“Strategic bombardments are indispensable to the analysis of the urban phenomenon…”
The following excerpt from Paul Virilio’s L’insécurité du territoire was published almost exactly one century after Nietzsche’s Human all too Human. Nietzsche’s work promoted a departure from the heavy methodological systematisation of his day, and saw him fully embrace the aphoristic form of philosophical inquiry. In aphorism 22 he describes an almost suffocating vision in which the scale of human life has become increasingly limited to a non-transcendental universe:
“One crucial disadvantage about the end of metaphysical views is that the individual looks his own short life span too squarely in the eye and feels no strong incentive to build on enduring institutions, designed for the ages.”
100 years later, after the chasmic ravaging of the European landscape of the 20th Century, it seems that Paul Virilio had exactly this crippling sense of human limitation in mind, this same inability to conceive enduring institutions designed for the ages. War, and its effects upon human cohabitation accelerate this post-metaphysical limitation to stellar degrees of ubiquity.
It seemed a shame to leave it untranslated, so here you go:
Urban, all too urban
I remember that balcony in Nantes, on the rue St-Jacques, a factory chimney emerged from behind the façade of the building across the road. Aligned with its smoke, I navigated like a captain at the helm… Those days, everything came or went from horizon to horizon: the refugees from the north who passed through the Loire towards the freezone (exodus), an armed column of invaders popping up one afternoon, after the retreat of the English at Saint-Nazaire. Those long lines of vehicles, abandoned upon the streets, empty.
That ominous plane, shot down, which a long succession of onlookers came to contemplate, as if coming from another world. Another epoch was commencing, that of the sky put to use, put into practice, into conquest… All those people looking into the air, abandoning their labours as soon as the noise of an aircraft, high and far-off, made itself heard: another world.
The aerial spectacle, the cat-and-mouse chase of the fighter planes, the screeching Stuka’s vertical dive meant to terrify the ground, just as one wears hideous markings in primitive warfare, the primitive sky of the second war. The mysterious night alarms when nothing came to pass except for the black-out and the furtive sneaking towards the walkways and shelters of the town’s inhabitants. The joy of the unfamiliar… everything moved, was exchanged, bartered: uniforms, goods, things, languages, come and go, hello, goodbye, from here to there, from one to the other, mobilised.
I remember, upon that balcony, not far from the bridges of the river Loire, an acquaintance calling me from the opposite footpath, and myself replying to him, all the while imagining that which was his vision at that moment… games of the mind and of space, of the dimensions low to high, from here to there, transparence and ubiquity, movement, the future and the future-now [l'advenir et l'advenir présent dès maintenant]. The conflict of a war, effectively global between sky and earth, ruptured and overcome for the first time.
Transparency was embodied in those goings and comings, those bursts, those artificial clouds, that immense dark smoke, immobile, suspended above the town after the bombardment. That crimson tissue turning slowly in descent, the raining thousands of silver shells that we pursued like gifts from somewhere else. The pamphlets, news from the other world.
We did not properly foresee the advent of the above, the saturation of space to the detriment of the below, perennially fascinated as we are by the inside and outside.
Our daily life, horizontal and bi-dimensional. The length, the perspective according to the horizon, the flattening, henceforth perceptible, which was to upturn all, flip the head over heels, ideas, customs, means and men.
The destroyed cities were not made so by accident, by cruelty; besides the strategic considerations of the aerial offensive, equally implicit is the fact that these cities had forever punctuated the conquest of the earth.
From the tiniest town to the hugest capital, these cities were to be the ports of a new coastline: the vertical. The point of descent in the spatial range, infinity began at rooftop-level [au ras des toits].
