Sanitising the Thames: from the spectacle of infrastructure to the infrastructure of spectacle

October 11, 2017

What amounts to an introduction to water infrastructure and spectacle in relation to the Thames. Did you know that London had a desalinisation plant? (No, me neither).

Room for expansion in most areas, but whose got time? Images and notes in the PDF, text below.


Images and notes.



A history of London is a history of a settlement’s relationship to water. London, as a Roman settlement, existed because of the Thames; it was navigable by ship, its topography provided a defensible space, and served by numerous springs and tributaries that provided clean drinking water. Through the medieval, early modern and modern periods, London’s connection to the river and surrounding landscape changed, but it remained a key axis and resource at the heart of the city. Through probing the relationship of London’s water – both fresh and waste – and the political dynamics of urban space, we might seek to interrogate key infrastructural developments of the 19th and 20th centuries in relation to spectacle.

Spectacle is understood here as a complex and changing term. Through the Victorian era, spectacle, derived from the Old French ‘to look’ contains within it notions of the public. It might describe something set before a public gaze as an object of admiration or derision. Later in the 20th century we might begin to associate the spectacle with Guy Debord as a diagnosis of society under capitalism. Similarly infrastructure, a word that emerged in the 1870s in relation to railway construction, is inextricably linked to the technical provision of systems that support and shape urban life. Our understanding of infrastructure, is not just as physical things, but more abstract concepts, flows or structures that underpin a system. As Gandy puts it: “As the emphasis shifted from façade to function, the ornate hydrological paraphernalia of the early industrial cities were superseded by a new technological calculus.” This essay suggests that this calculus has been distorted to help provide the infrastructure of contemporary spectacle.

On the spectacle of infrastructure

By the middle of the 19th century, the Thames – its status as the city’s sewer long-established by a combination of topography and rudimentary approaches to the disposal of waster water – had begun to emit a terrible odour. An 1853 letter to The Builder, quoted in Stephen Halliday’s The Great Stink of London, details the state of the Thames as follows: 

“The flood… is now, below London Bridge, bad as poetical descriptions of the Stygian Lake, while the London Dock is black as Acheron… where are ye, ye civil engineers? Ye can remove mountains, bridge seas and fill rivers… can ye not purify the Thames, and so render your own city inhabitable?”

Although Halliday finds evidence of this condition as early as 1853, it took another five years and one long, hot summer, to summon the political will to do something about it. During “the summer of 1858 the ‘Great Stink’ was on the point of driving Parliament from London”. So bad was the stench, that the windows of the Houses of Parliament were hung with “drapes soaked in chloride of lime” to cleanse the atmosphere.

Of course, that it took the miasma to reach parliament before anything was done about it should come as no surprise. Within the entrenched class dynamics of London’s geography, it was the poorer areas that were subject to bouts of the waterborne disease, cholera. The pervasive belief that cholera spread through the air – through the miasma of an infected stench – meant little to a political elite that banked on London’s prevailing westerly. When the miasma finally overwhelmed parliament, the perception that it carried an increased risk of contagious disease meant it was time to act. Although, as Moore notes, there existed a “Balkanised” set of institutions that derived powers from no fewer than “three hundred different bodies” and “two hundred and fifty local Acts”, Disraeli was able to pass a bill that led, in 1855, to the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works.

Joseph Bazalgette was appointed to the role of Chief Engineer of Metropolitan Board of Works. While the remit of the Board covered the development of a city-wide solution to London’s waste water, the scope of the works that were undertaken would eventually include rehousing 40,000 from slum conditions, as well as the creation of new roads, public spaces and river crossings. Our focus though, is the Thames, and its relationship to the hydro-infrastructure that brackets it. To deal with the problem of sewage, Bazalgette proposed a scheme that, at its core, involved the creation of two large intercepting sewers. These two sewers – the Northern Outfall Sewer and the Southern Outfall Sewer – would run alongside the Thames, preventing sewage from reaching its waters in central London and dumping the sewage far enough down river in Barking that it wouldn’t be able to wash back up during tidal flows. 

While it’s true that what we might loosely term ‘water infrastructure’ had existed in London prior to the intervention of the Metropolitan Board of Works, it had primarily been concerned with the provision of water, rather than its removal. It was, in other words, concerned with water as a commodity – as a saleable product – but not with the negative externalities produced by the sale and consumption of that product: sewage. Water provision as an entrepreneurial field existed as early as 1600: Sir Hugh Myddleton spotted that through the stress of an increasing population, and the scarcity of increasingly polluted supplies through wells, springs and smaller Thames tributaries, there existed a market for fresh water. With the financial backing of King James I, Myddleton, between 1609 and 1613 created the New River: a man-made canal that brought spring water from Hertfordshire, to Spa Green in London.

Although both the New River and the Metropolitan Board of Works infrastructural interventions share similarities – the motives of financial and political elites – they might be distinguished in relation to capital. One, born of profit-motive to satisfy a public need, the other, a state-led initiative to deal with a public problem. What unites them, as Gandy notes in The Fabric of Space, is that “water is inextricably linked with the idea of infrastructure as a technical and organisational domain that underpins the functional dynamics of urban space.” In Bazalgette’s historical moment, the infrastructural outcomes of a hydro-politics that delivered sanitation, are intimately tied to the development of the state within a framework of 19th century nation building.

Of particular interest in Bazalgette’s scheme is the relationship that exists between the aesthetics of its surface and sub-surface implementation. Here, we might draw a distinction between the framework that at points carries the sewers, and the technical infrastructure of the sewers themselves. The distinction say, between the Thames embankment, and the sewers that it was built to house. To look at the sewers specifically, is to see a network that presents itself as spectacle when it breaks the surface. As Gandy states, water infrastructure consists of “a largely unnoticed skein of technological systems”; it’s notable that when Bazalgette’s works present themselves to the gaze, they do so as an image that obfuscates their function. The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, known, as the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’, and the Crossness Pumping Station are built in “Byzanto-Moorish” and “neo-Romanesque” styles respectively. There’s none of the austere Victorian functionalism of the Lea Valley’s Markfield Beam Engine. Instead, both exist as an elaborate architectural confection that seems to distract from what’s contained within. Below ground, the sewers take the form of circular pipes. Nothing more than their function demands, and notably different, as Gandy shows, to the ornate vaulted structures of the sewers of Paris. A difference of temperament: Parisians valorise their waste, Londoners don’t. 

