MA- Fine Art
Central St Martins College of Art and Design
28th May 2010
Title : One Day Travel Card
S I G N A L : N O I S E
The signal to noise ratio of daily life reworks its parameters
in the marketplace of signs. Old data gives way to new data,
radios switch stations; search engines change tracks, the
network swells, ebbs and swells again to the pull of
distant traffic. The city listens, notices, speaks.
At times such as these the media emergency and rescue
services, spin doctors and node nurses go into overdrive.
They send word across the networks that the images must
be doctored, that redress must be done, and ensure that the
things that need to be said are said, convincingly. The city is
the emergency, the city is the rescue operation, and realities
are wheeled into the casualty ward.
This is the daily life of the media in a city.
Raqs Media Collective1 Pg 105
9:40 am, Gerrards Cross Station to London Marylebone,
Travel Card, Chitern Railways, platform 1.
Walk into the waiting room; Good Morning! quite a few people inside. Jay is busy cleaning his small area inside the café; two old ladies, speaking in hushed tones, all made-up, with pearl necklaces and matching gloves; hear them talking about the theatre, lunch and their excited giggles; Coffee? ‘Yes Please’; Have a quick look at the newspaper headlines – ‘disaster, earthquake in Haiti’, ‘Big Brother actress beds Jones to avoid eviction’, Coffee, Black? Yes Please, Thank you, ‘Obama attacks obscene bonuses’, the hum of the cooler is loud and steady; Jay looks relaxed behind his counter, but his body is taut, a puppet pulled by strings tied round the door handle; Sugar? Yes Please, Thank you! A proffessor-type sitting in the corner intently studying some sheets with musical notes; Good Morning Sir, Tea? Yes Please!
Suddenly a silent wave of communication from the tense waiting bodies from the platform triggers off a ripple of activity. Heart beats louder and faster. Everyone gets up and moves towards the platform. I get into the train and find a window seat, settle down and look around, thin Indian lad with thick glasses in front reading, ‘Medical School Interviews’, lady in red scarf in front to the right, her jaw moving rhythmically chewing gum, ever so often sighing, the chewing pauses and she puts some make-up on, white foundation on a white pale face. The train gathers speed, body settles into the rocking motion of the train. The landscape outside has rapidly become a green blur, eyes hazy and mind relaxed.
10:15am, Platform 6;
London Marylebone Station
Off the train into the bright light, feeling a bit disoriented, I follow the general direction in which everyone is heading. Sluggishly, I try to match every step with the other passengers, who seem to be slowly merging into one moving mass. I make my way to the escalators that seem to be disappearing really fast and deep into a maze of underground tunnels. A rush of cool wind indicates the arrival of the train exactly in 1 minute as promised. The regulars expertly positioning themselves while the visitors scrambling anxiously to get in. The tube rattles on fast with barely an inch of distance between the tunnel walls and the train, the screech of the wheels on the tracks sharp and piercing. My pulse rate is now matching the rapid rhythm of the train. Coming out of the subway, from the depths of 100 feet to street level, from the dark artificially lit underground into the bright daylight, is disorienting. The tall, looming, tightly packed buildings, the crowd, the harsh light and the noisy traffic make the heart race, the mind panic and the brow sweat. Every detail seems to be so loud and in sharp focus, demanding immediate and equal attention. Walter Benjamin (1997) interprets Baudelaire’s sonnet ‘ A une passante’ , the first sentence ‘La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait’ as ‘ The deafening street was screaming all around me..’(2).
