Katherina Zakravsky

Human Rides And City Life

Taking a Ride

I want to take you on a ride through at least three different types of rides. It immediately speak to the intuition that "taking a ride" is one example of a practice that perfectly signifies the urban way of life. "Taking a ride" as an archetypical - if it would be appropriate to speak of anything archetypical in Modernity, let alone postmodernity - as an archetypical urban practice is a form of movement, a form of activity that cannot be signified without evoking a whole set of emotional connotations. "Taking a ride" speaks of lust, risk and adventure. It speaks of hunts and victories. It can never we neutral, like, say, taking a walk. "Rides", therefore, can be taken with a variety of means of traffic. We are facing the metaphorical anyway. Well, the meta-phor is taking a ride in itself, it IS a ride. "Taking a ride" as urban practice is least of all what the literal term would mean: riding on horseback. And ironically the few pittoresque policemen on horseback who occur in some inner cities are least of all "taking a ride" in the edgy urban sence I want to adress here. So again: "Taking a ride" involves moving and having a specific experience. Also in case of the ride the path, or the way, is the goal. But we are not talking "duration" here. "A ride" is "a ride". There has to be intensity that limits the spatial and temporal scale of the movement. A ride should not be endless. Thus it matches the urban sphere. Urban landscapes are most of all characterized through density. There is a lot going on in a small distance. The intensity of "a ride" is not necessarily connected with speed, or speed alone. Speed and riding are having sort of a metonymic relation. A speedy ride is more of a ride, but speed alone does not make the ride. It would be a semantic and pragmatic test if one could take a ride on feet, only by being a pedestrian. It might be possible if another aspect of riding would be added up to it. Botanizing the Flâneur For the time being we are reminded of a familiar precursor of urban riding - of the flâneur. There are similarities between the flâneur's practice and "taking a ride" - also the flâneur is moving about without a particular goal. He is outside the realm of Max Weber's rationality of purposes. And also the flâneur is mainly interested in intensity. By closer inspection the flâneur is a hybrid figure right in between two types of existence. A more down-to-earth definition that would not immediately think of Baudelaire, decadence, poets and other noble characteristics saw the flâneur mainly as officers, clerks in retirement and degraded aristocrats. "un général en retraite, un professeur émérité, un diplomate en disponibilité." (Paris ou le Livre des Cent-et-Un. Vol. 6, 100, Zit. Neumeyer 89) Strolling men who observe an urban life in rapid development that is no longer their own. A lot has been said about the flâneur's gaze as indifferent, unemotional, the flâneur as an observer who does not take part in the urban scenes he looks at. And immediately this has been connected to the well-known mythology of the modern aesthete whose symbolic market value grows with his detachment and lack of empathy. So it would be smart to consider that the flâneur's famous disengagement stems from his social degradation, his trivial lack of occupation and status. Still, as a hybrid, janus-like character he also is the breeding ground of very modern practices like small scale writing - the feuilleton, vignettes, anecdotes - and of course urban journalism. The basically cynical and unoccupied observer goes, as Benjamin coined it, botanizing on the asphalt. His lack of personal interest turns into a Kantian attitude of pseudo-scientific interest without personal engagement. As these upcoming new types, the sports people, the loud advertisers, the stock brokers and news paper boys, are aliens to these aging generals and clerks of old Europe they look at them as biological species. They become physiologists of the new Metropolis. And at a point the flâneur is replaced by the journalist. His physiological gaze becomes a new sensationalist perception. Also the media person cannot work steadily, he also cannot go after a defined goal. He has to hunt for the occation. The flâneur's idleness turned into a new type of activity, the hunt for information, for the next tiny urban sensation. No reason to be oversentimental about the flâneur. Didn't he represent a type that would always insist on his specific privileged status - not only as a bourgeois, as an artist or as an impoverished aristocrat, but simply as a MAN who considers the city his personal hunting ground. 'The gaze of the flâneur articulates and produces a masculine sexuality which in the modern sexual economy enjoys the freedom to look, appraise and possess'. Griselda Pollock, 'Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity', in Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, London 1988, 38 Elizabeth Wilson quotes Pollock to - as I think - rightly insist on the missed chance of Feminist theory to state a female form of flânery. Wilson refers to the provocative presence of working-class women in the 19th century city to reject the stereotypical theory of 19th century women as being confined to their homes and invisible in the streets. She also refutes the common notion that the only equivalent of the flâneur would be the prostitute. "There were 'flâneuses' in the sense that there were women journalists and writers. George Sand is the most famous example." 