By Safiyya Haider
January 24, 2024
Reimagine the city as a buzzing hive, not a necropolis.
Walking through my hometown, Austin, is like swimming in my own arteries. Like any other communist, I wanted to join the ocean of communal feeling, so I moved out to Delaware for a summer internship. Being car-less and careless in America means long walks in places built for automobiles. Sometimes I would wander without using Google Maps and wind up in places brimming with psychic energy— vortexes or haunted sites?
I’m at Christiana Mall because that’s where the bus dumped me and it’s raining. I can’t think. I buy a 99-cent dress from Urban Outfitters I’ll never wear nor think of its origins— how could such a shiny scrap of fabric be borne of a child’s hands across the Pacific? I can’t even pray in that. The night I wear it, I’ll be like a skyscraper, synthetic, sylph-like, tragically beautiful.
Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle”, published in 1967, describes how image-driven consumer culture creates alienation. Debord argues that global capitalism erodes the individuality of places. We are spaceless and timeless, expanding nowhere. Urban Outfitters refers to nowhere and is everywhere, even illuminating my body.
These are no immutable facts. Capitalism is not real. We can shatter its glass. The Situationist International (SI) movement, led by Debord, rejected “The Spectacle” in favor of anti-state communism. They used avant-garde aesthetics to transform mass culture into a tool for subverting, rather than sustaining capitalism. The SI spawned the rise of counter-culture, such as punk. These movements emphasized DIY aesthetics and local community building, rather than consumption of global commodities. Lifestyle became a praxis, a way of resistance against the mythos of capitalism.
The children of the Spectacle are in ecstasy, running from their parent’s clasps to press their noses against the supernatural glow of vending machines. All cloaked in Disney merchandise: our folk art. One of them ambles up to me babbling words too pure for me to understand. I feel part of something greater than myself: commodity fetishism.
There was a mass shooting there two months ago.
The Situationists created “psychogeography,” the idea that emotions map onto urban environments, to revitalize city living. They encouraged dérive: urban wandering guided by intuition rather than habit or destination. So on Juneteenth weekend, I backpack to Philadelphia because the Amtrak tickets from Delaware were cheap. No one wants to travel with me for I have no itinerary, only a refusal to pay for museums.
The American Revolution happened here, on the blocks surrounding my hostel. It was kind of like the “Hamilton” musical, but in real life. The museums are charging people money to witness capitalist propaganda and they’re lining up in droves. I soak up the atmosphere of hungover finance dudes and bug-eyed children. Only when I walk to the wharf with the trade ships whistling do I understand what they came here for: to assure ourselves that our parents crossed the Atlantic for good reasons. I, too, want civic monuments to impress me, to distract me from civic decay and bloody history.
I turn back to the land. I must go to City Hall. The corporate entities put on airs of apocalypse: a Primark and a Macy’s inhabit grand Victorian buildings, and City Hall looms before the swelling crowds.
“Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption,” kills the souls of cities, Guy Debord proclaims. Global capitalism has led to chain stores replacing local culture, burying it in museums and mass-produced souvenirs. Tourism is the televised funeral of local culture. Tourists pose with Starbucks drinks in front of City Hall, shuffling past the courtyard full of artists trying to make it and those who haven’t sleeping on the benches. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country.
It is too much. I duck into a subway, cheating the ghost of Guy Debord. I put on a mask to evade the smell of puke and piss, i.e., human suffering. Who decides which stations are beautiful skin-carved stone and which are cold steel, forlorn as an asteroid-struck spaceship? I think, watching glimpses of light, watching people nodding off in the blood-rush of subway tracks, which are no womb fluid. We emerge to a neoclassical, desolate library, my film camera shuttering.
A man rises from a bus stop and offers me a stuffed rainbow unicorn, “I swear there’s nothing inside it!”
“No, that’s okay,” I tell him. “You should give it to a kid.” Really, I have a deep mistrust of strangers who approach solo-traveling young femmes. Am I denying the city’s revolutionary magic?
My second day in Philly, I wake up on a bunk bed to the stench of wet socks and a dying phone. My ditzy self forgot to bring a phone charger. I donate toothpaste to a Brazilian girl, then have an epiphany: what hostels lack in amenities, they compensate for in strangers you can mooch off.
