Ivaylo Ditchev

Right-wing City, Left-wing City, Postmodern City

Right-wing City, Left-wing City, Postmodern City
title: Right-wing City, Left-wing City, Postmodern City
year: 2006
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Ivaylo Ditchev
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

Two famous images of the city set the poles between which the 20c. unfolds: Leni Riefenstal's Triumph of the Will (1934) and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929). The talents of these great modernists are usually contrasted with the propagandistic nature of their works, but I will not do this here: what I am interested in is precisely the talented expression of ideology which starts to transcend itself (as is the case with artists such as David, Kipling, Vaptzarov).

In Riefenstal's film Hitler enters Nurnberg observing the tradition of Roman triumphs or of the medieval “wedding” of the ruler to the town. Modernity has its influence: instead of from a horse or a chariot, the fuhrer descends from the clouds by plane which lends him a divine aura (after all, it is the merger of transcendence and immanence that lays the foundations of totalitarian power!). He is greeted not only by the crowds but also by the houses, the monuments of great Germans, even by a kitten at the window. The Nurnberg congress of the NSDAP is a grandiose ritual that subordinates everything to the single will impersonated by the fuhrer. Leni Riefenstal's modernist camera reinforces this reduction of bodies to geometric shapes as it later does with the bodies of athletes in his film about the 1936 Olympic Games, and with the bodies of aborigines and fish in his last years. The city is turned into a stage for one of the most grandiose political rituals – and this is why ritual was invented in the first place – in order to mend the erosion of codes in everyday life, to make the world whole. In the right-wing city there is no space for difference; what is more, it is a grandiose machine for homogenizing the national territory – provinces parade, folklores present flowers, a people marches in which there are “no classes and no castes” (Hitler) or, as an exalted Rudolf Hess yells, “The party is Hitler, but Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler!”.

It is the opposite view of the city that we find in Dziga Vertov. The first thing that strikes us is that we cannot recognize the city whose portrait the leader of the experiment, as he calls himself, presents. The shots are from Moscow, Odessa, Kiev and it is the montage that makes us feel we are in one city – the generalized Soviet labor city. The suggestion comes from the objects that are filmed as well: we do not see monuments or views of the postcard type – the main actor is urban everyday life, from the sleepy morning through the increasing crescendo of the working day to the evening forms of entertainment. Trams move, cogs are oiled, typewriters are tapped on, the traffic is regulated, letters are sent, people get married, people get divorced, die, put on make-up, weave, sort, have their hair done, do exercise, dig, cast iron, drink vodka, dance, lie on the beach...The sense of modernity (which almost reflects the reality of the Soviet city of that time) comes from the speed of montage, the density of the picture with machines, trams, cars, telephones, but also from the refusal of cultural particularity: we see modern people in general, not representatives of Pomerania or Alpenland, their identity sets not the background, name, cultural particularity, but their activity. In short, the left-wing city is not only a clash of difference, but it also lacks its own appearance! There is nobody to impose it because the leading role of the central character – the “will” of the fuhrer directing the ritual – is taken here by the eye of the camera which analyses and dissects. (Against the tautology of the right-wing where the image represents itself, stands the leftist experiment as an oxymoron, it represents the image of the imageless.)

It would be superfluous to make the point that with the establishment of Stalinism in the 1930s the left-wing city would be replaced by the right-wing which, in its ritual unification, would surpass Hitler, and artists like Dziga Vertov would be marginalised. If we define the leftist project as the process whereby increasingly larger strata of population become autonomous, then Stalinism, Brezhnevism, Zhivkovism tend toward the right-wing pole of paternalistic dictatorships, and their spatial policy is based on a maximum concentration and establishment of real feudal inequalities1.

In the typology that I propose the right-wing city is transcended by an image, it has a centre, a ritual unity, it is a spectacle that suggests reverence and passivity. The left-wing city is wholly immanent; it is constantly produced by the situations of everyday living.

