Plumbing the Urban Azimuth (at the End of the Age of the Book)

Sanford Kwinter

My passage as a student from Paris to New York City in the late 1970s was imagined initially as a labor of transposition (reconciliation) of cultures of a European philosophical avant-garde with an equally powerful, but as yet untheorized artistic one in America. The passage, however, unfolded psychically as a collision and consolidation of histories with eerily parallel roots in earlier, clearly more legendary migrations, including one that always carried great significance for me, that of Marcel Duchamp.1 Duchamp’s curious zigzag migration in the early 20th century forged a seamless unity between old-and new-world modernities, a phenomenon that had been incompletely grasped before the 1980s.2 Duchamp’s inalienable centrality to the most important American aesthetic developments of the pre- and postwar eras was of the order of a Trojan horse that breached any prevailing distinctions between traditions or divisions of disciplines. His fully cosmological-epistemological art project changed what it meant to think and to execute work in the cultural sphere by removing the ramparts that separated art practice from the broader matrixes of cultural and historical meaning, particularly of language practice.3

No surprise then that among the questions that pressed on urban intellectuals in the 1980s was, “What does it mean to claim to know something in the current world?” A spectrum of ethical and political concerns was thereby invoked—preeminently, the question of how the modalities of knowledge were palpably and fundamentally changing, as well as certain wider problems that pertained to historical change itself, to the need to identify causal forces and rigorously distinguish them from consequent ones (and to avoid the historicist platitudes that routinely accounted for these). The relations between history, form, and knowledge were being recast in these years; indeed, they were set into philosophical perspective as a single problem for the first time.4

Pontus Hultén’s mechanical hinges: The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968).

Pontus Hultén’s mechanical hinges: The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968).

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Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Green Box), 1934.

Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Green Box), 1934.

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Cover of Semiotext(e) 8, no. 2 (1978).

Cover of Semiotext(e) 8, no. 2 (1978).

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An early example of intellectual effort that both studied and enacted this emerging “manifold” concept of history, and arguably descended directly from it, was Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and John Johnston’s prescient (if largely impenetrable) three-part semiotic study of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 Gravity’s Rainbow and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) that appeared in the inaugural three issues of the new revisionist journal of aesthetics October.5 If this essay-experiment produced but a modest illumination of its objects and method, the audacious and unmistakable performance of the common matrix that arguably alone could render these two landmark works intelligible (the principle of entropy, for example, and the shift in worldview it required), was itself an event of cultural and epistemological significance. During these same years (and in essence in the same place), the publication program of Semiotext(e), led by Sylvère Lotringer,6 and its sponsorship of occasions such as the “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia’s Teacher’s College in 1975,7 had a near-militant purpose: the de-academicizing, de-ghettoizing, and de-segregating of thought and cultural practice at a time when two radical cultures (New York/America and Paris/Europe) remained separated like two chemical compounds whose volatility—but also whose capacity for mutual illumination and heightened expression—would multiply exponentially only once combined.

The two enterprises—one neo-structuralist (October), the other Nietzschean post-Freudo-Marxist (Semiotext(e))—remained largely culturally distinct within the New York context. The former was based at New York University and Hunter College, the latter at Columbia, but the city itself, with its enormously confident artistic and literary endowment of radical practices provided an anarchic and fertile seedbed for miscegenation that needed only to be dreamed up in order to be set into motion. To the degree that this historically rooted confrontation served as the rearing environment for a young generation of cultural practitioners, an unrecognizable but consistent worldview was arguably being shaped that was accessible—because it was at once necessary and natural—only to the generation to follow.

There is no doubt that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Smithson’s Spiral Jetty—short forms for an emerging expansive model of practice of almost unprecedented scope and cosmopolitanism (pace Duchamp and James Joyce) that breached every possible boundary of disciplinary integrity—provided central inspiration and entirely unexplored surfaces for the engagement of history by thought and vice versa.8 The novel of the 19th century represented the art form par excellence of the urban-social realm, the purest expression of capitalist forces on both public space and interior subjectivity. Hence, the dual articulation of city and mind by modernizing forces9 could easily be called on to provide a basis for privileging “the book” as the site of both political intelligibility and struggle in the modern era.10 Pynchon’s own reworking of the spatiotemporal matrix of novelistic narrative as a pattern of technological, scientific, and economic forces that comprise a new type of “city” (hence “the zone” of Part 3, and the pervasive evocation of the parabola as both a statistical distributional principle—the Poisson equation—and as a trajectory) staked its claim at once to being the last great novel in a 200-year-long tradition and the harbinger of a new type of literature to come.

If the classical novel gave expression to the modern (capitalist, bourgeois) experience of time and space—three-dimensional, multilayered, cumulative, yet perspectivally rendered and hence “fraught” with forces in occlusion or background—Pynchon’s space-time manifold recast the historical world in the decidedly contemporary syntaxes of the uncertainty principle, statistical mechanics, and psychosis. There is a remote logic by which the world is organized, but it is no longer the stable or empirically graspable one based on familiar optical principles. Reading would forever require the deployment of concepts, competences, models, and methods of a different order.11

ZONE 1|2

The preceding account represents a small part of the local context within which the publishing enterprise that found its first product in ZONE 1|2: The Contemporary City was conceived. From its initial conception in late 1983, any complacency with respects to the role and status of a “journal” in the tradition of Critique, New Left Review, Les Temps Modernes, and the like, was already all but ruled out. The first waves of what would become a comprehensive transformation of our media sensorium were being set into motion, granting undeniable privilege to the expressive generality of the image at the expense of text. Proclamations regarding the imminent “death of the book” were neither rare nor solely the products of illiterate media industry apologists, but belonged to an increasingly giddy cultural class confronted by new representational possibilities and attendant modes of attention whose deeper consequences could only dimly be imagined at the time. Our task with ZONE 1|2 was foremost to affirm “the book” in the face of an increasingly systematic assault on traditional literary experience by the emerging forms of automatic, mechanically reproducible, and mass-distributed imagery of all kinds—a kind of psycho-ecological project of activism and engagement.

Literary critical dogma (particularly French) often in those days methodologically privileged the so-called incipit of a text—the initial words, phrases, or even paragraphs of a manuscript that comprise and condition the reader’s entry into the text’s “matter”—which led to the placing of particular emphasis on the conceptualization of the book’s cover.12 Research on the history of bookmaking with Bruce Mau (who had yet to design a book) brought the surprising clarification that a book’s cover (or to be precise, its jacket) belonged traditionally not to the book itself but rather to the retail or public environment in which a book is deployed and displayed, in which it claims its place among other books, and in relation to the public eye and mind of the citizen-reader. The cover was therefore conceived as a material part of the extended urban infrastructure within which it was intended to operate, was devised to serve as a communicative but also commutative and conductive surface. At any rate, it was no longer a mere passive carrier of semiotic figures or signs as had come to be the case in the commercial environment generally.13

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Tyrell Headquarters—the comforts of throwback noir paranoia in a post-Fordist cosmos. Still from the 1982 film Blade Runner.

The book that screamed. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. First published by Viking Press in 1973.

The book that screamed. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. First published by Viking Press in 1973.

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Operating manual for the new territoriality. Spread from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Operating manual for the new territoriality. Spread from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

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The refusal to include signifying language (and linguistic signs in general) anywhere on the cover of our publication may have represented a type of risk, but it was powerfully motivated by a set of factors saliently active in the perceptual-psychic environment of the time that arguably accentuated, rather than diminished, the book’s physical presence and “power to affect.”14 Although the design and assembly process of ZONE 1|2 was executed entirely with Xerox machines and the panoply of hacking techniques that were then all but routine among innovative designers, the publication was conceptualized throughout its three-year inception within the powerful shadow cast by the Macintosh desktop computer and the novel under-the-hood ethos and routines that its operating system and font management software fostered. Pixels had made their existence felt in a profound and game-changing way initially within the visual sphere—apprehensible, manipulable, and modifiable molecular or atomic elements that were increasingly seen to subtend the formation of concrete entities in the perceptual and lived sphere. In many ways, the emerging notions of “information” were seen to offer alternative concepts and heuristic approaches to the analysis of history other than the still pervasive theory of “signs” in academic and cultural milieus. If theories of information could now claim to replace those of signs, concepts such as those of interface, protocols, thresholds, and planes of consistency came to the fore.15 These brought with them a broader transformative conception of transmissional principles, based not in the immaterial (transcendent) values of signification, but on the conductive (and immanent) properties of matter.16 Hence the mottled but mysterious surface of the book presents an infinitely extendable surface of legibly varying density such as in the raw, unfiltered data of a (1980s) satellite photograph. The densities of ink were generated by embedding a panoply of bird’s-eye-view images of city matter and urban objects with objects of different (smaller) scales at once across but more pointedly within the blue pixelated landscape. In doing so, we sought to assert the physical univocity of the relationships within the emerging contemporary urban regime. The menacing impenetrability of the surface—bordering as close to indecipherability as was possible within the norms of visual culture at the time—was in no small part borrowed from the rendition of the cryptic façade of the Tyrell Corporation in the groundbreaking “all-over” art direction of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which was dominating the popular visual imagination at the time.17