The Victoria Embankment, houses the central London section of the Northern Outfall Sewer. It is, according to  Moore “what 1960s architectural dreamers would call a megastructure, an extruded multilayered construction that performed technical and social purposes simultaneously. But it was achieved and real. It was a platform for modernity, albeit framed with conservative masonry and ornamental cast-iron.” Reclaimed from marshland that bordered the Thames, the Victoria Embankment houses the infrastructural framework of the sewer, along with the underground railway that’s now known as the District Line. Above the surface it’s hard to imagine the north bank – choked as it is currently by motor traffic – as a Victorian parade. Nonetheless, it contained a number of public gardens reclaimed from the river, was the first street in London to be lit at night by street lighting, and for Moore it represented a democratisation of space: “embanked river terraces had previously been properties of privileged places such as Somerset House and the Adelphi development, but now they belonged to everybody.”

This nascent riverside spectacle, the result of Bazalgette’s programme of works, “changed London’s relation to the river in ways that are still being interpreted and explored.” The 1870 opening of the Thames embankment made London’s relationship with the river “less intimate, ending the small interactions of wharves, steps and yards that had taken place along a tide-blurred boundary of land and water.” Gone, were the nooks and crannies, dead-ends, and liminal spaces that existed between tidal flows, in their place Bazalgette created a rationalised granite canyon, shuttering the banks of the Thames and making its waters “flow faster and more precisely.” It’s tempting to read this transformation of the river’s flow as an allegory for industrial capitalism: it reads as an exercise in alienation. The Thames, once engaged with through the quotidian lived experience of the city at all its messy, ill-formed edges, becomes accelerated as a result of a centralised, paternal, development. In restructuring this lived experience  the functional dynamics of urban space are altered. For Moore, from 1870, if the Thames “remained a working river, it also became something more to be looked at than experienced.”

On the infrastructure of spectacle

Guy Debord – chief orchestrator of the Situationist International from its founding in 1957 to its dissolution in 1972 – writing in 1967, identified the movement from experience to image as the central (broadly American-European) condition of modernity under capitalism. Following Marx, and particularly, Lukacs’ insights into the nature of alienation, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle describes the dominance of the commodity form in everyday life. The spectacle describes an ontology in which the relationship between commodities comes to dominate the social relationships between the workers that produce them: for Debord, “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” While the basis for this critical formulation developed from the rise of mass media, advertising, public relations and so on, through the early 20th century, Debord extended the impact of the spectacle to all forms of life.

While in 1967 Debord would draw a distinction between two forms of the spectacle – the diffuse, in broadly capitalist states; and the concentrated, in countries dominated by fascism or dictatorships – he would, in 1988, revise his distinction to include a third type of arrangement, that of the ‘integrated spectacle’. The integrated spectacle brings together elements of both the diffuse and concentrated forms, but in societies in which the diffuse has shown itself to be stronger. It’s this form, in which the role of the leader in the concentrated spectacle is replaced by an other, that of terrorism, difference, or fear of an unidentified collective that might threaten a shared way of life, that has come to dominate. The integrated spectacle “integrates itself into reality to the same extent that it speaks of it”, in short, it restructures reality within its bounds. In London, this means that broader frame of Western (neo)liberal democracy is simply viewed as the only game in town: the spectacle possesses an unquestioned realism, subsuming and mitigating revolutionary activity within it.

We might conceive of architecture as a history of image making. As a discipline it is – in its speculative proposals and materialised projects – concerned with representation: how do things look. A simple incorporation of Debord’s critique might be to draw parallels between architecture’s reliance on representation, with the oft-quoted statement that “in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” To make architectural propositions is often to deal in spectacles. This is though, a rather simplistic undervaluing of Debord’s critical insight, and it’s through the fuller understanding of the spectacle, detailed above, that the term should be employed. Through this reading of spectacle – an etymological movement that chimes with the development of industrial capitalism through the 19th and 20th centuries – we might hope to interrogate the most recent infrastructural proposals that surround the Thames.

Since the turn of the 21st century we might identify three key pieces of infrastructure that relate to the Thames. Firstly, the desalination plant at Beckton, owned by Thames Water, secondly, the Emirates Air Line that runs between the Royal Docks and Greenwich Peninsula, and thirdly the proposals for the Garden Bridge. These three projects, two built, one proposed, relate to the Thames in different ways. The desalination plant at Beckton treats the Thames – which is “effectively a tidal canal” – as an unlimited resource. The Emirates Air Line – a folly masquerading as a piece of infrastructure – initially treated the Thames as an obstacle to be crossed, but now markets itself as a mode of “enjoying great views”. The Garden Bridge, similarly, treats the Thames as an untapped site of leisure, while wearing the mask of a ‘much-needed’ river crossing. What these projects share, is that the “intersecting flows of water and capital” that have shaped them, “reveal the wider political dynamics of the urban arena.” They act as part infrastructure of spectacle, that is, of a maintenance of status-quo politics, and business-as-usual attitudes to the wider environment they shape.

The success of Bazalgette’s Board of Metropolitan Works also ushered in the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903. This publicly run body, was put in charge of London’s water supply. It was privatised in 1989, creating Thames Water. The creation the for-profit commercial entity Thames Water thus involved the transfer of huge amounts of land, technical apparatus, and sub-surface infrastructure away from public ownership. Privatisation as a neoliberal ideological project births commercial enterprises that subscribe to the Cartesian capitalism and nature formulation that Jason Moore describes in the Capital in the Web of Life. The response to short-term issues of supply – and thus, short-term reductions in profit that dissatisfy shareholders – is then a technocratic response to the solving of a particular problem: at the turn of the 21st century,  Thames Water noticed that summer droughts were hampering its ability to supply water to customers. Rather than suggesting that – within the frame of the Anthropocene – the answer might be to use less water, or to fix the leaks that resulted in around a 25% loss of its total supply, Thames Water proposed building an energy-intensive desalination plant. What we’re left with is a response to droughts (a result of climate change) that presents itself as a zero-sum game: in drought conditions, burn huge amounts of fuel to clean sea-water, thus providing a short-term fix to the water supply, and exacerbating long-term conditions that choke that very water supply.

It should come as no surprise that planning permission for the desalination plant was granted under the Mayoral tenure of Boris Johnson: a one-man embodiment of the relationship between the concentrated and diffuse spectacle. Johnson was also responsible for the second and third of our infrastructural examples, ones that reveal the network of vested interests and flows of capital that exist between City Hall and a web of celebrities, private developers, and urban elites. The first of these, the Emirates Air Line, might be viewed as a Garden Bridge test run. Devised by Johnson, the cable car that spans the Thames from Greenwich to the Royal Docks opened in 2012. Its planning was contingent on a private  finance model that locks in corporate sponsorship, with a promised ‘no obligation’ to the tax payer. Of course, with budget overruns, this promised no obligation developed into £24 million taken from Transport For London’s budget. Touted as an important commuter link and addition to the public transport network, the cable car managed, in 2013, to garner an impressive total of four regular commuters.

