Scaleless: Planetary Bodies (LafargeHolcim Forum 2016: ‘Infrastructure Space’)


“Independence for the individual within the home: independence for the home within the urbe: independence for the diverse forms of movement within urban life. Ruralize the urban: urbanize the rural:… Fill the Earth.”

Declaration from Teoría general de la urbanización, I. Cerdá, 1867.

Fragments from my contribution to the ‘Planetary Scale’ workshop chaired by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid (LafargeHolcim Forum 2016)

I would like to consider the question of ‘planetary’ from a somewhat oblique angle. What happens if we imagine that ‘planetary urbanization’ does not describe processes of urbanization that operate simply at the scale of the planet? What happens if we take the premise that planetary urbanization is instead a thesis that contemporary modes of urbanization have no scale? More broadly, what if, to understand a ‘planetary’ ontology is to understand one that eludes scale altogether? How we can experience the planetary without a map of the world?

The ambition of this paper is to propose that planetary is perhaps better understood as a signifier for the scaleless—a name for the growing sensibility of a world that sees scalar difference as a matter of technological overcoming; a condition that I hope will broaden our understanding of contemporary forms of urbanization by giving them a uniquely political resolution. In so doing, we may be able to better strategize contemporary practices of resistance: living in a time of planetary urbanization, how can we begin to formulate proper responses to something that, through its predominantly cartographic optic, may give the appearance of a planetary totality? This comes in part from discoveries in my research about the urban, which, both historically and in its present modalities, points not only to its constant expansion across scales, but the ways in which scale itself may perhaps be a tenuous concept by which to assess urbanization, just as it is for understanding many other spatio-temporal phenomena today (climate, economy, cybernetics, geo-politics, etc). Looking at urbanization from this perspective may shed light on what we might mean when we say ‘planetary urbanization’ and how we can go about further interrogating this notion.

My contention is that ‘planetary’ is not a scale, nor even an particularly emergent figure, as we may tend to think. Our use and consciousness of it today, however, may instead be a confirmation of an epistemological horizon that has been quietly in formation for the last two centuries, and whose truths, objects and relations derive from even more distant referents. Planetary, perhaps more than a particular scalar octave, may be better understood as the signature of a trans- or even non-scalar ontology characteristic of our present epistemological horizon. At what scale can we measure, experience, know climate change? At what scale does contemporary warfare take place? Has neoliberal economics not reduced scale to something of an opportunistic, floating signifier? And what of urbanization today?

Such a suggestion will of course entail a different way of seeing the urban, less through registering its effects (shipping lanes, global infrastructures, operational landscapes, and so on) than by understanding its commands—as a logic which organizes and orders space, infrastructures, domesticity, processes of expansion, destruction, networks and circulations, controls and immunizations… As a logic, we may begin to question the very nature of the urban as both the concrete abstraction of capitalism and as the spatial organization of political form.

Just as many discourses have responded to the rise of a planetary consciousness with uniquely trans- or non-scalar methodologies and conceptual apparatuses, the planetary urbanization thesis, I believe, can expand its critique by dislodging the planetary from its status as a somewhat fixed scale to one denoting an entirely new scalar epistemology. We can understand how it may be tempting to treat the planetary as a scalar referent in part because of an inherited form of knowledge of ‘scaling up’ indebted to its marxian roots from thinkers like Neil Smith and David Harvey. While this has been incredibly useful in opening new approaches to the ‘field formerly known as urban studies’, it also often has a flattening effect on the urban, presenting it as something that can only be understood through a scalar correlate to ‘the planet’. This may also be because the discourse of planetary urbanization is one which tends to see the urban as a resolutely capitalist formation—a process whose questions of politics, power, legal structure and administrative logic all seem relevant insofar as they correspond to the central demands of capitalism. Rather, by assuming the urban to be always in excess of itself—always in excess of the capitalist processes that drive it to become both a space and process—by assuming it to be a spatio-political order, we immediately open out to new questions about the urban in itself. History, subjectivity, power, the ontological and biopolitical roles that infrastructure plays, the way territory is a fundamental concept of the urban, specifically in its historical distinction from the city. Urbanization as such may appear instead as a process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization across scales, one that binds life to infrastructure and thus makes the notion of scale something of a linguistic shorthand rather than an epistemologically and ontologically stable notion. Our critique of the urban today must focus both on the radically expanded realms in which it operates, and the way it works across scales—the way it coordinates materialities and circulations, freedoms and securities, access and prohibition, technologies and natures, wealth and bodies, inclusions and exclusions, barriers and penetrations without regard to scalar referents like ‘city’, ‘region’, ‘territory’, and yes, indeed, ‘planet’.

What we’re seeing emerge today that we may call ‘planetary urbanization’ may not simply be processes that are jumping scales, moving toward the scale of the planet itself, but rather a rationality that seeks to coordinate spaces and circulations, bodies and quantities across scales; a political technology intent on smoothing scalar differences into a spatio-governmental continuum; a logic that, as Anna Tsing has shown, attempts to reduce worlds into a single planetary space of complete scalability.

Such an approach has a further, and perhaps more urgent, advantage. Part of my agenda here is also to attempt to mobilize discussions and knowledge around planetary urbanization toward radical counter imaginaries. How can one intervene in a world that increasingly constitutes itself as a totality of circulating satellites, shipping lanes and submarine cable networks, all that in turn make operational the vast majority of the planet’s spaces? Indeed, where should struggle find its site in a world which can only be seen as a ‘planet’? By shifting our focus from the planetary as a spatial scale to the planetary as non-scalar space, we may be able to uncover precise points of intervention, interference and interruption within the trans-scalar continuity of power, law, capital and subjectivity that structures the urban as a spatio-political order historically unique to the modern world.

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