S(t)imulating Singapore: Representing the City (-State) in Travel Writing and Urban Planning

Irvin Lim Fang Jau

Chapter One: Of Scopic Regimes and Spatial Representations

"My eyes...do not equip me to witness that spectacle...I am the victim of a double infirmy: what I see is an affliction to me: and what I do not see, a reproach."

Claude Levi-Strauss, 1969: 44-5

"Appearance is built on everything...We build not only to shelter the body but also to support a structure of consciousness."

E. V. Walter, 1988: 205

Scopic Regimes

Cities have long been the object of a wide range of intellectual curiosity and ambivalence, especially in 'Western' urban history. Representations of the 'Western' city, in particular, are often contradictory, as evident in disparate accounts of the urban experience in many social and literary texts (see Mumford, 1961; Williams, 1973; Strauss, 1976; Lees, 1985; Preston & Simpson-Housley, 1994). For some, the indictment of the rise of the modern 'Western' city in the 19th century as a place of moral decay and social deprivation, expressed the fear and abhorrance towards the rapid advance of industrialisation and technology, viewed as promoting a deleterious urban lifestyle and hastening the decline of traditional culture and values. This apocalyptic and insalubrious view of the new industrial city led conversely to the romantic view which extolled the old country-side as a repository of sanguine familial and kinship ties. The close knit local communities of the countryside's Gemeinschaft culture was represented as being eroded or threatened by the City's Gesellschaft social forms of shallow association (see Tšnnies, 1963). For others, the rise of a technological civilisation of urban culture presented opportunities for the growth and advancement of human society. To that extent, then, the city was rationalised as a place of promise, and of emancipation, over and above that of the Weberian 'iron cage' of routinised administrative efficiency or the Rousseauian 'cannibalistic city' of dehumanising capitalism. Ironically enough, the modern city of both commerce and culture was proposed as a feasible marriage of two seeming incommensurabilities, with the seigneurial chains of medieval feudalism and slavery ostensibly broken by the Enlightenment sledgehammer of modern political freedoms and liberal ideals. Weber himself idealistically believed this, citing the old German adage: 'City air is liberating!' (Stadtluft macht frei!) (see Ringer, 1994). In short, the perceptions and reactions (representations) of social commentators and literary critics tracing the development of Western cities have tended to be either optimistic or pessimistic. The very partiality and provisionality of such representations are politically significant. As Anselm Strauss observes:

Books about cities are always partisan. They always betray, what they are not frankly portraying, their authors' feelings about particular cities, or indeed about cities in general. How difficult it is not to feel in some way about cities, for cities are such a tremendous phenomenon as to call forth an enormous range of human sentiment and emotion.

(Strauss, 1976: vii)

More often than not, the partisan character of texts about cities tends to be couched in the moral and romantic ethics of good and bad, utopia/dystopia, real/unreal in their binary optics. By rendering the city as a site of representation comprehensible within a partisan system of narrative closures, there is little by way of an attempt to fully confront the contradictions and ambivalence, foregrounding the anxiety with which the city is encountered and represented. Christian Metz's term (1982), "scopic regimes" (see also Jay, 1993; Abbas, 1994; Ryan, 1994) is useful for helping to describe and problematise this oppositional optics of ethical allegory. The term allows for a deconstruction of representations of city spaces in terms of homogenizing political and cultural grand narratives.

Scopic regimes are located in the realm of visual practices, encompassing multifarious force-fields of perspective, and are therefore not necessarily restricted to the mere oppositional classification of simplistic ethical binaries. I suggest that scopic regimes can be understood as having two aspects. The first aspect is epistemological (mind), in that it concerns 'how we come to know' what constitutes reality. The conceptual 'regime' of theory constitutes the knowledge which enables one's construction of a 'regime' of reality. The second aspect encapsulates embodiment (eye). Here, there is a privileging of perspective as the master-sense with which we constitute and confront the contested terrain of the visual field. Both these aspects together make up "scopic regimes". Implicit in scopic regimes is the subjective invocation of one's 'mind's eye' [1], or what de Certeau (1984: xxi) in another context describes as "a sort of epic of the eye and of the impulse to read". The "epic of the eye" through scopic regimes delineates two critically essential points. The first is an a priori awareness that "there is no 'natural' vision prior to cultural mediation and therefore no superior scopic regimes" (Jay, 1993: 127). [2] And the second is one of contingency, where as Abbas (1994: 450) avers, "there are always a choice of scopic regimes available so that actual choices are historically [and I would add, politically] significant". Scopic regimes can thus be tacitly construed as coterminous with "ways of seeing" (Berger, 1980) or 'cultural lenses' which construct or reinforce a reading of reality out of a certain theoretical regime of knowledge. However, the significant qualification to be made in distinguishing between the perspectival terms is that the epistemological and etymological nexus between 'theory' and 'seeing' (Greek thea = spectacle) is recognised and emphasized in the idea of scopic regime. In this sense, the idea of scopic regime, as I will argue, is crucial to my analysis of contemporary representations of the city.

If the city in general brought "the structure of society and quality of life into sharp and specific focus" (Lees, 1985: 306), current theoretical developments around the discourse on 'postmodern cities' suggest that a new scopic regime has emerged by which cities are scrutinised and represented. Following the recent intellectual turn towards the concern with space in social theory (see Soja, 1989; Johnston, 1994), a proliferation of terms such as Virilio's (1991) "Overexposed City", Henaff's (1992) "Cannibalistic City"3, Tagg's (1992) "Discontinuous City", Soja's (1992) "Exopolis", Sorkin's (1992) "Ageographical City" have become popularised. In this context, the metaphorical power of Baudrillard's (1983) "Simulacra and simulation" has become endemic as a dominant paradigm for the representation of city spaces. Together, these urban tropes form the theoretical basis for expressing and elaborating a scopic regime for representing the development of the contemporary city, which I will call the scopic regime of disappearance.

A Binocular Conflation of Disappearance

In the wake of the epochal technological revolution that has influenced global political economy and culture, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, theorists like Virilio (1991: 119) proclaim that we are living in the golden age of technological globalisation characterised by "[u]biquity, instantaneity and the populating of time supplanting the populating of space". Such a dematerialised conception (Weltanschauung or World- Perspective) of space is implied in the idea of 'disappearance', and has its antecedent in Mumford's (1961: 641) post-World War II prediction of the dawn of "the invisible city" hastened by rapid advances in electronic media and communications technology:

[T]he new world in which we have begun to live is not merely open on the surface, far beyond the visible horizon, but also open internally, penetrated by invisible rays and emanations, responding to stimuli and forces below the threshold of ordinary observation. (Mumford, 1961: 641)

Following on from Mumford's earlier conception of the "invisible city", Virilio (1991: 63/132/155) claims that we now inhabit the "overexposed city". In other words, he avers that the cloistered space of the physical city has become "overexposed" by the invisible and interfacing speed of electronic time. As a result of this "overexposure", "depths of time replace depths of sensible space" in the electronic environment, and "space is actually light"; albeit the vanishing light of disappearance. That is to say, electronic time interfaces across all spatial boundaries and exposes the permeability of all material enclosures. Though Virilio's claim up to this point is palpable enough, what proves to be a less convincing line of argument is his generalisation that as a consequence of this "overexposure", there is the lost of value and power in the hierarchical privilege of centre over periphery in the geopolitics of nations (ibid: 120), to the extent that

the notion of homelands...and...the geomorphological unity of State dissolves. We now have instead an internal extraterritorial entity which...does away with the rule of the city, the very necessity of political citizenship for the administered populations...metropolitan concentration no longer makes sense. Urban agglomeration has lost its reason for being.

(Virilio, 1991: 120-2) (Emphases mine)

