I have been working on a short description/prospectus for a book project. i wanted to post it here as part of the SUB material. the book will attempt to leverage my SUB teaching towards this effort.
Skirmishes with the MacroPhenomenal: letting go of the city
Arguably, the city is the most celebrated and academically cherished formal and spatial configuration of urbanism. Sustained exploration of the material conditions within post-industrial cities such as Detroit, however, can have the effect of foregrounding a dilemma in one’s urban study. One can uphold the propriety of the city and the individual disciplines that labor to make sense of it; or, one can let go of the city in favor of urbanism itself, placing “proper” disciplinary conclusions at risk while exploring the myriad spatial configurations produced by the processes of urbanization that persist outside of the canonic territory of the city. My project recognizes that the terms “urbanism” and “city” are often conflated in a manner that is no longer consistent with contemporary forms of urbanism, nor city. I allow my thought to be susceptible to the evidence of real world practices that expose the slow-to-change biases of my discipline. Letting go of the city, therefore, has as its shadowy correlate the letting go of disciplinary control over the imminent wildness of urban subject matter. When one leaves the distinct territory of discipline and city, one makes possible the coming together of many more things. If the city recommends an inter-disciplinary perspective, the processes of urbanism that build and unbuild cities demand a trans-disciplinary conversation.
I research and practice architecture within contemporary conditions of American urbanism, specifically exploring the urban formations and exchanges that characterize a post-city urbanism produced within a commercial democracy. By post-city, I do not mean to imply that the city is dead. Just as the term “post-modernity” relates to an ongoing sense of modernity and does not signal the “end” of the modern project, in my usage “post-city urbanism” signals a shift in the assumptions made about doing urban work. One such shift accompanies the recognition that contemporary urban subjects are largely constructed within suburban typologies of spatial experience. This suggests that we subordinate the valorized verticality of the city and favor, instead, the fluid, horizontal spaces of auto-mobility. My project gets into this flow, tries it on, attempts its speed, and makes an effort to view the city through the rearview mirror.
I am interested in hybrid forms of scholarship and creative practices that analogously model the variability found within research subjects themselves. I am a maker of buildings and thought. I assemble concrete materials and remain committed to thick descriptions of the migrations I traverse in order to do so. My project aims to de-simplify certain ubiquitous phenomena like big-box retail landscapes, strip malls, franchise spaces, gas stations, parking lots, retention ponds, and truck stops. These are among the overly familiar situations and spaces that are rarely seen and explored by intellectuals. Despite—or perhaps because of—this, conducting research into cultural formations such as these provides an ideal opportunity to challenge and rethink some of the dominant assumptions and ideas that structure scholarship on American cities, and those disciplines concerned with urbanism more generally. Rather than attempting to tame urban conditions with disciplinary certitude, my approach is to correspond with the conditions in an intelligent and open way, finding the convergences that appear when disciplinary practice merges with the mobility of capital inherent in processes of urbanization.
Ultimately, I will produce a book-length manuscript organized as a series of skirmishes with the MacroPhenomenal. This neologism is meant to invoke the unique quality of cultural and material formations – phenomena – that remain discrete and knowable even as they provide access to the larger – macro – contexts and systems that construct them. If macroeconomics can be described as a concern with the relationships between a single economic transaction and the entire structure of the economy (be it global, national, regional or local), then the term MacroPhenomenal captures those attributes within a localized situation, material formation, or event that carries or conveys a larger understanding of the systems that produce them. I use this term to describe a category of things that make one aware of something profoundly more vast, and also to signal what to look for and how to look. I am also invested in its paradoxical use, which suggests that one look simultaneously at both the expanse of large systems (of capital, for example) and the specific magnitudes of those systems as they manifest in particular material and spatial formations.
My project is organized according to three over-arching themes. The first explores the mutual construction of spatial configurations and urban subjects. I take stock of canonical writings by Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel as they relate to the co-production of the industrial city and the modern subject. In their writings, historic migrations from rural environments into cities newly awash with a sea of products and their calculability are understood as mediating civic and social relationships. In contrast, my work explores a new digitally-construed, technologically-bloated subject who arises at the intersection of statistics and market segmentation research. While the cinema and the city are primary models for discussing the historic formation of urban subjectivity and agency, I want to move the discourse past both of these genres to consider how search protocols and internet data mines articulate a database subject; one that is plotted within the horizontally entropic landscapes of franchised experience. (Work in this thematic makes reference to Mitchell, 2003; Wark, 2004; Ulmer, 2005; among others.).
