Sunday, 30 January 2011

Jane Jacobs - some critical remarks

Last month I read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage 1992, orig. 1961). A curious book - I like much of it, yet disagreed with something on almost every page. Let me use this entry to clarify to myself exactly what I found so objectionable.

Hudson Street
First something briefly on her general argument. Against "current city planning" with its huge housing projects, suburbs and depopulated lawns, she defends the vitality of inner city street life and the intricate street "ballet" of places like her own Hudson Street - the hustle and bustle of people coming and going, greeting neighbors, drinking pop at the stoop, keeping an eye on the street, looking after children and helping strangers.

Street safety is an important part of this picture. Unlike in small towns or suburbs, safety in the city means keeping safety among strangers. "The bedrock attribute of a succesful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers" (Jacobs 1992:30). I like her insistence that public peace is not kept primarily by the police, but by “an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves” (ibid 31f). In other words, "publicness" is seen by her as a source of safety, rather than as a source of danger.

Here's an example of this publicness in action: looking out from her window, she sees a person, possibly a pederast, trying to get a little girl to go with him.
As I watched from our second-floor window, making up my mind how to intervene if it seemed advisable, I saw it was not going to be necessary. From the butcher shop beneath the tenement had emerged the woman who, with her husband, runs the shop; she was standing within earshot of the man, her arms folded and a look of determination on her face.
Soon other people emerge from the bar and other shops, as well as the fruitman. ”Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was. I am sorry – sorry purely for dramatic purposes – to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter” (ibid.39).

Sounds idyllic. Yet she betrays her clear awareness of the possible unease this account might arouse by a defensive remark: “Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim, but in real life it is not grim” (ibid.36). Her own mention of surveillance and policing strongly suggests a few questions that may be relevant to raise here: Is the idea of “publicness” as a source of security really opposed to surveillance society? Isn’t there a risk that in both, the problem is that the very concern with security will lead to exclusion?

Here's Mike Davis about L.A., the “fortress city” where the police battle “the criminalized poor”:
Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces... are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass ‘Other’. Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately. (Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Verso 1990:226)
The difference compared to how Jacobs portrays "safety on the streets" is not the employment of a certain design of the built environment to discourage pariah groups from entry, nor is it the existence of surveillance and exclusion per se. The difference is in the agent of policing. In Jacobs’ case it's the stratum of residents and everyday users of the street who do the policing rather than the police or security firm. But how much will that matter to those who are seen as security risks? In either case those people will probably be able to "read the meaning immediately" and the effect will be similar.

My first criticism of Jacobs would be that she is overly concerned with security. Wherever security becomes a main concern, the stranger will almost certainly suffer. Wherever there is a sense of community coupled with fear and insecurity, one will find the seeds of a bunker mentality that will harm the very "publicness" Jacobs tries to defend. Don Mitchell is surely right when he asserts that in today's societies we need to put up with a certain amount of insecurity if we want to have a truly public space.

Here's my second criticism: Jacobs lacks sympathy for things marginal. In a recent book, Sharon Zukin classes Jacobs will the "gentrifiers" (Naked City, Oxford University Press, 2010:12), which seems like a fair assessment. Jacobs' book contains plenty of evidence of her aversion to shady strangers, dark edges and rats. She doesn’t hesitate to categorize a long list of places as "dead places" which often make ”destructive neighbors”: junk yards, used-car lots, vacant lots, parking lots, or buildings that are abandoned or underused (Jacobs 1992:230, 257ff, 263, 334). Problematically, her accounts of "destructive" or "dead" places easily slips into explicit arguments about unwanted people.
The perverts who completely took over Philadelphia’s Washington Square for several decades... did not kill off a vital and appreciated park. They did not drive out respectable users. They moved into an abandoned place and entrenched themselves (ibid 98)
This is a seemingly progressive argument, asserting that it's not the unwanted people per se who are to blame for the deterioration of the park, but the prior lack of vitality of the district. But the unwanted people remain unwanted even in her account, and getting rid of such people is clearly seen as one of the benefits of the kind of urban vitality she is advocating. To be sure, she states that it is not ”illuminating to tag minority groups, or the poor, or the outcast with responsibility for city danger” (ibid.31) and she laments the discrimination and ostracization of peoples of color (ibid.63, 72). To be fair, one shold thus say that what she wants to exclude are certain phenomena such as delinquency or crime, rather than any specific category of people. But a strict demarcation between acts and people is hard to make: if residents are supposed to keep watch over the street, they will go on outward appearance of people and their criteria will inevitably involve prejudice.

A point which emerges clearly from her book, although she never states it explicitly, is that vitality excludes. She talks about neighborhoods or districts being "attractive" to people as a criterion of “success”, but, perversely, a lively city lacking what she calls ”dead” spots may be more exclusive and inhospitable to some people than a city in which such spots are allowed to remain. For instance, vacant lots or untidy and neglected parks may be a haven for children, young people or the homeless. Vitality is not a way to make a district more attractive to strangers in general, but to a select category of desirable strangers. Jacobs' portrayal of the life of streets and pavements mixes an air of seeming tolerance for strangers with an allergy to certain kinds of strangers. The explanation for this curious sorting of strangers is not hard to find. It has to do with the viewpoint adopted by Jacobs in her book, which overlaps with the viewpoint of the local shopowner. She shuns all uses and users who scare away customers - or so it seems to me.

