Tower Block Cinema

Verticality, claustrophobia, lawlessness, poverty. Just some of the themes that are stereotypically associated with tower block living, particular the old post-war brutalist, Le Corbusier-inspired monoliths that litter many cities not just here in the UK, but all over the world. Their architectural designs were meant to be liveable ‘streets in the sky’ but instead ended up resulting in lonely living, but with a panoptic overview of constant voyeurism from everyone else. The dystopic qualities are depressing and oppressive in equal measure, and as such make for fascinating arenas for cinematic narratives. The recent mini-wave of films set entirely in one tower block is evidence of this. The Raid, Dredd and Tower Block have all been released in recent months, and who can forgot John McClean in Nokatomi – all very good films in their own genre. What is it about these gargantuan concrete leviathans that make for such gripping viewing? This post tries to find out… Read More

Visualising Cities Part 7: Gotham, A City Devoid of Life

Gotham, a city devoid of life

I finally got round to seeing The Dark Knight Rises at the weekend. Don’t worry, this is not a review; but what struck me throughout the film (and in a sense, throughout the trilogy), is the narrative surrounding the city of Gotham itself, and how the director Christopher Nolan used it, for me, incorrectly. There a number of pieces of work (notably this one) about Gotham’s role in the Batman universe – the dank, dark, overtly gothic and crime-ridden city makes for a fantastic fictional playground of urban dystopias. However, for the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the Gotham seen in Nolan’s trilogy. Read More

Infiltrating the Shard – a philosophical reaction

There’s been somewhat of a feeding frenzy in the media today regarding the infiltration of the Shard by Bradley Garrett and others. Bradley posted the images of his climb to the top of Europe’s new tallest building on his blog and soon after, the media caught wind of them and used them to fill out their bilious pages with striking images that no photographer working for any paper would be able to achieve ever. The media coverage of this event has been, for me, unsurprising given the enormity of what Bradley’s actions do to the collective psyche of the public writ large. Whatever people feel about his actions (I happen to think they should be highly commended and applauded), the infiltration of the Shard is a philosophical Event par excellence. Let me explain why (warning – philosophical ramblings ahead). Read More

Life in Pruitt-Igoe

Pruitt-Igoe as lived experiences - Image by Michael R. Allen on Flikr, CC-license

16th of March, 1972 at 3.00pm precisely. That is when Charles Jencks proclaimed ‘the death of modenism’, as the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis was razed to the ground. Many commentators of architecture and city living in general claimed it was the representative ‘end’ of the Cities of the Future which were based on the Le Courbusierian ‘Machines for Living’ – the modernist utopian dream lay in ruins on the Missourian soil. It was with its iconic (dis)appearance is the beautifully esoteric film Koyaanisqatsi (1982), that the Pruitt-Igoe complex symbolised more than simply a disastrous 1950s housing policy, but a retraction of an entire philosophy for life. The Sassurian structuralist mode of thought that had influenced the modernist agenda of architecture and urban planning had given way to the heterogeneity of urban life, the ebb and flow of a Lefebvrian rhythm which was essentially un-containable by these ‘streets in the sky’. Pruitt-Igoe as the symbol of the beginning of ‘post-modernism’ is now well versed, and is part of cultural geography modules up and down the land (including, I hasten to add, my own). Read More

Top 5 city destroyers of all time

When we reach the city…

I have made no secret of my distain for the recent Transformers films by Michael Bay. In my youth, I absolutely adored the original Transformers cartoons and toys, and the original animated Transformers movie, for me, is still one of the best films/stories ever produced. However, seeing the trailer for the third instalment of Michael Bay’s trilogy of detritus, I must admit to feeling slightly intrigued, if only for the visualisation of the destruction of Chicago. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a somewhat guilty fetish for immoderate, overemotional and visually-compelling destruction of cities on film, and Chicago is one of my favourite cities. So, like a moth to a flame, I will no doubt pay to watch Mr Bay’s latest monstrosity and sit through 2 and half to 3 hours of megalomaniacal BS just so I can gawp at Chicago getting ripped apart from the top down.

Such an extravagant annihilation of a great city got me thinking, what are the best city-destroying forces of all time? Its an open competition, monsters, aliens and natural disasters are all eligible. Points are scored for the visual impact of the destruction, the innovate ways in which the built environment is obliterated, but also the frequency with which it destroys. Like all good ‘top X’ lists it is not based on scientific rigour or any actual reliable information, but more an arbitrary collection of what I think to be the best.

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Avatar: Latour’s NEW favourite film

I recently watched Avatar again for the first time since the cinema. Perhaps it was the 3D extravaganza or maybe the nose-pinchingly obvious imperialist overtones, but I seemed to miss the first time round that one of the main proponents of the film is the intertwining of the human and non-human. This brings the ethos of my favourite mistake, actor-network theory in sharp focus; in particular, Bruno Latour’s critique of the human/non-human dichotomous narrative. One of the main contentions of actor-network theory is the agency afforded to non-humans in social formations and their inextricability from humans. In essence, Latour argues that the agentic force of humans in the formulation of networks is intertwined and shared with that of inanimate and non-human objects, and hence there can be no distinction between humans and non-humans in terms of their affect on network praxis.

It was in 1993 that Latour brought to the fore the human/nonhuman divide in his definition of a ‘purification process’, which is a process that leads to two entirely distinct ontological zones, referring to humans and non-humans. This formulated or forced dualism has been a sticking point for Latour, as the hybridity of humans and non-humans and splicing of their (inter)actions is a complex and historical issue. Latour describes how humans in the pre-civilisation era were like a Baboon society, in that we did not use any tools. Baboon society is socially constructed as their interaction is total; there is no delegation to nonhuman actants (i.e. tools). As humans have continually used tools or nonhuman actants, it becomes impossible to extricate human actors from nonhuman actants when it comes to the effects of agency.

This has been contested, quite common sensibly with the notion that the human actors ultimately have the initiative over the actants; after all, humans have the power of speech, rational thought, emotion and so on (Vandenberghe, 2002). Also, Kirsch and Mitchell (2004) find that the equivalence of humans and nonhumans cannot account for the social relations that drive network formation.

How does this relate to Avatar? The human/non-human divide I am referring to in this case is not the obvious one (i.e. humans and the Na’vi), but the more subtle metaphor of the Na’vi themselves and their interaction with nature. In Avatar, the positing of the Na’vi and their relationship with Eywa against the linear dogmatic mantra of the humans provides a fertile analogous arena for debate, and thoroughly ‘muddies’ dualistic thinking, to which many actor-network theorists (including Latour) would adhere. The film portrays the inherent complexity and non-linearity of social life, moreover, arguably defenestrates human agency from social construct altogether by making Eywa (defacto Earth-like sister, ‘Mother Nature’) victorious at the conclusion. The way in which the Na’vi interact with their society, their belief in a feedback system of energy and survival, and their connectivity with the non-Na’vi all portray an ANT-inspired existence.

ANT is widespread through the social sciences, but it is vital to comprehend that network formation involves both human and nonhuman actants to the same degree, whether they are social, cultural, economic and so on. The power inherent in an article or an internet text can be just as forceful or power-inherent as a lecture from a professor (which would not be possible without inhuman actants, namely the lecture room, slides or microphone). Every action that is carried out by a human actor therefore ‘ends up in the action of a nonhuman’, thereby the responsibility of that action lies with both human and nonhuman actants.

I once argued that 2001: A Space Odyssey was Latour’s favourite film. I think now though, it might well be Avatar…

Conceptualising Fictional Cities

Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, an ecumenopolis with a population of 1 trillion

Technology is reproducing cities very rapidly. Or shall I say producing cities? Not artificial cities, but experiential cities that are pure hyper-reality, a simulacrum space par excellence (to mesh Baurdiallardian and Deleuzian language). Reproducing cities is as easy as driving a car with a camera mounted on top and putting the results online, but virtually producing entirely new cities from scratch requires a certain technology that can interpret the most creative of urban planners/builders; a technology which has only really been available in the last few decades or so. Visual arts technologies are creating architectural masterpieces that we immerse ourselves in, allowing us to exit the desert of the real and enter an avatar-populated hyper-reality which invokes upotian, but often dytopian fantasies of excess, violence, hedonism and inequalities. Film and computer game technological production techniques are at the forefront of this process and our cultural landscape is awash with these hyper-real cities that we can plug into and add to our memories of mental cityscape construction (a notable exception to this is the wonderfully crafted Ecstacity by Nigel Coates which exists on the pages of it’s Guide Book). But given this increase in the variety of destinations, which city is the best one to visit? Liberty City? Caprica? How can we analyse these fictional hyper-real cities, and how can we navigate them to fully comprehend the multiplicities of narratives, read the layers of urban palimpsests and listen to the heteroglossic voices? This post tries to find out….

