A Radical Cartography: Spatializing Power

(Excerpt from an unpublished manuscript, “Militancy and the Spatialization of Power: Rethinking Intellectual Labor, Relocating the University,” co-written with a friend in 2014.)

[Call and Response]
Ten years from now…
The thing that’s going to be written about Seattle…
Is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner…
But that the WTO in 1999…
Was the birth…
—This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Looking at the climbing heights of university buildings, the permanent grace of great lecture halls, and the largess of administration buildings, one quickly understands how power finds profound expression in space. While symbols of power are spread through language, written in signatures, displayed on emblems, attached to commencement robes, and stamped on letterhead, these signs can be easily reversed, replaced, or just plain pushed aside. The meaning of buildings is open to interpretation, dispute, and amendment, which is something made obvious in battles over memorials, architectural objects made almost exclusively for their symbolic value.[i] But such struggles are not reducible to conflicts over meaning, as the production of space holds unique influence over how society is perceived, conceived, and lived.[ii]

Given the gravitational power of monumentalizing space, it is no wonder that social movements have supplemented state-built projects with their own memorials. In the ’60s and ’70s, black students demanded Black Studies programs; many occupied buildings, christening them with names such as ‘Malcolm X Hall.’[iii] In Buenos Aires, political discontents that were silently kidnapped, tortured, and executed are remembered with painted silhouettes on sidewalks and walls.[iv] And during the Iraq War, peace groups set up model cemeteries that brought the war home.[v]

Yet monuments, whether giving form to state power or challenging it, use space in the same way: they fend off the future by preserving either the present or the past.[vi] Monumentalization slows down the infinite speed of thought by introducing space, which submits it to the geologic time-scale of rock, sand, and paint.[vii] And with those mineralized monuments, architects construct temples to power that appear as permanent as the mountains they are built from.[viii]

But one need not conquer the earth by moving mountains. Consider the basic element of architecture: the frame.[ix] The frame distinguishes between an inside and outside, and it is with these slices of the world that the built environment is made. A floor carves out a home from the earth. A window lets a little bit of the earth back in. And furthermore, a monument freezes a frame to preserve what it has captured inside itself while blocking out the outside.[x]

Bricks and mortar are not wrong; in fact they are absolutely necessary, as all life depends on a minimal amount of preservation. But the spatialization of power often interferes with the capacity to temporalize finitude, which would make preservation selective rather than an imperative.[xi] Monumentalized space therefore defines the dead zones on our map –places to be subverted or simply avoided. When power is slowed enough to stand tall and be easily seen, it stops tapping into the power of indiscernibility.[xii] We therefore map fossils of power to see where things went wrong and living knowledge was sent to die.

Old, forgotten men in statuesque poses haunt most university quads; long departed from the flow of life, they keep vigil over the schools they helped build. Few serve as sites of conflict or points of contention. While near Wall Street, an enraged bull stands with its head down and horns up, as if frozen in the middle of an angry charge. Similar bulls, though ‘younger’ and ‘stronger,’ have been placed in Amsterdam, the early home of capitalism, and Shanghai, which is perhaps its next.

If these former living beings are the product of their environments, just as organisms emerge as ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ of their milieu, then they express the dead life of each place.[xiii] Both are the art of work, labor captured and permanently restrained, yet the dead labor they perform differs substantially. The great men of the University of Great Ideas are forms of life long passed and remain only as beautiful souls offering a gentle reminder of a time where reason or even national culture drove university life.[xiv] In contrast, the bulls are locked in mid-motion with their muscles tense, eyes directed at an invisible target, stopped right before they released their violent energy.

If an intellectual is to embody antagonism, they must oppose both of these calcified forms. Living knowledge betrays the great men of reason and the deadly bulls of capitalism. Yet the power of the university does not lie in its bricks and mortar, though its walls often stand as barricades to the encroaching interests of capital, but its power comes from deterritorializing living labor and releasing its antagonistic force into the world. Such an operation subtracts itself from the spatialization of power and circulates within cycles of struggle.

[i] Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[ii] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Maiden, MA: Blackwell Press, 1991), 38-9.

[iii] Eric Simmons, “UCSB Black Studies Dept. Built From 1968 Black Student Union Protest,“ The Daily Nexus, 12 Feb 2001, http://dailynexus.com/2001-02-12/ucsb-black-studies-dept-built-from-1968-black-student-union-protest/ (accessed 4 Mar 2013).

[iv] Diana Taylor, “’You are Here’: H.I.J.O.S. and the DNA of Performance,” The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 161-189.

