Rene — Sassen — Cities as frontier zones: Making informal politics

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Saskia Sassen
Cities as frontier zones: Making informal politics
The large complex city, especially if global, is a new frontier zone. Actors from different worlds meet there, but there are no clear rules of engagmenet. Where the historic frontier was in the far stretches of colonial empires, today’s frontier zone is in our large cities. It is a strategic frontier zone for global corporate capital. Much of the work of forcing deregulation, privatization, and new fiscal and monetary policies on the host governments had to do with creating the formal instruments to construct their equivalent of the old military “fort” of the historic frontier: the regulatory environment they need in city after city worldwide to ensure a global space of operations.I
But it is also a strategic frontier zone for those who lack power, those who are disadvantaged, outsiders, discriminated minorities. The disadvantaged and excluded can gain presence in such cities, presence vis a vis power and presence vis a vis each other. This signals the possibility of a new type of politics, centered in new types of political actors. It is not simply a matter of having or not having power. There are new hybrid bases from which to act. One outcome we are seeing in city after city is the making of informal politics.II
This is the larger subject against which my talk today should be situated. I will focus on one specific aspect: how the new media contribute to this larger project.
The enormity of the urban experience, the overwhelming presence of massive architectures and dense infrastructures, as well as the irresistible utility logics that organize much of the investments in today’s cities, have produced displacement and estrangement among many individuals and whole communities. Such conditions unsettle older notions and experiences of the city generally and public space in particular. An aspect that makes this visible is the much talked about crisis in public space resulting from the growing commercialization, theme-parking, and privatizing of public space.III While the monumentalized public spaces of European cities remain vibrant sites for rituals and routines, for demonstrations and festivals, increasingly the overall sense is of a shift from civic to politicized urban space, with fragmentations along multiple differences.
The possibility of making politics assumes new meanings over the last two decades, a period marked by the ascendance of private authority/power over spaces once considered public. Further, over the last five years especially, the state has sought to weaponize urban space and to make it an object for surveillance. At the same time, the increasing legibility of restrictions, surveillance and displacements is politicizing urban space. Most familiar, perhaps, is the impact of high-income residential and commercial gentrification, which generates a displacement that can feed the making of a political subjectivity centered in contestation rather than a sense of the civic on either side of the conflict. The physical displacement of low-income households, non-profit uses and low-profit neighborhood firms makes visible a power relationship – direct control by one side over the other as expressed directly in evictions or indirectly through the market. This politicizing of urban space and its legibility is also evident in the proliferation of physical barriers in erstwhile public spaces, perhaps most pronounced in US cities.
The “making” that concerns me here is of modest political spaces and interventions, constituted through the practices of people and critical artistic interventions on small or medium level scales. My concern here is not with monumentalized public spaces or ready-made public psaces that are actually better described as public-access than public. The making of public space is political work in today’s global cities. It opens up questions about the current urban condition in ways that the grand spaces of the crown and the state or over-designed public-access spaces do not.
The work of capturing this elusive quality that cities make possible and make legible, the work of making the political in this in-between zone, is not easily executed.IV Utility logics won’t do. I can’t help but think that the making of art is part of the answer–whether ephemeral public performances and installations or more lasting types of public sculpture, whether site-specific/community-based art, or nomadic sculptures that circulate among localities. Further, the new network technologies open up wide this question of making in modest spaces and through the practices of people. One question that might serve to capture critical features of this project is How do we urbanize open-source.
The space of the city is a far more concrete space for politics than that of the nation. It becomes a place where non-formal political actors can be part of the political scene in a way that is much more difficult at the national level. Nationally politics needs to run through existing formal systems: whether the electoral political system or the judiciary (taking state agencies to court). Non-formal political actors are rendered invisible in the space of national politics. The space of the city acommodates a broad range of political activities –squatting, demonstrations against police brutality, fighting for the rights of immigrants and the homeless, the politics of culture and identity, gay and lesbian and queer politics. Much of this becomes visible on the street. Much of urban politics is concrete, enacted by people rather than dependent on massive media technologies. Street level politics makes possible the formation of new types of political subjects that do not have to go through the formal political system.
