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New Lines Of Thought For Radical Spatial Practices

— Lietje Bauwens, Wouter De Raeve and Alice Haddad (October 2016)

Many radical approaches seek in the act of opposition an activist means to achieve uncompromised resistance. Their call for alternatives remains deeply affected by the traumas left by the grand ideologies of the past century. However, the turmoil of confronting increasingly invisible dogmas tends to push such attitudes towards melancholic retreat and conformism. In an effort to reject neoliberal hegemony, supporters of horizontal processes, local action, direct democracy, and the like, tend to seclude themselves towards the margins. By refusing to speak the language of those they are fighting, a strong strategic model appears to be lacking to overthrow their enemy. This is not to say that locality or horizontality is worthless, but as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams point out, it seems that “in attempting to reduce large-scale systemic problems to a more manageable sphere of the local community, it effectively denies the systemically interconnected nature of today’s world.”1

When it comes to urban politics, resistance against authority has been directed towards local and direct actions, and horizontal, transparent and participatory practices. Examples are countless, from the occupation of vacant buildings, the construction of D.I.Y. shelters, to local urban farming initiatives and citizens committees. Some have proven effective in advancing social cohesion in urban neighbourhoods or modifying legal norms in favour of inhabitants and fragile minorities; however, ever since these well-intentioned practices got incremented in the 1960’-70’, their radicality and political potential has decreased, and their actions have been absorbed by the system they sought to resist. Hence, what is left for spatial practices to effectively challenge the prevailing hegemony? What role can spatial practitioners endorse to speculate on future possibilities?

Over the past decades, progressive practices have emerged that question cultural, political and social realities through a seemingly ambiguous approach. Instead of resisting through sole opposition, they rather choose to decode, hijack and cannibalize established normative systems in order to propose and speculate on new possibilities. Perhaps it is high time for a xeno-architecture to match recognizes a common trend in such practices, and, seeks to catalyse on-going reflections emerging in both theory and practice.

This essay is a first attempt to examine recent philosophical discourses in which we see strong affinities with the discursive seeds sprouting within the practical realm. Without just yet elaborating on specific practices, we feel the necessity to delve head first in the more abstract matter, convinced that what the following theories share with these practices is an acute and provocative criticism of today’s societal evolutions. Eventually, both fields of investigation form a mutual source of inspiration and a common ground to further push experimentations.

Accelerationism, Xenofeminism, and the underlying theories Speculative Realism and Prometheanism all expose a similar critique of folk politics and its mistrust in progress and speculation. But instead of merely critiquing, they propose a constructive attitude, which entails a search for a new radicalism that does not emphasize “opposing” but dares to infiltrate existing power structures. “Accelerationism is a political heresy: the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, or critique, nor to await its demise at the hands of its own contradictions, but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.” How can you really “understand” (power) structures, instead of turning your back on them? In what way can you deform, reappropriate, or cannibalize them? How do you engage with actors or structures that you intuitively oppose and decry? In what way can such interaction truly have an activist nature? How do you open up the debate? Xenofeminism displays how the space in which Accelerationists tactically play surpasses our current imagination. Patricia Reed further demonstrates how we can transcend our current modes of thinking when she argues in favour of the constructive value of a “foreign tongue,” which Markus Miessen consequently transforms into an “architecture of knowledge.”

The abovementioned authors and literature inspire us to hijack these political and feminist theories and to inject them into the realm of spatial practice. While such theories are already (widely) acknowledged in philosophy and the arts, we urge architecture to follow this path. Armen Avanessian highlights this line of thought in the introduction to Markus Miessen’s most recent publication “Perhaps it is high time for a xeno-architecture to match”—hence the title of this project.

