jueves, 7 de agosto de 2014

Undead Places. Diasporas & the empty spaces of capitalism

A spectre is hunting Europe... the spectre of decrease 

One of the great lessons that urban planners and analysts can learn from the study of diasporas, is the way in which migrations have a two-fold effect upon the human habitat: population growth in places of reception, and decrease in the original hometowns of the migrants. But the possibility of decreasing has historically been neglected in the science of urban planning, due to the cultural and historical determinations that gave rise to Modern urbanism. Urban science and architectural theory of the last century have considered the city essentially an expansive structure, in perpetual growth: modern urbanism was born in parallel to the rise of the industrial revolution, a historical period characterized by strong demographic growth, which led urban studies to tackle more thoroughly the outcome of expansive developments than that of decrease. It was so, that when the frantic urban expansion in certain areas of Asia or Africa superseded the growth of Western cities, many American and European architectural stars moved to countries such as China or Nigeria as the most exciting hotspots for contemporary urbanism. The most influential architectural theoretician of the last decades, Rem Koolhaas, even said that Europe has ceased to be interesting, because it has stopped growing.
(Images from Detroiturbex.com)

This almost exclusive concern for what that "grows and expands" as compared to what "decreases and shrinks" affects many other disciplines of the Human Sciences: the 20th century gave rise to the blossoming of certain vitalistic metaphysics, as a derivation of the modernist logic according to which history is equivalent to infinite progress. Our contemporary economic structure, direct heiress of the industrial epic of expansionism, is based on the axiom that prosperity necessitates the never-ending quantitative increase of production, of consumption, the movement of capital, the volume of economic and financial transactions, , etc. in such a way that almost all cultural records  during Postmodernity are formally inflationary, following the logic of the Olympic motto "citius, altius, fortius". However, the last decade has demonstrated that infinite growth is non-viable in the medium and long term in a world of limited resources: Degrowth is becoming a critical political matter, given that in many respects our culture is still anchored in the dogmas and concepts inherited from the industrial period of growth. Perhaps, we should incorporate into our ontological research figures neglected until now such as stagnation, decrease or dullness, and ask ourselves for the potential they may provide to solve the challenges of the future city. The population pyramid in Europe and many other countries shows that the generational replacement is not guaranteed, which represents a serious threat to our economic system, whose inflationary nature requires always more population, more production, more consumption. There are certain lessons to learn from those areas that have already experienced processes of decline, since they provide us with useful experimental information likely to be operative for general urban studies of the future.

Among all the parameters that affect the decadent places (economic, political, ideological, cultural, etc.) in this case we shall talk about the condition of place, or 'Placeness'. The most usual conception of place in the architectural theory of modernity has paid particular attention to the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger, and especially through the thoughts of Gaston Bachelar. For both of them, the condition of place is ontologically indiscernible from the being of Dasein: existence and experience are concomitant to a specific spatio-temporal location. Human space can not be analyzed as an abstract and neutral "vessel" in which the "things at hand" are displayed (a category merely extensive and quantifiable, according to authors such as Descartes or Kant), but spatiality is a condition intrinsic to all Being, and only arises in plenitude through the ontological gesture of Dwelling. The "place" is therefore a relational instance (that involves mutually man and his environment), it´s affective, and results from historical developments embodied in physical occurences. For both Heidegger and Bachelard, the "place" is an intimate space, resulting from the settling of identity, experience and memory in intensive and qualitative terms, and whose ontological structure goes beyond the parameters of the positivist objective science. Place, as embodied memory, is indistinguishable from language, perception, intentionality, identity and care. Other phenomenologists such as Edward Casey will insist on the affective and experiential condition of "placeness", which oppose the neutral objectivity of the "site".

