Tuesday, 19 September 2006

The Towering Cosmopolis

The stone Colossus ‘Cosmopolis’ stands at the end of the life’s course of every great Culture. The Culture-man whom the land has spiritually formed is seized and possessed by his own creation, the City, and is made into its creature, its executive organ, and finally its victim. This stony mass is the absolute city. Its image, as it appears with all its grandiose beauty in the light-world of the human eye, contains the whole noble death-symbolism of the definitive thing-become. The spirit-pervaded stone of Gothic buildings, after a millennium of style-evolution, has become the soulless material of this daemonic stone-desert” (Spengler, 1991, p. 248).

Oswald Spengler’s vision of the “Cosmopolis” takes place against the erosion and centrality of the country town, an erosion which is formed by the cities “denial” of nature. Spengler’s vision is that of the city as an illness, parasitically sprawling beyond the borders of urban space, generating a homogeneous landscape in which world decline itself becomes mirror and embodied in urban space. Into this vision, the tower occupies a privileged epistemic status, since ascendance fuses with a horizontal expanse. Indeed, for Spengler, it is because of the tower that historic decline and the rise of the Cosmopolis is able to be articulated: “Looking down from one of the old towers upon the sea of houses, we perceive in this petrification of a historic being the exact epoch that marks the end of organic growth and the beginning of an inorganic and therefore unrestrained process of agglomerations” (Ibid.) The mood of Spengler during these passages is fundamentally nostalgic. His theory of decline, glazed in “Stoic nobility,” belies the conceit of “man” reaping his own ruin and tacitly celebrates in the image of the city as apocalyptic. Marking this apocalyptic determination is the shadows which emerge from the towers of the Cosmopolis.

In the Poetics of Space, Bachelard notes the absurdity of the idea of a “new tower”: “A tower is the creation of another century. Without a past it is nothing” (Bachelard, 1994, p. 25). That towers become most resonant when they are ruined confirms Bachelard’s point. The tower as a fallen symbol shifts the vulnerable artificiality of the intact structure toward a texture of permanency, a move crystallized in the remains of September 11th. The ruined tower instils an imaginary duration (and height) which exceeds its former placement, securing the spectrality of the past into the present. A memorial called The WTC Outline Project by Brooklyn based artist Fynnegan Sloyan plays on this absent center by superimposing a trace of familiarity onto an erased skyline, thus producing a blurred timeline (thanks to Angela Voulangas for the link):

For Paul Virilio, the tower regains the insidious associations of dystopia and apocalypse prefigured in Spengler. In his recent City of Panic, spatial elevation is identified with “a metropolitics that is fundamentally crepuscular” (Virilio, 2005, p. 16). That “the tower has gradually replaced the hill,” a principle employed by Le Corbusier to distinguish space from nature, secures the presence of artifice in bordering what Virilio terms “a negative horizon” (Ibid.). The horizon delivers space from its earthliness, creating an otherworldly landscape in which the future of the city is colonized, not by a compression of presence, but by an infiltration of distance and watchfulness, understood variously as drones, watchtowers, and glass elevators. Indeed, the verticality of Spengler and Virilio’s city is a declaration of its dystopian neurosis. In both cases, panic, anxiety, and decline are countered by the insulation of the towering city. This “high altitude impasse” is divested of spatial plenitude, as the escape into vertical-place carries with it the recognition of an artificial horizon.