The most difficult issue here which confuses our left/right reduction is utopia. What happens when equality turns into an image which transcends urban reality? Let us say that utopianism is leftist in its intention inasmuch as it rejects existing inequalities, but it is extremely right-wing when it turns into a social practice and establishes new spatialised inequalities: Charles Fourier and Baron Haussmann are not that different in the way they imagine the city2; the difference is that one of them is a utopian and the other a prefect, one of them dreams while the other writes his memoirs post factum. The clash between the two can be seen in a text by a later utopian Blanqui: “No one will ever know how many wretched thousands of people have died because of the privations caused by these meaningless building sites [the reference is to the Hausmannisation of Paris] [...] When construction goes fine, all goes fine, as a proverb has it that has turned into an economic axiom. In the context of such signs of success, if suddenly a hundred Heops pyramids emerge under our sky, this would be a sign of prosperity.”3

The 20c. would see many dictator-architects whose Heops pyramids crown the phantasm of the absolute triumph of power – Stalin's underground railway, which a documentary would call “a cathedral of communism”, the plans for the grandiose re-construction of Berlin that Hitler dreams of with his court architect Albert Speer in the bunker until the very last moment, Ceausescu's Palace of the people for which the historical centre of the city with over 7,000 buildings and 19 churches was demolished.

By the way, the spectacle of power can be achieved by using the means of city soft- or hardware, through ritual or urbanism. Let us take a leap further back in time to the prototype of the contemporary society of spectacle: Rome.

Roman triumph is one of the peaks of urban rituality. The victor would enter the town on a chariot, adorned with various symbols – among which was an erectile phallus – dressed in the fashion of the statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus and with his face painted in red like him, while behind his back a slave would whisper in his ear “Do not forget that you are human”.The chariot would be followed by carts loaded with trophies, newly captured slaves and the kings of the enslaved peoples who were brought to be sacrificed, as well as pictures of the most important battles of the campaign and models of the conquered towns, statues impersonating rivers or topoi of the newly captured territories... But Octavian August decided that he had achieved such glory that no emperor's triumph could increase it and started large-scale monumental building projects, which later made him say “I found Rome built of bricks and I leave it clothed in marble”. Of course, the new hardware allows the use of new software. The solid mise en scène of power at the next stage made it possible to stage even more sumptuous rituals – and thus the previously unseen city of Octavian August became the arena for previously unseen gladiator battles, “sea” battles, parades, spectacles (Koene, 2000: 20).

In the language of Benjamin, the right-wing city aestheticizes the political; the leftist response to this was politicizing urban shapes (Benjamin 1989: 366). According to Guy Debord's manifesto, if power stages itself through spectacle, then the form of resistance to 

it is the construction of situations (Debord 1992/1967). The spectacle distances and imposes immobile contemplation; situationists oppose this to the immediate experience of the place, they détour (détourner) meanings, stage “passionate decontextualisations” (dépayisement passionnel), artistic and political actions, they organize group wanderings in the streets of Paris and outline idiosyncratic psycho-maps of spatial experience, they make clashes between cultural contexts. In a sense, every brave graffiti artist armed with sprays, every collector of meaningful objects found in the streets in which he or she seeks a hidden meaning, every flâneur getting lost in the city is a situationist, a fighter for the restitution of the space that has been appropriated by power. We will perceive references to Rousseau's letter to D'Alembert4 in the way that the situationists' hymn organizes resistance to the spectacle of power.

“We must try to construct situations i.e. collective contexts, the aggregate of the impressions of a given moment[...] It is easy to see the extent to which alienation in the old world is related to the foundational principle of spectacle – non-intervention. Conversely, we see that even the most valuable revolutionary efforts in the sphere of culture seek a way to break the psychological identification of the viewer with the character in order to drive the viewer to be active, to provoke his or her own abilities to change their own life. The situation is created so that it will be experienced by its own constructors. [...] Our situations do not develop, they are transient[...] The theory of situationism decisively supports the concept of the disrupted nature of life [...] [the idea] about isolated moments of human life and the construction of any one moment through the unified use of the means of situationism.” (Debord 1997: 38-41)

The right-wing pole is hinted in this manifesto in another way: the right-wing is the durable, the identical, the transcendental that follows from “the belief in the immortality of the soul” which is a basis for the division of labour (Debord 1997: 41), in the sense that the division of the functions in a society is always arbitrary, and an irrational faith is necessary which would make us accept that one is an artist, the other is a viewer, that one is a master, the other – a slave. In short, the right-wing pole is God's city, the eternal, the unchanging, the perfect one that we do not want to resist – the absolute spectacle that calls forth absolute contemplation and kindness.

