STUDY GUIDE Unit Five, Part One: THE CITY AS FRONTIER:
The Urban Wild West
Reading Questions: The Urban Experience
Chapter 7, The Individual in the City: States of Mind; Neil
Smith, "New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West"; Henry
A. Giroux, "Racism and the Aesthetic of Hyper-real Violence"
AudioVisual Guide Questions: Film clip from
John Ford's The Searchers with commentary by Martin Scorsese
( from A Personal Journey through American Movies with Martin Scorsese)
The Urban Experience Fischer,
Chapter 7, The Individual in the City: States of Mind
Neil Smith, "New City, New Frontier: The Lower East
Side as Wild, Wild West" in Sorkin, ed. Variations on a Theme Park
This chapter examines the urban psyche. Do city dwellers suffer
psychologically? The thesis that urban crowding causes serious pathology
is debunked in this chapter. The argument suggests that the popular rat-cage
image of urban life probably is wrong and irrelevant. In disproving this
model, the chapter debunks 5 crowding theories. Explain each counter argument
to the following: 1) High density creates problems of interference and
problems in distributing resources. 2) High density generates stress because
human beings have a territorial instinct. 3) The presence of other people
in "unnaturally" high numbers and in close quarters produces psychological
or physiological over stimulation. 4) High density generates stress because
it leads to frequent violations of the "personal space" surrounding each
human being. 5) High density generates stress when the socially defined
standards for what are appropriate distances between persons are violated.
What are the general conclusions of Crowding Research? No proof has emerged
that density--at least in the normal range of places Americans encounter--has
the dire effects claimed by Crowding Theories. Explain.
How relevant is the entire topic of crowding to an understanding
of urban experience? Many researchers and commentators simply assume that
by understanding crowding they understand city life. In what ways does
Fischer challenge this assumption?
The idea that urban life creates a pathology [sickness] is central
to determinist theory. The text asks whether we can assume that
living in cities produces psychological stress or disorder. According to
this chapter, the evidence fails, in sum, to support the claim that urban
life is psychologically damaging. Explain.
Alienation [a person's sense of separation from the people around
him or her] is thought to result from urbanism. Even U.S. Government reports
suggest that contemporary alienation is directly or indirectly tied to
the growth of large urban environments. This chapter examines 3
forms of alienation (powerless, normlessness, and social isolation)
to examine whether these claims are substantiated.
Powerlessness [the sense that one cannot determine the outcome of
his/her own life] largely emerges in persons actually lacking social power
(people of color, people living in poverty.) Urban life is presumed to
cause such feelings. What is that evidence for the following conclusion:
The extent to which people believe they ca act successfully to achieve
their goals in not reduced by urbanism.
Normlessness [a sense of detachment from social norms or rules]
is also presumed to intensify in urban settings. However, one must ask,
Whose norms? Whose rules? There is some evidence that urbanites may me
more attached to the norms of their particular subcultures rather than
those of the majority. This would support the subcultural rather
than determinist model of urban theory. In any case, there is no
evidence of a distinctly urban normlessness.
Social isolation [a sense of loneliness or of rejection by others]
is widely assumed to predominate in the city. However, ethnographies of
urban life usually describe feelings of social involvement and not of isolation.
Some evidence suggests that urbanites are, however, slightly more distrustful
of others. But, of whom? Urbanites do not seem to be more distrustful of
fellow members of their own subcultural groups, but rather, of strangers.
What is the data on the happiness or contentedness of urbanites? Explain
some possible reasons for this data.
In general, the urban environment cannot be shown to cause more stress
than the nonurban. This will be critical information as we consider
contemporary urban film. In particular, as we study Martin Scorsese's Taxi
Driver, we must analyze Travis Bickle's sense of powerlessness, alienation,
and social isolation as larger cultural questions rather than urban questions.
A. Giroux, "Racism and the Aesthetic of Hyper-real Violence" in Fugitive Cultures
Smith begins his essay with the example of Tompkins Square Park
in New York City. As the site of the first major gentrification
struggle, the park has become a symbol of the new urbanism. Reconstruct
this example. What dynamics have played out in Tompkins Square Park?
"Relinquished to the working class, abandoned to the poor and unemployed
amid postwar suburban expansion, reconfigured as reservations for racial
and ethnic minorities the terrain of the inner city is suddenly valuable
again, perversely profitable." Explain each segment of this statement.
