The Monstrous Urban Subject

This series of posts collects disparate writings related to my thesis work at ETH.  The thesis questions and uncovers the role of technology in what I term a ‘Performative Urbanism’.  Some of the writing is more academic in nature, but I hope this doesn’t put anyone off.  This post examines the role of the individual subjectivity in  the city, drawing on my prior research/reading in the area of monstrosity. 

“In bed next to the girl he loves, he forgets that he does not know why he is himself instead of the body he touches. Without knowing it, he suffers from the obscurity of intelligence that keeps him from screaming that he himself is the girl who forgets his presence while shuddering in his arms.”
Bataille, George _ “The Solar Anus”

I want to argue that a new conception of the city should include a radical ecology, as well as a radical conception of urban subjectivity, inter-subjectivity that takes into account not only reified individuals, but rather the interactions and the assemblages that describe the processes at work in the city. A monstrous urbanism encompassing multiple subjectivities and multiplicities.

George Bataille acknowledges and mines the territory  around the fascination with monsters, with freaks, anomalies and contradictions. On a formal level, this operates in the distance between the individual and a common – or generic – measure; monsters are the “dialectical opposites of  geometric regularity” (Bataille, “Deviations of Nature”) In  some sense, Bataille would make monsters of us all, and he   would be right to do so.  But this monstrosity is not strictly limited to the formal expression of the subject – the chasm between our individual person and a generic ‘human’ form, with the attendant problems of exclusion of the individual — on the basis of gender, race or percieved ‘wholeness’ —  because of their dissimilarity to an imagined generic. Instead, the figure of the monster is a way of describing the  ontological intension and extension of individual subjectivity, especially in the social ecologies manipulated by the field of architecture and urbanism.

“The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates  (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing.  Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter – since  laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.” 
Kristeva, Julia Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

The function of abject is to decompose the boundaries of the human subject.  Kristeva writes, “it is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders,  positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the  composite.” As The human recoils from the abject, it disturbs  his being, “Instead of sounding himself as to his “being,” he does so concerning his place: “Where am I?” Instead of “Who  am I?” For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded,  is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but  essentially divisible, foldable and catastrophic.”(Kristeva, 4-8)

Donna  Haraway has written extensively about the naturo-cultural ontologies emerging in the embroglio known as late 20th century globalized neocapitalism. She calls these monsters cyborgs, using the science fiction figure to illustrate the difficulty of drawing strict delineations between  subjectivities. A cyborg is a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” As such, they serve as a vehicle to discuss the relationship of body to information technology that does  not find a boundary between meat-space and cyberspace –  one subjectivity is tied up with the other – we at the  beginning of the new millennium are all to familiar with our reliance on the computing devices in our pockets. These  cyborgs, however, represent more than bio-technical bodies  emerging at the end of the 20th century. The concept is  fruitful in that it blurs the boundaries between human  subjectivity and non-human assemblages, be they companion animals, technological networks, urban infrastructures, or other social and environmental ecologies. Monsters themselves, they are contingent political agencies that reach  across gender and species lines, national boundaries,  encompassing the smallest molecules and largest ecosystems.

Unfortunately, humanism participates in a politics of exclusion by establishing a taxonomy or boundary that, as much as it excludes the animal, also excludes the stranger, the poor, the injured or differently-abled, and the queer.  As much as the monster is a positive articulation of the in-between, the porous boundary of subject, it is also an articulation of a subject that is fluid in its component parts, now singular or multiple, human or animal, male, female, or both. The categories are infinitely  divisible, divergent and mutable. These are temporary    (inter-) subjectivities – moments of abjection or loss, where the individual subject is decomposed, but also moments of  social interaction and inclusion where, the individual as urban agent is open to dispossession and inter-subjectivity. For a further discussion of dispossession and inter- subjectivity,  I recommend Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou’s Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013).

The monster in architecture has a significant precedent. In his book, Monsters of Architecture, Marco Frascari locates the monstrosity of architecture in the detail, in the joining of material, and in the threshold. These localities are a ‘trope,’ a turning. These transitions have often been articulated, in Romanesque or Gothic architecture, for example, by the figure of the monster, the signal of metamorphosis, change, the grotesque excesses of the perceptual, material, and,  social transmutation of space.  For Frascari, the monster in architecture was that which marked the fluid or porous boundary, the threshold, which disturbed the semiotic component of architecture.

Monstrosity in architecture and urbanism is a function of  hybridity. Its promise lies in the constant overlapping and  excesses of two or more (not necessarily compatible)  systems or spatial constructs. The monster promises the  confusion of spatial signals, of organizational schemes, of  programmatic content. The monster promises ambiguity,  constant phenomenological destabilization, unexpected  turns and consequences, which provoke an active  engagement with the social status quo, and with the city.  Thus, the notion of monstrosity is primarily a social, a  relational, mechanism. Social space happens in surplus or  ambiguous space, in the tensions between constructs,  between architectures territories. Spaces of constant or cyclical social encounters develop as a result of constantly  overlapping subjectivities. This social space relies on a mapping that does not use strict delineation, instead aiming for a non-specific boundary, and a space of tension or  overlapping.

As much as the monster describes human agency in the city, how much more nonhuman? As Michel Serres so  compellingly argues in his Revisiting the Natural Contract, human culture is entwined with other objects and subjects in a kind of global collectivity; we are entwined in a kind of natural contract which underlines our interdependency with other living beings and even inert objects, as he calls it “all of nature” and this contract conveys upon each of these a kind of legitimacy, or quasi-legal status – in short, a right to  continue to exist.

The problems facing the planet are well rehearsed, to be  sure. We are all aware that we are currently facing a vast ecological crisis. This crisis is not about energy, specifically, although we know that greenhouse gas emissions are  changing the climate significantly, in ways that will have a profound impact on the future life of the planet. Just as worrying is the toxicity of our environment, already  rendering vast swathes of our planet uninhabitable, and the quickly disappearing species and habitats that characterize the diverse ecosystems that sustain the planet. A  post-humanist world view forces us to confront the ethical dimensions of our relation with other species and  ecosystems, recognizing them as legitimate, if not legal, subjectivities.

The nature Serres describes is not nature in any naive sense; not unspoiled, virginal expanses untouched by human hands. Instead, he is describing new subjectivities on a global scale, made up of  human and non-human natures – a kind of symbiosis in heterogeneous communities. A humanist urbanism participates in a politics of exclusion relying on an untenable typological and taxonomical distinction that, as much as it would exclude the animal or the non-human other, would also exclude the stranger, the poor, the queer. A monstrous urbanism, however, is an expression of a politics that “unsettles the fantasy of a self-sufficient human subject,” that opens the human subject to its own animality, and to new assemblages and human/ non-human ecologies: Guattari’s trinity of the mental, social, environmental. The city is essential as the site and ground of these fertile new couplings.


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joel letkemann

Sometimes I make things, sometimes I think about making

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