[iDC] possessive spectatorship

Eric Gordon eric_gordon at emerson.edu
Wed May 14 14:50:54 UTC 2008

Hi everyone.  I've posted to this list a few times in the past, but  
now I'd like to really post. I should introduce myself again - I'm a  
professor of New Media at Emerson College in Boston.  My primary  
interests rest in the intersection of urban formation and media  
practices.  Along those lines, I'm just finishing a book manuscript  
called the Possessive Spectator: Media, Technology, and the American  
City.  It is yet another commentary about flaneurie, but it attempts  
to contextualize urban spectatorship in space, time and culture by  
describing a way of looking that has become dominant in the United  
States.  I make the argument that the concept of the American city  
(really born in the late 19th century) was premised on the spectator's  
ability to possess as well as see.  I've included the first few pages  
of the book's introduction at the bottom of this note...followed by  
the last few pages of the introduction.  I'm very interested in  
engaging the people on this list in a conversation about possessive  
spectatorship.  I argue that the American city was born of the  
assumption that "to see is to have, and to have is to experience"  And  
that that assumption is reflected in trends of urban growth in the  
20th century American city.  I don't think that the concept is easily  
extractable to, say, the European city.  The American city has had a  
very specific growth pattern over the last 100 years in response to  
and constructive of specific patterns of spectatorship.

The Possessive Spectator: Media, Technology, and the American City

On the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, there are  
dozens of people looking at little screens, typing on little  
keyboards, with plugs extending from their ears.  Each of these people  
is having a different experience, customized through their personal  
media.  The college student with his iPod selects his music to  
correspond with the weather and time of day; the businessman types an  
address into his GPS-enabled phone to find his next meeting; and the  
tourist stares through her mobile phone camera to capture the Empire  
State Building in the distance.  Mediated by little devices, these  
people are shaping their experiences of the city.  Nicholas Negroponte  
(1995) famously noted that the world of atoms (our bodies) would no  
longer need to correspond to the world of bits (data) – that physical  
proximity would cease to be necessary for public life.  But as we can  
see on that street corner, the world of atoms and the world of bits  
come together in the city.  There is little distinction between the  
practices of everyday life, and the technologies that enable those  
practices.  The soundtrack, the map, the photograph: these artifacts  
of the everyday, are constructive of environments.  The practices one  
adopts to navigate and comprehend any space can never be seen as  
separate from that space.

             New technological practices introduce a profound  
complexity into everyday tasks, and perhaps challenge accepted notions  
of urban life, including the nature and scope of public interactions  
and the corresponding design of the built environment.  Can one truly  
be engaged in public space if they are looking through a viewfinder or  
tapping sweet nothings with their thumbs on tiny keyboards?  Can the  
city, as an entity, continue to matter when digital networks enable  
public gathering without requiring the public to gather in physical  
space?  The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.”   
The modern American city has never been bereft of these complications  
– from the hand held camera at the end of the nineteenth century to  
the mobile phone at the end of the twentieth, the city has always been  
a mediated construct.  The city enters into the cultural imaginary as  
a hodgepodge of disconnected signifiers, often organized by the  
technologies that produce them.   When Kodak introduced its hand  
camera in 1888, it provided a tool for people to record and retain  
experiences through visual reproduction.  Photographers produced  
images and, even more importantly, possessed them and organized them  
to manage their memories.  Likewise, when Google introduced its  
mapping software in 2004, it enabled people to record and retain  
experiences by marking places on a map, keeping notes and connecting  
images.  Google Maps has been implemented as both a wayfinding tool  
and a personal organizing tool; through its simple interface, it  
serves to manage an individual’s understanding of space.   
Communication technologies certainly produce new information about the  
world; but they also have the facility to organize that information  
through the literal or metaphorical storage capacity of databases or  
archives.  They provide the spectator the unique opportunity to at  
once experience space and possess its traces.