I also have a third criticism, but here I will be brief. Her “successful” city is an inner city, a city centre, with plenty of shops and strangers. How realistic is it to use that as a model for the city as a whole? Not very. No matter how well designed a suburb is, it it highly unlikely that will ever become like Hudson Street. The neglect of the world outside the inner city is connected to her strange diagnosis of whatever is unwelcome as symptoms of ”unsuccessful” city design. Although she vaguely mentions larger systemic factors as possible explanations of poverty and slumming, she is clearly not very interested in them. By concentrating solely on factors related to urban design, she makes it sound as if better design could make slums disappear, along with criminals, perverts and other unwelcome marginals.

Let me end with a note on the character of the "public space" that emerges from the pages of Jacobs' bok. A comparison with Don Mitchell, who gives a very different account of public space, will be illuminating. To both, public space is the name of a certain social phenomenon, which is far from stable and which can appear but also disappear depending on the circumstances. In both it is tied to a certain experience of space. If the quintessential public space for Mitchell is created by an act that upsets the order and makes the marginal urban outcast visible, to Jacobs it consists in the everyday “ballet” of street life. To use Rancière's terms, Jacobs' publicness hinges on a certain "ordering of the sensible" which mustn't be upset by the public visualization of the “uncounted part”, of those who are not supposed to be there. Her public requires the exclusion or suppression of the private to a sphere where it won’t disturb anyone or scare away people or make them feel unsafe. A space in which the private can no longer be excluded – such as a street or park rife with criminality, prostitution, "perverts", or homeless people – is one that has “gone bad” and lost its public character. In Mitchell, by contrast, publicness arises precisely when this ordering of the sensible is challenged and upset, when the "uncounted part" takes a place and makes it public by visibilizing themselves.

As mentioned, there are also things I like her book: her attempt to defend some form of urban public life rather than the illusory safety of privacy or small-town community, her defense of the inner city against suburban housing projects and shopping centres located outside town, the fact that she adopts the viewpoint of street-level pedestrian experience rather than that of most urban planning or car-drivers. But the problem is that she thinks Hudson Street can be generalized and that she doesn't seem to like marginals. To criticize her valorization of security and vitality is not to advocate dullness and insecurity, but to attack her partiality. To insist on her kind of vitality means making a city attractive only to certain people and unattractive to others. To insist on her kind of security means security to some and insecurity to others. The question would be: is there a way to conceive of a city that is attractive and safe for all?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Denis Wood on "shadowed spaces"

I’ve found something interesting, a samizdat paper that’s been circulating clandestinely since 1978 and finally been made available on the website of the art project “shadowed spaces”. It's called "Shadowed Spaces: In Defense of Indefensible Space" and it's written by Denis Wood. Wood is a well-known geographer, or psycho-geographer, who has forced us to rethink maps. 

Here he’s closing in on something that other writers have been dealing with using terms like heterotopias, no-man’s-land, dead zone or terrain vague. He stands out, though. How? Partly by his poetic talent. Partly, also, by the fact that he focuses so much on the clandestine, almost “private” nature of these spaces. Someone has written that Wood's primary interest is in defending our need for privacy, but I think that’s an oversimplification. Firstly, privacy in the usual sense is something that can be defended as a right. Wood seems to be aiming at something so transgressive and explosive that not even customary private space would be able to contain it - something that needs to be hidden even from the eyes of those who you normally let into your private space, such as your family or most of your friends. Shadowed spaces, as I understand him, allow for what would be intolerable in public as well as private space. It’s no wonder that he originally wrote the paper for a criminology conference. He’s dealing with things, such as illicit sex, that are either criminalized or regarded as so shameful that they often feel like crimes. 

Secondly, his defense of shadowed spaces could also be seen as a defense for more publicness rather than less – depending on how you define the public. Publicness doesn’t have to mean public scrutiny or public visibility. It can, for instance, also mean open access, so that if you try to eliminate shadowed spaces by turning those spaces into spaces that are fully transparent and illuminated - spaces where certain categories of "shady" people or certain transgressive usages of space are banned - then you are actually decreasing publicness. Although it may sound slightly paradoxical, places often become less public the more publicly scrutinized or "problematized" they are. By banning sex on the beach, for instance, we make beaches less public than they would otherwise have been. Likewise, the more mutual surveillance there is in a community, the less hospitable it will usually be to outsiders.

To sum up, I don’t think you can say that Wood is defending either public space or private space tout court, because the very categorization of space as public or private is the result of a certain ordering effort, a certain regulation which in itself needs to be “public”, that is, to some extent commonly agreed upon and upheld by common norms. What he is defending is instead the existence of spaces that have escaped this normative regulation or publicly agreed ordering.

Some quotes:
What were the earliest shadowed spaces? That of the colored half-light underneath the blanket, or that beneath the bed? That of the stuffy darkness in the closet behind the clothes, or that behind the stairs on the way to the basement? What does it matter? All of them were shaded. Which came first? The mutual sharing of pubic anatomies with Carol Lewis in the blinkered light beneath the baldachino of the bushes; or the pants-down hanky-panky with Sonny Schwartz in the leaden demi-jour of the old gray Army blanket? With Denny Ring the making of plans and marshaling of stones to throw at Harry Puerto Rico in the shuttered murk below the porches; or the rending with my brother of all our books in the street-light shattered darkness of our bedroom after the light was out? Who cares about primacy? Each adds detail to a pattern of secret deeds committed in forgiving darkness, shaded from the eyes of parents, janitors, and other keepers of the norms ...
They’re the deeper recesses of abandoned lots cut off from view by screens of kudzu or the ramparts of long forgotten dumps; they’re the jungles of ailanthus that spring up along the embankments of the switching yards beyond the station master’s view; they’re the forest and the grass that flourish in the piece of land devoid of access except through someone’s yard, that are encouraged on the margins of open water that run with sewage during heavy rains, that thrive in the bottoms of unworked quarries; they’re the spaces underneath the bridges, spotted with guano and bereft of greenery or curtained with trees and cool in the summer; they’re the odd corner of the park or the state institution, the part of the federal lands just beyond the hole in the fence, the whole of the dying estate too large to be patrolled by the caretaker’s wife. They’re the places you think about going to let your dog run, the places you stay away from if you know what’s good for you, the places you have to go to to roll a drunk or meet what passes in these days for hobos. And they’re the places you go if you want to find ... discarded underpants.

They are important places, the shadowed spaces, a geographical subconscious without which it’s impossible to even think about non-normative behavior, a spatial underworld twined throughout the environments of other actions. In these places proscription is proscribed, and the relationships between the one and the many and the done and the not done are worked through and out with consequences as unforeseeable as the locations of the places themselves, inevitably tripped over in the doing and the looking and the feeling and the learning that specify the character required. Important places, the shadowed spaces, and complex and tricky. They can’t be made. They can’t be planned. They can’t be staked out and signed and known. They have to be ... left over, they have to ... over-looked, discovered by happenstance, found in need, cajoling even as cajoled. But though they can’t be made, the shadowed spaces can be unmade, wiped out, destroyed, made useless, impotent and truly empty ... and with ease…. Totalitarianism creeps on cat’s feet till it pounces for the kill. Then the shadowed spaces are the only place of refuge.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The limits of agonistic pluralism

Two models of public space

A month or so ago I read through  an interesting booklet, Global Democracy and the World Social Forums, written jointly by no less than twelve (!) social movement researchers. It's nice book, with lots of statistics and some interesting arguments, not least concerning the logic of networking and the role of autonomous forums in relation to the WSF (World Social Forum).

One section, however, struck me as a little too simplistic. The authors claim that there are two models of public space that inform the WSF. The dominant one is a Habermas-inspired model of "deliberative public space" in which the forum is conceived of along the lines of a lifeworld or haven of communicative reason offering resistance to the system. This idea, the authors suggest, is expressed in the WSF charter in which the WSF is conceived of not as an actor in its own right but as a space, neutral in itself, offering the infrastructure for deliberation between a multiplicity of actors. The weakness of this model is that it neglects that the forums are  contested terrain. They are not fully open or neutral, but contain their own hierarchies (p.38).

The other model, that of "agonistic public space", is offered by Chantal Mouffe who in turn is inspired by Arendt. Here the presence of power is recognized. The forum is seen as a "space of appearance" in Arendt's sense, where politics is meant to be enacted in public as theater. The authors add that the forums are excellent examples of how threatrical public spaces emerge outside territorially based institutions. “In this sense, the forum is not only a space for rational discourse, but it is also a space of performance” (p.37). The authors see an interaction between these two models in the way activists set up "autonomous" spaces in an ambiguous  “one foot in, one foot out”-relation to the official main social forum, utilizing the deliberative space provided by the official forum while transforming it into an agonistic space through a mixture of discursive debate and spectacular conflict (p.44-47).

What appears to me to be insufficiently illuminated here is how agonistic public space relates to the issue of exclusion. Early on in the book, the authors stress that they view the WSF as an arena precisely for the excluded. “In this sense, it constitutes a new body politic, a common public space where previously excluded voices can speak and act in plurality”(p.13).The problem, however, is in what sense an "antagonistic" public space is less exclusive than a "deliberative" one. 

The reference to Arendt here is hardly helpful. Indeed, it is precisely because the authors so explicitly raise the issue of exclusion that the reference to her seems so mystifying, and the juxtaposition of these two "models" of public space appears so glaringly insufficient and simplistic. The truth is that in neither of the two models is public space conceived of as a space for the "excluded". In Arendt no less than in Habermas - and, as I will discuss below, in Mouffe - public space is in fact constituted by exclusion. What needs to be thought through, I believe, is precisely this all too common act whereby "openness" or "publicness" is constituted by restrictions on openness itself.

It is correct that for Arendt, the "space of appearance" is where participants appear as political beings by virtue of play-acting, but this is not play-acting in the sense of musical or theatrical performances. What is necessary for public life is play-acting in the sense of a bracketing of private life - of things such as work or labor, of the material and bodily aspects of life.  This is why, to her, public life is threatened by processes such as the "rise of the social", by the rise, in other words, of the labor movement and the welfare state. Seeing her as the forerunner of Mouffe's agonistic pluralism is fine, but one should also recognize that there are limits to her pluralism. Critics of Habermas often refer to the supposedly exclusive nature of his model of consensus-oriented political action and its insensitivity to difference. Even if Arendt doesn't use the word "consensus" as Habermas does, her conception of politics both presupposes a certain consensus (since people must agree on what aspects of the private should should be bracketed in order for a separate sphere of political activity to come into being) and idealizes it in the sense of "acting in concert" or "acting and speaking together". This can be seen in her famous concept of "power". Unlike violence, which is purely instrumental, power  is the “human ability not just to act but to act in concert” and never belongs to an individual but “to a group” and “remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (Arendt 1970:44).

Note that I am not claiming that Arendt is idealizing the idea of a possible universal consensus, as Habermas does. There are certainly many differences between Arendt and Habermas. What I want to emphasize is that it is not possible, on the basis of these differences, to claim that Arend's public is less exclusive than Habermas'. A universalist ideal of rationally achieved consensus certainly often tends to be exclusive, but so does Arendt's idea of power.

My aim here is not to criticize Arendt in particular, but to point out that it simply isn't seem sufficient if one really wants to provide a space "for the excluded" to rely on Habermas or Arendt. So what about Mouffe?

Mouffe on agonistic pluralism

I have two criticisms of Mouffe's "Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism": 1. She misunderstands Habermas, 2. Her model of “radical democracy” is insufficiently radical.

Firstly, she criticizes Habermas for "postulating the availability of a public sphere where power and antagonism would have been eliminated and where a rational consensus would have been realized". By portraying the ideal of "impartiality" and of democratic decisions "equally in the interests of all" as possible to achieve through "the appropriate public processes of deliberation that follow the procedures of [his own] discourse model", his model of democratic politics "denies the central role in politics of the conflictual dimension" (Mouffe 1999:747, 752). I doubt that Habermas has ever portrayed "impartiality" or decisions "equally in the interests of all" as actually achievable through the procedures he delineates. From a critical theoretical standpoint, the reason is obvious: that would be ideology. Neither has he ever, as far as I know, portrayed a public sphere without power or antagonism as "available" (denying such availability is the very point of making a distinction between what he calls real and ideal speech situations).

Habermas is, I think, partly a historicizing social theorist inspired by pragmatism (public debate is not perfect but the closest thing to perfection since it is at least more open to input from the other than outright struggle or a reliance on silent empathy). Partly he is also a Kantian who believes in universal consensus  as a regulative ideal transcendentally presupposed in language use (in order to believe something to be true or right we need to believe that it could withstand criticism in an ideal speech situation). He is, in other words, far from the easily demolished strawman Mouffe makes of him. Habermas could, I believe, reply to Mouffe's criticism both in a pragmaticist way (would hegemonic struggle be any less exclusive of the other?) and in a Kantian way (when we engage in discourse struggle, how do we know that we are right in believing in the things we are struggling for?).

As a more "adequate model of democratic politics", Mouffe presents her own "agonistic pluralism", which is based on the recognition of "the ineradicability of power, of antagonism, and of the fact that there can never be total emancipation but only partial ones (ibid 752). Mouffe is quite open about how exclusive this kind of politics must be, partly because it necessarily defines itself against an adversary, and partly because it can only tolerate "legitimate" enemies with whom one shares the same "ethnico-political principles":
Politics aims at the creation of unity in a context of conflict and diversity; it is always concerned with the creation of an "us" by the determination of a "them." The novelty of democratic politics is not the overcoming of this us/them distinction – which is what a consensus without exclusion pretends to achieve – but the different way in which it is established. What is at stake is how to establish the us/them discrimination in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy.
    In the realm of politics, this presupposes that the "other" is no longer seen as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an "adversary," i.e., somebody with whose ideas we are going to struggle but whose right to defend those ideas we will not put into question. This category of the adversary does not eliminate antagonism, though, and it should be distinguished from the liberal notion of the competitor, with which it is sometimes identified. An adversary is a legitimate enemy, an enemy with whom we have in common a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of democracy. (ibid 755)
This, I think, is a remarkable passage. Apart from the fact that Mouffe stresses the constitutive role of the us/them distinction more than Arendt, the resemblances to her are many. We find the same emphasis on acting in concert, the same emphasis on power rather than violence, and the same emphasis on the need to restricting political interaction to those who share a similar set of basic principles. What is a bit surprising is how close Mouffe's vision is to mainstream liberalism (despite her disavowal of the "liberal notion of the competitor") and to the classical liberal defence of the freedom of speech. Although what she calls "discourse" is much broader than mere speech, it is clear from the context that discursive struggle must at least refrain from acts aimed at destroying the opponent. There are echoes of Voltaire here (the statement ascribed to him about being ready to die for the right of opponents to express their views) and of Kant too. Saying that we are free to engage in discursive struggles so long as we refrain from non-discursive ones sounds like one of the most famous sentences from Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?: "Argue as much as you like, but obey".  

