In Divisible Cities

A phanto-cartographical missive

Dominic Pettman

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

Mattering maps.

"Mattering maps" is a concept bequeathed to us by urban anthropologists, in love with their daily songlines tracing bookshop, café, home, and office. The notion is one we can all relate to. There are official maps of the city for different purposes: road maps, sewage maps, drainage maps, pollution maps, heat maps, and so on. But we all carry in our heads the personalized Baedeker of things which matter to us: shopping maps, eating maps, browsing maps, narcotic maps, erotic maps. Some corners of the city make us anxious, others curious, and still others strangely empty. Some streets are full of ghosts, while others are disturbing in their sheer inability to haunt. Anarchic romantics have suggested putting up plaques to commemorate personal landmarks and milestones: "May 22, 1995: spoke for the last time with Anna on this bench," or "July 10, 1979: broke my wrist on this step skateboarding," or "April 12, 1984: first kiss in this playground." And now the corporations follow suit.

No doubt this kind of mattering map has its charm; speaking to those fleeting, individual moments to which the city seems indifferent, and yet encourages through its very folds and concrete glades. "I stared down at this dusty necklace, the debris of a thousand automobile accidents. Within fifty years, as more and more cars collided here, the glass fragments would form a sizable bar, within thirty years a beach of sharp crystal. A new race of beachcombers might appear, squatting on these heaps of fractured windshields, sifting them for cigarette butts, spent condoms and loose coins. Buried beneath this new geological layer laid down by the age of the automobile accident would be my own small death, as anonymous as a vitrified scar in a fossil tree."

But beyond the dérive, and beyond the flâneur, I can picture another kind of mattering map. A map which generates territory, rather than the other way around. Not as simulacra, but as affective blueprint. A map which does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map which brings cities into being; turning their potential and promise into brute matter. (But why "brute"? Matter can be as sensitive and flexible as the concepts which patronize it. And why do these concepts patronize matter? For its insistence on being something rather than nothing.)

Matter matters. That's what the drone of the city tells us. And yet we dream of something beyond these invisible walls.




Material girls.


Material girls of the world congregate here. They make pilgrimages. They see it first on TV, and then they pawn their TVs to see it firsthand. It is just as they imagined, only sweatier, and smellier, and even more intoxicating. "Oh, the mansions, the lights, the perfume, the loaded boudoirs and tables! New York must be filled with such bowers, or the beautiful, insolent, supercilious creatures could not be. Some hothouses held them."

To call someone "materialistic" once inferred that they lacked soul, and thus revered (mere) things over ideas and ideals. The pendulum has swung, however, so that those who care about actual lives proudly evoke materialism; whereas those obsessed with labels don't care whether these labels are attached to anything or not. The more evanescent the commodity, the more bowel-clutching the desire for it. The more effervescent the object, the more focused the fetish.

Which is why these girls drape themselves in tiny wisps of material in the summer, barely enough to constitute a handkerchief in the 1940s. Perversely, these whispered gestures towards dresses are in direct inverse ratio to the giant sunglasses that perch on their flint-like cheekbones. To be barely there: the ultimate fashion statement.

Blow-flies giving blow-jobs to blow-hards.




She looks different.


She looks different every time I see her. And yet the recognition is swift. I wish I could say with confidence why that is, for the continuity is not of the visible world. It is a knowledge that bypasses the mind.

She has started to leave me telegraphic messages, wedged under stones in dried up bird-baths. The technique is novel: tearing out pages from old books – travel books, cook books, pot-boilers, catalogues – and circling the significant words in a linear fashion. Stringing these together, I wonder if she is trying to tell me of her fatigue with all this motion; her disenchantment with asymptotes and arabesques.

Every...body ...continues... in... its...state...of...rest...or...of... uniform . . . motion . . . in . . . a . . . straight . . . line . . . unless . . . it . . . is . . . compelled . . . to . . . change . . . that . . . state . . . by . . . forces . . . impressed . . . upon . . . it.

(each word circled in a coffee-stained treatise on a pioneering photographer I had never heard of . . . but why not tear out a page of Newton directly?)