These traces, and their inherent possibilities, have substantially  
altered the nature of media and urban practices in the twentieth  
century.  I call the spectatorship structured around the desire for  
possessing these traces, possessive spectatorship – a way of looking  
that incorporates immediate experience with the desire for subsequent  
possession.  And while this phenomenon has had implications for the  
modern city in general, in this book I describe how it has been  
uniquely important for the American city.  What’s distinctive about  
the American context is the timing in which the city becomes central  
to the cultural imaginary. The American city grew up in parallel to  
the technologies that enabled its possession.  Not until the late  
nineteenth century, corresponding to the introduction of the handheld  
camera and the cinematograph, did the American city take on a meaning  
outside of mere urban concentration.  Prior to that time, while cities  
were of course present in America, they did not present themselves as  
unique constructs.  I argue that emerging media practices transformed  
urban practices by naturalizing the notion that individual spectators  
could not only see the city, but also possess it.  And most  
importantly, I argue that this spectatorship altered the material  
shape of the city as urban plans were drafted to meet the expectations  
of a spectator eager to take control of the city’s assembly.

Urban Practices / Concept-city

The concept of possessive spectatorship, on which this book focuses,  
places a decisive emphasis on visuality.  But even as visuality is  
characterized as the dominant sense mechanism through which possession  
occurs, it is by no means exclusive, and rarely operates independently  
of other senses.  Visuality is fundamentally embodied.  To return to  
that fictional Manhattan street corner for a moment, the people  
standing around (with or without mobile devices) have appropriated  
certain expectations and practices into their everyday lives,  
integrating what they see into how they move and relate to their  
physical environment (Ito and Okabe 2006, ; Wellman and  
Haythornthwaite 2002).  They expect the ability to locate and  
communicate with their social network in an instant; they expect the  
ability to query anything and retrieve an immediate answer; they  
expect the ability to record and archive thoughts and images.  And  
they have, to varying degrees, internalized these expectations into  
their everyday engagement with urban space, subtly manifested through  
the direction of a glance, the instantaneous determination of  
acceptable social distances, and the interaction with streets and  

The notion that visuality and its corresponding technologies might  
alter the way one engages with the urban environment is not  
particularly new.  In a 1916 article in the photography magazine  
Kodakery, a journalist described how the camera had become naturalized  
into urban practices even without the presence of a camera. "The  
picture-thinking Kodaker has his eye out for 'likely' subjects  
wherever he happens to be. When he walks to and from his office, when  
he gets on the trolley, when he takes a trip to a neighboring city, he  
keeps his senses alert for the picture possibilities about  
him” (Snowden 1916, 9).  Almost a century ago, it was not fantastical  
to imagine a world transformed by the cognitive and visceral  
transference of media practices.  It was not fantastical to assume  
that expectations born of media practices did not necessarily depend  
on the technologies that gave them life.

Ever since the handheld camera prompted shifts in the framing of  
everyday vision, the process of collecting those visions has been  
framed through metaphor.  According to Anne Friedberg, metaphors are  
necessary for the accessibility of new media, as they wrap “the newly  
strange in the familiar language of the past” (2006, 15).  The  
practices of viewing a film, looking at a mobile phone screen, or  
listening to an iPod can easily seep into other practices through the  
connection of metaphor.  The film becomes a means of travel to distant  
times and places, the tiny screen becomes a portal to information and  
other people, and the iPod becomes a soundtrack, connecting the urban  
landscape to cinematic scenery.
But while metaphor suggests important representational strategies, it  
alone can’t provide much insight into practices.  This book is  
concerned with how the dominant understandings of technologies, shaped  
through metaphors of one kind or another, collide with the consumptive  
practices of spectators.  And ultimately how this collision serves to  
shape the city.  Michel de Certeau introduces this relationship in his  
essay “Walking in the City.”  The piece begins with a spectator  
standing atop one of the 1370-foot high towers of the former World  
Trade Center and looking down upon the streets below.  That view  
“makes the complexity of the city readable,” he argues, “and  
immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text” (2002, 92).   
The view from on high is a fiction or facsimile of the city, like  
those drafted by planners or cartographers, but it does not provide  
access to the practices that actually compose the city.  Those are  
only accessible by the “practitioners” of the city that live “below  
the thresholds at which visibility begins.”   According to de Certeau,  
“These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their  
knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms… 
it is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were  
characterized by their blindness” (93).

