Last week in the seminar we discussed two readings that are foundation to one of the important intellectual threads of the SUB course. The thread could be broadly named, “mutual construction,” and I plan to write an essay that explores this notion as part of the forthcoming book on post-city urbanism. Likewise, our conversation within the course will chart this notion across the terrain of our weekly conversations. I thought it would be useful to outline some of my concerns and interests relative the mutual construction and describe to some degree how I aim to explore this idea further. A fair bit of the work is in front of me, but the core of the idea is in hand now.
I started the discussion of “mutual construction” with the above Charles Hoff photograph from the 1959 boxing match between Len Matthews and Carlos Ortiz. (the image is taken from the book, The Fights : Photographs by Charles Hoff, published in 1996 by Chronicle Books). The image recommends its use here, as it so clearly presents us with an entangled and legible cause and effect. Matthews, in the foreground, is taking a fierce blow from Ortiz. The body position and expression of both pugilists are really where the “mutual construction” aspect of the image crystallizes. Take the face of Matthews, captured photographically as it absorbs the energy of the punch as an effect, the cause of which is apparent in both the tense upper body musculature of Ortiz and in the expression on his face. The image allows us to understand, at once, both the delivery of the punch and its reception. This, for me is a start to getting the notion of mutual construction into focus, though I think this image is a mutual construction of a certain type. (I might provisionally tag this type of mutual construction as “compact cause and effect.”)
Ortiz and Matthews are mutually constructed in this image. To understand one is to grapple with the presence of the other. Their mutual relationship has a temporal quality. Soon after this image was taken, we might imagine that their bodies would be responding to one another in different ways. It is conceivable to think that the particularly clear way that these two men are related to one another in this image is subject to all sorts of durationally sensitive alignments. They are both pugilist, boxers in their own right, yet, in this image we see them acting in concert with one another. The brutal expression on Matthew’s face is knowable, apprehended intellectually, by the coiled position of Ortiz.
I love this image for its demonstration of two subjects that are constructing one another at precisely the same moment. The image reminds me of David Hickey’s essay, “the Heresy of Zone Defense,” within which he starts the writing off with a description of basketball star Julius Erving, Dr. J, driving the lane on Kareem Abdul-Jabber who goes airborne to block Dr. J’s progress towards the net producing counter movements by Dr. J who contorts his body around Kareem’s and soars under the backboard and then reaches back to the rim laying the ball into the basket from the opposite side of the rim. Hickey describes Kareem’s post-game interview wherein he says he would pay money to watch Dr. J make plays like that against someone else. At this point, Hickey writes, “Kareem’s remark clouds the issue, however, because the play was as much his as it was Erving’s, since it was Kareem’s perfect defense that made Erving’s instantaneous, pluperfect response to it both necessary and possible…” I find here something close to what I see in the Hoff photograph, namely that there is a mutual building up and building down of subjectivity and agency. One set of contextual drivers make possible another set of experiences. Take Kareem out of the situation and we likely will not see Dr. J make such a play. Take Mathews collapsing face out of the frame of the photograph and we would likely not understand the position of Ortiz’s body. And vice versa.
I guess it is fair to say that my interest in developing an understanding of “mutual construction” is augmented by the two examples above, but the initiative really started for me with a close reading of Walter Benjamin’s chapter, “The Flaneur,” from Charles Baudelaire : A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, in tandem with Georg Simmel’s landmark essay, “Metropolis and Mental Life.” Our discussion in class was buttressed by these two required readings, and I augmented the readings by making a presentation on this notion of the mutual construction.
My in class presentation posited 3 distinctly scaled mutual constructions for consideration by the students. The first was the mutual construction of subject and urban configuration, for which we used Benjamin’s exaltation of the flaneur and the Parisian arcade as an example. The second was the mutual construction of urban configuration and systems of production, from which we de-simplified the figure of the flaneur and began to understand the relationship between the logic of capitalism and the existence of the arcade<>flaneur construct, understanding that the flaneur is also being constructed by certain economic logics that proffer the viability of spatial configurations in the first place. I used shifts in factory organization as they relate to the urban fabric of Detroit as a means for developing this notion. The third scale explored was the mutual construction of city and urbanism, here trying to understand that while the city is the exemplar form of urbanism, processes of urbanism have been shown to far exceed the limits of the city as a territory. Getting this into focus allows our conversations in class to game with the relationships between flows of increasingly mobile capital and emerging urban subjects that are post-city in their urban nature. I also hope that as the course develops in subsequent weeks that we can relocate moments of clarity in the morphological relationships between urban subjectivity and agency and particular urban configurations and spatial types.
I plan to develop some of the notions in this post in subsequent posts, but in the spirit of quick and explicit public writing, I am going to pause here and post this to the blog. But, this thread of thinking is continuing and developing in interesting ways.