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  • Writing Cities
  • Rebecca Biron

Urban Studies, Lettered City, Ciudad Letrada, Kinetic City, Urban Activism, Havana, Ruins, Urban Poetics, Buenos Aires

Anke Birkenmaier and Esther Whitfield, eds. Havana beyond the Ruins: Cultural Mappings after 1989. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. 344 pp.
Cecilia Enjuto Rangel. Cities in Ruins: The Politics of Modern Poetics. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 2010. 320 pp.
Marcy Schwartz. Invenciones urbanas: ficción y ciudad latinoamericanas. Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 2010. 220 pp.

Urban studies scholars have long circled around the relationship between real and imagined cities. This dichotomy, so eloquently articulated by Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, and Michel de Certeau, received its most influential Latin American expression with Angel Rama’s 1984 La ciudad letrada. Rama made the case that literature and intellectual politics in Latin America shaped not only the cultural landscape but also the concrete layout of the region’s cities. Rama’s thesis echoes Benjamin, who taught us that the most interesting thing about Paris is its idea of itself.

In the last decade, scholars have resisted Rama’s privileging of lettered elites in various ways. Some have tried to cut through discourse to reveal the lived experiences of people in other classes (Muñoz and Spitta). Others have charted the ways in which globalization and social fragmentation undercut the power of any single image to define general experience (Franco). Still others focus on mass media and popular culture as networks of meaning production that exceed the grasp of the lettered city (Paz-Soldán and Castillo).

No matter the approach, critical work about Latin American cities keeps revisiting the question of how imaginative writing structures the real city and how the real city interrupts the imagined city. Beatriz Sarlo, for example, explores how the city engages in dialogue with its inhabitants, who project back onto it fragmented experiences, partial symbols, and encounters that are “out of order.”These ideas resonate with La ciudad letrada in that writing can still structure the urban into comprehensible forms, resisting disorderly reality. Even as violence, pollution, and hyperurbanization betray the promise of earlier projects to modernize Latin American cities, writing remains a politically productive response.

Whether we are dealing with physical cities (locations with certain population [End Page 89] densities, types of buildings, traffic patterns, and economic networks) or abstract cities (conglomerations, social groupings, and imaginary places), writing about them means writing about writing. Cities are writing, when “writing”includes representations of all kinds, such as maps, plans, architecture, memories and narratives. We can never go “beyond the lettered city”because cities, no matter how grittily real, also serve as protagonists in stories we tell ourselves about the past and future. To map or portray the city, whether before or after the “fact”of its existence, is not to understand it. To navigate the city is not to conquer it. To encounter the city is to be absorbed into it, but with no access to any position of mastery.

What are the stakes of this continued, always fascinating rehearsal of the conundrum of the city? How should we grapple with tensions between the power of representation and the realistic limits of the ciudad letrada? If we cannot resolve the dichotomy of the imagined versus the real, perhaps we can at least move beyond the binaries writing/reality, order/disorder, past/future, here/ there. Octavio Paz offers a provocative gesture in this direction when he writes:

Desde mis comienzos, he intentado insertar en mis poemas: la historia. La ciudad es la gran creación de la historia y, a su vez, ella misma es creadora de historia. Cuando se dice historia se habla de creación pero también de destrucción. La historia produce ruinas. . . .

(qtd. in Birkenmaier and Whitfield 221)

Paz’s associative chain moves from history to cities to ruins, and finally (first?) back to the poetry that contains history. His rhetoric subtly replaces “la ciudad”with “ruinas,”implying two things: cities and ruins are both always simultaneously under construction and in the process of being destroyed; history emerges from the same ruins that it creates. Paz casts his poetry as feeding off of those creative and destructive ruins. The chain has no starting point, and...


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