By day, the city is made of flesh and stone.
It is a binary field of openings and constraints.
It is produced and programmed by a social order in which phenomena—whether the rise of a new parking garage or the opening of a soup kitchen—have contingent but no less definite sets of meanings.
It stares back, and it anxiously resists a sense of play,
The temporal signature of the daytime city is flux.
The nighttime city is a web of electric lights.
It invites stochastic, incidental correspondences of subjective meaning.
When I was a child, my mother warned me that there was a giant gorilla living in the blue lantern at the top of the Industrial Trust Building. I worried that the beast might wake in a thrashing rage at any moment.
It is half-blind, and lends itself to imaginative re-inscriptions.
The temporal signature of the nighttime city is the flicker.
The electrified horizon stands in for the now-starless night sky as a fount of myth—a sort of technological surrogate for the dimming cosmos.
One time, a friend asked me for a ride to “some hipster church” in Providence that she had just started attending. She brought her own incense, intending to give it to the Christians to burn during the service. At the time I thought her unsolicited offering was naive and maybe a bit too forward. I figured that these people, being religious, would have a certain fixed way of doing things, not open to improvisation by newcomers.
Now, thinking back on episode, I am in deep awe of her gesture. I wonder what would a society knit together by such loving improvisations would look like.
“A thousand years ago the queen could only move one space.”
–man at a cafe
I sit on grassy land alongside the new Interstate 195 between Wickenden Street and India Point Park in Providence. The highway groans from its thousand metallic mouths. To the west is the vaulting shell of the old Narragansett Electric power plant, about a seven minute walk away. Though no longer humming with electric power, its presence is still imposing. It is dark now, street lights casting a few weak rays through its soaring arched windows, serene darkness within. The old plant’s facade suggests the containment of something tremendous. Hollowed and dark, of cathedralesque proportions, it calls to mind the temple ruins of a Greco-Roman mystery cult.
The still-active, much larger Narragansett Electric power generating station extends triune grayish stacks skyward, just to the left of the old one. The new plant makes me think of a sphinx, or some other kind of oracular sentry, partly for the way that it defines the liminal zone between city and river. At night, the stacks are black against the metropolitan halo, and there are red lights blinking at their crowns. The blinks alternate, out of sync but subtly rhythmic, and my mind looks for patterns in the alternations as if reading a forgotten language. I divine no meaning of course, but the patterns still linger on the imaginary threshold of legibility without ever crossing.
[image: the stacks as reflected in the river, a rotting dock to the left. taken by Ani Od Chai, Flicker Commons: https://flic.kr/p/5u6Q5u]
The German media critic Pit Schultz calls the internet a” collective hallucination of freedom.”
What is the term for that sensation of imagining that your cellphone has chirped or buzzed when it hasn’t? When that happens, I sometimes wonder if someone almost called me with something to say that would have drastically altered the course of events in my life or theirs or both.
In other words, maybe that imagined chirp or buzz signals the passing of a momentous potential event–or even the generation of an alternate world from that momentous potential event which in the alternate world was actuated.
The idea makes begins to make some sense when you consider that a cell phone (like other communications technologies) is an instrument of sensory extension that brings remote phenomena into the field of one’s awareness despite distances of time and space. A cell phone is not the only ‘extension of man’ to do so, of course, but being joined to its owner at the hip, it is the easiest of extensions to identify with one’s own being. The mind seems to treat the phone as if it were a vital organ, and a sense of panic ensues when its powers are temporarily suspended by a dead battery or an unpaid bill.
So, if it is true that the mind is equipped to register extremely subtle phenomena, such as the ghostly transit of a momentous potential event, then perhaps that knowledge ripples into consciousness by way of those proxy sense organs that are closest to us, most of all that amazing product of ‘evolution by other means,’ the cellphone.
[image credit: “Woman on Phone,” Flickr Commons, World Bank Photo Collection, https://flic.kr/p/d1w7Rd]