Further, through the new network technologies local initiatives become part of a global network of activism without losing the focus on specific local struggles. It enables a new type of cross-border political activism, one centered in multiple localities yet intensely connected digitally. This is in my view one of the key forms of critical politics that the Internet and other networks can make possible: A politics of the local with a big difference–these are localities that are connected with each other across a region, a country or the world. Because the network is global does not mean that it all has to happen at the global level. Digital networks are contributing to the production of new kinds of interconnections underlying what appear as fragmented topographies, whether at the global or at the local level. Political activists can use digital networks for global or non-local transactions and they can use them for strengthening local communications and transactions inside a city or rural community.
The large city of today, especially the global city, emerges as a strategic site for these new types of operations. It is a strategic site for global corporate capital. But is is also one of the sites where the formation of new claims by informal political actors materializes and assumes concrete forms.
It will not be long before many urban residents begin to experience the “local” as a type of microenvironment with global span. Much of what we keep representing and experiencing as something local –a building, an urban place, a household, an activist organization right there in our neighbourhood– is actually located not only in the concrete places where we can see them, but also on digital networks that span the globe. They are connected with other such localized buildings, organizations, households, possibly at the other side of the world. They may indeed be more oriented to those other areas than to their immediate surrounding. Think of the financial centre in a global city, or the human rights or environmental activists’ home or office — their orientation is not towards what surrounds them but to a global process. I think of these local entities as microenvironments with global span.V
There are two issues I want to pursue briefly here. One of these is what it means for “the city” to contain a proliferation of these globally oriented yet very localized offices, households, organizations? In this context the city becomes a strategic amalgamation of multiple global circuits that loop through it. As cities and urban regions are increasingly traversed by non-local, including notably global circuits, much of what we experience as the local because locally-sited, is actually a transformed condition in that it is imbricated with non-local dynamics or is a localization of global processes. One way of thinking about this is in terms of spatializations of various projects –economic, political, cultural. This produces a specific set of interactions in a city’s relation to its topography. The new urban spatiality thus produced is partial in a double sense: it accounts for only part of what happens in cities and what cities are about, and it inhabits only part of what we might think of as the space of the city, whether this be understood in terms as diverse as those of a city’s administrative boundaries or in the sense of the multiple public imaginaries that may be present in different sectors of a city’s people. If we consider urban space as productive, as enabling new configurations, then these developments signal multiple possibilities.
The second issue, one coming out of this proliferation of digital networks traversing cities, concerns the future of cities in an increasingly digitized and globalized world. Here the bundle of conditions and dynamics that marks the model of the global city might be a helpful way of distilling the ongoing centrality of urban space in complex cities. Just to single out one key dynamic: the more globalized and digitized the operations of firms and markets, the more their central management and coordination functions (and the requisite material structures) become strategic. It is precisely because of digitization that simultaneous worldwide dispersal of operations (whether factories, offices, or service outlets) and system integration can be achieved. And it is precisely this combination that raises the importance of central functions. Global cities are strategic sites for the combination of resources necessary for the production of these central functions.VI Thus, much of what is liquefied and circulates in digital networks and is marked by hypermobility, actually remains physical –and hence possibly urban– in some of its components. At the same time, however, that which remains physical has been transformed by the fact that it is represented by highly liquid instruments that can circulate in global markets. It may look the same, it may involve the same bricks and mortar, it may be new or old, but it is a transformed entity. Take for example, the case of real estate. Financial services firms have invented instruments that liquefy real estate, thereby facilitating investment and circulation of these instruments in global markets. Yet, part of what constitutes real estate remains very physical; but the building that is represented by financial instruments circulating globally is not the same building as one that is not.
We have difficulty capturing this multi-valence of the new digital technologies through our conventional categories: if it is physical, it is physical; and if it is liquid, it is liquid. In fact, the partial representation of real estate through liquid financial instruments produces a complex imbrication of the material and the digitized moments of that which we continue to call real estate. And the need of global financial markets for multiple material conditions in very grounded financial centers produces yet another type of complex imbrication which shows that precisely those sectors that are most globalized and digitized continue to have a very strong and strategic urban dimension.
