[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
It is easy to call Chicago a center, but it takes more effort to recall that all centers have their peripheries, edges, outer zones, and hinterlands—the surroundings that help to define the center as much as any factor or element found within the city. Moreover, Chicago is a center in many senses of the word. Each way of being a center brings with it a different kind of periphery, a particular set of places which constitute a center and periphery relationship, and a different sense of distance, connection, and disconnection.
In addition to the spatial treatment, peripheries inform our perception of place at the micro level of individual experience. What we see, what we know about, what ideas reach us, often depend on what direction we are facing, what we choose to focus on, and what remains or moves to the zones outside of our direct apprehension. The binocular vision that is rooted in our physical selves contains within it the promising paradox known to intrepid star gazers: sometimes faint objects are seen more clearly when using one’s peripheral vision.
The Imperial Metropole
When the relationship between center and periphery has to do with flows of resources and materials, then the relationship resonates with the echoes of a historical model: colonialism.
The relationship between European capitals and their colonies was ostensibly straightforward. The colony existed in order to sustain and enrich the metropole, which by itself could never feed its people or accumulate its immense wealth. From the point of view of the colonizer, the measure of any particular colony was of what kind and how much of a raw material could be caught, mined, cut, or grown. For each empire, the metropole was the very nerve center of a far-flung parasitic system, the place where political power resided, where people came for education and culture, where the fruits of the colonies were consumed. But the one-way flow was a lie from the beginning. Even under unequal relations of power, religion, languages, technology, and lifeways moved in both directions.
Chicago hit its growth spurts in the waning days of the old imperial metropole, as empires shrunk but market logics expanded, creating centers and therefore peripheries throughout the world. Ever since the time of Chicago’s late nineteenth-century ascent, the tension between centers and peripheries in the colonial mold has informed all economic and political relations conducted over distances of every scale, whether that be between downtown and the neighborhoods, between the city and the suburbs, between the metropolis and rural outstate, between Chicago and the multi-state Midwest, or between this part of the developed world and those regions on the global periphery. The interchanges and flows between these places, and all combination of them, collapse distance. The uneven distribution of resources, economic benefit, and cultural reach reinforces and amplifies it. This tension shapes not only our experience of place and political understanding, but our psycho-social constitution as well.
Theorists of media and visual culture love telling us that we are a species living in a visual age, but when it comes to matters of focus and vision, natural selection dealt us our condition. All of our ancient complexities—tool making, modification of habitat, complex communication, reliance on symbols—are greatly facilitated by what animal physiologists call our stereoscopic vision. Our eyes are in the fronts of our heads, not on the sides or top, working in concert to discern, very exactly, that which stands before us. We who possess good, functional eyesight not only gain the benefits of stereoscopic vision, but are locked into the disadvantages as well. We can only focus on one thing at a time, and lacking the wide field of vision belonging to animals with eyes on the sides of their heads, we receive nothing but inexact information outside the narrow aim of our focus. Until we turn our heads or use other senses, we may receive no information at all, even when the source is very close by. We may live in a visual age, but that only means there is all the more visual information to experience as blurry and misunderstood, or simply to exclude from our vision by narrowing our focus.
Outside the Core(s)
Overlaid criteria defining what is center and what is periphery destabilize any given core-periphery schema, no matter how evident. For example, it is easy—and true—to describe the suburbs as the periphery corresponding to Chicago’s place as regional center. But the uneven histories of settlement, development, and investment have produced an irregular mosaic of wealthy, less wealthy, and poor municipalities throughout the multi-county suburban ring. When you factor in political power and reputations of character, crossing the spatial against the socioeconomic, some suburban municipalities (and blocks of them, such as what we call the Calumet Region or the North Shore) occupy positions more or at least differently peripheral than do others. Similarly, bodies of thought, social perspectives, human experiences—these, too, may exist on a periphery, of both real and mental space. Socially marginal, economically disadvantaged, and under-represented groups fight to see and be seen. Cultivating peripheral vision is about attending to the less seen and the less considered.
In AREA #9 let us turn our heads, raise them up, move our bodies, shift positions, use the prostheses of maps, words, drawings, machines and modes of transport, each other’s eyes, each other’s voices. Let us do this to take in the wider context, to see what is happening around and behind us, and over the horizon. To include in the field of not just vision, but the field of consideration itself, that which is too often ignored by intention, misrecognition, conventional notions of distance, and simple neglect. It is not merely about diversifying our investigations, but about understanding that the place that has been AREA’s first place of focus, Chicago, only makes sense as a concentrated bundle of links and flows, connecting and moving people, money, material, and ideas between the city and places far beyond. It is about moving our focus around, changing locations and scales and therefore perspectives, and complicating the positions from which we perceive the city and its surroundings. Places, issues, movements “out there” are just as likely to be in here, even inside us, depending on where you stand and which way you are facing.