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if we were to restart theory….

with 16 comments

…we might start by working the following out:

So much of the quasi-materialist theory of the past, oh, sixty years has staked itself on the promotion of the random wander through city streets as opposed to the technoratic, overly-rational, heartlessly-designed urban plan, and in particular, the plan’s incorporation of tracts of uniform, utilitarian housing developments / projects / estates. The dérive, the tactical – these topographical / metaphorical practices form the underpinnings of Lefebvre’s, Debord’s, SI’s, de Certeau’s theoretical resistance to centralized bureaucratic power.

Today, however, well after Reagan and Thatcher and their descendents have “starved the beast” of government and brought to an end, in the Anglo-American world and, by influence and force, beyond, the actually-existing and potentially-constructed category of the welfare state that was known as social housing, we now know, unlike those who have come before us, the true value of what was once and now is no more provisioned. We read these earlier theorists who had, no doubt, noble intentions, as cringe inwardly, knowing that we smell in their works an ideology better suited to bourgeois gentrification and tower demolition than, you know, the provision of rooves and running water, walls and doors, simple, unglamourous things that just every single one of us are very happy to have. We understand, in short, the inadvertent complicity of previous theories that are dependent upon libertarian visions of urban space, and we cannot help but think that they were written during a period when it was easier to take for granted the fact that these things would continue to be built, and that the people that live in them would never be left to fend for themselves on the open, and irrationally exuberant!, market.

To put it another way, today, given the choice (which is, perhaps, the only choice that we have, and only if we’re lucky and persistent) between the Ideological State Apparatus and the Abolition of the State, we know that we’d take the ISA and work through the problem of the I in it, rather than the latter, which is the path the world has taken since, and we know damn well where that has gotten us and will continue to get us.

We will have to rewrite the whole thing, cognisant of and vigilant about the ennui and disciplinarity, corruption and neglect, that comes of a strong state sector, but even more careful that we know what our true priorities are, in an age where there seems to be only one single priority.

So the question is, I guess, if we were to restart theory, would we have to sell our old, well-marked copies of Debord and de Certeau on Amazon, donate them to the charity shop, in order to get the room we need to work practically, efficaciously? Would we have to banish them to the category of the merely historical document in order to get done what needs to be done?

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July 10, 2008 at 12:40 am

16 Responses

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  1. I think your suggestion that we need to rethink the dérive is a good one. But:

    “To put it another way, today, given the choice (which is, perhaps, the only choice that we have, and only if we’re lucky and persistent) between the Ideological State Apparatus and the Abolition of the State.”

    I think it’s a mistake to posit this as a choice, just the opposite, in fact. What we face today is the simultaneity of the Ideological State Aparatus and the Abolition of the State.


    July 10, 2008 at 1:08 am

  2. Thanks for this. I expect whatever disagreements we have about this stuff would take some time to hash out, but a couple of things for now:

    1) Despite what certain readings of the works of the SI might indicate, they were not, at least initially, against planning. If you read any of the earlier tracts about unitary urbanism, it’s clear that they (or at least some of them) imagined planned societies that would, in fact, by their very harnessing of the forces of nature and production (and there’s plenty of 3rd international type language of that sort in those early tracts), directly allow for the career of a free and freely self-disposing desiring subject through the space of the city. If you haven’t already, check out Constant’s New Babylon project, or any of his writings on urbanism in the anthologies. New Babylon is about as planned as you can get. Constant worked with Le Corbusier and Fernand Leger and he comes out of that milieu to a certain extent. I’ll agree that the expressionist impulses of, say, Asger Jorn are in conflict with the UNOVIS-type constructivism of Constant, but I do think that, on their best day, the SI imagined these things not as an antinomy but a dialectic. Granted, as Debord and the rest develop their critique of state capitalism and the vanguard party alongside the Socialism ou Barbarie people, this position shifts, and I think what I suspect was Debord’s discomfort with the rationalism of Constant’s project was part of the reason why Constant moved on to other things (leaving out the commonsense explanation which says Debord was just an asshole). Still, as I see it, the group as a whole proposes a position in which this pair planning/freedom aren’t seen as a binary but, like the relationship between freely developed collectivity and freely developed individuality in Marx, are in fact the same thing. I think I said something like this here before. Working both sides, dual power, etc.