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Battlestar Gallactica: A review

Having just finished watching the entire four series of Battlestar Gallactica, rather modestly, the conclusion of the show evoked a wide range of thoughts, emotions, arguments and queries about the nature of society, religion, philosophy and morality. So where to begin?  Not much to deal with is there?

First things first, if you haven’t seen it all then stop reading now; go out and buy the boxset (or download it), stop watching any series you are currently engrossed in (unless it’s The Wire, or the first half of season 1 of 24) and clear a week in your diary.

A detailed synopsis is available on the Battlestar wikipage, but very briefly, the series details the journey of humans as they escape from their home planets (called the 12 colonies), having just been nuked by humanoid robots (Cylons). The Cylons then chase the remaining humans, led by a military ‘Battlestar’, called Galactica through the universe. The president of the fleet, inspired by mythical visions and prophetic texts (akin to the Bible) is leading them to a new home, ‘Earth’ (the fabled 13th colony), only to find that this planet has also been nuked. It turns out that this destruction-chase-resettlement cycle has been going on for a while, with humans creating Cylons, Cylons rebelling against the humans, war, then resettlement. However, in the final battle, a truce is agreed, and together, they find ‘Earth’ (as we knew it 150,000 years ago) and decide to forgo their technologies and create a new civilisation with the primitive hunter-gatherers they find on the planet, based solely on their interactions, language and minds (and all the culture and socialisation therein imbued). Hence, throughout the series, what we see as human-like technology and culture, is in fact the basis of our current society. This is ossified by the final scene that is set in our present New York City (some 150,000 hence) – with the cycle seemingly over. However, it concludes with what feels like a warning that our current obsession with AI and technology may be fueling another occurrence of man-made robot rebellion (re Frankenstein, Terminator or any other Sci-Fi cyborg-related story out there) and the cycle will start again once more (note – this echoes the message I teased out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a previous blog post).

The show is rich in philosophical and societal tangents and it seems almost ignorant to boil the show down to one ‘theme’, but if there is one thought that permeates throughout the series (for me anyway) is the spirituality of it – references to God, gods, souls, angels, demons and a ‘higher purpose’ are rife throughout and ultimately conclude the show. However, this is not to say that the show has a preachy evangelistic message, far from it. The adult dialogue and (for the most part) undiluted and deliberately esoteric language demands attention and forces the viewer to engage with what religious people will proclaim is ‘God’, and what other people ignore or fail to comprehend. There are many Christian references, with Christ-like resurrection, angels and even the importance the Bob Dylan track ‘All Along the Watchtower’ with it’s direct biblical quotations, namely Isiah 21:5-9. The hook of the show is essentially that some ‘higher power’ has been guiding the fleet and presiding over (or the direct causation of) the ‘cycles’ of destruction and rebirth, and with freewill the way it is, waiting for the humans to decide to stop the cycle by engendering a ‘clean slate’ which is what we see in the finale.

What is interesting to me is echoed in the closing dialogue of the show:

The reference to mathematics and complex systems is elsewhere in the series, however, the interplay between the workings of mathematics and the planning of a deity is a deliberate attempt to align the two. They are further interwoven with the remark “You know It doesn’t like that name”, with the word ‘it’ used instead of ‘he’ – the more traditional definitive article of a deity (the retraction of this afterwards I put down to a final exchange of comedy between these particular two characters that has played out throughout the series). Herein lies the crux of the matter. The producers of the show, while they have talked about how they like the show to be interpreted however you choose, seem to be alluding to the visceral knowledge of ‘something else’ other than what can be attributed to empirical observation. This ‘ether’ can be interpreted though a range of experiences, idioms or processes including complexity and mathematics, an infinite and collective consciousness, the emotional swell felt with a piece of music, or by assigning it the name ‘God’. Unlike The Matrix, which also has as its hook the breaking of a cycle of war between humans and machines, Battlestar Galactica plays on the otherness of experiential humanism by engaging with the significance of it to our behaviour, both individually and collectively. The limitations of the human body to experience this otherness is all too obvious (such as the fact that the human eye only sees only a small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum) and there is a wonderful piece of dialogue between two Cylons earlier on in the series which alludes to this fact. The characters struggle with these other ‘forces’ at work (interpreted as either destiny, God, luck, angels, fate etc) and some accepting their humanity for what it is, others fighting it every step of the way. The exploration of this matter is far from perfect (as it is to be expected, laced with Hollywood banalities), however, for the thoughts it leaves you with alone, it is worth the hassle.

