In chapter five of How to See the World, Nicholas Mirzoeff focuses in on the city and how it can and has influenced our perception through the centuries. While he plays on many aspect in this chapter, such as the physical division of East and West Berlin by the Berlin Wall and the historical division of more and more urbanized populations, a key theme in this chapter is the division of cities by social and racial means. Apart from and including this, Mirzoeff focuses on five main concepts:
- Cities shape the way we see the world
- Race and socioeconomic status divide our cities just as clearly as the Berlin Wall
- Cities push the ‘lesser’ to the boundaries and highlight their glory through showman districts
- A new way of modernity is evolving through China’s rise in the world
- There is a distinct difference between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ in these new cities and societies, compounded by the modern mapping, GPS, and internet.
Cities are critical to shaping our view of the world, and we learn to see from their viewpoints.
Mirzoeff starts this chapter by going through the history of cities and where we are now on a broad and global scale. Most of the globe now lives in cities, he says. In fact, the move to the city has given rise to the idea of megacities, which are not cities so much as regions, and whose boundaries and populations are very hard to determine because of their sheer size, fluidity, and scale. However, one thing is clear: most of this growth happens in developing countries, and in China and India in particular. Modern cities are often polluted, hotbeds of rebellion, and are often intensely conflicted between their flashy exterior and the experiences of their citizens, which are often cruel and unforgiving. The poor suffer the worst of these misgivings.
There has also been a major shift in the way cities are constructed and divided to create the modern global city. The older way of city building was very distinctive, with different cities responding to culture and also looking extremely different, but the modern cities have much more in common with one another. Over the course of this history, Mirzoeff argues, there were and are three different kinds of cities:
- The imperial city (1800-1945)
This city was based on keeping certain people out of sight. It was the place to see and be seen for the public (which was mainly white men at the time). Some classic examples of these cities include London, Paris, and New York.
- The Cold War city (1945-90)
The Cold War city was mainly founded on its central feature of being divided and making different sides invisible to each other, like Berlin.
- The Global City (post-1990s)
The global city is a combination of the two former cities, as it “inherited the centre-periphery layout of the imperial city,” but keeps the Cold War divides. Cities like this include Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Kabul.
First, Mirzoeff delves into the history and mystique of the imperial city. The Imperial City is carefully prepared for visitors and essentially for showing off; this is shown especially in cities like Paris, which perpetuate the vision of a legendary place of the past. However, division exists in this form of city, for example in Paris, where potential revolutionary action under Napoleon caused workers to be sent to the outskirts of the city, creating a periphery of things tourists do not typically see. Because of this new reshuffling of the rich and poor, the interior of the city then became the ‘modern’, giving rise to different archetypes, like the “classy” woman and the businessman in black.
However, this new culture also led to a creation of a counterculture and gave rise to gawkers, who walked undetected along the new larger roads, watching and observing. This consequently led to the idea of street photography from the perspective of the onlooker, which was shattered when Robert Doisneau was forced to admit that his famous photograph of The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville was staged. This was detrimental because the photograph became not realism, but street theatre, and shattered the illusion that street photography is like being there without being seen.
From this gawker era, three new concepts also emerged. First, a social type of women arose, known as the Amazon, who dressed as men to be able to fill the role of the gawker. Secondly, malls and arcades came about in this era, and expanded into the modern super mall, built for the purposes of consumption (these global spaces now echo Paris in the 1800s as the city of light). These played to the role of the gawker in encouraging window shopping and, later, cinema viewing.
And thirdly, as a result of this new class in the central city, leisure also increased. The art of the era reflected the new non-work based activities engaged in by the higher class of the city – something which, Mirzoeff points out, was all made possible by those waiters and workers who were still there in the background. However, even the art world was influenced by the gawkers; the impressionist style, which was still unpopular at the time, sought to depict an image in a very specific moment, watching as a flâneur, or gawker would, a glimpse from the periphery. The impressionists’ use of color also created a parallel to the modern city, no longer playing with muted colors and darkened palettes, but rather with brightness and modern colors, signaling a change in the perception and depiction of what a city was. However, there is a dark side to this modernity and observation from the street – Paris, among other cities, has a growing and very clear distinction between the zones of class and demographics.