I will not elaborate in detail on the right- and left-wing municipal policies here. Still, it is obvious that at the right-wing pole the central areas are “cleared” from beggars and the homeless.This is what Brezhnev did for the Olympic games in 1980; this is what the mayor of Bordeaux wanted: in 2004 he lost the law suit that was brought against him by NGO's and was forced to withdraw the prohibition for people who obstruct the view to stay in the main square; this is what the Sofia municipality did in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it drove beggars and Roma people out of the centre because of the meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in December 2004. But the right-wing policy is not only Bonaparteist like that of Baron Haussmann, Kaganovitch or Albert Speer. Right wing policy in general acts in a capitalist manner: for instance, it raises the prices in prestigious residential areas and drives the poor in the periphery5 as Chirac did when he was the mayor of Paris; it leads to a concentration of space which is similar to the concentration of capital.

Converesely, left-wing urban policies support equal access to space through rent policies, public transport, an even division of social services, or by making more public those spaces that were previously accessible only for the selected few (the Leuvre has been opened for the people, private gardens have become public parks, the building of flats for workers began on a large scale after the Great war and while these blocks of flats are faceless, they provide shelter...).

So far we (idiosyncratically) defined the right- and the left-wing city as a construct and a struggle for the deconstruction of the décor of power, as immobility and motion, as a transcendent image and a living happening, as a spatial hierarchy and a spatial democracy. In Felini's Rome (1972) they are visually contrasted within a film story – the city of monumental historical sights which are somehow always deserted when we look at them, and the city of the noisy, living, chaotic daily life of the 1940s and 1960s crammed with gesturing men, peeing children, hippies lying around, menacing prostitutes.

Between, after, against these two is the postmodern city.

In it the décor of power is not pulled down, on the contrary – it expands with such speed that instead of immobile contemplation, it sets new mobility and amalgamation of hierarchies. The power of the image is defeated not by daily life, by a separate human situation, but by its own multiplication.

And because I started with cinema images, I will use as an example here the city of Duloc from Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson's postmodern fairy tale Shrek (2001) – in one sense it is postmodern because it is a collage of all kinds of fairy tale motifs which at the end sing a disco compilation of pop melodies; it is also postmodern in another sense – everything is ironicaly inverted, the hero is a farting, chthonic and likeable character, the princess is not turned into a beauty after the first kiss – instead, she becomes her real self i.e. a fat middle-aged woman. The city of Duloc itself is, of course, medieval but at the same time there is a ticket office at the entrance as well as a tourist information point and a photo site. The architecture and the field of sunflowers outside evoke totalitarian associations, the tournament for knights resembles American wrestling, the magical mirror is in a sense a video player.

The basic strategy of any such cultural product is that it simultaneously addresses everybody – this makes it different from the messages whose are clearly defined with regard to their addressees. If Triumph of the Will or Man with a Movie Camera address only the supporters of a common cause or ideology – and in the case of Dziga Vertov the addressees are only people who are very cultured aesthetically – Shrek's audience is made up of children, but the spectacle makes it interesting for adults too; the obvious jokes are aimed at the general public but certain layers of the plot that are full of parody and quotations could only be understood by a very cultured viewer. For a child Duloc is simply a magical place, he or she would not understand the parodic significance of the ticket office, but the parent is amused by the unexpected anachronisms, by the anti-fairy coded in the fairy tale. In other words the postmodern amalgamation has also a purely commercial sense: the group of potential customers is enlarged. A more elevated way to put it is that postmodern baroque breaks the ascetic restrictions imposed by modernism and exonerates pleasure. (Jencks 1986).

