Initial Thinking on City Organology

For this week’s required blog post, I am uploading my first thinking around a number of quotes from Yuk Hui’s Recursivity and Contingency. The general thought I am exploring is around the idea of the city as a living thing, a superorgansim or a superorgan, something that does act in the interest of itself independent of the conscious agents that comprise it.

Yuk Hui Recursivity and contingency p 177:

“by reducing technical objects to their schemes, one returns to idealism and unconsciously denies materialism. The created is never equal to the scheme that created it, nor is it equal to the elan vital that runs through the process of creation.”

The made thing is not the idea of its creation, nor is it the spirit of its own creation.

For a city, a planned city, the outcome is not the plan, its material existence isn’t its planning. But perhaps a city is beyond its materialism and is never created but is merely the expression of its own elan vital, self-creating, self-perpetuating through its own existence.

The eponymous High-Rise in JG Ballard’s novel acts this way. The building is created by Royal to be the epitome of modern day enmeshing of style and function. From the layout of the elevators and the parking down to the coffee pots and tableware (There is a quote when Royal is reflecting to add here). Similarly the guests move to the High-Rise for these temporal-spatial reasons of convenience and function carried by the elegance of its designs. In other words, for the technical object of the building and the morality of modern upper-middle class life it implies e.g. of smug, quiet respectability. Yet the techne of the building begins to fail, even before the story starts. The planned city (we shall take this metaphor) denies its own materiality, which includes its inhabitants and the implication of time that comes with them. The facilities are inadequate, inaccessible or suffer enclosure by the stratified communities within the building. The city that actually exists within the High-Rise is an archipelago of factions competing for resource and, most predominantly, mobility.

The Linear City…

“Tobler’s (1970) law states “… everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things …”

“The uniform distribution of population is transformed to one where population (and its density for each unit has the same area) is proportional to the accessibility of each location.”

“Linear cities usually have one central seed site and although historically, cities tend to only have one core, since the industrial revolution as cities began to grow and new technologies enable rapid movement to distant places, a degree of polycentricity has emerged.”

The city I’m referring to isn’t the architecture, nor is it its people, or even the both together. It is something more akin to a holobiont such as coral. It is the psychosocial mass (?), its active agents (the people, the communities, the elevators, the supermarkets), and its ossified architecture (The stairs, the parking, the floor structure).

The activity and importance of the elevators is a central motif through the story. The metaphorical imagery of the lifts as social mobility, with the violence enacted on the lower floors (classes) through the vandalism of the elevators is clear, as is the presence of the express elevator that goes straight to the 35th floor, being that of the inherited wealth of the upper classes or the inbuilt structures to divide the same. (Royal uses this to buy the petite bourgeois and balkanize the middle floors)

The Linear City…

“populations are assumed to interact regardless of how distant they are from one another, even though the hyperloop technology in Neom would still embody a friction of distance. The implication is that the interaction potential is the same from any cell to any other, that is, that the notional distance 𝑑𝑥𝑛𝑥𝑚 is constant or even zero. Thus Tobler’s (1970) Law does not apply. This almost smacks of teleportation, but in essence, the notion that people will travel in the way assumed is an extreme fiction, and if any such city were to be built, it would soon begin to unravel and collapse to the sort of urban forms that characterise cities that evolve from the bottom up, in fact, as most cities do”

“The problem with specifying a linear city in the way proposed is that there is no sense in which the city is in equilibrium.”

