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A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

Inspired by recently meeting a couple of people involved in putting together the impressive (and expensive) Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion (Penny Harvey, Eleanor Conlin Casella, Gillian Evans, Hannah Knox, Christine McLean, Elizabeth B. Silva, Nicholas Thoburn, Kath Woodward) here are some thoughts on it.

A product of the path-breaking interdisciplinary team at Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), the book’s essays written by over forty international scholars from many disciplines include many many theoretical and methodological approaches. This certainly justifies the way that in the first sentence of the introduction its authors, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, invoke the crazy Chinese encyclopaedia described by Borges and imported into social theory by Foucault in Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things). Objects and Materials really is more of an explorer’s companion than a guide along well-beaten paths!

To summarise the work briefly is impossible, and I can only mention a handful of its themes or authors.

Still, deep breath: the collection sets out to address a relatively new but now core question in social thought: What matters about objects? Thus the back cover and the main introduction and the introductory texts to the five sections into which the volume is divided, rehearse a vocabulary familiar from humanities and social science investigations of the current condition: practice, relations (or relationality), mediation, agency (particularly non-human agency) and affect. The most prominently cited authors are, unsurprisingly, Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, but it is perhaps the latter whose influence is most felt. This is reflected also in the editorial line that gives generous room to empirical illustrations but also to ethnographic investigation as a type of analytical work.

The book will interest readers from very divergent backgrounds with very different methodological toolkits (even mutually contradictory ones). Its strong anthropological  content will appeal to those already immersed in the literatures on socio-technical change, or the many different ways in which that small word, ‘thing’, has been subjected to scholarly scrutiny by so many thinkers from Martin Heidegger to Elizabeth Grosz.

But the issues are not just of academic interest. Several texts consider the shared crises that beset our times and which are increasingly framed as symptoms of earlier intellectual and even academic mistakes, notably of misplaced trust in the continuities of the material and object(-ive) world. This is perhaps the area where Deleuzian thought, especially around the concept of ‘affect’, becomes prominent: it gives the volume’s authors tools for keeping in view both instability and resistance to change.

The first section, ‘Material qualities’ offers provocations to think in new ways about what exactly the material could be, or how it could be understood, and thus rehearses philosophical questions around epistemology and ontology. The second part is titled ‘Affective objects’, the third ‘Unsettling objects’. These sections include texts that explicitly draw out emotive responses as they consider material, often fleshy processes of human suffering, but also the virtual dimensions of experience. Both consider time, objects and experience altogether in often eloquent writing. Part four turns to ‘Interface objects’ and to the capacities that objects have in different domains, such as in the household or in scientific research and, of course, the ways these are animated in human interaction. The fifth and final part, ‘Becoming Object’, left me thinking that whatever it is, the thing is stably unstable and consistently inconsistent.

Depending on the reader’s preferences, these texts may feel like an excess of self-consciously unsettling ideas and modish vocabulary, or like a timely intervention into the ways contemporary life could be rendered more adequately thinkable. Or they may inspire to think about the fragility of things these days in unexpected and helpful ways.

Considering the insights about the generative powers of materials and objects spelled out throughout its chapters, it is a little disappointing that more space was not given to ‘stuff’ understood as either consumer desirables or infrastructures, which are part of the reason for the growing interest among sociologists and anthropologists, in ‘the material’.

The volume does not pretend to offer a uniform theoretical framework for the study of materials and objects. Nor does it appear to build consistently on a specific scholarly heritage despite the Deleuzian and Latourian references or, indeed, recurrent mentions of Tim Ingold’s anthropology and other (implicitly or explicitly) Heideggerian approaches to knowing, being and becoming. What is taken as given is that to make sense of the world as social thinkers or, indeed, as artists or activists, it is necessary to understand the world as complex and relational. On the other hand, the relationship between objects and materials is something that each text deals with on its own terms. And so some of them end up labouring what should be the obvious complexity. Fortunately the authors manage to say constructive and novel things about as philosophically a tricky terrain as this without getting stuck on binaries. In a textual (predominantly) work such as this there will always be pairings that both writer and reader know to be tricky, such as matter and affect, thing and object, detached and attached.

Without a doubt, the topics in Objects and Materials brush on many important problems in political life and scholarship. So it is still worth highlighting Graham Harman’s text, ‘Objects are the root of all philosophy’, which takes aim at no less than “several centuries” of “anti-object-oriented trends” (p. 238) in philosophy. Harman also suggests that many scholars simply find grappling with the world outside the mind boring. I find the “weird model of objects” (p. 245) that he proposes anything but boring, but what bores and what excites in this varied collection, will depend quite simply on each reader’s predispositions.