And so there is Haussmannization (Ceausescu's systematization), situationism, graffiti, artistic or activist squats6, there is the hippie town of Christiania near Copenhagen, but there is also Walt Disney's imagineering, a word that combines imagination and engineering. Under this name in the net you can find tips on how to stage ghosts in your home for Halloween. Today around 1000 imagineers work in the four Disneylands on the construction of various illusions and experiences. The construction of the Disneyland in Anaheim, California, began in 1954. Because of money shortage, Disney turns to the television – a series of shows allows him to gather the necessary funds. Curiously, toward the end of his life (1967)7 Walt Disney plans the construction of a futurist city (Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow). It is concentric, like most utopian cities, its climate is controlled underneath a glass cover, and it has conveyor belts that transport pedestrians and substitute for public transport (like those of the World exhibition in Paris in 1900); it even has a show-case industrial complex – in a word, it is a shopping window of the free American enterprise.

What remains of serious modern utopia is only Futureland, one of the areas of the Disney cities. The victor is the parodic-mercantile postmodern city which will gradually turn into one of the emblems of its time. The Disney city is a huge décor of different phantasms: fairy tales, films, scientific myths, great novels. In most sites nothing happens, you simply walk in the décor and experience yourself as the character from the respective plot, you get the almost inevitable picture of yourself (there are instructions on the ground about the best spot for taking the picture).

We remember such entertainments as dating from the past: we even remember them from our childhood when we had our picture taken on the back of a camel or we showed head and hands from a painted screen. Theme parks such as the one in Coney Island have existed for a long time; world exhibitions develop the taste for cultural mise en scene, Congo huts, for instance, together with their inhabitants in Brussels. The 19 c. as described by Benjamin generates the indoor commercial-entertainment spaces full of panoramas, dioramas, cosmoramas, navaloramas, pleoramas (from “sailing”), phantoscopes, georamas, cycloramas, etc. According to Vanessa Schwartz it is in Paris in the second half of the 20 c. – and in the 1980s in California – that the society of spectacle was born where the morgue is turned into a spectacle and visitors queue in order to recognize the bodies found in the river Seine and theatrically exposed behind theatre curtains (Schwartz 1998).

It seems to me that the difference lies in the scale and the globalization of the process. In the 20 c. Paris was the scene of modernity which other places around the world shyly began to imitate and this caused furious cultural resistances even in Europe itself (against lewdness, “the French disease”, the cancan dance, the rebel artists...). Last but not least, Paris created the world stage of desire under the influence of a centralized, strong state and a universalist ideology; the Disney world is global, privatized, particularist. Instead of inserting man in a space as the right-wing city does, it allows the ordinary person to pass from décor to décor experiencing him- or herself in the position of new characters. In other words, this is a spectacle that instead of transfixing you makes you move constantly. Incidentally, Disney-cities are built with chronometers: what is an apparently free “flaneur-ing” has been calculated to the minute – how much time you queue, how much time you are at the merry-go-round, how much time you need to move from one entertainment site to the next.

Globalisation in tourism brings with it a similar tendency toward postmodernising. In the 1950s Club Med starts building its vacation towns, first in the Mediterranean and then worldwide, and the leading principle is to create a safe, comfortable and enjoyable world for holiday-making that imitates the place where it is situated, i.e. it is hyperreal in the Baudrillardian sense because it presents a local culture that is more real than the real one which is “polluted” by the contact with the modern world. Gradually, this principle is adopted by the cities that can afford it not only in Yugoslavia, Indonesia or Mexico, but also in the very sources of global tourists (Paris, London, Vienna, San Francisco, New York are among the top tourist destinations).

