Printer Friendly

Building, dwelling, acting.

Our urban surroundings cannot help but reflect the kind of society we live in, and affect profoundly the mental architecture of our consciousness as citizens. The agora of Athens certainly was more than just a place to stroll about and make observations about the weather. The magnificent broad avenues of many European cities represent more than simply grandeur and civic optimism -- they also made it easier for mounted cavalry to rout a disobedient mass of citizens. And the kind of urban world we build for ourselves today will determine whether we have the civic vocabulary to be more than just a society of consumers -- whether we have room amidst our shopping malls and expressways to squeeze in the occasional agora.

IN what follows, I want to raise some issues concerning the political implications of the built environment, in particular the way structures of civic and domestic space interact to influence the character of individuals as citizens. These remarks began life as an intervention concerning the ethics of a particular profession, architecture, under conditions of globalization; but soon the lines of argument took a turn -- natural-seeming, to me anyway -- away from the rather limited concerns of professional conduct, indeed away from ethical theory in the narrow sense, into a more contextual and activist direction.(1) The issues of appropriate professional practice quickly acquire, to my mind, a crucial political dimension. In a sense, therefore, the following is merely an extended illustration of the Aristotelian dictum (minus the Aristotelian naturalism and certainty) that ethics and politics are intimately related subjects, both concerned with how to live well together, how to flourish as humans -- and that such a project always includes, centrally, issues of place making.

My first claim, perhaps an obvious one, is that the current need for a globalized politics to counteract the already dominant globalized market and globalized culture -- a global politics that does not simply collapse down to a spastic form of neo-liberal orthodoxy -- can be aided by the responsible practice of architecture. It follows that this renewed form of cosmopolitanism can, equally, be harmed by the absence of such a practice. I say this boldly here, but want at the same time to be mindful of the limitations of such a claim. Architects are by no means the only individuals, or professionals, whose actions have a central role in any renewed sense of transnational citizenship. They are bound by conditions of possibility as restrictive as anything encountered in other walks of life, hampered by building codes and financing difficulties, working with and around client desires, and so on. Many face a daily grind of poring over construction codes or preparing drawings for projects they dislike. They have personal responsibilities that are not political, and there are other political players besides themselves on the field.

Nevertheless, my second, perhaps less obvious, claim is that architects, insofar as they control the means of shaping the spaces of everyday life, must put themselves in the vanguard of the new global citizenship. I use the word "control" without, I hope, overestimating their ability to influence a given project from start to finish, which may be quite limited; and without wanting to suggest an elevated, arrogant magisterial role for the architect, a self-image of the artist-genius who imposes his vision on the aesthetically impoverished already, from the fictional hauteur of Howard Roark to the real-world avant-garde conceit of Rem Koolhaas or Peter Eisenmann.(2)

But because the built environment is so inescapable for all of us, and because we so often feel alienated from that environment -- when it should be a site of our aspiration, our discourse about who we are or might be -- architects have a deeper political role than is sometimes recognized. Builders must make it possible for dwellers to act. In the highly charged political atmosphere of our speedy times, it is not enough to conceive ethical obligations as confined to meeting clients' needs, or even to staying true to a certain vision of professional integrity. Shapers of space need to reconceive their task as uncovering the utopian and revolutionary possibilities of building, of opening up spaces for political thought and action.

In choosing my title here, I of course allude to Heidegger's celebrated essay "Building Dwelling Thinking," and the argument there that dwelling is the essence of mortal human life.(3) In dwelling, we are so situated in the world that we can think, can reflect the conditions of our own existence, and take insight from that reflection. Contemplation of what Heidegger calls the fourfold -- earth, sky, mortals, gods -- is therefore implied in the practice of building, since that is what creates the possibility of being situated reflectively, so that we can tarry in thought. A bridge, for example, gathers the landscape around it into a structure of thought, producing that specifically meaningful place, a location. The force of this argument remains undiminished: we build in order to dwell, indeed can build only when dwelling is the goal.