14 Still there is some truth to her earlier statement in "The Sphinx and the City" that "flâneuse" sounds like "masseuse" and "friseuses" and therefore does not add up to the missing glamour of the flanur. Wilson's analysis of the invisible flâneur who has to face the city as a labyrinth is revealing. By deciphering the flâneur as a marginal and desperate figure who goes through his monotonous routine of strolling and looking Wilson discovers his indeed specifically male problem: "The city is a labyrinth, and the flâneur an embodiment of it. The labyrinth has a specific sexual meaning: male impotence. It is, suggests Benjamin, 'the home of the hesitant. The path of someone shy of arrival at a goal easily takes the form of a labyrinth. This is the way of the (sexual) drive in those episodes which precede its satisfaction. (Walter Benjamin, 'Central Park', New German Critique, no. 34, Winter 1985, trans. Lloyd Spencer with help from Mark Harrington, p. 40) Voyeurism and commodification lead to the attenuation and deferral of satisfaction. [...] The repetitive monotony of the flâneur's regime of strolling is an instance of 'eternal recurrence'-the eternal recurrence of the new, which is 'always ever the same'. And the monster at the heart of the labyrinth is the Minotaur, the monster waiting to kill. Baudelaire's spleen is also a kind of death: 'male impotence-the key figure of solitude' (ibid.. 47) From this perspective, we might say that there could never be a female flâneur, for this reason: that the flâneur himself never really existed, being but an embodiment of the special blend of excitement, tedium and horror aroused by many in the new metropolis, and the disintegrative effect of this on the masculine identity." According to this it makes no sense to claim a female form of flânery. Yet Wilson's encouragement from the Sphinx-book stays true. "Yet it is necessary also to emphasise the other side of city life and to insist on women's right to the carnival, intensity and even the risks of the city." (Sphinx 10) Anke Gleber's thesis of the flâneur's movement and his style of combining moving and looking in a precise connection being the breeding ground of cinema is very convincing, too. But then again we think of the street scenes in Nouvelle Vague films, the nervous, hungry youngster imitating Marlon Brando in Godards "A bout de souffle". What happens there? Suddenly the unfocused flâneur becomes a stalker following women around. In one of Truffaults "Antoine Duanel"-films the camera shows nothing but female legs walking. The object of his hunt stays unfocused and thus also he, despite his biological youth, stays within Wilson's impotence paradigm. Yet his habit of unfocused strolling turns out to finally be very well defined. Cherchez la fêmme. So we have come back to taking a ride again. In contrast to the theme of the flâneur "Taking a ride" is not related to any type or figure or character. It is a practice anyone can pursue. It will bring out something about a person without defining the person. In this sense I claim that "Taking a ride" is more contemporary an issue than the flâneur - and not just because of the higher speed indicated. American Graffiti - The Last Cruise Benjamin claimed that the first blossoms of modern traffic forced the flâneur into the arcades. He would have been bullied by the urban carriages as the pre-Haussmann sidewalks were rather narrow. Thinking about the Baudelairean flâneur being the confidant of the commodity's soul, as Benjamin claimed, it is not without irony that the means of transport that gets the commodity into the city in the first place is his worst enemy. The flâneur, we thus learn, is a pedestrian in the strictest sense. He could not even dream of an age where his enemy, the carriage on wheels, would allow a completely unfocused, aimless, idle and lustful style of movement. And indeed, it took a whole new continent to realize this option. In George Lucas' film "American Graffiti" (1973), the one after "THX 1138", - also the film that brought enough money to finance "Star Wars" everything happens on wheels. The action is taking place throughout one night. Everyone cruises in the one-way traffic on the main strip in a small Californian town on this warm Californian night. The practice displayed is a form of very urban automobilized flânery that does not even demand a metropolis to happen - on the contrary. As almost all the youngsters who cruise the main boulevard know each other the small city is also working like a village where everyone greets each other. Thus all the encounters between all those cars create a certain rhythm that turns the filmic narration into a subtle choreography. Even the main restaurant is called Mel's Drive in with waitresses on roller skates. The cars involved are as individualized as the people. It's all about: who owns which car, lends it to whom, who is with whom and who tries to win over whom. The cars go together with music. So when a car is stolen the owner only knows because the sound of the radio is suddenly gone. Women are seduced to change cars at the next traffic light or picked up in the street. These rides on the main boulevard are set against another extreme they are always related to. The slow strolling on the one hand, on the other hand the drag races that take place outside of the city in the empty fields. Both practices are about competition, but the slower variant is offering a wider scale of communications. There is also an overlap when two cars compete at the traffic lights who can make a quicker start. And there are always these dark side alleys that lure car and owner into unknown adventures - adventures that are both the hidden aim and the challenge of "taking a ride" on the main street - a routine that causes one character to already fall into sentimental complaints: "John: The whole strip is shrinking. Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, took you a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one curcuit." Tim Dirks, On "Americal Graffiti" (George Lucas, 1973), www.filmsite.org/amerg3.html Amazing how the intensity of communication is measured in tank fillings. Our main character Curt played by the young Richard Dreyfuss is revealing what this whole cruising is all about. High school has ended. Everyone has to decide to stay or to leave. A bigger and unique move is suddenly putting this routine movements into question. Will it be my last ride tonight? Will all these years of unfocused hunting suddenly appears as an immature waste of time? Curt and his friend John contemplate who is going to leave and who is going to stay. It seems that John will go and Curt will stay because it does not make sense to him to "leave home to find a home", to leave friends to find new friends. The next morning it will be the other way around. And this change came about, because Curt realized that during his ride he just hunted after phantoms. The woman in the white thunderbird that lured him into dark alleys where this middle class boys was hijacked by a gang turned out to be a whore (remember: the only possible female equivalent of a flâneur) and the admired radio DJ Wolfman turned out to be his own manager broadcasting from a local hut. Cruising one more time Curt crosses sexual and class borders only to find his believes dismantled as illusions. The first time he realized that there are back alleys apart from the main cruise. One night makes him grow up. We can assume that in the upcoming college years he will not hunt after mystic ladies in white thunderbirds. The film is alo set in 1962, right before Kennedy was killed. It marks a threshold in the history of America's innocence lost. In "American Graffiti" we face a classical transition from strict youth as a highschool pupil to a student's status as young adult. It is the privilege of youth to take rides - the best practice to collect experiences without making decisions. Yet what should be make of a way of life that goes on with this unfocused practice way beyond thirty? What should we think of a group of friends who are taking rides with chnaging partners? After all we missed to make clear that "taking a ride" is a practice that almost always involves company. These four friends I introduce you to right now do not own cars as far as we know - but they are always taking a ride. Is it a case of trivial Casanova routine to replace THE ONE woman with a series of interchangeable women? Not quite - as we are talking of four single women in New York. Sex and the City - Rent-a-Denial In the famous trailer of HBO's successful TV show "Sex and the City" Carry Bradshaw, the main character played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is taking a walk. Small details indicate that in fact she is taking a ride. Here we can exactly analyze what turns a walk into a ride. We see her looking around. There are rows of yellow taxis - the main accomplice in her riding practice. She looks up - we see that she is looking at the elegant peak of the Chrysler building. This art deco monument of New York as city for "distingué lovers" combines a phallic symbol with good taste and elegance. By now we see Carry's face being rearranged in anticipation of a new metrosexual object, the next human Chrysler building so-to-speak. She starts to grin to herself and one eyebrow is frivolously twitching up. We know she's out for a hunt. The walk is turning into a ride. Then, after all those beautiful distanced shots of the city intertwined with portrait shots of Carry, we suddenly see the nasty close-up of a pair of huge wheels brutally pushing through a puddle of water. It seems as if Carry's slightly infantile vision of masculinity resembling the elegant peak of the Chrysler building is bluntly replaced by another truth about masculinity being after all still brutal and reckless and bullying like a careless bus driver. Here we witness an amazing return of Benjamin's flâneur at war with the ruthless carriages. Also in this case it is ironical that Carry's careful preparation for a ride is brutally disturbed by a means of public transport. Of course she would never take the bus - but her stocks as a sexual hunter are vitally connected to the public sphere. As this about 30 seconds long trailer is a roller coaster ride between happy anticipation and sudden disappointment we see the camera pulling off and zooming out. Now we get the whole picture: the bus that just spilled this filthy liquid all over Carry is decorated with a huge advertisement showing the same Carry lying there as a sex godess wearing pale pink