Social Media and Post-Authenticity

What is the status of authenticity in the age of social media? I recently witnessed a small group of young tourists march onto a beach, stand by the water and take pictures of themselves appearing to have a good time, then leave immediately after--presumably off to another photo op. I myself have, at times, been more compelled by the images of my experiences—and what they convey about me, and the life I live—than the experiences themselves. I hear from other people that they feel the same to varying degrees. At what point does the act of representation surpass the act being represented? How much of our motivation for doing things—for doing anything at all—comes from the social validation we believe we’ll get when we tell others about it? When was the last time you did something amazing or important or accomplished something that you didn’t tell anyone about? (It’s been a long time for me!)

Perhaps this is nothing new (my observation of it certainly isn’t). For a long time, architectural critics have remarked on the fact that glossy design magazines like Dwell have incentivized architects to design photogenic architecture, whose actual experiential qualities leave much to be desired (I have a theory that this current in architecture has resulted in a dearth of small, dark, and/or labyrinthine architectural designs, because these do not photograph well--though we'll see whether 360º photographs change this). It is difficult to imagine the rise of spacious (vacuous?), minimalist architecture without photography, whose muse it has always been. (Perhaps for this reason, it is fitting that the iPhone is minimalist in design: the device that has encouraged everyone to make their lives more photogenic is itself designed to be quite photogenic.)

I wonder, though, if there’s a radical or progressive side of this accelerating experience modeling? Might our fictions about the lives we’re living and the experiences we’re having actually inspire the authentic pursuit of more intentional and/or experimental living? Can fictions inspire yet-unrealized realities? Can there be a kind of left-accelerationist desire creation machine that uses social media to generate post-capitalist, post-human, post-scarcity realities?

Becoming-Feminist: Consciousness-Raising and Social Ecology

“To be a feminist, one first has to become one.” This is one of the opening sentences of Sandra Lee Bartky’s seminal essay on feminist consciousness. (1) In the early days of gay liberation and second-wave feminism, it was generally understood that we—people living in advanced industrial societies, with their deeply-rooted norms—had internalized many of the oppressive values of those societies. If we were going to change the world, therefore, we were going to have to change ourselves in the process. For this reason, the gay liberation and women’s movements practiced what they called “consciousness-raising,” in which members of a community—whether this was a commune or an activist circle or the office workers who staffed the Gay Liberation Front office—gathered together and intentionally set out to reshape their views, emotional dispositions, and desires in order to become more compassionate, fair, revolutionary, etc. Yet this practice has faded out over the decades, as people have become increasingly wary of having their outlooks and desires questioned.

Since the simultaneous success and failure of the struggles of the 1960s, a prevailing cultural impulse has been the unapologetic valorization of one’s desires. This hedonistic appropriation of the rhetoric of liberation has been a boon to consumer capitalism, which continually molds and capitalizes on our desires. According to Amia Srinivasan, there are deep questions that must be asked about the politics of desire in our culture, yet contemporary feminism tends to skirt this issue. Perhaps out of a reaction to the moralizing of certain radical feminists in the 1970s and 80s, contemporary feminists have grown wary of questioning women’s choices—especially their sexual choices. Implicit in this rejection of critically evaluating outlooks and desires is the notion that one’s desires, ambitions, etc. must be the correct ones by virtue of their host’s belonging to a particular identity group. The problem with this is that tends to neglect the highly political formation of desire. Moreover, it fails to take into account the fact that oppressed and/or subjugated people are capable of effectuating further oppression and subjugation upon others. Therefore, according to Srinivasan, in failing to question one’s desires and outlooks, the non-self-critical political stance "risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.” (2)

Consciousness-raising, in the gay and women’s movements, began with the assumption that the personal is political. For the participants in these movements, if the personal is political, then the terrain of political struggle extends into oneself. “For many feminists,” Bartky reports, “this involves the experience of a profound personal transformation, an experience which goes far beyond that sphere of human activity we regard ordinarily as ‘political.’” Such a struggle involved a sometimes total transformation. According to Bartky, “the feminist changes her behavior: She makes new friends; she responds differently to people and events; her habits of consumption change; sometimes she alters her living arrangements or, more dramatically, her whole style of life.” (3)

Consciousness-raising groups resemble what Michel Foucault referred to as “local centers of power-knowledge,” in which “different forms of discourse—self-examination, questionings, admissions, interpretations, interviews” operate as a “vehicle of a kind of incessant back-and-forth movement” that produces both knowledge and subjectivity. (4) In the Preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Foucault emphasized the importance, in any political struggle, of forensically locating and excising the “inner fascist” that one develops in their engagement with power, and a major theme in Anti-Oedipus is the “micropolitical” struggle with internalized political and economic regimes at the psychological level.

Often, we hear commentary about the malleability of human beings. What we hear less often is the extent to which human plasticity is most apparent in social and collective settings. Consciousness-raising was highly effective because it sought, through “self-examination, questionings, admissions, interpretations, interviews,” etc. to produce new subjects in collective settings. Consciousness-raising groups in the Gay Liberation Front would invite “each individual [to talk] about his or her individual experience of oppression, growing up, coming out, etc.,” and in doing so, “a general pattern could be discerned, and so a cognitive leap could take place in the minds of the group. They would then come to see the oppression of gay people as part of the general gender system of our society, with common features despite individual idiosyncracies.” (5) Drawing from the experiences and desires of individuals, the consciousness-raising group would attempt to produce a new intellectual, emotional, social, and sexual ecology whose imperatives would then, if all went according to plan, become internalized by the individuals. The group would seek to generate radical solidarity and new kinds of interrelation and, ultimately, desiring, based on the aggregate experiences and desires of those present. Within these settings, imbalances, scarcities, power dynamics, surpluses and deficits could be identified and reworked. 

Yet this practice was difficult, and yielded different levels of reward for its differently-positioned participants. The benefits of participating in a collective project of reworking sexual desires would be less clear-cut for a person privileged by the undisturbed operation of social and sexual hierarchies, for example. At a certain point, the participants in both the women’s and the gay liberation movements began to recognize distinct and diverging interests, and, gradually, self-sorted into distinct, stratified identity groups (with middle-class gay men over here, radical separatist lesbians over there, and the Marxist-feminists over there). In these self-isolated communal settings, narrow concerns produced shallow and ineffective political practices that could not build a broad or comprehensive political movement, nor offer workable emotional, social or sexual ecologies with the power to challenge the normative mainstream. (6)

Here, I do not believe that the failure was consciousness-raising, but the allure of empowerment—not together, but separate. Rather than doing the hard work of cultivating new selves in response to the complex desires and resources and experiences of a broadening collective, the gay and women’s liberation movements of the 1970s eventually succumbed to desires they already had. Is there any reason to believe that our generation will be able to do better? Perhaps a first step in ensuring that we do would be to revive the fundamental ethos of collective consciousness-raising, and to use this as a tool in remaking our desires, and, in the process, remaking ourselves and our world.


(1) Sandra Lee Bartky, Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge, 1990), 11.

(2) Amia Srinivasan, “Does anyone have the right to sex?,” London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 6 (March 22, 2018), 5-10.

(3) Bartky, 11.

(4) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 98.

(5) Aubrey Walter, Come Together: The Years of Gay Liberation, 1970-73 (London: Gay Men's Press, 1980), 18.

(6) See my 2018 MPhil dissertation: “‘Engaged Withdrawal:’ Communal Living and Queer Spatial Politics in London’s Gay Liberation Front, 1971-1974” (University of Cambridge, master’s dissertation, 2018)

Assertive Modesty

Still Frame from The Economics of Sex, The Austin Institute/YouTube

Still Frame from The Economics of Sex,
The Austin Institute/YouTube

“Assertive modesty,“ I argue, is a harmful vestige of the traditional, oppressive femininity roles critiqued by Betty Friedan. It can be seen in the “slow dating” movement, in Wendy Shalit’s book A Return to Modesty, in the Austin Institute’s video “The Economics of Sex.“

In a study of the impact of romantic fiction on young women, Linda Christian-Smith explains that in the period between 1963 and 1979, romantic fiction became increasingly conflicted. “[R]omance [within this period] is now fraught with conflict and disappointment for [the protagonists]. Heroines and their boyfriends no longer share views as to how to relate to one another,” she explains. Within this context, the traditionally “chaste” nature of romantic relations portrayed by romantic fiction threatens to be strained. “Pressures towards genital sexuality cause intense struggles for power and control between the sexes. The experience of having to take a stand in these matters makes heroines more assertive than their counterparts in the previous period. However, this assertiveness is only apparent in matters of romance and rarely extends to other areas of heroines’ lives.” (1) In the context of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s/70s, changing sexual norms conjured a more visible and overt female assertion of sexual regulation. Whereas in earlier eras, sexual modesty was to be protected via female influence, in the 60s and 70s, a new demand for limited assertiveness around sexual availability becomes a literal plot line in romance literature. This feminine adaptation/appropriation of feminist assertiveness inverts its meaning. Whereas feminist assertiveness expands the realm of possibilities available to women, assertive modesty reinforces women’s sexual repression (of themselves and of their would-be partners) under the cover of feminism, while reproducing the pitfalls of “chaste liberation,” in which women’s cultural status is linked to their maintenance of sexual scarcity. In this sense, it is part of the very femininity that has become a more-or-less compulsory role for women in our society. This development becomes incredibly insidious when it is perpetuated in the power-desire nexus of sentimental and arousing cultural productions like romantic fiction and Hollywood movies, which tend to produce attachments and longing for specific social norms and configurations. Within this cultural production, assertive modesty (like its gentler predecessors) becomes the defense of a deeply-felt (yet culturally-produced) attachment to a mode of femininity that, because it is so strongly linked to one’s social identity, feels like one’s essence. This development gets reproduced in what I have been calling a “sexual economy,” in which to behave in certain approved ways, one gains access to cultural capital and recognition, whereas to behave otherwise is to experience increased stress and decreased status. In many romantic fiction novels, a dilemma arises: a boy desires sex with the female protagonist, and she is forced to choose between validating his expectations or maintaining the dignity that makes her desirable. In many of these scenarios, romance is treated as a “market relationship,” in which an exchange occurs. As Christian-Smith explains, there is “an unfair term of exchange in romance.” This arises from the conventional terms that romance is portrayed in, wherein the main characters’ “perception of proper sexuality in romance [is] limited to hugging and kissing. They also fear pregnancy and parental reprisals . . . [and have a] strong desire to maintain the ‘good girl’ reputation [that] is bound up with being sexually inexperienced. Hence, the framework for the fair exchange involved some very traditional views of romantic and sexual relationships.” (2) Faced with this dilemma, many of the protagonists are compelled by their social environments to assert their modesty.


(1) Linda K. Christian-Smith, Becoming a Woman Through Romance (New York: Routledge, 1990), 17.
(2) Ibid., 20.

Situated Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of End Times

Vaporwave helps us to arrive at an understanding of situated postmodernism (Situ-PoMo), which has a generally brutal, pessimistic, dirty and realistic overarching view of our society’s disintegration and degeneration, with the simultaneous featuring of bubbles, nooks, pockets, etc. Vaporwave takes the comforting noises and imagery of the 1990s and distorts it into a cheap veneer that simultaneously induces nostalgia and garners our disdain for the unfulfilled promises and abandoned hope of the pre-9/11 era. These two evocations are something that the subgenera distroid separates out into two distinct layers (each of which corresponds to one of the heterogeneous halves of situated postmodernism): on the one hand, the saccharine, “sugary onslaught” that is popular music in 2018 (and taken to its extreme by artists under the PC Music label, for example), and on the other, the dark, dreary, tired, echoing mechanical sounds of disarray and degeneration (many of these having been pioneered and disseminated by dubstep and its predecessors). Situ-PoMo theorizes the cultural logic of stepping over homeless people on your way to the brightly-lit sushi restaurant with the pleasant atmosphere and the USB charging ports. It theorizes the experience of listening to Taylor Swift in the Uber through the Tenderloin, or enjoying a concert with your friends during the Trump presidency. It theorizes interstitial “me time” and “self care” doled out by highly precarious immigrants, and the moments of hope, joy and nostalgia that animate the lives of those living through the end of the American Empire. Little islands of comfort and joy in a dystopian sea of global chaos.

    There is a right-wing situated postmodernism, which idolizes the escapism of nooks (they are not entirely wrong: it is impossible for individuals to hold it together today without those enclaves of safety and comfort), a pseudo-progressive liberal Sutu-PoMo that imagines nooks as a progressing development of society (solarpunk fits into this category, with its naïve reformist utopianism), and a left-wing Situ-PoMo, which problematizes the overall situation of disparity of experience and safety, and bridges the critical and the affirmative—locating each of these within the other. In this is embedded the central question posed by the authors of Communization and its Discontents (and which its editor Benjamin Noys poses against accelerationism): are there good reasons to embrace the affirmative and the prefigurative? What is the value of communization (as the left-wing practice of generating postcapitalist enclaves)? Should communization build alternatives or only challenges? Situ-PoMo is the cultural logic of a world whose future looks bleak, and whose citizens distract themselves from this forecast.

Notes on Oppression

Recently, I've been working on oppression.

The following quote is from Iris Marion Young: “In its traditional usage, which most people retain, ‘oppression’ means the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group. . . . New left social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, however, shifted the meaning of the concept. In its new usage, ‘oppression’ designates the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power intends to keep them down, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society. In this new left usage, the tyranny of a ruling group over another . . . must certainly be called oppressive. But ‘oppression’ also refers to systemic and structural phenomena that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant. Oppression in the structural sense is part of the basic fabric of a society, not a function of a few people’s choice or policies. You won’t eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or making some new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political, and cultural institutions. Thus, one reason that ‘oppression’ is not commonly used to describe injustice in our society is that the prevailing political discourse does not have a place in its social ontology for structuration and social groups.” (1) Liberal society is unable to recognize oppression, Young explains, “using instead the term ‘discrimination’ to refer to some of the injustices [that] radicals call oppression.” (2) Unlike oppression, discrimination requires a discriminating agent—it “is a methodologically individualist concept”—and it is therefore apparently much easier to diagnose and call out. Yet in a bizarre hybrid development, a generation of liberal advocates of social justice have perhaps mixed up the meaning of oppression and discrimination, assuming that where there is oppression, there must be obvious oppressors, just as with discrimination there are individuals doing the discriminating. As long as they remain within the liberal ontology, these advocates of social justice are unlikely to adequately theorize and address the truly systemic causes of oppression, as they struggle in vain to isolate individual oppressors, since much of the oppression they oppose “often exists in the absence of overt discrimination.” (3) Moreover, such an understanding of oppression ought to expand our understanding of who is oppressed, to include groups and individuals who are coerced systemically, but not discriminated against overtly. This begins to reveal a second weakness in prevailing (liberal) social justice discourses: they tend to neglect and negate the oppression of those who are not overtly and/or blatantly discriminated against in visible and established ways.

(1) Iris Marion Young, “Five Faces of Oppression,” Rethinking Power, Thomas W. Wartenberg, eds. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 175-76.

(2) Young, 176.

(3) Young, 177.

Post-Industrious Society

Imagining the cities of a post-work world

Existing cities formed for reasons primarily relating to production. Mill towns, railroad towns, port cities, industrial cities, trading outposts, mining towns, oil towns, college towns; the list goes on. Even today, in the so-called “post-industrial era"—where the mass production that once occurred in old, northern industrial cities has moved to the southern US states or overseas—cities nevertheless are largely determined by their primary immaterial export, whether it be finance, design, fashion, entertainment, or technology. In a world of increasing structural unemployment resulting from automation (machines doing formerly human tasks), this no longer makes sense. There is great anticipation of how automation will play out, with valid anxieties about how the replacement of human jobs by machines can be detrimental to those people if there are no infrastructures in place to ensure that the benefits of automation are distributed to those people whose employment is lost to automation. Approaching cities differently, so that they accommodate more than just  could be a hugely important part of securing a bright future for all people—regardless of employment status. Now is the time to consider how to design cities according to different criteria and parameters.

The replacement of human beings by machines is well underway already [1]. A recent article by Derek Thompson in The Nation reminds that in many places—like the "post-industrial" northern cities of the United States—the replacement of workers by machines has already left entire regions economically devastated. If factory workers were among the first to be replaced by machines, the retail salesperson, cashier, food/beverage server and office clerk professions—which constitute roughly 10% of the of the US workforce—are the most threatened from the latest wave of innovation. According to a 2013 Oxford University report, machines will likely be able to replace roughly 50% of existing jobs in the next twenty years. The process of systematic unemployment is not likely to be sudden, but perhaps will occur in fits ad starts, with economic downturns cutting loose workers who may never be rehired again. As Thompson explains,

"the United States [is not] remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society." [2]

There is little doubt that new jobs will be created—many of which may not exist yet—but while some robotically-replaced workers will be re-placed into these new positions, many will simply exit the employed demographic, and at that point, the existing designed world will no longer cater to them. At this point, both sites of production and sites of consumption—which together constitute a huge proportion of our cities, often replacing civic spaces (where Walmart stores stand in as community centers in many city centers)—will become unavailable to these former workers. Unless the built environment can be altered to accommodate this massive, graduated shift away from formal industriousness, the decreased centrality of work will mean the mass marginalization of huge portions of the lived experience of humanity. What is urgently needed, then, are models, visions, experiments, and even prototypes for what a post-work society could look like.

There are better and worse models of post-industrious urbanism. On the worse end of the spectrum are places like Youngstown, Ohio, a "steel town" where the 1977 closure of Youngstown Sheet and Tube—one of the city’s largest employers—cast a depression upon the region that it never recovered from. Poverty, mental illness, crime and violence all skyrocketed in the once-stately city. Rather than bringing a fluorescence of life to the city, the absence of work eviscerated the town. The absence of work was did not bring a great freedom and flexibility to Youngstown, but instead a pervasive "idleness" became a curse that the region could not shake—perhaps for cultural as well as economic reasons. While the economic dimensions of mass unemployment are undeniably a difficult problem to surmount, the cultural centrality of work adds a certain intractability to the crisis of lost employment. As a recent Atlantic article describing these developments has explained, “Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?” [3] This is consistent with Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Work Ethic, where it is argued that work and toil are baked right into our cultural identities, and viewed as a virtue. According to Weber, this industriousness is also the cultural basis of capitalism, prompting both hard work and the delay of gratification, which is at the heart of investment (where wealth is reinvested instead of being spent in the present on pleasure or sustenance).

An important thing to consider is the deeply-engrained relationship of work to leisure in American culture. The Progressive era witnessed a wave of strategies being deployed by elites for shaping how working class people spent their free time. At that time, Governments and civil society organizations engaged in efforts to shape how people spent their free time. Particularly in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s, the full force of Victorian-Era morality was brought to bear on the social regulation of leisure, leading to regulative efforts like the Temperance Movement (which was responsible for the prohibition of alcohol), and affirmative efforts like the Rational Recreation Movement (which promoted health and fitness as idealized forms of leisure). Social behavior was regulated, controlled, shaped and guided in these decades, as part of the wider development of economic and political modernization, wherein leisure practices were treated instrumentally, as potentially optimizing, educating and moralizing forces, leading to a smoothly-operating society. Importantly, the end result was increasingly viewed in economic terms, and the main motivation of controlled leisure was to perpetuate a productive and profitable economic system of commerce. This did not mean that all recreation was meant to be commercial or consumptive (though this would occur in the middle of the twentieth century), but should be regenerative of the worker, his family, and society’s institutions; optimally "healthy"r (the historical definition of which is always in the process of being rewritten); free of wasted time, energy or resources (gambling, prostitution, alcohol and other "vice" were always being militated against by social reformers); and ideally should impress high (Christian) morality upon the mind, with all of these provisions ideally yielding optimal conditions for industrial-agricultural production.

