This is the first in what will be a quasi-regular feature at this blog: Bad Book Reports. Though not all the books will be bad (and hopefully very few of them), I fully expect to go off on tangents, to experiment with whatever half-baked ideas the book conjures into my head. Handing it into any high school or college professor would probably not earn much of a grade. But then very few assignments given full marks by professors have been much fun to read, let alone meaningful.
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At first, I was unsure what to think of this book. The last (and so far only other) book from Andy Merrifield I’ve read has been Magical Marxism. I thoroughly enjoyed it, at times loved it, and at others disagreed with it to the point of flinging it across a room.
In What We Talk About When We Talk About Cities (and Love), Merrifield quotes John Leonard’s remarks about one of Marshall Berman’s books: “I loved this book. I wish I believed it.” A beautiful and stinging admission. I suppose I rather felt the same way about Magical Marxism. Too much of it seemed to reflect a John Holloway-esque “change the world without taking power” kind of outlook. “I love this vision,” I would say to myself, “I only wish it could be accomplished in such a way. I only wish that constructing a world outside of capital’s influence rather than having to take it head on were possible.”
Much of what Merrifield argued came from a place I am as preoccupied by as he is: the role of the imagination in liberation. This imaginativity was contrasted to the rigid, arid formulas that had dominated the post-Bolshevik left, characterized by what Mark Fisher referred to as the “harsh Leninism.” Most of these projects had, inevitably it seems, run aground on their own centralizations. Perhaps a more imaginative, creative, and yes, magical approach was called for. I wanted to agree. I did agree. But I more wanted to agree.
Digging into What We Talk About… felt a lot like that did. It confounded and confused me as much as it intrigued me. After it arrived in the mail I leafed through it. My first thoughts were “this book is almost three hundred pages and yet there are no chapters. How the hell am I supposed to learn something from it when there’s no organization?” Call it an ingrained habit, coming as much from a traditional literary education as from having internalized a fairly rigid idea of how everything should be organized. Fifteen years as a member of one of these tiny aforementioned “harsh Leninist” groups also went a long way to further cementing these ideas.
Ulysses-like, Merrifield uses his starting point as his ending point: the point of self-confessed modesty tucked away in the broad-shouldered prose of his much-loved Raymond Carver. “I mean, I’m just talking, right?” He rambles through his own memories and conceptions – about love, about cities, about identity – as if they were a city themselves. Sort of a cognitive mapping through aimless wandering.
Except there is an aim, even if we, or the author, aren’t aware of it when we start. For Merrifield, we find out something about ourselves when we discover how messily we love. And to be clear, all of us love messily. We all love selfishly as much as we do selflessly, if not more. And that includes entities we never expected to find ourselves loving. Merrifield loved his unexpected mentor, the late Marshall Berman, almost as much as he loves his lifelong partner Corinna, though obviously in a very different way. Both play unique and crucial roles in the story.
Berman was/is a wonderful urban theorist and essayist in his own right. His All That Is Solid Melts Into Air should be read by anyone and everyone interested in the literary city, or for that matter the Marxist method. It was only after about fifty pages that I finally realized and accepted that Merrifield is doing something not altogether different than what Berman is doing in that classic book. In the end, he’s setting us up to discover the unexpected.
In this case “the unexpected” is that we can fall in love with cities. When we do, we fall in love with them in the same problematic, often selfish and egotistical way in which we fall in love with people. Mentors included. Merrifield writes of how he idealized New York as a kid growing up in Liverpool. Then the long, winding and idiosyncratic road he takes before finally living there himself. Only after falling “out of love” with the Big Apple, and experiencing life in other cities (Sao Paulo, Mexico City) does he gain perspective on both New York and Liverpool. He finds what he once hated about his native city were actually things he very much loved in himself: the working-class pride, the rebellious refusal to behave one’s self, the suspicion of anyone giving advice who hasn’t actually lived your life.
It takes him a good 280 pages to get there, but would it be as effective or affective if he was telling us this is where we’re ending up on, say, page five? Probably not. “Man does not create,” said the iconic Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, “he discovers.” When we ask questions, even on the page, we don’t do so because we already know the answers. We do so because human curiosity abjures certainty, particularly when it is imposed. This curiosity, this instinct that puts us on journeys whose end we don’t know, is far too often missing from our lives, from our attempts to understand our own lives or the world. The injustice of it is particularly prescient when we consider the fact that most “certainties” handed down to us, be it from conservative or liberal mouths, are at worst lies and at best stand-ins for the whole truth.
This is not to toss my hat in with the bunk and tiresome right-wing narrative about “fake news.” But by that same token, we would not be in such a deep crisis of belief if all were well with these certainties. No matter the motivation, narratives about lying media/politicians/scientists/whatever fester and rot when enough people’s needs aren’t being taken care of. So here we are.