The rendition of the Tyrell Corporation building unambiguously tapped into the paranoid-static mood of microchip aesthetics then beginning to gallop through the cultural imagination.18 The advent of the microprocessor in consumer electronics induced a set of effects that were seismic in impact given the way they stored, remembered, and read out history and time within an engineered opacity that was not merely a question of scale, but also of configuration; and these functions and behaviors were directly carried over from the dynamics of “the book.” Hence the purpose of the ZONE 1|2 cover was principally to dramatize the expanding gap between reality and the forces that determine it, and to declare an emerging crisis of legibility that was already beginning to mark our civilization as a historical singularity on a vast scale that demanded a proper accounting.19 Hence, not only were linguistic signs put out of play as remnants of an outdated mode of thought and a no-longer hegemonic avenue of social production, but matter itself in its curiously eloquent muteness was affirmed as a “productive and expressive” continuum that would by necessity absorb the image into its logic, not the other way around.20 The deliberately unspeaking cover sought to operate as a kind of point-of-purchase black hole that would create a signifying void amid the bookshop arrays, a bibliological dark matter to stand out against the typographic monotony of lurid colors and default fonts that made up the then (predigital) publishing environment within which book covers were conceived as crude advertisement panels for themselves.21 The refusal of the image was a point to be made amid this generally tawdry context but it was also intended to serve as a striking counterpoint within the design system of the book itself, which represented one of the most image-intensive intellectual book projects in perhaps two decades. Only the obscure word mark “Z O N E” appeared on the book’s exterior, but as a subtraction not an addition, rendered by a stamp perforation that penetrated through the palimpsest of the cover to reveal a system of actual, not representational, materials and substrata below.22

ZONE 1|2: The Contemporary City was conceived to operate not as a composition that referred to, or represented, the city beyond, but as a system of matter and force that would operate, whenever and however possible, in unbroken continuity with, and as consubstantial to, the extended city itself. For this reason alone its task was to take on, and in so doing palpably to deploy, the compositional forces that were engendering contemporary urban experience at large, and to push their ambiguities to the threshold of expression.

A city-book must be “legible” at every angle and through every surface. ZONE 1|2 (1986).

A city-book must be “legible” at every angle and through every surface. ZONE 1|2 (1986).

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What were these forces? The extensive domains that we (perhaps primitively) refer to as “cities” have always been the result of abstraction processes, processes originally performed materially in an extended reality then rationalized or routinized. This means, more often than not, that they are transformed into numbers so that they can be made to operate independently of three-dimensional constraints, and hence outside the jurisdictions of matter. Abstraction permits concentration, acceleration, and displacement of material, social, and economic processes, all while maintaining, or extending by other means, their effects. The urban realm in these years—the city in the 1980s was very different than the one we know today—was undergoing a series of reorganizations of profound local impact driven by technological developments particularly within the electromagnetic spectrum: the multiple expansions of cinema seen in the explosions in video practices and technologies; the impact of the first time-storage microprocessors in consumer electronics (answering machines, VCRs); automatic and round-the-clock banking transactions and infrastructure (ATMs to the daisy-chaining of international stock exchange schedules); telecommunications; desktop and industrial computing; exchangeable files; image processing; archiving; networking and social circulation protocols of all types. All this not to mention the attendant transformations in power relations that were part of broader modernization forces based in the mass infrastructures of signal processing, which had not yet consolidated into the almost single manifold they are forming today. Not only was it a problem for thought to engage these developments in the medium in which they were being played out, it was a problem for design as thought to deploy itself in direct connection to, and in propinquity with, the effects themselves.

