“In the face of these developmental dynamics, we believe there is an increasingly urgent need to rethink our most basic assumptions regarding the site, object and agenda of ‘urban’ research. The ‘urban question’ famously posed four decades ago by Lefebvre, Harvey and Castells remains as essential as ever, but it arguably needs to be reposed, in the most fundamental way, in light of early 21st-century conditions. In other words: do we really know, today, where the ‘urban’ begins and ends, or what its most essential features are, socially, spatially or otherwise? […] More radically still, a case can be made that Lefebvre’s postulate (2003 ) of an incipient process of ‘complete’ or ‘planetary’ urbanization is today being actualized in practice. Despite pervasive sociospatial unevenness and persistent territorial inequality, the entire fabric of planetary settlement space is now being both extensively and intensively urbanized (Schmid, 2005; Soja and Kanai, 2005; Madden, 2011). In the face of this prospect, and especially given the unprecedented pace, scale and volatility of contemporary worldwide urbanization, it seems essential to consider whether inherited concepts and methods for understanding and transforming cities remain at all adequate to contemporary conditions. Quite simply, the oft-repeated mantra that a global ‘urban transition’ has recently occurred due to the apparent fact that over half of the world’s population now lives within cities does not even begin to capture the intellectual, representational and political complexities associated with grasping the contemporary global urban condition.”
Neil Brenner, “Assemblage Urbanism and the Challenges of Critical Urban Theory” (2011)
“Le problème permanent d’Unibail est de devoir concilier la vaste clientèle captive des 800 000 «banlieusards» qui passent quotidiennement par le pôle RER juste en dessous avec celle des «Parisiens» de la rente immobilière et du tourisme du dessus. D’autant que cette dernière avait pris ses distances, en même temps que des enseignes prestigieuses comme Dior, Cardin ou Céline, lorsque le site fut estimé envahi de banlieusards durant les années 1980. D’où le projet aujourd’hui énoncé de faire revenir les «Parisiens», «requalifier» le commerce et la clientèle, «reparisianiser», pour contrer «la mauvaise image » des Halles […] Paris est à présent un pôle métropolitain […] Les jeunes de la métropole expriment très exactement cette situation lorsqu’ils disent privilégier les Halles parce qu’elles sont «moit-moit» des divers lieux, des gens, très fractionnés et éloignés les uns des autres. «Moit-moit» est ainsi bien autre chose que la centralité, ou l’équidistance de la fonction transport, pour désigner d’abord la qualité d’un lieu, d’un territoire. À cette contextualisation s’ajoute le privilège d’une dimension festive. La densité de gens de tous les horizons parisiens aux Halles est ainsi spécifique de ces lieux particuliers qui caractérisent toutes les grandes métropoles modernes. Le problème est que ce passage du statut de centre de la capitale à celui de territoire investi des affects de multitudes de métropolitains n’est pas pris en compte par l’ancien centre, ni par ses institutions ni par ses bobos. Il exigerait en effet des équipements, des espaces communs, dont nul ne parle. On en donne ici deux exemples […]”
Thierry Baudouin & Michèle Collin, “Territorialisations métropolitaines et projet urbain” (2008)
“If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built (more about that later) product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown . . . Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inven- tions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory . . . Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than did all previous generations put together, but somehow we do not reg- ister on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids. According to a new gospel of ugliness, there is already more Junkspace under construction in the twenty-first century than has survived from the twentieth . . . It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the twentieth century. Architecture disappeared in the twentieth century; we have been reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it would turn into a novel; our concern for the masses has blinded us to People’s Architecture. Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing. . . the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock (all three missing from the history books). Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain . . . It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits; it promotes disorientation by any means (mirror, polish, echo) . . . Junkspace is sealed, held together not by structure but by skin, like a bubble.”
Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace” (2002), p. 175-6
“Haussmann clearly understood that his mission was to help solve the surplus-capital and unemployment problem through urbanization. Rebuilding Paris absorbed huge quantities of labour and capital by the standards of the time and, coupled with suppressing the aspirations of the Parisian workforce, was a primary of social stabilization. He drew upon the utopian plans that Fourierists and Saint-Simonians had debated the 1840s for reshaping Paris, but with one big difference: he transformed the scale at which the urban process was imagined. When the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff showed Haussmann his plans for a new boulevard, Haussmann threw them back at him saying: ‘not wide enough . . . you have it 40 metres wide and I want it 120.’ He annexed the suburbs and redesigned whole neighbourhoods such as Les Halles. To do this Haussmann needed new financial institutions and debt instruments, the Crédit Mobilier and Crédit Immobilier, which were constructed on Saint-Simonian lines. In effect, he helped resolve the capital-surplus disposal problem by setting up a proto-Keynesian system of debt-financed infrastructural improvements.”
David Harvey, “Right to The City” (2008), p. 26
Guest post and all photos: Antoine G.
What is a Post-Utopian Urbanism? From the Modernist Utopia to the Postmodern Dystopia: What’s left ? (guest post 2/3)
“The [urban] problem is the largest we have ever known. And we confront an urban wilderness more formidable and resistant and in some ways more frightening than the wilderness faced by the pilgrims or the pioneers.”
Senator Robert Kennedy 15 August, 1966
(cited in Yates 1977)
Our three-part essay on the definition of a ‘post-utopian urbanism’ began by surveying the four registers according to which Urbanism and Utopia share a common basis, as encoded within the modernist project for the city. Around the late 1970s-1980s, however, this relationship tended to loosen and was gradually undermined as new divergent dynamics emerged. Put differently, the rupture between Utopia and Urbanism coincided with a dual emergence: of the postmodern in the cultural, aesthetic, and academic fields, on the one hand; and that of more flexible means of capital accumulation, on the other. This is not to say that the rupture was brutal and complete, however: as David Harvey has highlighted, many aspects of modernity are to be found in its postmodern offspring, suggesting the need to elucidate the intricacies of such a historical rift (1989a).* Accordingly, as a second step in grasping what could be a Post-Utopian urbanism we believe that this historical shift from the modernist utopia to the postmodern dystopia deserves further analysis. Using the previously laid theoretical background, this part thus sets off to conceptualize what this postmodern dystopia might be: what is to be found instead of the modern utopia? How does this affect the production of space through the use of new instruments? And why are the outcomes ultimately unsatisfactory, requiring us to go beyond by looking for a Post-Utopian urbanism?
Around the 1970s, the planned economy instituted by the Bretton Woods system went through two successive crises, one quickly followed by the other.** Since then, the attempt to plan has seemed unable to match itself to the hastening of the outer world, its unpredictability, and its complexity. Subsequent events, it would seem, proved how the plan failed to counter a series of deep systemic contradictions: the emergence of massive unemployment due to deindustrialization; deepening segregation in the wake of the ‘white flight’; rising crime, and the like. While the modernist utopia aimed, at least theoretically, to further social progress and/or moral betterment, over the past thirty years certain urban spaces have been the theatre for the worst inequalities, if not pure ungovernability (see earlier DCDB post), to such extent that the Anglo-Saxon literature adopted the term ‘dystopia’ when surveying the growing urban inequalities and/or the crisis of the right to the city (Harvey 2000 and 2008, Jameson 2003, MacLeod et Ward 2002, Pinder 2002).
In the following, we argue that these dynamics deal with the end of the alliance between Urbanism and Utopia as encoded in the modernist agenda. Further, we believe that this shift towards the postmodern dystopia cannot be fully grasped if taken out of its socio-economic context. In this way, dystopias are related to larger trends in late-stage capitalism, and can be seen as the urban manifestation of its disruptions, which actual governing tools such as the ‘urban project’ fail to regulate. These many disruptive places (or future representations thereof) enter in friction with the modernist project that conceived of cities with a peculiar science-based and state elite-driven utopia, giving life to coexistant but mutually exclusive spaces within cities (cf. Koolhaas 2002). Be they ghettoes, derelict suburbs, gigantic malls reproducing towns in the New Urbanist fashion, homeless shantytowns between the cities’ outskirts and hyperconnected highways, airport cities, these spaces jeopardize the modernist utopia, if it were not yet a mere dream of the past.
At the Doors of Dystopia in C. Nolan’s Inception (2010)
Entering Dystopias – Leaving Eutopia
If the postmodern dystopia contradicts the modernist project in various ways, it should however be noted that on conceptual grounds it does not mean the absence of utopias. Rather, dystopias rely on utopias in a dialectical fashion, for they both appeal to another topos:
In the peculiar form of dystopias, utopian thinking may alert us to certain tendencies in the present, which, if allowed to continue unchecked and carried to a logical extreme, would result in a world we would find abhorrent.
Friedman 2000, 462 quoted in MacLeod & Ward 2002, 153
Dystopias are not the exact negation of utopias, yet they nonetheless imply the abandonment of their second meaning, eutopia – a better or good place. In this light we can elaborate two slightly divergent meanings of the word ‘dystopia,’ that refer to different temporalities. On the one hand, we take dystopias to represent actual states in certain cities, where urban ills–such as segregation, socio-racial apartheid and policing, social eviction, privatization of certain spaces and,unsustainable development–are already happening. It is in this fashion that, along with Mac Leod and Ward (2002), we refer to the emergence of various dystopian places together forming what we call the various ‘landscapes of dystopia.’ This sense of dystopia which developed in the 1970s (on the back of classical Dickensian visions) might stem from the U.S. tradition of anti-urbanity whose most obvious manifesto can be found in F. L. Wright’s Broadacre City (Choay 1965). On the other hand, we consider ‘dystopias’ to be spaces that do not yet exist, but could in the future, given present and dominant trends. The American hyperghetto, for example, portends the calamitous outcome of Welfare state retrenchment and austerity (e.g. Wacquant 1992, 2006); gated communities alert us to the tendency of certain social classes to quarantine ‘otherness’ (often their own). Nevertheless, drawing from the Marxian theory that establishes a difference between the notion of ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’, we should underline that the label “dystopia” may vary. One person’s dystopia is not necessarily another’s: labeling a place as such depends on the interest one has invested in the future of that space. For instance, gated communities can be marketed to their residents as desirable places, in spite–or in virtue–of the socio-economic apartheid and privatized security they engender.
Hugh Ferris’ artwork, 1916: the Invisible Dimension of the City or Outopia
If utopia and dystopia share in common their gesture towards otherness–towards a space between here and there–it is because they are, on the flipside, characterized by their socio-historical embededness. It is because of the very embededness of dystopias and utopias (in the actual conditions of production, Marx would say) that they can precisely make the ‘other’ take shape and happen (Jameson 2004). As if the there potentially existed in the here, so to speak, dystopias are like utopias, “always already here” (Lussault 1994: toujours déjà là). In our case, this would therefore imply:
- that the birth of dystopia cannot be properly understood without reference to larger socio-economic changes in late-stage capitalism;
- and that there subsists some sort of continuity between the modernist agenda, its methods of planning and its built environment, and dystopian dynamics. This dialectical continuity is of course not void of frictions.
Accordingly, our survey of the departure from the modernist utopia requires scrutiny of the socio-economic conditions under which modernist planning underwent a decline in parallel to the ascendance of the postmodern dystopia. This cross-movement between the two gestures, which has profound consequences for the urban built environment through planning tools, is however left open: the postmodern dystopia made no tabula rasa with the built environment born out of the modernist utopia, nor did it dispense with modernizing discourse, actually suggesting elements of continuity both in the urban form and urbanism. The resulting tension is a crucial challenge for actual socio-cognitive instruments, such as the urban ‘project’ (Pinson 2009) that seem to have arisen as so many (insufficient) responses to the systematic development of dystopian places in late-stage capitalism.
Picture from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s famous Learning from Las Vegas (1972-77),
considered a seminal analysis of the postmodern Dystopia
Junkspace: The Death (and Life) of the (Post)Modern City
Among the many multiplying landscapes of dystopia, the shopping mall stands out for its remarkable impact on the previously-existing system of production and consumption which gave birth to it in the late 1950s. At first a suburban phenomenon mostly located outside U.S. inner-cities, it then slowly but surely regained the center, accompanying the development of affluent classes and their return to the city in the late 1980s. Today the mall serves as a vehicle for regeneration projects aimed at producing “vibrant” and “dynamic” neighborhoods. Malls have developed gigantic spaces in which all functions are reunited, or rather, juxtaposed, so that the consumer will not ‘lack’ anything while there, so that all its ‘lacks’ might be satiated through consumption. Recent trends in developers’ strategies for mall development focus on the “experience,” which they seek to enrich by ever-adding new functions and new spaces. Malls today thus contain spaces within spaces, but at the same time encapsulate all the functions that remained ‘outside’.
Few forms have been so distinctively new and so distinctively American, and late-capitalist, as this innovation, whose emergence can be dated: 1956; whose relationship to the well-known decay-of-the-inner-city-rise-of-the-suburb is palpable, if variable; whose genealogy now opens up a physical and spatial prehistory of shopping in a way that was previously inconceivable; and whose spread all over the world can serve as something of an epidemiological map of Americanization, or postmodernization, or globalization.
Jameson 2003, 70 [our italics]
In parallel, malls are increasingly assuming the functionality of cities, when not formally replicating them as in some cases. This capacity to spill over by ingurgitating the built environment and recoding it with consumerist functions has been conceptually captured by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, where he speaks of junkspace. For our purposes, this term will relate to changes in the architectural and urban form at the meso level (thus an object), but will also reflect shifts in larger dynamics at the macro scale, related to the uneven mode of capitalist development. In the former sense, junkspace is defined by the way the built environment’s form has been shaped by the modern innovation of air-conditioning:
Air-conditioning has launched the endless building. If architecture separates buildings, air-conditioning unites them. Air-conditioning has dictated mutant regimes of organization and coexistence that leave architecture behind…Junkspace is a Bermuda Triangle of concepts, an abandoned petri dish: it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realization. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. More and more, more is more.
Koolhaas 2002, 176
In Koolhaas’ perspective, the accumulation of spaces within the built envelope is permitted by the crucial introduction of air-conditioning that allows the coexistence of spaces, without ever reaching their combination. It adds up and goes on, throwing everything in its vortex and thereby giving birth to an architecture of the collage in which space is copied, pasted, quoted, recoded to fit site-specific purposes. This goes on all around the globe (Harvey 1989a), but with no other rationale than that of maximization itself, no other aim but to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalize’ derelict spaces: waterfronts, abandoned inner-cities, old industrial brownfields, railway hangars, etc.
Architects thought of Junkspace first and named it Megastructure, the final solution to transcend their huge impasse. Like multiple Babels, huge superstructures would last through eternity, teeming with impermanent subsystems that would mutate over time, beyond their control. In Junkspace, the tables are turned: it is subsystem only, without superstructure, orphaned particles in search of a framework or pattern. All materialization is provisional: cutting, bending, tearing, coating: construction has acquired a new softness, like tailoring
Koolhaas 2002, 178
The tailoring of superstructures: Workers during the New York’s World Fair, 1939-1940
On that account, dystopia may be seen as the replication of this crisis in the built form of a building to the urbanity at large, that once served as the vehicle for change through the right to the city (Harvey 2008). Junkspace and dystopia convey the same very distinctive atmosphere of urban decay and catastrophe. Further, besides this imaginative appeal, the former partakes in the latter to the extent that it turns space in an uncontrollable consumerist nightmare, and reserves the admission to the city to the happy few.
Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown…
Koolhaas 2002, 175
The junkspace is a leftover of the modernist agenda precisely because it was born under its auspices but subverted its purpose. For instance the mall was born in the late 1950s out of the U.S. suburban model: its development paralleled the development of mass consumption through spatial organization; the built form mirrored the system of production and consumption acting as a “spatial fix” (Harvey 1989a) in the capitalist postwar stage, enabling mass consumption as a drive in a Keynes-inspired economy. Built outside the inner-city at a time when the middle class adopted the suburban lifestyle, the mall was promptly reintroduced in downtowns in conjunction with gentrification and redevelopment plans. If first generation malls where the corresponding architectural form and spatial fix for the white flight, in the 1990s their successors adjusted to the coming-back-to-the-city of middle and higher classes reinforced by entrepreneurial discourses praising the creative class and urban diversity (Harvey, 1989b). And after having expanded to city centres, it absorbs the urban as a whole: the contemporary mall integrates and recodes its functions in a single venue.
To be saved, downtowns have had to be given the suburban kiss of death
Harvard Design School 2002, quoted in Jameson, Future City 2003, 70
What was at the core of the modernist utopia under which malls were developed though, has been neutralized: the gesture towards a better space through the right to the city. As such the junkspace mirrors dystopias: it portends another, yet not a better, future, one in which the urban theatre is the scene for the worst inequalities and catastrophes. In its built manifestations we foresee anything but the abandonment of social progress as a universal aim. That is not to imply that the modernist utopia and its spatial fix, Keynesianism, was exempt of exclusion however, but rather to emphasis that the tension towards collective betterment (as in the vivre ensemble) is endangered if not left void in the postmodern dystopia.
Because it is so intensely consumed, Junkspace is fanatically maintained, the night shift undoing the damage of the day shift in an endless Sisyphean replay. As you recover from Junkspace, Junkspace recovers from you: between 2 and 5 A.M., yet another population, this one heartlessly casual and appreciably darker, is mopping, hovering, sweeping, toweling, resupplying…Half the population produces new space; the more affluent half consumes old space…Through Junkspace, entertainment organizes hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration: concentration gambling, concentration golf, concentration convention, concentration movie, concentration culture, concentration holiday.
Koolhaas 2002, 179-181; 185 [our italics]
Further, the conditions for change, and condition of change in junkspace-s are delicate to the extent that they may even bring outopia (the prospect of an-other space), the very root of dystopia, into question (e.g. Jameson 2004). If we come back to the built form of the junkspace as a concept, its main characteristic is its perpetual envelope, the lack of an outside. Therefore, the issue we face is to know whether change, i.e. outopia, can happen at all within a closed, hermetic, and ever-expanding space. As long as the production and consumption of space is kept under (junks-)pace(s), can there be any breakthrough? Or, put in a difference perspective, can it be sustained when the aim of betterment is cast away? Without entering the philosophical debate needed here, let us remark simply that totality is not necessarily incompatible in theory with eutopia, as it is part and parcel of many urban utopias which conceive of their ideal space in closed and self-sufficient spaces.
Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways…
Koolhaas 2002, 178
So far, we have emphasized the decay of the modernist utopia and parts of its built environment through Koolhaas’ junkspace, the concept through which we tried to capture the shift in space production and consumption that developed with the emergence of the postmodern dystopia. Through the example of the mall taken as a built manifestation of junkspace, we hinted at the embededdness of the landscapes of dystopias: just as is the case with the modernist utopia, they cannot be taken out of the socio-economic context in which they are produced and consumed. Through the expansion of malls to inner-cities, we witness how a spatial fix originated in the late 1950s has come to be the vehicle for subverting the exact modernist agenda which gave birth to it, by sustaining and reinforcing gentrifying dynamics and their corresponding politics towards otherness, from rent-driven eviction of former deprived communities to revanchist urbanism and policing targeting the homeless (on gentrification see Smith 1972; regarding public art see Deutsche 1988).
London could-be junkspace in Koohlaas, Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, The Strip, Project, 1972.
In MoMA’s collection.
The postmodern demise of the author seems not to have completely restricted the call to grandeur associated with its demiurgic gesture, however – this is but one indication of the need to investigate more closely the deeper trends of continuity that persist and result in an exacerbated tension between the modernist utopia and the postmodern dystopia. Put otherwise, while the postmodern stance would openly question the basis of any authoritative discourse and thus deconstruct any form of definitive relationship to supreme knowledge (or meta-narrations, see Lyotard 1975), claims to authority, that is, the accumulation of legitimacy through positioning, persist. Consider, for example, the contemporary paradox that will recall many revitalization projects flourishing here and there:
Through Junkspace, old aura is transfused with new luster to spawn sudden commercial viability: Barcelona amalgamated with the Olympics, Bilbao with the Guggenheim, Forty-second Street with Disney. God is dead, the author is dead, history is dead, only the architect is left standing…an insulting evolutionary joke…A shortage of masters has not stopped a proliferation of masterpieces.
Koolhaas 2002, 184 [our italics]
If junkspace cannot pretend to be about architecture because of its ever-expanding envelope, a flipside of the renouncement to separation that would be truly the architect’s craft, it still does. The abandonment of the genuine architectural gesture has paradoxically left us with star architects and their simulacra, from Dubai to Bilbao. To a certain degree, there still persists a discourse about mastering space production. Likewise, the inability of the modernist agenda to regulate space through its comprehensive land-use planning (which aspired to the status of a science) has not resulted in a totally anarchic landscape, in which the conviction of scientific reasoning and controlled land development would have been superseded with nightmarish urban ungovernability. Rather, given the inability of the zoning plan and its corresponding political-bureaucratic body to regulate post-Fordist capitalist self-contradictory developments around the 1970s, new forms of planning such as the ‘urban project’ (Pinson 2009) were developed in response to the growing landscapes of dystopia.
The Mall as the Future for Urban Living? Wai Think-Tank Architecture
‘Planning’ the Landscapes of Dystopia
During the turn of the late 1970s, every built output issued by the modernist utopian machinery seemed to host of the panoply of urban ills that made cities appear almost ungovernable: fragmentation, income and cultural discrepancies, segregation, riots, etc. all along social and racial divides. This dysfunctionality was in part attributed to the planning system itself. This system not only bluntly ascribed to spaces mono-functions according to the belief in a scientific division of production and use of space, but was also a token of a state-centered, biased socio-political elite, whose partiality was out of touch with a society becoming increasingly plural (Pinson 2009). It is in this context of change that the ‘urban project’ developed as a new tool for urbanism, geared towards coping with political and sociological pluralism on the one hand, and new modes of capitalist accumulation on the other (Pinson ibid.). Project-led urbanism differs in several manners from the plan, not only encapsulating changes in the tools themselves, but also a set of changes affecting our space-time framework and the regulatory system that corresponds to this framework. This ‘regulatory’ shift can be partly linked to changes in the conditions of how we distinguish what is true from what is not (i.e., episteme):
We know that we do not know, but that is almost the sole thing that we do know: there is no better definition of uncertainty.
Callon, Lascoumes & Barth 2001, 40
The regulatory modalities that the ‘urban project’ seeks to embody must cope with the new complexity that pervades every pore of the urban: the multiplication of players, each with their claim of legitimacy to the city; the multiple identities, whether national, local, gendered, political, cultural; the multifaceted environmental and technical risks; the intricate and ever-growing channels of finance capital towards and within the cities; the increasing “derivatization” of the built environment as it is translated into financial risk-trading goods (O’Neill 2009). Such “uncertainity” as Pinson calls it (ibid.) is clearly analogous to the indeterminacy of postmodern cultural and social forms. The traditional plan seems useless, its production outdated.I ndeed, “successive transformations mock the word plan” (Koolhaas 2002, 182), the iterative and less exclusive form of the project which emphasizes process rather than the fixity of the ‘plan’ determine the modalities of postmodern space production. Both coexist yet diverge in their regulatory forms; two different models of a spatial fix in capitalism’s efforts to resolve its self-contradictions. The ‘urban project’ is not innocent of reinforcing dystopian trends, however: pluralism is eventually conducive to those able to play by the rules of the urban project thanks to their cultural or social capital for instance. Accordingly, the landscapes of dystopia are both a consequence of the modernist utopia’s dysfunctional features and a by-product of the urban project.
Urbanism – Utopia = Dystopia?
The activity of planning as such–i.e. giving an orientation to the production of the built environment through the “science and theory of human establishment” that is urbanism (Choay 1965, 8)–is not dead with the ‘plan’, and indeed survives through the ‘project’. Nevertheless, following the shift in the collective and socially-produced status of science, tensions have developed within and through spaces produced under the modernist utopia and the postmodern dystopia. The city, once the privileged nexus through which urbanism and the utopian gesture intersected in the form of the modernist utopia, has been colonized by the postmodern dystopia that partly disjoins the two by disavowing eutopia, the reach to a better place. Instead , deindustrialized, seemingly ungovernable, and consumption-driven urban (junk)spaces are fostered. The tension between these two dynamics questions the previous conceptual scheme in which we sketched the common ground between modern urbanism and utopias along four registers:
- Whereas utopias and urbanism once shared a reliance on space to cast an ideal outer society through planning – whether economic, social, and urban – they now seem disunited. Avatars of the modernist utopia are castigated as failed pieces of demiurgic gesture; such as the large housing projects of Pruitt Igoe or the French grands ensembles - spaces for the relegation of the urban ‘underclass’ (on this notion, see Wacquant 1996). However, space is still relevant to dystopias; its representational power may even be more salient in the dystopian projection of a “world we would find abhorrent” (MacLeod & Ward 2002, 153).
- However, if the spatial basis is still at heart of dystopia, its status has changed. While urbanism and utopia partook in the “spatial game” (Harvey 2000) of projecting an-other and better space, the dystopian gesture is amputates the latter. The right to the city that was part of the modernist agenda is put in danger in the landscapes of dystopia, where segregation is a pressing concern, whether in ghettoes abandoned by the Welfare state, or in gentrified neighbourhoods whose former populations have been displaced. Rather than comprehensive plans producing serial spaces, the project tends to focus on a smaller scale (e.g. at a sub-city scale), emphasizes site-specificity, and blends in an architecture of collage (Harvey 1989a) through iterative and flexible modes of space production (Pinson 2009, Taşan-Kok 2012).
Nevertheless, convergence in schemes of redevelopment plans and collage architecture recall the repetition in the production of generic spaces at heart of the utopian gesture. The revitalization projects around flagship urban items such as waterfronts, downtown markets/malls, and cultural centres altogether indicate that beneath the argument of site-specificity and the demise of scientific planning, some patterns emerge. As mentioned, these are related to changes in late-stage capitalism (Harvey 1989a) that reproduces spatial fixes geared towards derivatization (O’Neill 2009) and attracting the affluent urban class through entrepreneurial local politics (Harvey 1989b).
Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin pour Paris (1925): reason and technique united
- The ability to effect social change is put into question by the openness of the utopian and dystopian gesture. On the one hand, most utopias implied some sense of totality or closing in the spatial form – for instance Thomas More’s Utopia was an island – but might act as a drive for change by opening perspectives and uncertainty (Jameson 2004). On the other hand, because dystopias renounce to a better space by turning urban spaces into “hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration” (Koolhaas 2002, 185) or threatening them, they imply some sense of closing, too. While the postmodern rationale may precisely be the lack thereof, and may thus hint towards greater openness sought through iterative and flexible modes of planning through the project, social betterment is restricted to an economic and culturally affluent fringe, while those deemed (or de-facto) ‘misfits’ are denied their right to the city.
- Last, being united under the modernist agenda, urbanism and utopias consequently underwent the same predicament as epitomized in the ‘crisis of the plan’. Turning to the postmodern dystopia, it is not established whether urbanistic practices as such may survive the contradictions and limits of the urban project that are gradually being documented (e.g. Taşan-Kok & Baeten 2012).
While we speak of a shift from the modernist utopia to the postmodern dystopia, there remains strong evidence for elements of continuity as much as of contradiction. The development of dystopia as a divergent dynamic has resulted in tensions between the two models of spatial fix that may be interpreted as moments–or spaces–of creative destruction during which capitalism strives to renew its mode of accumulation and the corresponding ways in which space is regulated.
Auroville’s masterplan, an actual Utopian town founded in 1968 in Tamil Nadu, India,
and designed by architect Roger Anger
The Dystopian Fallacy or Why We Need A Post-Utopian Urbanism
While simultaneity in the shifting dimensions of time and space is no proof of necessary or causal connection, strong a priori grounds can be adduced for the proposition that there is some kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of ‘time–space compression’ in the organization of capitalism.
But these changes, when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more as shifts in surface appearance rather than assigns of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society.
Harvey 1989a, vii
While the emergence of the landscapes of dystopia can a piori seem loosely connected to changes in the late-stage capitalism, they are nevertheless causally inscribed within these. Let us consider the regulation side: the fiscal and social crisis of the late 1970s pushed local politicians and planners to adopt growth-oriented or entrepreneurial policies geared towards attracting the affluent classes back to the inner-cities, along with capital markets. In the ‘uneven’ capitalist game, increasing competition between countries and cities saw the modernist utopia castigated for being partly responsible of the urban ills that were now turning certain spaces into dystopias. The unevenness of capitalist development, i.e., the constant shift of capital, or creative destruction, encouraged the political elite and planners to innovate in the development of new tools such as the urban project. Utopia and dystopia interrogate both the political and the polity not only because they are representations of a collective story, but also because they are socially and economically situated and produced. They are not a given out there, but rather furthered through instruments of regulation inscribed in the capitalist regime of accumulation.
Opening screen from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).
A masterpiece on the yuppies’ world and its aesthetic, codes, and urbanity
Last but not least, as shown with the large public housing case, the ideological blame of the modernist utopia pleas for the strong connection between the emergence of dystopias and the restructuration in late-stage capitalism, insofar that the argument establishing the connection between the architectural form on the one hand, and the endemic crime and massive employment is prone to the illusion of the ‘spatialist assumption’. As Harvey puts it,
If there is a crisis implicit in all of that, it is by no means clear that it is the modernists, rather than the capitalists, who are to blame…The blaming of physical form for social ills has to rest on the most vulgar kind of environmental determinism that few would be prepared to accept in other circumstances
Harvey 1989a, 115 [our italics]
After all, large public estates are one among many spatial fixes contained within the Keynesian framework, which, put roughly, sought to address the right to the city for the masses in exchange for their cheap labor.
The tearing down of the Cité des 4000, one of the most famous French grands ensemble in La Courneuve
If contemporary modes of regulation such as the project are insufficient–for they do not counter the junkspace, but in fact further certain dystopian trends such as socio-racial segregation, market-based greenwashing, and exclusive right to the city–we should seek to go beyond them. The modernist utopia and the postmodern dystopia may just be coexisting yet conflicting temporalities that need to be addressed through a ‘post-utopian urbanism’ that would consider the utopian gesture necessary while nonetheless aware of its fallacies in the historical form of modernism. As Latour puts it, “the postmodern is nothing but the modern discounted” (2005, our translation), inviting us to reconsider the divide between the two–which, as we tried to show, is not that straightforward in the case of the utopia/dystopia–but above all to quit the postmodern posture that seems to be more conducive of exclusion and inequalities rather than the right to the city.
* Harvey 1989a refers to The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origines of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell); while 1989b is indicative of “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” in Geografiska Annaler 71, no. 1, pp. 3-17.
** For an exhaustive and critical survey of the shift in 1970s and onwards in macroeconomics, see Martijn Konings, “American Finance and Empire in Historical Perspective,” pp. 48-69 in Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings (eds.), American Empire and The Political Economy of Global Finance, 2009.
“If the break that Haussmann supposedly made was nowhere near as radical as he claimed, then we must search (as Saint-Simon and Marx insist) for the new in the lineaments of the old. But the emergence of the new (as Saint-Simon and Marx also insist) can still have a not-to-be-denied revolutionary significance. Haussmann and his colleagues were willing to engage in creative destruction on a scale hitherto unseen. The formation of Empire out of the ruins of republican democracy enabled them to do this. Let me preview the sorts of shifts I have in mind (…) The provisioning of Paris through Les Halles had long been recognized as inefficient and inadequate. It had been a hot topic of debate during the July Monarchy. The former prefect Berger, under orders from Louis Napoleon as President, had made it a priority to redesign it. Figure 7 shows the old system (soon to be demolished), where merchants stored their goods as best they could under the overhanging eaves of the houses. Louis Napoleon suspended work on Baltard’s new building of 1852—known locally as “the fortress of Les Halles”—as a totally unacceptable solution (figure 8). “We want umbrellas” made “of iron,” Haussmann told a chastened Baltard in 1853, and that, in the end, is what Baltard gave him, though only after Haussmann had rejected (thereby earning Baltard’s perpetual resentment) several hybrid designs. The result was a building that has long been regarded as a modernist classic (see figure 9). In his Mémoires, Haussmann suggests he saved Baltard ’s reputation (when Louis Napoleon asked how an architect who produced something so awful in 1852 could produce such a work of genius two years later, Haussmann immodestly replied “different prefect!”)”
David Harvey, “Introduction” in Paris, Capital of Modernity (2003) p. 12
“This issue of how to see the city and how to represent it during phases of intense change is a daunting challenge. Novelists like Balzac and artists like Daumier pioneer ways to do it in interesting but indirect ways. It is a curious fact, however, that although there are innumerable studies and monographs on individual cities available, few of them turn out to be particularly memorable, let alone enlightening about the human condition. There are, of course, exceptions. I have always taken Carl Schorske’s fin-de-siècle Vienna as the model to be aspired to, no matter how impossible to replicate.19 An interesting feature of that work is precisely how it manages to convey some sense of the totality of what the city was about through a variety of perspectives on material life, on cultural activities, on patterns of thought within the city. The most interesting urban writing is often of a fragmentary and perspectival sort. The difficulty then is to see the totality as well as the parts, and it is on this point that fin-de-siècle Vienna works its particular magic. This difficulty is pervasive in urban studies and urban theory. We have abundant theories as to what happens in the city but a singular lack of theory of the city; and those theories of the city that we do have often appear to be so one-dimensional and so wooden as to eviscerate the richness and complexity of what the urban experience is about. One cannot easily approach the city and the urban experience, therefore, in a one- dimensional way.”
Ibid, p. 18
Guest post and all photos: Antoine G.
When “God is dead, the author is dead, history is dead, only the architect is left standing” (Koolhaas, 2002: 18) without utopias, what (or who) is actually left for the planning and development of our cities?
Besides its appeal to a longue durée analysis, the topic of urbanism and utopia – and their links, of course – is today rather fashionable, whether one speaks of current exhibitions, critical insights on the idea of a capitalist Utopia, or even indirectly among the latest parliamentary reports.
In this series of three guests posts we will explore the definition of a Post-Utopian Urbanism, on the basis of various readings ranging from Lefebvre to recent writings of Jameson and Rem Koolhaas, and to a great extent indebted to David Harvey’s seminal analysis of the links between capitalist transformation and our (post)modern perception of space and time (1989).
The enterprise of surveying the intimate relationship between Urbanism and Utopia consists of reading the dynamics and transformations that affected cities and their planning over the centuries, together with the discourse surrounding this practice. Put otherwise, the topic at hand here is one of epistemological concern, and is conducive to a two-part analysis: it is as much a study of the urbs, the City itself, as of urbanism, the self-reflective scientific discourse underpinning the city’s development.
The definition of Utopia, the City, and the contextualisation of their problematic encounter is a controversial undertaking. Despite the canonicisation of utopian literature through Thomas More, there is no strict consensus on what a utopia is. And the task of tracing the archaeology of that which makes a City, and of that which makes possible its existence through planning and building, is equally broad and subject to debate. In what follows, the many links between the two will be scrutinized, with special attention paid to the tensions inherent to these links.
Postmodernism as the End of History and the Crisis of Representations
Destruction of the Pruitt Igoe housing ensemble,
designed by Minoru Yamasaki in accordance with the planning principles of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architects.
St Louis, Missouri, 1972
We can deal with the topic as an exercise of reading the “City” as an object through time: on the one hand, with reference to the transformations that have affected empirical practices and discourses of the planning métier; and on the other hand, by analysing the capacity of this object to embody and be the scene for social change – whether simply aiming to produce otherness, or, more ambitiously, to proceed towards betterment. This ability for ‘change’ came into question around the 1970s, as urbanism gradually divorced from the modernist project of utopia, one based on a ‘science’ of social improvement through technical progress.
