Fabio La Rocca

La Rocca, F. (2014) “Urban Climatology: The Phenomenology of the Postmodern City”, (James Horrox, trans.), Cosmopolis, 2014/2 pp.3-83


The sociologists of the Chicago School considered the city the most coherent and accomplished attempt in humanity’s demiurgic drive to structure its own world. As such, the urban environment constitutes a vast laboratory for inquiry into social change, continuously carving out new incarnations with each new stage of its development.

Urban transformations can thus be viewed through the lens of the epistemological intuition proposed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Every historical period, Kuhn suggests, with its social practices, its unique vocabulary and its particular experience of the world, produces an imaginary structure, or ‘paradigm’, both a worldview and a normative model providing the framework for, and encompassing, all of the countless intuitions of a given period. This structure undergoes episodic crises precipitating the passage from one dominant form to another, culminating ultimately in a paradigm shift. Such crises provide the necessary information for the shift in vision, and often in so doing open up an array of new discoveries.

The Kuhnian hypothesis of scientific revolution can be usefully applied to study of the urban world. It is possible to view the city in terms of any one of its myriad aspects – architectural, spatial, social and so on – which host its denizens’ everyday experiences and symbolic reflections on social life, but the vital force, the lifeblood of city existence, is complexity, a perpetual process that lies at the heart of the urban experience. The city by its very nature can never be static; it offers constant novelty, suggesting that the focus of those who study it should be on the continuous evolution of forms and the ways of experiencing its spaces – the ‘esperire’ (experience) of the urban world – thereby enabling a critique grounded in an ‘ontology of the present’ which shapes our thinking and our view of the world.

Proposing a vision of the contemporary urban context requires us also to identify the temporality of the era; that is, to situate ourselves, a notion developed by Gianni Vattimo in his analysis of postmodernity. The present Vattimo sees is that of post-metaphysical thinking, our evolution beyond modernity leading to a new philosophical foundation akin to that sought by Nietzsche and Heidegger in their critiques of Western thought (Vattimo, 1985: 10-11). The situation of the postmodern city must thus look to the foundation of a new ontology of the urban present consistent with the epistemological paradigm shift.

Nietzsche’s proclamation of ‘the death of God’, Heidegger’s notion of going ‘beyond metaphysics’ and Lyotard’s claim of the demise of metanarratives in some respects constitute the foundation and framework for the emergence of the postmodern paradigm. These reflections imply a necessary shift in the status of knowledge, a new mode of perception and thought with corollaries as regards how we feel, imagine and experience the urban environment. The character and experience of the city, in short, take on an ‘other’ dimension commensurate with these epistemological shifts, meaning that the city can no longer be conceptualised in the crude functionalist terminology of modernism.

The basis of modern functionalism was a privileging of function over form (‘form follows function’ was the famous slogan of American architect Louis Sullivan). Whereas modern town planners sought control over the city by projecting a ‘closed’ form however, the postmodernist tends to favour ‘open’ situations. Situations infer a way of acting and constructing space not merely in terms of architectural design and town planning, but also an elevation of the quotidian, taking into account day-to-day activities and individual practices: a ‘social architectonic’ of diverse expressive forms through which individuals participate in the collective effervescence of the urban environment.

This is the spatialisation of existence, the process of symbolic elaboration of space emerging through everyday life practices. Space provides a multitude of opportunities allowing for the creation of situations which give it its meaning: on the one hand, spatial specificity in its myriad aspects, on the other, individuals’ singular expressions. This relation between space and individual reveals a continuity of meaning which constitutes an essential factor in expressing the variations of urban climate and everyday ambiances.

The Heideggerian conception of ‘being’ might be used to comprehend ‘the city-being’ and the social reality it experiences, and in particular transformations pertaining to the forms and symbolic meanings of different lifestyles. These styles characterise the collective ownership of space and give a rhythm to urban life which manifests itself in the forms of the everyday, a rhythm found in everyday expressions and their dynamic rooting, where, as Maffesoli suggests, “body frenzies, musical flutterings, theatrical contortions, hysteria specific to contemporary religiosity operate as indications of an essentially chthonic social choreography” (2004: 43).

Such an approach contributes to a theory of urban social morphology centring on the relationship between society and environment: a kind of ‘ecology’ in search of the archetype of urban life, its focus on spatial relationships in the various ‘natural zones’ of cities where daily life unfolds. Living in a city is in essence synonymous with ‘being in the world’, for, as Augustin Berque’s “the human is geographical” (2000) suggests, there is no being without place, an idea reinforced in postmodernity’s rediscovery of place and its symbolism.

The centrality of spatial dimension as a modality of experience, an idea fundamental to the work of Georg Simmel, is the marker of social dynamism which suggests the climatological situation of the postmodern city: on the one hand, the form and specific modalities of the physical city, and on the other, the sensitivity of individuals’ aesthetic experience which imputes meaning to place. This develops an equilibrium between cityscape and mindscape, and thus between the physical panorama of the city and its spirit, soul and culture. On this view, the meaning of the city is ascribed by a set of cultural practices, by a multiplicity of tribes, by signs and symbols assigning new meanings to the urban physiognomy. One thus confronts a space in continuous motion and perpetual renewal, all of which provide us with information both on the course of the city’s evolution and on the state of society more generally.