A second preoccupation concerns the plight of institutions in post-city urbanism. As an urban institution, Hudson’s Department Store once presided over the city of Detroit, serving a pedagogical role for its citizens through various consulting and curatorial practices. We rarely think of the disaffected cashiers at places like WalMart, Target, and Costco in this same light, yet the latter re-enact those same historic roles in mutating, morphological terms. Meanwhile, commercial establishments located on the city’s perimeter operate as contemporary institutional vestiges, attempting to preside over the shifting terms of identity brought on by the persistent appearance of the logistics underlying franchise experience. To articulate this dynamic, I am studying a number of commercial establishments that are paradigmatic within post-city urbanism. For example, I explore Cabela’s retail sporting goods store, self-proclaimed as the “World’s Foremost Outfitter,” for its deft exaggeration of the rugged individualism that is part of the mythology of America, its overt spectacularization of the practice of hunting, and the company’s spatial strategy of placing flagship stores adjacent to remote highway interchanges. Cabela’s appears to be caught between the dual obligation to singularly and idiosyncratically stimulate and arrest us, even as it lubricates our fluid movement through its multiple networks of conveyance. Cabela’s interplay between economic determinism, spatial strategy, and the making of cultural myth makes it an important site for studying the MacroPhenomenal reality of contemporary urban institutions. (Work in this thematic makes reference to Agamben, 2009; Bauman, 2000; Baudrillard,1996; among others.)
The final theme of my proposed project explores how urban experience outside of the context of “city” prioritizes speed and syncopates a strange distance between objects in the built landscape. This third theme lures the compact scalar relationship between a morphology of institutions and the post-city urban subject towards a much larger sensibility; namely, that of the enormous. To make this explicit and actionable, I will explore the American highway system and its flickering spatiality as a means for understanding the cultural logic of speed and the regime of distribution. Both speed and the protocols of networked distribution play important roles in framing cultural experience within the enormous. My work aims to juxtapose the apparent seamless relationship between the messy circulation of commodities and the disjunctive spatial experiences that result from them. I intend to associate the literal movement of capital across the landscape with the atmospheric and experiential qualities of franchise space. My work on the territorial structure of the MacroPhenomenal is informed by the writings of Paul Virilio (2005; 2006) and his assertion that dromoscopy (road vision) has now come to permeate many social relationships. (Additionally, work in this thematic makes reference to Branzi, 2006; Koolhaas, 1995, 2001; among others)
My project makes an assertion that the city is a decaying model for academic work. In making this assertion, I understand that letting go of the city is itself a mental process that presents its own gains and losses. The metaphorical language of cultivating and transgressing in my proposal is meant to suggest the perpetual transformation of the MacroPhenomenal as well as my openness to such. My manuscript is meant to challenge my discipline’s desire to emerge from urban skirmishes unscathed.
Towards a database subject
I have fallen a couple of weeks behind the pace that I wanted to keep with the blog due to an increase in calendar items at school – more meetings, appointments, I used a personal work day last week to tour my MS_DR students through Detroit, etc. – and it is also due to the fall study break which I used to get away with my family. So, there are probably some gaps to attend to in future posts, as we have moved in the last couple of weeks of the seminar from the agency of the walker (see the post below) through the voyeur-voyager travelling at high rates of speed in the automobile (see a future post) and whose agency is often constructed by systemic references to the cinematic, to the agency of the database subject, immersed in far-reaching informational networks and extended by digital processes the effects of which seems enormous. In this post, I want to deal a bit with the database subject.
But I am not going to have the time right now to flesh it out as much as I intend and will have to rely on a number of (future) shorter posts to get at it. For this post, I mostly wanted to contextualize the youtube video of Mixmaster Mike that I have pasted-in above.
A number of years ago there was a lecture given at school by the Canadian architect, Brian Mackay-Lyons. He started his lecture making an affirmation for how tradition and innovation often go hand-in-hand. To illustrate his point he played two versions of the canonical blues song, Cross Roads, consecutively. The first version was the original Robert Johnson recording made, as the legend goes, after Johnson travelled “down to the cross roads” where he made a deal with the devil resulting in his becoming a virtuoso guitar player and eventually a hall of fame bluesman. And hearing the original version is everything you would want from a 1936 blues song. The second version of Cross Roads that Mackay-Lyons played for the audience was the late 1960s version by Eric Clapton. It was my observation, as we listened to the Clapton version, that he had simply electrified and sped up the original song, which both kept it intact and produced a new version of it at the same time. And this was Mackay-Lyons’ point here, that the new song owed quite a bit to the old song and that the two of them together were a manifestation of the relationship between tradition and innovation. He left the analogy there and moved on to show some of his design work as innovation based on, among other things, vernacular structures. I might be a simplifying Mackay-Lyons lecture, but I don’t mean to do it as a dismissal… I mostly remember the lecture for how it started, with the presentation of these two songs.
