Everybody’s talkin’ about Canada—not as much as before the election of Barack Obama took the git up from so many would-be exiles but even if you haven’t followed Rangers hockey since Phil Esposito retired, Canada is a tough place to keep out of the conversation. In the large orthodox Jewish community of Midwood, Brooklyn, a bakery at the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue K touts its challah as “Canadian Style,” don’t ask why. In hillbilly music the voices of Wilf Carter and Hank Snow (born in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia) still sing out across the borough. Hugh Kenner, the great writer upon Ezra Pound and other like minded moderns was from Toronto— a former student of Annie Hall star Marshall McLuhan no less. The Enemy and Tyro himself, Wyndham Lewis spent a couple unhappy years in that city, subject of his novel Self-Condemned, while a province to the east, Montreal poet Louis Dudek showed the world there was way more sweat, sex, anomie and irreverence— a lot more fun— in the Canadian letters racket than forced exposure to Northrop Frye ever suggested.
Step into the arena, University of Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell: professor, sportsman, critic, mixologist and all-around exemplar that a life of the Canadian mind can thrive as a laugh riot of rigor and impulse. While some of Mark’s work is necessarily pitched towards academics, the majority of his writing is accessible to anyone who digs intellectual heft with their reportage (a rare thing) and laughter with their philosophy (even rarer). Like a one-man Concert at Massey Hall*, the range of Mark’s recent work is pretty staggering: there’s Opening Gambits: Essays on Art and Philosophy (2008); Nearest Thing To Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams (2007); Classic Cocktails: A Modern Shake (2007), his introduction to the “shit-heel”-loving Idler’s Glossary by Joshua Glenn and the thrilling volume under discussion below, Concrete Reveries: Conciousness and the City (Viking, 2008). On a warm autumn afternoon, I met Mark by the Glenn Gould statue outside the CBC studios in Toronto. Since he wasn’t sure what I looked like, upon approaching Mark and Glenn I inquired in a deadpan Newfoundland accent, “Excuse me, Sir, which way to the Greyhound?”
“Vodka and grapefruit juice, over ice in a collins glass,” Kingwell replied without hesitation. That’s the way to a Greyhound, mate! Ting soda may replace the grapefruit juice to make a Caribbean Whippet.”
* On May 15, 1953, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Brooklyn-native Max Roach performed at Massey Hall; they were not then all friends.
Mark Kingwell: Stone. Concrete is the rendering of earth into the ultimately pliable material. It’s not carved or smelted, it’s mixed and poured, like cake batter. That means it has an almost infinite formal elasticity. Such a shame that so much of the concrete around us is in the forms of slabs and walls and paved-over green spaces. Concrete can really be so much more. Le Corbusier, who was one of its earliest champions, thought that it, together with cheap structural steel and paned glass, were the key revolutionary materials of the twentieth century. He was right, but as his own designs show, where utopian plans for green cities with ordered ranks of concrete residential towers are perverted into vertical slums with dead spaces at their base, sometimes the revolution doesn’t quite pan out as we’d like.
Brian: Concrete is also swimming pools, skateboarding sometimes yard art and other sculpture, Thomas Bernhard’s novel of the same name and, allegedly, in some parts of Brooklyn and Queens, the Mafia. In France there’s concrete musique too. All that said, I wasn’t aware concrete as a material had a bad reputation but now that I do, let me scorn ‘security barriers’ and whatever its use is in publicly-financed sports stadiums.
Mark: We should all be scorning those barriers! It’s true that, in its Brutalist manifestation, concrete becomes part of an architecture of oppression, even of punishment. This can happen even at supposed places of recreation and restoration. My own city’s professional baseball park, the SkyDome, is a concrete oven with a Moonraker-style retractable roof. In the summer, it bakes fans into little roast-beef bundles clutching tepid beer.
I also like to dwell on ‘concrete’ as an adjective— the demand for concrete evidence or argument. Thus the deliberate hard/soft phrasing of my title: one can indulge reveries about concrete, but is there such a thing as a reverie that is itself concrete? Philosophers are much taken with this demand for concreteness. A few of them— the interesting ones like Wittgenstein and Derrida— try to understand just why concreteness seems so important to thought. Where is that demand coming from? Whose demand is it?
Brian: You write about the grid of Manhattan, which as a kid I took as given— that is, I wasn’t conscious of its imposition, it just was— even as— Times Square peeps aside— I was most drawn to the places less geographically predictable. In Brooklyn, for example, there is no grid, or rather what grids there are show the historic conjoining of six separate towns and, if you can’t figure it out, tough luck and more than one so-called New York can’t navigate anywhere more than two blocks from the subway lines in the Bronx or Queens. When did you first come to New York and what other urban experiences did you have for comparison?
