The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City
(Stanford University Press, 2015)
Part shaggy intellectual ruin, part holy text of urban theology, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project—a kaleidoscopic study of 19th-century Parisian city life—is perhaps best read as a kind of cipher or secret code wherein the metropolis itself is revealed to be the critical document of modernity. That this has become something of an idée fixe for a broad swath of academic disciplines (indeed, that the insight now feels so normal) speaks to the particular interpretive magic of Benjamin, whose sensitivity to industrial ephemera and the myriad voices of mass culture has made him the posthumous prophet of urban vitality. Within the fragmentation of city life—its people, its garbage, its fashion, its dead time, its dreams—Benjamin found the vivid Babel of his urban poetics, in whose cadences and complexities the hidden reality of modern life could be parsed. The 36 sections of The Arcades Project, ranging from “Photography” to “Advertising” to “Boredom,” comprise what he called the “true history” of urban existence, a Rosetta stone for the cryptic manifestations of modernity’s newly commodified cultural consciousness. Tragically, this “true history” was cut short. In flight from the Nazi war machine and facing deportation back to Germany, Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Portbou in 1940, leaving his masterwork incomplete and largely scattered. One can read the text’s fate, if not the man’s, as somehow inevitable. The project was, of necessity, hopelessly vast; for Benjamin, the city was always a proxy for the infinite.
But what if Benjamin had not made his fateful decision on the French border? What if, instead, he faked his own death, assumed the name Carl Roseman, and moved to a cramped apartment in Manhattan to live out his remaining 40 years creating the Gotham twin to his exhaustive Parisian blueprint? This is the premise of David Kishik’s new book, The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City, a curiously effervescent text that is simultaneously a work of imagined philology, an index of urban delirium, and a fascinating evocation of a city that became the de facto capital of the 20th century. The book’s format can be a little abstruse at first. Kishik marshals actual quotes from Benjamin and fabricated quotes from the fictional Roseman to examine the cultural and philosophical ramifications of urbanity. However, once oriented, there is no small amount of pleasure to be had in the whirling transitions between the factual and the fictive, the settled and the spectral. Kishik, an assistant professor of philosophy at Emerson College, avoids what could be an overly precious conceit by virtue of a charming transparency (“This is a study of a manuscript that was never written,” he begins the very first chapter) and a richly perceptive, almost visceral sensitivity to the “undeserted island” of the city. Far from a nostalgic chimera or gilded illusion, Kishik’s New York emerges here as an existential foil, labyrinthian, a lover both desired and spurned. His seductive interpretations of New York art, culture, tragedy, architecture, celebrity, and history, refracted through the imagined elucidations of a persuasively reanimated Benjamin, emulate the teeming life of the city in all of its breathless variety and unexpectedness. The point of view is unmistakably Kishik’s, a voice erudite though unafraid of irony or humorous observation; however, in employing the real and imagined quotes of Benjamin/Roseman, the book moves beyond mere criticism into a kind of urban bildungsroman, New York’s coming-of-age as told by three worthy author-theorists. In wrestling with Kishik’s urban dialectic—the city-as-text and the text-as-city—one begins to see New York itself as a kind of automatic writing, the peerless postmodern author in whose compositions are spun the aspirations, fantasies, and catastrophes of the urban—and, yes, the global—imaginary.
Much of the book’s strangeness, its surprising oppositions and affinities, lies in Kishik’s juxtaposition of 19th-century Paris and 20th-century New York, sequential eras comprising the birth pangs and death throes of modernism, and exemplar cities in whose tensions and transitions Kishik locates an emerging urban consciousness. Benjamin, too, initially saw modernity as something of a passage (indeed, The Arcades Project in German is Passagenwerk), a kind of speculative “passing through” from point to point that mirrored the beginning and ending of the covered Parisian arcades. But Kishik believes that upon experiencing New York’s gridded streets for the first time, Carl Roseman resolved to overhaul his definition, Paris having been rendered obsolete. With the theory of New York enjoined with the theory of modernity, Roseman saw that, far from a passage, the city now “negotiates multiple intersections and possible routes; it offers various shortcuts and inevitable dead ends, like a labyrinth with neither entrance nor exit, neither origin nor destiny.” This spatial element of urban understanding remains essential throughout the text, a plotting of time and ideas over the intensely lived bustle of the city. Kishik’s treatment of his varied subjects—Jacobs and Arendt, heroin and dance, Melville and Whitman—is rooted in an understanding that in the city, space—more specifically the street—is inseparable from act, from polity, from economy, from living text.
