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<nettime> The Flaneur and his Duck 1/2
owner-nettime-l on Fri, 21 Nov 1997 18:11:52 +0100 (MET)


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<nettime> The Flaneur and his Duck 1/2



The Flaneur and his Duck

Towards a Discourse-Theoretical Analysis of (Cyber-)Spatiality

by Oliver Marchart



'Let us space.'
Jacques Derrida (1986:75)


William J. Mitchell, MIT-professor for architecture and media science,
starts his journey into 'Space, Place, and the Infobahn' with the following
confession: 'My name is wjm {AT} mit.edu, and I'm an electronic flaneur'
(Mitchell 1995a:7). Mitchell's 'City of Bits' is part of a genre of popular
science which is devoted to the idea of applying the city metaphor to
electronic networks. In the German speaking world it is Florian Roetzer who
aims to define the Internet as 'Telepolis', not only the title of one of
his books (Roetzer 1995) but also the title of his e-journal. There he
assumes that rural concepts like 'global village' or 'electronic cottage'
have become superseded by such as 'City of Bits', 'Interactive City',
'Internationale Stadt', 'Telepolis', 'Digital City', 'CyberCity', 'Computer
City' or 'Virtual City'.

Roetzer thereby conflates the metaphorical city structure taken up by some
providers in order to offer their customers a well known environment easy
to navigate even for illiterates (from the Cleveland Freenet onwards to,
for instance, Apple's e-world where icons for the Community Center,
Business & Finance Plaza, Marketplace, Arts & Leisure Pavilion etc. are
neatly arranged around one central park) with a somewhat distinct idea. The
idea, namely, of the whole Internet as one big City. This 'Telepolis' or
'City of Bits' has not anymore the structure of a provincial town like
Apple's e-world but it is marked by such metropolitan promises and dangers
as there are confusion, centerlessness, traffic jam, dark corners,
libraries, commercial arcades, porno-shops, and so on and so forth. But one
of the Cit does this immaterial space have boundaries? And if yes, what
kind of boundaries?

These questions on the nature of virtual space obviously echo the ones
already posed by Bernard Tschumi about the nature of architectural,
material space:  'If space is a material thing, does it have boundaries? If
space has boundaries, is there another space outside those boundaries? If
space does not have boundaries, do things then extend infinitely?' (Tschumi
1994:53-54). Let us consider (1) how space is constructed, (2) what role -
from a discourse analytical viewpoint - do boundaries play in this respect,
and (3) how we might describe not only the quasi-universal logics of space
but also the particular discursive manifestations of the latter.

Hence, in order to deter prospective flaneurs from drifting through this
article we shall start at the highest possible level of abstraction and
then - through a linear and bureaucratic derivation - enter the concrete.


Time vs. Space

Let us start with the structuralist claim that space is not only
constructed discursively but that discourse as such, in the sense of a
signifying system, is essentially spatial. The line of the argument, as it
was developed by Ernesto Laclau, goes as follows: He starts from the
Saussurian assumption that meaning arises only within a system of
differences. The possibility of a system of differences, however, depends
on the possibility of its limits - and these limits cannot belong to the
side of the system, since in that case the limit was just another
difference and, hence, no limit. It is only as far as we perceive the
outside of the system as a radical outside (and the limit therefore as an
exclusionary limit) that we can speak of systematicity or meaning at all.
As a consequence the limits cannot be signified themselves, they can only
'show themselves as the interruption or breakdown of the process of
signification' (Laclau 1996:37). The radicality of the radical outside
(non-meaning) is not only the condition of possibility for the
establishment of a structure (meaning) it is at the same time the condition
of impossibility of the establishment of a structure as closed totality
(full meaning). The effect of the exclusionary limit, in other words, 'is
that it introduces an essential ambivalence within the system of
differences constituted by those limits' (Laclau 1996:38). Laclau calls
this ambivalence dislocation, and he sees a temporal phenomenon in the
dislocatory effects to which every structure is subjected.