Urban practices, themselves devoid of vision, always operate within  
what de Certeau calls the Concept-city, a space of total vision.  Each  
of the people on that street corner are blindly interacting with their  
immediate urban spaces (despite their use of media devices), while  
their understanding of those spaces is framed by the evolving Concept- 
city (enhanced by those same devices).  Whether directly mediated or  
not, each practice of the city is embedded within some articulation of  
the Concept-city.  A man, brand new to New York, lifts up his arm to  
hail a passing taxi (an action he has seen again and again in movies);  
a woman photographs the Empire State Building contemplating the age of  
Art Deco that produced it; a tourist gets her bearings in the crowded  
city by calling up a map on her phone.  In each of these examples, the  
concept of Manhattan (its logic and structure) influences the practice  
of its spaces.  De Certeau aligns this phenomenon to Ferdinand de  
Saussure’s characterization of langue and parole – the overall logic  
of any language (langue) is implicit in each individual speech act  
(parole).  All urban experiences, he argues, are comprised of both the  
phenomenological encounter (the blind, embodied practices of the  
street) and the overarching logic of the Concept-city (the complete  

De Certeau demonstrates the interaction between urban practices and  
the Concept-city, but he doesn’t address how each of the elements is  
composed.  What shapes the Concept?  What organizes practice?  This  
book begins from the dialectic he provides, and offers possessive  
spectatorship as an explanation of how practices and Concepts are  
structured around a complex assortment of media technologies and urban  
representations.  How did the handheld camera change the way people  
walked through the city, while simultaneously changing the shape of  
the city walked through?  How did film spectatorship influence the  
meaning of urban movement, and how did that new meaning get worked  
into the development of the Concept-city?  Each chapter in this book  
explores these and similar questions in order to renegotiate de  
Certeau’s urban dialectic in light of possessive spectatorship.   
Images, interfaces, and protocols shape urban experiences, structures  
of urban desires, and plans for urban spaces.  Media practices mold de  
Certeau’s walker into a historically contingent subject.  So while  
there is a well regarded tradition of aligning urban representation  
with totalizing spectacle – “everything that was directly lived has  
receded into a representation” (Debord 1994, 7) – I argue that  
spectacle, or Concept, is always directly lived, especially when  
mediated by screens and radio waves.


The Map

This book is an attempt to map out specifically how possessive  
spectatorship in the United States, structured by architectural,  
urbanistic and technological innovations, has influenced the shape of  
the American city.  Each chapter describes a particular iteration of  
the Concept-city and the urban and media practices that developed  
alongside it.  In the first chapter, I discuss the planning and  
implementation of the White City and investigate how handheld  
photography factored into its design and implementation.  The Concept- 
city quite literally conformed to the potential of photographic  
renderings.  The White City offers an ideal starting point for my  
discussion of urban spectatorship as it provides the model from which  
subsequent forms take shape.  It was not simply a collection of  
buildings; it was an experiment in the presentation of the Concept- 
city wherein meaning was largely dependent on the possessive practices  
of spectators.

             This came into clear relief as official practices of  
spectatorship, dictated by the Fair’s Department of Photography,  
butted heads with a growing population of amateur photographers.  The  
conflict between a perfectly assembled city of images and a personally  
assembled city of images would, more than anything else, succeed in  
transporting possessive spectatorship to contexts outside of the White  
City.  The American flaneur was defined by its populism and gestures  
towards democratic accessibility. This is the subject of chapter two.   
As Kodak’s hand-camera soared in popularity, concerns emerged over the  
new populist spectatorship.  Could the masses be trusted with framing  
experience?  Could they be trusted with making history and defining  
beauty in such a playful manner?  And could the Concept-city survive  
its own success as a commodity readily available to this unrefined  

While these debates raged in amateur photography magazines, the  
practical knowledge of the city found its greatest transformation in  
the emerging medium of cinema.  The aesthetics associated with  
Kodaking, mobile and playful, got abstracted into new forms of media  
exhibition.  In chapter three, I look at the development of early  
cinema and its connections to “spectacular” advertising in Times  
Square.  As the playful possession of urban imagery gets transposed  
from the still photograph to larger-than-life displays, the intimate  
gaze of the spectator gets transformed into a spectacle of mass  
consumption.   In the early development of Times Square, from 1904 to  
about 1915, the spectator’s desire to possess the city in the form of  
movement becomes quite apparent.  Even though the spectator is not  
literally in possession of images, as he was with the hand-camera,  
those same urban and media practices are appropriated in this new  

But by the 1920s, this spectacle achieved yet a bigger scale.  The  
Nickelodeon gave way to the movie palace, and as skyscrapers reached  
unprecedented heights in New York City and network radio connected  
distant spaces with invisible ether, the camera was no longer  
sufficient for capturing all the distant images of the city.  Chapter  
four describes how the new scale of the Concept-city made it so each  
act of possession implied speculation – the vastness of the city was  
always greater than a visual perspective could capture.  What I call  
“speculative architecture” was manifested in the artwork of the  
architectural renderer Hugh Ferriss, as well as the midtown Manhattan  
development Rockefeller Center.  Each represented a Concept-city that  
could be assembled only through the speculation of the spectator.