This is all very academic and the hard-back version is massively expensive. But it is due out electronically and in paperback.

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It might be considered ironic, but it was the cover that made me pay attention and buy this book. Fortunately its 400-odd pages were a romp of a text that I kept wanting to come back to even when I had more urgent things to do. Philip Mirowski’s quirky analysis of our current fix deserves to be widely read.

http://www.randomhouse.com/book/232739/never-let-a-serious-crisis-go-to-waste-by-philip-mirowskiWriting in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Christopher Phelps even suggests that “should neoliberalism ever be transcended, this work will be one of the resources that made it possible”.

I have spent much of the last ten years reading scholarly work written from a more-or-less explicitly left-wing position (quite a compelling stance if one’s studies take one into the miseries that pass for normal for so many), so I’m used to the thought that the world has indeed turned upside down during my adult life. Neoliberalism, first as ideology and now as intellectual straightjacket or outright system, has eroded social bonds, accelerated unsustainability and thinned out human ingenuity just when we appear to need them most.

Academics and other commentators write plenty and often eloquently about this stuff, but somehow Mirowski’s forensic examination of the aftermath of the financial crisis which erupted in 2007 wasn’t just arresting and illuminating, it made sense of how all this madness can have taken place and how it still flourishes. It also made a helpful distinction between neoclassical economic thought and neoliberalism. The latter, as he outlines, has a deep and wide conviction in the infallibility of the markets. To sustain that belief, it operates in a permanent state of exception (with plenty of references to Carl Schmitt) where governments (Europe!) blatantly disregard democratic principles should it be necessary in order to fix the infallible markets.

Mirowski’s analysis is that the problem we face is a problem of the organisation and production of knowledge or, perhaps more accurately, of ignorance.

Some reviewers note that he skates perilously close to conspiracy theories. Indeed he credits entities such as the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) (of which I had never heard previously and had to look up online) and the Neoliberal Thought Collective (NTC) with surprising powers.

Yet as someone expert in both economics and in the history and philosophy of science, Mirowski  is able to take the reader not only through what is really rotten about the conduct of economic and political elites but also how coherent its rottenness and peddling of misinformation actually has been, and how successful in entrenching, not eroding, their power. Particularly where he compares the financial sector’s smoke and mirrors exercises with similar processes in climate science, the picture he paints of overtly manipulated knowledge gains considerable credibility.

It’s not a cheerful book. Perhaps more disturbing even than the portrayal of the elites responsible for the mess is Mirowski’s diagnosis of the problem’s depth – we are all neoliberals now, fragmented selves who have “to somehow manage to be simultaneously subject, object, and spectator. … at once the business, the raw material, the product, the clientele, and the customer of [our] own life” (p. 108).

Economic insult has peculiar effects on such selves. No wonder so many are indignant. Indeed Mirowski invokes groups such as the Tea Party, Golden Dawn and the True Finns (p. 11), as some of the reasons why our situation needs better analysis. But above all, he notes that the left-wing counterparts of these groups haven’t been that sober or less stupid about the financial meltdown either. I think this book might help a little. Just a little. And it’s a great read.

Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, by Philip Mirowski, Verso, 2013.

That title is a line from Adversarial Design by Carl DiSalvo (2012), part of the MIT’s book series on Design Thinking and Design Theory. And if the book is  an indication of what the rest of the newish range offers, I’ll gladly read those as well.

I’d like to encourage Helsinki’s planning and urban design experts to take a look too.

DiSalvo writes about articulations between design and politics. But he’s not so interested in how design knowledge is applied to solve to political problems (the endless efforts in Finland to connect the public with government with apps and other communications innovations would fall into this cateogory).

No, DiSalvo writes about the numerous “minor acts of disruption” that creative, not just artistically gifted but politically engaged, designers have helped to bring about.

My favourite examples are robot dogs that sniff out environmental toxins in your neighbourhood and Ad-hoc Dark (roast) Network Travel Mugs.

Alas, the idea of “minor acts of disruption” sometimes just feels too close to powerlessness.

That’s to say, the scale and speed at which our major environments, like the city of Helsinki for instance, can be transformed with current design technology, really puts our planning system under strain. Hietsu Janes Walk

Yesterday’s Jane’s Walk was a delight. Once again it seemed that the weather makers were on the side of the vaguely “green”. Here we were, learning about the macabre origins of Hietaranta beach and the twists and turns of preventing the demolition of its beautiful and useful “pavilion”.