This enormous overturning of the world did not sufficiently warn us, we’ve been caught up in it ever since, unknowingly, we live leaning limply against the earth, we’re askew, we stumble unceasingly, unknowingly. The plane that flies overhead slices through our route. We stagger like the bent hominoid, primates, our objects and constructions are already unusable, uninhabitable: the depth of the sky gives us vertigo, but we don’t even know what it means when we sense the dread and attraction of distances, the agoraphobia responsible for the conquests of Empire and the claustrophobia that serves to this day to repress our enemies, to sequester our friends. Vertigo and freedom are not synonymous. The ceilings preserve us… yet no one has considered that they limit us better than walls. When we move in the street or in the field, our step is comparable to natation. We contemplate the background, recumbent, we escape into slumber where our dreams repeat the geometry of the day before, and when briskly we fall, we find ourselves standing, awake, facing the horizon.
The hominoid, upon its four members, never contemplated its feet, it looked straight ahead; straightening itself up, only its body moved in manual effort. One must still straighten the head, cease the narcissistic consideration of one’s hands and their works, in order to see the deep expanse of space without horizon, with the time as the final landmark. The stretched expanse above our heads, our roofs, is already a field of action, a barely known field but one which we must learn to put into practice if we want to begin all over again…
The horizon of regional or national appropriation hides that of range and duration. The horizon’s line is the first frontier of mankind, the worst (la pire). The blue line of the Vosges is the line of fire (la ligne de mire). “My future is the country that lays before me”, wrote Apollinaire in the poems of the first war.
The articulation of our relationships is based upon this flattening, upon this crushing weight of the sky that constrains us to horizontal escape; all of our past conflicts originate in the flat, worldly, land. The nazi Lebensraum was nothing but the last avatar of this geographic archaism. Hitler himself recognized it as such, where he avowed, just before the end of the war: “Why did I never dare to believe in the conquest of space…? If we had already had our rockets in 1939, the war would never even have been…” In effect, war would have been useless.
We have seen what follows, the passage to sidereal imperialism between the Soviets and the Americans, reconciled by technological adventure. But what has changed, perceptibly? Nothing, or almost nothing for the commoner… almost everything for the dominator. Formerly, the height of the turret indicated the range of the lordly estate, currently the altitude of the orbital watchtowers signals the range of planetary imperialism, and the city pursues its goalless appropriation… They walk over us, but we don’t go anywhere. Sedimentary, our societies cover and recover the preceding. More and more, we sense our enclosure within the horizontal borders of mankind, they speak of the science of habitat, of ecology; it would be a matter, they say, of conserving the equilibrium of the elements… but where is the place of expanse and duration in this new science? The recognition of the limits of habitat forces us into a consideration of the relation of here to there, of one to the other: put succinctly, which orientation are we to choose? Which mode of duration… which range? Will we have the freedom to re-orient ourselves?
The second war was my mother, my father. The extremity of the lived situations instructed me. It’s not a matter of complacent violences, like that decapitated head in the gutter or those trucks of dead and wounded ascending the street (my street) towards the Saint-Jacques hospital after the destruction of the Hôtel-Dieu, but of a vision of the world, inalterable. The second war is a reservoir of meaning indispensable to the understanding of our second peace.
The historical advent of the sky; the height, henceforth common; the above, present and omnipresent starting from year 40. Strategic bombardments are indispensable to the analysis of the urban phenomenon. It does not consist of a morbid taste for cataclysm, but rather of the cruel necessity for clinical consideration of the agony of cities in order to foresee the future construction, new life. Towns, mirrors, agonies, mirror games of the destructuration-construction of mortal life and living death.
I remember the month of September, 1943. That same morning I had been to the rue du Calvaire, in that street teeming with life, in those shops brimming with objects, with toys… that night, everything had disappeared, excised by the event, the event on top of the event, the war upon the peace of the everyday: the main street of a city – hundreds of kilometers from any front, bustling with the most diverse uses, with exchanges and with collusions, with the sun on the footpathes and the reflections in the shopfronts, had become Verdun. Untimely, everything had moved; buildings, perspectives disappeared; the rows of façades, volatilised… the sky, the transparency and the shadow of the ruins in the midst of piles of pebbles and rubble.
