Invisible Cities: learning to recognize urban society

I have been thinking a lot recently about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972).  It is pretty common to see the last lines of the book quoted, the part where Marco says to the Great Khan,

seek and learn to recognize, who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, and help them endure, give them space.

I want to try to understand that line in the context of the book as a whole, and also to draw connections between the book and Henri Lefebvre’s Urban Revolution, which is a seminal book for me, and which was published in 1970, two years before Invisible Cities.

Calvino’s book is framed by a conversation between Marco Polo and the Great Khan.  The Great Khan has asked Marco to travel through his empire, examine its cities, and describe them to him.  Marco’s tales are wonderful to read for their poetry alone.  Calvino’s love of language, of its joyful music, is evident even in translation.  But I think the stories also propose a quite explicit political project.  That project is cloaked in allegory and image, and it may well be that other readers infer a different message, but let me try to articulate what I see.

In the beginning of the book Kublai Khan is greatly worried that his empire is collapsing, that “corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed” by any action he might take (p. 5).  In the face of this corruption and decline, Marco’s tales offer solace and perhaps even an alternative, another way to live:

Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle in could escape the termites’ gnawing (p. 6).

This “tracery of a pattern” in the midst of corruption very much evokes Lefebvre for me.  In the Urban Revolution, he  contrasts the existing capitalist city with what he calls “urban society.”  In the capitalist city private property and exchange value are the dominant ways to organize space.  Urban inhabitants are separated from each other and become socially and politically passive.  They act as consumers rather than citizens.  They are warehoused, almost stored, in urban spaces he calls habitat, the classic example of which is the “bedroom community.”  Space in the capitalist city is strictly segregated and classified into homogeneous categories so that elements of each category are interchangeable and exchangeable.  The purpose of this city is to produce standardized commodities, to be an engine of capitalist economic growth.  Today, we would call this the neoliberal city.  Guy Debord, writing at about the same time as Lefebvre, called it The Society of the Spectacle.

For Lefebvre urban society is a way to imagine an alternative to the capitalist city.  In urban society, urban space is valued for how inhabitants use it.  The city draws inhabitants together into common spaces where they encounter each other, interact meaningfully, and in so doing become aware of and negotiate their differences. Through this sustained interaction, inhabitants become active, both socially and politically.  They establish and multiply connections with each other, building the collective capacity to use and manage the city themselves.  As they actively engage others, build connections, and manage the city, their creative potential is nourished, and they use it to produce unique works rather than standardized commodities.  In urban society the purpose of the city is not the accumulation of capital, but the development of human potential, an idea that very much echoes Aristotle’s idea of the purpose of the polis.

Libya, 2011

Urban society is neither something that exists today, fully formed, nor is it an impossible ideal.  Rather it is a “virtual object,” an idea of a possible urban world.  This virtual object is a horizon toward which we can cut a path and begin to move.  It is not utopia, a no-place that cannot be realized.  On the contrary, a virtual object is the extrapolation in thought of practices that already exist in the fabric of everyday urban life.  These practices are actual, they are real, but they are inchoate, emerging, not yet fully realized. The virtual object of urban society is, therefore, like “the shadow of a future object in the light of the rising sun” (Writings on Cities, p. 148).  As a political act, conceiving of and articulating urban society is a project to search for these inchoate practices, to notice them, articulate them, and to help them develop.

Urban society as a virtual object thus operates for Lefebvre in much the same way the “tracery of a pattern” operates for Kublai Khan, as a way to seek out and be attentive to something hopeful in the midst of gathering ruin.  I think it is worth it to pay attention to what Marco is trying to tell us.  I think he offers us real inspiration for contemporary (urban) political action.  Let me say more about why.

In the first part of the book Marco lays out his mission:

This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply.  If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance (p. 59).

His “faint lights” are an inversion of Lefebvre’s shadows in the rising sun, but the project is the same: to search for and be able to perceive the traces of happiness that are found in human community.  Later in the book the Great Khan seems to confirm Marco’s idea of the project:

I am the prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all the forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume.  And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again (p. 135-6).

In the tales Marco tells, we see glimpses of these faint lights and invisible reasons.  Fedora, for example, is a city of gray stone, but in the center stands a building full of glass globes, and in each globe is a model of a different Fedora, a Fedora that might have been.  These “possible futures” are only toys in glass globes, but they are nevertheless there, and every inhabitant visits the building to contemplate the possible Fedora that corresponds to his or her desires (p. 32).  Marco emphasizes that both cities are equally real and equally present in the life of Fedora: the actualized stone Fedora and the little Fedoras that imagine the possible.  In a very similar way, in the city of Berenice, “all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped within one another, confined, crammed, inextricable” (p. 163).  This insistence on the co-presence of possible futures in the present is to be found throughout Marco’s tales, and it captures well the spirit of Lefebvre’s virtual object.

While in Fedora individuals contemplate these future cities alone, in Zobeide, it is a more collective act.  The city was founded by people living in far-flung places who all had an identical dream of a certain city.  When they awoke, they all began to search for the city in their dream.  None of them found it, but they happened upon each other, everyone searching for the same city, and they decided to build together a city like the one in their dreams.