Mark: I grew up mostly on air-force bases and in the small towns near them. The base residential areas were often gridded, and always laid out to separate the officers from ‘the men’. That meant that we had to negotiate a real space-based hierarchy to hang out with kids whose parents had different ranks. Weird, really, but I think it gave me an early, subconscious awareness of how street plans carry meaning and aren’t just ways of distribute forms in space.
I was living in Toronto, at university, when I first visited New York. Toronto is a partly gridded city, though all the streets have names rather than numbers. I remember giving directions to a visiting American tourist once, and he complained that there were no numbers to guide people. Tough, I thought, learn the names!
Manhattan’s grid is of another order, and really there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else: the relentlessness of its profit-drive rationality. Like you, I like those places where the top-down violence of the grid is subverted, either by history (the foot of the island, pre-grid) or geography (the corners and margins of the island, where the plan can’t control the site). As I say in the book, getting lost in most cities if pretty easy— London can be nightmarish— but in Manhattan it’s a kind of beautiful rare gift.
Brian: Is architecture fascism?
Mark: Sometimes, absolutely. Architecture is shaped by thought but also shapes it. Architecture can discipline and constrain a population. But I don’t think all architecture is fascist. Some is liberatory.
When I was writing my book about the Empire State Building, Nearest Thing to Heaven, I argued in one chapter that the ESB’ s overarching preoccupation with the technologies of its own construction was a form of fascism. My editor, an old-time lefty, drove into Manhattan to meet. He was in a flurry, wanted me to change the chapter. “You can’t say that,” he said. Well, it’s true and I said it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love the ESB. Buildings can shape more than one thought.
Brian: I was glad to see even a small critique of Jane Jacobs in Concrete. It seems to me that while Jacobs had some good ideas— surely, much of government’s fealty to big highway building, speaking of concrete, is misplaced— and others that were hopelessly muddled and/or naive to the point of patronizing a diverse humanity she championed. Indeed, in her own demure way, I think she’s as much about social control those she opposed. Am I correct to sense this? Also, a lot of urbanist types who rep her down here in NYC don’t really know her Toronto years— your thoughts?
Mark: She lived just a few blocks from me— though on the ‘better’ side of one of those busy streets that divide cities into neighbourhoods. I was told once that the cost for crossing west of Bathurst Avenue was about $100,000 in home value. Probably exaggerated…
The critical take on her in your question strikes me as exactly right. She advances a sustained broadside attack on urban planning, lumping together quite distinct schools of thought, and then concludes with a defence of diversity which is in fact highly particular and normative. I used to live in the West Village, another favourite Jacobs neighbourhood, and of course it has maintained its low-rise structure and mixed-use character even while becoming a playground for supermodels and Martha Stewart. Boston’s North End, another of her favourites, has not been so completely gentrified, but it has been rendered into a kind of tourist theme park, almost a simulacrum of Italianness rather than a real place.
The Annex, here in Toronto, is still more or less what she dreamed of: students in cooperative houses, young families with kids, some older people. Sushi places, bookstores, futons and coffee and comic books for days. I like it here. But it’s almost completely white, and the wealth, while boho, is real. People here revere Jacobs, and crow about her choice of Toronto as a place to settle. Her later works are strange— some attempts at Platonic dialogue, sweeping social theories footnoted to a few newspaper articles, things like that. My own feeling is that she never quite got clear on some things, especially the complexities of norm running between theory and praxis. A philosopher’s complaint, I guess.
Brian: I also appreciated your swipes at what I’ll call the Banality of Affluence, as manifest in the ‘international school’ of ‘high end design’. Can I take it Toronto is now also a city of ‘luxury’ ‘architecturally designed’ ’living spaces’?
Mark: Absolutely. In fact, with the recent spate of condo towers along the lakeshore— further disfiguring our relationship with the body of water that made this location a town in the first place— we have decisively moved Toronto into the class of cities with more vertical gated communities than actual neighbourhoods. We have our slick lifestyle mags and design shows and everything! One some days, when clouds obscure the CN Tower, you could almost imagine yourself in AnyCity, U.S.A.
Brian: I’m abashed to admit this but a lot of times here in Brooklyn we don’t think about Toronto as much as we should. There’s Glenn Gould, of course, and a certain amount of Brooklyn <—> Toronto intimacy on the Jamaican emigre front but otherwise, except when the Maple Leafs play the Rangers, it’s just one of those things we forget it. If you could give a message to the Brooklyn 2.6 million, what would it be?