New lines of thought

Since Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek published their seminal manifesto #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics in 2013, the term “Accelerationism” has become widely adopted by a group of theorists who, by reviving Prometheanism and rationalism, acknowledge that “the increasing immanence of the social and technical is irreversible and indeed desirable, and a commitment to developing new understandings of the complexity it brings to contemporary politics.” In their manifesto, Williams and Srnicek argue that capitalism is often connected to the idea of acceleration, but in reality however they state: “We might be moving fast, but only within a strictly defined set of capitalist parameters that themselves never waver.” Steven Shaviro clarifies: “The highest values of our society—as preached in business schools—are novelty, innovation, and creativity. And yet these always only result in more of the same.” The material platform of neoliberalism does not need to be entirely destroyed but, on the contrary, reshaped for the common good and used in a more effective manner; “The existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard towards post-capitalism.” In order to reach this point it is important not to rely on the comfort of (direct) radicalism; the only criteria which defines the most successful strategy is the success it generates. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s famous quote from Anti-Oedipus—“not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’”—Williams and Srnicek call for a tactic of acceleration: “What accelerationism pushes towards is a future that is more modern—an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate.”

However, Perhaps it is high time for a xeno-architecture to match aims to transcend the notion of accelerating existing (power) structures and (technological) developments in order to destroy capitalism, and is interested in the uncharted zone(s) which arise when the dichotomy between two options (opposition vs. reshaping / horizontality vs. verticality / reality vs. fiction) can be left behind and evolve into countless combinations, opportunities, and new constructions.

Accelerationism is often criticized as being a nihilistic call to mindlessly escalate technological developments. Progressive accelerationism should, however, be distinguished from “blind speeding,” as Armen Avanessian demonstrates: “The German term Akzeleration even differs from Beschleunigung, which merely means increase of speed; Akzeleration implies the recursive introduction of a difference into a movement that would otherwise remain circular.” In the closing chapter of #Accelerate#: The Accelerationist Reader, Patricia Reed expresses her dissatisfaction with the ambiguous injunction to “accelerate,” which serves merely to popularize and polemicize the movement. She offers seven alternative prescriptions which are more in line with our search for a “xeno-architecture”: reorientate (“directing existing energies in (as yet) inexistent directions”), eccentricate (“the creation of new coordination through which the fallibility or contingency of existing normative points are demonstrated” [525]), speculate (“to articulate and enable the contingencies of the given” [527]), fictionalize (“speculative possibility is effectuated through a fiction that maps vectors of the future upon the present” [529]), geometricize (“if humans are to have a chance in the post-anthropocene, we need cognitive and affective openings to be perceptually engineered” [531]), commonize (quoting Maurizio Lazzarato: “co-operations between minds” [543]), and abstractify (“separation from ‘what is’ towards ‘what could be’ [546]).

Williams and Srnicek already gestured in this direction in describing an accelerationist politics as “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality and technology” (354) and pleading for a future that needs to be unbound, “upfastening our horizons towards the universal possibilities of the Outside.”(362)

Xenofeminism originated from Laboria Cuboniks’s manifesto “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”: it picks up the thread by proposing a theory that is entirely focused on “the other,” “the alien,” “xeno.” We are all “alienated” but, instead of resisting, we should embrace and co-opt it, hence “liberating ourselves from ourselves.” “The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation.” An alienation from norms that have become naturalized as the truth, toward a construction of new plastic (i.e., subject to reinvention) norms that operate as a collective horizon.
“We can’t simply advocate for a politics celebrating the margin anymore, we require a thinking and pragmatics at a scale of the so-called ‘total.’” Xeno-politics reappropriates the concept of “universalism,” arguing that its misuse over the years (the “false” notion of universalism entails a top-down plan from a Western white male’s perspective) should not narrow down the only possible response to an emphasis on “particularism.” “For this universal to live up to its name means not to do away with the important work that’s been done on particularisms, but instead turn our focus to the engineering of a kind of abstract “glue,” in order to plot out coherent relations between particularities.” 

As a collective, Laboria Cuboniks works between horizontal and vertical modes of collaboration, moving between diffuse and top-down editorial authoring. A xeno-politics in miniature, in search for a functional concept of a bottom-up universality that includes the ability to move back and forth between local and global scales.