And if that is all I got out of the lecture (it was not all), it was still a significant teaching point and I have been captivated by the idea that older things are getting sped up in new things since his presentation. We might not be simply electrifying them any longer, though. It might be more accurate to say that we are digitizing things and speeding them up… making new things come forth from old things. And this is one point that Eric Gordon, citing Lev Manovich’s book, The Language of New Media, was making in one of our required readings for this particular session. Digital media takes particular advantage of the historic relationship all new forms of media had with their precedents; namely, that the new form always made its transition and breakaway from the old form through mimicking its operational tendencies. And digital processes of cut/copy/paste, to be simplistic about it for now, extended the “range” at which one can deploy this process. (more on this, too, in some magical future post)
To Mackay-Lyons’ paring, I have added a third “version” of the Robert Johnson original that I think unsettles the relationship he established between tradition and innovatio . This comes in the form of the clip of Mixmaster Mike (MMM) from the documentary film, Scratch, that you have, hopefully, played a couple of times by now. Here, MMM is taking a Robert Johnson Blues Song (admittedly not the Cross Roads song, which would have been scary good for my purposes here) as raw material for making a new version that radicalizes the older versions. MMM speeds it up and slows it down and makes it stammer, studder, break apart and come together again as he swirls its contents with other contents in a dynamic celerity of hand movements and ascendant control practices over the tools of his DJ trade. He is not (yet) digitizing the song in this clip. His work is still within the category of the analog. But still, I think his performance models a set of behaviors that have only gotten more prolific and more wild in the digital medium. And MMM’s work with the original song has the effect of making Clapton’s work on the original song seem partial and limited in terms of its innovative potential.
So, this clip of MMM doing his thing operated as an approximation of a type of urban subject in our discussion in SUB that day. This is a subject whose agency is variable and negotiated, contingent and at times soft. Maybe it is even fair to say the agency of this type of urban subject makes kinds of appearances based on types of performance. This subject stages productions out of the raw materials of all sorts of other things and recombines those things in a number of durational configurations. The clip of MMM foreshadows the database subject, and the cultural move from the regime of assembly to that of assemblage (I hope to return to this notion in a future post in a more scholarly manner). Every traditional thing is either held up for its historical value or simply thrust into the mix as one more possible aggregate of material properties, or both… more vectors, more coordinates, more potential for being affective, more movement across a plane of immanence upon which things are built and unbuilt with both dizzying frequencies and with slow, deliberate, sustained effort. I like what Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) had to say in his book rhythm science (an excerpt from which we also read for this particular session of SUB). He writes:
As George Santayana said so long ago, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s one scenario. But what happens when the memories filter through the machines we use to process culture and become software – a constantly updated, always turbulent terrain more powerful than the machine through which it runs? Memory, damnation, and repetition: That was then, this is now. We have machines to repeat history for us. And the software that runs the machines is the text that flows through the conduits like the flaneur of the unconscious. (pp 9-12)
I thought of a quick-burst-of-steam sort of post that seems important for the blog…
In his book, Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord defines urbanism without any reference to the city, nor any other spatial configuration in aphorism #169. For me, this was the first time I read or heard something about urbanism and had the distinct feeling that the author or speaker was not only referring to the city proper. This was helpful for me, because previous to reading Debord, I had already taken a left hand turn off of Woodward Avenue in Detroit and felt all of the urban techniques and tools that I had acquired in the discipline dissipating… disappearing into a reality to which those disciplinary tools were blind. So, I thought it worthwhile to post entry 169 in its entirety. I am quoting it from the Black and Red edition of the book published in Detroit in 1983… here goes,
The society that molds all of its surroundings has developed a special technique for shaping its very territory, the solid ground of this collection of tasks. Urbanism is capitalism’s seizure of the natural and human environment; developing logically into absolute domination, capitalism can and must remake the totality of space into its own setting.
I have paraphrased this aphorism (and have gotten it damn right) a number of times in the seminar room, and I like that it is now in the flow of the blog.
I wanted to swerve back to the notion of mutual construction and devote another entry in the blog to it ( I plan to do this a number of times). This entry could be read as an elaboration of some aspects of my first entry on mutual construction posted on September 28.
As I mentioned in the earlier post, we had read two important essays as preparation for our discussion that week: Walter Benjamin’s chapter, “The Flaneur,” from Charles Baudelaire : A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, in tandem with Georg Simmel’s landmark essay, “Metropolis and Mental Life.” A couple of citations from the texts will help thicken the concept of mutual construction.
In the Georg Simmel text, we see some reflection on the antagonism that emerges from attempts by the individual to maintain individuality in the face of rapidly changing stimuli as cities burgeoned. Developing his thesis that the massive migration of rural peoples towards burgeoning cities at the height of industrial modernity requires more mental energy than slower, more habitual rhythms of rural small town, and thus creates within the neophyte urban subject the sensory foundations for a mental life, Simmel writes:
This intellectualistic quality, which is thus recognized as a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis, becomes ramified into numerous specific phenomena. The metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy because the many-sidedness and concentration of commercial activity have given the medium of exchange an importance which it could not have acquired in the commercial aspects of rural life. But the money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one anther. (p 326)
Furthermore, this psychological intellectualistic attitude and the money economy are in such close integration that no one is able to say whether it was the former that affected the later or vice versa. (p 327)
I view this as a start to developing the concept of a mutual construction in urban terms, as Simmel is articulating the co-rising of persistent representation of the medium of exchange, or the money economy, in the city AND structures of experience that interiorize the urban subject’s response to such. The level of anonymity granted the citizen of the burgeoning industrial city was responsible for the development of a largely internalized way of coping with the newly experienced closeness between strangers and the corresponding market-driven bombardment of advertising and other forms of desire construction. Individuals no longer simply approached the tailor, for example, for a customized set of measurements of their particular body and a resulting tailored garment. Rather, in Simmel’s metropolitan experience there are for the first time racks of garments made in advance of actual need for those garments standing in place of the intermediated, personal, and custom engagement with the tailor. A corresponding calculability stands in between citizens now as the terms of exchange and monetized incentive lubricate the relationships between individuals in ways that tradition and narrative once did in the rural settings and economies he is contrasting.
The elliptical or circular diagram here posits these two developments as co-requisites. They rely on one another and mutually enable one another. The money economy and the domination of the intellectual response to it “stand in the closest relationship to one another.”
Simmel’s assertion that London has always been the intellect and the money bag of England, and never its heart (p 327) underscores his sense that cities are the seats of commerce for territories beyond and that as the modern city is amassed so too is the sense that the purchusabilty of things can have the effect of drowning the individual’s feeling of value and self worth. As the metropolis thrust upon the subject the messages of calculability and purchusabilty there is a blasé attitude that is developed within the individual as a function of protection. Not to be confused with mental dullness or stupidity, the blasé attitude is a form of calculated indifference that has the effect of lowering the level of contrast between competing stimuli the results of which perceptions of the environment that are grey and flat. Simmel writes,
“The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time.” (p 334)
So, we begin to see something in these quotations from Simmel’s essay that Walter Benjamin’s chapter on the Flaneur takes on directly, and that is the relationship between the spatial configuration of the city, the status of the crowd, and the urban subject. Benjamin’s invocation of the flaneur, to be efficient about this, is as a subject that is mutually constructed by the Parisian arcade in the most direct sense. Indirectly, there is a larger relationship between the terms of capitalism and the production of a leisure class that is also at work. The triangulated relationship between the industrialization of the city, the particular configurations of space enabled by that industrialization, and the subject of the flanuer is of great interest to me, not only as a way of understanding the Baudelairian invocation of the fleeting, the contingent, and the noncommitted forms of agency possible in the crowded city, but also as a way of approaching the myriad relationships deeply imbricated in processes of urbanism.
Benjamin, writing on Baudelaire’s conception of the crowd as a criminal element (and the city as a scene of a crime), animates the sense of the crowd and speaks to its narcotic effects on the flaneur. He writes,
The crowd is not only the newest asylum of outlaws; it is also the latest narcotic for those abandoned in the crowd. The flaneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity. He is not aware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effect on him and it permeates him like a narcotic that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication to which the flaneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers. (p 55)
We get here a more or less blatant alignment between the flaneur, which I am taking as a stand in for the urban subject more than as a historically constructed persona, and the commodity.
To close this blog entry, I might ask for permission to begin crossing some of these wires…
I might assert that as Simmel is describing the racks of clothing garments awaiting the eventual buyer, he is also describing the urban subject who is susceptible to all the constructions of desire that urbanism has calcified or solidified in the form of the crowded city. And those desire engines berth images and messages that swirl around both the racks full of clothing garments and the eventual buyers of those garments with equal incentive. And as these systems of production change so might the forms of urbanism change alongside them, thus producing new types of urban subjects. And all of these mutual constructions are prone to durational shifts and the preponderance of time based agency more than they are fixed and enduring.
Benjamin, in his analysis of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd,” articulates this temporal and durational sensibility. He writes,
If the arcade is the classical form of the interieur, which is how the flaneur sees the street, the department store is the form of the interieurs decay. The bazaar is the last hangout of the flaneur. If in the beginning the street had become an interieur for him, now this interieur turned into a street, and he roamed the labyrinth of the merchandise as he had once roamed the labyrinth of the city. It is a magnificent touch in the Poe’s story that it includes along with the earliest description of the flaneur the figuration of his end. (p 54)
On September 30th in SUB we spoke quite a bit about power and power relations. Perhaps this was inspired by the possibility of having to cancel class the next Friday due to a conference on “power” that our college was sponsoring. None of us in the room knew anything about the conference, who was speaking at it, at what time they would speak, about what, etc. We only knew that the conference was taking place all day the next Friday. (Our first point in the discussion was that none of us knowing any of this must have something to do with power, itself.)
Our discussion was informed, as well, and more substantively, by the chapter from Michel de Certeau’s book, The Practice of Everyday Life, that we had read in preparation for our seminar. The chapter is entitled, “Walking in the City,” and this was part of my interest in walking as a form of mobility with particular kinds of agency. The seminar syllabus is organized with this session and two others that focus on changes in mobility that lead to changes in the agency of the subject in motion. Our trajectory in the course is to consider the walker, then the driver, or voyeur-voyager traveling at great speed, and then the electrate surfer awash in a digitally disintermediated mobility. Stated another way, the course is interested in the relationship between urban spatial configuration and kinds/types of subjects that are constructed by those configurations. We take the flaneur and the Parisian arcade as a starting point and look for what that flaneur has become, structurally or relationally speaking, as urban spatial configurations morph from dense, centered cities towards mathematically sublime horizontal and entropic forms of urbanism. In many ways, our interest in de Certeau’s walker in the city is motivated by thickening the subjectivity of the flaneur as presented by Baudelaire and Benjamin, establishing attributes to this subject’s way of knowing space. In discussing the walker, we are still very much discussing the city proper. But at the same time, we are discussing urbanism’s propensity to flirt with forms of density and crowdedness and this seems important to recall as we move in subsequent weeks away from walking and away from the city proper, and into urbanism disengaged from space of the city.
Now, back to the power issue. In class, I invoked Roland Barthes’ book, Criticism and Truth, then I efficiently constructed a model for understanding power using my hands. I first held my two hands close to one another, forming a tight cylinder with them and said that this might represent the stakeholders of power in any given situation. I then moved my hands away from one another, gesturing towards another, larger diameter that lies at the perimeter of the original cylinder and beyond. I named this the “margins” of that power and explained that stakeholders of power inside the tight, centered diameter, generally grow conservative towards their stake in power… i.e.: they want to conserve their power and thus push things that do not correspond with the terms of their power towards the margins. This marginalization of competing forces is part of the power dynamic. Those in power attempt to conserve their power by pushing divergent views, interests, values towards the margins. Meanwhile the margins begin to fill up and start teeming with multiple possibilities that are being excluded in the center. Sooner or later, organization within the margins reaches the point where a “run” is made towards the center and this “run towards power” has the effect, for the sake of this explanation, of creating a new group of stakeholders of power as the new, multiple, teeming possibilities overthrow the conservative arbiters of power that marginalized them in the first place. Then, and this is really the important part, the process begins again as the once marginalized and teeming entity now grows conservative in response to holding onto the power that was originally gained in the move from the margin towards the center. This new group begins marginalizing a new set of multiplicities that will build up in the margin and sooner or later will challenge the center for power.
At this point in my diagram constructed with my hands I am coursing both hands cyclically towards one another and then away from one another gesturing towards the waves of marginalization and then power grabbing. My hands are flowing towards the center and then upward together until they start moving downward and away from one another. I am indicating to the students that this process is continual and though there are variations and durational factors that would make one cycle of this process slower or faster and more or less brutal from another, it generally operates in the manner of my hands coming together and then falling away from one another as a new moment of coming together takes seat. I explain, too, that what my hands are modeling could be social relationships among small groups of people; corporate hierarchies; institutions like the one we are all working; in large political systems whose stakeholders in power affect many more of us at once; and also disciplines, who tend to conserve their defining characteristics over time as a part of how they work on topics. And this is precisely the moment in our discussion when we return precisely to the Michel de Certeau text, as I believe this is one of the strong aspects of the chapter the students had read.
I then quoted the passage on page 96, which I believe is essential to “getting” de Certeau. It is worth the data space here to quote in full:
Rather than remaining within a field of discourse that upholds its privilege by inverting its content (speaking of catastrophe and no longer of progress), one can try another path: one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay; one can follow the swarming activity of these procedures that, far from being regulated or eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves in a proliferating illegitimacy, developed and insinuated themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization.
de Certeau is interested in “minor” practices that persist within dominate systems of power and understands power as a dynamic condition that has as much to with the geometrical, geographical, and theoretical constructs that safeguard it as it does with the “blind spots” proliferate within those administrative practices. He points out that disciplines wield power over the topics that render the discipline knowable and in many cases it is the discipline that must emerge unscathed from forays with the territories of its brokerage. To state it another way, the city is engaged by urban planners and architects in ways that often assume their authority over that engagement above and beyond all else that is also possible in the engagement. Disciplines tend to underwrite their own efficacy with pre-given, well-established responses to certain conditions even if those conditions could more accurately be understood as deeply unsettling for the assumptions of disciplinary work. Disciplines look past the unsettling conditions such that the discipline emerges unscathed, clean, recognizable. de Certeau, writing in pre 9/11 exaltation, uses his own ascendancy to the 110 floor of the World Trade Center as a metaphor for the control practices that take the wild and teeming reality of the city and subject it to a way of knowing that looks past its variability in favor of characterizations of urbanism that are more sympathetic to the control ambitions of disciplines. To this “concept city,” — the city of control, planning, and theory – de Certeau contrasts the “blind and opaque” movements of the walker who enunciates a discrete phatic present out of the abstract conditions of control that permeate urbanism. The walker perpetuates an interruption in otherwise overtly seamless renderings of the city.
de Certeau describes the “triple enunciative function” of the walker. 1) The walker appropriates the place and actualizes some of the plural possibilities that a spatial order posits as possible, making them both emerge and become known. 2) The walker affects a spatial acting out of the place and thus makes a discrete selection out of an otherwise plural set of contingencies undisclosed by the concept of a city. And 3), the walker initiates, maintains, and interrupts social relations among the diverse actors that flow within urbanism, and this conjunctive quality of walking constitutes the city’s atmospheres of sociability; its diverse yet shared feelings of mutual engagement, for better or for worse.
In our discussion, we worked hard to establish both the propriety of the pedestrian here and also understand that de Certeau was invoking a subjectivity, a mind set for practice, and a way of knowing the city that is attributed to walking but might also be understood as not reducible to simply walking. In other words, whether or not one set out to literally walk, I wanted the students to understand that the agency of walking holds this potentiality.
In our seminar session the previous week, we discussed Georg Simmel’s seminal essay, “Metropolis and the Mental Life,” along with Walter Benjamin’s exaltation of the flaneur with the intent of establishing the mutual construction between particular urban configurations of space and their corresponding subject affinities. Our primary interest in the de Certeau chapter was to develop our understanding of the particular agency held by those who walk in order to construct something specific within and from the metropolitan experience of cities. We used de Certeau’s writing to thicken our developing understanding of subjects and urban spaces, but also tapped into his interest in being cognizant and critical of how power relations get inscribed and maintained in all sorts of organizational systems.
Last week in the seminar we discussed two readings that are foundation to one of the important intellectual threads of the SUB course. The thread could be broadly named, “mutual construction,” and I plan to write an essay that explores this notion as part of the forthcoming book on post-city urbanism. Likewise, our conversation within the course will chart this notion across the terrain of our weekly conversations. I thought it would be useful to outline some of my concerns and interests relative the mutual construction and describe to some degree how I aim to explore this idea further. A fair bit of the work is in front of me, but the core of the idea is in hand now.
I started the discussion of “mutual construction” with the above Charles Hoff photograph from the 1959 boxing match between Len Matthews and Carlos Ortiz. (the image is taken from the book, The Fights : Photographs by Charles Hoff, published in 1996 by Chronicle Books). The image recommends its use here, as it so clearly presents us with an entangled and legible cause and effect. Matthews, in the foreground, is taking a fierce blow from Ortiz. The body position and expression of both pugilists are really where the “mutual construction” aspect of the image crystallizes. Take the face of Matthews, captured photographically as it absorbs the energy of the punch as an effect, the cause of which is apparent in both the tense upper body musculature of Ortiz and in the expression on his face. The image allows us to understand, at once, both the delivery of the punch and its reception. This, for me is a start to getting the notion of mutual construction into focus, though I think this image is a mutual construction of a certain type. (I might provisionally tag this type of mutual construction as “compact cause and effect.”)
Ortiz and Matthews are mutually constructed in this image. To understand one is to grapple with the presence of the other. Their mutual relationship has a temporal quality. Soon after this image was taken, we might imagine that their bodies would be responding to one another in different ways. It is conceivable to think that the particularly clear way that these two men are related to one another in this image is subject to all sorts of durationally sensitive alignments. They are both pugilist, boxers in their own right, yet, in this image we see them acting in concert with one another. The brutal expression on Matthew’s face is knowable, apprehended intellectually, by the coiled position of Ortiz.
I love this image for its demonstration of two subjects that are constructing one another at precisely the same moment. The image reminds me of David Hickey’s essay, “the Heresy of Zone Defense,” within which he starts the writing off with a description of basketball star Julius Erving, Dr. J, driving the lane on Kareem Abdul-Jabber who goes airborne to block Dr. J’s progress towards the net producing counter movements by Dr. J who contorts his body around Kareem’s and soars under the backboard and then reaches back to the rim laying the ball into the basket from the opposite side of the rim. Hickey describes Kareem’s post-game interview wherein he says he would pay money to watch Dr. J make plays like that against someone else. At this point, Hickey writes, “Kareem’s remark clouds the issue, however, because the play was as much his as it was Erving’s, since it was Kareem’s perfect defense that made Erving’s instantaneous, pluperfect response to it both necessary and possible…” I find here something close to what I see in the Hoff photograph, namely that there is a mutual building up and building down of subjectivity and agency. One set of contextual drivers make possible another set of experiences. Take Kareem out of the situation and we likely will not see Dr. J make such a play. Take Mathews collapsing face out of the frame of the photograph and we would likely not understand the position of Ortiz’s body. And vice versa.
I guess it is fair to say that my interest in developing an understanding of “mutual construction” is augmented by the two examples above, but the initiative really started for me with a close reading of Walter Benjamin’s chapter, “The Flaneur,” from Charles Baudelaire : A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, in tandem with Georg Simmel’s landmark essay, “Metropolis and Mental Life.” Our discussion in class was buttressed by these two required readings, and I augmented the readings by making a presentation on this notion of the mutual construction.
My in class presentation posited 3 distinctly scaled mutual constructions for consideration by the students. The first was the mutual construction of subject and urban configuration, for which we used Benjamin’s exaltation of the flaneur and the Parisian arcade as an example. The second was the mutual construction of urban configuration and systems of production, from which we de-simplified the figure of the flaneur and began to understand the relationship between the logic of capitalism and the existence of the arcade<>flaneur construct, understanding that the flaneur is also being constructed by certain economic logics that proffer the viability of spatial configurations in the first place. I used shifts in factory organization as they relate to the urban fabric of Detroit as a means for developing this notion. The third scale explored was the mutual construction of city and urbanism, here trying to understand that while the city is the exemplar form of urbanism, processes of urbanism have been shown to far exceed the limits of the city as a territory. Getting this into focus allows our conversations in class to game with the relationships between flows of increasingly mobile capital and emerging urban subjects that are post-city in their urban nature. I also hope that as the course develops in subsequent weeks that we can relocate moments of clarity in the morphological relationships between urban subjectivity and agency and particular urban configurations and spatial types.