Fergusson Road, Roadworks (completion date 12/5/2009), slow traffic;
The noise emanating from all directions is cacophonous, no single sound making any sense. The heat, the brightness of the sun, the smell, all hitting my eyes, mind and body at the same time with high intensity. The crowd milling around, moving and shifting constantly in all directions. The sunlight not suffice with its direct rays upon me seems to twinkle and flash, reflecting off cars and thousands of shops windows. Moving rickshaws, bicycles, hand carts, cars and buses, competing with humans, cows, dogs, cats, all constantly trying to surge ahead on the narrow stretch of road. All kinds of objects hang outside the shops, handbags, clothing, gleaming stainless steel pots and pans, spices and saris, a complete wall of wares tempting the rushing passerby with not a minute to spare, to pause. The air is hot and heavy with the smell of onions dipped in batter and fried in oil, a smell that can cause pangs of hunger a mile away. The delicate fragrance of jasmine flowers is cool and a welcome relief. Everything is designed to induce the passing individual to pause, stop and spectate and create a customer out of him. As if the onslaught of wares displayed outside the shops were not sufficient, the visitor has to contend with all sorts of mobile shops, some on four wheel push carts, pushed around patiently, smoothly and slowly, but not so slowly that it catch’s the attention of the greasy policeman, Most carrying fruits, vegetables, pots, shoes, fashion accessories, anything and everything that can be brought to the visitor who has resisted the temptation of the shops. Mobile salesmen walking around where push-carts cannot chase the visitor, with all sorts of wares hanging from their bodies, shoulders and arms outstretched like hangers and when stationary morphing into mannequins. They follow and match pace-to-pace the fast paced visitor, a momentary pause and the alpha-male seller does not hesitate to model and drape the sari around himself in a vain attempt to grab the attention of the customer and make a sale. The road is chock-o-block, impossibly grid-locked. The auto-rickshaws seem to impossibly compress themselves to fit into the narrow gali, small and compact on 3 wheels with an elephant’s trumpet for a horn asking to be taking seriously but eliciting no response or respect from the crowd for its pathetic pretence. The traffic light turns red and the bus screeches to a halt, disgorging people into the oncoming traffic.
Cahir Street, underground services work
Crossing the street and feeling the heat from the close proximity of other bodies, the intermittent sound of drilling is loud and the deep crack in the tar road exposing serpentine thick cables is ominous. I dodge the red cones and the smoke from the cigarettes at the entrance to the tube and look for a momentary spot of respite. According to Georg Simmel, (1999)3, the rapid telescoping of changing images in the city can have a significant effect in the mental status of the human. My encounter with my surroundings is fragmentary, brief and painful. I focus my gaze towards the ground, the only blank spot on the canvas, only to become aware of the Metro newspaper kicked around repeatedly, each time flipping a page, headlines ‘WAGS banned’, only to be trampled over again. Just experiencing the kaleidoscope of images has exhausted me of all abilities bar that of spectating.
Oxford Street, Diagonal traffic crossing roadworks;
The compact mass of crowd purposefully moving in 2 different directions becomes a spectacle. Edger Allan Poe’s (2002)4 observations of a London crowd in 1840 can so easily be applied to Oxford Street in 2010. He describes the purposeful manner in which people with business-like demeanour, brows knit and seeming to think of only making their way through the crowd, their movements polite but hurried, restless with an air of solitude about them despite being in the midst of a dense crowd. Oxford Street, busy at all times of the day is full of people in business suits purposeful in their strides, tourists in shorts and white socks and hats with bottles of water and map in hand, wandering around in confusion and sometimes just letting the crowd carry them along, people talking excitedly on their phones, some peering at shop windows, some handing out cards advertising anything from great food to great sex and some, who like Poe (2002)(ibid) says, feel so lonely overwhelmed and estranged by the crowd, seem to have loud conversations with themselves, though in the 21st century, they may indeed be talking on their hands-free!
Daily Mail, 18 Jan 2010, Stars by Jonathan Cairns;
Virgo : Why are we all so keen to travel and get away from it all? Is it because, when we are outside our usual environment, we say and do things that at home we don’t dare to?
Right in the midst of the urban street surrounded by shifting groups of crowd, I find myself to be an obscure entity, a strange but liberating feeling. According to Simmel(1997)5, it is only in the dense crowds of the metropolis that the human is free of the trivialities and prejudices that bind the small town and the mutual reserve and indifference in the large social unit of the city results in an anonymity that can be liberating. I find it a relief, that I don’t stand out anymore. The apathy from the other users of the space is welcome. I savor the freedom and breathe freely but soon a feeling of isolation takes over in the midst of the crowd. I am, as Kracauer (1999)6 describes, one of those individuals caught in a situation of isolation, insecurity and disorientation who he labels as ‘melancholic flaneurs’. According to Kracauer (1999)(ibid), this disorientation implies a potentially positive open-ended hesitant curiosity towards new ways of thinking/living. I wait, I observe.