The twenty-first century city is the focal point of the contemporary sociocultural climate and must therefore no longer be conceptualised and experienced in its simple functionality, or crudely described merely as the visible manifestation of social organisation and the embodiment of modern rationality. To conceptualise the city as such is to impose a unifying logic which tends to nullify, marginalise or even render invisible the various characteristics of urban microcosms and their imaginaries as the symbolic places frequented, inhabited and experienced by multiple tribes.

The paradigm shift into postmodernity, characterised by the elation of urban vitality and disruption of pre-existing patterns, lends new resonance to the famous fifteenth-century German proverb, cited by Weber and Marx, Stadluft macht frei: “city air makes you free”. This medieval maxim, which could be taken as suggesting a certain rootlessness, is no longer an echo of the call to relocate from countryside to city. Rather, it should be understood, in accord with the current metropolitan zeitgeist, in the sense of a freedom of investment of social actors in multiple places, a freedom to enjoy aesthetic forms in their everyday aspects: urban landscapes, liaisons, itineraries; a freedom to hear a diversity of moods, an organic liveliness that penetrates the heterogeneity of reality giving form to multiple and varied ambiances. A freedom which invigorates the spirit of the city refocuses attention on the everyday, constituted by a patchwork of styles and identities reflecting the plurality of forms and the meaning of places, and resulting in a need for social manifestation with a range of new codes and symbolic expressions which form the image of the urban imaginary.

The imaginary embraces an entire existential universe, an everyday proxemics expressed in tribalism and the attachment to significant places which manifests itself in ‘open’ situations where a certain vitalism can be observed; in short, an urban grammar by which to decode the city and its ways of living which form a universe of meanings to express the ‘new’. This latter adjective is often used in descriptions of contemporary urban life, but it should be read here as a marker of qualitative change, whereby the city acquires an ‘other centrality’, the sign of a concrete and symbolic transformation of status. ‘New’ also indicates transmutations in the territory of the metropolis, which becomes a continuum of transformative specificities, establishing a kind of cosmopolis. That is, a ‘world’, or more accurately, ‘world-city’: a vast ensemble constituted by a diversity of expressions of the contemporary urban condition. One might include the technologisation of space, urban playfulness, the carnivalesque dramatisation of the streets, the symbolic tribal conquest, architectural hedonism – all of which indicate a sensibility peculiar to the spirit of the times.

It is the relationship with everyday life that holds strategic importance in approaching the postmodern ambiances: a kind of rediscovery of space, as Frederic Jameson (1992) put it, or in Bruce Bégout’s terms, a ‘rediscovery of the everyday’, where the body is immersed in a maze, an abandonment into space, wherein to feel its sensations, its emotions, in concord with the vital energy of the city. The emphasis on the ‘essential character’ of the everyday ambiance precedes and lends meaning to our discourse. The constellation of fragments that constitute the jigsaw puzzle of the contemporary imaginary come together into a particular vision – we could call it a ‘climatology’ of our time – which illuminates patterns in the atmosphere in which we are immersed and directs the gaze towards everyday situations.

As a basis on which to formulate a picture of the city, climatology seems apposite in capturing the form of the urban landscape: a sociological and cultural climatology observing the variables that characterise the urban environment: the ‘social temperature’, ‘cultural breezes’, ‘symbolic precipitation’, ‘aesthetic clouds’…. Such considerations enable our navigation of the urban labyrinth to trace a journey into the heart of the postmodern climate, specifically, in the atmosphere of a spatialised time. Durand would call it an ‘Einsteinisation’ of time: time contracts in space by offering a re-signification, a re-emphasis of spatiality. Spatiality could be defined as ‘imaginale’, and acts in such a way as to put the accent on the present. This postmodern climatology creates the effect of ‘time place’ where the everyday life of the city can be observed, and where, as Maffesoli shows, a “fertility of the synergy between space and sociality” (2003: 60) expresses an aesthetic identification and a “new stylistics of living” (2002: 275).

The climate metaphor thus provides insight into the atmosphere in which we live, capable of capturing and comprehending the epistemological changes unfolding in society that are shaping the contemporary city. Building on Jürgen Habermas’s analysis of the crisis of modernity (1985), we can see in this climate a paradigmatic shift in existential, urban and social forms concordant with what Maffesoli refers to as ‘the spirit of the times’. The vocabulary of the city, its sensory aspect, its architectural significance and its anthropology of ephemeral tribes assume another dimension which influences the visualisation and ‘imaginability’ of the city itself, namely – to borrow from Kevin Lynch (1960) – our ability to form an idea, a representation of the city (perceived) as a product.

