhattan, and presumably the rest of America had become. He talked of how he felt that everything in American culture had become twisted, distorted beyond recognition, and that this was a culture in a state of hopeless decline. I agreed with him. Both of us felt like ghosts, hungry ones no doubt, wandering through the paradise of designer clothing stores and retail delights that now fill a neighborhood that in the 1960s and 1970s was the incubator of some of the most beautiful art, music, poetry that the world has ever known. We were ghosts, yes, but still had access to these haunts and our feelings of disaffection were in a sense untenable, since we both enjoyed the good fortune to be able to enjoy the city on that warm summer afternoon at our leisure. Two months later, the dust from the twisted, distorted metal framework, and the bodies and machines that inhabited it about a half mile down the road from where we sat, might have floated through the open doors of the café and settled on top of our cappuccinos.
I am very much aware that hindsight is 20/20 vision, but the fact remains that many people living in New York were angry about what happened to the city in the 1980s and 1990s. Figuring out the contradictions involved in that anger, an anger born of our love for the city, is what this article is about. Presumably, ever since there was a bohemian subculture in Manhattan, there were people who angry about what was happening to the city; bohemia is about doomed utopias, disenchantment. I’m talking about a much more specific feeling, probably born from being immersed in the world of people with AIDS for most of the 1990s, and experiencing the discontinuity between their experience of life (especially before the protease inhibitors came along) and the Friends/Seinfeld world blossoming all around me. I’m a natural born pessimist, so I believed that this world could not last. But it carried on. I believed that something was going to happen, had to happen, but it carried on. Like everyone else, I was shocked by September 11 when it happened. I had fantasized about some slow grinding recession or depression which would make all the Starbucks and Rite Aid branches go bust, that would drive “the yuppies” away and allow me to rent a cheap apartment in the East Village. Or maybe some kind of Y2K apocalypse. But despite the bursting of the stock market bubble, it didn’t happen. Stranger still, even after September 11, everything still continues, although in a queasy, jittery way. Is this a sign of the plucky resilience of ordinary New Yorkers, or a sign of a terminal inability to face a situation that is out of control? Or both?
At one point during the late 1990s, I started writing a new version of Lord of the Rings, in which Mordor was Manhattan, the East River the Great River, and Brooklyn the Shire. I wanted to capture the impotence of those of us with little money, and little interest in making any, in controlling what happened to the city that we lived in. Thinking of those lines from Benjamin about the storm of progress heaping up its wreckage, which The Mekons quoted on “Sorceror”, I conceived Guiliani as a new Lord of the Rings, able to make and remake Manhattan at will, shifting around vast sums of money, reshaping the skyline and the street level of all the streets that I love, mocking the poor of the city, harrassing artists, eradicating all signs of the genuine street life of the city in favor of a suburban shopping mall imposed on everyone with brute force.
Of course, it was not entirely money that has reshaped our skyline in Sept. 2001, although Osama bin Laden did make his fortune in construction. After September 11, I walked around the streets of New York, and it was incredibly hard for me to understand how some of the plane hijackers must have passed through those same streets, seen the incredible of explosion of cultures and peoples there, and were indifferent enough to them that they could want to destroy them. I guess what they were really interested in was the towers. The people in them, the people living on the streets around them were dispensable. Hmmmm. Sounds familiar. How could they not see that it means nothing to destroy a tower – that the wreckage, the frame-work is quickly carried away, the power structure that built the towers continues, in fact is invigorated by the damage, and the suffering that remains is felt by families who have lost someone. That’s all.
Yes, it’s amazing that someone out there in the world apparently regarded Manhattan as Mordor and hated it enough to want to destroy it. Equally amazing that after 0911, The Lord of the Rings film, which was already in production when the disaster happened, could still be brought out, and become the box office smash that it has. Just as Star Wars was to Reagan’s 1980s, so Lord of the Rings is to Bush’s 2000s. But while the evil Empire and Communism were easily equated, who exactly is our Mordor? Milton’s Satan says that “I myself am Hell!” So maybe this time we are Mordor? If Brooklyn is the Shire, it’s only because Manhattan is the visible symbol of American power and across the East River, the rest of the world, a dull sprawl of gas stations and mini-malls begins. Not that that made any difference to those who drove planes into the twin towers, killing many people from the Shire. The metaphor breaks down, doesn’t it? Am I a part of The Shire or Mordor? Both, really. Better still, am I a hobbit … or an orc? Another idea for a book I had was to retell the Lord of the Rings from the point of view of an orc, Good Soldier Schweyk style. This orc would be lazy, totally uncommitted to Sauron’s plans for world domination, indifferent to elves, dwarves, hobbits, other orcs or Black Riders. I am not saying I admire this orc. I am saying such orcs exist.
