Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review: Concrete Reveries

Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (2008) by Mark Kingwell
Viking Press
Hardcover, 256 pages

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"All great manifestations of social life have in common with the work of art the fact that they are born in unconscious life." - Aldo Rossi
The interaction between our internal states and the exterior world is a subject ripe for investigation, as half the world's population finds itself in cities and a good deal of that number find the physical character of those surroundings lacking, to say the least. Rampant modernization, globalization, and an abstraction rooted in Modernism have morphed places into non-places, ubiquitous constructions that replace the unique and the local with a repetitive brandism. What seems to be missing is considerations of the body, that threshold of interaction between the internal and the external, the porous boundary between us and the rest of the world; or, in essence, our primary way of being in the world.

Philosopher Mark Kingwell's journey through the contemporary city and the mental landscape that traverses this multi-faceted terrain instills in the reader a set of tools for navigating these internal and external states. He starts rather literally with the concrete of the city, the concrete under our feet, the concrete of the walls and floors of buildings. It is a material that is deeply meaningful for Kingwell, a truly natural material that is full of possibilities, the "stuff of dreams." The author continues his journey in New York, spending many pages on one thing that defines the city: walking. The New York walk, the fast-paced, right-side, beeline-for-the-destination style that distinguishes it from other big cities. It is an illustration of both the distinctions of place and the way the body interacts with the concrete of the city and the flesh of other bodies. Later Kingwell contrasts the New York walk with Shanghai, where "body contact is not optional."

These two cities are treated at length, but the majority of the book is devoted to "less concrete" places and the internal place of consciousness, the place of ideas. This makes for an occassionally frustrating read for those less inclined to philosophical meandering alongside his other imaginative meanderings. (Kingwell admits a background in philosophical knowledge would help in reading his book.) The breadth of Kingwell's investigations is a commendable aspect of the book, and one that holds the interest of the reader along his journey. The fact that the book is pieced together from essays already published in a number of journals of various disciplines is sometimes evident, as the book lacks a strong center about which everything revolves, even though the admitted arc from big to small, city to mind/body, gives the book some direction. If anything the center is the reader, the person imbibing the ideas of Kingwell, the person whose interaction with the city and others is affected by his words.

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