This looks pretty amazing, and I am honoured to be in it on Grenfell, right to the city, right to a home. But it is full of struggle to transform the world.
‘Thinking about the city from the standpoint of a Marxist, and about Marxism from the standpoint of an urbanist, is fraught with a lot of difficulties’, says Merrifield, and he is right. Collected here in Metromarxism, however, are all of the key figures who have attempted this in some form or other. An engagingly-written introduction to Marxism and geography for a beginner, and a thought-provoking review for those well into it, with a chapter each on major thinkers. The only thing lacking in here is the ladies, their absence as critical thinkers apologized for by Merrifield. The folks in here are also all white. This raises some questions and concerns about both geography and Marxism, but I’ll leave those for now as I wrestle with that a lot.
It begins with Marx of course, and a few insights I quite liked that don’t immediately have to do with property. The way that action on the external world changes us internally as well, subject and object both mediated by practice. This revolutionary practice thus involves changing people and ideas and ‘ideas about ideas’, to ‘educate the educator himself’ (18, Marx 422). There follows a review of the dialectic, always useful. It primary characteristic that of change, with Capital as a study of movement. The roots of this constant change lying in contradiction, ‘incompatible elements within an entity that both support and undermine that entity’ (25). And he nails what I like most about Marx:
Marx asked us—we of radical bent, that is—to grasp the dual character of the world, to see it singly in its duality, to envision it simultaneously as a process and a thing, as a social relation and an object, an observable outcome with an unobservable ‘law of motion’. (27)
Of course, as Merrifield notes, Marx wrote very little on the city itself, or even property. This was really the province of Engels.
What Engels described in studying the slums of Manchester is so familiar to me given my knowledge of today’s slums, it is hard to find insight in it. In itself an insight. I love that he understood how poverty is really an act of violence against those living in it, what he calls ‘social murder’ (49, quoting p 127). He stripped the acts of city redevelopment of their social justifications, understanding that slum clearance – so often claimed to be the solution then and now by business and liberal reformers – simply shifted the problems elsewhere. ‘As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of the workers’ (46, Housing Q p 368).
I love Walter Benjamin, but my love for his work hasn’t helped me much in understanding the way that academics have tried to use it theoretically. I found this useful in the ways that Benjamin thought about the commodity and opens up the experience of the arcades, the spectacle of this aspect of the city, the crowds and the lights and the beautiful objects, as a commodity for further theorising. And this, on his relationship to Brecht and Marxism:
Thus, dialectical crudity and utmost theoretical subtlety would split Benjamin’s Parisian exposes: He’d proceed to mix the dignity of the library with wisecracks of the street, intellectual high life with everyday lowlife, rhapsodic verse with ribald curses. At its best, Benjamin’s Marxism of the city would get ‘the mediation’ about right, would give a new depth of experience to metropolitan Marxism, taking the dialectics of both to a new height, with a new richness, adding dream to the negotiation of the commodity form. Benjamin was the first Marxist to appreciate the capitalist city as a profane illumination, as revolutionary within the revolution, as a veritable city of light. With open wings and head turned backward, the angel Walter can help us understand the pile of debris that accompanies the storm of progress (68).
Henri Lefebvre is another theorist I love and struggle with, definitely someone requiring hard work to pluck the nuggets from the meanderings. I like Merrifield’s take on him, for example his thoughts on the everyday:
Everyday life, instead, possessed a dialectical and ambiguous nature. On the one hand, it’s the realm increasingly colonized by the commodity, and hence shrouded in all kinds of mystification, fetishism, and alienation….On the other hand, paradoxically, everyday life is likewise a primal site for meaningful social resistance, ‘the inevitable starting point for the realization of the possible’ (79).