According to Laclau, temporality - the very form of dislocation - must be
conceived as the exact opposite of space. On the other hand, the
symbolization/systematization of the event of the interruption or breakdown
consists of eliminating its temporality. The very idea of a structure
already implies some spatiality resp. topography (otherwise, simply spoken,
the structure was not structured at all). Establishing a topography
therefore implies the effort of transferring time into space (Laclau calls
this the 'hegemonization of time by space'), decreasing the dislocatory
'destructuring' effects to a minimum and fixing the flux of meaning. In
order to symbolize a succession of events they have to be made
synchronically present, they have to be spatialized, which takes place
through repetition. The mythical figure of the eternal return of the same
(as any myth) is spatial in this sense - for it describes a circle - and it
is not temporal at all. The sedimented social myths and traditions are
nothing else than the outcome of repetitive practices of articulation
('[a]ny repetition that is governed by a structural law of successions is
space' Laclau 1990:41) which lost their contingent origin in the course of
this repetition so that now we perceive them as necessary, incontestable,
eternal etc. And Laclau makes clear that he doesn't refer to space in a
metaphorical sense: 'If physical space is also space, it is because it
participates in this general form of spatiality' (Laclau 1990:42).


Articulation and Rearticulation

What follows is that it would be naive to hold on to the idea of space as
an uncontested objectivity. Space is, quite on the contrary, the result of
an articulatory practice: the fixation of meaning. The outcome of this
practice is some hierarchized structure where the relations between
elements, levels, places etc. are more or less well-defined, that is fixed.
On the other hand, this fixation can never be complete. It is a
totalitarian illusion to think one could master the totality of a
signifying system, no matter if we call this system "Society", "City" or
"Cyberspace". So on the one hand the arrestment of the flux of meaning into
a structered system gives rise to the possibility of a topographic
relationship between the different elements of this system. But, on the
other hand 'if all objectivity is systematically overflown by a
constitutive outside [time, OM] any form of unity, articulation and
hierachization that may exist between the various regions and levels will
be the result of a contingent and pragmatic construction, and not an
essential connection that can be recognized' (Laclau 1985: 186).

This means that if time always subverts space, then it is simply not
possible to establish this contingent and pragmatic construction of the
topography of a signifying system once and for all; in that case the
connection between the elements would actually be an essential one. But
quite on the contrary, this connection has to be continuously articulated,
time has constantly to be hegemonized by practices of spatialization, and
this only works through repetition (succession). Thus, articulation is an
ongoing process which essentially consists in the repetitive connection of
elements. It is through articulation, through the linking of different
elements, that we open up a space.

Lawrence Grossberg gives as one example for articulation the linking of
/blondness/ to  /stupidness/ in misogynist discourse. We can take for
granted that there is no essential, biological, deterministic relationship
between one's hair colour and one's IQ, but it is this very lacking of any
essential connection which enables competing forces to define/articulate
which element is going to enter a chain of equivalence with the other
element. (Alluding to a certain common genre of jokes, one could say that
it is equally possible to construct a hegemonic link between /stupidness/
and /bicycle-riding/. A joke of this kind, then, in its effort to reveal
the absurdity of essentialist linkings, would probably go somehow like
this: 'A: Blondes are stupid; B: Like bicycle-riders; A: Why
bicycle-riders?; B: Why blondes?'. Such a - good liberal, and therefore not
very funny - genre of jokes appeals with its pun line precisely to the idea
of the contingent relation of elements, always subject to necessary
articulation).

Let's stop here for a moment and relate the theory of articulation
developed above to an example more prone to our topic. To launch a new
print-journal always poses strategic problems of some importance. Any
decision is going to define not only the first issue but also the whole set
of up-coming issues and, hence, the reader's 'affective tonality' towards
the project and its future. So, when Wired launched the first issue of its
UK-edition one of the main questions must have been: What to put on the
frontcover? What is going to be our first title-story? And, surprisingly,
or perhaps not so surprisingly, the editors decided to put a man on the
cover who is dead for over 250 years: Thomas Paine.