A major shift occurred in the wake of the Great Depression, when a crisis of under-consumption brought production to a grinding halt. It was in mitigating the fallout of that crisis that the concept of the economy as a total, ecological whole involving both production and consumption (both of which ought to be regulated and optimized for) became an operative concept in the strategy of governance. It was no longer good enough to optimize the population (through leisure and otherwise) to be productive; there would now need to be giant efforts to shape, plan and inflate consumption as well. Much of the New Deal (the landmark legislation passed under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rectify the economy) concerned the shaping of mass consumption in America as a means of stimulating the economy. From the Federal employment programs designed to put people back to work through the construction of infrastructure to the mass suburbanization of the middle class through the Federal Housing Administration’s guaranteeing of mortgages, massive efforts were underway to put more wealth in the hands of the populace, and to get them spending that wealth in a consumer market of houses, cars, appliances, furnishings and amenities. In the following decades, consumerism would increasingly come to characterize leisure in America. As Chris Rojek—a leisure theorist—explains, the prevailing attitude toward leisure in the United States—particularly since the Great Depression—has its basis in Fordism (the production and management strategy hatched by Henry Ford), which “is the principal organizational exponent of productivism," which itself is “the philosophy par excellence of industrial society.” According to Rojek, “Fordism follows the productivist logic of deriving the category of leisure from the category of work. In every essential respect, work is treated as prior and determining.” In Ford’s model, all human activity is part of the “integrated circuit of economic and moral regulation," with full employment and mass consumption constituting integral parts of the system’s reproduction. Without full employment or a cultural affinity for consumerism, the model of efficient production collapses, because supply would steadily outstrip demand. There is no sense in efficiently producing cars if nobody buys them. “The heavy emphasis on economic return," Rojek explains, “translates into a strong consumerist orientation in leisure. Fully developed Fordism presents the category of leisure as little more than organized consumption activity. The wages generated on the shop floor are devoted to consuming the commodities of mass society. These commodities are portrayed as being open to anyone who is prepared to work. Thus, freedom in leisure is redefined in terms of the ability to realize consumer choice” [4]. More and more, “[l]eisure is buying, purchasing, renting, or otherwise acquiring marketed resources and opportunities” [5]. With such a heavy emphasis on buying, purchasing and renting, the Fordist approach to structuring leisure fails to make space for the unwaged. In this sense, like so many other systems, Fordism did not provide insight on how to mitigate its own failure. Full, waged employment has never been sustainably achieved anywhere, and because both the sphere of work and leisure are built around assumptions of positive employment status, the majority of the world is, by design, almost entirely exclusive of those who are not employed (with the exception of the wealthy, whose income is not contingent on employment, and whose activities could be the centerpiece of an entirely separate study). Physically speaking, the centers of cultural attraction in the United States (and in most other places inhabited by humanity) are primarily devoted to commercial activity, and this excludes those without financial resources.

Much of the built environment is constructed around work, consumption and fitness, with very little being left over for free or non-instrumentalized activity. It is within this context that one should consider the construction and relevance of "idleness;" not as an inherently destructive force, but perhaps as an expression of exclusion. Our metropolises were not designed for the unemployed, who, by losing their role in production, simultaneously lose their role in consumption as well, which leaves very little left in terms of viable activity available to them. In the absence of alternatives, a massive crowd of bored and desperate "idles" fill their time with what’s available to them, and the results are mixed. According to a January, 2015 New York Times study based on the American Time Use Survey, the time spent sleeping (roughly 1 hour per day more than the average employed person) and caring for others (especially among women) is significantly higher among unemployed Americans. This demographic also does much more housework and watches a great deal of television [6]. One interpretation of this data is that unemployed Americans generally spend a great deal of time at home, where the expenses associated with their activities are cheap, and the degree of comfort is high. This makes sense if one considers the position that one is forced into when they are out of work: the absence of income paired with a release from obligatory activity is not necessarily a recipe for freedom, since spending time "out and about" costs money. Without income or obligation, the home (assuming one possesses one) becomes the default environment.

For those who refuse to be constrained to this environment, or perhaps do not possess a home, the options for being "out and about" are often high-risk. To participate formally in the city and all of its offerings, one must find a means of income (crime is an easy but risky way to do this). To participate informally in the city means to be harassed constantly, and perhaps even fined and even arrested (as is the case with the homeless, and "street people"). An old adage says that “the devil finds mischief for idle hands," and there is, apparently, some truth to the claim that crime and unemployment are correlated. As a 2015 Georgia Tech study finds, “there is a positive correlation between both violent and property crime, not only with unemployment rate, but also with GDP per capita, high school graduation rates, police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, and poverty rate” [7]. At least empirically, the case for such a correlation has been made for a long time in journalism. Examples abound of published writings reinforcing the apparent truism that crime and idleness are inherently linked, and the narratives becomes more prevalent in moments of economic downturn. A 2009 New York Times article, for example asked the question: “Does Higher Unemployment Lead to More Drug Use?” (8). “More Crime Forecast as Idleness Rises," proclaimed the title of a May, 1975 New York Times article, which argued, with a tone of inevitability that “[t]he nation will face a higher and growing crime rate as long as unemployment is permitted to grow” [9]. “The mind that is not occupied with useful employment will go to the bad, just as a garden not cultivated will grow up in weeds," states a 1903 issue of The Milwaukee Journal. According to the article, prisons were filling up with people who did not possess a trade or salable skill [10]. Concerns over the "vice" that would bloom in the face of unemployment go a long way back, with middle- and upper-class anxiety over the issue making itself palpable in articles of the kind cited above, which seem to pop up every time the economy dips, and releases workers from their positions, setting them loose into an environment not meant for them.

One category of "idleness" that has perhaps been an historical constant is that of youth. Young people, often lacking a vocation or financial resources, often pose a problem for municipal governments when their boredom spills over into vandalism, drug use, violence and social unrest. They are a good window onto the problem of industrious urbanism, since they represent a relatively well-distributed population of people who nevertheless are not accommodated by industrious society and its narrowly-catering spaces.

From the initial instrumentalization and social control of free time to its direct channeling into commerce, the meaning and value human behavior has been socially constructed. As these meanings and values have crystallized, an urban environment planned around provisioning for these meanings and values has followed (at which point they become physically and spatially constructed). Considering what a common occurrence unemployment is in our society, it’s strange that we have not stepped back to reconsider how to make space for the "unemployed" and "under-employed" (terms which themselves highlight the work-centrism of our culture, as if all human activity is to stand in direct relationship to waged labor). Standard operating procedure attempts to "tackle" unemployment, while fretting about the consequences of "idleness," as if employment were the only plausible way to fill the lives of human beings, but it is one of many ways of making meaning and attributing value to human activity.

The same Progressive era reformers who expressed uneasiness at growing unemployment were also the ones behind hatching rational recreation and similar programs for socializing the working classes and making space for health and high culture. The ability to literally shape culture is something that should be remembered in an age of generalizing unemployment, when interventions of some kind are desperately needed again. Is it possible to envision a "New Progressive era" in which today’s version social reformers—perhaps non-profits, NGOs, entrepreneurs and other organizations—reconfigure society’s relationship with time and space?

To even begin to imagine how to re-orient and reconfigure society’s relationship to time and space, it would be worthwhile to consider past attempts to imagine what other worlds could be like. There have been many utopian visions of post-work society, but one of them stands out in particular. Well before Youngstown Sheet and Tube shuttered its factory and left its hometown to shrivel, an avant-garde art group called the Situationists posited a much better version of post-industrial urbanism. In the mid 1950s, witnessing the increasing mechanization of industrial production and speculating about the potential amount of wealth that this development would make possible, the group began to dream about an automation-enabled post-work urban scenario in which play became the primary activity of most people. They dreamed of cities entirely devoted to adventure, discovery, emotional experiences and "ambiance." The Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys designed a vision for a post-work city that he called New Babylon—a sprawling, multi-level city where the inhabitants would drift from place to place, experiencing intense emotions and engaging with the “ambiances” of the urban landscape, actually playing a part in creating their surroundings. Working with the notion of "psychogeography"—the idea that space and psychology are related and even inextricable—the ambition of the Situationists was to produce an ever-evolving and diversifying set of subjectivities through the unpredictable and strange interaction between actors and their environment. A critical part of this was that the evolving subjects would actually shape the city themselves, in a dialectic of affecting and being affected by the city and its architecture. Compellingly, their visions for a changed urban society were not completely contingent upon some miraculous windfall of power to grant their utopian ideas into reality; They were also interested in working with and adapting existing cities. "Our form of urbanism," they explained, “is not ideally separated from the current terrain of cities. [it] is developed out of the experience of this terrain and based on existing constructions. As a result, it is just as important that we exploit the existing decors—through the affirmation of a playful urban space such as is revealed by the derive—as it is that we construct completely unknown ones. This interpenetration (employment of the present city and construction of the future city) entails the deployment of architectutal [appropriation, adaptation, and recasting of meaning]” [11]. Their insistence on learning from and adapting existing cities is compelling, because in virtually no scenario will civilization be issued a tabula rasa upon which to construct—from the ground up—entirely new configurations of urban life. There are/will certainly be exceptions, but for the majority of cities, adaptation, not inception will be necessary.

While there were plenty of problems with the visions posited by the Situationists, their post-productivist visions for the city are nevertheless worthy of our attention today, for their earnest attempt to conceptualize a new kind of urbanism. As Simon Sadler—an historian of the movement—has asserted, despite its flaws, the Situationist vision “nevertheless maintained an indefatigable belief in the possibility of a better organization of everyday life” [12]. Everyday life is precisely what is at issue here: its reconsideration and redefinition. How should people spend their time? What institutions and spaces can maximally benefit the population, and facilitate thriving, active, healthy, dignified and interesting lives?

Interestingly, these were some of the questions asked by Progressive era reformers—the ones who largely set in place the urban paradigms we are currently living under—but their answers were informed by Calvinist religious doctrine, motivated by industrial interests in procuring dividends from industrial progress, and tempered by an historical condition of scarcity. The results were an instrumental version of rationality that, as we have already seen, came to narrowly define what civilized life would be like in the United States. In contrast, the Situationists, operating from a more atheistic and radical political perspective, for better or worse felt no compulsion to generate "order" in human behavior, but instead sought an autonomous and empowered version of urban life built atop of a highly rational and ordered system of automated production and engineering [13]. Whereas the reformers who shaped existing cities were advocates of "rational recreation," the Situationists were perhaps the purveyors of an "irrational recreation." In their 1959 unattributed article in International Situationniste #3, they called for the creation of what they called "Unitary Urbanism"—a form of urban life/design/experience that would reach “beyond the immediately useful” [14]. This post-utilitarian stance on urbanism can perhaps inspire us as we begin the process or reconsidering what we need today: an engagement with the city, and a rethinking of the relationship between everyday life and urban design, displacing the centrality of work, and replacing it with other activities.

Today, the prospects for designing new urban configurations that accommodate a post-work society are both more feasible technologically and more challenged politically. The 1950s and 60s were a period of tremendous affluence for places like the United States and France, and this allowed for the momentary creation of the welfare state, under which governments allocated resources to public programs, facilities and institutions, and shaped massive infrastructure and urbanization projects. In the U.S., projects like the Tennessee Valley system of dams, the Interstate Highway System, the inception of the modern home mortgage system through the Federal Housing Administration, and the resulting prolific expansion of suburbia, etc. were all examples of giant efforts geared toward transforming the human environment, and they were all made possible by the economic ascendency of the United States, and the welfare statist politics of the time. Politically and historically-speaking, we are in drastically different times today, with the U.S. economy in relative decline, and political neoliberalism having replaced New Deal progressivism [15]. While the future economic returns that motivated this "big-push"-style development of the mid-century may no longer be guaranteed, a new set of human (rather than economic) recovery-oriented development goals could serve as the new basis for reimagining urban environments and infrastructures.

A crucial element of the Situationist vision for the city was that everyone’s basic needs would simply be provided for, so work (which was essentially limited to making contributions to improving and updating the urban apparatus itself) would be optional. In effect, everyone in the Situationist utopia would collect a universal basic income (U.B.I.), paid for by the industrial output of machines. Compellingly, there has been a renewed interest in U.B.I. as a realistic political goal, and it is on the minds of many—especially in Silicon Valley, where the potential implications of mass automation have become an urgent topic of discussion.

One massive problem facing a project for reorienting urban life away from formal, human employment in production is how to maintain the distribution of life's essentials (and inessentials) in the absence of wage-backed buying power. The costs of doing so are lower than they ever have been, since the amount of human labor required for the production of many of the world’s goods is quite low. Technologically-speaking, we are, of course, far more advanced than we were in the 1950s, when the Situationists envisioned their version of post-industrious society. While the Situationists radically imagined a world in which nobody possessed a home, but existed in a city that simply provided for them everywhere they went, the technical specifics of this vision remained vague. Today, however, it could certainly be managed technically, with personal devices serving as controllers, locators, guides and sensors. With today’s advances in robotics, miniaturization and cheapening of computers, and the immense proliferation of mobile devices and electronics of every stripe, one could feasibly plan cities in which physical needs could be met on an on-demand basis, with food, comfort and shelter being delivered and/or supplied to/at one’s current location by drone or robot. Already, ride-sharing applications make automobile ownership unnecessary for those privileged enough to live in inner cities (while a precariously-employed class of car-owning, and largely suburban residents provide the machinery and labor for this transportation infrastructure)—a service that is scheduled to be automated in the coming decade or so. Meanwhile, Amazon is promising drone delivery of goods and services, and already offers two-hour delivery (again, for those privileged enough to live in select cities). A "layer" of robotic transportation and distribution solutions is being developed on a wide scale.  A digitally-interfacing, on-demand robotic production and distribution system is just around the corner, and it should both inspire new visions for urban life, and call into question old ones—especially ones that place production at the heart of the urban experience. Could these services be reimagined as a public utility, similar to the way that phone lines, electricity, gas, etc. at times have been managed? As such, they could sit between citizens and the more banal, automated production processes, delivering what is needed when it is needed.

Addressing the urban dimensions of this problem does not require starting from scratch, or building entirely new cities (though perhaps entirely new cities could function as laboratories for all kinds of urban-sociological/economic/technological experimentation). While it may be true that cities are primarily planned and designed around production, to characterize any city as being only about production would be completely incorrect. Every city has many subtexts, and a wide array of leisure and other activities may be found thriving in every metropolis (despite not being designed for). All manner of activities take place beneath the tidy surface of the city’s plan. Not being formally recognized, or counted for, they are not easily visible, or particularly effectively accommodated, but the city teems with co-ops, arts organizations, pranksters, subcultures, black markets, prohibited behaviors, creative adaptations, renegade events, gifting, mutual aid networks, occupations, squats and other "informal" human behaviors. A post-industrious city would need to explore how to make these informal activities central to the urban design and corresponding infrastructures and services. It may seem like a truism, but cities should have spaces and resources available for people. There should be accommodations for the many, varied human needs and evolving human desires. 


(1) The fact of the matter is that current reports on unemployment—which officially place the figure close to 5% are quite conservative in their definition of unemployment. Some researchers—looking beyond the standard "u-3" figure—place the figure closer to 10%.

(2) Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work," The Atlantic, July/August 2015. <>, accessed July 1, 2016.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Chris Rojek, “Deviant Leisure: the Dark Side of Free-Time Activity," in Leisure Studies: Prospects for the Twenty-First Century, Edgar L. Jackson, Thomas L. Burton, eds., (State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1999), pg. 83-4

(5) John R. Kelly, “Leisure and Society: A Dialectical Analysis," in Leisure Studies: Prospects for the Twenty-First Century, Edgar L. Jackson, Thomas L. Burton, eds., (State College, PA: Venture Publishing, 1999), pg. 65

(6) Josh Katz, “How Nonemployed Americans Spend Their Weekdays: Men vs. Women," The New York Times (, Jan. 6, 2015. <>. accessed July 18, 2016.

(7) Sandra Ajimotokin, Alexandra Haskins, Zach Wade, “The Effects of Unemployment on Crime Rates in the U.S.," Georgia Tech, April 1, 2015, <>. accessed July 18, 2016.

(8) Catherine Rampell, “Does Higher Unemployment Lead to More Drug Use?," New York Times (, Aug 12, 2009. <>. accessed July 18, 2016

(9) Ernest Holsendolph, “More Crime Forecast as Idleness Rises," New York Times, May 21, 1975. <>, accessed July 1, 2016

(10) “Idleness and Crime," The Milwaukee Journal, December 4, 1903. <,3186259&hl=en>, accessed July 1, 2016

(11) “Unitary Urbanism at the end of the 1950s," International Situationniste, vol. #3, December 1959. <>, accessed July 2, 2016.

(12) Simon Sadler, The Situationist City, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 163-64.

(13) The architect and social theorist Rem Koolhaas makes this point more straightforwardly, when he argues that the whole point of producing rational urban and technological innovations is to further empower irrational and fantastic human desires.

(14) “Unitary Urbanism at the end of the 1950s," International Situationniste, vol. #3, December 1959. <>, accessed July 2, 2016.

(15) The period spanning from the Great Depression to the the second World War to the postwar economic hegemony of the United States was an incredibly unique period of history. New Deal state institutions such as the Federal Housing Administration, developed as mechanisms for recovery from the Depression, became massively successful drivers of economic development in the postwar years, shaping suburban development and mass lending for home mortgages. The inception of recovery-oriented institutions, which would later become development-oriented institutions is a hallmark of this unique historical era.

The (classed) Political Economy of Data

    Schematically, I’m interested in the reasons for the uneven development between sensing and doing (there is much more interest in data collection than in automating and mechanizing everyday life and production), where the emphasis on sensors, it seems to me, is fundamentally related to the economic dominance of data collection companies, and the need to efficiently create profitable deployments. I’m interested in whether the de-emphasis on robotic mechanical and other systems is perhaps related to an historically much longer failure to produce human environments that provide abundance and human comfort and care—mirroring (and increasingly playing a part in) the development of cities, which provide for people only at a cost. We are now in the midst of what the National Science Foundation calls the ‘Sensor Revolution’—“connecting the Internet back to the physical world we live in—in effect, giving that world its first electronic nervous system. . . . [A]n outpouring of devices that monitor our surroundings.” (1) Wearable technologies monitor our vitals; humidity sensors detect fire risk; sensors in wells and streams report on water quality. Perhaps the most Foucauldian ‘disciplinary’ instance of these sensors is DARPA’s ARGUS-IS drone-piloted aircraft, which uses an unprecedented 1.8 gigapixel sensor to record urban space-time (and allows investigators to go back in time to surveil a particular place or to follow a particular person), or the or the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program (which also enables retroactive, targeted data mining), but there is also ‘Google Now’—an analytical tool that is intended to predict a user’s behavior based on previous data collection matched with current user behavior and Facebook’s data collection, along with countless other private sector commercial uses of sensors. Sensors are increasingly able to track physical movement, with GPS and RFID trackers and sensors, San Francisco-based start-up Planet Labs’ fleet of hundreds of "dove" satellites tracking daily global movement and development, ‘smart’ meters that report on energy use and resource consumption, "personal assistant" voice-controlled computers that listen to conversations, etc.
    In short, I’m interested in the political economy of this sensing—how it is situated in global economic history; how it is implicated in and transforms existing regimes of power; what discourses and rhetorics are involved in its development, extension and proliferation; how it enables certain possibilities and forecloses others; and how its effects and benefits are unevenly distributed.
   One dimension of this is the collection of data as a transaction fee for the use of products and platforms. In a rational economic exchange, actors produce something of value in order to receive something of value. Today, these exchanges are increasingly mediated by digital platforms, which often collect data as a ‘transaction fee’ for this mediation. The value proposition of the various platforms does not operate like a normal sale, however. Instead of straightforwardly exchanging money for goods, users are offered a service that gives the business that creates the platform insight into how to control human behavior without this cost being perceived by the user. As entrepreneur-turned-investor/business theorist Peter Thiel states in his highly influential book Zero to One, “[c]reating value is not enough—you also need to capture some of the value you create.” (2) Thiel is rare among Silicon Valley’s thinkers—and not just because of his public support for Donald Trump. He is one of the few widely-read business writers who is privy to certain of capitalism’s contradictions. Thiel seems to possess a general grasp of what Marxian economists call the ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ (TRPF)—outlined by Marx in Ch. 13 of Capital, vol. III (though as a self-described libertarian, he certainly doesn’t cite Marx). Because of increased expenditure on fixed capital to reduce unit cost in the face of competing firms, plus competition over prices, the margin of profit per unit becomes extremely low in competitive industries. Thiel’s conclusion is that companies today should strive to be monopolies, and that monopolies are the only really worthwhile enterprises. (3) In most cases, this quest for monopoly status necessarily involves gathering enough data to understand how to dominate their sector of the market. As these companies use data to act back upon publics and populations, their operations become increasingly ‘governmental,’ in the Foucauldian sense. (4)
    In the late twentieth century, so-called ‘neoliberal’ governing proceeded through the making visible of market structures, and the encouragement of actors—both enterprises and individuals—to behave as market actors and as human capital. Especially during and after the New Deal, this state strategy increasingly relied on private firms to carry out the hard work of producing and shaping this economic ‘arrangement of things,’ with the burden of governing shifting to a greater and greater degree onto private enterprise and away from the state. Whereas states—ruling through sovereign power—rely on a Weberian monopoly on violence, how are private enterprises increasingly competing for a monopoly of affect (are these the monopolies that Thiel is suggesting entrepreneurs should be building?), with which to shape the pre-discursive desires and drives of subjects? (5) How are large firms using data and sensors to inform these decisions—that is, how does data allow companies to govern over subjects, and what does this mean for the state? How might resurgences of state violence be read as an attempt to assert their dominance once again, in the face of these developments, and what are the class dimensions of this? Perhaps certain classes—those who are viewed as being disposable or exchangeable in the production process—remain under sovereign state control (as evidenced by demographically-concentrated policing and police violence), while those seen as economically valuable/productive (those behaving as human capital), who can be sensed and influenced through digital tools, are governed through affect? This is the general constellation of issues I’m interested in exploring.