I plan to develop some of the notions in this post in subsequent posts, but in the spirit of quick and explicit public writing, I am going to pause here and post this to the blog. But, this thread of thinking is continuing and developing in interesting ways.
In our class discussion on September 23rd, we discussed Mark Wigley’s essay entitled, “Resisting the City,” with particular attention paid to the pathology of the architect as a cultural figure. This early class discussion was meant to get the figure of the architect in close range such that we can plot that figure across the difficult terrain of contemporary American urbanism. The students were quite engaged in the conversation that ensued. I think not enough discussion in school is devoted to unpacking the disciplinary inheritance within architecture. Most assume the preeminence of the field and simply push forward while relying on the convenience of assuming architecture’s inevitable efficacy. I guess this position is okay for most courses, but this course explores territories and topics that are particularly challenging to the traditional figure of the architect and we need to prime the critical faculties early in the semester so as to not simply fall in line with the notion that architects have the answers, and if not those then the ready techniques to deploy at any rate. Our collective intent in this 3 hour session was to shift the pathology of the traditional architect out of the background and into the foreground such that the students could make decisions about how much of the pathology they wanted to push forward in their own practices and how much of it they might want to reject. The point being that how one might want to proceed as an architect should be a decision and not simply a “click to accept” notion. It was a good early session for our class.
I have thought and written a bit on this Mark Wigley essay and the invocation of irreducible strangeness of building. here is an excerpt of what I have explored in writing, starting with a interesting quote from his 2002 essay, “Resisting the City”
"Imagine that students arriving at every school of architecture would be told that physical order was an illusion and that spatial relationships have no connection to functional relationships. Most of the standard training and faculty could be thrown out. Programs could be trimmed down to that very small part of each school devoted to characteristics of buildings that subvert the traditional mythology of the functional object, devoted, that is, to the irreducible strangeness of buildings. These are perhaps the qualities that secretly fascinate architects the most, but their appreciation is hidden at the very heart of each school, surrounded by a massive defensive infrastructure. Schools work hard to hide the fact that the heart of the discipline is doubt, enigma, paradox, and insecurity."
This provocative quote puts two conditions on the table; the two being corequisites of sorts, mutual constructions or approximations of one another, not a binary, not an opposition, even though I want to briefly make them oppositional to set up these thoughts.
My primary interest falls on the side of “enigma, doubt, uncertainty, paradox.” This is what fascinates architects and what is fascinating about architecture. I would like to place emphasis on this, to state clearly that this is what I am FOR. I am for the irreducible strangeness of buildings.
More on this in a bit.
The other interest: this massive defensive infrastructure surrounding what is deeply fascinating about architecture has everything to do with architecture’s institutionalization… architecture as a knowable discipline, architecture as an academic field and as a profession. Given that, why would schools work hard to hide the fact that it is the irreducible strangeness that is central to the discipline?
Perhaps it is connected to what Wigley also establishes in his essay, that is that the pathology of the architect is informed by the tonality of architecture itself as something meant to slow things down, impart order, to soothe and to fix. Architecture as a problem solving activity must demand that architecture be logically justified as opposed to based on something gratuitous or capricious, something such as enigma and doubt. Architecture is expensive, heavy, and permanent. As such, architects have to justify the expenditure and offset the permanence with a gesture towards social and civic good that will be maintained through the building’s persistence. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, if architecture is a medium, among its durable messages is its propensity to impart order, to be culturally relied upon through time (to be taken for granted, so to speak), and to function well. These things impact the pathology of the architect, constitute the agency of the architect as a cultural figure, and inculcate the need for seriousness, thoroughness, and astute rationality to permeate the work of the architect. Architects feel obliged to make sense, to be professional, and to transcend subjective opinion as much as might be tolerable or appropriate. One result of this pathology is the implicit apology embedded in what most architects say about the cultural relevance of their work. Indeed, the threat of irrelevance is a strong motivator for the defensive infrastructure surrounding the enigma about which architecture orbits.
If architects continue to apologize for their artistry and for their capacity to poetically reframe the ordinary as extraordinary, the discipline will not develop an intellectual dimension to the doubt and uncertainty that founds many of the preoccupations of architects. Architects will continue to hide, obscure, and fail to disclose the most important dimensions of the activity of making architecture. Through wrapping its obtuse and unjustifiable core with systems of rhetoric that purport to be logical and well intended within a culture that does not pay for things like “uncertainty” for example, architecture sells itself as scientific, philosophical, imminent, necessary. Meanwhile, behind the scenes architects everywhere sweat the details of being exposed, of being found out, of being called on their capriciousness and artistic underpinnings. Architects fear what many professionals and academics fear; namely, that they possess less expertise and less unassailability than the discourse might lead us to believe. The defensive infrastructures surrounding the enigmatic roots of architecture attempt to underwrite the reproducibility of the academic department, the canon of exemplary works, and the propriety of the professional.