That which educated me, it wasn’t the horror of those buried alive in the basements, asphyxiated by ruptured gas pipes, drowned by the burst water mains (basically, since, whenever an alert sounded, I refused to descend into the shelters, preferring the gardens and courtyards, prefering to risk the impact of the blasts than the enclosure by rubble), but rather that sudden transparency, this change in the view of urban space, this motility of the inanimate, of the built.
Besides, the situation of French citizens was surprising, the enemy cohabited here below in the pacific everyday, even if ordinary life was from time to time punctuated by his excesses; he was there, next to us, made banal by the years of occupation, whilst the allies, ours, dumped their bombs all over the town. Paradoxically, however, it was impossible to condemn those who, from the heavens, crushed the tranquil assurance of everyday habits. The greatest horror, the most appalling crimes, the victims’ innocence, the fatal levelling of urban silhouettes, all of this seemed acceptable if not friendly…
Strange reality where death itself could not be condemned for the fact of ideological conflict. From that moment, it did not require much time to pass from that paradox to the following: the brutal vanishing of the urban décor was also an acceptable fact, a necessary dépaysement [change of scene / disorientation / exile], a forwards fleeting: in brief, an information, like those pamphlets raining upon us.
But one must not forget the infancy of the witness who played this grievous reality and collected the wreckages of the sky: blasts of bombs, of shells, weapon fins from the allied projectiles, pamphlets, windows, the debris of shot-down aircraft, like so many relics of another world, the allied world from which we were all exiled in this pseudo-everyday of the German occupation. Provisional our reality like our freedom, provisional the city that a tragic instant demolishes. The important, the durable, comes from elsewhere, from above; the sky and space are doubly the place of transcendence and ‘excedence’ [dépassement]. To watch the shining points of planes in the azure, to listen to the deaf rumbling of squadrons of flying fortresses, is to be elsewhere, with one’s people, exiled to the ground, the hour of ascension still to come.
The traces of condensation from the four-engines seemed to us like the signs of a language. Of course, one must protect oneself, escape if possible from death, but the sky is right: if we were to die, it would be by error, the bombardiers who navigate so high only desire the destruction of the décor’s fixture, of the facilities, to make our habitat transparent, which is to say corresponding to the space of their flight.
“Jéricho”, the anti-prison operation is the keystone of all the bombardments of the occupied zone. We are the prisoners not simply of the occupying forces, but also of the walls of our cities, they are our own constructions which serve to sequester us from one zone to the other. From that realisation, it did not take long to deduce that the liberation would also be the abolition of the city, of this treacherous city that could so easily turn itself against its population. For many young people, despite a tragic sentiment, the ruin of the cities was not as grave as one might suppose; the friends, the allies, had mutated us into so many Néros contemplating the torching of Rome.
Everything moves with the apparition of the sky in history, in the 20th Century. Our homeland is movement… but watch out! Not necessarily displacement [déplacement], there is even a debate pronounced between these terms with the question of displaced peoples, deportation. Exodus is different from obligatory displacement, this difference is essential to the understanding of the movement that initiates here. We’ve seen it, it’s firstly the sense of the environment which moves in relation to the zenith. It’s also the declared impossibility of being able to condemn totally the destruction of the milieu, which valorises the meaning of the event: the very fact that the enemies co-inhabit down below symmetrically devalues those here to the benefit of the beyond, of the allied above. Just as the sea yesterday unknown becomes the element allied to the navigator, space, the unpractised sky of yesterday becomes the milieu of man. The terrace and the roof become so many seawalls, from which we contemplate that which comes, and that which goes. The citizens are all of a sudden resemblant of the fisher’s family, in wait of that which comes or comes back from on high.
I remember another kind of game which consisted in gluing oneself to the façade of a building and, the eyes raised, watching fixedly the sliding by of the clouds. This quickly gave the feeling that the façade punctured by windows was upturning. I pursued this experience until the point of vertigo. The verticality de-materialised slowly, that which only dominated the confines of the landscape appeared short to our parallel view; perpendicular, to the ground which we barely saw any longer, elevation lost its meaning, altitude didn’t really count any more. The walls held us in, they literally crushed us, it was the height of the buildings which, in the collapse, buried their inhabitants.