But, to put it rather crudely, this is not the time for us to tarry too long, or too exclusively, in thoughts of the fourfold. This is a time to act as well as to think. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a time to act in order that thought should (once more?) become possible: to uncover an activist, discursive politics that is, as I shall put it, grimly utopian. For it is characteristic of the current waves of market-driven development that they are murderous of thought, sometimes most thoroughly so when they are most outwardly successful: when they reinforce the widespread tendency to accept clearly harmful trends as inevitable if they are backed by enough fast-flowing capital. I think here, for example, of the unreflective and empty modernism of the massive Potsdamer Platz reconstruction; or of the huge chunks of land swallowed every year by exurban sprawl, a process of "development" successful only in the twinned sense of offering financial return on highly concentrated investment and taking land away from the environment.(4)

Before we surrender to a bland future of zombie-like privatization and consumerism, disappearing into a maze of freeways and shopping malls, slab-like downtowns and gated communities, we need to act to make thought, not just the already thought, a part of our political discourse. Let us ask, as builders and dwellers both, what we can do to make this a world we want, not just a world that happens to us.

I THINK we can best approach this complicated project by opening up the larger question of what globalization of culture and money is doing to us as individuals, by attempting to influence some small chunk of our world through our choices. We tend to think of the problems of globalization and cultural identity, and their complicated relation to the built environment, as peculiar to our times. But in fact they are rooted in ancient ideas of civic belonging, the need to create and maintain social spaces: rooted in the twenty-six acres of the Athenian agora, the enclosed courts of the medieval universities, the glowing arcades of the nineteenth century. And the politico-cultural crisis we now face is at least as old as the century that has just ended, if not older. It is, in its way, a crisis of modernity itself, and has to do with the complex, isomorphic relationship between individuals and the social and cultural fields that surround them: a troubled relationship of inside and outside, and of the boundary between.

Both cultures and individuals are subject to the pluralistic conditions typical of late modernity. Indeed, a feasible general characterization of modernity is naturally that of a program of deliberate breaks from tradition or inherited stability. Ezra Pound's celebrated imperative, "Make it new," is only the most succinct expression of this desire, so peculiar and so powerful in the twentieth century. This freedom from the past has, notoriously, both costs and benefits. Definitions and singleness are thrown over in favour of fluidity and provisionality, but this is a toss that unsettles as much as it liberates. We are forever in danger of losing perspective in a relentless demand for speedy novelty, coupled with its unlikely twin, the been-there, done-that insouciance of the jaded aesthete -- or, nowadays, the bored consumer.

Consider: when Proust says of his character Albertine, in A la Recherche du temps perdu, that she "is no longer a woman, but a series of events," he expresses something crucial about the dawning sensibility of the new century, a dawning precariously dated by Virginia Woolf as occurring in December 1910, when an episode of drawing-room frankness about casual sex convinced her that traditional morality was over. Joyce's Bloom, walking through the crowded landscape of a single day's consciousness, maps the same terrain, and gives some sense of modern art's struggles to slow down, in imperfect media like language or pigment, the quickness that is the new century's soul.

Proust proposes attaching to Albertine "a sign corresponding to what in physics is the sign that indicates velocity." She is no longer a person, as that notion was once understood by moralists and philosophers; she is now, instead, as the critic Peter Conrad nicely puts it, a vector, a trace of speed in a continuum of indeterminacies as complex as anything sketched by the special theory of relativity. She is, too, the fractured face of cubism, or the meaning-making soul on overdrive, fashioning more language and imagery than it can understand, as diagnosed by Freud. She is modern. The world no longer means what it did, and the people within it, if they are able to shore up their fragments against the wrack of change, are no longer the same creatures as their premodern forebears. Character, in the sense of the well-formed disposition to act with integrity -- a word whose etymology invokes the oneness of the integer -- gives way to a layered and shifting selfhood, the "multiple subject positions" of more recent fashionable theory. And speed becomes the dominant trope of self-expression and self-regard.