My interest here recommends that architecture might lift its defensive infrastructure of rationality and supposed scientific objectivism; that architect’s might drop the problem solving posture and the desperate need to base their activity on utility above all else that is also there in the moment of architectural thinking and embrace the viability of architecture’s irreducibility, or its unlikeliness as qualification enough for the work architecture does culturally. Architects might move beyond defending their artistic dimension through obscuring its role in thinking/making architecture, and in so doing, get beyond resistance as emanating from what we do not want to do… and to get into a more affirmative frame of mind wherein we resist by means of standing for something, not in opposition to something else. Or, stated another way, we engage in a positive struggle… a positive struggle to embrace the irreducible strangeness of architecture. It has been my experience that architecture struggles with affirmation, paradoxically so, given that it is built primarily through it.
I would like to use some context provided by Paul Virilio to look again at the relationship between architecture’s defensive infrastructure and its irreducible strangeness. I want to overcome the binary I set up in the beginning.
Virilio tells us that the invention of the airplane was also the invention of its catastrophic crash. His theory of the accident is useful here as it asserts that the deferred reality of a primary discourse is often another latent discourse carried along by it. In his writing on dromoscopy and speed, Virilio analyzes the interior of the luxury car as a compensation for the imminent accident the lusciousness of the interior is meant to defer. I would like to bring this sensibility to the relationship between a discipline’s defensive infrastructure and the uncertainty and assailability that is veiled by it. If we could understand the defensive infrastructure as a device that both cancels that which should remain undisclosed –in my talk the irreducible strangeness that is so much harder to stand for than it is to hide from others – and preserves it, we might get beyond our reliance on the critical distance disciplines often set up between their inspirations and the manifestations of subsequent engagement with them. Like Virilio’s general accident, the accident that effects us all immediately, the irreducible strangeness of architecture is imminent in attempts to hide it. the defensive infrastructure of schools of architecture simultaneous offset enigma, uncertainty and doubt and force us back to them.
Maybe that is a cheap way out… maybe that is a reading too subtle to be operative… or maybe that is a recognition that the idea that architects are problem solvers, purveyors of useful things, narrators deploying the plausibility that something new will be well-received and whose cost will be justified by its utility and permanence must be refused in order for architecture to get better at dealing with its implausibilities, the unlikelihood that it would exist… its strangeness.
If this is a theoretical presentation, indeed if this is even a moment of theory within this writing, the theoretical ambitions could be well described by a desire to have the conversation out in the open, to affirm architecture’s wildness, to stand FOR its gnawing uncertainty in order to explore the inevitable shifts in practice that gain visibility once we are out from underneath the crushing certainty of a disciplinary and professional framework that fails to deliver the very thing it asks us to believe in.
I wanted to post the official course description for ARCH 536_SUB. I think this is an important early post to the blog as it begins to build the context for the course. There is more than this to say about the course, the pedagogical structure, the goals for the course, the tone I am interested in setting within the weekly seminar sessions, etc. But, alas, that is what this blog is meant to capture and communicate, so I hope that subsequent posts help position these attributes. I am interested in communicating these qualities to more than those taking the seminar and this format seems useful for that. I do feel that this format is somewhat at odds with the intensity and range of the course as it is situated within the dynamic of the group participating directly. But still, I am interested in the challenge posed by such.
from an interest in doing urban intellectual work that gives credit to the conditions on the ground, as we find them, and in a manner that is open to learning from their complexity and potency. “Sprawl rhetoric,” often a prelude to well-rehearsed critiques of market-saturated, post-city urban reality, will be duly noted, bracketed, and footnoted for reference later. In this course, urbanism will be understood as a dynamic array of processes that both gave us the viability of the dense centered city and took that viability away; perfecting one iteration of its formal configuration all the while moving on to other, more perfect iterations. The disciplinary turn-style connecting the terms “city” and “urbanism” will momentarily be broken, offering potentially new techniques and methods for considering urban work. Big-box culture will be posited as an “operative surface,” situated and hyper-localized despite attempts to easily dismiss it as utopian (no place). Judgment will be suspended such that deep description might ensue.
like a seminar in the literal sense, progressing through required readings and subsequent critical dialogue around a table. Students are prompted to read for comprehension and prepare themselves, week to week, for substantive engagement. Simultaneously, the course works as a research protocol, as there are only soft boundaries in the relationship between a potent cultural condition and emergent strategies for engagement.
possibilities, and does not solve problems. Generously, the course asks students to unhook from professional modes of thinking that “get the job done.” There are no finish lines to cross, no problems to be solved. There’s nothing to hate, and nothing in which to fall in love. It’s out there.
This is the poster for the course. The image is one of Catherine Opie’s photographs form her Freeway Series. If you click the image, you can link a website with an introduction to Opie’s Freeway Series photographs.
This blog has been constructed to parallel the teaching of a graduate seminar course on post-city, contemporary American urbanism at the Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. My interest is in writing and ruminating on the required readings and the in-class discussions as a way to leverage a book project out of the course material and my interests in American urbanism. I imagine the blog as a holding pen for a number of interrelated issues central and tangent to my research and teaching.