Thoughts on contestation:
contestation was absolutely crucial; it helped ‘link economic factors (including economic demands) with politics’ (L 65). Contestation names names, points fingers, merges institutions and men, makes abstractions real, and is one way ‘subjects’ express themselves, ceasing to be ‘objects’. Contestation means a ‘refusal to be integrated’ (L67); it is ‘born from negation and has a negative character; it is essentially radical.’ It ‘brings to light its hidden origins; and it surges from the depths to the political summits, which it also illuminates in rejecting them’. Contestation rejects passivity and fosters participation. It arises out of a latent institutional crisis, transforming it into ‘an open crisis which challenges hierarchies, centers of power’ (L68, 87).
Lefebvre also began this theorization of the connections between real estate and capital, the way that surplus value could be generated through real estate investment and built environment, the investments in fixed capital that constitute a secondary circuit alongside that of production. In The Production of Space he began to examine how this secondary circuit worked, how space itself became ‘colonized and commodified, bought and sold, created and torn down…’ Back, as Merrifield argues, to Marx’s obsession with returning to the roots of things, to the process, to production. ‘The shift from theorizing ‘things in space’ to the ‘production of space’…mimicked Marx’s shuft from ‘things in exchange’ to ‘social relations of production’ (89).
Debord follows, situationist and a student of Lefebvre. Merrifield quotes Lefebvre on Debord, forgive my nerdiness but I love that. On the practice of derive (drifting through a city, psychogeography, etc) Lefebvre writes that it is…
‘more of a practice than a theory. It revealed the growing fragmentation of the city. In the course of its history, the city was once a powerful organic unity; for some time, however, that unity was becoming undone, was fragmenting, and the Situationists were recording examples of what we had all been talking about….We had a vision of a city that was more and more fragmented without its organic unity being completely shattered. (97)
Thus the ‘unitary city’ of the situationists, a battle against the fragmentation caused by planning and efficiency and market-driven development. A ‘disruptive and playful’ movement to reunite, bring together. This reconstruction of place is:
predicated upon spatial (geographical) appropriation: it reconstructs the urban environment ‘in accordance with the power of the Workers’ Councils, of the anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Thesis 179). This reconstruction would necessitate a ‘sense of place,’ a sense of what the place was, is, and what it might be. To detourn an urban context—to reappropriate it in other words—one needs to know what it possessed and what it lacked; one needs to know that place, that neighbourhood, that city (such was the point of ‘psychogeography,’ after all); and one needs to be able to straddle the dialectic between its particularity and its generality. (105)
I find that stuff more exciting than the society of the spectacle – as indeed it embraces the idea of the spectacle and how it is employed through urban form.
Castells! I read City and the Grassroots and was blown away, this helped me resituate it, regard it more critically. I’ve also read The Urban Question, but long ago, it is something I need to read again. I do remember his critique of Lefebvre for lack of rigor. But also for looking at how his theory of the urban revolution obscures the class revolution, as the motor is no longer worker exploitation but alienation. Castells argued for urban relations as an expression of social relations, not the source. Initially taking on Althusser’s ideas of complexity structured in dominance – which I find particularly persuasive and useful myself – and argued against Lefebvre
while the city threatened capitalism, it somehow had become more functional for capitalism. Indeed, the city, Castells writes, had become the ‘spatial specificity of the processes of reproduction of labor-power and of the processes of reproduction of the means of production’ (C443, 119)
Thus the state involves itself in regulating the urban in a way conducive to capital through planning. But Castells moves away from Althusser, Merrifield labels The Urban Question as perhaps too formalist, while City and the Grassroots is too skewed towards practice and too removed from structure. I loved that about it myself, starting where the people are is standard in my own tradition of popular education, so I’m not sure how I would judge it now that I am more fluent in theory and a believer in its value. At the time of this writing Castells had all but left the Marxist fold, but hearing him speak to Occupy at St Pauls I’m not sure if he isn’t back.
Of course David Harvey has a chapter. I’ve read much more of him than anyone else, and much more recently as well. I agree with the prodding to read his Limits of Capital, as it’s impossible to do justice to that kind of work in a single chapter. I always imagined he wrote it to work through a full Marxist theory of rent only hinted at in earlier works, and I was right. I also appreciated the distinction between his work and early Castells:
Havery’s Marxist theory, like Lefebvre’s, thereby accredits a much more offensive role for the city and for space under capitalism. Space and urbanism don’t just help reproduce labor-power, as Castells believed, in a relatively defensive manner: the very spatial dynamics of urban land and property markets, to say nothing about ‘fixed capital’ infrastructure…actually boost the accumulation of capital. Urban space under capitalism is an ‘active moment’, proactively productive and not merely passively reproductive; it is, Harvey argues, a unit of capital accumulation as well as a site of class struggle (142).
There is as well a review of his engagement with postmodernism, taking from it new understandings of race and gender and identity without relinquishing Marx.
The final chapter is on Marshall Berman, he was the only theorist I had not read at all and I regretted that immensely (I have since read him, find posts here on All That is Solid Melts into Air, and here on his thoughts on the role of the intellectual.). A return to the more creative, descriptive, literary theorization. Words thrown around like urbicide, the murder of the city. He was there during Moses’s bulldozing of swathes of NY and there is no better term for it. But I love that he seems to have thought about what happens after. The good that can come from it, the ways that people deal with it. Merrifield calls it a ‘Marxism of affirmation’ (170), and interestingly puts this into opposition with the work of Mike Davis. I think he is far too dismissive of Davis who I don’t think theorizes quite the ‘Marxism of closure’ or ‘urbanism evacuated of agency’ (171) that is stated here, but it is undoubtedly focused on the structures of power and its destructive force. I am looking forward to reading Berman, see if he manages to describe a city without doing that. It Is hard in this day and age I believe.
If anyone can rescue the Situationist International from a descent into artistic inconsequentiality, it is McKenzie Wark. I always saw amongst their work sparks of interest, but limited sparks. Dying embers maybe. This shifted some of my thinking, and there is a lot here, I think, that continues to demand theoretical and practical work. Perhaps because it is firmly rooted in practice, written by someone who wishes to change the world. Changing the world is always where I though the Situationists fell down the most, their self-published words and collages greatly removed from the very really battles then and now shaping the dialectic between our physical environment and our lives and the shape of our thought. Where their work is useful for imagining change, you can find it here, and in a lovely selection of their own words in tom mcdonaugh’s edited collection the situationists and the city. But more on that soon, with more focus on their work itself.
Before Wark I hadn’t quite realised just how much thought the situationists had put into this relationship between space and life, between cities and residents.
As Guy Debord later wrote:
It is known that initially the Situationists wanted at the very least to build cities, the environment suitable to the unlimited deployment of new passions. But of course this was not easy and so we found ourselves forced to do much more.”*
I don’t know that their journey into art and abstraction did in fact do more, but the impulse behind it is clear. But first some situationist basics — basics often left out of accounts of their work I find, as these were basics I did not know:
The Situationist International was founded at a meeting of three women and six men in July 1957. All that remains of this fabled event are a series of stirring documents and some photographs, casual but made with an artist’s eye, by founding member Ralph Rumney.1 The Situationist International dissolved itself in 1972. In its fifteen years of existence, only seventy-two people were ever members. It was born out of the fusion of two and a half existing groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Society (the last represented by its one and only member, Rumney). Its founding conference took place in Cosio di Arroscia a little Ligurian town where founding member Piero Simondo’s family had a small hotel. Or at least that’s the official story. Debord writes in a letter to Jorn: “I think it is necessary for us to present the ‘Conference at Cosio’ as a point of departure for our distinct organized activity.”2 From the beginning, Debord has a fine hand for the tactics of appearances. (145-146)
And perhaps they were a bit more on the edge of struggle than many others in the French intellectual establishment. I laughed out loud (on the tube no less) at this I’m afraid:
If anything, theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy. A colonnade adorned with the busts of famous fathers: Jacques Lacan the bourgeoismagus, Louis Althusser the throttler-of-concepts, Jacques Derrida the dandy-of-difference, Michel Foucault the one-eyed-powerhouse, Gilles Deleuze the taker-from-behind. Acolytes and epigones pace furiously up and down, prostrating themselves before one master—Ah! Betrayed!—and then another. The production of new dead masters to imitate can barely keep up with consumer demand, prompting some to chisel statues of new demigods while they still live: Alain Badiou the Maoist-of-the-matheme, Giorgio Agamben the pensive-pedant, Slavoj Žižek the neuro-Hegelian-joker.5 (17)
It was probably Derrida, the dandy-of-difference that did it. There are a few other digs at academia that I enjoyed immensely:
If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them. That it is a form of bourgeois thought is attested by the status of the real in Lacanian doctrine. (216)
Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game. (102)
But I think I like with where he is headed with this low theory idea:
What is lost is the combined power of a critique of both wage labor and of everyday life, expressed in acts. What has escaped the institutionalization of high theory is the possibility of low theory, of a critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world. A low theory dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice.” (19)
I also like the rescuing of the group from the great-man driven rememberings, and the placing of them in concrete moments of space and time.
Even when the Situationists are treated as a movement, the supposedly minor figures often drop out of the story, or become mere props to the great men among them. Alternatively, in order to make a coherent narrative and write the biography of a movement as if it were a subject, the differences among its members are suppressed, or turned into the stakes of a mere drama of personalities.9 Here, instead, is a large cast of disparate characters, some more celebrated than others, where Guy Debord and Asger Jorn rub shoulders with Patrick Straram, Michèle Bernstein, Ralph Rumney, Pinot Gallizio, Jacqueline de Jong, Abdelhafid Khatib, Alexander Trocchi and René Viénet. Where they come together, where they create something, is a situation. But situations are temporary, singular unities of space and time. They call for a different kind of remembering. (21-22)
Which has to go alongside Debord’s particular talents for promotion:
Guy Debord spent a lot of time working on how to remember situations, how to document them and keep them in a way that could ignite future possibilities. For the most part, he created legends. ” (24-25)
I quite love this summing up of Debord as well,
Debord was in search, not of the organic intellectuals of the working class, but of what one might call the alcoholic intellectuals of the non-working classes. (50)
I should probably end the blog on that high note, but no. Still, alcohol and drugs play a heightened kind of role that makes me wary, as I usually find they make people intensely boring. But some of the other things on this list are interesting:
Here are some techniques for discovering the way into the total semantic field that they détourned, alone or in combination: alcohol (Debord), opium (Trocchi), psychosis (Chtcheglov), mania (Spur), synaesthesia (de Jong), fatigue (the dérive), obsession (Constant), love (Bernstein), revolution (May ’68), solitude (late Debord). (361)
I’ve already posted some of the choice insults hurled at Le Corbusier, but there is quite a lot of insight here about just why he should be their sworn enemy — because of so much in common:
Le Corbusier was the bête noire of the whole Situationist project, but it is worth pausing to consider what the thinking of Le Corbusier and Chtcheglov had in common. Le Corbusier wrote that “architecture, which is a thing of plastic emotion, should, in its domain, also begin at the beginning, and use elements capable of striking our senses, of satisfying our visual desires, and arrange them in such a way that the sight of them clearly affects us through finesse or brutality, tumult or serenity, indifference or interest.”4 This understanding of the city as a totality of sensory and emotional affects, this at least they share. (57)
There is also this curious passage I am still pondering, since I am in the midst of writing a little about their relationship to France as Colonial power and to the struggle of Algerians — which is to say, their lack of one in any but a very tangential way which is vaguely disapproving of it all. Wark writes:
A Situationist ethnography has its own distinct methods. It emerges out of Debord’s close study of Saint-Germain delinquents. It adopts their habits, their ethnos, and turns it into method. The Letterist International are ethnographers of their own difference, cartographers of an attitude to life. This life did not lie outside the modern, Western one, but inside, in the fissures of its cities. It did not yearn for a primitive life from before history, but rather for one that was to come after it. In the life of the Saint-Germain delinquents’ tribe could be found particles of the future, not the past, and not from some colonial Donogoo Tonka but from the very epicenter of what history had wrought: the colonization of everyday life at the heart of empire. (61)
I am still not sure how this fits with the times they were living in, not clearly demarcated or described here, sadly. The civil war with Algeria, freedom fighters who have taken up arms and are giving their lives on a massive scale in both Algeria and France itself to free themselves from a physical colonization, the fall of French government after government through their failure to subdue this revolution, the curfew against Arabs. These highlight a difference treated very differently than any the situationists might have experienced. It bothers me immensely, this privileged ability to think completely outside life and death struggle, with the exception of Abdelhafid Khatib of the Algerian section. And so I think something vital is missing from this description — and yet it contains much to think about all the same:
What meaning can there be in the freedom to walk at night, through the Paris of the mid 1950s, the curfew of the occupation lifted and the curfew of the Algerian war not yet descended? The dérive appears almost as if it is a direct answer to this question. The dérive is the experimental mapping of a situation, the trace of the probabilities of realizing a desire. There is still the police to contend with, and delinquent Letterists and their friends would occasionally end up in jail for the night. But the dérive is more than the no-man’s-land between consciousness and facticity, for-itself and in-itself, freedom and constraint. It is rather the flux, the monist dialectic, which produces as one of its effects the experience of the gap between in-itself and for-itself in the first place.
Practices like dérive, détournement and potlatch, which will become the defining practices of the Situationist International, produce among other things the possibility of new concepts outside of Sartrean dualism. The interest is not in consciousness and its freedom, but in the production of new situations as an end in themselves. (140-141)
This brings us to the dérive and almost past it (apologies for liking dérive so much more than détournements), but I hadn’t yet stumbled across the meanings of the word itself:
It’s a curious word. A note in the Letterist International’s journal Potlatch gives some of its resonances. Its Latin root “derivare” means to draw off a stream, to divert a flow. Its English descendants include the word “derive” and also “river.” Its whole field of meaning is aquatic, conjuring up flows, channels, eddies, currents, and also drifting, sailing or tacking against the wind. It suggests a space and time of liquid movement, sometimes predictable but sometimes turbulent. The word dérive condenses a whole attitude to life, the sort one might acquire in the backwaters of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (62-63)
I like thinking of it as a new way of being in the world, a new practice:
The dérive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a dérive find other uses for space besides the functional. The time of the dérive is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. It is a time that plays in between the useful and the gratuitous. Leisure time is often called free time, but it is free only in the negative, free from work. But what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive. The breakaway Letterist International created a new practice, a new way of being in the world, out of which to derive a new kind of practice. (68)
I like thinking of it as a new kind of knowledge:
The Letterist International invent a new kind of knowledge, a street ethnography, whose primary method is the dérive. What the dérive discovers is psychogeography: the lineaments of intersubjective space. In place of the chance encounters of the surrealists, they create a practice of play and strategy which invents a way of being, outside of commodified time and outside of the separate disciplines of knowledge—including geography. Henceforth the city will not be a site for fieldwork but a playing field, in which to discover intimations of a space and time outside the division of labor. The goal is nothing less than to invent a new civilization which will make a mark on historical time with the grandeur of the Temple of the Sun. (75-76)
Of course ‘The dérive was an intervention against geography as much as against psychoanalysis.’ (71) And thus:
“Psychogeography is a practice of the city as at once an objective and subjective space. It is not the city as mere prompt for surrealist reveries. Nor is it a thing apart, to be dissected by social science, no matter how well-meaning. The city of Debord, Chtcheglov and their friends is a complex beast, always in process, with its own rhythms and life cycle, as it is for Chombart.(74)
City as form AND process, change, movement. All those things most academics had never seen before. I had never realised just how much in dialogue this movement was with the thinking and theorising of Henri Lefebvre, cited continually these days as a kind of founder of the “spatial turn” and an end to treating space as simply a backdrop or container. I knew a vague relationship but they complement each other so well, surely drove each other on. What I have always loved about Lefebvre is his understanding of this:
In Lefebvre the real is the fulcrum of action …It is by attempting to transform everyday life that the contours of the real are encountered. (217)
It is in struggle that we encounter the limits — they are only imagined until we actually try and shift something. I imagine they are not really where many academics believe them to be. This is where I think the usefulness of Lefebvre’s thought and Situationist practice may come to the fore, but only where linked to the brutal fighting now taking place in almost all cities — over segregation, displacement, gentrification, redevelopment or actual occupation. Not to displace play, but to ensure it helps us fight harder against injustices, rather than make it easier to submit to them or worse benefit from them, even as others suffer.
