||Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge
"The enigma of history lies in what it means to be historical."
--Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time (1924).
"If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty."
--Ludwig Wittgenstein On Certainty (1949-1951).
This essay invites readers to explore "Los Angeles" and the knowledge claims made by historians of the urban condition. Recent claims that Los Angeles is a quintessential site of postmodernity raise very fundamental epistemological questions--many of which rapidly turn into ontological ones. How can entities so vast as great metropolises be grasped, let alone compared, when it is not even clear what empirical elements (architecture, class, crime, culture, demography, economics, gender, political institutions, sexuality, street life) are preeminent? What exactly is and/or was Los Angeles? How can we know, and what might constitute certainty or at least usable knowledge? How do photography, cartography, textual documents, and quantitative data ("statistics") give us access to historical urban space and time? Influential writers on postmodernity such as Fredric Jameson have named specific sites within Los Angeles as evidence of a new condition, in which history itself is effaced by the "depthlessness" that characterizes a core condition of the "world space of multinational capital"--the ultimate source of ongoing exploitation and alienation. Recent scholarship has singled-out Los Angeles as either unique among cities, or especially representative of new conditions of urban life and globalism. The stakes of these claims are extremely high, because they are used by many to deny the very possibility of historical knowledge in general. Los Angeles has become metonymic for the entire course of human history. How do we assess these claims?
This multimedia hyper-essay is an experiment, created to challenge historians' and other writers' use of "Los Angeles" as exemplar of any condition, and specifically to probe Jameson's call for an "as yet unimaginable new mode of representing [the world space of multinational capital], in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion." (54). I, the author, serve as your valet de place, a specially-commissioned guide through an infinite tangle of urban space and time. What becomes immediately apparent is the extreme selectivity imposed by such an exercise. I present artifacts from "locations," which include "empirical paths" through the metropolis, as well as sites as specific as street corners. These locations are vast in their own right, and yet tiny fragments of the metropolis. alternatively, I offer synoptic views of the entire metropolis or large regions of it. These, while seemingly comprehensive, are extremely limited in other ways. In this essay I explore basic issues in assembling knowledge about cities, and put at your disposal a large collection of representations, which you are relatively free to explore either in connection with, or in disregard to, this essay about the epistemology and ontology of the historical metropolis.
I shall argue in this essay that "mapping" is indeed the key to "certain" knowledge (in a space-time materialist sense: to be exlained further). It is not only a powerful metaphor for the historical knowledge project, but a concrete tool for affirming the real presence of the historical in the condition of the present, for mediating between the infinitely local and the infinitely global, and for building knowledge communities. It should be possible, in short, to meet Jameson's demand for a new form of representation, if beforehand we interrogate and eludicate the fundamental issues at stake.
It is a very curious fact that few of the classic works "on history" by historians reflect upon the nature of time itself. Rather, they emphasize the craft of writing about, as though the existence of "the past" can be assumed as a given. Still fewer urban historians have written on this subject. In what manner the past as such exists is a matter of paramount importance if one seeks to illuminate the conditions for urban historical knowledge. I take as my guides the hermeneutics and historicism of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger. Dilthey's critique of knowledge in the human sciences grew from a theorizing of time as an eternal present: "The present is the filling of a moment of time with reality; it is experience, in contrast to memory or ideas of the future occurring in wishes, expectations, hopes, fears and strivings.The present is always there and nothing exists except what emerges in it. The ship of our life is, as it were, carried forward on a constantly moving stream, and the present is always wherever we are on these waves--suffering, remembering or hoping, in short, living in the fullness of our reality." (Dilthey in Mueller-Vollmer, pp. 149-50). The critical passage is Dilthey's claim that "nothing exists except what emerges" in the present. Inquiry about the temporality of a city is distinguished from most other historiographic inquiry by a heightened importance of spatiality. We are necessarily answering spatial questions when we form historical urban knowledge--even though the weight of modern discourse works to obfuscate space through an obsessive temporalizing of experience. This insight leads us to recognize the need to develop clear (transparent) linkages between space and time. The terrain on which the history of a city can be apprehended is best seen as a vast present, strewn with artifacts created in countless "past" moments of human labor.
