“The entire complex of urban life can be thought of as a person rather than as a distinctive place, and the city may be endowed with a personality – or, to use common parlance – a character of its own. Like a person, the city then acquires a biography and a reputation.”
Anselm L. Strauss, Images of the American City
Since I find myself currently in the midst of a PhD dealing particularly with the imagined, or inarticulable, aspects of city life, I have been musing on both the tangential nature of research and indeed the “city” itself. My ethnographic work centres around the relation between dating apps and city space, both in the theoretical sense of Anderson’s imagined community and Castell’s space of flows, but also focused more ambiguously around the experiential nature of the city, its personality and the narratives spun around it.
Soon I will begin my year of fieldwork in Berlin and as a researcher who believes strongly in the potential of filmmaking as a methodological tool, I have been grappling with the idea of creating visual logbooks, in an attempt to capture the feeling or experience of being within the city. As an anthropologist at heart, the heft of my thesis will be based on interviews and participant-observation with the community of dating app users in Berlin; however it is my desire to supplement this with a more experimental approach.
Recently I travelled to New York, the location where I had planned to carry out my research into dating apps and the city before Berlin emerged as the favoured fieldsite. Berlin is in many ways the most American of European cities, stemming not from a reliance on great tradition, but rather defined through its continual reinvention as a symbol of modernity. Berlin and New York, these two formidable sin cities, in many ways mirror each other across the Atlantic. As Dorothy Rowe casts it, Berlin comes from “rootlessness, ugliness and lack of tradition on the one hand, and its status as a Weltstadt (metropolis or world city) embodying technology, potential and progress on the other”. Indeed, this description could easily be applied to New York, and as such my recent visit felt like an opportunity to apply some of my methodological musings to its streets.
Cities are inherently tangential, shooting off into clusters of progression and regression, fabricating, repackaging and realigning history. Narratives are sown into these personalities, lapping over one another in waves and reinventing or reinforcing everything that has come before, or indeed that which is yet to come. To somehow distil all of these ideas into a set of fieldnotes is of course impossible, indeed words alone often do not suffice in addressing that which we may term experiential.
The visual logbook, New York Impressions, was thus a result of walking through the city and capturing moments that struck me as particularly representative of my perception of this city, the imagined New York. The moving images are juxtaposed against a radio recording of Sha Na Na at Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park on July 30, 1972. This juxtaposition at least begins to hint at the layers of history that mask city spaces, especially if we see media as amplifying events that happen in a small area, so as to encompass the whole imagined environment of the city – a radio recording of Central Park broadcast to listeners far and wide, and indeed those not yet alive.
Fabian is a first-year PhD student in the Culture, Media and Creative Industries department at King’s College London. His work focuses on digital mediations of intimacy in the city and the utilisation of film as a methodology in academic research.
Anderson, B. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso: New York
Castells, M. 2010. The Rise of the Network Society, With a New Preface. Volume I: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (Information Age Series). Wiley Blackwell: Oxford.
Rowe, D. Desiring Berlin: Gender and modernity in Weimar Germany. Scholar Press: Menston.
Strauss, A. 1961. Images of the American City. Routledge: New York.