This Academic Life
Being-in-KrakowI. How many Krakows are there?

> google: krakow

"Krakow is the city exactly on the intersection of 20 degrees East and 50 degrees North. According to some cartographers it is the geographical centre of Europe. It not difficult to come to Krakow from different parts of the world. The Krakow international airport at Balice, just 15 kilometres from the city centre, has direct flights to many foreign airports, for instance: Paris, London, Zurich, Frankfurt am Main, Vienna, Rome, Tel Aviv, New York, Chicago. The city is an important railway junction with a regular and reliable train network linking Krakow with other cities both national and international. It is also possible to come to Krakow by coach or car. Our city is linked to the main Polish and European roads and thus the access is very easy."

Well, that clears things up. According to the map, only one. Well, that's not strictly true; there is also a Krakow in Wisconsin, but there is apparently only one in Poland. And it has a particular layout:

All of these streets, laid out far in advance of my or anyone else's arrival; all of these remnants of a medieval past, including the green park which lies on the site of the former moat and fortifications surrounding the city; all these houses and shops and cafés just waiting to be seen and experienced by travelers and tourists. Travel guides point us in the right direction, as do tips from people who have been here before: "Oh, in Krakow, you have to make sure to go take a picture with the fire-breathing dragon statue by the big castle?" (but you can't now, because some silly American tourist climbed up to do so and scorched his or her hair, so they turned it off for the time being).

"There's no place like Krakow." Of course not -- there is only one of it.

II. How many Krakows are there?

This morning I went for my second run since arriving here. Alarm goes off at 7am (I slept in -- I want to try to be out the door by 6:30am on running days, but I was tired last night). Limp -- my right arch is a little sore after walking around in bad shoes too much a couple of days ago -- into the kitchen and make coffee on the stove (no pilot light, so a match has to be struck). Change into running gear; lace up shoes tightly for support. Drink coffee; feel brain begin to function. Create on-the-go playlist on iPod: Counting Crows "Accidently in Love"; Blackalicious "Release parts 1, 2, 3"; Transatlantic "Suite Charlotte Pike live medley including large swaths of Abbey Road"; Train "Drops of Jupiter" as a cool-down song. Walk up Biskupia, left onto Krowoderska, left again onto Szlak. Start to jog. Right on ?obzowska, cross into the Planty, turn right and make a large circle around the Rynek. Not too many people out this morning. Some workers already dealing with construction jobs or picking up trash, a few people walking their dogs. (One other jogger, too -- looked American.)

The workers obviously see a different Krakow than I do; what looks to me like an obstacle in the road looks to them like something to be picked up and replaced, or perhaps it is the necessary consequence of a repair job involving electricity or plumbing or whatever it is that they are working on. The dog-walkers obviously see a different Krakow than I do: grass is a place for the dog to relieve itself, trees and posts are message-drops from other dogs, so stopping is a frequent occurrence; vigilance means preventing the dogs from getting into fights. Indeed, any Krakow resident sees a different krakow than I do: the Barbakan looks to me like something exotic and ancient and evocative, but I suspect that it is just another building one you live here for a while.

And it's not even as if I have a single view or experience either. Yesterday on our walking tour of much of the center of the city I was in part focused on the pain in my right foot, and experienced certain pathways as simply long and problematic. This morning those pathways -- were they the "same"? How? -- served as conduits for my exercise, taking me past fascinating places and providing a character to the run that had a distinctive feel. Certainly not like jogging around my neighborhood at home. But as I jogged I also wondered how my kids would be if they were here; the Planty is a great place to walk and run and ride a bicycle, but it lacks playground equipment and large open spaces for tag and chase and the other games that my kids play together. So wearing my parent hat, even while running, the experience changed; Krakow-as-a-parent is not the same as Krakow-as-a-jogger, or Krakow-as-an-academic.

Maybe there are as many Krakows as there are persons and roles from which to experience it.