Heidegger's explication of the empirical status of these artifacts is highly useful, but only makes sense within his account of Being itself, which places the "past" in the "future" in the sense that the present is not simply filled with experience, as in Dilthey, but intended as in Husserl. "The possibility of access to history is grounded in the possibility according to which any specific present understands how to be futural. This is the first principle of all hermeneutics."(Concept of Time, 20) When interpreting what we understand as the past, we are "running ahead" as Heidegger puts it, or being futural. Being for Heidegger is always located, a condition he calls Dasein ("being-there"). "Dasein as human life is primarily being possible, the Being of the possibility of its certain yet indeterminate past" (Concept of Time, 12). With this intentional phenomenology in mind, let us follow Heidegger's interpretation of historical artifacts at some length:
"The 'antiquities' preserved in museums (household gear, for example) belong to a 'time which is past'; yet they are still present-at-hand in the 'Present'. How far is such equipment historical, and when it is not yet past? Is it historical, let us say, only because it has become an object of historiological interest, of antiquarian study or national lore? But such equipment can be a historiological object only because it is in itself somehow historical. We repeat the question: by what right do we call this entity "historical," when it is not yet past? Or do these 'Things' have 'in themselves' 'something past', even though they are still present at hand today? Then are these, which are present-at-hand, still what they were? Manifestly these 'Things' have altered. The gear has become fragile or worm-eaten 'in the course of time'."(BT432-3)
Heidegger turns here to focus on the use of the artifacts, or household "equipment" in his example, and distinguishes between two conditions. The "present-at-hand" is merely present, but not an object of familiarity, and not an expected element of the world we inhabit. The "ready-to-hand" is a part of our everydayness, the pen or automobile that we use and expect to be part of our world, without self-conscious theorizing.
"What, then, is past in this equipment? What were these 'Things' which today they are no longer? They are still definite items of equipment for use; but they are out of use. Suppose, however, that they were still in use today, like many a household heirloom; would they then be not yet historical? All the same, whether they are in use or out of use, they are no longer what they were. What is 'past'? Nothing else than that world within which they belonged to a context of equipment and were encountered as ready-to-hand and used by a concernful Dasein who was-in-the-world. That world is no longer. But what was formerly within-the-world with respect to what world is still present-at-hand. As equipment belonging to a world, that which is now is still present-at-hand can belong nevertheless to the 'past'. But what do we signify by saying of a world that it is no longer: A world is only in the manner of existing Dasein, which factically is as Being-in-the-world."
All history is the study of artifacts that exist only in the present. We historians claim for them a status as genuine "sources" of historical knowledge. But historians are concernful Dasein not fully accounted for by Heidegger. Artifacts for us are not merely present-at-hand but also ready-to-hand objects of the everyday. The spatial meaning of these reflections must be exposed further. A museum object for us is also a "primary source." Consider the detailed scale Model of the City of Los Angeles, created by the Works Progress Administration and the Los Angeles City Planning Department in 1939-1940. Only one portion of this once very large model survives, that portraying central portion of downtown, including the old Bunker Hill. It is held behind glass in the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum (sharing space with 300 million-year old fossilized life and 3 million insects). This model was meticulously constructed at 1:120 scale to facilitate "urban renewal," and was instrumental, ironically enough, in planning the massive destruction of the historic Bunker Hill neighborhood in the 1960s. It is invaluable today for reconstructing the history of that and other neighborhoods, a relatively comprehensive representation of a Los Angeles world "that is no longer." The artifact, that which gives us "access" to history, is "held" in an archive. The historian goes to the archive to observe it, and comes away with claims as to the being of the historical city. These artifacts are about spaces that existed, or about experiences in spaces that existed, but they are spatial entities in themselves. They have a scale that serves as an algorithm for converting the representation back into the reality. There is a historical materialism to this method.
"The true method of making things present," writes Walter Benjamin, "is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space). We don't displace our being into theirs; they step into our life" (Benjamin, Arcades, 206). I cannot take up here all the implication of these observations. Instead, I shall explore the implications for one particularly important type of artifact, the photograph.
