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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More