Solving mazes, recreating a resilient transport network for Tokyo:
For the next month, I will be on a bike tour from Bangkok to Singapore. You can follow my trip at
On Collective Spaces of Imagination
Inhabiting a space of acute collective imagination gives pause for thought. Whether in the lobby of a gilded hotel, or under the vault of a cathedral, spaces of collective imagination make present the unresolved relationship between material culture and individual experience. The logic of the social announces itself acutely and undeniably as different people, from different places, are united by an ineluctable force. Crises, holidays and certain arrangements of material elements cut through monadic cynicism.
Shanghai is a sprawling city. My experience of 10 million + cities is that they shirk resolution in to unities. While small / medium cities afford a concrete sense of the soul and center, the most I can assemble from Shanghai is a collection of inadequate glimpses. The parts here are unquestionably less than the whole, and will likely never amount to it, no matter the scope of one’s collection.
Consequently, establishing a center is a problematic exercise. Nonetheless, the Bund (a sort of old-world grand boulevard) and Pudong (a sort of hyper-modern Shanghai Canary-Wharf) function as the de facto centers. Both centers face one another, from opposite sides of the Huangpu river. The Bund is the east-most part of old-Shanghai, and Pudong is the West-most part of new-Shanghai.
Along the river, Bund-side, is an elevated observation deck that teems with people.
On the Bund-observation deck, I was overtaken with the realization that between Old-Shanghai (Pushi) and New-Shanghai (Pudong) a space of collective imagination emerges that concentrates the global spirit of emergent Chinese power and modernity. Tellingly, in the above picture, the arrangement of seating is such that people sit with their backs to Old-Shanghai, and look out on the new:
Bifurcated by the river, I imagined ourselves Pushi-side as part of a great ship, rolling in to Pudong like immigrants to New York in the 1900s. A strange thought, to invest static spaces with the dynamism of trans-Atlantic sea travel.
A strange thought, but somehow justified. Certain spaces of collective imagination participate in the static, or the dwindling. The last breath of summer, a statue garden. What distinguishes the collective-imagination space of the modern, of the new, is its ability to suffuse its beholders with dynamism and motion. Looking out over Pudong, every moment the skyline grows incrementally closer.
It is an embarrassing truism to point out how important knowledge of the weather and especially wind must have been to the making of the modern world. It is embarrassing because it should be so obvious and yet at the same time is so strange, further testimony to the way history has numbed us, such that if nature returns, it does so as uncanny. If you look at the maps of the world drawn toward the end of the 1600s by the British pirate William Dampier, who cruised the waters between the island of Gorgona and the Río Timbiquí, you see the vast oceans with tiny black arrows coursing across them like so many swallows darting in parallel lines.
These arrows show the “general and coasting trade winds” of the world without knowledge of which there could not have been, it seems safe to say, a modern world, and certainly not a colonial world drawing Africa, Asia, and theAmericas into the one orbit with Europe. In the last decades of the seventeenthcentury, the best maritime atlases contained no sailing directions for ports outside of Europe or instructions for making ocean passages, and “this,” writes a British naval commander in 1931, “was the gap which Dampier determined to fill.” Amazingly, “most of the information he obtained at first hand was so accurate and comprehensive that it has been handed on from generation to generation with little alteration.” Dampier’s “directions for using the Atlantic trade winds,” he continues, “are still the best that can be given, and will be found with little alteration, in the Admiralty handbook upon ocean passages.” You feel Dampier would have had useful advice on global warming and El Niño. Today’s manuals have titles like:
Admiralty Sailing Directions
while Dampier’s book, abbreviated to The Discourse of Winds, is more properly:
What a difference between these two titles! I look at Dampier’s—at its length, its varied typography, its self-reference, its poetry and wide screen—and am reminded of Paul Valéry saying that once men imitated the patient process of nature, but now modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated. The Admiralty Sailing Directions confidently manifests the modern state’s assumed dominance of nature as in the use of StarWars, smart bombs, and nuclear power–driven vessels in place of sail. But what such dominance grew out of was something else, a writing that in The Discourse of Winds speaks patiently, even lovingly, to the wind, and hence learns its languages—all the better to use it against itself, just as missionaries learn the natives’ language so as to convert them, the same way we have all been taught to use our prehistoric instinctual selves to get a grip on our prehistoric instinctual selves. But then there’s the stuff that curls over the edges to come back and haunt us, these tides and currents of the Torrid Zone. Which is why we love pirates, like Dampier, whose shifting shape we may still discern like wind in our ever-more impoverished weather talk.
The Equation That Justified a Move to Buenos Aires*
My decision to move to Buenos Aires last year was born out of two facts:
1) The work I was doing was location-independent
2) Buenos Aires had a reputation (à la Berlin) of being poor-but-sexy
∴ A, B & C
A) I could live comfortably in a world-class city, without incurring the risk of securing under-the-table employment
B) I could earn a living wage working fewer hours per week than in Canada (freeing up time to travel and to pursue creative projects)
C) I could develop professional skills that would be transferable to Canada when I returned.