Having an ‘image’ of the city to form a three-dimensional, synesthetic understanding or decoding of urban elements. Reading the elements of the city through a climatological lens enables us to give it meaning, to develop the stylistic requirements necessary to comprehend its continuous reinvention: a city in work-in-progress mode, a symbolic unity requiring new indicators, expressive metaphors conducive to fine-tuning this climatological framework: ‘bladerunnerisation’, ‘hype zone’, ‘urban software’, ‘bodies interconnection’, ‘magical spectacle’ and ‘festive nomadism’ are among many such neologisms conveying character to the urban present, leading us into a situationist or Sisyphean labyrinth (Durand, 2000: 91) of the urban imaginary that gives each city its unique atmosphere, its own sensory poetics reflecting its essence, its mood, its vitality and its being.

This is a transfiguration that must be seen as a fundamental transition from old ways to a different perspective, contributing to an understanding of the city through the development of a new mode of perception using an interpretation of the sociological viewpoint inspired by Simmel to delineate the essential features of the Mundus Urbanus. A sensitivity rooted in what Ortega y Gasset calls “atmospheric imperatives” enables us to grasp, through psychophysical mechanisms, the sensory spaces of the urban universe, the new nomos emergent at the surface of the city that demands we highlight and identify the forms of urban centrality rediscovered by postmodernity. As already suggested, this perspective could conduce to a ‘postmodern climatological science’ of the myriad interwoven sites and linkages of the urban world so as to draw out the multisensory dimensions of the city. As in the method used by Simmel, the forms lived in the metropolis will constitute an approach to the world commensurate with the spirit of the times.

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The change in perspective demanded by the current transfiguration of the urban environment requires a recontextualisation of the vision of the city via a redrawing of the cognitive and sensory map. Sociological tradition encouraged the espousal of a dichotomous model to conceptualise the transition from traditional rural society to modern industrial urbanism. The ideal-type that interpreted the advent of the latter is captured in the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft distinction formalised by Ferdinand Tönnies, which theorised the emergence of the modern metropolis as a place of rationality dominated by market forces. Then followed the Durkheimian perspective with its focus on the transition from a mechanical solidarity to an organic one based on the social division of labour; then the Weberian view, which reduces the city to a static market-place regulated by actions driven by rationality and reflective of the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Looking at the contemporary urban environment it is clear the framework has changed. The dominant trend in the postmodern city is an emphasis on aesthetic communities; the ‘re-enchantment of the world’. Taking into account these various diverse elements of the contemporary climate, climatology becomes a useful framework for an appreciation of the urban scene capable of capturing the characteristics of its day-to-day existence, and hence the ‘reading grid’ of the contemporary city.

The discourse of ‘urban crisis’ arises as a consequence of the extinction of the Promethean and Cartesian dream of bringing into being a perfect city commensurate with the rationalist model of the modern man. But the city revitalises itself, and every day the imaginary, myths, dreams and desires take shape in the social scene, reflecting a continuous process of urban renewal. A re-enchantment of the social experiment is currently underway in response to the attempted secularisation and functionalisation of the city by the forces of modernity. If the modern city, under the aegis of positivist science and instrumental rationality, was a product of efficiency and functionality, the postmodern city is a space for sensory pleasures performing a reboot of the imaginary and of collective desires. At stake here, strengthened each day in the process of métropolisation, is an aperture on everyday life. A certain sensitivity is needed to capture this climate and consider the imaginary of our time in the context of this urban transfiguration, often wrongly perceived in negative terms as a decline, collapse, or crisis.

Dystopia and catastrophe are persistent features in discourse on the city, and in some cases these narratives hold a certain interest in that they reveal alternative types of narration. This is particularly so in the field of media culture and the imaginaries developed by computer games. The pixelated city for example, as more or less persistent virtual world, offers a simulation model potentially useful in examining the effects of urbanity and the imaginary construction of the city. Literature, science fiction in particular, likewise offers a rich imaginary space for theorising and imagining the urban world. One could refer for instance to the visions of JG Ballard as part of an urban science fiction, a kind of ‘social anticipation’, and as such a valuable sociological prospective. Cinema too remains a magic lantern, a fantascope enabling us to travel through the territories of the imaginary and the constellations of the metropolitan universe.

A further climatological aspect of the urban lies in the fluid trajectories cities tend to trace in their realisation of the richness and diversity of their living space. This existential, experiential presentism is found to an extent in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where the ‘here and now’ constitutes the basis of an assessment of the sociometropolitan dynamic. In climatological terms we could think of the present of the urban world and the transformations in its atmosphere as a spiral, a swirl, a vortex – a pertinent visual representation of the rapidity and distinctive motion of the evolution of aesthetic forms: disparate signs scattered in space. These signs, once assembled, provide a vision of the contemporary city, but this is not merely a question of identifying the signs according to the current understanding of what they represent. It is a question of zeroing in on the conditions of possibility offered by urban vitalism. In doing so we seek to access an ‘ordinary knowledge’ of the world as it is experienced. In this visual panorama, the urban kaleidoscope, with its infinite constellations of fragments, accentuates the moments lived in the ‘instant’; the aïon: the immanent present where everyday life resides.

Translation by James Horrox
published in Cosmopolis: Journal of Cosmopolitics, 2014/2 pp.3-8

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