Why Thomas Paine? The main header tells us: 'Thomas Paine - digital
revolutionary'. And - smaller - we can read what is one of his best-known
quotes: 'We have it in our power to construct the world over again'. Only
that /world/, here, apparently refers to cyberspace. This sentence seems to
be both a variation on our theme of articulation and an articulatory effort
on its own right. So why should Wired UK conjure a historical figure? The
answer is very simple, because Thomas Paine was an Englishman, and
moreover, he aligned himself with the American revolution (being somehow
the first professional revolutionary, the first Che Guevara). So by
reanimating Thomas Paine the editors enable themselves to establish a link
a) between England and the States (particularly the States of the
Californian Ideology, expressed by Wired US and Mondo2000), b) to the
overall techno-apocalyptic discourse crystallized in the notion of
Revolution. By building a bridge across  historic time (which also is
spatial, as we have seen) they build one across geographic space.

The alignment with the Californian Ideology  and its ideologems like
hippie-lifestyle and free market-liberalism is to be observed throughout
the whole issue, but the point is, that Wired-UK cannot become a simple
imitation of its US counterpart, it has to be distinctive even to raw
Californian Ideology which is - for the UK market - simply indigestible
without some English rearticulations. What we can see in the UK-editor's
decision to put Thomas Paine on the cover, hence, is the brave attempt to
articulate fish and chips with hamburgers.

However, this is not the end of the story: Thomas Paine, after
participating in the American Revolution, nothing else to do, crossed the
Atlantic again and took part in the French Revolution. But, according to
Jon Katz who wrote the article on Paine, the Jacobins were not so happy
about him as he became to defend the life of the king, and so they
sentenced him to death (but luckily the revolution ended early and he came
free). A true hero of cyberspace, what else. But in the narrative
construction another element enters: the enemy. It is not only that England
and America are linked together, thus opening up a new space, Cyberspace,
they also can only establish a more constant relation if they turn
themselves against a third element. Another article on the French 'war'
against American culture, against the English language in particular,
deepens this operation. We can see Francois Mitterand with Mickey
Mouse-ears and the subtitle: bad news, Francois, Mickey is winning. Here it
is the mean French centralist state that wants to interfere with the
individual rights of self-expression (very much like the American state
wants to interfere with supposedly free Internet communication) and does so
directly by censoring English/American vocabulary (for Wired-UK nothing
less than a metonymic attack against Englishness as such).

To conclude, in this example for articulation we can observe two inimical
chains of equivalence built between the liberal/liberalist Anglo-American
countries on the one side and statist, centralist France (metonymically
standing for continental Europe) on the other:
UK(US)/communitarianism/market liberalism/popular
culture/Paine-friendly/pluralistic
vs.
 France(continent)/etatism/intervetionist/high culture/Paine-hostile/central=
ist


Rearticulation

Articulation advances in a double movement. On the one hand hegemonic
articulation can lead - where it is successful - to what Laclau and before
him Fredric Jameson, both drawing on Husserl, called sedimentation or the
'sedimented forms of =EBobjectivity'' (Laclau 1990:35). This is the field of
the supposedly 'objective', or as Barthes would have said 'naturalized'
social as opposed to the political field of rearticulation. Sedimentation,
following Husserl, is a name for the routinization and forgetting of
origins, which tends to happen as soon as a certain articulatory effort
became successfully hegemonic. In our terminology this movement simply
describes the fixation of meaning into solid topographies, that have to be
conceived as sedimentations of power, and are meant to spatialize movement
into a precise choreography. Traditions are such routinized practices.

But since, on the other hand, these spatial, 'ossified' sedimentations can
be reactivated there is a temporalization of space or a 'widening of the
field of the possible'. We are facing, in Laclau's words, a moment of
reactivation. We call this a process of de-fixation of meaning. In this
case, more and more elements, layers and places are going to be perceived
as contingent in their relational nature. Jokes about the contingent
relation between /stupidness/ and /bicycle-riders/ become dominant over
misogynist or anti-Semitic jokes. At the - fictitious - end of this
trajectory the fixed topography vanishes into a fluctuating wave; land
becomes liquid.

