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Marci Nelligan & Nicole Mauro (Eds.)
Intersection, Sidewalks and Public Space
reviewed by josé felipe alvergue
137 pp. Chain Links, ed. Jenna Osman & Juliana Spahr. US$16.00. 1—930068—39—5 paper

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © josé felipe alvergue and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice.

Alive in a time of crisis


Chain Links is a publication project that originates from Chain, run by Jenna Osman and Juliana Spahr. The change in format from a yearly anthology of a large collection of writers to what they describe as a “pamphlet” oriented publishing practice looks to enfranchise small publishing, and activate a literary community. By calling on others to edit “small” books, like Intersections (2008), edited by Marci Nelligan and Nicole Mauro, Chain Links is constructing a publishing architecture from a press of content. The object distributed is not so much book, but the dialogue; this is the expectation. Aside from the distribution of resources to a larger population of possible editors, which the new format offers, small publishing as a practice of dialogue across works and the sites where those works originate articulates our contemporary space found at a constitutive, asynchronically unfolding between politics and language. Osman and Spahr: “We want to forget the idea of legacy and permanence. Instead, we want work that recognizes that we, all of us on this small earth, are alive in a time of crisis.” This asynchronic manner of unfolding between politics, as an assemblage of language, and language, as an assemblage of people, is the timing of “crisis” as well as the contemporary time of being “alive” in its movement. The power of this editorialization of wider, less permanent scopes is an immediate politics of living constitution, itself a forceful alteration contingent on the very same mobility small public spaces offer in their legibility and what Kevin Lynch calls their “imageablity.”

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“We feel this change in format,” write Osman and Spahr, “will provide an opportunity for deeper conversation, particularly around the intersection of art and politics.” Intersection effaces abstraction, as the literary space for conversation is embodied in its focused collection on a specific and concrete question to converse over, the sidewalk. The dialogue intersects at the book in a manner that is both highly interesting and sustainable across different disciplines of thought and dialects of writing. “We want these books to be primarily driven by the Now,” write Osman and Spahr, which both invokes Giorgio Agamben’s ethics of speech as the social act of it, and restores in the essence of the social act itself, a critical component to language as a site between the body and its environment. “On the sidewalk, we become who were are as a function of the city,” write Nelligan and Mauro in their introduction, “just as the city becomes a mirror of our humanity.” All the time recognizing the flux in the environmental condition by way of our capacity to alter interactions with it, the now made visible in this practice bounds the polis, and the discussions, with or without conclusions, express our contemporariness in politics. The “Now” is both a time and a space for that time, as our being/Being in the city space marks a now within the movements between language and its visible form, politics, as an idea of “humanity.”


While the architecture of production ventured by the Chain Link format, itself, seems to be an economical and ethical answer to the question of distribution, the conceptual architecture of Intersections echoes the same achievement in its editorial decision to analyze the sidewalk and the public fabric of social space. Sidewalks, in this understanding weave the physical sense of both use as well as the interpretation of a sociality in flux, the produsers of the space in a similar state between privation and publicity. As Nelligan and Mauro observe, “to understand the intricate function sidewalks play is to better understand our cities, our culture, our public selves.”


Jane Jacobs’s essay selection, taken from her 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Nelligan and Mauro’s decision to begin on the question of city space prior to what Henri Lefevbre would call l’eruption, the eruption of 1968, is a silently effective contextualization of the other works in the collection. The more contemporary works start from within a way of writing about the sociality of individuals, which Jacobs had yet to witness the force of. The critical points of departure from Jacobs fall within the bounds of what she characterizes as “safety” and “contact,” which themselves, as zones, communicate via the observational nature of her narrative, with the individual’s sense of being visual, being present, and feeling, through these activities, a qualitative reassurance. This sense, explored by Jacobs, is heterotopic in a manner that colludes two popular, theoretical, definitions of “heterotopia” as used by Lefebvre and Michel Foucault. Jacobs’s is at once a composite space of locales that offer actual possibilities for qualities of alterity, as well as a term she uses to describe, through a utopic or imaginary telescope, as a socially ethical purpose of writing about space and the individual from the between of her own status as academic and resident.


