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Ode to the 21st Century

In the 21st century…
What is making the news is now news,
You can make money just by moving money,
Politics is now about anything but politics,
You now have to be taught how to teach,
Having an education does not make you educated,
The police need policing,
Being creative requires no creativity,
Networking requires having no networks,
Diversity is not diverse any more,
Children are encouraged to grow up,
yet adults are encouraged to be more like children,
Being an expert requires no expertise,
only the expertise in how to be an exemplary expert,
Words are not enough to articulate language,
To not conform is to conform,
Individuality is no longer confined to the individual,
In trying to be helpful, you’re not helping,
Our societies are not social,
Common sense is not that common,
…a paradox is no longer paradoxical.


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I hate EveryOne

When you read stuff like this, it really does make you realise the folly of structuralist thinking, or more accurately, the curse of the ‘ism’. I remember reading something by Marcus Doel once when the opening line was “I hate everyone” (I forget in which one of the myriad of his marvellous essays it was in and Google is no help). Of course, by that he was not expressing his hatred for the entirety of the population on Planet Earth, but rather everyone. The idea of a singular notion to describe complexity is a disturbing notion. So, when you read Mr. Cameron denouncing ‘State Multiculturalism’, you have to think what was going through the script writers mind. By extolling multiculturalism as a singular concept to be treated like a commodity is a forehead-slappingly simplistic rhetoric of linearity. There is much reticence in reducing multiplicities to a single form anyway, but to do with something as complex as the cultural rhizome of the UK by shoving an ‘ism’ on the end seems reckless. Culture is not a noun it is a verb. It is a constant juxtapositioning of ideas, things, people, beliefs, practices, communities and so on. It is performed on a daily basis by the constant to-ing and fro-ing of people’s interactions with each other and their surroundings.

Using such language then is a mistake and when it becomes to inform policy it becomes dangerous. Labelling and pigeon-holing is an exercise which is often frowned upon, given that it can reduce richness and diversity to a single descriptor. So by using language which is insensitive to the nuance of UK culture risks reactions that are not helpful, in that they are reactions against an incorrect use of language more than anything else.

In attempting to attack extremism, Cameron has, by using poor language, attacked particular people. Mutliculturalism is not something to attack precisely because it is not a thing at all.


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Visualising Cities: Part 4 – Ecstacity

During the course of navigating the gargantuan library of literature and visual material on urban life, finding a book which encapsulates the complexity of the urban condition succinctly and concisely is much like searching for some sort of knitting implement in some sort of stack. This is in part due to the inherent paradox that our linear, one dimensional mode of communication, language is woefully inappropriate for conveying the vastness of emotions, experiences, memories, attributes etc that are associated with the modern day city. Hence, it becomes all the more important to embrace books and films that attempt to convey the city in a non-linear way. By stretching the comfort zone of the reader’s or viewer’s capacity to enjoy an uncomplicated narrative, authors or filmmakers can sometimes evoke urban complexity, if even for the briefest of moments before our brains begin the computation process which establishes order and functionality upon such chaotic neuron activity.

That is why, happening across ‘Ecstacity’ was a very exciting moment. This 2003 ‘book’ (the scare quotes will become apparent if you have ever flipped through it’s pages) is part of a wider spectrum of media from the architect slash urban designer Nigel Coates. The premise of the book is to coagulate 7 cities together – London, Bombay, Tokyo, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Cairo – to form a ‘factional’ city called Ecstacity.

Metro Map of Ecstacity (page 140)

However, the book acts a kind of surreal ‘tour guide’ of Ecstacity, pointing out the experiences and emotions connected with its various artifacts and places. The amalgamation of these seven cities is most visually evident in the maps on pages 134-5, and the metro guide (page 140-1 – pictured to the left). Placing the Vatican to the north of Blackfriars station, and the Cairo Museum next to Tokyo station creates a visually representative version of a world city network – collapsing cities from around the world in on themselves and emphasising the fact that many ‘world cities’ have more in common with each other than they do with national neighbours (Taylor, 2004).