After World War II, the culture of American cities was drastically  
altered. The 1950s transformed the spectatorial distance associated  
with speculation into a distance associated with alienation.  Chapter  
five looks at how urban renewal projects sought to erase the  
speculative city with the operative city - a representation with no  
visual relationship to the thing it represents, only to its function.  
As the middleclass rapidly left the city for the suburbs and were no  
longer interested in actively participating in the construction of the  
city, the government intervened to produce a Concept-city that could  
“compose” itself through machine intelligence.  By looking closely at  
the renewal of Los Angeles’ downtown, this chapter describes an  
unprecedented intervention into urban spectatorship where individual  
possession is sacrificed for the conveniences of machine  
intelligence.  For the first time in the modern American city, urban  
practices are subordinated to the Concept-city.

But in the 1970s, the spectator is re-centered through the popular  
negotiation of history and nostalgia.  Chapter six, by looking at the  
case of Boston’s Fanueil Hall, describes how the preservation movement  
introduced historical proximity to remedy the geographical distance  
caused by renewal.  The urban experience takes on the character of  
television reruns – a continuous repetition of the familiar to evoke  
an intimacy and feeling of being at home.  The “rerun city” would  
become the foundational principle for the neo-traditional New Urbanism  
movement and help to shape practices of urban spectatorship that  
relied on the possession of space as well as time.

The basic tenets of the rerun city get reworked in the contemporary  
context, as historical proximity is reoriented to historical  
accessibility. The city remediates its previous iterations in order to  
present itself anew.  But distinct from the logic of the rerun  
discussed in the previous chapter, the contemporary American city  
employs the logic of the database.  Just as television was shifting  
from linear, broadcast television to Netflix, on demand, and file  
sharing, urban spaces were tasked with the job of presenting a  
platform from which the user could assemble historical and virtual  
references.  In the book’s final chapter, I describe the “database  
city” - a Concept-city that gives extraordinary freedom to the  
spectator to assemble her own experiences and urban imaginaries and  
organize them into something comprehensible, searchable and  
exportable.  This becomes particularly clear in the redevelopment of  
Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.  The functionality of the Concept- 
city corresponds with new digital aggregation tools from Facebook and  
Google Maps to smart phones.  As possession and assembly of space,  
time, and social life are made quite literal by digital networks, the  
database city provides the platform for possessive spectactorship, a  
way of looking where individual spectators continually reinvent the  
city from their personal digital assembly lines.
Each chapter in this book describes an interaction between a Concept- 
city and its corresponding urban and media practices.  And while these  
interactions influence the perception and manifestation of cities  
throughout the world, I focus on a particular element that is uniquely  
dominant in the United States – the cultural impulse to possess,  
control and assemble the experience of the city.  The consistently  
shifting shape of the American city in the twentieth century can be  
seen as a series of accommodations and reactions to the urban  
practices aligned with possessive spectatorship.  As such, my goal is  
not to provide a comprehensive history of the twentieth century  
American city; rather, it is to provide the reader with a new  
framework from which to view that history.  And as media becomes ever  
more entrenched into the practices of everyday life, this framework  
becomes even more essential in shaping our understanding of the  
American city –  not as a reflection, but as a hypothesis.  The city,  
constantly emerging in a collision between practice and concept, has  
to be considered proactively by architects and planners.  The  
challenge would seem to correspond with how Wyndham Lewis  
characterized the city of the immediate future in his modernist  
manifesto: the “first great modern building that arose in this city  
would soon carry everything before it; and hand in hand with the  
engineer, and his new problems, by force of circumstances so exactly  
modern ones, would make a new form-content for our everyday  
vision” (1986, 34).  While this book is about the past, it is also  
about where we go from here, and how we settle on the processes that  
determine new directions.  Seeing the city as both the subject and  
object of seeing will go a long way towards effectively designing a  
city that corresponds with the cultures that live within it.
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