MSA 18 — The Graphic City: Urban Studies After The Visual Turn
The Graphic City — Urban Studies After The Visual Turn
…From the rear platform of a fast ‘El’ train,
I watched the city’s undulating lights
And felt about my heart the antique pain
That man has always felt for beauty’s signs.
And often I was wildly moved to test
Myself against the city’s gleaming lines,
To feel their edges touch my bare brown breast!
—from “Song of New York” by Claude McKay (1926)
Architectural historian M. Christine Boyer believes that the aesthetic appreciation of urban life shifts decisively during the late nineteenth century, from a model best understood through the logic of the picture frame to the “City as Panorama…a series of fleeting impressions and momentary encounters.” Boyer is hardly the first to argue that something decisive happens to the visual experience of the city during the modernist period. And yet, despite a strong sense that these “impressions and encounters” were conditioned by technological spectacle and restricted lines of sight, there have been few attempts to reconcile the hoary analyses of “modernism and the city” with recent developments in theorizing visual culture. This panel has been organized to bridge the divide, encouraging proposals from literary critics and culture studies scholars who are exploring the visuality of the city across a variety of modes and forms throughout the twentieth century. Like McKay’s poem suggests, there is much to be learned from testing our analyses “against the city’s gleaming lines.”
One recent example that may help clarify our aims: Adrienne Brown, in The Black Skyscraper (JHU Press, 2017), identifies a trend in speculative fiction from the early twentieth century of depicting white time travelers gazing down from the windows of a skyscraper to see a horde of dark people. In doing so, Brown argues, the skyscraper functions as a “physical shelter for [their] white protagonists while sustaining the possibility of racial identification in even the most trying times.”