I suppose there could be different kinds of observers and different ways of looking. Baudelaire’s observer is a male flaneur who wanders the street incognito at a leisurely pace, Engel’s observer is outside on the street standing apart from the crowd and dismayed by the crowd; Poe’s observer is behind a window of a cafe and views the crowd as a menacing spectacle, Hoffman’s observer is at a window of an apartment and from his vantage point uses opera glasses and chooses to focus on individual parts of the crowd and Benjamin’s Flaneur who, without a doubt, is part of the crowd but still manages to observe the constantly changing spectacle at his own leisurely pace. Hoffman’s observer is the farthest and Benjamin’s the closest to becoming one with the crowd. 7
New Link Road, Water main work and restrictions until Broadway;
Time passes, eyes slowly getting used to the light, watch the crowd go past, heart beats in-sync with the steps of the passerbys, the passing blur slowly becomes intelligible, enough to make out the individual shapes that form the large black mass. The luxury of standing apart and being the observer helps to move beyond generalised impressions and to start distinguishing the details, and regard with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait and visage. There is now an opportunity to make something personal out of this activity. The observer watches, his eyes following a passerby, creating a profile in his mind. Poe(1997)8, starts noticing the differences in the way people dressed and contemplates on their profession. He sees the way a man is dressed and concludes that he must be a clerk or a gambler, a pedlar or a nobleman. He differentiates between merchants, attorneys and tradesmen. I look at the lady walking towards me and from the way she walks wonder, ‘so short, maybe Spanish; so confident a stride, maybe the oldest sibling? I see a lady and her tired face, well-dressed form and think 50, successful but single? A jaunty jolly effeminate chap walks along with a smile and I wonder if he is gay? Looks happy, must be in a relationship! I suppose, in present times, one subconsciously attempts to interpret ‘types’ and ‘characters’, even if it is just to ensure a safe passage.
Ballard Road, Exclusive Offers, BOGOF
I leave my safe spot and stroll along the walkway, body instinctively following the eyes. I pause and stop in front of a shop window and wonder why is it that mannequins have such idealised figures? The shop window is selling a vision, an escape to a warm sunny world of blue skies and yellow sand, tanned toned bodies, wide grin and white teeth, holding colourful cocktails beckoning the visitor to step into the dream. I suppose mannequins, short with bulging bellys, wide hips and brown may just be a bit too real to be a dream, just like the cloudy pregnant grey skies. I look at the mirror at the back of the shelf and become aware of eyes observing me. They are observing the short stature, the dark skin, the red symbol on the forehead, the bottle of water in hand, my clothes, the Nike trainers. I am being silently scanned head to toe, and conclusions are being drawn about my age, the community I belong to, my marital status and that I must be a visitor from abroad, especially since I finish every sentence with a ‘Thank you’. In this city, verbal expressions of gratitude are limited to friends and colleagues. No one ever says ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ to the taxi drivers or rickshawalas or shopkeepers in the streets of Andheri except those who have had to imbibe that habit from living abroad. Indeed, times are such, the interpreter is also constantly being interpreted.
A glance exchanged between the observer and the observed now becomes an instrument of empathy reducing the distance between the two and a potential connection starts to happen. Once this observer, the visitor, has found a way to relate to the crowd, the fear has changed to empathy and as Benjamin (2007)9, says "Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. I become part of the crowd, my physical and mental condition adjusting and in-sync with that of the crowd and imperceptibly and surely, I am the crowd.
By joining the crowd, the realisation hits that I am subconsciously adopting the manner of the crowd; that I am now part of this mechanism, instinctively copying the behavioural patterns of the people around me. Intuitively, in order to survive, as Poe (1997)10. says, I am adopting not just ‘the uniformities in attire and behaviour but in fact also a uniformity of expression too’ of the crowd. We all wear masks just to signify our compliance and membership into the crowd. Being part of the crowd is now being part of a compact group, a small community. The only way this group can progress or succeed as one is if all individual parts of the group follow the same rules. Successful compact groups share a sense of common objective.
Green Park Station; Central line suspended due to signal failures!
I stare at the tube map, ‘I need to go to Marylabone station!; ‘you can get to Marylabone via Baker Street on the Northern line’, I turn around and see a friendly face pointing towards the right. A friendly stranger beneath the reserve of the modern metropolitan? I see him again on the train. Hi, I am Chris, he says. Not sure how this began, but we start talking about religion and rules and wonder about their etymological relationship. Chris googles on his iPhone and and reads out, ‘Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the word back to an old Latin word religio meaning "taboo, restraint." Re is a prefix meaning "return," and ligare means "to bind;" in other words, "return to bondage."’11. Every organisation whether social, economical or political survives by imposing certain rules and restrictions on its members.