lingerie, making publicity for her own column about sex. Her image is as big as the bus. Carry's narcissism could be restored. Yet we still see her turning around in anger. She is really wearing a tight pink top with a tutu ballet skirt, almost like a parody of her own fashion addiction and girlie style. Not only has this symbol of bad masculinity ruined her very expensive clothing, she is being ridiculed by a bunch of Japanese tourists - she, the legitimate empress of New York. Coming back to the taxi - for Carry and her paradigmatic friends Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha taking a cap is underlining the importance of renting as a significant part of their life style. As an upper class single working girl one does not own much, one has the means to rent. Renting is a perfect supplement for riding. It is a temporary contract that gives the renter a certain right to use the rented but also the freedom to cancel the relationship after a short while. Renting is the legal aspect of riding. Carry and her temporary male friends are making a contract to test each other for a while. For some weird reason these contracts are always canceled. How come? It seems that being so upper class and so expensively dressed and preserved one should be a bit more successful. Yet the truth is: the format of the temporary contract is more powerful that the individual quality of the tested friend. Also there is a new Casanova paradox haunting these single women. Their range of choice in men is small. There are a number of criteria to be respected. "On Sex and the City, the first thing we learn about almost every new character is his or her profession, and the list could make up a social register of the knowledge economy: "a broker who made two million on bonds last year," a litigator "who takes steam baths with Ronald Perelman," a Harvard MBA, a publishing magnate, an architect, a documentary filmmaker, a composer of movie music, an actor, a labor lawyer, a divorce lawyer, a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, an orthopedic surgeon, and an internist - and, of course, a full range of writers, the most creative of the brainy elite in this center of world journalism: "an editor at a hip political magazine," a writer for The Economist, and a "short-story writer." writes Kay S. Hymowitz in her lucid analysis "Scoring on Sex and the city" on http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_4_urbanities-scoring.html So we meet the successors of the flâneur, who paved the ground for the new media people, the new urban knowledge economy by developing the disengaged attitude. As these women only choose the best men and only buy the most expensive dress in the end all items they could choose are the same. There is no possible choice of partner because as soon as they fulfill all the criteria they are all the same. As this show is one big intelligent lecture on snobbery it is amazing how the women do absolutely not know the rules they are playing by. They are the best examples of "wrong consciousness" ever since Marxist theory went down. They act as if their tested partners would be wrong - but they are all too right. They act as if they would be "single and fabulous", but in fact they consider their whole single lifestyle as a rather humiliating intermediary state that should be terminated as soon as possible. Why, they seem to ask, is it not possible to get this one thing for an elite group that otherwise gets everything they want? So they are taking a lot of rides, but all those rides are just tests. They accept an unfocused activity in order to get something very defined because they were told that only acting as if they would not want it makes them get it. The show is all about missing the right moment. Yet as these women largely harbor small town girlish minds in metropolitan armor this right moment has been missed long ago. And there is another amazing aspect to this spectacle of denial. It seems that these adult girls enjoy and concede all freedoms in taking their rides. But every good episode is quickly reaching a point of utter embarrassment when the whole situation turns 180 degree. As soon as the partner does something tiny they consider wrong the whole contract is immediately canceled. One example among so many: "Charlotte, reeling from her latest "Neanderthal" date, spends an evening with an effeminate 35-year-old pastry chef from Chelsea, who she understandably assumes is gay. "It's so refreshing to go out with a man I can actually talk to," she gushes, as they chat about Cynthia Rowley dresses and cabaret singers. She is pleasantly surprised to learn that he is not only a heterosexual, but a proficient one at that. She is less pleased when he jumps up on a stool screaming after spotting a mouse in his kitchen. Willing to accept that real men eat quiche but not that they squeal at mice, Charlotte retreats to Neanderthal country." It is amazing and surely very symptomatic for our urban practices that always a tiny failure is enough to lose all interest. There is no second chance. Because it has not been a failure that can be forgiven, it has been a spell that has been broken. These women with the small town minds are permanently seducing - themselves. It is both telling and quite reactionary that the whole story starts with the decision to "make love and have affairs like men". So they