This shift is real and its consequences but poorly understood even now, ten decades on. At its banal end, it makes for individuals who are reduced to clusters of spending patterns or retail choices -- the annihilation of self in the steady, dead-eyed gaze of the brand-experiential demographer or corporate-financed cool-hunter. These are the anthropologists of the new global market, who no longer perceive persons with stories to tell but only pathways traced from door to product; no longer see individuals but only half-formed nodes in the culture / cash nexus. Even in a more reflective part of the spectrum, plurality is likewise endemic, retaining its unsettling force in the demands of multiple conflicting values or norms: duty to country over duty to self; the value of loyalty as against the value of honesty; family tradition over individual ambition.

These deeper conflicts, while not unknown to the pre-modern mind, nevertheless attain a greater force when the project of personal self-fulfilment, abetted by the democratization of leisure and art, begins to vie in importance with more traditional social roles. It is only in a modern world where everyone is expected to be the artist of his or her own life, in other words, that some of the deep conflicts of our experience become possible. It is only when we are constantly told that we must create a unified identity that we see just how fractured our identities really are. As ever, modernity generates its own self-destructive crisis.

Often such conflicts are characterized as battles between self and culture, as if one were constantly attempting to shake off the bonds of expectation, perhaps in the manner of that powerful late twentieth-century creation, the teenager. But to what extent is culture itself reworked and relativized here, made a fetish-object or cheap form of aide-memoire? Once more, we tend to think of the banalization of culture as a recent blight, what with our multi-ethnic celebrations of food and clothing or our commodification of foreignness via tourism; but the evidence indicates a longer time-line. Indeed, it suggests that cultures begin to lose their integrity at just the same time individuals do.

The Viennese satirist Karl Kraus captured the problem with characteristic economy in the early part of the twentieth century. (Among other virtues, Kraus was responsible for labelling the proto-Nazi camp-followers of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West -- in German, Der Untergang des Abendlandes -- the "untergangsters.") He dubbed the Austro-Hungarian Empire "Kakania" in a scatological play on Emperor Franz Josef's ubiquitous K. und K. (kaiser and king) symbol.

As the critic Peter Conrad writes,

In Kraus's view Kakania gave the rest of the continent a lesson in falsity. Europe, he thought, had become a cheap and nasty variety shop. The states which emerged from that world-ending war covered up their political duplicity and economic distress by selling tawdry souvenirs to tourists -- the papier-mache helmets of London policemen, dwarfed Eiffel Towers, perhaps (for connoisseurs) a silver rose in plastic.... Culture was merely a costume party, and the purpose of travel is to try on funny hats.(5)

Television's Homer Simpson, characteristically, makes the point with more economy. Seeing an Indian film on his own TV, he crows, "They wear different clothes than we do! That's funny!"

On both sides of the individual/cultural divide, then, the effects of the revolution in sensibility are palpable, and not always positive. Variety can lead to the tyranny of choice. Fluidity can be another word for confusion. It is therefore no surprise, I think, that the story of modernity is one of simultaneous promise and ennui, the bipolar disorder of aspiration and boredom. For every enthusiast like the Futurist Marinetti, who saw swift machines releasing us from our servitude to the vile earth, there is a countervailing languid Wildean aesthete or weltschmerzlich Schopenhauerian nihilist, who finds superiority instead in a boredom with everything new or fast.

The post-modern cool of a figure like Koolhaas -- as persona, if not necessarily as designer -- might be considered a contemporary fusion of these two attitudes. He is at once drawn to innovation and technology but pretends a disdain for everything meaningful or ordered. He celebrates "the city as unauthorized event" even as urban landscapes sprawl out of control and concentrate wealth and power in tiny nodes. Such a combination is inherently unstable. For every cultural innovation that promises a more fulfilling and liberating sense of personal identity, there is a mass-produced hat or parodied dance-craze that makes cultural belonging an empty gesture, akin to joining a hobby club or reading the books recommended by Oprah Winfrey.

