Tuesday, October 26, 2010
The Campbell Apartments
When I walked into the Campbell Apartments, a bar located right next to Grand Central, the building felt historical, but not in the traditional way in which a museum or a historical site feels historical. The building, though it was restored in 1999, is made to look like Europe in the early 1900s. The antique-looking furniture, the magnificent large window over the bar, and even the painted ceiling all made me feel like I was no longer in New York City, and no longer in the 21st century.
The historical feel of this building is very different that of the Morris-Jumal mansion as described by Rich Landrigan in a previous blog entry. The Campbell Apartments look as if they belong in some other time period in history; however, it does not represent history because it is not presented as a historical building; its common-place function as a bar negates the historic sensory image of this space. Similarly, Rich pointed out that the White House, though historic, does not appear to be so because it is actively used in the present (and does not function as a museum). The Campbell Apartments loses this historic feeling and instead instills in visitors a more cognizant version of déjà vu, which evokes early 19th century buildings in Europe with similar architecture and decor.
The Columbia University campus with its columns and the philosophers names inscribed into Butler Library also gives off a similar historic feeling to that of the Campbell Apartments.
The Greek and Roman décor of the campus along with the famous philosophers’ names inscribed into Butler Library at once allude to ancient times and the intellectually superior nature of those times. This feeling instilled upon those who visit Columbia University is, in a way, used to legitimize the intellectual authority of Columbia. Furthermore, the inscribed names can be viewed as the same type of symbolic violence of proper names as described by Derrida. When seen, these names force the seer to recall a certain era and the thoughts – true and false – that one has of these philosophers. Moreover, by placing these names on a Columbia building, a misleading association can be made between these philosophers and their connection to Columbia University.
The Campbell Apartments also commits violence by using a proper name because they were never used as apartments. They were used as an office building, which is the more traditional or British meaning of ‘apartments’; however, this is still misleading when used in America.
Lastly, a play on one’s imagination is created by both the Campbell Apartments and the Columbia University campus. For the Campbell Apartments, classy-dressed waitresses in black dresses serve old-fashioned prohibition cocktails, developing the 19th century image of the place. In this sense, the Campbell Apartment business is using one’s idea of history and place to sell an image. By selling this image and making one feel a certain way, they get customers into their store and make a profit. Thus, the advertising campaign and business of the Campbell Apartments is at least partially run off of people’s idea of history and place. I find this quite interesting that a business can be aided by honing in on their historic image and trying to recreate that in each consumer. I would venture to say that other forms of advertisement also focus on the same ideas. Columbia University also does this, but in a slightly different way. The campus imagery helps the university to maintain its high prestige and, therefore, when prospective students visit, they see the image that Columbia has created for them and in a sense feel the validity of the university that Columbia has created by this image.
Let me first propose that all conscious thought can be described in terms of three operations: abduction, deduction, and induction. The three processes are themselves descriptions of three particular configurations of cases, results, and rules.
A deduction starts with a rule (fire burns). It then takes a case (fire) and applies the rule (fire burns) to arrive at a result (burn). Because the type “fire” burns, this particular token of “fire” must burn. Note there is nothing in either the case or the result that is not already included in the rule or premise. This illustrates the fact that deduction can provide no new information about the world, it can only extrapolate results from rules . If the premises are true, the deductive conclusions will always be true. Subjectively, a deduction feels like “duh”. Unless consciously articulated as in a scientific context, our deductions usually don’t even rise to the level of conscious thought.
Both induction and abduction work differently than this. Inductions take cases and results and from them infer rules (this is a fire, this burns, therefore fire burns) while abductions take rules and results to arrive at cases (fire burns, this burns, therefore this is fire). Note that with both induction and abduction it is possible to err. Socrates is a man and he was mortal, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all men are mortal. Likewise, all men may be mortal, and Socrates is mortal, but this doesn’t necessarily make him a man (Socrates could, for example, be my pet turtle).
What is the relationship between these thought processes and our consciousness? In our society it is common to associate the self with our conscious thought, but consciousness is only present for half of a cognitive process. Temporally, a cognition occurs when something happens (a result, ie a burning sensation). This experience compels us to explain what has happened by appealing to either a rule or a case. In this sense inductions and abductions are merely thoughts going in opposite directions. The Cartesians are mistaken to identify the mind and the self with this process. Where does the rule or case we draw upon to explain the result come from? They come from what we might call our unconscious, or our habitus. In a sense the sum total of all the cases and rules we have previously developed is all the unconscious is.
Keeping this in mind, let us return to the initial question. Why did a table fall 30 floors and almost kill me, and what does this tell us about human and material agency? First, we can understand that our thought process is by necessity prone to errors and assumptions. Second, we can understand cases (or objects) as a second-order reality. With these two things in mind, we can understand misfortune as dissonance between a given actors understanding of an object and the real qualities of said object. The table had been understood by humans as “safe” and “secure”. Nothing about it drew our attention. Without even being conscious of it, we believed that its position would be unaffected by high winds. There is nothing rational or irrational about this belief. Error occurred because we misrecognized what the object was.
It is the hope that by recognizing our own thought process, we can realize the objects and cases we create are not objective representations of the world (though they are real), and through this recognition we can minimize the errors we make when we address ourselves, others, and the non-human world.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
The names chosen to identify cars are unique and signify objects that are not always inherently linked to the vehicle itself. Yes, it is true that there are some cars like the Ford Escort, for example, in which the name quite literary explains what the car does, “to guide, protect, or honor its passengers.” But, then there are vehicles like the Toyota Sequoia, in which the word “sequoia” is immediately interpreted in my mind as a type of tree, the giant redwood, not a car. What implication does this then have for the vehicle itself? The stark disconnect formed between object and sign challenges our conceptions of what a tree can be or classified as in our minds. Perhaps we should ask, what qualities of “tree-ness” does a car possess? Does the object-sign (car-name) relationship evoke, in the spirit of Charles Peirce, interpretants of sturdiness or leafiness, greenness or hardness?
We can also explore this concept by thinking about the Hyundai Tiburon, which is translated to mean “shark” in Spanish. Obviously, the car itself is not a shark; the object-sign relationship is again skewed and spawns an unexpected interpretant. What qualities, however, does a shark possess that could be associated with a vehicle? Perhaps, we could argue that they share similar qualities, such as sleekness or the ability to maneuver in a dangerous environment. Perhaps, we make the analogy that the open ocean is like the open road. It is interesting to think about these types of signs existing in NYC and the interpretants generated by such unlikely sign-object relationships. Without knowledge of the associated object, one might ask: what is a shark or a sequoia doing in the middle of NYC? How does this idea of the unexpected interpretant affect city-goers? Is another layer of meaning coated onto the sign “Tiburon” because of its placement in NYC, rather than the open ocean? In what ways might these types of signs mediated or constrained by the built environment in NYC?
An overwhelming number of car names are designated to reference place, generally the name of a place that is not necessarily where you are located geographically or where you plan to go. Parked along the streets of NYC, you may see a Chevy Malibu, Toyota Tacoma, or Hyundai Santa Fe. These are not functional markers of place in the City, although the Buick Park Avenue may be. The word Malibu (sign) invokes an idea or feeling (interpretant) of that particular place (object); yet, where does the car (object) itself fit into this trichotomy? Perhaps, the car is linked by connotation or association to the place, and this is the relational interpretant car-makers hope to evoke in drivers – a feeling of place, a longing to be somewhere you are not.
Many car names are also linked to the concept of the journey, such as the Plymouth Voyager, Nissan Pathfinder, or Ford Explorer. This returns us to the idea of function. If cars are designed to transport us from point A to point B, then this naming convention seems to be a logical one. The name “Explorer” (sign) is linked to the vehicle (object) that evokes the concept of “the journey” (interpretant). What a brilliant move for car-makers and ad men/women! These naming conventions covertly manipulate the desires of those who feel constrained by crowded, bustling, overly geometric, concrete environment of NYC.