This type of tourist-attraction-cum-public-asset, a proposition that expresses an infrastructure-without-infrastructure as we might understand it in the non-spectacular sense, is also evident in the proposal for the Garden Bridge. Johnson, “keen to find an iconic piece of green infrastructure that can symbolise London as a high quality of life place to live” backed Joanna Lumley’s campaign for a new piece of ‘green infrastructure’: a bridge with some trees on it wedged between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Proposed as £60 million, the estimated cost of the project ballooned to £200 million, this time with a revised pledge from Johnson, that Transport For London would cover the operating costs when the Garden Bridge Trust couldn’t raise the funds. On  28 April 2017, Mayor Sadiq Khan, following Margaret Hodge’s report into value for the taxpayer, scrapped the project citing a huge funding gap and the alarming spend of £37.4 million of public funds without anything having been built. 

The Garden Bridge might be regarded as exemplary of the infrastructure of spectacle. If we forget for a moment the politics of its murky procurement (the fact that Joanna Lumley sat on Heatherwick Studio’s board; the unclear pre-existing relationships between Johnson, Lumley and Heatherwick), forget too the claims of green infrastructure, and instead see the reformist greening dissected by Ross Adams, what we’re left with is architecture-as-image. This spectacular image: hazy morning light, blue skies and sun-dappled trees sat over still water, marks “different star-commodities simultaneously support contradictory projects for provisioning society”. The spectacle of the construction industry meets the spectacle of greening. The backdrop, the spectacle of the city made safe against the Anthropocene, “is falsified immediately since the actual consumer can directly touch only a succession of fragments”, the bridge, a piece of spectacular green infrastructure, becomes one of those fragments in which “the quality attributed to the whole is obviously missing every time.”

“Let’s stop carping and build the Garden Bridge”

One thing we might legitimately praise the Garden Bridge for is that it served (in the Press) as an entry point for the critical unpicking of the contemporary politics and infrastructure of spectacle that surrounds the Thames. If, as Gandy states, “the transformation of human interaction with water has been an organisational and technological telos for the rationalisation of urban space” we might read these sanitising infrastructural interventions – now as infrastructure-without-infrastructure – as emblematic of the state of contemporary London and society as a whole. It’s representative of a movement from the industrial capitalism of Victorian paternalism – with its early forms of state-led infrastructure and restructuring of urban space – to the short-term thinking and hyper-capitalised spaces of today.

So what of the failed Garden Bridge? Well, the response to the Hodge report by the Garden Bridge Trust was simply to say ‘let’s stop carping’, put any critical concerns about the divestment of money from the public purse to one side and just build the thing. Of course, basing your planning propositions on a Nike slogan doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But what should be remembered is that these spectacular architectural proposals are only one method deployed by the assemblage of councils, developers, real-estate speculators, construction professionals, and town hall employees that make up contemporary London’s property-based class war machine: for every stopped Garden Bridge there exist dozens of euphemistic estate ‘regenerations’ and dispossessions. The challenge might be to keep on carping on: to try and unpick these non-spectacular elements of the spectacle with the same forensic precision that was brought to bear on the Garden Bridge.



Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, Black and Red, Detroit, 2005

Gandy, Matthew, The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity and the Urban Imagination, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014

Halliday, Stephen, The Great Stink of London, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 1999

Knabb, Ken (edited and translated), Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, 2006

McDonough, Tom, Ed., The Situationists and the City, Verso Books, London, 2009

Moore, Jason, Capital in the Web of Life, Verso Books, London, 2015

Moore, Rowan, Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century, Picador, London, 2016

Sadler, Simon, The Situationist City, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999

Spencer, Douglas, The Architecture of Neoliberalism, Bloomsbury, London, 2016

Wark, McKenzie, The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the 20th Century, Verso Books, London, 2013


BBC, ‘Four commuters used River Thames cable car, figures show’,, accessed 27/04/2017

Davies, Mervyn, ‘Let’s stop carping and build the Garden Bridge’,, accessed 27/04/2017

Debord, Guy, ‘Comments on the Society of the Spectacle’,, accessed 27/04/2017

Griffiths, Alan, Thomas ‘Heatherwick reveals Garden Bridge designed for Thames’,, accessed 27/04/2017

The Guardian, ‘The Emirates Air Line – London’s £60m white elephant’,, accessed 27/04/2017

Jacob, Sam, ‘”The Garden Bridge is a magic bullet for a certain idea of the contemporary British city”‘,

Kunkel, Benjamin, ‘The Capitalocene’, accessed 27/04/2017

Lukacs, Georg, ‘History & Class Consciousness’ –

TFL, ‘Emirates Air Line’,, accessed 27/04/2017

Unknown, ‘By the Banks of the New River’,, accessed 25/04/2017

Walker, Peter, ‘Thames garden bridge scrapped by Sadiq Khan’,, 28/04/2017


Page 4

Section from Grace’s Guide:, accessed 27/04/2017

Abbey Mills photo:, accessed 27/04/2017

Page 5

Section from Stephen Halliday’s The Great Stink of London, p, 159

Photo from the Tottenham Journal,, accessed 27/04/2017

Page 8

Photo from the BBC,, accessed 27/04/2017

Page 9

Render from Heatherwick Studios,, accessed, 27/04/2017

October 14, 2014

“This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and that memory is fading.” – Rustin Cohle

Walter Benjamin and Architecture: An Exploration of Porosity and Ruin

July 16, 2012

Written two years ago, but now the Olympic moment is upon is I thought I’d post it. Someone, somewhere, might find it useful.


The purpose of this dissertation is an investigation of the aesthetics and spatial unfolding of both explicitly capitalistic space, and the possibility of its refutation. These forms – one concrete, and one of possibility – frame the space of the city. The material analysis of this dissertation concerns London and is constellated around the site of the forthcoming 2012 Olympic Games. The claim is that the constellation of the contemporary incarnation of the site, and moments of its eclipsed history, provide the two poles of spatial expression under investigation.

The thinker prominent here is Walter Benjamin. It should perhaps be taken as an investigation of Benjamin as much as through Benjamin. That we can derive a number of concepts from Benjamin’s work in an attempt to illuminate current conditions is not an appeal for its primacy over history. What we might suggest, given the conditions of society, and the relations of production that continue to inform it, is that Benjamin provides us at once with a conceptual legacy and methodology. To relate this to the contemporary moment is, with reference to the dialectical interplay of past and present, material and conceptual, an attempt at illumination or the production of possibilities latent but unrealised.

To this end, the dissertation is structured in the following manner. The first chapter attempts a justification of the horizon of the investigation, with reference to both the city – and its extreme poles – and Benjamin. The second chapter is an exploration, through the appeal to ideas of ruin, myth and petrification, of the Olympic Park as an example of capitalism’s explicit space. The third chapter deals with attempts to imagine, or point toward, the immanent refutation of the aesthetic and spatial unfolding of a dominant capitalism. This is undertaken through ideas of utopia, recuperation, and porosity.


‘The experience of our generation: that capitalism will not die a natural death’ – Walter Benjamin.[1]

The quotation above, written by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, serves now, as it did then, as an aggressive challenge to the ongoing domination of capitalism over all forms of life. History shows us that it is not only Benjamin’s generation that experienced capitalism’s vitality. That it has mutated, adjusted and transformed itself while lurching from crisis to crisis shows it to have a heartbeat as discernible today as in the 1930s. Informed by these transformations, the space on which capitalism is inscribed as our society’s built environment is, to borrow words from Michel Foucault, ‘messy, ill constructed, and jumbled’, but above all, enduring.[2] Society is framed by its extremes, at one pole we might point to places that explicitly exhibit the dominant configurations of capital. At the other pole, in obfuscated form, perhaps lie part materialised fragments of utopia. If Benjamin’s pronouncement remains as correct now as it was at the time of writing, is there room to develop through his conceptual and philosophical work, an aesthetic for the built form of a non-capitalist space? This is not solely a question of what architectures of resistance – and beyond this, of a liberated society – may look like, but to question the processes and interrelation of action and aesthetics that shape them.

This dissertation is intended as an exploration of Benjamin with particular reference to aesthetic and spatial concerns, and concomitantly, an exploration of these concerns through Benjamin. However, our site is not Paris of the 19th Century, but London of the 21st, and in particular, the East London location of the forthcoming 2012 Olympics. Although we must acknowledge the inherent tension in the application of a historically marked body of work to the present time, the claim is that the wider conditions of society both then and now – the continuation of a capitalist mode of production, the lasting and indeed increasing number of human residents in cities – permits the bringing together of the past and present in the hope of divesting insights, if not hidden, then perhaps unseen. Consequently this dissertation should not be read as a disavowal of any claim to the historicity of Benjamin’s work, but an attempt – in telescoping the conceptual framework derived from Benjamin through the material analysis of the contemporary moment – at producing unforeseen constellations.

In constellating the project around the London Olympics, it serves, as a site steeped in the explicit logics of capital, to unlock the city surrounding it. Accordingly, the first chapter of the project, with the city as its locus, attempts to explicate ideas of catastrophe, the commodity form, and the relationship between time, space, and a redeemed history. The second chapter pays particular reference to the Olympic Park, treating it as one pole of the unfolding of capitalistic space. It is informed by David Harvey and seeks to explore ideas of non-use and inflexible and spectacular spatial configurations. The third chapter seeks to investigate, with reference to constructions linked to the Olympic site, the possibility of the refutation of the dominant logics that inform the space now. Drawing on Benjamin, it tries to suggest there may be value in porous and flexible imaginings.


‘Definition of basic historical concepts: Catastrophe — to have missed the opportunity. Critical moment — the status quo threatens to be preserved. Progress — the first revolutionary measures taken.’[3]

‘The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe.’[4]

If the purpose of this project is the investigation of the built space – and here we draw a distinction between place as site, and space as network of places as interrelated with human activity – of the city, and in particular, the two poles that bracket the bulk of its messy and ill constructed form, the quotations above, taken from Benjamin’s Arcades Project, prompt a number of questions. Firstly, we may ask why the city? Secondly, we may ask why Benjamin? And thirdly, if the two preceding questions can be answered satisfactorily, what is to be taken from the critical relation between city as site, and Benjamin as its investigator? Consequently the purpose of this chapter is to provide the justification and conceptual apparatus from which the second and third chapters will subsequently draw.

The city or urban form of habitation, as a 2007 UN report tells us, is now the mode in which the majority of the world’s population lives.[5] Beyond this, the city is intimately linked with capitalism as process. Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s infancy was possible because capitalism’s processes – its contradictions and movements – were expressed in Manchester’s factories and urban spaces. Accordingly the expanding form of the city is now one of the hallmarks of 21st Century capitalism. This link is exhibited globally, but in particular, we might point to the metropolises of China that crystallised around the Special Economic Zones (Shenzhen and Shanghai for example) first opened in the 1970s, because they offered the importation of explicitly capitalistic operations into a society ostensibly predicated on communism. While China serves as a pertinent example of the link between capitalism and the tendency of a rapid industrialisation to generate urban forms, it was up until recently predicated on production in the sense identified by Marx in Capital. That is, the production of commodities. However, the tendency of advanced capitalism has been the reorganisation of the city and its resources – and indeed, the illusion of resources in the instantiation of credit and finance capital – toward production of ephemera as spectacle, and its consumption.

The city then, is still the predominant site of capitalism’s exchange logics. What has changed (notably in the First World), is that the urban form now situates itself as the site of predominantly consumptive, rather than productive opportunities. We see this in a number of ways. Firstly, we can suggest that the majority of labour in (Western, and specifically London, as our site of further investigation) cities is devoted, through the digitisation of labour inputs, to management, service industries, entertainment and leisure. Secondly, where production in the manner that Marx described still occurs, it is increasingly returned to suburban locations at nexuses of transport interchanges. Thus, labour in this manner tends to be hidden in the city, and instead, the production of office spaces as interchangeable centres of management or logistical processes monopolise the urban form. Thirdly, around these are situated commercial, entertainment and leisure forms and complexes with attendant advertising.

Of course, this shift is not a sudden or radically new process. Adorno and Horkheimer identified it as the ‘culture industry’, Debord as ‘spectacle’ and Benjamin as the ‘phantasmagoric’ (to which we will return). This is not a claim for a coherency of thought as synonymity between the aforementioned thinkers, but that a key theme links them. It is, in Debord’s terms, the production of spectacle (and, to return to China, here one may think of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Understood as the production of the hegemony of the image, of the appearance of things over their reality – so that all that was once directly lived, is now lived through representation.[6] The network of images that constitute the spectacle correlates with the self-valorisation of exchange-value that comes to define the culture industry. It amounts to the expression of illusory progress, but at the cost of the ‘exclusion of the new’ so that ‘the machine rotates on the same spot.’[7] The spectacle and culture industry are thus extensions of Marx’s machine to which the human is mere ‘appendage’, as people are ‘enslaved by’ it in its capacity as ‘overlooker’. [8] The construction of the city as consumptive locus, amounts to the generation of a place of inhabitation in which alienation from the social whole is the dominant mode of consciousness.

