The city as a specimen (2010.10.4[Mon.])


"I'm writing this in the Zurich airport, during a long layover for Lufthansa 2734 to Frankfurt. The news program in the lounge is talking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This trip, I was attending the Euro Evo Devo conference EED2010 and had to spend quite some time in Paris. Or, given my love for the city, I should say I planned to spend some time there. I think it goes without saying, though, that in indulging myself in the exploration of old familiar passages I'd not yet discovered as I hunt for antiquarian books and naturalist plates, I only enjoy the famous sightseeing spots from the outside.

    Before my flight to Zurich, on a day off following the end of the conference, I found myself enjoying a lesiurely lunch as I took in the simultaneous view of Les Bouqinistes and Notre Dame from the opposite side of the Seine when I noticed a poster that I thought said "Metropolis." This is not a word I asociate with Paris, but when I looked more closely, I realized it read "Metamorphosis" instead.

    Now in my understanding of the term from natural philosophy, this is also ill-suited to the City of Lights, but at least more appropriate than Metropolis. For the tourist at least, Paris is what they see in the gardens that flank the Seine, which can hardly be said to function as a city. It's more like a frozen image from the 18th or 19th century that has not been allowed to die, a moth mounted in a collector's case. At this point, can it even be called a town?

    The word metropolis conjures up images of the Fritz Lang film of the same name, and carries the meaning of a place, a locus born as the manifestation of civilization, culture, policy and thought at a given historical moment, and which changes pari passu with the changing times, and which will ultimately decline, decay, and reek in its decadence before settling into a dysfunction premonitory of death. It calls to mind the great American cities, or Berlin, or the ruins that litter the pages textbooks. Someone once said of such towns that, within the metropolis, a necropolis waits its chance to emerge. Its march toward death shows it to be alive; one might say the same of all living things...

    A dying city has the stink of decay, giving no sense of its former livingness. This rotting, however, is actually the surest sign that it was once alive, of its component nutrients and its activity. But a mounted specimen conceals death, playing out a deceptive appearance of life. It is neither living nor dead, only frozen in time. Well, perhaps that is saying too much - the specimen is in fact only one aspect of death, a moment, and over time even it will be bleached by ultraviolet light. All that will remain is the structural color as the one we see in a morpho butterfly. And even that color will not last forever; even color has a life expectancy. The human effort to put a stop to this unstoppable process is doomed, tragically so.

    The Paris so loved by people all over of the world, who wish to preserve it forevermore is like a specimen case labelled "Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries." As you walk around the city, when you see one of the histori spots from afar, you can't help wondering whether maybe, you'll encounter some artifact from another age when you visit it. At least, I think this the right way to approach the city. I don't want to wander in deeper and deeper in pursuit of illusions. It's more like dissected a dried out specimen to study its anatomy. Or, if you prefer to engage with the living city of today, you could try, as did Dr. O in my lab, making a pilgrimage to spots shown in a famous film.

    In the past few years, the field of taphonomy, which studies the conditions and processes through which particular specimens came to be fossilized, has enjoyed a certain popularity. In one recent paper, it was suggested that this can involve a protraction of the decay process, in which some features dissolve away leaving only a subset of remnants that harden to stone, creating the deceptive impression that a fossil organism was more primitive than it actually was. The most recently acquired are the first to be lost, making a fish seem to be a gnathostome, or a gnathostome a lancelet, or a lancelet some urbilaterian of eons past. It seems that phylogenetic recapitulation plays out not only in ontogeny, but in decomposition as well, unwinding the spool of time in the reverse direction....

    Perhaps this is also true for dying cities. Kowloon in Hong Kong, which has disappeared (been destroyed) since the end of the last century, had grown bit by bit with new parts continuously tacked onto elder structures, like evolution. I can't help but think that when it is destroyed, it would be these newest features that would come away first, like a film rewinding onto its reel, the city's history replaying in hysteron proteron. Just as Barbara Stafford saw in ethcings by the hand of the architect Piranesi, ruins reveal their former structures as a type of anatomical depiction. But Paris, kept mightliy from its natural decay, is left to serve over the years as a lectotype of the old European city. When the young Napoleon first came to Paris, it was little more than a pigsty. Over the next decades, it transformed and opened its wings, its newly acquired beauty on display, as symbolized in the Eiffel's fin de siècle tower. This was the city's one metamorphosis - what we see today is its imago, pinned like an insect in a box for the world to gaze on and admire.

    Other cities doubtless undergo much the same process. But given its direct connections to our present-day ideologies and philosophies, and its preservation of 18th and 19th century form, stained deeply by the end of the 19th, there is no match for Paris as a site of historical heritage, even among its rivals in Ghent and Prague. And for me, Kobe is a similar place, a city in which you need to know how to walk to avoid being swallowed up in the illusion, and how to look to see the city as it once was (there is even a fixed path to take on your way to the insect "museum" in Kitano). Paris will never again see a metamorphosis of the beauty it experienced in those years. But I will continue to make my expeditions there, armed with that knowledge, or pretending, perhaps, not to know...