Teju Cole Speaks On "Senses Of The City"
Cole discussed his experiences as a writer and photographer in post-9/11 New York City.
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 02:02
“After you write the book, you learn what it’s about,” said Nigerian-American writer, photographer and professional historian Teju Cole. On Thursday night, Cole appeared in Devlin 101 as part of the Lowell Humanities Series. Cole’s lecture, titled “Senses of the City,” examined the nature of the city, drawing heavily from literature and his own observations as an artist in New York. These observations were framed with two short passages from his 2011 novel Open City.
Open City tells a story of post-9/11 New York City, through the lens of Julius, a young Nigerian doctor in the last year of a psychiatry fellowship. In Cole’s first reading, he described how one day while wandering in downtown Manhattan, Julius happens across Ground Zero, the former site of the first World Trade Center. “The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city: written, erased, rewritten,” Cole read. “Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.”
Following the passage, Cole proceeded to speak fondly of city life, describing himself as a “city chauvinist.” He holds the city as one of the “greatest technologies of humanity” and “the incubator of tolerance.” He spoke of the creation of the city, tracing it back to the invention of streets. “A city does tend toward grid-like organization,” Cole explained, but then jokingly, he showed the audience an image of the Boston subway system, suggesting that the structures of cities are far from normative.
As a photographer, Cole takes interest in the movement in cities, holding that everything in a city “begins to echo itself,” with the motion of people and cars mirroring each other in a stop-and-go pattern. “It doesn’t mean we’ve become automatic, but it does mean we tend toward a whole that operates something like a circuit board,” Cole said.
Cole then expanded on the palimpsest metaphor introduced in his first reading from Open City. The past is not over, according to Cole, and a city operates much like a palimpsest. “You rub it down, you write something else on it, but these erasures are not complete,” Cole said. He demonstrated this to the crowd with several of his own photographs. Taken with a slow shutter speed, these photographs capture the ghostlike motion of daily routine. According to Cole, he was inspired by a method of photography the French called flou artistique, which interests itself in showing something that is both “there and not there.”
Working as a writer and photographer are closely related to Cole. “A picture can carry its own knowledge, and can hint what’s going on,” he said. His photography of cities focuses impressions of the past in contemporary scenes. “Every space actually contains a trace of the things that happened with in it,” Cole said, using a photograph of scratched inscriptions on the plexiglass of a subway station as an example. Cole respectively views Manhattan as a place “saturated with histories.”
To Cole, post-9/11 Manhattan is an “open city”—a city under some great psychological pressure, beyond the obvious of the attack. “In the broad daylight. You’re looking into the sky, and even today, when you see a plane going behind a building, as planes normally do, there’s a brief moment you wonder what’s going on,” he said.
Cole closed the lecture with a second reading of Open City, beginning with Julius’ description of traveling in a plane over Manhattan. “I was saddled with strange mental transpositions. That the plane was a coffin, that the city below was a vast graveyard with white marble and stone blocks of various heights and sizes,” he said. The passage went on to mention a particular scale model panorama of New York City in the Queens Museum of Art. Cole ended his reading recounting the model’s representation of the World Trade Center. “And the pair of gray blocks on the southern tip of Manhattan, each about a foot high, representing the persistence, in the model, of the World Trade Center towers, which, in reality, had already been destroyed,” he read. Cole looked up from the book. “And I think I’ll stop there."