Cities, however, were divided in many different ways. In Paris, it was class. In Berlin during the Cold War, it was between East and West Germany. In the southern US, like Montgomery, Alabama, it was a division by race before and during the Civil Rights Movement. As a case study, South Africa was also divided by race, a system known as apartheid, which was much stricter than the US Jim Crow separation, creating a harsh class system with disastrous consequences, such as the Sharpeville Massacre.
Showing these divisions on camera and in art often revolutionizes how we think about what we see. For example, David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole depicted a black and white intensely vivid picture of apartheid, which truly showed people from a place in which they were not equal. Seeing the truth of these photographs made many people shocked, being shown very plainly what had really always been there. However, even with an integrated society and a change in how South Africa is run, the scars are still visible, with the poor being a majority black population and the rich being majority white. Another photographer, Zwelethu Mthethwa, also displays these scars with pictures like Interior, which show the inside of a South African township house, both decorated with a more hopeful and prideful tone with newsprint and magazines and a haunting reminder of the difficulties still faced by people there today. These difficulties in the suburbs, just like in Paris, lead to much higher crime rates and much higher rates of armed guards in white neighborhoods.
Mirzoeff continues the chapter by exploring the drastic and haunting divide of the Israeli wall between Israel and the West Bank territories, something which was erected in the spirit of achieving a “separation between us and them,” according to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Even the roads are highly segregated, and one group becomes victim to the other, in this case, Israelis have more access than Palestinians do. Along the Israeli wall, however, someone has, in an apt comparison, also written “Ich bin ein Berliner” on the wall, suggesting a similar situation to Kennedy’s declaration at the Berlin Wall, which promoted world support for the city. As a whole, the global city changes and alters into a growing space which is hard to differentiate, and also contains invisible barriers which indicate that the global city is not an equal one.
In the modern global city, memory and imitations have also become more complex and carry different social connotations. While physical locations may prompt us to remember things, in cities that are so rapidly changing, like Berlin and the global cities, this is largely lost, and people may wind up disoriented. In fact, memory is being drastically changed by rapid progress and the complete rebuilding of certain city landscapes. To the second point, in the modern era, the ‘fake’ and the ‘real’ are major themes, for example, in regards to brands and imitation brands, and also in regards to reconstructions and modern changes within cities themselves. The top one percent of the world now have multiple properties in highly expensive areas, often so-called ‘fakes’, like Thames Town in China. This stands in stark contrast to the 99%, who do not have such luxuries and, in America especially, often possess ‘fake’ bags and watches, wanting to be the one percent, and, again in America’s case, believing they will be in time.
In China, a new kind of urbanization is creating two zones, similar to that of the imperial city: one for showing off and the other for workers and mass residence (this is something the photographer Michael Wolf calls ‘the architecture of density’ (p.199)) This radical difference between sectors is also shown through the sleek mirrored glass buildings typical of commercial towers, contrasting the crowded, industrial living quarters, which are usually kept well away from the commercial areas, just like what Mirzoeff mentions earlier with the situation in Paris.
This drastic change does not come without also altering the very perception of world power – the rise of China is also challenges the very concept of modernity. Where before was the Western democracy and free market was the only way to be modern, China has proven a very strong contender to this ideal.
In the wake of this extreme change to the previous world order and cities as a whole, the city is becoming more simulated, more controlled, more haunted, as in the classic film The Matrix. Housing prices and surveillance have skyrocketed, forcing all but the wealthy out of neighborhoods and carefully logging every move citizens make, and we have begun to navigate more like a general on a battlefield than a person in the former definition of a city, using GPS. In fact, the Global Positioning System is now easily accessible to anyone with Google Maps or Google Earth, and most phones and other such devices have a GPS tracker in them.
This section was interesting to me because of the idea of division and the perception we gain from it. In the end, where we belong is defined by where we do not, and what we choose to see is defined by what we would rather ignore.
The Duality of the City
Cities are plagued by a kind of duality. Rich and poor, successful and not, big and small, run-down and new, etc. Now the question is, how much of this do we notice? For example, think of homelessness. New York portrays itself as a massive financial capital and the city of opportunity while some of its citizens live in the freezing cold begging for money and food. What does this say about representation and what we choose to see? Does this influence those in power? If those at the head or any government are primarily part of one class, as the systemic issues to transcending poverty and challenges tend to ensure, is America really a government for the people? And overall, how does this affect our perception in our classes and as people?
