Invisible Cities


The textual space of Berlin Alexanderplatz resembles a city.” That’s what the critic Harald Jähner says about Alfred Döblin’s great 1929 novel. And so it does. Sir Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization is a vast city of the mind, a millennial exhibition space in which past glories are recreated as virtual-reality sets. You can take the guided tour through Periclean Athens, Imperial Rome, or Elizabethan London. What begins as a temporal progress becomes a meditation on the nature of settlement, an argument between public duty and private freedom. Hall uses previous interpreters as his guides. He quotes the quoter, collaging the story from pertinent extracts. This book is programmed to inform, built to induce awe in lesser beings. Even the bibliography outweighs a telephone book. It’s a memorial wall to those who gave their lives in the struggle to tell the story. Reading this monumental study is like being hurtled on rails through the library of the world, pausing at abandoned stations to interpret, through the wrong end of a telescope, a few lines scratched on a clay tablet.

But what is the story? (Hall favors punchy interrogations to keep his readers up to speed. At times, ploughing through this unforgiving prose is like taking an exam for which you are badly prepared. “How far did all this represent the birth of capitalism?” the author will bark. “What had all this to do with the Renaissance?” Don’t panic, there’s a user-friendly summary coming at the end of each section.) The aim is to watch the city as, in a version of time-lapse photography, it flowers and dies. Behind the civic spectacle of great
public buildings in Athens and Florence or brutal circuses in Rome lie squalid poverty, disease, and crime. Paradoxically, given the bulk and the factual density of Hall’s project, the movement through the centuries is swift, carrying the reader beyond physical territory to hyperspace and the frontiers of the information superhighway.

As we approach the millennial hinge, publishers and commissioning editors look for a general theory of everything, an explanation to carry away in a strong knapsack: an all-
purpose panacea, part Viagra, part Prozac, against the coming darkness. In London, where I live, as the century thins the histories get fatter (genetically mutated like midwestern schoolkids on their hormone-rich, fast-food diets): Roy Porter’s London: A Social History (published in England in 1994) was a modest and handsomely illustrated 448 pages. But by 1998, Stephen Inwood, with A History of London, required a page for every year of the millennium.

We seem terrified that the past can no longer be accessed. It is vanishing before our eyes. We capture those traces that can still be found and imprison them in heritaged ghettos, reservations of pure sentiment. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, on the banks of the Thames, is a replica so authentic that it is totally fraudulent. Real estate doesn’t time-travel. The thatched oval looks right, but without the surrounding brothels and bear pits, it has no meaning. Peter Hall, in his section on the deregulated Britain of the 1980s (“The City of Capitalism Rampant”), is very perceptive about all this— the scams and sweetheart deals that converted London’s derelict Docklands into a virtual-
unreality set. This was a development imposed from above by political interests. There was no transportation infrastructure. The tunnel that had to be built in the Docklands was Britain’s most expensive road project: part of a landscape of franchised surrealism, in which travelers emerging from the darkness were greeted by a giant inflatable clown perched on the roof of a multinational hamburger joint.

The rigor of Hall’s argument, the need to press on, doesn’t allow him to notice such minor absurdities. In a sense, his book is a madder, Borgesian project: laying out a city of words that will, if properly approached, become a city of memory. By visiting certain places at certain periods, an overview will be achieved. The polis of Athens (500­400 B.C.); the market culture and enlightened patronage of Florence; the dreadful clatter, stink, and smoke of industrial Manchester; the Elektropolis of Berlin. Cities defined by lists of cultural assets, so that Vienna becomes a hit parade of busking composers: “Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.” Cramming in so much, like a Cook’s tour or a sponsored travelogue, only makes us aware of what has been left out. Hall grants his paradigmatic cities “short periods of creative artistic glory” and asserts that “most never had another.” A statement that is pertinent to his scheme, but demonstrably untrue. The Paris of the Impressionists is a familiar story that bears repetition, but it does not invalidate the Paris of Villon or Baudelaire or the Surrealists.

As cultural history, Cities in Civilization takes few risks, tending to present tactful summaries of distinguished forerunners: Lewis Mumford, Walter Benjamin, and the hundreds of others credited in the 84-page bibliography. Sections on the growth of the Hollywood world entertainment nexus and on music from the Delta are readable, if unoriginal, but do they belong in this great progression of cities? Doesn’t the unfeatured Las Vegas, with its interface of criminality, showbiz, Mormons, Howard Hughes, come closer to explaining the great American psychosis?

By nominating particular cities to carry the weight of significance, others are condemned to silence. Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz qualifies as a text belonging to “The Pioneer Technopolis,” but Joyce’s Ulysses is left out for the most part, along with the rest of Dublin. (Joyce doesn’t even have a walk-on role in Paris, because he lived there at the wrong time.) Secret cities— Lisbon, Amsterdam, Cairo, Lhasa— have no part to play. The Prague of Rudolf II, where alchemists and cabalists mixed with visionaries and fanatics, is off-limits. Mountebanks and magicians are banished, as Plato banished poets from his republic. There’s no room here to experience the city “as a labyrinth of fragmentary signs” (a phrase Hall quotes in relation to the critic Siegfried Kracauer). But without vision, obsessions, derangement, any city will suffer from atrophy of the imagination.

Hall is more comfortable with the “innovative milieu,” the moment when geographical and political circumstances favor the sharp-eyed inventor, the entrepreneur. In his interpretation, Silicon Valley becomes a conceptual rather than a geographical city, the forerunner of future “techno-boho” environments and an age in which nobody knows anything except how to log on. We find ourselves on the cusp of a new barbarism, when we will be in danger of forgetting the qualities that made cities worth celebrating: the courage of immigrants who brought transfusions of otherness to settlements where self-satisfaction threatened to be their undoing. Without the street market, the ghetto, and the lowlife quarter, there can be no aspirational dream life.

Hall brings his story through to the contemporary world, defined as a “zone of instability” occupied by an underclass of casual laborers, short-termers, review-anything-for-a-dollar bounty hunters. What he is soliciting is the perfect audience for his heroic enterprise: the only citizens with the time and motive to read and evaluate a thousand pages of close-pointed text, the last survivors of Logopolis.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 23, 1999

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