do not act as free single women, they are undergoing a permanent test if their internalized men can seduce the shy woman inside them. As every ride they take is nothing but a test, a narcissistic inner fight between their inner guy and their inner girl, the partner in this ride can in the end do nothing but disturb. All these rides are after all only story material to be told to each other. The permanent friendship strictly corresponds to the changing affairs. Hymowitz writes: "We used to tell fairy tales about happily-ever-after marriages; today, it seems, we tell myths about happily-ever-after girlfriends." The eternal recurrence of taking a ride is only a sign of desperation - or so it seems. Maybe for a good girl the next try is also a method of denial. She has to take one more try, because she has been disappointed before. The whole series is built of denials. It always already has been only one more try and only one more ride. In a frenzy of active forgetting the women in "Sex and the City" have never had more than one affair - in order to forget the last one. Yet this leaves behind something that Candice Bushnell's original book systematically addresses as "baggage". This is the cruel flip side of this single universe, a perfect vicious circle. Bushnell tells us that with models the baggage is already too big in their early twenties. Already then they do not only have too much Louis Vitton luggage, they also have had too many affairs, they have too many enemies, too many jealous wives they leave behind. So we come full circle: again a women with experience is unfit for a stable relationship. The change from "unwanted" to "unwilling" to "unable" to get married is maybe only another sign of denial. Conclusion - Rides of Passage So we come to an end: we shortly reminisced about the flâneur's ennui and "petrified unrest", then we saw one night's last ride at the brink of maturity and then we saw the complex landscape of an endless experimentation with a series of affairs that only take place through denying it. What have we finally learned about the practice of "taking a ride"? It is a form of seemingly free and aimless idle movement that nevertheless needs certain conditions to start its unconditional course. We owe Nietzsche this eminent wisdom that so many of our most productive and joyful practices are only possible if we hide their true reasons from ourselves. The fancy-free practice of "taking a ride" can only happen if the riders deny the fact that rides are in fact nothing else but transitional rites, "rites de passage". They take place at certain stages of transition within individual but also collective biographies. We learn that the famous flâneur, far from being a timeless ideal of idleness, has been what Zizek called a "vanishing mediator", an unemployed cynic clerk teaching the upcoming reporter how to decipher urban life. Then we saw the small town rides of youngster in "American Graffiti". Taking this classical example of a passage from adolescence we can ask what kind of endless adolescence is haunting the women in "Sex and the City". The flâneur has been a figure of social and historical change, the riders in "American Graffiti" are examples of an ethnographic change in biography. The ladies in "Sex and the City" are something in between, it seems. They are married to the city - yet another reason for not holding a husband - they are connected to the metropolis that created them. If this single life is also only a transition to something else that same applies for the city that created this life style. Endless recurrence of an unproductive routine always occurs when a big change can not be made. If we take this hypotheses seriously we could claim that the city that produced the "sex and the city"-lifestyle, the epitome of modern life, this whole New York myth of yellow cabs and Chrysler buildings, is nothing but an immature, adolescent state of urban life undergoing its historical rite of passage. Be that as it may, speaking of rides as passages we should finally turn to one great son of Romania, Mircea Eliade and his splendid studies on the history of religion. Among so many other things he analyzed Schamanist practices as techniques of taking a ride to heaven and to the underworld. Schamans are specialists leading a special life within the community in order to become engineers of transition. So maybe behind every banal routine of taking a ride there resides the ultimate Schamanist adventure of taking a ride to heaven and return. Only a few years after Benjamin analyzed Baudelaire's flâneur Lorenz Hart wrote together with Richard Rodgers this excellent and quite enigmatic song "That's why the Lady is a tramp" for a musical that of all titles has been named "Babes in Arms" (1937/9).

Tim Dirks, On "Americal Graffiti" (George Lucas, 1973), www.filmsite.org/amerg3.html

Kay S. Hymowitz, Scoring on Sex and the City, www.city-journal.org/html/13_4_urbanities-scoring.html

Anke Gleber, The Art of Taking a Walk. Flanerie, Literature, And Film in Weimar Culture, New Jersey 1999

Harald Neumeyer: Der Flâneur. Konzeptionen der Moderne. Würzburg 1999

Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City. Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women, London 1991

Elizabeth Wilson, The Invisible Flâneur, New Left Review, Feb. 1992

Candice Brushnell, Sex and the City, New York 1997