15 March 2015

Wilderness Urbanity--The Island and the City / Jennifer Swoboda

Fig. 1 Official promotional material from ABC

After LOST celebrated its 10-year anniversary in September 2014, it would seem that, judging from the many ways the show has already been approached, there is nothing more to be found in LOST (Sims). But if we want to take the skyscrapers in LOST’s promotional material above seriously, it is necessary to re-approach the groundbreaking series through the perspective of Urban Studies, a multidiscipline that focuses on the increasing significance of the modern city and its cultural effects (Paddison 3). Despite the city’s absence for the castaways of LOST, the city and its structures are nevertheless always present. Juxtaposing the island and the city, however, I want to argue that the two become interchangeable concepts inasmuch as the wild and the urban merge into what I want to call wilderness urbanity.
         The series has often been called a modern-day Robinsonade about a group of plane crash survivors (see Defoe). Stranded on an uninhabited tropical island, the survivors have to cope with the traumatic event of the crash and have to deal with a sudden new life cut off from society as well. In order to pursue their common goal – survival and rescue – the castaways decide to form a community. Providing for food and defending their camp against potential threats coming from the menacing jungle and the island’s other inhabitants, they organize themselves in a Lord of the Flies-like manner to master the situation (see Golding). The rules to which they comply as a group and the rules which they apply to the island in order to demystify it arise from their knowledge of civilization. Immediately after the plane crash the survivors realize that city life is lost to them; and just as immediately, the city becomes present in their minds, acting as the most important reference point for their efforts to rebuild civilization on the micro-scale of the island. As an echo of this immediate absence presence of the city, the castaways discover physical manifestations of urban culture in several abandoned bunkers (note 1). They even find a small residential estate, called the barracks, which was erected by those who came to the island before them (note 2).
Fig. 2 Map drawn by the character of Danielle Rousseau (S01/E09)
        If we as viewers are trying to make sense of the island in LOST, it makes sense to take a look at the city first. According to French theorists, such as Henri Lefebvre or Michel Foucault, the modern city can be defined as a highly regulated space, notably controlled by supervision. While Lefebvre observed a “need to control and administer the city along the lines of an ordered hierarchy since the beginning of industrialization (Butler 118); Foucault adopted Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon (see note 3), which also can easily be adapted to the urban metropolis. In the field of Urban Studies the city is conceptualized as a “bounded space that is densely settled and has a relatively large, culturally heterogeneous population” (Gottdiener 4). With its natural borders, we might think of the island of Manhattan as the paramount example of a bounded space. We are, however, talking about a limited space in which different kinds of people agglomerate and are regulated from above. In line with these considerations, Heise confirms that “urban space has been read from the top down by sociologists and planners,” a practice enabled and promoted by the city’s vertical architecture (Heise 6). The city’s dense and complex construction, based on the distinct groups it comprises, fosters experiences of social isolation and the critic and writer Thomas Heise has developed the concept of the “urban underworld” for this spatially bound phenomenon. The underworld is an isolated part of the urban city; a place where sin and crime shake hands, the “source of pervasive unease” (Heise 7).

Applying these theories to LOST, the remote island paradoxically serves as a perfect metaphor for the bounded urban space and its underworld. First, it is highly regulated because of research facilities deliberately scattered across the island. Among these, the Pearl station, for example, served the purpose of monitoring the other stations, or to be more precise, the people’s behavior was monitored as a psychological experiment. Second, by mapping the labyrinth-like wilderness of the jungle and taking possession of the land, the unknown space is redesigned as a bounded space. The island is successively occupied, segmented, and thus controlled through cartographic procedures. Third, by building research facilities and at the same time mapping the island, power is distributed unevenly among the inhabitants and the plane crash survivors.

Fig. 3 Aerial shot of Manhattan
         Therefore, varying degrees of access to technology and knowledge about the island quickly set up a hierarchical order. Fourth, as a consequence of the bounded space, the distinct groups of people, consisting of diverse individuals, agglomerate and collide. The density within the natural borders of the island further constructs it as space which is embattled by disparate communities. Fifth, separated from civilization as it is usually known, the castaways in LOST slowly, but surely become social outcasts that come to resemble the inhabitants of the urban underworld. The series’ protagonists, much like subjects of the urban underworld, are deviant characters (Heise 8). For instance, some of them have lost their fathers (Jack, Kate, Sawyer), are criminals (Kate and Sawyer), have been to a mental hospital (Hugo and Libby), or were diagnosed ill beyond recovery (Rose has cancer and Locke is in a wheelchair). All of these aspects can be regarded as deviating from the standard, which is why such an underworld status provides room for vigilantism and even savagery (Soja). 
           To conclude, LOST struck me with its insinuation that the simple presence of a few abandoned urbanites can turn an island into an urban space. Building upon their cultural knowledge, the stranded urban travelers reshape the supposedly vacant land and turn it into an exemplary urban space. Trumping the usual expectations, the city and the island are not conceptual opposites; instead they are thriving upon their mutual interconnectedness. The island in LOST, we might say, is the alter-ego of the city, an abiding shadow or imitation of American urbanity and its most stellar model, Manhattan.

1  The entrance to the first bunker station is discovered in "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues" (Season 1, Episode 11) and in “Lockdown” (Season 2, Episode 17) a secret map of different interconnected stations on the island is revealed.

2  The first episode of season three, “A Tale of Two Cities,” introduces the back story of the so-called ‘Others’ on the island and shows where they live.

3  The metaphor of the panopticon is described as an “enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, […] in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure” (Foucault 197).

List of Figures:
Fig. 1. LOST Logo. Digital image. Geeks of Doom. Dussault, Jason. 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. 
Fig. 2. Rousseau's Map. Digital image. Lostpedia - Rousseau's Map and Notes. Wikia, Inc. 7 Mar. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. 

Fig. 3. NYC Aerial. Digital image. Brad's Two CentsBrad Darling. 11 May 2014. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. 

Works Cited:
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Butler, Chris. Henri Lefebvre: Spatial Politics, Everyday Life and the Right to the City. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. 1954. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1996. Print.
Gottdiener, Mark, and Leslie Budd. Key Concepts in Urban Studies. London: Sage, 2005. Print.
Heise, Thomas. Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2011. Print.
Paddison, Ronan. "Studying Cities." Handbook of Urban Studies. Ed. Ronan Paddison. London: Sage, 2001.
Sims, David. "It Was All A Dream: Remembering the Best ‘Lost’ Theories Ten Years Later." The Wire. 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
Soja, Edward. Six Discourses on the Postmetropolis.” The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Web. 30 May 2014.

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