The fact that the filmmakers suggest that the present day human race are decedents from the Cylons, with the overt implication that the Cylon-human hybrid little girl (seen in the video above) is Mitochondrial Eve, is also one of many interesting tangents (one that Bruno Latour would no doubt have alot to say about) that could be extrapolated from BSG (there are many books delving much deeper into the topics – this being one of the best). It’s geopolitics and commentary on contemporary American foreign policies is particularly striking, sometimes forehead-slappingly determinate, but always thought-provoking and comes with notable acting performances by some. In answer to the question posed by this journalist, I would levee a big frakking ‘no’, however it deals with a much broader range of issues, and arguably leaves a more emotional lump in the throat than Baltimore’s finest.

Is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Latour’s favourite film?

In reading Bruno Latour’s work over the years, one of the overt messages that comes through, and one of his lasting legacies, is the importance he gives to non-humans in society. The actant-networks that constitute the body politic are spun by the constant processes and actions of nonhumans, just as much as they are by nonhumans. Latour’s classic example (it’s when the penny dropped for me anyway) is of Bill Gates and his Microsoft empire. Latour argues that;

“Since Bill Gates is not physically larger than all his Microsoft employees, Microsoft itself, as a corporate body cannot be a large building were individuals reside. Instead there is a certain type of movement going through all of them, a few of which begin and end in Mr Gates’ office. It’s because an organisation is even less a society than the body politic that it’s made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods and passions”.

(Latour, 2005: 179)

The ‘constant circulation’ of nonhuman actants have therefore as much agency in the formulation of perpetual structure as humans do. This sparks one of the major criticism of ANT as it seen as little more than technological determinism and that humans ultimately have dominance over their tools. This rather Kaczynskian view however misses the point. As Latour suggests that power is heterogenously disseminated through a rhizomatic actor-network, to say that one is dominant over the other is erroneous as it implies a linear power-relationship that is pre-existent. Agency, if defined as the ability to ‘thingify’, is just as much inherent in, say a laptop as it is in a human being. Ever since Man picked up a bone fragment to beat his prey to death, tools and nonhuman actants have been intertwined through the networks we generate.

Which leads nicely onto Kubrick’s seminal 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of this post will contain ‘spoilers’ for the film although if you have not seen the film or do not know what happens then I can only assume you are more akin to those in the opening scenes of the film rather than the latter ones. The monolith’s presence at the ‘Dawn of Man’ is symbolic of our use of tools, as Kubrick heavily infers with the ape smashing up the skeleton of his prey with a large femur bone. And the monolith on the moon is a representation of man’s next technological leap, that of space travel. The other monoliths (near Jupiter and in ‘the room’) are Kubrick’s attempt at suggesting that man needs further evolutionary leaps. Debates around the meaning of the monoliths are varied and some more rigorous than others (see this compelling argument – part 1 and part 2), however, if taking an ANT point of view, it would seem that they are indicators of man’s evolutionary ability in their use of tools.

The use of tools and their interdigitisation with humanity effects us all, so much so that the human/nonhuman divide is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Future inventions blur the dichotomy even further (see this enlightening talk by Dr Kaku at the RSA). Therefore, in 2001, the beautiful and esoteric implications of the way human and nonhuman entities’ futures are intertwined to produce the ‘star child‘ can be, I would argue, an indirect inference to the nature and ethos of ANT. However, 2001 also tells us (or at least, one interpretation of it) that to achieve this state, man has to destroy his dependence on technology (the destruction of HAL) and embrace the frailty of the ‘container’ body. Hence, Kubrick brings the nonhuman aspect to a further ‘dimension’ by implying that the human body itself is nonhuman (to be dispensed with) and what is left can be reborn as the ‘star child’. This is perhaps an uncomfortable ethos for ANT, as it brings an inherently philosophical (and even spiritual) idiom to what is essentially an empirical rhetoric.

Therefore, in answer the question of the post’s title, I would say probably not. What could be however, is Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s basic tenant is man’s increasing tendency to live life ‘out of balance’ with technology. The term Koyaanisqatsi is a word in the Hopi language meaning ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’. Again, this is perhaps a dystopic view of man’s continuing evolutionary journey with technology, but the film itself is quite haunting and it’s depiction of nonhuman’s agency is meritoriously accurate.

Nonhumans are integral to the way in which society is held together and so, ANT would argue, cannot be ignored when analysing how reality constructs itself. Any visualisations that can help to achieve this are welcome, and 2001 and Koyaanisqatsi are fine examples of this. Whether or not Latour himself agrees would be interesting, and there may be other examples which you could offer. However, if anyone suggests Antz, then your are neither big, nor clever…

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.