We can do very well to follow Benjamin's reflections on photography and history when pursuing the certainty possible in either, because he developed a very compelling case, as Eduardo Cadava has shown, that history is essentially photographic, in the sense that our historical knowledge is a series of fleeting snapshots. In a much-quoted passage from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin writes: "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again." Critical also to Benjamin is the necessary disjuncture between the photograph and its referent. By supporting a myth of realism, photography began modernity's erasure of a critical, reflective attitude. Benjamin, one of the first in a long line of twentieth-century critics who saw in aesthetic realism a dangerous prop for fascist domination via the image, proposed an epistemology of the "true" which was, nevertheless, not a "correspondence" theory of the image with reality. It was, in Cadava's summary, a "politics whose infinitely mediated relations prevent if from organizing itself around a particular form of instrumentality" (Words of Light, 47).
Benjamin may be said to have opened the ongoing debate about the position of the photograph in history and as history. I wish now to contrast two distinctive positions within this long discourse. The prevailing view normalizes the photograph by contextualizing it as a mere species of text within a wide network of power and institutions that make each photograph perform specific functions. Photographs in this view have no special access to reality in general, let alone the past. John Tagg is the most forceful exponent of this view, formed in large part in a critique of Roland Barthes' remarkable argument in Camera Lucida. There Barthes seems to commit a heresy within the radical skepticism of postmodern discourse, that photography gives "unmediated" access to reality. Barthes recalls a photograph he had clipped as a child, of a slave market: "for my horror and my fascination as a child came from this: that there was a certainty that such a thing had existed: not a question of exactitude, but of reality: the historian was no longer the mediator, slavery was given without mediation, the fact was established without method" (Camera Lucida 80). To this naiveté Tagg responds first with a dismissal, that Barthes's position was motivated by his grief and longing for his departed mother, and then by his characteristic Marxian institutionalism. Always in Tagg's work the photograph is suspended in institutions of power: photographs are said to be "evidence". Only because the police in the bourgeois regimes of France and the U.S. forced it to perform this social task. Tagg's critique is remarkably unpoetic. While Tagg the skeptic is clearly the more objective and even scientific analyst of the photograph, Barthes and Benjamin seize instead upon the mystery of the photograph's relation to death as the enduring element that gives it such power of truth:
"In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as it the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe" (Camera Lucida, 96).
Let us compare the image(s) of Broadway and Seventh Street, Los Angeles, 1905-2000, with a different pair, at Broadway and Temple, 1868-2000. Using Barthes' terminology, the studium of both the 1868 and the 1905 images resides in the recognizable traces of a "world that is no more." But the traces are far more faint in the 1868 image, because fewer indexical features remain in the depicted landscape. It is possible that not a single building visible in the 1868 image remains standing. But landforms may be used to establish referents (how verifiable these are is the important question). Bunker Hill is quite visible in the South-by-Southwest extreme (right hand edge) of the 1868 panorama. The old Anglo "City Hall" is easy enough to verify through cross-referencing with official plans and other photographs. Indeed, although the 1905 image is far more esaily verified as the same location as its 2000 analogue, even that shows few traces of the life world apprehended in 1905. All this destroyed? Not a soul left living? And yet there it is, two truths stare us in the face: the studium of the indexical traces, and the punctum of a living world, those moving (blurred) figures shriek at us from the grave: "we are alive!" (and we are going to die).
Now let us consider these archival photographs as truthful in a different manner. Kenneth Walton makes a very compelling and surprisingly blunt case about the "transparency" of photographs: "Mirrors enable us to see around corners. Telescopes and microscopes make distant and small objects visible. With the help of photography we can see into the past as well" ("Transparent Pictures," 66)
Can we really "see" into the past in this way, as though peering into a telescope? I am reminded here of a short story by H.G. Wells, in which a crystal ball is discovered in a London second-hand store, through which a viewer may observe a living but fantastic Martian landscape. As the story unfolds, we become aware that the crystal ball was planted on Earth by the Martians as portals through which to observe us. Their corresponding two-way communication unit is held high upon poles in an urban Martian public plaza: the flying Martians periodically approach these spheres, peering in, as it were, to our world. Walton's argument holds that photographs are portals allowing at least one-way vision to another world. "We must resist the tendency to water down this claim, to take it as a colorful or exaggerated way to saying that in viewing a photograph one has the impression of seeing the thing photographed, or that the photograph one sees is some sort of substitute or surrogate for the object. Watering it down in either of these ways endangers both its interest and its truth. We really do, literally, see our deceased ancestors when we see photographs of them." ("Transparent Pictures," 67) In our current discourse, so saturated by the concept of "social construction," it is remarkable to read such an outlandish claim.