(1) “The Sensor Revolution,” National Science Foundation website, (accessed 12/5/2016).

(2) Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or, How to Build the Future (New York: Crown Business Press, 2014), pg. 23.

(3) Venture capital’s role in defining what success looks like is not to be ignored here: in order to be worthwhile, venture capitalists demand an incredibly high return on investment on the minority of companies that succeed in order to make back the sum of their losses, plus large profits.

(4) In researching how urban governance proceeded through the twentieth century, I was struck by how power seemed to shift from ‘sovereign’ to ‘disciplinary’ to increasingly ‘governmental’ (in Foucault’s lexicon) strategies. Rather than engaging in costly policing efforts, power-wielding agents found ways to order space, “artificially . . . arranging things so that people, following their own self-interest, will do as they ought.” Scott, David. “Colonial Governmentality,” Social Text, No. 43 (Autumn, 1995), pg. 202-03. Here Scott is citing Jeremy Bentham’s “Fragment on Government” as a means of attaining the meaning of Foucault’s concept of governmentality, which is a highly illuminative theoretical tool for the present study.

(5) Max Weber, in Politics as a Vocation, tells us that sovereign power is reliant on 'monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.’ I’m interested in how affect is an increasingly important part of governmentality—a relationship I hope to explore more deeply in my research. I am interested in the relationship between neoliberalism, identity, affect and debt, and their implications for power and governance, and the ways in which the effects of competitive ‘short-termism’ of subjects viewing and investing in themselves as ‘human capital’ supplants a discursive politics of ideology with an affective politics of identity, and the degree to which the resultant oppositional identity politics erodes the reproductive capacities of the ‘State.’ Maurizio Lazzarato—one of many scholars to investigate the relationship between neoliberalism and governance—privileges the role of debt in this configuration, claiming that “[d]ebt constitutes a new technique of power.” According to him, “[d]ebt is the technique most adequate to the production of neoliberalism’s homo economicus. [Its subjects] feel compelled to act, think, and behave as if they were individual businesses.” As such, I’m interested in whether neoliberal subjects—while capable of making promises (in the Nietzschean sense), and governed through affective means—are unlikely to be effective stewards of the commonly-held externalities or organizational structures—including state structures—without which production encounters internal, limiting contradictions. Maurizio Lazzarato, Governing by Debt, trans. Joshua David Jordan (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2015),  pg. 69-70.

Business against Capitalism: production that undermines reproduction

It’s 2018. If you’re not fighting to establish alternatives to capitalism, you’re late to the party. Even many capitalists think so! For those of us who are already attempting to grapple with the enormity of replacing a globally hegemonic system of power and wealth accumulation that controls virtually every major political, educational and cultural institution on the planet, the task can feel so daunting as to be impossible. As Fredric Jameson has put it, it’s somehow easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Perhaps because of this, the cultural zeitgeist of the present is one of claustrophobic outrage—an understandable disposition when dysfunction and corruption reign in the absence of ready-at-hand alternatives.

Critiques of just about everything abound, and they can be indispensable tools for combatting complacency and naive tehcno-optimism. But they are a meager first step. What we need now are plans of action that are rooted in three indispensable soils: critical understanding of the flaws with the status quo, technical understanding of tools and technologies, and utopian imagination of how things might be otherwise. This writing offers insight into strategies for undermining and replacing capitalism, and as such, it is grounded in the three soils of critique, engineering and utopianism.

In 1899, Rosa Luxemburg posed the question of whether the left should embrace reform or revolution as a strategy for political and economic change, and the debate between proponents of these two directions has not ceased. Today, I would like to claim that both of these routes (as traditionally understood, anyway) are exhausted.

Progressives attempt to fix the system with reforms and regulations, mixing a little bit of socialism into their capitalist economy to keep it from burning itself up. These strategies worked when the global economy was tilted in the favor of the privileged classes of wealthy and powerful nations, but today, as Giovanni Arrighi has shown, the economy is tilting away from so-called “Western” nations, evaporating the viability and motivations for reform.

Historically, most anti-capitalist strategies (or at least the most visible ones) have sought to intervene in the historical process through revolution—that is, by capturing the means of production. This was the option embraced by Rosa Luxemburg. Yet, as a recent string of uprisings has shown, revolutions—especially when they are confined to one country or region—can leave the economic infrastructure untouched, and even usher in more repressive and unstable political regimes than what existed before.

In the face of the collapse of these experiments and the diminished viability and efficacy of reform, perhaps it is time to experiment with other strategies. Thinkers such as Eric Olin Wright, Paul Mason and J. K. Gibson-Graham have offered insight into post-capitalist politics and various strategies for how to build post-capitalist economic structures.

Because my own position in society happens to be in close proximity to “innovators” in the social, technological, financial, cultural, political and academic worlds, I have elected to outline a strategy that relies on private enterprise to advance post capitalist futures. I am especially interested in the prospects of viable and reproducible business models that, while they secure returns, simultaneously undermine capitalism in general by producing the requisite tools, technologies and networks for bypassing capitalist relations of production. To be clear: I do not believe this is the only or even the most effective way of replacing capitalism (I think we should seriously consider nationalizing AI and automation and set up a public trust fund that funds the transformation of cities into appropriate post-work environments and provisioning UBI dividends to collective households and organizations), but I do think that materializing alternative, better futures will require a multi-pronged approach that deploys vast and differing strategies in the production of new economic infrastructures. An additional clarification: I am not advocating the kind of social enterprises that simultaneously “do good and do well,” the flaws of which have already been thoroughly criticized by Slavoj Žižek. What I am suggesting is a viable mode of doing business that gradually phases out the private ownership of the means of production, and therefore its own basis for existence within the present society.

This project is closely related to accelerationism--a series of approaches that look to the internal dynamics and contradictions of capitalism itself to unleash social, political and economic transformations. In advancing such theories, left-accelerationist authors revive forgotten dimensions of the activist philosophy of Karl Marx, pointing to his lesser-known (than the Communist Manifesto) writings, and citing him as being an accelerationist himself (rather than a reformist). Perhaps surprisingly, Marx advocated free trade “in the revolutionary sense,” arguing that the reformist “protective system[s]” of his day were a conservative hindrance to the maturation of capitalist technical development and economic and social contradiction. The free trade system, by contrast, was “destructive,” pushing “the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point” and “hasten[ing] the social revolution.” For Marx, Engels explained

[o]nly under Free Trade can the immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery, be fully developed; and the quicker the pace of this development, the sooner and the more fully will be realized its inevitable results; society splits up into two classes, capitalists here, wage-laborers there; hereditary wealth on one side, hereditary poverty on the other; supply outstripping demand, the markets being unable to absorb the ever growing mass of the production of industry; an ever recurring cycle of prosperity, glut, crisis, panic, chronic depression, and gradual revival of trade, the harbinger not of permanent improvement but of renewed overproduction and crisis; in short, productive forces expanding to such a degree that they rebel, as against unbearable fetters, against the social institutions under which they are put in motion; the only possible solution: a social revolution, freeing the social productive forces from the fetters of an antiquated social order, and the actual producers, the great mass of the people, from wage slavery.

For Marx, then, the reformist state stood in the way of this “revolutionary destruction,” whose advancement was immanent from out-of-control over-investment, over-development, and the revolutionary expansion of technological capabilities whose full development would necessarily require the restructuring of society. Bertell Ollman, reflecting on the fragments that Marx actually wrote about communism, states that “[e]very significant advance in wealth, technology and science extends the boundaries not only of the real but of the possible, of the ways this newly won potential can be realized.”

Yet an absolute chasm exists between the development and acceleration of these technologies, capabilities and crises, and the implementation of alternative social, economic and political systems. As the history of the twentieth century shows, the monolithic suggestion of “revolution” leaves much to be desired, and many details unexamined. For this reason, it is worth considering what capitalism is, and how it relates to other modes of production.

In sum, I intend to argue that capitalism is one of several modes of production in operation today, and that it maintains a dominant relationship over the others. The next dominant economic system (if we’re fortunate enough to reach it), much like capitalism several centuries ago, will likely grow up around the edges and inside of capitalism, rather than entering the scene in a sudden apparition. It will likely exploit capitalism’s weak spots, under-utilized resources, and periodic crises, eventually establishing a dominant relationship over capitalism (rather than phasing it out altogether). If right now we live in a sea of capitalism that thrives off the richness of islands of non-capitalism, the future will likely resemble a sea of some other kind, with islands of capitalism and other types of economic activity, which will serve vital functions without determining society’s forms the way it does now.

Louis Althusser—a controversial author who wrote about the contingencies of capitalist reproduction—argued that “in order to exist, every social formation must, while it produces, and in order to be able to produce in the future, reproduce the conditions of its production.” This reproduction of the conditions of its production turns out to be a delicate and historically-variable process, whose basic requirements Althusser outlines, and which consist of capital’s domination over other modes of production; the reproduction of the means of production; the reproduction of the forces of production (that is: of labor); and the reproduction of capitalist relations of production—all of which are entrusted to the “state,” whose concerns extend beyond those of the short-sighted business enterprise.

 According to Althusser, capitalism is a dominant mode of production that co-exists among various “dominated” pre-capitalist modes of production, and ensuring that it maintains this dominance is a major part of the state’s role. Non-capitalist modes of production generate value that capitalism continuously appropriates and accumulates—something that Rosa Luxemburg has shown to be indispensable to the survival of capitalism. In a process that Marx called “primitive accumulation,” commons are converted into capital, in order to add buying power to the system, which by definition cannot generate sufficient buying power on its own because of the deficit between what workers are paid and the value of their productive output (that is: the value that makes up profits). Because production is only profitable when goods and services are sold for more than what was paid to create/provide them, and all industries are operating this way, the amount paid to the total workforce will always be less than the value of the total sum of goods and services produced. The only way to sell the total mass of goods and services profitably is to find new markets for them, where value may be paid for them that was produced outside of the system of waged relations. For this reason, non-capitalist sources of value are indispensable for the survival of capitalism, and this, historically, has been the reason behind colonialism and imperialism, and “development” of the so-called “Third World.”

If this dominance is disrupted, resources and labor could feasibly circulate in non-capitalist ways (without monetary investment seeking return)—neighbors might help one another instead of hiring day laborers; co-operative organizations might produce their own cash crops for mutual consumption, rather than buying these on the market; commuters might adopt a mutual aid approach to carpooling; perhaps whole towns could elect to operate as a co-operative, as Marinaleda, Spain has done. In fact, these things often happen when the market takes a sharp downturn, leaving people and places and resources fallow. When the market fails, people generally seek out other ways of circulating value.

The “unity” between capitalism and the dominated modes of production is only the first precondition for reproduction. The state must also ensure that material conditions of production are maintained. This means that there must be sufficient effective demand for production, profitable reinvestment opportunities for accumulated capital, a sufficient workforce and/or energy source for production, a ready supply of raw materials, an infrastructural system capable of transporting goods and/or services and for importing raw materials, and a legal system of protection for productive processes and the enforcement of contracts. Broadly speaking, there must be a functional economy and a conducive environment in order to produce. If these material conditions are disrupted, production becomes extremely difficult (if not altogether impossible).

Thirdly, capitalist relations of production must also be maintained. In Capital, vol. 1, Marx states that “Capitalist production . . . under its aspect of a continuous connected process, of a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer” (p. 578). In other words, it must be ensured that individuals continue to actually enter into capitalist relations of production, in which some people exchange their labor power for wages, and spend their wages on the output of capitalist production, and others invest their wealth into profitable capitalist production. These are not necessarily given conditions: potential laborers might find some other means of sustaining themselves; a would-be capitalist might refuse to invest in viable or productive ventures; a whole generation of people might elect to opt out of playing these roles in the economy and to engage in alternative relations of support and interdependency.

The state (whose theoretical job is to ensure the reproduction of capitalism) has two main routes for ensuring the reproduction of relations of production: through legal-political force, and through ideological persuasion. The former of these is rather straightforward: states often move to protect their economies and populations from threats, and very regularly exert force against potential disruptions. Yet force alone is insufficient for the maintenance of capitalist relations of production. This is where “ideology” comes in, and Althusser charts the many ways in which “ideological state apparatuses” such as schools, churches, various cultural institutions and other organizations intervene into the collective consciousness of the population in order to train and educate them and instill in them an ambition to work and to comply with the requirements of the economy and of society. Much of poststructuralist thought examines the alignment of subjectivity with the requirements of the state and the economy, focusing especially on the role of culture, of gender, of sexuality, of race, and of other dimensions of material and psychological life that contribute to the maintenance of the economic and political status quo and dominant relations of power. This is an extremely important literature for those considering the requirements of, and problems around capitalist reproduction.

The three primary ways to undermine reproduction correspond to the three main ways that reproduction is ensured: disrupting or reversing capitalism’s dominance over other modes of production, disrupting or reversing the material conditions of profitable production, and disrupting or reversing the alignment of individuals with capitalist relations of production. 

Yet merely disrupting reproduction is irresponsible and undesirable in itself. It is not guaranteed that the suspension or failure of capitalist production will yield an ascendance of alternative structures, and so failing to provide or set in motion alternative channels for moving value and getting needs met is liable to leave many out in the cold. Already, major sectors of investment are accomplishing this when they profit from raising tuition, hyper-speculate on real estate, invest in damaging and unsustainable energy harvesting practices that have a diminishing rate of return, and profit from large-scale, low-margin retail in small communities where the money is pumped out of the locality. These are all instances of capitalist disruption, and they are consistent with the picture of accelerationism offered by Marx in his remarks on free trade.

Instead of merely undermining reproduction, post-capitalist business models should seek to reverse the process of primitive accumulation, turning capital back into commons while transforming social relations from exploitative ones to co-operative ones. Just as many newly-opened avenues for profit today come from salvage operations that sell off, degrade, and undermine infrastructures for future economic growth (and it’s not just Marxists saying this!), other business models can profitably produce the tools for interdependent existence outside of markets. This, ultimately, is the mission of organizations like the P2P Foundation, Shareable and Commons Transition, all of whom advocate commons-based peer-production approaches to value creation. “There is a growing contradiction between new relations of production emerging around the digital commons and the economies they are creating, and how this emerging prototype of a new mode of production is embedded within capitalism,” Michel Bauwens and John Restakis state in an article on Commons Transition. “In short, while more and more use value is created in and through the commons, only a fraction of this is being monetized. . . . This process requires the re-conception and re-alignment both of traditional commons and co-operative thinking, and practice, into new institutional forms that prefigure a new political economy of co-operative commonwealth.”

    Yochai Benkler argues that we are witnessing this occurring all over the world. With digital commons and the proliferation of social networks and new tools for sharing value in a peer-to-peer fashion, the possibility for massive markets without middlemen is right at our door. What we see, he argues, is “a new mode of production emerging in the middle of the most advanced economies in the world" (The Wealth of Networks, pg. 6). It begins with information, he says, but the way that information is linked to the movement of real goods and services should not evade notice. Capitalist firms can be used to produce “transitional equipment,” if the production of this equipment is able to meet the criteria of production as well as the firm’s reproduction, even while undermining reproduction of the system as a whole by offering productive reinvestment into new configurations that are untaxed by capital. While the firm must reproduce itself through the production of products that have an exchange value greater than the costs of their production, the use values of these products is virtually unlimited. In this sense, then, if we adopt the term “hardware” to refer to the commodity that is produced by the firm (corresponding to a fixed exchange value), whereas the use value that is contained within the product’s “software,” there is an ongoing potential to generate commodities whose use is open-ended and empowering, facilitating the ability of its users to have direct economic relations with one another without external beneficiaries. The content of that software (its use value) can be antagonistic to capitalist accumulation, even if the price of the hardware (exchange value) is sufficient enough to be reproductive of the producing firm’s operating costs and capital expenditures. This distinction between the hardware and software, as well a the distinction between the firm and the system establishes the possibility for an antagonistic production of elements that undermine (universal) capitalist reproduction.

 Promisingly, prominent capitalists are already advocating the use of business as a vehicle for accomplishing goals that go beyond profiting. Recently, BlackRock—the largest investment firm in the world—announced that it would demand that all companies in its 6 trillion dollar portfolio “do more than make profits—they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of Blackrock.” Alluding to the failure of governments to provide adequate nanny state regulations or welfare state provisions, the firm intends to change the way that private companies approach their contributions to the world. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine a new generation of investors who go one step further, only investing in companies that are working to build post-capitalist infrastructures, or investment firms that are owned by all, and which aim to build all of society’s wealth along multiple axes, rather than enriching a relatively small group of shareholders in a purely monetary fashion.

{complications of prefigurative politics and communization}

The aim of this short writing has been to identify the specific ways that capitalism is reproduced, to outline the theoretical case for post-capitalist production, and to locate the coordinates for such a practice within the Marxist and accelerationist theoretical traditions. By strategically producing products and tools that facilitate peer production and the co-creation of value, viable businesses can help to contribute to the generation of alternatives to capitalism. The point isn’t for the firm itself to be post-capitalist, but for its value proposition of its product or service or aggregated activity to be supportive of alternative economic and political configurations.

To end on a note of possibility, I would like to offer a number of general strategies that could be viable avenues for entrepreneurial activity in support of post-capitalist futures, all of which are attuned to the requirements of capitalist reproduction, and aim to bypass these.

-tools for egalitarian collaboration
-tools for self-valorization
-automation co-operatives that spin out universal basic incomes
-VC funds that strategically bet against sectors of the market while using returns to fund disruptive companies in that same sector
-“sharing” platforms that have monetized, barter and gift modalities, so that people can choose the economic system they use on a transaction-per-transaction basis
-products or services that facilitate communal habitation and shared resources

There are many, many more possibilities, and it is hoped that a whole generation of real innovators will design and implement ecosystems of firms that move in this direction.

Reflections on (uncritical) Aristocratic Hedonism

**This is a set of loose lecture notes that I have synthesized into a written piece. These notes are not consistent with my usual standard of writing, but I wanted to get them down on paper in a shareable way, so that others may chase up my references and concepts.**

Are we living in liberated times? Or is it possible that those of us lucky enough to have access to sexual, aesthetic and interpersonal expression and permissiveness are part of an elitist enclave that is only possible because of the exploitation and exclusion of others?

I’m going to argue that many of us partying, urban, sex positive, festival-attending liberals enjoy being on the winning side of multiple overlapping hierarchies, particularly around material wealth/education and desirability/attractiveness.

In 1847, the Jacobin artist Thomas Couture created the massive painting Romans of Decadence, in which he portrayed an orgiastic scene of late Roman citizens engaging in hedonism, in a grandiose architectural setting. The orgy is flanked by upright corinthian columns and statues of great men, whose contributions to the Empire allowed for the wealth and comfort being enjoyed by this ecstatic later generation of Romans. For Couture, the scene was meant to represent the slackening of morals and virility necessary for maintaining the kind of empire that could erect such grand architecture and statuary.

Couture’s representation of this decadence can be contextualized by the political and cultural situation in France (and continental Europe) at that time: one year after the painting was completed, there was a massive revolution in France that temporarily installed a democracy. That same year, the first edition of The Communist Manifesto was published. Contemporaneously, Gustave Courbet was producing realist paintings of the poor and working class (see, for example, Courbet’s Stone-Breakers of 1849), celebrating them as heroes and carriers of virtue—a sea change in the subject matter of art.

Returning to Romans of Decadence, what is important is not so much the painting’s accuracy so much as the narrative that it represents and propagates: great societies are brought to their knees by excess. What we know about the Roman empire is that it was pulled into decline from a combination of factors, including its structural need to expand, its over-reliance on slaves, its constant engagement in war (and the massive expenditure of such military campaigns), immense inequality, and general overspending. In essence, the empire, which was built upon the labor of slaves, needed to expand endlessly in order to secure a constant supply of slaves (who were often taken as prisoners of war from defeated military forces), but these wars and the expanding network of infrastructures were extremely costly to build and maintain, and each successive generation of Romans became accustomed to higher standards of living without being personally equipped to secure this for themselves.