The instability of this vertical orientation did not seem to us compensated by any advantage: one could burned alive up there without knowing it. We filled our attics with sand in order to avoid incendiary products unleashing running fire from the top to the bottom of the edifice. We lived in a house of cards, the city had become metastable, its buildings which, just yesterday, manifested the domination and hubris of the bourgeoissie, were rendered fragile in the extreme, and we were in the street a little like these sailors of the past who, docking alongside one another in multi-decked ships, feared at every moment that these would capsize them.
Capsize, this word reconstructs the exact situation. There was, moreover, a locomotive not far from the Pont-Rousseau depot, installed on the top of a hangar, a plane-tree upon the roof of a six-story building… sur-reality.
A factual sky, one which no longer completed the peace returned. Even if the social consensus was re-established, even if the pedestrian everyday [quotidienneté terre à terre] regained its rights, the pacficication served only to mask, as always, a new situation, and the reconstruction of European cities was only to be a repetition, an urban redundancy, a negation of the spatial fact made apparent during the course of the second world war (as you make your bed, so you must lie in it), only the armies, once again, will benefit from the event.
Imperceptibly, this aerial ocean in which the clouds flocked became the last natural element of the cities, after the vanishing of the vegetal, the rarity of the animal. But the profile of the urban coastline now reflected against an atmospheric element returned to its initial vacuity. It was the illusion of resuscitated cities, standing cadavers, symbols of the pseudo-society that had raised them.
Some wanted to reconstruct the cities elsewhere, next to their former implantations (Caen, for example); it was useless. Once evaporated, the cities, like the reverse projection of a collapse, fell back into place, into the same place… simplified but analogous, in their volume, smoother, higher, and the transparency of an instant discovered to be newly disappeared.
The sky above the roofs, the blue space changing to the rhythm of the season and the days now replacing the absent green space. We live henceforth at the edge of the atmosphere, literally at the limit of the world, at the aplomb of the void.
And while each turned to their customary occupations, strategic flights and aerial lines developed simultaneously as if the ‘Strategic Air Command’, Panam, Air France or Aéroflot no longer constituted a sole and identical company destined to colonise the new territory, to saturate it with waypoints and immaterial corridors.
For a moment, the creation of the aerial bridge at the occasion of Berlin’s blockade recalled the aero-portal character of every city, but then, once more, the sky was devalued, disqualified by the beginnings of the space-race, as if the sidereal conquests constituted a disconnect, as if a mysterious ceiling limited the value of space (one level, one story further, higher…). In fact, it was the very terms of altitude and apogee that lost their meaning, no longer able as they were to designate a last movement towards the void, towards the universal absence.
Then again, I remember that twilight when, watching the sun decline upon the horizon, I strained to forget the apparent movement in order to watch the line of the earth climb, like a crest at its zenith.
Montreuil zone industrielle Nord.
The Montreuil Industrial Zone.
A vision, utopian but sad, haunts this roof upon which we walk. We pass a garden of satellites, amongst which cicadas buzz, veiled in the grass. And turning to the west, we find ourselves confronted by a tableau completely unexpected upon the roof of this concrete monolith, this monument to so-called inhuman architecture: an orchard of symmetrical trees framing the immense urban expanse of the horizon. Who envisaged such a building with its wooded roof? To whom do we owe this feeling of faded utopias? These perspectives, this vision, Claude Le Goas conceived them, a certain Mme. Delhommeau tells us. He wanted to “construct the city upon the city”.
In 1963, under the communist administration of André Grégoire of the PCF, the decision was taken to build MOZINOR. And, in 1975, the work finished, it became the first “vertical industrial zone” in France. On the roof was to be found the orchard, with its fountain and its beautiful view, in addition to a cafetaria, so that the factory workers may go and dine together in a pastoral setting, or even go and eat a picnic under their trees with their family during the lunch hour.