"Placeness" is not therefore a static attribute, but a dynamic process: “becoming place” is the unfolding of personal and collective identities within space, so that we may consider “Place” not as a noun, but as a verb. With this in mind, several authors have speculated on the newly created urban spaces designed for rapid strong demographic expansion, and therefore lacking the memorial attributes of former classical "placeness" .The opposite of the place, is the non-place, as defined by Marc Augé and Melvin M. Weber. Non places are urban environments that lack of the fundamental characteristics of the Place (the historical determination, his involvement with the social identity and functionality as space of relation). That is, the non-place is one devoid of all historicity, and the most remarkable spatiality produced by supermodernity (such as airports, railway infrastructures, shopping malls, urban interchanges, etc..), In them. anonymous citizens can not develop neither real bonds of mutual solidarity with each other, nor a minimum intimate empathy with their habitat. This dystopian and inhumane idea of ​​"no place", will also play a vital role in the intellectual work of Rem Koolhaas through concepts as "junk space" or "generic city", which refer to the same worldwide city of neoliberalism in which "placeness" as affective space has been eradicated. The non-places are the territorial traces of the aforementioned culture of overproduction and perpetual growth: they are the archetypical spatial result of supermodernity in the areas in which it´s been most successful.

However, as noted by Mark Fisher, the effects of capital flows upon the planet's surface are not only felt in the form of presence (as in the case of the non-place) but also by absence. Fisher proposes the economic-geografical category of the "empty space" as an inevitable outcome of the global financial movements: given that the global economy is a "zero sum game", the raise of areas of apparent monetary prosperity inevitably generate other areas of exclusion, or "empty spaces" that offer no interest for investors and are therefore excluded and subjected to processes of decay and obsolescence. But such empty spaces, in contrast to the non-place, are spaces with memory, and phenomenologically they bring out placeness: they have lived past times of prosperity and well-being, but they had to resign them once capital movements have decided to reorient towards other latitudes. Clear examples of these "empty spaces" are rural areas depopulated as a result of the diaspora of its inhabitants to urban environments. The shift from agriculture-based economies to modern societies based on industry, services and knowledge has forced millions of people to leave their hometowns and move to those cities in which the demand for skilled workers is concentrated. The mechanization of work has altered the relationship between the different economic agents (capital, land, technology, workers and businesses...) resulting in a new scenario in which the local tends to be subsumed to the is of the global. National economies specialize according to their network of international trade relations, and the workforce is thereby forced to move its residence to places where it's needed. Population movements are not only significant in developing countries, but also affect those with more consolidated economies. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries millions of migrants from rural areas in Spain, Italy, Ireland or Poland moved to large industrial conurbations promoting demographic diasporas with a two-fold effect: on the one hand the habitat associated with crop and livestock production gets increasingly uninhabited, and on the other urban centres grow deliriously, reinforcing their power as administrative, ideological and financial landmarks. This situation most likely will result in population movements in such a way that the "empty spaces" become subject to very complex identity and cultural processes: beyond their economic features, their “Placeness” is in crisis, and henceforth their decadence can be experienced and becomes the most significant phenomenological trait.   Translating the economic category of “empty space” into a phenomenological and ontological concept, we shall call it “undead place”: while non-places are immersed in a forgetful hyper present that occludes any inheritance from the past, the undead place is one in which the present languishes while the memory is perpetuated in the form of intersubjective Phantasmagoria. And this brings us to Jacques Derrida´s hauntology.

The identity of these decadent spaces is thus subjected to the ghostly remembrance of a past that tends to be idealized, leading us to Jacques Derrida and his concept of Hauntology, presented in his book Specters of Marx, where he acutely proposed the Specter as a key concept to tackle many of the political, economical and cultural dilemmas that remain unsolved after the culmination of the neoliberal globalization. The paradoxical status of the specter, which is neither being nor non-being, portrays an ontological interzone beyond the abilities of the Imaginary and the Symbolic to describe the Real, and thus requires its own logic, a distinctive methodology for its deciphering. Haunthology emerges thereby as the science that deals with the particularities of the Specter, namely, the entity that cannot be fully present and therefore ontologised in customary ways: it has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer and not yet. Open to all sort of metaphorical interpretations, the specter vaguely resonates with the uncanny and phantasmatic figures that inhabit Freud’s notion of the unconscious: its haunting non-presence may tacitly illustrate both silent traumatic events (banned from memory and its representational regime) and the possibility of latent, potentially emancipatory developments. The ghost is essentially problematic, for it exists in an ontological limbo where the trauma is non-living, but resists death and disappearance.

