Fond Memories of Alienation: Images of the City in Contemporary Victoriana
Postmodern rewritings of the Victorian, exemplified by runaway bestsellers as Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White or mainstream blockbusters like the Hughes’ Brothers’ From Hell, have focused largely on images of 19th century urbanity. Victorian London, Paris, or New York is as much a central concern in these texts as their plot or their characters, perhaps even more so because the most commercially successful contemporary Victoriana resort to popular genres and their formulaic predictability as a rationale for presenting and exploring period and space through their setting (mysteries by Anne Perry, serial killer fiction like From Hell, “steampunk” science fiction like Gibson’s and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, superhero comics like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc.).
The single recurring theme of such evocations of the city in postmodern Victoriana is that of the urban as a space of violent shock. On the one hand, violence appears as a crucial symptom of modern experience, a trope foregrounded first in the discourse on urban life at the end of the Victorian period. Simmel and Benjamin, for example, center their discussions of the city around the concept of shock, which means informational density or “noise”, coexistence of radically opposed or discontinuous elements, suddenness, compression, intrusion, boundary transgression, etc. On the other hand, violence appears as a literal component of city life, as most contemporary Victoriana, because of their generic roots in thriller, mystery, and horror genres, are preoccupied by urban crime, political conspiracy, secrecy and anonymity (“Stranger intimacy”), etc.
Strikingly enough, however, the contemporary city, conceptualized within the paradigm of the postmodern, bears little resemblance to the London from which the British Empire was ruled, or the Paris that Benjamin famously nicknamed the “capital of the 19th century.” Authors and audiences deal with cities, as part of their daily lived experience, that look and feel very different from those evoked in contemporary Victoriana. In other words, the Victorian city that appears in this postmodern discourse is not a postmodern city, but, instead, a variant of the city of high modernity. At first glance, Fredric Jameson’s or Edward Soja’s discussions of postmodern urbanity, popularized by Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, seem to describe a city cleaner, safer, and more disciplined than Faber’s or the Hughes’ Brothers’ London. Suburbanization has deterritorialized the modern spatial organization of urban violence. Mechanisms of social control are subtle and systemic, which renders the violence they promote and contain largely invisible. Jameson’s and Davis’ Los Angeles is a city of surfaces, of horizontal spread and dilution, and not of depth and density. Alienation and inauthenticity, not shock, are the central tropes of the postmodern city.
Postmodern Victoriana also deviate from the modern tradition of urban utopianism. The dream cities of modernity, as envisioned by the cover pages of pulp science fiction magazines and planned by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, and Walter Gropius, are clean, wide-open spaces. Cities like Brazilia--their clean, depopulated vistas photographed panoramically from above--are modernity made manifest. The dream cities of modernism reflect the fact that both the urban malaise of the 19th century and its imagined remedies originate within the same historical and architectural paradigm The utopian impulse that motivates their design testifies to the need of modernity to escape from 19th century urbanity as, for example, Friedrich Engels describes it in The Condition of the Working Class in England at its most dystopian.
The popularity of postmodern Victoriana suggests that contemporary readers would readily trade in suburban calm for 19th century squalor. Nostalgia for modernist urbanity pervades postmodern Victoriana (supplemented, by the way, by a similar nostalgia in the type of Victoriana that deliberately screen out the city altogether—the Merchant-Ivory type of “Laura Ashley” fiction, to which much of the recent Jane Austen adaptations belong). Instead of searching for historical origins or tracing trajectories of development of contemporary urbanity, postmodern Victoriana largely emphasizes historical discontinuity. This discontinuity legitimizes the use of experiential tropes of modernity and the 19th century city.
The same nostalgia already appeared in cyberpunk, only that cyberpunk phrased it as a kind of nostalgia for the future. Cyberpunk cities (William Gibson’s Chiba City or the BAMA, the Baltimore-Atlanta Metropolitan Area) provide the experience of violent shock. They disrupt the disavowal of the Third World city as a paradigm for the postmodern. If postmodern Los Angeles looks like Calcutta or Shanghai in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, we can no longer think of these cities as conveniently behind the global historical development of which Los Angeles represent the apex or vanguard.
As the nostalgic impulse for radical experience prevailed, it is hardly surprising that cyberpunk quickly developed an offshoot—steampunk—which no longer relied on the projection of the postmodernism’s “repressed other” into the future, but instead performed a historical displacement. Steampunk, in its carnivalesque rewritings of official history perhaps the most radical of all contemporary Victoriana, presents Victorian London or New York as cities of modernity—not the utopian modernity according to Gropius and Amazing Stories, but the modernity mediated by postmodern nostalgia: Victorian cities that reflect postmodern nostalgia.
Dissociated from present experience, the city becomes a space for the projection of nostalgia, driven by a desire to recuperate authentic experience, even if it comes in the form of violence. It is hardly surprising that, in the light of this historical counter-mythology, the urban slum or inner city violence, which regimes like that of Rudi Giuliani in New York City claimed to have eradicated, suddenly return in a positive light. Next to Ground Zero, Times Square has undergone the most radical transformation in New York City.
The crucial question is whether this counter-mythology formulated by contemporary Victoriana comments critically on contemporary urbanity; whether it posits the disruption of the calm postmodern surface by violent shock as a disruption of another form of violence, more insidious because more systemic. A less politically acute use of postmodern Victoriana would be the articulation of this desire we seem to have for experience, rough and raw; a kind of experience that postmodern urbanity appears to deny us. Finally, there is also the possibility that postmodern Victoriana could be used to legitimize the disciplinary measures that ground contemporary urbanity. The more openly it indulges in urban nostalgia, a longing for the good old days when cities were loud and dirty and full of life, the more it denies the existence of contemporary forms of urban violence.