Mapping as Performative Urbanism

Another portion of my thesis from ETH, this article focuses on how one might begin to construct a performative understanding of urbanism, and what mechanisms might be at work in it.

“I’m less concerned with what mapping means as with what it
actually does”
James Corner, The Agency of Mapping

If we consider again the monstrous subject we sketched earlier, we are faced with a potentially mind numbing number of individuals or affinity groups, both those that can speak for themselves, and those that cannot, those that intersect with one another, and those that compete for the same territory. The urban designer would not know where to start, and the question is not how we deal with information streams individually, but they interact in the political space of the city.

There are already maps that acknowledge a conflict between urban agencies and which disavow the singular expression of power afforded by cartographies of those in power.  Although isee, produced by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, has its  critics, it is an art project that illustrates the reach of virtual modes of power into the physical world, and the depth of surveillance for the average citizen of New York.  Another project, called Map Kibera, illustrates the retroactive creating/curating of place that is accomplished by citizen participation in combination with technology in the form of Open Street Maps (osm).  From their website: “Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, was a blank spot on the map until November 2009, when young Kiberans created the first free and open digital map of their own community.”    This is accomplished in direct opposition to the ‘official’ (re: google) map of that same area, which, as this Wired article points out, was entirely blank, as if to underscore their (economic, thus literal) non-presence and non-participation in the life of the city.  Their self-initiated and self-curated mapping is also an affirmation of their identity and self-determination by affirming a physical quasi-subjectivity that pivots on their physical presence.

The mechanism at work here is of a performative subjectivity enabled by technology.  Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, in their recently published Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013) describe how urban political space, the space of the in-between forms a kind of “street politics”. “Public gatherings,” they write, “enable and enact a performativity of embodied agency, in which we own our bodies and struggle for the right to claim our bodies as ours… However, our claim does not refer merely to individual, individually owned, self-sufficient bodies, but rather to the relationality of these bodies.” Urban spaces are spaces provoking dispossession, vulnerability, or exposure, and the blending of one agency with another, perhaps in ways one could never imagine. Urban space is the stage on which these bodies are enacted or performed.

The term performativity derives from Speech Act Theory, developed by John L. Austin and elaborated by John R. Searle.  Speech Act Theory in linguistics and semantics describes the ability of certain utterances to take an active part in a social reality, rather than merely to describe that reality. Phrases like “I hereby decree…,” or “I now pronounce you man and wife” not only describe reality (a decree exists or a couple is married), they actively alter, or act upon, reality by their very utterance.  In her 1993 book, Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler extends the notion of performativity to describe gender constructs. For her, performativity is “… the reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and controls.”  Following Foucault (with Karen Barad), we might say that “discursive practices produce, rather than merely describe the “subjects” and “objects” of knowledge practices,” but this has more than a semantic/epistemological dimension (see Barad’s Posthuman  Performativity). We might say, for example, that the norms associated with the way a person of a particular gender would behave are produced by identity with that gender, and reinforced by their continued discourse. We can assert, therefore, that there is nothing natural about gender norms; even to delimit one gender from another is problematic, as the way gender is described is socially or culturally motivated. Any individual may behave in ways that reassert a different boundary.

Karen Barad extends the notion of performativity from a post-humanist perspective.  In her “Post-humanist Performativity,” she draws on both physicist Niels Bohr, as well as Foucault in elaborating her perspective of ‘agental realism.’ Language, she writes, has been granted an excessive power to determine what is real, in effect, to delimit ‘things’ by naming them. A performative understanding of discourse, however, disturbes the hegemony of the sign to create ontologically seperate entities, and moves toward discursive practices, where identity is fluid and shaped by continued discourse. In particular, she cites Haraway’s work, especially on the cyborg, as disturbing the categories of human and non-human. In  her account, the human is a phenomena, not an independent being. In using the word ‘phenomena,’ Barad is referencing the work of  Bohr, who argued that the primary epistemological unit is the phenomena, which she defines as the “ontological inseperability of agentally interacting ‘components’”.  ‘Components’ here are defined as emerging
into a discursive, normative construct, rather than as a way to draw an ontological boundary. Thus, her discussion of what she calls ‘agental realism’ demands “a geneology of discursive emergence of ‘human’” as a part of the world in an “open-ended becoming.” Matter – including humans – are always already an ongoing historicity;” not a thing, but a doing.

