Cities of Memory, Cities of Glass: A Response to Three Fictive Cities
“Cities of Memory, Cities of Glass, I have thought these thoughts and read these works in a sequence of spaces mediated by constructed structures, interpolating their envisioned environments through my own spatially situated self (see contemporary theories of situated cognition). The glass window of the city bus, the sunset’s reflection off West End apartments and office towers.”
Zamyatin’s seminal dystopian novel We is simultaneously the story of a man and a city, and pivotally it is the mediating material between these two which defines their dynamic interrelation. The city is composed almost entirely of glass, glass which exposes all, revealing and uniting spectrally as it divides and delimits. The predilection of progress is that the better we become at holing ourselves in, the more we engineer these structures to reveal or display its interiors and ourselves. Zamyatin’s vision is fixed in the near enough future he so presciently presaged, it is universal and sociological in scope, and it is reminiscent of nothing more than Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon. In an environment where one’s every action may be monitored, enforcement becomes unnecessary as paranoia becomes dominant. This is precisely the world Zamyatin evokes, as his OneState allows only the briefest moments of privacy for controlled sexual relations, as well as two unscheduled hours per day, which D-503, the protagonist, hopes will one day be phased out. Through the contrivances of architecture and materials, the subject becomes the dictator.
“Coast Mountains whose carpet of canopy stretches the eyes enviously to the horizon, and glimpses across the water of leering towers whose dense lights glow in the distance and resonate through my many years’ recollections of this place. On the hills of North Vancouver, where these two views compete and meet, I’ve thought long of what it means to live in a place and transform the earth into inhabited space. “
On the other hand, the dystopia which Clarke presents in City and the Stars is not so much a nightmare of the state or city, but of the human soul when granted infinite capacity. Clarke describes the city with palpable infatuation, marveling at its virtuality, its imaginative mutability, and a projectability of self into electronic avatars which clearly prefigures the Internet of today. The dystopian edge becomes evident not in the city itself, but in its uses. Diaspar is built on terrified falsehood, it is the refuge of a people who have turned their back on outer space and buried themselves in an endless cycle of static, and perhaps stagnant, lives. Though they appear to enjoy a sort of immortality, and it is said that the city cycles its citizens such that the possible permutations of experience are infinite, the inhabitants of Diaspar may also edit their memories before returning to the memory banks of the city, which themselves are held in triplicate, so that while the design and contents of the city may appear limitless and eternal, in fact the structure of the city fosters a permanent ignorance and incuriosity of the broader world. Architecture, the engineering of space, is supposed to be a constructive act, a positive creation working towards a goal of comfort and betterment. But in setting his city one billion years in the future as he does, Clarke highlights the pitfall of civilization, that our technological freedoms might in fact tether our minds, and that total control over memory might prove the greatest means of forgetting.
“And in this place, where my grandfather built his home out of river rock and cedar, I have watched the wave of history peak and break, as the future subsumed the present just as it danced nimbly away, an impossible dream of another time. Peak oil has replaced the jet car, and the Jetsons has faded to childhood folly, as LCD screens and tiny white earbuds quietly supersede tangible constructions in favour of virtual spaces we can’t yet fully imagine. The faces of a thousand strangers whip by mine as I transit this urban environment, billboards and giant televisions heralding the victory march of lust and loneliness and a thousand expensive new tomorrows. There is comfort in the prescience of speculative writers of the past, but their penchant for the dystopic is a warning that progress, if it can be said to occur, is perhaps more a negative process of eliminating undesirable potentialities rather than a fostering of particular outcomes or intentions.”
J. G. Ballard’s later works, beginning with the notable eruption that is Atrocity Exhibition, are an exemplary pinnacle of the urban and architectural themes heretofore encountered in this survey, where the controlling and unifying transparency of materials embodied in glass architecture becomes the total erosion of any delineation between inner and outer space, and the immutable collective memory which Diaspar embodies becomes a horrifying diorama of the indigestible traumas of the past. The novel represents the collapse of all traditional dichotomies and distinctions, it is the unification of Freud’s erotic and thanatotic drives, our twin fascinations with life and death, creation and destruction, fused in an impossible hybrid which effects Baudrillard’s philosophy of the hyperreal. Baudrillard says “we are witnessing the reduction and absorption of this distance [between the real and the imaginary], of this separation which permits a space for ideal or critical projection.” (“Simulacra and Science Fiction“) Ballard’s protagonist, the mutable T, is held captive by this erasure of distance, he is powerless to shield his ravaged emotional core from the grotesque imagery which dominates the landscape and imagination of his world. Denied the space for critical thought, T is held helpless, unemancipated of imaginative agency. Ballard was responding to the emergence of mass media as the ultimate arbiter of reality in the mid 20th Century, and in the fashion of the well-meaning doomsayer, he accurately extrapolates the technological trends of his day to exaggeratedly explode into a nightmare of the inevitable. Although the limited scope of recycled traumas (JFK, Marilyn Monroe, classic automobiles and Ronald Reagan) might seem quaint today, the Atrocity Exhibition and the hyppereality it entails is the future which is already here, and the only optimism of Ballard’s prophesy is that we can recognize this future which stares us in the face, that we might accept our present in the act of imagining a new future city.