For decades the governing cry of our cities has been “Never speak to strangers.” I propose that in a democratic city it is imperative that we speak to strangers, live next to them, and learn how to relate to them on many levels, from the political to the sexual. City venues must be designed to allow these multiple interactions to occur easily, with a minimum of danger, comfortably, and conveniently. This is what politics—the way of living in the polis, in the city—is about.
The New Times Square is about developers doing as much demolition and renovation as possible in the neighborhood, and as much construction work as they possibly can. Some old-fashioned Marxism might be useful here: Infrastructure determines superstructure—not the other way around. And for all their stabilizing and destabilizing potential, discourse and rhetoric are superstructural phenomena.
There is, of course, a corollary particularly important for late-consumer media-dominated capitalism that’s largely overlooked in classical Marxism: “Superstructure stabilizes infrastructure.”
Recently when I outlined the differences between contact and networking to a friend, he came back with the following examples: “Contact is Jimmy Stewart; networking is Tom Cruise. Contact is complex carbohydrates; networking is simple sugar. Contact is Zen; networking is scientology. Contact can effect changes at the infrastructural level; networking effects changes at the superstructural level.”
At first one is tempted to set contact and networking in opposition. Networking tends to be professional and motive-driven. Contact tends to be more broadly social and appears random. Networking crosses class lines only in the most vigilant manner. Contact regularly crosses class lines in those public spaces in which interclass encounters are at their most frequent. Networking is heavily dependent on institutions to promote the necessary propinquity (gyms, parties, twelve-step programs, conferences, reading groups, singing groups, social gatherings, workshops, tourist groups, and classes), where those with the requisite social skills can maneuver. Contact is associated with public space and the architecture and commerce that depend on and promote it. Thus contact is often an outdoor sport; networking tends to occur indoors.
The opposition between contact and networking may be provisionally useful for locating those elements between the two that do, indeed, contrast. But we must not let that opposition sediment onto some absolute, transcendent, or ontological level that it cannot command. If we do, we will simply be constructing another opposition that we cannot work with at any analytical level of sophistication until it has been deconstructed—a project to which we shall return.
The relationships were not (necessarily) consecutive. They braided. They interwove. They were simultaneous. (Several times I saw Gary in the morning and Arly and/or Tommy in the afternoon.) These relationships did not annoy or in any way distress the man I was living with—because they had their limits. They were not the central relationships of my life. They made that central relationship richer, however, by relieving it of many anxieties.
For Delany the real issue within the modern metropolis is how to encourage contact across differences of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and especially class. It is this contact that provokes and underwrites the security, possibility, contentment, and astonishment that are the necessary ingredients of successful urban life.
Here is where Delany mounts his most trenchant theoretical intervention. That is to say, he is especially careful to note that not all forms of human interaction can be read as “contact” in the way the he frames the term. In particular, Delany situates the concept of contact against the idea of “networking,” suggesting that the network opportunity—the conference, the fraternity, the professional gathering—is always established within the protocols of capitalist competition such that even the most convivial sites of professional and class affiliation, the office cocktail party to take one example, can offer only those opportunities and rewards that work to reinforce the limits of individual networks while reinvigorating the policing of class boundaries. In a series of hilarious send-ups of writers’ conventions he notes that aspiring authors arrive at these events hoping that they will experience the type of surprising, if not exactly unanticipated, pleasures and rewards that one haphazardly encounters in interactions with (relative) strangers in the streets of New York. What these eager conferees inevitably experience, however, is the reiteration of their own class positions. Or as Delany succinctly frames the matter, “Networking produces more opportunities to network—and that’s about it.”
In Dhalgren, Delany shares with us a vision of the imaginary city of Bellona, where technology fails and the superstructure has abandoned the infrastructure. Instead of trying to capture the collapsed utopianism of the 60s, Delany envisioned a paradigm where destabilizing forces were exciting and useful to those willing to open themselves up to the experience. The lives of those who stayed behind out of arrogance or stubbornness are miserable. They violently attempt to maintain their capitalistic existence in a flexible unreality often functioning in direct opposition to the values and standards they cherish. But the angel-haired hipsters and other mad men find Bellona a festival of opportunity and under Delany’s pen they get to explore and gain. What is built around us shapes us and it should be the reverse.