Monday, July 19, 2010
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
by Samuel R. Delany
The Times Square envisioned in polymath Samuel Delany’s collection of two collusive essays is one occupying a science fictional space. Here, the stratification of our society is dispersed amidst the soiled seats and shadowed balconies of the adult cinemas and peepshows that thrived in the area from its heyday in the 70s to its demise in the early nineties. Delany disseminates this stretch of blocks at the heart of Manhattan that have since been transformed under the watchful eye of the government, contractors and business interests. What was once a utopia of sexual permissiveness is now a den of Disneyland glass and concrete. A commonality between the intergalactic phantasmagorias of Delany’s early work and his more recent critical and introspective nonfiction, of which “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” is endemic, is an interest in diversities and their interplay, as well as a forging of communities of utopian investigation and experimentation. Delany writes, “… the dual pieces here present a sociological and diachronic periplum.” The two essays therein are a speculative work of appraisal and acknowledgement. These essays map out the topographical dimensions of desire and interaction in an urban arena. This fashions our metropolitan body.
While “Times Square Blue” is predominantly anecdotal, offering a personal recollection of the era, “Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red” takes the form of a discursive interrogation. To provide an infrastructure, Delany borrows the concept of the periplum from Pound’s Cantos: “…those early texts from before the advent of universal latitude and longitude that allowed the navigation of the Mediterranean…Periploi were detailed descriptions of the coastlines of the mainland and the various islands…” that allowed sailors to navigate according to both their own memory and the accumulated recollections of their peers. Delany asks, “…whether it is worth going back and making a more historically concerned and concerted visit/invasion” of this particular Times Square based solely on his own impressions. The book itself is his affirmation of such a project’s validity.
Walk through Times Square today. If I depart from my job at Barnes & Noble on 5th & 46th, I pass visiting families clustered outside theaters playing this year’s musicals, The Addams Family or Rock of Ages. A little further on, I see a Ruby Tuesday’s, an Olive Garden, some international tourists in bike-driven carriages. It’s all very family-friendly. Look a little closer and you’ll find a porn store stocked with an entire wall of crude bestiality DVDs. Walk a little further and you’ll find another adult video store with a live peepshow on the second floor haunted by shriveled men with their pants up well past their waists. Are these the remnants of the Times Square described by Delany? Or are these bastions of sleaze simply the lonely, pathetic pisspots that have taken the place of what were basically social sexual locations? No one talks to you in a porn store; they stare at you to make certain you aren’t masturbating in the aisles. Delany describes the peepshows as a teeming hotbed of interaction, of what Jane Jacobs describes in “the Death and Life of Great American Cities” as contact. The porn store of today does not facilitate the contact that Delany extols.
Delany’s rare gift as a writer and thinker is his refusal, no matter the extremity and severity of the fetishes and obsessions on display, to apologize or moralize. The sensuality and thrill of fulfilling our desires does not become a moral battleground. He does not apologize, nor does he romanticize. Delany doesn’t fall pray to nostalgia, which “…presupposes an uncritical confusion between the first, the best, and the youthful gaze (through which we view the first and the best) with which we create origins.” Delany does not shirk from the death, the disease and the mental illness that played a factor in the adult theaters he frequented from the seventies on to their close. He also refuses to allow those darker elements from assuming an unnecessarily large component of such. A lot goes on underneath that vast umbrella which our moral majorities label exploitation.
The social element is privileged in Delany’s recollections. Sex, as in the act, is “certainly one of the necessary places where socializing and sexualizing actually touch for, dare I call it, health or just contentment…” Sex as a process is, even more importantly than a physical one, a social process. The casual sexual encounters of the porno theaters are that of a true promiscuity. A female friend accompanies Delany on one occasion to the theaters and is shocked by how frequently and politely people turn down sex, to which he replies “…when so many people say ‘yes,’ the ‘nos’ don’t seem so important.” If we prioritize the free exchange of ideas to such an extent, why don’t we do the same for sexual favors? A democratic community in which communication is facilitated with the greatest speed and efficiency must also be one in which sexual desires, no matter how aberrant as deemed by a moral mainstream, may be fulfilled, that is transacted, with ease and expedition. Promiscuity is simply another word for free exchange. But it’s one that has been tagged far too frequently as derogatory. In terms of sexual intercourse, “however supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. This is a quintessentially social process, involving a social response.” This social response, as often described by Delany throughout both essays, is one that spans social and class boundaries.
A fairly simple thesis underlies ‘Times Square Red:’ “…given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at it’s most rewarding, productive and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.” But due to frisson between class and clashing societal elements, “…it is only by a constant renovation of the concept of discourse that society can maintain the most conscientious and informed field for both the establishment of such institutions and practices, and by extension, the necessary critique of those institutions and practices…” Delany is writing towards a useful methodology by which to appraise the world – a means to facilitate a greater degree of ease and happiness. The functionality of desire cannot be ignored – as has been done by city planners wishing to eradicate the peepshows and adult theaters of Times Square. They see only vice – vice being a perceived sin that in turn must be regulated. The functionality of words, the functionality of nets of discourse, cannot be ignored, as “…the structures, conflicts, and displacements that occur in the unconscious, the class war, and the space of discourse are simply too useful to ignore in explaining what goes on in the world we live in…” We balance our lives on nets of desire.
As is often the case, a concern for security and safety is used as permission to execute agendas that in actuality carry no heed of good will or health. These are the specialized interests. Interclass communication, any sort of exchange between elements of the urban diversity, is deemed destructive. It is “in the name of ‘safety’ [that] society dismantles the various institutions that promote interclass communication, attempts to critique the way such institutions functioned in the past to promote their happier sides are often seen as, at best, nostalgia for an outmoded past and, at worst, a pernicious of everything dangerous: unsafe sex, neighborhoods filled with undesirables, promiscuity…” Ah, there’s that word again.
A good portion of the latter essay deals with contact versus networking. Networking “…is what people have to do when those with like interests live too far apart to be thrown together in public spaces through chance and propinquity.” Delany further explains, “Networking tends to be professional and motive-driven. Contact tends to be more broadly social and appears random… Contact is associated with public space and the architecture and commerce that depend on and promote it. Thus contact is often an outdoor sport; networking tends to occur indoors.” The restructuring of Times Square is in effect the construction of a concrete sarcophagus – a monument to the death motions of an artificial corporate interest. And if “small businesses thrive on contact,” then “Big businesses promote networking as much as they possibly can…” The sex theaters of which Delany offers deep anecdotal exposition of in the first essay stand as an alternative to this further isolating social trend. Contact can therein occur – a spontaneous, organic social process, as opposed to a artificial one maneuvered by a larger, possibly corporate interest.
Here, we see sexual desire not just as a moment in time, but as an action constructing a social space, or perhaps more aptly a social stream. Refuse the reality of such, or attempt to stymie it via baroque regulation, and one disables man’s social function.
NEXT: Olaf Stapledon's Odd John and Sirius