On Leslie Scalapino’s 'New Time' and the perceptual city
In the essay “Bodies-Cities,” Elizabeth Grosz argues that “[t]he city is one of the crucial factors in the social production of (sexed) corporeality: the built environment provides the context and coordinates for contemporary forms of body.” There are a number of claims within this one: that corporeality is a social production, that the way corporeality is socially produced is inconsistent across bodies, and that what a body is must be bound up in what buildings are and how they use each other. If the built environment contains the context for bodies, do bodies also contextually produce the built environment? Are body and city, in other words, relationally constituted? To work through this thought, I read Leslie Scalapino’s poems in her 1999 collection New Time as modeling a relational production of body and city.
Grosz argues that corporeality can only be understood by addressing the spatiotemporal contexts within and against which it defines itself. She argues further in the essay, “Space, Time and Bodies” that bodies need to be understood not only in space-time, but in conceptions of space-time that are tied to embodied experience. She writes, “[o]ne thing remains clear: in order to reconceive bodies, and to understand the kinds of active interrelations possible between (lived) representations of the body and (theoretical) representations of space and time, the bodies of each sex need to be accorded the possibility of a different space-time framework.” Experiences of the built environment are, Grosz argues, uneven, and specifically, different for people of different sexes.
I feel conflicted about this. What bodies are, following Grosz, is dependent upon the social experiences available in each built environment (in “Bodies-Cities”) and in theoretical spatiotemporality (in “Space, Time and Bodies”). But even as I’m recounting Grosz’s argument, I’m changing it. She is arguing that space-time is aggregated differently along divisions of sex, which suggests that cities are similar places for “the bodies of each sex.” So, she is arguing that experiences of the built environment for cis-female people do not map onto the dominant cis-male paradigm of what the built environment is like. (Additionally, I find myself hesitating about the parallel forms in the two essays of “built environment” and “space-time,” one rigorously material and asking to be historicized within specific urban or regional frameworks, and the other hewed to the conceptual.) Grosz’s intervention is in separating a monolithic experience of space into two groups distinguished by sex. Here’s where I’m hesitating. Both as a person thinking through branches of queer theory that refuse a definitional binary, and as a transmasculine, nonbinary person writing about somatic engagements with the urban from the subject position of my own experiences of urban space, I need Grosz’s intervention to do more. But even while it doesn’t feel usefully specific to enumerate sexes or to assume a relationship between sex and the experience of corporeality, which is about gender performance and its receptions, and not only or particularly about sex, I want to stay with part of this. Places are different for different bodies. This is not only to say that personal experiences of urban built environments are different, but also that those spatial experiences constitute the built environment to make it different from itself.
Reading Grosz in conversation with Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology adds an additional vector to the relationship between individuals and the built environment (or draws out a vector implicit in that relationship for Grosz): interactions with other people. Ahmed writes, “[i]n being directed toward others, one acts, or is committed to specific actions, which point toward the future.” This directing, Grosz reminds us, happens by means of an active relationship to a dynamic built environment, rather than with that built environment as its static background. As Grosz writes in “Bodies-Cities,” “The city provides the order and organization that automatically links otherwise unrelated bodies: it is the condition and milieu in which corporeality is socially, sexually, and discursively produced.” Negotiating between Grosz and Ahmed suggests that an interest in how social and spatial inform one another in an urban context benefits from reading the city as an assemblage specific to the symbiotic exchange between individual embodied and affective experiences and a changing built environment.
I want to take this attention to the exchange among body, social interactions, and built environment and hold it up to the light of Leslie Scalapino’s 1999 collection of poems, New Time. The poems in New Time exemplify what makes Scalapino a poet laureate of affective urbanism. She writes:
the body’s so tired it doesn’t make pictures of the city — the river
running through it
‘standing’ is ‘walking’
the body’s flattened to be one, sensing holding it together (that is
floats the sky) separating from the city
the picture-making that’s sites in the mind comes from the city
Scalapino’s speaker is, like mid-century planning theorist Kevin Lynch, concerned with what Lynch would refer to as the “image of the city,” each urban resident’s perception of where they live that contributes to how they navigate and imagine their city. Lynch understands urban residents to spontaneously and consistently produce images of the city — maps that imagine what’s two blocks south of where they’re walking, or which link a building they can see in the distance to their conception of what’s happening at its footprint. Scalapino’s speaker, however, is too tired to make an image. But they make an image anyway, referencing the river that runs through the city. Similarly, the equation of standing and walking suggests that the speaker has a relationship with movement in the city even if they are not participating in it. Or, alternatively, that they have a feeling of stuckness, of being in the same place, even if they are walking. A “body” is produced by flattening all of the simultaneous sensory data into the picture of a body, its physical form as perceived by others. The “it” the body holds together is perhaps the idea of a cohesive body. The next phrase: “that is / floats the sky” reads as a corrective to the previous phrase — what’s meant by “sensing holding it together” is “floats the sky.” Or, the emphasis is on the verb, referring back to the “is” between standing and walking. The “is” that equates standing and walking and thus holds them together is also the instrument of connectivity that allows the body the possibility of cohesion. All of the parts that experience a present are related to one another by their presentness, by hanging out together under the big tent of “is.” The final line of the section assembles two landscapes — “sites in the mind,” and “the city.” Scalapino issues a corrective to Lynch, who believes that “sites in the mind” are images of the city. Scalapino’s speaker, alternatively, separates the city and the “sites in the mind,” which are derivative of the city but are not its perceptual reproductions.
Scalapino’s distinction between “the city” and “sites in the mind,” suggests Grosz’s mutual constitution of body and city. What’s constant in the poem are the “sites in the mind.” The city is selectively available. Read in conversation with Grosz, the poem raises questions about somatic experience and urban space: how much does an individual perception of the city have to do with the part of the city that an individual is currently seeing? Or how emotionally invested they are in what they’re seeing? Or how attentive they are? Or what draws or demands their attention? Later in the book, Scalapino writes, “actions can only be in the (inner) foreground — single — brought / in.” So, what your body is doing is a private experience of foreground. Following Scalapino, subjectivity is always in the foreground, changing as it is “brought / in” from the built environment like the “sites in the mind” that come “from the city.” Working through a perceptual urbanism of New Time centers “foreground” and “background” in questions of what cities are and the dissonances between how they’re lived in and planned. It raises questions, too, about whether the foreground of experience could ever be part of the foreground of planning, if it could be scaled up to the unit of the plan. Or if the city could be imagined as providing a built environment that at once makes up the background of experience, on the scale of its imagined majority, and also curates what appears in the foreground of action, on the scale of however much fits into the “is” that composes the present, as between standing and walking.