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Publications Book Reviews
Balshaw, Maria and Liam Kennedy, Eds., Urban Space and Representation

Balshaw, Maria and Liam Kennedy, Eds., Urban Space and Representation . London, Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 2000.Pp. 201. ISBN 0-7453-1344-2.

City and urban space have recently become objects of intensive interdisciplinary scholarly research and discussions involving not only the architects, geographers and economists, but also urban sociologists, film and literary theorists, cultural studies scholars, and even philosophers.

The idea and the nature of the city, its structure, function and meaning have opened up the field for the reconsideration of its status. The city's role has considerably changed in modern times, since cities have become not only the centres of human habitation and life, but especially the centres of contemporary modernist and postmodernist culture. The city and its culture have mostly been seen not so much in terms of aesthetic or artistic categories but rather in the context of fashionable ideological or political concepts such as race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual identity. According to Balshaw and Kennedy these concepts are even "...key features of modern and postmodern urbanism" (p. 11).

As the title of this collection of papers edited by Balshaw and Kennedy suggests, the main emphasis of this book should be on "representation" of the city, in different media and by different forms of art as one would expect, however ambiguous and complicated the term "representation" may appear in postmodernist discourse. This is true only partly about this book. The diversity of themes and fields of study make this book not only interdisciplinary, but especially eclectic and incoherent in its approach.

However united by themes of Space and Vision (Part I), social, racial, sexual and gender differences (Part II entitled Spaces of Difference), and a representation of national identity in the Third Chapter entitled (Post)National Spaces, this collection of essays presents a discussion on the representation of the city in different forms of art (literature, film, cinema, photography, music), discourses (arts, TV news, reports), in different media (cinema, TV, photography), and through a diversity of approaches ranging from postmodern through sociological (mostly part 3) even including almost documentary and purely informational (Pascal Pinck' s essay on the representation of the city in local news and by skycam; or to some extent S. Shapiro's essay on the Representation of Aids).

The problem with the inclusion of such a diversity of topics, approaches and with such general eclecticism is that the editors of the book do not seem to distinguish between artistic and purely mimetic or other representation. It seems that in their understanding everything is simply "representation", never mind that the function and meaning of art are entirely different from the purely pragmatic and informational function of, let us say, TV news (Pinck's essay).

Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy recognize the value and importance of language in representation, but at the same time argue that "representation also involves material, visual and psychic forms and practises that cannot be reduced to textuality" (p. 4). One can agree with this statement, but there is never an equal relationship between for example a tourist guide and Dickens' novels. What must be emphasized is especially the fact that "textuality" is primarily represented by language as a sign system which represents, in a complex way, outer reality. There is a danger that understanding of all these media and discourses as representation may reduce the figurative and symbolic meaning of the langugage of for example the arts to a purely informative function. At the same time, such a broad understanding of representation as well as such a broad scope of included discourses presupposes a familiarity with different areas of knowledge and different sciences and arts which could be problematic even for the academic community.

Although concerning arts the main focus is on film and literary texts, these do not dominate in the overall composition of this collection of essays. What dominates is rather a sociological approach and analysis of the city. Out of 11 essays, only 2 deal either directly (Al Deakin's essay) or in a comparative way (M. Balshaw) with literary texts and only 3 with film. I think these analyses, in addition to Douglas Tallack's fine re-interpretation and analysis of the work of the so-called Ashcan School of American painters (especially the image of New York in their work), and Richard Ings' analysis of different Harlem communities in DeCarava and Langston Hughes' The Sweet Flypaper of Life are the most original essays of this collection.

Al Deakin in his essay entitled Fear and Sympathy: Charles Dickens and Urban (Dis)Ability gives an analysis of the image of ability and disability in some Dickens' works (A Christmas Carol; The Old Curiosity Shop; and partly Great Expectations) which construct a Victorian understanding of the city. Al Deakin is interested in the way Dickens' narrative strategies and his depiction of physical dysfunctions are able symbolically both to construct and undermine the Victorian and rational understanding of the city. On the one hand, according to Deakin, the representation of the city evokes the idea of Victorian "domesticity", and on the other the Victorian fear of the body. According to Al Deakin this manifests itself in two textual features, especially in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. One textual feature exemplified by the relationship between Scrooge and Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol "... sees the representation of the impaired body falling within the controlling arms of the discourse of charity" (p. 80). The other textual feature of the same work, Deakin claims, "sees the diverse physical abilities engendered by the city as things that can become dangerously and intoxicatingly out of control" (p. 80).