    2) There’s certainly much to be said about what happens when critiques developed in a time of Fordist-Monopolist production live strange lives after ’73–this is true of the SI as much as it is of operaismo and its afterlives. So, I agree that such twists and turns need to be given more consideration.

    3)I’ll second Voyou. Neoliberalism is not the abolition of the state but rather its mutation to a situation where, instead of directly administering capitalist production, it runs interference for it (lender of last resort, primitive accumulation shock troopers, etc). It hasn’t gone away anymore than chlamydia has.

    4)I’ll keep the abolition of the state on the table; you can keep social-democratic planning. Together we can be a team!


    July 10, 2008 at 2:06 am

  3. Correction: it was Jorn who worked with Le Corbusier and Leger. Still, I’ll keep the claims about Constant and planning in play.


    July 10, 2008 at 3:07 am

  4. I want to hear more about the ISA and the Abolition of the State as simultaneous, voyou.

    It may already be passe and superseded by something else, but The New Urbanism was very interested in the idea of the neighborhood, very much taking the idea of “the local” and restoring it to walkable, local communities, and putting emphasis on the local communities’ opinions and desires (and local flavor) getting factored into the planning.


    July 10, 2008 at 6:52 am

  5. Thanks, all of you – terrific comments.


    I think it’s the State in ISA that is missing. It was a fuzzy term from the start, as the family is clearly an “ideological apparatus” but not in a meaningful way a state one. The media, back in the day of composition, was way more a state-controlled entity than it is now (though never in the US, of course…) I guess I was using the term ISA in a narrow way, narrower than it’s conventionally, but confusingly been used.

    And yes, they do still exist in a malign sense. The DHS is perhaps the purest ISA ever invented.


    Very helpful. Yeah, I know about about the early history, Constant et al. But things did turn pretty quickly to but Corbu directly in the crosshairs, no? I was being a bit (stupidly) provocative with the question about chucking our Debord volumes, so you’re right to call me out on that, but what I was mostly after with Debord was the dérive, its persistence as a term of our art, and in particular the way it echoes all along through the past and future history of this strand of thought. Situationism, like Surrealism before it, were complex and dynamic movements, themselves cycling dialectically, and kinda can be made to “mean” almost anything you want as long as you fall along a certain reasonable line of thought and politics. (I used to teach Breton in my grad seminars, and while I’m sort of convinced I have him right, I sometimes worried that I was getting all too efficient at making him say exactly what I needed him to say etc…)

    I think, exactly yes, that it’s the dérive and its cousins (de Certeau’s tactics and wanders etc etc) that we need to reconsider, belatedly, post-1973.

    Yes, you’re right about neoliberalism. But there’s also some lumpy bits of old fashioned welfare state hanging out here and there that I’d like to save and grow. It probably is the case that in the end I’m just a sort of fancy social democrat. Maybe I’m getting old (I’m definitely getting old). This, of course, is a much bigger argument to have, but I just worry anti-state positions make common cause with the general movement against public provisioning, the commons, etc. Of course we’re not going to sort this out here, but christ, it is probably time that we all had a sort of virtual sit-down about these matters.

    But I’m definitely going to go back more deeply into the planning / situat. question, yes. Thanks for that.


    Yeah, in a sense the NU thing goes both ways. There was always an idealistic, wide-angled side to the movement, but the problem is almost every instantiation of the principles has been in building olde towne looking malls and, like, Celebration, Florida. And I’m not sure they were ever much into the social provisioning side of things. It comes out of Jane Jacobs rather more directly than SI, but it’s part of the story that I’m thinking about yes…

    Phew… thanks all of you, again. Very nice to hear from all of you…


    July 10, 2008 at 9:23 am

  6. Although it’s already been said and summarized, I think I’ll take the opportunity to second Jasper and, though it makes me doubt myself, disagree with AWP pretty stringently. If the SI can be “made to “mean” almost anything you want” that’s a tribute to strong reading. But there is stuff there, and one thing worth saying about that stuff is that it stands largely in contradiction to de Certeau who, to lay my cards on the table, I think more with each passing year was sort of a tool. (I’ve taught them both, for whatever authority that accrues). Without lingering over the niceties of specific critiques, I think the substantial distinction between the SI and de Certeau is that one is historically dialectical and pointed toward the end of capitalism (let’s hold off on the more structural codes like “Abolition of the State” for just a minute), and one isn’t; even a best-case reading of de Certeau leads maybe to a Deleuzian microspaces-within-capital kinda thing which I still haven’t much patience for.

    It may well be that both the SI and de Certeau need ongoing rethinking against changed historical situations. I suspect no one here disagrees on that. But I would want to preserve this distinction between them, rather than annexing them to an identity which can thence be departed from, as from a singular terminal station. We may instead still be on a train between the two — may always be on that train — and thinking about how to live, what to do, and how to redirect the tracks even as we pass over them will take a keen awareness of this position.

    The reason it seems worth distinguishing between the Abolition of the State and the end of capitalism is exactly in AWP’s sensible concerns. They can be rephrased. Chicago School economics is more utopian than New Babylon, and more again than the Commune; in practice it still requires a state, just as Jasper notes. Some form of management and correction. This might be seen as definitive of the Utopian project in general, whatever its orientation: by concept superseding state forms, and in practice requiring a different version of state forms (there are no “true” Utopians, and the use of the term as a dismissal — as if someone believed in such a thing — is tiresome and dull-minded. It’s like dismissing physicists because the formulas are derived under the pretext that there’s no friction). So if we can accept that a state form of some kind will endure, we can ask the two questions: what kind of state form, and what do we really want to abolish?


    July 10, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  7. Excellent post. It’s salutary to note where those in the post/anti-Keynesian left end up – Aldo Rossi (ex-comrade of Tafuri, who in turn had an association with Tronti and Negri) being a leading New Urbanist is every bit as much a sign of utter defeat as Miesian towers going from Weimar Utopianism to American corporate power. The difference is that they don’t know it yet, and hence persist in their self-righteousness. The Pan-Am building and Celebration are both the death of an idea that might, once have linked up with an oppositional politics (although obviously my bias is towards the former rather than the latter – I’m always amazed that anyone on the left should see the city of the 19th century as the pinnacle of human achievement).

    I’d echo Voyou and Jasper’s points on the state and the SI though. Over here, the state actually spends more on the railways now than when it used to own them, and this is the case across the board. Surely it’s a mistake to see neoliberalism as the negation of the state, when what it actually entails is the state reacquiring a role as enforcer for capital: which has always been its role, excepting the 1945-79 interregnum. And one shouldn’t mistake the SI’s degeneration into wandering-around-Paris for its original possibilities. Their ‘Imaginist Bauhaus’ does have a very big clue in the name…


    July 10, 2008 at 3:48 pm

  8. […] said, and persuant to some of the issues raised in the comments of this post, we should tread with caution, for all nationalizations are not created equal. In some cases, they […]

  9. All right, all right, maybe I should have kept SI / Debord out of it. You see what I’m saying about the general line of progression that consistently plays the wander (shoulda started with WB or Simmel, Baudelaire…) against the “functional.” Certainly “functionalism” never became a good word in the SI handbook? I shouldn’t have been so macroscopic about the matter, but when examined macroscopically, this line of theoretical continuity by and large does come down on a certain side of the issue. But not without nuance, and I wasn’t being nuanced. Fair enough.

    Jane’s question is the right one: “So if we can accept that a state form of some kind will endure, we can ask the two questions: what kind of state form, and what do we really want to abolish?”

    And as an act of penance, I’ve just posted on bad nationalization, which seems to echo some of the points here about the state as servant of neoliberalism…

    It’s all so helpful though, this… Thanks…


    July 10, 2008 at 10:18 pm

  10. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think your general thrust is bang on, and (the remains of the) left’s hostility to ‘planning’, ‘functionalism’ etc is incredibly dangerous, playing into the hands of our enemies in every sense.