 In his book, Derrida was concerned with the phantasmatic delusions of the End of History and the epistemic aporias of a civilization that got caught between its confidence in never-ending progress, and the alleged impossibility of imagining or anticipating wholly new futures. As Mark Fisher put it, Neoliberalism brings about “the failure of the future”, namely, “the acceptance of a situation in which culture will continue without really changing, and where politics was reduced to the administration of an already established (capitalist) system”. This convoluted situation arises from an unsolved contradiction: the machinery of capitalism is intrinsically inflationary and depends upon perpetual growth –guaranteed by the ever flourishing proliferation of capital-, while its functioning requires the immobility of the political and cultural doctrines at the foundation of the system. The play between the self-preservation of the overall structure and the irrepressible dynamics of capital operates according to the sequence “deterritorialization / reterritorialization” coined by Deleuze and Guattari: in their theory, deterritorialization is a process that decontextualizes any given set of relations and thus creates the possibility for new assemblages to emerge and unfold, eliciting the metaphysical process of creative Becoming. But while many left-wing interpreters have embraced deterritorialization and Becoming as potential instruments for individual liberation and self re-creation, the process it describes dramatically resembles the “Creative destruction” invoked by Joseph Schumpeter as the fundamental duty of capitalism. The coupling of creativity and capital –the modernistic idea of Progress submitted to market arbitration, is sustained by the promise of unlimited prosperity and wealth, animated by the perpetual increase of any measurable parameter: capitalism necessitates the infinite quantitative expansion of its domains, and subsequently its Achilles heel is its reliance on growth. Under the laws of Capital, stagnation equals death. Decrease is subsequently the frightening menace that haunts the capitalist order. The images of Pripyat –the nearest city to Chernobyl- or, to a much lesser extent Detroit, incarnates many of the fears that haunt the hegemonic narratives of the capitalistic megalopolis: while we imagine our future cities as vigorous and flourishing places of prosperity, the empty streets and buildings of Pripyat depict a dystopian scenario of extreme decay, where ecological catastrophes and economic meltdown entail the collapse of an entire society, the conclusion to the History of mankind. While pop culture has been invaded by ghostly visions of fearful futures inhabited by zombies and ghouls, urban studies are now starting to take seriously the problem of urban contraction and decline, inasmuch as diasporas and aging are turning upside down many of the expectations that we used to have about our future. Ghost towns haunt the First world as spooky reminders of the potential failure of the faith in a never-ending growth and the myth of eternal Progress. If in a macroscale the world is haunted by the spectre of decrease, in a microscale the undead place is haunted by the trauma of its longed identity.

Nevertheless, most of the “empty spaces” of capitalism (that we referred to phenomenologically as undead places) do not remain completely abandoned. In fact, rural areas all over Europe are still dwelled by those who decided not to take part of the diaspora and stay at their home towns. Since 2010 more than half of the world population lives in urban areas, even in countries where 90% of the dwellers formerly inhabited rural places. So again: how do we manage these empty spaces? Small villages and scarcely inhabited areas that resist total collapse are the most explicit expression of the processes of decadence that the western urbanism is facing, in whose horizon arises the menace of economic decrease, demographic decay and aging, cultural obsolescence and a dramatic lack of alternatives for the future. In contrast to the radical downfall of the ghost towns, rural areas with diminishing population are more complex places, insofar as their total de-humanization has not been accomplished yet, and in fact it may never will.  Shrinking villages lose population very slowly, as the elders die with no possible generational turnover, resisting their complete disappearance but lacking the energies that would guarantee the continuity of the community: most often they rest as spectral, threatening remainders of the finitude of every society, as well as the latency of possible, virtual futures. In our post-romantic cultural milieu, they embody contradictory aesthetic, political and economic values: these undead places are located in the interlude that mediates between death and rebirth. The architectural item that better expresses their essence is not the ruin, but the closed house, the empty home: buildings that remain disused like dormant mansions waiting to be occupied again, resisting death buy unable to recover life in plenitude. 