One of the most important points Jane Jacobs’ writings have brought to our attention, is that the city is much more than architecture. Further, a building in the wrong place or in the wrong shape, can wreck an existing environment.

And although she has been mistakenly used by activists over the years to defend tradition against novelty, Jacobs was never against change. She wasn’t even against modernism. She apparently even liked the Seagram Building!

Unfortunately – or fortunately – I was unaware yesterday that the latest round of decisions about a proposal to alter the local plan for our destination point, Jätkäsaari, just on the edge of Helsinki’s compact city centre.

For 200 years we have relaxed into our horizon, from the dark days of winter to the endless daylight of midsummer. We are now at the cusp of having the city thrust high into the skies. Because tomorrow the City Board will make a decision that will potentially transform the very identity of Helsinki’s architectural heritage.

It is not just a case of giving permission for one building. I believe it would change everything, at a stroke, for the worse.

Yesterday we noted that though the city-edge of the former Jätkäsaari harbour was a building site, it seemed to be sprouting quite decent mixed-tenure residential blocks. Bunkkeri Jane's WalkIt also has workspaces and retail in some old warehouses by Lars Sonck as well as a hideous but popular computer megastore, a busy passenger terminal and a remarkable monument to concrete.

If the Board agrees to alter the development plans – quite likely – all this would be overshadowed by a 33-storey conference-centre-hotel financed by the same Norwegian investor whose earlier hotel plans for Helsinki (by Herzog and De Meuron) were scuppered because they were rather putting its historic centre at risk.

The Planning Department and many politicians have dismissed the ample public criticism of the tower hotel. Tomorrow’s decision is likely to be, “go ahead”, but it’s equally likely that public outcry will follow.

I can’t help feeling that the risk to Helsinki is so great that there must be some “muddled thinking” somewhere. (Like, why the Seagram Building is actually easy to like, but the renderings for Jätkäsaari produce shudders).

But why should the critique be sidelined? Where are these desires coming from, to put Helsinki’s living environment as well as its brand asset – its horizontalness – at risk?

Certainly the planning system – slow and cumbersome as it is – is still too closed. There should be time and space built into it for a process of genuine disagreement and genuine alternatives to be voiced and debated.

It all seems a long way off from the thoughtful and rather academic concerns of DiSalvo. And yet, somewhere in all that talk of adversarial, agonistic, actively political engagements with the world we are designing, there must be the seeds of a vocabulary and a repertoire that even a consensus-minded city like Helsinki could learn from.

I am working up a review to send to a couple of places in a couple of languages, but in the mean time, here are some of my notes on David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the right to the city to the urban revolution, London & New York: Verso 2012.

David Harvey is one of the most cited critical urban scholars today.  Rebel Cities paints a grim picture of our times and our cities. Taking its cue on the one hand from urban rebels – activists – who are saying “no” to neoliberalism, and on the other from the depressing urban environments that capitalism so frenetically produces, the book is pretty much a call to arms: Capitalist normality is morally bankrupt not to mention materially disastrous. Where is “the left” when it could be articulating a better alternative?!

The book combines two insights, firstly that it is in the city that capitalism is at its most intense and secondly that it is in the city where it is definitely most contested. Rebel Cities shows how the economics of neoliberalism have been indelibly etched into the urban fabric. Everywhere, not only in the long-polarized developing world, cycles of boom and bust have produced not just new millionaires and new paupers, but an anti-social cocktail of Disneyfied authenticity, fortified fragmentation and ceaseless surveillance. The book also lays bare the costs of society’s fixation with private property – most tragically in the desire to own one’s home – and shows how this has crowded out other forms of politics.

Not, of course, that the process is linear or evenly distributed, as Harvey has been at pains to demonstrate throughout his career. It is the “rebel” perspective that Harvey develops, but it is clear that the mainstream can no longer pretend that all is well either. Post-2011 with its Arab Spring, Tel Aviv summer, London riots and global Occupy camps, we know that simmering discontent can and will crystallize into action. Despite the repressive efforts of capital-friendly states and municipal guardians of law and order (in the service of the propertied classes) autonomous actions have continued to flourish. They arise both in response to immediate needs – as in campaigns against entrenched homelessness or in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy – and in the guise of more or less utopian experiments that hark back to the countercultures of previous generations.