It is in the street, too, that we first find mention of Roseman’s ambiguous yet somehow ecstatic name for urban exuberance: “sheer life.” This becomes a kind of refrain or guiding principle, certainly the closest thing to an axiom of New York that Kishik’s text provides. Roseman’s introduction to this term, borrowed from Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is possessed of a speculative elegance: When Louis Daguerre first turned his camera toward the Parisian street in 1838, the long exposure time erased its throngs of people, leaving only an eerie emptiness surrounded by buildings. Roseman saw New York’s “sheer life” as that same photograph’s equal opposite: a document of pure and vibrant movement, in which all things static were removed—that is, a street without buildings, without pavement, only people. For Roseman, finding ways “to intensify, magnify, and, most important, complexify the conditions by which more people, and different people, take part in this gigantic human experiment” became the raison d’être of his (imagined) life. This aesthetic of social diversity, a kind of living flipbook of faces and personalities, of chance and chaos born anew in every passing interaction, comprises, for Kishik, a parallel document to the grand metanarrative of New York, one Roseman would spend the rest of his life evangelizing and interpreting: the street as a “philosophical concept.”
It seems fitting that Roseman’s urban dictum makes use of photography as an explanatory underpinning, as, when he was still Walter Benjamin, photography energized some of his most fervent and fascinating writing. The Manhattan Project features about two dozen photographs of the city, and the concept of the image—as a revelatory archive of urban ephemera—remains an animating force throughout, both a document of New York’s possibility and a celebration of its “simultaneity.” If Kishik tends to agree with architectural historian Manfredo Tufari that, far from the Gershwin-scored panoramic skyline of the popular imagination, New York buildings are in reality agents of disenchantment, “veils drawn over life’s face,” he also positions photography as something of a countermeasure—that is, an apparatus of revealing, of unconcealment. In satisfying chapters on visionaries like Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, and Andy Warhol (who, in his six and a half hour Empire, “dedicated a motion picture to stillness”), Kishik rightly celebrates New York’s visual record as a catalog of the vital infrastructure that is “sheer life.” This catalog is another kind of text, pictorial and participatory, equal parts communal portrait and urban ontology. While considering the city’s contemporary forms of visual documentation, a trove of Instagram collections and Humans of New York posts, I found myself waxing nostalgic for Levitt and her focus on “the society of the unspectacle”—for Roseman (and, one suspects, Kishik), the only index worth considering.
Like Borges’s “Aleph,” New York is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is therefore much to Kishik’s credit that his slim volume, a drop in the vast ocean of literature on the city, packs such a considerable theoretical punch. It has, I believe, much to do with the ingenious format. If the very idea of New York exceeds our current representational forms and analyses, we must necessarily turn to the innovative, even the offbeat, to find new means and models. Kishik’s speculative scholarship, a work of almost wholly fictional philosophy, dares to mix humor, grace, and pain along with its obvious erudition. The result is a sui generis piece of criticism, a shattered love letter and urban confessional cloaked in the guise of academic research. If New York is, as Benjamin believed, a text on a text on a text, Kishik’s beguiling work can be read as its memoir: the private journal hidden in plain sight.
I found myself believing in Roseman by the end of the book; or, rather, desperately wanting to believe it could all be true. That feeling—yearning—is not something I generally experience when reading a work of cultural criticism. It’s almost as if, realizing that the city is sacrificed on the altar of its own representation, Kishik chose to focus on the sacrifice itself. And under that endless onslaught of urban embodiment, he hit upon the proper legacy for Walter Benjamin: the street; the people; “sheer life.”
DUSTIN ILLINGWORTH writes about books and culture for the LA Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.