All the same, MOZINOR is one of the only buildings in the world that permits articulated lorries (heavy-load trucks) to access every level of the building, which is made possible by a dual-spiral central ramp which leads all the way to the roof. The global vision consists in a holism which envisages the reunion of ostensibly separate domains, namely: the pastoral and the urban, work and rest, the industry of Montreuil and the agriculture of the surrounds.
The warehouses and factories below propped up the restful scenes above, the building could accommodate a large quantity of industrial production and storage, without taking up much space, without creating an alienating environment, and everything at the building scale, at the scale of the city block. In this manner, the idea of MOZINOR recalls the primordial dreams of the skyscraper, which Rem Koolhaus explained in Delirious New York as “the utopian device for the production of an unlimited number of virgin sites upon a single metropolitan location”.
Now, MOZINOR is a strange mix of activity and inactivity. In such, it resembles the rest of les Hauts de Montreuil. The warehouses now accommodate artist studios, there are still trucks on the ramp, but there is no body upon the roof and the fountain has dried up. It would appear that in the 1990′s MOZINOR was one of the best-known techno-rave spots in the Paris region, but that after several murders in which people were thrown from the roof, it found itself increasingly securitised, enclosed by an immense fence, with rigid opening hours, 10AM-8PM. It remains to be seen whether the the original holistic spirit of MOZINOR can be better effectuated on the neighbourhood scale, through the Hauts de Montreuil project…
[translated from urbanist project written in French]
Forthcoming from what is probably the best English-language philosophy journal out there, December’s volume of Collapse sets out to
explore how philosophy and proto-scientific theory and experimental practice was linked at its outset to the culinary arts; and chart the consequences of the contemporary return of cookery to scientific precision, in the rarefied world of haute cuisine as in the world of mass-manufactured confections.
Collapse is one of the most challenging and interesting philosophy publications around. Started in 2006 at Urbanomic press, and printed in cult-inducing limited editions of 1000, the journal is as avowedly iconoclastic as it is inventive and constructive.
Notably, the celebrity of Collapse has risen concurrently with that of the speculative realists, generally understood to include Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Graham Harman and Iain Hamilton Grant. The journal played a large role in showcasing the philosophers as a ‘group’ bearing shared traits. In a certain corner of the academic world, speculative realism has resuscitated philosophical departments by attempting to do in philosophy what unified field theory attempts to do in physics: to bring together two erstwhile irreconcilable systems of understanding the world into a shared ontological framework. Broadly speaking, this is done by using scientific methodologies and understandings as a way of liberating both continental philosophy from the ‘correlationist’ legacy of 21st century post-kantian thought, and analytic philosophy from its intramural redundancy.
Although I remain unconvinced of the ‘political’ turn taken by some of the articles in the otherwise incredible volume VI on Geo/Philosophy (a turn which seems founded on the 1960′s continental notion of a transparency between ontology and political practice), when the contributors do philosophy, it is actually exciting to read.
Moreover, the whole buzz has given rise to a plethora of lively blogs by contributors and collaborators (check out: Speculative Heresy, Larval Subjects, Complete Lies, Object-Oriented Philosophy, Another Heidegger Blog, Naught Thought, and the accursed share, to get started). And, for an explosively brilliant philosopher who is loosely-associated but impossible to confine within any sort of group perimeter, check out Reza Negarestani at Eliminative Culinarism.
Getting back to culinarism, I have always wanted to delve deeper into the philosophical potential of food. Mark Grief’s fantastic article On Food in issue 7 of N+1 Magazine was an enticement in this direction. I also remember reading Lacan once, where he spoke of the fact that food had to be cooked in the earliest societies as primordial evidence of the theory that the Subject’s desire is always constituted by the desire of the Other. Whilst I highly doubt that the contributors of Collapse VII will take a psychoanalytic approach to the endeavour, I think the phenomenological stakes of a philosophical enquiry into culinary practice are undeniable, as are the social parameters. It remains to be seen whether Collapse VII will critique, reiterate or circumvent this framework.
It has often occurred to me as I watch a group of friends eat a meal prepared through my hard labour, for example, that I had orchestrated an elaborate attempt to manipulate their experience of the world: that I was intervening directly and intentionally, with potentially disastrous or propitious results, in their sensory lives.