More than this though, Ecstacity painstakingly creates an urban environment that is centred around the emotional, experiential and architectural difference that is so absent from many contemporary world cities. Creating and celebrating difference is key kernel of thought in this book; and while it is partly a vehicle of the (sometimes downright) weird architectural urban designs, and some of Nigel Coates’ real-world pieces have been the focus of considerable debate (the Body Works in the old Millennium Dome is one that immediately springs to mind); there is a sense of chaos, complexity and convolution throughout the book which resonates with the urban condition in ways unparalleled by other books, films and other media. The complexity and short-circuiting of urban areas is exemplified in the following quote, part of the section ‘Around the world in Ecstacity':

“Ethnic places in Ecstacity are full of distraction and scramble the choices on offer. Activities interfere with one another constantly. A single door may connect quite different cultures. It’s the inhabitants of Ecstacity who make sense of it, and not the buildings. Check the Japan Centre on Picadilly, or Babington’s Tea Rooms in the Piazza diSpagna. Go through the right door and they’ll join up” (Coates, 2003: 265).

The mixing of city cultures and styles and reliance on the inhabitants to make sense of them is symptomatic of world cities across the globe. More than this however, Ecstacity’s architectural mantra is inherently ‘networked’ with the city itself, and not isolated from the functioning and operationalisation procedures of the city by what Coates calls ‘pumplanning':

“For some reason, [twentieth century] architecture felt safe by separating itself from the day-to-day world. ‘Pumplanning’, had reversed all that. Pump up the body, pump up the city. Every act of lobbying counts, whether online or picketing parliament. Pumplanning is Ecstacity’s mechanism that fields the contest between control and everyone’s desire, however different. It regenerates the city in a way that straight planning never by working with what’s literally there” (Coates, 2003: 143).

Following Thomas More, Ebanezer Howard and other utopianists, Coates is purporting a city of calm and overriding tranquility. However, unlike these other utopianists, Coates’ utopia is based on a disjointed, multifarious heteroglossia, but is connected through the collaboration between people, places and buildings. Echoing the concerns that Jane Jacobs (1961) had with utopianists, Coates’ Ecstacity rejects a central planning ethos, instead embracing complexity, difficulties and in many cases, untruths.

This ‘book’ is not without it’s faults, and a reading of it is difficult, disjointed and confusing. But given that these are the prevailing qualities of the contemporary world city, then for me, it is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a theoretical and philosophical grasp of the city.


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“Just a band?” – A conversation about language

A: “The Beatles, just a band”. Too true, the Beatles were ‘just a band’, as were Led Zepplin, the Beach Boys….”

B: “How can you say that? The Beatles defined a generation of cultural trends! They had massive influences beyond the realm of just music! They created peace movements, wrote songs that have lasted forever! They, they, well, they were simply amazing!”

A: So?

B: So!?? So!????

Yeah. So?

What do you mean ‘So’?

I mean, so what? I don’t disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean that they are anything more than just a band. A group of 4 guys who got together and played music. They weren’t even the best musicians.

It doesn’t matter that they wern’t good musicians, their songs were beautiful in their simplicity and they spoke to a world of music-lovers with their inspired lyrics. They caused mass-hysteria and changed the lives of millions of people around the world!

Yeah but that’s the actions of others, not the Beatles themselves.

Eh?

I mean, what you’re describing is people’s reactions to them. Not them – if you see what I mean.

No. No I do not.

What I’m trying to get at is that John, Paul, Ringo and George are the Beatles. They are a BAND. Just a band. You can preach all you want about the way in which they changed the world, but you’re conflating their influence with their ‘band-ness’.

Now your just being facetious.

Well maybe, but isn’t that necessary?

Only for a pedantic troglodyte like you.

Why thank you – but it is. If you start drawing in the practices and performances of the Beatles into their ontology then you’re creating something which is more than a band. In other words, your labeling the nodes and the networks by just the nodes.

I’m sorry, you’ve lost me.

What I mean is that if you want to a label to describe the way in which the Beatles influenced the world and all those millions of people, then why use a term that is linguistically designed to signify just a band? The term ‘the Beatles’ refers to the four members as a collective and not anything else. Think about the Beatles as a node in a network. Why would you label the entire network after one node? There is a multiplicity of actors in play which went into the ‘network’ of the Beatles and their global influence. What about them (and it’s not just people)? What about their instruments? What about the television? Ed Sullivan?? The reason anything gains popularity of influence is through the heterogeneous power of networks which are created by people’s actions and performances. Therefore, the Beatles were just a band, what they achieved is a result of action.

Ok – so it is just about semantics. Well done, you’ve proved a point that people have known about for ages. It’s just an expression. Chill out. People understand that words used can often mean more than what is actually said.

Yes but at the expense of the performativity of the networks. What you’ve just said is that words mean more than what they mean? Don’t you see how silly that sounds?

No. But then perhaps you should have asked: ‘don’t you understand the paradoxical rhetoric that you just articulated?’

