Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon and Henri Lefebvre

Presentation screengrab

I’m in the process of putting together a research presentation for January. It’s something all first year PhD students in sociology at the University of Warwick have to do, and it’s a nice way to introduce your thesis to the other students, as well as helping formulate your own plans. I’ve started to put the bulk of it into MS PowerPoint but decided I’d have a little play about with Prezi, which is great for adding a few neat visual touches and is far more flexible than PowerPoint.

After trying a couple of their pre-formatted designs I decided I’d search for a suitable background image. I first typed in something general like ‘digital maps’ and ‘map game boards’ because I wanted to re-create the sequential format Prezi seems to like, with arrows and frames and also play on the urban exploration side of mapping. Then I had a bit of a brainwave and searched for some Situationist artworks/maps; the perfect combination of maps, play and ‘flow’. The classic image of the cut-out map segments with red arrows darting from section to section seemed perfect (see a selection here). Alas, I couldn’t find an image with a good enough resolution for the levels of zooming Prezi requires so I had to ditch them.

Then I came across a post on the [polis] blog on the Moscow Occupy movement. Their main picture was an image by Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920 – 2005). Taken from his New Babylon project, the image was part of a selection of “models, sketches, etchings, lithographs, collages, architectural drawings, and photocollages, as well as …manifestos, essays, lectures, and films” (Wigley 1998; text available here) that together formed a utopian vision of an anti-capitalist city. His work was strongly interconnected with the Situationists of the 1950s/60s.

In two, perhaps not so, coincidental moves I found a translation of an interview with Henri Lefebvre on Nieuwenhuys, Guy Debord and the Situationists, and also a reference to the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and his homo ludens concept. Nieuwenhuys wanted his utopian city to be populated with the ‘playing man’ (homo ludens) in opposition to the ‘bourgeois shackles’ (Goldhagen 2006; direct link) the working man had to contend with in the modern city.

A subsequent image I found from Nieuwenhuys’ same New Babylon project was perfect for the background to my presentation. Good quality and a perfect colour scheme (here). Close up I think it looks like either a microscopic image of a biological cell or a computer circuit board. It also gives me an opportunity to pick out individual elements in the collage (as I think it originally was) and link them into the different sections in the presentation.

If you want to know a little bit more about Constant himself there’s an interview by Linda Boersma at the art magazine BOMB here from 2005. I’d like to think my attempts to introduce the digital map (and mobile device) as a ‘new terrain’ for situationist-style explorations draws on some of themes Constant envisaged in New Babylon.

3 Deleuzian critiques of Hardt & Negri

As Tampio (2009) says in ‘Assemblages and the Multitude: Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, and the Postmodern Left’ (direct link here), Deleuze has three issues with Hardt and Negri’s political endorsements.

Tampio claims that Hardt and Negri have reinterpreted Deleuze and his many concepts (the multitude, rhizomatic networks, nomadology, organs without bodies, war machines) for their own ends. In doing so they have obscured Deleuze’s ‘distinct contributions to the contemporary left’ (385). So, those three issues below:

1. The concept of the proletariat. Not because they don’t exist per se, but that categorizing people as proletarians risks preserving a rather outdated opposition between capitalism and communism (bourgeoisie and worker). The left needs to work beyond these distinctions.

2. The concept of revolution. Every revolution ‘almost always’ (390) ends badly and rarely changes people’s minds. This is in opposition to what Deleuze calls ‘revolutionary becoming’ (Transformations 1995: 171) – a kind of experimentation of political change. It goes beyond thinking about revolution as a requirement for political change and supposes that change can be brought about through smaller interventions.

3. The desire for an end to sovereignty. Deleuze wants to ‘strike [an] optimum balance’ (391) between the state (order) and the war machine (chaos). In calling for an end to sovereignty we risk damaging individual and collective life. ‘It is far better to use a ‘very fine file’ to open up the political body to new possibilities than to wield a sledgehammer to obliterate its contours’ (391).

