Monday, September 7, 2009

towards the solidification and relativisation of atopos theory

Erik Bohman & Mattias Forshage

(from forthcoming international surrealist journal Hydrolith)

Surrealists as urbanists

Nothing could fool us to think that the city is a familiar place. Urbanity is a system of the dynamism of cramping things together, and its most interesting parts will remain that which grows in its interspaces, buds off from its inner limbs, remains its difficultly charted characteristics. There are, of course, all-too-familiar patterns and all-too-obvious conscious motives, of those who want to control the others and those who just want to be left alone. But the unknown always remains a distinct possibility in urbanity's collaging of people, physical and mental environments and thus of social relations in general. And where the unknown emerges, there is always the potentiality of poetry.

Early surrealist investigations into urban flow led to the development of concepts such as objective chance. But most of the arsenal of methods, games and perspectives was never systematised into a particular theory. It was to a large extent up to the surrealists' prodigal children the situationists to cast it in pseudo-academic terms with the theory of the dérive and the theory of psychogeography. These were later recuperated into surrealism, and the surrealists' own investigations of urban environments were refuelled. In this new wave of exploration, additional new perspectives and concepts emerged.

One concept which gained some distribution in the previous decade was that of worthless places (atopoi or atoposes, literally meaning non-places - atopoi being the greek plural which the Leeds surrealist group insisted on, atoposes the ridicule-anglification first utilised by the Stockholm group who introduced the term). It was used in print first in the "Geografi" issue of Stora Saltet (1995). A brief summary of the subject by MF from the "Upphittat" (found objects) Stora Saltet was subsequently published in english in Manticore (as "The poetry of worthlessness"), in spanish in Salamandra and in czech in Analogon. Recently another piece, putting the concept to concrete work, was printed as "Explorations of absence" by the Leeds surrealists in Phosphor #1 (2008). (In the meantime we had found some Plato quote including the term, and not too distantly Roland Barthes had called love an atopos; only recently however it was pointed out to us that in greek it is the common word for something absurd in the mathematical-logical sense. There has also been some internal debate whether the concept was closely related to Foucault's idea of heterotopia, but its affiliations on a purely theoretical level is not of particular importance for a concept we now address as an analytical tool.)

Other surrealist groups pursued their geographical investigations in other directions. The Paris group maintained focus on objective chance and analogical geography in the "Géographie passionelle" issue of S.U.RR., the Madrid group together with individuals elsewhere developed the concept of "exteriority" for epiphanic experiences of sensory presence at certain border locations. Some of these groups were never particularly interested in, or impressed with, the concept of worthless places. This is of course conditioned by differences in direction and local traditions, but a certain role could also be assigned to differences in conspicuousness and function of the locally available such sites.

In this text, we would like to sketch some of these differences in conditions while restating the basic background of organising urban space, and restating, perhaps even forwarding, some principles and perspectives for surrealist investigations into urban geography.

Recognition of worthless places

The emergence of worthless places in urban environments depends on several conditions. Their recognition typically focuses on either of three approaches.

a) that of poetic phenomenology - keeping up the vigilance towards spots conveying a distinct feeling of being out of control and having a distinct diffuse potential (if such a seeming contradiction is excused), of having a hidden history, a hidden usage or a hidden future in the realm of collectivisation and realisation of desires. This is straightforward to apply, but not in a strictly intersubjective way.

b) that focusing on usage (in terms of sociology, ethnology or behavioral ecology) - tracing spots which are generally used in a non-regulated way for activities not at all intended by owners, city planners, entrepreneurs, architects - which people individually or collectively snatch and exploit for various needs. This is obviously the most difficult criterion to apply, since we have no particular interest in acknowledging thousands of semi-secluded spots where males sometimes urinate... we want perhaps to be able to distinguish between using the same spot for a wellbehaved rendezvous or consumption of drinks and entertainments offered on one hand, and on the other hand a non-regulated nothing-buying hangout... and we would possibly like to be able to somehow define non-usage, abandoning to spontaneous decay, as a special category of unintended usage...

c) that of economic history, which allows for the most rigorous definitions - recognising spots of non-productivity in economic terms in the middle of a generally high-productive city-planned area. Being a formal and not a qualitative distinction, this criterion has the advantage of pointing out unexpected and inconspicuous places. On the other hand, it will also cover phenomena which don't interest us in themselves. Still, the determination will then sometimes require vast knowledge in local history and economy, and in practice, even with this criterion, the most obvious instances are diagnostically spotted via one or several of the following:

1. poetic suggestions in accordance with the first approach above,

2. artifacts giving a clear indication of popular usage: such as displaced chairs and sofas, toys, abandoned clothes, notes and drawings, porn magazines, condoms, bottles and beercans, abundance of cigarette butts or garbage in general, etc,

3. an abundant flora of fast-growing, easy-dispersing, more or less globalised, ruderal plants, indicating that no one manages or tidies the spot.