In all the cases considered so far: Heidegger's interpretation of the artifact, Benjamin's "past" as a flashing recognition, Tagg's institutional determinism, Barthes's punctum, and Walton's transparent pictures, we historians must always ask, "how would we know?" How could it be imagined that these photographs provide at least clues to the past? How can they become part of our world of knowledge? Ridley Scott's 1982 Blade Runner has become emblematic of the depthless condition of postmodernity, set of course in a future Los Angeles, in which the "age of mechanical reproduction" has reached an extreme stage. Human beings themselves can be robotic "replicants" or natural bodies, but no one can really tell the difference. The replicants themselves verify their own "real" status via photographs of their childhood, and memories of this childhood has been programmed into the replicants' minds. Are we in such a condition? Is it impossible, in principle, to distinguish the truthful history from the fictive in the photographs? Certainly, Hollywood's location in Los Angeles raises the stakes in answering this riddle of reality's merger with the fantasy world of "consuming images" (to borrow Stuart Ewen's phrase). Critical scenes in Blade Runner take place in the Bradbury Building, a recurrent site of futuricity and pastness. Its original owner and his architect were inspired by Edward Bellamy's 1888 Looking Backward to achieve a futuristic, utopian space, and yet the sense of this place was reconstituted by The Maltese Falcon as a dystopian setting of the 1930s Noir aesthetic. That aesthetic contributed to the underworld representation of Bunker Hill that was essential to the ideology of the 1950s planners who destroyed it. Blade Runner is an homage to Film Noir, and yet the edifice has been lovingly restored by a 1990s real estate magnate in a supremely naive preservationist manner. The work of these preservationists (such as the Los Angeles Conservancy), to save from erasure the eroding fabric of the old downtown of Los Angeles, once centered at Broadway and Seventh, is powerfully supported by the Hollywood movie industry, which thrives on the "period" settings of this region to produce fictitious New York Cities, Chicagos, and Los Angeles itself in many eras.
Attempts to doubt the authenticity of the archival photograph based on the institutions of late capitalism will ultimately prove futile, thanks to the contradictions of that perspective itself. Jeannene M. Przyblyski offers a remarkable reconsideration of Eugène Appert's notorious staged and superimposed photographic documents of the 1871 Paris Commune. She admits their fictive and reactionary political origin, but nevertheless locates them in a structure of modern practice of consumerist pastiche: the circulation of images for urban spectacle of "acutalité that might be said to inhabit the same discursive framework as such urban consumerist mechanisms as the grands boulevards, the new department stores, and the wealth of novelty attractions mapped across modern Paris, a framework within which distinctions between the real and the commodified were blurred according to the logic of commercial enticement" ("Moving Pictures," 269). Przyblyski meticulously deconstructs Appert's constructions, by a contextual mapping of their elements within a dense network of documentary evidence of and about the Commune. Her performance demonstrates that every photograph, and by extension every other species of artifact, can in principle be verified, not by the scientistic method of correspondence between representation and reality, but by the new historicist of mapping its relations to the network of texts of which it forms a part.
This is why my blantant manipulation of single still frames, both from the historical archive and from my own camera, to create that quintessential 19th-century spectacle, the "panorama" is not at all fictive. Ironically, I have used 1990s manipulative technology to achieve what the photographer was unable to do: to render through stretching, skewing, and blending, images that he or she could only stand edge-to-edge for the circa 1868 or 1905 spectators to observe. The result is a form of "virtual reality," enticing the viewer to experience the sense of place one might have had at the corner of Broadway (The called Ft. Moore) and Temple atop the roof of the Lankershim Hotel on that day in circa December 1905. Taking further steps to "animate" the image, through a viewer, we imagine ourselves peering through Walton's telescope into the past. Indeed, the very mimetic essence of this kind of fiction is what gives us the ability to map its reality.
Have we restored the depth these erased landscapes? In some compelling ways, yes: I believe we have scored a partial victory over the alienating condition of postmodernity. We have brought the past object into our world, and, mapping its artifactual coordinates within a network of disputable evidence, we are confronted with the resulting punctum of recognition that this is the intended future of our own present. It is now a part of the present, a depth that can be held against the depthless disorientation of this site of global capitalism. Broadway and Bunker Hill have not been erased after all, because the eraser itself can be cognitively mapped.