Carnivalesque windows of opportunity

Two similar ‘carnivalesque’ moments in protest history, consider:

In 1982, during the [Polish] May Day celebrations, members of [the activist group] Orange Alternative dressed up in ridiculous costumes, rented a bus, went to the local zoo, and waved red flags and sang communist songs while ironically demanding “freedom for the bears,” the bear being an obvious Soviet symbol. Although the “protesters” were arrested, they were so ridiculous that the police refused to fine them, particularly because it was difficult to know where to draw the line when it came to this obscure kind of political performance. Additionally, because the government wanted to take advantage of its newfound ability to distance itself from direct Soviet intervention in local economic and political affairs, officials did not want to be seen as returning to the more openly brutal political oppression of the past.


The idea for the turtle people [during the Seattle WTO demonstrations] was the brainchild of Ben White of the Animal Welfare Institute, mainly as a reaction to the fact that the WTO court had overturned a US law passed in 1996 banning the sale of shrimp caught in nets that killed endangered sea turtles. The WTO court’s reasoning was that the law constituted “an unfair barrier to trade.” White thought that a public performance by “turtle people” could send a number of important symbolic messages. […B]ecause unelected courts in newly empowered international government organizations designed to enforce “free trade” were (and are) now able to overturn the laws of nation-states, the turtle people wanted to provide a “street theater [sic] spectacle” to draw attention to this new and relatively unknown form of corporate global governance.

Then as a summary;

These two examples, limited as they are, suggest that the humorless [sic] state has a very difficult time dealing with absurdity, symbolic protest, and the curious blending of the fictive and the real—people becoming turtles, elves becoming “real”—but it has much less trouble violently dealing with more “serious” forms of protest. And perhaps this has always been true.

Really enjoying Michael Lane Bruner’s (2005) ‘Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State’ in Text and Performance Quarterly. Available here (subscription only). He argues that whilst playful protest does indeed work in subverting and inverting typical social roles and power hierarchies they only work during specific ‘windows of opportunity’. In his examples, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and pre-9/11 era USA. Is there a similar window currently open across the UK and Europe? That’s difficult to say. I’m tempted to say yes, only because I think there is a particular ideological objective to be reached for those in power, and ‘serious’ protest arguably is only having a detrimental effect to those involved. At least in the UK that is. Carnivalesque forms of protest (similar to calls for ‘playful protest’) open the door for a wider inclusion of those who otherwise might not have engaged in any protest at all. The ‘seriousness’ of protest can frequently deter those who feel like they need to in some way ‘swot up’ on what they’re protesting about. No doubt there needs to be a certain amount of education involved, but that’s not to say that people should be deterred from heading out onto the streets. I do think carnivalesque forms of protest can help in mobilising people. As Major Fydrych (leader of the Polish Orange Alternative movement) was quoted as saying in Padraig Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989 (2002);

Orange Alternative “happenings” were “places to learn opposition” and to “discover more political forms of protest.” He argued, “The WrocŁaw street slowly ceases to fear, and through participation in the fun, people learn to support more serious [protest] . . . [and slowly the] fear of detention—usually for a few hours, without serious consequences—evaporates” (190). It was, as Kenney remarks, a kind of socialist surrealism as sociotherapy.

A sociotherapy I’m sure many people in the UK would welcome now.


Gamification of Protest

Yesterday I intended to follow up my first post on ‘march dynamics’ with a second on the ‘gamification of protest’. I ended up reading the whole of the fantastic Endres and Senda-Cook (2011) paper, posting a short comment on it, and failing to even consider my second theme of protest and play! Anyway I shall say a few words now.

Following on from Wednesday’s somewhat bodged NUS march, Samuel Carlisle of the protest application Sukey posted a few interesting discussions over on his soundcloud page, here. The first of interest was entitled ‘Gamifying Volunteer Participation’ where Sam talks of auto-assigning roles to online volunteers. This basically means that anyone who’s willing to help out but isn’t at the live demo, can assist in completing lots of little tasks (meta-tagging photos, adding users to the ‘whitelist’, finding trolls to add to the blacklist, mapping facilities etc.) in a service called freenode, an open-source network that helps Sukey distribute these kinds of jobs to eager volunteers. Now, the only problem Sam found with this distributed tasking is that people aren’t always proactive in getting started on a job, whilst nonetheless wanting to help in some way because they feel like they have a particular skill, or specific experience of doing a certain job. So, says Sam, how do you get these people involved? This is where the gamification element comes in, because if people get rewarded for their work they tend to want to continue doing that work, so with the assigning of particular roles (‘tagger’, ‘whitelister’, blacklister’, ‘mapper’ etc.) each group have clearly defined divisions (tag division, whitelist division etc.). This ‘gamification’ dynamic can help in engaging far more people in the application’s workflow, and ultimately, in increasing the efficacy of the Sukey project.