Information-Labour and Unconventional Globalization
To my surprise, many of the expatriate friends and acquaintances I made in Argentina had moved south with comparable work-arrangements. Whether they were working as editors, web developers, designers or writers, they shared in common the fact that they worked in information industries and conducted themselves with North American businesses.
The costs associated with reproducing and sustaining labour are markedly lower in Buenos Aires than in major North American cities. Given that many varieties of post-industrial & information based work entail no ostensible difference—from a client’s perspective—between an American working in Argentina and an American working in America, the decision to relocate can be very easy. Many businesses will not discriminate between an expatriate North American and a domestic North American, and in fact, under some circumstances, they are more inclined to favour the former business relationship. As a result, with the right connections and pre-established relationships, work can be abundant from wherever.
Likewise, the financial and logistical impediments to the global migration of this class of information-worker are less restrictive than ever before. Airfare is consistently cheap, and internet services such as airbnb make the transition to foreign rental markets practically seamless**. Translation services enable clear communication between monoglottic Spanish landlords and monoglottic Anglo tenants. Spaces—countries, cities, apartments—can be territorialized well in advance of any departure.
Ultimately, my sense is that the advent of location independent work, coupled with reduced financial and logistical barriers to global migration, are giving birth to a new form of post-industrial globalization.
The conventional globalization of labour conforms to the following description:
geographic global imbalances in wealth, power and legislation generate spaces in which some labour markets are cheaper than others. Technologies of shipping are sufficiently affordable that items can be produced in China but designed and consumed in North America. Ultimately, work moves to where it’s cheap, but workers remain fixed in place.
In contrast, the curious eddy in the wider proliferation of globalization that this essay describes can be characterized as a force within which work moves to where it’s cheap, but so do workers.
This is not to suggest in any way that the pattern I am describing will become a dominant economic and migratory force in years to come. More likely, the cachet that North American expatriates maintain abroad will gradually erode as capitalism continues to globalize work.
*See http://www.expatistan.com/ for a full web 2.0 styled list of potential destinations
**On several occasions over the last year I booked month long accommodation in modern apartments, from a bus station the night before. By way of contrast, conventional contractual relationships between tenants and landlords, or subleters and tenants, can take weeks to orchestrate. They also rely on an elaborate system of checks and verifications. While this process might its place in tradition, it substantially complicates the process of finding accommodation in an other culture and language.
Urban Renewal / Urban Re-distribution / The Fetish of the Undiscovered
I had the opportunity to revisit Hamilton last weekend after two years away from the city. I took a walk through some of the familiar neighborhoods (including Barton/Barton East, Locke, James Street, Aberdeen) that I had developed a strong attachment to over the course of 2004-2009.
I’ve come to understand my time with the city as a period of young love. While I value the intensities of feeling (for the undiscovered, the overlooked, the unsettling) that recall themselves when I remember the city, at the same time I am mistrustful of my former judgements because of their youthfulness. As a result, returning to the city was qualified with a mark of caution because i expected just as much to find myself among deflated ruins, as among vindicated half-memories.
Small cities on the order of Hamilton, Halifax or Winnipeg breed loyal communities. These communities are generated by a sense of individual distinction. Unlike New York or Paris, which insert themselves into the urban fantasies of whole generations, cities on the order of Hamilton can principally be understood as a city-overlooked. To love Hamilton–at least as an outsider–is to love with a star-crossed sense of chosenness. The current community that champions the coming (to come) urban renewal of Hamilton is brought together by a shared sense of distinction in the counter-factual beauty of the city.
Last weekend was a good time to visit. There had been an Art-Crawl the night before, still showing in traces the morning after. The sun shone and it was hot. On James Street there were new boutiques and a clean and lofty CBC building. The Lister Block had been saved.
Nonetheless, the East End presented an atmosphere of visible decline. US Steel closed operations in the city more or less just before my last visit. Barton Street seemed to have been doubly abandoned over the last two years. Three pound dinners could still be had for $10 (see below).
The East End of Hamilton (and comparable urban spaces) maintains a particular hold on me because, in distinction from Toronto or Buenos Aires–cities ostensibly populated by people like me, who have similar compulsions and vintage obsessions–so much of the space in Hamilton’s East End feels under-scrutinized. One imagines that in the corner of a junk shop some perfect and undiscovered object is hiding. The diamond-in-the-rough affection that people feel for the city in general is recapitulated in these highly particular interactions (and vice versa).
The somewhat counter-intuitive outcome of this whole arrangement is that retail establishments in the very neighborhoods in which one goes searching for the undiscovered have little incentive to signify their contents on the street: There is no market. The perfect opposite prevails in the commercial centers of major cities ,where the facades of structures attempt to signify the existence of more than could possibly be contained in their walls.
As a result, walking around in the East End is draped in a sense of the empty, until this sense opens in to fullness in a an otherwise nondescript shop/warehouse.