Furthermore, I expect that Collapse will take the investigation a step further to say that, not only is there the obvious attempt to mediate the desire of the diner, there is also the biological war of food, the molecular constitution of the body in its interaction with nutritious inputs, the use of poison.
Consider the controversy around the English taste-phenomenon called ‘spicy’. While most people in Anglo-Saxon and west-European cultures would think of spicy food as associated with heat, increase in body temperature, burning, flames, fire, Koreans, for example, conceive of foods like Kimchi as ‘refreshing’. In Korean food culture, it is suggested to eat hot soups in summer and cold soups in winter, as a way of counteracting the environment through a non-dialectical relationship to its consumption.
Food can be weaponized. The Bhut Jalokia is being researched by scientists at India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation as an anti-terrorist hand-grenade. It is 400 times spicier than Tobasco sauce. In 2000, India’s Defence Research Laboratory reported a rating of 855,000 units on the Scoville scale and in 2007 the Bhut Jalokia was certified by the Guinness World Records as the hottest chilli pepper in the world.
The chilli is eaten in northern India as a cure to summer heat.
No destruction without construction
In his enormous and labyrinthine cinder-block of a book, Being and Nothingness, Sartre suggests at one point the striking idea that
man is the only being by whom a destruction can be accomplished. A geological plication, a storm, do not destroy – or at least they do not destroy directly; they merely modify the distribution of masses of beings. There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else. Even this expression is improper, for to posit otherness there must be a witness who can retain the past in some manner and compare it to the present in the form of no longer. In the absence of this witness, there is being before as after the storm that is all. If a cyclone can bring about the death of certain living beings, this death will be destruction only if it is experienced as such. In order for destruction to exist, there must be first a relation of man to being i.e., a transcendence; and within the limits of this relation, it is necessary that man apprehend one being as destructible.
(Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness)
As solipsistic and ‘old-school’ as this idea may seem, it is worthy of further consideration, especially, as I will try to show, at the service of critical urbanism.
What would be the result, for example, if we flipped the notion that “In order for destruction to exist, there must be first a relation of man to being,” to say that: “Destruction exists because man creates relations to being”? And if we extend the scope of analysis beyond the framework of Sartre’s obsession with the radical interprative freedom of individual consciousness, to include the shared politico-social construction of the lived material environment, we might even make the following claim: that, ‘being’, as the shared constructed space in which humans are forced to dwell, sets up differentiated relations of destruction with those who inhabit it. (If we were so inclined, we might even follow the speculative realists in contesting the heavy correlationism of Sartre and the idea that being requires humans in order to happen. Here, emphasising science’s capacity to index realities beyond that of the human, we might set about populating the world with all sorts of ontological entities and relations beyond that of the human. Let’s rest, however, within the correlationist framework, as it will better serve a critical philosophy of the urban, which is after all, the aim of this post). Remaining for the moment within this narrow set of propositions, therefore, we might posit the following three hypotheses:
1) Man is the only being by whom a destruction can be accomplished, because destruction can only exist as a relation to Being (shared space of dwelling);
2) Because the shared space of dwelling that constitutes Being is differentiated, relations of destruction can manifest in many differentiated configurations;
3) Because Being as the space of dwelling is constituted through both through human and non-human processes of construction, various subjective and non-subjective logics intervene and mediate the potential relations of destruction.
At very least, if we provisionally accept the applicability of these hypotheses, then the phrase ‘natural disaster’ begins to look rather oxymornic. Furthermore, if it is true that disaster can only exist through the mediation of human activity, could it also be said that the potential for disaster increases exponentially in relation to human activity?
“Progress and catastrophe are the opposite faces of the same coin”
The above quote from Hannah Arendt was used in an exhibition in 2003 at the Fondation Cartier by Paul Virilo, entitled Ce qui arrive (that which happens / is coming) in French, and Unknown Quantity in English. The idea of this exhibition was to create ‘A Museum of the Accident’. Specifically, this museum was to be a technological one, much like a Museum of the Automobile, a Museum of the Steam Engine, or a Museum of Modern Medicine: in other words, it was to showcase the idea of the accident as an invention.
