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The City as Model. The City in Crisis

The 19th century invited the past to be a part of the present. Monuments represented that past. These silent witnesses had answers for contemporary problems put into their mouths and pressed onto their lips - how to build a democracy, how to give it shape: the past as a ventriloquist.

It was now no longer the monument - the palace or cathedral - that formed the reference point for the genius of a society. It was the city as a whole, a union of monuments and residences. The ensemble - the teamwork - was an expression of the art of harmonization, and had to provide faith in the 'doability' of democracy. The chorus of the monuments and their environment formed a statement of faith for a new policy: museums and cities were the citizens' exempla. The safekeeping, interpretation, exploitation and transformation of patrimony were essential to democratic politics.

Unlike the museum, the city implied that abstract democracy is anchored in local things. If democracy is an abstract idea, its practice takes place in local elections. Political power and symbolic reference no longer transcended, but were a municipal affair. The democratic generality unavoidably passed along the particularity, an exaltation of the local as a condition for the exaltation of a very abstract national democracy. (Photography was the technique condemned to this ideological need: it unavoidably set itself apart from the concrete and the local, and could at the same time widely distribute that particularity, whereby it again became abstract. Photography is an oxymoron: the concrete abstraction.)

Between democracy and photography lay a fundamental homology. The city too landed in a field of tension between an (abstract) theory of urbanity and the irreducible uniqueness of each separate city. In the monument, the city was ideally visible. With its monuments, each city distinguished itself from all others. The monument was its identifying mark. The first half of the century, with its lithographic-picturesque consciousness, invested in the symbolic capital of each particular city. The second half of the century objectified that symbolic investment and investigated urbanism. There was no longer a description of the city as such (that increasingly became just a matter for tourists), but an analysis of how a city achieved the order and laws of urbanism. With this, the peculiar characteristics of the local were undermined on behalf of general, structural references.

Photography was a paradoxical - not to say perverse - visual technique that was able to use only the local and unique as its subject matter, but which took place through an optical-chemical procedure that was radically uniform and universally applicable. Photographs showed concrete places, but by way of a single denominator. As the century progressed, this technique was increasingly more synchronized in its tensions between observation and law, between the exception and the rule, with tensions that were also the tensions of the democracy. The strain between particularity and things becoming uniform was a strong determining factor for how people associated with the 19th-century city. The increasing comparability of all cities - the disavowed trauma of tourism - heralded the disappearance of their differences and thus also the beginning of indifference. With this, the mortality of cities became visible: what died was the uniqueness of these creations. They continued to exist, but with ever-decreasing identity. At the end of the 19th century, the preservation of that identity was one of the central worries of the urbanists.

At that time, cities were dominated by decadence: Venice and Bruges made that connection clear (Mann, Rodenbach, d'Annunzio). The symbolic capital of the city was continuing to render itself only as the deficit of decadence. The city that modernized itself was liquidating its own symbolic capital. In this context, photography played a bizarre role. It was not in the service of the modernization, but of the declining symbolic value of the monuments. It confirmed the monument by documenting and recording it, which is to say de-symbolizing it. Photography emptied the monument of its motifs and its motives. Contemporaries barely seemed to notice that effect, but for us, the removal of the semantics of the motif by way of the photograph is more than obvious. Photography confirmed the crisis of the symbolic city by continuing to use it as its subject. On the other hand, photography reinforced the symbolic city by being in effect an asymbolic visual form. Photography thus modernized the old city while negating its truly new structure.

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