    Aside: but with the SI to some extent (read the texts on the derive, they differentiate theirs from the Surrealists precisely because the Situationist derive is NOT random, that it was Active) and Benjamin to a major extent, this is (cue sigh from the back of the class) a dialectical question. The impulse ‘efface the traces’/vs ‘an archaeology of ephemera’, and the tension is between the two. Benjamin was as interested in Sigfried Giedion, Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos as he ever was in the Surrealists: esp in ‘Experience and Poverty’ and the Arcades, essential reading for those who appear to think WB is WG Sebald. This sense of being pulled by both impulses or working off the tension between the two is also found in lots of practitioners, eg Kurt Schwitters, Karel Teige…

    (if I may say so there’s some stuff about this in my book, which got rewritten a lot after the version I sent you)


    July 10, 2008 at 11:16 pm

  11. The Pan-Am building and Celebration

    Is that the former PanAm, now MetLife Building on Park Avenue? or another one somewhere else? I’m one of the few people who ever loved the PanAm Building here, and it was completely transformed when the death people w. Snoopy came in and changed the signs at the top, putting the old PanAm ones in a museum in Florida. I realize this has more to do with some neoliberal (me) than it does with Socialism, but ‘American corporate power’ was mentioned, although I haven’t the slightest idea what the building itself was the death of in an ideological sense. The building is quite amazing inside.

    Patrick J. Mullins

    July 11, 2008 at 1:04 am

  12. Hey, Jane, don’t you have a book you need to finish in the next, like, seven hours?

    >So if we can accept that a state form of some kind will endure, we can ask the two >questions: what kind of state form, and what do we really want to abolish?

    Well, I’m not sure I do accept this. I guess it depends on what we mean by the ‘state.’ I’m pretty compelled by the idea that the state is an organ of class rule–giving up on its abolition would thus mean giving up on a classless society. And, however much blind optimism of the will this might mean, I’m not ready to give up on that. At least not today. . . especially when [cue pessimism of the intellect] it seems like such a remote possibility!

    But neither planning nor organization require the state in the sense of class rule, nor does a fidelity to communism in its strict sense rule out a role for a particular form of the state in meantime, or in the transition. Perhaps that’s what you mean by endure?

    I mean, I’m all for agreeing that there will be no perfect society whatever happens, no end to ideology, all that stuff: et in Arcadia ego, etc. But must we accept the ineluctability of the specialized roles and positions of power that a state seems to require by definition?

    A great thread, this one.


    July 11, 2008 at 2:40 am

  13. Jasper, j’espere! I mean the book’s humming dully along, right on schedule.

    I think our disagreement is merely two tautologies confronting each other uneasily, by which I mean it’s one of definition. If you define “the state” as the instrument of class rule, then yes, if “the state endures,” so does class rule. If you define “the state” as that body which is not the entirety of the populace but is empowered occasionally to make decisions which affect the populace, then maybe we can have a “state” without “class rule”? I am thinking only of the Commune here, or some version of syndicalism.

    But really I’m proposing something relatively materialist: instead of imagining “abolition of the state” as a goal, let’s imagine “the end of surplus value” as a goal and move from there. I suspect something other than absolute direct democracy will resolve itself, and if I call that “the state,” that’s only nomenclatural. But perhaps you’re right that one needs to abandon the bad habit of using the term…


    July 11, 2008 at 4:59 am

  14. Patrick J-M – sorry, this is architectural history stuff I should unpack somewhat. Yes, it’s the one that is now MetLife. One of the designers was the former Bauhaus director and socialist activist Walter Gropius, and it came in for loads of criticism when it was built in the 60s from Jane Jacobs and her crew for it’s total negation of the city ‘fabric’, ‘context’ and all that, and came in general to signify for postmodernists the total degeneration of Weimar Modernism on export to the US into a cheap building method for American corporations.
    (that said, I’m sure it’s a fine building – Centrepoint, which is sort of London’s equivalent in terms of the controversy over it, is one of my favourite things…)


