The Myth of the Center
|1Our big cities are "laboratories of
civilization", "lived Utopia and suffered
destruction of Utopia in one", to quote Ulrich Beck,
a German sociologist (1). The future of our world is
dealt with, planned, made and eventually lost in our
cities. In contradiction to or in creative adaptation of
their concrete claim for eternity, our cities are
phenomena of constant change being the mirrors of our
ever changing societies. What is more, cities are and
will increasingly be the arenas where the fundamental
mutations will take place and become visible that we are
the actors and victims of our cultural codes and that we
are used to name their changes the shifting of paradigmas.
2Perhaps that Berlin is a particularly rewarding object of investigation - eine Stadt, die niemals ist, sondern stets wird: a city that never is, but always becomes or changes, as one of the Berlin slogans goes. lt represents, sometimes simultaneously, the major antagonistic agents and movements of the 19th and 20th centuries - bourgeoisie and proletariat; nationalism, internationalism and cosmopolitism; monarchy and democracy; capitalism, and fascist versus communist absolutism. Not to forget: Berlin has been and continues to be an ´artslab´ of that periods creative movements from romanticism and naturalism to post-modernism.
3Following a period of suffered Cold-War-immobility and standstill of history, the miracle of the collapsing Wall has just called forth a period of hectic activities about to thoroughly transform Berlin within the years to come. We are still in the lull before the storm, Berlin still shows the features of a self-conceited, provincial community blocked between two mentalities with the Wall surviving in the Eastern and the Western heads - but the muscles are tense already for the dash into Berlin's future.
4Berlin has been considered as one of the centers of Modernism and its mania of progress. Indeed, Berlin has that label of a capital city of "surprise", this peculiarity of European civilization since World War I which on its part has been labeled as the "Big Surprise". Berlin has been proud to be the capital city of the shock, of the "épater les bourgeois", of the "revaluation of all values", of an insatiable eschatological urge for newness, of "a culture of the event, of action, instead of a culture of significance or of moral command". (2)
5But, to begin with, I would like to speak about a stabilizing factor in history: about myth or mythology. In this, I think, I can count on the sympathy of an American audience, "because" - I am quoting Leslie Fiedler - "as long as Americans have been American, theyve been inhabitants of a mythology and not of history..." (3) And in the context of mythology, I will come to speak about some aspects of the ongoing debate on center and periphery.
6The notions of the myth and in particular the myth of the center may be helpful to the analysis of the actual situation of metropolitan agglomerations in general, and especially to the understanding of Berlins specific fate and to the question of how this city may recover its lost urbanity. "The Wall in our heads": is that not a marvelously picturesque metaphor concerning the present psychological state of Berlin? We are all inhabitants of mythology. According to the historian Egon Friedell all present times are "an optical illusion". Referring to that incredible year of 1989, the year of total surprise and unexpected miracle, Peter Handke speaks of "history as the great fairy tale of the world, of mankind." (4)
7I am speaking of the functioning of our perception in conflict with the perceivable, constituting what we name reality. By myth I understand all we are carrying with us as our mental and physical baggage, as our ancestral or genetic inheritance, as the heritage of our real and fictional past, of past creative acts and collective inventions, as the fruits of our own imaginations, introspections and projections into the future, of our fears and hopes. Our mythological constitution allows us to speak of the present of the past. We may compare ourselves to time tanks accumulating history adapted as our personal legend. This forces us to question to what extent our thinking and acting, how far our consciousness of ourselves and of the others are at all determined by visible or invisible presence or absence, to question the essence of reality...
8It seems obvious, indeed, that our lives are dominated by our ideas and expectations, by our need for permanence and continuity, Our myths, arent they at least as real as the conditions of our real existence? Platos Cave has a concrete substance to us, how else could we be in a position to deal with a fictional world obviously under the rules of relativity, immateriality and virtuality.
9The fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain has made us realize the mental borderline that we are referring to as "time wall". Decades of confrontation with the myths of the European East and of the West are responsible for mental deviations even within individuals of the same nation which are resulting - within the period of maybe several generations - in another rhythm, in a different color of their memories, moods and emotions.
10Another most relevant example is "Mythos Berlin", the very mythology of modernist Berlin focusing on the climax of its urban culture in the 20s whose essence has been that unique and irretrievable German-Jewish symbiosis. lt is the myth of the city-machine, yet seen by the expressionist poets and painters as a jungle - Moloch Berlin. Destroyed and lost forever, the myth of those splendid years on the brink of desaster is still haunting our imagination and our desire. lt haunts the imagination and desire of many of those who are, in one way or another, involved in reshaping the new capital city as if just its scattered elements would have to be put together again to restore Berlins erstwhile urbanity and modernity. lt is the myth of the center.
