Absent Voices #1 (Feature Piece): Adversity, Spontaneity, and the Forgotten Song of the Nightingale in our Urban Experience

An Uber has been sent to your location. But has anyone actually sent it? Is it not acting rather on its own instructions? Sure, certain transport purists claim that Uber drivers do not know where they are going, that they blindly follow route guidance. Others, Uber’s faithful customers, say they don’t mind being taken down dead ends or across the odd playing field on their way home. Some, sent home by friends having disgraced themselves on a night out, are too drunk to notice. 

In any case, the Uber journey invariably begins with the U-turn. For when you press ‘Request Uber’ on your smartphone application, somewhere, minutes away—urban distance is now measured in minutes, not miles—an Uber is obliged to halt in the street, perform a U-turn, and head your way.

What is so unusual about that? The U-turning Uber is fast becoming an urban commonplace in London, rivalling the black cab cruising down an empty bus lane while you sit motionless in traffic, or the ranks of chip shops along the high street promising a final refuge for your Saturday night. Take a walk through Shoreditch this weekend and you will see streets thick with U-turning Ubers, cavorting and convulsing in the thoroughfare like ecstatic devotees.

Still, there is something rather odd about all this. Dangerous, ungainly, and impromptu, the U-turn is everything that the Uber website promises the service is not. In the moment of the U-turn, all that slickness goes out the window. How could this seamless system of ‘Tap and Ride’ ever permit such an aberration? We expect a sublime service: to be surprised by the driver—his engine almost silent—rolling up from nowhere (or rather, falling off a virtual map and appearing in the real) like on the forecourt of a posh hotel.

Yet at some unsighted distance, everything depends on a constitutive moment of pure contingency and—perhaps in violation of local traffic laws—human adjustment. Just for an instant, the beautiful system that directs Ubers around London is disarmed and suspended, while the driver performs a U-Turn in the middle of the road. The more refined an object, Schiller reminds us, the uglier its decay.

Uber, of course, is not the only service that has become central to our personal experience of the city. It forms only part of a layer of technologies, services, programmes, applications, and systems that increasingly mediates that experience. These various component parts reproduce the city virtually, and it is through this virtual layer that we now experience the city.

There are other component parts of the layer that do their best to obscure their essential contingency. Think of Deliveroo, which depends on swarms of sweaty men on bicycles happy to endure the rain in order to courier burgers from joint to door. Or navigating with Google Maps, a pursuit dependent on conditions as mundane as not having exceeded your data allowance.

The virtual layer does not conceal the ‘true nature of things’. On the contrary, its function is revelatory: the city appears as a hypostatised, over-exposed, and ultimately underwhelming copy of itself. Here the virtual layer is not so dissimilar from that fictional empire described by Borges in Del rigor en la ciencia, whose cartographers drew up a map so detailed that it was precisely the same size as the empire itself. Our contemporary virtual urban map encompasses exactly both the city and its inhabitants. 

(In Borges’ fable the map eventually falls into disrepair, leaving behind only tattered remains. When Baudrillard picked up the tale some 40 years later in Simulacres et simulation, however, it was the empire itself which had wasted away beneath the map, which, by contrast, remained intact).

Uber will take us anywhere. StreetView will show us anywhere. Deliveroo will bring us food from anywhere. Citymapper will show us the most efficient way of travelling anywhere. Airbnb will let us stay anywhere (Couchsurfing will do this for free). TripAdvisor will tell us where to go. What3Words has divided the land of the city into unique 3m sq. parcels, each given a unique barcode. A hoard of review sites informs our opinions of places and directs our evenings and weekends. To know the weather, we are more likely to check our phones than to look outside. The revelatory function of the virtual layer has uncloaked the city, unveiled it, deprived it of its mystery. No house, street, restaurant, or shop remains obscured. Nowhere is unknowable, everywhere is attainable.

Just think of the last time you saw a photograph of the city from the 80s, 70s, or 60s, or even earlier; one is struck by the sheer distance between that city and our city. Not only temporally, but also spatially. A photographic fragment—an isolated, partial representation of a former place at a former time—is infinitely more romantic and suggestive than a panoramic revelation of the contemporary city in a navigable StreetView image. The fragment invokes whole constellations of bygone yet still rich social, cultural, and urban experiences, possibilities, and promises. StreetView only revokes what it reveals.

