The Burden of the Present: On the concept of urbanisation

First appearing in Society and Space

Republished in urbanNext.net

To interrogate the relation between governmental practices and the slew of recent technologies developed and deployed in the name of sustainability—whether ‘green’, ‘resilient’, ‘ecological’ or otherwise—is of course to interrogate the political status of such technology itself. How does the use of this technology expand governmental knowledge more broadly into a city’s population and more deeply into the intimate spaces and practices of the individuals and groups which compose it? How does it open new sites of intervention, new surfaces of interface between administration and the citizens which it oversees? What inherent directionalities do such channels of power presuppose? More to the point, what new forms of subjectification (and desubjectification) are produced by this blossoming array of spatio-governmental apparatuses and what possible consequences could they have for the future of urban life? Certainly proposals like that of Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA) recent contribution to New York City’s initiative, “Rebuild by Design” (a part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project), highlight the urgency to ask these questions. The project depicts New York City as a fortified prison island, whose interior can be converted into a coordinated disaster relief zone if and when environmental disaster strikes. More than anything particularly novel, this project reveals just how readily we have already come to accept urban life as synonymous with a life in a permanent state of emergency. In fact, this is where the project is most explicit, demonstrating how, rather than relying on new technologies, the complete assemblage of existing technologies constituting the ‘normal’ urban condition can simply be augmented to instantaneously switch the entire city over to catastrophe management mode. Road signs, billboards, traffic lights, signage and even street vendors can all constitute elements within a synchronised administrative system drawing the boundary between emergency and non-emergency into non-distinction. Remarkably, the resemblance between this project and OMA founder, Rem Koolhaas’s, very first project some 40 odd years ago, Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, stands as an ironic twist of fate bringing a radically critical project full circle and giving new clarity to Agamben’s provocation that the camp is indeed the ‘nomos’ of the modern. This is not a problem isolated to a bizarre spatial experiment conducted on New York City; indeed, ‘resilience’ has rapidly moved to centre stage within spatial design and planning knowledge production. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, for example, has developed a new programme of research on ‘Risk and Resilience’, enlarging the scope of urban design to now include environmental calculations at a territorial scale. The prospect of a world conditioned by the permanent presence of environmental catastrophe has begun to transform notions of risk and resilience into multi-scalar programmes whose forms of analysis and sites of intervention promise to range from the individual (‘resilience starts with you’) to the terrestrial. And why not? In the wake of disasters like ‘Superstorm Sandy’, who would dare to question such ambitions? Its no wonder that development projects mobilising a rhetoric of resilience, by appealing to existential threats that have become only too familiar, garner almost universal support. Clearly in the face of these schemes, a sustained, critical discourse is urgently needed to counter the consensus these projects have already generated.

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