“What’s your name?” I ask a Scandinavian girl in the common room, then “Can I borrow your charger for a little bit?”
With my phone charged to 25%, a free paper map, and a disposable camera, I flit away. A crucial part of dérive is being receptive to chance encounters with people. Thus wanderers reinvent their surroundings, rather than merely observing them. They see the world as a buzzing hive, rather than a necropolis. We need each other, for phone chargers, directions, and taking pictures. City walls are solid, but we are surreal. I become a pair of outstretched hands, not just a strange set of eyes.
My long work-weeks are starting to feel too concrete. It’s time for a Greyhound ride.
I walk National Mall looking for trees to climb, but there are none— only a litany of food trucks. They blast Bad Bunny and offer the same placeless food: pizza, hot dogs, funnel cakes. America is a carnival. They’re stamped with “Halal” stickers, but one has “Bismillah” and the Shahadah on it, which I send a picture of to my family group chat. My walks are an elaborate search for Allah, or a metanarrative. I reinvent the Capitol with every step. I need to pay more attention to strangers with that wild, prophetic look in their eyes. They are oracles sprouted from cracks in the concrete. One of them chirps, “I love your outfit!” instead of catcalling me. I am dizzy. The Capital is dense with empty ideas.
Dérive relies on the wanderer losing their orientation. They thread disparate regions, segregated by class, race, industry — subverting spatial hierarchies. DC is the only place I haven’t been catcalled in. It’s the only place I haven’t seen people sleeping on the streets, only in hidden alleyways. Philadelphia was the poorest big city in America. Now I’m in its Capital. The diplomats will only see this grown-up Disneyland, like YouTubers in Pyongyang, North Korea. Painters spend their weekends whitewashing the neoclassical civil offices. I walk, looking for graffiti, finding it in Chinatown.
NEW YORK CITY
“Capitalism can and must now remake the totality of space into its own setting,” Guy Debord says of urban landscapes. Cities are a reckoning of ecology, the network between peoples, animals, angels, and corporate entities.
My friend and I work at the same farm in Delaware. We spend our weekend in New York City, hiding from skyscrapers at the Governors Island Poetry Festival and a rave in Queens. Grass clings to our Doc Martens wet with morning dew, sullied with cigarette ashes.
After walking my friend to their bus on Sunday, I wade through Times Square tourists while listening to Ginsberg. Everything stings of heartbreak. Everything tastes sweet, unspeakable, in the afterglow of a full-moon trip. I smile equally at the doomsayers, Satanists, tourists, and rats. There’s a sense of humor threading all living things together. I look to the birds to tell me what is true. “If nature is Allah’s symbol system, then the city is ours,” I shot into the Internet. I love being cryptic on Instagram. I am changing the billboards. I am smiling at the tourists. People only come here to feel like specks, and so did I. But together we are not specks; we are a hivemind, an urban ecosystem.
Everyone else on the airplane is asleep. I am star-gazing, cross-eyed. Even Elon Musk has not built on stars, yet. I wish I could wake everyone up just to see. Stargazing is no “spectacular separation,” as Debord describes society; we are as vast and ignorant as the night.
I have been lost in so many cities that I identify with my surroundings. I find Allah in synchronicity, chance encounters with beautiful strangers. Psychogeography lets us feel the city, not just gaze at it. We are not voyeurs; the city is our collective consciousness.
“If the history of the city is the history of freedom, it is also the history of tyranny, of state administration that controls the countryside and the city itself,” Guy Debord interjects. To reclaim the city, our creative power, as our own, is a political act. I am flying over my hometown whose skyline is made of scaffolds. Its spinal cord is I-35 and we are a million nerves. Austin represents a new, car-centric urbanism, which “destroys cities and reestablishes a pseudo-countryside”, according to Debord. Urban wandering, dérive, is important to connect us to our material conditions.
“The only interesting project is the liberation of everyday life,” Debord argues. The Situationists criticize vacation as contributing to capitalism’s binary between work and play. I want to live in an eternal nomadic summer. I will become a traveler in my own hometown, which has become alien to me. I need to walk, not fly, if I want to talk to all the souls of this city. And its sweating bodies. ■
Layout: Melissa Huang