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Vertical Spatial Practice —The Pre-research

— Wouter De Raeve (November 2015)

In his seminal publication The Roundabout Revolutions, Eyal Weizman claims that

in the political diagram of future revolutions both the roundabout and the round table will be necessary. These twin political apparatuses—the transformative power of the people in the streets and the ‘democratic assemblies’ able to take power—must be geared to one another. The round tables could assemble spaces similar to those Hannah Arendt described as the ‘constitutional assemblies’ that emerged in the wake of the American Revolution. They produced the social change that the revolution enabled. To be translated into political power, the immanent power of the people at the roundabouts should be complemented by sustained work at round tables.1

This topic lies at the heart of Vertical Spatial Practice. The question it asks is, What means can be used to accelerate the process by which progressive, inclusive, and social visions of society (‘the immanent power of the people at the roundabouts’) find their way into the core of decision-making (Weizman’s ‘round tables’)? There has been a noticeable evolution within the spatial realm as a professional field, manifesting in the notion of a spatial practitioner—be it an architect, urbanist, social worker, educator, academic, individual, or entity—who assumes a key position within these kinds of decision-making processes. The challenge lies, first of all, not in creating such a position—with the right tools we can easily imagine it—but in analysing the attitude that this position entails. Secondly, Vertical Spatial Practice aims to further delineate the attitude that such practice could define: How should the spatial practitioner act, think, or position him- or herself in order to realize such a practice? And what discourse should he or she develop? Finally, Vertical Spatial Practice sets out to expose the flaws and pitfalls to be found in such an attitude as it relates to spatial practice itself and its contribution to an inclusive and post-capitalist society.

The purpose of this ‘pre-research’ is to present this concept and encourage critique so that it can be developed further into a well-defined research question. It is the first step in a trajectory that will see the topic at hand evolve into a final product.

1.
The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s ‘radical’ left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action (though not, of course, an exclusive one).2

To reflect upon new strategies and attitudes, we must unravel horizontalism and take a critical approach to it.

For years, the spatial and societal debate has stressed participation via bottom-up and grass-roots projects, a legitimate response to the overwhelming top-down modernist approach that crushed entire neighbourhoods and communities. But as of today, one could argue that participation, with its dogmatic allure, has become the new paradigm and thus neutralizes its own potential. Tom Van Imschoot cynically writes in his article ‘Fuck Bottom-Up’, ‘I don’t believe in your celebration of participation. . . . It’s an excuse for a lack of policy vision. Participation? My ass. There has to be someone who represents me.’3 We should be vigilant that participation doesn’t lapse—in a Bourdieusian manner—merely into the aesthetic, class-associated preferences of those who promote it.

In The Nightmare of Participation Markus Miessen argues that, ‘both historically and in terms of political agency, participation is often read through romantic notions of negotiation, inclusion, and democratic decision-making. However, it is precisely this often-unquestioned mode of inclusion (used by politicians as never-ending campaigns for retail politics) that does not produce significant results, as criticality is challenged by the concept of the majority.’4

2.
Miessen based his ideas on the writings of Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, who positions her work as the antipode of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s direct or absolute democracy, which influenced many horizontal movements and actions (for example, the Occupy or Indignado movements). In The Space of Agonism, Mouffe contests Negri and Hardt’s idea that ‘it is possible to reach a perfect democracy in which there will no longer be any power relations—no more conflict, no more antagonism,’ postulating conflict as ‘the core of a democratic process.’ Antagonism, according to Mouffe, ‘is ineradicable. It can be tamed . . . but we will never arrive at the point where it will definitely be overcome.’5

Miessen finds in the work of Mouffe the possibility of ‘a conflictual reading of participation as a mode of practice, one that opposes the brainwave of the democratic facilitator and that, at times, has to assume non-physical violence and singular decision-making in order to produce frameworks of change.’6

Miessen relates these ideas to Edward Said’s concept of the ‘ideal intellectual’, whom he describes as ‘someone who works from the margin and is not infiltrated, concerned with, and conditioned by the system and consensus machine that one is dealing with. Such a practice from the outside enables a process that is fundamentally concerned with the question of what is at stake, rather than becoming the facilitator for an a priori imagined outcome. This does not necessarily mean that one attempts to attack the possibility of a consensus, but to rather enable a situation in which critical decision-making can emerge from a conflictual and necessary debate.’7 Miessen proposes the notion of the ‘uninvited outsider’, who can ‘intrude’ into the existing debate, entering spontaneously and independently of any institution.

Mathieu Berger refers to Michel de Certeau’s ‘outsider du dedans’, a concept he recognizes in many intellectual practices: insiders should dare to take risks within their practices; they should dare to publicly distance, defy, disturb, and challenge what is accepted as ‘common sense’ and take on a distanced—from the outside—attitude towards their proper position, even if such actions may have precarious consequences.

This project questions what significant contribution can be made by this ‘outsider from the inside’. The spatial practitioner can be seen as a metaphorical extension of the countermovement who approaches those in power in order to affect the decision-making process—in a certain sense ‘representing’ the countermovement. Therefore, the insider needs to be accepted within the elitist milieu, answer to the elitist code of conduct, and form part of the dominant layer of society. Hence, he or she finds him- or herself in the singular position of acting as an ‘insider with an outsider-mentality’.

It is evident today, as Eric Corijn points out, that the role of the so-called countermovement has evolved. ‘Knowledge and expertise are now more widespread,’ he says, ‘and urban movements tend to have their own professional support [architects, urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists] and do produce sound alternatives.’ But this isn’t enough: a more balanced power relationship should be developed. ‘The role of the intermediary is not to be underestimated here, [an entity] which mediates between the various interested parties and the authorities.’8 One could argue that the attitude this project tries to depict finds its roots within such a practice. But for the issue at hand, the notion of the ‘intermediary’ falls short of the mark. ‘If it is not brutally executed,’ as Markus Miessen states, ‘the mediator will become precisely the person who facilitates consensus.’9 In any case, the aim should not consist in ‘breeding the next generation of facilitators and mediators’.10 A new  terminology should be developed, so as to create new practices that go beyond discourses of consensus. The question is how such a renewed attitude—which might find expression, for example, in curating, urban coaching, or programming—is understood and practised.

In order to find its way towards power, the countermovement could be assisted in its actions by going beyond the ‘we against them’ dichotomy. If a certain ‘artificial’ distance—artificial, since the actor who undertakes such actions also aims at finding inclusive solutions for societal problems in a rapidly urbanizing world—from the countermovement could be created, it might open up access to the prevailing power, generating a peer-level dialogue with the decision-makers. Gradually, within the last few years, such practice has become recognizable, taking different forms and operating on different scales. Henceforth, one could start to imagine a spatial practitioner who acts as an ally from the inside out, using elitism against the elite on its own turf and turning participation into policy-participation.

That said, the question arises as to whether such actions can envision a radical societal change or whether they are, in fact, conservative tendencies that merely contribute to the status quo? Is ‘collaborating’ with an opponent—Miessen refers in this context to collaboration in the sense of working with the enemy in times of war or conflict, to be understood as a temporary joint effort with an opponent in order to overcome a complex situation11—a conceivable response when one finds oneself face to face with an interlocutor whose ideology one cannot come to terms with? Is one obliged, to a certain extent, to share a liberal view of society in order to be able to find an entrée within such a milieu? Could the critique of horizontalism be transposed onto this practice? And in the same way that neo-liberalism rendered most left-leaning political parties and organized labour bereft of radical thought, will such practice manage to do any more than merely mitigate the consequences of neo-liberal thinking?12 Or can this attitude indeed equate to the idea that ‘the existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard to launch towards post-capitalism?’13

FOOTNOTES

  1. Eyal Weizman, The Roundabout Revolutions, ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Markus Miessen (Critical Spatial Practice, 6; New York: Sternberg Press, 2015), 62–63.
  2. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, ‘#Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’, Critical Legal Thinking [online platform] (14 May 2013), 03.13, <http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/>, accessed 21 October 2015
  3. Tom van Imschoot, writing under the pseudonym O. Van De Slagboom, ‘Fuck Bottom-Up’, in ‘Heilige Huisjes’ (Sacred Cows), rekto:verso, 64 (December 2014–January 2015), <http://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/fuck-bottom>
  4. Markus Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 13.
  5. Markus Miessen in Conversation with Chantal Mouffe, The Space of Agonism, ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Markus Miessen (Critical Spatial Practice, 2; New York: Sternberg Press, 2012), 13.
  6. Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation, 13–14 (see n. 4).
  7. Ibid., 229.
  8. Eric Corijn, ‘Networked Spatiality’, in Benjamin Deboosere and Wouter De Raeve (eds.), On Tempelhofer Feld (in press [Leipzig: Spector Books], 2015), 39.
  9. Markus Miessen, ‘Conflict as a Productive Mode of (Spatial) Practice’, in Deboosere and De Raeve, On Tempelhofer Feld, 91 (see n. 9).
  10. Markus Miessen, ‘The Violence of Participation: Spatial Practices beyond Models of Consensus’, Eurozine [online magazine and network] (1 August 2007), <http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-08-01-miessen-en.html>, accessed 24 October 2015
  11. Miessen, ‘Conflict as a Productive Mode of (Spatial) Practice’ (see n. 9).
  12. Williams and Srnicek, ‘#Accelerate Manifesto’, 01.5 (see n. 2).
  13. Ibid, 03.5.