The rhetoric, if not the reasoning, in his argument is persuasive and familiar. Besides, reminding one of McLuhan's (1969: 12/3) cavalier proclamation that "the city no longer exists...the city is obsolete...ask the computer", it is also in many ways in sync with Fukuyama's (1992: 273) belief that the economic forces of globalization "are now encouraging the breakdown of national barriers through the creation of a single integrated world market". However, it is precisely the premature 'sense of an ending' in this triumphalist vision that does not 'make much sense' in accounting for developments taking place in a modern city-state like Singapore, where the notion of 'home(land)' continues to form an integral and instrumental part of its nation-building project. In other words, Virilio's (ibid: 127) declaration that there is "no longer a struggle for space" because "the City has disappeared" with the advent of mass media and digital telecommunications (time-space compression ˆ la Harvey) technologies, may well prove to be premature and contradictory to contemporary geopolitical realities. This is exemplified by the Singapore government's determined (and some would argue 'desperate') attempts to control information space through media censorship and regulation, as well as attempts to carve out a space of identity, ballasted by reified cultural discourses of 'Asian Values'. I must stress that the on-going struggle over space faced by postcolonial nations such as Singapore is about constructing a sense of collective identity, citizenship cum destiny in the imagined space of a place, as much as it is about "guarding cultural borders" (see Ang, 1995) with the appeal to cultural discourses of heritage and values. Despite what many avatars of the postmodernist intellectual movement in 'the West' (see Appadurai, 1993; Shapiro, 1994) believe to be a supercession of time over space (Virilio, 1991) and "the disarticulation of place-based societies and cultures" by a space of flows (Castells, 1989: 349), many developing countries in Asia, like the modern city-state of the Singapore republic, are still concerned (and anxious) with creating "centred spaces" (Birch, 1994) of national sovereignty, identity and political control. In this respect, Johnston suggests that we may do well to "ruminate on the importance of place as a cultural root for people in an increasingly rootless world and ask whether nationalism in some form or another might increase not decrease as a global force, as states act...to counter the destructive elements of global capitalism" (1994: 119). Lefebvre expressed a similar concern when he observed that while the space of flows, or what he calls "spatial envelopes", with the advent of the world market implies a degree of unity at the global level, there is also a fractioning of space and a reinforcement of autonomy and self-determination at the level of the nation (1991: 351).

Though Virilio (1991: 122) was perhaps referring to the problems of urban decay and a decline in the state of civil law in many developed 'Western' cities4 in his prognosis for 'the end of the rule of the city-state and notions of a national homeland' - which bears little contextual relevance to the Singapore city-state - he is nevertheless correct in his observation that as a result of the momentous impact of technological globalisation, "[t]he crisis of national identity becomes the crises of territorial citizenship and local authority". This crisis is one that concerns the relation between the space of place (national homeland) and identity (political citizenship), the struggle over which, as Singapore typifies, is far from over yet.

Another important aspect about the scopic regime of disappearance relevant to my argument here, is that besides a tendency towards an understandably popular preception of a blurring of spatial boundaries by the forces of globalisation and technology, there is also, perhaps more significantly, a proclivity to view the contemporary city as a 'hyperreal' space of invidious 'simulation'. It would perhaps be timely here to recall Foucault's oft-quoted conviction that

[w]e are in a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less than of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein...Our epoch is one in which space takes the form of relations among sites.

(Foucault, 1986: 22/3)

Foucault (1986) had suggested that the Medieval "space of emplacement", where there were clear and specific hierarchies (eg. sacred and profane places), is today replaced by the "space of extension", where the "hidden presence of the sacred" vis-ˆ-vis state power has been dispersed, displaced and decentralised amongst sites. He cautions that such a dispersion facilitated by the complex networks of the urban grid represents a new "microphysics" (Foucault, 1979: 139) of power, that has not been desanctified or disenfranchised from disciplinary control and panoptic surveillance, which continues to regulate "docile bodies" into "ordered municipalities" of capital production (1979: 148). This Foucauldian account of the dispersion of power by "spaces of extension", has resonance in the proliferation of so-called postmodernist 'fractal' and 'simulacral' accounts of the contemporary urban experience, whereby there is a 'disappearance' of power and a 'decompression of politics' into a non-descript molecular micropolitics, or simulacrum, as Baudrillard would like to argue in his incisive and influential Simulations (1983).