This is why I have always been sceptical of so much of this movement, why this slogan of Debord’s has always bothered me, though this is perhaps its best possible defense:
Debord’s first major work, by his own later accounts, was a simple three-word graffiti that translates as “Never work!”23 Rather than reduce the working hour, avoid it as much as possible. But if there is no work, then there is no leisure either. It is rather like Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God which is also the death of a certain understanding of Man, since God and Man form a conceptual couple, each made in the other’s image.24 Debord’s “Never work!” frees time from its binary form of work time and leisure time. The dérive then becomes the practice of lived time, time not divided and accorded a function in advance; a time inhabited by neither workers nor consumers. (69)
Still. I am still thinking it through, still sifting for what is meaningful. A few last thoughts —
Psychogeography made the city subjective and at the same time drew subjectivity out of its individualistic shell. It is a therapy aimed not at the self but at the city itself…
And it is a collective one. The derive is best carried out in groups.I like the idea of the collective, though the Lettrists and Situationists spent a lot of energy fighting amongst themselves and expelling people from the movement.
Wark makes this final point, and I am still not sure what i think about it, but again, find it worth thinking about:
The Letterist International discovered the power of a kind of negative action. They show what cannot be done within the limits of actually existing capitalism. (81)
“The Letterist International passes on to the Situationist International the practice of a negative action, which lays bare the gap between everyday life in twentieth century capitalism, and what it leaves to be desired. (110)
Did it? Perhaps it did.
A few other tidbits — the city as pinball machine:
Debord and Wolman had already proposed a détournement of pinball, in which the “play of the lights and the more or less predictable trajectories of the balls would form a metagraphic-spatial composition entitled Thermal Sensations and Desires of People Passing by the Gates of Cluny Museum Around an Hour After Sunset in November.”13 They abandoned this idea, for Paris was already a pinball machine. All that remained was to bounce around it like a shiny silver ball, and find its psychogeographic centers of gravity. (185)
We too stumbled around the Cluny Museum at regular intervals in our brief Paris stay. So returning to this made me laugh.
I knew nothing of this playfulness with language, but I like it:
Produced outside of the Situationist International and without Trocchi, the Situationist Times turned out to be a somewhat different beast. It was multilingual, and even its English-language texts were written in what one might now call netlish—transnational English unapologetically cast as a second language patterned after the writer’s first language.25 The era of French as the lingua franca of the avant-garde was over. (271)
The book ends on a good note as well, with what continues of the situationist project today, détourned as of course, it must be:
What continues unabated, regardless of what anyone writes, is the détournement of the Situationist project. Beneath the pavement, the beach. Wherever the boredom with given forms of art, politics, thought, everyday life jackhammers through the carapace of mindless form, the beach emerges, where form is ground down to particles, to the ruin of ruins. There lies what the old mole is always busy making: the materials for the construction of situations. (366)
Of the many things I’ve been reading on the legacy of the situationists lately, this is far and away the best.
[Wark, McKenzie. (2011) The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso.]
* From Guy Debord, “On Wild Architecture,” in Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957–1972, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1989, p. 174.”
Lefebvre…a great deal of difficult high-philosophy meandering that you plough through and I confess I put this book down three times before finally finishing it. But finish it I did, and thing with Lefebvre is, the gems of insight you find here and there are worth it. I think. But I can’t always follow how he gets there, and I’ve decided that it isn’t so important.
Neil Smith’s intro does a great job of situating Lefebvre in the intellectual ferment of France post WWI and WWII — along with his history as a resistance fighter. He notes the critiques of one of Lefebvre’s primary arguments — that urbanization has replaced industrialization as the ‘motor of capital accumulation’ (xviii) The connection between these, however, is clearly a key one, and not fully thought out here by Lefebvre — or indeed anywhere. Smith seems to have agreed with me as well regarding the meandering, judging from his final caveats about style and content.
So, to focus on the insights: Society has been completely urbanized, where urban society is that which ‘results from industrialization, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production’ (2). Perhaps this is not entirely global, but close.
He has a lovely thing about streets — that sort of exemplifies him thinking out loud:
Revolutionary events generally take place in the street. Doesn’t this show that disorder of the street engenders anotehr kind of order? The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things. A place where speech becomes writing. A place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.
Against the street. A meeting place? Maybe, but such meetings are superficial. In the street, we merely brush shoulders with others, we don’t interact with them. It’s the ‘we’ that’s important. The street prevents the constitution of a group, as subject; it is populated by a congeries of people in search of…of what exactly? (19)
This chapter is a series of ‘for’ and ‘against’. There is another nice phrase on monuments:
Monuments project onto the land a conception of the world, whereas the city projected (and continues to project) social life (globality)…monuments embody a sense of transcendance, a sense of being elsewhere. They have always been u-topic. Throughout their height and depth, along a dimension that was alien to urban trajectories, they proclaimed duty, power, knowledge, joy, hope. (22)
Another insight on the conflicts of the industrial city created by its spatiality:
Several logics meet head-on and sometimes clash: the logic of commodities (stretched so far as to attempt to organize production on the basis of consumption), the logic of the state and the law, the organization of space (town and country planning and urbanism), the logic of the object, of daily life, language, information, communication. Because each logic wants to be restrictive and complete, eliminating anything that is felt to be unsuitable, claiming to govern the remainder of the world, it becomes an empty tautology. In this way, communication only transmits the communicable. But all these logics and all these tautologies confront one another at some point. They share a common space: the logic of surplus value. The city, or what remains of it or what it will become, is better suited than it has ever been before for the accumulation of capital; that is, the accumulation, realization, and distribution of surplus value (35).
Here a definition of the urban that I love — yet that fails completely to describe many an urban area, like L.A. for example
The urban is defined as the place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations (39).
This is the irrepressible nature of it:
In spite of any efforts at homgenization through technology, in spite of the constitution of arbitrary isotopies, that is, separation and segregation, no urban place is identical to another …. the urban is a highly complex field of tensions, a virtuality, a possible-impossible that attracts the accomplished, an ever-renewed and always demanding presence-absence. Blindness consists in the fact that we cannot see the shape of the urban, the vectors and tensions inherent in this field, its logic and dialectic movement, its immanent demands. We see only things, operations, objects…(40)
In oppostion to a beautiful complexity:
Separation and segregation break this relationship [in which difference thrives]. They constitute a totalitarian order, whose strategic goal is to break down concrete totality, to break the urban. Segregation complicates and destroys complexity (133)
Thus L.A. may be a city, even one striving for complexity, yet it is struggling against great odds to be urban, to contain difference. I think maybe that this explains a few things on the level of feeling really, I am still trying to get my head around it.
There’s this lovely sentence:
Urban reform, which would clear the soil of the servitude that results from private property (and consequently from speculation), already has a revolutionary component…The period of urban revolutions has begun (43).
Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book is unexpectedly and unaccountably drawn from the philosophy of Heidegger (which I find so compromised) and the poetry of Holderlin (which I find fairly sickly mawkish).
The human being cannot build and dwell, that is to say, possess a dwelling in which he lives, without also possessing something more (or less) than himself: his relation to the possible and the imaginary…The relation resides in the dwelling and in habiting…A home and language are two complementary aspects of the human being’…the ‘human being’ cannot do anything but inhabit as poet. If we do not provide him with (as an offering and a gift) the possibility of inhabiting poetically or of inventing a poetry, he will create it as best he can. (82)
I find this an amazing way to think about the meaning of home, how we try to shape and craft it to suit ourselves no matter our circumstances. I struggle to put all of these things together of course, but relish them individually. And then put them together as I want, which perhaps is no bad thing.
From power over home to power over cities:
The working class never had any space other than that of its expropriation, its deportation: segregation.
…there is a remarkable isotopy in the spaces created by state rationalism: long straight lines, broad avenues, voids, empty perspectives, an occupation of the soil that makes a clean break with its antecedents, without regard for wither the rights and interests of the lower classes or cost (128).
As a novelist I like this idea of
…u-topia, the non-place, the place for that which doesn’t occur, for that which has no place of its own, that is always elsewhere? On a map of Paris (the so-called Turgot map of approximately 1735), u-topia can be neither read nor seen, and yet it is there in all its glory. It is where the gaze that overlooks the large city is situated, a vaguely determined place, but one that is carefully conceived and imagined (imaged), a place of consciousness; that is, a consciousness of totality. In general, this place, imagined and real, is found near the borders of verticality, the dimension of desire, power, and thought. Sometimes it is found deep within the subterranean city imagined by the novelist or poet, the underside of the city given over to conspiracy and crime. U-topia combines near and distant orders (129-30).
I mean, what is he really trying to say there, academically speaking? Hell if I know, but it is awesome and makes me think great things.
You get to chapter 8 and there’s loads of stuff, though when he says he’s provided the conceptual tools for it all you may, like me, wonder when exactly that happened. But 8 is cool. Keep reading until you get there.
There are several urbanisms: the urbanism of humanists, of developers, of the state and its technocrats. the first group proposes abstract utopias; the second sells urbanism–that is, happiness, a lifestyle, a certain social standing. The activity of the last group dissociates, like the activity of the state, into will and representation, institutions and ideologies (151)
The deployment of the world of commodities now affects not only objects but their containers, it is no longer limited to content, to objects in space. More recently, space itself has begun to be bought and sold. Not the earth, the soil, but social space, produced as such, with this purpose, this finality (so to speak). Space is no longer only an indifferent medium, the sum of places where surplus value is created, realized, and distributed. It becomes the product of social labor, the very general object of production, and consequently of the formation of surplus value. This is how production becomes social within the very framework of neocapitalism.
Here’s where he argues that the nature of production has changed:
Capitalism, to ensure its survival, took the initiative in this. The strategy goes far beyond simply selling space, bit by bit. not only does it incorporate space in the production of surplus value, it attempts to completely reorganize production as something subordinate to the centers of imformation and decision making (155)
He argues that urbanism is not objective, but incorporates a class strategy. Today’s urbanism ‘lives off the compromise between neoliberalism (which participates in planning and in activities that are refferred to as ‘voluntary’ or ‘consensual’) and neo-dirigisme (which leaves a field open for ‘free enterprise’)’ (158). He discusses to some extent real estate’s function as a second circuit of capital parallel to that of industrial production, a buffer where capital can go in case of depression. And then, of course, he argues that capital shifts entirely, ‘It can even happen that real-estate speculation becomes the principle source for the formation of capital, that is, the realization of surplus value’ (160). But he doesn’t look in any depth at how this surplus value is actually created in a Marxist understanding — you have to look to Harvey for that. But he sees today’s urbanism as a shutting down of possibilities, a reduction to a society of controlled consumption, a repressive space (164).