A current advertising campaign for money.co.uk on the tube and red buses proclaims the following slogan: ‘The world belongs to those who check.’ There are two implications of this slogan. Firstly, the city is rendered intelligible only to the individual who makes use of a particular (proprietary) technology or service. Secondly, this intelligibility is also the precondition of any individuality which claims the possibility of having the city belong to it.

1) On the objective side, we can discern a certain symbiosis between the various applications and technologies that make up the virtual layer and the particular experiences they each authorise. The urban object world is constituted differently according to the particular standpoint and technical capabilities of each application. This is a Deliveroo experience, an Uber experience… The experience becomes the property of its medium, thereby setting de facto limits on the possibilities of experience itself.

2) On the subjective side, the virtual layer has taken our place as the precondition of experience. We pass—if not into the object world—then into the realm of proto-subjectivity, in which we provide merely the impulse that is processed and articulated on our behalf as subjectivity proper through the component parts of the virtual layer. Perhaps this corresponds to what Deleuze has called dividuels, as opposed to individuels: we are merely inputs to a system more capable of articulating our individuality, and even our very physical presence (think of how we ‘share our location’).

In his Wissenschaftslehre of 1794, Fichte set out his philosophical project to derive the world of objects from the standpoint of individual subjectivity. Yet Goethe, in his memoirs, would question how Fichte was to keep in step with the external world, which he regarded rather as his private property. We might ask the same of the virtual layer to which we devolve our own subjectivity proper and which also constitutes the limits of our urban experience.

Our peculiar relationship to the city might guarantee us 3.5 star experiences at least (admit it, we never settle for less), but what about those unexpected experiences which cannot come to us through an application or online service? Odysseus plugged the ears of his sailors with wax to shield them from the Sirens’ song. But, as Heine notes, wax would also obscure the innocent song of the nightingale. For Heine, the song of the nightingale stood for the possibility of political revolution in Vormärz Prussia; in our city, it simply represents what the photographer William Klein understood as ‘free urban being’, in both its reflective and physical senses.

What if the answer lies in the wax itself? We might explore whether the very centrality of the virtual layer to our urban experience points the way toward alternative forms of experience. If we see symbiosis between its component parts and the experiences they authorise, then this must mean that the virtual layer as a whole is far from monolithic. It must be composed of multiple elements and functions, whose inevitable overlapping, jostling, and competition might leave gaps and cracks through which the song of the nightingale might escape.

We have already seen such a moment, with the Uber forced to confront its own contingency by performing a U-turn. Events such as a strike of public transport workers, the onset of bad weather, the sad fact of running out of data, or even making eye contact with a passing stranger; all these events too jam a stick in the spokes of the virtual layer, and, as it stutters and falters momentarily, we might hear the song of the nightingale in the sound of the picket lines or the heavy falling of rain.

In such conditions, which we might call the conditions of adversity (what a tough life we live when we consider adverse running out of data!), applications, technologies, and systems become useless as their mediations dissolve into nothingness and we are brought into unavoidable and direct confrontation with the physical urban environment itself. The pervasive seamlessness of smartphones, of route guidance, of trusted reviews, of this entire panoply of augmented reality, turns on its head, and for a brief period the city is left exposed, inviting a different sort of experience.

Adversity poses challenges that we can only solve unaided. Try getting to work on time when the tube drivers are striking, or checking your smartphone in driving hailstones. Try navigating successfully in conditions of fog, or without the help of Google Maps. To take fog as an example, when it descends upon the city it is not the city itself that has changed essentially, but only our experience of it. The streets and buildings still exist where they’ve always been; we simply cannot find them. Smartphone technology is of little assistance if one cannot see the street signs. Ubers are left stranded, planes are cancelled. Only the red buses proceed solemnly and inexorably along their routes, as they always do.

It is such conditions of adversity which supply the temporary veil of mystery which the virtual layer does its best to remove, and in whose episodes, we are left to our own devices. We should relish these episodes, when the contingency of the U-turn becomes the modus operandi of urban experience, when technology loses its hold and spontaneity becomes possible. When the relentless revelation of the virtual layer is halted, the city can reclaim the knowledge forced from it. And things of which we have no knowledge once again hold intrigue for us.

