Against Situationism

A prefatory note: I blog sporadically; sometimes it’s a matter of how much free time I have, sometimes it’s a matter of how much I have to say in the format of the blog. What started as a Tumblr post turned into something bigger. In the end, I decided that I would use this post to revive the Netlab Dispatches. Here’s to more blogging, even if it is slow. Now, on to my missive for le quatorze juillet.   

I am alarmed by how Situationism is more popular than ever today, particularly with the Soft Urbanism/Urban Informatics/Emergent Urbanism crowd for whom it, together with Jane Jacobs, serves as the fundamental precedent. 

In Beyond Locative Media, I took pains to explain how locative media (soft urbanism/urban informatics/emergent urbanism’s predecessor) was influenced by Situationism. My goal was to expose the narrowness of the theoretical base in locative media, not to support that position. Little has changed in the years since. This is unfortunate. 

psychogeography today

Situationism’s fatal flaw is that although one of its sources is Leftist thought (admittedly, Communism was hard to avoid in postwar France), its goal was always to valorize individual experience over the collective. Situationism was not alone in this. Marrying the collective and the individual was the signal problem for the academic and counter-cultural Left throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (see one of the unsung classics of the last twenty years, Nietzche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy or the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life by Geoffrey Waite, a member of my Ph.D. committee, for more on the debilitating effects of this turn). Situationism was the worst exacerbation of this marriage of Nietzscheanism and Leftism, leaving no positive program for collectivity.

Situationism may have started out as an anti-bourgeois movement, but since it was fundamentally bourgeois in its advocacy of individual experience, when it was through with its critique all that was left was melancholy. Ultimately even the idea of the Situationist International was foreign to the ideology. Organization, even its own, was unacceptable. The end of Situationism says everything: a lonely alcoholic shot himself through the heart. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote "the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution." By the time the Situationist movement had played itself out, it was clear that revolution required too much effort.     

As Debord put a gun to his chest in the Upper Loire, the Situationist industry, led by Griel Marcus, was cranking up in high gear. As Steven Shaviro writes in his excellent commentary on Marcus’s misguided take on Michael Jackson:

‘Situationism itself — not in spite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.’

Deliberately obscure, Situationism was cool, and thus the perfect ideology for the knowledge-work generation. What could be better to provoke conversation at the local Starbucks or the company cantina, especially once Marcus’s, which traced a dubious red thread between Debord and Malcolm McLaren, hit the presses? Rock and roll plus neoliberal politics masquerading as leftism: a perfect mix. For the generation that came of age with Situationism-via-Marcus and the dot.com era, work at offices like Razorfish or Chiat/Day was the highest form of play. Enough pop-tarts for middle of the night charettes and a bit of colorful design ensured that work and life had finally merged in the dot.com workplace. Or so it was in theory. The reality was Office Space

Today, Situationism seems to be more popular than ever, serving as the latest justification for the neoliberal city. Instead of a broader idea of a collective, Situationism advocates for the right not to work (but just how will we survive? will amazon make free shipments after the revolution?).

Instead of tired calls for social justice, Situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones. All this sounds less like Utopia and more like Amsterdam, Dublin, Prague, or any European city overrun by drunken American college students in the summer, taking in the urban fabric late at night with pub crawls.

If a drunken Debord might have approved, I’m afraid that this doesn’t seems like liberation to me, it seems like hell.     

Trajects pendant un an d'une jeune fille du XVIe arrondissement

In fairness to Situationism, remember that it was wrought in the depths of the Fordist cultural conformity of the 1950s. The above map by researchers working with Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe depicts the spatial meanderings of a young student vividly demonstrating how her experience of the city consisted of nothing more than regular trips to familiar destinations. 

Such a map would be vastly different today. According to Dopplr, one student I know has already logged over 200,000km in the past year, visiting three continents. But even at home, our own experience of the city is motivated by a fascination with dislocation that didn’t exist for Debord. Imagine him sitting down to a plate of Thai food (is this exotic to anyone anymore?), let alone an ice cream and insect concoction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Our challenges are different. The conformity of the spectacle is gone. If we still seek liberation in consumption, today we chase our phantom individuality down the long tail. If this can be more fun than Fordism, it also deludes us if we think it is enough for self-realization or that such behavior is open the majority of the world’s population. Situationism encourages this aestheticized consumption of the city, only it does so in the guise of political progress.

It disturbs me, then, to hear a largely unmediated version of Situationism touted today as the basis for new urban interventions, particularly the kind that propose augmenting the city. This is a dangerous misstep. 