The same processes of deindustrialization, privatization, corporate globalization and gutting of the public sector has also, importantly, gutted educational spaces. But it’s taken something else from us: time. Specifically the time to ponder, daydream, consider something without the expectation that your big boffin brain is going to sort it all out. Life is more expensive than ever, and our compensation hasn’t kept up. By the time we are done working to pay for it all, we wonder if it’s left us anything worth living for. Or at least we would if we had the time to wonder anything at all. This is, evidently, the major subject of another one of Merrifield’s books, The Wisdom of Donkeys. It’s arguably his best-known, and not too much further down my own reading list.
When we do discover time to wander, it can be disorienting, even terrifying, but it is also quickly eye-opening. We find endless dimension in facets of our life we had previously taken for granted. It’s why after enough time muddling my way through What We Talk About…, I found myself transfixed, oddly enamored, identifying with Merrifield’s discovery of different parts of himself not just through his love for people and cities but through falling out of those loves. I’ve been through much of that same process.
I was born in the DC area, but was raised on the European continent after my father’s job took us there. We came back to the States in the early-mid nineties, and thereafter never really felt at home in the US. As I grew up and became more and more attracted to radical and socialist politics, the complete lack of a meaningful left in the US didn’t really help. Then, in my early twenties, I lived in London for a short spell. It was here that I finally felt like I made sense. I felt I understood my place in time, that I wasn’t cut adrift. In London I hung out with other artists, writers, creatives and radical activists who were able to call upon a rich and vibrant history in a way I could never simply through reading history books.
Older comrades remembered the Poll Tax Rebellion, the Miners’ Strike, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. A few spoke of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and battling cops in Trafalgar Square. Younger comrades, around my age, felt that sense of connection, of a historical through-line, in their own work building the movement against the war in Iraq, anti-fascist organizations, or their unions. When talking and debating topics I had my deepest interest in (radical politics, avant-garde art, experimental theatre) I didn’t feel the need to explain their relevance (by which time most American eyes would have simply glazed over).
It didn’t hurt that I was there on a student visa, that I had an enforced limit on both the number of classes and the number of hours I was allowed to work. I was also far poorer than the majority of my classmates. So while they would have the opportunity to travel back to Paris or Berlin or Prague for long weekends, I would be left only with the vast streets of London. I didn’t mind in the least. Most of my free time was spent wandering those winding, utterly confounding streets, many of which had been shaped that way for centuries, meeting and talking with the people who lived there, sharing an order of chips with them on a street corner or buying each other a pint in a local pub.
Then there were the nights and early mornings spent catching lone buses back home. I would sit on the upper level, often the only one up there, still feeling the effects of whatever I’d consumed at the club or after-hours bar, the bright searing neon of streetlights streaking across a cold, wet, infinitely dark sky. Inevitably these moments would meld with the oral histories I had organically absorbed, morphing into emotional and intellectual touchstones, the feeling that each informs the other.
Enough experiences like that will give you a sense of how a city can capture your imagination. Without knowing it, those aimless walks were my introduction to psychogeography, to the figure of the flâneur, the practice of the derive, discovery of the queer ambivalences and forgotten histories wedged into that haphazard stack of human and capital: the city.
For years, I longed to return to London permanently. Even after being unable to return for more than a decade. When I finally did return, it was a different city. The bombings of 2005 – the inevitable result of Blair’s participation in the war on terror – had accelerated the city’s securitization, as well as the paranoia and racism that came with over-surveillance. The 2012 Olympics had also taken place. The resulting city had fewer liminal spaces, those neglected or forgotten corners that had been heterotopically transformed by its inhabitants. The kinds of places that exist with only half-permission and, therefore, are where you can actually have fun. Most of these had been uprooted and replaced with angular glass-and-cement monstrosities. Most of those whose shape survived had been “revitalized,” updated, revamped, made into Potemkin city versions of themselves more amenable to the flow of commerce.
Sometime-lefty mayor Ken Livingstone was gone. Now it was Boris Johnson’s city. The country generally was under control of the Conservatives then, had been for about five years. It still is of course, and thanks to the non-fucking-entity Labour leader Keir Starmer probably will be for some time. Despite massive rebellions of students, education had been made prohibitively expensive. Despite uprisings of youth of color in every major city, the country was as indifferent to them as ever. Everything I had been enthralled by ten years before had been switched out for its impostor.
It took me a few years of returning again and again to admit it to myself. In the meantime, the US has gained what it hadn’t had for some time: an actual left to speak of. I learned to find a place in the country of my birth. Ironically just in time for fascism to rear its head and for the possibility of the ex-pat life to once again seem a valid and attractive option. But that’s the point: the subjectivity we discover, the ability to create and recreate one’s self in the context of history’s massive shifts and, if we look at it in the right light, to impact that history ourselves.
It takes time and consideration to reach this kind of understanding about ourselves and our surroundings. It’s the kind of understanding that can’t really come from the page of a book, a lecture, or structured discussion. And it’s the kind of understanding to which most of the left has been tragically insensitive for some time. In some ways it’s predictable that we’d wind up here. We’ve been marginalized for so long that the bare rudiments of survival have been our only concern. Lately though, we’ve been coming up against not just the harshness (even though most of us don’t identify as Leninists), but seen the ways in which our narrowness makes weaker Marxists of us.
