:: Article

Location Settings, or: the Death of the City

By Chris Campanioni.

 

6 April 2020

Location, location, location. The real estate mantra never seemed as archaic as it does today, Day 25 (if you’re counting) when I’m reminded (by my iPhone no less) that I’ve walked five meters since I woke up, which was eleven hours ago. By Day 25 I mean Day 25 of the COVID-19 quarantine, but it’s entirely subjective. I live in Brooklyn, in a one-bedroom apartment across the street from a bustling park, with a playground, a walking track, and tennis courts, three blocks from the nearest F train (if you’re counting). What used to be a selling point of the city, any city—to be connected, to be mobile and movable; to be in touch—is quickly becoming irrelevant, not so much planned obsolescence as it is part of the growing mandate of shelter-in-place and self-quarantining that has made me shirk basic tasks, like checking my lobby for mail every morning, alongside rituals of pleasure—my three mile jogs along Ocean Parkway, running north, toward Prospect Park: a convenient arena for aerobics, if you live two blocks away from the alphabetic stretch of grass, as I do. Between L and M, Day 1 and Day 25.

*

If the one percent stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here. That’s what David Byrne wrote, in an open letter, in 2013. Of course, the Talking Heads frontman was already “out of here” because he was writing the letter from Venice. In the weeks and days leading up to Day 1 (if you’re counting) of the COVID-19 quarantine, the New York Times was reporting that the rich were already out of here, too, escaping to their second and third and fourth homes, in the Berkshires, or Bedford Hills, or Cape Cod, or the open waters (open for who? I always ask, when I read about another mass drowning. From a legal point of view nobody is a refugee at sea, in the sense that in order to claim asylum one must land on land to be recognized as a human being and not as an anonymous victim.), aboard private yachts. If the greatest danger to New York’s creative talent is the one percent, a great number of the elite might have already metaphorically jumped ship. The question of whether or not New York City has lost its cool, in the seven years since Byrne’s plea, is up for debate (I was born here, so my response is bias). But a better question might be: “Will there still be a New York City?” A New York City of all cities, of every city, which is to say: What is the future of everyday mobility?

*

Is it more moving and more beautiful to be looking at the Sistine Chapel on Google images, alone, with the time and solitude to savor it in the bathroom of a Starbucks? Or in person, surrounded by a mob of people videotaping their experience?

I posed these questions sometime around 2015, first to my students at Baruch College, then again, in an essay titled Art Is For Necrophiliacs, and sometime after, in a book called the Internet is for real. Between then and now, there and here, my question more or less remains the same. Little else has. What I was asking five years ago might be more relevant today, in a moment where public places are the zones most susceptible, not for living, but for dying. Five years ago, the difference is, people had the choice. To enjoy the Sistine Chapel in real life. To be among the swarm.

In New York City, the weekend before last, on Day 16,  the data showed me that we were dying at the rate of one every nine-point-five minutes. I’ve never been good at math but I know the number of the dead in New York City has more than doubled since then. It’s been five minutes since I began typing this dispatch. Six. Location, location, location. Every major city in the world is right now relevant; every resident of every city is right now being read as a statistic. I paused, just now, to account for us. Another ambulance barrels down the street; I try to picture its path from my window, which is open. Sunlight, a bare breeze. I think about a story that starts, or ends: at a time when women and men were asked to play God, and when God—or at least the public celebration of faith—had already disappeared.

*

It took me only four sessions to encounter my first “Zoom bomb.” Really what I was looking at, along with everyone who’d actually been invited to our meeting, was several unsolicited dangling dicks. Lo-fi and probably still buffering, the effect was uncanny: so fake it almost looked real—like real, dangling dicks swaying in pixelated dust on a dozen or so screens, which were being presented to us—members of the aforementioned meeting—in grid formation. As the dicks did their best to load, I did all I could to eject the users the dicks were—for lack of precision—attached to. Twenty seconds later (thirty?) I canceled the meeting and began again, this time with a password.

This is the new Monday morning meeting. This is the new book launch. This is the new hybrid writing workshop. This is the new Internet & Intimacy seminar, which works, actually, even better than I’d imagined, when I was still teaching these face to face. Despite intermittent moments of precarity, threats which have already earned the attention of the FBI, Zoom is our prerequisite present: how we encounter each other, face to face. Compulsory virtual co-presence. It is this, only this: unprotected screen on screen action, where I am alone, along with others, also alone, to be looking at and on, to be looking over—a lecture, a chapter, a budget, an overview of events we wish to plan in the future. Everything is tbd, deferred and dislocated, and as writers, we are so used to building a vision or version of something that is not yet here, something that has to be written in order to be actualized.

I yearn for the smell of a coffee that doesn’t belong to me, the sound of another person’s music floating below or above, the words themselves, lost and found—the way I pick up everything—conversations about a union meeting and the late night happy hour on Cortelyou and the appointment at the nail salon and Jackie’s cousin’s aunt mingling on a single interface, the way the city was the Internet before the Internet. Revealing something to me on the surface, and only because every narrative here becomes intertextual. I yearn for the feeling of sliding in, or hunching down, or hoisting myself up, arms over my head to reach the top, the very top of the train car, balancing against the flesh of every other person I’d otherwise never know. Everything written in order or out of order so as to be lived twice, and lived again for the first time. I imagine the history of touch the way I imagine all the history books I ever was forced to thumb through in elementary school: big blocks of dust, telling me that every thing that ever began always and already ended. As if history, objective, immovable, was something that could only ever be viewed from its aftermath, that could only ever be viewed on a flimsy piece of textbook paper: black print adjacent to a shitty stock photo. As if history could only ever be viewed from so many distances, instead of up against it, skin on skin.

I want to ask what it was like, then, to be in the city of cities, “the city of the future,” on April 26, 1986, right before the city itself went under? Pripyat was laced with new housing, modern facilities, spacious recreational fields, a vibrant, young community, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which piped in the illusion, or its reality, under everyone’s feet. Are we at the precipice, here, today, in New York City? And if so:

What comes next?

 

21 April 2020

Even before shelter in place orders, however, the rise of nationalism in the Americas and throughout Europe—alongside normalized racism, right-wing immigration policies, anti-globalism discourse, and increasing practices of securitization—had already cast a threatening cloud over the future of mobility. Politicians across the European Union have begun to exploit the virus by directing blame at migrants, targeting specific nationalities on the pretext of containing the spread of disease. The President of the United States, meanwhile, has said that he intends to suspend all immigration to the country. Closing our borders, he recites, will protect American workers once the economy reopens. In Mexico’s northern border cities, as non-essential businesses closed and manufacturing halted across the world last month, work in U.S.-owned factories continued; today these maquiladoras have become loci of outbreaks. In the global market, the value of a human life continues its downswing.

I am writing this, right now, from my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood where more than sixty-five percent of the residents who have been tested for COVID-19 have tested positive,[i] a number that now includes me. The future of mobility is at stake in any vision of a post-pandemic worldview, and it will have to involve questions that require us to think not only about the displacement and forced migration that follows climate change as well as military and economic violence, but also the internal exclusion and systemic inequalities brought about by our political and social structures, the unequal access that citizenship elides.

The multi-millionaires of New York City who didn’t flee to Cape Cod and the Berkshires were already, it turns out, eleven feet in the ground, having booked one of the last available flights to New Zealand, where the bunker construction industry has been booming. This is disaster capitalism faced with its own reflection, and the gaze that is returned in the looking glass is not a distortion so much as a projection, to the extent that it augurs an image of what the pay to play model of social media metrics looks like when it is played out on the level of material survival. What for years was isolated to the model of cruel neoliberal experiment or U.N-backed urbicide—the state of exceptions in the Balkans; the coordinated debilitation of Palestine—is now being acted out in miniature everywhere, every day. The state of emergency that both follows and allows securitization is also becoming increasingly normalized, increasingly more desired and desirable, as luxuries like privacy are traded for private luxuries, a transaction made in the name of convenience. Zoom is only the latest in a long line of virtual predator-purveyors; in the pursuit of security we have so often surrendered our own. Outside our screens, one person’s freedom to go to the gym, to lounge at the beach, to relish the feel of a stranger’s hands on their head during a haircut exceeds another person’s right to avoid infection. The celebrated freedom of the individual has always problematized individual human rights; we confuse democracy for liberty, we ignore the care and safety of the many for the enjoyment of the few. Mass murders in the name of “freedom” have replayed throughout history but never before have they been crowdsourced in real time.

And yet, there has also been a liminal shift in the ways in which we are connecting online, in lieu of the opportunity to convene up close, to feel the nearness of touch or its anticipation. I’ve felt these muted vibrations. They may even have saved my life.

The sharing of detailed personal experiences and strategies of convalescence across social media, passed along by friends who had earlier contracted the virus, passed along, too, by persons I’ve never met, supplied me with hope about overcoming COVID-19, and moreover, put me in a better position to do so. Those of us who are secluded from our parents and grandparents, our partners and loved ones, our children, our best friends, our mentors, are engaging with each other regularly, with greater attention and care. We are checking in and checking on acquaintances and neighbors, people we would otherwise wave to or nod our head at in the street, as if all connection has always been taken for granted if it’s been taken at all. Compassion and empathy, both of which have all but vanished as a practice to make way for the rituals of shaming and cancellation, have re-emerged in unexpected moments of vulnerability. Nevertheless, our refusal to commit ourselves to an identification of and with difference has in many ways proliferated, even as so much else remains stagnant. Moreover, by encoding these seemingly newfound behaviors and opportunities in the parlance of “silver linings” instead of considering them as moments of grace, we fail to understand how the past always implicates the current we call the present.

Five years after asking the question—the Sistine Chapel, the Starbucks bathroom—one of my students asked me another: What are some aspects of our real life that the Internet will never be able to take away or replace?

I want to linger on Ben’s question; I want to think about what has changed since 2015, and what these changes or the absence of them mean for a life during wartime,[ii] and even more, for the life that is waiting for us in COVID-19’s aftermath, the life we wait for. To say that we want to go back to where we were—or who we were—before all of this is to miss much more than the past; such desires trade in any semblance of progress for nostalgia and the idealized worldviews that can only derive from a life of privilege. May we never go back, knowing that to leave, to depart, to move—and yes, even to return—always necessitates a fundamental break. What we take away is not a replacement but the redemption of life—“real” and virtual and imagined and actualized.

Notes:
[i] As of April 17, 2020, based on information provided by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
[ii] My chest is aching, burns like a furnace/The burning keeps me alive

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Campanioni was born in Manhattan in 1985. He is the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland and the author of six books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James’s The American and Gertrude Stein’s “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work has appeared in Ambit, Nat. Brut, Life Writing, M/C: Media & Culture, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and American Poetry Review, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Twitter: @chriscampanioni

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 7th, 2020.