Simulation represents, for Baudrillard, a critique and characterisation of the hyperreal condition of contemporary culture generated by multinational and mass media/consumer capitalism. The traditional semiotic referent of the sign-signifier relation, as represented by the tangible product of exchange and use-value, has become replaced by an obsessive image culture of free-floating signifiers, of simulation. In the image culture of simulation, there is a substitution of symbolic value for use/exchange value. What we consume are no longer products per se, but signs and images. Baudrillard (1983: 23/55/57) alludes to this cultural obsession with simulation through the seductive 'Disneyland' and 'TV' metaphors of "absolute manipulation". Conceptually, the compelling significance of simulation is that the political and productive economy of the sign or image of power becomes detached from the real world of referentiality. In this sense, political power and meaning has become imploded and invisible; referential semiotics has disappeared into the simulacral realm of the hyperreal. Power and meaning, like an "indecipherable molecular code" (ibid: 58) can no longer be traced, targeted, located or critiqued as a result of their dissemination and placelessness in a mass consumer and hyper-commodification society.

Citing the archetypal American cities of Los Angeles and Miami, Sharon Zukin (1992) defines this simulacral transformation of the city-scape into a dismal dreamscape for deceptive visual consumption and disciplining social control as an "Orwellian relic" (ibid: 242) that has increasingly come to dominate the postmodern urban landscape. She further proposes that Disney World, like the metaphorical "world of the hotel or the world's fair" (ibid: 236), has come to assume a playful and imaginative paradigm for the substitution of social reality, by circulating images of desire with recurrent motifs of visual variety which implicitly "map[s] comfort with power", and maps culture with power (ibid: 231/8). Edward Soja (1992: 101) has defined the cartographic transference of this imaginative paradigm from tourist attractions in particular to public urban spaces in general as indicative of a radical semiotic movement from "first wave" to "second wave" hyperreality. Coupled with the presumption of a global cultural homogenization in a space of flows, this conception of the postmodern urban landscape as enswathed in the visual simulation and hyperreal culture of semiotic disappearance exacerbates an anxiety over the political question of critical cartography; its resistive 'remapping' in a space of placelessness.

This problematic of 'remapping' represents the spatial dilemma of negotiating and critiquing what Jameson (1991: 38) prefers to call the postmodern hyperspace of the city, located in the world space of multinational capital, premised upon the cultural logic (m”se en abyme) of late capitalism. And in this regard, he (1991: 50/1) believes that there is a need for a new form of "cognitive mapping", because "we cannot...return to aesthetic practices elaborated on the basis of historical situations and dilemmas which are no longer ours". Paradoxically, Jameson's "new political art" (1984: 91) is a Janus-faced vision in that it must render the postmodern sense of placelessness even as it suggests ways of negotiating the hyperreal space of placelessness (see Connor, 1989: 228) that it opposes. Nevertheless, his radical call for a new cognitive mapping is tacitly supported by Soja (1993: 484) who argues that "if we are going to act politically in the city, we no longer depend upon our modernist answers and traditions".

Consequently, I want to argue that, although not recognised as such, the development and deployment of a new scopic regime of disappearance has become an appealing yet ambivalent post-modernist form of cognitive mapping by which the contemporary city is increasingly characterised (and celebrated) on the one hand as an invisible "space of flows superceding the meaning of the space of places" (Castells, 1989: 348), while on the other, critiqued (and caricatured) as a simulacrum space of commodity fetishization and ensuing placelessness, coterminous with ominous overtones of intractable political manipulation. Though the space of flows and the space of simulation exist on two separate 'post-modernist' discursive zeitgeist (the former, a beyond-modernist triumphalist discourse of capital hegemony and the latter, an anti-modernist nihilistic5 discourse of capital power), they nevertheless dovetail into the general scopic regime of disappearance that I have extrapolated and conceptualized. The scopic regime of disappearance is in this discursive sense, bi-focal, contradistinctively binocular, and reveals the ambivalence and anxiety that characterises this mode of representing the contemporary urban development and the experience of its city-spaces.

A (Dis/Appearing) Tale of Two Cities?

I now want to briefly exemplify how a scopic regime of disappearance has been mobilized to discursively construct the representation of a city by citing a recent analysis of Hong Kong juxtaposed in contrast to my subsequent analysis of Singapore. In his application of a scopic regime of disappearance in analysing the rapid urban development of Hong Kong's architectual landscape, Abbas refers to Virilio's idea of a devaluation of physical and enclosed urban space by "overexposure" to the flows of globalisation. He then draws the connection between the idea of disappearance with what he describes to be Hong Kong's sense of placelessness and anonymity; lack of identity. As he writes:

The tendency of disappearance has been to promote a sense of placelessness which allowed the city to capitalise on its being a space-in-between. Strong local identities never took hold because the city felt so much at home in a space of disappearance...Hong Kong has neither a fixed identity nor the inhibitions that come with it...the question of Hong Kong's cultural self-definition...in a space of disappearance can only be problematic.