A recent volume edited by Heelas/Lash/Morris tried to come to grips with
that phenomenon by subsuming it under the notion of detraditionalization.
In this volume Timothy W. Luke, in an article on Identity, Meaning,
Globalization, claims that '[s]pace does not exist as such; it too must be
fabricated continuously in the production and reproduction of society'
(Luke 1996.120), and he continues by linking the production of spatial
order to what we have called routinized, repetitive practices of tradition:

'Traditional practices, as they are memorialized in modern social theory,
are spatially-specific and spatially-defined, even though the spatial
dimension is often explicitly ignored in theoretical discussions. Stable
sites, permanent places, or long-lasting locales often make what is
recognized as tradition possible; the site itself is a projector or
container of traditional action. Without the original definition of
natural/organic site-logics, site-languages, and site-layouts, the
substance of tradition perhaps cannot be intellectually coded and decoded,
or correctly enacted and reacted to, with any enduring predictability'
(Luke 1996:122).

Although we would endorse most of what is said above we would give it a
slightly different turn. It is not only that stable sites make the
recognition of traditions possible but rather that repetitive
sedimentations produce such sites in the first place. It becomes even
necessary to underline not only that traditions are space, but also that
traditions make space. And thus, having discovered traditionalization as
spatialization, one can easily conclude that detraditionalization must have
something to do with despatialization too.

Let us return to the strategies of the urbanistic post-war avant-garde as
they are referred to by the theoreticians of Cyber-City. These
avant-gardists, who meanwhile became part of traditions themselves, were
deeply concerned - with what? Firstly, it belongs to the very definition of
avant-garde that it enacts a project of detraditionalization. Tradition (in
the classical case: the academy) is what avant-garde militates against. But
architectural avant-garde has in addition to that - although
detraditionalization is always entangled with despatialization -  the great
advantage of literally articulating despatialization as one of its major
demands. Despatialization here is not only a name for the logic of
rearticulation, of de-fixing ossified layers of meaning, more than that, it
also becomes the very content of the articulatory project itself.

That should become clear when we have a more closer look at these
practices. In order to avoid misunderstandings, though, it is important to
keep in mind that we are not saying that de-fixation of topographical
meaning is under any circumstances avant-garde and fixation of meaning is
always traditional and old-fashioned. This would be absurd since every
de-fixation can only work through a proposal of an alternative fixation, as
utopic the latter may be. For Fluxus (a movement that bears the drift
towards un-fixity in its name) for instance Wolf Vostell has developed an
urbanistic philosophy of 'fantastic architecture' which draws for instance
on Hollein's proposal of a city as aircraft carrier and on Ruehm's
'Vienna', which has to be built out of its own letters. Psychogeography and
the Imaginist Bauhaus on the other hand have developed a whole strategy of
defixing architectonic meaning. The Dutch situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys
for example based his idea of an ideal and utopian city on a mobile and
nomadic architecture and called psychogeography 'the science fiction' of
architecture: 'Constant imagined the citizens of a postrevolutionary future
living in perpetual circulation and indeterminacy, liberated from fixed
modes of production by cybernetic technology and able to reinvent their own
environment on a purely creative basis' (Tschumi  1993:314).

Another movement, Metabolism, proposes an elastic and dynamic form of urban
design directed against static compositions and master plans. A certain
organicism comes into play here, which conceives the city as living
organism. Arata Isozaki - informed by Barthe's semiotics - writes 1966 in
his 'Invisible City' that 'constant movement, diffusion, rejection of fixed
images' are part of what today we would call Megacities. Referring to
Wiener and McLuhan he proposes a 'city as virtual structure', a simulated
urban environment, which can be connected to the real city by means of
computers: 'Today's construction of virtual cities through simulation is
entirely different from the fantasy and utopian plans of the twenties.(...)
This means that, through computers, its possibilities become linked with
the possibility of flow into the actual city. Under such conditions,
considerations of totality, creation of visual order, and formal unity lose
significance. But all kind of cities can be planned: City on the Sea, City
in the Air, Labyrinth City, City for the Dead, and so on. In the process of
expressing these ideas in models and manipulating them so that they overlap
with the real city, the designer acts as a pilot and must not be swayed by
his own fixed, preconceived concepts, since he is dealing with constant
mutual response between reality and hypothesis' (Tschumi 1993:406).