    July 11, 2008 at 11:32 am

  15. Thank you, Owen. The building has continued to be almost universally hated, and I was crazy about it in a way I’m not any of the things like the wedding cake blue thing near Bloomie’s nor the Reagan-look Worldwide Plaza, done by one of the traditional architects who have been. and may still be, involved with various entanglements of plans at the WTC site (I can’t remember if the one completed building 7 WTC, is his, nor his name, but that’s easily fetched). I acted like a ridiculous child when the logos disappeared at the top of the building, and I am sure it was because I can remember the old New York World’s Fair, and the breezy spirit that existed for the last time around then (the end of the 50s, as it were, and the halcyon romanticized sensation of ‘what the Big City is’ was ending, even as the revolving doors at Rockefeller Center continued to make out-of-towners think they were going to get to work for a horrible boss like Joan Crawford in ‘The Best of Everything’). I even worked at a lowly job at United Media in the PanAm Building while it was still the PanAm Building in the early 90s. United Media was the Charles Schultz Peanuts thing, and it was one of the more pleasant of these kinds of temp jobs. I always liked it. While I knew it was becoming MetLife, I still thought they would somehow respect its history as the zingy jet-setty PanAm Building by leaving the beautiful logos at the top; once I came to work after a horrible night of insomnia and the lusciousness of detail that you can only see close up added to those signs as the top completely refreshed me.

    I even argued with my boss that it would ALWAYS be the PanAm Building! and she was not amused–paradoxically, my pain-in-the-assedness may have been why she then offered me a permanent position at the beautiful new MetLife Building–which I refused, imagining she wanted a little light S&M with me as the M in a light bondage office sequence. They had the most beautiful lobby just as PanAm was disappearing, i was constantly there while everything still said PanAm everywhere, on the old elevators and these marvelous large planters full of flower beds, which is fairly unusual indoors (you usually get the big quiet Ficus and Scheffleras in big wooden containers that never call attention to themselves but give a garden-variety ‘airy effect’).

    The strangest criticism was that the PanAm Building blocked off the view up Park Avenue, but the Helmsley Building, though smaller, just above it, had already blocked it off, leaving a only a few more shafts of light at its side, since it was smaller. My love for the PanAm Building was not only that at a few levels at several levels all the way up were, I believe, dividing stories that contrasting in such a way as to suggest something somehow ‘pineapple-tropical’ (I’ve until now concealied this quite eccentric image, so that constitutes a confessional–I’d even sing the old theme from ‘Picnic’ on my way to the job when I’d see these, and I never did it when I worked in the fucking World Trade Center or Moody’s Investors Service.

    But the main thing is that it was an enormous pleasure to be inside those walls: The halls were often twice the width in any other skyscraper, the ceilings were much higher, and you could really feel this space. Except for my schoolmarmy boss, all the people in this company were somehow a part of this breezy feeling of space–they were delightful and had none of the horrible constant anger I found in, say, Garment District law firms and, much worse, ad agencies, those nightmares of the world. My bad attitude would even disappear there. One of my other bosses there would open up a gym and let the handyman guys play basketball at their lunch hour every day. Colleen, the beautiful girl who I would sit in for, would be in another position for the day, and come back and flirt for awhile. Bute Luther would come up and tell me about rough gay bars in seamy parts of the Village. Heidi would tell me how to avoid the horrible schoolmarm when she tried to get me to go ‘carolling’ at Xmas. It was so strangely pleasant that I would look at myself in Colleen’s mirror at the desk, and I would somehow always be reminded of Marilyn Monroe, I’m not sure why. i didn’t even mind faxing, which I usually hate more than anything.

    Okay, this was very self-iindulgent, but maybe it gives an idea of how spaces themselves to allow for a more expansive atmosphere in what is a fairly conventional workplace (although United Media was a pretty thriving outfit at the time.) I also, for example, worked at United Media and Better Homes and Gardens, and the tone was tight and bitchy at all times–and the space was very tight and close. Does that make any sense. Anyway, thanks for the additional information on one of my favourite buildings. I went so crazy when they took the signs off, that one of my friends remarked on ‘your Proustrian pain’ and two old lady friends went to a church rummage sale and found two old PanAm blankets that would have been used on the flights and bought them for me. And I still treasure them and use them.

    patrick j. mullins

    July 11, 2008 at 7:23 pm

  16. I think AWP doesn’t have the preview feature (not that I’m the type who can always bring myself to use it anyway, but it should read ‘Cute Luther’ for ‘Bute Luther’ and also where I say I also worked at ‘United Media and Better Homes and Gardens’, I obviously didn’t mean to repead ‘United Media’, but should have said ‘Metropolitan Home’ where I was fired after 2 days for dropping expenses from the boss’s London trip all over the floor and getting them wrong in the middle of my hangover. It’s good practice to get fired a lot, and I got fired about 7 times.

    patrick j. mullins

    July 11, 2008 at 7:30 pm

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