Touche.

Post inspired by Scroobious – Thou shalt always kill


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Video lectures worth taking the time to watch….

Trawling the internet for videos worth watching is definitely a time-consuming exercise, yet I’ve found that over the course a year or so, I’ve manged to accumulate a host of bookmarked pages of videos that I felt I would want to watch again (for differing reasons I hasten to add). So if you have some spare time (which of course in these modern, complex and chaotic days we all have loads of), then take some of it to watch these.

Bruno Latour at the Tate Modern. ‘Nature, Space, Society‘. Recorded on the 19th April, 2005. Length: 2h33m.

Steven Pinker at the RSA. ‘The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature‘. Recorded June, 2008. Length: 1h10m – (inspired my previous blog post about ‘The futility of Words’)

Richard Florida at University of Califronia. ‘The Rise of the Creative Class‘. Recorded 2003 (sometime). Length 59m

David Harvey at Lund University. ‘The Rights to the City’ Part 1. Part 2. Recorded May 28th 2008. Length 1h01m

Hans Rosling. ‘Debunking Third World Myths‘. Recorded February 2006. Length 20m. (This one is worth watching for the statistical usage)

And finally…

Clay Shirky at the RSA ‘Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organistions‘. Recorded Feburary 2008. Length (22m – although you’ve probably all seen this one already).

If you have any that you want to share then please do, although no more from Florida please, he tends to repeat himself alot….


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Interlude 1: The futility of words

Words are peculiar things. They are the building blocks of verbal language, yet are woefully inadequate at their role of communicating what we are thinking. The classic book by Albert Mehrabian in 1971, ‘Silent Messages’ says that only 7-10 percent of our communication is through verbal language so the spoken word is evidently a distinct minority when it comes to communication techniques. Trying to effectively construct a sentence based on thought patterns, that are created through multiple firing of cranial synapses, could be a little bit like trying to herd cats – the multiplicities of our thought patterns do not transpose easily to the uni-directional nature of verbal language. Once a sentence is started, unless it is finished concisely and coherently, then we appear muddled and confused, and can be often derided for being so. The ‘structure’ of language therefore can be constrictive to what we are really thinking/feeling/trying to communicate.

A recent book by Steven Pinker, ‘The Language Instinct’ gives us a fascinating insight into the way in which language is used to denote the complexities of social interactions and meanings, and a recent talk he gave at the RSA is worth watching, if only for the fantastic narrative on swearing and the meanings therein. Evolution has apparently ‘hard-wired’ our brains to language, as Pinker argues, yet on a more superficial level, do we not see that words (rather than language) are changing all the time? Too quick to be associated with evolution, we see how ‘to Google’ has become part of the modern lexicon, while words like ‘chav’ have entered UK language recently, yet has become a very loaded term with some even suggesting it has become offensive and should be banned (or restricted like many other 4-letter words in the English language). Words, therefore, in themselves can appear, disappear or even change over short time periods. This is related to our cultural makeup and different people will use words differently depending on their cultural construction, but in terms of the words in themselves, they are just as susceptible to change as we are.

Words therefore can be seen as crystallised forms of lucid thoughts, a collection of a different combination of 26 letters (in English anyway) that have meaning beyond their initial glance. If you’ll allow me to philosophise about these things, words are like what Alian Badiou notes as the ‘multiple of multiples’, in that they are a rich tapestry of different meanings, cultures and even people that are subjectified by their users in multiple ways. Like numbers, words are a ‘snapshot’ on a continuum of matter, a peak in the ‘plasma of thought’ that our brains latch onto. Words, like numbers can be broken down, examined for meaning and truths (positive and negative) and often, under close scrutiny, collapse and require more words and further explanation to build up the concept again.

Negotiating our way through this complex and messy world requires us to socialise, communicate and exchange information at an alarmingly increasing rate – a rate with which words struggle to keep up. Putting those words in a coherent and constructed stratum (such as sentences or language) negates the possibilities that underlie the initial construction. How often do we find ourselves half way through a sentence and soon realising that what we are saying is not what we meant in the first instance? Life is multifarious so why shouldn’t language be? Words, as we have seen, can be manipulated, and are inherently malleable. The plasticity of our vocabulary is perhaps the best weapon we have to negotiate our complex 21st century planet, and so experimentation and wordplay can open up avenues of rhetoric that would otherwise travel along a well trodden path, and therefore force the listener (or indeed, reader) to double-take; force them to think about what is being said. As I said, words are peculiar things, but peculiar in a good way…

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