III. How many Krakows are there?

The form of the statement "there are as many Krakows as there are points of view from which to experience it" might lead one to conclude that there are both one and many Krakows: one "real" Krakow, which underlies and limits all of the diverse experiences that one can have of the place. Then we can debate precisely what the character of this one Krakow is that it can give rise to these multiple interpretations and experiences, how "thick" a baseline it provides, how severe a constraint it produces. So we have essence-of-Krakow (singular, even if vague) and experiences-of-Krakow (plural, depending on how each individual subject or agent comes to the place and what they choose to see, with those choices arising from a combination of their own personal histories and the essence-of-Krakow that pre-exists their experiences of the place). Hence, one can be a "tourist" and carry around a little bubble of your home country as you go; this is becoming easier for Americans to do in Krakow since there are McDonald's restaurants and relatively familiar-looking stores and cafés. Plus almost everyone speaks a little English, at least enough to take your order and give you your change. But one can also be a "traveler," trying to deviate from the beaten path of must-see sites and Kodak-approved photographs: take the side streets, get to know local people, soak things up in a more nuanced way. And because there is an essence-of-Krakow out there to be experienced, one can in some sense be "correct" in one's experience of Krakow and let that experience conform to the essential city, or one can be relatively oblivious and stay in one's own comfort zone.

I am not convinced by this argument. Not because I reject the distinction between a tourist and a traveler, but because I don't think that we need a concept like "essence-of-Krakow" in order to get at the plurality of experiences that people have. Tourist-Krakow is different from traveler-Krakow is different from resident-Krakow not because these are three ways of seeing the same thing, but because they are three ways of being-in-the-world (as Martin Heidegger might have put it). Being a jogger opens the world to me in a particular way, as does being an academic or being a parent. But it is also more subtle than that; "the world of the happy man is different from the world of the unhappy man," Wittgenstein reminds us (Tractatus §6.43). This is the case even if all the facts remain exactly the same: I am in Poland, the Planty runs around the center of the city, the Rynek has cobblestone paving, etc. Heidegger likewise points out that "moods" are not just subjective impressions, but more fundamental and existential modifications of how the world presents itself to us. So "the Rynek has cobblestone paving" means nothing in particular and has no determinate implications for my world.

Actually, "the Rynek has cobblestone paving" is only a fact from a certain perspective -- that perspective which contains concepts like "cobblestone paving" and "Rynek" and the like, and also one which regards tangible, empirical, physical observations to be factual. There is a whole metaphysics concealed in the simple statement "the Rynek has cobblestone paving," as well as a value-judgment about which way of cutting into the world is "factual" or fundamental and which is superfluous, secondary, "subjective." Since there is an unavoidable theoretical mediation at play here, it is far from obvious that we should privilege this perspective over others. Doing so is just as much a judgment as the privileging of any other perspective, or the privileging of none. Hence, the essence/experience distinction -- "the Rynek has cobblestone paving" vs. the meaning of that cobblestone paving and the Rynek itself -- is shown to be itself a value-laden position, rather than something transcendentally presupposed and therefore "true" in some grandiose and objective sense.

So: how many Krakows are there? In the end, this is an empirical question. There can be one Krakow only if efforts are made to harmonize and restrict people's experiential narratives of Krakow. Theoretically, there are an infinite number of Krakows, and maybe in some sense they all virtually exist simultaneously. In practice, not all of those possible Krakows are actualized, and only concrete research can ascertain which are and which are not. My Krakow -- and your Krakow -- emerges someplace between all of our experiences and narrations and memories; by coming here I am complicit in the building of a Krakow in a specific way (I could have engaged in such a process from my house, and actually did so by reading travel guides and talking to people about it before I came). But there is nothing privileged about my being here that makes my Krakow any closer to the "real" Krakow -- not because there is no such thing (which, to paraphrase Nietzsche, would be a silly statement just as dogmatic as its opposite), but because the "real" Krakow is emergent from experience, not a non-social (or, better, non-discursive) baseline for those experiences.

I suspect that I will be complicit in the building of more Krakows as the month goes on.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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