GABlog

May 13, 2020

Urbanomics

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:03 am

In a very interesting (and short) book, Urban Planning for Murder: Murder Fact Event, Aristides Antonas argues that the governing logic of the city is to render murder anonymous, and therefore neutral and innocuous. The city takes the “eventness” out of murder. This is a way of identifying the city, which we can in turn identify with civilization, as the transcendence of the vendetta and the tribalism informing it. Under the terms of the vendetta, a murder is an event that puts everyone on high alert and accentuates all social differences; in the city the victim is, literally, a number, filed away in an archive, processed through the judicial bureaucracy which similarly anonymizes the murder. But Antonas goes on to add another ingredient to the formula of the city—the injustice that is incommensurable with the justice system because it is committed by one outside of that system, against the system itself. This injustice, committed by the sovereign charged with ensuring justice, produces (I am following up on Antonas here) the exemplary victim, the memory of whom will both undergird and intimate the limits of the justice system.

Let’s approach the city and civilization from another angle. In The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias traces the process of civilization through the gradual separation of the scene of slaughter from the scene of consumption. At the most primitive stage, the animal is killed, the meal prepared, and then eaten, in succession, in the same place—the slaughter-house and dining hall are one. Then, the slaughter is carried out elsewhere, and the food brought in and prepared and consumed in a single place. Then the preparation is set apart from the consumption, so in the end those eating can be completely oblivious to the provenance of their meal. As animal rights activists try through desperate stunts to remind us, this allows us to remain blissfully unaware of the systematic brutalities which eventually land the food on our tables. Labor activists make the related point regarding, e.g., the children digging in tungsten mines in Africa so that we can tweet about trans rights on our cellphones. Here, events are made invisible, but if someone were to propose a remedy to such situations, those remedies would repeat the same civilizing process of eliminating anything event-like along the supply chain through regulations, inspectors, lawsuits, NGOs and so on. In other words, another layer of delegation and distancing would be introduced.

These processes of civilization in turn produce a strong desire to see what we don’t really want to see. The equivalent of snuff films are meant to attract our attention to the atrocities underlying our peaceful consumption—this kind of porn goes back a long way, as any reader of Dickens knows. Elias traces “sentimentalism” to this process of separation and seclusion: those who slaughter what they then cook and eat, right then and there, aren’t going to be sentimental about animals, or hunting, or the bucolic life: there’s no other scene on which to project the resolution to the resentments felt on the scene one occupies. Genres like the idyll and the pastoral are the products of urbanization no less than modern genres like film noir and the horror film. Film noir reconstructs and sensationalizes the murder events neutralized through insurance claims, police procedure, property disputes and other urban non-events. The horror film tries to simulate the revenge of repressed nature, from which the viewer is of course at a safe distance. This is fundamentally no different than the pastoral representing the shepherd as a paragon of the virtues forgotten by the city-dweller. “Nature” is a product of the “artificial” city.

The exemplary victim of civilization is not suited for representation within these genres, which is tantamount to saying that the unrepresentability of the exemplary victim generates these supplementary genres. Think about the victims of precisely the liberal democratic states, violating precisely their founding liberal principles, over the past few years—these would be those dissident right figures marked as “racist” so as to bring the entire machinery of state, economic and cultural institutions down upon them, rendering them as close to “non-persons” as it’s possible to be in an order that records everything. One can want to see these individuals obtain relief and even justice, but insofar as they are suing, appealing, having their cases work their ways through the courts or the adjudication processes of Facebook, Twitter or Chase Manhattan, they are not the kinds of victims who “void” the claim of the system to avoid eventness. Nor would this change if one of these victims went out in a terrorist blaze of glory, which would likewise confirm by triggering the justice system. Pastoral, noirish and horror representations would still be possible.

The exemplary victim is the one whose path we could follow as a means of salvation while always falling infinitely short of the example. To speak of this civil exposure of the terms of civility we need the language of money, which is as intrinsic to the city and civilization as writing and justice. We have to think of these different power interfaces together. A good starting point for doing so is Devin Singh’s Divine Currency, which examines the ways in which concepts of currency, coinage and debt are constitutive of early, formative Christian thought. Singh’s work is part of an emergent disciplinary space inquiring into the relations between the monetary concepts pervasive in Christianity in a way that doesn’t reduce them to metaphors—books like Michael Hudson’s …and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year, among others that will no doubt come up in future discussions are example of texts that take seriously, to take just one example, the economic roots and implications of a concept like “redemption.” I will preface this preliminary discussion by saying that the economic dimension of the fundamental concepts of Christianity neither “discredits” Christianity nor reduces it to an ancient world debt-forgiveness activist movement—no more than does the political dimension of calling God a “king” giving “laws” and “ruling” the world discredit Christianity and other monotheisms reliant on such concepts. Quite to the contrary—the implication of such an inquiry is that Christianity, if it hopes to be powerful in any sense, will have to recover its relation to the totality of human life, eternal and temporal.

