City of Panic

Posted by on July 28, 2009 at 3:49 pm.

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The urban territory is increasingly traversed by streams of diasporic, heterogeneous and de-territorialised imaginary. Panic tends to become the urban psychic dimension. It is a reaction of a sensitive organism submitted to a stimulation too strong and too rapid. A reaction of an organism urged by too frequent and intense impulses to be emotively and conversationally elaborated.

What is panic? We are told that psychiatrists recently discovered and named a new kind of disorder – they call it “Panic Syndrome”. It seems that it is something quite recent in the psychological self-perception of human beings. But what does panic mean?

Once ‘panic’ used to be a nice word, and this is the sense in which the Swiss-American psychoanalyst James Hillman remembers it in his book on Pan. Pan used to be the god of nature, the god of totality. In Greek mythology, Pan was the symbol of the relationship between man and nature.

Nature is the overwhelming flow of reality, things and information by which we are surrounded. Modern culture is based on the idea of human domination, of the domestication of nature. So the original panic feeling (which was something good for the ancient world) is increasingly becoming terrifying and destructive. Today, panic has become a form of psychopathology: We can speak of panic when we see a conscious organism (individual or social) being overwhelmed by the speed of processes he/she/it is involved in, and has no time to process this information input. In these cases the organism, all of a sudden, is no more able to process the sheer amount of information coming into its cognitive field or even that generated by the organism itself.

Technological transformations have displaced the focus from the sphere of the production of material goods towards the sphere of semiotic goods. With this, Semio-Kapital becomes the dominant form of the economy. The accelerated creation of surplus value depends on the acceleration of the Info-sphere. The digitalisation of the Info-sphere opens the road to this kind of acceleration. Signs are produced and circulated at a growing speed but the human terminal of the system (the embodied mind) is put under growing pressure and finally cracks under it. I think that the current economic crisis has something to do with this imbalance in the field of semio-production and the field of semio-demand. This imbalance in the relationship between the supply of semiotic goods and the socially available time of attention is the core of the economic crisis as well as the core of the intellectual and the political crises that we are living through now.

Semio-Kapital is in a crisis of overproduction, but the form of this crisis is not only economic, but also psychopathic. Semio-Kapital, in fact, is not about the production of material goods, but about the production of psychic stimulation. The mental environment is saturated by signs that create a sort of continuous excitation, a permanent electrocution, which leads the individual mind as well as the collective mind to a state of collapse.

The problem of panic is generally connected with the management of time. But we can also see a spatial side to panic. During the past centuries, the building of the modern urban environment used to be dependent on the rationalist plan of the political city. The economic dictatorship of the last few decades has accelerated the urban expansion. The interaction between cyber-spatial sprawl and urban physical environment has destroyed the rationalist organisation of the space.

In the intersection of information and urban space we see the proliferation of a chaotic sprawl following no rule, no plan, dictated by the sole logic of economic interest. Urban panic is caused by the perception of this sprawl and this proliferation of metropolitan experience. Proliferation of spatial lines of flight. The metropolis is a surface of complexity in the territorial domain. The social organism is unable to process the overwhelmingly complex experience of metropolitan chaos. The proliferation of lines of communication has created a new kind of chaotic perception.

In the summer of 2001, Fury, a novel by Salmab Rushdie, came out. On the cover, the Empire State building was hit by a lightning. Not long after the release of the book from the printers that cover looked like a frightful premonition. But this premonition was not just on the cover for the novel describes (or rather evokes) the psychic collapse of the western metropolis.

Rushdie depicts the virtual class nervous system, intended as social class producers of signs as well as a class of those that live a common condition of evanescence and existential fragility. Cellularised splinters, fragments in a perpetual abstract recombination, connected terminals that lost competence and conjunction memory.

You feel the psychopathic vibration that is amassing, after the permanent electrocution decade, after the desire economic investment decade. You feel anxiety growing, and the urban libidinous economy going insane.

Millions of mobile phones are calling each other, mobilising the lipid energy postponing the contact, the pleasure the orgasm from one side to the other of the city, from a moment of compressed urban time to another.

The action of the novel develops mainly on the roofs of Manhattan skyscrapers. Scary black birds wondering about the fates of buildings announcing the next collapse.

A while ago, Mike Davis (City of Quartz, Dark Cities) mapped the urban territory perception (the 1990 Los Angeles territory in City of Quartz and the 2002 New York City one in Dead Cities) through the rebuilding of the mythologies of fear and of the security and privatisation policies that have a devastating effect on social space.

“The neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and averts imaginary threats. The pseudo-public spaces of today, the big malls and the executive centres, the cultural acropolis and so on are full of invisible signs to keep the underclass far away,”

(Mike Davis: 1990, page 226).

After September 11th 2001 the securitisation paranoia becomes the main tendency in the imaginary, in the production of high technology goods and in urban design.

“The fear economy grows in the middle of an overall famine… The low paid security guard army will grow by 50% during the decade, while video-surveillance fed by facial recognition software will snatch what is left from the daily routine privacy. The airports’ departure security regime will provide a model for the regulation of the urban masses, in the shopping centres, in the sporting events and elsewhere… Security, in other words, will become an urban service completely developed like water, electricity and telecommunications.”

(Mike Davis, Dead cities pp. 12-13)

The city of panic is the place where nobody has the time anymore to get close to each other, for the caresses for the pleasure or for the slowness of whispered words. Advertisement exalts and stimulates the libidinous attention, person to person communication multiplies the promises of encounters, but these promises never get fulfilled. Desire turns into anxiety and time contracts.

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