We can also find a 'temporary' fixation of space as part of avant-garde
strategies. Temporary fixation in the sense of building a hole in space, -
of 'space-piracy'. The avant-garde has proposed something similar in
Gabriele d'Annunzio's 'carnivalistic' republic of Fiume or in diverse
short-living anarchist rebublics. Hakim Bey modelled his concept of
'Temporary Autonomous Zones' on these pirate republics and applied it to
electronic networks.

This tendency of avant-garde fundamentally consists in a movement towards
breaking down given choreographies of power into their pieces. In this
respect it stands in opposition to both rationalist projects of classical
urbanism and to the commercial colonization of today's cyberspace, which
fixes meaning in consideration of the flexibility required by post-fordist
capitalism. Yet there is another trend in avant-garde which proposes - as
its content - a quite rigid fixation of meaning (a counter-fixation in
regard to traditionalism). But before dwelling on this branch we have to
surf the final frontier first.


Surfing the Final Frontier (the Borders of Orders)

Does all this lead us to an answer to Tschumi's questions concerning the
boundaries of space? It was argued that the limits of a significatory
system must belong to the radical outside of the system (otherwise they
would constitute merely one more difference within the system). But as this
radical outside induces an ambivalence (dislocations) to the system the
latter becomes hybridized and the limits become retroactively affected on
their part. So we have a situation where the condition of possibility of
signification is also its condition of impossibility. The flow of the
signifiers cannot be stopped once and for all but on the other side they
must partially be fixed in order to produce some meaning. Thus the
boundaries of space (or of the system, which amounts to the same) become
what T. Luke in his article calls '(b)order(s)' (Luke 1996:124).

These (b)order(s) - as third category beside time and space - have given
rise to a great deal of reflections. As the state of the frontier is ever
shifting (on the one hand it must belong to the radical outside while on
the other it is subverted as a clear line precisely through this radical
outside) it creates not only a general problem for theorization but it also
turns into the concrete object of hegemonial struggles. Analyzing
narratives, 'spatial stories', Michel De Certeau, although he doesn't refer
directly to the polemical nature of the frontier, gives some account of the
problem when he says: 'The theoretical and practical problem of the
frontier is: to whom does it belong?'. But the frontier does not simply
call for the hegemonic process of 'marking out boundaries'. For DeCerteau -
by drawing on Morgenstern's well known account of architecture and the
architect's profession: ('One time there was a picket fence / with space to
gaze from hence to thence. / An architect who saw this sight / approached
it suddenly one night, / removed the spaces from the fence / and built of
them a residence...') - in the story 'the frontier functions as a third
element. It is an =EBin-between' - a "space between'' (DeCerteau 1988:127),
which allows the frontier to turn into a bridge, an ambiguous form of
frontier.

However, we would like to make the slightly different point here that at
least in our cyberspatial travellers' tales you definitely cannot cross
that bridge. The electronic frontier, like its model the frontier of the
Wild West, is an always receding horizon you can never reach, let alone
cross (Marchart 1996). There will always be a 'final' frontier. Analogue to
the Lacanian objet petit a, this frontier is circulating (always receding)
but  you can never get hold of it. And therefore the process of hegemonic
articulation never stops. We are constantly constructing New Worlds.

Why do we encounter (cyber-)cities in a supposedly New Continent or Space?
Are cities something new to mankind? Why do we find ancient figures like
flaneurs, situationists and urban utopists on a New Continent? The answer
lies in the fact that - as in the discovery of every new continent - you
will always discover what you already know. This is, because the outside of
signification must be a radical outside in order to function as a
constitutive outside. It only leaves its traces within the signifying
system, but you cannot leave your traces on the outside. What Robinson
discovers in Friday's footprints is that he is not on the outside of
mankind and civilization, there already is somebody. Yes, the border is
ambiguous and floating, but it is ambiguous and floating because you can
never reach it. Any movement within this conjuncture belongs to what
Jacques Ranciere calls identifying travel, the schema of 'finding the same
by moving to the place of the other' (Ranciere 1994:36). Dissatisfied with
this scheme, Ranciere proposes to discover the other in the same and calls
for new 'modalities of a heterological science' (Ranciere 1994:37).