But how deep are these photographs? What do we see when we see these unmediated ghosts? How close are we getting to the ideal of applying Kevin Lynch's method of cognitive mapping to the space-time fabric of the great metropolis? Lynch's method was to ask urbanites to self-represent their surroundings, to describe their own sense of place. The sense of place experienced by the blurred pedestrians in the 1905 Broadway and Seventh panorama is utterly inaccessible to us. But so is the existential perspective of every living contemporary. "Cada cabeza es un mundo," as the Spanish proverb goes. This empathic barrier operates equally in space and time. A barrier to historical knowledge far more challenging than the problem of entering the subjectivity of the historical actors is the infinite size of the empirical field itself. The opportunity to disappear into the anonymity of a metropolis is one of the familiar conditions of modernity. The necessary ignorance of officials makes the city a fine field for criminality, but also for resistance and revolution. Assuming that the historian's attempt to see into a metropolis is categorically different than the police department's dream of surveillance, how can we achieve such a critical goal?
Benjamin memorably unpacked the power of photography to achieve new feats of "seeing," in a manner perfectly consistent with Walton's claim about photography's transparency:
"By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one had extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye--if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man" (Benjamin 1968: 236-7).
Consider now the photography of Robbert Flick, with whom I have collaborated in a documentation of South Central Los Angeles. Flick's finished multi-frame artworks are poised between the unique vision of a vehicular flâneur and an accessible, cognitive map of the long streets of Los Angeles. His method is to use a Hi-8 video camera, mounted at a fixed 90-degree angle to the direction of travel and shooting to the left (driver's side) at the eye-level of the driver. He then captures still frames from the immense number generated by the 30-frames-per-second speed of the videotape, and selects from these those he wishes to compose into a very large rectangle. The method is structuralist in the manner of twelve-tone modernism. His rule is to assemble the images in a linear succession from the upper left to the lower right, overlapping each frame with its adjacent frames, in order to give the viewer a verifiable reference. The result allows a guided tour of the studium of a recognizable grid, or alternatively, a free exploration of the punctums to be experienced across vast trajectories across the metropolis. "Along Central," the artwork produced from our collaboration, makes it possible to "see" in simultaneity, 20 kilometers of Los Angeles, through neighborhoods that are recognizable, if only by name and association with negative news, around the world. Just as Benjamin predicted, Flick explodes the reality of these supposed totalities of "South Central," or "Watts," allowing us to explore occupied space in its quotidian details. By "reading" the work out of order, the possibility of cognitive mapping becomes apparent. The fragmented life worlds of the metropolis are "seen" together, as social relations within the visual fabric.
The artistic practice of Robbert Flick may at first seem "depthless" in the sense that a) it is shot from a moving vehicle and does not attempt to gain intersubjective knowledge from the residents or various neighborhoods; and b) it is just a series of pictures, lacking contextual data (texts, quantitative, testimonies, etc.). But such is the division of labor in society that any one artist or investigator cannot supply the whole we seek. The critical point is that Flick's sequential frames are a kind of map that can be indexed with any manner of other empirical data. As we travel along the empirical path we have provided here, from the northern terminus of Central Ave at 1st Street, to our stopping-point at El Segundo, we travel through an immense variety of lived "places," spaces invested with place-ness by a myriad of "communities" (in the sense of communicating social networks).
I have extended Flick's method to map the temporal dimension in the grid, as in "Central Avenue, 1940, 1965, 1995, 1999." To establish that in principle we can "see" the Harlem of the West Coast along Central Ave. between 21st Street and Vernon, I have superimposed the display ads from a 1940 Central Avenue Business Directory onto the building, circa 1999, in which those addresses corresponded, in "2150 South Central Avenue, 1940 and 1999." These catastrophic spectacles establish a map to the historical formation of a neighborhood, even though most of the physical traces of the remarkable cultural production by African Americans artists, intellectual, and professionals along Central have been destroyed (massively in the two riots of 1965 and 1992) or renamed by the current Latino occupants. Nevertheless, these historic neighborhoods can be attached to Flick's (or others') maps. Indexed together, the result is depth. Linkages in space can also be made to increase the depth. Thousands of signs along Central circa 2000 announce concrete gobal communication and trade with specific locations in Latin America and beyond. In principle, each of these locations can be further indexed to oral (intersubjective) testimony, memory, self-representations, and so on.
