Media @ McGill

Urban algorhythms: The city as a medium and rhythmanalysis in Hamilton, Ontario

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Dana Whitney Sherwood


This thesis presents a dual inquiry into the notions of urban failure and the postindustrial city through a case study of Hamilton, Ontario.  The postindustrial city is often a taken for granted category, diagnosed as a particular type of urban failure and prescribed a narrow range of remedies.  This project reevaluates the postindustrial city to question both what this type of urban failure means, and how the impulse to overcome it can be problematic.  A fresh approach borrowed from media studies, specifically, Friedrich Kittler’s “The City is a Medium,” is combined with the work of Henri Lefebvre to explore these issues.  Kittler’s theory of the city as a medium unearths particular logics at work in the building, destroying, and rebuilding of the urban environment while Lefebvre’s work, on both the production of space and rhythmanalysis, facilitates more nuanced contextual discussions, as well as the potential for meaningful resistance to destructive trends encouraged through and reflected in Kittler’s media thinking as applied to the urban.  This project, then trances a deep history of the Hamilton from its rise into a major industrial centre, the ‘Birmingham of Canada,’ to its decades of prosperity as the ‘Steel City,’ and crucially, through its period of decline against shifting perceptions of the urban (post)industrial, and finally, its emergent renaissance amidst a rebranding as an arts and cultural city.

Chapter One consists of a detailed theory and methodology section that guides the rest of the thesis.  It first addresses the postindustrial—as a social, economic, and urban concept— setting up the relationship between postindustrial and information society.  It then introduces the thought of Kittler, through his essay “The City is a Medium,” to establish a much older notion of the information city through the city as a material medium. This theory of the city as a medium is the foundation for the case study, which develops the urban built environment of Hamilton as hardware and its layout as formatting.  Kittler’s work establishes a way of viewing urban failure through the obsolescence of these urban technologies.  Lefebvre’s thought is then introduced through metaphors on software, with both a concealing and revealing function vis-à-vis the material hardware and formatting.  Finally, his rhythmanalytical method, which situates the city as a medium within specific spatio-temporal processes, contexts, and networks, and offers an embodied humanistic resistance to the anti-humanist technological determinism imbued in Kittler’s theory of the city as medium is developed.

Chapter Two undertakes the first part of the case study on Hamilton as a medium, covering the period 1848 to 1945.  It uses Kittler’s framework and vocabulary to develop Hamilton’s early built environment as hardware and also addresses the effects of Hamilton’s unique geography on the formatting of the city.  Drawing on archival documents, this chapter describes the logic of the functioning of early Hamilton during its period of wealth and success, as well as its position in larger networks of urban growth and technological change.  In this era, Hamilton is an early innovator and adopter of elements of Mumford’s ‘invisible city’ as precursor to information society, going by nicknames such as ‘the electric city’ and ‘the telephone city.’  This is an era of acceleration; Hamilton can be described as on or ahead of pace in relation to larger international trends in urban technology and growth.

Chapter Three covers the failure phase of Hamilton’s history, roughly 1945-2000, when the city’s failures manifest as falling out of synch. It is characterized by obsolesced urban hardware and outdated formatting.  These concepts are developed alongside the rhythms of larger North American trends of urban renewal, economic deindustrialization, and the beginning of widespread acceptance of a postindustrial era.  This chapter explores Hamilton through the largest urban renewal project in Canada: the demolition of 42 acres of the Victorian downtown to be rebuilt/reformatted according to modern standards.  These urban renewal projects ultimately compound the city’s supposed failures as, through a series of delays, they give rise to new, yet instantly outmoded hardware.  The chapter also addresses a concurrent secondary circuit of failure running through the city’s continued pursuit of industrial growth in an era where different forms of urban growth and prosperity have gained favor.  The once proud Steel City becomes colloquially known as the ‘armpit of Ontario.’

Chapter Four addresses the beginning of Hamilton’s hopeful renaissance, starting in the early 2000s and continuing to the present day.  The city as medium’s obsolescence begins to give way to reversal, as previously outmoded hardware and antiquated formatting reveal their latent economic value.  This chapter explores how the formerly problematic industrial image and hardware of the city are restocked with new potential as the city officially attempts to rebrand as an arts and culture hub catering to the Creative Class.  This chapter critically assesses the extent to which such an urban rescue plan is a repeat of the logic of the city as a medium that resulted in past failures.  It then supplements the city as medium approach with elements of Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis as a way to embrace failure beyond its latent economic or cultural capital value to encourage thinking on building and living in the city in novel ways.