Gentrification represents a geographical, economic, and cultural
reversal of postwar urban decline and abandonment. Whole swaths of inner
city working-class neighborhoods have been transformed into middle-class
and upper-middle-class havens devoted to boutique retailing, elite consumption,
and upscale housing. In the neutral language of "neighborhood recycling"
and "revitalization," these changes acquire a positive spin. How
is the "improvement" of gentrified neighborhoods to be criticized? What's
wrong with this picture?
The language used to describe and justify gentrification in the media needs
scrutiny. Widely scripted as a "struggle to conquer and civilize the urban
frontier," gentrification gains a positive spin. What is problematic about
the frontier metaphor? How are the codes of Western Hollywood films
applied to urban life?
The social meaning of gentrification is increasingly constructed through
the vocabulary of the frontier myth. At first this myth seem innocent.
Newspapers extol the courage of "urban homesteaders," the adventurous spirit
and rugged individualism of the new settlers, brave pioneers, presumably
going where no (white) man has gone before. Examine this terminology and
The real estate industry hires "urban scouts" who seek out neighborhoods
ripe for reinvestment and to check out whether the natives are friendly.
The frontier is idyllic but dangerous, romantic but ruthless. This depiction
of the city is so entrenched that marketing crazes regularly reproduce
it in New Age boutiques, "cowboy" aesthetics, colonial and imperial
nostalgia-themed shopping (Banana Republic, Safari). Even as Africa is
underdeveloped by international capital, it is remarketed in western consumer
The frontier myth is neither merely decorative nor innocent, but carries
considerable ideological weight. "The frontier myth makes the new city
explicable in terms of old ideologies. Insofar as gentrification
obliterates working-class communities, displaces poor households and converts
whole neighborhoods into bourgeois enclaves, the frontier ideology rationalizes
social differentiation and exclusion as natural and inevitable". Explain
this central statement in Smith's argument.
Smith claims that two industries defined the new urban frontier of the
1980s: the real-estate industry and the culture industry
(art dealers and patrons, gallery owners and artists, designers and critics,
writers and performers who "converted urban destruction into ultra chic.")
Explain the role of these two industries in promoting gentrification.
How do arts and media practitioners and students need to reconsider the
gentrifying effects of "the culture industry?" You may want especially
to consider local examples such as SoHo (NYC) and Wicker Park/Bucktown
The key force in gentrification is the real-estate market. Explain and
define the following two primary terms: disinvestment, the
rent gap. Building owners and developers profit from letting their
properties run down. Indeed, they gather a double reward for doing so.
Having effectively destroyed properties and establishing a rent gap, they
create for themselves opportunity for a whole new round of capital reinvestment.
Many people believe that "in America no one can make a group leave their
homes/neighborhoods." Contrary to this belief, developers can effectively
achieve this result through strategic development and the ensuing property
tax hikes. These property tax hikes first effect those on fixed income,
esp. the elderly long-term residents and renters. The next groups affected
tend to be the working poor and working-class residents. Secondly, city
governments have the power of eminent domain by which they
can seize private property (so long as they compensate the owner for "Fair
market value.") Explain how these strategies create gentrification.
"Gentrification portends class conquest of the new city. Urban pioneers
seek to scrub the city clean of its working-class geography and history.
Slum tenements become historic brownstones." Gentrification "effaces
social history." Explain.
Some have hoped to encourage gentrification by attempting to illegalize
homelessness. Critique this ideology.
Recreate Smith's argument about media representations of homelessness.
If such representations blame the victim, often imagined as mentally ill,
alcoholic, or drug addicted, how is the critique of gentrification prevented?
How does the dominant portrayal of homeless people cover over critiques
of the exclusionary housing market?
Smith suggests that gentrification will spread outward toward the city-suburban
edge where disinvestment is already severe. Explain this prediction.
AudioVisual Guide Questions:
Cinema appears to be providing a new language and aesthetic in which the
city becomes the central site for social disorder and violence, and black
youth in particular become the agents of crime, pathology, and moral decay.
The media represents black youth as the source rather than the victims
of violence. Explain the statistics which counter this portrayal.
The city is increasingly portrayed as a space of gruesome violence that
threatens to spread outward to the "safe" confines of middle-class America.
Critique this dominant representation.
Treating violent youth as dangerous "urban aliens" is a guaranteed crowd
pleaser. Focusing on the devastating effects of (white) racism, rising
poverty, and unemployment for a generation of black youth is less popular.
Discuss this point.
The violence in films in never arbitrary or innocent. Thus, the essay attempts
to provide alternative understandings of how violence is produced and framed
aesthetically. What are the goals of these alternatives?
Giroux initially presents a distinction between two kinds of violence:
1) the violence of the spectacle, and 2) the representational violence
that allows views to identify with the suffering of others, display empathy,
and bring ethical commitments to bear. Explain the distinction.