Mark: Come and visit. If possible, spend more than a few days — this is a tight little city, very cliquey and shut away. You need some time to break down a wall or two. Hang out with me. We’ll have fun. People say Brooklyn and Toronto are similar. I haven’t spent enough time in Brooklyn to know if that’s true. So then I’ll come visit you and work on finding out.
Brian: You mention Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, which I know people enjoy. As a uniquely Brooklyn literature, however, Auster’s later work has little merit, which isn’t to say it might not do other things well. It almost seems Auster was lost without Manhattan’s grid and lacked the gumption to figure out his new irregular topography. Do you agree with this and does the power of the grid ever leave others flailing or timid too?
Mark: Auster’s fiction is better to talk about than to read. The novels are weirdly flat and opaque, almost uninflected. That must be why they adore him in France— he’s almost an American Michel Houellebecq, though without the searing nihilism. I like the trope of the grid in “City of Glass” because it was a canvas, a blank slate where walking could create meaning. There is a tension there, always, between freedom and discipline, going wherever you like and being located, intersection after intersection, in a kind of obvious surveillance system. The grid itself is a powerful idea— the grid of infrastructure and control, the Skynet grid in Terminator-land, going off-grid, etc. It always has the twinned implications of power and control.
Brian: Your description of Shanghai’s extreme bustle are very evocative; for the degenerate and prurient among us— i.e. a large portion of WWIB readers— what’s your sense of sex and gambling or drugs in Shanghai? Is it like New York where it’s something you can find easily, if so inclined, or do you have to see it out?
Mark: Good news! Your seeking days are over in Shanghai– anything you want is right up there in your face. I don’t do drugs much, other than alcohol and nicotine I mean, but friends tell me they have scored pretty much everything without trouble in Shanghai. As for gambling and sex, it almost takes a positive effort to avoid them. The coolest thing about Shanghai is that, even as it has been turned into an architectural fantasyland and a foreign showcase approved the thugs who run things in Beijing, it remains the outlaw city of the 1930s. One of my favourite places on Earth is the Oak Bar in the old Peace Hotel on the Bund, where you can listen to an elderly jazz quintet bang out standards as you sip your cocktail and smoke a Monte Cristo. I didn’t ask myself, but I bet that if you want opium as well, you can probably have it.
Brian: As crazy and oppressive as Shanghai sounds, it seems more interesting than most of 21st century Manhattan which, except for interesting confluence of geography and ethnicity uptown, has been largely cleansed of in-your-face street action.
Mark: That’s true. Even Tompkins Square Park, which I remember as a super-crazy place in the 1980s, is now kind of stagey and self-conscious in its ‘counter-cultural’ vibe. Shanghai is everything and more— lots of more. And it’s still so Chinese that being white, or black, or Latino, you really stand out. Great street food, kooky semi-organized markets— it’s exhausting but awesome.
Brian: You touch on the growing economic strength of China in relation to the U.S. This is complicated but you’re a champ at breaking things down: how do events in Shanghai effect me here in Brooklyn— home of two Chinatowns— or you in Toronto?
Mark: That’s a great question. Toronto was clearly boosted by the Hong Kong transfer in 1997— lots of Hong Kong Chinese money was siphoned off to Toronto and Vancouver. Now, as the mainland Chinese government gets more aggressive and internationally minded, we’re going to see more and more travel. My university already has a huge population of visiting Chinese students— and interesting problems ensue. They don’t get along with the Hong Kong kids, especially the ones who have lived here for a generation or more. So far, it’s mostly people rather than money coming here. The money seems mostly to flow the other way, as interest payments on loans the Chinese supply when they buy our devalued paper. The Chinese moving here mostly live in the suburbs, so you find these massive Hong Kong style malls and three-story restaurants in places that, five years ago, were horse farms and country towns. The Chinatown that is in the city is now really just a kind of theme park, though the restaurants remain excellent.
Brian: As a smoker, what do you make of the increasingly international prohibition of public smoking? I wouldn’t care to go defend tobacco companies per se but I find the aesthetics of smoking far superior to the usually hypocritical rhetoric of anti-smoking? In New York, for example, Mike Bloomberg plays this radical anti-smoking agenda while supporting any and all new truck-intensive, corruption-laden development.
Mark: I only smoke cigars, but I do love to be able to smoke one at a bar over a drink. There’s something romantic and right about that, even though I know it’s a vanishing pleasure. You can smoke anywhere in China still, which is one reason I like it there. Everywhere else you are treated like a criminal. What can I say? I have no good arguments in favour of public smoking, or smoking, especially living in a country with a public health-care system, where we all shoulder the costs. Well, just one: it feels great. (See Shanghai answer above.)
Brian: Nobody is going to see this, don’t worry, so what are the things you most hate about Toronto and New York City?