What, by the way, are the "ethico-political" principles that Mouffe thinks political adversaries need to share? She doesn't say. What we get is nothing more than the following statement:
To be sure, pluralist democracy demands a certain amount of consensus, but such a consensus concerns only some ethico-political principles. Since those ethico-political principles can only exist, however, through many different and conflicting interpretations, such a consensus is bound to be a "conflictual consensus."(ibid 756)  
But if interpretations of these principles are so conflicting, how can they serve as criteria for "legitimate" adversaries? What are the limits for when the adversary ceases to be “legitimate”? What does the idea of restricting political engagement to "legitimate" enemies mean in reality? It sounds a bit like: there can be no negotiating with terrorists. But how about Nazis? Can't an adversary be "legitimate" even if she or he doesn't share my ethico-political principles - for instance, if he or she belongs to another religion?

Not only does Mouffe, like Arendt and Habermas, presuppose a rather restrictive notion of consensus as the basis of legitimate politics, she also appears to be less radical and less open to "others" than some thinkers, like Rancière, who recognize that democratic politics is more about the public visualization of dissent by previously marginalized or "invisible" groups, than about the struggle of discourses. Such a visualization, Rancière claims, usually takes the form of a "breach of the ordering of the sensible" - or, in other words, of an upsetting or shattering of the discursive field, rather than a discursive struggle among adversaries sharing an ethico-political framework. 

A final quote:
To deny that there ever could be a free and unconstrained public deliberation of all matters of common concern is therefore crucial for democratic politics. When we accept that every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power and that always entails some form of exclusion, we can begin to envisage the nature of a democratic public sphere in a different way (ibid 756) 
Wouldn't such a vision risk leading to a democracy that is openly exclusive and that has given up hope about a stop to exclusion?  I have nothing particular against the assertion that power in a certain (Foucauldian or Arendtian) sense is inescapable in politics or even something good, but to accept exclusion as necessary seems to me to be a far more serious concession. Isn’t there another way out, namely to constantly work against exclusion, even without ever presupposing that end to be realizable? Isn't that the third model that is missing in the account of the models of public space in the WSF?


Arendt, Hannah (1970) On Violence, Orlando: Harcourt Books.

Mouffe, Chantal (1999) “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?”, pp 745-758, Social Research 66(3) (Fall).

Smith, Jackie et al (2008) Global Democracy and the World Social Forums, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Teikoku shônen - art nouveau punk?

I read a comment about Teikoku Shônen (aka Imperial Boy) some time ago: ”I simply love.. So much so, that it breaks my heart a bit to know that I'll never live in such beautiful places.”

Here's a sample of his work (for more, see his web-page)

There's an excellent blog entry about him here: Hunting the Elusive. Below I'm going to quote a few passages from it, while adding my own commentaries. Since I'd like this entry to be something in the way of an inventory of themes that I find in these works, I will treat them under a number of headings: postmodernity and colonialism, nature and history, ecology and junk, and childhood and loss.

Postmodernity and colonialism

"What it really is, is a world without the ideas of minimalism or architectural modernism. It is a rejection of the simple for the complex, the space for the clutter. Roads and buildings are piled one upon the other like space is at a premium." This description is very much to the point. Without stating so explicitly, the statement suggest, I believe, the "postmodern" feel of this world. This in turn might be related to what the author of the blog calls "the unabashedly Japanese feel of his cities". Let me quote again: "This is no steam-punk imagining of European lineage. It is a strictly Japanese or Asian world which manages to look quaint/retro and technologically complex at the same time." Other elements that seem to reflect experiences of Japanese society might include the middle-class feel of these cities and the lack of overt class distinctions. So, is this a variety of techno-orientalism? Maybe, but if that is the case, I think we need to add that techno-orientalism itself is not simply an imaginary construct, but also contains a kernel of truth that is rooted in the way modern Japanese society developed.  

Look for instance at this:

The upper right half of the picture is grey, dominated by a huge-looking concrete bridge across which a tank is being transported. Below it glitters another world of teeming crowds and small-scale commerce. What the picture suggests is a form of colonial economy, in which the modernizing hand of the developmental state is heavily yet insecurely imposed on top of a local, older and more energetical economy. Much like in what economists call Japan's "two-tiered economy", two layers of economic activity seem to co-exist without integration. This colonial economy is also what produced the techno-oriental mix of high-tech and "tradition", which is thus not entirely a fictional construct but reflective of a certain path of state-led modernization.