The problem with the marketing of Tolkien’s conceit is that it was rabidly anti-industrial revolution, anti-modern state. The world of technology, the military industrial complex is the world of Mordor. Sure, maybe Tolkien was talking about fascism. But Saruman’s glass ball, Sauron’s evil eye are techno-scientific wonders of the kind that dominate American culture at the millennium, just as the Black Riders on their monstrous horses, represent the fearsome powers of American military technology, such as those drone planes that recently smoked a group of Al Qaeda people driving down the highway in the Yemen, totally unaware (I presume) that they were about to be struck by a missile from an unseen drone plane and reduced to instant ashes. Is it clear what I’m saying? The narrative of the Lord of the Rings is to some degree the same narrative that the modern world hating Al Qaeda view the world from. In a different way from Al Qaeda, who I abhor, it is a narrative that many of us in the counterculture view the world from too – however much our lives, immersed in technology such as the laptop on which I am writing this, contradict this feeling. It’s a narrative that many Americans presumably identify with – since it’s endlessly marketed to us by Hollywood in movies like Independence Day. Even the makers of the movie The Two Towers seem confused about whether a tower is a good or a bad thing. In Tolkien’s book, The Two Towers are Isengard, home of Saruman, a formerly noble place, now mysteriously turned evil, and the noble tower of Gondor, Minas Tirith. They represent a balance, a polarity of good and evil power – a polarity maintained throughout the trilogy. In the movie, somehow, the tower of Gondor has all but disappeared, and the two most visible “towers” are now the evil Isengard (which moreover appears to have always been evil) and Sauron’s towering Mount Doom. As though it was impossible to imagine a “good” tower any more – or maybe a tower not associated with trauma. Note that the winning design for the restored World Trade Center contains nothing that resembles a tower. Are all towers now to be shunned?
The cover of the new Rhys Chatham compilation on Table of the Elements suggests an answer. It’s a photo taken by Robert Longo of one of the ornate top stories of one of those turn of the century warehouse type buildings in Soho, with ornate mock classical decorations around the windows and the flat roof. Or for all I know, it’s one of those buildings that fringe Central Park, which are beautiful too. The photo is taken so that this single building appears to be reaching up to the sun. It looks imperial, but fragile too. It’s the kind of building that Frank O’Hara would have called beautiful in a poem in a way that everyone would understand, but whose beauty now, in retrospect, appears to be at least in part connected to its imperial status. For decades, the rest of America despised New York, and so the gesture of saying that the Chrysler Building is beautiful, which I, and Frank O’Hara, and millions of others, have made, made some kind of sense. New York’s beauty was something fierce, something that needed to be affirmed. Somehow it was something that could be affirmed even by those who couldn’t afford to live there. I can’t claim that I never thought about the imperial nature of the city – it was the architecture, its sublimity, that first struck me when I visited the city in 1982. That and hiphop, graffiti. Somehow the combination of the two even: this vast sublime architecture, the expression of imperial power, and the wildness of the street, the subway, so opposed to one another, yet somehow inhabiting the same space. To what degree does the roar of sheer electric exuberance that comes from the great artifacts of downtown Manhattan’s cultural heyday (early Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Velvet Underground, abstract expressionism, Martin Scorsese’s films, beat poetry, punk rock and nowave, hiphop, even Chatham’s noise minimalism) come from the power of those towers?
And what went wrong, so that the culture that Chatham, Charlemagne Palestine and so many others were a part of disappeared, moved to Europe, or migrated to the internet? Finally, to what degree did that wall of noise, the roar of art, even the sleaze of the old Times Square somehow protect all these towers of industry? The full title of Chatham’s compilation is An Angel Moves Too Fast To See. Is it possible that all those dark angels that fill Scorsese and Abel Ferrara’s New York films were driven away by Giuliani in the 1990s? It’s an absurd thought, completely unprovable in every sense. But it points to another side of the Magical Politics that several people in this issue discuss. The world of magical politics, in Mick Taussig’s expression, is the murky realm of manipulation of the “power of the souls of the violently killed, the unquiet dead ranging over continental drift … this magical universe of warring spirits, metamorphoses, illusions, confusions and secrecy.” In terms of New York, that would be the streets, that murk and chaos out of which, as Rem Koolhaas described in his book Delirious New York, the pristine power of those towers arose. Koolhaas thought that it was New York’s grid, and the austerity of the architecture that led to the chaos going on in the streets, and in the lofts where monstrous erotic, aesthetic carnivals played themselves out. But what if it was the other way around? That all that chaos, the violence and exuberance of the streets, the drugs, the discos, the art, poetry and music being cooked up around the city, everything that Giuliani despised about the city, was actually what sustained the towers? And that when Giuliani successfully “cleaned up the city” in the 1990s, drove out most of the remaining artists, got rid of the sleaze of the old Times Square and made everyone behave like they were in Switzerland, he actually destroyed a delicate balance that protected the city, a balance between the cool, sleak, hard, straight lines of the towers, and the turbulence murk and darkness that constitutes city life. The new sanitized city became out of balance, the angels that protected it fled, and it became vulnerable to attack.
Why did Rome fall? Why did Paris cease to be the center of modern art around World War II? These are obviously very complex questions. I want to point to a way of thinking about these questions that I haven’t seen discussed, that’s all. I don’t know that I believe in angels. I do believe, like Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who quit New York for Toronto in the 1960s, that cities thrive or die according to the richness of the people and cultures who inhabit them. There is a profane magic to the anarchy of great cities that is not a matter of metaphor. This magic does not belong to the Giulianis of this world, however much they like to flatter themselves that it does. It’s turbulent, murky, out of control, offensive and scary. It was also an important part of what I love about New York, and in a strange way I did feel protected by it. A sanitized city is not necessarily a safe one. I think Jacobs left the city way too early. I hope it’s still not too late.