(Abbas, 1994: 452/3)

With the impending reassertion of Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997 after 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong's cultural self-definition is particularly problematic. Unlike Singapore which is an independent city-state with a sovereign claim to a multiracial national identity, Hong Kong's problematic is precisely the placelessness of its historically contingent positionality of being caught in between colonizers (the British and the Chinese). As Rey Chow (1992: 164) suggests, Hong Kong is an anomaly in postcoloniality as it is located precariously in the third space of a "double impossibility", unable to lay any claim to independence after decolonisation. Therefore, she argues that there is an urgency for Hong Kong to negotiate for itself an identity that is neither simply that of being a puppet of British Colonialism (colonizer) nor Chinese Authoritarianism (dominant native culture). Towards that end, the problematic of cultural self-determination in a so-called 'space of disappearance' associated with an overwhelming sense of placelessness and anonymity in Hong Kong, Abbas concludes, can be viewed positively as a "necessary condition for the invention of subjectivity" (ibid: 459).6 While Abbas is arguably right in his assessment of Hong Kong's lack of a stable spatial identity, we will see in Chapter Three that this subjective placelessness that Hong Kong's space of disappearance promotes is emphatically not one that the Singapore's spatial managers would like to produce or encourage in the Singaporean cityscape and mindscape.7 For them the alienating effects of anonymity and placelessness is anathema to the quest for a stable identity anchored in affective appearances of a nation of homes. In other words, 'to feel at home' in Singapore is construed as a consciousness of place, contradistinctively constructed through a scopic regime of appearance rather than disappearance. This quest for a 'spatial fix'8 struggles to eschew the sense of placelessness that Hong Kong, according to Abbas, has embraced, and needs to be understood as one which makes the Singapore city-state a centred space of place, built upon 'positive' appearances of dwelling and on the spectacle9 of stimulation, and not just one of an amorphous, unending and ethereal simulation that lacks the permanency of place. The concern is with recovering a sense of place from being subsumed by a space of placelessness (of flows). The meaning of a space of place and identity continues to have pertinence in postcolonial Singapore's spatial imaginaire. As Walter (1988: 23/123) reminds us, a place is a unity of experience, a container of feelings, and implies a form of dwelling together.10 How these feelings of unity, dwelling and belonging are being invested11 in the representation and production of space by the Singapore city-state will be taken up in my final chapter; where I will counterpose a scopic regime of appearance as the epistemological basis for an analysis of urban planning discourses.

Notes

1. It is perhaps necessary to acknowledge here that the 'mind's eye' has been the philosophical problematic of mind-body contemplation dating as far back as Plato's theory of knowledge. Feminism's criticism that the logic of thought is too rooted in the visual (scopophilia) bears testimony to the on-going polemic (see Keller & Grontkowski, 1983: 207). To be sure, my invocation of the term here as coterminous with scopic regime is heuristically motivated to interrogate systems of representation. For a comprehensive hermenuetic and phenomenological interrogation of visual epistemology, see also Heelan (1983).

2. Lefebvre (1991) presents us with a powerful critique of the readability of space that reduces space to the transparency and purely descriptive level of a textual and semiotic play of spatial signifiers. His critique of the production of space is not unlike de Certeau's (1984) conception of "strategies and tactics" in 'reading' (a resistive negotiation as opposed to the domineering totalization of 'spatial blindess'). Such conceptualizations have been influential in gesturing cultural studies towards a review of not just "dominated spaces" (Foucault), but also the "appropriated spaces" of the everyday. See also Buchanan (1994a & b) & Roe (1992).

3. Henaff's (1992) metaphorical reading of the Rousseauian city as a cannibalistic and dangerous social environment of 'devouring' economic exploitation and capitalistic self-interest, has resonance with Stratton's (1994) mythological conception of the modern city as a predatory playground for contemporary serial murderers in the popular urban imagination.