A secondary consideration here is complex relationship between the inside and outside view of the city. Many people from outside New York City believe that it is a shining city of lights and opportunity, while, as someone who has grown up in the area around the megapolis, I see New York as a dirty, crowded, fuming city, beside its cultural value. A friend of mine recently asked my what New York is really like, and when I gave her my honest opinion, her immediate reaction was to say, “See, I don’t want to believe you.” This perception is interesting in and of itself, and it is also interesting in the question: do we learn to see the myth of cities or the reality of their existence?
“In the 1960s, civil rights activists were described by the FBI as Communists, terrorists and worse. Now, the Civil Rights Movement is seen as a symbol of the American capacity to overcome hardship and create a more perfect union, as set out in the Constitution.” (p.184)
It’s all about perception and perspective. As soon as an image and its connotation changes, within the next generation of students and teachers, an entire society can come to see the world in a completely different way. How can we put this into practice across the world? Promoting respect, an end to sexual violence, learning, anti-violence in general, all by teaching this to a generation of young people?
The Representation of Racism
The black and white photos of Cole and Goldblatt mirror the racism they represent. Race is also something that can remain invisible until it is openly shown; if the status quo is challenged and the true nature of the situation is revealed, the world suddenly becomes painfully aware of what is happening – or try their very hardest to ignore it. As Mirzoeff says, the whites simply passed the situation by. Even changing the laws does not heal the society overnight. Stereotypes and prejudices are deeply rooted and engrained in individuals and in society as a whole, and, as seen with the aftermath of the abolishment of slavery, it takes many years and many more steps to even alter a previous way of life and mode of thought. And in combination with all of this, racism and the effects of it rage in a vicious cycle. The racism that put, for example, black South Africans in poverty keeps them there, regardless of changes to the laws, which heightens the crime rate in these areas and increases the racist perception of these people as criminals.
Walls and Perception
Wall building is returning us to a reverted state, as in Trump’s wall. A wall represents fear of the other, the different. Fear of the possibility that you could find another way. This divides our cities just as clearly as the Berlin Wall did, and I believe this influences our perception because of where in this matrix we grow up, namely in the rich, poor, working, or middle class sectors of town, and what we are therefore trained to see, namely, are we trained to see the poor? The rich? The gleaming buildings? The slums? It all depends on your past and upbringing.
Typically European ideals and philosophies oftentimes do not work within the contexts and frameworks of other nations and areas. I believe understanding this is vital to moving forward as a globe – while the European nations and the United States may hold the largest sway over areas near or below the equator, it does not mean that their specific plans and ideas work within that region or nation’s complex political and social history. Applying these techniques with no success may lead to the false conclusion that these nations are ‘below’ the European standard, while in reality, they are simply very different. This is also a key realization in any kind of design – what works in what areas and why? For this, a great knowledge of the global past and socio-political interactions of the world is required, and hence, why studying history, not just art history is extremely important.
There and Not
“The global city is there and not there, requiring that we notice and ignore it all at once.” (p.199)
This is very true. In every area there is something we ignore and something we seek, districts we do not enter, buildings we ignore. In fact, this would be interesting to see through the lens of the homeless, who thousands of city strollers avoid each day, and simply through the human tendency to have a selective memory. How many places do we pass and not notice? How many buildings have we seen a thousand times, yet cannot draw or describe accurately? How much do we see that we do not remember? How much do we see that we do not recognize? Poverty, homelessness, abuse, racism.
About fakery. We want to be the rich and imagine ourselves being rich one day. For whatever reason, political barriers that keep us from moving up, systemic problems, luck, or expectations that run far too high, this often does not become the case.
The digital world can have an immense impact on how we see cities. From movies to Google Earth, we have been programmed to see the world in a very specific way, and it is from this view that we think and perceive. Even looking from a bird’s eye view is not commonly accessible to us, and many of us may look at cities in this way or as skylines, rather than the “man in the crowd” way of former Paris.
