Paris: Invisible City
December 28, 2008 1:19 AM   Subscribe

Paris: Ville Invisible. "This work seeks to show how real cities resemble the 'invisible cities' of Italo Calvino. As cluttered, saturated, and asphyxiating as it is, one can breathe more freely in Paris, the invisible city." The renowned French sociologist Bruno Latour presents a "virtual sociological book" that explores the limits of social theory for the understanding of urban life. The Flash interface is somewhat rickety, but there is a text-only PDF of the English version. (via)
posted by nasreddin (11 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I love Bruno Latour. And I love Italo Calvino. And I especially love Invisible Cities. And I'm grateful for the post, since I wouldn't have come across this project without it.

That said, I found this to be a complete disappointment. It feels like a pale imitation of the Arcades Project, which manages to accomplish what this tries to do far more effectively and with far less sophisticated technology. The observations about Paris and its intricate history don't ever go beyond what have become critical cliches (see, for example, his reflections on Haussmann). And the visual interface would have to be far better designed to really elevate the writing and take it to a different level of inquiry and contemplation. As it is, the design framework and the visual accompaniment feel tacked on, as if they were a conventional illustration rather than being part of the conception and execution of the project itself.

I'm disappointed to see such weak work from Latour. It reminds me of a lot of the web-based projects from the late '90s - the ones that were by the conviction that all you had to do was throw a bunch of hyperlinked photos with a weak design scheme on the web to radically reshape discourse about ________. This could have been so much better.

Here's another decent site on the Arcades project, for anyone who is interested - it looks like an online dissertation, but might be worth some exploration.

But still, thanks for the link.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:43 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I agree, f_h. I did think it was neat, and I like the points he makes in the text (about the relationship between particular and general views, for instance). But the interface is unhelpful, and the French text has missing letters all over the place (encoding problems, probably).
posted by nasreddin at 1:52 AM on December 28, 2008

the ones that were by the conviction that...

Oops, that should be "the ones that were driven by the conviction that..."

Ahem. Pardon. Moving on.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:08 AM on December 28, 2008

I wouldn't mind getting across this so I downloaded the PDF of the text. My suspicion is that the peculiar and opaque layout of the interface — which really gets in the way of the information in my view — is a side effect of the material's literary mode of (pre)conception.

Or what others have more intelligently said.
posted by Wolof at 2:20 AM on December 28, 2008

the French text has missing letters all over the place (encoding problems, probably).

Almost certainly so, methinks. Just from pattern-recognition while reading the first part, almost all vowels with a circonflexe accent have disappeared (â î ô û, but not ê), as well as all vowels with the trema (ä ë ï ö ü) and the two dipthong glyphs (æ œ). So occasionally you have to guess at the missing vowel (e.g. "il" might mean "œil")

Anyway, the flash interface is unhelpful, especially the way in which the photos slide around rapidly while you're moving the mouse to scroll the text. The underlying images shouldn't continue moving underneath the text, regardless of what sort of "point" it might be illustrating.

I've only dug through the first section in depth so far and it's interesting, but not yet revolutionary, as f_h has already pointed out. Here are the main points I've gathered, off the top of my head:
  • We can only have a view of the totality a city, society, system, etc. (a panoptic view) if we stop looking directly at the thing and instead look at symbols or indexes of it.
  • "Information society" hasn't so much virtualized human relationships as thickened the material residue of human relationships by parcelling-out complex conversations into atomized packets of data.
  • Collecting bits of information into a map of a totality isn't so much a loss of detail or context, as a transformation, or even a transposition from one context to another.
  • Put another way, there is no abstraction from material reality, but rather the dragging of a portion of reality from one context into another; a map still exists materially (on paper, computer screens, etc), despite the symbolic abyss between the city and the map.
  • Latour makes a distinction between complex (complexe) and complicated (compliqué) relations / transformations. "Complex" relations have parameters and variables that aren't fully known in advance, are subject to change, and require improvisation to handle. "Complicated" relations may have many variables, procedures and contingencies, but they are stable and known in advance. Latour's example of the former is "the art of conversation," while the latter would be a computer program.
  • Also, Latour thinks that complex relations depend on / connect to other complex relations, while complicated relations rest on simple ones (e.g., a computer program arises from and works with a stream of ones and zeroes).
All of this is interesting, but isn't quite rocking my world. On the other hand, I suppose that it's a pretty accessible and succinct summary of this line of thinking (at least in French).
posted by LMGM at 8:00 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised to hear complaints about the wacky interface on the website. That's exactly what I went in expecting from Latour. (If you've ever read his science studies work, in which he uses some of the weirdest looking graphs and charts ever, you would have seen these bizarre flash menus coming a mile away.)
posted by voltairemodern at 10:48 AM on December 28, 2008

...which isn't to say I'm blown away by the project, just that it's par for the Latourian course.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:48 AM on December 28, 2008

I love that crazy old bastard.
posted by villain extraordinaire at 10:50 AM on December 28, 2008

*flings self on post with cries of joy*
posted by jokeefe at 11:46 AM on December 28, 2008

I have a quote somewhere about the Arcades Project, that it is "incomplete and therefore infinitely suggestive". Thanks for all these links and this post; it may be par for the Latourian course, but it's still intellectually engaging, and I like the design (though I am in the minority, it appears).
posted by jokeefe at 11:58 AM on December 28, 2008

Thanks for this. I'll eventually get around to reading the PDF; the flash doesn't sound like so much fun.
posted by desjardins at 12:06 PM on December 30, 2008

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