And in many ways, the fall of Rome is central to the story that I hope to tell about privileged, ‘aristocratic’ hedonistic enclaves, because it set in motion a series of mechanisms that continue to have an interplay today.

For one thing, and as mentioned earlier, Ancient Rome was absolutely a clear example of privileged enjoyment propped up on the exploitation of others. But, another fundamental emergent phenomenon from the period is Christianity, and an assortment of interrelated concepts that Christianity would use to both condemn and protect (depending on the time and the place) the elitist enjoyment of the upper and ruling classes.

Jesus, for his part, was supposed to have said that “man cannot serve both God and Mammon [wealth],” a dictum that many have embraced throughout history as an inherent challenge to power embedded in the heart of Christian theology. The current pope, for example, drawing from a long lineage of so-called ‘liberation theology’ (popular in Latin and South America), often offers a Christian challenge to unchecked wealth and power.

Yet a different lineage was (perhaps inadvertently) set in motion my Augustine of Hippo, who introduced the concept of ‘theodicy’ to the world. Theodicy is the term used to explain how, in a world supposedly created and looked out for by a benevolent and omnipotent God, suffering and evil could exist. To explain this, Augustine turned to the Book of Genesis, and honed in on the story of Adam and Eve, which until that time had been relatively unpopular because of its implausibility. In a nutshell, Augustine explained that evil and corruption were the result of humans turning away from God’s will and grace, and choosing their own free will and yielding to temptation instead. This was because of the ‘original sin’ (a concept introduced by Augustine), which left humanity inherently flawed. Augustine believed that original sin was behind humans’ desires for earthly pleasures, and could be blamed for their diversion from ‘higher,’ spiritual existence. Augustine, on this basis, gave up on sex and devoted himself to a life of chastity.

Augustine, who was born in 354 in Roman-controlled North Africa (present-day Algeria), lived out his life entirely within the context of the downfall of Rome. Some version of Couture’s painting was likely to have been the literal and inescapable reality that Augustine was living in, and there is no doubt that this period of instability influenced his thinking. The suffering, disarray, conflict, vulgar brutality and unproductiveness of late Rome would have posed an immense threat to the Christian claim that God was all-powerful and benevolent, and it was within this context that his highly influential concept of theodicy was introduced.

The concept would be highly influential upon Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, both of whom would offer their own thoughts on theodicy to explain the meaning and origins of strife in their own times (inter-state warfare between Italian city states and the repression of Protestants by the Catholic Church, respectively).

Theodicy is a concept that helps to make sense of why, when it is so clearly disadvantageous to them, poor people are so frequently religious. The concept makes meaning out of their struggles and hardship, offering an explanation for their suffering. One suffered, according to this narrative, because of the sin of men, and, rather than desiring liberation, one should live an ascetic and disciplined life of hard work, which would be rewarded in heaven, just as the impious actions of others would be punished in hell. Importantly, it justified suffering and poverty as part of the inherent human condition—one set in stone when Eve ate the apple.

One can immediately see how such a justification can be politically useful to the ruling class, who had every incentive to both pacify the poor and working classes, and to keep them working to support the extravagant lifestyles of the aristocracy. Theodicy—which became a central operative concept to be preached by the frequently state-allied church—would help to ensure that this would happen, by giving meaning to the plight and motivating the toil of those whose labor enriched the wealthy and powerful. Under both feudal and capitalist relations of production, the idea of theodicy would help to “divert our living strength to an empty heaven,” as the avant-garde Lettrist artist-activists would put it in a blasphemous sermon delivered to an Easter mass in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in 1950. The ‘diversion of living strength’ would occur in many places and at many times, perpetually, and over centuries and millennia delivering wealth and power into the hands of tiny minorities, whose power and wealth was less costly to protect when religion helped to make meaning of the misery and poverty that such power and wealth was structurally dependent on.

In the late eighteenth century in France, the aristocracy and the Catholic church had a deep alliance, with France being considered the “eldest daughter of the church,” and the church playing a judicial role in the lives of the peasantry. The French aristocracy, at that time, was incredibly decadent and bloated, engaging in extravagant dress, occupying highly ornate buildings full of frilly furniture and ornamentation—all of which helped to fuel the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror.

What is important about this moment of history is the way in which the top-down morality of austerity was suddenly directed upwards at the ruling class. As a governing strategy, religious asceticism periodically backfires for the wealthy and the powerful, when religious dictates are taken seriously and pious followers seek to apply them universally. 1789 was just such a moment, and, it could be argued, so was 1791 (in Haiti), 1848 (in France), 1917 (in Russia), and various other moments throughout history.

Frequently, however, exploitation is never overthrown, as in the case of the British Empire, which was allowed to gain control over nearly a quarter of the world’s land and people at its peak, killing tens of millions of people and condemning tens of millions more to poverty and toil in the process.

I try to imagine what wealthy life might have been like in London at the height of Imperial expansion. In a time when fantastic industrial innovations were being rolled out one after another—from plate glass windows to steam trains to gas lighting to centralized heating, to ornate and affordable machined wooden furniture and architectural decorations. These technologies would have been paired with the fantastic and exotic imports flowing in from abroad—spices, teas, tropical plants, sugars, exotic animals and their skins, furs, ivories, new foods, etc. It would have been an unprecedentedly comfortable and exciting time to live in London (assuming you were relatively wealthy), and your lived reality was unlikely to have been catastrophically disrupted by the millions of deaths that the Opium Wars (and the ensuing famines and disease) were causing in China, or the incredibly violent reaction of British forces to the Indian Rebellion of 1857—a conflict that claimed between 800,000 and 10 million lives. These events, often misrepresented (in favor of the British) in the Imperial press, were likely to stir up patriotism, and must have appeared as a threat to the ‘freedom’ and ‘virtue’ of Britain’s ‘civilizing’ occupation of the world.

In the United States, the wealthy Southern plantation owners enjoyed a degree of luxury and splendor unfathomable to most people in the world in the mid-1800s (or today, for that matter). Yet, as we all know, this comfort was built on the backs of slaves, whose perpetual toil and agony made bubbles of white enjoyment like Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated Monticello possible.

More recently, the utopia of garden cities served as a model for suburban development, which, made possible by automobiles, cheap and abundant oil, and post-war prosperity (often flowing in from war debts and ‘development’ of the Third World), was highly exclusive on the basis of race. One could not get Federal Housing Administration-backed loans if they lived in a “mixed” neighborhood—a policy that was enforced through federal ‘redlining’ practices that parsed ‘desirable’ (white) from ‘undesirable’ (mixed) areas. White people were welcome to inhabit the nicest neighborhoods with the best schools and best civic amenities—places where they could build their equity through rising home prices, whereas black and brown people were frequently excluded from homeownership because they could not secure a mortgage at reasonable rates and on reasonable terms.

Today, these dynamics continue, as well-educated young adults who grew up in the suburbs are choosing to move into cities—often into the very neighborhoods that were redlined by the FHA—resulting in gentrification. Cities, for their part, are typically complicit in the process, choosing to spend money attracting higher income residents and businesses through civic improvements, amenity upgrades and cosmetic changes to the city, instead of supporting the poorer and working class residents of their cities.

The poor are being legislated against in an incredible number of ways—from ‘no-sit-no-lie’ laws aimed at the homeless, to targeted policing, to extensive imprisoning of select populations. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.” This is because lawmakers—who have tremendous pressure on them to be ‘tough on crime,’ have elected to imprison the problems associated with a faltering economy and an ineffective education system, rather than envisaging a scenario that provides opportunity for everyone.

Alongside this displacement and discrimination, the consumptive and acquisitive lifestyles of the people living in the United States (especially the wealthy) has been a major factor in the waging of war in Iraq, and the ongoing destabilization of the Middle East as a region. That war, which has cost upwards of a million lives, and which has thoroughly devastated the political and infrastructural conditions of life in Iraq, has set in motion a political violence and instability that continues to claim countless lives there and elsewhere, as ISIS forces—perhaps today’s zealous Jacobins, outraged about the excesses of the ‘aristocratic west’—capitalize on the structural poverty and dissatisfaction of economically peripheralized populations.

Catalyzed by the various dimensions of this unfurling crisis, as well as by the slowly declining conditions of middle class life in America, many dissatisfied voters—living in so-called ‘flyover country (apparently 80% of venture capital went to just three states in 2016: California, New York and Massachusetts)—have turned to the right, embracing Donald Trump and various ‘Alt-Right’ movements that promise to restore their dignity and prosperity.

One strand of dissatisfaction that is rarely talked about is the highly prevalent feeling of sexual frustration, around which the largely right-leaning ‘incel’ (involuntary celibacy) movement has emerged. The incel movement is largely associated with the alt-right, especially the various ‘men’s rights’ sites. Aligned, in many ways, with the anti-feminism of the Red Pill subreddit, the incel movement perceives ‘sexual liberation’ as having created a condition in which 80% of women have sex with 20% of men—the most attractive and wealthy men—to the detriment of the bottom 80%. Unhappy with flexible relationship styles and ‘free love’ in which people freely invest their love into social hierarchies, the so-called ‘incels’ would prefer a return to hierarchical institutions of marriage and patriarchy.

Essential to this pessimistic worldview is a perspective on human nature that has extremely important parallels with Augustine’s reading of the Book of Genesis. Many in the alt-right are of the perspective that women are naturally ‘hypergamous,’ meaning that they always desire the most powerful and attractive men. This view, which is inextricably related to the view that Eve is the tempestuous one who fails to control herself and partakes of the apple, is used to justify the belief that women must be controlled in order to generate mating opportunities for all men. Feminism, in this view, has eroded most men’s access to women by peeling away the institutions of control that men had over women in the past.

While we may be outraged—as many feminists and people on the left are—with the gender essentialism that this worldview naturalizes, as well as with the incels’ proposed solutions to getting so-called ‘hypergamy’ ‘under control,’ our outrage does not undo the felt conditions of scarcity for the many, many people who are left out by the sexual hierarchy that undoubtedly exists. As many have observed, to a privileged person, equality looks like oppression, and this may be relevant to both sides of this issue, wherein men systematically downplay the economic oppression and disadvantages of women, just as many women downplay the sexual disempowerment and felt scarcity of many men (and women!). What identity-political positions typically fail to recognize are the myriad historical forces that have shaped identities, tastes, preferences and environments in order to create the prevalent gendered behaviors and institutions of today. men and women behave the way they do largely because of vast accumulations of cultural and social expectation—from Evangelical reformist efforts to stamp out vice and to protect ‘purity’ (the Social Purity movement of the late nineteenth century), to anti-vice and anti-obscenity laws (the so-called ‘Comstock Laws’), to state-sponsored ‘social hygiene’ campaigns aimed at abstinence-based public health, to media exaltation of virginal, juvenated females as the quintessence of beauty and desirability, to commercialized visions of beauty, masculinity and sexuality. All of these, and many other factors, have produced a set of social and sexual behaviors in which scarcity and unfairness reign. And, with both sides often taking these historically-produced conditions as natural, the result is a zero-sum game of competing over scarcity and control. This is why is so striking about the most prevalent reactions against unfairness and injustice: frequently, they are more ready to accept the prevalence and immutability of austerity (and to be outraged by unfairness and indignities) than they are to imagine and plan for abundance. I would like to place the twin concepts of theodicy and original sin at the heart of this narrative: their presumption that life is suffering and there is no way around it; that material abundance or bodily pleasure are a sin; that humanity is inherently flawed in a way that only extreme authority can resolve; that there can be no winning without losing. I would like to argue that millennia of extreme hierarchy and immoderate ascetic reactions to this have tended to reinforce the perspective that austerity is the sole possibility for humanity, and that we are condemned to embrace power or accept the consequences.

It is within this context that many of us are enjoying our festivals, our launch parties, our play parties, our ecstatic dances, our communes, our beach days, our career successes and our art builds. And it is for this reason that I would like to posit a different approach from the apathy-outrage binary. What if there is a version of abundance that does not depend on the exploitation of others? What if we can come to desire pleasures that are not exclusive or destructive or elitist? And what if the process of unmaking hierarchies can be just as enjoyable (if not more so) than occupying the top of those hierarchies? What if we were to parse through the various hedonisms that we partake in, and swap the destructive, irresponsible, exploitative pleasures (such as the pursuit of power, luxury and wealth) with different, virulently inclusive pleasures? Can we imagine a world of changed tastes and priorities where winning doesn’t depend on losing? This is the starting point of Critical Hedonism(s).

Queer(ing) Space

There is a great deal of writing and thinking in the architectural world about the relationship between queerness and built space. In 1994, Beatriz Colomina, Dennis Dollens, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Cindi Patton, Henry Urbach and Mark Wigley curated the Queer Space exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, where they explored the “various definitions of the terms “queer” and “space” and the conceptual bonds that unite them,” as well as posing the questions: “How can minorities define their rights to occupy spaces within the city? How can such space be legitimized, given a history and a future? Is it even physical space that is in question, or is it the space of discursive practices, texts, codes of behavior and the regulatory norms that organize social life?”

A number of “‘really-existing’ firms and practices view themselves through the lens of queerness, perhaps foremost among them being Elmgreen & Dragset—an experimental architecture practice based out of Berlin.

Last spring, I curated a panel discussion dedicated to the topic of queer urbanism as part of the Immanent Urbanism(s) series, featuring Sben Korsh (a scholar of queer architecture) and Zac Benfield (a community organizer and part of the Radical Faery movement), and moderated by Stathis Gerostathopoulos (an architect and scholar of the built environment). The discussion explored a series of questions posed in the following way:

The ways in which LGBTQ people and communities have found a home in existing urbanism, challenging ‘traditional,’ hetero-normative settlement patterns, and the ways in which these gains face different challenges today—from so-called “homonormativity” to gentrification—will be the topics under discussion by our panelists. In a time that is witnessing rapidly rising rents, evictions, and redevelopments, the ways in which LGBTQ people possess and are dispossessed of space becomes a matter of critical importance. The Bay Area—and San Francisco in particular—has been an historic location of queer spatial practice. The built environment, and its intersection with culture, politics and economics begs for an equally intersectional take on the manifold issues facing the spaces that LGBTQ people and communities have settled. Such intersectionality would necessarily include emerging voices that seek a place for trans and queer people of color in discourses about queerness. Using such a lens, the discussion will attempt to offer insight on many important questions: Why were queers able to take possession of spaces where and when they did? How have such locations been mediators of race, gender, and class amongst queers? How has space worked for and against changing demographics and new ways of life in these places? How do power and privilege, legal and societal acceptance factor into new forms of displacement? What are the prospects for new modes of spatial practice, perhaps operating outside of possession and ownership, and instead rooted in collectivity?

In that discussion, intersectionality was a hot topic, since dimensions of privilege, such as class and culture were (and are) leaving clear marks on the demographics of people who could enjoy historically gay neighborhoods, ushering in new regimes of normativity and and exclusivity in places like the Castro and Diamond Heights—a phenomenon that is evidently widespread in gay neighborhoods, as Colin Giraud—Professor of Sociology at Nanterre University—has researched in his work “Ambiguities of Conquest: Gentrification in the Quartiers Gays of Montreal and Paris”—work presented at UC Berkeley in March, 2016 (days before the Immanent Urbanism[s] panel on queer spaces). Many of these questions and conflicts seemed to beg for a redefinition of queerness, since, as Zac Benfield pointed out, many of those working to live, love and long in experimental, subversive and radically shared ways were precisely the people being pushed out of the cities that had been the substrate for such experimentation.

One year later, the topic has resurfaced for me as a scholar, as I have been participating in the Queer Urbanisms working group at UC Berkeley, at the invitation of Eric Peterson and Stathis Gerostathopoulos.

Prompted by a lecture delivered to the group several days ago (March 2, 2017) by Olivier Vallerand (a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design) entitled “Queer Potentialities: on Space and Communities,” I began to ask myself: can there really ever be such a thing as queer space?

In taking back up the question of the relationship between queerness and space, what I’m particularly interested is the degree to which space and queerness may be at odds with one another. That is: perhaps the queering of spaces is compromised by the very process of formal settlement of the spaces—not only through the ways in which real estate procurement and other domesticating/coagulating processes instill in the procurers a normative inclusion into prohibitive systems—but also in the sense that designed space is always already thought. If we consider one dimension of queerness as being an experimentation with new ways of living and thinking, then how might this be in inherent tension with designed space, which, by definition, is always already-thought? I think this may be the inherent conservatism of design (as a practice of imagining and building permanent—or semi-permanent—structures). I would argue that if architecture is going to “finally … think otherwise,” (Deleuze, Foucault, pg. 119.) in terms of queerness, then it will have to map new possibilities onto existing space, in a reinterpretation of what has already been produced. I think that Tschumi’s concept of program and Stan Allen’s concept of diagrams can be helpful tools here. For Bernard Tschumi, program makes possible “an exploration of the disjunction between expected form and expected use.” (Architecture and Disjunction, pg. 147.) For Stan Allen, “diagrams do not map or represent already existing objects or systems but anticipate new organizations and specify yet to be realized relationships.” (Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation, pg. 51.)

For me, this is why queer urbanism is always immanent urbanism. The importance of immanence to twenty-first century urbanism is, in my estimation, that it attempts to avoid the restrictions, constraints and pitfalls of formal attachment in an age that must reinvent itself using relatively scarce means to do so. I believe that the role of design in an immanent project of urbanism is to furnish an evolving toolkit of occupation—temporary and experimental settlement of spaces often contrary and against their intended uses, while simultaneously exploring how these tools end up being applied and exploring how they might be deployed otherwise. Within such a regime, queerness becomes a verb (queering) but never a stable noun (queer), because queerness, by its very definition, exists in relation to a changing normality (which perhaps is equally unstable as a noun—perhaps we therefore need the term ‘norming’?). This dynamism, I believe, is precisely what Deleuze and Guattari sought to conjure in A Thousand Plateaus (a difficult feat to accomplish without describing such a phenomenon concretely—the reason for the book’s strange and often confusing language). In that work, the duo describe their theory of deterritorialization and reterritorialization—the shifting terrain upon which they prescribe so-called “nomadic resistance.” This nomadism is really a nomadism of thought and action (rather than a superficial endorsement of travel), and I believe that it should be considered as a fundamental approach to the practice of queering, especially with respect to urban space.

A note about definitions: terms that refuse to define themselves (a productive thing to have) all too easily lend themselves to appropriation and mis-definition. Queer may be one such word, which can easily be affixed to a number of concrete practices or even objects, perhaps to the detriment of its experimental and differentiating qualities, precisely because it refuses to settle into a concrete definition for too long. Some deterritorializations are highly productive for the original territory, since they literally produce the value that constitutes the original territory—value that is continuously harvested by means of reterritorialization. It would be worth considering, then, how queering actually (re)produces the normative (not just definitionally, but materially!) and whether the very act of transgression has become structurally subsumed within the overall strategy of normative accumulation and power.