Virilio reads Aristotle to tell us that “the accident reveals the substance”, and that therefore “the invention of the substance is also the invention of the accident”. What he means by this is that every technological novelty, every intervention in the shared dwelling of the human universe, contains the potential for an accident which in some way reveals its nature, and in this way ‘reinvents’ it. Thus, a reel of film burnt by the projector reveals the highly technical and static nature of the cinematic form, belied by smooth dynamism of on-screen representation; a glass, dropped off a table, reveals its brittleness, otherwise belied by its sleek form and transparency; the crumpled wreck of a car, in which speed is materially inscribed in the form of rippling, reveals its capacity for extreme velocity, otherwise belied by the passenger’s sensation of stillness, in its own turn induced by the smooth construction of the highway. In each case, the revelatory accident is built into the product as a future-event, an inevitable phenomenon that came to be cynically harnessed in commodity production as a way of refreshing saturated markets, namely, through ‘planned obsolescence‘.
“Seen this way,” claims Virilio, “the shipwreck is indeed the “futuristic” invention of the ship, the air crash the invention of the supersonic plane, and the Chernobyl meltdown, the invention of the nuclear power station.”
Provocative, or even ridiculous, as it may sound, the man has a point. And it is this:
“The accident is ‘invented’, it is a work of creation.”
(Paul Virilio in an interview with Le Monde, available in English here).
If we look at the frequency – indeed the very mode – of accidents in their relation to the industrial revolution, it becomes clear that it is impossible to separate the history of technological innovation from that of disaster spectacle. In the same way that for Sartre, a relationship to being was required in order for there to exist the potential for a destruction, if the modality of the human relation to being is a fundamentally technological one, one which involves progress, one which requires a deeper, more precarious intervention in the shared space of dwelling, then we might also say that different relationships to being constitute different modalities of disaster. As is shown by industrial and post-industrial civilizations founded on technological progress, the faster, more widespread, and more interdependent infrastructures become, so will increase the likelihood, intensity and scale of accidents. Or, as the US Government Accountability Office has put it to Congress in their Critical Infrastructure Protection report:
Since the early 1990s, increasing computer interconnectivity—most notably growth in the use of the Internet—has revolutionized the way that our government, our nation, and much of the world communicate and conduct business. While the benefits have been enormous, this widespread interconnectivity also poses significant risks to the government’s and our nation’s computer systems and, more importantly, to the critical operations and infrastructures they support.
Although here it would be relevant to speak of Ulrich Beck, we would only engage in platitudinous babble about the risk society at the expense of a much more interesting conversation about the potential for a political archaeology of exposure.
Exposure – a physical condition related to being vulnerable, outside, and without adequate protection to known risks – as the defining trait of uneven territorial development in an age of climate catastrophe, will undoubtedly be a central challenge for critical thinking in the coming decades.
An accident waiting for somewhere to happen
Before talking of exposure, let us clarify what it means to say that the accident is a work of creation, a technological invention.
The accident is a work of creation in two senses:
firstly, at the disastrous moment, the dissolution of the technological object creates a new form, in which is inscribed a revelation of its fundamental properties that otherwise would have remained obscured;
secondly, the accident is proper to the work of creation, the accident is embedded in the object during the very process of its creation: connate with every creation is its potential atrophy.
But what could this mean in the context of human disasters? What is the political utility of such an understanding? Let’s be clear: the point of claiming that accidents are works of creation is not to valorise these as aestheticly interesting biproducts of human tragedy. The political point, rather, is to take the natural out of the term ‘natural disaster’, to take the ‘fate’ out of the human tragedy. To show that, because disaster is fundamentally connected to the modality within which the human intervenes in the shared space of dwelling, the level to which certain human beings are exposed to disaster is no accident.