Mark: In Toronto, our smugness. We can’t get over ourselves, and yet it’s married to a weird self-replicating sense of unease about our place in the world. I wish we would just relax and take the city on its own terms.
In New York, I hate a different sense of self-importance, that centre-of-the-world stuff that is actually incredibly provincial. The publishing industry is full— full!— of this attitude. I don’t know other sectors well enough to know for sure, but I bet it’s the same everywhere.
Brian: I found it interesting that, although you’re steeped in philosophy and so-called ‘theory’, that’s not all you’re into as a reader and public intellectual. I don’t know if they can survive the Torntian winters but down here I got very turned off to ‘theory’ after meeting people who read more theory books than… books, period. It’s like they’d rather live through Hannah Arendt or Walter Benjamin than their own sweaty, fragrant and seething localities. Is my experience unusual or is there a debilitating eggheadism among the theory set?
Mark: Your experience is all too usual. For a while I despaired of that beast people call ‘theory’— a usage you would never hear from a philosopher, by the way. Too many bad books getting too much of the wrong attention. People like Homi Bhabha are unreadable and so should be left unread. I once tried to teach a Judith Butler book in a graduate seminar and my PhD students tore its logic to shreds in a few savage minutes. But, but— there are some kinds of insight that call for less analytic treatment, and I’m very aware of the countervailing danger of eliminating anything that doesn’t follow strict rules of inference. I try to maintain a balance of rigor and depth in the things I teach at the graduate level, ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ sources. And when it comes to specifically literary theory, I don’t read that. I read novels and poems instead.
Brian: One theory book I did buy because I loved the title was Michel de Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life. While an impressive work, I did found it pretty tough going compared to Richard Wheelwright’s The Pre-Socratics anthology (which I consider poetry) and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. Where does Certeau fit in with your own work and that of others you admire, such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on?
Mark: I riff on De Certeau’s book in my Empire State Building book, because he starts with a view from the top of the World Trade Center and then descends to street level and starts walking northward up the island. I love that easy way he has of mixing theoretical insight and concrete experience. The book, and especially that passage, were an inspiration for my own treatment of urban consciousness in Concrete Reveries too. He’s like Roland Barthes, another one of my heroes (despite being out of fashion), in being able to make complex ideas feel immediate and important.
Brian: Is philosophy a luxury?
Mark: In the sense that it plots a vector of meaning and value beyond mere usefulness, yes. But not in the sense of being dispensable. On the contrary, it may be—with art— the only luxury that is also a necessity for human flourishing.
Brian: For a philosopher and political theorist, your public writing has ranged widely, including books on trout fishing (Catch and Release: Trout Fishing and the Meaning of Life, 2004) and cocktails. Here in Brooklyn and sometimes Queens, I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish. Is it legal to fish while drunk in Canada?
Mark: Ha! It’s legal to fish drunk pretty much anywhere, I think; it’s the operating of boats with engines that isn’t. I carry a flask of whisky, scotch or Canadian, when I’m fishing, but that’s just for sipping. At the end of the day I like either a big gin and tonic if it’s hot or a manhattan if it’s chilly. There’s a great cocktail called the Angler which I sometimes fix but it’s a little fussy. Three big slugs of gin, plus three dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters and a jigger of grenadine. You can drink that straight up or on the rocks, or even add some club soda—the Sparkling Angler—if you want a cooler.
Brian: You make a lot of interesting musical references— lately, I’m listening to a lot of Bach, Wagner, Mozart operas (especially Idomeneo, which I’d neglected in the past) and Elvis, with bit of 1930s calypso, Ernest Tubb and New York City hip-hop if I get happy feet.
Mark: I always listen to music while I write, usually moody or ‘thinky’ stuff. Keith Jarrett or Glenn Gould or Art Tatum or Monk on piano; Radiohead, Portishead; anything baroque. Right now I’m listening to some responsories and antiphons composed by Hildegard von Bingen in the twelfth century. Recorded earlier this year in the chapel at Hertford College, Oxford. Awesome stuff. Like most people, I also listen to music whenever I’m walking or riding the subway; sometimes, though, especially when travelling, I like to take the earbuds out and hear the city the music it makes all on its own, what Gould called its ‘contrapuntal radio’.
Brian: What’s next for Mark Kingwell?
Mark: I published two other books besides Concrete Reveries in 2008: Opening Gambits, a collection of essays on art and philosophy; and, with Joshua Glenn and the artist Seth, a loose philosophical compendium of words about the idle life. I’m now working hard— though it’s not really work— on a little book about the music of Glenn Gould, a passion that I know you and I share. It’s supposed to be a brief biography, for a series that Penguin Books is doing, but I have a secret plan to make it a meditation of the philosophy music cleverly disguised as a biography.