In line with Accelerationism, Xenofeminism does not nostalgically oppose and dispute, but rather acknowledges the inherently connected technological evolutions and existing power structures. Technological progress does not by definition enable social progress. When in the wrong hands, it can be the author of enormous inequality. “Xenofeminism seeks to strategically deploy existing technologies to re-engineer the world.” Xenofeminism presents itself as a new attitude and a new language, rather than merely a feminist theory: “The logic of Xenofeminism is a transformation of seeping, directed subsumption rather than rapid overthrow; it is a transformation of deliberate construction.” The manifesto transcends merely “constructive” thinking by evolving from description toward prescription. A critical analysis still holds onto shared categories, points of view, and a communal language in which our experiences form the foundation for the building of a future. Xenofeminism dares to take a leap and reaches out, strongly inspired by the “time-complex” of Speculative Realism, in search of new assets that are not obvious variations on the familiar but rather unveiled and engineered abductive speculations. In line with Felix Guattari’s “animism”—a characteristic of anyone who enters the modality of passion, artistic creation or madness, achieved through neurotic phenomena, religious rituals of aesthetic phenomena; a state of estrangement within the self and a sense of community outside of the self—Xenofeminism celebrates artifice and strangeness as the foundation of revolutionary politics to come.

In Constructing Assemblies for Alienation, Patricia Reed continues to construct new stories, or even ideologies, making way for a speculative space. She starts her essay with a question that is vital to our inquiry asking why so many brave assemblies do not succeed in proposing long-term and future-oriented strategies. What the activists agitate against is crystal clear; what is missing however are “operative procedures and apparatuses that can conceptualize what is desired as a shared future, coupled with the spatial formalization of that very desire.”

In times of “organized disorientation” (referring to Alain Badiou) what is needed is a reorientation that turns away from “what is” toward “what could be.” “What could be is not something to be unveiled, but a project of vast collaborative construction, engineering an alternative future emancipated from certain impasses that define our time. . . . We need a new cartography for this speculative, inexistent territory if we are to attain a sense of orientation, and affirm other ideological horizons to incline us in logical and pragmatic cultures of assembly.” Reed emphasizes the necessity of “hyperstitional qualities,” fictions that create conditions which lead to the emergence of their own reality. “Imagination marks a moment of fertile alienation—the wilful construction of alienation that separates us from what is towards the foreignness of what could be.” In order to reach this point, in order to create such a “could be,” a (belief in a) new ideology is vital—“It’s our pressing labour to construct a foreign tongue to articulate desired estrangement.”

In Markus Miessen’s latest book, Crossbenching: Toward a Proactive Mode of Participation as Critical Spatial Practice, he argues for an “architecture of knowledge.” Critical Spatial Practice (CSP) critically questions existing practices and protocols and investigates how these can be proactively cannibalized, developed, transformed, or updated. The “spatial” in CSP covers more than just what should happen in a specific space. Miessen refers to the British philosopher Suhail Malik who makes a case for research-as-practice: “The research process opens up a space to articulate something that has not been articulated previously.” The spatial practitioner differs from an artist in that taking responsibility is necessary in order not to fall into the trap of noncommittal participatory and horizontal projects. Miessen acknowledges the fact that architects in general often have to produce what the market demands from them—i.e., the client is in power. “CSP is interested in the condition of something; to alter the condition(s) that one might encounter in the everyday. Subtraction (deduction) & revision.” Miessen argues that all parties have to learn to “demand more,” not only the architect (like artists, protecting their own integrity and fighting for their own ideas and initiatives) but also the client, who, instead of merely being interested in the aesthetics of what is built, should really take into account future responsibilities. One could say that Miessen stirs up the relationship between employee and employer, between client and architect, to avoid obvious consensus and create a heated debate between two well-informed and decisive “business-partners.” This idea of collaboration is based on Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy. “While the term collaboration has a historical connotation, meaning collaborating with the enemy in times of war or conflict, it needs to be read and understood as a temporary joint effort with an opponent in order to overcome a complex situation.” Collaboration differs from participation since one cooperates with the unknown and the unfamiliar, rather than conforming with politically correct and socially accepted collaborators and options. Whenever two “opponents,” such as an architect and his client, dare to reach out toward creativity and put their demands on the table, without taking into account the barriers of reality—such as the speculative imagination of Reed—such conflict enables an outcome that could never have emerged from consensus.

