News / USA

    On NY Streets, Life's Drama Silently Unfolds

    Inner dialogues captured by a curious anthropologist reveal the theater of life in New York City

     New Yorkers walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
    New Yorkers walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
    A man walks across a bridge. He looks unremarkable, maybe even boring. But he’s thinking of the love of his life, the woman who committed suicide some years ago. He’s silently, urgently thinking the only way for him to move on would be to meet someone who has suffered a loss like his.

    No one would know, but anthropologist Andrew Irving recorded the man’s thoughts in an ethnographic experiment and video project called New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens.

    The video series is a kind of meditation on inner dialogues, the conversations that deafen the “rooms in your head” before falling silent on the city’s streets. 

    “Within that single street, you pretty much have all that life has to present, from the trivial to the tragic. The street is this amazingly complex place, highly theatrical except we can’t see or hear any of it that’s going on,” said Irving, who works with the University of Manchester.

    New York Stories 1: The Lives of Other Citizens: STREETS (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

    The anthropologist became fascinated with inner dialogues in the 1990s, when he was doing his PhD, trying to understand how people’s perceptions of religion, self-image, and spatial relations changed as they approached death.

    New York Stories was a side project he didn’t think would amount to much. Taking his cue from Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos’ 1925 novel about individual, overlapping stories in New York City, Irving hung out in different spots in New York and asked a question of the people approaching him.

    “I’d say, ‘Excuse me, can I ask you a quick question? It might be a strange question, but can I ask what you were thinking before I stopped you?’”

    If the person was receptive, he asked if they would carry a live microphone and speak their stream of thoughts into it, while he followed and filmed them from behind. Wherever the person stopped, he would retrieve the microphone and then ask if he could follow another random stranger heading in the same direction.

    “I asked very little information from people because I wanted them to have a kind of facelessness,” he said, adding that people were often more candid because they could slip away after their confessions.

    New York Stories 2: The Lives of Other Citizens: BRIDGES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

    Capturing true inner dialogues is impossible.  The closest thing to it are the fictional accounts created by authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, since our experience interacting with the world through thought is different than our interaction with it through words.

    “Our bodies have evolved to give attention to the world so that all the sensory organs are on the periphery. So when we’re walking, we’re processing information across 16 or 17 modalities. The most obvious ones are sight, sound. They’re all being processed simultaneously,” Irving said.

    “In the time that you just look out the window, to put what you see into language would be an extraordinary amount of time to be anyway close to the detail of every leaf on the tree, every brick opposite the building,” he said.

    The linear stream of speech is representative of the senses, mixed with memories, moods and emotions, but it can never fully capture what goes on in our heads.

    New York Stories 3: The Lives of Other Citizens: SQUARES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

    Irving is working with Ricardo Climent, a colleague at the University of Manchester, and Climent’s PhD student, Ignacio Pecino, to share more of the inner dialogues with the world. They’ve applied for a grant to develop a smartphone app with GPS technology that would play the inner dialogues as you cross the path that person walked before.

    Some might not like to hear the inner dramas playing out around them, but Irving expects amateur anthropologists will be curious.

    “If you’re an anthropologist, you have to study the human in all its guises, in all its different ways of being,” he said. “So you’re going to be present to all that humans have to offer, which can be the spectrum of the most amazingly sublime, wonderful, generous acts to the most dark, tragic, cruel acts. And that’s the planet we live on. Unfortunately.”

    New York Stories 4: The Lives of Other Citizens: CAFES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

    Andrew Irving has asked that we mention support from the Economic and Social Research Council of Britain and New York's Wenner Gren Foundation made his research possible.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora