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.
Mature technological systems – cars, roads, municipal water supplies, sewers, telephones, railroads, weather forecasting, buildings, even computers in the majority of their uses – reside in a naturalized background, as ordinary and unremarkable to us as trees, daylight, and dirt. Our civilizations fundamentally depend on them, yet we notice them mainly when they fail, which they rarely do. They are the connective tissues and circulatory systems of modernity. In short, these systems have become infrastructures. Infrastructures simultaneously shape and are shaped by – in other words, co-construct – the condition of modernity. By linking macro, meso, and micro scales of time, space and social organization, they form the stable foundation of modern social worlds. To be modern is to live within and by means of infrastructures, and therefore to inhabit, uneasily, the intersection of these multiple scales.
Paul N. Edwards
The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest in the entire Western Hemisphere. Located less than 24 hours by road or rail from every EU capitol, it has for decades been the heartbeat of the European Union, and a cornerstone of the entire world’s economy. But now, that cornerstone is in danger of collapse. With 90% of products today shipped by container, Rotterdam’s container terminals are nearing capacity, threatening to become a trade bottleneck that could cripple a continent already devastated by recession.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, the Port of Rotterdam has launched the Maasvlakte 2 Project — an ambitious $4 billion plan to triple the port’s container capacity by 2013. But in a country with literally nowhere else to build, that means undertaking the biggest land reclamation project in history, turning 8 square miles of the stormy North Sea into Europe’s new gateway to the world. And it’s much more than just earth-moving. To keep the port running 24-7, they’re building 3 new power plants, and to house the army of workers servicing Europe’s largest construction project, they are building the biggest hotel in the Netherlands — entirely from recycled shipping containers.
To plan for the future, everything at the Maasvlakte 2 will be super-sized to accommodate the mammoth container ships of the future. Upon completion, it will be the most valuable port facility ever, providing the largest ships in the world direct connection to Europe’s industrial heartland. [...] engineers literally reshape the Dutch coast, all while keeping one of the world’s busiest ports up and running.
Infrastructure has changed radically. Whether the Los Angeles freeways, the New York subway, the London Tube, the motorways outside Dublin, or airports just about anywhere, much of our infrastructure exists in a state of perpetual overload. It is under massive stress from the pressures we place on it: overburdened, aged, little loved. This is not only true for transportation. The news is filled with failing infrastructural systems: electrical grids overload during peak season, petroleum refineries break down, floodwater control systems overflow in heavy storms, wastewater plants spill sewage, aqueducts mysteriously leak.
[...] Curiously, infrastructure is a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies its first use in 1927. The word only achieves real currency in the 1980s after the publication of a scathing public policy assessment entitled America in Ruins: The Decaying Infrastructure, which raised many issues. To understand the technical systems that support a society roads, bridges, water supply, wastewater, flood management, telecommunications, gas and electric lines as one category, it was first necessary to see it fail.
Narcissistically mesmerised by hackers, interns and precarious academics, radical theorists of post-Fordism have ignored what Bologna calls ‘the multitude of globalisation’, that is all of those who work across the supply chain, in the manual and intellectual labour that makes highly complex integrated transnational systems of warehousing, transport and control possible. In this ‘second geography’ of logistical spaces, we also encounter the greatest ‘criticality’ of the system – though not, as in the proclamations of The Coming Insurrection , in the isolated and ephemeral act of sabotage, but in a working class which retains the residual power of interrupting the productive cycle – a power that offshoring, outsourcing, and downsising has in many respects stripped from the majority of ‘productive’ workers themselves.
The politics underpinning urban infrastructural transformation are rarely more evident or visible than in times of crisis or rupture. When water, energy or transport networks suffer extreme pressures or collapse completely, the underlying urban power geometries become somewhat more perceptible. [...] Infrastructure crises are the precursors and outcomes of changing societal consciousness, both in terms of destabilizing the taken-for-granted nature of infrastructure and in terms of unsettling the social order and urban experience which reflect how people relate to and use (or not) infrastructure on a day-by-day basis. [...] These accounts of enactments of the politics of the urban fabric (in contexts of inequality or crisis) can be seen to demonstrate some of the diverse and contingent ways in which urban infrastructure may be ‘re-materialized’.
Colin McFarlane & John Rutherford. 2008
All images by DCDB. Text from various sources (see hyperlinks).
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.
Encampment Today: The Space of the Community Without Identity (Michel Agier bootleg translation with photos from Heiko Schäfer)
The following excerpt is from Michel Agier’s Gérér les indésirables, an impressively broad and comprehensive investigation into the socio-spatial strategies of the institutionalisation of the ‘camp’ as an apparatus for the management of the disqualified populations of the planet. The truly remarkable thing about this work is that it is enriched both by wide-ranging and well-researched empirical data (that is presented with a healthy dose of scepticism) on the one hand, and on the other, by a brilliant philosophical investigation into the ontological status of the liminal figures it presents. The work has been translated into English it would seem, but I have neither the access nor the rights to it, so here’s a bootleg excerpt from the original french. Photos from Heiko Schäfer, see description below.
[Speaking of the urban squats and self-installed camps inhabited by internally displaced persons...] All of these situations are marked by an extreme material precariousness, and by the sentiment of those that settle there that they will only be there for a short period. If such a sentiment is generally the case, these zones are nevertheless also firmly-established turntables, and sometimes places of urban stability.
This incomplete portrait of the ‘gray zones’ is the first stage of the grand edifice of camps in the world today. But it also provides an opening onto research directions that must be briefly evoked before proceeding with our inventory of encampment.
I) On the one hand, a continuity of purpose and function interlinks these different campements and their occupants.
The space of self-made refuge can thus be drawn: it runs from the huge tents of the guineo-liberian border to the peripheral neighbourhoods of the african and asian cities, passing by the forest camps and certain squats of european cities.
These refuges are frontier spaces, or more precisely, between-frontier spaces. They are the extreme figures, the most distant, the least visible and least ‘integrated’, no-places [hors-lieux].
They invoke conceptions of the locality at the limit - in the political just as much as spatial sense of the term. Effectively, we can associate the precarious forms of tents, of camps, of ‘invasions’ and of urban wastelands with the figures of the threshold and the interstice. These figures are contained in the relationship of the State to space which evokes the ban-lieu: the physically and juridically uncertain territory of the ‘ban’, at the limit of society, and yet still detained by the State who retains the power to control and abandon it.
The maintenance of this paradoxal relationship at the limit of physical and social life is perfectly reified by the ambivalence of the ‘ban’. Expression of the law (a formal proclamation: publish the ban, open the ban), the ban is expressed in banishing, la mise au ban.
The ban-lieu is not, strictly speaking, a space, it’s a relation: that which links public power – generally represented by the State, but also by the ‘international community’ – and the borders of precarious life, be it that this precariousness manifests with regard to the habitat and the urban space, to employment and income, to civil rights or social frameworks.
Bit by bit, a ban-lieu of the world is being formed; it is neither strictly urban, nor rural, but peripheral to these sectors, and it is this intermediary, this liminal position that characterises its political and physical existence.
II) On the other hand, these refuges are not simply self-settled but also self-organised. Hierarchies compose themselves within the emergency of survival, power relations a minima assure the installation of an order within the disorder of the event, or of the ‘jungle’. Faced with situations of extreme relegation, faced with crisis or emergency, temporary communities form – within the framework of flight, of clandestinity, of disaster – from the very moment that the persons pulled together by circumstance share a minimum of moral and political protocole.
What are these rules that found, in the emergency, shared purpose? Even if, in the cases evoked herein, the observed social frameworks derive more or less from a common basis, the frame of reference is broad, it goes from the family to the nation, and very rarely bears witness to pre-existing social networks or shared social milieus.
We can at very least remark that, if these groups thus formed through crisis indeed share values or languages in common, they are not for as much founded on an identitarian recognition, but on the situation, the shared space and event.
The communities of survival are all singular communities, to be sure, but they tend towards the formation of communities without identity. The ‘jungle’, the ‘ghetto’, or the ‘camp’ (when the term is used as if designating a neighbourhood) are symbols formed on the basis of shared place names.
What’s more, amongst the most globalised of their kind, these names are without identitarian distinction. The groupings are situational and, in this sense, exemplary of a social modernity that includes and transcends the sole case described by self-made refuge. In a more general sense, in effect, this kind of grouping, created by the dynamics of a situation, puts seriously in doubt the realism and social effectiveness of identitary affirmations and the divisions of the world that their ideologies support.
About the pictures from Heiko Schäfer
translation from website:
The series ‘Maritime Incidents’ shows the boats of African refugees, seized off the Sicilian coast by the italian coastguard.
Every year an estimated 10,000 people attempt to enter illegally into the EU over the Mediterranean. The human tragedies and catastrophes play out over our media sources almost daily. These victims, presented as criminals, thereby remain nameless. Given the ever-growing human masses, the authorities have abandoned any attempt at a detailed record.
Miami’s biopolitical camp for sex offenders: a microcosm of the state of exception under the Julia Tuttle Causeway
According to Giorgio Agamben the camp is the nomos of the modern insofar as it functions as a receptacle for the increasing dysfunctionality of systems of governance: “The camp is the space that is opened up when the state of exception begins to become the rule.”
The sex offender camp under the Julia Tuttle causeway is a microcosmic example of this process that merits closer analysis as such.
Essentially, there exists in the Miami-Dade County an ordinance that prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet from schools, parks, bus stops, or anywhere else where children routinely congregate. Stop and consider that for a second : 2,500 feet is roughly 760 metres. Can you imagine any space in any American or west-European city that is almost a kilometre from any bus stop, park, school or anywhere where children routinely congregate? As wikipedia will tell you, in Miami this is no easy feat : “ At only 35.68 square miles (92 km2) of land area, Miami has the smallest land area of any major U.S. city with a metro area of at least 2.5 million people. Miami is the only major city in the United States bordered by two national parks, Everglades National Park on the west, and Biscayne National Park on the east.”
Thus, in one of America’s smallest and most concentrated cities, uniquely surrounded by two enormous parks, what this legislation effectively does – and those that fought for its adoption are fundamentally aware of this – is banish a certain excepted portion of the population from the physical fabric of the city. Moreover, it mobilises this population, putting them into a perpetual state of undecideability.
The sex offenders are thus forced to reside in the interstitial spaces that the legislation lays out for them. And they have done so according to the same logic as any other human reduced to bare life in the modern state of exception in the past century has done: through the creation of a camp. It is underneath a bridge, I have outlined it in black in the photo below. Note the distance from the mainland. Since 2005, sex offenders banished from the space of the city by their exceptional juridical status in Miami have been living under Julia Tuttle Causeway, which links Miami to Miami Beach. There is no running water, no electricity and no protection from the external environment. They are purely exposed to the city, to whatever self-purifying violence seethes within or without its ramparts.
Of course, it goes without saying that this policy of forcing sex-offenders into a collective homeless enclave in a destitute part of the city has had null impact on the incidences of sexual abuse in the city. But, in any case, it would be erroneous to understand this legislation as conceived as a remedial measure in response to incidences of crime. Rather, this ordinance is inscribed into a much longer and fundamental history of legislation that effectively demarcates the biopolitical space shared by humans under the State of Law. The impurity and ungovernability of a non-sanctioned type of life that, for all its reprehensibility, cannot be eradicated with any finality, comes into a structural relation of excluded-inclusion with the sovereign. The sex-offender camp is but one example in this long history, yet it is infinitely more troubling to the liberal conscience in that it is much less easy to sympathise with sex-offenders exposed to the state of exception than it is to sympathise with refugees or ethnic minorities. Formulated in Agambean terms, in the sex-offender camp of Julia Tuttle Causeway, “the state of exception… is now given a permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains outside of the normal order.”
Excerpt from Paul Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life
The subsumption into the labour process of what formerly guaranteed an indisputable physiognomy for public Action can be clarified by means of an ancient, but by no means ineffective, category: virtuosity.
Accepting, for now, the normal meaning of the word, by “virtuosity” I mean the special capabilities of a performing artist. A virtuoso, for example, is the pianist who offers us a memorable performance of Schubert; or it is a skilled dancer, or a persuasive orator, or a teacher who is never boring, or a priest who delivers a fascinating sermon. Let us consider carefully what defines the activity of virtuosos, of performing artists. First of all, theirs is an activity which finds its own fulfilment (that is, its own purpose) in itself, without objectifying itself into an end product, without settling into a “finished product,” or into an object which would survive the performance. Secondly, it is an activity which requires the presence of others, which exists only in the presence of an audience.
An activity without an end product: the performance of a pianist or of a dancer does not leave us with a defined object distinguishable from the performance itself, capable of continuing after the performance has ended. An activity which requires the presence of others: the performance [Author uses the English word here] makes sense only if it is seen or heard. It is obvious that these two characteristics are inter-related: virtuosos need the presence of an audience precisely because they are not producing an end product, an object which will circulate through the world once the activity has ceased. Lacking a specific extrinsic product, the virtuoso has to rely on witnesses.
The category of virtuosity is discussed in the Nicomachean Ethics; it appears here and there in modern political thought, even in the twentieth century; it even holds a small place in Marx’s criticism of political economics. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguishes labour (or poiesis) from political action (or praxis), utilizing precisely the notion of virtuosity: we have labour when an object is produced, an opus which can be separated from action; we have praxis when the purpose of action is found in action itself. Aristotle writes: “For while making has an end other than itself, action cannot; for good action [understood both as ethical conduct and as political action, Virno adds] itself is its end” (Nicomachean Ethic, VI, 1140 b). Implicitly resuming Aristotle’s idea, Hannah Arendt compares the performing artists, the virtuosos, to those who are engaged in political action. She writes: “The performing arts [...] have indeed a strong affinity with politics. Performing artists-dancers, play-actors, musicians, and the like — need an audience to show their virtuosity, just as acting men need the presence of others before whom they can appear; both need a publicly organized space for their `work,’ and both depend upon others for the performance itself” (Arendt, Between Past and Future: 154).
One could say that every political action is virtuosic. Every political action, in fact, shares with virtuosity a sense of contingency, the absence of a “finished product,” the immediate and unavoidable presence of others. On the one hand, all virtuosity is intrinsically political. Think about the case of Glenn Gould (Gould, The Glenn Gould Reader; and Schneider, Glenn Gould). This great pianist paradoxically, hated the distinctive characteristics of his activity as a performing artist; to put it another way, he detested public exhibition. Throughout his life he fought against the “political dimension” intrinsic to his profession. At a certain point Gould declared that he wanted to abandon the “active life,” that is, the act of being exposed to the eyes of others (note: “active life” is the traditional name for politics). In order to make his own virtuosity non-political, he sought to bring his activity as a performing artist as close as possible to the idea of labor, in the strictest sense, which leaves behind extrinsic products. This meant closing himself inside a recording studio, passing off the production of records (excellent ones, by the way) as an “end product.” In order to avoid the public-political dimension ingrained in virtuosity, he had to pretend that his masterly performances produced a defined object (independent of the performance itself). Where there is an end product, an autonomous product, there is labour, no longer virtuosity, nor, for that reason, politics.
Even Marx speaks of pianists, orators, dancers, etc. He speaks of them in some of his most important writings: in his “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” and then, in almost identical terms, in his Theories of Surplus-value. Marx analyses intellectual labour, distinguishing between its two principal types. On one hand, there is immaterial or mental activity which “results in commodities which exist separately from the producer [...] books, paintings and all products of art as distinct from the artistic achievement of the practising artist” (in Appendix to Capital, Vol. I, “Results of the Immediate Process of Production”: 1048). This is the first type of intellectual labour. On the other hand, Marx writes, we need to consider all those activities in which the “product is not separable from the act of producing” (ibid., 1048) — those activities, that is, which find in themselves their own fulfilment without being objectivised into an end product which might surpass them. This is the same distinction which Aristotle made between material production and political action. The only difference is that Marx in this instance is not concerned with political action; rather, he is analysing two different representations of labour. To these specifically defined types of poiesis he applies the distinction between activity-with-end-product and activity-without-end-product. The second type of intellectual labour (activities in which “product is not separable from the act of producing,”) includes, according to Marx, all those whose labour turns into a virtuosic performance: pianists, butlers, dancers, teachers, orators, medical doctors, priests, etc.
So then, if intellectual labour which produces an end product does not pose any special problems, labour without an end product (virtuosic labour) places Marx in an embarrassing situation. The first type of intellectual labour conforms to the definition of “productive labour.” But what about the second type? I remember in passing, that for Marx,’productive labour is not subordinate or fatiguing or menial labour, but is precisely and only that kind of labour which produces surplus-value. Of course, even virtuosic performances can, in principle, produce surplus-value: the activity of the dancer, of the pianist, etc., if organized in a capitalistic fashion, can be a source of profit. But Marx is disturbed by the strong resemblance between the activity of the performing artist and the servile duties which, thankless and frustrating as they are, do not produce surplus value, and thus return to the realm of non-productive labour. Servile labour is that labour in which no capital is invested, but a wage is paid (example: the personal services of a butler). According to Marx, even if the “virtuosist” workers represent, on one hand, a not very significant exception to the quantitative point of view, on the other hand, and this is what counts more, they almost always converge into the realm of servile/non-productive labour. Such convergence is sanctioned precisely by the fact that their activity does not give way to an independent end product: where an autonomous finished product is lacking, for the most part one cannot speak of productive (surplus-value) labour. Marx virtually accepts the equation work-without-end-product = personal services. In conclusion, virtuosic labour, for Marx, is a form of wage labour which is not, at the same time, productive labour (Theories of Surplus-value: 410-411).
Let us try to sum things up. Virtuosity is open to two alternatives: either it conceals the structural characteristics of political activity (lack of an end product, being exposed to the presence of others, sense of contingency, etc.), as Aristotle and Hannah Arendt suggest; or, as in Marx, is takes on the features of “wage labour which is not productive labour.” This bifurcation decays and falls to pieces when productive labour, in its totality. appropriates the special characteristics of the performing artist. In post-
Fordism, those who produce surplus-value behave — from the structural point of view, of course — like the pianists, the dancers, etc., and for this reason, like the politicians. With reference to contemporary production, Hannah Arendt’s observation on the activity of the performing artist and the politician rings clear: in order to work, one needs a “publicly organized space.” In post-Fordism, Labor requires a publicly organized space” and resembles a virtuosic performance (without end product). This publicly organized space is called “cooperation” by Marx. One could say: at a certain level in the development of productive social forces, labour cooperation introjects verbal communication into itself, or, more precisely, a complex of political actions.
Do you remember the extremely renowned commentary of Max Weber on politics as profession? (Weber, Politics as a Vocation) Weber elaborates on a series of qualities which define the politician: knowing how to place the health of one’s own soul in danger; an equal balance between the ethics of convincing and the ethics of responsibility; dedication to one’s goal, etc. We should re-read this text with reference to Toyotaism, to labour based upon language, to the productive mobilization of the cognitive faculties. Weber’s wisdom speaks to us of the qualities required today for material production.
“These images protected by cameras – the ones for luxury goods.
Somehow they are even more protected than human beings.”
“La lacération représente pour moi ce geste primaire, c’est une guérilla des images et des signes. D’un geste rageur, le passant anonyme détourne le message et ouvre un nouvel espace de liberté. Pour moi, les affiches lacérées rapprochaient l’art de la vie et annonçaient la fin de la peinture de transposition…”
Lacération represents for me that primal gesture, it’s a guerilla war of sign and image. In one enraged gesture, the anonymous passer-by détournes the message and opens a new free space. For me, shredded billboards reproached living art and announced the end of the ‘painting of transposition’…
“Etre le témoin actif d’une humanité riche en contradictions est une de mes ambitions. C’est l’anonyme de la rue qui intervient sur les reflets de la culture dominante… Je passe après.”
To bear witness to a humanity rich in contradictions is one of my ambitions. It’s the stranger of the street that intervenes in the fragments of the dominant culture… I come by after.
“J’ai eu beaucoup de discussions avec les militants communistes qui me reprochaient d’arracher leurs affiches : je leur répondais qu’elles iraient dans les musées et qu’ainsi leur histoire serait racontée.”
I had many discussions with militant communists who reproached me for having torn apart their posters. I replied to them that the posters would go into museums, and that thereby their story would be told.
“La vie d’un artiste doit commencer par la flânerie.”
The life of an artist must start with flanery.
Lacération is the retributive act by the marketing-produced-subject upon the marketing that produced her.
Lacération traces the absurd mortality of the spectacle, fetishized obsolescence.
Lacération lays waste to the power-lunches, the power-points, the PR pitches that went into your latest campaign.
Lacération is the adoptive father of e-waste, the perishable food thrown away by your local Monoprix, the green-friendly transformation of your bank.
Lacération will peel back the white skin of your iPod, scalp your poodle, tear the face off Shrek.
Lacération makes of the metro a museum, without any democratic pretence for permits.
Lacération requires no brand or name recognition, it is not the personality cult of the tagger, it is the act in aesthetic purity.
Lacération is the act of the racaille and the migrant journalier.
Lacération is market saturation.
Lacération is an obsolete technology, the cassette, the Y2K bug.
Lacération is the sublimated ungovernability of the people.
Lacération portends the coming insurrection.
My lacération documentation project during a year in Paris in 2008:
“The primacy of the notion of movement lies in the function of the becoming unpolitical of the people (remember that the people is the unpolitical element that grows in the shadow and under the protection of the movement). So the movement becomes the decisive political concept when the democratic concept of the people, as a political body, is in demise.”
“I think that a confrontation with metropolitan dispositifs will only be possible when we penetrate the processes of subjectivation that the metropolis entails in a more articulated way, deeper. Because I think that the outcome of conflicts depends on this: on the power to act and intervene on processes of subjectivation, in order to reach that stage that I would call a point of ungovernability. The ungovernable where power can shipwreck in its figure of government, the ungovernable that I think is always the beginning and the line of flight of all politics.”
Sometime in the mid-60s, Fela Kuti founds commune, collective recording studio and free health clinic, which he names the Kalakuta Republic (Swahili: Rascally Republic). Declaring Kalakuta Republic independent from the Nigerian government, Kuti writes “Zombie”, an unswerving critique of the conformism and inhumanity of the Nigerian army: “Zombie no go turn unless you tell am to turn / Zombie no go think unless you tell to think…”. Protesters rioting against the government copy Kuti’s robotic stage movements. On the 18th of February, 1977, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers consequently attack the Kalakuta Republic, raping the women, severely beating Kuti and throwing his 78-year old mother from a window, who dies days later in a coma. Later, riots break out when Kuti performs Zombie at a concert, he is banned from Ghana for being ‘liable to cause a breach of the peace’. Banned from the metropolis for his radical movement, his rascally republic in ruins, Kuti delivers his mother’s coffin to the front gate of the military barracks in Lagos, and writes the accompanying song “Coffin for Head of State”.
Blind Willie Johnson is born in 1897 in Texas. Around the age of five, after a domestic dispute, his stepmother throws a handful of lye into his face, blinding him permanently. He grows up moving from corner to corner of the urban tangle, rasping out the blues in a gruff drawl, playing slide guitar with a rusty knife. One day, he is playing on the corner in front of a New Orleans courthouse. His rendition of ‘If I Had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down” is so powerful that it causes a riot, and he is arrested on charges of disturbing the peace. Ungovernability is brought into a civic situation. In 1977, when he is long dead, the same year that Kalakuta Republic is brought back within the sovereignty of the Nigerian state, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” is blasted into deep space as part of the Voyager Golden Record. His wordless song, which consists mostly of hermetic moaning about Jesus and the screeching of his poignantly alone slide guitar, is, according to NASA “intended to communicate the story of our world to extraterrestrials”.