Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"All you see is... crime in the city"

Unlike previous generations of Americans, the vast majority of the children of baby-boomers have come of age in a social environment outside of urban centers. We must, however, be more specific here: the vast majority of white Americans (particularly middle class and wealthier) born in the postwar era have been socialized and formed by the Suburban social and political landscape. There are of course a handful of small exceptions (e.g. the Upper East Side, etc.).

By and large, however, the majority of Americans under the age of 40 are products not of urban life, but of a suburban social environment which itself only emerged and congealed in the 1950s.

There are, of course, millions of interesting insights to be gleamed from this fact, but I'll just focus on one here: large numbers of Americans are afraid of cities as such.

This fear manifests itself in many different ways, but it typically assumes a form something like the following. Cities are dark, crowded, dangerous places where one must always be on the lookout for the inevitable attack. The people there (most of whom, it is imagined, are criminals and of color) are mean, resentful and certainly not to be trusted. Moreover, city-dwellers are looking just for people like you, that is, people who are not from the city and fear its squalor and iniquity. They're looking for you, of course, in order to rob and ruffle your suburban purity. Watch out.

This phobia is homologous to (and deeply bound up with) common views about black people in the contemporary US. As political philosopher Tommie Shelby describes it, "in the present post-industrial phase of capitalist development, blacks are often viewed as parasitic, angry, ungrateful, and dangerous" (whereas they'd been characterized as "docile, superstitious, easily satisfied, and servile" under the conditions of plantation slavery). Witness, also, the way in which the term "urban" itself has become racialized and devalued on that basis.

There are countless examples. A good starting place for analyzing this phenomenon is film. From my armchair, it seems as though the depiction of urban areas and so-called "inner cities" in particular, takes an increasingly negative turn from the 1950s/60s onwards (whereas the positive evaluation of the single-family home, the automobile, etc. seems to soar). Things seemed to have changed a bit in the 1990s with the return of many affluent white people to urban centers. But films from the late 1970s and 80s especially (when major US cities were at rock bottom all across the board) depict the city as a dirty, crime-infested den of violence and darkness. This is typically contrasted with the (apparently) idyllic, whitewashed landscape of suburbia. Such a gaze is always from the outside (suburbia) looking in (toward urban areas). Blue Velvet plays off of this phenomenon in really interesting ways, but I can't go into that right now. (Nor can I go into the political economy of why suburbs emerged and why cities went into severe decline in the middle of the 20th century in the US).

One cinematic example from my childhood stands out: the 1983 Tom Cruise film Risky Business. (Or also from 1983, see this). The entire film is an expression of the gaze of the adolescent, white male child of the suburban well-to-do on the North Shore. The film creates clear demarcations between a suburban land of paternal law, purity, cleanliness, conventionally-defined success, norms of chivalry, etc. on the one hand, and an urban landscape characterized by raw sexual "deviance", iniquity, and crime on the other. "Home" is a massive single-family house in Glencoe whereas the problems Joel faces are all to be found in the land of pimps, drugs, and violence: Chicago.

Film and TV, of course, are only two "ideological state apparatuses" involved in socialization and the creation of people for whom the city is a place unfit for those with "family values". There are doubtless many other examples.


Richard said...

For a contemporary evaluation of the profound social consequences globally of this phenomenon of urban demonization, consider "Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism", written by Stephen Graham, just published by Verso.

He does an excellent job of highlighting what he describes as the Foucauldian "boomerang effect", as measures (and ideological perspectives) initially applied by the US, Europe and Israel abroad are then adapted for domestic use.

I think that I recommended it before as part of one of my responses to one of your Black Bloc posts, but, I can't recommended it too highly.

Sadly, Graham has provided us with one of the most compelling descriptions of everyday life, as shaped by the application of military, police and surveillance technologies, and what it will be like in the future, if people do not resist it. A truly pathbreaking work of scholarship.

dnw said...

Wonderful post. Brilliant point, that the gaze is from the perspective of the outside Suburbanite. Taxi Driver reverses the gaze: the point of identification is between Travis and the object(s) of his hatred.. Travis’s gaze is fixed obsessively on what we can’t see, on the impossibility of what there is to be seen. Cue the scene with Scorsese’s cameo: THAT you should see. That which we should see can’t be seen. You could argue that Travis’s Gaze is ultimately that of a white-male Suburbanite (the film certainly has racist undertones) who violently lashes out against the scum in the violent passage a l’acte in the film’s closing bloodbath. On the contrary, what he wants to eliminate and purify is himself, his own ego-Ideal.

I bring this up to add an additional level of ideology critique to the issue of gaze and the City—Travis is a “city cowboy” (a common trope) alienated and trapped within the city. This urban landscape encapsulates both sides of the binary you use to describe “Risky Business,” so on one hand paternal law, it being a film about saving women from a fate worse than death; purity and cleanliness, via Travis compulsive need to keep his taxi clean; and crime and sexual deviance on the other, this part coded as racial, with the blacks seen as crooks, Scorsese’s wife sleeping with a n****, etc.

No matter the Gaze, the Subject is a jealous one, excluded from the jouissance of the Other. Scorsese doesn’t even get the pleasure of seeing his wife have sex with a black guy; he has to imagine it. This fetish resembles the logic of the bored, aimless housewife (also a common trope in treatments of suburban culture) who is attracted by the glamour, excitement, and “danger” of the big city. This is simply the inverse of the Suburbanite who fears the city as a den of iniquity and crime. “Sexual deviance” obviously cuts both ways, depending on the subjective attitude, rather than the position of the Gaze, which remains the same. It can be dangerous or erotic, or, commonly, erotic because it’s dangerous.

To give a further example, consider the abomination that is Sex and the City, in which New York is portrayed as the ultimate enclave of class and power, a glamorous paradise where the only minorities are solicitious doormen and the only neighborhoods the Village and the UES. The city is “cool” rather than forbidding. Along this the critique of ideology I’ve suggested, this “post-modern” hedonistic form simply reads the formula of the Subject excluded from the jouissance of the Other in the opposite direction, flipping the sordid into the desirable, or again, making it desirable because it’s sordid. The suburban attitude is, like you say, fear but also revulsion, which is simply the inverse of pleasure. (There are some films which treat that dialectic between revulsion/pleasure beautifully; the first that comes to mind is Antonioni’s L’Avventura)

So of course, I agree that it is in part a racial-cultural issue, but your use of the Gaze provoked me into thinking about how the city is a fantasmic locus of ideology proper, a place where modern subjects are forever alienated from the modes of their own desiring. The growing alienation through which strangers communicate with each other via mass media thrusts the City into the forefront as a place of isolation and disappointment.

t said...

Thanks for that citation, Richard, I'll be on the lookout for this book. This topic has been on my mind since Chicago started installing police cameras to "problem" intersections to "disincentivize" crime.

dnw: I like what you have to say about Taxi Driver in particular. It's certainly a poignant example in light of the issues I tried to raise. The only thing I'm not sure about is the point you make re: what we can't see. I'm not sure I follow. You say that which we should see can’t be seen... but I'm wondering what the status of this "should" is. Is there something there that we should critically engage that we are missing? Or if it's necessarily imperceptible then in what sense should we be able to see it? Or did you mean something like "it seems like we ought to be able to see X... yet it is a necessary feature of our gaze that we don't see it"? It seems like an interesting point, and I'd like to hear more, but I'm not sure that I'm following.

The brilliant thing about a film like Blue Velvet (and Lynch's films in general) is that manages to take the most conformable familiar tropes from American culture and transform them into the horrific and grotesque (without their ceasing to be familiar). Blue Velvet is ostensibly set in the idyllic small-town/suburban paradise that exists in the American imagination as the sediment of ideological inculcation... but it reveals a dark undercurrent that haunts this Norman-Rockwell-facade of the Eisenhower 50s (the "privileged lost object of desire" in American culture).

Anonymous said...

The 1980s Sean Penn film "Bad Boys" is also a perfect example of the "Risky Business" phenomenon.

dnw said...

Sorry if the structure of my post was unclear, but I intended it as one argument.
The reason "it" is unseeable is hashed out more explicitly in the 3rd and 4th paragraphs. One could argue that "it" is simply unseeable, a sort of traumatic superego injunction (Scorsese commanding Travis how to see), but this isn't precisely my point. What lies beneath the act of seeing is a certain passivity. The passivity is in part how we're interpolated, how the Gaze is constructed, and how our ways of fantasizing are configured as subjects. So my point is precisely the one you make to describe Lynch's films. The object of desire is always a void, whether it stands for the desire of the Other in Taxi Driver, or as our own impossible fantasy framework.

dnw said...

p.s. to follow up on Shelby's bit about blacks considered as parasitic, ungrateful, and dangerous, have you followed the LeBron James story at all? I appreciated the logic in Rev Sharpton's claim that the Cavs' owner treated James like a run-away slave.

t said...

I see, that's helpful. I think you're right that it jibes with the point about the Eisenhower 50s as American's "privileged lost object of desire" (a phrase I borrow from Fredric Jameson).

urza216 said...

This is ridiculous. Cook County is less than 50% white. A large swath of south suburban Cook County is majority black. The anti-suburb attitude expressed int his article may make sense with other metro areas but not Chicagoland. Spend a little bit of time outside the city sometime, buddy.

t said...

Until very recently, black people were excluded from purchasing homes or getting mortgages to live in the suburbs. Suburbs, as we now understand them, have only really been around since the early 1950s. Black people didn't even stand a chance of living there (or feeling safe there) until much more recently. For most of their existence, suburbs have been racially exclusive. If this is changing now, it's not because of the internal dynamics of suburbs, but because of the landscape shaped by the political struggles in the 60s and 70s that undermined a large measure of de jure racism. And, as I say in the post, views about cities have begun to change (as of the late 80s/early 90s) when wealthy whites began moving back into urban areas. Read Beryl Satter's book Family Properties,for detailed analysis of housing discrimination in Chicago and the phenomenon I'm talking about above.

Also, I'm describing a widely-held social pathology among wealthy white Suburbanites, and I think it is still largely accurate. It's definitely not the case that Highland Park, Glencoe and Wilmette are racially diverse. We could add innumerable other suburbs to this list.

Finally check this out:

Segregation is still a very real fact, and most black people in Cook county live in city limits. This is not to speak of the fact that there are innumerable other urban areas (Atlanta, DC, Detroit) that are racially segregated along largely urban/suburban lines.

t said...

And to be clear, in case it wasn't already obvious, I'm not endorsing the "fear of the city" ideology described in the post. I'm interested in criticizing and undermining it. I think it has absolutely been a feature of postwar American culture and its effects are detrimental. I can't tell you how many middle-aged and older white folks I've encountered (who don't live in cities) that seem convinced that cities are dangerous and "dark". This pathology is real and deserves to be confronted.

t said...

"I have relatives out of state who think my life is one big episode of ER where everyone lives right under the EL and there are multiple gunshot wounds happening 24/7."

Read more:

Anonymous said...

Ever hear of Ferris Bueller's day off?

Oh yeah.. the city was such an awful place, away from the mean principal and the friend's jerk dad.