Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

From Cities of Things to Cities of Signs: Urban Spaces and Urban Subjects in Sister Carrie and Manhattan Transfer

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

From Cities of Things to Cities of Signs: Urban Spaces and Urban Subjects in Sister Carrie and Manhattan Transfer

Article excerpt

  However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs,
  whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave ... without having
  discovered it.
  --Italo Calvino (14)

While architecture has always been in part a semiotic art, the twentieth century saw an unprecedented convergence of signs and architecture across America. (1) Since the early 1920s, the architectural spaces of American cities have been awash in texts and images--advertising, street signs, newspaper headlines, political posters, graffiti, etc. These signs have arguably become the dominant constituents of phenomenal urban space, filling our perceptual fields, obscuring the streets and buildings that once comprised the city. (2) The emergence of this textualized city of signs marks a historical break from the previous formation, which might be called the city of things, and it is this transformation and its effects on the inhabitants of the city that this essay will explore. One can, I will argue, see this shift from the city of things to the city of signs represented in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925), novels that depict, respectively, these two formations of the phenomenality of the city and the different types of urban subjectivities they produce. (3)

These two formations of the city and of their corresponding subjectivities correlate with two different stages of American capitalism: the industrial capitalism of mass-produced consumer goods, a capitalism of things, which dominated the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries; and the emergence, as early as the 1920s, of what was to become the postindustrial capitalism of the late twentieth century, a capitalism of signs. The capitalism of signs developed in part as a consequence of the unparalleled success of industrial capitalism's mass production, which spurred the increasingly sophisticated development of marketing devices as producers sought to generate demand for an unprecedented volume of consumer goods. Advertising (including signs identifying shops) and marketing in a broad sense have of course been around as long as marketplaces. It was in the twentieth century, however, that advertising and marketing became major urban industries. As these industries and the new media (radio, film, television, the internet) that depended on them for financial support developed one after the other throughout the twentieth century, the character of the city was transformed. The city of things gave way to the city of signs, and the emphasis of the actual economies of major cities largely shifted from the production of goods to the production of signs, including advertising. Most crucially, the consumption of commodities, while never without some semiotic function, became primarily the consumption of signs. By the twenty-first century, this transformation might be seen to be nearly complete in the hypertextualized postmodern city, with its postindustrial economy based largely on the production, manipulation, and exchange of signs (in print and broadcast media, finance, marketing, etc.).

This transformation of urban spaces, like the transformation in the economic base that it reflects, was complex and uneven. The modern city becomes the postmodern city only gradually, over decades. There are signs in Dreiser's depictions of Chicago and New York (notably the lights of Broadway and the billboards featuring Carrie), and there are vast quantities of things in Dos Passos's Manhattan (the novel opens with a detailed description of the detritus floating around the bow of a ferry). The two novels, however, mark a fundamental shift in the balance, from the dominance of things to the dominance of signs.

Things are, of course, an inherent part of any capitalism, though today they are generally not made in the American city but in foreign cities that structurally resemble the industrial cities of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. …

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