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Posts Tagged ‘marshall berman’

“Caught Up in the Flux

There is a primal scene in All That is Solid that brings to life the new experience of feeling modern. As the prototype of the urban renewal that smashed through the Bronx, architect Baron Haussmann obliterated the small medieval neighborhoods of Paris into the grand, sensual nineteenth-century boulevards we see today in postcards. This destruction of the old Paris was also the opening of new visual and public spaces — old neighborhoods were literally torn open, and pedestrians could walk on café-lined streets through the entire city (as could troops and artillery should there be another communard insurrection).

Berman meditates on the meaning of these new, modern streets and their social spaces of cafes and restaurants through the Baudelaire poem, “The Eyes of the Poor,” in which a middle-class couple is observed eating a luxurious meal by a beggar, perhaps one recently displaced by Haussmann’s “modernization.”

“What did the boulevards do to the people who came to fill them?” Berman asks. “Caught in up in its immense and endless flux,” the boulevard becomes a place to see and be seen, a place of “amorous display,” where one showed oneself and one’s fantasy of life to others to a new modern “family of eyes.”

This play of spectacle and fantasy, where the flaneur meets the window display, cannot exist long without the repressed reality creaking through. The couple in Baudelaire’s poem, having gone to the café to experience the luminous pleasure of grand boulevard, are confronted by a destitute father and his two children who gaze into the café to marvel at the sumptuous food and ambience. The woman is horrified and wants to ask the maître’d to force them away from the window. The man is moved by the family’s rags, while also disgusted by both his romantic partner, and the feast they share between the two of them.

This brief exchange, for Berman, is the both the promise and the unique subjectivity of the modern.

Not only is there the moment of self-reflection by the man, where he is forced to see himself through the eyes of another; there are also the eyes of the poor, separated only by a slim pane of glass from the food and comforts of a good life. And despite the man’s liberal sentimentality and the woman’s right-wing barbarism, Berman sees this interaction as the shock, disequilibrium, and promise of both the art and architecture of modernism, bringing both pleasure and dis-ease of modern life into contact.

Returning to the view from the Third Avenue Bridge, Berman relates how, driving through the Bronx in the late 1970s, one sees simultaneously the “magical aura” of Manhattan and the burning hellscape on the other side. This twin view, this double vision, this forward and backwards motion through space and time is the strange vitality of modernity and its unique historical experience.

From the Ruins, Yet Not Ruined

As part of Berman’s insistence that the violent shocks of modernity produce new, radical subjectivities, he devotes a major portion of the book to chronicling how hip-hop and street art emerged out of the ashes of a devastated Bronx. “Because of its misery and anguish — the Bronx became more culturally creative in death than in life,” Berman writes.

Starting with the “bold and adventurous visual language” of subway and ruin graffiti, Berman makes the argument that graffiti throw-ups and blockbusters are not just visual litter, but attempts to communicate with the wider city — which in turn sparked a costly, destructive, and even deadly conflict with city agencies that criminalized such public art.

The conflict over the public space that graffiti provoked for Berman was much like the Baudelaire poem, in which the site and presence of the poor, suddenly erupting into the streets, creates a panic for the bourgeois order: their own processes of development have summoned forth voices that they cannot control and do not understand.

Moving from graffiti to hip-hop, Berman muses on the most famous hip-hop song to emerge from 1980’s Bronx, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”:

What was “the message”? Maybe, We can be home in the middle of the end of the world. Or maybe, We come from ruins, but we are not ruined. The meta-message is something like this: Not only social disintegration, but even existential desperation, can be sources of life and creative energy.

The view from the bridge, while disorienting and perhaps chaotic, is also the starting point for new possibilities, new ways of seeing. “Modernism in the streets” is not a claim about formal style or literary genre, but a recognition of the way the urban maelstrom enlarges the sensorium, opens doors for new perceptions, and reorganizes mental life.”

– Benjamin Balthasar, “Modernism or Barbarism,” Jacobin. May 25, 2017.

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