Escaping the FieldPosted: November 23, 2012
In Hurricane Sandy and all but the gravest disasters, there’s a halo of nervous excitement that surrounds the real damage and pain that occur. It’s uncomfortable to admit but those high enough on Maslow’s pyramid can experience an upheaval as a stimulating diversion, to the extent that their lives aren’t actually disrupted. For most New Yorkers, 2011‘s Hurricane Irene was an exercise in frivolous non-preparation. As for the much heavier Hurricane Sandy, New York Times columnist David Carr observed how Twitter’s tone shifted from snarky to frightened once the storm’s magnitude became evident, the former attitude being the default stance that later insight would correct.
Illegible Manhattan (Source: Getty Images via The Blaze)
A few days after Hurricane Sandy, I took a run at dusk from Brooklyn through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where power had not yet returned. Crossing the crowded Williamsburg Bridge, which became dark at its exact halfway point, I noticed that a palpable nervous energy surrounded me. It wasn’t negative or positive, exactly, but there was a heightened emotional state in the throngs crossing the bridge that did not match up with the bad things everyone knew had happened. By Thursday of that week, Brooklyn neighborhoods that hadn’t lost power were packed with stir-crazy eaters and drinkers. As in the 2003 blackout, many city-dwellers sense that there’s something thrilling (if still a bit frightening) about electricity loss and disrupted routines.
During my run through lights-out Manhattan, it occurred to me that the anarchic shadowscape created by the power failure must inspire people on some subconscious level. Again, if you lost your home or lived near a more severely-damaged area, you wouldn’t have felt this way, but most Manhattanites didn’t. It’s the same mechanism that makes the educated middle classes so interested in zombie apocalypses and Mad Max scenarios. For a brief moment, it felt like there were no rules in America’s most densely-packed urban area, and if that realization was a bit alarming, it also indicated how controlled and overprogrammed our urban environments are under normal circumstances.
Even the best-behaved people (maybe those people especially) feel a lurid thrill at disruptions of all kinds. Lower Manhattan’s big story one year ago—Occupy Wall Street—perfectly distilled this sentiment, hence its widespread resonance: The movement aggressively carved out and defended a pocket of unprogrammed, illegible space in Zucotti Park, demonstrating how much resistance such an action faces even when it’s harmless (I’ve written a longer post exploring this idea). Hurricane Sandy was obviously something nobody wanted, but it certainly “switched off” the legible and programmed consumer city that normally fills downtown Manhattan, at least for a few days.
It’s harder than ever to find public places that are truly wild, especially in the cities where global capitalism is most dominant, like New York. Deleuze has described our passage from a disciplinary society to a society of control. The former was characterized by spaces of enclosure: the factory, the school, the prison, and other institutions. Individuals passed from one of these enclosures to the next, and were subject to the laws of each space when physically inside of it. The society of control, however, replaces enclosures with far-reaching fields that its subjects never really leave: markets, identities, information, and statuses. Deleuze writes, “In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again…while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.”
In the prior century, you became free by escaping from the enclosure. Think of the prison break in The Shawshank Redemption or Ferris Bueller avoiding school for a day. These narratives resonate less in the present because you no longer attain freedom just by getting out of the building. Escaping from the control society’s fields is a different matter altogether, and only when those fields are temporarily shut off do we glimpse a comparable degree of freedom. Disasters, for all of their horrors, are among the only situations where we witness such a shutoff: For a few days, Hurricane Sandy largely disabled phones, computers, credit cards, and other technologies that uphold our particular control society by creating the field that constantly surrounds us and captures our behavior. This gap in the field happened to coincide with a physical location in Manhattan. If there are few enclosures for us to break out of in the twenty-first century, this was a rare chance to “break in” to a pocket of illegible, free space and find out what it looks like.