Last week I wrote about the way in which the urban is represented in film as a place where “the people” (in the sense of the demos) do not, and cannot, live. Whether it serves as absent reference, looming threat, or chaotic and anonymous whirlpool, the urban is generally set up as that which threatens communal ties, individual personality, and the capacity for affective expression.
Another way in which the urban is mediated as population rather than people is through crime statistics. In Mr. Trump’s recent threat to send the Feds into Chicago to stem gun violence in that city, we again have a vision projected of the urban as diseased organism requiring the knowledge and the power of military force: the city as war zone, and citizens as little more than enemies or collateral damage.
Our managing editors ask an important question: what kinds of responses can or ought we cultivate in the wake of increasingly fascist, xenophobic, and tyrannical behavior from the Trump administration, particularly given that the rate or pacing of such practices is so rapid?
Indeed, many of us are experiencing a kind of media whiplash effect, glancing from page to page and screen to screen to try to keep up or even tread water. Media fatigue is now appearing as a common issue in media venues themselves, and again Simmel’s anecdote about the urban organism feels incredibly pertinent. Does the constant barrage of policy shifts, violations of rule of law, and accumulations of public indignities produce a kind of subjectivity defined by the blasé attitude? Does surviving this moment require a kind of affective deadening? Ought our response be to adopt the same kinds of temporal reactions: rapid fire, aggressive, militant, interest-driven?
This question of pacing is one where rhetoric and media can be mutually informative. John Murphy wrote of George W. Bush’s address to Congress on September 20, 2011, that the former president used the genre of the epideictic (ceremonial) speech to make claims about national character, response, and unity that demanded rather than asked, asserted rather than argued, and, importantly, used a temporal frame of the already done instead of the possible to short circuit democratic deliberation. This kind of speech is very powerful: it works on emotions and it rouses a sense of collective identity. It does not lend itself to careful parsing or argument analysis. Deliberation is slower, less immediate, and involves “many heads” instead of “one.”1 Murphy, John M. “” Our Mission and Our Moment”: George W. Bush and September 11th.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6, no. 4 (2003): 607-632. And here we are offered an important clue to how we might imagine utilizing urban media environment in response to the current administration: syncopation.
Syncopation is the combination of different rhythms in ways that are complementary. It is a layering, often of fast and slow, odd and even. If we think about the urban as a layered rhythmic space (much as Henri Lefebvre does in Rhythmanalysis)2 Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. A&C Black, 2004. we can see how different modes of political response occupy different rhythmic registers. The rapid, almost marching-band beat of the printing press or the ongoing hum of the data-storage-center that supports digital interfaces, the ping of the message board: these are faster rhythms through which we might issue quick critiques, calls for response, and questions. But the slower rhythms of walking (if not on a compressed schedule), playing, cooking a meal, and speaking with friends or neighbors are also part of the syncopation of urban life. The monthly community watch meeting with calls to order, agenda-setting, and repeated concerns about parking congestion and noise issues create refrains that might create contours of common interest and common concern. The banlieue the viewer explores in La Haine contains not only a scrabble for survival but also extended hanging out and giving forth of discourse. Plural rhythms are not unique to the urban. As I argued last week, the urban, the surburban, and the rural are mutually implicated and mutually constructed. It is often the case that data storage centers, Amazon shipping fulfillment warehouses, and the vast infrastructure and stuff of cities are housed in the urban periphery, or the suburb, or the rural hinterland. In a town there are periods of intensification, periods of quiet, elaborate conversations, and diverse choreographies of relations. I think one distinct element of the urban is density, and perhaps also a kind of exceptionalist framing in public imaginaries, as well as a desire or a longing for some kind of polis space.
In creating a response to the battering ram of Trumpian media spectacle, we must cultivate a multi-layered, multi-rhythmic response that preserves the plurality of collective life: fast, slow, and in between. We need to march, to call senators, to sit in boring and bureaucratic meetings where we learn to decode technocratic language and leverage it for collective good, to cook food together, to support schools, to dance, to play, to rest. The density of the urban and its intense visibility makes all of these different practices more manifest, and therein lies some of its residual potential.
Caitlin Bruce is an Assistant Professor of Communication and affiliate faculty with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; Cultural Studies; and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her PhD from Northwestern University. Her research is in the area of visual studies, affect studies, and critical theory. She is currently investigating the relationships between public art in urban spaces in transition within a transnational milieu. She is currently working on a manuscript on transnational public art.