Hypermobility or digitization are usually seen as mere functions of the new technologies. This understanding erases the fact that it takes multiple material conditions to achieve this outcome. Once we recognize that the hypermobility of the instrument, or the de-materialization of the actual piece of real estate, had to be produced, we introduce the imbrication of the material and the non-material. Producing capital mobility takes state of the art built-environments, conventional infrastructure –from highways to airports and railways– and well-housed talent. These are all, at least partly place-bound conditions, even though the nature of their place-boundedness is going to be different from what it was 100 years ago, when place-boundedness might have been marked by immobility. Today it is a place-boundedness that is inflected, inscribed, by the hypermobility of some of its components/products/outcomes. Both capital fixity and mobility are located in a temporal frame where speed is ascendant and consequential. This type of capital fixity cannot be fully captured in a description of its material and locational features, i.e. in a topographical reading.
Conceptualizing digitization and globalization along these lines creates operational and rhetorical openings for recognizing the ongoing importance of the material world even in the case of some of the most de-materialized activities.
New media artists using computer-centred network technologies are enacting political as well as artistic projects in a growing number of cities worldwide. What I want to capture here is a very specific feature: the possibility of constructing forms of globality that are neither part of global corporate media or consumer firms, nor part of elite universalisms or ‘high culture.’ It is the possibility of giving presence to multiple local actors, projects and imaginaries in ways that may constitute alternative and counter-globalities.
These interventions entail diverse uses of technology–ranging from political to ludic uses– that can subvert corporate globalisation. We are seeing the formation of alternative networks, projects, and spaces. Emblematic is, perhaps, that the metaphor of ‘hacking’ has been dislodged from its specialised technical discourse and become part of everyday life. In the face of a predatory regime of intellectual property rights we see the ongoing influence of the free software movement.VII Indymedia gain terrain even as global media conglomerates dominate just about all mainstream mediums.VIII The formation of new geographies of power that bring together elites from the global south and north find their obverse in the work of such collectives as Raqs Media Collective that destabilise the centre/periphery divide.IX
Such alternative globalities are to be distinguished from the common assumption that if ‘it’ is global it is cosmopolitan. The types of global forms that concern me here are what I like to refer to, partly as a provocation, as non-cosmopolitan forms of globality. When local initiatives and projects can become part of a global network without losing the focus on the specifics of the local, a new type of globality takes shape. For instance, groups or individuals concerned with a variety of environmental questions–from solar energy design to appropriate-materials-architecture– can become part of global networks without having to leave behind the specifics that concern them.
In an effort to synthesize this diversity of subversive interventions into the space of global capitalism, I use the notion of counter-geographies of globalisation: these interventions are deeply imbricated with some of the major dynamics constitutive of corporate globalisation yet are not part of the formal apparatus or of the objectives of this apparatus (such as the formation of global markets and global firms). These counter-geographies thrive on the intensifying of transnational and translocal networks, the development of communication technologies which easily escape conventional surveillance practices, and so on. Further, the strengthening and, in some of these cases, the formation of new global circuits are ironically embedded or made possible by the existence of that same global economic system that they contest. These counter-geographies are dynamic and changing in their locational features.X
The narrating, giving shape, making present, involved in digitised environments assumes very particular meanings when mobilised to represent/enact local specificities in a global context. Beyond the kinds of on-the-ground work involved in these struggles, new media artists and activists–the latter often artists–have been key actors in these developments, whether it is through tactical media, indymedia, or such entities as the original incarnation of Digital City AmsterdamXI and the Berlin-based Transmediale.XII But new media artists have also focused on issues other than the world of technology. Not surprisingly perhaps, a key focus has been the increasingly restrictive regime for migrants and refugees in a global world where capital gets to flow wherever it wants. Organisations such as Nobody is IllegalXIII , the Mongrel web projectXIV, Mute MagazineXV, the Manchester-based FuturesonicXVI, and the Bonn/Cologne-based Theater der WeltXVII, have all done projects focused on immigration.
IN CONCLUSION, both the work of making the public and making the political in urban space become critical at a time of growing velocities, the ascendance of process and flow over artefacts and permanence, massive structures that are not at a human scale, and branding as the basic mediation between individuals and markets. The work of design produces narratives that add to the value of existing contexts, and at its narrowest, to the utility logics of the economic corporate world. But there is also a kind of public-making work that can produce disruptive narratives, and make it legible the local and the silenced.
Saskia Sassen (USA)
Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago, USA.
