Another Manhattan Project

I still regard Postmodern geographies as Ed Soja‘s finest book – his most considered and his most creative – and within that his essay on ‘Taking Los Angeles Apart‘ is surely the stand-out contribution.  By turns playful and passionate, it’s packed with insights about Los Angeles and late modern cities.  I discussed it at length in Geographical imaginations – the book not the blog – but the essay has come back to haunt me ever since I learned of an extraordinary new book which I know Ed would have read with the greatest interest.

KISHIK The Manhattan Project

It’s David Kishik‘s The Manhattan Project, which I stumbled across because of its title and my new-found interest in seeing drones through post-atomic eyes.  But it’s not about that Manhattan Project at all.  Instead, it riffs on Benjamin’s Arcades Project in the most astonishing of ways:

In The Manhattan Project, David Kishik dares to imagine a Walter Benjamin who did not commit suicide in 1940, but managed instead to escape the Nazis to begin a long, solitary life in New York. During his anonymous, posthumous existence, while he was haunting and haunted by his new city, Benjamin composed a sequel to his Arcades Project. Just as his incomplete masterpiece revolved around Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, this spectral text was dedicated to New York, capital of the twentieth. Kishik’s sui generis work of experimental scholarship or fictional philosophy is thus presented as a study of a manuscript that was never written.

The fictitious prolongation of Benjamin’s life will raise more than one eyebrow, but the wit, breadth, and incisiveness of Kishik’s own writing is bound to impress. Kishik reveals a world of secret affinities between New York City and Paris, the flâneur and the homeless person, the collector and the hoarder, the covered arcade and the bare street, but also between photography and graffiti, pragmatism and minimalism, Andy Warhol and Robert Moses, Hannah Arendt and Jane Jacobs. A critical celebration of New York City, The Manhattan Project reshapes our perception of urban life, and rethinks our very conception of modernity.

Another good friend who is sadly no longer with us, Allan Pred, would surely have relished that too. I’m sure Ed would have insisted that Benjamin would never have gone to New York and that, in common with Adorno, he would have sought refuge in L.A. (where else? In fact Adorno left New York for LA, though it’s impossible to think of Ed calling that ‘exile’).

You can read the Introduction to The Manhattan Project here and an extract from the first chapter here; there’s also an extended interview with David about the project here.

Finally, there’s an excellent review by Dustin Illingworth at The Brooklyn Rail here.  When Dustin says this –

Like Borges’s “Aleph,” New York is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is therefore much to Kishik’s credit that his slim volume, a drop in the vast ocean of literature on the city, packs such a considerable theoretical punch.

– then we are back with Ed Soja’s essay, which also began with an appeal to The Aleph and also packed a considerable theoretical punch.

A gentle giant


Ed Soja (Jan Sprij)

I was so sad to hear of the death of Ed Soja.  A lifetime ago Ed and Maureen spent his sabbatical at Cambridge, and they rented the house next door to us.  At least once a week Ed and I would meet for what we told our families were our ‘seminars’ – and so they were, though there just the two of us sitting in the yard of the pub across King Street from the back gate of Sidney Sussex College, glasses on the creaky table in front of us and the air full of smoke from Ed’s cigarettes.

They were precious times.  Ed’s sharp intellect opened up all sorts of avenues I would never have noticed on my own, and while we disagreed on all sorts of things – to this day I don’t understand why Foucault’s essay on heterotopia, ‘Of other spaces’, is taken even remotely seriously – we agreed on so many more: the power of Foucault’s writing (Ed used to say he could taste the words in his mouth), his archival seriousness (at that time there were few commentators who appreciated that Foucault was an intensely empirical scholar), and his astonishingly creative imagination.  Above all, we were entranced by the multiple ways in which he re-thought and re-worked ideas of space and spatiality and traced that dazzling triangle between power, knowledge and geography.

You could, of course, say exactly the same of Ed.

Our conversations soon spilled over – rather like our beers – into an equally intense discussion of Lefebvre.  Ed was fascinated by the introduction to The production of space, and the schema that he would eventually elaborate in Postmodern geographies and then Thirdspace, whereas I was beginning to think through his ideas about bodies in spaces (probably a carry-over from our joint readings of Discipline and punish).  But it was Ed’s probing questions, his patient encouragement and his ability to see connections that were indispensable to my intellectual journey.

Whenever the four of us had dinner together, it was always a special pleasure to listen to Maureen either puncturing Ed’s wilder bursts of fantasy – or encouraging them – with dry one-liners that to this day make me howl with laughter.  I vividly remember Ed being invited to a dinner party shortly before they returned home; they had been guests there once before, and it had not been a success, but Ed gamely accepted a second invitation.  Maureen flatly – and understandably – refused to go, and throughout that long afternoon Ed sat at the table alternately pleading with Maureen to relent and summoning me for a drink with the condemned man.  When he got there, he found that the partners of all the other guests had suddenly developed colds, the flu or broken legs.

Ed enlivened the Department of Geography no end too, and delighted the graduate students with his healthy irreverence, his sense of intellectual adventure – and by his evident happiness at spending time with them.

Throughout all these meetings, Ed was a wonderful companion: dazzlingly well read, rigorously critical, intellectually generous, achingly funny and above all intensely passionate.  He once proclaimed to me, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis (and here I leave out Ed’s punctuating adverbs): ‘If we aren’t interested in this, why on earth should anyone else be?’

When Ed rose at a conference to ask a question it was like the towering inferno made flesh: he was so tall that just when you thought he was finally on his feet he somehow carried on rising, and he was almost always quivering with passion.

All of this came together in perhaps my favourite memory of Ed.  We shared a room at an AAG meeting – I think it was in Portland – and we were entertaining ourselves by combing through a book of abstracts whose weight rivalled the London phone directory.  Much of it was about as interesting: spatial science still had a deadly grip on the field.  We had been reading out paper titles to one another when Ed suddenly erupted in delight.  I still think he was drawn to it because he had mis-read the title; Ed was already a high priest of postmodernism, and the paper he had found was on ‘post-mortem migration’.   Somebody had found a dataset on snowbirds who had fled south to escape the northern winter and died before they could return home; the data listed the states to which their bodies had been returned and tabulated the numbers.  The author showed that the standard migration model of ‘intervening opportunities’ didn’t fit very well (surprisingly) and so fitted distance-decay curves to the data…  You couldn’t make it up, and it exemplified everything that Ed’s wonderful, illuminating life was not.