1st Global Conference
Tuesday 8th March – Thursday 10th March 2011
Prague, Czech Republic
A Dream-Tale of Modernity and the Phantasmagoria of the City: On the Recurrence of Myths and the Rise and Fall of Popcultures
Muyesser Ozlem Basak
Goldsmiths, University of London
Steven Millhauser’s 1997 fantasy novel Martin Dressler-The Tale of an American Dreamer is a fairy tale, a tragedy, a panorama of urban spectacle, a dystopian novel of the modern utopia, or perhaps a phantasmagoric mixture of all and more. The novel can be analogised by a kaleidoscope of phantasmagoric images that can be shaped into various interpretations as the imagination and dreams of the protagonist Martin Dressler transforms the narrative, the characters, the buildings and spaces into a realm of fantasy to such an extent that the temporal boundaries seem to be transgressed and the text seems to be shaken into a hidden narrative with a completely new agenda. Martin is an ambiguous character, a flaneur gliding among his various appearances, assuming the roles of modernism, postmodernism, the avant-garde, the capitalist, the entrepreneur, the commodity culture, the city planner, in short, the maker of the city –the hero-. Only his image as the representative of chaotic change and experimentation is common to his various personas.
The novel can be read as an allegory of the trajectory of modernity (modernism-postmodernism) via ideas carved into symbolic forms; and, in its late 19th century New York setting, the big city is its central metaphor. The hotel as the ‘interiorization’ of ‘culture, commerce, and commodious living’ is the symbol of the city incorporating new opportunities, ceaseless shock and stimuli, unending activity and attractions, power relations and the struggle for domination inherent to city life. Martin, in a dream life of exhilaration, confusion and restlessness, seizes ever new opportunities not to be left out of the rapid transformation. His experience alludes to urban spectacle in all its lure and boredom, capitalist myths, dream-sleep of urban masses, consumer society and commodity fetishism, sexualization of commodity and commodification of sexuality, the sameness of the ever new, etc. Martin’s ever growing desire and transgression dissolves with his grand project and with the modern myth it represents.
In this paper, I present a co-reading of some key passages from the novel with reference to contemporary thinkers and theories of the city, as situated within a survey of modernity from Marxist cultural theory.
The Psychopath and the City: Popular Cultural Mythologies
University of Winchester (UK)
‘It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’ (Sherlock Holmes)
In the century and more since Arthur Conan Doyle wrote these words there has been an explosion of interest in the links between environment and criminality. Much has been made, for instance, of the nature of the ‘urban’ criminal, and the socio-cultural and psycho-geographical impact of city-space on morality and behaviour. But this evolving investigation has yet to meaningfully touch on the relationship between ideas of the city/urban and our understandings of psychopathy and the character of ‘the Psychopath’ in popular culture. This paper redresses the balance. Focusing specifically on British popular cultural psychopaths in the work of Alfred Hitchcock (film), Lynda La Plante (television), and Val McDermid (fiction), the paper argues that British popular culture has regularly defined its own sense of mentally unstable criminality in relation to a profoundly urban identity, and within such depictions a variety of assumptions have been made about the nature of town/city life, the role environment plays in establishing and destabilising a moral consensus, and the nature of British national identity and character. Ultimately, the notion of the psychopath, defined by his/her engagement with modern urban life, can be seen as a barometer of contemporaneous fears and anxieties about the state of the nation, and as fundamental to the process of national self-fashioning.
The Underground, the Surface and the Edges: A Hauntology of Johannesburg
Research Centre: Visual Identities in Art and Design, University of Johannesburg
A former gold-mining camp whose acquisition of the aesthetic markers of a metropolis was almost instantaneous, the city of Johannesburg can be represented, economically and philosophically, as geographically plural. The dialectic between the surface life of the city and its wealth-deriving underground spaces, and the concomitant activation of a third, liminal, space, “the edges”, characterises “the African modern of which Johannesburg is the epitome” (Nuttall & Mbembe 2008: 17). We examine the relationships between these urban spatialities as they are articulated in a programme of selected video artworks curated by the authors, which take the city of Johannesburg as their subject matter, source material or provenance. In the paper, we pay attention to how the uses and meanings of these spatialities may have shifted, or failed to shift, between their constructions in apartheid-era and contemporary, post-apartheid South Africa.
We propose that the underground, the surface and the edges are at once identifiable modalities which emerge coherently in the selected works and interconnected inflections of a singular urban phenomenon. Building on this, we observe that dialectic between the underground and the surface in Johannesburg contains echoes of the literary and artistic tropes of burial and resurrection, and Jacques Derrida’s (1994:xvii) notions of ‘hauntology’, in which he considers the spectral or ghostly as that which “happens” only between two apparently exclusive terms, such as “life and death”. In considering ‘Johannesburg’ as a metropolitan phenomenon in the selection of works discussed, we speak of a spectral, interstitial realm that exists in between the strata of surface (the stratum of life, goodness, health and visibility) and underground (a catacomb where the dead, the corrupt and the ailed are hidden). We thus offer a view of being-in-Johannesburg in which inhabiting takes place in-between, or in-passage between, porous, fluid spatial terms, wherein constant mediation takes place.