This answers the first question. The city is the place of focus because it provides, historically, and in the contemporary moment, the expression of capitalism’s logics, contradictions and processes in its most explicit form. Secondly, the city currently marks the mode of inhabitation – and accordingly experience – of the majority of the world’s population. Thirdly, as the interaction of our first two claims, the city in this manner is the site of alienation, of isolation as transmitted ideology – here we may think of the manner in which individuals attempt to privatise public space through mobile phones, portable music players, iPads and other devices – as a way of refuting social cohesion. That is to say, the city, while the site of potential collective relationships, operates as a method of fragmentation that brings together (in proximity) and isolates (through gentrification, relocation and modulation) as dialectical movement. As Jappe suggests, it keeps ‘individuals, who were just as ripe for emancipation as the productive forces would allow, from becoming aware of that fact’.[9]

The answer to the second of our initial questions is derived from the first. The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s unfinished study of 19th Century Paris, contains conceptual and material analysis that attempts representation, dissection and the methodology of a response to the effects of the city. An attempt to explicate just why this is the case needs to engage with the city on the terms we have already delimited. That is to say, that it is an engagement with the city as the locus of experience under capitalism: the frame for experience, and a limit to possible experience. Accordingly, an explication of Benjamin’s interpretation of the city as phantasmagoria, its relation to his historical project, and the dialectical image as spatially resolved engagement of the two, follows.

In ‘Convolute N’ of The Arcades Project, Benjamin, on the pathos of his work, stated that ‘I find every city beautiful’.[10] While the dust covered arcades of Paris, the porous and ramshackle buildings of Naples, and the winter streets of Moscow all formed a network of places for an intense aesthetic engagement, the city was not just the object of a detached, artistic contemplation. For Benjamin, the city was intimately linked to experience, that is to say, to the possibility of life directly lived. In his earlier writings, particularly One-Way Street with its composition of memories represented through spatial attribution, and the autobiography of A Berlin Chronicle, the connection between memory, experience and city space is made.[11] Precisely because of its structure as both the site of experience and limits to experience through the ideological transmission of capitalism’s spatial structuring. Consequently Benjamin’s engagement with the city resembles a search for an account of the subject radically disengaged from capitalism. It is one that rejects autobiography as ‘to do with time, sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life’ to talk instead of ‘space; of moments and discontinuities.’[12] The interruption of the autobiographical flow, through the spatially resolved construction of a personal history from these moments and discontinuities, is the goal for the subject, for all subjects mobilised as the proletariat.

Experience, or the possibility of experience under a capitalism that transmits received ideologies and establishes people as machine parts, forms the thematic link between the culture industry, the spectacle, and Benjamin’s description of Paris as the home of the phantasmagoric. Writing in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx used the phantasmagoria – a leisurely or touristic attraction popularised in Paris that played on the stimulation of the senses through illusions – as a description of the shift in social relations brought about by the transition from use to exchange value.[13] The significance of this shift is that it establishes the appearance of a form of social relations as dominating actual social relations.[14] Thus Benjamin’s targets of investigation in The Arcades Project – the liminal figures of the pimps, prostitutes, and flâneurs that populate Paris – are those that exhibit the forms and tensions of subjective commodification as both complicity and resistance. Phantasmagoria describes the extension of the relation between commodities and people, to cover the interrelationships between people whose subjectivities are constituted as commodities. This takes the form of a mythic anguish that, as Benjamin wrote in the Exposé of 1939, is the defining characteristic of ‘modernity’.[15]

The city as phantasmagoria is then a metonym for capitalism itself. For Benjamin, the value of the examination of cultural forms (as made clear at the start of The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility essay) is in its power to extend Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s ‘infancy’.[16] Marx, in describing this period of infancy, wrote in the 1859 of the distinction between the mode of production’s substructure and the ‘legal and political’ superstructure that arises from it as the totality of social relations.[17] Traditionally ‘the transformation of the superstructure… takes place more slowly than the substructure’, but the advent of the era of technical reproduction resulted in the expression – across an accelerated cultural sphere – of the same dialectics in say, architecture, as in political economy.[18] Physiognomic analysis prompted superstructural extension so as to cover the totality of the mode of production’s cultural unfolding as the face of capital.[19] In expanding the superstructure to cover the cultural sphere of 19th Century Paris, Benjamin did not mitigate the problem (of reciprocal affect and effect) between substructure and superstructure, but expanded the site of possible class contestation.[20]

For Benjamin, as Marx described, the city as the preeminent space of society’s wealth appeared as the ‘immense accumulation of commodities’.[21] In Capital, Marx starts his analysis with the commodity because it forms the simplest building block of capital. The analysis of the fetish character of the commodity, in its form as monad, makes visible in each unit the contradictions that are inscribed across the system as a whole.[22] Thus, although the point of critical scrutiny differed – Marx emphasised analysis of the substructure, while Benjamin turned his attention to the superstructure – both held validity. The city as the face of capitalism, through its monadological quality, expressed all the contradictions and configurations, the dialectics of building and activity, place and people, architecture and engineering, of the wider systemic form.

Formulated in this manner, the reified form of the phantasmagoria divests a number of contradictions. Firstly, it relies on the movement of fashion: the combination of the societal tendency to rapidly forget the recent past with its mobilisation as novelty. Fashion, as this movement, is sold as progress but masks the primary contradiction between the ever same – the relations of production – and the ever new as the phantasmagoria of mobilised commodities. Secondly, the commercialisation of the commodity under this movement, requires, as Adorno describes, a paradoxical incompatibility between the ‘just like’ and ‘original’ tenets of its form, derived from a system that ‘must simultaneously develop and enchain productive power’.[23] Thirdly, the reanimation of myth as a self-validating veneer for the phantasmagoria of the commodity form belies its sclerotic nature.[24]

Phantasmagoria qua city, marks the contradictions of the bourgeois narrative that Benjamin identifies in his historical account. Catastrophe informs history. It is, as Benjamin makes clear in his definition of historical concepts, a state of ongoing missed opportunities: the opportunities to construct the relations of production around a classless configuration. The aim is not to follow a bourgeois account of history with its loaded strictures to possibility, but to construct it. Benjamin makes this point in Thesis XVII of the Theses on the Philosophy of History, in reference to a bourgeois ‘historicism’ predicated (as in the phantasmagoria) on what Gilloch identifies as the mobilisation of myth, historical closure, empathy and the idea of progress as addition or falsification.[25] Consequently the Theses… are best read as an advocacy of the dissolution of a bourgeois history – a history as commodity – in favour of an engaged and constructed account that necessitates an actualising of real possibilities over received appearances.[26]

The Theses… deliver both Benjamin’s most protracted meditation on the idea of catastrophe, and one of his most famous images. The Angel of History, inspired by the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus, illustrates an account of history based on ongoing catastrophe. Benjamin wrote that the Angel of History, with his face turned toward the past, is caught in a storm blowing from paradise that propels him unceasingly into the future. The Angel, unable to turn toward the future, where we see the appearance of an unbroken chain of events, sees the past as ‘one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet’.[27]

In the intersection of the appearance of a chain of events as proffered by a singular bourgeois history – a history that appears as the additive process of global events that provides the at once universalising and limiting, world historical perspective – with the gaze of the Angel, history is revealed as a disjunctive sequence of events characterised by its false starts and missed opportunities. Consequently the additive processes of a linear history, one ‘which we call progress’, are understood as ‘this storm’.[28] The politicised history that Benjamin wished to write is one that seeks utopian moments, possibilities immanent and unrealised, in order to assemble an account that moves beyond appearance. This was to be achieved through ‘the telescoping of the past through the present’ as an alteration of historical perception.[29] In doing so, revealing that the ‘“status quo” is the catastrophe’.[30]  To recognise the status quo as catastrophic is to recognise a set of conditions of possible experience – experiential limits – that are, under a radical politicisation, to be swept aside.