The second clip; ‘Dynamic Random Role Assignment’ discussed bringing this kind of gamified interaction out onto the ground, so that protesters during a demo could, perhaps, be given a specific task to do based on their geographical location. So they mention what Sam calls ‘pseudo-leadership’, although I really want to call it ‘fleadership’ (fleeting-leadership!), where protesters are given a specific, momentary command (‘start chant’, ‘speed up crowd’, ‘direct to X’ etc.). It’s a kind of distributed leadership role that allows protesters to sink back into anonymity once their job is complete (back into ‘civilian mode’ as Sam points out); only to pick it up again should they be called into action. Moreover it allows people who maybe don’t even know each other to coalesce around a set of shared objectives (i.e. on the Sukey platform). Of course, this is presuming the crowd’s a) big enough and b) willing enough to recycle roles. But they’re interesting tactical points nonetheless.

The final discussion, ‘The Art of Gamification for Protest’ follows on from the nascent gamification concepts Sam talks about in clip 1 and 2. It tries to make sense of these gamified elements and suggests splitting online roles into predefined temporal tasks, so that those with a particularly long block of continuous time (a weekend) can do a specific job, whereas those with interstitial but consistent blocks (weeknights, lunch breaks) are assigned others. In other words: “little missions that fit their schedules”. The importance though still lies on it being a ‘fun’ and playful practice, so its about giving users/protesters the choice to engage in certain tasks in order to then reward their involvement (and it not be conceived as a job in the purely work-as-forced-to sense). A way of heightening participation and increasing involvement, enjoyment and togetherness leading up to, and during a protest.

Also: The picture above is taken from Sukey’s Survival Guide for protesters, which is on flickr here and on the Sukey website, here. If you click the image you can also download it as a PDF directly.

Protest and Place

(Re)constructing the meaning of place, even in temporary ways, can be a tactical act of resistance along with the tactics we traditionally associate with protest, such as speeches, marches and signs.[…P]lace (re)constructions can function rhetorically to challenge dominant meanings and practices in place. Place is a performer along with activists in making and unmaking the possibilities of protest.

(Emphasis added)

From: Endres and Senda-Cook (2011) ‘Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest’. Available here (subscription required). I’ve italicized that final sentence because it makes an incredibly important point: who, or what makes or ‘unmakes’ the possibilities of protest? Place is no container of action; no empty grid of co-ordinates waiting to be filled by protesters. Place can be made and re-made by anyone and anything – including non-human matter, and protest equally is an event comprised of and changed by bodies, words, data, legal instruments, musical instruments, walls, temporary barriers and more.

ontological ‘is’ and political ‘ought’

Can a distinction between ontological existence (‘is’) and political desires (‘oughts’) be bracketed apart and hence exist as separate concepts? Levi Bryant thinks so over at his blog Larval Subjects, and it’s proven to be a sticky argument over at Alexander Galloway’s facebook page (pretty much a public one here – he comments on a lot of things). I don’t know whether this is indicative of SR’s reputation of the philosophy for the digital era, but Ian Bogost then summarises the lively debate over at his blog in a post entitled ‘Let’s talk about politics and ontology again!’. If you’re still keeping up, Bryant then responds in another post (‘War Machines and Military Logistics’) at Larval Subjects, and Harman jumps in with a short post over at his OOP blog here.