The strategy implies a particular self-Disneyfication whereby increasing numbers of and more different spaces turn into décor for projection of the visitors. The tourist ethos here is not the narrow notion of spending one's free time and buying souvenirs. The tourist is a creature that cannot live in one place, he or she needs to change worlds regularly in order to feel good. The pre-modern need for transitions between the profane and the sacred worlds has become horizontal – there are transitions from one geography to another8. In this sense there is a certain religion of the developed world (its origins are in taking holidays which at first emerge as a practice and then they are spent further and further away from home). Investors, global experts, scientists, the organizers of different forums can all be described as tourists.

Related to this, albeit indirectly, is the tendency toward self-museification, toward the multiplication of heritages, high and low, glorious and shameful. In Berlin you can take “the tour of disgrace of the Third Reich”, in Prague, for instance, a museum of the smells of communism is going to be opened, in Monterey, California there is a Cannery Row Street, described by Steinbeck, which is recovered and turned into a huge shopping mall for souvenirs. High modernity strongly emphasizes heritage which in the 20 c. begins to be specially staged in European cities through the demolition of “unimportant” buildings that surround sights, through planning monumental perspectives or imitating prestigious architectural styles from the past. The postmodern element is in the multiplication of the layers of the message, which can no longer address the patriot and those who envy him or her, or the communist, the fascist, the Nazi, etc. There has to be a wink in the new spaces, as a wide range of people as possible have to be able to recognize themselves in them. Thus, in 1978 the Pompidou centre was erected as the temple of French culture, a funny, colourful building, which looks as though it was turned inside out, where everybody comes in, goes out, sits on the ground and in front of it there are always fire eaters or people who tell stories.

In a sense what Disney does for children and the people who accompany them, is what Las Vegas does for adults. There is an Eiffel tower, an Egyptian pyramid, a statue of liberty and everything else. The point lies in the turning to the ordinary person with the means of the ornament, the understandable and pleasant decoration (Venturi 1977). I venture to transform this last word – there is something deeper, with the world-décors that are created, which we can call décorification. In this perspective Las Vegas – the amusing, the wicked, the commercial, the light – has its counterpoint in the US, and this is the Washington Mall, designed in a Versailles style by the French architect Charles L'Enfant, where practically all the national relics are concentrated, memorials, musems (which for the most part do not charge the visitor any entrance fee!). Let me enumerate the most famous ones – the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the First World War Memorial, the Second World War Memorial, which is under construction, the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the museums of the Smithsonian Institution...

From the European perspective on space this is a peculiar concentration – both of the amusing and the lewd, and of the elated and the national. What makes it possible is the arrangement of the American territory, a model of the global world itself, where you travel a long way especially for a particular experience, hence the increasing specialization of places, the increasing décorification.

The ethnic transformation of spaces is part of this process of multiplication of spaces and heritages. In big metropolitan cities over the last two or three decades eating out has been related to changing the ethnic decors in most cases – today we will eat Chinese food or go to an Italian restaurant... The incredibly increased variety of foods is accompanied by a transition from one world into a different one constructed with global reductions and stan- dardizations which are, in fact, similar to the Disney world. In the Bulgarian version, inherited from communism, there is a museumification of ethno-complexes of the “old Plovdiv” style with a tourist inflection which multiply even in places that are not so typically Bulgarian, for instance Zlatograd or Kardjali, but there is also a gradual décorification of places in tune with the global – in the Sunny Beach9 there are dinosaurs, operas are performed on the ancient ruins, Gypsy weddings are staged for the tourists, and the Chinese restaurant has become something common for the big cities. What is more, for about 2-3 years there has been a Turkish restaurant in Sofia, by which I mean a restaurant that has a real Istanbul setting which is a decisive breakthrough in the mono-ethnic self-experience of this country.

Now imagine all this simultaneously and as a tendency: more and more places develop an appearance so that they are distinct from other places. The eroticism of the transfer from one world to another becomes increasingly intense. Add to this the remote control of the TV, the mouse and the computer. There is no question here of chaos or disintegration of modern unity, on the contrary, there is an even greater organization: there is a privatized construction of spectacles-situations, – to return to Debord – which is motivated by the trade with experiences. (Rifkin 2000).