S,M,L,XL (1995).

S,M,L,XL (1995).

How one reads a city, or “the” city, in its historical unfolding of interconnected and transitive generality, may not be distinguishable from the problem of reading per se. “The book” and “the city” have throughout modernity been indivisibly conjoined environments or continua23—the one engendering, and by turns subtending, the other in a mutual evolution in which the habits of mind that enable the deciphering of spatial relations and the modes of inhabitation at a particular historical moment are effectively secured.24 It is not what a book represents that belies this relationship (as in the principles and traditions of realism) but the forces and configurations of which it is composed. The novel, for example, corresponds broadly to the early industrial formations of capital accumulation and organization, partly because of the way it deploys and organizes space and light—and hence both knowledge and knowability—and partly by the way that it configures the subject through the constitution of character and its “fraughtness” with social and environmental relations. The creative crises that emerged in literary representation in both novelistic and literary space and in the modes of animating protagonist subjects in so-called modernist literature and beyond (say from James Joyce and Franz Kafka through Céline to Pynchon) transformed human subjectivity just as they responded to transformations in the conditions of legibility unfolding in the ambient historical world. Yet literature does not subsume all books, even if all books perforce participate in the same system of constitutive relations as literature. It was one of the capital insights of the 1970s and 1980s philosophies—in no small manner related to earlier developments in the plastic arts—that “the material of which something is made is inseparable from the processes it performs,”25 or more simply, that what used to be thought independently as form and content are in fact inextricably and performatively one.26 How a book is made is inseparable from what it does, and the hyperinvestment of its material and structural qualities—its ordinality, syntax, conjunctive and disjunctive musicality, even its psychotropic capacity—was seen as a full-blown urbanist practice itself, akin to a time-based dérive, to scientific cartography, or to social cinema.

When isn’t a book a well-packed box? Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise, 1935–41.

When isn’t a book a well-packed box? Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise, 1935–41.

The dominant epistemological trope of the 1980s was indisputably the idea of the map as a model or way of knowing the fugitive properties of historical becoming through configurations of space. Be it in the work of Smithson, Pynchon, J. G. Ballard, Borges, Foucault, or Duchamp before them, the practice of topologizing relations of force was preeminently a way of grasping and depicting the adventures of both their interactions and transformations. The favored idea of the map at this time was less the microcosmic reflection of a next order scale of reality, but of a polyvalent and multidimensional surface that was coextensive with the mapped reality itself, and which was capable of isolating relations from the otherwise infinite and incompletely knowable opacity of the world.27 A map was in this conception an “intensive manifold,”28 enterable at any point, capable of being used improvisatorially to plot routes or connections from any point or place to any other, as a performance of reality rather than as a mirror or picture of it. The texture of the flow of ZONE 1|2, the patterning of events, was conceived within this framework as an interleaved matrix or a polyphony of correlated durations that could be deployed as a volume rather than a line, as an environment rather than determined sequence, and into which further modules could be indefinitely inserted as historical conditions both within and without the book began to change.29 The book’s envelope was seen to serve as a site at once of attachment and conjunction with extensive realities in its historical surround and a compression and deceleration (slowing) of the movements revealed within its boundaries. The book in the 1980s was still a privileged site of encounter with power relations and the formations of subjectivity, just as today attentional demands—and power relations—have migrated significantly to modes of interaction and participation, particularly within data environments in which everything is dynamic rather than fixed, and where what produces difference and value is what occurs rather than what endures. Regardless of how accurately this account might seem to represent the current state of things, we must not be duped into imagining that we are somehow living history outside of material conditions or their jurisdictions.30 Print (ceci) never killed the cathedral (cela), but rather could be said to have discovered in it an opacity proper to itself that it never knew it had. And this endowed each with a transformative power that could ever after only be shared, as would be their coupled fate, as urgent, precarious, and perhaps doomed as is freedom in our emerging cities itself.

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