Stated otherwise: the prevailing systems of uneven territorial development, the various spatial and class-oriented distribution of privileges determined by a dominant mode of social reproduction, will also determine the extent to which certain parts of the population are exposed to disaster.
A marxian archaeology of catastrophic exposure
Let’s define some terms.
This framework is fundamentally marxian because it understands social phenomena through the lens of the class relations that facilitate a dominant system of production and reproduction, that in turn organize the material exploitation (utilization) of the environment.
It is archaeological in three senses: firstly, because the study of accidents can only ever employ the archaeological methodology of indexing a reality through reading that which remains of an event; secondly, because it is fundamentally concerned with specific sites, localities that define the territorial parameters of an event; and thirdly, because the framework that sees the accident as a technological invention aims to denaturalise and rupture the present through a material intervention in our understanding of the past.
The idea of catastrophic exposure describes a political problem: while it is true that no one intends accidents, they happen with an undeniable frequency to the poorest, most perenially victimized populations on the planet, and this is a state of affairs that scientists promise us will only worsen as the global temperature of the planet rises.
Consider the case of Hurrican Katrina (or for that matter, basically any other disaster provoked by extreme weather systems that has extracted a severe human toll). As Todd Litman puts it (almost euphemistically, even for a planner’s report), in his Lessons from Katrina: What Major Disasters Can Teach Transport Planners:
It would be wrong to claim that this disaster was an unavoidable “act of god.” Katrina began as a hurricane but only became a disaster because of significant, preventable planning and management failures. [...]
Various long-term planning errors contributed to these disasters: the concentration of poverty in New Orleans neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding, allowing shoreline development that eliminated protective barrier islands and wetlands, and underfunding levee maintenance. There is also evidence that global warming exacerbated hurricane impacts by increasing ocean surface temperatures. Federal security planning may have focused excessively on terrorist risks at the expense of natural risks. [...]
People who had resources were served relatively well because planners are familiar with their abilities and needs. People who were poor, disabled or ill were not well served, apparently because decision-makers were unfamiliar with and insensitive to their needs.
Because he’s a transport planner, and not a marxist, Litman doesn’t mention the territorial legacy of slavery and the institutional practice of readlining in the long history of black ghetto-formation, nor does he mention the unmistakable link between blackness and institutional abandonment leading to catastrophic exposure in the contemporary US.
This is why, in speaking of the risk society, it does no good to talk of a world of symmetrical interdependency: in spite of whatever Thomas Friedman says to the contrary, the world is not flat, and interdependencies are not symmetric. Rather, due to the hierarchical reproduction of class privileging, the territorial retreat of state welfare institutions under the aegis of neo-liberal restructuring at the state level, and the unequal systemic development of the market and trade at the global interstate level, certain populations of the world are far more exposed than others to famine, disease, starvation, being crushed, drowning, robbery, looting, incineration and all of the other maladies that attend disaster. And these disasters are born with the very system that creates and intensifies them, not within a state of nature. This is even truer now that many biologists refer to the current as the Anthropocene era of the earth’s life, because humans have become for the first time ever a major ecological force.
Rather than constantly focusing on human tragedy, and the terrible hands dealt by fate (that opium of the masses!), therefore, it is time to take a leaf from the planner’s book and start writing reports such as Lessons from Haiti: What Major Disasters Can Teach Dependency Theorists, or even, Lessons from the Subprime Neighbourhoods: What Major Financial Crises Can Teach Black Emancipation Movements, or still, Lessons from Tuvalu: What the Total Dissapearance of Island Nations Can Teach Those That Contributed the Least to Climate Change About the World Systems of Those That Contributed the Most. Well, the last one would have to be a tentative title, but you get the point.
At a time in which horizons are as transient in their form as the refugee populations that head for them, critical thinkers should delve deeply into the material constitution of the present, to reveal who is most exposed to the perpetual state of crisis in which we live and why they are the most exposed. Ultimately what is needed is not a set of remedial tools for responding to the ill-fates of catastrophe, but a set of preventative measures that go towards reversing the entrenched territorial inequalities that structure the shared space of our dwelling.