This sweeping aside was to be achieved, in part, via the dialectical image. Through stopping the movement of history, viewing the frozen image of time – and accordingly, the catastrophic structure of history – in space, it reveals ‘chronological movement… grasped and analysed in spatial image’.[31] Here then, is the intersection of the city as phantasmagoria and history in Benjamin’s account. It is made possible because the phantasmagoria is a frozen form. As Eagleton suggests, Benjamin’s approach involved levying the commodity form against itself: ‘if there is a route beyond reification, it is through and not around it.’[32] Adorno too, made note of Benjamin’s reifying ‘Medusan’ gaze. [33] If the tundra of the phantasmagoria is the static form of modernity, the goal is grasping through the dialectical image the ‘“petrified nature” (erstarrte Natur)’ of ‘those commodities that comprise’ it, its shattering and reanimation: its historical redemption.[34]

The construction of the dialectical image acts as a prompt in the re-evaluation of the perception of time. In constellating objects, the ‘rags, the refuse’ of history, the potential was provided for a new way of seeing in order to uncover history’s latent but unrealised possibilities.[35] The point of interruption – the flash of illumination that is the intended result of the dialectical image – becomes the Messianic import, or the ‘chips of Messianic time’ in the construction of history.[36] In this manner, historical materialism eschews the additive processes of universal history – that the Angel sees as one catastrophe – in favour of a constructed approach that offers a ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’.[37] Viewed in respect of its Jewish origins – as opposed to the Messiah of the Christian teleology – the Messianic is a secular acknowledgement of the possibilities of creating Heaven on Earth, interpreted as the potential in each moment for the radical change of everyday conditions. [38] This is the service of theology that Benjamin wished to enlist.[39] Not the promise of a redemptive afterlife, but the political charging of each and every moment of experience.

If the present is grounded in the idea of ongoing catastrophe, how does Benjamin suggest we may move away from this? The answer, through the moment of illumination, is the instantiation of ‘now time’. In the historical materialist’s construction of history it is the ‘constellation which his own era has formed with a definitive earlier one’ which establishes a perception of the ‘present as the “time of the now”’.[40] This ‘time of the now’ is a time of realised possibility. It is not the maintenance of the present as it is, but the emergence of possibilities characterised by what the present is not. Revealed through the flash of illumination it owes itself to both the negative thought that informs it – revolutionary measures are not the maintenance of the status quo – and the broader ‘didactic intent’ of the historical materialist’s construction of history.[41] This construction, made visible through the dialectical image allows the politically charged re-reading of time, constructing a radical break in the temporalities of past, present as catastrophe, and redeemed history.[42] The ‘time of the now’, following the illumination of the dialectical image, is the transformation of the present, a transformation Caygill calls the ‘fulfilment of historical time’ instead of a ‘fulfilment in historical time’, as opposed to the continuation of an empirical chronology of history.[43] Making redeemed time the ‘interruption of the temporal order itself’.[44]

To answer the second question in light of the explication attempted above is to acknowledge Benjamin as a thinker of the intimate relationship between space, time and the city. Beyond this though, Benjamin held on to the redemptive power of utopian moments, of the use of discarded fragments and unfinished forms that he wished, in pointing out their extant status, to ‘merely show’. [45] It is this positivity that provides the justification for appealing to Benjamin’s conceptual apparatus. Capitalism has outlived Benjamin. But the work of avant-gardes, vanguard artists and theorists in the intervening period between Benjamin’s tragic death and today should not be eclipsed by history, as the potentialities of the Arcades were for him. To bring the past into contact with the present, to re-read and re-think ideas, dreams and spaces constrained by the mode of production is to engage with their political possibilities.

The third of our initial questions is just what does the relation between cities and Benjamin’s conceptual apparatus have to offer at this moment? The answer is more thoroughly explored in the following chapters but is grounded in two key ideas. The first is that Benjamin offers us a way of reading existing spaces in light of their relation to capitalism. To attempt this is to engage with the spatio-temporal restrictions (phantasmagoria and bourgeois accounts of history) that inform capitalism’s unfolding of space. Secondly, he may offer us pointers to the composition of a redeemed space. Informing both is the dialectical image. Specifically in its ability to bring about unforeseen constellations, to collide the past and present in spatially inscribed objects. Bursting from the dialectical image at the moment of illumination is the opportunity of a revised optic, a method of re-apprehension that privileges the fragmentary over the whole, and the marginalised over the received. In doing so it asks for a reconsideration of the restrictions – the limited binaries of progress and stagnation, public and private, individual and social – of a capitalist system in its entirety.

The first claim, of the benefit to analysis of the arrangement of spaces under capitalism, is informed by the idea of ruin. In the 1935 Exposé Benjamin wrote that in ‘the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins before they have crumbled’.[46] Given the nature of the boom-bust economic cycle that after the 2008 banking crisis left many developments, cancelled, or part-finished (in particular, to return to Marx’s original point of analysis, in a Manchester stripped of most of its industrial power), is it possible to read these spaces as ruin? To suggest this, is to talk of the ill-constructed centre. At the pole of the explicit expression of capitalistic space we might point to the monumental: in London, in particular, to the development of the 2012 Olympic Park. The second chapter of the project attempts to suggest, as a result of petrification and phantasmagoria, that this is the case.

The second claim is that Benjamin may be able to point to a redeemed space. Here, this is understood as space in which experiential conditions are free from capitalistic restriction. To map the form of the dialectical image – its use of montage and juxtaposition – to spatial construction is perhaps not to ask for a reconsideration of restrictions. What it may hold is the potential, through the importation of ideas of porosity, to unlock unmediated social relationships, that is, a fragmentation and composition of space that plays on unseen and unanticipated collisions to dispel ideological isolationism and promote social cohesion. The third chapter attempts to rub against the grain the history of the Olympic site, in order to investigate moments of a part unfulfilled history.


