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…
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.