by James Martin
Some of you may be puzzled by the title of this lecture,
said Mark Kingwell, referring to New York, Capital of the Twentieth
The University of Toronto philosophy professor is the author of Practical
Judgments: Essays in Culture, Politics, and Interpretation. Kingwell
spoke at the School of Community and Public Affairs on Oct. 3.
He said his talk is part of a larger work-in-progress, tentatively titled
Losing Your Way, but he admitted with a wry laugh, I seem to have
lost my own way in this work so I cant really tell you
what its about.
When your role model is Walter Benjamins The Arcades Project, however,
getting lost is almost a requirement. Benjamin himself called his notorious
1,000-plus-page doorstop the theater of all my struggles and all
my ideas, yet it was 13 years in the making and still incomplete
at the time of his death in 1940.
Using the trope of the Parisian arcade as a jumping-off point, Benjamins
cultural meditation discussed sexual mores, fashion, gambling, catacombs,
Baudelaire, and all points in between and beyond. He dubbed Paris the
capital of the 19th century, a phantasmagoric city emblematic of
Kingwell sees New York City fulfilling a similar metaphorical role during
the 20th century, albeit in a different way. He calls the Big Apple a
manifestation, a joyful working out, of the last centurys possibilities.
Fancy footwork is at the heart of both cities. For Benjamin, the lollygagging
flâneur symbolized Paris-as-metaphor. For Kingwells NYC, that
symbol is the jaywalker: brash, fast, possibly over-caffeinated, and singularly
dedicated to the mantra, Dont break stride.
The jaywalker is all about creating and maintaining forwardness
on New York Citys famous grid. Drawing on colourful quotations from
W.H. Auden, Le Corbusier, and Roy Blount Jr., among others, Kingwell distinguished
NYC from Paris.
Paris is a city layered atop ancient catacombs. New York is a place where
the past is constantly being erased in favour of building something newer,
taller, faster, shinier, better.
The jaywalker symbolizes this drive in the way he or she, although individually
anonymous, is engaged in a collective negotiation to keep
traffic on the move. Even the seemingly rigid street grid is fluid with
potential, as the jaywalker constantly finds new ways to end-run around
stalled trucks, to sprint kitty-corner across intersections, to dodge
slack-jawed tourists. Brashness is a given, but Kingwell also locates
spirituality in the audacity, a transcendental sexiness that
goes beyond the workaday hustle and bustle.
But thats all over now. As with Benjamins after-the-fact study
of the Parisian arcades, Kingwell was talking about a Gotham that has
vanished. In the aftermath of 9/11, the day when the last centurys
two most accomplished symbols of forwardness (namely, the
airplane and the skyscraper) fatally embraced over lower Manhattan, New
York is a different place.
As evidence, Kingwell pointed to the popular T-shirts declaring I
[heart] NY Now More Than Ever. The first sentiment isnt
new, but the qualifier certainly is. No longer the commanding presence
it once was, the city now draws sympathetic love, a sign that
its time of unquestionable supremacy is over.
Capital of the 21st century
Early into the post-lecture Q-&-A session, one member of the audience
asked the question that had been hanging over the Bronfman Building atrium
all night: If New York City is in a sense, over, what will
be the capital of the 21st century?
Weve been playing out various versions of modernitys
endgame for some time, Kingwell replied. One answer is, We
have yet to create it. But Im still not convinced by the possibilities
put forth by others, the idea of a virtual city, or an axis of power such
as D.C. So the other answer is: I dont know.