Monday, May 21, 2007

midtown to harlem

Mid-town –the brightest light in New York – leaves one in the shadow of a total inhumanity. This inhumanity, expressed in impersonality, is a trait of corporate power. Corporate power rises often to the level of mass entertainment, especially in New York, where buildings with impervious surfaces and blank, guarded lobbies, are decked out as a Christmas spectacle, the best example being Rockefeller Center. Every year The News reports the transportation of some old tree from New England woods to New York, where it will stand in the flash of a thousand tourist cameras and endure as a digital backdrop to millions of souvenir photos. And then the tree is gone. It had always been anonymous – selected not for its particular traits but for its lack of defects. It was a massive trophy, flawless, fit for the anonymous surfaces of Rockefeller Center.

Corporate power’s inhumanity and impersonality share a common trait: and impenetrability that in style and architecture reveals its philosophical approach to culture as a one-way transaction. Mass culture to the corporation is a screen flashing out images in one direction, to be absorbed. Behind the screen are eyes looking out, they too absorb, they actually do need people, but their observation as arbiters of taste must not be seen. To be seen looking would be to destroy the impermeable, self-sufficient surface, the power that gives itself as the source of culture. For the marketer to be seen seeing would be to reveal the parasitic, dishonest relationship of corporate power to organic human culture. For in fact corporate power desperately needs human culture for ideas, for artistic energy: hip hop culture alone has sustained corporate power for a decade, as hippy culture did earlier. Eventually hip hop too will be emptied of living juices and its carcass will be left dead in an alley somewhere.

Corporate power lives off human culture but its impermeable, hermetically closed surfaces disavow all absorption. Corporate power’s love of glass – as a building material only worsens the hypocrisy of power – by injecting a theme of transparency, the corporation makes a claim to openness. Never mind that the glass is tinted. Really, all that is done with glass is to dissipate the boundary of power visually while maintaining it ever more firmly in place with legal and judicial power. Compare such buildings with the buildings of earlier corporate power, all granite and steel. They were much less confident.

So corporate power disavows personality - its skyscrapers claim a transcendent power, or a dedication to a transcendent power that rises above individuality toward abstraction. This power cannot be represented or described, for it si a mystification, a myth, which may be described provisionally as a pure rationality or profit. But any resort to words is a disappointment compared to the aesthetic power of architecture. In any case the corporation is the magic melding of tyranny and rationality. It refutes its daily behavior with the laughable claim typical of the GOP that democracy advances hand in hand with the free market. How can this power, resting on a modernist fantasy of pure bureaucratic transcendence, continue to thrive in the increasing chaos and fragmentation not only of human culture but from the fringes of academic culture, like anthropology, fringes which proclaim the failure of modernist projects. But the corporate power soldiers on. Only the fringes of the modernist fabric have frayed. And the detritus of the chaos furnishes material of the hidden gaze of marketers, masters of recycling.

I tried finding a bathroom once at Rockefeller Center and, failing, realized that the hermetic seal of corporate “neighborhoods” (where neighborliness is extinguished) and buildings is inhuman as well. The people who flood Rockefeller Center are duty-bound to take in spectacular stimulus, and products, and call it experience, but they are not allowed to emit anything at all, not to piss, not to shit, not allowed to talk to the powers that be in their office suites, not allowed to belch or vomit or spew forth anything that does not fit in the trash “receptacles” provided – not Whitman’s barbaric yawp, not the protestors’ voice of protest (only remember the man arrested at a shopping mall for wearing a “give peace a chance” t-shirt), not the tourist’s urgent piss. One can find no niche, no crevice, no flaw in the architectural surfaces of corporate power: space is completely emptied of shelter from surveillance. No wonder Spider Man is pictured sticking to the unstickable surfaces of skyscrapers, for this was the impossible act of corporate society. Human culture may flow only through the prescribed channels, more passive by the day. In this way corporate power slowly strangles the culture goose that lays its golden eggs.

One can leave the shadow of corporate power in midtown. One can find neighborhoods chock full of pitted surfaces, cracks, hiding places: niches where one may find refuge. Ironically this kind of place only exists where corporate power cannot find the money and customer base to subsist. Walk through the Mount Morris neighborhood of Harlem north to 125th street. Even if the central zone of 125th has been colonized by corporate power, on the eastern and western ends one may still find a human scale economic power. One may find open evidence of fragmentation, contradiction, confusion, but one will not face the smooth blank surfaces of modernist mystification and arrogance. Today walking to the train station I bathed in the light of human-scale economic organization. I saw a cellar restaurant, promising to be “Harlem’s Hidden Secret,” only to discover it had been boarded up. I saw a Turkish bath for men only, and wondered what orgies took place there. Or what banality, sitting by lonesome in a towel in a room full of steam. But this was just a small mystery to an outsider, nothing impervious to exploration. The Bath had an inside I could access if I wished, unlike the gold and beige toned lobbies of corporate midtown.

Once in midtown I had to deliver a grant application into a skyscraper and was treated as a bike messenger. When I lifted the pen to sign in the guard said, “uh-uh, that’s not for you.” He gave me a sticker, assigning me to the status of messenger. In the disdainful behavior of the guards, themselves working class, one realizes how corporate power is able to draw its powerless employees into protective rings around it, where they faithfully preserve the mystified center.

Here in the sun of Mt. Morris, I pass health food shops assembled with an intriguing collection of jamaican herbal ‘know-how and anything, from Korean ginseng to Nigerian scalp revitalizer that bespeaks a foreign or earthy knowledge. No doubt a few products of corporate America sprinkle their collection as well. The collection of products for sale mirrors the proclivities and eccentricities of the individual owner, unlike the impersonal smoothness of Time’s Square. I pass the stretch of sidewalk where indigents spread out their findings. I pass the Seafood Palace, and the blower blows out the aroma of frying shrimp and onion rings; I pass tiny immigrant restaurants with hand-lettered signs, spaces of refuge from public space, places where the imprint of individual humans may still be detected – even if it is the way the dingy plexiglass armor around a deli counter is carved with the relentless impulse of grafitti, indecipherable names, or stickered with the names of thuggish hip hop dead enders still representing the dream of a potent individual.

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