I try to imagine the kind of abode she would settle for and within. I picture views out the window of a city I have not yet seen. A prickly affair, to find oneself on the wrong side of "the topography of our intimate being." A wedding portrait, prominently displayed perhaps. A view of a famous skyscraper from the deck. A kitchen worthy of a budding chef. And a bed boasting coils strong enough to take the strain.

"The sheltered being gives perceptible limits to her shelter. She experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thought and dreams. . . it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word."




Gilles Trehin.

Gilles Trehin lives near Nice, in the South of France. However, he spends most of his time in the city of Urville: a megalopolis which exists only inside the autistic spirals of his obsessive imagination (as well as the many drawings he has made of this fanciful polis). Urville has been expanding, as the population figures Monsieur Trehin adjusts every year attests; and boasts many impressive buildings and landmarks, such as the Place des Troubadours, the Radio-Television Métropolitaine, the Centre International des Cultures, and the Quartier des Tégartines.

Upon discovering Urville, one's first instinct is to be captivated by the detail of the place. Every suburb, every municipal building, every park, and every street has been seemingly mapped as intricately as any of the world's major metropolitan centers. The fact that the inhabitants are invisible to us adds a kind of magic. But is this really so charming for M. Trehin? I wonder if he wakes up at night, sweating and confused – the overburdened mayor to a city that itself never sleeps. Does he delegate negotiations between the preservationists and the developers, or does he take on that thankless task himself?



Tour An 2000, vue de l'avenue des Jonquilles





I believe I have an inkling.

I believe I have an inkling of how M. Trehin feels. For while I do not claim to be the architect-deity of Napoli, I do spend much of my mental life there. Here I inhabit a different, much less harried life. There is a villa, to be sure; a bit worse for wear, but all the more romantic for it. There is a literary project to take seriously, and also to joyfully ignore for deep pockets of time. But most importantly, there is a beautiful and enigmatic stowaway in my midst, here on the balcony – wearing my misbuttoned shirt, and little else; munching on breadsticks with lips as red and bitter-sweet as pomegranate seeds.




A series of photographs.

A series of photographs of people sleeping. Sleeping in subway cars. Sleeping on benches. Sleeping at café tables. Sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes. Title: "The City That Never Sleeps."




Writing can be.

Writing can be a form of attentiveness to the environment, and thus a rich resistance to the obligations and distractions that keep us from being mindful. Considered from this angle, it is no longer so important what the result is, in terms of "literature," but a means to maximizing one's own presence within – and connection to – the world. "What kind of tree is that?" I ask aloud.

"I don't know," a stranger replies, smiling; somewhat abashed by their own ignorance. "Then I should find out."




Whenever I happen to be.

"Whenever I happen to be in a city of any size, I marvel that riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos. How can so many human beings coexist in a space so confined without destroying each other, without hating each other to death?"







It's so hard

"It's so hard to go in to the city, because you want to say 'hello' to everybody."




What could one possibly do?

What could one possibly do with a key to the city?







We spoke.

We spoke for the first time today. On the reflective deck of a giant ship, the size of a modest city.

The words were tentative. But targeted.

Like a lasso, fashioned to capture the other.

Or a rope that holds hull to wharf.

Despite hailing from elsewhere, I noticed she had the habit of young, educated Francophone women: a sharp intake of breath between sentences. As if sucking in the word "oui" backwards. This suggested to me that she had, at least once, regretted assenting to something.




There is something.

There is something she doesn't know (or least not for sure), but I can match her. Precisely. Spliced. Atom-wise.

Our trajectories – finally – began to cross in the flesh. During these encounters, in divisible cities, our bodies enjoyed both rest and motion simultaneously. Afterward, we talked of a honeymoon tour of cities that no longer exist. Constantinople. Peking. Leningrad. To name only a few.

We also speculated whether a quantum love can emerge from Euclidean spaces.

That day we discovered that sex is a kind of mapping, and bodies have – more often than not – been traversed by others. Trails have been formed. Oases rediscovered.