Political, familial, religious, friendship and school gate groups began in this way. For the preservation of the group, the group is deliberately exclusive by nature and sets rigorous boundaries and rules that have to be obeyed. According to Simmel(1997)12, a small social organisation is entirely closed by nature purely as a defence mechanism in order that it is not taken over by foreign or antagonistic groups. According to a report published by Amish Educational Resources in 2010, in the Amish community in America, the rules of the faith — the Ordnung — must be observed by every member. These rules cover most aspects of day-to-day living, and include prohibitions or limitations on the use of electricity, telephones, and automobiles, as well as regulations on clothing. Members who do not conform to these expectations and who cannot be certain to repent, are excommunicated. In addition to excommunication, members are also to be shunned — a tactic that limits social and familial contacts in order to shame the wayward member back into the church13. School-gate groups are made up of individuals from the same school/same year. The group is exclusive because its membership is restricted to a limited few and the members of the group tend to socialise within and outside the school exclusively with each other. It’s difficult to break-in for a newcomer unless certain commonalities are established. The group has strict rules as to which member of the group and their child can be invited for tea. They seem to even share uniformity in their attire as well as manner. Similarly, teen gangs are very effective small groups. The gang offers excitement, a sense of belonging, protection and power. They gain strength in numbers and by being seen by others as a group. To quote a teen gang member from a BBC article (2007)14, "You are always moving as a pack. It's as if you fight in a war”. For the greater good of the group, the individual member of the group is given very little freedom. Every member of the group is forced to conform and comply to the rules laid down by the community inorder that they benefit from the community. If I am to be part of the crowd afterall there is safety in numbers, I need to follow the dictates of the crowd. The individual now has to adapt and adopt the physical and mental attributes of the group as his own. The personality of the individual now relies entirely on forces that lie outside of it. The very sense of the personal that brought the visitor into the crowd is now at risk of being swallowed up by this socio-proletariat mass called the crowd.
Flora Fountain, temporary traffic lights;
I follow the crowd, move when others move, stop when they stop, look left then right, stopping at intersections, go when it is green, stop when it is red, follow the person in front, matching his steps mechanically. Its easier to go with the flow rather than against. The technology-driven media-city of today, using similar strategies of classical conditioning that is used to train animals to secondary stimuli, has managed to subjugate and train the human senses to respond to its instructions. To quote Marx (1997)15, ‘the worker does not make use of the working conditions, but it is the working conditions that make use of man’. He talks about the fact that it is through working with machines that workers learn to co-ordinate ‘their own movements with the uniformly constant movements of an automaton’(ibid).
Victoria Station, Normal services, no problems anticipated;
As we reach the barriers, put the card in the slot and wait for them to open, stand to right and walk to the left on the escalators, listen to the disembodied voice from the ceiling and follow instructions on monitors, closed circuit cameras following every activity in the Underground, I become aware of the Orwellian reality of modern times. Even in the depths of 150 feet, I am bombarded with adverts promising nirvana from a bottle of lager and step by step directions of how to get there through GOOGLE Maps. I wait for the train and pensively follow a tiny mouse moving fearlessly in and out of the tracks and wonder, where does it hide, when we hear the train come. The train arrives through the tunnel with a rush of wind, making skirts billow and hair flutter. I settle into the rhythm of the train lulled by the pitching and rolling and swaying of the carraige. The breeze flowing through the window is cool. My eyes register the passing gritty landscape, full of ramshackle hutments. One can see the sparse interior of the huts, the wooden cots, the women scrubbing brass pots with soil and coconut husks until they gleam like gold, children playing in the gutter, men squatting and smoking bidi’s.
Dockyard railway station, 30 passengers only per carriage, actual 100 passengers;
The train grunts to a stop at the station and I hear the rush of bodies and feel the squeeze of people in the small carriage. Its hot and the air is still, the smell of sweat lingering and heavy. The train picks up speed and the welcome gush of wind blows in bringing with it the smell of industrial waste and urine. I see what I am sure can be seen nowhere else, the flash of bare bottoms defecating on the side of tracks, preferring to expose themselves temporarily to passengers from the passing train, but managing to keep their dignity to the slower and less mobile traffic on the opposite side. According to August Endell (1999)16 “The panoramic gaze of the railroad traveller links the sweeping rapidity and brevity of impressions with the heightened fascination of acute details that, rapidly flashing up, are emphasised in perception, leaving no traces except the ones left behind in the mind”. The line between private and public seems to have vanished. In a compact, highly dense city even the body is a public place. The only recourse for the urban individual in search of the personal is in the mind.
I refocus my eyes to inside the carriage. It is packed with people with ipods plugged into their ears and a distant look in their eyes. I look at the girl next to me and become aware of tears flowing from her eyes. I look around; no one is reacting; there is no change of expression; no one makes a move to comfort the girl. According to Engels, (1997)17. ‘… No one bothers to spare a glance for the others. The greater the number of people packed into a tiny space, the more repulsive and offensive becomes the brutal indifference, the unfeeling concentration of each person on his private affairs’. I look away and give her the mental space she needs. I can only but emulate their behaviour and not react. I am learning to adopt new behavioural patterns, a process called ‘Resocialisation'.