Author of Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton 2006)
Here a longer bio:
Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Her new book is Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages ( Princeton University Press 2006). She has just completed for UNESCO a five-year project on sustainable human settlement for which she set up a network of researchers and activists in over 30 countries; it is published as one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (Oxford, UK: EOLSS Publishers) [http://www.eolss.net ]. Other recent books are the 3rd. fully updated Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2006), A Sociology of Globalization (Norton 2007), and the co-edited Digital Formations: New Architectures for Global Order (Princeton University Press 2005). The Global City came out in a new fully updated edition in 2001. Her books are translated into sixteen languages. She serves on several editorial boards and is an advisor to several international bodies. She is a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Cities, and Chair of the Information Technology and International Cooperation Committee of the Social Science Research Council (USA). Her comments have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek International,Vanguardia, Clarin, the Financial Times, among others.
IFor a detailed examination of this issue and extensive discussion of the scholarship see Sassen 2001 The Global City (2nd Ed Princeton University Press 2001).
II For a detailed examination and extensive discussion of the scholarship see Sassen, Saskia._2006. Territory, Authroity, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press): chs. 6 and 7
IIIThere is an interesting scholarship on this issue. It is impossible to do justice to it. Let me just mention a few texts that show the diversity of approaches:Richard Lloyd, . Neobohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City (NY and London: Routledge 2005); Annette W. Balkema, Henk Slager 1999. Territorial Investigations; Mari Carmen Ramirez, Theresa Papanikolas, Gabriela Rangel – Art – 2002. International Center for the Arts of the Americas; George Yudice. 2003. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era; Roger A Salerno.2003 . Landscapes of Abandonment: Capitalism, Modernity and Estrangement.; John Phillips, Wei-Wei Yeo, Ryan Bishop.2003. Postcolonial Urbanism: Sout East Asian Cities and Global Processes.; J Ockman – 2001. Pragmatist Imagination: Thinking about Things in the Making.; Malcolm Miles. 1997. Art, Space and the City; Peggy Phelan 1998. The Ends of Performance; Thad Williamson, Gar Alperovitz, David L Imbroscio . 2002. Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era; Drainville, Andre. 2005. Contesting Globalization: Space and Place in the World Economy. London: Routledge; Krause, Linda and Patrice Petro (eds). 2003. Global Cities: Cinema, Architecture, and Urbanism in a Digital Age. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press.
IVThis has received one of its clearest presentations in critical architectural writing. E.g. Arie Graafland – 2000. The Socius of Architecture; John Beckmann . 1998. The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation, and Crash Culture; Kester Rattenbury. 2001.This is not Architecture: Media Constructions; Susannah Hagan 2001. Taking Shape: A new Contract between Architecture and Nature;
VElsewhere I have shown in detail the complex imbrications of the digital and the material, and of flows and places. See Sassen, Saskia._2006: ch 7
VIThere are other dimensions that specify the global city; see Sassen 2001.
VIISee http://www.gnu.org for more information.
VIIIIndymedia is “a network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth”. See http://www.indymedia.org
IXSee www.raqsmediacollective.net
XThey are also multivalent, i.e. some are “good” and some are “bad.” I use the term as an analytic category to designate a whole range of dynamics and initiatives that are centred in the new capabilities for global operation coming out of the corporate global economy but used for purposes other than their original design: examples range from alter-globalisation political struggles to informal global economic circuits, and, at the limit, global terrorist networks.
XIThe Digital City Amsterdam (DDS) was an experiment facilitated by De Balie, Amsterdam’s cultural centre. Subsidised by the Amsterdam Municipality and the Ministry of Economic Affairs it allowed people to access the digital city host computer and retrieve council minutes, official policy papers or visit digital cafes and train stations. See for documentation; see the chapter by Lovink and Riemens in Global Networks,Linked Cities (New York and London: Routledge 2002) for the full evolution, from beginning to end of DDS.
XIIAn international media arts festival. See http://www.transmediale.de
XIIIA campaign carried by autonomous groups, religious initiatives, trade unions and individuals to support refugees and undocumented immigrants. See http://www.contrast.org/borders/ for more information.
XIVLondon based media activists and artists. See http://www.mongrelx.org
XVSee http://www.metamute.com
XVIA festival exploring wireless and mobile media. See http://www.futuresonic.com
XVIIA theatre festival. See http://www.theaterderwelt.de