Getting ready to leave for a writing workshop I will be directing at the annual meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (yes, that’s a mouthful! It’s called ISPSO for short), I have been gathering together writing prompts and other inspirations to jump start the work of a group of nine women who will join me in this two-day event in Melbourne, Australia, designed to get them fired up about writing and motivated to continue after the workshop ends. But I am also in the middle of preparing to spend time at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley for the rest of the summer, where I will be directing my NEH seminar on the political theory of Hannah Arendt again, but this time under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.
Maybe all roads do lead to Rome, as the saying goes. But in my case, Rome will always be New York City and I found myself mesmerized by the city all over again, but for different reasons, when today, I came across a wonderful essay posted on The New Yorker blog about a video of Manhattan called “Manhattan in Motion” created by Josh Owens.
Owens is a videographer from Rochester, New York, who once worked at the University of Rochester’s Department of Transportation, and now makes his living doing what he obviously loves—shooting time-lapse photography and animating into video.
But it’s more than just my love of the city that connects Owens’ video to my preparations both for the writing workshop and the seminar on Arendt.
As I watched the New York skyline awaken it seemed as if the caress of a rising sun sweeping across the landscape had made the buildings themselves breathe and come alive. And the way the water glistened at the foot of Manhattan made apparent the island’s existence as a natural landscape and not only an urban footprint of human endeavor. No matter how bright the lights are, night descends on the city as the earth turns in space.
The artifice of the city and the earth on which it rests and this planet’s spinning through space are simultaneous perspectives not so much “captured” as evoked in Owens’ poetic montage. Brought together in this film they create in the viewer an awareness of both the extraordinary achievements of what Arendt called homo faber—who “fabricates the sheer unending variety of things...that give the human artifice the stability and solidity without which it could not [reliably] house the unstable and mortal creature” that we humans are—and the utter vulnerability and common fate we humans share with all other living organisms.
Owens says “Anyone who shoots time lapse can most likely tell you what phase the moon is in, what time to the minute the sun rises and sets.” (New Yorker blog) Awareness of connection to the natural environment and its rhythms is possible regardless of whether one is an urban or rural dweller. But it comes harder to consciousness in cityscapes. And yet, ironically, by first slowing things down, fragmenting time and space and then reassembling them, Josh Owens' Manhattan in Motion reminds us city lovers that we are surrounded, in fact, embedded in and dependent on the eternal motion and rhythm of things we haven’t made ourselves.
Slowing things down, focusing first on the fragments also reminds me of the writing process. “You don’t really know what you shot until you’re able to get home and animate all the stills together,” Owen comments about his art. That’s true of writing too. You don’t really know what you have in the sentences or paragraphs or even on pages you compose until you begin to rework them in the editing process, animating all the pieces together into prose or poetry, making fragments whole, capable of conveying meaning that the parts alone couldn’t yield.
Perhaps I’ll show this video on my workshop—and maybe the seminar—and see where the conversation about it might carry us.