Eric Gordon


On his book The Urban Spectator: American Concept Cities from Kodak to Google

Cover Interview of March 07, 2010

The wide angle

I started writing this book as part of my graduate work in media studies.  I was interested in cities and found myself attracted to how cities were represented in films.  But the more I examined the topic, the more I questioned the relationship between cities and their representations.

Most scholarship on the topic explored how film and television could capture representations of cities and shed light on their meaning.  But I wondered if cities could capture representations of media and tell us something about them.  I wondered how film, television, radio, or the Internet influenced the physical layout of cities.  I wondered how these media affected the nature of experience in cities.  And I wondered how these connections were culturally specific to American urbanism.

I was inspired to ask these questions after reading the French sociologist Michel de Certeau’s essay, “Walking in the City.”  It begins with a description of a spectator standing atop one of the 1,370-foot high towers of the former World Trade Center and looking down upon the New York streets below.  That view “makes the complexity of the city readable,” he argues.  The view from on high is a fiction or facsimile of the city, like those drafted by planners or cartographers, but it does not communicate anything about what it is actually like to be in the city.  Perhaps the view from on high was like watching a film, I thought.  And just as the view from atop a building would influence how one actually experienced the street, so, too, would a media representation.

When I walk down the street, enter a shop, talk with neighbors, I do not need, at the forefront of my consciousness, an understanding of the city as a whole, or what de Certeau calls the concept-city.  I do not need to remind myself that I am in New York City each time I enter a store.  However, despite the fact that I do not need to consciously contend with the idea of New York, it does influence my everyday interactions in very important ways.  Each of the people on a typical Manhattan street corner, for instance, is interacting with their immediate urban spaces while their understanding of those spaces is framed by the evolving concept-city.

Whether directly mediated or not, each practice of the city is embedded within some articulation of the concept-city. A man, brand new to New York, lifts up his arm to hail a passing taxi (an action he has seen again and again in movies); a woman photographs the Empire State Building contemplating the age of Art Deco that produced it; a tourist gets her bearings in the crowded city by calling up a map on her phone.  In each of these examples, the concept of Manhattan (understood through mediation) influences the practice of its spaces.

De Certeau demonstrates the interaction between urban practices and the concept-city, but he does not address how each of the elements is composed. What shapes the concept?  What organizes practice?  My book begins from the dialectic he provides, and offers possessive spectatorship as an explanation of how practices and concepts are structured around a complex assortment of media technologies and urban representations.  How did the handheld camera change the way people walked through the city, while simultaneously changing the shape of the city walked through?  How did film spectatorship influence the meaning of urban movement, and how did that new meaning get worked into the development of the concept-city?  Each chapter in this book explores these and similar questions in order to renegotiate de Certeau’s urban dialectic in light of possessive spectatorship. Images, interfaces, and protocols shape urban experiences, structures of urban desires, and plans for urban spaces.