Transforming Cities

Metroplex, the Transformer City

Metroplex, the Transformer City

Cities, on the surface at least, seem stable. The imposing physical materiality of concrete, steel and glass projects an endurance that is ‘built to last‘. Yet decades of urban critique have elucidated the fluidity of cities. From Walter Benjamin’s Arcades, through Cedric Price’s Fun Palace to Nigel Coates’ Ecstacity, people have been envisioning cities that are mobile, mutable and malleable. These concepts of literature, art and architecture articulate cities that are far from static; they are fluid assemblages that wax and wane in response to cultural representations, economic global processes and social practices. And one only has to take a short walk through seemingly any city today before they encounter some construction or development of some kind. This affirms that the urban landscape is constantly changing in response to development pressures, policy tweaks and financial speculation. The ‘stability’ of cities is hence only an illusion; there is far more than meets the eye… Read More

Badiou on Fidelity

Keep Going!

Keep Going!

The last of these XX on YY posts (as I’ve now finished the book!) is Badiou on Fidelity. It is linked to his notion of the Event, and his idea of ethics which are for me, extremely useful way of theoretically configuring subversion and how to engage in Deleuzian lines of flight. The call to ‘keep going’ is more than simply to defy the pressures of the system (as Marge is attempting to do above), but to continually resist becoming-subject, and the ‘opinions’ and ‘interests’ that constantly attempt to manipulate it into simulacra. Fidelity to the truth-event takes an extraordinary amount of effort, but who ever said flying was easy?

“Under pressure from the demands of interest – or, on the contrary, because of different new demands within the subjective continuation of fidelity – there is a breakdown of the fiction I use to maintain, as an image of myself, the confusion between my ordinary interests and disinterested-interest, between human animal and subject, between mortal and immortal. And at this point, I am confronted with a pure choice between the ‘Keep going!’ proposed by the ethic of this truth, and the logic of the ‘perseverance in being’ of the mere mortal that I am. A crisis of fidelity is always what puts to the test, following the collapse of an image, the sole maxim of consistency (and thus ethics): ‘Keep going!’ Keep going when you have lost the thread, when you no longer feel ‘caught up’ in the process, when the event itself has become obscure, when its name is lost or when it seems that it may have named a mistake, if not simulacrum.

“For the well-known existence of simulacra is a powerful stimulus to the crystallisation of crises. Opinion tell me… that my fidelity may well be terror exerted against myself and that the fidelity to which I am faithful looks very much like – too much like – this or that certified Evil. It is always a possibility, since the formal characteristics of this Evil (as simulacrum) are exactly those of a truth.

“What I am then exposed to is the temptation to betray a truth. Betrayal is not mere renunciation. Unfortunately, one cannot simply ‘renounce’ a truth. The denial of the Immortal in myself is something quite different from an abandonment, a cessation: I must always convince myself that the Immortal in question never existed, and thus rally to opinion’s perception of this point – opinion, whose whole purpose, in the service of interests, is precisely this negation. For the immortal, if I recognise it’s existence, calls on me to continue; it has the eternal power of the truths that induce it. Consequently, I must betray the becoming-subject in myself, I must become the enemy of that truth whose subject the some-one’ that I am (accompanied, perhaps, by others) composed”.

(Badiou, 2001: 79-80, original emphasis)

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

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.

Visualising Cities: Part 2

Having described how I think that the image of a city in film can be an interesting and alternative way of capturing its complexity in a previous blog entry, I wanted to elaborate this idea after some interesting comments, most notably from my brother (cheap plug coming up), who hosts an excellent photo blog.

I was watching Cloverfield the other day, which as a film, is watchable, not as groundbreaking as everybody makes out (Blair Witch comes to mind, as does the excellent Korean film The Host), but what struck me was the visualisation of the destruction of New York City. From a shaky-cam point of view, or a more omnipresent God’s eye view that perhaps Independence Day offers (particularly watch the video between 3:05 – 3:09), the destruction of the city has always been used as a way of invoking total and utter chaos and dystopian ‘rapture’ to a narrative. In other words, in a film maker wants to ensure that their subject (be it an invading alien force, asteroid, sea monster or climate change) is ‘the real deal’, then get it to level a city (usually New York) and then we know the human race is in for it. Remember Jake Gyllenhaal, in the Day After Tomorrow, running from the cold?? Oh no, watch out! Its getting a bit nippy out! Run for your lives!!

In destroying cities, filmmakers are laying siege to the bastion of human development. Cities are the hubs of our inter-connected Castellian world and by destroying them on film is unraveling their complexity without our own perceptions/psyche/memories. If we refer to Bergson’s 1911 publication Matière et Mémoire, he stated that when an image is viewed, the association the content has with the viewers experiences, histories and (more generally) their mind manifests themselves as memories. The instant an image is viewed; subconscious memory (or automatic recognition) is masked by conscious memory (or acquired recognition). Hence,

“The faculty of mental photography…belongs rather to subconsciousness than to consciousness; it answers with difficulty the summons of the will. In order to exercise it, we should accustom ourselves to retaining, for instance, several arrangements of points at once, without even thinking of counting them: we must imitate in some sort the instantaneity of this memory in order to attain its mastery”.
(Bergson, 1911, English Translation, 2004; 101-102).

So when viewing the destruction of a city in film, the ‘instantaneity’ of automatic memory (which is where complexity is to be found – or ‘the void’ in Badiouian terms) is masked by our consciousness. This could be simply the realization that we are watching a film or a specific memory of that particular city or building. Badiou argued that the state of the situation requires a militancy which hides the ‘what-is-not-one’ (or inconsistent multiplicity, rhizome, body without organs etc), and it is this militancy of the consciousness which masks a cities complexity from us. Watching it unravel before our eyes when it is levelled allows to experience the ‘void’ or the rhizomatic nature of the urban, if only for an instant. But as Bergson states, “we must imitate in some sort the instantaneity of this memory in order to attain its mastery”. But as we’re fighting against our own ‘miltant consciousness’, this will take some doing. But if I have to watch anymore of those contrived, nihilistic, brain-dead  Hollywood tripe-fests then it may be little bit easier…

What now for Actor-Network Theory with the advent of Web 2.0?

Actor-Network Theory (or simply, ANT) has been my staple diet of social theory, methodology and research direction for the last 6 years now, with my PhD thesis revolving around the tenant of ANT and Bruno Latour‘s writings. Adding a temporal dimension, one could say that it was in the late 90s to early 2000s that ANT had its main usage in the social science, with geographers among them; the late great Jonathan Murdoch was a major factor in this usage. The nuances of ANT, if you are not familiar, are fascinating and if you are interested, read Latour’s fantastic book, Reassembling the Social, or take a tour around this excellent resource, ANTHEM.

Other authors (Michelle Callon and John Law to name but 2) have contributed, but Bruno Latour can be considered the ‘godfather’ of ANT and at a recent talk he gave at the LSE, he offered much of the theoretical background to ANT through the lens of the recent technological advances in computer software. Since completing my thesis, I have been content with ANT’s place in my theoretical/methodological armoury, knowing it’s place and it’s limitations. At the time of the talk, I was interested in ANT’s properties for social innovation, but now with my foray into the topologies of Web 2.0, ANT has reared it’s linguistical head once more.

The associative ontology offered by ANT is one which speaks to the networked nature of Web 2.0 connectivity, for a number of different reasons. But primarily, ANT’s focus on practice and action as the formulating power of the network aligns with the performative aspects of Web 2.o. If we take the example of Twitter, the networks formed by people following each other only surface when those people actually contribute, i.e. write something! There are lots spam followers and people who set up an account just to see what it’s all about, but then soon lose interest and stop contributing. These ‘dead links’ create a ‘hinternet’ of defunct (or dormant) connections which are not acted upon and hence cannot be considered part of the networks (from a performativity point of view). This can be applied to a whole host of digital graveyards – webpages not updated since 2002, blogs going untouched, Facebook groups which are now defunct – they all exist (in terms of wasted memory on some dusty server somewhere) but are not doing anything, and therefore do not ‘effect’ the constitution of the network.

Also, ANT talks of translation, which is the power of actors to influence the network connectivity properties. This is particularly noticeable with web 2.0 with the ease at which people can get across their point of view. My previous blog entry focused on how information is readily available and how this has the possibility to shape public opinion, and it is this ‘power’ which is effected through the generation of heterogeneous (or Web 2.0) connections.

The advent of Web 2.0 and the advancements in the semantic web mean that we will be become increasingly connected. While this is a cliché, its truth holds precisely because of the fact that this technology is allowing for more communication and therefore action to these connections. Whereas a link between you and me can be said to exist, unless that connection is acted upon (by talking to each other – which Web 2.0 facilitates) then it remains simply a metaphysical link without any real tangible meaning. Technological change and the link with ANT is now the subject of a specialized journal, and so it is not just me and my ramblings which puport to the fact that ANT has a place in the increasingly connected virtual world.

As I constantly remind people (and myself), ANT works best as a language for describing the world in which we live (well, also as a methodological tool – but that is for the social scientists out there) and it seems tailor-made for Web 2.0. Latour gives frequent talks around the world and if anybody can make it to them, I strongly recommend them, as he gives a very compelling (and always witty) account of technology which is infused with his ANT-inspired lexicon. Web 2.0, more accurately, the multiplicity of apps that seem to be related to it, increase our embroilment with each other, and therefore, as our actor-networks increase, we would do well to increase our understanding of how to best describe and articulate it – and we have a ready made blueprint with ANT.

Mumbai attacks: Information of the Event

People who read this blog will no doubt be aware of my fascination with Badiou’s theorisation of the ‘Event’, and while I am still grappling with the nuances, it is clear that it holds certain truisms with social theory. For me however, its conflation with excess of reality’ (form Baudrillard’s writings) is an issue. An event, Badiou argues is an irruptive force, the multiple of multiples coming to the fore; or the ‘what-is-not-one’ being exposed for what is it, pure multiplicity. Baudrillard states that 9/11 was an ‘absolute event‘, that in the hours (and perhaps) days after the twin towers fell, the world was in a state of shock. But more than that, society’s computation of the event into the realm of consciousness via information was halted, in other words, there was a disparity between the reality of the event and the understanding of the event. As the news channels continually showed Hollywood-style images of the unfolding attacks, society (as a collective of individuals at least) failed to keep pace with the amount of information available and as a result, there existed a state of ‘raw event’, with a gap between what was known and a constructed narrative (perhaps suggesting the proliferation of conspiracy theories?).

Fast forward from September 11th 2001, to 26th November 2008. The Mumbai attacks have been plastered all over the news websites and 24 hour news channels, and the stream of information has been constant. In the 7 years between 9/11 and these attacks (in no way am I comparing the attacks themselves, just the take up of them) the ‘plugged-in’ nature of our virtual society has increased beyond anything seemed possible initially. Facebook, Twitter, blogs like this, they have all increased the information flow and as a result, further intensified the speed, amount and variety of information that could be received. In the morning of the 27th, Twitter updates offered me Google Maps of the attacks; Sky News was telling me that the England cricket team were canceling their trip, only to then tell me that they would wait 24 hours before making a decision; the speed in which the Wikipedia page is developing is almost beyond belief; my Google Reader ticker went through the roof; and even the was running the story (only joking, it is currently telling me about John Seargant’s phone votes).

The shear amount of information available overwhelms the senses, and only serves to increase the uncertainty and the ‘excess of reality’. If, as Badiou states that an Event is an irruptive force, bringing the mutliplicity to the fore, then surely in a time like this, the connectedness and democratic way in which people receive information these days only increases this irruptiveness? The ‘gap’ between reality and understanding, which Baudrillard takes of, is furthered by the amount of information that has to be processed, and so the narrative (or story) which constructs the event retrospectively, will be more complex and will intertwine further with more marginalised news sources that were made more visible through our more connected information sources.

Badiou, in his book Being and Event, discusses at length the French Revolution as an archetypal Event, and the Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, in 1950 was asked about the impact of the French Revolution, and his reply was “it’s too early to tell”. Events such as the Mumbai attacks of 26th November 2008, are quite clearly shocking, and lines such as “it’s all very confusing at this stage”, and “details are sketchy” are common on the news channels. Sources such as Twitter (which has been particularly rapid in the pick up and dissemination of information) will no doubt help in the clarification of some points, but aid in the complexity of others – which is the price we have to pay for the connected and democratic nature of news and information dissemination today.

Interlude 2: The Wire and the Event

I know that I probably watch too much TV, in fact, I once watched the whole first series of 24 in 18 hours, but when it comes to The Wire, I don’t think I could ever watch too much of it. The genre of cop drama/crime thriller has never been one to enthral me that much but this is a whole new ball game. Not only is it brilliantly written, with complex story lines that intertwine and then diverge with the single pull of a trigger, but it typifies the complexity of the urban in a way that very few urban geography textbooks or journal articles can.

If you have not seen The Wire then you should. If you are and have not seen season 3 yet then stop reading, it is far too good to be spoiled by this lowly blog. The reason I have singled out season 3 is because of it’s covert nod in the general direction of poststructural dialectics. A synopsis of the series is provided in the video below:

In season 3, we are properly introduced to Major Howard Colvin, a policeman coming toward the end of his tenure, looking forward to retirement. He hatches a plot to move all the street drug trafficking of the streets of Baltimore to three ‘safe zones’ in the Western district, where he then proceeds to let the drug dealers deal freely, turning a blind eye. All the time, in the rest of the Western district, he implements a zero-tolerance rule on any drug dealing on ‘the corners’. The resulting ‘free zones’ are by no means pretty, but they do succeed in helping the crime statistics drop for the rest of the Western district.

During this ‘experiment’ as Major Colvin refers to it, there is a mayoral race, with a white mayoral candidate – Thomas Carcetti, running against the black mayor incumbent, Clarence Royce. The ongoing drug feud between the ‘Barksdale crew’ and a new drug dealer, ‘Marlow Stanfield’ occupies the rest of the thematics of season 3.
What unfolds, eventually is that Major Colvin’s experiment, while keeping it under wraps (and in doing so, drives down the crime statistics in the Western district) is eventually found out by the police commissioner, and to turn a phrase, “the shit hits the fan“. Colvin is demoted and then kicked out of the force, the ‘free zones’ are raided, and the mayor and City Hall are left to try and explain away to the media why the city has effectively legalised drugs.Much of the last episode of the series is devoted to various characters reflecting on this ‘event’, with Colvin suggesting that ‘at least he tried something’, with the white mayoral candidate (and eventual winner) Carcetti giving a heartfelt lecture to the police commissioner arguing that while the motives may have been wrong, at least Colvin was trying something new. In echoes of Zizek, it was the “right step in the wrong direction“.

What this series said to me was that it takes monumental events, such as the ‘safe zones’ in Baltimore to effect a reaction from the societal strata we find ourselves enmeshed in. The laws that govern our lands are constantly shifting, and indeed the dynamism of globalisation is an important process to study and be aware of. But the seismic shifts in regulation like that witnessed in series 3 of The Wire are the very catalysts of effecting real change. Alain Badiou’s theorising on the Event has much influence here and in many ways, Colvin’s safe zones could very well be seen as one of Badiou’s ‘Events’.

The pace of change is something that we have become accustomed to in this complex world, so much so that tiptoeing through incremental change can either pass us by (and therefore be erroneously and sometimes harmfully mistaken for stasis), or cause as desire for more irruptive measures.

This, however, should not be read as an excuse for legalising drugs, revolution or any other peremptory strike on society or the economy, merely a lean toward Beckett when he said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. Trying to effect ideological change through titanic events that make the world sit up and notice can be detrimental and even harmful, but failing is what humans are good at, but progress cannot be made without it.

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…