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CoverScales of Revolt: Within and Beyond the Arab Spring was an exploratory essay that I wrote for the volume FREE: Architecture on the Loose edited by E. Sean Bailey and Erandi de Silva. The essay I wrote attempted to link the Arab uprisings (or Arab Spring, I prefer uprisings) to contemporary academic debates on geographical scale.

The essay focuses on the self-immolation of Muhammed Bouazizi that sparked the Arab uprisings and – given that the Arab uprisings influence on movements such as Occupy Wall Street – global revolt and how this event can be framed as a productive entry point to think about issues of geographical scale. Specifically, the idea that there is a nested hierarchy of scale that goes from the body, to the nation and the finally to the global (like a Russian doll) is problematic when confronted by an event like Bouazizi’s protest suicide. Simply, how could a self-immolation that occurred at the scale of the body produce such a scale of revolt? But this question led to a more complicated one of how the body is not an isolated unit and it is what happens between bodies that can be most important. Can scale cope with the in-betweeness of social life? I don’t think it is a question I fully answered, and this may be my own limits, but it could also be due to the limits of geographical scale. Can we really foreground conclusions over what is big and what is small?

Scale is a critical concept in the architectural profession and one that some have started to think about seriously. Rem Koolhaas of course published S,M,L, XL and has an intelligent approach to questions of scale.

In addition to my essay, FREE contains a great collection of essays and interviews, here is the blurb:

Introducing ‘FREE’

There is implicit conflict in the word ‘free’. While culturally we celebrate the infinite opportunities afforded by the ‘freedom to’, the term also alludes to emancipation, a break from a captive state, or a ‘freedom from’. ‘Free’ is, at its core, an architectural concept. Architecture is a discipline directly engaged with shaping enclosure, of erecting and toppling barriers or—more explicitly—of extending and limiting ‘freedoms’.

Spatial interventions have reorganized much of the material and immaterial world. These actions are evident in the revolutionary public protests of the Arab Spring, the rehabilitation and adoption of land in Detroit and the invention and immanence of digital space. These types of reconfigurations offer a means of breaking with the past to establish new paradigms of operation and actualization. On the other hand, a lack of intervention can also prove to be equally liberating by allowing existing conditions to flourish, whether in nature or an alternate wilderness.

The book has recently received a great review by Domus:

“Free? What do you mean I’m free? I don’t feel free; if anything I feel the opposite.” This condition, what we could call the ‘abyss of freedom’ [1] is responded to in a variety of ways. Authors such as Bernd Upmeyer, Deen Sharp and Corbin Keech individually approach this as a task of making order out of chaos, largely by way of diagnosis and prescription of a well-reasoned theoretical framework.

In 1937, Lewis Mumford asked, what is a city? Mumford noted that cities have been handicapped because there is a poor understanding of the “social functions of the city”, functions that make a city what it is. “The city is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations: the first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of city life”. For Mumford, the city is a group of neighborhoods formed for economic organization housed in permanent structures in a limited area through a corporate or public regulation: “… a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity”. Because the city, according to Mumford, is primarily about the facilitation of social life, he demanded that industries and its markets, its lines of communication and traffic, must be subservient to social needs. Mumford viewed the polluted overcrowded cities, dominated by the motorcar and the factory, of his era the result of not controlling and ensuring that machines served human interests. Thus he called for limitations on size, density and area of the city. In Mumford’s view human needs and demands make the city what it is and therefore these “social” needs must be considered first; technology and machines must be relegated to second-class citizens and serve the needs of humans. For Mumford it is man vs. machine and we must ensure that man is the winner.

Although not commenting on cities, Bruno Latour outlines a different view of the social in his guide to Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) and therefore of the city. Both Latour and Mumford agree that the city is a collection of groups and associations but what these groups and association are made up of differs. For Mumford, the social is family and neighbourhood organized for economic modes of organization. Latour, disrupts Mumford’s stable notion of the social through his ANT approach. Latour understands the social as a type of connection between things that are not themselves social. Latour notes, “The sense of belonging has entered a crisis. But to register the feeling of this crisis and to follow these new connections, another notion of social has to be devised. It has to be much wider than what is usually called by that name, yet strictly limited to the tracing of new associations and to designing of their assemblages. This is the reason why I am going to define the social not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (p.7).

ANT has three tests:

  1. Non-humans have to be actors and not simply the hapless bearers of symbolic projection;
  2. If the social remains stable and is used to explain a state of affairs, it is not ANT.
  3. Check whether a study aims at reassembling the social or still insist on dispersion and deconstruction.

For ANT what is a city? In every case you have to “follow the actors themselves”, so a city is its specific arrangement, is this a satisfactory answer? For ANT the city is not a collection of “men”, families or neighbourhoods but a collection of intricate relationships with a variety of non-humans and humans. For ANT, unlike Mumford, no stable category of what a city is can be produced, in each instance a city is the end result of the tracing what can be tied together. ANT does not provide a strong account for what a city is but prefers a question such as how does a city work.

Questions:

  • Is ANT able to provide an answer to the question, what is a city?; if not do we need to change the question or ANT?
  • Could ANT result in us thinking about meaningless details of the city and stop us from making machines and technologies serve human needs?

References:

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory . Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. (Part 1)

Mumford, Lewis. 1937. “What is a City?”. Architectural Record.