In his comprehensive and insightful survey of ‘postmodernity’ – a key concept in understanding the development of post-utopian urbanism – David Harvey recalls the anecdote of Charles Jencks, whose Language of post-modern architecture (1984) indicates 3.32 p.m. the 15th of July 1972 to be the precise moment marking the death of modernity, and the subsequent passage into postmodernity. At this date, Yamasaki’s Pruitt Igoe complex was torn down.
Besides its aesthetic dimension, we find this photograph compelling. Firstly, for what it represents: the fall of modern urbanism (Choay 1965), which had considered scientific progress as a utopian engine. And secondly, for the crisis it forewarns: precisely of our contemporary difficulty to represent things. For indeed, to survey the changes affecting urbanism and utopias in their kinship is to study nothing but the crisis of representations: whether it is that of politics (crisis of liberal democracies and of the link between governing bodies and the governed); that of technique (crisis of the economic and urban plan); that of architecture (crisis of comprehensive projects, giving way to an aesthetic of collage, and small scale); or that of social representations (crisis of the pluralist society, the dissolution of unitary identities), and so on (Harvey 1989, MacLeod et Ward 2002, Pinson 2009).
Historically, this crisis of representations had been gaining momentum since the 1970s, riding the wave of a broader set of social and economic troubles. At first an economic crisis, it then spread, whether in a causal chain or in concomitance, to various spheres, and may nowadays lead us to wonder if the one-time crisis has not became the norm of our societies, in a transformation similar to what Agamben (2005) noted about the state of exception in liberal democracies.
Urbanism versus Utopia? An Etymological Inquiry
In order to study the many ways in which urbanism and utopia work together, and to bring in to light the resultant tensions, let us start with a brief self-sufficient definition. At first glance, urbanism and utopia appear to operate within different ontological spheres. The former literally deals with concrete matter, in the sense of buildings and infrastructures, whereas the latter operates necessarily in the domain of speculative abstraction.
‘Urbanism,’ at least in French, is rather recent; it was born in 1910 as the “science and theory of human establishment” (Choay, 1965: 8). As its etymology implies, it is the science of the urbs; Latin word for the walled city, the solid city then, as founded by Romulus when he traced down the limits of what was to become Rome. The fact that the birth of ‘urbanism’ is connate with the Industrial Revolution is anything but fortuitous. It reflects the historical turn from the country to the city, where today the vast majority of the world’s population lives. As a ‘science’, urbanism became a discipline per se: with its own tools, its own history, and its own discourse. It is important that urbanism’s ‘scientific’ status not obfuscate its deep political involvement: its object is no less than the form of the communal life that takes place in the immense ensembles, whose density distinguishes them from the country. It is in this attempt to condition the dynamics of communal life that urbanism finds its kinship to utopia.
On the other hand, utopia is first a literary genre, one that can be traced back to Plato’s Republic but which seems to have acquired its canonical status in Thomas More’s eponymous book, published in 1516, before being strongly developed during the 19th century among early socialists like Proudhon, Ledru-Rollin, Herzen and Fourier. The utopian gesture is characterised by its force of projection; it ‘throws’ two visions of a topos, together into a single place. On the one hand, outopia (οὐ τόπος), a nowhere: an-other land that does not exist. And on the other, eutopia (εὖ τόπος), a better or good place: one in which harmony prevails (Choay 1965, 25). Utopia thereby articulates a capacity of abstraction with moral insights.
Urbanism + Utopias = Urbatopia?
The City functions as the privileged nexus in which urbanism and utopia enter into contact. As mentioned, the fundamental common ground of urbanism and utopianism consists in their attempt to condition the harmonious community, the vivre ensemble. We can sketch this common ground along four more registers.
- Throughout their history, urbanism and utopias have shared a reliance on a spatial basis: they imagine and lay down the principles of organizations for ideal places, that is, power relations between groups that are embedded in a given territorial conception (Choay 1965, Harvey 2000).
In their practice – or operational mode – urbanism and utopias partake in the dialectical gesture of projection. By abstracting from the here and the now, they both seek to lay out a legible space, one that does not yet exist but might. Such projections are generic – models capable of being reproduced (Choay 1965, 25). This “spatial game” (Harvey 2000) projects an-other space. In such a way, urbanism until the 1970s, equated this ‘otherness’ with betterment: its utopias conveyed a sense of social and moral progress. Here it is important to signal the centrality of repetition in utopian and urban projection, an aspect of their model-oriented production. Are utopias – as models at once generic but virtuous – suitable to reproduction, or are they unique? Put otherwise, can they be reproduced independently of the context in which they were conceived?
This in turn raises the question of the third feature on our list: totality. This common concern of both utopian and urban practices explicitly appeals to the issue of openness in political regimes, and that of political theory more generally (Jameson 2004). Generally speaking, utopias conceive closed and self-sufficient spaces, not foreign to the etymological notion of the walled urbs. Today however, the forms of our metropolises or edge cities seriously hamper this capacity for self-enclosure.
Last but not least, urbanism and utopias are united in crisis, as presaged by the photography of Pruitt Igoe’s destruction. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the twofold crisis – of capitalist economies and liberal democracies on the one hand, and of any alternative to these systems, on the other – was mirrored in the crisis of urban societies (Pinson 2009). The ‘crisis of the plan’, whether economic in the Keynesian doctrine, or urban/strategic in the practice of zoning, epitomizes this predicament.
It is on the basis of these four points of contact between utopias and urbanism (space, projection, totality and crisis) that we seek to conceive of a post-utopian urbanism.
Motifs in Urbanism: The shift from Urbatopias to Urban Dystopias
This attempt, though interesting, should not preclude a brief examination of the contradictions within the very objects of inquiry themselves (Harvey 1989), and their dynamics. Indeed, the term ‘urbanism’ may sound strange to the Anglo-Saxon ear, accustomed rather to the term ‘urban planning.’ This semantic difference encapsulates quite succinctly the dramatic shift in the discipline, the original attempts at ‘planning’ having been confronted with, and to some extent superseded by, ‘design’ (Rode 2006), related to the fading away of utopias.*
This echoes Antoine Picon’s statement that urbanism is nothing but “a series of historically determined propositions” (2004: 4; our translation), suggesting the need to understand the widening rift between planning and the modernist utopia within the socio-economic context that urbanism inhabits (Harvey 1989).