11Berlins myth of the 20s corresponds to that dream of a complex metropolis - not deprived, though, of the coherence and unity of the holy polis - whose paramount qualities are the excellency of its ruling class and its intelligentsia, the wealth of its business class, the perfection of its industry and craft, the diverse of its cultures, the attraction of its institutions, the magnetism and glamour of its nightlife and world of pleasures, the superiority of its criminals and forces of order, the boldness and pertness of its common men and women, the charm of its cityscape and the grandeur of its skyline, in a word - the beauty and intensity of life it promises. This vision of a metropolis is nothing else but the dated myth of the center in opposition to its peripheral (or provincial) counterparts. The cliché, believe me or not, cannot be simple-minded enough to sneak its way into collective mythology.
12The notion of the center has its natural origin in the theo-geo-centric cosmologies since long done away with by natural sciences and even by theology. Yet, this ideal continues to resist its cancellation since it seems to correspond with an inveterate nostalgia of mankind. The myth identifies Center and Significance, Center and Value.
13From the roi soleil to his many followers, from Inquisition to Stalinism, from the bourgeois milieu and juste milieu to Euro-centrism and to the fascist Millenium - there are endless attempts of reestablishing the bygone theocracy - attempts to set one binding measure, one truth for all, exiling or annihilating all that does not fit into that biased view of a world. We have to do with the ideology of the Either - Or. Primeval dualities show themselves in a fresh disguise: center or periphery, metropolis or province, First or Third World, mainstream or fringe, the medium or the excentric, the scene or the obscene, etc.;
14The philosopher Gilles Deleuze gave us a colorful illustration of what the Western code identifies as the "measure" - "human being, white, occidental, male, adult, reasonable, heterosexual, inhabitant of a city and speaking a standard language" - opposing this central position to the peripheral one of "mosquitos, children, women, black people, peasants, homosexuals,etc.". (5) Beyond this irony, Jean Baudrillard states the end of obscenity, there being no scene anymore allowing the "ob-scene" to exist. (6) There is indeed ample evidence of the final, if slow decline of that world of the Either - Or, of those opposites conditioning each other.
15Let me remind you of one of its more
16Returning to our urban borderlands we are back on earth in the material sphere of the here and now. Yet, our myth still haunts the imagination. lt lingers in the minds of the Berlin city planners dealing with nothing less than the reconstruction of the citys old center.
17Now, it is hard for us Europeans to imagine a city without a center. Since the 13th century when our cities slowly took the shape in which they still inhabit our minds, they most naturally grew around centers dominated by the church - a dome, a minster or a cathedral - neighboured soon by the city-hall and surrounded by the market place, the citys open forum. lt is an image resisting the ravages of time. Let me refer to the example of Amos Oz, an author born in Israel of parents immigrated from Central Europe, who told the boy of their hope Jerusalem might one day become a genuine city, meaning a city with its cathedral situated next to a river with bridges and surrounded by dense forests. (9)
18Arent we obliged, though, to become aware of the highly symbolic meaning contained in the systematic destructions of Berlin, capital city of the Third Reich, by Albert Speers planned new super-center "Germania"; in the systematic bombing of German cities historical centers by allied forces: conveyed by Ulbrichts blowing-up of Berlins City Palace of the Hohenzollern; sensible in the fact that the remaining historical centers of European cities are maintained mainly as museums to exploit swelling tourist crowds? Definitely, the center is lost.
19Here we have to remind of the particular situation of Berlin. In his critical distance to the booming city, the writer and historian Wilhelm Hausenstein said in the 20s "Paris is a garden, Brussels blooms, Antwerp thrives - but Berlin is construed- The city was not born, it manufactured itself". He designates Berlin as the "exempt" city - indeed, unlike its European sisters Berlin has not grown under the influence of the church or in the shadow of a cathedral. The formation of "Großberlin", the greater Berlin area, out of a scattered flock of small independant communities (7 townships and 59 rural communities) not earlier than 1920, has been a secular act creating 20 administrations under the responsibility of a local mayor and parliament each: a multi-centered agglomeration.
20Berlin has kept its exceptional feature, city of many particular roles: melting pot and multicultural Prussian capital, Kaiser-city and "Red Berlin", biggest German workers and industrial city, city under the Four Power Status and "front city", divided city of the Wall and showcase of the West, capital of the GDR and of the student movement etc; And, again, the capital city of Germany, contested and even sabotaged by large groups of the Bonn Federal Administration.
21Its open, tolerant, multilayered, prospective, more: progressive character predestinated the city to become one of the centers of Modernism, calling strong conservative forces into reacting. An outstanding example is the elevation of the Berlin Dome from 1894 on by Kaiser Wilhelm, this identification of the Prussian Crown with Heaven, being immediately censored by modernist Berlin as a declaration of war, as "evil architecture, triumph of the bygone", in the words of Alfred Lichtwark (Hamburg art historian and museum man). The meanwhile restored dome is obviously a fatal prefiguration of Albert Speers Big Hall (Große Halle) as the culmination of the projected massive transformation of Berlin into the fascist center of the world.
