Delirious New York II: Coney Island & Poetic TechnologyPosted: May 2, 2012
“A roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
-Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
Delirious New York is a manifesto for Manhattan and “Manhattanism” but Rem Koolhaas curiously spends its first chapter exploring something far outside of Manhattan: Coney Island. Today, the Brooklyn peninsula’s aging boardwalk and rickety amusement rides evoke faded glory more than anything else—that scenery made an ideal backdrop for the saturated stupor of Requiem for a Dream—but Koolhaas sees the early twentieth-century version of Coney Island as a dramatic foil to Manhattan itself and a safety valve for the overcrowded city. He writes, “Coney Island is the incubator for Manhattan’s incipient themes and infant mythology. The strategies and mechanisms that later shape Manhattan are tested in the laboratory of Coney Island before they finally leap toward the larger island.”
In other words, the amusement parks that filled Coney Island erased the natural in favor of a synthetic total environment that could fabricate almost any sensation. Koolhaas calls this “an urbanism based on the Technology of the Fantastic.” The various elements of Coney Island—the Blue Dome of Creation, the End of the World, the Canals of Venice—were all examples of the Technology of the Fantastic, and those attractions excited crowds to the same degree that they offended highbrow taste. Those who found Coney Island cheap, fake, and mediocre supported razing its structures and replacing them with a park, but Koolhaas argues convincingly that this solution was a weak substitute for the spontaneous urbanism of the masses.
Coney Island was the site of unsustainable compromises between pairs of opposites: lowbrow and highbrow; artificial and natural. The Technology of the Fantastic versus the Urbanism of Good Intentions. The former eventually gave way to the latter and as that happened the once-vital place began a descent toward irrelevance. Something similar has occurred outside of Coney Island’s dreamworld: Technology has become less imaginative and more responsible.
In a recent lecture at the School of Visual Arts, David Graeber lamented the late-twentieth century change in our attitudes toward technology (video below). As a child of the 1960s, his generation grew up expecting flying cars and Mars colonies, which never really arrived. Instead, they got the Internet, which Graeber grimly calls “a combination of a post office, a mail-order catalogue, and a library.” He probably criticizes digital technology too harshly (see his dismissal of the iPhone during the Q&A around 1:01:00), but his overall point is valid: We now invest much less in technology that enables alternative futures and much more in technologies of labor discipline and control. Instead of the Technology of the Fantastic—or the broader category that Graeber calls “poetic technology”—we have “bureaucratic technology” that helps us (and forces us to) get work done. As exciting as the Internet can be, it lacks the inspiring quality of more tangible breakthroughs like the automobile or space shuttle. YouTube and Microsoft Office are less poetic than a Corvette Sting Ray (as was classical sculpture, according to the Futurists).
Of course, many others believe that iPhones and the Internet are more amazing than sci-fi technology, including the audience member Graeber shoots down. Architecture critic Reyner Banham applauds the gadget’s role in American culture in his 1965 essay “The Great Gizmo.” As Banham explains, settlers originally tamed the American wilderness using gadgets; ever since, Americans have imposed order on their unruly or unfamiliar environments in the same way, relying upon a lineage of gizmos that includes the Franklin stove, Jeep, transistor radio, and now the iPhone. Banham would later interpret Los Angeles as an urban wilderness that its inhabitants navigate with gizmos like cars and surfboards. Applying Banham’s essay to the present, Jimmy Stamp more recently wrote an excellent post for his blog Life Without Buildings about a spontaneous tour of Brooklyn coffee shops that his iPhone made possible.
For Banham and others, the gadgets we use in 2012 are fundamentally similar to those of previous eras. For Graeber, they are not. Coney Island flourished at a time when a culture’s most outrageous ideas were actually constructed in bricks and mortar and experienced collectively rather than individually. Today, for reasons of cost or expedience, those same ideas assume a digital form, attracting crowds at least as large that never share the same physical space. Whether one of these modes is more inspiring or “poetic” than the other remains to be answered, but regardless of that answer it’s a question that every gadget user—that is, all of us—should at least be asking.