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  • Preserving Self in the City of the Imagination:Georg Simmel and Dark City1
  • Neil Gerlach (bio) and Sheryl N. Hamilton (bio)

A city—its architecture constantly mutating, where it is always night, where memories last for twelve hours, where aliens walk among city dwellers and yet everyone is a stranger—a description we suggest applies as easily to Georg Simmel's work on the city as it does to Alex Proyas' 1998 film, Dark City. Both are cities of the imagination. Vivian Sobchak suggests that a city of the imagination, "Ow[es] no necessary allegiance to representational verisimilitude, such a metropolis serves as a hypnogogic site where the anxieties, desires, and fetishes of a culture's waking world and dream world converge and are resolved into a substantial and symbolic architecture" (123). It is through an examination of this substantial and symbolic architecture in popular culture and theory that we can interpret the experience of modern metropolitan life.

Whether it is the majestic, looming skyscrapers of Fritz Lang's Manhattan-inspired urbanscape in Metropolis (1927); the gritty, dystopic beauty of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982); or the pastel palette of Tim Burton's suburban nightmare in Edward Scissorhands (1990); science-fiction film, in particular, has long been intrigued by, and has played a central role in, the construction of cities of the imagination. Attempts to interpret and theorize these films have resulted in a significant body of criticism, contemplating a series of fundamental issues at the core of the city of the imagination.2 These issues have included the conflict between utopian and dystopian potentials; the alienation produced in subjects in and by their built environments; the relationship between these built environments and nature or the natural; the effects of a centralization of oppressive or controlling power upon individual freedom; relations between space and time; and the role of technology in a variety of future and futuristic visions of the metropolis and metropolitan life. [End Page 115]

When one examines treatments of the city within science-fiction film criticism, certain tendencies are also present. The focus has been overwhelmingly on a limited body of films, with Metropolis and Blade Runner emerging as metatexts. Although the relationship between the built and interior environments—between architecture and subjectivity—is explored in this work, the preponderance of analyses assert the determinative force of material structures of social structures and affect. Finally, science-fiction criticism has not drawn extensively upon other intellectual considerations of the city, with a recent exception being Samuel Nunn, who considers a trilogy of science-fiction films alongside knowledges of urban planning.

Yet clearly, the city of the imagination is found not only in science- fiction film and other futuristic representations of urban space but also in social theory, urban planning, architecture, cultural studies, and so on. The city of the imagination, regardless of its location, permits the interrogation of the city as ideal type and/or archetype, the relationship between built and natural environments, the role of technologies in constituting urban space and its attendant social relations, and other central aspects of modernity. In this paper, we bring together two, at first glance, very different cities of the imagination—German sociologist Georg Simmel's "metropolis" and the "dark city" of Alex Proyas' science-fiction film noir of the same name. We suggest that Simmel's conceptualization of a series of tensions present in the modern metropolitan environment grounds a productive reading of Dark City, making visible some of the central dynamics of this and other cities of the imagination.

Specifically, we draw out of Simmel's work three dialectical tensions present in the rise of the metropolis: structural hypertrophy / personal atrophy, objective life / subjective spirit, and disalienation/ alienation. These tensions offer interesting and useful ways to understand the dark city envisioned by Proyas and, more particularly, to situate the film as a complex exploration of the ongoing attempt to preserve the self in the face of an overwhelming metropolis. Finally, in the film's decidedly ambiguous conclusion, we suggest that the tension between Simmel's metropolitan man and the general human being refuses closure. Arguably, this project of rethinking metropolis in both popular culture and social theory...


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pp. 115-134
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