Jaque: Interaction to upset
21 March 2016
Last week my friend Marc Brossa gave me the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Andres Jaque and to participate in a panel discussion with students in his current super-luxury apartment studio at Princeton. Let me start by stating that I like his work. Because it is not going to sound like it. :)
Though he emphasized his focus on actor-network theory, to me the central focus of his work seemed to be on fostering direct, person-to-person interaction. I'll take both of these aspects in turn. My basic concern is that he does not dig into these things deeply enough. Rather, the engagement is superficial and almost pubescent.
He presented his comparison of Burlusconi's high end residential development with its underground media city, through which idealized lifestyles of the residents were depicted, and a building in Madrid or Barcelona that serves as a center for Senegalese(?) migrant workers. The core point---and a good one---is that the physical architecture of one site cannot be separated either from the socio-economic network in which it is embedded and the architecture that mediates other sites in the network. The import of this point is probably greater for architects than for urban designers and planners, to whom this must seem fundamental. My concern with the way it was presented (perhaps the documentation is different) is that a direct connection between the two projects was averred but never illuminated. The only thing I could see is that they are connected by both being actor-networks. If this is the point, it is a trivial one. Everything is an actor-network (if you follow Latour and other ANT theorists). To be meaningful, the comparison would have to identify homomorphisms or shared actors or something to have any real traction.
This superficiality carries over into the theory behind his interactive spaces. In many of the projects he showed, a major feature was that the design forced people to engage with other and potentially conflict. He began with the notion that architectural representations typically reflect what he called "happy endings", a delightful term. That is, architectural representations display highly polished spaces that hide the underlying conflicts and messiness of daily living. In much of his work there is an effort to either unveil the hidden realities that support happy endings, e.g., Phantom, or to create spaces that encourage new social interactions, e.g., the Plascencia Clergy House.
One intervention in the latter that I quite like and find indicative of the issue I have is the creation of a garden with numbered plots but no predetermined boundaries or paths. The point of the garden is to force the residents to interact and make decisions about boundaries and paths. I love this. I think it's brilliant. But it only goes so far. Once the discussions have taken place, once the conflicts have stabilized, once the decisions have been made, we are left with, in effect, a happy ending that disguises all the process that has led to the "final" organization of the plots. Following Deleuze's reading of Foucault, what the garden does is call forth power relations that over time stabilize and form a sediment that structures other interactions. My question to Andres was essentially this: "If these interactions are going to lead to happy endings, why stir them up to begin with?" I think there are some very good answers to this questions. One might argue that power relations should be constantly unsettled in order to encourage innovation (though to what end?). Even better, one might argue that existing sedimented happy endings are only happy for some and that creating spaces that upset these unhappy endings is a means of creating new forms of relationships that will improve society.
But Andres stops short of such statements. (Or at least he did when I met him.) One is left with (at least) two possible explanations. First, it is possible that identifying "enemies" might jeopardize his client base. Second, it may just represent the pubescent teenage boy drive to upset things simply to upset them. To the extent that architects and artists see themselves as "shocking"---and I think oftentimes this is the case---this sort of statement seems accurate. But we need better motivation for upsetting happy endings than simply the desire to make people unhappy. We need a more mature practice.
My life's most jet-setting month and some initial thoughts on Myanmar
16 February 2016
It was drawn to my attention that I have not updated in quite some time. Somehow I wind up busier and busier every semester and have lost the opportunity to add anything here. And since the coming semester promises to continue the trend, I thought I would post a quick update.
I have been home a total of four days over the past month. First it was a week in Japan (Tokyo for research and Kobe for a talk). After two days of recovery I was off for ten days in the US (Harvard and MIT for networking, archival research, and student guidance; a day at my folks' house; and Columbia/NYC for networking, research interviews, student guidance, and pizza and beer). Two more days of rest in Seoul and then on the night of the Lunar New Year, the family and I were off to Myanmar (Yangon for research interviews, family vacation, and cultural exposure for the girls). Quite simply, this has been the most jet-setting-est month of my life...and all because funds needed to be spent. It was also surprisingly grueling and productive.
So a few preliminary thoughts on Myanmar...or at least Yangon, where my research has inadvertently(?) focused itself. I am trying to understand how international actors are shaping the development of the city. For the moment I have a couple of preliminary impressions to note.
- The range of international capital is fascinating. When one thinks of development, one tends to think of European or American firms investing in emerging markets. However, in Myanmar's case, it seems that much of the capital is Asian. There is Japanese, Korean, and Chinese capital to be sure, but there are surprising sources (to me). The high end shopping mall across the street from the (disturbingly) high end hotel we stayed at so that the girls could swim was built with Vietnamese capital. Inside, one of the signs for a coming coffee shop (Black Canyon Coffee) described it as "a Thailand original" and listed locations throughout SE Asia.
- The construction coming in is remarkably contemporary. It makes sense of course and indicates more that I have not traveled much in the developing world recently. But I was still struck that the most prominent construction is generally high-end, modern construction. This creates a much more robust contrast between new and (probably) international wealth and existing citizens.