If this is all a bit tl;dr, then let me summarise some key points to the argument. Bryant suggests, in short, that whilst ontologies can indeed be produced through political means (say, in the form of ideological bias), they are in themselves apolitical as they concern ‘being’ (or ‘what is’) ipso facto are factual concerns. He (says he) makes no claims to an idealized or preferred state of things in this passage (an ‘ought’ rather than an ‘is’).

In a relational form, then:

ontology/ies (‘is’) ——–> politics (‘ought’)

His critics in the fb post on Galloway’s wall, again, in summary, suggest that by making this claim of a partitioned apolitical ontology, he is in fact making a distinctly political claim. In the process one of the commenter’s charge him and other SRs with having a ‘depoliticizing stab at a new realism’ (see Jairus Grove’s first post).

Imho, I think the people who are responding to Bryant on Galloway’s page are making a few cheap shots, and Bryant himself actually underplays the construction of ontology which might have helped in get away from the criticisms angled at his approach to ontological and political separation. I probably agree on the points made by Grove especially, but argue that this doesn’t necessary detract from SR/OOO’s aims. I think Bryant would do well to accept the political nature of ontological claims (notice the small p) but be happy in refuting the Politics of ontology (with a capital p) on the basis of needing to act on a broader, transindividual plane that works with some (more?) solid claims (immutable mobiles, say?), i.e. an ontological basis. So it’s whether you give credence to the solidity of ontological claims as being ‘true’ as to whether or not you can agree with Bryant on this one.


Battle For the Internet

The Guardian have been running a series all week entitled; ‘Battle for the internet‘, taking a look at the new frontiers of the web. So far the most interesting article posted in the series focused on ‘walled gardens’ – closed computer hardware (mainly Apple’s new stable of mobile products) with restricted operability. That is, a growing range of devices such as the iPad that limit user ability to dig down into code, run non-authorised software, or curate their own, self-verified programs.

The fulcrum of the piece was the antagonism between ‘generative’ devices (those that can be programmed to do more than they were set-up to do) and ‘reductive’ devices (as above, those that limit/deny programmability by the user). Mobile smartphones, by and large, fall into the latter category. Jonathan Zittrain‘s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (2008) shapes this argument.

The obvious question, then, if mobile smartphones are results of a ‘tethering’ process (Zittrain 2008) designed to limit program operability to those screened and sold through App stores or other similar marketplaces, is; why is this necessary? What do smartphone manufacturer’s have to gain from, in effect, reducing their product’s usability? And, does this reduce a product’s value?

Of course, it’s easy to simply say this is a case of Apple (and others) wanting to profit from their own success. The brand itself has swollen in worth, even since the mid-noughties, and despite Steve Job’s death remains a technological powerhouse. It’s App Store – combined with its iPad – represents the frontier of it’s business currently. In securitizing the use of the latter through the former, Apple have bricked up large swathes of internet usage behind its rather menacing walls. In operating with such impunity, Apple have managed to attain a level of online policing unknown to, or uncharacteristic of Western democracies, and much more akin to online modus operandi of the Chinese Communist Party, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party or Iranian Government. This – rather than mere profit – becomes a greater concern for global web usage.

There’s also a great quote from journalist and author, John Battelle on the ‘unstoppable’ mobile nature of the web:

“The PC-based HTML web is hopelessly behind mobile in any number of ways,” he [Battelle] wrote on his blog. “It has no eyes (camera), no ears (audio input), no sense of place (GPS/location data). Why would anyone want to invest in a web that’s deaf, dumb, blind, and stuck in one place?”

Whilst the quote itself draws on the hapless PC to elucidate the absurdity of a ‘non-sensing’ platform (slow, clunky, vulnerable, flawed), on the whole, the article lauds it as some sort of biblical feature pre-dating the narrowed confines of web 2.0. Of course, this is doubly untrue. Firstly, the PC-based HTML web can indeed sense in all the noted ways. It still has eyes (web-cams), ears and a sense of place (however fixed and immobile).  And secondly, the continued investment in mobile technology (aka web 2.0) is predicated on open, expansive, experiences. Only Apple and other pretenders seem to gain from the walled garden effect. The challenge, like Zittrain notes, is to traverse these boundaries in ways that cast open the future of the web.