Additional Notes and Comments
It would be very interesting to purposefully look at the slums of cities and towns on Google Earth and to force ourselves to see. This could be a very good prompt for a project on social change, and, while it may be surreal, might very well show us what we are forgetting to see.
The idea of the woman creating a situation in which she averts the male gaze is very interesting and different. Can we see this anywhere else in history? Does this happen today?
I truly enjoyed the creation of the Hohenzollern monarchy palace in Berlin, with its “fourth wall” made of glass. The clever introduction of the new to the old and the allusion to the actor “breaking the fourth wall” is a very good architectural and artistic expression.
- “The World Health Organization projects that by 2050, seven out of ten people will be city residents. Almost all that growth will come in developing countries.” (p.165)
- “If that is accomplished, one billion Chinese people, likely to be one in eight of the world’s population, will live in the new cities that are being created on a seemingly daily basis. It is often said that Rome was not built in a day. That is not true of the new global cities, especially in China.” (p.166)
- “The new global city extends beyond the older concept of city limits: it is a region in itself.” (p.116)
- “From day to day, the global city might experience low-intensity warfare that can escalate to full-scale insurgency or even civil war. These cities are intensely polluted, even toxic, especially, but not exclusively, for the poor. Global cities may present themselves as transparent hubs of frictionless commerce, but their residents often experience them as conflicted, dangerous, and even haunted. These are the places from which we have to see the world today and where we learn how to see.” (p.166)
- (In contrast to old and distinctive cities) “…the rapidly emerging global cities perhaps have more in common, based on the global computer network that moves money and information between them.” (p.117)
The New City and Its Evolution
- “But [the new global city] is literally erasing its own past and creating its own way of seeing. Seeing in the global city requires active self-censorship from its residents as part of a highly controlled environment, encapsulated by the now-notorious slogan of the New York Police Department: ‘If you see something, say something.’ Whatever there is to see must be reported and the citizen is now the stand-in for the police. At the same time, whenever the police call on us, we must move on and accept that there is nothing to see here. All of this highly effective control is nonetheless haunted by a set of anxieties. How can the real be distinguished from the fake? Are cities still home or just another place? And in a world where everyone can know their GPS co-ordinates, do we still know where we are?” (p. 167-168)
- (About Paris) “it is now the largest museum in the world, the museum of the nineteenth century.” (p.168-169)
- “Nineteenth-century Paris was a city world in which the urban observer claimed a certain cultural power by seeing without being seen. There were distinct limits to this power.” (p.169)
- (About Charles’s Maville’s photographs of Parisian streets before they were widened to the modern boulevards to stop potential revolutionaries) “There are no people in those photographs. It was the buildings that provoked the nostalgia, not their impoverished inhabitants.” (p.169)
- “Many of today’s global cities have come to the same layout: a wealthy core with good services, surrounded by people living precariously in informal housing. The centre is highly visible, actively put on display for consumption by tourists, while the periphery is invisible, kept out of sight to all but its residents.” (p.169-170)
The Streets of Paris
- “Those not wishing to be taken for businessmen were visibly not at work, such as the poet Gérard de Nerval who famously took his pet lobster for a walk on a leash.” (p.171)
- “The modern city had opened a space for the flâneur by demolishing the narrow streets of the old city, driving out the poor, and creating a network of boulevards and arcades suitable for walking while observing. For Baudelaire, the flâneur was ‘a prince, everywhere in possession of his incognito’: a man who gained a certain power by seeing without being seen – a very urban accomplishment. Becoming what Edgar Allan Poe called ‘the man in the crowd’ was a new way of seeing in the imperial city.” (p.171-172)
- (About the Amazon) “She presents us, as intended, with little to look at so she can claim the right to look herself.” (p.173)
- “Unseen observation is just another commodity in the global city.” (p.177)
- “Paris could not be understood except in the context of empire. And the Parisians knew it…a French journalist…visualized what he called ‘the possessing class’ as colonizing those without resources, and feared that a successful revolution…could only be a matter of time.” (p. 178)
