Monday, October 14, 2013

(New York) City-ness?

        Having grown up with New York City as my only city, it has been the basis upon which I have judged all other cities.  Thus, when I presume ‘city-ness,’ through my own biases I assume ‘New York City-ness.’  Furthermore, when I presume ‘New York City-ness,’ it is really my individual experiences of New York City being reflected.  This, I have realized, is vastly different than the standard definition of the word ‘city,’ which Webster’s Dictionary defines as merely “a large or important town.”  If only I knew that when traveling to other cities as a child…
       I remember when growing up, my first time in London or Los Angeles, I was disappointed by those cities by not meeting my predetermined standards of what was expected from a city.  To me a city meant adjacent skyscrapers, in a relatively condensed area, or a grid of streets that go on in a straight line until they hit water or park.  Granted, much of New York City does not even fit this definition, but my New York City did.  

The issue at hand relates back to the Peircean notion of firstness, which he defines as “‘an instance of that kind of consciousness which involves no analysis, comparison or any process whatsoever…’” (Zeman quoting Peirce [1.306]).  My first experiences of New York City, being the city, were the establishing moments that created my eventual conception of city-ness.  Those ‘feelings’ of being in New York City were the same feelings I expected to experience from other cities, but to no avail.  My notion of city-ness generally was at that point confused with and dependent upon New York City-ness.  

  The firstness of city being marred as such, ultimately so was the secondness in this situation, the Peircean term that Zeman summarizes as “the category of the actual existent.”  The issue was that my presupposed evocations of a city led to the assumption that all cities had the grid, the subway system, the sounds of horns honking, the sporadic scents of sewage and crisp autumn air intertwined, and the sights of never ending park amidst tall high-rises in the distance that were encountered in my personal experiences.

         What I did not understand at the time was that these essences evoked by New York City-ness were not necessarily contiguous with the general notion of city-ness.  Consequentially, the thirdness, or reality, that is a city, in actuality became my personal conception of New York City.  I expected to encounter those same signs that I witnessed in New York in other cities as well.

         No city is like New York City insofar as it is unlike any other city.  Thus, city-ness must be determined upon more general terms than what would be deemed as New York City-ness.  The issue with determining such a quality is the same with determining any other realm of ‘firstness’: “...when we recognize that something is grasped as a first, its firstness as firstness effectively evanesces” (Zeman).  Thus, city-ness is “prereflexive,” which causes several conflicts in discussing the matter.  Being that as a child I only had New York City to encounter city-ness, New York City-ness was mistaken for city-ness in general.  The ground for which I determine a city has changed through experience and contact with “other” cities, defined as such by Webster, as well as a quality that makes New York City distinctive, for they are certainly--as I now reluctantly acknowledge against my NY pride--two very different ideas.  

[by Jacob Kayen]

Zeman, J. 1977. Peirce’s Theory of Signs. 22-39 in T. Sebeok (ed) A Perfusion of Signs. Bloomington: Indiana. 


Julia said...

I had a similar experience growing up since I've lived in New Jersey one hour away from New York City my whole life. To this day my perception of "city-ness" is still dominated by New York City. It epitomizes "city-ness" to the extent that I don't ever refer to New York City by its name, but simply as "the city." Every other city I call Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, etc. but I never say "New York City." The name isn't necessary when talking to other people from the area because New York City represents the same thing for them. Obviously this is a symptom of location; yet when people from south Jersey refer to Philadelphia as "the city" because of their proximity to it, I think it somehow not as accurate as my "the city" because I've grown up to regard New York City as the real essence of "city-ness."

Peter Macfarlane said...

Growing up in the Bay Area, the phrase "The City" always meant San Francisco and that shaped my view of what a city is. San Francisco has its share of tall buildings but they are all concentrated in Downtown and much of the housing is individual houses rather than towering apartment buildings.

While San Francisco means city to me, New York always seems to be a super-city. This has come into my mind mostly through the portrayal of New York on TV and in movies. The signifier of New York City in American discourse is not the shorter residential streets of Morningside Heights but the towering skyscrapers that set New York apart from other US cities. Because the tall buildings and large crowds signify to the viewer that the show is taking place in New York and not somewhere like Peoria, IL the busy scene that signifies New York in the media is perpetuated.