In the field of intellectual life, meanwhile, far too much contemporary theorizing simply has not helped us get a grasp on the rich dilemmas of our particularity. For every open field of possibility, which seems to offer a glimpse of ourselves as freely created art-works in progress, there is now a corresponding form of reductionism: materialist accounts of emotion, demographic accounts of reason, psychotherapeutic accounts of motivation. These rob us of agency and whirl us back into an ethically and politically vacuous world of random mutations, spinning atoms, and unquantifiable risks. Multiple subject identities are not proof against concentrated wealth or rearguard essentialism.

Under these conditions cultural defence ultimately becomes a kind of fetishism, and identity declines into nothing more than the time-worn chauvinism of excluding the out-groupers. Excessive regard for national sovereignty, meanwhile, just means now that our hands are tied when it comes to passing judgement on, say, the systemic murder of Kosovars in the Balkans, labelling it a civil war and engaging in an extended moral debate that contrives to leave everything very much as it is. For every apparent gain, in short, we now forcibly observe a balancing danger. This is the modern (and sometimes post-modern) world.

FOR these reasons among others, then, we cannot address the political emptiness of our de facto global culture by simply continuing the talk about nations and their laws; or by allowing local debate to continue as if political choices were not conditioned by, and implicated in, complex events around the swiftly shrinking, indeed almost non-spatial, globe. Such moves simply surrender the larger field to the power of corporations and high-speed capital to create and dominate markets, to rape the environment, and to amass profit without regard for the labour which actually generates wealth.

So much is clear. What is not clear to many people is what, precisely, we can do about it. The task of any useful theory of citizenship is therefore to provide a sense of meaningful political activity in a world where such activity is ever threatened with meaninglessness. We have to press the internal commitments of globalism rather than retreat from it. We have to make the new cosmopolitan ideal not just a marketer's dream, an image from Bennetton ad campaign, but a political reality.

We must, furthermore, create a new, and newly complex, sense of belonging that embraces differences as well as transcends them, that forges commitment across boundaries without erasing the things that make those boundaries interesting in the first place. The public spaces we inhabit are a crucial site of this creation. Already it is impossible to travel the world without coming across a Disney store or a McDonald's or a Nine West outlet in some public square. We could hardly count it a victory if we simply reproduced that deadening sameness at the level of the citizenry.

As Walter Benjamin's extended engagements with the world of things remind us, constructing a stable identity in the dreamscape of the Arcades -- or the dreamscape of the shopping mall and Internet -- is a project fraught with overdetermination. There are always, as my ultracool post-cultural students well know, too many options, too many choices.(6) Paradoxically, the problems of politics often arise today not in the form of a problem of scarcity, but as one of abundance. We have too much, too many things to choose from, and that effectively distracts us from forming the concrete intentions to address the more basic issue of uneven distribution of things and choices.

We are so intent on dealing with our own condition of having too much information and too many brands -- this is a genuine challenge, as we all know in the high-speed First World -- that we often miss those who have too little, too few. A surfeit of options may be considered both a blessing and a curse, of course. One's attitude to the volume and velocity of everyday life can vary from day to day, and it often depends simply on how fast you like to go, how much of a multitasker you want to be. And yet there is one sense in which we have no option. Politically, we cannot begin elsewhere than with the surfeited social-cultural environment which already shapes us.

That sentiment may sound defeatist, given that it begins from something that many people find overwhelming. And in some critics' hands it might be another and more sophisticated form of the same complacency that seems to come over cheerleaders of globalization whenever they put pen to paper. But I am suggesting something far more radical. Here we have to follow Benjamin -- not to mention Plato -- in tacking along the line where hope meets despair.(7) Without losing the thoroughgoing mindfulness of our own limitations (in foresight and goodwill, in time and energy), we can perhaps begin to articulate a sort of realistic wishfulness, a worldly utopianism.

An action-oriented conception of citizenship is, first and foremost, engaged with other people in the creation of shared social spaces and in the discourse that such spaces make possible. Through participation and conversation, we reproduce our social meanings through time: that is what culture is. Squares and institutions, walkways and stadiums, these are the places where the dreams of a people are realized in stone and iron, glass and air. They are sites of politics, not merely of design or style; or rather, here design and style are themselves aspects of the political.