According to Dr. Newman, (2005)18, to be able to identify with the common objective of the urban machine, the crowd needs uniformity in values and appearance. There needs to be a sense of solidarity amongst the members of the crowd to be more effective. In order for this to happen, previous socialization experiences are systematically destroyed and new ones developed to serve the interests of the group. In an army boot camp, for instance, the individual must learn to look, act and think like a soldier. To aid in this transformation, recruits are stripped of old civilian identity markers (clothes, personal possessions, hairstyle) and made to take on new ones that nullify their individuality with similar uniforms, identification numbers and haircuts. Conformity is mandatory. Any misstep is met with alienation. Resocialisation can be forceful and intense.
Central Terminal, 700,000 people pass through every day;
The train comes to a halt and the crowd, is on the move again. We traverse the concourse of the Central station moving in militaristic formation towards the escalators and into the streets. The pace slows down and gradually comes to a stop. Everyone seem to be standing still and staring upwards with a vacant look, jaws dropping, a hypnotised stupor in their eyes. Super-tall buildings and large electronic screens and billboards all around. Massive media screens of all sizes and colours, flashing images, texts scrolling up and down, animated neon and LED signs, as if television screens of different sizes switching channels constantly, had been stacked up 130 floors high. The façade of the buildings seemed to be constructed not out of bricks but pixels. Digital advertisements flashing on and off, crawling texts of the latest news of the world, constant relay of numbers from the Stock Exchange, this seemed to be the information highway of the commercial media-city! Weaving my way through narrow streets, feeling a shiver of cold in the long shadows of the towering buildings, I walk through several blocks, before I decide to take the elevator and like Hoffman’s observer try to observe this city from a high vantage point.
West 31 street, No stopping anytime;
Stepping on the roof of a 120 storey building, feeling the wind and overcoming a momentary sense of vertigo, I peer down. Yellow roofs of taxis weaving in and out of streets, avenues, and boulevards, it’s a lego-land of buildings of varying heights, sizes and shapes stacked high and compact, separated by narrow sidewalks and streets. The urban landscape is dense, tightly packed, not a square inch wasted. There is no doubt in my mind that this vertical city is architecturally singularly focused on economics; economics of space and time. As Micheal Walzer (year anon)19, says the city is a ‘single-minded space’ and was designed with one purpose in mind i.e to generate, exchange and distribute money. Appadurai(2000)20 refers to the city as a place subsumed by the all-pervasive logic of money and business. Bombay, according to him, is a ‘city of cash, full of sensual appeal, moral ambiguity and a vehicle of a fluid and highly evanescent status and power’. Walking towards Soho, passing through the different restaurants, shop windows selling electric components to sexy lingerie, bars and pubs where a pint of beer is cheaper than a bottle of water, I realise, there is a promise to satisfy every need one could possibly have; everything here is for sale from food, chinese to Italian, to sex, normal to kinky. All one needs to show is ownership of money for the transaction to take place. In the case of black boxer, Chris Eubanks, who purchased the Lordship of the Manor of Brighton for 45000£21 money bridged class differences. He saw it as a metaphor for buying back a slave's freedom - his own. When declared bankrupt, the title was put up for auction. To quote from the article in Celebrity News magazine, the autioneers comments were, ‘It is simply a money based bidding war, much like buying a house – you don't have to have any special standing in society’22. The only language that’s spoken here is that of money; money according to Simmel(1997)23, that reduces all quality and individuality to the question: How much? Even the most personal is quantified and has a price. Anything which is not commercially viable is relegated to the suburbs. When one square foot of space in london costs on an average 1,248.68 GBP24, (Forbes.com, 2009), the occupation of every square inch needs to be justified. Therefore, any slip-ups on the punctuality in promises and encounters, any deviation or confusion would cause the whole tower/organism to break down in inextricable expensive chaos. Sudden snow fall in January 2010 and the resulting disruption to transport and other services cost the UK economy from £600 million upto £2bn, (2010)25. Any breaking of appointments or miscalculations, any break down in the Underground can cause ill-afforded waste of time and any waste of time incurs loss of money. The National Minimum Wage (2010)26 act stipulates that a person must earn at least 9.6 cents per minute). Any Time lost is directly proportionate to money lost and in a money-centric urban city, the effects of this could be far-reaching and costly.