I use the word "colonial" to describe this economy in order to stress the similarities between Japan and other non-Western countries. The techno-oriental mix of high-tech and premodernity can just as easily be found in Cairo or Abidjan. The gap between intellectuals and the "masses" - a prominent theme in debates in Japan during the early postwar decades and a central concern of intellectuals like Yoshimoto Takaaki - is another manifestation of the same mix. This is a gap we find in many developing countries, in which the efforts of the intelligentsia to connect to the masses are often handicapped both by the latter's indifference and by the allergy of authoritarian governments to a politically active citizenry. Situations that are "colonial" in this wide sense are conductive of a certain kind of postmodern semblance: in countries like this, enlightenment will always seem precarious, almost engulfed by the indifference of things and insignificant in relation to the complex workings of the whole. That Japan is sometimes labelled a postmodern society par excellence is partly explained by this fact. China and other authoritarian late-developers intent on pushing forward with a technological and economical development without popular participation for the masses will probably be great producers of postmodernity.

Nature and history

However, despite the city being the product of a modernization unevenly imposed from above, the city can hardly be said to have an inhuman feel. It can hardly be described as a machine-like and reified "second nature" in which inhabitants are little more than cogwheels. It seems to me that the explanation can be found in the pictures themselves. Looking at them, one has the distinct feeling that state-led modernization is no longer really relevant to the way citizens lead their lives. Although immense energies must once have been poured into erecting the towers, the bridges, highways and buildings, one feels as if all this was a thing of the past, as if all these immense structures had been there since very ancient times - perhaps like rocks, mountains or other geological formations - and that no really disruptive changes could really happen anymore. The changes that do happen - the proliferation of human habitat, small shops and passageways along the contours of these structures - are of another and smaller order, piecemal and improvised, similar to the growth of vegetation on top of slopes, rocks or fallen gigantic trees. This clutter and proliferation, one feels, cannot possibly have been planned or imposed from above.


Part of the nature-likeness of these cities is the sheer abundance of real organic nature in them: vegetation, water, clean air. "His cities are so bright and clean, they're almost an imagining of what technologically-advanced cities would be like without pollution... Wood, plants, trees and greenery are present throughout the cities, and he also has an obsession with waterways replacing roads as conduits".

Why doesn't this nature feel inhuman or oppressive? That's a great riddle (one which I once tried to solve in a book that discussed the "naturalized modernity" in the fiction of Murakami Haruki and other writers and how this modernity differed from the shocking and reified "second nature" of Lukács). Perhaps the best answer is simply to remind oneself that the agents of this nature-like proliferation are human beings - people who, regardless of governments or big organizations - try to arrange a habitable everyday life for themselves by building this or that or putting things here or there according to their needs and tastes, without any thought of the whole.

Let us recall that "history" - the concept usually counterposed to "nature" - is best described as an environment which allows itself to be changed and reshaped by the efforts of people and where one can also see the traces of or imagine the processes of change that has led to the present state. Defined in this way, we may, perhaps to our surprise, discover that things in nature often inspire feelings of history. Plants decay and wither. Forests don't stand still. Today we see moss growing where yesterday there was none. Everything seems pregnant with change which is easily imaginable. These cities are the same. They are nature in which humanity is part, not a nature opposed to humanity. Conversely, the humanity inhabiting it is one which no longer defines itself in opposition to nature. 

As mentioned, the experience of this nature is probably at least partly rooted in real experiences of Japanese modernization. What the pictures confront us with is therefore not solely a fantasy, but also the memory of our own real experiences. If we therefore ask, for instance, whether these pictures are not ideological in a bad sense - i.e. whether they attempt an impossible reconciliation between social forces that are in reality irreconcilable - we should also ask the same question of our own experiences. To the extent that we indulge in, and tolerate, the nature-like semblance of certain cities, aren't we also condoning a certain elision, a certain ideological foreclosure?

Ecology and junk

A word about junk here. I have already mentioned that "class" and segregation seems to have left no traces on the way these cities are organized (this is another difference compared to much cyberpunk fiction). How about waste then? Where would cities like this, if they existed, dispose of their waste? One of Teikoku Shônen's most impressive works depicts an undergrown arcade, according to the caption constructed out of waste materials and junk:

Above I quoted the perceptive statement that these cities seemed surprisingly ecological and lacking pollution. At the same time, I have argued that humanity itself "grows" on these cities in an unplanned way. Am I perhaps too bold if I interpret this to mean that here, where no junk is visible, all is junk? The city itself is made out of junk. Just as nature is no longer excluded, junk too is redeemed and for that very reason no longer appears as junk. If Hell is where all junk ends up, is Hell not exactly for that reason precisely so open, generous and free from exclusion as Heaven really ought to be? Is a junkheap an image of Heaven or Hell?

Childhood and loss

I would say: his pictures are attempts to resurrect the memory of how we once experienced things when we were children or adolescents - when everything looked big, exciting and full of wonder. Isn't this why everything in these cities seems so overdimensioned, so unfathomably complex and convoluted, so endlessly big? Looking at a world like this, who cannot help feeling that everything is beginning anew and that there is so much left to explore?

These pictures, then, not so much dream images of the future as nostalgic, loving flowerings of imagination around things that are disappearing. By watching them, we prepare ourselves mentally for the loss, reassuring ourselves that the best in what we are losing is preserved in them. This is not necessarily good, but the extent to which his images succeed in making us feel this way testifies to their power.

I asked above if these images weren't ideological. That was no more meaningful than to ask whether dreams are ideological. Very few people mistake dreams for reality. What is at stake is rather the desire expressed in the dream.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Kevin Lynch on waste

Just a few remarks on Kevin Lynch's Wasting Away (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books 1990).

”Complete chaos is never pleasurable” – perhaps this sentence (which occurs in the same author's The Image of the City) is true. To be sure, I know many people who like getting lost, and anyone who’s ever run madly around the city while intoxicated knows how wonderful chaos can feel. Chaos is, I think, closely related to waste – to the decay of conceived order, the slipping of things into incomprehensibility and meaninglessness. Yet, despite the earlier sentence, this is a book - posthumously published almost three decades later - by a man who now clearly appreciates waste, who feels comforted by it, and even loves it.

Let me get to the point. This book is interesting to me for two reasons. Firstly, it contributes to articulating the idea of a freedom very different from the freedom which we usually associate with the public sphere (the freedom of citizens acting in concert in order to influence their polity) and it does so with the help of the notion of waste. Secondly, it is explicit in locating this freedom in relation to space. Freedom and space come together in the discussion of places related to waste. Waste offers a kind of relief or freedom, but this relief or freedom can only be found in certain places or in relation to certain objects. 

What kind of freedom is it? Let me offer a few quotes (accompanied by a few commentaries):
[L]iving among ruins has its delights... It can be a wilderness more wild than any natural one, an alluring mix of freedom and danger. (p23f)

Many waste places have these ruinous attractions: release from control, free play for action and fantasy, rich and varied sensations. Thus children are attracted to vacant lots, scrub woods, back alleys, and unused hillsides. (p25)
For instance, in a tale by Anais Nin, children play in an abandoned subway, ”a city beneath the city”, a thrilling and dangerous space forbidden to them by the parents, where they bring mats and candles and lead a secret life (p25).
Shabby, ordinary places escape the weight of power, the intent to impress; they are liberated zones. (p27)
Fire is such beautiful decay! (p27)
We are fascinated to see a building torn down. (p2)
’Trashing’ is an undeniable joy. It is a process of making things submit to us... Vandalism... is driven by this same pleasure. It is show of power by the powerless. (p32)
Here I recall what the Situationists wrote on the Watts Riots in Los Angeles 1965: "People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities".
Yet graveyards were once the parks of the city, places of quiet escape and social recreation. In a few cases, they remain so today. The vast cemeteries surrounding Cairo were used on holidays by everyone. Now they are squatter settlements. Our own park-building movement began with such landscaped burial grounds as the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachussets, and the Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. (p112)
Here I recall what the artists and activists in Miyashita Park told me about the origin of many Japanese parks in religious grounds, places that often functioned as shelters for the destitute, the sick and the discriminated.

Wilderness will develop in almost any untended land. The site of an old railroad station in the heart of West Berlin, once the largest passenger station in Europe, is now a rich landscape of ruined walls, tracks, and bridges, overgrown by thickets and wildflower meadows. The site, bombed out in World War II, contains examples of one-third of all the flora of the region, including rare and endangered species. (p112)
We are freed from control in waste places. We let down our guard, give up, relax in shabby comfort, do as we please. (p154)

An ugly, polluted, yet tolerant place...these urban remnants are also freer places, where one is momentarily relieved of the pressures of status, power, explicit purpose, and strict control. (p113f)

Wastes are traditionally dumped at the edges of settlement – in areas where the powerless live, where land claims are weak, and where controls are soft. (p115)
Examples of the latter included islands off the city harbor or in rivers. City lands where the poor and marginal lived also often became places where one located dumps, almshouses, lunatic asylums, jails and concentration camps. The moats of medieval cities were used for dumping garbage and today Las Vegas is surrounded by a ring of debris (p114f).
Wastelands are the havens of rebellious, marginal, illegal people. Swamps were the hideouts of the southern slaves and the refuge of the Cajuns. Mountains harbored the Cuban guerrillas, and the displaced intellectuals of China. The cold, wet, northern margins of European Russia were people by Old Believers, in flight from the Tatars and religious heresy. Wastelands are places of despair, but they also shield relicts, and the first weak forms of some new thing, a new religion, a new politics. They are places for dreams, for antisocial acts, for exploration and growth. (p153)
Wastelands, then, are seldom empty. They are the grounds of homeless, playing children, child runaways, junkmen, gypsies, rag pickers, criminals and many others. ”The labeling of something as waste must always ask: waste for whom?” (p148). Waste can be useful - what it's lacking is not necessarily use-value, but exchange value on the capitalist market. Dereliction, Lynch points out, is always in relation to the market.”If it pays, it isn’t derelict. If it doesn’t pay, due to some human devilment, and once did pay, then it is derelict” (p98). The use of waste is often inofficial. Waste moves in shady areas, ambiguous in relation to law and property rights. Abandonment is usually "a gradual process, a slow relinquishment of concern and rights. But the law wants clarity: either you own something, or you don’t” (p149).