The essay attempts to "move beyond condemning representational violence
in a wholesale fashion" focusing instead on drawing more subtle distinctions
between types of violence. Critique must move beyond simply quantifying
violence in the visual media. Why?
Giroux distinguishes three forms of visual violence: ritualistic,
symbolic, and hyper-real.
Define ritualistic violence. Ritualized violence offers viewers
voyeuristic identification rather than providing an opportunity for the
audience to think through and scrutinize the mechanisms and implications
of violence. Explain.
Passing for "simply entertainment," ritualistic violence draws attention
away from representational politics (the politics of images.) Often ritualistic
violence portrays the city as a site of degeneracy. One pedagogical (teaching
& learning) effect of this is that it contributes to the commonsensical
assumption that Hollywood film is strictly about entertainment and need
not be judged for its political and pedagogical implications. Offer a critique
of this "common sense" view.
Define symbolic violence. How does symbolic violence offer ways
to connect the visceral and the reflective?
According to Giroux, symbolic violence "finds ways of scrutinizing the
mechanisms and implications of violence through different processes of
framing, juxtaposing, repeating, and quoting images within a context that
invites meaningful commentary." Explain this statement in detail. What
are processes of framing? of juxtaposing? of repeating? and of quoting
Giroux offers C. Eastwood's Unforgiven as an example of symbolic
violence. How does the film "raise ethical questions concerning how violence
has been mythologized and decontextualized so as to reinvent a nostalgic
and utterly false version of the American past?" In particular, how does
the film explode the myth of the West? This, too, will become an important
consideration as we examine the relationship between John Ford's The
Searchers and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
Define hyper-real violence. How can violence be "more real than
real?" This form of ultraviolence is marked by technological overstimulation,
gritty dialogue, dramatic storytelling, parody, and an appeal to gutsy
According to Giroux, hyper-real cinema, most often presenting itself as
"realistic" and "hip," combines moral indifference with cultural slumming.
The new hyper-real films go beyond emptying representations of violence
of ethical content; they also "legitimate rather than contest," by virtue
of their documentary-style appeal to "what is," the spreading acts of symbolic
and real violence rooted in and shaped by a larger racist culture. Explain
this notion. What does it mean for film to legitimate rather than
contest the violence of the larger culture?
While violence appears to cross over borders of class, race, and social
space, the representation of violence in the popular media is largely depicted
in racial terms. Explain.
Keep these distinctions in mind as we approach Taxi Driver, which
at the time of its release was shocking for its extreme violence. In fact,
the picture was threatened with an "X" rating for its violent images. Do
we merely dismiss this artistic triumph? How can we consider thoughtfully
the violent representations of Taxi Driver?
Film clip from John Ford's The
Searchers with commentary by Martin Scorsese ( from A Personal Journey
through American Movies with Martin Scorsese)
Taxi Driver is based on several sources: Dostoevsky's existential
novel Notes from Underground and John Ford's Western film The
Searchers. The first source is an anti-heroic novel which focuses on
the pathology of the narrative voice. The latter is an aesthetic landmark
which undoes the certainties of the early Hollywood western film.
The clip suggests that Ford's later film, The Searchers, plays with
the same setting and leading man (John Wayne) of earlier Westerns, but
delivers instead a disturbing portrayal of the Western hero as psychotic
and obsessive. John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is driven by psycho-sexual obsession,
revenge fantasies, and racial hatred. He is, as anti-hero, the most frightening
character on screen. Ford presents this character through profoundly artistic
cinematic details. Observe the clip and analyze these details.
Note especially the ground-breaking "door frame" which closes the scene.
How does the doorway serve to mark off Ethan Edwards from family and community?
Why? What is the moral import of Ford's gesture?
The leading man & milieu of Ford's The Searchers seem to have
more in common with the protagonists and setting of film noir than
the typical Hollywood Western. Explain. Describe the social
context of these traits, as indicated in our earlier film noir readings
and through Scorsese's commentary.
Scorsese's commentary likens film, esp. genre film such as the Western,
to jazz. How does he make this connection? What does he mean by improvisation?
Taxi Driver reinvents The Searchers as an urban Western.
Try to make sense of the notion of "urban western." How is New York City
imagined as frontier (see Smith reading)? Review the main characters and
plot of The Searchers so as to make possible a more thorough reading
of Taxi Driver. Attend especially to the main plot line, Ethan,
Sport, "the niece" and the "Indian." The connection will be traced in our
next unit's reading by Stern.