For Karl Polanyi the place is what is opposed to the market – up to the 20 c. the place had always dominated and suddenly the utopia of the market defeated the place thus turning an age-long anthropological constant upside down (Polanyi 1944). And here is the new moment in the drama: places enter the market, they start being sold.

Meetings with West European colleagues who work on urban issues inevitably produce a peculiar political misunderstanding10. It is hardly necessary to say that such people who are interested in a country like Bulgaria, are usually left-wing. We are ashamed to show them around the city, we apologise for the dirt and gaudiness. But the visitors, contrary to expectations, enjoy the Balkan chaos, for them it is an expression of the life of the city, of its democratic spirit. And when I take the liberty to say that the municipality should regulate the advertisements somewhat, or fine the drivers of the cars that are parked on the sidewalk, or
regulate new construction sites, they start perceiving me as some sort of fascist. Bear in mind that I myself experience my criticisms as directed against power.

Or if I return to the 1980s, we then discussed the communist city as postmodern and the mummy of the leader at its centre as the maximum postmodern object. Inside this was seen as a dandyist challenge, but outside – which, of course, I found out later – this seemed as opportunism, as a refusal of a real political commitment. In what sense is a city postmodern if it has a system of cohabitation providing most ancient forms of territorial dependence? The communist city, which is right-wing in its basic tendency, simply hides behind a left-wing rhetoric in order to naturalise inequalities as spatial differences.

And here is Sofia today: on the one hand, it is privatized by criminals, mercantile to the extent that there is no space left where something is not sold (at least visually). The new rulers’ style of governance does not suggest an intention to rule for a long time but rather it resembles that of nomads who trespass and loot the space while presenting themselves as fighters against the heritage of the Bonaparteist right-wing political power. A city whose upper torso (to borrow the term from Bakhtin) is out of public control and is absorbing more and more money.

On the other hand, the lower torso is also emancipating – markets spontaneously emerge, like that near Stochna gara in the filthy river itself, graffiti defeat painters, the basements and garages become shops finding a way around all legislative requirements. Informal meeting points for drug addicts emerge, beggars attack cars at traffic lights...

The city becomes right-wing and left-wing simultaneously, it develops parallel worlds. Such a peculiar post-modern, coming from the Third world, born not out of the planned construction of decors by imagineers with chronometers but by force of implosion, of the erosion of boundaries, codes, rules, where everything comes together and the differentiation of the worlds-décors introduces the playful re-focusing of our exploring gaze that leaps from left to right, from right to left.


1. An exception is the relationship between man and woman which has a tendency toward equality. As far as economic and social rights are concerned, these are considerable, but granted, not fought for, and in this sense they turn into a tool of the ascendancy.
2. Fourier writes: “From every avenue, from every street a different perspective should open up, bet it a natural landscape or a public monument. The custom [...] of having streets ending up with a wall or a pile of earth, should be avoided. Every house that faces the street should be under obligation to have a first-rate decoration, in the garden as well as on the building”. Des modifications à introduire dans l'architecture des villes (La Phalangue, Paris 1849: 27) quoted by Benjamin 2003: 142.
3. Auguste Blanqui, Critique sociale, vol; 1, Paris 1885: 109-11. (Quoted by Benjamin 2003: 144).
4. It should be reminded here that to the alienated, static, unhealthy contemplation in institutionalized theatre Rousseau opposes folk entertainment where there is no division between actors and audience.
5. Or, conversely, in the depopulated centres, turned into ghettoes, in the US and in some places in the New World.
6. Squat is an illegal occupation of empty homes be it by the needy or people led by revolutionary considerations.
7. In a certain sense Disney is not dead, he has had his body cryonically preserved and awaits a scientific breakthrough that will bring him back to life and cure him.
8. “In a world that has become immobile and homogenous leaving home is the only way to mark it as different from the rest of the places.”, MacCannell 1999: 200.
9. Famous Bulgarian seaside resort on the Black Sea (tr.)
10. This happened at several of the Visual Seminar discussions.

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