In Chloe we get an even stronger echo of Lefebvre’s urban society.  It is a large trading city, an economic center.  All the inhabitants are strangers to each other, and as they come into contact, they actively imagine the many interactions they could have.  But in fact no one speaks; they never enact their imagined encounters.  Even so, the desire to do so lurks under the surface, the drive to engage each other, even if it is suppressed by the city they inhabit.  And it is a most vivid desire:

…when some people happen to find themselves together, taking shelter from the rain under an arcade, or crowding beneath an awning of the bazaar, or stopping to listen to the band in the square, meetings, seductions, copulations, orgies are consummated among them without a word exchanged, without a finger touching anything, almost without an eye raised (p. 51).

This is urban society, eager to burst forth.  Marco tells a very similar tale about Raisa, where  happiness is also made up of connections among inhabitants.  However, everyday life in Raissa is not happy.  Happiness exists only virtually: in the city “there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence” (p. 149).

Marco suggests this lack of awareness, the inability to unleash our collective desire to connect with each other, is at least partly due to our inability to articulate it.  Aglaura “is a colorless city, without character,” but “at certain hours, in certain places along the street, you see opening before you the hint of something unmistakable, rare, perhaps magnificent” (pp. 67-8).  It is difficult to articulate that something, however.  “You would like to say what it is, but everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say” (p. 68).  Here it is a question not of seeing, of shadows and faint lights, but of saying.  We are used to speaking about the realized city; we don’t yet have the words to articulate this magnificent something, this possible future.  Here Marco seems to say we need to build up a vocabulary and a grammar, to learn to speak our desire to each other.

Perhaps the most breathtaking of Marco’s cities is Marozia.  It consists of two cities.  The present city is a city of rats, marked by oppression, domination, and competition.  But

if you move along Marozia’s compact walls, when you least expect it, you see a crack open and a different city appear.  Then, an instant later, it has already vanished.  Perhaps everything lies in knowing what words to speak, what actions to perform, and in what order and rhythm; or else someone’s gaze, answer, gesture is enough; it is enough for someone to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and for his pleasure to become the pleasure of others: at that moment, all spaces change, all heights, distances; the city is transfigured, becomes crystalline, transparent as a dragongfly.  But everything must happen as if by chance, without attaching too much importance to it, without insisting that you are performing a decisive operation, remembering clearly that any moment the old Marozia will return and solder its ceiling of stone, cobwebs, and mold over all heads (p. 155).

Perhaps, Marco suggests again, the answer is to invent new words, a new way of speaking.  Or maybe it is merely to live, to act for the sheer pleasure of it, and to transmit that pleasure to others.  (The Italian autonomists like to call this “joy,” I like Nietzsche’s “delight” better).  But Marco says we cannot seek this pleasure, this possible Marozia, through intentional action.  We cannot burst through the crack, force urban society arrive all at once.  Rather it must emerge on its own.  We must allow events to unfold, Marco says, because in the midst of the city of rats “a new century is about to begin in which all the inhabitants of Marozia will fly like swallows in the summer sky…tracing with their wings’ blade the curve of an opening horizon” (p. 154).  Marco proposes that “Marozia consists of two cities, the rat’s and the swallow’s; both change with time, but their relationship does not change; the second is the one about to free itself from the first” (p. 155).  He reminds us that the inhabitants of Marozia are themselves dual, at once both rats and swallows.

The book ends with a last exchange between Marco and the Great Khan.   They are looking over the Great Khan’s atlas, which contains “promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded” (p. 164).  Marco tells the Great Khan that despite his many travels he is unable to chart a route to these promised lands.  He can only affirm that we must continue to search for them.  The Great Khan, frustrated and despairing, replies that the search is useless.  If we cannot make the promised lands come about, then we are doomed to land finally in the infernal city, where the currents draw us in ever-narrowing circles.  But Marco proposes still another alternative:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be. If there is one, it is that which is already here, the inferno that we inhabit every day, that we create by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for most: accept the inferno and become such a complete part of it that you no longer know it is there. The second is risky and requires vigilance and continuous attention: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, and help them endure, give them space (p. 165).

We have to seek and learn to recognize this not-inferno, this urban society, because it is emergent, a faint light, a shadow in the light of the rising sun  Our eyes are not trained to see it.  Nor are we practiced at articulating it.  It is a project that requires vigilance and continuous attention.  And I think Marco means for us to turn that attention on ourselves.  For we are ourselves rats.  We are consumers, TV watchers, suburbanites.  We create the inferno together.  But we are also swallows.  We carry within us a powerful desire for interaction and connection that strains against the barriers thrown up by the capitalist city, the city of rats.  In that sense, even if the inferno is within us, the not-inferno is too.  It seems impossible, but we are indeed able to fly, to trace with our wings’ blade the curve of an opening horizon.  We can see urban society, recognize it, and help it endure.  We know how to open a path to the possible.  It is a difficult project, it is risky, and it can never be finally completed.  But it is one we must undertake.  And I think that the more we do it, and the better we get at it, we will find it is a project that will bring us delight.

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