Miessen joins Accelerationism and Xenofeminism by arguing that to actually achieve something in the spatial field, you should not dismiss what you oppose but attempt to engage in conversation. “Within this definition of critical spatial practice there should be a productive schizo-break.” To immerse and go along within verticality, to make sure you are capable of speaking the same language, and at the same time carefully guarding a critical attitude towards your own position. “To enable & disable at the same time.”

Xeno-architecture?
An underestimated “danger” for the “crossbencher”—as Markus Miessen denominated his Critical Spatial Practitioner—is to lose his or her critical attitude, to be swallowed up by the very power structures that he or she is trying to change. “They constantly run the risk of being swallowed up and incorporated in the very systems against which they are reacting.” The schizophrenic balance between “enabling” and “disabling” is extremely fragile.

In their critique on “the ideological delusion of the artist,” architect-philosophers Gideon Boie and Matthias Pauwels discuss this matter. “The question should be raised whether cultural actors, under the guise of pragmatism, aren’t fooling themselves with ‘the ultimate contemporary ideological trap.’ That is to say the belief by which some modest interventions and reforms within the existing economic and power structures can solve all problems.” Boie and Pauwels characterize such pragmatic artists as being anti-ideological, undogmatic, lacking any belief in progress, proclaiming, “Be realistic, do the possible.”

By discarding and depriving themselves of “great stories,” and limiting themselves within the borders of reality, the artists that are criticized by Boie and Pauwels indeed lack a strong discourse to defend themselves from being swallowed up by those they are trying to oppose. In Perhaps it is high time for a xeno-architecture to match we want to investigate whether “a pragmatism that does believe in the impossible” is capable of resisting the existing power structures, and backed by the theoretical developments mentioned which were not yet part of the debate when Boie and Pauwels developed their thesis. “It is important to understand that the process of being ‘swallowed up’ or being incorporated should not be a hindrance to one’s practice, but rather that the crossbencher is interested in the strategic planting of what one might call ‘discursive seeds.’”

Markus Miessen’s text shows how acknowledging and taking responsibility is an essential aspect of “Critical Spatial Practice.” While hyperstition claims to exceed and transform the borders of imagination, Miessen reminds us that this cannot be a call for the spatial practitioner to start an open and non-committal fantasy-brainstorm. Xenofeminism also emphasizes this concern: “Open, however, does not mean undirected. The most durable systems in the world owe their stability to the way they train order to emerge as an ‘invisible hand.’” But is it even possible for a “no one in particular,” as Xenofeminism calls the alienated subject without an essence or origin, to give direction or take responsibility? How does this relate to Miessen’s concept of the crossbencher? Besides the need for “enabling” and “disabling” to converge, another challenge is found in developing an architecture that is able to “match” hyperstitional xeno-thoughts in a responsible manner.

Perhaps it is high time for a xeno-architecture to match is an attempt to investigate whether it is possible to re-radicalize spatial practice, to make it once again subversive and above all political. Does the line of thought(s) referred to above allow us to abandon the obvious and to dive into the unknown? Do we gradually possess the necessary intellectual tools to engage with unorthodox ideas? And by doing so, can we take a step forward within the societal and spatial debate?

