The 24/7 city, creativity and the lockout laws

17 March 2016

The city is the perfect place for clubbers to share a coffee with early-rising suits. They should have an equal right to see the sunrise, writes Sydney College of the Arts' Dr Oliver Watts.

Sydney at night. Photo: Susie B.

A city, especially in the global age, is active, night and day. Some cities particularly – New York or Hong Kong or Tokyo – are commonly presented at night. They are magic lands lit with public television screens, flashing neon and LED text.

Blade Runner uses this night-time city as a picture of the future; its buildings become nodes of constant flows of information and electricity. Unlike the pre-modern village, which structured its days on the sun, the perfected modern metropolis is a 24-hour city, which “never sleeps”.

When the West wanted to demonstrate the backwardness of North Korea, the Western media proliferated a satellite image of a blackness – the size of a country – just above a shimmering South Korea.

This vision from space was also used in Star Wars to introduce, in The Phantom Menace (Episode 1), the city planet Coruscant. It is New York scaled up, not just the administrative and cultural centre of a world but of the universe. The planet’s name, from the Latin, means glittering.

Coruscant is vital, powerful and beautiful (in some shots it looks like Brasilia meets Renaissance Venice). But it is also artificial and sickly: civilisation covers the whole planet, nature is a pot plant and the smog covered ground level has been uninhabitable for 1,000 years. Life is above ground in skyscrapers, recalling the class divide of another early vision of the future, contained in the film Metropolis.

This paradox of the city has haunted culture since its invention in the mid-19th century. As soon as the city came into being, middle class urbanites started putting pictures of praying peasants on their walls and hiring wholesome milkmaids as wet-nurses. There was something worryingly immoral and dirty about cities.

The first City of Light was of course Paris; it is the model that everyone followed. The nickname was earned because it was almost uniquely, at that time, lit up. Streetlights first appeared under Louis XIV but the planning vision was completed under Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. The design facilitated a complex life after dark. But it also allowed for better surveillance and scrutiny — all the better to see into the dark corners of lurking revolutionaries and criminals.

In their effort to picture modernity, Impressionists painted all the new daytime activities of Paris: from walking the freshly laid promenades to peering through the industrialised glass panes of shops. But they also began to paint the nightlife: the absinthe drinker; the lady of the night; the theatre; the bar girl; the singer. The Impressionists were just as interested in the magical ambience of gaslight and the limelight as the effects of sunlight on a haystack.

When Sydney was preparing to debut itself to the world in the 1879 World Fair, it looked to Paris. Its Second Empire Style Town Hall, based on French models, not English ones, stood for the future, the new.

It is not a coincidence that Gustave Eiffel not only designed a tower but also the logo for Noilly Prat Vermouth (which is still used today). Both are in their own way symbols of the city and of modern progress. Industrialisation and its certainties allowed for the tower to stand up and for the barman to be assured that every martini he mixed would be the same, and good.

A big city, as the centre of states, has traditionally accommodated all comers, almost as a defining feature. That is why, even on the extremes, we need planning laws that stipulate where our (legal) brothels go, where the erotic book shop is sited (right next to Abbey’s in Sydney), and where the bar precinct is.

The modern utopian dream of the model city wants to stay open, totally. In this place there are no curfews; transport runs all night; bankers working foreign stock exchanges go to dinner after trading; comedy writers drink litres of coffee and order takeout; and live music plays through the evening.

In 2001, Tony Blair ran for PM on a platform of keeping London open. New Labour sent an email to primarily prospective young voters that said “couldn’t give a ‘four x’ for last orders? Vote Labour on Thursday for extra time.” The new laws came into effect in 2005.

Last year, a report from the free market leaning Institute of Economics lauded the success of the laws. Its author, Chris Snowdon, noted, “The hysteria about so-called 24-hour drinking ranks as one of the great moral panics of our time, but the evidence is now clear: the doom-mongers were wrong … The biggest consequence of relaxing licensing laws has been that the public are now better able to enjoy a drink at the time and location of their choice.”

The report goes on to say that the diversity of offerings has gone up, including small bars and clubs. Statistically, too, assaults and other binge drinking related crime have gone down in London. This may not be a direct cause of the legislation, but at least indicated that the 24-hour city had not “made matters worse”.

Back in Sydney, we have a terrible case of little town blues. We are seeing a perfect case study for illustrating Michel Foucault’s political theory of “micropower”. Instead of merely laws, Foucault suggests that we are primarily controlled in modern society by smaller more socially embedded modes of control. These include our education systems, science and health experts and even the buildings we live and work in.

The Ian Callinan review will no doubt bring together a phalanx of experts (emergency doctors, drug experts, criminologists and police) arguing for the lockout laws on the grounds that they save lives.

The experts' information is presented to us as neutral, when it cannot help but have some subjectivity and ideology (even a disciplinary bias for example) underpinning it. What we are seeing in the lockout laws is primarily a neoliberal point of view: we are kept safe to be better workers, gentrification leads to rising property prices and as Richard Cooke in The Monthly has highlighted, baby boomers (i.e. those in power) are not really concerned anymore with the issues of the young.

I do not believe the instrumentalist claims of those tweeting at #CasinoMike. who argue the laws are part of a conspiracy to boost casino business. The lockout laws are not born from Machiavellian complexity; they are a result of merely thoughtless, harried governance.

These laws represent what Foucault would see as a form of control through care; the care seems well-meaning but obviously delimits freedom. By reducing the debate to the overly simplistic terms of drinking versus safety, the discussion fails to take into account the whole social infrastructure at stake. The concern for our safety does not even meet the sober professionalism of the nanny (state). Instead we have the thin-lipped nervousness of the helicopter parent.

So intent on securing us from risk, the laws infantilises us all and stifles our activity. The argument that we are a binge-drinking culture that cannot be trusted actually ossifies the situation and never allows for the growth into a mature culture. There is a limit to risk management.

The blinkered debate also closes down alternative methods and solutions (like the London 24-hour model or better transport options). In a recent ABC fact check this problem was exemplified. The check seemed to work hard to find cities that proved Sydney’s laws had precedent (Glasgow, Whangarei, “a city of around 50,000 people” in New Zealand). What about “world cities” such as Paris or London or Hong Kong?

Gilles Deleuze coined the term “society of control,” which moves Foucault’s analysis away from the policing of our health and safety towards the policing of exits and entrances, through ID and other screening, which he sees as the general new approach to law and order.

The lockout is the perfect example of this new order. It treats people as guilty before they can prove that they should be let in. The whole citizenry is being treated as a class of potential hooligan. That may be efficient policing but it is not good policing.

The modern city wants to accommodate a broad spectrum of life, from work to carnivalesque excesses. Bars, clubs and other places of mischief have an enormously important role in our societies and not just for the young.

They are the places of play, of celebration, of dance and imagination. The birth of the city saw a huge explosion of cultural and artistic pursuits (for all the new theatres, bars, galleries and halls) all driven by the energy and appetites of the residents. The city itself became not only a venue but a muse.

So to the strains of the clarinet in the opening of Rhapsody in Blue, day begins in the big smoke. The city is the perfect place for clubbers to share a coffee with early rising suits. They should have an equal right to see the sunrise.

Dr Oliver Watts, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney
Republished courtesy of The Conversation