It should be remembered that within surrealism, such a concept with a rigorous definition, is a mere tool for poetic investigation and not something interesting in itself. The gap towards academic cultural geography is still wide. The point here is not refining the concepts, comparing it with other concepts, and debating its merits and failures, the real question is to what extent it actually sharpens our vigilance for the active contradictions and poetic possibilities in the urban environment.

There is a certain correlation between the explanatory power of a concept and how discriminately it is applied. Therefore we here stress certain objective characteristics of atopoi, insisting that the concept will not be obviously applicable to the same extent on a global scale, and that local factors will make it more or less interesting.

Value production in urban settings
- In the lapses of accumulation

The decisive regularities conditioning the distribution of sites of value in the capitalist city give us a methodological starting point from which we can approach the question of the spatial distribution of worthlessness. Here the object is not one of exploration, for which such a method would prove all too general and lacking in inspiration. Rather, it lets us avoid a couple of not-so-productive interpretations of atopoi and their relationship to the capitalist city, culture or whatever might strike the fancy of anyone prone to thinking in abstracts and unmediated totalities. We are prepared to posit the existence of a certain break between the patterns of distribution (or production by chance) sketched herein and the unlikely but constantly reoccurring product. This break is not to be understood along the lines of those pairs of opposites that pretend to say something very profound while hiding difference, particularity or reserving room for them squarely on one side of the opposition. The critique of civilization that proceeds from the a priori positioning of "culture" and "nature" teaches us nothing and substitutes experience with moralist still-lifes. Not in opposites but in living contradiction do we hope to find those sparks of wonder that illuminate the fragility of the present order of things.

The capitalist city is by and large determined by the processes of accumulation and the contradictions inherent in these processes. These imply a tendency towards general urbanisation while effecting local processes of de- and re-urbanisation and a (more or less) dynamic redistribution of people and sites of value according to the needs and limits of accumulation. The ability of capital to impose an urban dynamic governed by its voracious appetite for surplus value is checked by the continual struggle waged in a variety of forms between those who are its agents and those who suffer its consequences. The immense number of contradictions arising from the conditions of the modern city are breeding grounds of the marvellous.

The capitalist city is a structure made out of a number of heterogenous elements. Its development is not a one way street, neither does it develop in a smooth frictionless manner. The tendencies and countertendencies that give rise and direction to the deployment of urban spaces can only result in an uneven development. Just as the global economy simultaneously accumulate massive material wealth and an even more glaring (spiritual, material) poverty, so does the city.

The atopos might be defined negatively as a place that doesn't lend itself to a) production of commodities, b) circulation of commodities, c) reproduction of labour power or d) the reproduction of those apparatuses necessary to secure the conditions of accumulation on the level of society (police, state initiatives, etc). A purely negative definition this far - as a place devoid of value, a lapse in the circuits of accumulation. Such a definition stops short of the aims of surrealist investigation and leaves the place itself a blank, since the same concepts that lets us grasp the patterns of distribution have nothing or very little to say about it. We can go one step further: the definition will rather give us hints as to where and under what conditions one can expect the emergence of atopoi.

The creative destruction through which city development unfolds have an almost inevitable tendency to produce temporal lapses just at those places where economic growth is most apparent, such as in the process of gentrification.

Typically in a modern city there will be a dynamism of worthless places which can be decribed in foucauldian-autonomous terms: on the one hand gentrification and various urban development schemes; the infinite struggles to increase profit, utilising any old and new means of disciplining, exclusion and appropriation; on the other hand popular usage, countering and competing with gentrification by way of various non-regulated non-commercial useless usages. This should preferrably be studied empirically, but it can be assumed that there are always struggles occurring. Places will fall out of order and be reintegrated at a certain pace, which will be different in different cities and different parts of the cities at different times. Acknowledging worthless places a little too publicly will usually lead to their reintegration (if not for direct exploitation then for the ideological exploitation resulting from open recognition of their eventual picturesque qualities). Few largescale triumphs for the popular side are possible within the given socioeconomic order (and will probably often count as steps in a social revolution), but the struggle is perpetual and will produce a variety, at any given moment, of worthless places for leisure and play, indicating the impossibility of total control, inspiring surrealist usage of urbanity and the dreaming of yet unknown senses of urban life.