- “Outside the inner core of today’s Paris is another city, four times as large. Once the home of the white working class, it is now where the descendants of France’s empire mostly live. Known as the banlieux –the suburbs – here are the immigrant populations from North and West Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Unemployment is high. Consequently, so is crime and drug use. Policing, which is typically discreet in central Paris, is visible everywhere. Transport is difficult, since the metro ends at the ‘gates’ of Paris…there is none of the charm of inner Paris here…just block after block of towers and very little to see or do. Paris’s layout was designed to keep this separation as intact as possible. A separation by ethnicity has replaced the old separation by class.” (p. 178)
Berlin and the Divided Cities
- (About Berlin’s division) “Although the Cold War is long over, divided cities are recurring and reviving in critical areas of global counterinsurgency, from Baghdad to Jerusalem and Kabul.” (p. 179)
- “The material fact of the Wall created a social fact of segregation. This new fact had to be learned and was constantly emphasized by signs.” (p.181)
- “In 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke at the Wall and famously said: ‘Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”…All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”’ (I am a Berliner). His meaning was clear: that Berlin was a symbol of the freedom claimed by the United States in the Cold War and it was willing to defend the city as if it were its own sovereign territory.” (p.181-182)
The Walls of Segregation
- (In relation to Jim Crow laws and US segregation) “Such signs, and the law they indicated, divided these towns and cities as precisely as any wall. Crossing the line was often dangerous.” (p.182)
- “The sit-in was a targeted tactic. The activists were asking only to be allowed to spend their money. By making it clear that the segregated South preferred prejudice to business, the action made the colour line indefensible at the particular place. By making the refusal to accept money apparent, the sit-ins created a new link between what was sayable and what was visible.” (p.183)
- “In the 1960s, civil rights activists were described by the FBI as Communists, terrorists and worse. Now, the Civil Rights Movement is seen as a symbol of the American capacity to overcome hardship and create a more perfect union, as set out in the Constitution.” (p.184)
- “South Africa at that time was based on legalized white supremacy and until that came to an end, no single event was likely to change it. The visible distinction of ‘race’ overwrote all other issues and priorities in defence of the social hierarchy. The apartheid regime nonetheless did everything it could to spare its white residents from being confronted with alternatives…the non-white population lived in separate locations that were hard to reach. Yet there were all kinds of professional and personal relationships between the supposedly separate ethnic groups.” (p.186)
- “Ending the formal classifications of apartheid has not erased the colour line.” (p.191)
- (In relation to the murder of Nokuphila Kumalo) “…her death shows the limits of ‘freedom’ in the global city for the global majority.” (p.192)
- “States have reverted to walls of exclusion.” (p.192)
- “Today, in addition to the physical barrier created by the wall, separation takes place on many levels, as part of what the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has dubbed the ‘politics of verticality’ (2007). In this politics, separation is more crucial than ever, but it extends from underground to the sky, dividing domains such as water supply, air traffic control, and mineral rights. Even the access to roads is divided according to whether you live in Israel or Palestine.” (p.193-194)
- “Divided cities are always a tiny minority of all cities, but they express the key tensions of their time by means of the highly visible physical barriers that make some places invisible to others.” (p.194)
The Global City
- “The global city is a space of simultaneous erasure, division and expansion that is hard to see and harder to apprehend. Old divides are erased, only for new ones to be built. Familiar spaces disappear, to be replaced with endless new space that is hard to differentiate. Seeing becomes a complicated matter, closer to the visualizing of the battlefield. We have to remember what was there before, try and take in what has been put in its place and keep up with the pace of change. While there are fewer formal barriers, these cities are clearly not equal for all.” (p.195)
- (In relation to the idea that a specific location is vital to the memory of what was once there) “Memory comes to seem like yet another first-world privilege, odd as it may seem.” (p.196)
- “Now the global city incorporates zones of fake space. While these zones provoke controversy at first, they inevitably become accepted and blend into the cityscape. For the fake is emblematic of globalization, and today, it is often difficult to distinguish from the so-called ‘real’.” (p.197)