By the same token, when those spaces are taken away from us, violently or by stealth, we are diminished in ourselves and in our politics. Benjamin, visiting Moscow in 1926, was disturbed by the starkness of the public space, so conditioned by revolutionary ideas. "There are no cafes. Impossible to get a drink," he wrote. "Free trade and free intellect have been abolished. The cafes are therefore deprived of their public." There were no flaneurs, no idleness, no urban contingency, no fun. With their communal rooms, shared child-rearing, and workers' clubs where leisure was cooperative and regimented, the Soviets had allocated fifteen square metres of space to each citizen -- and along the way found "a radical means of expelling `cosiness'" and the cloying sentimentality of bourgeois individualism.

Benjamin was ambivalent about cosiness -- the prized bourgeois-interior quality of Gemutlichkeit -- but we can still hear in his urbanite's complaint the longing for genuine public space. Revolution has swept away the nooks and crannies, leaving only the vast open squares of triumph. Vladimir Mayakovsky had written of the 1919 revolution that "the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes," but the result was a canvas of unremitting seriousness. Le Corbusier, in Moscow at about the same time to design Centrosoyuz, the head office of the consumer cooperatives, noted that "The people take things seriously." It is part of the self-chosen task of political revolutions to re-order space and time, to mould them in the image of the new order: renaming the months, rewriting history, rebuilding the cities. Sometimes -- in Tiananmen Square, say -- a formerly glorious revolution is challenged by a new upheaving political force on the very same ground that was set aside in celebration of the first, now moribund, act of emancipation.

I have used these examples from the revolutionary politics of the left, and that might seem to cut against the very idea of utopian political action. But my worldly utopianism is not revolutionary in that violent sense: I am not advocating the ruthless elimination of everything existing. It is also worth noting that the very same task of structuring social space is of course just as often -- these days, much more often and more pervasively -- undertaken by the forces of conservatism, usually with more money and slyness, less violence and noise. Benjamin's example of Baron Haussmann's boulevards in Paris, which tipped the balance away from harrying street fighters and towards mounted cavalry, is to the point. In my own city, there are still intricate cowgate entrances to certain public buildings, allegedly constructed to slow down storming protesters who might want to march on the lawmakers and have it out. Free-trade zones and exurban sprawl, even the 33 per cent increase in domestic housing size, are all examples of a much more widespread and alienating distortion of the built environment than any leftist revolutionary could ever hope to effect.

All social space is suffused with political meanings and agendas, the very stones and walls a kind of testament to the ongoing struggles for liberation and justice. And as with space, so with time. We should never forget that the legal profession has managed what neither the Jacobin revolutionaries nor the scientific community could, namely to recast time on a functional base-ten model, measuring out advice and influence in six-minute tenths. Nor should we fail to notice that the eternal now of our speedy times is, functionally, a form of forgetting -- a way of leaving the status quo mostly intact through the distracting power of constant novelty, and of equally constant nostalgia.

WITH these thoughts in mind, let us return to the issue of dwelling, and the building it makes possible -- and do so, now that I have mentioned domestic space explicitly, with some attention to the main site of our dwelling, the home. Home exerts a powerful effect in this field of thinking, and for more than the surface reasons. It is characteristic of the cultural effects I have been describing to make us think that we can get home by going more quickly forward or by retreating back. The crucial insight here is that neither course will really take us where we want to go, and meanwhile the home retreats more and more from the critical engagements necessary among disconnected global citizens.

Even recent attempts to reshape the home as a more open and public space -- here I think of the Un-Private Houses of a 1999 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, about which I have written elsewhere -- have the ultimate effect of simply making it more permeable to the anxieties of work.(8) In most cases, the project of the un-private houses is a matter of putting the self on view, of finding the presence of the imagined observer somehow reassuring. But that is not active engagement with the world outside; and it is not really a transcendence of privacy. It is merely an empty inwardness disguised as critique. Real progression in inhabitation involves something more than this new form of supremely elegant, but often banal narcissism; it involves the private realm influencing the public through a sustained critical engagement. This can be hard to see, especially if we are moved by the apparently liberating possibilities of our now-constant immersion in technology, the sort of transvaluation of traditional values celebrated by Donna Haraway in her 1985 essay, "Manifesto for Cyborgs."(9)

"The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity," Haraway writes.

