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.