FOOTNOTES

  1.  (Inventing the future, p. 40)
  2.  “Despair seems to be the dominant sentiment of the contemporary Left. . . . It fails to offer an alternative, except in the form of counterfactual histories and all-too-local interventions into a decentred, globally-integrated system that is at best indifferent to them. The general reasoning is that if modernity=progress=capitalism=acceleration, then the only possible resistance amounts to deceleration.” Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, introduction to #Accelerate# (Berlin, 2014), 5.“The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s ‘radical’ Left set the stage for ineffectiveness.” Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” in ibid., 358.
  3.  “The malady of melancholia only compounds political inertia, and relinquishes all hope of calibrating the world otherwise.” Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation,” http://www.laboriacuboniks.net
  4.  “To abandon the future mans to relinquish the intellectual project of Enlightenment. . . . This anti-modernism—and the critique of Enlightenment—has also had many advocates on the Left throughout the twentieth century. They have insisted that the best we can hope for, via a radical scaling-down of political and cognitive ambition, is to achieve small-scale rectifications of universal injustice by establishing local, temporally fleeting enclaves of civil justice. . . . The best we can hope for, apparently, is to create local enclaves of equality and justice. But the idea of remaking the world according to the ideals of equality and justice is routinely denounced as a dangerous totalitarian fantasy.” Ray Brassier, “Prometheanism and its Critics,” in #Accelerate (see n. 3), 469.
  5.  Mackay and Avanessian, introduction to #Accelerate# (see n. 2), 4.
  6.  Armen Avanessian, preface to Crossbenching: Toward Participation as Critical Spatial Practice by Markus Miessen (Berlin, 2016), 16.
  7.  Mackay, R. + Avanessian, A. – Introduction. In #Accelerate, p. 7
  8.  Williams, + Srnicek – #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelationist Politics, in #Accelerate, p. 352, 2013
  9.  Steven Shaviro, No Speed Limit: Three Essays on Accelerationism (Minneapolis, 2015), 10.
  10.  Williams, + Srnicek – #Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelationist Politics, in #Accelerate, p. 355
  11.  Deleuze and Guattari, “The Civilized Capitalist Machine,” in #Accelerate# (see n. 2), 162.
  12.  Williams and Srnicek, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” in #Accelerate# (see n. 2), 362.
  13.  Armen Avanessian and Anke Hennig, “Who’s Afraid of (Left) Hyperstitions” (unpublished manuscript).
  14.  Patricia Reed, “Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism,” in #Accelerate# (see n. 2), 524.
  15.  Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism” (see n. 4), 1.
  16.  Rosemary Heather, “The Next Universal: An Interview with Laboria Cuboniks,” accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.kunsthallewien.at/#/blog/2015/12/next-universal-interview-laboria-cuboniks
  17.  Ibid.
  18.  Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation Laboria Cuboniks Zero, 0x02, consulted October 20, 2016, http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/#zero/2
  19. Ibid., 0x19, consulted October 20, 2016, http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/#overflow/2
  20.  Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington, 1995), 101.
  21.  Patricia Reed, “Constructing Assemblies for Alienation,” Mould Issue #1, ed. Markus Miessen (Milan, 2014), 3.
  22.  Ibid., 5.
  23.  “The word hyperstition is a conflation of hype and superstition. Hypersitions are fictions that cause the conditions that subsequently make them become real. They use hype—the fast circulation of ideas—and have actual outcomes by accelerating the differences that occur in reproductive cycles. . . . Superstitions are merely false beliefs, but hypersitions – by their very existence as ideas – function causally to bring about their own reality.” Avanessian and Hennig, “Who’s Afraid of (Left) Hyperstitions?” (see n. 17), 1.
  24.  Reed, “Constructing Assemblies” (see n. 23), 6.
  25. Ibid., 8.
  26.  Miessen, Crossbenching (see n. 10). 58.
  27.  Ibid., 45
  28.  Ibid., 63
  29.  Miessen, Crossbenching (see n. 10), 90.
  30.  Ibid., 61.
  31.  Maria Lind, “The Collaborative Turn,” in Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices, ed. Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson (London, 2007), 16.
  32.  BAVO, Too Active to Act: Cultureel activisme na het einde van de geschiedenis (Amsterdam, 2010), 47.
  33.  Refering to the hippie-slogan “Be realistic, do the impossible.” 
  34.  Miessen, Crossbenching (see n. 10), 83.
  35.  Laboria Cuboniks, “Xenofeminism” (see n. 4).