It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for the appropriation or incorporation by the other.

Yet we have been slow to accept the alteration of our natures through technology, a story which in truth is the story of human history but which tends, in practice, to become the story of the twentieth century. The reason for this truncation in scope is obvious enough, and is symbolized in a few choice inventions which, though in some cases born earlier, only come into their own during the bloody century: the machine-gun, the airplane, the automobile, the telephone, the television, the computer. Mass production and mass destruction are the twinned pinnacles of twentieth-century life, and we still pledge our allegiance to them at every moment.

One consequence of this fact is the inescapability of capitalism -- something which is sometimes challenged but mostly just accepted, indeed celebrated. Whether we like it or not, our bodies themselves now underwrite the dominance of the market, because every moment of waking and sleeping life is shot through with commitment to the goods and services of the global economy. We are capitalism made flesh. Another consequence is a profound change in our sense of ourselves, a change best caught by the somewhat misleading label "post-evolutionary." Our mastery of technology means we are no longer beholden to the gene pool. We can now shape and perpetuate it independently of natural reproduction, without all the attendant risks and tempestuous emotions. We are no longer bound by our natural environment, which we can also shape -- though on the whole we seem bent on destroying it instead.

Of course, the limit of the natural environment is one reason the post-evolutionary label is misleading: we are still constrained at the baseline by natural facts, even if this baseline is always shifting because of our ingenuity and rapacity. The other reason to be suspicious of the label is that we are of course still evolving, if not quite in the manner of crude Darwinian orthodoxy.

What does all this entail in politics? First of all, an additional citizenly obligation, namely to attend to and understand the conditions of our technological existence -- however painful that may be. This is primarily a matter of resisting the ideology of inevitability that creeps up around technology -- an ideology so stealthy and complete, and so intimately related to the very idea of capital, that it is functionally invisible. But it is also a matter of plotting connections -- connections that are often resisted or simply ignored as people surf on by - between machines and politics.

It is common these days for those of us in the privileged world to carry on large parts of our existence via e-mail, creating little virtual agoras out of our far-flung friends; or organizing dissent via the decentralized medium of the Internet. But these ethereal movements must nevertheless issue in the still-indispensable actions of shared space, if they are to be truly effective. The anti-corporatist protests of 18 June and 30 November 1999, or April 2000, for instance, so effectively drawn from otherwise diffuse quarters, would have meant far less if they had not led to 40,000 people occupying the streets of Seattle, or 500 of them engaging in the highest form of citizenship, peaceful civil disobedience leading to arrest. (Sometimes, more intimately, a friendship blossoms in the strangely intimate space of e-mail. But it is complete only when we are together and my regard for you can register in the unequivocal, vulnerable, subtle media of the physical senses -- when I can look into your eyes, see and touch your face, smell your personal perfume, be next to you.)

In the face of rapidly changing technology, there is therefore a deeper obligation still, to reconceive not only citizenship and political commitment for a new era, but human nature itself. In 1928 Benjamin noted that technology is not best understood, as people often say, as the mastery of nature; it is, rather, the mastery of the relationship between nature and humankind. ("Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago," he writes, "but humankind as a species is just beginning his.")(10) That is why Haraway and other Transhumanist prophets are only half right -- or rather, more accurately, why we have only appreciated half, the unironic and apolitical half, of what they have been telling us.

Yes, we are all cyborgs now, mixed human-carbon hybrids with wires shooting through our watery bodies at every angle. But we have not yet managed the political implications of this fact, lost in the play of speed and pleasure that the wiring makes possible. We are too much taken with novelty and the "loveliness" of our inventions, the pure electromagnetic wave-functions of next-generation technology. Technology becomes a sort of generalized deity, a wispy but all-pervasive god. Thus our great avoidance rituals in the face of technology, such that we fixate on the cutting edge and lose sight of the majority stuck on the trailing one. Or, if political issues do come up, the way we imagine they are about something like greater access to hardware -- when they might really be about greater access to the human software of literacy, that indispensable enabling condition of citizenship, that forgotten civil right.