David Harvey, taking Marx’s notion of use divulging value in the manner of the motion of capital, that is, the system of capitalism as requiring a perpetuation of flows or movements of capital, suggests that capitalism requires necessary and cyclical devaluations. It is, he claims, a self-regulating mechanism of capitalism that is manifested as a series of geographically diverse crises.[47] If capitalism’s functioning requires crises at regular intervals – resulting from, for Marx, the contradictions of capital, in neoliberal diction, something like ‘systemic risk’ – then capitalism itself is predicated on the potential for cyclical crisis. Rather than existing in a permanent state of crisis it is the ‘tendency towards and potentiality for crisis that is permanent’.[48] While we might question the nature of crises, are they for instance, singularly identifiable as social, political, economic and so forth, or indeed a non-identifiable interrelation of multiple factors? For the purposes of this investigation they are understood in economic terms – antecedent to superstructural expression – as regular periods of devaluation: the financial crisis of 2008, the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s. For which the cultural manifestation of economic factors – pervasive ‘austerity measures’ in current political vernacular – are lagged indicators.

Again, as the city is our focus, we will concentrate on the large-scale, cyclical reorganisations of capital unique to them, that constitute the pole of an explicit expression of capitalism’s spatial inscription. This is not to claim some sites are the direct expression of cyclical crisis, but that they are attempts to mitigate crisis (and an expression of the potential for crisis) through pre-emptive large-scale devaluations. The Olympics, along with the FIFA World Cup, are currently the largest global sporting events. They are, in their logistical and organisational requirements, international ambassadors of capital that require huge reorganisations, relocations and developments of host cities, generating in this manner complementary disorganisations, dislocations and destructions. Our focus will be on London’s 2012 Olympics as an example of an architecture and space of dominant capitalistic practice that may, as we see historically in other Olympic Parks, express a tendency toward everyday non-use.

Harvey, in The Limits to Capital, expresses Marx’s ideas of fixed capital and value in the following manner: ‘capital is value in motion. Value can remain value only by keeping it in motion.’[49] There are a number of things to be understood here. Firstly, that value refers to surplus value, that is, profit extracted from labour. Secondly, and this becomes important in the reading of space as petrified, is that fixed capital refers in Marx’s terms, not to a static configuration of technology – although it may appear in this manner – but capital located as technology in order to help produce surplus value.[50] Fixed capital is, in this way, placed – as a component of locating technology somewhere – but also in motion. It is at once fixed and moving – as stasis – because it is located within the wider networks of capitalism. Capital passes through it in order to produce surplus value. In this way fixed capital has a use value and exchange value. It is in the Olympic Park, the technology, stadium, aquatic centre, and athlete’s village, that allow the production of surplus value through labour. [51] However, it must be remembered that the Olympics in its contemporary incarnation thrives on what Debord termed the production of spectacle, that is, the colonisation of things by appearance, expressed in productive form through increasingly fleeting periods of duration for commodities.[52] Alongside the physical labour of the competitors exists a broader network of state and privately sponsored trainers, support staff and other professionals, that together with an all-encompassing media and broadcast nexus provides ephemeral opportunities for advertising, sponsorship and other profit generators.

But what of capital that is no longer fixed but obsolete? What of the bourgeois monuments of sporting events and ill-conceived speculations? Capital located in this manner is a function of cyclical devaluation. Here one may think of the Millennium Dome, and the protracted period of stagnation that the structure underwent after its initial yearlong opening period in 2000.[53] The Dome’s cost of around £958 million was never fully recouped, and it was sold at a loss for subsequent redevelopment.[54] The project then, in its inflexible architecture and period of non-use, restricts it from playing any part in the generation of surplus value. It finds itself possessing a tendency toward the form that Borges, in The Immortal describes as a place of non-use. [55] It is an architecture designed to produce spectacle, that when stripped of this function, is not simply unused, but without use. The claim is for a mode of spatial appropriation that follows the narrative of development (and exclusion at the time of construction), access (to a privatised, short-term, spectacular event), and legacy (intended use after the site’s explicit purpose), but that results in an end point place of non-use. When these places are shed of their explicitly capitalistic operations, their built characteristics reveal themselves as inappropriate for repurposing or reintegration into communities out of which they were initially carved. It is this narrative that marks the Olympic Park.

Figure 1: Map of the Olympic Park site.[56]

The Olympic Park is nestled between the industrial spaces of Hackney Wick to the West, and the rapidly expanding site of property speculation in Stratford, to its East. Along the Southern edge of the site runs the Greenway – a sewer remade into a walking and bicycle trail that runs from Hackney Wick to West Ham – and from which the bulk of the construction site is visible. Approaching the site along the Greenway from Hackney Wick one is met by The Big Yellow Self Storage Company’s Hackney depot. On this building hangs a banner that reads ‘Get some space in your life’. It is the company’s slogan, but acts as an explicit and alienating counterpoint to the Olympic Park’s closing off of space. Here, we are exhorted by the banner to rid ourselves of excessive things in order to create more private space in our homes, and yet presented on the other side of the Greenway, with a space once public but currently radically privatised and inaccessible. Part-funded, as can be seen in Figure 1, by the inclusion of ‘Stratford City’ a shopping centre of over 175,000 square metres that is intended to anchor the ‘long-term regeneration’ of East London (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Photo of a map situated on the Greenway overlooking the Olympic Park development. The text concerning Stratford City (noticeably absent from the map on the Olympic 2012 website) reads: ‘Located adjacent to the Olympic Park, Stratford City is one of the largest shopping centre developments ever undertaken in the UK. Stratford City is due to open in Spring 2011 with 175,000sq m of retail and entertainment space and is a key building block in the long-term regeneration of East London’.[57]

Figure 3: Screengrab of the interactive map on the website.[58]

In the site of the Olympic Park we see the expression of the logics of contemporary capitalism: the production of spectacle, encroachment of private space onto public, rhetoric of regeneration coupled intimately with promotion of consumer culture. The insidious effects of the treatment of this space come in its fortification and removal from the public, albeit in order for it to be returned in a more privatised form at a later date. In a manner that corresponds to Mike Davis’s description of the fortification of the spaces of downtown Los Angeles in City of Quartz, we see the fortifying of the Olympic Park.[59] The site is surrounded by two fences, one of Olympic blue-board (the Blue Fence), and more aggressively, an electric fence reminiscent of a prison that explicitly prevents public access (see Figure 4 and 5). We are invited to view from the periphery the space that once included accessible public and common ground – allotments, the canal side – but that no longer does.