22We had to enter the post- and post-post-modernist areas to become finally aware of a radically changing mental landscape, In the early 70s already Octavio Paz had announced, with the death of the avantgarde, the end of modernist Utopia. (10) Let me quote from a text written 20 years later by the American art critic Thomas McEvilley: "...the globalism of the 90s... is based on the recognition that art history as hitherto promulgated no longer coincides with the world we live in. To correct the fit, a fundamental shift in Western modes of cognition seems to be called for. ... Western culture, taking its paradigm from its sciences was to be the universal Self: non-Western culture was to be entirely Other. The idea of taking an anthropological approach to ones own culture - treating ones own culture as another - would have seemed subversive. Now, however, many Western anthropologists have come to see their goal as to shed light on their own culture as much as on others, light that must come, at least in part, from outside. ... The point of this exercise is the relativization of any one culture, the perception that it is not an absolute but just one approach among many to the shared human project of civilization." (11)
23(Recently, Ronne Heartfield has exposed
similar views on the changing canon in relation to
publication and public education).
24"Never before" observes the French
anthropologist Marc Augé, "has individual history
to such an extent been influenced by collective history,
yet never before have the means of orientation for the
collective identity been as fluid as today. Hence, the
individual producing of significance is indispensable as
never before." (12)
25Are there ways to still seize the unique
opportunities of the open Berlin situation?
26The helpless conflict around this innermost
center of the city reveals more clearly than any other
aspect of the city planning the impossibility to define a
meaningful Center of our complex communities and their
27Are there any easy ways out of the dilemma?
28To conclude, I would like to make you aware
of an author I have quoted already, the sociologist
Ulrich Beck, whose analysis of our present situation I
find particularly enlightening.
29Division, specialization, striving for order, evidence, control, and a linear, calculable image of the world there - here: the global and the multiple, uncertainty, the experiment of exchange, of the included third, of synthesis and ambivalence. "... the world of the Either - Or", Ulrich Beck states, "in which we think, act and live (I am underlining, still think, act and live) becomes wrong"- However our attitude is - receptive of or rejecting the globality, diffuseness and openness of the "and" - we are already engaged in the conflicts and experiments of a world beyond the Either - Or... What Kandinsky had seen as the task of the 20th century, will thus be handed over to the next one: the question of the "and".
30In an article for Süddeutsche Zeitung in
July, titled "The Open City"(15), Ulrich Beck
is applying this view to the actual state and development
of our urban agglomerations. Let me give you some
elements from this article:
31lf Berlin and its open-minded potentials would have the upper hand against the fatal tendencies of exclusion and national pomp, of a mentality of apartheid, of an architecture of high-security and emergency etc. - the city would indeed, by its very traditions, be predestinated to become a workshop for the renewal of urbanity, for discovering the elements of a future mythology of our cities we may be eager to identify with. lt is my deep desire that Berlin shall surprise us all in a most positive way.
1) Ulrich Beck, "Die offene Stadt", Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 2/3, 1994
2) Modris Ecksteins "Der Große Krieg", in the catalogue "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit", Berlin 1994
3) Leslie Fiedler, "Cross the Border, Close the Gap"
4) Peter Handke, "Versuch über die Jukebox", 1990
5) Gilles Deleuze, "Philosophie et minorité", in "Critique" 369, 1978
6) Jean Baudrillard, "La scène et lob-scène"
7) Hans Sedlmayer, "Verlust der Mitte - Die bildende Kunst des 19 und 20. Jahrhunderts als Symptom und Symbol der Zeit", Salzburg 1948, 17th edition 1991
8) Thomas McEvilley, in "Art and Discontent - Theory at the Millenium", New York 1991
9) Amos Oz, "Brief aus Arad", in "Bericht zur Lage des Staates Israel", Frankfurt/Main 1992
10) Octavio Paz, "The Death of the Avantgarde" 1972 - "Der Tod der Avantgarde", in "Die andere Zeit der Dichtung", Frankfurt/Main 1992
11) Thomas McEvilley, "Art & Otherness - Crisis in Cultural Identity", New York 1992
12) Marc Augé, "Orte und Nicht-Orte - Vorüberlegungen zu einer Ethnologie der Einsamkeit", Frankfurt/Main 1994
13) "Un entretien avec Michael Dummet" by Roger-Pol Droit, "Le Monde", October 11, 1994
14) Ulrich Beck, "Die Erfindung des Politischen", Frankfurt/Main 1993
15) U.B., "Die offene Stadt", see there