"Our best machines are made of sunshine," notes Haraway. That is both a virtue and a vice. Lightness and invisibility, the traits of the effective guerrilla, also entail, where power is entrenched, lack of accountability. The genuine citizen-cyborg must send out as well as allow in; she must transmit as well as receive. There is no such thing as a one-way communications node. The difficulty with un-private houses and other projects of personal gratification, therefore, the difficulty with all these entertaining machines we keep giving ourselves, is not the old one of folding domesticity and privacy away from the public view, making that realm female and subordinate. It is rather that, in being so entirely permeable to the public view, privacy becomes merely an opportunity for conspicuous consumption.

This is the final subversion of the spectre of the public as a means of resented surveillance, indeed rendering the very idea of surveillance meaningless by offering the world a complete view of everything that goes on in the house. But now the very idea of the polis as a shared space -- a space shared for the purposes of discourse about how we may (or may not) all live together, not for the crude insistence on a single vision of the good life -- is undermined in an ostentatious display of private enjoyment. The old public/private ideology is not transcended but simply reinscribed in a new, less obvious manner. Here political action is not so much prevented as nullified, made supremely uninteresting compared to the local pleasures of the house. Why should anyone bother with public spaces and the demanding actions of citizenship? Comfort becomes its own answer, shopping and surfing and e-trading their own defence.

THIS won't do. We need the separate private realm not only to escape the demanding pressures of public responsibility now and then, but also to engage more effectively with the shared, common aspects of life -- to make us the sort of citizens who can actively create and maintain the essential third spaces of civil society when we do enter into them. Whatever its many dangers and shortcomings, a well-ordered private realm makes a just public realm possible. Among other things, it makes the public/private distinction itself a matter for specifically public discourse, a contested border war. For only there can we offer arguments that will be assessed by our fellow citizens -- or those who might be. (As Haraway notes, the nature / culture, human/animal, and body / machine border wars are similarly demanding: there is "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries," she says, but also "responsibility in their construction.")

Importantly, we do not -- cannot -- any longer expect these conflicts to resolve themselves into some larger notional whole, some form of dialectical completeness or super-consensus that rises above our disagreements. Nor can we indulge the dangerous nostalgic vision of a perfect political harmony we have lost and must restore. Consensus is not really the goal of political discourse, which necessarily thrives on dissent; and nostalgia is just a comforting distraction we can ill afford. Instead of these vector-based options (above the fray, back to the garden) we must constantly play, in all seriousness, in the ever-present spaces of our political contestation. "Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster," Haraway says, "the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden."

This form of thinking is utopian but not Edenic. The private realm it calls for need not be stark and sparse, as it was for the ancient Greeks, who viewed it as the site of mere necessity, of physical maintenance for the more important things happening elsewhere. (In taking this view of themselves as citizens, they of course enjoyed the benefit of patriarchy and a slave-based economy, both blithely defended by Aristotle as natural.) But an excessive concern with comfort becomes self-defeating, for it robs the enjoyment of comfort of its point, and its potential role in public justification. The private realm is for solace and rest, to be sure, but at some point these inward projects must be put in service of the larger debate that shapes the whole of social space.

Without that debate, and the legitimacy it alone offers to a specific ordering of space, the private realm is mere usurpation, an act ofaggression against those less fortunate. Property crimes are most often motivated by need or envy, but they also sometimes have a deeper political point. In effect the burglar or robber wants to know: where is the justification for you having so much when someone else has so little? And that is not a question that can be answered in the comfort of your own home. There is no political dimension left in the current wave of un-private houses and logo-dominated public spaces; no sense of the commitment to a public good -- a commitment that the genuinely private house, in its attention to thresholds, actually maintains. Home is a notion that must establish a relationship between private and public; it cannot be an end in itself.

