Ode to the city
Our author cannot but write about COVID-19. The big C is everywhere. Whereas some people are hyping the new era of digitisation for lack of urban life, he is quite sure about the fact that virtual spaces will never replace real urban space.
Our author cannot but write about COVID-19. The big C is everywhere. Whereas some people are hyping the new era of digitalization for lack of urban life, he is quite sure about the fact that virtual spaces will never replace real urban space.
I have to apologize, dear reader. I thought long about how to write a meaningful corona-free column. I know many of you are tired of all the corona-ing. I certainly am. And yet, it seems impossible, and kind of ridiculous, to touch upon urbanist topics and completely ignore the impact of the virus. The big C is everywhere. And so, for better or worse, it is also here in this column. And with significant force. I started out to write a column about urban peculiarities, about edge phenomena in the realm of cities. These things exist, in new ways. Things like the jellyfish that are now seen in the canals of Venice, because the other viral epidemic in Venice, tourists, has disappeared. Social media posts about such pandemic-induced urban transformation phenomena are popular these days. And so is the idea behind it: that the virus somehow leads to a “wiser”, more self-aware, somehow “better” life, also in our cities. A promising, romantic idea. And, for me, a terribly naïve one. The slowdown our urban life has been experiencing for some weeks now couldn’t possibly be the model for a new, somehow more sustainable way of living. It is the result of a crisis, and one that leaves many of us profoundly affected. A friend of my wife, secretary of finance of the German state of Hesse, actually committed suicide because he was overwhelmed by the dimensions of this crisis. The drastic lockdown struck particularly hard at those of us who have always believed in the cultural productiveness of the urban sphere, a richness that grows out of encounters that take place beyond that realm that has become so intensely valorized recently: the “home”. “Home” as in “stay(thefuck)home”, “workfromhome”, define your entire social cosmos around this home.
“Home” is the antidote to the city. Home means being surrounded by four walls, it means seclusion, safety, risk adversity. The city is the very opposite of that. I have always seen city life as fraught with a degree of insecurity. An entirely safe city is losing out on citi-ness. In that sense, Corona has been anti-urban and hyper-urban at once. Anti-urban as it drives people away from the streets. Hyper-urban as it creates a sense of space in which living spatially has become the very equivalent of (potentially deadly) risk.
What Corona has never been is aspatial. Quite the opposite: it creates its own spatialities. In a research paper, social theorist George Rossolatos outlines how it does that. By adopting a fictional ontological stance, he identifies the virus’ hyperspace, describing it as “literary spacing”. He shows how familiar urban spaces, cultural practices and intersubjective communications are redefined, repurposed and reprogrammed. Rossolatos calls this process “terrorealization”. For him, Corona tells its own urban story – the story of city space as terror. And yet, what is the alternative to living an urban life? Where are the productive insecurities, the fascinating chance encounters when city life gets suspended? In the digital sphere? (…)