Alas, thus far I’m more Adorno than Brecht or Benjamin in all this. The problems here are huge and I’m only beginning to chip away at them. That said, I simply can’t offer a pro-active alternative yet. Not everything can be found so easily in an old French revolutionary tract. But Situationism is thinking mythically and instead of thinking mythically, we need to learn to think critically again.

The days of hip stupidity (e.g. post-criticism) are long gone now, distant memories of the real estate boom. With le quatorze juillet upon us, the call to arms now is to forge new conceptual tools appropriate to our condition. We need to think again, to forge new critiques, new plans, even new revolutions. 

 

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On the Reshaping of America

Richard Florida has a piece in the March 2009 Atlantic, How the Crash Will Reshape America. Readers will not be surprised to hear that there’s a lot to disagree with in the piece, particularly Florida’s continued support of his notion of the creative class, then again, the idea his bread and butter so of course he’s going to tout it. 

Florida suggests that the creative class® is still going to be a mainstay for cities, but we’ll see otherwise. I am now predicting a major newspaper closing within months, not by the end of the year and I think there’s a very strong likelihood that the Times itself won’t stay in print for long, except maybe as some kind of Sunday morning rip-off of Monocle: news subsidized by fashion and style (this is actually the Times now, but think of the whole paper in the magazine). The music industry has been bleeding like a stuck pig for years and there’s only so much blood left. Hollywood is going to continue its dance of death, surviving for the moment, although worse off that before. I expect that the next economic crisis will take it down as well. Hipsters have managed the illusion of living without any means of financial sustenance for a while. Now we get to see them do it for real. Florida’s creative class is hardly well. For all of the excitement about amateur-generated content, it is hard to see how it can be monetized. Between the crisis in overproduction of cultural goods that marks network culture and the free availability of amateur-generated content, the creative industries are set for a Detroit-style tailspin. Make no mistake, this economic crisis is their first round. 

Similarly, Florida’s prediction that financial centers will continue to dominate is questionable. I won’t outrightly say that he’s wrong, since my research doesn’t confirm this yet, but the financial collapse is also a transition. Nobody is going to trust the friendly face of their doe-eyed real estate broker, banker, or financial advisor anymore. These jobs, along with a similar array of positions in the financial sector, will be streamlined out of existence. Over 50,000 jobs in lower Manhattan are history and I suspect we’ll see double that before the crisis is over. Where will these freshly-minted MBAs go? Here Florida is right: there were plenty of financial industry jobs in peripheral places in Middle America and as those have evaporated, the MBAs won’t be able to find easy jobs back home, unless they are good with the topless dancing

This is a central problem with the creative class: it doesn’t really exist and it never did. On the contrary, the creative class was a place in which the financial sector could hide itself. Take a look at Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money for the real story. It was finance, e.g. the bubble economy, that dominated the American economy since the 1980s. Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the financial sector liked to surround itself with the trappings of the creative class and saw itself as creative. Moreover, with the massive cuts in taxes at the top brackets over the last thirty years, living in cities and consuming culture like mad was something the financial industry did, but this is hardly the same as suggesting, as Florida does, that creative professionals have much say in the economy.

When I was growing up in rural Western Massachusetts, the local General Electric plant was shedding jobs. My friends in high school saw themselves as "burnouts," understanding that before they even held a job, any dreams of a well-paying life in industry were gone. Finance and the creative class will now follow in their wake. Sadly there isn’t a whole lot left to replace them and as I’ve already stated, infrastructure is hardly being funded in Obama’s stimulus plan. Why do people continue to think it is? It baffles me.   

I’ll agree with Florida when he observes that the early predictions this crisis would undo the United States were self-serving. On the contrary, other countries are suffering much harder and will continue to suffer much harder. For all the blather about the problems in the United States, the country has massive resources and Americans work harder and absorb immigration (and thereby cheap labor, new talent, and global connections) more readily than any other country. Speculation was as crazy, if not crazier, in the EU and Asia than in the US. Americans didn’t build Dubai or CCTV. A quick check: is real estate in your city more expensive than in New York? If you aren’t in a global city (I’d include London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong), then you’re doomed. This is not to say that real estate in those cities isn’t going to collapse, but it is to say that real estate in countries on the periphery of Europe will likely never recover to its pre-bust levels. 

Florida is also right that we should give up homeownership in favor of rentals. Obama needs to roll back laws, enacted decades ago, that favor new rental construction and encourage landlords to find ways to profit with existing apartment buildings while maintaining them in good condition. Nurturing an older housing stock in cities would keep labor costs down by making it easier for employees to live near their workplaces, encourage economic and ethnic diversity, and discourage commuting long distances. These are all vital things and they have been lost in the reshaping of American cities to serve Florida’s creative class (e.g. the financial sector in hipster clothes). I am not referring to section 8 housing here. There is room for that, but there is also a need for housing for the working class and we have abandoned that wholesale in search of easy profits.      

He’s also right about foreclosures. We need to find gentle ways to reduce the prices of real estate by another 20 to 30% and not prop it up artificially. I don’t like the idea of subsidizing housing for former homeowners (this also undoes the support for landlords I mention above), but prices need to drop and drop fast.  

I have problems with even the cautious optimism at the end of the article. We’ve reached a heat-death within capitalism. The ponzi scheme shuffled around for so long and took so many people’s money that we’ve exhausted any possible economic growth that the biggest technological advance in this generation, network convergence, offered us. Finding ways to make a profit in this economy may be possible on an individual level, but I am not confident that growth can be stimulated again on a worldwide level. Both in this country and elsewhere, a lot of people who made poor job choices are going to have to find other ways to make a living besides finance and they’ll have to do it back home, in the same places that have been depopulating for years since that is where housing is cheapest. Am I optimistic? No, not at all. Too bad Starbucks isn’t hiring much these days.    

®creative class is a registered trademark of the Creative Class Group LTD, global services advisory firm founded by Richard Florida.

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obama and cities

Yule Heibel passed a link to Obama talking about cities after being given a copy of Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs over Twitter the other day. 

 

I retweeted it, prompting the following thoughtful e-mail from Derek Lindner. 

To Obama’s credit, the video shows that he has familiarity with Jacobs, and by referencing ‘all the studies’ (or some such thing) he shows that he is up on more recent theories of urban planning, though what those are we don’t know (Biden, OTOH, is flipping through the book in the background looking as though it’s in Urdu.)  Of course Obama’s does nothing to let the man giving him the book realize that he’s just insulted Obama’s intelligence, as if he’d just been handed, say, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) as a presidential primer on economics. 

The depressing thing is that no one else realizes Obama’s just been insulted, because the level of maturity of the discourse in general on the topic is so low. No one expects the president to know any better than Jacobs (or, apparently, to even know Jacobs, for that matter).

I’m hopeful that with Obama in office the level of public discourse will rise significantly, but I’m a bit nervous as to what might happen with the federal govt taking a larger role in urban planning policy at a national scale. Some high-level vision might be welcome–after seeing New Orleans’ planning process first hand, I’m not a strong advocate of bottom-up planning methodologies–but look at what central banking has done for our economy lately. Perhaps its better to let some decisions be made locally? 

Hm, I’d like to see your top five list of things Obama should do regarding urban planning policy. 

d

That’s my hope too, Derek. 

First of all, Jane Jacobs is a neoliberal (and Banham isn’t that far off too). Her faith in the spontaneous social order of the city led us right to the current mess, in which doe-eyed real estate developers took up the life that she found so appealing and sold it as spectacle, only to wind up choking the life out of it. Have you been to the Village lately? There’s no there, there, although they have Anthropologie.

Second, Obama is clearly above it all. He’s appealing to a crowd in Toledo, a city which is too peripheral to be in the global order of things and for which the promised Bilbao-effect of the Sejima glass pavilion isn’t going to pan out (I went there last year, it was ho-hum…in contrast, the old museum building captivated, especially a great show of work by David Macauley). Still, he points out that you can’t separate cities from the metropolitan regions they are in. Jacobs is still very much part of the crowd that favors a division between the city and the suburb. It’s funny that as I was taking Amtrak back from Philadelphia to Jersey today, I thought of a more lasting, if lesser known, to the field of urban studies, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, published in the same year as Jacobs’s book. In the video Obama is on Gottmann’s side, not Jacobs’s:

We must abandon the idea of the city as a tightly settled and organized unit in which people, activities, and riches are crowded into a very small area clearly separated from its nonurban surroundings. Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus; it grows amidst an irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes; it melts on broad fronts with other mixtures, of somewhat similar though different texture, belonging to the suburban neighborhoods of other cities. (Gottmann, 5)

Moreover, I suspect Obama, or at least his advisors, have read and absorbed much more cutting edge material. Certainly Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort seems like a blueprint for how Obama won the election. I’m hoping he’s reading stuff by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginian Tech, which to my mind consistently does the most interesting work on cities out there. It would also be great to hear that Obama had read some Stephen Graham and certainly, as a cautionary measure, Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City. I’m a little bit scared, however, by the comment about Chicago. Certainly its doing well, but are the Richard Florida/Bilbao-Effect model that drove that metropolis is finished. We’ll see, I guess.

As for my recommendations for what Obama should do with cities, they’re on their way, really they are. 

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why cities are so great today

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my concerns about today’s urban boosterism. Many american cities, we are told, are in a new golden age, witnessing an influx of trendy architecture, trendy stores, trendy people, and trendy ideas. Suburbs are the (not-so-)new evil, ungreen, untrendy, unloved by academics. 

But what’s really happening is a fundamental shift in the city that makes burb-bashing (of this sort, for example) increasingly questionable.

Some strange things are afoot. First, there is an overall demographic trend of the middle class moving out of the cities. See Michael Barone’s The Realignment of America in the Wall Street Journal for more. White flight takes place on a country-wide level as middle-class whites (and middle class African Americans too) move out of coastal cities such as New York or Los Angeles (yes, this is happening, please pay attention) to interior megalopolises. Much of this is happening at a metropolitan scale. In other words, many of these people are moving out of suburbs in coastal cities to suburbs in the interior megalpolises (what you thought that the kids who grew up in the Valley were all in Silver Lake now?).

Something else is happening within major metropolitan regions such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. In these places, for the first time in many decades, white flight has virtually stopped or even reversed itself. See this article on The End of White Flight by Conor Dougherty, again from the WSJ. Instead of undoing segregation, we are seeing a new condition. Forced out by rising rents, taxes, and the cost of living, poor African Americans as well as immigrants are moving out of cities to older inner suburbs (often left by the white middle class moving to the country’s interior). Being smaller, these impoverished suburbs have little political clout and even less revenue for schools or services. A downward spiral begins.

Are cities so great today? We hear a lot about how cities are diverse and suburbs are not, but what is diverse about fancy boutiques selling doggie clothes and organic take out? Does your neighbor from Switzerland who speaks better English than you do and lives off a trust fund make it diverse?

I’m not so easily convinced. I lived my first twelve years in a neighborhood in Chicago that was diverse. There were poor African American families, middle class whites, weird bohemian artist Eastern European refugee families (mine, and the only one in that area), Mexican families, Jewish survivors of World War II Germany, Greeks, gays, Indians, and many others. There was even one rich family. They lived in a penthouse on top of a residential hotel across the street. Urban homesteaders seemed like part of the diversity. They were not. In the decades after we left, that neighborhood got turned into yet another unaffordable hipster heaven. That kind of experience seems increasingly uncommon in cities today.

So a call to action for urban planners and writers about cities. Stop with the Jane Jacobs already! It’s been nearly 50 years since she formulated her theories. 50 years!!! Everything has changed since. And through away your Situationists. Their corpses have long since been infected by hipster real estate agents.

Let’s take a cold, hard look at cities and suburbs as they are today.

 

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The Big Sort

Last week’s Economist contains a provocative discussion of The Big Sort. Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. I’ve long been interested in the phenomenon of demographic clustering. See for example, the essay that I co-wrote with Anne Friedberg for the Networked Publics book. According to this model, mobility is leading individuals to cluster in communities of other like-minded individuals. In Bill Bishop’s book, and the Economist article, the concern is with the consequences of such clustering for politics. Americans increasingly don’t talk to people with political views unlike themselves. Instead, we live in liberal urban environments or conservative exurbs or whatever community turns us on. I don’t suspect Europe is going to do much better. The EU has changed dramatically in the last two decades and, with the freedom of mobility that Europeans enjoy, old ties like language and family are going to dissipate over time, in favor of a similar clustered world.

The consequences for politics are relatively clear, if distrubing, but this "big sort" also has consequences for urbanism since politics is such a huge part of thinking about cities. So when we think of dredging up Jane Jacobs yet again for models of thinking about the city, let’s remember the ideological context and the larger complexities of such situations.

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posturban transformation

The May 29th issue of the Economist finally came today and it has one of the most intelligent articles about suburbs that I’ve read lately. It comes back to one of the key issues for my Network City project. Cities, as Lewis Wirth pointed out in his seminal article, Urbanism as a Way of Life, had traditionally been places of difference, places in which individuals from rural backgrounds were deterritorialized (to use Deleuzean terms) to become new, urban beings. But something strange has happened over the last two decades.

The Economist piece "An Age of Transformation" talks about how minorities, immigrants, and increasingly, gays and lesbians are leaving cities (one staggering statistic: at current rates of departure, there will not be a single African American in Los Angeles by 2050). As the global city becomes increasingly homogeneous, today’s advocates of the creative city may seem as backwards to us as Corbusier did to Jane Jacobs. 

 

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goodbye 20th century

Woke up this morning to read a post by Enrique at a:456 and was amazed just how precisely he had nailed what’s been on my mind for the last two weeks.

Twenty years ago I was moving to the city to study architectural design (yes, at Columbia. Over that summer I came to realize that the music I was listening to (and, at the time, making) was giving me so much more than the formalist architecture of the day ever could. Unlike Enrique, I was a disappointed by Daydream Nation: my album was Sister. But Sonic Youth was still so important to reading the city as were other noise bands like Live Skull (and reading books like Gravity’s Rainbow…a whole summer of Gravity’s Rainbow). And at Sonic Youth’s CBGBs concert that summer I was right up against the stage the entire time. I remember thinking that the song Schizophernia in particular was much less about an individual and much more about a city and a world…this was, after all, still very much the postmodern moment. 

As Enrique points out, New York was as dirty a city as could be that summer, gripped in a crack epidemic, and heading for riot that would end all that. Soon, like Ulysses, I’d be back to Ithaca where I’d do a Ph.D. and somehow try to understand what all that meant. And no matter how great the city is now and no matter how nostalgic it is to say this, I really wish the city was dirty again. There was a potential then that has been exhausted by architecture.   

 

 

 

 

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so long, wireless cities

I have always been deeply skeptical of the wireless cities idea. The business models of cities teaming with ISPs to give away free access to the Internet via city-wide wireless networks never made sense, the idea always seemed incompatible with the desires of law enforcement for tracking and surveillance, and the need to upgrade routers every couple of years seemed insurmountable (oh, you live in an 802.11b city…). Moreover, having lived in a dense urban area for a decade, I can attest to the difficulty of having wireless cross one floor of an apartment building, let alone an entire city block. Given current technology limitations, there is just too much interference in dense urban environments to make the wireless city a reality. The most naive ideas suggested that giving away wireless services in cities would somehow lead to economic booms. But urban boosters are given to such ideas (remember the Bilbao-effect?), so it’s no great surprise. 

So now it’s over, at least in the United States. Read this article at the New York Times. 

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on the city as growth machine and its enablers

A couple of days ago, I mentioned that the New York Times expressed deep confusion that a real estate bubble had taken place. I wondered aloud why the Times didn’t see the real estate bubble for what it was when, in contrast, the Economist had expressed concern years earlier? Is it that the Times hires reporters straight out of college or is there something more? Maybe it’s that the population of Manhattan has always increased?*

Well, the answer came this week when I gave the students in my spring Network City course Harvey Molotch‘s seminal essay "The City as Growth Machine." Molotch’s analysis is of the way that certain industries—primarily the finance and real estate industries—dominate urban politics with the intention of expanding their businesses. These interests promote a naturalized view of growth in which we are simply not to question that cities will always get bigger or that they should always get bigger.

But Molotch also points out that newspapers encourage the growth machine as a way of expanding their subscription base. Moreover, foreshadowing the argument of the rather naïve creative cities movement, arts organizations such as the symphony, opera, and art museums are also beholden to the model of the city as growth machine. I’ll leave it to you to imagine where architects are in all this. 

So much for objectivity then. I suppose that we can forgive the Times for playing its structural role (not having a single urban base, the Economist would find little benefit in playing urban booster) if we really have to, but in rereading Molotch’s essay (and it is available at that link above) it seems crucial to me to ask what the broader consequences of such allegiances are and what architects might do to be critical of them. Certainly not things like this (e.g. OMA in Dubai…note that Delirious New York was written at the lowest point in that table below). 

*Heavy sarcasm intended. Sure, Manhattan’s population has gone up lately, but like most American cities, this is only a small uptick after a sustained decline. New York City has continually expanded. Not so for Manhattan.

See the following figures, borrowed form Wikipedia. note that Manhattan was 1/3 more populous in 1910! 

 

1890 1,515,301
1900 1,850,093
1910 2,331,542 
1920 2,284,103
1930 1,867,312
1940 1,889,924
1950 1,960,101
1960 1,698,281
1970 1,539,233
1980 1,428,285
1990 1,487,536
2000 1,537,195
 

 

 

 

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plug-in city

 photograph of ad in subway

I ran across this advertisement in the subway the other day. It brought to mind the last of Robert Sumrell’s three thesis proposals in 2001 and I was struck by how this project takes advantage of the existing conditions—bored passengers waiting for the train accessorized with ubiquitous white headphones—integrating media distribution to a particular place and time in the form of an ad.

What else can we leave out in the city?

 

 

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