Noir Urbanisms

Dystopic Images of the Modern City

by Subashini Navaratnam

17 February 2011

The essays included in this fine, wide-ranging, thought-provoking volume take pains to remind the reader how every instance of urban dystopia – whether in Mexico, India, Africa or the United States – is shadowed by the particular history and legacy of its geography, culture, and society.
Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (1942) 
cover art

Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

Gyan Prakash (Editor)

(Princeton University Press)
US: Sep 2010

To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, and perhaps to stretch his intent a little (with deepest apologies), it can be said that happy cities are all alike but every unhappy city is unhappy in its own way. In his introduction to Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City, editor Gyan Prakash reminds us that this book’s “approach is global because such is the history of modernity.” But the essays included in this fine, wide-ranging, thought-provoking volume take pains to remind the reader how every instance of urban dystopia – whether in Mexico, India, Africa or the United States – is shadowed by the particular history and legacy of its geography, culture, and society. 

Because so much of our understanding of the visual representation of noir comes from film noir, and because film noir as a form owes much of its visual interpretation to German Expressionism, it seems only natural that Noir Urbanisms begins with an essay on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In this succinct yet broad-ranging essay that explores Biblical thematic precedents and the cinematic apparatus, Anton Kaes navigates the profound anti-historicity that shades apocalyptic thinking – a particular trait that is highlighted in Metropolis. The end is always prefigured as a catastrophe that holds out an opportunity for an alternative to dystopia.

Indeed, at the heart of all these essays on urban dystopia is the acknowledgement that the search for utopia is the notion that underpins our most morbid fantasies of the apocalypse and the end of the world. If, as Walter Benjamin wrote in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, the masses encounter themselves through the spectacles on screen, Kaes explains how Metropolis “evokes both the fascination of the city and the thrill of destroying it” because the city is the site of “decadence and hubris, of volatile masses and revolutionary potential”. Yet, the promissory ideals of industrialisation and capitalism may have only created what Siegfried Kracauer called “the mass ornament”, a disciplined mass that is both impotent and destroyed. What Metropolis grapples with is the anxiety that urban promise – utopia – is the very impetus that deteriorates into urban destruction or dystopia.

This is a thread of thought that is echoed in many of the other essays in this volume, notably William M. Tsutsui’s piece, ‘Oh No, There Goes Tokyo: Recreational Apocalypse and the City in Postwar Japanese Popular Culture’. Tsutsui explains that one of the chief elements that marked postwar Japanese films, TV serials, and animation was the regular and almost routine destruction and reconstruction of the city of Tokyo. As he writes, “Tokyo has fallen victim to earthquakes, tidal waves, fires, floods, cyclonic winds, volcanoes, alien invasions, supernatural curses, viruses, toxic pollution, all nature of giant monsters, robots, and blobs, and, needless to say, every imaginable form of nuclear explosion.”

As Susan Sontag explains in ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ – an essay that Tsutsui draws upon – the constant annihilation of spaces, cities, and the human species in apocalyptic films and TV shows provide a “morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings.” Tsutsui agrees the appeal of these visual representations for the Japanese audience may lie, in some part, in vicarious catharsis, but argues that the constant reconstruction of the city of Tokyo indicates a “strand of optimism woven tightly into the apocalyptic imagination.” These films and TV shows worked to build an image of a trustworthy and reliable community and political order, where, as in Gojira (Godzilla), the reconstruction of the city only works because it suggests a collective “trust in science and progress” and a “trust in Japanese establishment.” Far from merely reliving the real-life catastrophe of regular earthquakes, or undoing the spectre of the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tsutsui shows how postwar Japanese popular culture’s “imagination of apocalypse” was a kind of “pop millenarian vision of hope and communal striving.”

Two of the more intriguing essays in this collection exercise a rigorous scholarly yet fluidly creative reinterpretation of dystopia: James Donald’s ‘Sounds Like Hell: Beyond Dystopian Noise’ and Ruben Gallo’s ‘Tlatelolco: Mexico City’s Urban Dystopia’. In his essay on dystopian noise, Donald explains how urban culture was “reshaping aesthetic and subjective human experience”, and yet Donald locates fertile creativity at work in precisely the mechanisms with which culture was constructed to make sense of the changing sensory environment. Modern music, such as jazz in ‘20s America, served to fill in the gaps of modern life and function as an in-between of the utopic or dystopic city. Conveying neither ultimate redemption nor destruction, these experimentations in sound (is it noise? is it music?) sought instead to retrain the senses and set forth the view that “modern self formation is possible only through sensory adaptation to modern life and in the imperfect normality of everyday life.”

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//Mixed media