At some point, the old road had trudged its way through the city. This was before the first Sinking, back when the city had still been in the light—the straight, steady light of the surface sun. It was before they found the precious stones in the ground, before people started digging. Back then you could ride the old road, like any other road, into the city and out again.
—Grandad says he knows what it’s like to be on the surface.
Or, at least, he knew once. He can’t even get to the Spiral any more, let alone walk up the old road to the top of the city. All he knows, says he knows, is what it’s like when you get to the top. Different light. No walking into shadows hoping you didn’t walk into solid darkness. Good place, up top, he says. His own father used to go to the top until he couldn’t, and then he lay down and never moved again.
Me, I like it down here. I know things down here. I know that the walls, the dirt, everything admits and reflects light. Something to do with the minerals in the soil. I know that things don’t always come with shadows, that those shadows don’t look like the things that are making them. The Javanese called their shadow theatre wayang kulit for the animal skin that their puppets were made of. I remember being fascinated when someone first told me that. Shadow and skin; shadow as skin. Down here, shadows make things, not the other way round.
When the city Sank, everyone noticed the old road first. You couldn’t ride it through the city any longer.
These days, words serve mostly as vehicles to me: a catalogue of signs carrying meaning, or a concept, or something other than itself as passenger. Words take on value in themselves when others, more talented, more adept at casting and sculpting them, take hold of them. People like Dyer, Calvino, Orwell, Borges. I played the violin for a country singer once, and his songs never meant anything to me. Oh, they were certainly beautiful, and his voice had just the right rasp of gravel, but his words never meant anything and so I only heard them (never listening), letting them wash over me like a damp breeze going the other way.
(Image: McCulley Design)
This is a photograph of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Las Vegas – an image of an architecture of communication. As the generative elements of communicative acts, sign and symbol attain architectural primacy in a landscape of big spaces and high speeds. Given this speed and scale, it is the bold impact of the Stardust sign-front and not the structure behind it that assigns order and conducts circulation. “If you take the signs away,” argue the writers, “there is no place.”
Like Vegas, Times Square is nothing if not sign. But Occupy Times Square on October 15th was a reversal of the bases of Learning from Las Vegas. Here, the operative scale is human, and the speed is minimal. The protestors are tightly penned in so that their relations regard each other rather than the built space around them. The same police pens mean that there is little movement, or no movement at all. In opposition to the frenetic pace of the automobile – whether in Vegas or Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles – Occupy is here to not move. The clearest symptom of the re-humanised speed and scale is the sea of analogue signs that has sprung up between the digital billboards high above. Their handwritten content is readable by eyes close by. These are signs for proximate bodies.
Reading the top 25 Damn You Auto Correct! moments of their first year (which, by the way, should really be Damn You Facebook! for the way the innocent candy-blue and green iPhone screens find their way onto my newsfeed with unerring precision), I found myself thinking in between gasps of laughter that the autocorrect function had a sort of correspondence with psychoanalytic theory. Not necessarily substantively, but at least on a formal level.
The basic structure that Freud sets out in The Interpretation of Dreams begins from the idea of two agencies, one creative and the other defensive. The first agency is responsible for the constructive production of the dream-thoughts, whereas the second exercises a sort of censorship on these thoughts, causing them to be compressed and deformed until only the manifest dream-content remains. It is, of course, this dream-content that we experience when we dream. It is a remarkable resemblance between this structure and that of the autocorrect: I intend to say, “I’m doing laundry” – the second agency between myself and the recipient intervenes to distort the thought until the content reads, “I’m doing Lauren.”