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  • The Urban Aesthetics of Absence: Pragmatist Reflections in Berlin
  • Richard Shusterman (bio)

Both clay and the absence of clay are needed to produce a vessel, . . . thus as we profit from what is present, so we benefit from the absent.

Lao Tzu


Pragmatism, as I practice it, is a philosophy of embodied, situated experience. Rather than relying on a priori principles or seeking necessary truths, the pragmatist works from experience, trying to clarify its meaning so that its present quality and consequences for future experience may be improved. 1 Experience is inevitably contextual, since it involves the interaction of an experiencing subject and the environing field, both of which are in flux and are affected by their interaction. But this contextuality of experience, with its resultant philosophy, does not entail a hopeless subjectivism that precludes all generalizations. For human subjects and environments share many contextual features. Nonetheless, a philosophy that argues from experience and recognizes its contextuality should at least be reflective enough to declare its own experiential situatedness.

This seems especially important in theorizing something as contextually diverse as the city, which varies from the geometric New York grid and Parisian grands boulevards to the labyrinths of Rome’s old centro storico and the Medina mazes of Fez. Though one’s philosophical points may have pan-urban validity, one’s own specific urban experience will and should come into play.

I wrote this paper in Berlin, after a year’s experience of its often dark pleasures and morbid fascinations; its moods, motions, and milieus now press more strongly on my mind than older and longer experiences of city life in Paris, New York, and Tel Aviv. 2 The paper’s theme of absence emerged after a long night of techno music in East Berlin’s Mitte, at a club reopened (with a new name) in a new but still illegal locale, after having been closed by the authorities at an earlier, abandoned place also in the East. [End Page 739]

Complementing the loud music and flashing lights that filled the dark, cavernous space of the shabby hall, a silent video was soberly projected high on one of the room’s degenerating plaster walls. A bright yellow U-bahn train, from whose front window the video was shot, winded its seemingly endless way through Berlin’s enormous expanse, sometimes moving underground, sometimes surfacing, but always revealing nothing but the empty track ahead and the empty darkness without. This was occasionally punctuated by a dimly lit and equally empty station, where the train would stop, as if to admit the comings and goings of passengers, conspicuous by their total absence. Beyond the thick crush of the sweating, shaking, beer-stinking techno crowd—packed too tight to allow free breathing let alone free dance—high above the break beats and the loops blaring from the speakers, the U-bahn flashed a utopian vision of silent, smooth, unfettered movement through unencumbered space, an escape from the crowded tumult of the underground “city-scene” into a deeper underground city, an escape into absent freedom.

Several hours later I took it. Riding an empty carriage of the S-1 toward my West Berlin home in Friedenau, I wondered, as the train crossed under Potsdamer Platz, where exactly overhead was the dividing East-West boundary. There was of course nothing of the famous Berlin Wall to see in the train tunnel, nor could I have seen it from above, even if the sun had risen. Only a few small sections of the once 165-kilometer wall remain in place, protected now by law as historic monuments. But Potsdamer Platz, though once a crucial wall location, is not one of them.

Yet despite its physical absence here and elsewhere in Berlin, the dividing wall maintains a vivid presence. Indirectly visible through its historical traces in the otherwise puzzling layout of certain streets and buildings, it can also be seen in the differing visual cultures of East and West: not only in the different styles of architecture and levels of building maintenance, but in the different styles of interior design, like the East Berlin taste for oilcloth table coverings, artificial flowers, and regimented white lace curtains. To the...

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