Professional Interests: how professionalism came to dominate common sense

Today, we may be tempted to look at certain professional and/or research practices as examples of conflicts of interest. We may, for example, cite Enron’s 2002 sponsorship of the Guggenheim’s retrospective show for Frank Gehry, as Thomas Frank has done in “Rocking for the Clampdown”; (1) or the 1998 Guggenheim motorcycle show—an example of the museum’s strategy of “soliciting corporations—like BMW, Giorgio Armani, or Hugo Boss—to sponsor ‘shows’ of their own products, turning museums into boutiques,” as Michael Sorkin puts it in “Brand Aid”; (2) or the work that Eero Saarinen did for General Motors, Bell Labs and IBM, as Reinhold Martin explores in The Organizational Complex; (3) or the design research and exhibition work that Charles and Ray Eames conducted during the height of the Cold War—including their propaganda film “Glimpses of the U.S.A.” for the 1959 American National Exhibition—and their work for such companies as IBM, Boeing, Westinghouse, etc. These glaring examples are of course worthy of criticism, just as clearly-corrupted politicians and corporations are in obvious need of condemnation and critique. But what these kinds of critique often miss—and can even implicitly justify—is the degree to which the majority of practice is situated within a biased field of possibilities—one that structures the coordinates of common sense and ethical standards along a narrow set of primary interests. This field of possibilities—which I will provisionally call “professionalism,” has a history. It’s important to remember that in its origins, professionalism itself was initially posed as a political means of preserving ruling class power against political contestation and corruption—a mission that itself was never neutral or objective. This political strategy was ineffective until it established itself on the ‘neutral’ terrain of scientific discourse, which depoliticized—in the public eye—its inherently political objectives and allowed it to become the administrative basis of the majority of sanctioned human effort. It was precisely on the terrain of ‘truth’ that a cast of reformers—interested in stability of the social order—waged a struggle for power and influence, particularly between the 1870s and 1940s. It was out of this reform discourse that the modern professions of urban planning, architecture and design arose, alongside the disciplines of economics, political science, psychology and sociology—disciplines that claimed to possess truths about humanity and civilization, while downplaying the asymmetrical and motivated political agency that such knowledge was intended to generate. Strategically, this occurred through the suspension of political questions of ‘why?’ in favor of specific and narrow technical matters of ‘how?,’ in both academic and professional discourses. The so-called ‘Progressive era’ witnessed the proliferation of ‘specific intellectual’ experts, (4) steeped in the new academic disciplines, operating within a larger, unquestioned ‘regime of truth’ that regulated “the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true,” as Foucault puts the matter. (5) This division of expertise among ‘specific intellectual’ professional ‘problem solvers’ increasingly trained in technical skills was mobilized and vetted by professional organizations and associations, whose missions were to uphold the standards and ‘best practices’ of the professional order—situated in the wider regime of truth.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, after a period of unplanned, relatively unrestrained and accelerating urbanization and population growth in the United States, a number of reform organizations began to problematize the city as a primary site of political and social intervention. Perhaps foremost among these organizations was the National Municipal League, which sought to organize new municipal governance structures in chaotic and politically-divided cities. Founded in 1894, the League set out to tame the urban conurbations in the United States, which had aggregated without centralized planning, and were plagued by fracturing social classes—all scrambling for power—which held cities in political gridlock, to the detriment of the elite, monied interests. (6) The members of the National Municipal League were inspired by the early political science writings of Frank P. Prichard and Woodrow Wilson. Prichard argued that that “Scientific knowledge, skilled labor, systematic organization are all necessary for the conduct of the various municipal departments,” (7) while Wilson—the only U.S. president with a PhD—argued in an 1887 (long before he became president) essay entitled “The Study of Administration” that leaders, who were beholden to public opinion in democratic societies, should seek effective management of that opinion, and not let it disrupt the administration of power. “The problem,” Wilson stated, “is to make public opinion efficient without suffering it to be meddlesome. . . . Let administrative study find the best means for giving public criticism this control and for shutting it out from all other interference.” (8) The means by which Wilson suggested that this be accomplished was through a separation of administrative from legislative functions of government, so that governmental tasks such as the planning of streets and utilities, enforcement of laws and regulations, and, increasingly, the design and erection of infrastructures, drafting of zoning and building codes (and their enforcement), etc. would persist in spite of regime changes and fluctuations in public opinion. Consistent with Wilson’s musings, the National Municipal League argued for such a separation of expert administration from politically-contentious legislative politics. “[I]f we hope to use experts in our cities,” they stressed in a 1916 model city charter—some version of which would eventually be adopted into law in most municipalities—“they must not hold elective offices, [so] that their positions must be independent of political change.” (9) Those entrusted to run municipal administration—the bourgeoning class of professional planners, enforcers and regulators—ought not be considered to be politicians. In order to accomplish this, municipal reformers needed to formulate a new foundation upon which to rest the authority of the expert administrator. Whereas before, popularity or political affiliation would temporarily secure the authority of the administrator, the reformers turned increasingly to technical expertise—rooted in ‘science’ as a basis of the administrator’s authority. Dr. A. L. Lowell, one of the authors of the New Municipal Program, explained that experts were simply better trained and more knowledgable about problems related to their specialty than the average citizen; that, therefore, “[t]he influence of the permanent officials is not due to any political authority. It is simply that which expert knowledge, when given a fair chance, will properly command and it makes for efficiency, honesty, and progress in civic welfare.” (10) Lowell continued, “Above all he must take no part in politics, for politics naturally involves a not infrequent change of personnel which is quite inconsistent with permanence of tenure.” (11) Scientific knowledge would serve as the justification for the properly political policies of municipal governance, shielding administration from controversy. Earlier attempts to reform municipal governments had been heavily mired in controversy, with the 1901 first model city charter overtly stating its intentions of fairness in mediating among contentious issues, yet in the process failing to do so. (12) This early proposal failed because it did not depoliticize the issues at hand, and therefore could not build broad-based support for reforms. Commenting on this failure in 1908, the director of the League, Clinton Rogers Woodruff, stated the need for more unified efforts within the League, whose “first object according to its declaration of principles has been to multiply the numbers, harmonize the methods and combine the forces of all who realize that it is only by united action and organization that good citizens can secure the adoption of good laws and the selection of men of trained ability and proved integrity for all municipal positions.” (13) Such “united action and organization,” resulting from a “harmonization of methods,” could only proceed if the debate about municipal affairs could effectively shift to one that was perceived as less controversial—both to reformers and to the public.

    Peter Marcuse, the critical planner, has observed these same techniques of power in operation today among advocates of sustainable urban development (though it could certainly be argued that these techniques are operative in all of the myriad professional organizations and academic disciplines that condition professionals to a specific set of standards and instill certain ‘expert’ knowledges). These techniques operate through what he calls a “One-Dimensional Language of standard analysis,” which creates and embellishes a certain type of reality, just as the reform discourse of the League problematized certain issues and ignored others. (14) According to Marcuse, this depoliticizing language—language that has “unintended and often subliminal meaning” (15)—is being deployed more and more in urban planning. For Marcuse, these unintended meanings are “more harmful than if they were intended and overt.” (16) He is not concerned with an Orwellian critique of overtly political speech, with its heavy use of euphemisms and intentional vagueness—the language of political propaganda (the corollary, for our purpose, is the clearly corrupted professional practice, with its obvious endorsement of corporate or state interests). Instead, he says, “the problem raised here is when words and language is used in all sincerity, innocently, but with implications not intended by its user but effectively having important political implications supporting the legitimacy of the status quo.” (17) This “One-Dimensional Language” operates through a set of techniques that Marcuse lists, among them being the following:


The tyranny of facts: giving exclusive consideration to the ‘facts,’ to hard data, priority for the quantifiable that can be empirically demonstrated claiming objectivity for the findings and presentations of research.” (18)

Homogenization of entities: canceling out the internal variations and diversities that are contained with a single term, such as city or public.” (19)

Harmonization, the denial of conflict, the unspoken assumption of unity of interests, of a single ultimate public interest, of an achievable harmony of interests and consensus among conflicting forces, groups, concerns, around concepts such as ‘sustainable,’ ‘healthy market,’ ‘mobility,’ ‘choice.’” (20)


This “[o]ne-dimensional language has a clear political impact,” Marcuse concludes. “It supports the status quo, implicitly suggesting that, if there are difficulties, they are subject to correction within existing structures and with existing means.” This one-dimensional language enters into our every-day vocabulary, he explains, and yet “[t]hey have become depoliticized not by a conspiracy of those whose interests they serve, but rather by their quiet acceptance in established discourse.” (21)

    The status quo is precisely what the early political scientists, whose work influenced the League’s strategy, sought to preserve with their endorsements of depoliticized administrative governance. Woodrow Wilson, for example, admired the Napoleonic form of government in France, and especially Baron Haussmann’s manipulations of Paris, because these authoritarian structures maintained political order. Reflecting on the French regime with little-to-no concealment of his admiration for its accomplishments, Wilson argued that the leaders there, engaging in administrative forms of governance, not only “made themselves too efficient to be dispensed with,” but they also succeeded in becoming “too smoothly operative to be noticed, too enlightened to be inconsiderately questioned, too benevolent to be suspected, too powerful to be coped with.” (22) Wilson was not critical of this invisible, indispensable administrative power. He wanted to “Americanize” this administration—to “get the bureaucratic fever out of its veins; [so that it could] inhale much free American air.” (23) The “science” of municipal governance was precisely such an Americanization, doing so without dispensing with the power inherent to it. 

    By the end of Wilson’s presidency, the League had largely succeeded in installing administrative governance structures in American municipalities. After the release of A New Municipal Program in 1916, the experts of municipal reform were rapidly being ushered into municipal governments around the country, because they had firmly established themselves as the arbiters of a new, ‘scientific’ regime of truth. The result was an institutionalization of various professional roles into the government, and a ‘permanency of tenure’ for administrative control. Meanwhile, the spread of professional organizations and academic departments producing and expanding the influence of increasingly technical and supposedly objective knowledges was a hallmark of the same period. The result was a massive diffusion of technical expertise, erected in the pursuit of ‘how-oriented’ questions, with relatively little regard for ‘why-oriented’ questions. Essentially all of the major professional organizations and academic disciplines were established on the basis of the same ‘regime of truth’ that the National Municipal League helped to institutionalize with its suspension of socio-political matters, and its embrace of technical research and activity. In this sense, and following Foucault, I believe it would be a mistake to object to certain instances of professional practice on the basis that their alignment with obvious interests compromise their truth value. Instead, we should contest the very regimes of truth upon which the reigning conceptions of ‘common sense’ and ‘best practices’ rely. Such a project would necessarily demand a recasting of the so-called ‘Progressive era,’ which is typically remembered fondly as a period of objective fairness, expanded political liberty and civic efficiency, and rational social development—the historical plinth upon which our society sits. It’s important to imbue this memory with the recollection of the political technologies of control that were forged at that time, in the very institutions that are usually celebrated. “The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines,” wrote Foucault. (24) The Progressive Era, which was, in many ways, an extension of the Enlightenment, witnessed an adaptation of power that rendered control more effective and less costly, if also simultaneously less offensive and brutal. Top-down control, corresponding to ostentatious sovereignty—those “traditional, ritual, costly, violent forms of power […] soon fell into disuse and were superseded by a subtle, calculated technology of subjection.” (25) The wide range of professions that came into being during this period, and which are still with us today—and which structure and give meaning to the bulk of human activity—represent an historically new, and largely unquestioned apparatus of power, whose entire basis should perhaps be critically reexamined in the twenty-first century.



(1) Thomas Frank, “Rocking the Clampdown: Creativity, Corporations, and the Crazy Curvilinear Cacophony of the Experience Music,” Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture, eds. William S. Saunders (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), pg. 60-77.

(2) Michael Sorkin, “Brand Aid; or, The Lexus and the Guggenheim (Further Tales of the Notorious B.I.G.ness),” Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture, eds. William S. Saunders (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), pg. 22-33.

(3) Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media and Corporate Space (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

(4) Foucault describes the importance of the ‘specific intellectual’ in his interview with Alessandro Fontana and Pasquale Pasquino, published as “Truth and Power” in Power Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, eds. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), pg. 129 & 30.

(5) Ibid., pg. 131.

(6) See Martin J. Schiesl, The Politics of Efficiency: Municipal Administration and Reform in America: 1880-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

(7) Frank P. Prichard, “The Study of the Science of Municipal Government,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 2 (Jan., 1892), pg. 19.

(8) Woodrow Wilson, “The Study of Administration,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (June, 1887), pg. 215.

(9) Model City Charter and Home Rule, as Prepared by the Committee on Municipal Program of the National Municipal League (March, 1916), pg. 34.

(10) Lowell, A. L., A New Municipal Program, eds. Clinton Rogers Woodruff (London: D. Appleton and Company, 1919), pg. 31, emphasis added.

(11) Ibid.

(12) National Municipal League, A Municipal Program: Report of a Committee of the National Municipal League, (London: The Macmillan Company,1900).

(13) Clinton Rogers Woodruff, “The National Municipal League,” Proceedings of the American Political Science Association, Vol. 5, Fifth Annual Meeting (1908), pg. 132, emphasis added.

(14) Peter Marcuse, “Depoliticizing urban discourse: How ‘we’ write,”Cities (2014), pg. 3.

(15) Ibid., pg. 1

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid., pg. 3.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid., pg. 2.

(22) Wilson, “The Study of Administration,” pg. 203.

(23) Ibid., pg. 202.

(24) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage. 1977), pg. 222.

(25) Ibid., pg. 220-21.

Towards a New Sharing Economy

    The world needs more economies than simply the market economy. By having only one type of economy, we leave ourselves extremely vulnerable to its fluctuations, dips, and failures. Thinkers such as Saskia Sassen, for example, advocates that there be more than just one economic system in place, and does so from a perspective of societal resiliency. She argues that we should be looking to the neighborhood and the home as a “social back-up system” that can support people who are out of formal work. ( If we can figure out how to use digital technologies to connect neighborhood resources in a truly peer-to-peer fashion, we may witness an economic resiliency and diversity that every corner of the earth could benefit from. This is what many well-intentioned, socially-minded platforms have been doing in the so-called “true sharing economy”, enabling non-monetary sharing among its users. These types of platforms have come to be called “platform co-operativism”, and they are an extremely fascinating model. They are tapping into the invisible half of economic behaviors that prevail in human society, which are bundled under the name “informal economy”. This sector, as recognized by the Geneva-based International Labor Office (ILO), is an heterogeneous and differentiated plurality of economic behaviors, ranging from precarious employment involving money, to illegal manufacturing, to crime, to drug cultivation.manufacturing and trafficking to family cooperation to borrowing goods and resources from friends, neighbors and family. According to the ILO, “[t]he informal economy thrives in a context of high unemployment, underemployment, poverty, gender inequality and precarious work”, and the organization pathologies this sector, formulating ways of formalizing the informal labor activities that it documents.

    The pathologization of informality actually is a necessary intellectual operation within a larger primitive accumulation process that incorporates non-capitalist economic activity and value into the monetized circulation of investment-driven market exchange. Since antiquity, this process has grown the “formal”, capitalist economy by integrating laborers into the system, traditionally through geographic expansion. Today, this process continues to occur, except through the intensification of integration, such that increasingly large proportions of human needs are met in the marketplace. It is in this sense that many platforms that are today seen as fitting within the sharing economy are actually operating on a strategy of primitive accumulation by commodifying and monetizing previously non-market-based behaviors. As the theorist David Graeber observes, there is always a so-called ‘baseline-communism’ that underlies and enables profitable enterprise. From family organizations that biologically reproduce the so-called “human capital” that is essential for formal economics to the many civil and social organizations, relationships, collaborations, and so on, to the “commons” created by open source software developers and the producers of collectively-held knowledge, the formal economy clearly has its foundations in a plinth of commonly-produced social infrastructures. Without these, there would be no formal sector.

    In fact, this baseline becomes increasingly central in the lives of those let down or otherwise dis-integrated from formal employment, especially in times of economic downturn. It is any accident that the many creative and innovative processes being called the “sharing economy” emerged in the wake of the 2008 market crash? This period witnessed large numbers of people finding new ways of making a livelihood that were different from their strategies before the economic crisis, and much of this was either partially or totally removed from the market. In this moment, informality became the “social back-up system” that Sassen refers to.

    In recent years, many tech writers have been quick to call the sharing economy “dead”, based on their disaffection with companies like Airbnb and Uber, which have found ways of monetizing the processes of integration and primitive accumulation. People in all camps have been confused about what to make of the sharing economy, and matters are not helped by the fact that the term seems to represent such a wide-ranging set of activities that it is almost functionally useless as a communicative device. The use of such an umbrella term poses a dangerous ambiguity, especially in the way that the term has come to represent so many different notions. At its worst, it simply means individuals behaving, as one blogger put it, "as enterprises while simultaneously turning their potentially communal existence into a field of competition. It makes the potential for collaboration and cooperation . . . into instances of mediated exchange between atomized individuals. The platforms become the middlemen for 'social individuals' . . . reduced again to isolated individuals.”(1) Companies like Airbnb and Uber are finding new avenues of commodification, and this is motivating pessimism, especially among leftists.

    Yet the concerns about the exploitative aspects of the murky behaviors known as the sharing economy are not the only problems being called out. The more horizontal, bottom-up sharing practices of the so-called “real sharing economy” are also being critiqued as ineffective and inefficient. “The Sharing Economy is Dead, and We Killed It,” reads the title of an article in Fast Company penned by Sarah Kessler. Her argument is that people just don’t care enough about doing the right thing to participate in true sharing economy platforms. Rather than borrowing a drill from their neighbor, as Rachel Botsman optimistically suggested that they do in her 2010 TedxSydney talk, they just go out and buy one. Yet perhaps this pronouncement is based on the experiences of city dwellers in places where the formal economy is booming. San Francisco (one of those places) has a long history of attempting to solve its own trivial problems with VC-backed entrepreneurial solutions, and it may not be surprising that in a place where one has to work incredibly long hours to afford rent, that an impatience with the non-immediate transactions of the sharing economy would be considered too taxing to prevent them from buying their own version of whatever it is that they need online. Yet what about those places where the formal economy never recovered? Those marginal, unattractive-to-millennials, unnoticed cities like Stockton, CA, Louisville, KY, Gary, IN, El Paso, TX, and other places could be a true haven for new economic behaviors that move beyond money-driven exchange.

    Greece is perhaps a very good model of this. Since the 2008 market crash, the Greek economy has failed to make a strong comeback, and within these conditions, an immense and pluralistic informal economy has emerged. Not only has crime and tax evasion flourished under these circumstances, but also new currencies and networks have emerged as being central in the economic lives of many who lack full formal employment. Yet the government, concerned as it is with receiving tax revenue, does not know what to do with the informal sector. Consistent with the International Labor Office report, much of the world, including the Greek government, have been quick to pathologize the informal sector, focusing on its exploitative, criminal and tax-evasive sides, while ignoring the immense productive capacity that is rearing its head in the many parallel economies that have emerged. Are we blind to economic systems that do not express themselves through money (and therefore subject to taxation, both by the state, and by the owners of investment capital)? The twenty-first century will not permit such a blindness. Increasingly, these informal sectors are serving as backup systems and even as primary spheres of valorization for large portions of the population.

    Within this context, if we want to make organizations that actually have meaningful impact and which pave the way to the future, we will need to be innovative on more than simply technological or business axes. Enterprises today should be aware of the many different (yet often interwoven) economic fabrics of society, and seek to enmesh themselves in an enabling way within these fabrics, remembering that a good platform enables and enhances existing economic logics.

    Yet this is not just a call for philanthropic organizations. Creating organizations that are situated across multiple economic fabrics makes good business sense too, since it extends resiliency not only to populations (making the organizations socially-relevant), but also to enterprises themselves. Perhaps one of the largest and most pressing barriers to growth for saturated market-based organizations, especially when they have competitors offering similar services, is that they are missing out on non-monetary transactions. Platforms want users who will eventually use their service in a profitable, and by going straight for this, they actually miss out on gaining many users. Other sectors have figured this out, and this is why your see “play-places” at McDonald’s, quasi-civic/public spaces in shopping malls, and other similar strategies of luring people into the proximity of commercial enterprises. By having more users on your platform, even if not every user creates revenue every time they use the platform, the enterprise is better off. This is a dual-conversion-rate system in which people become users, and then sometimes users become paying customers. The hosting of non-market uses of digital platforms is today’s platform-based enterprise’s play-place. It makes you look good, it attracts users to your platform, it gets you talked about, and, if it’s important to you, it makes you relevant and meaningful by making your organization forward-looking and measurably impactful in the lives of much wider spheres of users.

(1) Rob Horning, Internal Exile, <> accessed December 6, 2015.

The City Was Once a Miniature Golf Course

Peewee Golf in the Great Depression,


Spatial appropriation and experimentation in America’s economic meltdown

The Great Depression witnessed one of the greatest flourishings of urban hacking in recorded American History. One extremely bizarre—and seemingly frivolous—example of this was the massive deployment of do-it-yourself miniature golf courses that spread like a behavioral virus in the deep, dark years of the Depression.

    Prior to the Great Depression, the popularity of peewee golf had been on a steady ascendency since its first mention in a 1912 issue of The Illustrated London News, especially with the invention of artificial turf by inventor Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn in 1922. Opportunistic entrepreneurs, seeing a chance to turn a quick profit, seized on the occasion of the sport's popularity and opened thousands of mini golf courses around the country, capitalizing on the lower operating costs afforded by artificial turf (it would not need to be watered, mowed or fertilized). The fantastical courses designed and built by these new mini-golf “barons” became a fixture in the early twentieth-century American psyche—one that economic devastation could not wipe out.

    It is estimated that during the Great Depression, over 25,000 mini golf courses were created. If the pre-Depression entrepreneurs had begun the work of extending the terrain of America’s new favorite miniature pastime, it paled in comparison to what creative (and often desperate) people all over the nation made of the tiny sport in thewake of the market’s 1929 crash. In those desperate times, miniature golf “became a devastating craze in every part of the United States,” according to a 1930 London Times article, with “at least 10,000 ‘tabloid’ courses . . . in full blast night and day.” (1) A puzzled 1929 New York Times article (fig. 1) described the spring/summer of that year as yet “the most successful outdoor season of [miniature golf’s] youthful career,” (2) and yet the craze continued to flourish well into the 1930’s. How was this possible in the economic climate of the Depression? 