-- Katie Caljean
The Legend of the Chevy Nova, http://spanish.about.com/cs/culture/a/chevy_nova.htm
Sunday, October 17, 2010
references and links:
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Baruch College - Weissman Center for International Business Zicklin School of Business, NYCdata
Monday, October 11, 2010
We walk up the stone steps and out onto the lawn. The Morris-Jumal mansion appears before us. The first thing that stands out is that it stands out. Surrounded by Washington Heights, only a block from the corner of St. Nicholas Ave and 60th St., the building seems terribly out of place. White painted wooden side-boards cover the exterior, and high columns support a triangular entablature. The color and neoclassical architecture make the building look like a miniature version of the White House. Suddenly I remember having read that George Washington had some connection to the building. I turn to tell Mom and she nods.
There are a few others standing or walking around the lawn. Two men are smoking off to the right, an elderly couple slowly strolls the grounds, and what looks to be a father and his two young children enter the gate after us. Dad walks behind us at first, but soon he over-takes us as Mom stops to read a bronze plaque on the fence. He begins to wander lazily across the lawn, looking but not quite looking. Mom has discovered a new bit of information from the plaque and comes to tell me. We’re outside but she speaks in hushed tones, as if we were in a museum. She continues to walk slowly, alternatively gazing at the building and reading plaques. I walk around the side of the mansion to find where Dad has gone. He’s made it to the other side of the lawn. His back is now almost turned to the mansion. He turns to me as I approach, grins and says “Well?” I mention the George Washington connection. He nods and says “hmm”, then looks away over the ridge that leads down a steep hill covered in rocks and trees.
Eventually Mom finds us. She walks up, smiling. Dad turns to us and says “Ready?” We walk back to the gate and onto the street. Dad is eager to beat the traffic back to Boston, so we say our goodbyes and they drive off.
I have seen this routine before. As children and teenagers my sister and I made many trips with our parents, mostly around New England and upstate New York. But we’ve also gone as far south as St. Augustine and the Everglades in Florida (my mother is from Jacksonville, FL) and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada (where my father’s family first arrived after leaving Ireland). In all of these places we inevitably end up walking (always slowly) around forts, lighthouses, mansions, churches…anything deemed “historical”.
Mom reads all the plaques, information boards, signposts and brochures. She studies the architecture (her father was a builder and she grew up looking at houses). She creates an understanding of the place and contextualizes it with tidbits from her reading of David McCullough and Howard Zinn. She talks about it, sharing what she finds, and often brings it up again later when we are having lunch or dinner. Dad wanders. He soaks in the atmosphere in a more passive manner. He’s already read about it, or will read about it later.
This experience started me wondering more deeply about how people interact with historical sites, why they act certain ways while there, and, perhaps most importantly, how exactly they know they are at an historical site. As the Morris-Jumal mansion happens to be around the corner from my apartment I decided to start there. A quick Google search brought me to http://www.morrisjumel.org/index.php?sec=home, the mansion’s website. Yes, being a model product of my generation, rather than walk down the street my first inclination was to begin with the internet. However, the website provides some revealing looks into how the keepers of the house would like to portray it to the public. The first piece of information (which continually crops up as you peruse the site) is that this is Manhattan’s oldest house (though not its first). The second piece of information (which is another recurring theme) is that George Washington used the house as his headquarters for a brief period in 1776. The site also advertises regular family events, where visitors (especially children) can come to “experience” colonial life in some activity or another, as well as two separate concert series: one for baroque music and the other for jazz. The baroque series seems designed to recreate the atmosphere of the place in its early years, while the jazz series finds its foundations in the fact that Duke Ellington apparently called the mansion “the crown at the top of Sugar Hill.” Noticeably, neither style would be considered mainstream today. Including a jazz series seems to bring the activities in the mansion just shy of up-to-date; hip but still historical.
Walking over to the mansion, I see a tour group. On other days I have seen such groups walking around the grounds. Aside from the high school students who tend to look fairly bored, by and large people visiting the mansion seem to exhibit a particular set of behaviors. Voices are kept low, even when outside. Some people take pictures, while others seem to stand and stare, breathing deeply. People walk more slowly, as if on sacred ground. Some, like my mother, read the plaques. Everyone seems to know what to do, or at least what they are supposed to do.
How do we know that a place or an object is “historical”? Of course if you dig something up at an archeological site you can carbon date it, compare it to other similar pieces in the archeological record, look for signs of particular artistic styles, and so on. But what makes something a part of “the past” as opposed to “the present”? Looking around my desk, my cell phone, my laptop, my jeans and my Starbucks coffee cup do not call to mind the weight of history. But when I throw on one of my grandfather’s sport coats or hold up my great-uncle’s Air Force Captain’s pin my thoughts turn to a past era. All of these items exist here, now, today. Yet some “feel” a part of history while others “feel” a part of the present.
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned that the mansion stands out. Walk one block in any direction and you are in “New York City: Present Day”. Stand on the grounds of the mansion and you are in “New York City: 1776”. As I also wrote earlier, the façade of the building reminded me of the White House. I have been to the White House, but I did not have the same feeling there that I had at the Morris-Jumal mansion. The White House does not “feel” to me like an historical building. The themes that came more readily to mind when standing on Pennsylvania Ave. were a mix of patriotism, power, politics, some level of skepticism and mistrust…but all firmly rooted in the present. I connect the White House with current issues. I connect the Morris-Jumal mansion with the Revolutionary War. It is a point, a place, fixed in time which I (and others, seemingly) “know” to be historical and which symbolically represents an historical era because it is presented as such.
This begs the question of how we choose to represent the past and what we choose to represent it. What places and things are emblematic of certain peoples and times, and how does that guide our thinking about their societies? How do historical sites and artifacts, as well our decisions about which things fall into these categories, expand and/or limit our ability to reconstruct the past? How do we know history when we see it?
Sunday, October 10, 2010
There is no doubt that the storefronts carry meaning, structuring communities and signifying the consumption patterns of the neighborhood and thus also signaling the spatial demographics. Upscale storefronts also notably communicate a certain desirability to more affluent demographics. As the neighborhood is revitalized, greater numbers of this demographic are attracted both as residents and consumers, increasing the flow of capital into the neighborhood and thus into the city. This has created a particularly contentious point between community advocates, the city, and developers. The city has as yet refused to enact commercial rent control, effectively allowing developers and landlords to force out businesses that may be undesirable in creating a particular image that may be more appealing to consumers. The city benefits not only from the increased flow of capital and the improved neighborhood image but also from the indirect exertion of power in control over space. This tableau also plays out on wider scale, as real estate agents and developers invent new neighborhoods or extend existing ones with more desirable names so as to lure in more affluent residents.
However, a store signifies a normative structure within the current conception of the capitalist system, legitimated by a particular Western view of private property. One might say that if you live by the dollar, you die by the dollar, and the very existence of capitalist spaces structures a neighborhood in a particular way that is amenable to exploitation and so to development. Were spaces constructed within specific cultural context they would resist appropriation in a way that urban storefronts are unable to do.
What is generally not considered by critics of revitalization is the way in which materiality structures culture, thereby structuring cultural spaces. Poor neighborhoods are not simply typified by bodegas and storefront churches but are in large measure constituted by them, both economically and culturally. The spatial incarceration of minority ethnic groups within less affluent neighborhoods creates a population whose labor, and whose cultural and intellectual capital are easily exploitable. Additionally, revitalization in some instances does promote economic and cultural diversity and the residents of affected neighborhoods are by no means unanimously opposed to the new amenities.
The significance of a new upscale storefront thus depends largely on the status of the person interpreting it. Residents and activists may be frustrated by the stark lack of control over their neighborhood and over what in non-legal sense may be regarded as their property, while consumers and prospective residents may be drawn by a space made safe for their consumption, and developers and city politicians will see the new storefronts as signs of economic progress.