"Being made love to as though you inhabited someone else's sexual preferences puts you on quite complicated terms of sexual intimacy: the preferences of another body are mapped out for you on your own. So too when you are the adulterer, you make love to your lover with the pleasure – but at times, the chagrin – of unfamiliarity, mapping as you go the similarities and the differences. How can you not be comparing, measuring, playing catch-up, but still invariably registering the absent presence of another very familiar body, the one that shares your bed when you finally return to the domestic fold, for sleep if nothing else."

If love is blind, then sex is Braille.




Telesymbiosis.

Telesymbiosis is defined by evolutionary biologists as "symbiosis at a distance." (And not, as I initially thought, an existential fusion with one's television set.) The mechanism for this miraculous feat is still obscure, but such a possibility is indispensible for those who subscribe to the Gaia hypothesis: the theory that the Earth somehow synchronizes its various spheres (bio-, litho-, atmo-, cryo-, hydro-) into a state of relative homeostasis. Thus, telesymbiosis puts the stasis in home, or vice versa.

Of course estranged lovers live in a perpetual state of telesymbiosis. And each day is lived in fear of the loss of remote control.




The pledge was made.

The next morning I found another one of her notes, placed where her soft-scented body should have been. The page had been torn from an antiquated rule book, explaining the subtleties and strategies of Chess. Only two words were circled on this occasion: "stale mate."





This is a short extract from a book-length manuscript of the same name.



Read the translation in Italian

Read the translation in Chinese, Traditional

Dominic Pettman is Chair of Culture and Media, Eugene Lang College, as well as Associate Professor of Liberal Studies, New School for Social Research in New York City. He has held previous positions at the University of Melbourne, the University of Geneva, and the University of Amsterdam. Topics which inspire him include techno-poetic fancies, unexpected libidinal economies, inter-species epiphanies, and transnational culinary possibilities. He is the co-author of Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object (AUP, 2004), and the sole author of After the Orgy: Toward a Politics of Exhaustion (SUNY, 2002), Love and Other Technologies: Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age (Fordham, 2006), and Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (Minnesota, 2011).

Damiano Abeni (MD, MPH) is an epidemiologist who has published in Italy volumes of Bidart, Bishop, Bukowski, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Strand, Simic, C.K. Williams, and many others. With Mark Strand, he edited West of your Cities, a bi-lingual anthology of contemporary American poets. With Moira Egan, he has published books in translation by John Barth, Mark Strand, Josephine Tey, and John Ashbery, whose collection, Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, won a Special Prize of the Premio Napoli (2009). He has held fellowships at the Bogliasco Foundation and at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

Moira Egan is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Spin (Entasis Press, 2010). Work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2008. With Damiano Abeni, she has published books in translation by John Barth, Mark Strand, Josephine Tey, and John Ashbery, whose collection, Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, won a Special Prize of the Premio Napoli (2009). She has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; Writer in Residence at St. James Cavalier Centre, Malta; a Fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center; and a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

Heidi Wong Pui-Yi and Louise Law Lok-Man translated this work into Chinese.

Heidi Wong Pui-Yi is a translation graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She was awarded the prize of merit for the translation category of the 37th Hong Kong Youth Literary Awards. She is currently undertaking a master of philosophy degree in translation, and assists Prof. John Minford on a Hong Kong literature translation project, translating《什麽都沒有發生》(Nothing Has Happened) by Chan Koonchung into English.

Louise Law Lok-Man is a poet, literary editor, arts and culture journalist and literary festival organiser. She is currently the festival coordinator of Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the editor-at-large of Hong Kong based Chinese literary magazine, Fleurs des Lettres. She has written for various newspapers and magazines including Hong Kong Economic Journal, Hong Kong Economic Times, and Channel Young of Shanghai. Her poetry works are widely seen in different media such as Beijing News, Poetry Now of Taiwan, Qiu Ying Poetry of Hong Kong, etc. Some of her works was published in Modern Poetry Annual Anthology of China 2007. She was a philosophy major and obtained a research-based master degree in English Literary Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.