    The market’s crash lead to a suspension of exchange value as the only plausible economic logic in the city. As Andrew Herscher has argued in reference to contemporary Detroit, new urban practices—what he calls “unreal estate” practices—“emerge . . . when the exchange value of property falls to a point when that property can assume use values unrecognized by the market economy.” (3) This is precisely the condition that was generalized across the entire United States (and beyond) when the stock market crashed in 1929. Remarkably, rather than simply resigning themselves to a sad and reticent poverty, the people of the Great Depression generalized conditions that, as the New York Times article had remarked upon, had previously been relegated to beach resorts. Making the most of the situation, and sometimes in an attempt to start a tiny business for themselves as a way of generating a small income, thousands of people extended theverdant terrain of urban leisure to sites that had been vital economic assets before the Depression. In cities like New York, inner-city rooftops (see fig. 3 & 4) were carpeted with Fairbairn's artificial turf, becoming a strange archipelago of elevated grassy islands ornamented with whatever tickled their creator’s fancies (typically using whatever was available for obstacles), and relying on existing urban conditions for functionality and amenity. Urban courses would pop up (as in fig. 2), beside brightly illuminated billboards and other sources of ambient urban light, where players could play long into the night, making the most of the light pollution spilling down from their various sources. Vacant lots and halted construction sites were a favorite location for the adventurous peewee golfer, who could tap his or her ball into half-completed drainage pipes or along slantedsteel structural elements as part of the game.  So popular were some of the features introduced by these kinds of ‘whatever-happens-to-be-on-hand’ obstacles that they were permanently incorporated into the sport, even after the economic turmoil was over. Incredibly, even upscale restaurants, unable to fill tables in post-crash economic conditions, promptly converted large areas of their floorspace to miniature golf courses, replacing tables that were unlikely to bring in an income. As a fantastic image of this phenomenon illustrates(fig. 5), the benefit of having such a course indoor was that it could be ornamented with tropical plants and more delicate decorations and obstacles that would not survive in the outdoors. Perhaps unthinkable today, such conversions were widespread in the 1930’s. As Mel Scott put the matter, 

"Suddenly this version of a noble Scottish sport became the national craze . . . . Vacant lots all over cities presently were converted into tiny golf courses on which players putted under the glare of electric lights far into the night. These amusement parks-in-little caused no problems in commercial areas, but those in residential neighborhoods brought outcries from residents whose sleep was disturbed by the illumination and by the loud conversation and laughter of patrons." (4)

Eventually, the peewee golfer’s takeover of the city was thwarted by the concerns of self-interested homeowners, who, after 1934 under the newly-established Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) relief aid, faced the possibility of being deemed ineligible for federally-guaranteed loans if there were persistent non-conforming uses of space in their neighborhoods. ineligible areas, as the so-called “redlined” inner-city neighborhoods would soon show, were subject to declining real estate values, since the inability to secure an affordable loan with federal guarantees made buying in the area prohibitive and also unwise from an investment point of view, since future buyers themselves would be unable to secure a loan. The state-backed relief efforts were extremely effective precisely because they reversed the conditions that lead to the miniature golf experimentation to begin with. market values once again became the prevailing value system reigning over urban space, and lead directly to a decline in the bizarre and spontaneous “unreal estate” values that had turned rooftops into miniature golf courses. “Eventually planners agreed that miniature golf was a commercial form of recreation inappropriate in residential zones,” Scott explains, yet it is unlikely that the police power of zoning ordinances alone were ultimately the most effective regulatory force in shutting down the peewee golf courses. (5) Perhaps most effective of all, however, was the fact that neighborhood-based loan eligibility criteria published in the FHA Underwriting Manual meant that the homeowners themselves were incentivized to police their own neighborhoods, for fear of losing access to federal subsidies. A whole population of homeowners had, according to a newly defined (and state-created) set of interests, every reason to condemn this entertaining encroachment, and to make sure that it did not interfere with the fungibility of their real estate investments.


  1. "Miniature Golf." Times, 29 Aug. 1930: 15.  The Times Digital Archive. (London, England) Web. 7 Feb. 2015.
  2. “MINIATURE GOLF WINS FAVOR: Diminutive Courses of the Beach Resorts Now Set Up in     Manhattan Buildings,” New York Times, (New York, N.Y) 06 Oct 1929: SM10.
  3. Andrew Herscher, The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012) pg. 9.
  4. Scott, Mel. American City Planning Since 1890. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1969), pg. 278-79.
  5. Ibid. pg. 279.

Agile Architectures

    One issue I have always had with architecture is that it typically involves clients. Clients, when they invest in architecture, usually expect some kind of return on their investment, and in this sense, they almost always bring capitalist relations to bear on the design process. This is fine unless you happen, like I do, to wish for an architecture that moves beyond the determinism of prevailing power structures. Because of its immense cost, the production of buildings is a difficult thing to wiggle out of these determining forces. I have argued in a previous issue of Paprika! that perhaps subversive architects should be ready to let go of producing buildings altogether, favoring instead a radical misuse of the existing built environment, with the architect becoming more of a hacker of spatial softwares than an top-down manufacturer of spatial hardware. Here, I’d like to present a caveat to that repudiation of the production of actual built form.

    In the weird world of business “theory”, a new paradigm is taking over: agility. Companies, rather than investing tons of resources into a product in order to perfect it before its launch will release a “minimum viable product” (MVP), which they test in the actual marketplace and iterate upon in a series of releases. First introduced in the software world, agility has recently witnessed broad success in the world of hardware production as well. Can architecture learn something from this?

    Upon returning to San Francisco (where agile jargon has annoyingly made its way into the everyday lexicon) as a YSOA graduate, I began two organizations in which I have been testing these and other questions hatched during my graduate studies: Nookzy, which is a peer-to-peer spatial amenity sharing platform that uses the market to encourage sharing behaviors that ideally will continue more effectively in a non-market context; and Spontaneum, which is a fast-growing group dedicated to throwing illegitimate events that misuse urban spaces, turning parking lots into movie screenings, underpasses into naked dance parties, and deploying select illumination of unrecognized features of the city as a means of elevating these to monument status, along with other seemingly nonsensical urban interventions. For Nookzy, the improvement of tiny spaces on a very low budget is made possible by the fact that the company benefits from altering the spaces of the hosts because they will then have a higher occupancy rate, yielding more income for all parties. Nookzy pays for the adjustments, and this is a new and interesting way to deliver design services in an “agile” kind of way. As a first “MVP”, I fabricated a small, $3,000 two-story building that hosts 8 hammocks, an upper deck with an enclosed, 18-foot canvas yurt structure, and a sharp, radial form, complemented by 18 sheer, bold red curtains, which we erected at Burning Man. It was a popular feature of Black Rock City, and so we are going to find it a permanent home in San Francisco, where it can be booked by Nookzy users on an hourly basis (hopefully we can stick a few $300 inflatable hot tubs in there as well). This is low-budget design in which the designer has total control of the whole process because it is inexpensive.

    In any case, Spontaneum is the more interesting example here, in my opinion, because it uses minimal structures to alter the experience of existing spaces. For our events, it often is the case that some small amount of infrastructure is needed. At the bare minimum, Spontaneum needed a generator for remote electricity, some speakers, and some bold lights—hard to come by for a decent price, but fortunately, the widespread practice of indoor marijuana cultivation has brought cost-effective, impractically bright lights that have no green spectrum, and whose output therefore appears pink into the marketplace. Super bright pink grow lights are therefore readily available to the urban hacker who wants to set out to contrarily illuminate corners of the city that nobody seems to appreciate. None of this gear can’t be had by Friday with free two-day shipping, and so it is a replicable set of tools that we have used in our initial hardware. A new strategy, which I have grown rather fond of recently, is the use of colored plastic cling wrap over existing lighting in indoor and outdoor spaces, such that the illumination is tinted with whatever hue the hacker desires. We do what we can to keep the costs down and the events free. We borrow stuff from friends; we use tools and toys in multiple ways; we try to achieve the maximum effect with the minimum material; we rarely get permission (permission is expensive!); we have eliminated the client completely. I believe we have accomplished a minor instance of architectural self-valorization.

A Theory of Urban Hacking

This essay examines contemporary misuses of urban space, finding theoretical lineages of these behaviors, and theorizing how an intentional misuse of the city and its existing features may be essential for twenty-first century urban life. Yet, rather than only serving as a descriptive theory, which attempts to explain the significance of the misuse of space, this essay also proposes a discursive strategy that can be harnessed by spatial and urban thinkers and designers, so that they may make a self-conscious use of urban hacking as an informed and self-conscious practice that everyday people participate in.


    In the discipline of architecture, the academic institutions and many enlightened publications have witnessed a broad protest to what we call “starchitecture”: typically large budget, grandiose projects designed by a relatively small group of architectural “stars” (folks like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, etc.). Starchitecture, the fascination with which occupies an inordinate amount of the conversation in architecture schools and architectural magazines, is, however, only one aspect of what we might call the “Major” in architecture. If starchitecture is a contemporary practice of the Major, there is a corresponding Major Architectural historical narrative that accompanies and justifies this practice. This narrative, which privileges the ideas and innovations of architecture over various economic, political and technical forces justifies the actions of starchitects, who are viewed as the new authors of the architectural future. But what this Major Architectural perspective ignores is the architect’s relative insignificance in shaping of the contemporary city. As early as 1973, Manfredo Tafuri wrote that “architecture as the ideology of the plan is swept away by the reality of the plan” when the economic forces at work no longer require architectural ideology to justify the plan. It is at this point, he wrote, that architecture would be forced to recede into a disciplinary autonomy that denies its inherent link to processes of production, and therefore becomes something of a privileged art form. As a profession that designs somewhere between 5-10% of new construction in the United States, and arguably much less in many parts of the world, architecture continues to abdicate its role as a shaper of cities when it forfeits its economic and political potentialities in favor of formal and/or technical implementations. When it is not busy producing the fancy wares of the privileged sectors and populations of the world, or creating massive, spectacular symbols to brand institutions (or sometimes entire cities), it is engaged in a futile progressivism (progressive in the sense of attempting to maintain a linear arc of progress in which the basis of society’s organization remains stable) that, equipped with a liberal “do-gooder” attitude, sets out to solve, on a technical basis, the problems set before it. The result is an (admittedly sometimes quite impressive) implementation of pragmatic “design solutions” for systemic issues that are, at best, a palliative, and, at worst, ideological deployments that distract us from our inability to truly tackle the deeply structural causes of the world’s desolation. The Coming Insurrection argued that “Environmentalism’s present paradox is that under the pretext of saving the planet from desolation it merely saves the causes of its desolation.”(1) The same could be said of progressive, problem-solving architecture. Too often, ecological restoration and urban greening have been embraced in many cities where these non-market amenities increase property values and tax bases, leading to gentrification, and to a reinforcement of the very economic dynamics that caused the problems to begin with. But architects, drawing from the Major historical narrative that places them at the forefront of change, believe that they are genuinely tackling the world’s problems when they reduce the amount of hardscapes in a city, or use shading to reduce the effects of urban heat islands, or by adding several transit stops to the public transportation grid. The point is not to trivialize these worthwhile pursuits, but to demote them in terms of their significance. Architecture, in its present trajectory, is not solving the world’s problems; it is merely selectively managing their effects. We should demand more from this discipline of trained spatial thinkers.

    Fortunately, an architectural rejection of the Major is gaining ground. Justin McGuirk, in a recent interview, explained that since the economic crash of 2008, there has been a questioning of the social role of architecture in society, and that architects have become increasingly interested in bottom-up dynamics and processes shaping the city. The most meaningful practices today, he explains, are connecting these “bottom-up impulses with top-down resources.” The feasibility of such a project I’ll leave to McGuirk, whose proposed solutions to Southern Hemisphere’s urban problems remain progressive (in the sense that they attempt to integrate disenfranchised populations into the existing systems), rather than radical (his title Radical Cities would suggest a disintegrative urban strategy, in which the disenfranchised break away from existing systems and form a parallel or antithetical system, or otherwise take control of and radically transform existing systems, but there is no such appearance in the book). In any case, he remains correct that there is a mounting impulse within architecture—inspired by the manifold urban behaviors that are “kicking off everywhere” (in Paul Mason’s parlance)—to address urban issues outside of the conventional disciplinary bounds of “capital A” Architecture, in ways that could perhaps be called “minor architectural practices”.

    Jill Stoner, in Toward a Minor Architecture, describes minor architecture as an architectural practice that rejects the language of the masters—that is, it rejects the very conception of totality and determinism in architecture. The master’s discourse plays a significant role in reinforcing the momentum of the systems that it seeks to describe, and today’s very discourses reinforce an assemblage that Stoner calls ‘symbolic capitalism’. By failing to comprehend the contingency at the very heart of this dominant assemblage, which specifies a narrowly-defined, professionalized role for architecture, discussions about architecture can only reinforce discourses that maintain the illusion of its infallibility, perpetuating the powerful myths that have continued to restrain the spatial imagination. Despite professional practice’s seeming hegemony over the discourse about architecture as a discipline, alternative modes of practice, infinitely existent in the virtual, may be actualized through different discursive apparitions. But which of these minor discursive apparitions should be taken seriously?

    It seems unlikely that we are going to be able to shore up the productive capacity to build a utopia from the ground up, even if we somehow, magically, gained total political control.  Such tabula rasa grand utopian schemes were the stuff of twentieth century notions of social transformation (helped along by the Major Architectural narrative) which sought to either politically take over control of existing territories (and the infrastructures contained therein), or to form and construct their own. Imagine the difficulty that the Soviet Bloc faced as it attempted to produce an alternative society, using many symmetrical techniques to those being employed in the West: building their own parallel versions of the manufactural infrastructures, agricultural systems, roads, housing, the space program, nuclear arsenals, passenger aerospace technologies, and the consumer kitchen (with all its attendant ideological implications)(2). A similar challenge was faced by Cuba, and by North Korea, and, although qualitatively very different, even by the hippie communes of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and all of these attempts failed to realize their intended goal: to produce a more effective, more abundant civilization than the dominant nations of the capitalist West. The process of social transformation was meant to take place in the parallel construction of an entire civilization. Such a redundancy of efforts may never be possible again. It was an inherently heavy and difficult process to generate and to manage, and the resulting structures, so tiresomely created, nevertheless were contingent and threatened to “flip” back into the service of old social structures anyway, for reasons identical to the contingency of usage that this essay is attempting to expose.

    A more realistic and agile strategy for social change would attempt to transform existing structures socially, symbolically, economically (though not in the reformist sense), rather than attempting to rebuild redundant versions of these. The city we inherit is like a trove of retrograde, wonky jewelry and garments, tools and hardware that have been passed down to us from our grandparents, and which we will need to remix and recontextualize in ways that make sense for our own times. American suburbia is a very clear example of a prolific and inherited conurbation that will be impossible to use according to its operating instructions through the twenty-first century. How, under conditions of changing energy and other resource availability, and within a shifting and often turbulent economic landscape in the twenty-first century, are we expected to operate our auto-dependent and consumerist suburban behavioral softwares, designed at the height of American economic and political control, in a time of cheap and abundant fossil fuels? The built form—our urban hardware—itself is unlikely to go anywhere. Suburbia is here to stay—at least for the next 50 to 100 years—so what do we do about it?

    Some of the most insightful theories of architecture’s potential recognize the discipline’s trained ability to spot patterns and networks, operating across space, and some, like Keller Easterling, suggest that architects attempt to design “fittings” that alter the “active form” embedded in spatial configurations, such that these serve different dynamics:

“Few would look at a concrete highway system, an electrical grid, a suburban housing tract or a single building and perceive agency in their static arrangement. Agency in networks might only be assigned to the moving cars on the road, the electrical impulses in the fibre, or the behaviour of humans who inhabit them. Yet with the active forms of infrastructure space . . . objects are often less important than what they, for instance, inflect, ignite or suppress. Verbs may be more consequential than nouns. Active forms establish a set of parameters or capacities for what the organisation will be doing over time. Active forms might describe the way that some alteration performs within a group, multiplies across a field, reconditions a population or generates a network. The designer of active forms is designing not the field in its entirety, but rather the delta or the means by which the field changes—not only the shape or contour of the game piece, but also a repertoire for how it plays.”(3)

The city, in this sense, exists as a series of ongoing flows of actions and events, which various interests attempt to influence through the shaping of the physical urban environment. Stratification is not flawless or permanent, however, and therefore semiotic slippages in the meaning of spaces constantly threaten the cyclical relationships structured by the architects of order. Bernard Tschumi argues that while it may be true that form has a tendency to shape function in most cases (that is, to set into motion “ritualistic” uses of space that are consistent with the hierarchical needs of the current social formation), “in today’s world where railway stations become museums and churches become nightclubs, a point is being made: the complete interchangeability of form and function, the loss of traditional, canonic cause-and-effect relationships as sanctified by modernism. Function does not follow form, form does not follow function . . . however, they certainly interact.”(4) This is the inherent contingency of space and form. 

    Jeremy Till, in Architecture Depends, argues that any account of the architecture of the city must take into consideration not only the contingency of architecture’s development, but also the contingency of how it is used. To begin with, many forces come together to act upon the architect and the design process in producing the work of architecture or the urban plan, etc., and then, when the process finally yields physical instances of the man made environment, the uses of the spaces themselves often evade the intentions of the plan.(5)

    Tschumi, who is in alignment with Till as to the contingency of built form, advocates a “programmatic” approach to architecture that uses literary narrative to explore the uses, functions, activities and programs of buildings. This architecture “explores the disjuncture between expected form and expected use”, “opposing specific programs with particular, often conflicting spaces.”(6) Tschumi identifies a gap between form and function—one that he says can be a site for political and social intervention. This gap is to be located between the form of the architecture, which Tschumi calls “space”, and the “use” of the architecture, which, he says, is not deterministically linked to the intended use of that architecture, as ascribed by the (typically conservative) forces which commission the work of architecture. Tschumi argues that architecture is inherently disjointed by this “confrontation of space and use, and [this] inevitable disjunction of the two terms means that architecture is constantly unstable, constantly on the verge of change.”(7) Even though architecture is typically theorized as being stable and solid, such stratified thinking obscures the fundamental contingency of architecture’s use. For Tschumi, “events” are possible when architecture is misused, leading to productive and novel forms of social activity. What’s more, Tschumi claims that “there is no architecture without program, without action, without event.”(8) Action and event can be thought of as activating space, of that which either “renders operational”(9) the built environment or undermines reproduction. “Architecture,” Tschumi asserts, “is not about the conditions of design but about the design of conditions that will dislocate the most traditional and regressive aspects of our society and simultaneously reorganize these elements in the most liberating way, so that our experience becomes the experience of events organized and strategized through architecture.”(10)

    Reading Stan Allen’s writing on the diagram can perhaps advance some of the concepts introduced by Tschumi’s notion of program one step closer to providing a cogent theory for urban hacking. For Allen, “[a] diagram is . . . not a thing in itself but a description of potential relationships among elements, not only an abstract model of the way things behave in the world but a map of possible worlds.”(11) The spatial thinker (the architect, in Allen’s case) is prime as an agent of such a “diagrammatic practice” because such thinking “is already implicated in a number of media, and [the spatial thinker] is out of necessity constantly moving from one medium to another, transcoding from virtual to actual and vice versa. . . . A diagrammatic practice . . . locates itself between the actual and the virtual”, intentionally exploiting this “transactional character” that such a multi-medium practice calls for.(12) Allen’s use of the terms “actual” and “virtual” is a direct reference to the tripartite ontological scheme of Gilles Deleuze(13), in whose philosophy the virtual body without organs (the not-yet observable and still-abstract) acts upon the actual strata (existing and observable) in a process of disarticulating movement called “nomadism”, operating through what Deleuze, collaborating with Felix Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus calls “abstract machines.” Intensive processes actualize the virtual, but the virtual is also shaped by the actual. This “nomadic”, “intensive” actualization of the virtual, and virtualization of the actual is precisely the fundamental transactional quality that architecture plays, according to Allen.

    In a diagrammatic practice, Allen writes, “the primary utility of the diagram is as an abstract means of thinking about organization”,(14) “the notion of an [diagrammatic] abstract machine sees the building as a component in a larger assemblage that can be recontextualized according to the progressive rearrangements of the other components in this social/technical/urbanistic machine.”(15) Here, Allen agrees with Easterling about the power inherent in shaping space, and also with Tschumi about the contingency of this power: the physical form of the built environment can, and often does influence behaviors, but such behaviors are, ultimately, contingent. Yet what Allen introduces, with his particular concept of the diagram, is perhaps the mechanism at work in Easterling’s “active form”, and which Tschumi hopes to deploy in his programmatic architecture. But the diagram, in Allen’s formulation, seems to have to potential of operating independently from the process that produces the physical form of space itself, and so what we are left with, then, is a very real and justifiable possibility for an architecture that does not engage in the production of buildings, but which instead routes flows and makes new connections and disjunctions. If “[a] diagram is . . . not a thing in itself but a description of potential relationships among elements, not only an abstract model of the way things behave in the world but a map of possible worlds,” then this kind of diagrammatic procedure, which reinterprets the existing built environment could achieve “maximum performative effects with minimum architectural means”(16)—that is, abstract means—by largely dematerializing architectural practice altogether.

    There have been examples of this kind of diagrammatic and non-productivist misuse of urban space, as practiced by the Situationists and the San Francisco Cacophony Society, to take two clear examples. The Situationists, in their production of situations, or events, sought to generate difference as a means for combatting the frozen history that Guy Debord decried in Society of the Spectacle. The situation “would stimulate new sorts of behavior, a glimpse into an improved future social life based upon human encounter and play.”(17) The Situationists engaged in what they called “détournement”—a strategy for scrambling the top-down meanings of media, advertising, and the city itself. The images or moments of these would be hijacked, misappropriated, embezzled and misused, and deployed in a freely circulating, decontextualized (or recontextualized, as the case may be) fashion. The urban manifestation of détournement resulted in what were called “dérives”, which, as Simon Sadler has asserted, for Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, “were radical rereadings of the city.”(18) The dérive was an unplanned and meandering stroll through the streets of a city, encountering the urban fabric and the people and smells and other sensations of the city in a combination that could only ever have unintended results. For the Situationists, the city could be experienced in an “open, contingent, and shifting” narrative that broke out of the deterministic narratives spun by city planners, who “have tried to make the city into a mnemonic (memory aid), mapping into it chains of monuments or sites that would act as a sort of text, reminding the pedestrian of official history and knowledge.”(19) Against this, the dérive would achieve a sort of urban détournement by weaving a nonsensical route through the city that ignored the cues and monuments planned as guides for navigating the urban streets. The point, then, of a dérive, was to transcend the deterministic significations of the capitalist city whose purpose was to ensure the reproduction of the status quo by canalizing human behaviors into predictable and exploitable circuits. By recombining its elements through “psychogeographical” experimentation, this misuse of the city would generate truly novel and non-capitalist sentiments and experiences, uncontrolled by the media or “culture industry”, and this would occur architecturally, yet without the production of buildings.

    Similarly, the Situationist-inspired San Francisco Cacophony Society played games and threw participatory events all around the city. Even though the Society was less spatially focused than many of the Situationists, the events held in various parts of the city definitely engaged with the physical spaces of their environment. Wanda Hoberg, reflecting on her experiences in the Society, quoted one of her compatriots: "'I've always looked at this city as an urban environment, an urban playground,' says Melmoth. 'You look at places that people don't even think about, that are completely negative places in the daily life of commerce living. Those are the places that I look for—underground, behind buildings, on top of buildings, in abandoned buildings, in between [sic] freeways, under freeways. Places that you don't even know exist. I think about what I could give there.’”(20) The Society would throw impromptu black tie parties in laundromats, host events on BART trains, take blindfolded taxi rides, and explore the many off-limits facets of the city of San Francisco. Behind such prolific events as Burning Man and Santa Con, the group has been charged with introducing the counter culture of the 1980’s and 1990’s to such ideas as the flash mob, culture jamming, and urban exploration.

    These diagrammatic practices attempt to reconfigure spatial usage patterns without necessarily producing or even altering physical space. In a sense, then, perhaps what they evoke is an architectural “reprogramming”, which begins to sound like a computer science term. Thinking of the built environment as a kind of hardware, on which certain software programs are run opens up the realm of architectural discourse and theory to network theory and computer science discourses. A kind of “hacking” of the city can be achieved if more open, participatory, subversive spatial uses are coordinated diagrammatically, effectively running new software on the existing hardware of the built environment, perhaps operating as a sort of “Job Managing System” (in computer science, a Job Managing System is a program that routes operations to un- and under-utilized processors). A spatial activity that concerns itself with flows of action across space could design networking software in the form of diagrams (plans for new uses of space) that utilize the junkspace of the existing urban configuration in open-ended use patterns that more effectively meet the needs and desires of the population. Used according to direction, urban environments route flows of desire and productive energies through the commercial and state apparatuses of profit and taxation, the prototypical (though inherently contingent) development of which Walter Benjamin traced in his Arcades Project. The modernization process, according to Benjamin, in Second Empire Paris, both shapes and captures the desires of its populations using physical space. Shop windows, the creation of artificial climates in the vaulted spaces of the arcades (the precursor to the department store and the shopping mall), the hiring of attractive employees in shops—all of these were designed strategies for arousing desires for which commerce would serve as the fulfillment. As Benjamin writes in Convolute A, “The arcade is a street of lascivious commerce only; it is wholly adapted to arousing desires.”(21) Yet such commercially-aroused desires were not free; a third party (capital) would impose a double tax on its fulfillment: first, at the wage level, when the worker is compensated less than the value of their output, and second, at the cash register, where the most desirable products were also the most marked up from their production costs. Fashion plays a serious role here. The constant production of novelty means that consumption never really satiates desire, and therefore consumptive procurement is sustained by the constant shifting of the criteria for desirability of commodities. Fashion puts an expiration date on dreams. Long before planned (functional) obsolescence has time to occur, aesthetic obsolescence will ruin the goods recently procured. As a chaser of ephemerally desirable consumer objects, the producer is made to feel like a consumer rather than as an organ of production. Obscured in this relationship that fashion generates is the production side of consumption. For every consumptive act is the necessary productive act to pay for it, and so fashion plays an important role in keeping the productive engine moving.

    What urban hacking must attempt to do, then, is to tap into the desires drummed up by consumer society and its attendant cultures, and to meet these desires in free (and therefore untaxed), and self-reproducing ways. By equipping the desiring subject with the means for fulfilling their own desires through the act of playing these out through the unsanctioned use of space (projecting their own cinematic experiences on the rear wall of a big box store, making a roller disco in a parking garage, having a mutually-produced meal in some fantastic post-industrial setting, playing games instead of shopping in mega malls and giant hotels, making theaters out of the catch basins of defunct oil storage facilities, etc), the prospect for creating “a world where winning doesn’t depend on losing” becomes a real possibility. Because such a utilization of resources is not contingent on sales or production the way that all commercial activity is, it could be deployed faster and without limitations associated with capital valorization, perhaps outpacing appropriation through its nomadic disposition. This is what urban hacking sets out to accomplish.

    Already, there are populations that are misusing urban space on a wide scale, albeit for a wide variety of often divergent reasons. Take the prolific set of activities that we call “homelessness”. These are a real example of urban informality and the unsanctioned and unplanned use of urban space, arising as a byproduct of the market itself. Yet it is not the only example. The city is full of many more-or-less pathologized examples of urban misuse, which exist on a spectrum of acceptability: At the most legitimate end of the spectrum, there are retrofitted and remodeled buildings, repurposed industrial sites and infrastructures, and the conversion of grand theaters into parking garages. There are street performances and farmers markets, non-conforming “in-law” units garage-based businesses. Alongside these many informal-yet-encouraged behaviors of the city, there are also discouraged underground warehouse parties, place hacking (sneaking into and exploring cordoned off areas of the city), graffiti (which makes a canvas and a game out of urban surfaces), street skateboarding (which uses the city’s physical features as a skatepark), silent discos, illegal card rooms, street racing and sideshows, as well as backyard animal husbandry and subway performance artists. Such a reprogramming of urban space transgresses Rancière’s so-called “partition of the sensible”—that function of the police which constitutes the social through the symbolic maintenance of established meanings:

“The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of 'moving-along' into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. It is the established litigation of the perceptible.”(22)

The many misuses of space cited above are perfect instances of Rancièrian politics, since they seek to use the city contrary to the way that the symbolic ordering of the “police” would seek to code as its acceptable usages, though, as our spectrum would suggest, certain misuses are far more disruptive than others. On the illegitimate end of the scale, we can see the formation of policing, pathologizing terms and concepts that reveal the systemic aversion to the fundamental threat of disruption that these behaviors pose to urban order: homelessness, vandalism, jaywalking, etc. Take homelessness. Even in our richest cities, massive groups of people have created tent cities under infrastructures and in small corners of public space in an attempt to carve out a habitat for themselves. We call these people homeless, but they are not without a home; they have a home, but it is not inscribed within acceptable, protected, state-defined standards. It’s interesting to speculate about the origin of this particular concept of homelessness, which, like all concepts, has a history. Why do we have this problematized category of person who does not possess a formalized dwelling? What is the utility of the term, when we do not have similar terms denoting the lack of possession of any other commodity (“carless” and “phoneless” are thrown around casually, but there is no car or phone equivalent to the Homelessness Task Force, which exists as a real department of many city and municipal governments) or even for the absence of appendages (legless, armless, etc.)? I believe the term “homeless” exists as the necessary binary opposite of the emphasis placed on legitimate dwelling in the west in general, and in the United States in particular, where massive campaigns were waged at the federal level to standardize home construction and financing options, and to encourage citizens to buy their own properties. The legitimate home, therefore, is maybe the exalted object casting the conceptual shadow which we think of as homelessness—the named exterior of a painstakingly institutionalized practice of legitimate dwelling.

    The concept of homelessness is just one such reveal, which offers a glimpse into the state-sanctioned practices of dwelling in legitimate homes. There are others, for example, the term jaywalking. We have a term for the specific act of walking in which we are violating traffic laws, but no such term for the (arguably more inherently important to humans) act of walking barefoot on hot asphalt or sand, or for walking on crunchy snow, or for walking in such a way that you do not step on any cracks in the pavement. Perhaps the reveal here is the importance placed on maintaining steady, uninterrupted traffic flow, which itself was and is the obsession of urban planners and multiple categories of engineers, an obsession maintained by the state’s need to bolster and enhance the circulation of capital with minimal friction or delay—an economic imperative that informed the design of cities, as economic elites sought the help of city planners in making the commerce function more smoothly and predictably in urban settings.(23) What we call vandalism, too, threatens the order of a system of economic values that rely heavily upon predictable real estate standards that were painstakingly instituted by the Federal Housing Administration and many professional and homeowner’s associations.(24)

    The point is not to comment on homelessness, unrestrained pedestrianism or vandalism (though a walk through any American city ought to suggest that these are phenomena that are literally central in the urban process, and cannot be justifiably ignored or brushed to the side), but to point out that certain terms and concepts reveal past problematizations—resulting in the widespread usage of these terms—that have as the basis of their proliferation (if not at their origin per se) the proper use of space. I call these “reveals”, because in many cases the proper usages are either never formally stated, or else the real reasons for upholding these proper uses are not made explicit. Corresponding to these terms, often, are design features of the city—Easterling’s “active form”—that perform properly political functions through their encouragement of certain behaviors and discouragement of others. This is the power of “extrastatectaft”—it “is the secret weapon of the most powerful people in the world precisely because it orchestrates activities that can remain unstated but are nevertheless consequential.”(25) Yet we can play this game too.

    How can a counter-hegemonic urban strategy be maintained over time that ensures its own effectiveness? As with altruism, there is a naive version and an effective version of urban hacking. Effective altruism(26) seeks to intelligently distribute the gifts of kindness in such a way that it has a positive impact, rather than naively engaging in feel-good gestures that do relatively small amounts of good in reality. Likewise, any effective practice of social change should consider carefully the historical context of the aspects of the social order that it seeks to challenge in order to approximate their role within the larger systemic processes. Urban hacking is no exception, and so an historically-informed effective hacking practice would attempt to alter the uses and meanings of the built environment in ways that are most strategically important for shifting power dynamics and routing vital energies to new economic networks. What needs and desires are most essential to the maintenance of power and capital? How can we bypass the market and the state in providing for these? These are important questions for guiding the most meaningful practices of urban hacking, and, crucially, the answers will change depending on region, on shifting economic, political and cultural dynamics, and as subversive practices are appropriated by capital and by the state. A praxis, if it is to remain dis-integrated from the strategies of the state and of capital, must always remain “de gauche” (of the left) in the sense that Deleuze used this term in an interview with Claire Parnet: “to be from the left for me, that’s a problem of becoming; never stopping to become minority. In fact, the left is never a majority and for a very simple reason. Because majority supposes, even when we vote, it’s not just the biggest amount that vote for something…Majority supposes a standard.”(27)

    Essential to working out answers to the question of effectiveness is a comprehensive set of theories about reproduction: the reproduction of various forms of power, capital, etc., which can be found in classic thinkers such as Louis Althusser,(28) Michel Foucault(29) and Antonio Gramsci(30), but also in the work of more contemporary theorists, such as Silvia Federici(31), Antonio Negri(32) and Eugene Holland(33). Basically, what these theories help to advise about is how to determine what mass behaviors and dynamics are fundamental for reproducing the status quo social, political and economic systems. What external labor processes, specific consumption choices, cultural habits, or subject positions are essential to the maintenance of our dominant systems? How can self-(or mutual-)valorization bypass the taxation and inequities imposed by capital? How can the ongoing process of primitive accumulation, which incorporates yet-unincorporated vital energies, natural resources and labor processes into the dominant economy be halted, slowed down, or reversed? In what way can the refusal of roles (gender, cultural, class, professional, etc.) play a part in this?

    This is the fundamental utility of theory for maintaining an effective urban movement. Yet outside of informing the actual sites and tactics of urban hacking itself, I do not believe that the radical tradition can yield much of a guide for how to produce a public discourse of urban hacking, or how to get large numbers of people to begin adopting contrarian urban behaviors into their everyday lives. The point, of course, is not just to generate and deepen an academic discourse, in which we laboriously and endlessly contextualize urban hacking within a genealogy of concepts and intellectual traditions, but to advance a truly public discourse, that has as its goal not simply the changing of hearts and minds (this is a secondary effect, I think), but of really influencing the behavior of non-negligible numbers of people in their everyday lives. Jeremy Till, quoting John Dewy, explains that the latter “provides a good argument as to both the opportunities and the limits of contingency. ‘Contingency is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition of freedom,’ he wrote in 1929. ‘In a world which is completely tight and exact in all its constituents, there would be no room for freedom. Contingency, while it gives room for that freedom, does not fill that room.’”(34) A mere theory of contingency is necessary but not sufficient for producing social, political or economic change. Till proposes, therefore, a praxis of contingency, in which practitioners—specifically architectural practitioners—embrace the contingency of their discipline and attempt to inject within the real conditions of its deployment fragments of an alternative future. Drawing guidance from Roberto Unger, Till explains that architecture must become aware of the so-called “formative contexts” that act upon architecture and attempt to determine its form. The Progressive Era witnessed a wide series of “reforms” in the built environment, motivated by periodic threats to the reproduction of the social, political and economic order. These reforms were behind the institutionalization of the proper use of space as a way of allaying the various crises of the early twentieth century, which a contingent architectural praxis would seek to undermine. The progressive reformers, organized in various civil society organizations, professional organizations, and government bureaus, repeatedly developed and deployed public discourses on such topics as municipal organization and ownership, city planning, homeownership, and mortgage lending procedures, the cumulative effect of which was a massive shaping of the American public’s urban behaviors, consistent with the requirements of an ever-transitioning set of economic and political dynamics. Counter-hegemonic discourses, then, ought to carefully analyze the institutions spawned by these reformers in order to produce practices that work against the formative orders that the reform discourses created. By being realists about the various political, economic and social contexts that impose constraints and indicate boundaries, one can begin to imagine and deploy transformative tactics against those formative strategies of the reformers, that establish “small-scale, fragmentary versions of the future.”(35) “In every case there is a formative context that can be transformed,” Till explains, “and in every case there is a productive tension between realism and imagination, because ‘we must be realists in order to become visionaries and we need an understanding of social life to criticize and enlarge our view of social reality and social possibility.’”(36)

“In the actual there is always the possible. It is too easy to think that the external forces are so overwhelming that there is no room for maneuver. But in casting a critical eye over those forces and then projecting an ethical imagination against them, gaps open up. In any architectural situation there are freedoms and opportunities to be found, not in terms of wholesale changes but in terms of ‘fragmentary versions of the future.’”(37)

    Urban hacking—the intentional misuse of urban space—seems to be a likely source of such “fragmentary versions of the future”, but also of adaptation strategies for inhabiting spaces unfit for the coming era, especially since the state and large companies are reluctant to introduce contrarian usage patterns, because these would go against both their interests, and the happy fairytale spectacle that keeps the future in their hands. 

    This nexus—existent in the practice of effective urban hacking—between the exciting creation of fragments of the future and more pragmatic adaptation strategies may be the key to prototyping today, under the cover of leisure and excitement, generalizable strategies that make future inhabitation of retrograde urbanism possible. Whereas some of us have the luxury of choosing to live better through the misuse of urban space as an exciting alternative to the script designed to gently but effectively dictate our metropolitan lives, many will have no choice but to harness and redeploy urban assets in different configurations.



(1) The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), pg. 81.

(2) See Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, Cold War Kitchen, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2008)

(3) Keller Easterling. “We Will be Making Active Form”, Architectural Design, Vol. 82, Issue 5 (September/October, 2012), pg. 61.

(4) Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1996), pg. 254

(5) Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009)

(6) Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1996), pg. 147.

(7) Ibid. pg. 19.

(8) Ibid. pg. 3.

(9) This is what Louis Althusser says that the relations of production do for the mode of production: they “render operational” the means of production. But, as such, the mode of production is completely contingent on the proper investment of the productive forces such that productive efforts take place under the right relations of production, “rendering operational” the means of production in a specifically capitalistic way.

(10) Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 1996), pg. 259

(11) Stan Allen. “Diagrams Matter” Any 23 (1998), pg. 16

(12) Ibid.

(13) See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)

(14) Stan Allen. “Diagrams Matter” Any 23 (1998), pg. 16.

(15) Ibid. pg. 18

(16) Allen, Stan. Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation. Routledge, 2012. pg. 54.

(17) Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998. pg. 105

(18) Ibid, pg. 98

(19) Ibid. pg. 99

(20) Wanda Hoberg, “Cross Over to the Cacophony Zone”, Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith and John Law, ed. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013) pg. 44.

(21) Walter Benjamin. Howard Eiland, Kevin MacLaughlin, and Rolf Tiedemann ed. The Arcades Project. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), pg. 42.

(22) Rancière, Jacques. “Ten Theses on Politics”, Theory & Event. Vol. 5, No. 3, 2001. (English).

(23) See my Progressive Cities Planning, Reproduction and Power in and through Discourse on the American Metropolis. (Yale University Library, 2015).

(24) Ibid.

(25) Keller Easterling. Extrastatecraft: the Power of Infrastructure Space, (London: Verso, 2014), pg. 15.

(26) “Effective Altruism is a growing social movement that combines both the heart and the head: compassion guided by data and reason. It's about dedicating a significant part of one's life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, ‘Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?’” from <> accessed September 14, 2015.

(27) Gilles Deleuze, “G comme Gauche”, in Abécédaire, translated by Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist, <> accessed Sept. 15, 2015.

(28) Althusser, in On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014) walks through the indispensable apparatuses for capitalism’s reproduction, contributing to the categories of the material preconditions of capital’s reproduction his own conception of the ideological requirements of the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. 

(29) Foucault, in all of his work, can be read as expanding upon the problematic posed by Althusser, moving far beyond Althusser’s conception of ideology as a source for the stability of forms of power and the maintenance of capitalist relations of production to consider the very means by which subjectivity is formed out of problematizations arising out of motivated discourses that have as their basis “local centers of power-knowledge”. Crucial here are Foucault’s books The Archaeology of Knowledge and The History of Sexuality, along with the end of Discipline and Punish.

(30) See Gramsci’s writings on hegemony.

(31) Federici examines domestic, unwaged labor as a precondition for capitalist accumulation. Unwaged labor in the home reproduces the laborer (biologically and on an ongoing physical and emotional basis), so that s/he can perform his/her labor tasks in the workplace.

(32) Negri, particularly in his rereading of Marx’s Grundrisse, Marx Beyond Marx (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1991) lays out a theory of “self-valorization”, which he poses as having the advantages of markets without the intervention or taxation of capital.

(33) Holland takes this concept of self-valorization even further, considering how non-capitalist markets and valorization processes undermine the process of primitive accumulation, grounding this argument in the theories of Althusser, Foucault, Federici and even certain advocates of free markets. See Eugene Holland, Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

(34) Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009) pg. 61.

(35) Umberto Ungers quoted in Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009), pg. 193.

(36) Ibid.

(37) Ibid.

A Review of 'Foucault', by Gilles Deleuze

    Deleuze, in a rhizomatic set of essays, explores the topological aspect of Foucault’s thought by working his way through the progression of Foucault’s work, from knowledge, through power, to the interior folding of the outside that constitutes the subject. It is from within this work that a tentative strategy for producing indeterminate subjective positions may be drawn out, since Foucault’s work is so steadily concerned with the ways in which behavior and thought are conditioned by structures and systems of power. The question for Foucault, Deleuze insists, is whether and how genuine thought can be possible. How can one think beyond the constraints and determinations of imposed by structures? Deleuze begins with Foucault’s entry into the realm of knowledge, where the “new archivist” explored the history of thought through statements—that is, spontaneous multiplicities with the power to affect. Deleuze, drawing fromn Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, shows the statement to be a historical formation—one half of the domain of knowledge. The second half of the domain of knowledge—the visible—which Deleuze finds in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he defines as the particular points through which statements pass. Visibilities are practical formations that are non-discursive and involve the environment, whereas statements are practical formations that are discursive and involve articulation.

    But Deleuze finds another element in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish that was not developed in Archaeology of Knowledge. Statements and visibilities, as the two halves of the domain of knowledge, are animated by power, which Deleuze finds operating through the diagram, which he defines as “a display of the relations between forces which constitute power.” (pg. 36) A diagram is a function (that is, a power to affect) detached from the specificity of its application on the affected. The diagram is not historical, as are visibilities and statements. Whereas the latter exist in a “history of forms,” represented by the archive, the diagram doubles this history, operating in parallel, in an “evolution of forces.” (pg. 43) In the following chapters, “Strata or Historical Formations: The Visible and the Articulable (Knowledge)”, and “Strategies or the Non-stratified: Thought of the Outside (Power)”, Deleuze examines the formation of knowledge and the functioning of power. In these essays, Deleuze brings The History of Sexuality to bear on the discussion, ultimately demonstrating that the statement has primacy over the “different ways of seeing or perceiving.” (pg. 49) In this sense, Foucault is taking on phenomenology, which holds visibilities to have primacy over discursive statements. What is novel in Foucault is that he demonstrates the “mutual presupposition operating between the two forms [of visibility and articulability],” yet without a “common form, […] conformity, [or] even correspondence.” (pg. 33) In doing so, it would seem that he would be stuck in an aporia, since there is no exteriority “between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power,” (HS 98) in the sense that “[practical] knowledge (connaissance) never refers back to a subject who is free in relation to a diagram of power; but neither is [the diagram of power] ever free in relation to the forces of knowledge (savoirs) which actualize it.” (Deleuze, F 75) The resulting “complex of power and knowledge that ties together the diagram and the archive” would appear unshakeable if power did not have a primacy over knowledge in the sense that knowledge “would have nothing to integrate if there were no differential power relations”. (pg. 81)

    It is the immanence of power that suggests its contingency. Power, which exists at the “microphysical" level, transcends its specific manifestations, and as such, it is independent of history, whereas history cannot be claimed to be independent of the microphysics of power and emerges in its very formation within the strata of knowledge. “[D]iscipline cannot be identified with any one institution or apparatus precisely because it is a type of power, a technology, that traverses every kind of apparatus or institution, linking them, prolonging them, and making them converge and function in a new way.” (pg. 26) As such, power constitutes the outside of knowledge, which is a non-duality, unlike knowledge. While the two forms of knowledge—visibility and statements—are the analogous to Kant’s nomena and phenomena, with these corresponding to the “two irreducible forms of spontaneity and receptivity,” (pg. 82) Foucault is not really a dualist as is Kant. Deleuze calls Foucault’s philosophy a “pragmatics of the multiple” (pg. 84), which he describes as a dualism to the degree that it involves “a preliminary distribution operating at the heart of a pluralism,” (pg. 83) in the sense that there is an irreducible split between the two multiplicities of discursive statements and non-discursive visibilities. But “these two multiplicities open up on to a third: a multiplicity of relations between forces, a multiplicity of diffusion which no longer splits into two and is free of any dualizable form.” (pg. 83-4)

    Deleuze explores the immanence of power—this force that escapes duality—in “Foldings, or the Inside of Thought (Subjectivation)”, which draws from Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure. In it, Deleuze considers how the outside of knowledge disrupts the diagrams, which constitute the line between stratified knowledge and the strategies of power. Out of the impasse that Deleuze explains that Foucault had arrived at in the end of The History of Sexuality, wherein “we have encountered three dimensions: the relations which have been formed or formalized along certain strata (Knowledge); the relations between forces to be found at the level of the diagram (Power); and the relation to the outside, . . . which is also a non-relation (Thought)”, Foucault adds another axis: that of the subject, which constitutes the inside of thought. (pg. 96) This inside is not the interiority that Foucault is critical of, Deleuze insists, but a folding of the outside—“not something other than the outside, but precisely the inside of the outside.” (pg. 97) Whereas Knowledge-Being is “determined by the two forms [of the visible and the articulable]”, and Power-Being “is determined within relations between forces which are themselves based on particular features that vary according to each age”, Self-Being “is determined by the process of subjectivation”—that is, by the relation of the self to itself. (pg. 114) Praxis would be the problematization of the present through thought—that is, the problematization of thought as the present. As a “continuity between past and present”, the praxis of thought “involves the transmission of particular features”. (pg. 115, 117) But the “Markov chain” that “link[s] up random events in a mixture of chance and dependency” (pg. 117) is disrupted when the thinking being “problematizes himself.” (pg. 118) At this point, thought, which folds the past into itself, and which problematizes itself in relation to this past, can “think the past against the present and resist the latter, not in favor of a[n eternal] return but ‘in favor, I hope, of a time to come’ (Nietzsche), that is, by making the past active, and present to the outside so that something new will finally come about, so that thinking, always, may reach thought.” (pg. 119) It is this, Deleuze shows us, that justifies Foucault’s fascination with history. The voyage in the latter’s work from the statements and visibilities of the archive has led, through the diagrams of power and the relations of force that constitute the strategies of power, directly to the relation of the self to itself, and revealed there a fold in which self-problematization can seize the knowledge of history and use this material as a basis for thinking otherwise.

Media Piracy in India

Ravi Sundaram, in Pirate Modernity, considers the ways in which poor, peripheralized populations have used media technologies in such a way that they have escaped top-down “copyright regimes”, in an era in which many different organizations (Sundaram cites the Motion Pictures Association of America, the Business Software Alliance, and the Recording Industry Association of America as key players here) have successfully campaigned to restrict the application of “fair use”. Piracy—the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyrighted material, made possible by cheap media technologies—has produced what Sundaram calls a “rhizomatic assemblage”, in which the original mass producers of media cannot control its distribution, or even its message. The process of piracy “recycles” the modernity that the corporate entities responsible for producing mass media and inventing the many media technologies intended to control:

“For urban populations long used to more stable sites like the cinema hall, piracy’s decentralized proliferation induced a narcotic disorientation of the senses. Populations conceived by state media policy as an abstract public now entered piracy’s landscape of infinite attractions, where images, sounds, objects, moved rapidly through networks of proliferation, small shops, bazaars, video theaters, friends. Piracy escapes the boundaries of space, of particular networks, of form, a before and after, a limit. Although it has complex strategies of deployment and movement, piracy is like no other form of expression, respecting no formal barriers.” (Pirate Modernity, 112)

“[P]irate culture allowed the entry of vast numbers of poor urban residents into media culture,” Sundaram argues, and this mass entry into media culture has operated as “a subjectless subjectivity”, in the sense that “[t]he lines between the surface and the inside, original and copy, which transfixed the Western modernist archive and its postmodern reformulations, are called into question in piracy.” (Pirate Modernity, 112) “[T]here is no being behind [this] doing,” Sundaram explains, “or, as Nietzsche said, the deed is everything.” (Pirate Modernity, 112) The so-called “cassette revolution”, in India, had the effect that “a mix of new producers and technologies responding to regional and local genres overturned the classic music monopolies and the star system of singers associated with it.” (Pirate Modernity, 114) Sundaram cites Peter Manuel, who explains that “In effect, the cassette revolution had definitively ended the hegemony of GCI, of the corporate music industry in general, of film music, of the Lata-Kishore duo, and of the uniform aesthetic which Bombay film-producers had superimposed on a few hundred million listeners over the preceding forty years.” (Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture, pg. 63, cited in Pirate Modernity, 114) Suddenly, a structure of centralized media control, in which relatively few media producers controlled not only the profits from, but also the tastes embedded within media were overthrown by the horizontality of cassette technologies which made possible the inexpensive and unregulated distribution of media. “Small labels . . . were responsive to local tastes and now offered their diverse audiences an equally diverse range of musical forms. In ownership, content, and in the circulation of a musical form, . . . cassettes democratized the audio experience.” (Pirate Modernity, 114) The sources of media multiplied, and so did the profits and tastes once controlled by the mass media producers.

It’s crucial to explain that decentralized aesthetic preferences make it inherently more difficult to manipulate and market to populations. If only one or several universalized aesthetic regimes cover the majority of the population, then their corresponding systems of signification may be used to effectively appeal to a broad range of people. Deleuze and Guattari explain this phenomenon in A Thousand Plateaus, where they take on the issue of language and its centralization. They write that 

there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. Language is, in Weinreich's words, ‘an essentially heterogeneous reality.’ There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity. Language stabilizes around a parish, a bishopric, a capital.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 7)

Sundaram, using Deleuze and Guattari’s theory, explains that these pirate networks, despite the state- and industry-spawned discourse that paints them as evil and destructive, are in fact productive economic engines. He attempts a formulation of pirate networks that “captures the productivity of pirate economies, [and their] expansion, mutation, breakdown, reterritorialization.” (Pirate Modernity, 112-13) This formulation would start with the question of what these networks do, rather than from the question of what they are, since as complex composites of individual, decentralized actions, a stable definition is not necessary for such a web of social relations to produce an effect, and in fact can only serve to solidify and centralize regimes within a media order. “The unity of language is fundamentally political. There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language that at times advances along a broad front, and at times swoops down on diverse centers simultaneously,” explain Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 101). a “linguists’ insistence on carving out a homogeneous system in order to make a scientific study possible”, which consists of “extracting a set of constants from the variables, or of determining constant relations between variables . . . is one with the political model by which language is homogenized, centralized, standardized, becoming a language of power, a major or dominant language.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 101)

In essence, centralization, within social signification spheres emerges from a scramble for control, rather than being inherent to the sphere itself. In the case of media in India, the stabilization of the mass media around the “bishopric” major record labels and cinema studios was temporarily made possible by the medium of transmission itself. That “specialized language” would only remain stable for so long, however, before being dissolved within a sea of minor producers, whose own vernacular media production would go on to steal the audiences of the deposed cultural hegemons. Drawing on Marx’s theory of money, in which “the many became the one in the figure of the crowd,” Sundaram explains that “[t]he community of the many became subordinate to the logic of the same” in the media market in India’s early development, as media formed into a stable, fixed, centralized type, only to be dispersed once again, by piracy, in the “demise of the classic crowd mythic of modernism” (Pirate Modernity, 137). 

What’s fascinating about piracy is that, through its proximity to, and use of markets, it can disseminate difference across massive populations. “Piracy exists in commodified circuits of exchange, only here the same disperses into the many. . . . Media piracy’s proximity to the market aligns it to both the speed of the global . . . and also the dispersed multiplicities of vernacular and regional exchange.” (Pirate Modernity, 137) In other words, the nature of piracy was that it used the dynamism and ubiquity of markets to disseminate local, unique, and vernacular media quickly and cheaply.

Fascinatingly, the mainstream media companies, threatened by the many piracy practices, would pirate their own media, and distribute it themselves, in order to corner the pirate market, the existence of which they were resigned to. Moreover, the various aesthetics and advertising styles that could be found on bootlegged copies of movies and music were eventually taken up by major media distributors, who used these vernacular styles and tactics as part of their own, larger strategies. 

In sum, the market itself was used as a current for spreading disruptive multipliers around the world in such a way that was disruptive of Capital. Yet the large companies, when they were unsuccessful in stamping out these disruptions, incorporated them into itself, deploying them within their overall strategies. Can small companies, aware of these types of processes, introduce other virulent usage patterns that force major companies to internalize certain other disruptive behaviors? Such strategizing can only be the result of thinking about what networks do, rather than what they are.

You can use markets against capitalism.

Places & Flows

Metropolitan composition and why the social distance between members of the same milieu in different nodes is much lesser than the distance between districts within the same metropolitan area.

What fascinates me right now is the ways in which people in differing social milieus, living geographically near one another can be so thoroughly isolated from one another socially that they are far less likely to ever meet than they are to meet someone similar to themselves who is on the other side of the planet. To investigate this notion, I have turned to some theorists of globalization, since it is precisely the nature of global flows and circuits that are the subject of this inquiry.

    Manuel Castells, the Spanish sociologist of information networks and their effects on civilization, in his book The Rise of the Network Society, describes a distinction in the human environment, between what he calls “spaces of places” and “spaces of flows”. Castells, in explaining these concepts, cites Saskia Sassen, who in 1991 first published on the idea of the “global city”. Written in an era that was witnessing the increasing globalization of trade, finance and information, Sassen argued that the new global flows were leading to the emergence of a trans-national, cosmopolitan type of city—the global city—which was a hyper-connected place, belonging more to the globalized flows of the new, information-heavy transnational economy than to the actual locality of the city as a fixed geographical location. “Being in a city becomes synonymous with being in an extremely intense and dense information loop,” Sassen explains (Saskia Sassen, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept”, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol XI, No. 2 [Winter 2005], pg. 29.). Increasingly, these cities, which are engaged in similar processes of production, investment, innovation, and so on, can be considered as part of a circuit—nodes or landings within a dynamic set of flows. This basic concept of Sassen’s global city informs Castells’ own notion of the space of flows, which adds further nuance and complexity to the original concept. For Castells, there are many irreducible and distinct globalized flows, to which belong different ‘milieus’. There is, for example, a “network of innovation in information and communication technology”, exemplified by Silicon Valley, and this is distinct from “the network of finance”, or the “global criminal economy” (Castells, “Preface to the 2010 Edition”, The Rise of the Network Society, pg. xxxvii). These distinct networks, with their particular milieus, each constitute a circuit within a global world, and their respective ‘landings’ encompass many more locations than the original tripartite financial “global [financial] cities” of New York, London and Tokyo that were at the center of Sassen’s analysis. Castells, examining the patterns of urbanization that were increasingly becoming the norm around the world, considered these “spaces of flows” within their metropolitan context. These dynamic, global hubs were typically situated within multi-centric urban conglomerations less adequately described as cities than as metropolitan regions. These sprawling conurbations move beyond the tidy core/periphery (urban/suburban) urbanism that found its expression in American urban sociology in the 1960’s and 70’s. The metropolitan region, as a place of “multilayering of global networks”, where the nodes of distinct global circuits are situated within the same region, with the region itself acting as a “switching” site between the diverse circuits of the global system, witnesses all the complexity that comes along with such an ecology: the dynamics of a complex process in which “economies of synergy between these different networks take place in [the] node” (Rise of Network Society, xxxvii). The metro region, in other words, is a site of plurality, hosting nodal landings for many distinct networks. While the diverse systemic ecology of metro areas may serve as a switching site between these networks, the milieus belonging to these different networks often do not come into social contact in the course of their daily lives. Though they may live on the same street or in the same building, two people who manage positions within different networks may be considered to be more socially isolated from one another than members of the same milieu scattered across the globe. An international banker in New York City, in this sense, is more likely to know or to meet another international banker in Beijing than they are to know a software developer who lives across the street, by virtue of the distinct milieus that each of these characters belongs to. The social distance is much greater, however, between members of the various globally networked milieus and the hyper-local service workers who occupy the “spaces of place”. The fact, according to Castells, is that large swaths of the population are not even members of these globally-networked milieus at all. While the flowing social infrastructures of globalized milieus can be visualized as interwoven-yet-isolated international webs of cables, knotted together but almost never grafted into one another, these land in the metropolis in such a way that some splicing between them occurs. The concept of the silo conveys a much more tidy visualization of distinct containers of information, but with the concept laid out above, the silo can be seen more as a distinct utility system, literally tangled between countless other systems, themselves isolated from one another, even with their intertwined geographical spreading. The city itself, operating as a sort of productive switchboard, connects, bundles and agitates between different flows, typically in the service of capital. Yet for those occupying the spaces of place, the prospect for being switched into contact with the occupiers of the globalized milieus is far more difficult to accomplish. The experience of the same city, therefore, would be entirely different for—let’s say—the florist on the corner, compared to that of the ‘cosmopolitan’ consultant whose office sits right above that very same street corner. Yet since the city is already programmed to facilitate certain switching, could it be hacked to facilitate “unproductive” switching? Can we install “glocal” (global+local) social softwares in the city that connect the localized and the marginalized with the globalized and exalted? 

Why Trace Architecture Theory Back to 1968?

In his introduction to Architecture Theory Since 1968, K. Michael Hays explains that architectural theory in the years between 1968 and 1993 was “the collective experience of an objective situation to which diverse responses emerged, all attempting to provide maps of the possibilities for architectural intervention, to articulate the specific limiting conditions of architectural practice.” (Architecture Theory, xiii) The fact is that most of the theorists hoped to use theory to inform some movement toward a social practice—“produc[ing] the concepts by which architecture is related to other spheres of social practice” (Architecture Theory, xii). It has had an ambivalent relationship to pop culture, consumerism, technical innovation, and other twists and turns which have each had their own impacts and influences on the built environment, since these have been the concrete historical factors shaping the city. These forces produce what Hays calls the “totally reified life”, which he insists theory attempts to break out of, in a transcoding operation in which the built environment is problematized through another set of lenses that shape it, conceptually, beyond the reifying reproductive imperatives of the prevailing order.

    One of the most important limiters, in many ways, was the Italian Marxist architectural historian and theorist Manfredo Tafuri—the thinker whose work is placed at the beginning of Hays’ anthology. In his 1976 book Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Tafuri argued that architecture was condemned to either collapse into the imperatives of a capitalist economy that was quickly making architecture as a classical practice obsolete, or to retreat into disciplinary solitude, where it would retain its autonomy, but remain ineffectual as a strategy for shaping the world. The modernist architects, Tafuri thought, and “the entire cycle of modern architecture and of the new systems of visual communication” were victim to the former position, according to Tafuri, and these “came into being, developed, and entered into crisis as an enormous attempt—last to be made by the great bourgeois artistic culture—to resolve, on the always more outdated level of ideology, the imbalances, contradictions, and retardations characteristic of the capitalist reorganization of the world market and productive development.” (Architecture and Utopia, 178) Modern architecture as a project had served to effectuate a so-called “planification” of capitalism, assisting it in overcoming its various organization failures and contradictions. One aspect of this modernist project, as I have shown elsewhere (see my Progressive Cities: Planning, Reproduction and Power in the Twentieth Century Metropolis), was the way in which architecture and urban planning were often unwittingly deployed to tame the competing factional interests of various producers and social classes in order to construct a stable society in which capitalist production in general would be possible. As Tafuri argues, the many progressive ideologies of modern architects in the early-to-mid twentieth century served as a justification and as a motivation for assisting capitalist industry in moving beyond its contradictions, even if this was not the explicit goal of the planners themselves, who instead envisaged a generalized movement toward a Utopia in which the contradictions of capital could be alleviated by the urban regimes of architecture (something Tafuri argues at great length in his 1969 essay "Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology"). In the end, Tafuri argues, “[a]rchitecture as ideology of the plan is swept away by the reality of the plan when, the level of Utopia having been superseded, the plan becomes an operative mechanism. The crisis of modern architecture begins in the very moment in which its natural consignee—large industrial capital—goes beyond the fundamental ideology, putting aside the superstructures. From that moment on architectural ideology no longer has any purpose.” (Architecture and Utopia, 135)

    One can begin to see, then, the basic contours of the so-called “Tafurian stranglehold” that architecture and architectural theory faced in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The power of Tafuri’s argument is that its pessimism cannot simply be ignored without unwittingly (or not) falling victim one of the alternatives that he himself laid out: a surrender to the forces of the market or a retreat into “sublime uselessness”. An informed theory of architecture, therefore, must have as its starting point the pessimism of Tafuri’s 1968, even if it intends to move beyond the bind that this poses.