Panopticon CityDecember 12th, 2014
A jungle is the antithesis of surveillance. A fog of leaves and vines interferes with sight as much as movement, which is disorienting and also comforting. It makes a good hideout. One can neither see nor be seen, and so the swampy floodplain where the neighborhood bluffs tumble down and collide with the wide river is an ideal place for private business. It is also a kind of litmus test, the wilder pole in a spectrum of authority. Those who feel safe in the presence of ubiquitous automated cameras, security personnel, and space designed to anticipate their every need, project all their fears onto the jungle. They may feel watched, but by whom? The unknowing has substituted the safety net of control for an umbrella of darkness. For those who pass through the domain of men with an unshakable awareness of the capricious aggression underlying all bids at security, invisibility feels like safety. The jungle’s canopy is an embrace. Can these modes live and let live?
A domesticated stripe of tarmac bisects the swamplands, and some visitors cling to it as though leashed to some invisible mandate. No signage grants official permission to stray. This subspecies of human can be identified by their ritual invocation of chit-chat, which apparently bolsters the implied guarantee that their Sunday stroll deliver a predictable encounter with urban nature. This breed carries optics and texts treated with the latest weatherproofing technologies, but knows none of the old names. They consider fences meaningful and fret over the tents and mattresses that have cropped up along the gravel bars.
Set foot to soil and everyone speaks the ancient, universal tongue of encountering a stranger: nod, make a display of harmlessness, then move on. Occasionally, someone will offer to exchange a dram for a smoke or share some choice information about edible plants or fishing conditions, but underneath it the assumption prevails that others desire privacy. This is the fringe environment of a city where people are pushed around and crammed together against their will, the only refuge from the echoing growl of machines, a place for teenagers and adults to disappear into their chemistry experiments and investigate each other’s bodies, a place to set up camp during the ebb tide when the voracious furnace of finance has seized one’s home, then vehicle, a final resting place for those worn out before they are old. Impermanence rules here, a place too valuable to escape notice.
An old, wide river that passes through flat country is both a barrier and a magnet. It is almost always inhabited on both sides and those sides change constantly as swirling braids are carved, then abandoned. The water rises and falls with the rains, and this river, 200km inland, occasionally flows backward at high tide. As the only thing resembling a line in natural geography, rivers encode borders, but they also offer the easiest transport. Equipped with a canoe, a paddle, and some flat water, a person can haul six or eight times their weight with only the power of their body, an ancient, unsurpassed technology that has led humans to choose riverbanks for their settlements. At the same time, a river has two banks, and each encodes a mode of otherness.
Power accumulates unto itself and what begins as a ripple or hint of advantage accretes into a pile, then a hoard. Walls are constructed to hold back the river’s winter surge, but then the hoard exceeds them and another barrier rises, further out, a concentric web of protection. Inside, everything is an accessory to control. The river bank is an ornament and a defensible line. The flat water’s surface marks a sightline toward barbarian territory. On the western bank, everything is foreign, everything watchful of the moment of precarity, when someone goes off script. The east bank also absorbs all, but without molding it into an image of itself. Nothing is foreign because there is no script. My twelve- thousand-some days have all been there, within sight of capital’s domain, but not of it. The river was a prophylactic, the floodplain a buffer from which to see without being seen.
An island lies between the jungle bank and the risen city, although it is more like the opposite of an island–an atoll, a hole in the river invisible under the muddy veil of surface tension. The river carved between the volcanoes until it reached sea level, then started dumping its load of rock into itself in the form of a gravel bar. Herons shat there until the soil hosted black cottonwoods whose roots sutured the bar into a semi-permanent land mass. Men came, and their crude ambitions were intoxicated with stone as a metaphor for permanence, and with stone’s man-made embodiment, concrete. They dug the island’s center out until the lagoon was deeper than their tallest structures, unwittingly confirming their impotence to exceed the river’s might. Now the island is a ring, and beneath it a cold entropic hell where the corpses of buildings are thrown when men’s tastes change as to what shape concrete take. In late summer, the water drops and narrows. Pleasure boats creep toward the jungle, their radios clashing with the drum kit one of the river’s permanent residents keeps on his scavenged flotilla. At nadir, the tidal surge reverses the flow twice per day, bringing lamprey and sea lions far inland. A pulse of barges carries irregular slabs of concrete back to the lagoon, the quarried remains of good shelters abandoned before the onslaught of redesign. Its easy to imagine the lagoon as a storage unit. How long before the moon and the tides will conspire in their cycles and posses men to take what was already taken, then untaken? By then, labor may be obsolete and artificial intelligence will inform the humans of the shape of their own desires.