Following Haraway’s cyborg, as well as Latour’s work on Actor-Network theory, there is an emerging perspective on the city spearheaded by Matthew Gandy and Erik Swyngedouw. Cyborg urbanism characterizes the city not as a set of things, but as a set of interactions, increasingly complex and including complex collective agencies. The discourse around this cyborg urbanism is quite disparate, but includes a Deleuzian understanding of rhizomatic ontology, a complex understanding of
human agency including the colonization of human life with technology and the resulting distributed cognition, and the abstraction of the material (ie. industrial) metabolism of the city to a post-industrial information economy. The idea of what constitutes a cyborg, however, has evolved from the “technologically enhanced body” to a “vast assemblage of bodily and machinic entanglements”(Gandy, “Cyborg Urbanization). Most interesting for our current study, however, is the perspective established by Swyngedouw which   investigates urban metabolic processes in an historical materialist mode, and “illustrates the hybridized social/ecological relations that underpin the production
of space rather than the experience of the technologically enhanced urban citizen,” where the metabolic mode is understood as an open, porous mode, only quasi-systemic, and most definitely not closed, but instead composed as subjectivities folding into themselves and others. As such, the cyborg intersects with urban politics in “the neo-Marxian analysis of the commodification of the body, nature and space(and the circulatory dynamics between these elements); the kinds of affinities unearthed by the cyborgian perspective underscore,” according to Gandy, “the continued political salience of the public realm.”

Like my prior reading of Koolhaas, Pier Vittorio Aureli, in The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, already sees urban spaces as serving the economic realm. After the emergence of the bourgoisie, he writes, the “city was essentially private in the economic interest of only one segment of the entire social body. Defacto public because it concerns the primary source of the functioning of the modern city and modern state: the exchange of commodities and the social domain of work.” That urban space only serves the public realm, however, is up for debate, as urban space is not so singular or open to homogenous readings; as much as the city is tending towards the generic space of capital, it is disrupted by other tendencies and vectors originating in   . Instead of seeing the urban space as a negative, where perhaps architecture may resist capital by asserting its autonomy, we reaffirm the political function of urban space as a space of the in-between, a space where — following Elizabeth Grosz — the in-between is a positivity, in an active role. It overcomes the logic of dualism, allows the transition from one identity to another, or the mutation of a fixed identity, or the reorientation of the relational identities.

The concept of the in-between, as a choric space, is crucial to the projection of new subjectivities in the cultural, political, aesthetic, and ethical future of the city.  A post-human or cyborg performativity is appropriate to the kind of analysis demanded by the contemporary city in that it is able to “incorporate important  material and discursive, social and scientific, human and non-human, and natural and artificial factors.”
The question then becomes how to activate the potentials of urban  agencies and inter-agencies in a political ecology. In this we start with the question of projection and representation. Urban agency is similar to any other agency, it is an imbroglio in the sense, as its wellspring as well as its end are ill defined, and intersect with many bodies over the course of its operation. “Agency,” Barad writes, “is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world.” (“Posthumanist Performativity, 818) We reach something of an aporia when we react to an analysis with a fixed outcome, as results in the work of previously mentioned architects and urban designers working in a 19th century mode of analysis. However, when we treat this problem as a procedural, emerging phenomena, we open up to the manifold possibilities, overlaps, and discontinuities that make the urban environment a rich one to be in.

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joel letkemann

Sometimes I make things, sometimes I think about making

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