The city is a space, where people converge everyday in order to weigh, calculate, enumerate, speculate, buy, sell and invest. Life in the city is competitive and a struggle. Georg Simmel(1997)27 talks about how the relationships and concerns of the typical metropolitan resident/visitor are manifold and complex due to the conglomeration of so many individuals with such different interests. According to Louis Mumford (1996)28, the city is the point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community. He poetically describes it as the place, where the diffused rays of many separate beams of life fall into focus. The city became a sort of leveller, where money is the common currency and produces links across neighbourhoods, communities and ethnicities.
Individuals and their relationships and activities are interwined with one another into a many-membered organism. Each and every part of the organism fulfills a unique specialised role that it has honed to perfection in order to find a place in this complicated mechanism. A multitude of individuals all jostling for an economic space in the melee, hoping to be the missing piece in the puzzle, to offer services that are so specialised and unique that their presence in the city is justified. Though specialised, they are also still very much dependent on each other for survival. In order for the organism to function efficiently, for the Jenga tower to grow taller and stay stable, it is but contingent on the elements of precision, punctuality, calculability, exactness and dependency of the individual members. All services need to be either profitable or at least have the potential to be. It is based on production, on the churning out of services to customers, potential, unknown, even virtual. Its ingenuity is its skill in creating a need, followed by the creation of a network of services in order to satisfy that need. The city needs to constantly justify its existence; cities never sleep and every moment and every inch of space is utilised, the offices, pavements, parks, all expertly appropriated by the metropolitans multi-tasking, morphing from business suits to jogging shorts to cycling tights to black-tie.
High Street, cctv camera in use 24/7;
Walking along the street, surrounded by traffic, Starbucks and shop windows, I have the feeling that I may have been on this street before but it still feels unfamiliar. As Elizabeth Wilson (1991)29 says, one can never retrace the same pathway twice, for the city is in a constant process of change, the kaleidoscopic spectacle dissolving rapidly making it an endlessly circular journey. Puzzled and wishfully looking for a ‘You are Here’ red dot on the map, I allow myself to be carried along by the crowd. I see around me the same exhausted and resigned look on some faces. The initial adventure and adrenaline rush is starting to take its toll. The excessive and increasing plurality of stimuli has a psychological impact on the receiver. It is like being in the middle of a Pollock painting with no recourse to a blank spot on the canvas where the eyes can rest and pause and refresh. Susan Sontag (1961)30, says ‘Ours is a culture based on excess, on over-production; the result is a steady loss of sharpness, in ones sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness- conjoin to dull our sensory faculties’
It is this crisis of modernity and the impact of the urban culture on the individual and his mental life that is the core issue of the sociological essays written in 1903 by the German philosopher, Georg Simmel, notably the essay titled ‘ The Metropolis and the Mental Life’ (1971). He talks about the birth of the Metropolis and how its commercial and economic activities affected the emotional and the social life of the individual. Though he wrote his social thoeries and the sociological effects the Metropolis had on the individual at the beginning of the 20th Century, I find his comments and conclusions are very closely related to the sociological issues typical to the urban cities of today. According to Simmel (1997)31, there is an essential difference between the city’s mental life and that of a rural one. In a suburban or rural context, the greater spatial freedom results in more physical, intellectual and social freedom than in an urban context. Rural surroundings are characterised by its slower, more predictable, habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm. This requires less mental and physical energy. In contrast, the psychological conditions created by the metropolis –every crossing of the street, the rapid tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life- demands a high degree and depth of mental energy and status. The increase of nervous stimulation that arrives from the aesthetically sporadic and accelerated city life creates a change in the psychological reasoning of the individual. Though the initial reaction of the visitor is that of pleasure and excitement, the constant bombardment of the stimuli on the senses with new or ever changing impressions, agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all. It is like the rush of excitement felt in first fair ground ride wanes after repeated rides until it ceases to cause any reaction at all. The high demand on my energy reserves has caused a temporary incapacity to react. I can no longer cope with this jostling array of impressions and confrontations. I start closing in now. Giving up on the map, I now walk along the street looking to escape. I push and shove, no apologies, continuously looking for gaps between the moving bodies. I need to create a distance between myself and the environment around me. It is self-preservation now at all cost. I become selective as to