The lagoon is visible from only one spot along the river bank. The ring of island spared from excavation acts as a veil where elderly cottonwoods conceal the industrial equipment within. It’s a noble tree, whose nobility arises from its insistence on neither resistance nor complicity. It keeps to itself, absorbs abuse, and persists. If severed by beavers it will regenerate manyfold in a coppice. On the downstream tip of the island, herons have made a rookery of the cottonwood crowns, only to have their nests stolen by bald eagles: the laborer and the looter vying for terrain. At the first hint of spring, the cottonwoods, ever fecund, drop their unwanted leafbuds full of sap that smells like sex. Now visible just above the crowns, a new rookery is being woven of steel, higher than all the others, the fortress’ rhizomes spreading upward and outward upstream along the western bank.
I have been watching them through binoculars, there across the river, and I have learned their dance, although the steps matter only very little. The main thing is to diminish oneself before one’s possessions, to render the body as a neutral husk and wrap it in things that mark one’s residence in the fortress without distinguishing oneself from the others there. I have watched them for thirty years, over there, and now I can pass into that domain unnoticed. It is impossible to discern whether this is just now possible, or if the dance is so crude that I could have learned it in just a day or two. The trick is to pretend that you are not watching, and that you don’t know you are being watched. When your foot falls onto the surfaces over there, which are not earth, but antiseptic coverings over the earth, the knowledge that dandelion and plantain are absent beneath your footfall will travel straight up your leg in a stinging retort, but your facial gestures must not display that you have acquired this knowledge. Your peripheral vision must double upon itself and become half-glazed. It must appear that you pass into the terrain assuming that it anticipates your passage and makes way for you. You must display the indifference of one who does not watch for obstacles because they have been absent for so long. But if you actually adopt that indifference, then your purpose will be void, for you are here to infiltrate and surveil. All this I could have learned in a day. What took years was to grasp the trick of it: not to try too hard. Each moment over there I will be subject to a thousand gazes, but they are weak gazes. They have never faced the necessity of cultivating attentiveness as I have. The brute force of their kind of watchfulness becomes a flood of data and it is easy to blend into the noise. Too exacting a performance becomes signal, and once signal is detected the herd mind locks gazes onto it in unison.
An unfinished bridge has made landfall just past where the jungle gives way to the concrete plant. An anonymous costume and a projection of certainty allow me to cross it undetected, then move past the barely-inhabited medical facilities along its far ramp. The few visible bodies are undifferentiated, having been sculpted into similar shapes with exercise technology. There are few cues to distinguish public and private space, while the presence of security personnel and the expressions of contained panic on people’s faces imply the paramount importance of the distinction. Rules matter here, but nobody will say exactly what they are. The awareness of their subtle mandates must be hereditary here in a fully conceived habitat where nobody has yet been born and matured. I pause to mentally manufacture the blend of caution and arrogance that will permit me to carry a camera without attracting attention in this theater of gazes poised for any wrong move, the thrill of enforcement’s pounce promising to inject a moment of release within a lifetime of blandness. Coming from a people who have little power, but cannot turn off the power they do have, I can penetrate these people with a glance and make them desire me. It’s a dangerous game. They won’t acknowledge the desire, they will read it instead as a desire to vanquish me, to break the mirror that my gaze inserts into their gaze and to cut me with its shards if I linger. I permit myself this little indulgence, this distraction a few times and siphon its energy, then get back to work infiltrating and carrying back the evidence.
They live in towers higher than any tree, clad in glass so that the canyons are a hall of mirrors, eradicating the thou and reflecting the I in a feedback loop. A little patch of architected scape hosts a berm covered in untouched cloudberries. Dogs are abundant, but no wild organisms of any kind. Rumors circulate among the pumped artificial streams that the towers are only half inhabited, that the flats are portfolio lines to stash capital extracted from Canadian bitumen. Nearly every object is labelled with a mini-treatise touting optimism about technology and a sturdy forbearance with “resources.”
The light fades and the fauna retreat. I backtrack until I see a patch of soil. I reach to touch it and its microbiome blends with mine in a complex, soothing harmonic. My lower eyelids relax and a single silver hair falls and becomes earth.