Born as a clear-cut motif in the academic literature and among planners around the turn of the 1970s, Dystopia points to the anti-urban dimension of a whole school of previous utopias, ‘initiated’ by Frank L. Wright. While the term ‘school’ may be far-fetched, this planning tradition presents identifiable traits based on a common denominator: the formal disappearance of the City, with its centrality and industrial nuisances, superseded by small, decentralized, and multipolar introductions of nature in Garden Cities (Choay 1965).
This repugnance vis-à-vis the city is discernable in the postmodern understanding of dystopia. This is true of the U.S., where the avatars of urban studies’ nightmares abound: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, edge cities, gated communities, and, of course, the hyperghetto (MacLeod et Ward 2002, Pinder 2002). The appearance of this dystopian figure is anything but fortuitous. It is deeply rooted in the crisis of the 1970s and develops parallel to the apparition of postmodernism in the aesthetic and academic domains.
The city, once the nexus through which urbanism and utopias worked together towards betterment through the Keynesian mode of regulation (Harvey 1989, Pinson 2009), seems to have become the place of all nightmares: segregation, endemic crime, socio-economic inequalities. Where the projects once offered a shelter to the dispossessed of the inner-cities, there are now to be lofts and branches of globalized brands. This historical shift deserves substantial attention, for it is the nexus of understanding how, and maybe why, urbanism departed from utopias and thus went from planning to design, from comprehensive projects to a small scale-based architecture of collage, and from the plan able to regulate – for a time – the contradiction of capitalism to the ‘urban project,’ whose object is now the undecipherable city as a whole (on the notion of urban projects, see Pinson 2009). It will also allow us to examine the embedded nature of this shift in a greater capitalist evolution (Harvey 1989).
The divorce between urbanism and utopias is indeed inextricably linked to, and may be the expression of, the inability of the urban society to regulate the inner contradictions of capitalism and the subsequent growth of inequalities. The next step in understanding what could be a Post-Utopian Urbanism will therefore focus on the shift from Urbatopia to Dystopia, so to speak, and examine the consequences and implications for the ‘plan’ as a scientific tool, and by extension for urbanism.
* to go further on the distinction between ‘planning’ and ‘design,’ see Rode “City Design — A New Planning Paradigm?” (2006). See also David Harvey’s major work on postmodernity and its passages on the aesthetic of collage, pp. 40-60 and chap. 4.
Two excerpts characteristic of Harvey’s very particular way of putting together so cogently and neatly the muddled thoughts and convictions that had otherwise been doing elusive gymnastics in my cranium.
“At the heart of the credit system lies a set of arrangements that constitute what I shall call the ‘state-finance nexus’. This describes a confluence of state and financial power that confounds the analytic tendency to see state and capital as clearly separable from each other. This does not mean that state and capital constituted then or now an identity, but that there are structures of governance (such as power over coinage of the realm in the past and central banks and treasury departments today) where the state management of capital creation and monetary flows becomes integral to, rather than separable from, the circulation of capital. The reverse relation also holds as taxes or borrowings flow into the coffers of the state and state functions also become monetised, commodified and ultimately privatised.”
“All along, capitalists have sought to control labour by putting individual workers in competition with each other for the jobs on offer. To the degree that the potential labour force is gendered, racialised, ethnicised, tribalised or divided by language, political and sexual orientation and religious beliefs, so these differences emerge as fundamental to the workings of the labour market. They become tools through which capitalists manage labour supplies in tandem with privileged sectors of the workforce who use racism and sexism to minimise competition. The history of primitive accumulation itself entailed the manufacture of claims of ‘natural’, and hence biologically based, superiorities that legitimised forms of hierarchical power and class domination in the face of religious or secular claims to equal status in the eyes of God or the state (the US and French Revolutions). Throughout its history, capital has been in no way reluctant to exploit, if not promote, such fragmentations, even as workers themselves struggle to define collective means of action that all too often stop at the boundaries of ethnic, religious, racial or gender identities. Indeed, in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, labour organisations sought to curb competition in labour markets by imposing exclusions based on race and gender.”
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.
Federal agencies and major banks collude in the process of accumulation via dispossession
This mini-documentary, Mo’Money, Mo’Money, Mo’Money, by the California Reinvestment Coalition, succinctly demonstrates the way in which federal agencies of the US, such as the HUD and the FHA, continue to collude with major financial corporations in the process of leeching capital from the poorest classes of American society.
Accumulation by Dispossession
David Harvey has indicated the fundamentally ‘spatial’ coordinates of this process with his concept of accumulation by dispossession (see: Financialization, and, Management and Manipulation of Crises). This concept is more commonly used to describe processes of primitive capital accumulation in nascent neoliberal states, and does not therefore fully exhaust the considerable analytic complexity of the class dynamics in the ghettos of the US. Although this concept is not exhaustive of the modern institutional complexities of ghetto-formation and persistence, it does however open a view onto the geographical variabilities of crisis articulated along the nexus of class and zone in predator states.
The Predator State
The idea of the ‘predatory state’ describes the dynamics of a post-industrial era in which it is difficult to discern a structurally determined bourgeoisie who owns property and the proletariat who sells their labour.
Rather, what we see is a certain group, structurally transient with respect to public and private positions (the CEOs of yesterday do the regulating of tomorrow), whose common feature is the coordination of predation on groups with relatively less power.
For a non-marxist (even strikingly Keynesian) account of the predator state, see James Galbraith (pdf: James Galbraith – The Predator State – 2008).
“Instead of contributing to homeownership and community development,” contends Gregory Squires, “predatory lending practices strip the equity homeowners have struggled to build and deplete the wealth of those communities for the enrichment of distant financial services firms.”
Indeed, one need only look at the systemic linkages between the intra-ghetto practice of predatory lending, and the predatory transformations of institutional functions at the state level that work to facilitate it in order to see that it has become something of a modus operandii through which crisis is mediated in the US.