Sex and the City: Another Urban Imaginary

By Wilson, Mick | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Sex and the City: Another Urban Imaginary


Wilson, Mick, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


THE CRITICAL VISION

When 1 was an undergraduate student at art school, I was introduced to the representational economy of "the city" in modernity through the twin figures of the flaneur and the prostitute. These two figures were presented as striding through the urban imagery of Modernist culture and criticism from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. They were given to us impressionable students as embodiments and enactments of the metaphorical dynamics of urban imaginaries, eroticisms, and gender politics in modernity. These figures somehow jarred with the contemporary dynamics of late-twentieth-century urban imaginaries that we participated in, through the televisual and cinematic spectacle of the technological sublime and various post-apocalyptic urban dystopias. Our consumption of these contemporary myths was shaped in turn by the new enthusiasms of celebratory and unevenly critical postmod-ernisms. Such critical and historical essays as Elizabeth Wilson's beautiful essay on the prostitute as flaneur, T. J. Clark's wonderfully researched excursus on Manet's Otympia, and Mary Ann Doane's exemplary treatment of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Pandora's Box provided us with access to an earlier moment of urban erotic imaginaries and entry points into the critique of gender and representation. (1) The feminist appropriation of psychoanalysis provided the most compelling challenge to our received readings of the prostitute as cipher of urban modernity.

Decades later, and the question of "the city"--at least for the purposes of critical debate within the orbit of "arts and culture"--has become recentered on the dynamics of shantytowns, poverty and wealth, exclusion, violence, catastrophe, and globalized distributions of inequitable life chances. We now operate a contemporary urban imaginary through the figures of the globally networked slum, ecological catastrophe, the precariat, paranoid cultures of state terror and surveillance, and the fortress enclosures of gated communities. Various counterdiscourses of neoliberal optimism have also exercised our imaginations with talk of "creative cities," city branding, urban regeneration and renewal, privatized and commercially enlivened "public" space, and many other pleasant stories of smarter economies, more sustainable growth, and participatory planning and development. These discursive practices appear as complementary moments in the contemporary representational economy of "the city."

Of interest is the degree to which the questions of gender and the erotics of the city have been in some degree superseded and displaced in contemporary urban imaginaries--notwithstanding the impoverished fantasies of a recent media confection such as the movie Sex and the City II. There are of course key tropes still in play that marry discourses on the prostitute as cipher of modernity with the more recent discourses on multitude and migrancy. Most notable among these is the question of human trafficking and the contemporary slave trade and sex economy.

It is well established that the transnational mobility of contemporary urban economies also entails the "transport of people (women, children, and men--generally by coercion or deception" for the purpose of sexual exploitation, as well as for other labor. (2) This is a global phenomenon manifesting in Western Europe, North and South America, Africa, South East Asia, Australasia, and elsewhere. However, arguably it is within the formal discourses of nongovernmental organizations and international policy and monitoring agencies (rather than the representational practices of "arts and culture" or cultural criticism as conventionally understood) that these questions of urban sexual economies, exploitation, and the "hidden" dynamics of the contemporary globalized city are being addressed. Nonetheless, that there is a need to attend to the politics of representation in play and to remobilize and re-function the critical frameworks of an earlier moment in cultural criticism is apparent from the following rationale provided for the UNESCO Trafficking Statistics Project:

  When it comes to statistics, trafficking of girls and women is one of
  several highly emotive issues which seem to overwhelm critical
  faculties. … 

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Sex and the City: Another Urban Imaginary
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