Mapping Knowledge of Institutions and Institutions of Knowledge
The account of photographic urban knowledge given here is meant to stand for other modes of inquiry as well. While there certainly are genre distinctions between oral histories, written documents, quantitative data, maps, and photographs, each is subject to the same "Cartesian anxiety" (Richard Rorty's term) that the knowing subject may not be adequately representing the reality of the urban condition, or that (as in Kant), the knowing subject is simply debarred from knowing the thing-in-itself of that reality. Post-Kantian thinkers from Hegel through Dewey showed anti-skeptical ways out of this deadlock by historicizing rationality itself, so we can see knowledge as an institution or set of institutional practices that are as real as the reality they purport to be about, and has as much moment for our lives as any supposed "external reality" could possibly have. For pragmatic reasons put forward by Rorty as well as for poststructuralist reasons put forward by Jean-Francois Leotard, we are very safe to say that there is no crisis of representation after all. But arrival at this admittedly postmodern plateau has given us just as many reasons to become nihilistic as it has to press on with confidence in the project of gaining and amassing historical knowledge. When such formidable minds as Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas debate to a deadlock whether or not there is a genuine distinction between "fiction" and "science," when an field of "science studies" arises to undermine the transcendental truth claims of the natural sciences, we cannot be surprised that readers of Peter Novick's monumental That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession come away convinced that objective historical knowledge is impossible. But, as James Kloppenberg has so forcefully argued, pragmatic hermeneutics offers a highly developed theory and method for building knowledge communities among historians with more than merely aesthetic claims to truth about the certainty of their assertions about the being and meaning of the past.
Kloppenberg and his allies among the neo-pragmatists have made an excellent case concerning discursive practices (textual argumentation), but I wish to carry the argument forward somewhat by engaging it with the geographic-historical practice of mapping, broadly yet secifically construed in a materialist sense. What we represent in narrative or analytic historical texts are human institutions. That relatively banal word "institutions" is a remarkably rich term that denotes any "habitual practice" from handshakes and manners of self-presentation (as in Pierre Bourdieu's "habitus"), to kinship systems, industrial corporations, and the constitutions of nation-states. Thorstein Veblen offered the most succinct definition: "habits of thought," and the "new institutionalists" in the social sciences have offered many volumes of definitions for the fields of political science and sociology.
How do we know (how can we feel certain) that the photograph of Broadway and Seventh Street in Los Angeles, actually depicts that location at the claimed date of 1907? How can we know (feel certain) that the claims about industrial restructuring or job-market stratification by race, or the importance of religious institutions in creating a sense of community in Los Angeles, actually depict those social realities? The preceding sentence carries a few of the many claims one must have under control in order to conduct comparative studies between great cities. We have to know that the Roman Catholic parishes in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles existed circa 1880 in the same sense that we need to know whether the erased landscape of Bunker Hill existed. We have to know whether or not industries in Los Angeles underwent de-industrialization and re-industrialization from the 1960s through the 1990s if we are to make any meaningful comparisons with rust-belt cities or Pacific Rim cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai. We must know whether the mass violence of 11-17 August 1965 was a "riot" or an "uprising," and must know how many persons were killed by the police, and whether those really were the dates of that collective violence, if we seek to know anything at all about the meaning of mass urban violence. Indeed, most basically, we must know something about the ethnic, class, age, and household composition of the population and its location within the metropolis, if we seek to compare great metropolitan centers.
The empirical forms of knowledge named in the preceding paragraph pose a wide range of barriers to certainty, clarity, or precision. Oral history interviews in 1999 by participants purporting to remember the sense of place on South Central Avenue circa 1940 are subject to all the reconstruction to be expected by readers of everyone from Freud to Lacan to the recent historical sub-field of "collective memory." Parish boundaries may be easy to identify on archodiocesan maps, but the topography of the cities circa 1880s has changed so much, that the clean lines on the 1880 maps become fuzzy when compared with the 1999 maps. Reported deaths (and causes of deaths) in "riots" or "uprisings" are of course subject to layers of bureaucratic and media filters. And census data are notorious for undercounts and for ethno-racial categories that do not match with, or grossly distort, the lived experience of group memberships. But in the end, these are not different kinds of problems posed by different kinds of data, but rather the same problem of mapping knowledge onto the landscape of space and time. Indeed, the methods of the New Historicism, so effectively introduced by Steven Greenblatt and seemingly so supportive of a radical skepticism, work instead to make historical urban knowledge possible.