So, God is a benevolent administrator of the world economy, and humans are created in His image just like a coin is stamped with the image of the worldly emperor; Christ is the unique divine image that is then copied onto all the human “coins.” Christ is also the “ransom” paid to Satan, who holds humanity in debt due to original sin. (Singh goes into some detail regarding the account one early theologian provides of the rather dubious “negotiations” God must engage in to manage this.) David Graeber speaks contemptuously about this language of debt peonage, seeing it as a justification of power, but one can also turn that around and see Christianity as a call for the liberation of humanity from debt enslavement, a recurring problem in both the ancient and modern worlds. Singh is interested in the way this theologico-monetary discourse provided the ideological resources for early modern (and late modern, for that matter) defenses of the “free market,” while Graeber, understandably, finds the whole notion of an unpayable debt obscene. But humans have always acknowledged a debt to the center—otherwise, what were all those sacrifices about? Exchanges with the center are intrinsically asymmetrical. Why couldn’t that asymmetry intensify to the point where the debt to the center becomes incommensurable not only to all available resources, but to all imaginable discourses?

This would always have been thought of in “economistic” terms: if the local deity guarantees a good hunt, or sufficient rainfall, he is providing a good, and holding up his end of the bargain. This kind of exchange is inherently limited, though—if your god allows you to bring down a buffalo, there’s nothing more you can give him than a piece of that buffalo. Once the God-Emperor ensures the yearly flowing of the life-giving river, though, it gets harder to determine what would count as an acceptable gift in return. Money is both continuous and discontinuous with this history of exchanges with the center that constitutes humanity. Money, in its universal exchangeability, provides a language for speaking of “infinite” indebtedness, and money is introduced as a means of exercising power when the asymmetry of center and periphery is so immense as to require indirect means of control and regulation. It then becomes imaginable for the exemplary victim of the state’s crime against its own justice system to become a “means of payment” for an infinite debt payable, now, not to the king, but to the God of Whom the king can only be a minted image.

It is very helpful to keep in mind the economic resonance of central theological words like “redemption” and “salvation.” The sacred can only be a way of representing our sociality, and from where other than our institutional forms could we derive the vocabulary for speaking of the sacred? A different language of the sacred would require a different form of sociality, and vice versa. The alternative to an infinite debt to the center is not a worldly or divine communism, but a donation to the center that is simultaneously one’s “income.” From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs? Communism never even claimed to get anywhere near that point, so maybe it’s not a communist mode of exchange after all. Moreover, what I think is the common interpretation of that much older than Marx slogan, that it implies altruistic self-sacrifice of the “able” to the “needy,” misses the obvious point that the able also have their needs, which might be quite substantial, and must also be met, if they are to “give” according to abilities sourced by the meeting of those needs (not to mention that the needy must also have abilities, even if more meager, to be cultivated). Your needs are also what you need in order to exhibit, refine, maintain and transmit to others your abilities. Such a mode of distribution makes no sense in terms of spontaneity and autonomy, but only in terms of an exchange with the center, mediated through micro and macro pedagogical interactions.

A new form of “urbanomics,” meanwhile, would involve surfacing the economic underpinnings of our moral and ethical discussions, and also the way all the distinctions of civilization—natural/social, natural/artificial, private/public, and so on—have infiltrated the furthest reaches of our language. In place of attempts to find exemplary victims to martyrize, the crimes against the system of justice we need to reveal in our practices are needs unnecessarily unmet and abilities left unexercised. The civilized question is always some version of, “what could we be doing other than this”? Where is there a mimetic blockage that could be converted into a new medium or interface that would make such a blockage unthinkable? As always, this is more a question of ways of being in language and therefore in institutions, rather than a “program.” We can tell, and can get better at telling, when another wants to be too much “like” us, or we find ourselves wanting to be too much “like” them, such that the space between us is in danger of being foreclosed because we would then both have to be in the same space. It is in such occasions where the metalinguistic concepts of the disciplines—all those mentioned above, plus “rights,” ‘equality,” “justice,” “reason,” and much more get leveraged to ideologize the confrontation and make it intractable. Your donation to the center is the representation of an other to which we can both contribute something, the creation of new needs ad abilities.

One more element of the city is worth mentioning: the grid, or replicable patterns of infrastructure, architecture and information transmission. The grid is the material manifestation of the abstraction exercised through money and the justice system. The grid enforces the distribution of human activities along the lines of the distinctions mentioned above, but also divisions like residential and business, financial and manufacturing, city and suburb—which replicate those other distinctions. The killings on which each of us depend are occluded in the other districts. Should we see the beasts being slaughtered for the benefit of what seems to us a more benign secondary or tertiary activity? Does the continuation of civilization depend on not seeing how the sausage is made, or upon having it laid out for us? In the former case, this ongoing process of deferral and distantiation is to be continued—after all, each point along the way some serious conflict was deferred through some distancing and segregating mechanism until we got to the point that we can start to defend against as yet unimagined dangers—but maybe at the expense of seeing potentially “dangerous” (because conflict-generating) dangers right in front of us. In the latter case we want design for transparency, with windows from within each district opening up onto the other districts. Lots of glass and mirrors, the functional parts of buildings and streets (pipes, wires, poles, etc.) made visible and interesting, information displays like the financial ticker for all kinds of activities, explicit recognition of our enhanced visibility and audibility, and therefore more awareness of the performative nature of our activities. If hiding information becomes more difficult, for corporations, institutions and individuals, then secrecy and privacy will have to be replaced by the shaping of the information we can’t help but give off: data is infinite but its processing in real time is finite and we can control the patterns that are going to be read off of us and the ones we read off of others. This all comes back to making our practices explicitly pedagogical, and instances of originary satire.

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