We recommend some of our enthusiastic friends of the ultraradical variety some caution: city planning cannot be monolithic and is usually not pursuing a hidden agenda. City planning is the chaotic outcome, suboptimal from all viewpoints, of compromises between various concerns and interests; fulfilling a function that is - among other things - disciplinary on the whole largely because this is the involuntary sum of the competetive commercial, political and popular interests. A lot will be about facilitating work and work transports, and offering occasions for entertainment and isolation, based on the joint interests of the capitalists of reproducing labor power and of the people of having at least some fun and getting left in peace to at least some extent. There are always conflicts of usage but also conflicts of planning, and thus small and large spots which fail to conform to intentions or where intentions fail to resolve themselves - the city is a dynamic arena and this has always been obvious to its surrealist users. There are not so few good intentions in some of the political planning, which is then always implemented in a coopted and coopting way but which may simultaneously allow for independent popular possibilities. In fact, various philanthropic and social-liberal ambitions are at least as historically important in city planning as the all-too-often cited examples of purely repressive concerns. Hausmann's avenues and the metaphor of Bentham's Panopticon should at least be accompanied by the various utopian-socialist, early-ecologist, radical-egalitarian, mystic-esoteric etc traces. Sometimes these could challenge the limitations of philanthropic liberalism when taken literally.

Parameters of worthless places

Several types of conditions govern first the emergence and maintenance and second the recognition of worthless places in different parts of the world. Both are very dependent on 1) the general degree of urbanity, 2) the general level of order and orderliness, 3) current local land prices and other market particulars and exploitation conditions.

The general degree of urbanity conditions the availability of worthless places. The denser and more heterogenous the population, and the larger the overall accessability via sidewalks and public transport, the more opportunities for an atopos to emerge, and new social practices.

For example, many North American cities have such a lack of urban density that the concept often will appear to lack application there. Whenever a city is planned under no shortage of land, and driving a car is the normal way of moving in the city rather than walking or using public transport; there will be an abundance of interspaces between all things and no obvious contrast between useful and useless land. When such a concentration is lacking, the flow of messages and chance encounters central to surrealism's appreciation of urbanity, is often decreased to non-urban levels. That certain places are put to popular perverse/detourning usage when decaying under such circumstances too is obvious nevertheless, and proven for example by some of the places found and photographically documented by Eric Bragg in the northern California countryside, but they may perhaps not be best described with the term atopoi or best understood in the framework of urbanity.

Order and orderliness is a crucial factor, but primarily on the level of conditions for discovery of such places. In a city where city planning is partly chaotic, where land market is relatively anarchic, where a major segment of the population lives in poverty or outside conformist lifestyles, where cleaning, public order, construction and renovation tasks are slower or less ambitious, where general mentality is less orderly: worthless places will probably be more abundant but far less conspicuous. And as much of their surrealist function lies in their contrast action they will also often be less interesting.

Market particulars are also crucial for the abundance and the conspicuousness of worthless places. Growing populations of course promote higher land prices, but exploitation rate is also dependent on general income, living standards and the availability of resources for exploitation, and on particular characteristics of entrepeneurs and landlords (oligarchies, mafia, superstitions, political and transnational economical involvment etc). Where the economy and thus the physical shape of the city is more "dynamic"; the worthless places will be less stable, quicker to emerge (drop out of control) but also to disappear (become reintegrated).

This is even more important when it comes to cities in the southern hemisphere or where very large parts of the population is poor: the pressure on available space is great but the capacity to pay for it is low, putting market mechanisms out of use and accentuating social contradictions, and creating a situation where whole neighborhoods and sometimes even whole parts of countries can assume the characteristics of worthlessness. Or the contrast will be organised along other scales or parameters than that of surface area.

