Like every other communist visiting Mexico City for the first time, I set out from my hostel to visit the homes of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, who had lived in the same neighborhood. I walked down to the Metro Zócalo and, as commuters streamed around me, peered at the large-format map, apprehensive because Mexico City is vast, I did not at the time speak or read any Spanish, and it appeared I would need to change trains and then change trains again in a language I had neglected to learn if I was to reach Coyoacán. This will never work, I thought, already exhausted by my own failure. I was there in 12 minutes.
There is much to say about the houses of Frida and Leon—who apparently had an affair though I am not sure that is the right word as I believe that Frida and Diego Rivera were, you know, open-minded, and possibly Leon and Natalia Sedova as well, and that seems like one of the good things about being a revolutionary—but I will perhaps save that for another occasion. The main thing I recall from that day is the effectiveness of the metro system and the elegance of the map, more complex than Boston, more ambitious than the Bay Area, and more apprehensible than New York City, the three systems on which and in which I grew up.
A subway map is first of all a matter of utility, designed along with the system it represents to make the city manageable, the city which once seemed alien and hostile to organic life, the city which must have seemed during the advent of metro systems in the 19th and early 20th centuries as daunting and incomprehensible to most everybody as Mexico City did to me. The problem with early subway maps was, oddly, that they were too accurate, tracking each bend and swoop imposed by obstacle and engineering, making it difficult to understand the relationship between various parts. That is, they were more interested in the representational accuracy of any given point than in understanding the whole thing as a unified system.
About a third of the way through the 20th century the subway map went through its Copernican shift “from map to diagram” as they say. Designers broadly adopted the rule that all lines would be straight, turns would be in 45° increments with a little smoothing of sharp corners, and this is still more or less where we are today. This advance in clarity allowed for much smaller maps, the kind you could carry in your pocket, even in your wallet. It also had the dramatic effect of detaching the map from the terrestrial surface, sacrificing for the most part the idea that the map itself would orient a traveler once they left the station. It proved easy enough to post neighborhood maps in each station for those emerging. Henceforth the city and the metro would be independent systems.
The idea that the city is inorganic or unnatural has its basis in the attachment of agrarian life to the seasons, to “nature,” while the city—or at least, the domination of the city over the countryside—is an artifact of the shift to industry, to great machines gathered in the great forcing houses of labor. Still, it always struck me as wrong. Humans did the great cities, and the less great ones, and humans are organic af. In some sense cities are the achieved form for organizing the social existence of the human organism. At the same time, the experience of alienation, of having no attachment to what you make or to what makes you, is pretty much what we mean when we say the city is cold. And sometimes the city is cold.
But it’s also complicated and that is a different matter, even if it sometimes seems to be the same. A great city, with its innumerable relations, is hard to wrap your head around. Baudelaire thought that the prose poem was the best way to capture this impossibly vast condition, but maybe it is the subway map which, unlike the map of the city above, means to capture it as a system: to show the relation between here and there and not just that but show it in such a way that one can understand that if something goes wrong at this station here, it will have effects on these lines but not those, or more here than there, that each of the points is in a relation with all of the others, that there can be local and structural effects, and so on.
A subway map is, I’ll say again, a simplification of a simplification. But that seems OK, my mind is grotesquely limited in its capacities. I cannot hold Mexico City in my head, or New York, or even Oakland, cannot hold the causal webs that reshape each city much less the relations among the cities themselves, their relation to the suburbs and the exurbs and the rural redoubts. . . .
Moreover, I am not entirely sure cities are really the system in question. If they rose to dominance with the rise of industry and large-scale manufacture, they declined with same. That is to say, if cities could once stand in for “the economy,” could once provide a kind of map of the world that the economy needed, they have begun to lose that power. The whirring pathways of finance, as we learned clearly enough a decade ago if not before, are far more complexified, mysterious, intentionally opaque. But this system too, the global financial system within which cities are concentrations of power but still no more than nodes, stations in a relay, is also organic, in the same sense that it was brought into being by human activity. Not just any human activity, or human activity “as such,” as the philosophers say: like the industrial world from which it springs, it was brought into being by the bloody imposition of a certain set of property relations and fatal hierarchies that we cheerfully call capitalism, which has in its own organic character a tendency to move away from making useful things toward making profit in the most useless ways imaginable.
In short, the complexification of the world has two fundamental characteristics. One, as Fredric Jameson famously noted, it has developed far beyond the capacities of our intellects to grasp it as a coherent whole, a system. Two, this development is inescapably entangled with the misery it produces at both global and local levels. It’s not the complexity that does the immiserating; that’s a confusion of correlation and cause. But one is inseparable from the other, as they share a source. The proletariat cannot simply lay hold of the complexity and wield it for its own purposes.
In a situation so complicated and so terrible, it is understandable that we would go down to the underworld in search of some explanation. Epics have done it since Homer, and by the time of Alice Notley’s brilliant feminist reimagining The Descent of Alette, it was clear that the underworld was the subway. There’s a joke in that: the subway is hell, especially the C train. But there are other reasons to consult the subway for understanding, and to consult their maps, not just the one for where you are but any subway map, all the maps. Part of it is the simple pleasure of imagining other places, the elegance of the St. Petersburg map with its subtle curves flaunting the 45° rule, the world-making intensity of Tokyo, and so on.
But I think as well that the subway map is a visualization of the sensation one necessarily has in a subway station if one is not too blotto from work or other miseries, the sensation one has peering across at the opposite platform at the people in that mirror world, peering down the tunnel for the light of a train and seeing instead the dim glow of the next station, seeing in this the truth that you are connected to every other station, every person, subject to the same forces personal and impersonal, that what happens to them happens as good to you, seeing above all that we are denizens of a system that can never be seen in whole but can nonetheless be conceptualized, modeled, can be understood as having a unity, as having effects that are caused not by someone on your platform or someone on another platform or even by someone in a control room somewhere but by the structure in all its terrible unity, by the way it has been developed, and that if we want to transform it on the grounds that there is too much misery, an obvious fact, then we will have to grasp the system as system and unmake it entirely, no cosmetic fixes, no making our platform more equitable at the expense of others, and anyone who thinks the system should be preserved, well, they’re in our way.