In another fine comparative essay dealing with both film (Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston) and literature (Toni Morrison' s novel Jazz) Maria Balshaw, drawing on Park's understanding of the city, is interested in the way both these artistic texts represent body, race and sex in the context of the authors' depiction of the city.

She sees both authors' depiction of the city (of Harlem, New York) as a manifestation of a "racialised aesthetic" (p.82), that is the depiction of body and race in the city as a manifestation of Modernist aesthetics. In Balshaw' s understanding the two texts refer to the city in different ways and emphasize different aesthetics - Looking for Langston "avant-gardist meditation on identity without falling into modernist solipsism" (p. 96) with the focus on community, while Toni Morrison' s novel Jazz, in her view, rather undermines Modernist aesthetics (especially through different treatment of the motifs of desire and death and the deception of visual perception).

The essays dealing with film analyze the postmodern representation of the city understood as community (Peter Brooker' s essay The Brooklyn Cigar Co. as Dialogic Public Sphere: Community and Postmodernism in Paul Auster and Wayne Wang' s Smoke and Blue in the Face), as a paranoid space (Liam Kennedy' s essay Paranoid Spatiality: Postmodern Urbanism and American Cinema), or analyzing particular film genre (French film de banlieue) to give a comparative analysis of the depiction of the centre and periphery, inside and outside (Myrto Konstantarakos' essay The Film de banlieue: Renegotiating the Representation of Urban Space).

Peter Brooker sees Auster and Wang' s film representation of the city as postmodern especially because of their multi-layered structure (stories within stories in Smoke; and the motif of photography), or because of the depiction of cultural diversity and fragmentary urban experience (Blue in the Face), although such a view would require closer analysis.

Liam Kennedy focusing mainly on two American films analyzes and emphasizes several aspects of postmodern representation as the manifestation of urban experience and culture - white male paranoia (Schumacher's film Falling Down); or apocalyptic feelings amidst hi-tech popular culture (Bigelow's Strange Days); Kennedy's convincing analysis shows that "paranoid spatiality" is closely connected with the character of postmodern urbanism and visual urban culture.

The last section entitled (Post)National Spaces includes, perhaps with one exception (Konstantarakos'essay on film), mostly sociological or urban studies dealing with particular cities (Paris, Birmingham, Great Britain; New York; and Singapore, the latter in John Phillips' essay).

The most convincing and analytical is perhaps Gargi Bhattacharyya's study of the changing character and image of the British city of Birmingham from industrial to cultural centre (his essay Metropolis of the Midlands). Although some of Bhattacharryya's statements can seem quite artificial (the association of the body and the city, pp. 166-167), he gives a convincing and fine study of the image of Birmingham, its inferiority complex and other aspects of its culture shaping the general vision of the city.

On the other hand, some essays not only in this final part (Stephen Shapiro's essay Whose Fucking Park? Our Fucking Park!: Bohemian Brumaires (Paris 1848/East Village 1988), Gentrification, and the Representation of Aids); or J.Phillips' essay on Singapore), but also, for example, Pascal Pinck's essay in Part I entitled From the Sofa to the Crime Scene: Skycam, Local News and the Televisual City, are of almost purely documentary character, and might be worth publishing in the popular press rather than in a scholarly book. The latter essay gives a purely documentary account of TV and camera broadcasting practises in Los Angeles and its TV news broadcasting. On the other hand, if such magazines as Playboy can publish valuable stories by significant authors, why should a scholarly book not include popular (or) documentary articles?

I think despite its eclectic approach, its emphasis on interdisciplinarity and inclusion of some rather documentary articles, Balshaw and Kennedy's compilation represents a valuable contribution to the contemporary interdisciplinary and postmodern debates on the role of the city in contemporary culture.

If the authors had reduced their focus on sociology and "political correctness", included more essays on artistic topics (literature, film, music, visual arts), and narrowed their focus (for example, the last section could be extended to include other similar sociological essays, and be published as a different book), the contribution of this book would be even more valuable.

Jaroslav Kusnir
The University of Presov, Slovakia

 

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