Both strains of Jacobs’s heterotopia require a very optic relationship between the writer and the space, which Nelligan and Mauro seem to be very aware of, given their selection of contributors. “Mission Stencils,” by Paul Madonna is a photo essay on stenciling in the Mission District of San Francisco, where anonymity is aesthetically linked to the visual arrangement of narrative as well as to its authorial grammar. Claire Potter’s “Chalking the Borders” is a first hand account - from a pedagogical, academic, and personal stance - of sexual politics the presence of chalking made visible on the Wesleyan Campus, with an analysis of how that visibility and consistent presence of both the chalk and the students activated a political process of language revision, social revision, and personal verification. The other works include a social ethnography by Mitchell Duneier, “Sidewalk,” originally published in 1991, an informative detail of CCTV surveillance by Melissa Ngo, and William Pope L. writing from within the evolution of his own work, Crawl, first started in the 70’s as a solo performance piece, now incorporated to the sense of its own sociality and its inherent value as Group Crawl.


The most explicit effect of the optic context constructed by Nelligan and Mauro is the different incarnations of “presence” examined in each selection. For Jacobs, presence is presence in a very genuine form, and almost utopically understood under the banner of “community,” which is, historically, at the heart of her research. It also directly affects growth, which implicates the kind of degenerative changes related to the death of “cities,” where she really means “community.” Jacobs points to this in her analysis of information and its dissemination; “Word does not move around where public characters and sidewalk life are lacking.” Interesting and problematic is her description of public presence as “public characters”; differentiation is identified within the logic of identification and tracking, a kind of narrative control of the subject Duneier’s account revisits from a different moment in the social sciences, and evidenced in the agency of voice and self-narration given to the street vendors he “studies.”


Jacobs’s seeing-eye is also demystified in the detail of Ngo’s technical descriptions of a social “scoping” of public space. Seeing is the technology of mobility, as mobility is the technology of politics composed of different languages. Those dialects emerge from the availability of difference, which the Jacobs piece does recognize, albeit silently. Difference, as unvoiced, is juxtaposed in Intersection within a heterotopical grammar, in Lefebvre’s sense of the word. Colluded in Jacobs’s examination of movement is the actual human body and its actual possible environment. Is it the mobility of the body that facilitates information growth, and by relation, the corruption of the original informative, or sensible, event, or is it the nodal structure of the city that encourages certain kinds of expansion? Language does not spread where there is no technology for its production, where there are no people or their artifacts. On a larger scale, this seems to be the real lasting tension of this editorial project.


It is interesting to think of it, in fact, in relation to the project of Chain Link itself, as a space and as an artifact of a very human activity, information as the data carried and produced by a very mobile practice of being alive and public in a networked space. It is a collectivization of critique and spaces for critique, of the original sites of informational generation, and makes visibly present heterogeneous thoughts via their dialogue. The books, and their series, make an active cultural object in a spatially distributed existence that informs a public in flux and a demonstrative democracy.


What the family of works selected by Nelligan and Mauro imply is the optic expansion of presence and observation. How much of the social network are we privy to by merely being, present, even passively so, and how much information is at our disposal for examination, exploitation, or alteration? These are the parameters of a contemporary, networked public Andreas Broeckmann posits under an optic breadth that revisits the public sphere after Habermas, and in a new language that begins with Kevin Lynch, and his Image of the City. It’s under this optic breadth that the character of Democracy is seen as incorporated to the life of public space, much the same way as debate and the interests of property are analyzed by Habermas through an examination of the public sphere in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The difference is in the very same silent effect between an essay on space from 1961, and work relating to the individual, groups, and space well after 1968, where the language has had historical and political time to seep into our cultural vision.


It is from within this optic scope that William Pope L.’s contribution is most compelling: capitalism created the urbanity Christian “civility” demanded and used in their economic and spiritual exploitation of the “different,” which in turn were forcedly visualized and hyper differentiated as the space of the public expanded by way of their own labors. This is the zone of “contact” acculturated to the language of horizontal vs. vertical Pope L.’s Crawls draw upon, and which are now available and possible for contemporary revisions and examinations only after the initial eruption of the differentiated and the exploited. The labor in the activities of thinking horizontalization implies are symbolically present in the production of Chain Links book-objects, and conceptually forceful in the language-time Intersection makes present from a very visible, although not always active component to human life, the sidewalk.

image supplied by josé felipe alvergue

With an MFA from the Cal Arts School of Critical Studies, josé felipe alvergue is currently a student of the SUNY Buffalo Poetics Program. He is the author of us look up/ there red dwells (Queue Books 2008).

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