The question remains whether a heterological science can be possible if
there's nothing outside the text, as Derrida said. Doesn't turn the
other-within-the-same immediately into this very same? This argumentative
weakness is inherited from Foucault whose text 'Of Other Spaces', after his
publication in 1984, has triggered a whole genre of
'heterotopology'-studies. In this text, he refers to heterotopias as
privileged, sacred or forbidden spaces within our society, marking either a
space of transition or of deviation. The incongruency lies in the fact that
it is unclear who is going to define whether a certain space falls into
this category or not - and are there spaces other than heterotopias? Why is
it, that they are placed outside and inside at the same time? Benjamin
Genocchio has formulated this critique as follows: 'how is it, that
heterotopias are =EBoutside' of or are fundamentally different to other
spaces, but also are relate to and exist =EBwithin' the general social
space/order that distinguishes their meaning as different?'. Apparently,
this 'differentiation depends upon him [Foucault, OM] clearly
differentiating the disordered and discontinuous =EBinternal' character of
these sites' (Genocchio 1995:36).

And a further question immediately arises: If Foucault decides to include
into the category of heterotopia brothels, churches, hotel and motel rooms,
museums, graveyards, libraries, prisons, asylums, psychiatric hospitals,
military facilities, Roman baths, the Turkish hammam and the Scandinavian
sauna, and if one could, as Genocchio does, easily add markets, sewers,
amusement parks and shopping malls - what on earth, then, is not
heterotopic? This is exactly the problem of concepts of the outside within
the inside. Heterotopias are not purely parts of the inside, moreover, at a
certain emphatic moment - as in Foucault but also in Marc Auge - they even
fall into one with the inside. If everything can become a heterotopos
nothing actually will be. Let us look now at the most prevalent
theorization of the Internet as such a heterotopos:
The Deleuzian idea of the net as a rhizomatic, centerless space of flows.


Center vs. Flow

In the 'Architects in Cyberspace' issue of Architectural Design Sadie Plant
most clearly formulates the Space-of-Flows theory of the Internet.
Cyberspace resists, she argues, any demands for surveillance, regulation
and censorship, as 'such zones have always been out of control.' Here, she
draws the parallel to cities: 'Cities, like cyberspace, are not objects of
knowledge to be planned and designed, but cybernetic assemblages, immensely
intricate interplays of forces, interests, zones and desires too complex
and fluid for even those who inhabit them to understand.' (Plant 1995:36).
The reason for this kind of urban resistance lies in the Deleuzian
substance, which is ascribed to cities: 'Weeds and grasses lift the paving
stones'. This allusion to =EB68 is not bound to the subversive potential of
Cyber-flows, 'all spaces, their builders, and inhabitants, functioned as
cybernetic systems in multiple layers of cybernetic space' (Plant 1995:37).
One could add many other examples praising the rhizomatic power of urban
flows.

In the first place, to pronounce the flowish, rhizomatic centerlessness of
the Internet/the City is a redundant enterprise. Any structure, any
signifying system is by definition centerless and for that reason alone a
structure like the Internet clearly can't have no center either. But what
is the very logic of a decentered structure and what does dislocation mean
in concern to the absence of the center? Laclau makes clear that by simply
referring to the decentered character of a structure the story has not yet
come to an end. What is meant by a decentered structure is 'not just the
absence of a centre but the practice of decentring through antagonism'
(Laclau 1990:40). On the one hand, since any system of signification is
dislocated there can be no single center. Yet on the other hand, 'the
response to the dislocation of the structure will be its recomposition
around particular nodal points [centers] of articulation by the various
antagonistic forces'. So that we can say that it is exactly the
dislocatory, centerless nature of a signifying system that is the result
both of different struggles for defining the meaning of this system and the
call for new attempts of centering. 'Social dislocation is therefore
coterminous with the construction of power centres' (Laclau 1990:40).



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