what stimuli I absorb and ignore the others. The head has taken over the heart. It is our intellectuality that will help us come out of the city unscathed. As Simmel (1997)32 says, ‘the reaction to the metropolitan phenomena is shifted to that organ which is least sensitive and quite remote from the depth of the personality i.e intellectuality’. It is this matter-of-fact direct attitude that helps us develop a defensive aura against the constant on-slaught on our senses and to conserve our energies for conducting business. This leads to a strategy of increasing ‘objectification’ of modern life which in turn results in reserve and distance between individuals. This reserve combined with the calculative impersonal quality of money has direct ramification on the social life of the metropolitan. It is this emotionless insensitive attitude that one witnesses everytime one passes a homeless man begging, or steadfastly ignoring the smiles of the busker incase he manages to break through the carefully cultivated blasé’ demeanour. This is the reason why the metropolitans may seem to appear cold and heartless to the visitor. According to Simmel (1997)33, ‘The characteristic experience of modern city is living among strangers who remain strangers’). This estrangement is reiterated even more so by the advent of technology such as mobile phones, ipods, laptops, Wireless Networks, ATM machines, connecting us to the distant, but effectively distancing us from the here and now. These machines seem very effective in removing ‘unwanted intrusion’ and pushing us deeper into a realm of ‘private sanctuary’. Over a period of time, this blasé indifferent attitude could result in isolation and social withdrawal. To quote from an article titled ‘The loneliness at the heart of the big city’ by Sebastian Shakespeare in Evening Standard (May 2001)34, ‘Despite getting more crowded, London is becoming an ever lonelier place’. He taks about the fact that we live in a surveillance society, constantly monitored, constantly watched, yet paradoxically we have never been more solitary as we device ever-more ingenious ways to avoid talking to each other (via email, Blackberry and text). One can spend whole days without catching someone else’s eye, if one chose. According to the Joseph Tree Trust(ibid) only 6 out of 10 people trust their neighbours. The danger, of course, is that one can isolate oneself to such an extent that either, one succumbs to maladies such as depression, substance abuse, alcohol-related health problems, which become social problems or one has to seek professional help to learn to communicate and to resocialise again.
Churchgate Street, One-way street;
I walk along fatigued, ignoring the bandaged hands of a begger and the pestering presence of children running behind pulling my skirt, asking for change. I try to ignore their dirty innocent faces and the pleading look in their eyes and keep forging ahead. A car is driving through a one-way lane weaving through the oncoming traffic disregarding the angry honking and stopping only to let a cow amble across; I can see the driver touching his eyes and forehead fervently, a gesture used to acknowledge something holy like a temple, a monk or the cow in this context. Perhaps this is his one unselfish deed of the day done! I walk on, avoiding the potholes on the road and dodging around people. I can hear the bells from the temple, loud and clear reminding the faithful, there is hope of redemption from all this. I wait at the traffic light and under the flyover, in the shade, see some women sitting in the shade, their lips red from chewing betelnut, mending their threadbare blouses and cooking rice on a make-shift stove of bricks, children running around barefeet, their playground a traffic island.
38 - II, Circle House, King's Circle,
I meet Suresh at Madras café. We sit down and the waiter rattles off rythmically ‘idli, vada, dosai, uppuma, pessarattu…..’, 20 dishes off his head and waits for us to decide. We are offered strong south Indian coffee in stainless steel tumblers and I am offered bottled water, must be the ‘NRI’ flashing neon sign on my head! Suresh talks despondently about his life as a seafarer. ‘28 days and nights with the same people, same blue sea in every direction, prolonged state of alertness, fatigue….’
Everyday of oil dredging activity costs 600,000 to 700,000 GBP with every minute costing upto 500 GBP35 (BNET Blog, 2998). With high costs comes optimum use of manpower. The ship dredges for oil 24/7 and the sea-farer is working round-the-clock shifts. This puts an incessant demand on the intellectual capacities of the sailors. It takes a lot of energy to keep the brain stimulated over a certain length of time. Sailors who are on watch duty need to be on a rota of 6 hours of watch and sleep alternatively. Without the down time, it could be detrimental to the person and ultimately lead to mistakes, which could prove costly for the economy. The high financial cost is always uppermost in the consciouness of the individual. The personal and the emotional has to be set aside and he has to don a cloak of reserve to maintain a professional attitude. This cloak also helps conceal the slight aversion and repulsion caused by the enforced close contact with other strangers. The multi-nationality of the crew results in barrier of language. The transitoriness of the duration of habitation and problems in communication with other individuals in the same space makes it an insulated isolated experience. The cyclical expectation of similar experience occuring over many years can cause the individual, whether in a city or a dredging rig or in a closed compact community, to increasingly distance themselves from others.
