Where does the constant contradiction come from of brushing up against bodies all day while living in absolute solitude? The alienation of human beings in their modern offices is not a product of coincidences, but of a series of spatial and progressive changes that took off and have become established since the first industrial revolution. The passivity of the urban masses is, more than a circumstance, a pillar of contemporary capitalism. But if isolation is constructed, it can be questioned and at some point broken down.
The essence of what the notion of space means for the human being can be traced back to ethology. For virtually all vertebrate animals there is a need to own and defend a given territory. There is evidence of anomalous behavior in cases of captivity from birds to mammals. In the case of the human being, there are studies that indicate the influence that overcrowding can have on regressive processes in child development, or on strongly territorial and excluding behaviors that occur even in hospital wards! Then, to what extent do such aspects touch us as the growing population density, the absence of green areas, and the ravaging highways that divide us 24-7?
We can climb the tallest skyscraper and see the city from wide windows. We can, in such a situation, feel part of this tangle of streets, smells, dance. But is there a real connection with what we are observing? And thirty meters underground in a car, could there be a connection here? Because, at the end of the day, from above we see lights and ants: people – as individuals – are alien to us. And below? Augé says: “there is nothing so irremediably subjective as a journey in the metro, and yet nothing is as social as such a journey, not only because it takes place in an over-codified space-time, but above all because the subjectivity that defines it in each case (every individual has its starting point, combinations and point of arrival) is an integral part, like all other subjectivities, of its definition as a total social fact ” (1). This is the essential contradiction of living in a city.
(1) In El Viajero Subterráneo. (The Underground Traveller) Gedisa, 1998.
Because we live like this, in a constant tension, swimming in the metropolis-paradox, crossing its twists and turns as if we were really floating and there were no other biographies touching us in every bowling alley, at every supermarket checkout, in every reflection looking at us from the windows. It’s the city that is an expanse just like a beach that we face in solitude: the string of cars on any avenue sounds, after a few seconds and without much effort, like waves coming and going rapidly, as if wanting to wash away the gloom, as if wanting to resound in all the abandoned parks at dawn.
To make sense of the beach in solitude we invoke some memories, framed in the Western European mindset while accommodating the industrial revolution. In 1781 the Comédie Française, one of the principal theaters in Paris, moved to a new space with seating for all. Before that, the theater was usually seen standing except for certain aristocrats who had seats on the same stage and could walk freely to greet those as they pleased. They were not the only ones. During the course of the play, street vendors offered their products shouting out their wares; the public conversed loudly and interrupted frequently with their cheers and cries. But when the seats were installed in the Comédie Française something quite strange occurred: the audience fell silent.
In the taverns, the newspapers – which carried a restrictive cost – were usually read aloud, to be shared. And something interesting happened: the recitation brought with it political discussion from all sides. However, in the middle of the 19th century, while Hausmann intervened in Paris, two things were increasing in Europe: the suicide rate and the circulation of newspapers. Le Petit Parisien printed three million copies a day (2). Then, the newspapers entertained each one in a solitary way so that their sections became specific, of a more ephemeral and hedonistic interest; the tabloid press was born with inconsequential news and horoscope sections. The conversation has become bland, so that lists of topics are even published for discussion. Public opinion has become incapable of generating “public opinion”, which is, as of now, what is decided by fashionable think tanks.
(2) See Jaime Eduardo García, “El siglo XIX, inicio de la era mediática” (The nineteenth century, the beginning of the media era) in La Jornada Semanal
What do these examples have in common? A modern notion of passivity. This facilitates the domination of a system in which contemplation (ergo, deep empathy) is a waste of time and, therefore, money. To destroy citizen activity, language is presented in packaged form, numbered and in a dosis for rapid digestion. And this passivity is an urgent and defining pillar in post-industrialized capitalism. Even groups ̶ artistic, political, even friends ̶ are identified in terms of “other” that exclude and as not of their own making are incapable of generating a proposal for structural change. Their fratricidal torments divert attention to the internal problems of each community and finally end up reinforcing the general structures. We are sectored ̶ sometimes we think we are intimate, but we are not even able to untangle our own knots.
It seems necessary then to be aware of the historical construction of isolation, which has led to the lack of empathy, the dis-assembly of class solidarity, the exclusion of bodies useless to the socio-economic system in Roman style (only now every body is useful to capital, so not to be killed in the Coliseum, but put into service or, if unproductive, excluded or imprisoned). And it is a worthy task also to advance in the reconstruction of the social bonds that still live in us after so many generations.
Cristóbal Araneda. Psychology student, University of Chile. Director of the magazine, Un Pelo Perdido, a collective publication of culture with an emphasis on the relationship of the urban with literature and illustration.