Harvey’s Marxist background provides ample tools for connecting the street level experience of urban space to the dynamics of capitalist expansion. The book scans the horizon for the real costs – environmental and human – of what convention still dubs “development”.  Its important contribution is in linking these to macroeconomic “disruptions”, the absurdities of bankers’ bonuses, freshly produced homelessness and the full scope of the speculative transformations unfolding in urban built environments. The cities we fight for turn out not to be under accidental or random assault. Rather, the relentless competition between cities and the equally relentless rearrangements of the built environment, are part of the same problem: capitalism.

The book takes a global view, arguing that capital’s drive to extract surplus operates against any sociable common goals. Capital appropriates not just physical production but the creation of cultural value. Everything comes under assault, but above all the environment and the people of the city, the laborers who, in body (labor) and spirit (culture), actually already produced and continue to produce that environment. Perhaps that is why there is something very understandable in the recent upsurge of interest in campaigns that claim a “right to the city”. The slogan, which was launched by Henri Lefebvre in the social upheavals of the late 1960s and which has been given recent exposure by Harvey’s own work, has almost become institutionalized. The Right to the City Alliance came into being in 2007, and continues to provide a shared language and a platform for a plethora of urban-based justice campaigns within the USA, and inspiration and resources for activists beyond. In Brazil a right to the city was incorporated into law in 2001. Despite the revolutionary tone of the slogan, it is not clear that struggles for urban rights really do challenge prevailing and essentially bourgeois concepts of rights, ones based on individualist and property-based notions of legality. And it is not clear whether the slogan’s apparent popularity is an academic illusion either.

Harvey does not elaborate much on urban movements, but he is probably on the right track in that many of them are struggling against privatization at a local level. (I’d hazard a guess that in practice whatever alternative to activists taking charge of Hietaniemi’s pavilion, see my previous post in Finnish, the results would lead to a privatized and visibly corporate result, perhaps in the shape of some “design yourself better”-sports facility that would suit the entrepreneurial, self-responsible and forever young values of Helsinki’s major political actors).

Hietsu2013

Claiming the right to the city is, as Harvey observes, actually often about wanting safe public spaces, wanting affordable housing, and demanding more say in the definition of what the city could be. It is necessary but it is reformist and does not strike at the real problem, just like a workers’ collective that ends up behaving like a capitalist firm is not exactly threatening the operations of the market, as he points out. There are many interesting points about urban struggles here, but though they are presented as core to the book, it is not quite clear how they connect to Harvey’s argument about capital and its urban character.

Much of the argument is rather abstract and assumes prior engagement with the histories of urban struggle. What is new and interesting is that a deepening respect for the generative powers of culture is evident throughout the book. Towards the end of Rebel Cities, empirical detail is put to work explicitly to support a more general argument for attending to cultural specifics. The example he offers is of El Alto in Bolivia, invoked to show that a city can be reclaimed for anti-capitalist struggle. Harvey relies almost exclusively on the work of two anthropologists, Leslie Gill and, in particular Sian Lazar, who both (separately) describe and analyze the mix of indigenous and class politics that brought El Alto to international attention as a “rebel city”, which successfully resisted neoliberal reforms in 2003. When subsequently Evo Morales was elected as president of Bolivia, many saw it as a sign of a totally new momentum to progressive left-wing politics. Harvey admits that since then Bolivia has been drawn into a kind of reconstituted neoliberalism, but he still sees in these accounts of El Alto important lessons for anti-capitalist struggle. The local ties of solidarity so carefully described by Lazar especially, offer Harvey a tantalizing glimpse of how the abstract need for an alternative to global capitalism fuses with local forces to produce real change and genuine hope.

There is a suggestion in the book that as more and more struggles come out into the open surely this should be telling us that the conditions are ripe for a break with capitalism. Whilst the activists are doing their bit the intellectuals are fainthearted, Harvey seems to be saying. For instance, he does not see that the noticeable and productive interest in the politics of the commons and the active pursuit of commoning is particularly well served by current academic debate. Of course Harvey’s primary targets are the architects of the new normal who insist on imposing austerity on the poor to save “the markets”, but even the Marxists whose theories are based on something called “historical materialism”, and the theorists of the commons for whom culture as well as materiality are already incorporated into economic analysis, fall short of the kind of radicalism he is seeking.

As a book Rebel Cities could be more robust and more thoughtfully edited. Each chapter is very different, as might be expected of a book put together from previously published articles. Still, in readable prose and with some impressive analysis, Harvey persuades that it is time to dislodge the dysfunctional and immoral Party of Wall Street and replace its intellectually incoherent model of “normal” with something else. He manages to weave together a compelling story about a global system, incoherent, crisis-ridden and raggedy as it is, whose impacts on social reproduction and the environment – built and unbuilt – are of the same destructive kind everywhere. The book left me unsure of how, exactly, the history of urban struggles is linked to the urban character of capitalism, but the terrain is worth more exploration.