- More romantically, I was reminded of Herbert Marcuse's observation about the park benches he saw when he visited Hanoi in the 1960s: they only seat two and thus foster romantic interaction. Yangon does not seem to have much for benches, but couples sit together everywhere. And the beautiful thing is that they use the umbrellas necessary to keep off the heat as a tool to create an intimate space for just the two of them. The result is a remarkable degree of privacy and intimacy in the midst of busy, crowded city.
Justice and the city virtual special issue
15 October 2015
I am pleased to announce that a virtual special issue on Justice and the City has just been completed and is available at Taylor and Francis's website. Inspired by Susan Fainstein's recent piece on The just city in the International Journal of Urban Studies, the virtual special issue (with free access until the end of the calendar year!) compiles some classic articles that inform her arguments and some more recent articles that engage and expand her work. All pieces are drawn from Taylor and Francis's extensive archives. The collection was put together with Jung Won Son from Bartlett (UCL) and help from Aletheia Heah.
Non-ideological Korean history
13 October 2015
I've just read that the current government has decided to reverse a seven-year-old legal change that replaced government-authored history textbooks with a list of textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education. From 2017 middle and high schools will have to use new government-authored textbooks. This "deliberation" of knowledge is surely another sign of increasing censorship in Korean society, but the thing that most caught my attention is the claim that the new books will be "ideologically neutral". According to the Joongang Daily, the Education Minister said, "We will dispel the people's worries over ideological biases and create textbooks based on constitutional values and objective facts to foster a proper view of the state and a balanced historical understanding for our youngsters." This effort is supposed to "end the controversy over ideological bias in history textbooks".
But of course there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral text. "Ideological neutrality" is what you get when those in power succeed in establishing their ideologically biased interpretation of history (in this case) as the mainstream view. This is generally done by establishing "objective truths" that are beyond question and by carefully curating which "objective truths" are incorporated into official accounts and which are not. We can see this move in the very language of the Minister. He specifically mentions "objective facts" in the quote above and refers elsewhere to a reliance on "verified materials". But the inevitable role of ideological interpretation is also clear in the quote above. The Minister argues that the textbooks will be "based on constitutional values", as if there is only one objective understanding of those values. The very nature of values is that they are interpreted based on experience and ideology. For example, one can interpret the constitution's environmental injunctions as trumping economic development or one can interpret environmental values as aspirational goals that follow development.
Values are ideology. And the government's reversal of limited freedom in historical interpretation is an ideological move.
Theories of Everything
3 October 2015
In a fit of procrastination I just read The Trouble with Theories of Everything by Lawrence M. Krauss. Quite simply, it argues that physics theories are scale-dependent. That is, theories that apply at one scale---however microscopic---do not necessarily apply at others. It goes further to suggest that attempts to unify theories lead to new mismatches. What I take from the article is that a theory like gravity may be suitable for one scale of analysis, say, an apple falling from a tree, but reveal theoretical flaws at other scales, say, predicting the behavior of subatomic particles.
I wonder if we should apply this notion to the social sciences. With my graduate students I've been reading two books so far this semester. The first is Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social, and the second is Martinelli, Mouleart, and Novy's Urban and Regional Development Trajectories in Contemporary Capitalism. Latour's book describes the actor-network theory (ANT) approach, in which our understanding is built up from the actors themselves and (kind of) decries the development and application of grand theories of the "social". URDTCC, meanwhile, is basically an anti-ANT approach that applies a host of macro-level social theories to urban and regional development. The further wrinkle with the latter is that the approach applies these theories to multiple time and spatial scales. And it enjoys variable success in doing so.
On some long term scales, the broad social forces (or "actors" in Latour's terms) create a smooth narrative, but one that feels hollow after reading Latour. For example, we are told in the context of financial capital's dominance in the contemporary development of London that, "The two fractions of capital---industrial and financial---eventually became antagonistic, a struggle that ended with the hegemony of financial capital and the decline of British industries". In other places, actors "positions" and "sociospatial structures" are "reinforced". But we are not told how they struggled, of what that hegemony consists, what the positions are, nor what "reinforced" means. These terms are shortcuts for summarizing what happened, and while I do not doubt their "accuracy", the shortcuts do not tell us "what happened" on the ground. And I guess I want that.
But this is where the scales come in. URDTCC primarily uses regulation theory for its analyses, and I think it generally does a good job of describing the big picture. However, it obscures so much of the local level dynamics that drive the processes. We need to know how certain financial capitalists pushed through regulation in their favor, for example. And this involves (perhaps) other theories that describe political action, psychological constitutions, investment decisions, etc., theories that in turn would not necessarily describe the macro-level outcomes.
Must we then rely on different theories for different scales of action? Krauss's article would suggest that we should. But it would also suggest that the effort to unify these scalar-specific theories should produce its own advances and new mysteries.
25 September 2015
More kids than business on this blog... This time it is because my older daughter finally seems to be getting interested in reading. She recently received a 만화책 (comic book) from a friend. Apparently it is their favorite, "I am Star". She told us that they even run around the playground during recess saying "I am Star" because that is what gives the girls in the book their power. Anyhoo, combine this with the extra work my wife has been doing with her to read, and suddenly Sienna is the one reading bedtime stories to her sister. For the last week or so, she has read to Gian from "I am Star" and other kids books until Gian falls asleep. Then she comes into our room, tells us that Gian is sleeping, and returns to their bedroom and puts herself to bed. I love it.