chapter  1
47 Pages

Legible Cities: Urban Signs and Subjects

While architecture has always been in part a semiotic art, the twentieth century saw an unprecedented convergence of signs and architecture. Since the early 1920s, the architectural spaces of American and European cities have been awash in texts and images-advertising, street signs, newspaper headlines, political posters, and graffi ti. These signs have arguably become the dominant constituents of urban space, fi lling our perceptual fi elds, obscuring the streets and buildings that once defi ned the city. The emergence of this textualized city of signs marks a historical shift from the previous formation, which might be called the city of things. Although this opposition is to some degree qualifi ed, the transformation itself is crucial for the emergence of the postmodern city and postmodern subjectivity, and their reciprocal relationships. It is, accordingly, fi tting to devote the fi rst chapter of this study to tracing this history in three novels: from the city of things in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1901), through the early emergence of the city of signs in John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925), to the early twenty-fi rst-century culmination of the city of signs in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003).1 My analysis of these works is supplemented by brief discussions of several other modernist novels, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which allow me to support and amplify my argument, especially as it concerns the gendering of desire, a signifi cant aspect of my argument throughout this chapter. Section 4 shifts to a broader cultural exploration of the themes developed in the preceding sections by considering various works of postmodern architecture, art, fi lm, and television, which refl ect, and in some cases have actually played a part in, the constitution of the postmodern city as the city of signs.