Juxtaposition Machines

As of this writing, New York City stands at 38,087 cases according to the Johns Hopkins map.

I have just learned that Michael Sorkin, architectural critic, is dead. He died on March 26th of the coronavirus.

To be honest, as an inhabitant of the interior states of this country, I know little of New York, but I am quickly coming to terms with the fact that Manhattan has more confirmed cases than many entire countries.

Whether it was due to public transportation or closing schools late, they have it now, and the hospitals are overloaded.

As Michael Sorkin wrote about his stroll through the city of New York in his book Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, I have been returning in a brief stroll through the city myself, albeit in a morbid and on-the-nose sort of way.

The Division, a video game released on March 8th, 2016, has an eerie resemblance to our current predicament. Just read the first sentence in the “plot” section of Wikipedia:

On Black Friday 2019 a viral epidemic, transmitted by a foreign virus sweeps through New York City. The disease, known as “The Dollar Flu”, causes widespread chaos, and major cities are placed under quarantine. 

While the game is an obvious political riff on America’s consumerism, as French game developer Ubisoft has repeatedly taken critical shots at American culture (most recently in Far Cry 5), the similarities are uncanny. But the resulting geography people navigate could not be further from each other. In The Division, cars are piled along the streets, strange walking homeless scavenge bodies, and the remains of airdropped supplies have leftover parachutes clogged against trees. And like many video games out there, there’s quite a bit of shooting.

In New York at this moment, empty spaces could not be more so, with a total absent attendance that is almost more scary for it expressing a sort of absence that is stark in its banality. It’s the city that never sleeps, and it’s being told to hibernate.

Michael Sorkin, as far as I can tell, was a critic of the wealth inequality that the city experienced in his lifetime, and perhaps with the culture of the United States, one that is based on constant work and business-as-usual and short-term solutions. Manhattan found itself at the crossroads of the worst elements of our beliefs with the highly contagious virus COVID-19.

So perhaps, as is so often the case with art, The Division eventually became an apt critique, but it arrived four years early.

Michael Sorkin wanted cities to be “juxtaposition machines”: places of high diversity and spirit that allowed interesting and creative combinations. But now we have two New Yorks, one digital and one very much real, experiencing a strand of coronavirus, with wildly different geographical results. In both cases we see the similarities of the poor having to deal with keeping the city running while getting sick, while the incredibly wealthy can afford to take shelter or leave entirely.

I wish I couldn’t make these comparisons, and I wish I didn’t have the chance to return to a videogame for academic purposes.

But there you have it.

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