Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

[17 February 2011]

By Subashini Navaratnam

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.”

Fear of the Unintended City

Gallo’s essay, on the other hand, reads like a modern day urban horror narrative, made all the more potent by the contrast of his coolly-observant and elegant prose and its subject matter. The history of Mexican modernist architecture is explored through Mexican architect Mario Pani’s concrete landscapes, which owes its inspiration to Le Corbusier’s idea of modernist urbanism. The construction of the Tlatelolco housing complex in Mexico City also arose from Pani’s instincts in the ‘50s and ‘60s to rehaul the entire landscape of the city from scratch, prompting Gallo to make the connection to Rem Koolhaas’ provocative proposal in 1991 to “liberate” or “launder” an entire district of Paris in order to make the space available for urban planners keen on reinvigorating the cityspace and injecting new energy into it through modernized architecture.

Yet, as Gallo points out, Koolhaas’ proposal sent shivers down the spine of Paris preservationists, while Pani’s attempts decades earlier in Mexico City occupied the other end of the spectrum and was welcomed because the city has long been caught “in an apparently endless cycle of demolition and rebuilding.” Problems beset the construction of Tlatelolco from the start, as it was situated on an ancient pre-Columbian city, with a pyramid asserting its presence and mocking Pani’s Corbuserian and staunchly modernist vision. Pani made room for the pyramid in his construction in the end, along with a 16th-century church and convent of Santiago Tlatelolco located next to it.

Representations and images of urban crisis, Gyan Prakash points out, “function as urban allegories that express the fear of the ‘unintended city’, the city of slums and media sensorum.”

But it was the modernist architectural structure of the complex that allowed it to be function as a reverse panopticon in one of the bloodiest massacres in modern Mexican history – the 1968 student massacre that took place in the very building that was Pani’s modernist dream. Gallo deconstructs the building’s structure and explains precisely how it was built to function, as it turns out, as the perfect “mousetrap” for the students trapped in the plaza. The modernist housing utopia, as it turned, was the perfect setting for a 20th century dystopic nightmare – and one that still haunts the urban Mexican imagination to this day.

Other essays in this collection are the superbly-erudite pieces by Ranjani Mazumdar and Ravi Sundaram, the former who focuses on three films Bombay urban fringe cinema – Being Cyrus, Dombivli Fast, No Smoking – to show how these films subvert traditional Bollywood film forms and tropes to present an image of Bombay that’s sinister, otherworldly, and malcontent . This is a Bombay wherein “the real is perpetually experienced as a nightmare”, or as grotesque – the latter which she explores in a fascinating discussion of Being Cyrus. These images of “subterranean geographies”, as she coins them, prove to be a map that helps to chart out points of fear, anxiety, and ambivalence in the psyche of the city’s residents as they navigate the spatial and temporal realities of an increasingly disjointed daily life.

In ‘Imaging the Urban Breakdown: Delhi in the 1990s’, Ravi Sundaram’s introduction to the concept of urban informality is tracked through the chaotic, unbridled urban excesses of Delhi as it undergoes rampant globalization in the ‘90s. This “hyperstimuli of urbanism”, as Sundaram writes, has by the mid-‘90s predicated a “vastly expanded media in Delhi”, and one that leads to the subtle beginnings of a pirate culture that “allowed the entry of vast numbers of poorer urban residents in Indian cities into media culture”. Eschewing the traditional utopia/dystopia binary, rooted as it is in the forms of representation stemming from the Euro-American region, Sundaram attempts to show how the emergence of the “pirate aesthetic” and the “pirate city” provides a fluid and occasionally violent mingling of peoples, landscapes, technologies, and things. This leads Sundaram to coin the term “bypass culture”, which, as he says, is more “media res than marginal” because “it does not fit classical representational political technologies”. More than anything, Sundaram, along with the other writers in this volume, seem to want to assert the necessity of reclaiming both the utopia and dystopia from their traditional positions in order to understand the essence of city living and existence of the 21st century.

As Prakash writes in his introduction, modern-day urban dystopic scenarios are no longer limited to the concerns of the past involving the clash of civilisation and technology, although the residue still lingers. Representations and images of urban crisis, he points out, “function as urban allegories that express the fear of the ‘unintended city’, the city of slums and media sensorum.” Both the cities of darkness and the darkness of cities, then, continue to work in their own unique ways particular to their location and history as just another means of us to deal with more of the Other.

Paradoxically, the darker the city and the urban experience, the more it brings to light our consistent fear of and ambivalence with ourselves and our relations to each other, and more precisely, what we’re able to produce, create, and yes – destroy and annihilate. But the carefully-curated and well-argued essays in this volume locate a more complex and situational element in each of the unique urban experiences highlighted, as evident in Jennifer Robinson’s essay on post-apartheid South African cities. Robinson encourages us to adopt an anti-dystopian stance, because, to give her the last word, it is “the city itself – with its multiplicity, complexity, and coexisting temporalities – that can provide the impetus towards a politics of possibility.”

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