In order to systematically tackle the features of the “undead place” as a useful analytical category, I´ll propose three parameters that define it:

1. Demography: High rates of aged population. As young people move away –either from rural to urban areas, or from decadent towns to prosperous cities- only the elders remain at their hometown, resulting in declining birth rates and lack of the most dynamic and creative sectors of the labour force.

2. Economy and employment: Large rates of retired workers and unemployment, and economies highly dependant on public subsidies, with no significant inversions from the private sector. Most businesses are small companies, the agricultural sector survives in a rudimentary and informal way, fundamentally orientated to self-consumption.

3. Architecture: Physical decay of facilities and infrastructures, as well as the continuity between inhabited and empty buildings. The landscape juxtaposes closed houses, ruins or relinquished plots with the houses still occupied by their original dwellers.

However, perhaps the most significant characteristics of the undead places are the ideological, cultural or epistemic processes they imply, involving not only the actual residents but also those who left the scene. In fact, most of the representations and expectations about the contemporary rural world have been produced by urbanites, according to their prejudices and assumptions. Different specters haunt the identity of these locations, which on the one hand follow their own everyday logic maintained by the present inhabitants, but on the other are due to the expectations of those who migrated, but aim to return one day. Emigrants tend to idealize their hometown as arcadias connoted by bucolic and pastoral reveries, so that the undead place becomes the Monument of their personal and collective identity. Quite often these areas are filled with tourists during holidays –usually migrants themselves, temporarily returning to the site to meet again their relatives and feel the qualities of a place that they experience as the ancestral home that embodies their communal identity. In this regard, rural ghostly areas are subjected to the menace of gentrification, often associated with strictly urban developments. In order to recover some potential economic productivity in areas where the primary sector is no longer profitable, tourism is presented as the only option available to satisfy all the agents involved: the remaining natives, the migrants and the casual tourist have in many cases stimulated the so-called “greenification”, that seems to give the undead place a second life by overplaying the picturesque, anachronistic prejudices associated to country life. Oftentimes, those who have not migrated can feel homesick at home.

Ghostly rural areas remain as spaces of potentiality, and capable of bringing about unexpected future developments. Their virtual status between nature and nurture, between the specters of the past and the hopes for the future, between quasi-death and second life, provides them with the possibility of presenting innovative solutions for many of the menaces that haunt also the urban areas of the western world: depopulation, economic decay, environmental collapse, lack of historical identity and a necessary new ethical relation to our environment dealing with technology, ecology and social relations.
Perhaps in the near future we´ll assist to some renaissance of the currently undead rural areas, beyond the simplistic option of greenification. Clean industries, ecological agriculture, networking or cultural enterprises may set the basis for new modes of ruralism. But any possible development requires restocking demography, through policies that encourage new dwellers to move into the countryside again. The twentieth century saw the diaspora from rural to urban spaces, but paradoxically for the next decades we may see the reversal movement, inasmuch as modern economies are less dependant on the physical concentration of workers, and a generation of environmentally-conscious citizens may choose to recover these quasi-abandoned territories. Undead places are much more than mere corpses, and their so far minimum vital signs embody the latency of unforeseeable eventualities. But the future not only depends on politics and economics: it´s crucial to update our expectations and prejudices about what the rural is or could be. Identity, self-representations, memory and social engagement play an essential role in the challenge of giving ghostly, decadent areas back to full life.