Shantitown in SA at speedAnd in reading Rebel Cities I did often visualize the imagination-defying architectural gigantism of Shanghai and New York, felt the eeriness of China’s new ghost towns and conjured up some sense of life in a slum, based (unsurprisingly) on a few fleeting drive-by encounters. I also thought about Helsinki’s perhaps less spectacular but no less distressing “developments” and how they suit “the new normal” so much better than the old “human scale” that used to be so typical here.

Harvey’s book has its shortcomings then, yet in his hands the idea of “the city” as the locus of capitalism’s most voracious, even feral, powers makes sense. So does his claim that urban struggles are a force of history worth taking seriously. Thinking about these things in Harvey’s company might lead to more ambitious debate about why our cities are in such a mess.

Lupaamani kirja-arvio, julkaistu Rakennettu Ympäristö-lehdessä 4/2011

Pasi Mäenpää Helsinki takaisin jaloilleen: Askelia toimivampaan kaupunkiin

Gaudeamus, syyskuu 2011

Pasi Mäenpään Helsinki takaisin jaloilleen pukee sanoiksi tuntemuksia ja epäilyksiä, jotka moni pääkaupunkilainen varmaan tunnistaa. Tuotteliaana ja empiristä tutkimusta paljon tehneenä sosiologina ja paljasjalkaisena helsinkiläisenä Mäenpää on sisällyttänyt kirjaan niin kritiikkiä kuin parannusehdotuksiakin helposti lähestyttävässä muodossa.

Kirjasta saa paljon irti, vaikkei olisikaan vakuuttunut kaikista sen ideoista, kuten “monitoimiostareista” tai osallistuvan suunnittelun “win-win-win” tilanteista. On varsin hienoa, että kirjan pääosassa ovat ideat. Niitä Mäenpää tutkijana on joutunut usein siivoamaan pois raporteistaan, mutta juuri niitä nyt tarvitaan. Samoin Mäenpään huoli kaupunkitutkimuksen kapenemisesta menestymisideologian kuuliaaksi palvelijaksi on ongelma, joka saa tässä ansaitsemaansa huomiota.

Kirja jakautuu kolmeen osaan. Ensimmäinen purkaa piinttyneitä käsityksiä suomalaisesta kaupunkikulttuurista ja tarjoaa niiden tilalle tutkimukseen ja todellisuuteen perustuvaa, siis realistisempaa, pohjaa Helsingin kehittämiselle. Toisessa osassa Mäenpää kohdistaa kritiikkinsä Helsingin hallintoon ja kysyy, miksi kaupunki kaikessa monimutkaisuudessaan nähdään siellä vain taloudellista voittoa havittelevana bisneksenä. Tässä osassa uusliberalistisen kvasi-politiikan kritiikki ja kaupunkiarjen todellisuus nivoutuvat valaisevasti yhteen: brändäämiset, markkinoinnit ja “taidepläjäykset” (kuten Guggenheim) ovat hallinnon suosiossa, mutta niiden vaikutus kaupunkiin yhteisönä on usein kielteinen. Hallinnon omaksuma menestymisen ideologia tuntuu paitsi infrastruktuurissa ja ihmisten toiminnassa, myös politiikan köyhytmisessä: asukkaan vain oletetaan hyväksyvän se, että on tärkeämpää houkutella uusia osaajia, turisteja, investoijia ja pääomia kuin huolehtia jo olemassaolevasta. Yleishyödyllisyys palaa tarinaan kirjan kolmannessa osassa, jossa Mäenpää tarjoaa vaihtoehtoisia visioita yhteisöllisyyttä ja ekologisia rajoja korostaen.

Eurokriisin jatkuessa kirjan pohdinnat Helsingin kehittämisestä tuntuvat paljon rakentavammilta lähtökohdilta kuin globaalin kiinteistöbisneksen varjossa muovautunut utopioiden pyörittely. Keskustelu jatkukoon!

Pieni jälkikirjoitus: Mäenpää, kuten niin moni helsinkiläinen kommentaattori, haluaisi Helsinkiin lisää avoimuutta. Siinä onkin tulevaisuudessa haastetta.

Yllä valokuva siitä, miten Helsingissä avoimuus kuitenkin paikoitellen toteutuu. Kuitenkin katujen Helsinki – katu kävelytilana ja kaupanteon paikkana – saattaa olla uhattuna. Palataan siihenkin aiheeseen.