One of Marx’s favorite maxims was from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: Nihil humani a me alienum puto. “Nothing human is alien to me.” Yet it is still all-too-common to find Marxists who brusquely dismiss anything directly unrelated to political economy or history. Is it any wonder that even in those areas of study their ideas seem memorized by rote? Where is their curiosity, their flexibility, their willingness to experiment with theory’s applicability and meaning in different contexts? And who, exactly, can see their own liberation through such a narrow and one-dimensional lens?
This last question is why we can stand to talk a lot more about whether our forms of organization and community are up to the task, or if they recreate the kinds of alienation in which people are simply putting in time. If the impoverished way most of us are forced to live is such a central motivator for the socialist vision, then why deprive ourselves of chances to know and feel what it would be like to have those pressures lifted? That is, after all, where so much art, film, literature and music over the past 150 years has pointed. And yet our understanding for and curiosity about the contours of daily life, of the intimacies that are within and make up the grand sweeping changes of each city, are too often un-regarded.
It springs from what Paulo Freire describes in the context of his radical pedagogy as a human’s “ontological vocation.” That is the activity which a human being with all the opportunity to nurture their knowledge and intelligence and creativity chooses to spend their time on. Architecture, music, computer engineering, physics, woodworking, water conservation, human fitness, medicine, and the list goes on. Most of us will never know what it is like to have all doors open to us, to select from them without any pressures of career or family or making a living. That, frankly, is the tragedy of it all.
It is why in embracing the right to the city as a central hub of radical liberation, we emphasize the ways in which the fully-realized city can be a place where all those doors are open. It’s where people have the room for encountering each other, our knowledge, our curiosities, and in so doing encounter ourselves. It is also why, when we describe the high points of the left, the times when we have been able to wield real power, we describe parties that gave comrades, in whatever capacity it could, a chance to glimpse that kind of life. Be it the choirs and singing groups of the Communist Party, or the social and sports clubs of the German Social Democrats up through the 1920s, there was a sense that it was important for members to autonomously self-enrich, so that they had something to collectively fight for.
What’s more, it is possible to see this kind of fulfillment, this mastery of our surroundings, projected outward. It’s what John Berger was hoping to communicate in his 1968 article “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations.” Here’s what he wrote:
The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances… This creativity may be desperate in origin, and the price to be paid for it high, but it temporarily changes their outlook. They become corporately aware that it is they or those whom they represent who have built the city and who maintain it. They see it through different eyes. They see it as their product, confirming their potential instead of reducing it.
Merrifield (both a fan and student of Berger) doesn’t address this directly, but he does speak at least once of how his wanderings through New York eventually put him in touch with those looking to change it. This is where he encounters tenants and organizers fighting to stay in their apartments. He stumbles into the offices of the West Side SRO Law Project almost by accident, learns that they were formed in the 1980s with the aim of staving off the disappearance of Single Room Occupancy units in the Upper West Side.
He speaks to tenants organizing against their eviction and against landlords who refuse to do even basic upkeep on the buildings. The hope is that the tenants will leave so that the buildings can be transformed into condos or luxury hotels. It’s a familiar story by now. The people living in these small apartments and single rooms have, in many cases, been there for decades. Many are retired, living on social security, already struggling to pay increasing rents while landlords cut off water or leave holes unfixed in their ceilings.
One tenant, Mary, an older, fairly religious woman, says to Merrifield, “We SRO tenants are lepers at the city gate of New York. Why should we sit here and die?” The modern-day leper is the atomic unit of the human experience in the late capitalist city: a condition of perpetual exile, enforced invisibility, shoved into corners until those corners are needed for something a bit more lucrative. The city needs these experiences to live on top of, even as it needs those living these experiences to disappear.
Not long after describing this interaction, Merrifield seems to come to terms with his Liverpudlian upbringing. He writes affectionately about John Lennon, Bill Shankly, of the Militant-led local government that attempted to radically reshape the city during the Thatcher years. If his own position is one of exile, then he seems to have finally found a way to reach across the chasm of alienation that led to his inhabiting that role. He (re-)discovers a dimension of human connection and subjectivity, leading inherently to a host of radical questions: if the vast majority of us are exiles, then who is exiling us? Who is casting us out? More importantly, what is stopping us from creating our own inside from the outside? How can the priorities of the city, its time and space, be rearranged toward that end?
This, frankly, is the crux. We are drawn to cities because they promise community, discovery, reinvention of both ourselves and our surroundings. Many of us fall in love with them for just that reason. All too often, we find that these vast and complex monuments to ourselves have very little room for us. We love cities, but in a resentful way. Mostly because we wish we believed them. I would argue that the point of revolution is to make that love materially believable.