Throughout the book, Lynch empahsizes the use-value of waste and waste places and their importance for children’s play, for the survival of other species, or for adaptability to future uses. They are places where children, but also grown-ups can find adventure and freedom from control (these are aspects that have also been emphasized by Tim Edensor and Martin Roth in their discussions on industrial and other ruins) and where many grousp in society find shelter and material support (for a recent and informative report on the life of squatters and scavengers in London, see Katherine Hibbert's book Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society). The taste of freedom in these places is quite distinct from the freedom offered by public space or the public sphere, and more akin to that of no-man’s-land, the dead zones, terrain vague or the akichi.

But has this freedom any political significance? It is easy to let oneself be deceived. There is a proximity to the ideological in Lynch’s book – to the aesthetics of ruins and of waste, to the delight in labyrinthine bazaars and endless Oriental cities, to the phantasmagoric intoxication – which attracted Walter Benjamin so much and which he tried to salvage by a tactile getting used to the debris, rags, commodities and novelties of the Parisian passageways – of the capitalist emporias. But there is also a soberness and carefulness in his formulations which prevents excesses and lets the reader make his or her own judgments. There is also, I feel, an underlying intact sense of care for the city as a human habitat, which strikes me as very different from the rather detached and cold-hearted aesthetic enjoyment of waste which I find in some literary works. I’m thinking, for example, of the aesthetization of waste in Don Delillo’s Underworld, were waste and the processes that surround it take on an almost religious aura. 
Three thousand acres of mountained garbage, contoured and road-graded, with bulldozers pushing waves of refuse onto the active face. Brian felt invigorated, looking at this scene. Barges unloading, sweeper boats poking through the kills to pick up stray waste. He saw a maintenance crew working on drainpipes high on the angled setbacks that were designed to control the runoff of rainwater. Other figures in masks and butylene suits were gathered at the base of the structure to inspect isolated material for toxic content. It was science fiction and prehistory, garbage arriving twenty-four hours a day, hundreds of workers, vehicles with metal rollers compacting the trash, bucket augers digging vents for methane gas, the gulls diving and crying, a line of snouted brycks sucking in loose litter.
    He imagined he was watching the construction of the Greate Pyramid at Giza - only this was twenty-five times bigger...” (Delillo 1997:184)
Here waste has turned into an alienated second nature, a world that has lost its humanity, in the face of which human beings can do nothing but resign or stare in dazed, shell-shocked fascination. Something similar can be said about much of the waste in cyberpunk fiction.

To Lynch, waste and waste places are natural in a quite different sense. Georg Simmel - in a manner that foreshadows Benjamin's idea of "natural history" - points to the peculiar balance between nature and history in ruins, pointing out that ruins are places where things grow, where nature takes over from man and turns what was once historical or man-made into part of nature again. Or, as Michael Roth puts it with reference to Simmel: “As things fall apart, out of their remains emerge new forms of growth. These are signs both of human decay and of reintegration into the natural world” (Roth 1997:2). Such a nature isn’t a reified, cold ”second nature” so much as first nature itself, albeit it returns in the guise of manmade products. It is natural, yet still a comparatively hospitable home to human beings - to squatters, homeless, children, artists and many others. It is not wholly historical and under the control of enlightened citizens, like the ideal public sphere, but neither is it an oppressive monolith. It is a nature in which history – the capability of people to act and change things – can grow.

The political significance of places like these resides in the fact that it is linked to an attitude of living with waste, without rejection. In a precarious world in which each one of us risks turning into the next piece of discarded, unwanted junk, this vision feels like paradise. That junk is not the other, but we ourselves.


DeLillo, Don (1997) Underworld, New York: Scribner.   

Edensor, Tim (2007) “Social Practices, Sensual Excess and Aesthetic Transgression”, pp 234-252, in Karen A. Franck & Quentin Stevens (eds) Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life, London & New York: Routledge.

Hibbert, Katherine (2010) Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society, Ebury Press.

Lynch, Kevin (1990) Wasting Away, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Roth, Michael S. (1997) “Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed”, pp 1-23, in Michael S. Roth et al. Irresistible Decay, Los Angeles: the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities.

Simmel, Georg (1959 [1911]) ”The Ruin”, pp 259-266, in Kurt H. Wolff (ed) Georg Simmel, 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays, Columbus: The Ohilo State University Press.  
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