February 3, 2011
Maps and Sand-Castles: An Exploration of Urban Society (pt. 1)
Endless expanses of urban terrain: skyscrapers puncture the skyline, smoke fills the horizon, headlights dot the freeways, roads carve into the landscape like trickles of blood hemorrhaging from an open wound. Contemporary urban society is not just a way of life; it’s the expansion and spread of a consuming virus – a cancer on the planet’s surface. This way of life has evolved from a colonial history (a history for another time, and likely another author because I lack the epistemological constitution to disclose the histories of many colonial foundations); urban development in America traces its roots back to the frontier and the growth of colonies as centers of trade. The expansion of urban settings has only been historically made possible through flows of capital, and thus we see the great enabler of human “greatness” as greed. Today, we live in the center of an economic Mecca. Even in the panhandle of Texas we see more economic development than in many third world nations. As citizens of this capitalist aristocracy we live under an government system in a state of atrophy that only represents the needs of corporate interests and bureaucrats. Welcome to the wound: this is the fracturing industrial hemorrhage.
From an aesthetic standpoint there are obvious reasons to view industrial urban society with disdain. However, this leads us to question our course of action: do we entirely destroy urban organization? Or, better yet: is such a destruction even possible? Deleuze and Guattari tell us in Anti-Oedipus that undermining existing social conditions requires attention on the level of regimes of desire. Unfortunately, the desire to accumulate wealth and secure our well-being has ingrained capitalism into our primal instincts. We cannot help but revert to desiring a system that delivers us Coca-Cola and industrial agriculture and auto-mobiles and lounge chairs because this system makes OUR commodities cheaper and easier to access. People of conscience often ask how it’s possible to participate in such a system: to revert to the old description of capital’s permeation of the social fabric, how can we not when we swim in a veritable ocean of ether (Hardt and Negri)? Communicative, political, physical and other spaces all share common ties rooted in the physicality of our surroundings. These communicative and physical spaces are saturated with capital: you can’t go anywhere without being inside of capitalism. Even spaces opened to “resist” capitalism, the creation of fractures and coalitions to gather will, occur cloistered and surrounded by capitalist means of social relations. “Material revolution” is no real escape, only the creation of a small clearing in a soul-crushing forest of sleeping subjects. Rational subjects can never just flip a switch or make a decision and become “outside” of capitalism, which becomes a demoralizing incentive to just “give up.”
Along these lines, as a brief aside, Ward Churchill discusses the difference between true ignorance and self-induced bliss: “In effect, the U.S. citizenry as a whole was endowed with exactly the degree of ignorance it embraced. To put it another way, being ignorant is in this sense-that of willful and deliberate ignoration-not synonymous with being uninformed. It is instead to be informed and then ignore the information. There is a vast difference between not knowing and not caring and if Good Americans have difficulty appreciating the distinction, it must be borne in mind that there are others in the world who are quite unburdened by such intellectual impairments.” (WC, “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, 2003). Just because we can’t escape the confines of capitalist relations doesn’t mean that internal transformations are impossible (or undesirable.) But this is not to be confused with Churchill’s notion of false praxis and hollow support for resistance causes globally that only-ever manifest in symbolic form. “Fuck the war” or “Democracy in Egypt” mean nothing if they’re not back by some sort of instantiation: the Tor project (www.torproject.org) is a means of this sort of rallying, although not as significant as many of us would like.
The lines of the geography of the city produce striations: of course this is the same with all of relations in capitalism (as markets channel desires into new trends, advertising traps, etc…), but this is especially true of the physical space of the grid. Our mobility is restricted along streets and sidewalks. We only move through an environment artificially created for consumers: urban surroundings guide us through shops and force us to purchase pre-conditions for participating in contemporary economic society at the risk of being ostracized (iPhones, cars, new clothing, etc…).
But to quote Brad Stand, “Yeah man, I’m caught up in that shit too.” Sure, I own an iPhone. I swim in an ocean of ether, and sometimes I catch myself enjoying it. But I guess that just proves that capitalism isn’t a force entirely composed of negativity: Deleuze and Guattari see capitalism rather as a force than contains the danger of cannibalistic desire (self-consuming desire for fascism, desiring the suffering and regulation of others for the safety of the self). This only means finding a system in which capitalism can be buffered from this desire, or rather in which our desire can be re-directed from fascism to the positive side of creation and organic expansion. It simply means a transition from an industrial, striated urban model to a more organic model of organization (or dis-organization as chaotic interaction).
This feels like only the skeleton of an argument to me, so feel free to (and by feel free I mean please do) post in the comment section and continue this discussion of urban society.
Maps and Sand-Castles is a series, so watch for Pt. 2 coming in the next week.
Next Week on Maps and Sand-Castles: a discussion of Parkour as a rupture of the hegemony of spatial organization.
Signing off, peace.