4. For a recent account of the urban decay and crisis of American Cities, see Jody Manwaring's (1995: 8/9) interview with Peter Newman, an expert in city policy. See also Castells' (1983: 3) belief that "[o]urs is an epoch of crisis. . . we are on the edge of a major sociospatial catastrophe", because of the dissociation between the space of organisations and the space of experience.

5. Baudrillard admits that there is an echo of Nietzsche's 'eternal return' when he postulates the end of referential production with the disappearance of a cause and effect linearity, with the reappearance of power in simulation through a circular mode of disappearance, where 'the social is dead'. See Baudrillard (1990b: 21). The mutuality of disappearance and death is captured in the Baudrillardian precept that "the only thing that can really resist the incursions of the repressive code [of simulation] itself is death itself" (Connor, 1989: 55). The popular Baudrillardian maxim states that: 'It is better to perish by extremes than to perish in extremities'. Nietzsche's (1968: 41) influence on Baudrillard's conception of simulation is palpable: "we have abolished the real world; what world is left? the apparent world perhaps?. . . but no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!" See also Lefebvre's (1991: 99) critique of any philosophical view that "leads necessarily to nihilism. " While acknowledging the important contribution of the ideas of simulation and simulacrum in developing a new episteme for critiquing an increasingly postmodern view of the world where there is the ostensible blurring of boundaries between what constitutes the real and the imaginary, Soja expressed his reluctance to go to Baudrillardian extremes, and would like to believe that he is doing "something better with such concepts as simulation and simulacrum than Baudrillard is doing". See Soja (1993: 494/5); Evans & Mcpherson (1991: 53/4). See also Hall (1986), Best & Kellner (1991), Kellner (1989a & b), Connor (1989), Callinicos (1989), Hutcheon (1988) & Krester (1993) for critiques of Baudrillard's complex project, and Gane (1991a & b) for a lucid defence.

6. This positive view of placelessness or in-betweeness, is currently popular with cultural theorists who advocate a revisionist and productive approach to the positive potential of "creative syncretism" (Ang, 1993: 41/42) through "cultural translation" (Bhabha, 1990: 210) rather than pejorative cultural loss, in their work on diasporic consciousness, cultural differences and hybrid identity.

7. In a newspaper report on the issue of increasing urban density and built-up area along the Singapore River Valley area, Mr. Goh Chong Hia, president of the Singapore Institute of Architecture, contends that the crowded building density of Hong Kong will never be a feature "here" in Singapore. In contrast to Hong Kong, the specular dimension of high density living along River Valley is described as "a living haven": "When you look down from a height, you'll see lots of green, lots of landscaping and space" (The Sunday Times, 7 Nov 1993: 9).

8. Harvey (1985: 153) uses this term - "spatial fix" - in an economic sense that is also applicable to Singapore (esp. with its heavy dependence on foreign investments by Multi-National Corporations), whereby the state operates to "counter the potential asset stripping of a place's economic fixed capital, to try to sustain accumulation there and prevent finance capital being moved elsewhere. " See also Johnston (1994: 115). Additionally, I use the term here to refer to the nation-building project of 'fixing' identity to a particular territorial space (place).

9. Guy Debord's (1983) Situationist critique of the collusion of urbanism with capitalism in the creation of 'the society of the spectacle' has critical perspicacity though it tends to reinforce and reify a totalizing view of hegemonic power and domination.

10. As Walter (1988: 204) puts it: "The link between imagination and place is no trivial matter. The existential question, 'Where do I belong?' is addressed to the imagination". See also Sarup's (1994: 96) discussion of "Roots are in a certain place. Home is [in] a place. . . Places are created, expanded, then images are constructed to represent and sell these places".

11. Lefebvre (1991: 417) reminds us that "[s]pace's investment - the production of space - has nothing incidental about it: It is a matter of life and death". Baudrillard (1983: 44) puts it in a nihilistic way: "when it is threatened today by simulation, power risks the real, risks crisis, it gambles on manufacturing artificial, social, economic, political stakes. This is a question of life or death for it. But it is too late". The matter of life and death here, as Singapore's spatial managers would contend, is a recurring discourse (of crisis) that underpins Singapore's continued survivability as a nation.


New: 9 August, 1997 | Now: 27 April, 2015