[v]  Ken MacLeish, “The Tense Present History of the Second Gulf War: Revelation and Repression in Memorialization,” Text, Practice, Performance VI (2006): 69-84.

[vi] Lefebvre has an extended consideration of monuments and monumentalization in The Production of Space, 220-228.

[vii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Geophilosophy,” in What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 85-113.

[viii] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 377, 402.

[ix] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 183.

[x] Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press), 10-17.

[xi] Guy Debord argues that capitalism alienates time through space, and ultimately proposes liberating space through noncapitalist time. A summation of his point of this general argument in found in his The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), especially in thesis 170, where he writes that “the requirement of capitalism that is met by urbanism in the form of a freezing of life might be described, in Hegelian terms, as an absolute predominance of ‘tranquil side-by-sideness’ in space over ‘restless becoming in the progression of time.’”.

[xii] Deleuze and Guattari speak of becoming-indiscernible in relation to linguistics, segmentarity, and animality. This is not a fading away, as in a ghost who leaves only a trace of life, but a guerilla operation. Once in the zone of indiscernible, the power of a form of life is derived not from itself but from its milieu.

[xiii] George Canuilhem, “The Living and its Milieu,” trans. John Savage, in Grey Room, No. 3 (Spring, 2001): 6-31.

[xiv] The critical reference here is Bill Reading’s The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

 

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The Metropolis as a Media Object and The Polarized Politics of Asymmetry

nevelsonThe reconfigured terrain of network culture frustrates many traditional modes of social engagement. Political power has both spread and concentrated – spreading as global corporations, international bodies, and private interests bypass the forces of traditional political institutions, and concentrating as information systems employed in government and industry enable the surveillance, registration, and control of populations.[i]

The common form of dissent in digital culture is rather the tactical use of media to signify “the intervention and disruption of a dominant semiotic regime, the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible.”[ii] Tactical media’s emphasis on symbolic disruption leads to a focus on artistic practices, from persuasive video games made to criticize immigration policy to chat-based interventions in the US Military’s controversial recruiting game America’s Army.[iii] The prevalence of cultural and artistic critique as the preferred style of political engagement should be expected, as it echoes a wider transformation in contemporary power whereby “the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life – from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself – can be said to have become ‘cultural.’”[iv] The literary import of tactical media threatens to obscure potentials singular to media, however, as it focuses on the expression of and not the struggle within the “computational layer” or information itself – a slippage that threatens to ruin tactical media by “confusing tactics and strategy.”[v]

There is a way to cut through this confusion: if the urban space of the Metropolis is theorized as a media object, whereby “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium,” then culture and materiality intersect, which allows analysis to go from signs to signals and from semiotics to physics and back again.[vi] This principle is elegantly demonstrated by Austrian design studio mischer-traxler’s project “The Idea of a Tree,” an autonomous solar-powered production project that transduces the intensity of inconstant natural inputs to mechanically produce one object a day from sunrise to sunset. The product of process is a bench-like object that incorporates the sun conditions of the day by varying thread and glue color and thickness as it is wrapped around a mold to make a three-dimension representation of the day and place of production.[vii] The simultaneous transduction and transcoding of environmental energy into a material object exemplifies that multidimensional objects can be both technically diagrammed and studied according to their cultural expression. Generalizing from “The Idea of a Tree,” then every media object similarly contains both a diagram and an expression that make up its emergent environment.[viii] Media and literary studies have outlined theories for such a multi-dimensional analysis, demonstrating the different operations of speech, writing, and code.[ix] The Metropolis should then be described in similar terms to network culture not only by information, but the vectors of change that result from an abundance of information and an acceleration of informational character.[x] In particular, the Metropolis can be said to utilize information in three distinct ways: as “the relation of signal to noise,” “a measure of the uncertainty or entropy of a system,” and “a nonlinear and nondeterministic relationship between the microscopic and the macroscopic levels of a physical system” – all of which find corollaries in culture.[xi] Bringing together digital telecommunication flows and physical corporeal flows, urban geographers have conceptualized the contemporary process of urbanization through Internet eXchange points and MIDT airline traffic data[xii] It is through a similar combination of digital culture and informatization more generally that strategies common to struggles in the culture, technology, and environment of the Metropolis can be identified, analyzed, and enhanced.

Abstractly, the Metropolis connects through inclusive disjunction, a process that puts otherwise foreign elements into communication with one another and does not require its pieces to operate through a shared logic but unfolds their interiors through exposure.[xiii] Continue reading “The Metropolis as a Media Object and The Polarized Politics of Asymmetry”