- (In relation to residential replicas of historical villages) “Those the economist Joseph Stiglitz called the one percent (2011) now live globally in a fake world of nineteenth-century European and mid-twentieth century American urban living that no longer actually exists. At the same time, many of those aspiring to be among of the one percent (one poll showed 42 percent of Americans believe that they are or will be in the one percent) are carrying fake Louis Vuitton bags and wearing fake Rolex watched. This peculiar and unequal mirroring of fakery epitomizes the way of seeing in the global city.” (pp.197-198)
- “The global city is there and not there, requiring that we notice and ignore it all at once.” (p.199)
China and the Second Modernity
- (In relation to Handshake Blocks) “Such blocks create an implied visual clash with the reflecting glass towers of global capitalism. Usually the residential spaces are safely out of sight of the commercial areas. The glass towers are built to illustrate the presumed transparency of global capitalism. As we discovered during the financial crisis of 2007, and afterwards, they conceal more than they reveal. In fact, the glass only allows those within to see out. These one-way-mirror buildings are the built environment of a world order that ‘unsees’ its supposed citizens. Meanwhile, the residents of the handshake blocks can barely see anything out of the small windows of their apartments, looking out on a forest of other such blocks.” (p.200)
- (In relation to Sze Tsung Leong’s photographs) “Like Marville, Sze’s photographs rarely show people, concentrating instead on buildings. Before long, Sze felt that his work was very different from European nostalgia. His photographs show instead ‘the absence of histories in the form of construction sites, built upon an erasure of the past so complete that one would never know a past had existed. And they are of the anticipation of future histories yet to unfold, in the form of newly built cities.’ There is certainly unseeing of the past but it is not yet complete.” (p.200-201)
- “As we shall see later, this is precisely how change in the global city is visualized in horror films, when the past itself becomes the haunting spirit that ‘breaches’ the seamless present.” (p.201)
- “In Shanghai, there is a visible class of empires – the old colonial empire and financial globalization. Taken together they visualize the cross-hatching of what political scientist Martin Jacques had called the ‘contradictory modernity’ revealed by the rise of China (2011). Until recently, there was a consensus among all those involved that there was only one way for a nation to be modern – the Western way. To be modern meant having a representative democracy, free markets and a civil society with freedom of expression, and so on. China’s ascent has shown there are at least two ways to be modern. China has combined a very strong state which tightly limits personal freedoms with managed economic liberalization…either one side is right and the other wrong, or there are multiple ways to be modern.” (p.201-202)
- “Pudong classifies Shanghai as a global city and separates those who work there, and above all those who own land or buildings there, from other, lesser beings. It is the city in the city. It demands respect for its sheer scale, newness, and spectacle.” (p.203)
Division and Partition
- “New media can be controlled and manipulated from within.” (p.204)
- “Learning how to see the simulated machine world of the Matrix is key to resisting it.” (p.204)
- “In the world made by global cities, it is becoming harder to find a home.” (p.205)
- “In Paris, the two spaces are concentrically wrapped around each other, yet the wealthy, mostly white centre ‘unsees’ its poor, mostly black and brown suburbs. The pasts of the global cities have been erased, invisible and yet still remembered, at least for now.” (p.206)
- “When French writer Michel de Certeau wanted to imagine how to see everyday life in the 1970s, he went to the top of New York’s World Trade Center and looked down at the city around him (1984). You cannot go there any more, literally or metaphorically.” (p.206)
Mapping and the Matrix
- “Seeing the cross-hatched, divided, disappearing, expanding global city is not so simple any more. But to see where we are, we turn back to our screens.” (p.206)
- (In relation to artist Clement Valla, who makes art from Google Earth glitches) “As Valla puts it on his website, Google Earth is
A new model of representation: not through indexical photographs but through automated data collection from a myriad of different sourced constantly updated and endlessly combined to create a seamless illusion.
For Valla, we are already in the Matrix. Google Earth does not look like the Earth but resembles other digital materials. Because we spend so much of our lives looking at these materials, it becomes real.” (pp. 208-209)
- (In relation to Clement Valla and Doug Rickard, the latter of whom uses Google Earth to search for compelling images and uses them in his work, not having visited the place or even having been there, like most impactful photographers) “Perhaps unintentionally, Valla and Rickard show that the two issues the society of control cannot control can be found in its online avatars as well: disaster, natural or otherwise, and inequality.” (p.209)
Cover Image provided by https://www.wsj.com/articles/israelis-palestinians-and-the-necessary-injustice-of-partition-1523630155