4 comentarios:

  1. buenas O, qué bien me viene esto para muchos temas! ya sabes que ando con la cuestión de la degradación como potencia, así que, pensando el tema en términos de WWZ... ¿son los undead spaces los humanos enfermos que no son atacados por los zombis? y por lo tanto, ¿se puede inocular una falsa enfermedad para convertir a otros territorios en no deseables para el capital? ¿cuál es el límite de "enfermedad" de un territorio para que ni la greenification pueda infectarlo? es decir, ¿habrá una cantidad o una proporción de medianeras vistas, fachadas sin acabar, solares y casas vacías y otros "feísmos" varios, que conviertan a un territorio en no globalizable? el cuadro que planteas me parece muy oportuno, porque lo que parecía un extremo de esa potencia de la degradación, las ghost towns, en realidad ya vemos que es una vuelta de tuerca que los hace volver a ser "apetecibles", pero en ese punto intermedio en el que aún hay unas mínimas constantes vitales, la inmunidad parece mucho mayor...
    por otra parte, está claro que el decrecimiento necesita narrativas que superen las razones de su necesidad para centrarse en las ampliaciones de libertad que podría suponer, pero, pensando en la "sobriedad" por la que abogan por ejemplo Carlos Taibo o José Mújica, quizás hecho en falta una reflexión sobre la estética que esto implicaría, y ahí aparece el problema que vimos en la ruta por los bares molones: esa estética sí es aceptada en su forma de simulacro-objeto pero no en su forma procesual (http://fusionservizoscreativos.blogspot.com.es/search/label/Conseller%C3%ADa%20de%20Medio%20Ambiente)... y la pregunta consiguiente: ¿esta aceptación es un caballo de Troya de los undead spaces o por el contrario es una captura que tenderá a capitalizar sus potencias?
    seguiremos hablando socio, abrazo!

  2. ... Y justo hoy en la prensa, los undead places como parte del laboratorio-mundo del que hablaba Latour... "La ciencia resucita aldeas" (http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2014/08/08/actualidad/1407488029_639102.html)

    [...] La investigación en esta aldea gallega, enmarcada en el proyecto europeo Symbios, buscará “nichos de negocio” en los que se puedan crear “microempresas” con las que se ganen la vida tanto los que no quieren abandonar el campo como quienes sueñan con regresar a él. [...] “No son proyectos asistencialistas, no somos una ONG. Nosotros no damos nada, lo que hacemos es ayudar a estas personas a modificar su forma de actuar. Son nuestros laboratorios”, explica Agüera. [...]


  3. Very interesting!!.. Genial, genial,.. tanto los conceptos que nos propones pensar,.. como la respuesta de Iago,.. y esa “greenification” zombie.

    Pienso que esos “feismos varios”, efectivamente, como dice Iago, al no poder ser globalizables por el gran capital -o más bien, homogeneizables en términos especulativos-, van dando forma a otra realidad ética y estética -más diversa-.,.. una realidad que supera ese “lugar” de las pantallas, tan simulador, “tranquilizador”, y pontencialmente globalizador, sí,.. pero a los nuevos arquitectos, IMHO, se les empiezan a abrir las puertas -y la imaginación- para trabajar con los detritus de este sistema en descomposición. Un momento fascinante e ilusionante, creo :-)

    PD:.. ¡¡Felicidades!!.. Los dos últimos post son del diez... “cum laude”. Las ilustraciones sublimes y los conceptos muy reveladores -y rebeladores también, por cierto-,.. y como además es día quince, pues... ¡¡Felicidades!!.. again :-)

  4. Hey!,.. he visto un docu "simpático",.. y como a partir del minuto 25.40 hablan "arquitectos",.. pues me he acordado de arquitectura entrelíneas... :-)



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