In each and every case of a knowledge claim about urban historical reality, we have a pair, of institutions we seek to represent, and institutions of representation. The discourse of representation may be postmodern, rational-choice, Popperian social science, deconstructivist, narratological, queer, postcolonial, and so on. But each of these discourses are, as Benjamin asserted, essentially and practically photographic.
"The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. 'The truth will not run away from us': in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably" ("Theses on the Philosophy of History," 1968, 255).
Benjamin in this passage performs what I am calling, in this essay, a cognitive mapping. To recognize (artifacts from) the past as part of our world (in the sense outlined by Heidegger, as being ready-to-hand even if mainly only present-at-hand) is to draw a set of index lines from the institutions of representation to the institutions we seek to represent. What confronts us most challengingly is not the barrier to reality imposed by Cartesian anxiety or the il n'y a pas d'hors texte of the linguistic turn, but the sheer complexity of the mapping problem.
Take as a final example the complexity of this institutional totality we call "Los Angeles." As Mike Davis sarcastically remarked contra postmodern skeptics, "Los Angeles can be presumed to exist." Sure, but what are its boundaries? When we study "Los Angeles" do we study the "Consolidated Metropolitan Area" of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, or do we restrict ourselves to the chartered City of Los Angeles? We could take the County of Los Angeles, and we could just ignore these official boundaries and use a wide variety of popular, vernacular definitions. In American cinema, Robert Carringer has demonstrated, "Los Angeles" has most often been portrayed by being "set" in Beverly Hills. The globally most-viewed TV series ever is "Baywatch," in which viewers in Southeast Asia see Los Angeles portrayed as a strip of Pacific Ocean beach in Malibu, Pacific Palisades (11th Council District of the City of L.A.), and Santa Monica. Travelers destined for Pebble Beach in Orange County typically tell acquaintances that they are going to "Los Angeles." One of the few ways to sort out this boundary problem is to map the actual descriptive and jurisdictional boundaries of the various definitions of Los Angeles. In my own research on Los Angeles, I have chosen the boundaries of the County by that name, because it is coherent, and consistently encompasses the vast majority of the larger "metropolitan area." It remains a relatively arbitrary choice, but it is at least publicly visible and subject to critique. The county boundaries have remained stable since the late 19th century, but almost all political jurisdictions within that space have changed massively since the turn of the century. There were only eleven (11) incorporated cities in 1900, and by 1994 there were eighty-eight. The incorporated City of Los Angeles itself has grown and sometimes shrunk by more than 300 annexations and detachments since it was created by the United States regime in 1850. The bewildering overlay of state institutions as shapes on the ground are also, of course, shapes in time, as the single map of metropolitan spaces (giving dates of incorporation) illustrates.
This essay is undoubtledly too short to convincingly establish the case for a mappable historical certainty, but I hope to have suggested at least its possibility in principle. The key element is my case for a kind of space-time materialism, wherein we take historical evidence in its material presence as an artifact, and map that presence through indeces of correlation within the dense network of institutions, which themselves are mappable. In many ways this website is in the tradition of the "spectacular realities" interpreted by Vanessa Schwartz as precursors to the cinema, that quintessential expression of urban modernity. Like the wax museums of fin-de-siecle Paris, this interactive "mulitmedia" essay relies on models and panoramas and purports to ground the reader in something less slippery than the urban condition of late capitalism has imposed upon us. That "hyper-space" of which Jameson complained is a familiar urban condition. I want to suggest that the cognitive mapping necessary to regain agency within this global disorientation is nothing less than the cognitive mapping necessary to re-establish urban historical studies in a comparative and progressive manner. The central claim, in fact, is that the institutions of knowledge are themselves urban, in the sense that a complete map is impossible, and in the sense that the discourses that make it up are neighborhoods as well: communities with mappable locations. Urban historical knowledge is the map of institutions and the institution of mapping itself.