I see many parallels in the physical, social and mental life of the Metropolitan and that of the seafarer. The seafarer is captive to his work environment as the Metropolitan is; both contexts involve high finanicial stakes and there is high pressure on their intellectual abitlities; high density of people temporarily inhabiting the compact space and similar everyday experience has resulted in similar mental reserve and calculated cold attitude towards others. Whether in the city or on a ship or in a remote community, certain common attributes such as living life according to strict rules, the interests of the group taking precedence over the individual, the exposure to excessive physical and emotional stimuli, the impersonality of money and the financial pressures on the individual, have all had severe repurcussions on the mental state of the individual.
Suresh packs his bag and takes a taxi to the airport. His mind tense in a state of readiness, his body weary. Whether docking at Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu or at Penang in Malaysia, whether flying from Changi Airport to Incheon International Airport, the only two places that exist for him are on board or off board. Are all cities becoming the same as Trude in Calvino’s(1974)36 ‘Continuous Cities’?. All cities share similar characteristics of overwhelming greco/roman architectural facades, dense population, money-centric impersonality, continous speed and movement. Italo Calvino's ‘Invisible Cities’ is so called because it asserts that what makes up a city is not so much its physical structure but the impression it imparts upon its visitors, the way its inhabitants move within. When Hegel went to Paris for the first time, he wrote to his wife, ‘When I walk through the streets, people look just as they do in Berlin; they wear the same clothes and the faces are about the same…’37. Same tall buildings, same crowds, same shop windows, Starbucks, McDonald, Chinatown, same mind-set of the shifting masses, everything is the same. I could indeed be in Berlin, Paris, Shanghai or Mumbai, without ever leaving London.
Boston Place, Night Patrols on every hour, MET Office
Its dark now and the lights from shop windows are bright, large and small moving advertisements, neon lights, the noise from the traffic and the crowd, the screeching sounds of the buses, the moving cars and cyclists and rickshaws, the bright china town lanterns, the slowly increasing numbers of drinkers on the road and the pavement, smoking and chatting, all intensified and multiplied a 100 times more than during the day, overwhelm the mind and the body and cause a weariness, a fatigue that’s seeped into the very bones of my body. Before the body gives in, willing myself, I slow down, fall back and step out of the conveyor belt and away from the crowd. I walk away without a backward glance.
AMT Coffee, Concourse, Marylebone Station, 25 mnts to next train
The city is a place to conduct business. It is inhabited by migrant workers who morph into intelligent beings, who set their clock when they don their business suits; the train gets transformed into an office environment, everyone silent and intent, blue screens of all sizes from mobile phones to laptops very much in control, holding the individual in trance. Meetings are arranged and confirmed and a slow transition occurs in the individual where he leaves the personal and emotional behind and lets the mind and the intellect take over. For the day-tripper, it is journey into the unknown and experiences that will make him a different person from the one that set out in the morning. Cities are charaterised by economics; language spoken is precise, every service is offered in return for money and there is no waste. For the visitor, the city turns into a theme park, to be viewed from the streets, from on top of buses and from roof-tops; He sees sights that he has never before, stares at shop windows and marvels at the variety of services on sale, from sex to exotic food. The initial adrenaline rush feels great and is addictive. Its one ride after and another, one adventure after another, a new experience everytime. As the day passes, the excitement wanes and this flanuer becomes more blasé about his environs and soon relies on his intellect rather than his emotions to just make it through the day. He realises, that he no longer controls the ride but it is the ride that controls him. Unable to get out, he is forced to be on the ride all day. He goes through a gamut of emotions starting with fear, apprehension, to euphoria and happiness to boredom and resignation to exhaustion and fatigue ending with relief!
10:17pm Marylabone Station to High Wycombe, Chiltern Train, platform 6, Far train;
Wembeley Stadium, West Ruislip, South Ruislip, Denham, Gerrards Cross, 45 minutes travel time
I am on the train now heading back home and still unable to exorcise the rapid city sights from my mind. The train gathers speed, heading away and out of the Metropolis. No longer able to watch the rushing landscape, I look at my own reflection on the window, and I see a stranger, crumpled and exhausted. Looking around, I see I am surrounded by similar expressions, all in their individual silos recovering but resigned to go through it all over again the next day and the next day and the next.
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 A Sari or Saree is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine metres in length that is draped over the body in various styles in India.
 Gali means a Narrow Lane in hindi (slang)
 A deep sense of sadness that grows from the knowledge of being inscribed in a certain situation and unable to escape, such as modern life in a city.
 cigarette filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in a tendu leaf, tied with a string at one end, very common in India.