There is also the remarkable particulars of for example the great stalinist cities of East Europe, where a certain megalomanic totalitarian regime has been replaced by regimes with distinctly other primary mechanisms of disciplining and social control. These huge squares and avenues, which made ideologic sense and were practically used for propagandistic parades (and for good old hausmannian riot control), have now become senseless. And in the instances there is no capital available for new exploitation of them, they remain basically remain; vast, often ghostly, worthless.

The mapping of such differences will increase our understanding of the fundamental and local differences in possiblities connected with organising of space, (and might facilitate communication between surrealist activities in different places).

The surrealist perspective

Surrealist interventions both theoretical and practical in the area of urban investigations are parallelled by those of others. There are tendencies among academics (in cultural geography, sociology, anthropology, economic history, human ecology, etc etc), subacademics (postmodernists, the art world), activists (struggles for "new commons" and against commercial/policiary control, auto-reduction, squattings etc), subactivists (postsituationists, post-live-role-players) and common boyish adventurers ("urban exploring", parkour), which may be more or less identical in single approaches. The surrealist project might be characterised primarily by the concern for the poetic experience and its phenomenology AND the insistence that this poetry is not primarily subjective, "pure" or religious in nature but dynamic and immanent. On the other hand, surrealists insist on the significance of considering circumstances giving rise to poetic phenomena, to acknowledging several concerns (including the psychological, mythological, scientific, utopian, political, historical) and their mutual conditioning. In this case, if anyone need formulae easy to memorise, we could say we insist on the Empirical, Epistemological and Emancipatory concerns of surrealism.

It is necessary empirical in its focus on poetic experience, but also in letting this experience emerge more distinctly by giving the possibly relevant circumstances in a documentary or (as Breton liked to evoke from Freud) clinical way. This documentation and curiosity for paraphernalia will allow for many new connections and spontaneous criticisms as well as for letting anecdotes take part in larger patterns, unlike those accounts which immediately - spontaneously or laboriously - transforms concrete experience into intoxicated fairytales.

Surrealist perspective is fundamentally directed towards producing new knowledge, not seeking to merely confirm preconceived views. It adresses the unknown in a manner which trusts its productivity, and does not treat it religiously as if it was something fragile. Systematically, ludically and/or intuitively it raises new questions, devises new methods and introduces experimental alterations. It could not be satisfied by our own emotional responses themselves, savouring ambiances like the kick-seeking youth or the sensible dandy flaneur, or by quasitheoretical efforts making up names for phenomena without defining them by any other criteria than this emotional response, or the arbitrary applicability of abstract opposites (such as in the art sphere, the new age sphere, popular psychology, poor structuralism etc). It could also not be satisfied by the repetitive formulation of fundamental questions, as typical for postmodernism, conceptual art in general, and most of contemporary so-called political art, which claimes to critise things by merely thematising them, and repeating the very same questions over and over again. They stop short of ever devising a methodology for actually investigating the thing. This particular antimethodological stance of always formulating questions in an "eternal", unanswerable way is one of the many obvious strategies of pure obscurantism within those dominant sectors of art which are unable to adress the unknown in a more substantial, creative, actually exploratory way.

In fact, the atopos theory as naïvely conceived could be formulated in scientific terms as resting on the assumption that there is a negative correlation between the economic productivity and the poetic productivity of a place. And as this is empirically testable it is not just an assumption but a hypothesis, even if its rigorous testing is not among surrealism's first concerns. It does relate back to something fundamental within the concept of the poetic. However, we are not so sure that this hypothesis is very useful. Instead of that correlation we are inclined to suggest a tentative positive one: Poetic productivity will, on a statistical level, be postiively correlated with local steep gradients in economic productivity. Along these slopes come tumbling, and accumulating, not only various discarded objects (mostly all kinds of garbage but also antiquities and utilitarian objects detached from context) as well as perspecuted persons, plants and animals, and repressed behaviors, stories and contradictions. The friction in such movements will create sparks illuminating the atmosphere of possibilities concentrated at such sites.

Finally, the surrealist perspective is based within the demarcation line introduced in Marx's famous eleventh Feuerbach thesis, interpreting the world with the overall objective of transforming it. This is both in immediate terms, planting seeds of radicalising social exhange with such a place as a nexus, and communicating-challenging individual poetic experience with ludic means, and in the long term, as one area of investigation and intervention among many pointing towards future realisation of generalised poetry in radically changed and self-governed social circumstances.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice brief and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you on your information.