Of course, the prospect of spontaneity may not be desirable to all. Kant reminds us that, if we heard the song of a nightingale imitated by a human being to the highest degree of deception, and we gave ourselves up to the impression caused by it, our pleasure would cease with the revelation of the deception. With the virtual layer, however, it is the deception itself to which we willingly give ourselves, and in aid of which we build up Odysseus’ wax in our ears and block out the song of the nightingale. Faced with disruption, adversity, contingency in the form of a strike or bad weather, the prospect of spontaneity inclines us not to pleasure but to anger. Like Alexis Alexandrovitch in Anna Karenina, every time we stumble against life exposed we shrink from it in displeasure.

Can we force the issue on our own terms? Can we have a spontaneous experience of the city without waiting on (or dreading) conditions of adversity? Can we choose to escape the virtual layer on a temporary (if not permanent) basis?

Perhaps Schiller’s writings on aesthetics can help us here. In his essay, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, Schiller distinguished between two kinds of experience of nature. Naïve experience—characteristic of classical antiquity—is suggestive of total identification with nature, whose individual phenomena are personified or deified, and are represented as the simple actions of free beings.

In sentimental experience—characteristic of modernity—nature is deprived of its personifications and becomes instead an alien realm of pure necessity and unfreedom. In this sentimental mood, our social and cultural world is understood in opposition to nature. Indeed, Schiller portrays modern civilisation as an exile from nature, a form of self-incurred aesthetic alienation in which nature is understood as a separate object world of purely instrumental value. As such, the modern human being exists in a state of disharmony, deprived of an essential component of human nature, i.e. nature itself.

Schiller’s typology remains useful if we think of the urban environment as our second nature, like many of its dwellers do. From this starting point, we can conceive two types of urban experience: the active and the passive.

As we have seen above, passive urban experience devolves our subjectivity to a virtual layer composed of technologies and smartphone applications, which at the same time—by token of its revelatory function—claims the objectivity of the city itself. The result is a virtual layer which both conditions and sets the limits of our urban experience, casting the city instrumentally as a mere object and ourselves as barely thinking proto-subjects.

Active urban experience, by contrast, encourages the feeling of spontaneity which generally becomes possible in conditions of adversity. Such a mode of experience restores both our own subjectivity and the objective qualities of the city itself. This restoration—for as long as we can maintain it—permits a certain playful abandon that is reflected in the song of the nightingale, just as Procne’s unhappy fate is recorded in Aeschylus’s Suppliants. The song of the nightingale accompanies us, alone, unaided—yet not unabated—in this ‘new’ urban environment in which we find ourselves.

This vision of spontaneity recalls a gay episode described by Rousseau in his 1758 Lettre sur les spectacles to D’Alembert, in which cheerful militia men in Geneva begin dancing after completing their evening military exercises in Saint Gervais Square, and are promptly joined by their wives and children from home, thereby blending martial strictures with homely joviality. (For Rousseau, of course, spontaneity can itself only occur within limits defined by non-spontaneity, of dignity, pride, and boredom).

In the city of the nightingale, the streets and avenues would unfold before us like the endless hexagonal rooms of the ‘total library’ described in La biblioteca de Babel—another fable by Borges—which contains an infinite number of books of every possible permutation of characters (and by logical extension every book ever to have been written or that can be written), whether perfect or defective, and whose inhabitants are possessed by all manner of attitudes, approaches, and responses to their existential condition.

Yes, we ought to relish those moments when adversity leaves us to our own devices in the city. Better still, however, we might seek spontaneity for ourselves. We might choose simply to walk around the city with our eyes turned upwards and our ears listening, leaving our smartphones and headphones at home, reclaiming our subjectivity, and taking pleasure in a city of which knowledge can be gained only by well-intentioned effort and in fragmented and imperfect form. (In any case, this is not so different from how we wander through a foreign city with no express purpose other than pure experience itself).

We should be open to the prospect of spontaneous experience, the possibility of getting lost, the passing glances of strangers, the romantic prospect of urban mystery, the intrigue of a door to the street lying ajar, to the pure contingency of the city; in a word, to some kind of urban fate, which is nothing other than the limits of the human imagination.


William James is a first year PhD student at King’s College London, falling through the gaps of various departments and making a habit of studying unpopular topics. He is interested in cultural theory, aesthetics, and intellectual history, and his current research explores myth and dream-history in German thought & culture from Winckelmann to Marx.

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