Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fourth Circle – “Easier, more fun, more mobile, safer!”

It would be nice if they’d stop talking to us about “the city” and the “countryside,” and even nicer if they’d stop bringing up their ancient opposition. What surrounds us isn’t like that at all: it’s a single urban sprawl, without form and without order, a desolate, undefined, and unlimited zone, a global continuum of museum-ized mega-downtowns and natural parks, huge complexes and immense agricultural operations, industrial zones and land parcels, rural inns and networks of bars: the metropolis. There certainly was the ancient city, the medieval city, or the modern city; but there is no such thing as a metropolitan city. The metropolis is the synthesis of the whole territory. Everything lives there together, not so much geographically as by the meshing of its networks.
It is precisely because it is about to totally disappear that the city is being fetishized these days, as History. The huge factories in Lille are now concert halls; the concrete downtown of Le Havre is a Unesco heritage site. In Beijing the hutongs that once surrounded the Forbidden City have been destroyed, and replicas reconstructed a ways away for anyone who’s curious. In Troyes, half-timber façades are stuck onto cinder-block buildings, in a artsy pastiche reminiscent of the Victorian style boutiques in Disneyland Paris. The historical downtowns, which had long been hotbeds of sedition, are integrated wisely into the metropolis’ organizational structure, as ostentatious tourism and consumption centers. They are the commodity fairy islands, upheld with fun-fairs and esthetic attraction... and by force. The asphyxiating vapidity of Christmas marketplaces has to be paid for with ever more security guards and police patrols. Control integrates marvelously into the commodity landscape, showing its authoritarian face to whoever wants to see. It’s a blended era; a blend of bland music, telescoping billy-clubs, and cotton candy. All the police surveillance our total enchantment needs!
And it’s a taste for the quote-on-quote “authentic,” and the taste for control over it, that accompanies the petty-bourgeoisie in its colonization of the poor neighborhoods. Pushed out of the mega downtowns, seeking a “neighborhood life” that they’d never find in “Phénix” brand tract-homes. And, chasing off the poor, the cars and the immigrants, and making a clean place out of it, expelling all the microbes, they pulverize everything they came there looking for. And on a municipal billboard, a janitorial employee is pictured shaking hands with a security guard; the slogan reads: “Montauban: A Clean City.”
The decency that has obliged the urbanists to stop talking about the “city” they’ve destroyed, and to start talking about “the urban area,” should also lead them to stop talking about “the countryside,” which doesn’t exist anymore either. What there is in its place is a landscape that gets exhibited to the stressed-out, uprooted masses, a past that can easily be shown off now that there are so few peasants around anymore. It’s a marketing device deployed over a “territory” where everything must be either priced or marked off as a heritage site. It’s always the same freezing emptiness that wins out, all the way to the most far-off of bell towers.
The metropolis comprises this simultaneous death of city and countryside, at the intersection where all the middle classes converge, in the middle of this middle class crowd, which extends indefinitely, from rural exodus to “peri-urbanization.” The glassing-in of the global territory suits the cynicism of contemporary architecture. A school, a hospital, a multimedia library; just so many variations on the same theme: transparency, neutrality, and uniformity. Massive, fluid buildings, designed without any need to know what will go on in them, and that could be here just as much as they could be anywhere. What is to be done with the La Defense buildings, the Part-Dieu towers, the Euralille ? The phrase “fire-new” (brand new) contains their whole fate within it. A Scottish traveler, after the insurgents burnt down the Paris City Hotel in May 1871, bore witness to the singular splendor of power in flames: “I had never imagined a more beautiful sight: It is superb. The people of the Commune are dreadful rascals, I won’t deny that; but what artists they are! And they weren’t even conscious of their work! ... I have seen the ruins of Amalfi, bathed by the blue waves of the Mediterranean, the ruins of the Tung-hoor temples in Punjab; I’ve seen Rome and many other things: but nothing can compare to what was before my eyes tonight.”

Certainly within the metropolitan web there are a few fragments of city and a few residues of countryside left. But all the real liveliness has gone and taken up residence in the ghetto areas. The paradox is that those places that look the least inhabitable are the only ones to still be truly lived in. An old squatted shack will always feel more populated than these “social standing” apartment blocks where all you can really do is insert your furniture and perfect the decoration while waiting to pick up and move to the next place. In many mega-cities, the shantytowns are indeed the last truly living, livable, and unsurprisingly the most mortal, places to live. They’re the other side of the electronic decor of the global metropolis. The dormitory towns of the Northern suburbs of Paris, abandoned by a petty bourgeoisie that’d gone pheasant-hunting out at their villas, but brought back to life by mass unemployment, now shine even more intensely than the Latin Quarter -- with language as much as with fire.
The firestorm of November 2005 was not the result of extreme dispossession, as so much rambling on has been done about; rather it was the result of the full possession of a particular territory. Sure, you can burn cars because you’re pissed off, but to propagate the riot over a whole month and keep the police in long-standing check, you have to know how to get organized, make alliances, know the terrain to perfection, and share a common language and enemy. Kilometers and weeks couldn’t stop the spread of the fire. Other fires burst up in response to the first blazes, and in places they were least expected. Whispers don’t try to be heard.
The metropolis is a terrain of constant low intensity conflict, of which the occupation of Basra, Mogadishu, or Nablus are the culmination points. The city, for soldiers, was for a long time a place to be avoided, or perhaps to beseige; the metropolis on the other hand is perfectly compatible with war. Armed conflict is merely another episode in its constant self-reconfiguration. The battles waged by the great powers are like incessantly repeated policing tasks in the black holes of the metropolis – “whether in Burkina Faso, the south Bronx, Kamagasaki, Chiapas or the northeastern suburbs of Paris.” These “interventions” aren’t really so much aiming for any victory or to restore order or peace, but rather they are performed in the maintenance of the great enterprise of forced “security” that’s always/already at work. War can no longer be isolated within time, but is diffracted in a series of military and police micro-operations to ensure security.
The police and the army adapt to it in parallel fashion, and step by step. A criminologist asks the CRS to organize itself in small, highly trained mobile units. The military academy, cradle of their disciplinary methods, questions its hierarchical organization. In his grenadiers’ battalion, a NATO officer applies a “participatory method involving everyone in the analysis, preparation, execution, and evaluation of an action. Plans are discussed and re-discussed for days, throughout all drills, and depending on the latest information received... There’s nothing like a plan elaborated in common to increase adhesion and motivation.”
The armed forces don’t just adapt themselves to the metropolis; they give it its form. And so, after the battle of Nablus, the soldiers became interior designers. Forced by the Palestinian guerillas to abandon the streets, which were too hazardous, they learned to advance vertically and horizontally, through the urban constructions, smashing walls and ceilings to move about. An officer of the Israeli Defense Forces, a philosophy grad, explained: “The enemy interprets space in the classical, traditional manner, and I refuse to follow its interpretation and fall into its traps... I want to surprise him! That’s the essence of war. I must win... and so that’s how I decided on the method that ended up with me going through walls... Like a worm crawling forth and eating whatever’s in its way.” The urban realm is more than just the theater of conflict; it’s the means. It recalls Blanqui’s councils, where, this time on the side of insurrection, future Paris insurgents were advised to take over the houses on the barricaded streets to protect their positions, break down walls to bring rooms in contact with each other, smash the first floor staircases, knock out holes in the ceilings to defend against any potential attackers, rip down the doors to barricade the windows with, and station gunmen on every floor of the building.

The metropolis is not just this urbanized heap, this final collision between city and countryside; it’s just as much a flow of beings and things. A current that passes through a whole network of fiber optics, high-speed train lines, satellites, video surveillance cameras, so everyone runs to keep up until they’re lost. A current that tries to pull everything into its hopeless, constant movement, which mobilizes everybody. Where everyone’s assailed by news as if it were some hostile force. Where there’s nothing left but to run. Where it becomes hard to wait, even for the umpteenth commuter-train ride.
The proliferation of displacement and communications resources everywhere tears us constantly from the here and now, with the temptation of being somewhere else all the time. Grab a TGV train, take an RER , pick up a phone, and you’ll already be there. This mobility only implies a kind of constant being pulled away, isolation, and exile. And it would be intolerable for people were not to always be a mobility of private space, of a kind of portable “indoors.” The private bubble doesn’t burst; it just floats. This isn’t the end of the cocooning, it’s just that it’s starting to get moving. From a train station, an office park, a business bank, from one hotel to the next, there’s always that foreignness, so commonplace, so well known that it feels like the least familiar thing. The luxuriance of the metropolis is a random brew of defined, infinitely permutable environments. Its downtowns offer themselves up not as identical places but as original offerings of ambiances, among which we evolve, choosing one and passing up another, like a kind of existential shopping among the different styles of bars, people, designs, or iPod playlists. Advertising tagline: “With my mp3 player I’m the master of my world.” To survive the surrounding uniformity, the only option is to reconstitute your own inner world constantly, like children building little Wendy houses just the same anywhere. Like Robinson, reproducing his grocer’s universe on the deserted island, it’s almost like our deserted island is civilization itself, and we are thousands of people constantly being washed up there.
Because of the fluid nature of its architecture, the metropolis is one of the most vulnerable human formations that have ever existed. Supple, subtle, but vulnerable. A sudden, total closure of the borders because of a rampant epidemic, any kind of shortage of vital supplies, an organized blockade of communications points, and the whole scenery changes, and no longer hides the scenes of carnage that haunt it at all times. This world wouldn’t be on the move so fast if it weren’t for the fact that its collapse is so hot on its trail.
Its network structure, its whole technological infrastructure of nodes and connections, and its decentralized architecture attempt to keep the metropolis safe from its own inevitable malfunctions. The Internet is supposed to be able to withstand nuclear attack. The permanent control of the flow of information, people, and commodities has to secure metropolitan mobility and track it, and ensure that there’s never a missing pallet from the merchandise stockroom, that there’s never a single buck stolen from a shop or a terrorist on a plane. Thanks to a RFID chip, a biometric passport, and a DNA index.
But the metropolis also produces the means of its own destruction. An American security expert explains their defeat in Iraq by the guerilla’s ability to profit from the new means of communication. When they invaded Iraq, the USA didn’t care so much about democracy as they did about cybernetic networks. They brought with them one of the weapons now defeating them. The proliferation of cell phones and internet access points gave the guerillas unheard-of means of organizing and making themselves hard to attack.
Every network has its weak points, the nodes that have to be taken out to stop circulation, to implode the latticework. The last big European power outage proved it: a single incident involving a high-tension power line and the lights go out over a good chunk of the continent. To get something happening in the metropolis, to open other possibilities, the first step would have to be stopping its perpetuum mobile . The Thai rebels that knocked out the electrical relays understood that, the anti-CPE protesters that blocked the universities to then try to block the economy understood it, and the American dockworkers that struck in October 2002 to save 300 jobs, and blocked the main west coast ports for 10 days understood it too. The American economy is so dependent on influx from Asian countries that the cost of that blockage was calculated at around a million euros a day. Ten thousand people can shake the world’s greatest global economic power. For certain “experts,” if the movement had lasted one more month, it would have been the cause for the “return to a recession in the United States, and an economic nightmare for Southeast Asia.”

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