Royal represents the new aristocracy, a subset of jobs and their shared cultural practices (tennis), given power through capital (new money), which is then exploited to cement their position of superiority. Literally. They represent the Capitalist Realist sentiment that all things are the domain of capital, and that social superiority is a matter of location of, and proximity to, capital. (Wilder and his wife move up in the building, the virtuousness inherent through all classes that the upper floors are more desirable). The architecture of the High-Rise is the enactment of this principle. The common culture held by the upper classes leads to the total colonization of amenities such as the swimming pools. The hostility of the high-rise towards children is also an expression of the Capitalist Realist city’s attitude towards the vulnerable. Further outlined in the hypocrisy that Royal himself is disabled due to his accident. The affordances for all that are promised by the state, are privatized by the wealthy and any service that can’t be is violated. The PR of maintenance remains in the caretakers assistants who sit at the front desk seemingly oblivious to the ruin into which the High-Rise is falling, as the caretaker himself suffers complete mental collapse. This renders itself back on the upper classes when Royal realises the phone line to his apartment is cut, self-sabotage by his wife, but sees only peace in the quiet, safe knowing they are in their right place even if they have no food. The city itself is not a producer of food, the upper classes are further removed than any other, relying on the restaurant’s dwindled lunch service, and it is always taken as a given that they can leave, even when they find themselves incapable of abandoning that which gives them power. The respectability of the upper-classes here is what Lacan refers to as the Big Other, the aspect that which cannot be allowed to acknowledge the actual experiential reality of the social field. The upper classes in high rise live in comfortable squalor with no superior to blame it on, and only the defence of this territory from the lower-classes to bind them together. (Such as with Wilder’s attempt to scale the building).

The building isn’t a financial object though. The inhabitants do not buy into it with only their money, it is the morality in the architecture that they are purchasing. They each are part owners of the building. None of the characters discuss leaving as a financial sunk cost, in fact the gynecologist moves in well after the trouble starts, in order to be able to purchase social function within the building’s stratos. The inhabitants invest their psychologies, and their time into the building. It is the creation of their own narratives within the space that provides the value. There is a virtual life within the building they are each living. As Royal’s assessment of Lang goes, whilst Lang believes himself detached, he is perhaps the High-Rise’s most perfect inhabitant. They are the class of the willfully disaffected, disinterested and hedonistically aberrant. The atomised individual. No desire for privacy, in love with surveillance and the meta-data capture of themselves. Much like the students Fisher complains about who are post-lexical, there is a post-sociality implied in the tenants of the high-rise.

It goes through the collapse mentioned in the essay on linear cities and then its archipelago starts to form as the  inhabitants build out of it the city of their desires rather than the city of their dreams.

There’s also a note about the ghost-acreage of cities. Much like its use in talking about farmlands in Monbiot’s Regenesis, I think this idea can be applied to cities. There is more to the reality than the architecture of the defined boundary space. The ghost-acres that are required to support the functioning of the city are also missing in High-Rise. Lang barely cares about his life outside the building. Wilder brings his outside life into the building. Royal’s life was supposed to move on from the building into the city proper upon its completion but he is too integral to its existence and vice versa.

Yuk Hui Recursivity and contingency  P147:

Hui is talking about the sentiment that as machines begin to further display higher performance in thinking functions (e.g. Alpha Go), there is a tendency to invoke a schism between the machinic and the organism, and proclaim the impending supremacy of the former over the previously dominant latter. Through the comingling of these, we call cybernetics, Hui asks us to engage with the method of machinic interaction with the world (the algorithm) as simply  that, rather than considering the algorithm as the thing itself. The algorithm is the canal (something that exists within a landscape but is an intentional, not incidental, intervention within it for the purpose of transport) through which an accreted knowledge is enacted (activated/ passed/ engaged with/built upon/reorganised/interpreted/decoded). (There is a discussion to be had here about intentionality)

I want to argue that this cybernetic relationship applies not only to the constructs with which we employ algorithms, but also to the superstructures we live in. Or to reverse that and suggest we coexist with the spaces we inhabit, acting with, in the service to, or as recipients of the city functions.

“It is not productive to claim that mechanism will not surpass the organism, since what we are witnessing today is the very beginning of this tendency enabled by cybernetics. One cannot easily dismiss such a possibility, however; the key question will be how to find a strategy of coexistence. Algorithms – that which is fundamental to machines – should be appropriated as a function of the organism, and serve the spirit to achieve higher aims beyond the utility of the machine, thereby freeing the machine from predetermined rules and functions.”

The city is not merely mechanistic but is itself a cybernetic organ we have carried for millennia. The desires of the city organ, we view as being the cultural productivity of the city, be that financial, production of goods, art, knowledge. These are the outcomes of the fundamental loops of socialised cultures that see themselves calcified into the architecture of urban spaces.

Contrast this with Disneyland. Can Disneyland be seen to be only its materialism since its non-material faculties are still “Vectorized” as part of the curated experience? In this way Disneyland would be the technical object that differs from the city.

Categories: UncategorizedTags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s