Threading the Labyrinth: Small-Gauge Approaches to the Urban

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Whether due to the vicissitudes of whole language learning or a long-outgrown fascination with the middle ages, I have a bad habit of mis-spelling gauge as “gage.” A gage is a cap or glove used to symbolize both a challenge and a pledge before a duel, a metonym for a body about to hazard itself. In reading all of our capacious, diverse posts to date, it strikes me that all of our contributors have conceptualized small-gauge scholarship and practice as very gage-like: as a challenge to the contemporary scholarly apparatus and as an extension of the self. Or, more accurately, as a challenge to the norms of the academy because it is an extension of the self. We can see this in Brendan Kredell’s differentiation of Mediapolis from other journals and web publications, Kevin Allen’s attention to “the charting of new territory,” Carla Nappi’s transformation of “circuitous, inefficient, and remarkable” from a description of technology to a description of her own scholarly and creative identity, Scott Rodgers’s understanding of it as an environment that breaks down the barrier between the professional and personal and, most directly, Jennifer Heuson’s description of small-gauge “not as dogmatically linked to any particular form or format but to a scale or scope measured against the current standard.”

Jen also notes explicitly, as I think all of us do implicitly, that ‘“against’ here does not mean ‘in opposition to’ but rather entails finding things and ways that have fallen through the cracks, so to speak.” Recalling as well the attention many contributors have paid to the gauge as a method and a tool, perhaps the most homely association of “gauge” is of the dimension of the eye of a needle and the thickness of its point. Needles stitch objects together in much the same way all of our contributors, particularly Carla and Scott, suggest that small-gauge scholarship can do for ideas. But we can also think of the eye of a needle as a frame around the world that miniaturizes and re-sizes it. Small-gauge scholarship as we have defined it seems to be a kind of re-vision. This re-vision, as Kevin explores in his genealogy, can be material in nature, as with the “radical new tool kit” of 16mm film, or temporal, as Scott’s reflection on the ephemera of the conference and its digital trace reminds us. This re-vision is also, as Carla argues in concert with Jen, a re-production: “it has deeply shaped, in all kinds of ways, my sense (evoking Jen Heuson’s comments) of how to study the world, to move in the world as a scholar-artist, and to use one’s scholarship to make new worlds.”

This suggests to me two new directions for our second round of posts. The first would be our further investigation of small-gauge scholarship and questions of embodiment. The second would be about small-gauge scholarship and the urban, which so far has emerged as a structuring absence, whether in Jen using small-gauge to measure her “work against … the digital, the visual, and the urban as well as speedy and easy making and large-scale distribution” or Scott’s discussion of digital, diffuse environments. One immediate way in which we might want to relate small-gauge to the urban is in fact through the conjunction of these two questions. A number of posts have attended to small-gauge techniques as re-scalings that put paid to an artificial notion of wholeness, that value the inarticulate, the broken, the physical, or the anachronistic.

Canonic writing about the city consistently ties these traits to an embodied, street-level, small experience of the urban. These traits are opposed to the elevated, masterful view that reads the city as an open text but reduces it to spectacle and thought. This divided definition of the city is so widespread as to be foundational to understandings of urban mediations (Elizabeth Grosz complies a compelling list in Volatile Bodies and connects it to infrastructure in Chaos, Territory, Art)1Elizabeth Grosz. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. but I suspect what immediately comes to mind for most of us is De Certeau’s famous dual description of the view of New York from the World Trade Center Observation Deck followed by his discussion of walking through the same city at street level:

Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals … it is transformed into a texturology. … on this stage of concrete, steel, and glass … the tallest letters in the world compose a giant rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production.2Michel De Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984: 91

Pedestrians, by contrast, “write” the urban text “without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind of that of lovers in each other’s arms.”3Ibid. 93 The walkers, of course, recall some of the aspects of small-gauge practice, especially when opposed to the disembodied reading eye – they’re voyagers like Carla’s explorer-stumbler, rather than voyeurs, an attitude Kevin and Jen also work to avoid in their ethnography.

However, I wonder whether small-gauge methods might have another role to play here. In Archictecture and Disjunction Bernard Tschumi reminds us that this division is no natural quality of the city, but rather the direct result of capital’s claim to and production of urban space. Moreover, it is the way in which capital maintains its right to the city, for as long as the city remains divided into pyramid and labyrinth, thought and body, urban experience will always be constrained, and will be unable to generate an imagining of a new socio-spatial order.4Bernard Tschumi. Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996: 27-32. Is that where small-gauge methods come in? I’m struck here particularly by Carla’s insistence on her small-gauge inquiries as worldmaking. What kinds of urban worlds, what kinds of cities, could (only) small-gauge scholarship or practice make? As Scott reminds us, these cities would not, perhaps, even have to be material – what would a small-gauge online city look like? Could we even classify digital spaces as “urban”?

I am, I realize, suggesting small-gauge scholarship as a direct challenge to the current production of urban space, both as mediated and material. One reason that it occurred to me to place this much potential weight on a tool that, we have all agreed, is delicate by its nature, is the ways in which several posts, especially Jen and Kevin’s, have used it to address time. My current work on the city focuses on city symphonies – some of the very avant-garde films made possible, as Kevin noted, by the invention of 16mm film – and how they suggest a new application of Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space, which forms the basis of Tschumi and De Certeau’s claims. Lefebvre argued that one method for disrupting the dominant production of urban space was what he called rhythmanalysis. Rhythmanalysis is the generation and study of rhythms that emanate from urban bodies (especially sick or marginalized ones) that in turn create circular, local, anachronistic rhythms that disrupt the general organization of time and accumulation of capital in the city and thereby allow for a glimpse of a different world.5Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. London: Blackwell, 1991: 205-22. Could we understand small-gauge filmmaking, of the kind Jen and Kevin practice, as a kind of rhythmanalysis?

If this link can be made, it opens on to addition questions about the city itself as an approach. To what extent can we think of small-gauge theories and practices as particularly well-suited to the urban? How might approaching the city through the gage of small-gauge both challenge our notions of the city and act as a promise we make about our work with the urban? In the final analysis, could small-gauge media scholarship and practices someday help us to build cities that are not more perfect but, in their specific imperfections, more livable?


Photo by Mobilus In Mobili

Notes   [ + ]

1. Elizabeth Grosz. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994; Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
2. Michel De Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984: 91
3. Ibid. 93
4. Bernard Tschumi. Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996: 27-32.
5. Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. London: Blackwell, 1991: 205-22.

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