The ideal of the cyborg polis must therefore be pursued in better forms. Such a polis is, in its way, not unlike the old civic republican ideal of a public space, where every citizen is a model of the whole, a kind of cybernetic network of common projects. Yet now we must be more aware than ever of the things that separate us -- that otherness itself, and an awareness thereof, might be the thing that connects us most acutely. Our existing desires alone, so often convergent only on the meanest of material goods or the most limited of life-projects, need to be tutored by our deeper longings, the things that lie beneath the smooth surfaces of exchange and chatter. And these may emerge only when we are confronted by the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the uncanny. So far, the reality of the new globalized ordering of space is, instead, a triumph of undirected inwardness -- not a transcendent public realm, in other words, just a ceaseless and complacent celebration of prereflective individual desire.

WE need deeper dreams than that. And yet, without the public oneiric spaces of the arcade or the square, without the people who can help us shape and articulate our wishes, we are left without places to do our dreaming. We are left without sites on which to engage each another when we awake from that dreaming and try to make our wishes real. We are left without the most basic enabling conditions of making a world worth wanting.


(1) This paper was first delivered as part of the Fourth Harrison Symposium on Professionalism, at the Tulane University School of Architecture (March 2000). The symposium took as its theme Architecture, Ethics, and Globalization," and therefore encouraged a larger scope on the idea of ethics. My thanks to Graham Owen for the invitation, and for giving the symposium such an interesting direction. I would also like to thank fellow participants Ellen Dunham-Jones, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Janice Newson, and Garry Stevens for challenging comments that, in many cases, prompted important revisions. Part of section 4 of the paper was previously published in the magazine Adbusters (June/July 2000) as a column called "Long Live the New Flesh."

(2) The image of the architect-as-wizard, disdainful and aloof, is a recurring problem for the profession of architecture, not least because it is such an attractive role for aspiring members of the profession. It is also an important cog in the machine of architecture's reputation, part of the allure. Garry Stevens' book The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998) is an extended sociological analysis, after the manner of Pierre Bourdieu's notion of symbolic capital-exchange, on how the profession continues this economy of influence.

(3) Martin Heidegger, "Building Dwelling Thinking," in Poetry, Language, Thought, Albert Hofstadter, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 143--62.

(4) I have written elsewhere about the failure of modernism's promise in the sprawl of the Potsdamer Platz. See Mark Kingwell, "Style," Azure (November/December 1998), pp. 41--3; and reprinted in Marginalia: A Cultural Reader (Toronto: Penguin, 1999), pp. 25-30.

(5) Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places (New York: Knopf, 1999); I have borrowed a number of details of Conrad's superb and comprehensive analysis of modernism for my more limited purposes here.

(6) Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). If the prospect of curling up with a book almost 1,100 pages long gives you pause, you might prefer to readjust my review essay of it, "Arcadian Adventures," Harper's Magazine (March 2000), pp. 70--76. For more on the idea of `post-cultural' identity, see Christopher Clausen, "Nostalgia, Freedom, and the End of Cultures," Queen's Quarterly (Summer 1999), pp. 233--44.

(7) For more on the role of despair in Plato's political philosophy, and the crucial issues of isomorphism between individual and surrounding socio-cultural environment, see Jonathan Lear, "Inside and Outside the Republic," in his collection of essays, Open Minded (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 219--46. Lear's psychoanalytic interpretations of the standard Platonic and Aristotelian texts reveal new layers of meaning crucial to a sufficient mindfulness of our limitations in political theory (or anything else).

(8) Mark Kingwell, "The Dream House," Azure (July / August 1999), pp. 32--34; and Terence Riley, "The Un-Private House" (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 6 January 1999). See also the classic text in the field, Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Maria Jolas, trans. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).

(9) Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Socialist Review 15:2 (1985). Included in her collection Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (Routledge, 1991), pp. 149--81.

(10) Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, trans. (London: Verso, 1979).
COPYRIGHT 2000 Queen's Quarterly
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kingwell, Mark
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:Tale of 2,000 cities.
Next Article:USA's urban horror and gangsta rap.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters