Tag Archives: Theory

Social Justice and the City

1888655Social Justice and the City brings you back to the beginnings of geography’s emergence as a radical project, the point at which a whole branch split away from what Harvey terms ‘liberal formulations’ to work towards the transformation of society. It does it through a series of essays that traverse this change in Harvey’s own thinking, creating a provocative and unique book in my mind, and a good reminder of the fields roots in more positivist economic thinking.

It begins an account surprisingly along the lines of traditional–and what in my mind I classify as neo-liberal urban economics–but really are what Harvey terms liberal. He throws terms around like ‘Pareto optimum’, wields statistical models of equilibrium, treats households as simply consumers though trying to understand the social and psychological housing barriers that people face alongside their distance from the city center (distance was for so long a defining factor in models of home prices). Instead he begins thinking of constellations of factors, notes the ways that transport policies favour suburban areas and the injustice of expecting inner-city residents to adjust their own methods of travel to accommodate this disequilibrium.

Thus slowly he approaches a model that moves away from urban form as a result of simple market forces to take into account politics. He writes:

The realities of political power being what they are, the rich groups will probably thereby grow richer and the poor groups will thereby be deprived. It seems that the current real income distribution in a city system must be viewed as ‘the predictable outcome of the political process’ (Buchanan, 1968b 185 as quoted by Harvey: 73) He draws on Olson and Buchanan to note that small, privileged and well-organised groups are often able to defeat larger groups, and create institutional structures that are closed, effectively marginalising and excluding larger groups. Particularly if they happen to be poor. They become the slum-dwellers, the losers in the city’s pecking-order when it comes to competing for resources and services.

The cultural attitudes of the inner city have always been different from those of the suburbs and it does not seem that these differences are decreasing. Therefore I find it hard to accept either Marcuse’s thesis (1964) that there is a growing homogeneity in cultural values…or the spatial form equivalent of it in which a ‘one-dimensional man’ dwells…(84)

In thinking about how to create a just city in which the ‘spatial organization and the pattern of regional investment should be such as to fulfil the needs of the population’ (107), where needs and resource allocations match, he is forced to leave liberal formulations. He writes that it is unsurprising programmes in the UK and US have failed to eradicate poverty as ‘programmes which seek to alter distribution without altering the capitalist market structure within which income and wealth are generated and distributed, are doomed to failure’ (107). That capital will always flow to where the rates of return are highest, thus capital clearly will flow in a way which bears little relationship to need or to the condition of the least advantaged territory. The result will be the creation of localized pockets of high unfulfilled need, such as those now found in Appalachia or many inner city areas…Thus arises the paradox of capital withdrawing from areas of greatest need to provide for the demands of relatively affluent suburban communities. Under capitalism this is good and rational behaviour—it is what the market reuires for the ‘optimal’ allocation of resources (112).

Then he slams it home:

If it is accepted that the maintenance of scarcity is essential for the functioning of the market system, then it follows that deprivation, appropriation and exploitation are also necessary concomitants of the market system (114).

A new system is needed to obtain what he calls ‘A Just Distribution Justly Achieved: Territorial Social Justice’

1. The distribution of income should be such that (a) the needs of the population within each territory are met, (b) resources are so allocated to maximize interterritorial multiplier effects, and (c) extra resources are allocated to help overcome special difficulties stemming from the physical and social environment.
2. The mechanisms (institutional, organizational, political and economic) should be such that the prospects of the least advantaged territory are as great as they possibly can be.

And so we go on to Part II, Socialist Formulations. The first chapter is ‘Revolutionary and Counter-revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation’, and much as I value this work it fails here to deal with race or racial ideologies in any deep manner. I’ve been thinking about what it is about the paradigm within which he is working, both in its liberal and socialist formulations, that limits the vision in this way, prevents the questions I personally find most important after a decade of work in the ‘ghetto’ from even being asked. But to return to Harvey, he starts with Kuhn’s scientific revolutions and then has a wonderful bitchy quote from Johnson (1971) on new theory in academia

On new academic theories: ‘First, it had to attack the central proposition of conservative orthodoxy…with a new but academically acceptable analysis that reversed the proposition…Second, the theory had to appear to be new, yet absorb as much as possible of the valid or at least not readily disputable components of orthodox theory. In this process, it helps greatly to give old concepts new and confusing names, and to emphasize as crucial analytical steps that have previously been taken as platitudinous…Third, the new theory had to have the appropriate degree of difficulty to understand…so that senior academic colleagues would find it neither easy nor worthwhile to study, so that they would waste their efforts on peripheral theoretical issues, and so offer themselves as easy marks for criticism and dismissal but their younger and hungrier colleagues. At the same time the new theory had to appear both difficult enough to challenge the intellectual interest of younger colleagues and students, but actually easy enough for them to master adequately with sufficient investment of intellectual endeavour…Fourth, the new theory had to offer the more gifted and less opportunistic scholars a new methodology more appealing than those currently available…Finally, [it had to offer] an important empirical relationship…to measure (quoting Johnson 1971, 123).

Then he goes on to think what might happen if we get rid of the idea of private property, get rid of the idea of scarcity. He writes:

‘scarcity is socially defined and not naturally determined. A market system becomes possible under conditions of resource scarcity, for only under those conditions can price-fixing commodity exchange markets rise…We therefore find a paradox, namely that wealth is produced under a system which relies upon scarcity for its functioning. It follows that if scarcity is eliminated, the market economy, which is the source of productive wealth under capitalism, will collapse. Yet capitalism is forever increasing its productive capacity. To resolve this dilemma many institutions and mechanisms are formed to ensure that scarcity does not disappear’ (139).

He uses the example of the ghetto to explore this paradox. Owners charge too much rent for appalling conditions, but still don’t make huge profits. The value of property remains low. It experiences the highest rates of overcrowding as well as the highest rates of abandoned buildings. Banks are afraid to lend money due to the uncertainty of the return. And so:

In fact, it is a general characteristic of ghetto housing that if we accept the mores of normal, ethical, entrepreneurial behaviour, there is no way in which we can blame anyone for the objective social conditions which all are willing to characterize as appalling and wasteful of potential housing resources. It is a situation in which we can find all kinds of contradictory statements ‘true’ (140-41).

That is certainly the argument that every slumlord I’ve known has made. He looks at Engels, and the parallels in slums from his time and ours, the reality that this is intrinsic to capitalism. And then he looks at what we need to do to end it. What does it entail?

Let me say first what it does not entail. It does not entail yet another empirical investigation of the social conditions in the ghettos. In fact, mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man is counter-revolutionary in the sense that it allows the bleeding heart liberal in us to pretend we are contributing to a solution when in fact we are not (144).

Hell yes. Instead:

This immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-concious and aware construction of a new paradigm for social geographic thought through a deep and profoiund critique of our existing analytical constructs…our task is to mobilize our powers of thought to formulate concepts and categories, theories and arguments, which we can apply to the task of bringing about a humanizing social change. These concepts and categories cannot be formulated in abstraction. They must be forged realistically with respect to the events and actions as they unfold around us’ (145)

What I love about Harvey, is that this is exactly what he has been doing since he wrote this. Forty years now or so. And unlike many, he recognizes that it is not just academics who are intellectuals, but follows Gramsci in believing that a social movement becomes such when the whole population is acting to ‘reconcile analysis and action’ (149).

He moves on to use value and exchange value, ‘a prevailing source of concern for the political economists of the 19th century’ (153) like Smith and Ricardo and of course, Marx. Land is a very specific kind of commodity, it cannot be moved around at will, no individual can go without occupying space, it changes hands relatively infrequently, investments in built environment have some permanency to them, market exchange happens at one point in time, use over a long period. Its use values are numerous and overlapping:

1. shelter
2. a quantity of space for exclusive use by the occupants
3. privacy
4. a relative location which is accessible to work places, retail opportunities, social services, family and friends, and so on (and this includes the possibility for place of work etc., to be actually in the house)
5. a relative location which is proximate to sources of pollution, areas of congestion, sources of crime and hazard, people viewed with distaste, and so on
6. a neighbourhood location that has physical, social and symbolic (status) characteristics
7. a means for storing and enhancing wealth (159)

He writes that these are formed with respect to the ‘life support system’ of the individual, and lies outside the sphere of political economy. But this alone cannot generate an adequate theory of land use, this happens in ‘those catalytic moments in the urban land-use decision process when use value and exchange value collide to make commodities out of the land and the improvement thereon… (160)

He notes that there is little work done on relating use values to exchange values though much looking at each independently. Within a micro-economic framework there are 5 distinct actors in the housing market: occupiers (‘all occupiers of housing have a similar concern—to procure use values through laying out exchange value’ but also used to store equity – he clearly sees this as a minor consideration in comparison to exchange values for this group, but clearly this store of value is key is producing stability and wealth (163)), realtors (exchange value), landlords (exchange value – exchanging housing for money), developers (‘involved in the process of creating new use values for others in order to realize exchange values for themselves’ 165), financial institutions (interested in gaining exchange values through financing opportunities for the creation or procurement of use values’, when involved in development their decisions are ‘plainly geared to profitability and risk-avoidance’ 165), and government institutions (production of use values through public housing, intervention to support or regulate market, institutional constraints and zoning affect values also). It is also a situation of monopoly, given that there is limited land that is divided between individual landowners who control their own parcels, and thus is formed a class monopoly as those who already have property find it easier to hold it and expand those holdings, to live where they wish and to use land as they will. Thus ‘We therefore arrive at the fundamental conclusion that the rich can command space whereas the poor are trapped in it’ (171). He argues that this serves as a foil to show the short-comings of liberal economic utility-maximization models.

And then there is the fascinating subject of rent—though this section feels somewhat tentative here, and Harvey works it out much more fully in Limits of Capital. But his conclusions are interesting, though I don’t know that I agree with them:

If we argue that rent can dictate use, then this implies that exchange values can determine use values by creating new conditions to which individuals must adapt if they are to survive in society…The capitalist market exchange economy so penetrates every aspect of social and private life that it exerts an almost tyrannical control over the life-support system in which use values are embedded. A dominant mode of production, Marx observed, inevitably creates the conditions of consumption. Therefore, the evolution of urban land-use patterns can be understood only in terms of the general processes whereby society is pushed down some path (it knows not how) towards a pattern of social needs and human relationships (which are neither comprehended nor desired) by the blind forces of an evolving market system. The evolution of urban form is an integral part of this general process and rent, as a measure of the interpenetration of use values and exchange values, contributes notably to the unfolding of this process (190).

He continues:

When use determines value a case can be made for the social rationality of rent as an allocative device that leads to efficient capitalist production patterns…But when value determines use, the allocation takes place under the auspices of rampant speculation, artificially induced scarcities, and the like, and it loses any pretence of having anything at all to do with the efficient organization of production and distribution.

This is an interesting place to start an analysis of urban development from, although he is in conversation here with economists, with the contradictions between rent theory and capital theory, that I am unfamiliar with and that I imagine no longer provide a background for human geographers (if they ever did, though I cannot generalise here beyond myself and my own reading).

The next chapter, ‘Urbanism and the City’ takes us back to urban beginnings, drawing on anthropology and archaeology much as Ed Soja does in Postmetropolis, though with a focus on how the development of surplus value drove the development of the city. He works to bring together the ‘(1) the surplus concept, (2) the mode of economic integration concept and (3) concepts of spatial organization’ (245) to build a framework for ‘interpreting urbanism’ (246). I liked the point that ‘Urbanism, as a general phenomenon, should not be viewed as the history of particular cities, but as the history of the system of cities within, between and around which the surplus circulates’ (250). Always things are in relation to everything else, never static and enclosed.

At the current conjuncture he writes: ‘The contemporary metropolis therefore appears vulnerable, for if the rate at which surplus value is being appropriated at the centre (if profit levels are to be maintained) exceeds the rate at which social product is being created, then financial and economic collapse is inevitable’ (264). Thus ‘the survival of capitalist society and metropolitan centres to which it gives rise thus depends on some countervailing force’ (265). He looks to monopoly arrangements and technological innovation, me, I’m not so sure. But it is certain that much of the expansion of the built environment, particularly the intense suburbanisation of the past decades has been driven by a need to expand the circulation of surplus value as he says. Also that there are large pocket of intense poverty, these communities forming the industrial reserve army (in Marx’s formulation) which serve to stabilise the economy even as they rest on ‘human suffering and degradation’ (272). Given that the market ‘leads different income groups to occupy different locations we can view the geographical patterns in urban residential structure as a tangible geographical expression of a structural condition in the capitalist economy’ (273). This is true on a global level, how awesome is this comment on Sweden? ‘Sweden is in effect an affluent suburb of the global capitalist economy (it even exhibits many of the social and psychological stresses of a typical suburban economy)’ and thus ‘There is no limit to the effectiveness of welfare state policies within a territory, but there is an overall limit to progressive redistribution within the global economy of capitalism as a whole’ (277).

He hasn’t moved far from what could be called economic determinism, though he does later. Still, this follows the whole base-superstructure orthodoxy: ‘Issues stemming form the economic basis of society will frequently be translated into political and ideological issues…for example, issues of unemployment may be translated into issues of racial or ethnic discrimination in the job market’ (279). He says later on ‘In a conflict between the evolution of the economic basis of society and elements in the superstructure, it is the latter that have to give way, adapt, or be eliminated’ (292). Thus base is defining in the ultimate sense.

He ends with some interesting thinking around Marxism itself, that to me seems very Althusserian along the lines of Hall, though he draws on Piaget (1979) and Ollman (1972) who I haven’t read. So Ontology – the theory of what exists. He quotes Ollman as saying ‘the twin pillars of Marx’s ontology are his conception of reality as a totality of internally related parts, and his conception of these parts as expandable relations such that each one in its fullness can represent the totality (p 8, quoted on page 288). Thus ‘Capitalism…seeks to shape the elements and relationships within itself in such a way that capitalism is reproduced as an ongoing system. Consequently, we can interpret the relationships within the totality according to the way in which they function to preserve and reproduce it’. Which I like, though ‘capitalism’ as a thing doesn’t exist to do anything, it is a set of relations between actors and instititions so it’s all a little more complex. But I agree with where this leads us in terms of uncovering Marx’s ontology ‘that research has to be directed in discovering the transformation rules whereby society is constantly being restructured, rather than ‘causes’, in the isolated sense that follows from a presupposition of atomistic association, or to identifying ‘stages’ or ‘descriptive laws’…’ (289).

The Urban Revolution

41SAVB1FBWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lefebvre…a great deal of difficult high-philosophy meandering that you plough through and I confess I put this book down three times before finally finishing it. But finish it I did, and thing with Lefebvre is, the gems of insight you find here and there are worth it. I think. But I can’t always follow how he gets there, and I’ve decided that it isn’t so important.

Neil Smith’s intro does a great job of situating Lefebvre in the intellectual ferment of France post WWI and WWII — along with his history as a resistance fighter. He notes the critiques of one of Lefebvre’s primary arguments — that urbanization has replaced industrialization as the ‘motor of capital accumulation’ (xviii) The connection between these, however, is clearly a key one, and not fully thought out here by Lefebvre — or indeed anywhere. Smith seems to have agreed with me as well regarding the meandering, judging from his final caveats about style and content.

So, to focus on the insights: Society has been completely urbanized, where urban society is that which ‘results from industrialization, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production’ (2). Perhaps this is not entirely global, but close.

He has a lovely thing about streets — that sort of exemplifies him thinking out loud:

Revolutionary events generally take place in the street. Doesn’t this show that disorder of the street engenders anotehr kind of order? The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things. A place where speech becomes writing. A place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.
Against the street. A meeting place? Maybe, but such meetings are superficial. In the street, we merely brush shoulders with others, we don’t interact with them. It’s the ‘we’ that’s important. The street prevents the constitution of a group, as subject; it is populated by a congeries of people in search of…of what exactly? (19)

This chapter is a series of ‘for’ and ‘against’. There is another nice phrase on monuments:

Monuments project onto the land a conception of the world, whereas the city projected (and continues to project) social life (globality)…monuments embody a sense of transcendance, a sense of being elsewhere. They have always been u-topic. Throughout their height and depth, along a dimension that was alien to urban trajectories, they proclaimed duty, power, knowledge, joy, hope. (22)

Another insight on the conflicts of the industrial city created by its spatiality:

Several logics meet head-on and sometimes clash: the logic of commodities (stretched so far as to attempt to organize production on the basis of consumption), the logic of the state and the law, the organization of space (town and country planning and urbanism), the logic of the object, of daily life, language, information, communication. Because each logic wants to be restrictive and complete, eliminating anything that is felt to be unsuitable, claiming to govern the remainder of the world, it becomes an empty tautology. In this way, communication only transmits the communicable. But all these logics and all these tautologies confront one another at some point. They share a common space: the logic of surplus value. The city, or what remains of it or what it will become, is better suited than it has ever been before for the accumulation of capital; that is, the accumulation, realization, and distribution of surplus value (35).

Here a definition of the urban that I love — yet that fails completely to describe many an urban area, like L.A. for example

The urban is defined as the place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations (39).

This is the irrepressible nature of it:

In spite of any efforts at homgenization through technology, in spite of the constitution of arbitrary isotopies, that is, separation and segregation, no urban place is identical to another …. the urban is a highly complex field of tensions, a virtuality, a possible-impossible that attracts the accomplished, an ever-renewed and always demanding presence-absence. Blindness consists in the fact that we cannot see the shape of the urban, the vectors and tensions inherent in this field, its logic and dialectic movement, its immanent demands. We see only things, operations, objects…(40)

In oppostion to a beautiful complexity:

Separation and segregation break this relationship [in which difference thrives]. They constitute a totalitarian order, whose strategic goal is to break down concrete totality, to break the urban. Segregation complicates and destroys complexity (133)

Thus L.A. may be a city, even one striving for complexity, yet it is struggling against great odds to be urban, to contain difference. I think maybe that this explains a few things on the level of feeling really, I am still trying to get my head around it.

There’s this lovely sentence:

Urban reform, which would clear the soil of the servitude that results from private property (and consequently from speculation), already has a revolutionary component…The period of urban revolutions has begun (43).

Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book is unexpectedly and unaccountably drawn from the philosophy of Heidegger (which I find so compromised) and the poetry of Holderlin (which I find fairly sickly mawkish).

The human being cannot build and dwell, that is to say, possess a dwelling in which he lives, without also possessing something more (or less) than himself: his relation to the possible and the imaginary…The relation resides in the dwelling and in habiting…A home and language are two complementary aspects of the human being’…the ‘human being’ cannot do anything but inhabit as poet. If we do not provide him with (as an offering and a gift) the possibility of inhabiting poetically or of inventing a poetry, he will create it as best he can. (82)

I find this an amazing way to think about the meaning of home, how we try to shape and craft it to suit ourselves no matter our circumstances. I struggle to put all of these things together of course, but relish them individually. And then put them together as I want, which perhaps is no bad thing.

From power over home to power over cities:

The working class never had any space other than that of its expropriation, its deportation: segregation.

…there is a remarkable isotopy in the spaces created by state rationalism: long straight lines, broad avenues, voids, empty perspectives, an occupation of the soil that makes a clean break with its antecedents, without regard for wither the rights and interests of the lower classes or cost (128).

As a novelist I like this idea of

…u-topia, the non-place, the place for that which doesn’t occur, for that which has no place of its own, that is always elsewhere? On a map of Paris (the so-called Turgot map of approximately 1735), u-topia can be neither read nor seen, and yet it is there in all its glory. It is where the gaze that overlooks the large city is situated, a vaguely determined place, but one that is carefully conceived and imagined (imaged), a place of consciousness; that is, a consciousness of totality. In general, this place, imagined and real, is found near the borders of verticality, the dimension of desire, power, and thought. Sometimes it is found deep within the subterranean city imagined by the novelist or poet, the underside of the city given over to conspiracy and crime. U-topia combines near and distant orders (129-30).

I mean, what is he really trying to say there, academically speaking? Hell if I know, but it is awesome and makes me think great things.

You get to chapter 8 and there’s loads of stuff, though when he says he’s provided the conceptual tools for it all you may, like me, wonder when exactly that happened. But 8 is cool. Keep reading until you get there.

There are several urbanisms: the urbanism of humanists, of developers, of the state and its technocrats. the first group proposes abstract utopias; the second sells urbanism–that is, happiness, a lifestyle, a certain social standing. The activity of the last group dissociates, like the activity of the state, into will and representation, institutions and ideologies (151)

The deployment of the world of commodities now affects not only objects but their containers, it is no longer limited to content, to objects in space. More recently, space itself has begun to be bought and sold. Not the earth, the soil, but social space, produced as such, with this purpose, this finality (so to speak). Space is no longer only an indifferent medium, the sum of places where surplus value is created, realized, and distributed. It becomes the product of social labor, the very general object of production, and consequently of the formation of surplus value. This is how production becomes social within the very framework of neocapitalism.

Here’s where he argues that the nature of production has changed:

Capitalism, to ensure its survival, took the initiative in this. The strategy goes far beyond simply selling space, bit by bit. not only does it incorporate space in the production of surplus value, it attempts to completely reorganize production as something subordinate to the centers of imformation and decision making (155)

He argues that urbanism is not objective, but incorporates a class strategy. Today’s urbanism ‘lives off the compromise between neoliberalism (which participates in planning and in activities that are refferred to as ‘voluntary’ or ‘consensual’) and neo-dirigisme (which leaves a field open for ‘free enterprise’)’ (158). He discusses to some extent real estate’s function as a second circuit of capital parallel to that of industrial production, a buffer where capital can go in case of depression. And then, of course, he argues that capital shifts entirely, ‘It can even happen that real-estate speculation becomes the principle source for the formation of capital, that is, the realization of surplus value’ (160). But he doesn’t look in any depth at how this surplus value is actually created in a Marxist understanding — you have to look to Harvey for that. But he sees today’s urbanism as a shutting down of possibilities, a reduction to a society of controlled consumption, a repressive space (164).

Restless Cities

9781844674053-frontcover-83c085449c453716ce5cb8062d23e61eEdited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, 2010. Verso.

A wide ranging collection of authors writing about the different ways we live, experience, traverse the city — and thus also serving as a possible model to write about and try to understand those things. They are a very accessible series of meditations really, no footnotes or endnotes, a list of readings at the end of each chapter rather than bibliography. Each is centered around a verb: Archiving, Bombing, Commuting, Convalescing, Daydreaming, Driving, Falling, Imaging, Inhabiting, Lodging, Phoning, Potting, Recycling, Sickening, Waiting, Zigzagging. Interesting that each author approached these themes far differently than I would have — a good counterpoint to my interior voice and pointing the way to my enjoyment. A new way of thinking about the city in connection with a way of being or acting within it. Depending on the author, and, to be fair, my own preoccupations these days, these were more or less rewarding encounters.

Archiving is one current preoccupation, and I love thinking of the city like this so I shall spend some time with Michael Sheringham’s piece. The opening line: ‘One of the city’s archives is its detritus’ (1) was unexpected and I wanted more of the strange maps of rubbish, but we soon moved onto the familiar ground of authors charting the dirty depths of the city. Calvino, Hugo, Dickens, Joyce, Perec, referencing Defoe and Poe and moving on to Sebald and Benjamin and Baudelaire and Sinclaire and etc. I like this cannon but really, I think they are a little exhausted by now, their insights well explored, and the incredible diversity of cities deserves some new voices that reflect it. Still, I unequivocally like this, though I am still thinking it through:

For Derrida, the archive is first of all a physical location, a place of deposit–like the Archivo de los Indios…Secondly, for Derrida, the archive is the site of a conflict between the urge to preserve and the urge to destroy, between remembering and forgetting. Archival action consists in the activities of accumulation, classification and consultation: it happens in the present, but its true time-frame is the future. Archives are always of the future; what we make of the pasts that we are made of. The cityscape, its streets, monuments and open spaces, its slums and beaux quartiers, are all the products of accretion, juxtaposition and transformation, but this history is made available to us at the surface. The city wears its heart on its sleeve (12).

I loved Beaumont’s acknowledgment of convalescing and its altered state, the sensitivity and betweeness and the newness of everything and how that changes what and how we see. The chapter on Daydreaming almost made me like Debord and the Situationists again:

As for Mumford, so too for Debord, the ideal city was one in which all human creativity would be maximized. It would be an imaginatively suggestive space, not a streamlined or spectacular one. Such a city would be to some degree structured like the unconscious, a realm in which all elements would exist in an open relationship with one another. It would be a multi-layered space, difficult to control, impossible to plan, the ultimate success of which would be gauged by the ‘situationist possibilities’ it made possible. What is more, the Situationist dream city would be inimical to daydream to the degree that it would do away with the need for it, re-dissolving spectacle back into situation, and fantasy back into play (91).

I’ve enjoyed thinking about how that would work, what that would look and feel like, if I feel threatened by a city that is inimical to my daydreaming. I can’t visualise myself without my daydreams, they are so much a part of me, particularly when I ride public transportation. They are where I work out stories and when my unconscious works best to unknot that problem I’m having in my thesis or my writing.

Driving seemed to miss the joy, the music turned up all the way, the warm wind blowing through your hair, the road before you, the power to go anywhere, the control over your small domain, the pleasure in hugging curves and shifting gears smoothly. In short, the awesome visceral experience that driving can be…though it too often is not, especially in this country. I’m remembering those trips from Tucson to the mines near Green Valley to deliver maps for my dad, driving our boat of a buick older than I was down the windings of Mission road, a two lane highway through the res with its shot up street signs and its lack of traffic. I guess I was lucky. And I suppose that is not driving in the city, nor is Tucson a city in any European sense.

‘Falling’ I loved, Marshall Berman I love because he understands the meaning of home and of losing home, the power of city governments to tear down and destroy and ruin and lay waste and the echoes and unending sense of loss that it leaves in the lives of hundreds and thousands of people. Urbicide. The death of buildings, urban fabric, community, and individual hopes and homes. I like Patrick Keiller as well, his essay ‘Imaging’ is included in his latest collection where I first read it — though I can’t read anything he writes without hearing it spoken by the narrator of the Robinson films. Which I enjoy greatly I confess.

I quite adored ‘Potting’ by Kasia Boddy, a history of the geranium from its early rarity and thus high class beginnings through its sensual teens (just think lips of geranium red) to a long history of bright colour and sturdy uprightness loved by some and despised by others. I was sad to hear William Morris was of the latter. We can’t all have gardens, we can’t all escape the dirty concrete city into a backyard or a summer home or a holiday trip. We can all have a geranium on the windowsill. The geranium through literature is a barometer not just of gender relations, but of class-inflected feelings (and judgments) about the city and the home. This was a brilliant exploration of the city through the popularity and use of a flower.

The final essay on ‘Zigzagging’ by Mark W. Turner was also very powerful, a cry against the straight lines of City Beautiful and le Corbusier, the careful planning and rationalisations of the whole of life made possible by creating a perfectly rational environment. It is a celebration of the bent, the queer, the spontaneous, the unplanned, the poetic. It echoes Dart in some ways, but questions our adherence to that cannon (hurrah!), drawing instead on the glories and dangers of living itself, of cruising, of queerness, of encounter. I loved it, and the importance of the message and the passion of it were a good way to end the collection, as not all of the essays were quite up to that standard. There’s one about perfect coffee and donuts that name drops a stay in every cultural capital of the world…and it is dismissive of Effra Road here in Brixton. But never mind.

There is a lot to think about here, and it will change the way you see certain things. Geraniums at the very least.

For more…


Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues

940044Stuart Hall died as I was in the middle of reading this, which made it so poignant even as I was thinking to myself just how good this book was as a totality and how much I loved him. Like many edited collections it had pieces that I loved and pieces that I didn’t, but even those that I didn’t find so useful still worked brilliantly to give me a solid sense of the international field of Cultural Studies from its early beginnings through the 1990s. That’s no small task given the way that it has changed and spread, been fought over and fought through. I’m not sure where it’s at now, but I feel that I know some of the places it has been and the structures of its debates.
I confess now, that Stuart Hall is one of my favourite theorists, and though I know the field is far greater and wider than him, it is his work that I feel opens up the most space for my own thinking in political geography. The first section looks at Marxism and cultural studies, and given my own relationship to Marxism is much like Hall’s, I wanted this section to be longer and I wanted more on the New Left. The authors are definitely more interested in the relationship between Cultural Studies and postmodernism, so I got more postmodernism than I wished but that was all to the good perhaps, as I discovered some redeeming characteristics…though not too many.

After a good intro from the editors it start with ‘The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees’.

The problem of ideology, therefore, concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of the masses, and thereby become a ‘material force’. In this, more politicized, perspective, the theory of ideology helps us to analyse how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historical bloc, in Gramsci’s sense; and, thus, helps to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole. It has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination….
We mean the practical as well as the theoretical knowledges which enable people to ‘figure out’ society, and within whose categories and discourse we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations. (27)

This is a revision of Marx’s model of ideology which ‘did not conceptualize the social formation as a determinate complex formation, composed of different practices, but as a simple structure’ (29), this via Althusser. And I’ve always loved his take on traditional arguments about ‘false consciousness’

Is the worker who lives his or her relation to the circuits of capitalist production exclusively through the categories of a ‘fair price’ and a ‘fair wage’, in ‘false consciousness’? Yes, if by that we mean there is something about her situation which she cannot grasp with the categories she is using; something about the process as a whole which is systematically hidden because the available concepts only give her a graso of one of its many-sided moments. No, if by that we mean she is utterly deluded about what goes on under Capitalism.
The falseness therefore arises, not from the fact that the market is an illusion, a trick, a sleioght-of-hand, but only in the sense that it is an inadequate explanation of a process (37).

The relations in which people exist are the ‘rela relations’ which the categories and concepts they use help them to grasp and articulate in thought. But—and here we maybe be on a route contrary to emphasis from that with which ‘materialism’ is usually associated—the economic relations themselves cannot prescribe a single, fixed and unalterable way of conceptualizing it…. To say that a theoretical discourse allows us to grasp a concrete relation ‘in thought’ adequately means that the discourse provides us with a more complete grasp of all the different relations of which that relation is composed, and of the many determinations which forms its conditions of existence. In means that our grasp is concrete and whole, rather than a thin, one-sided abstraction (39).

And then he draws on Volsinov, who I truly love, to argue

It is precisely because language, the medium of thought and ideological calculation, is ‘multi-accentual’…that the field of the ideological is always a field of ‘intersecting accents’ 40

And thus a source of struggle, every word contested terrain. Which he repeats: ‘This approach replaces the notion of fixed ideological meanings and class-ascribed ideologies with the concepts of ideological terrains of struggle and the task of ideological transformation’ (41). Then draws on Gramsci to see how these ideologies become material forces by articulating with political and social forces to deconstruct and reconstruct the ruling ideologies in a ‘war of position’. The terrain of this struggle is historically defined, above all it is the terrain of common sense, which become the stakes of ideological struggle. Thus ‘‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s sense requires, not the simple escalation of a whole class to power, with its fully formed ‘philosophy’, but (43) the process by which a historical bloc of social forces is constructed and the ascendency of that bloc secured’. In thinking about the relationship between base and superstructure:

What the economic cannot do is (a) to provide the contents of the particular thoughts of particular social classes or groups at any specific time; or (b) to fix or guarantee for all time which ideas will be made use of by which classes. The determinacy of the economic for the ideological can, therefore, be only in terms of the former setting the limits for defining the terrain for operations, establishing ‘raw materials’, of thought. Material circumstances are the net of constraints, the ‘conditions of existence’ for practical thought and calculation about society.

And a smack down against orthodoxy and ‘determination in the last instance’:

‘It represents the end of the process of theorizing, of the development and refinement of new concepts and explanations which, alone, is the sign of a living body of thought, capable still of engaging and grasping something of the truth about new historical realities (45).

One of the more useful chapters was from Colin Sparks, outlining the work of Raymond Williams and EP Thompson and cultural studies’ beginnings in a humanist Marxism before its encounter with Althusser and Marxism, its engagement with Laclau and Gramsci. It does through multiple representatives of the school, not just Hall, which I particularly liked.

My favourite, apart from Hall’s own work, was ‘The Theory and method of articulation in cultural studies’ by Jennifer Daryl Slack. She writes

However, articulation works at additional levels: at the levels of the epistemological, the political and the strategic. Epistemologically, articulation is a way of thinking the structures of what we know as a play of correspondences, non-correspondences and contradictions, as fragments in the constitution of what we take to be unities. Politically, articulation is a way of foregrounding the structure and play of power that entail in relations of dominance and subordination. Strategically, articulation provides a mechanism for shaping intervention within a particular formation, conjuncture or context (112).

And also this:

cultural studies works with the notion of theory as a ‘detour’ to help ground our engagement with what newly confronts us and to let that engagement provide the ground for retheorizing. Theory is thus a practice in a double sense: it is a formal conceptual tool as well as a practising or ‘trying out’ of a way of theorizing’ (113).

Conceptualisations of theory as process, as being constantly regrounded and rethought, are the only ones that make sense to me. Of course, I feel that if you are grounded you are working under the assumption that we live in a profoundly unequal and exploitative society and that theory is meant to change that, so I do have some parameters.

With and through articulation, we engage the concrete in order to change it, that is, to rearticulate it…Articulation is, then, not just a thing (not just a connection) but a process of creating connections, much in the same way that hegemony is not domination but the process of creating and maintaining consensus or co-ordinating interests’ (114).

Lawrence Grossberg’s interview with Stuart Hall on Postmodernism helped a great deal in clarifying some of my own thoughts. Like Hall on Foucault:

let’s take Foucault’s argument for the discursive as against the ideological. What Foucault would talk about is the setting in place, through the institutionalization of a discursive regime, of a number of competing regimes of truth and, within these regimes, the operation of power through the practices he calls normalization, regulation and surveillance. … the combination of regime of truth plus normalization/regulation/surveillance is not all that far from the notions of dominance in ideology that I’m trying to work with…I think the movement from that old base/superstructure paradigm into the domain of the discursive is a very positive one. But, while I have learned a great deal from Foucault in this sense about the relation between knowledge and power, I don’t see how you can retain the notion of ‘resistance’, as he does, without facing questions about the constitution of dominance in ideology. Foucault’s evasion of this question is at the heart of his proto-anarchist position precisely because his resistance must be summoned up from nowhere… there is no way of conceptualizing the balance of power between different regimes of truth without society conceptualized (135) not as a unity, but as a ‘formation’. If Foucault is to prevent the regime of truth from collapsing into a synonym for the dominant ideology, he has to recognize that there are different regimes of truth in the social formation. And these are not simply ‘plural’ – they define an ideological field of force (136).

And on Baudrillard (and others, but mostly Baudrillard)

I don’t think history is finished and the assertion that it is, which lies at the heart of postmodernism, betrays the inexcusable ethnocentrism—the Eurocentrism—of its high priests. It is their cultural dominance, in the West, across the globe, which is historically at an end…I think Baudrillard needs to join the masses for a while, to be silent for two-thirds of a century, just to see what it feels like (141).

Now, more to the point, his own theory of articulation

the theory of articulation asks how an ideology discovers its subject rather than how the subject thinks the necessary and inevitable thoughts which belong to it; it enables us to think how an ideology empowers people, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intelligibility of their historical situation, without reducing those forms of intelligibility to their socio-economic or class location or social position (142)

And this

I am not interested in Theory. I am interested in going on theorizing. And that also means that cultural studies has to be open to external influences, for example, to the rise of new social movements… (150)

I can’t do justice to such a sprawling volume full of brilliant contributors, so I am focusing on this concept of articulation that I am grappling with right now…but there is are lovely interventions from Angela Robbie and Charlotte Brundson over the struggle of women to gain power and voice in the New Times Project. It is both political but also personal, and to me these kinds of articles are so important for those of us without those historical memories about just how hard women have had to struggle even in left departments, and the forms this struggle took.

More from Hall on ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in reference to Homi Bhabba:

I don’t understand a practice which aims to make a difference in the world which doesn’t have some points of difference or distinction which it has to stake out, which really matter. It is a question of positionalities (264).

And back to my own relationship with theory really:

I want to suggest a different metaphor for theoretical work: the metaphor of struggle, of wrestling with the angels. The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency (265)

How can you not love someone who writes of his study of Althusser ‘I warred with him, to the death’ (266).

I loved David Morley’s article ‘EurAm, modernity, reason and alterity’ for its discussion of centres and peripheries (though I wish people unpacked the US just a little more, with its white culture one of the centre, but containing within it the colonized, the enslaved, the murdered), its review of post-colonial thought and brilliant quotes from people who are now on my list of things to read.
I’ll end with Hall’s ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity’. First, a return to defining Hegemony

1. ‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society…They have to be actively constructed and positively maintained.
2. we must take note of the multi-dimensional, multi-arena character of hegemony. It cannot be constructed or sustained on one front of struggle alone (for example, the economic). It represents a degree of mastery over a whole series of different ‘positions’ at once. Mastery is not simply imposed or dominative in character. Effectively, it results from winning a substantial degree of popular consent.
3. What ‘leads’ in a period of hegemony is no longer described as a ‘ruling class’ in the traditional language, but a historic bloc. (424)

And of course, the two kinds of struggle, ‘war of manoeuvre’ ‘where everything is condensed into one front and one moment of struggle’, and the ‘war of position’, ‘which has to be conducted in a protracted way, across many different and varying fronts of struggle’ (426).
It’s interesting putting this solid description in conjunction with Lawrence Grossberg’s description in an earlier piece ‘History, politics and postmodernism’

Hegemony is not a universally present struggle; it is a conjunctural politics opened up by the conditions of advanced capitalism, mass communication and culture. Nor is it limited to the ideological struggle of the ruling class bloc to win the consent of the masses to its definition of reality, although it encompasses the processes by which such a consensus might be achieved. But it also depends upon the ability of the ruling bloc (an alliance of class fractions) to secure its economic domination and establish its political power. Hegemony need not depend upon consensus nor consent to particular ideological constructions. It is a matter of containment rather than compulsion or even incorporation. Hegemony defines the limits within which we can struggle, the field of ‘common sense’ or ‘popular consciousness’ (162)

Stuart Hall does more to open up the concept to see where counter-hegemony can come from:

Ideas…’have a center of formation, of irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion…’(PN, 192). Nor are they ‘spontaneously born’ in each individual brain. They are not psychologistic or moralistic in character ‘but structural and epistemological’. They are sustained and transformed in their materiality within the institutions of civil society and the state. Consequently, ideologies are not transformed or changed by replacing one, whole, already formed, conception of the world with another, so much as by ‘renovating and making critical an already existing activity’ (434).

I like also hegemony as not a ‘moment of simple unity, but as a process of unification (never totally achieved), founded on strategic alliances between different sectors, not on their pre-given identity’ (437).

Anyway. Much to think about…


Foucault: Society Must Be Defended

Foucault - Society Must Be DefendedAh Foucault…There is a lot to grapple with in Society Must Be Defended, and I will do so below more for my memory in writing a dissertation than anything else, so be warned!

I love that it starts out with Foucault’s critique of Marx — there must be more out there I haven’t found in terms of that critique, but this really helped me think through the distinctions as it has always seemed to me that the two could well complement each other. I suppose they still can if broken into pieces and rejoined, but I have a much better sense of how different Foucault’s project is.

He argues that Marx, or any other similar over-arching theory such as psychoanalysis, “provided tools that can be used at the local level only when … the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds …” [6] Why is that, particularly in thinking about theories that have liberation as their goal? Because their effort to unify knowledge into a single framework of understanding is the problem, particularly the way that theoretical frameworks such as Marxism see themselves as a science. This sets up an ‘aspiration’ to power, where they decide what kinds of knowledge are legitimate and which are not with the aim of organising them, filtering them, putting them into hierarchies to create a body of ‘true’ knowledge. Foucault argues that this is done primarily to allow Marxism to benefit from the power that Western society has granted scientists and the scientific paradigm, rather than to actually create a Marxism that is scientific. Thus Marxism oppresses.

In opposition to Marxism’s (or psychoanalysis’s, or liberal economist’s or etc) subjugation of various knowledges, Foucault’s project is to liberate these various subjugated knowledges: “to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against the coercion of a unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse” [11]. His archeological work seeks to understand these formal scientific discourses, and his geneological work to liberate the local knowledges that have been subjugated by them.

Got it. Fundamentally antithetical to Marx in its theory, and I couldn’t ask for a clearer definition of the archeological v the geneological. (There’s also the fact that he ends the lectures with socialism is racism, but more on that later.)

One critique before moving on, Foulcault writes: “When I say “subjugated knowledges” I am also referring to a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity.” I applaud this project of course. My problem with Foucault is always that he writes in a way that cannot engage in dialogue with these knowledges, but can only ‘unearth’ or worse ‘discover’ them. Please note the complete absence of the actual people who hold these ‘knowledges’, whatever those are when separated from their human beings, both from these lectures and presumably from these lecture rooms. Meh.

So onwards.

The question here is what is power, but as Foucault writes: “‘What is power?’ is obviously a theoretical question that would provide an answer to everything, which is just what I don’t want to do” [13]. Instead he wants to try and understand how it operates. He starts with liberalism and Marxism which he believe share the common feature of ‘economism’ stemming from a juridical understanding of power. In liberalism, “power is regarded as a right which can be possessed in the way one possesses a commodity” [13], it can be traded, taken, given up by political contract and etc. To take that to its conclusion, “There is therefore an obvious analogy, and it runs through all these theories, between power and commodities, between power and wealth” [13].

In Marxism, you have what Foucault calls the “‘economic functionality’ of power … to the extent that the role of power is essentially both to perpetuate the relations of production and to reproduce a class domination that is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the ways they are appropriated. In this case, political power finds its historical raison d’etre in the economy” [14].

He moves away from these economistic theories, exploring the ideas that “power is not something that is given, exchanged, or taken back, that it is something that is exercised and that it exists only in action,” and that “power is not primarily the perpetuation and renewal of economic relations, but that it is primarily, in itself, a relationship of force… Power is essentially that which represses.” [15]

And so we come to the crux of Foucault’s argument (and his difference from Marxism and liberalism) “rather than analyzing it [power] in terms of surrender, contract, and alienation, or rather than analyzing it in functional terms as the reproduction of the relations of production, shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war?

Here he inverts Clausewitz’s aphorism to ask whether ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means’, and continues to state the ideas he will explore through the rest of the book in a nutshell. If politics is the continuation of war by other means, then (my own underlining for emphasis):

This would imply three things. First, that power relations, as they function in a society like ours, are essentially anchored in a certain relationship of force that was established in and through war at a given historical moment that can be historically specified. And while it is true that political power puts an end to war and establishes or attempts to establish the reign of peace in civil society, it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war. According to this hypothesis, the role of [15] political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism-politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics, in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war. Inverting the proposition also means something else, namely that within this “civil peace,” these political struggles, these clashes over or with power, these modifications of relations of force-the shifting balance, the reversals-in a political system, all these things must be interpreted as a continuation of war. And they are interpreted as so many episodes, fragmentations, and displacements of the war itself. We are always writing the history of the same war, even when we are writing the history of peace and its institutions.

Inverting Clausewitz’s aphorism also has a third meaning: The final decision can come only from war, or in other words a trial by strength in which weapons are the final judges. It means that the last battle would put an end to politics, or in other words, that the last battle would at last-and I mean “at last”-suspend the exercise of power as continuous warfare. [16]

That’s a definition and a half, which seems to mean that the achievement of any victory against the status quo requires a battle of strength in which weapons are the final judge. I guess we’re all heading back to the mountains and jungles then, no?

But maybe he jests, because we’re only studying power after all.

The next chapter shows nicely how he turns things upside down. Where the traditional question as he sees it would ask “How does the discourse of truth establish the limits of power’s right?” Foucault would ask “What are the rules of right that power implements to produce discourses of truth? Or: What type of power is it that is capable of producing discourses of power that have, in a society like ours, such powerful effects?” It’s a good illustration, as are the following 5 methodological precautions, which stand as an excellent summary of what Foucault thinks power is, and what power is not (while also making him sound a bit like a Buddhist text). They in turn are summed up thus:

To sum up these five methodological precautions, let me say that rather than orienting our research into power toward the juridical edifice of sovereignty, State apparatuses, and the ideologies that accompany them, I think we should orient our analysis of power toward material operations, forms of subjugation, and the connections among and the uses made of the local systems of subjugation on the one hand, and apparatuses of knowledge on the other. [34]

This differentiation between state apparatus and material operations is carried through in his discussion of sovereignty and the discourse of rights that emerged in response to it. Foucault suggests that the mechanism of power shifted in the 17th and 18th centuries from essentially feudal monarchy to the kind of power discussed above, while the theorisations of struggle against it did not make the same shift. Whereas power ceased to be about land and goods and legal rights, the critics continued to treat it so while in fact it had become much more about control of time and labour, surveillance, and the mechanics of discipline. Hobbes, for example, in looking at contracts and rights as the foundation for sovereignty completely ignores, and actually hides the fact that power relations have nothing to do with right and everything to do with domination. It is rare you find groups like the Diggers who are able to articulate in some manner that this domination is the problem, rather than Norman lords instead of Saxon lords or what have you.

One of the key sections of the book is of course on race and racism, and a remarkably interesting and unique take on both really that is rich and provocative though I’m not sure what I think about it yet. In a highly simplified form if I understand the argument right: we have long had a concept of sovereignty as legitimate state-based power which words and history existed to praise and exalt to the exclusion (and obfuscation) of all other ideas. Slowly this shifted as a new discourse came into being, a counterhistory of dissent and revolution acknowledging the oppressed and the subjugated. As power and sovereignty was based on the conquest of one people by another (connecting back to Clausewitz’s aphorism though it somehow feels far distant), this took the form of race struggle, a binary struggle of peoples in which everyone was on either one side or the other, their side defining their discourses of truth. In the 16th century what was initially seen as race struggle slowly became seen as class struggle in these counterhistories, and so race began to be used by the counterhistory arising in opposition to the original counterhistories (you can see why this is difficult but this new counterhistory is in the service of those with power). It was reformulated with medical and biological meaning, and as Foucault states: “Whereas the discourse of races, of the struggle between races, was a weapon to be used against the historico-political discourse of Roman sovereignty, the discourse of race (in the singular) was a way of turning that weapon against those who had forged it, of using it to preserve the sovereignty of the State” [81]. Essentially it sought to preserve power and centralise/control discourse through defining the State in terms of its need for protection against the other, the subrace, the enemy. Thus, he argues, racism is only a stage in this larger discourse of race struggle.

He returns to race in the last lecture, which introduces the idea of biopolitics — a term I’ve always found very off-putting but never mind. Essentially it is a new function of government from “sovereignty’s old right — to take life or let live” to “the power to “make” live and “let” die” [241]. It is the State in its new function of measuring and monitoring, nurturing and manipulating the mass of the population for its own benefit rather than simply disciplining individual bodies. This new form of politics does not replace the old, rather it complements and articulates with it in a highly insidious fashion primarily through institutions and specialised scientific knowledges and the development of norms to which individuals and general society must live up to.

Within this new method of governing, racism becomes first, a way to fragment and divide the population for improved control. That’s easy to understand, I’m not sure I fully grasp what follows. In a war situation, it is easy to legitimate that the other ‘people’ must die in order that our ‘people’ may live, thereby giving the state expanded power over life and death. Racism recreates this latitude granted under conditions of war for a regime of biopolitics: “in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection between the two. In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” [256] So perhaps that makes sense of this:

And we can also understand why racism should have developed in modern societies that function in the biopower mode; we can understand why racism broke out at a number of privileged moments, and why they were precisely the moments when the right to take life was imperative. Racism first develops with colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide. If you are functioning in the biopower mode, how can you justify the need to kill people, to kill populations, and to kill civilizations? By using the themes of evolutionism, by appealing to a racism.

This of course changes war as well, “it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race”. It makes more sense of Nazism and Stalinism. And I don’t think that it is trying to take the place of other ideas and meanings of race as they lived and experienced, but rather goes deeper adding a new dimension:

here, we are far removed from the ordinary racism that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races. We are also far removed from the racism that can be seen as a sort of ideological operation that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward [them), or which is tormenting the social body, onto a mythical adversary. I think that this is something much deeper than an old tradition, much deeper than a new ideology, that it is something else. The specificity of modern racism, or what gives it its specificity, is not bound up with mentalities, ideologies, or the lies of power. It is bound up with the technique of power, with the technology of power. It is bound up with this, and that takes us as far away as possible from the race war and the intelligibility of history. We are dealing with a mechanism that allows biopower to work. So racism is bound up with the workings of a State that is obliged to use race, the elimination of races and the purification of the race, to exercise its sovereign power. The juxtaposition of-or the way biopower functions through-the old sovereign power of life and death implies the workings, the introduction and activation, of racism. And it is, I think, here that we find the actual roots of racism. [258]

It is this much wider more difficult idea of racism that allows Foucault to say “Socialism was a racism from the outset” [261], contentious words. He argues that because socialism never recognised biopower as a form of control, and the role that racism has played in that, it has essentially recreated (or sought to recreate) these same controls even while changing the social structure. That I can see and is useful in thinking about what happened in Russia, I’m not sure I agree that it is endemic in socialist thought per se in the following way:

Whenever, on the other hand, socialism has been forced to stress the problem of struggle, the struggle against the enemy, of the elimination of the enemy within capitalist society itself, and when, therefore, it has had to think about the physical confrontation with the class enemy in capitalist society, racism does raise its head, because it is the only way in which socialist thought, which is after all very much bound up with the themes of biopower, can rationalize the murder of its enemies. [262]

There’s so much more here, primarily on the practice and discourses of history, and on the nation. I have to change my rating to 5 stars because while I get so frustrated with Foucault and continue to question the utility of his work to practical struggle, it is undoubtedly full of ideas and questions well worth thinking over, and this is definitely a book I’ll be returning to. I am certain I will find an entirely new set of brilliant/problematic statements to ponder over, which is impressive.

Peter Marcuse and the Right to the City

So we’re in crisis. Things are bad. Davies and Peter Marcuse present two takes on the whys and hows of how we got here, and they aren’t all that different. What is different is that Davies is limited to limited criticism of the existing system, he cannot see beyond it. He joins the cautious optimism that we can correct it, that something simply went very wrong in a system that is perfectly all right, and that with the right technical fixes we can leave all of that behind us. Marcuse looks beyond, as should anyone who has lived through the many crises that our economy has rocked, or has asked questions like why inequality is rising, astronomically. So where does he think that we who live in the city actually want to go, and how is it that we get there?

For a while some intellectuals talked about the “Good City.” A biblical reference, an ideal of what could be but lacking in a way to arrive there, utopia.

There’s also the idea of the “Just City.” On its face none of us would disagree with some justice. But this has been limited in its definition to the goal of inclusion. We need a fair distribution of goods, services, maybe we could even manage opportunities. But we can’t rock the boat too much, the system we have is a good one, just needs a little tweaking.

You can tell I don’t like that one! Neither does Peter Marcuse. So what then? What is neither utopian nor rigidly practical and self-limiting? The Right to the City. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, and please do read Lefebvre, he’s been rocking my world lately, particularly State, Space, World, which is sitting half-read on my desk even now. But his Right to the City is the right to an alternative system, the right to construct an alternative vision of what could be. It is a right that must be demanded, and a vision of radical democracy where we all collectively create our communities together with the rest of our neighbors and those who actually live here.

Some people already have this right. The very wealthy primarily. We need to be clear that this campaign is not for them, it is to ensure that everyone has power in this. I agree with Marcuse that this is important.

And where does the campaign come from? Marcuse argues that there are two groups who will drive this, and begs forgiveness for the inadequacy of the titles. These are:

  • The deprived. The unemployed, the exploited, the poor. Primarily people of colour.
  • The discontented. The artists, the intellectuals, those who see the deep injustice of the world and feel a need to do something about it.

And what is the role of theory in this? Critical urban theory is the glue, it is required to build the mutual understanding of how and why these two different groups need to come together, not to mention the multiple subgroups contained within each of them. We need to come together and fight for our right to the city.

I’m mostly all for it, and I’m sure you shall be hearing more about Right to the City. Marcuse even gave a shout out to the American alliance of that name, having been at the founding of that made me happy. For me, however, it is pivotal that those who Marcuse calls the deprived be the drivers. That those who suffer most from having no rights to their city should be the ones to frame the question and push forward the process of radical democracy that Lefebvre argues is the key factor towards the new city. It is to these demands and this process that the discontented need to ally themselves, and that theory needs to dialogue with in a way that builds each, while building something entirely new and beautiful.

(also published at drpop.org)

The radical thought on the wall

“Put down your weapon and come out with your hands up.”

There is a wailing of sirens. The helicopter circles endlessly, it has been doing so for twenty minutes. The megaphone comes through loud and clear, the house is at most two streets over I think. This is when I hate Los Angeles. Some poor fool holed up in some shit building, and if he’s not smart he’s going to be shot tonight. Or she, I suppose he could be a she, but he almost never is.

It’s sweltering. Hot like Arizona hot during the monsoons, not the white and blinding oven heat that I rather enjoy, but a slightly sticky heat. Nothing as bad as the East Coast though. I’ve worked right through it, got so much editing work done today I’m quite a happy woman though this weekend I have a lot to pull off and I’m not quite sure how well it will go.

Siguen los pinches helicopteros.

So I’m working on a map of radical thought, it lies in different coloured post-its spread across my wall. It is the foundation for my upcoming literary tangle with combining theory and practice. For money, my first paid article. I’ve been mostly a practice girl myself, but I think it really is time to take a good look at where we’ve been, and where it has brought us, and why we are still so fucked. And when people label themselves or others as this ist or that, I’d really like to have a firm handle on what the hell that means…apart from the fact that such labels have been rendered ludicrous over the passing years, and also that maybe they’re not actually working in the trenches. Still, in the trenches you forget to look up, you have no time to think, you’re not always aware of where you’re headed and how exactly you believe you might get there. And so organizing organizations seem to have a tendency to devolve into service because the emergency is always there, and it’s just easier. It’s such a huge weakness. So I’m doing my map and thinking through all this stuff again and it’s been good so far.
More sirens.

So I knew, but never quite…hm, how do I say what I want to say? I knew, but it never ever struck me before that Gandhi was only 1 year older than Lenin. That their struggles were contemporary, along with their philosophies. And I don’t know if they ever commented on each other. Why do I not know that? In my head these movements are entirely compartmentalized…Europe and to a certain extent America together (as so many Europeans fled here until we deported them back), Asia, India, Africa, South and Central America…separate, isolate. They seem like different eras almost, though the separation is philosophical and geographical only. There must have been connections, I shall have to find them. Or perhaps the arrogance of the Western World simply continued supreme…

The helicopter is still circling. They haven’t made demands in a while.

So you look at Europe up through the Russian Revolution, the Spartacist League, the Spanish Civil War, and all the theorists and philosophers have some connection to struggle. There are a number of people who are self-educated and brilliant and came out of the working class. And then it all gets more and more abstract, Marxism moves into the Universities and sits there writing to itself. The people doing stuff are elsewhere, in other countries around the globe. Or perhaps still in Europe, I just haven’t sifted down to them yet. But they aren’t like their forerunners, the heady times after 1848, actually perhaps since always when theorists tended to actually trundle themselves down to the barricades, rouse the masses, spend quality time in prison…is it just that they’ve all been bought out now?

The helicopter is still circling. It’s funny, but after hearing so many refugees unburdening their pain and fear when I worked at Carecen, I’m rather deeply afraid of helicopters, they are the perfect and ultimate killers. You can’t really hide from them. It’s not a surface fear because it’s not rational – in that I am almost certain a helicopter shall never come for me though I never say never; but in that it’s not my own memory. It’s like a nightmare fear that’s more powerful for belonging to a mass of other people and passed on to me slowly slowly through stories and tears and memories of the dead. It hides in my stomach and I don’t even quite realize how much it’s affecting me until my stomach starts hurting, and I can feel my shoulders around my ears. And I wonder that in this country we cannot understand that no one who has been in it truly escapes from war.

The helicopter is still circling.

At any rate, the other thing that seems clear is that a lot of these guys were just assholes. And they all hate each other. And Spanish communists somehow figured that anarchists were a greater threat than fascists, and did Trotsky really tell Martov he belonged in the dustbin of history with the other pitiful isolated individuals? What a dick. Better than shooting him, though he shot his fair share of people as head of the red army didn’t he? Did he have to destroy Makhno? Mao, Stalin, Hoxha (he was shooting his comrades in the resistance to eliminate competition even before the war was over)…all assholes. Some may argue that the revolution needs blood and ruthlessness to succeed. I think that perhaps it’s just that being assholes, these guys had to rise to the top quickly or be forever shut out and outcast because people just didn’t want to have them hanging around. You know they were the kind who went on that same old rant over beers that everyone was so tired of hearing, or perhaps they didn’t even drink, just ranted and were all self-righteous and lacked any ability to listen to others or laugh at themselves. It’s my (rather bitterly flippant) proposal for the asshole theory of…

The helicopter has left! After an hour. No shots. No death. Relief.

So, the asshole theory of failed revolution. Or why we are still fucked. I rather like it, after all, assholes want power, it’s the only way they can keep friends and sleep with attractive people. I saw Kissinger on the Daily Show, and he’s the rightwing version of this, the man has not a humorous bone in his body, he speaks in a monotone, he’s not at all attractive. Not only is he an asshole, but he’s a boring asshole. And yet he kicked it with the rich and famous all because he rose to the top, and power was enough to overcome every other natural deficiency.

Another helicopter, the same helicopter? And it’s fucking circling again. I guess the life and death confrontation continues and the helicopter just had to…refuel? Moonlight for the filming of some new Hollywood smash? Catch a quickie car chase?

Anyways, I’ve written enough now I think…I’ll come back to the delightful eccentricities of some of the older generation of thinkers and doers in another blog. I got the Maltese Falcon in the mail from netflix today, I suppose it will go well with the damn helicopter.

And it’s still circling. I can never fall asleep to helicopters, even after all of this time in L.A., it could be a long night.