Figure 4: Looking east: the electric fence running alongside the Greenway.[60]

Figure 5: Looking East from behind the Counter Café in Hackney Wick. The main Olympic Stadium behind the electric fence.[61]

What matters most is not the summer of 2012 when the Olympic Park will be in use. It will, if the organisers are to be believed, continue the line of 21st century, spectacular Olympics, of which Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 are the recent predecessors. The concern is for the use of the Park’s space after the shedding of the Olympic Games’ metrics of exchange. Now, in its construction, it draws in labourers, resources, architectural practices and tourists to its fences. But, given the peripheral location and the current vagaries of the ‘legacy planning’, what can be expected of it?[62]

The Park can be read, as Benjamin wrote, as a place in which ‘monuments of the bourgeoisie’ can be recognised as ruins before they have crumbled. [63] The ruin here is at once in its time and yet recognised as out of time. It expresses its dilapidation, through its shining newness, in advance. Given the necessity of catastrophe to the historical materialist project it sets itself as a ruin of another possible way of life. To crudely simplify within the constraints of capital, if the money available for the construction of the Park had been used in some other manner, to close the societal wealth gap for example, we might view the finished Park as the ruin of this unrealised opportunity. Granted, this particular account, through the reformism inherent in interpreting the world within catastrophic constraints, does not change it. But crucially, the engagement of the space of the Park as ruin may illuminate the ideological and societal structures that shape its construction.

Ruin then, requires its counterpart. It finds it in the mobilisation of myth. Myth, as Gilloch claims of Benjamin, is the result of the ‘historicism’ decried in the Theses…, it sets itself in three manners: the myth of historical closure, the myth of historical empathy, and the myth of historical progress.[64] The Olympic operation mobilises itself on these levels. In the closed cycle of the four-year games, adapted, in times of global conflict, to an ambassadorial tool (pre World War Two), location of symbolic contestation (during the Cold War), or, in the extreme, placed on temporary hiatus. The cyclical nature of the Games presents itself as the renewed – or made new, as phantasmagoric – of a closed historical system. While the location of the Games changes, the underlying social relations that structure it do not. Secondly, empathy is stressed in the rhetoric of inclusivity, in the binding of nations – themselves increasingly a relic of industrial capitalism in a space of transnational global capital transcendence – in a shared global history. The history of the Olympics is the history – the additive, bourgeois history – of the contemporary world. Indeed, inclusivity, to be part of the Olympics as nearly all the world’s nations are now, reads as an historical account of dominant global powers. While the exclusion, or perhaps including out of nations as an incentive to inclusion in the Games in future, reinforces an arrangement of dominant nations, the empathetic account of a global subject, that is, that the Olympics teaches us we are all one people, is the explicit narrative. Thirdly, the Games mobilises the myth of historical progress through the narrative of a singular global subject with a common or shared history. It is a progress measured through competition in the pursuit of records, and away from the sporting events in measures of development, construction and regeneration.

Benjamin, fascinated by the mythic treatment of the phantasmagoric commodity form in Paris, shares thematically, the ground which Adorno and Horkheimer cover in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The eponymous dialectic is the thesis that the Enlightenment’s promise of liberation and the dispelling of myth regresses to the use of the mobilisation of myth to sustain its advancements. So that the Enlightenment ‘by taking everything unique and individual under its tutelage’, by pushing the universal application of identity categories that leave no room for non-identity, ‘left the uncomprehended whole the freedom, as domination, to strike back at human existence and consciousness by way of things’.[65] In doing this, ‘things’, that is to say commodities, strike back at human existence through reification: motivation through the domination of nature. Thus the obfuscation of social cohesion is inherent in the transposition of the fetish character of the commodity form to society’s human interactions. This diagnosis of the increasingly alienating effects of the triumph of exchange over use-value finds its apogee in the construction of a society that operates on the ‘wholesale deception of the masses.’[66]

The structure of this society predicated on deception is resolved as the constant making new of established binaries and dominant powers. The example of Odysseus and the Sirens is indicative of the mutually reinforcing societal positions of the exploited – the labourers who must always ‘be fresh and concentrate as they look ahead’ – while Odysseus is transformed into the exploiter of labour through his own requirement that his men do not untie him from the mast.[67] Odysseus hears in the Sirens’ song, the promise of the destruction of mythologised pre-history. In glimpsing this but not being able to make use of it, the song of the Sirens is turned to art; its emancipatory power becomes the artistic object of contemplation. The rhythm of the labourers’ oars, the clatter of the machines in the factory, set the two in opposition as exploiter and exploited. This deception and reinforcement of societal position finds itself translated into the built form of the Olympic Park through the explicit acknowledgement of myth. The stadium, aquatic centre and other venues, are to be filled with people through promise a collectivity that is revealed to be illusory: witnessing competition as a mass composed of isolated individuals. The proposed cladding of the main stadium (see Figure 6), depicting Greek figures – derived from images made iconic through pottery – exhorts the acknowledgement of past as image, divorcing the connectivity of past and present in the capacity of reflexive analysis, in favour of a maintenance of historical linearity: an Olympic lineage from antiquity to today in which we are all situated.

Figure 6: Rendering of the main Stadium.[68]

Adorno and Horkheimer write that the mobilisation of myth under the patriarchal society under capitalism – embodied in Zeus in pre-history – constitutes the ‘Olympian chronique scandaleuse’.[69] We find across Iain Sinclair’s representation of London’s east, through the intersection of the myth and ruin of to-be-non-used capital, the chronic Olympic scandal. Given Sinclair’s approach relies on the blurring of fact and fiction, of documentary and myth of his own making, we must by wary of his digressions into the hyperbolic that exaggerate the kernel of resistance that grounds his work. Writing in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Sinclair describes the site of the Olympic park – and his Hackney in general – as ground under the reorganisation of private interests and property speculation, with particular opprobrium reserved for the Olympic Park. The appearance of the blue-board fence that surrounds the development site is described in the manner of a miniature Berlin Wall as an ‘exclusion zone’.[70] In Sinclair’s – borderline conspiratorial – account the pernicious influence of developers stretches out from the site through the public transport network that is currently being reorganised to serve Olympic need. The opening of the Dalston Overground station on the newly re-commissioned East London Line, with its light-blocking developments of 20 storey Barratt Homes, an explicit point class war through privatisation and development.

In an article for the London Review of Books, Sinclair writes as a travel reporter – although given his ‘mad thesis’ that ‘there is only one city and it doesn’t work’ – city transposer may be a more accurate description.[71] Visiting Athens, the site of the 2004 Olympics, the Greek riots of 2008, and ongoing disputes over austerity measures, a locus for radical political activity, he claims that the current unrest results from both a cultural incompatibility with the Olympic project, and the expenditure of 2004 telescoped into the national debt of today.[72] The ongoing encroachment of the Olympic project into the lives of the Greek population is a story of staggered temporalities.[73] The financial seepage from 2004’s Games plays out in the riots and strikes. But more than this, the culture of ‘brown bagged money’ or ‘coffee cash’ – quotidian corruption – as normative level, was incompatible with the regulated neo-liberalism of a European Union sponsored Olympic incursion.[74]

It is his description of the space of the Athenian Olympic Park that may point to the fate of London’s. Sinclair describes it as a scene of desolation. Now home to packs of stray dogs, its social housing is increasingly dilapidated; a result of a peripheral location and legacy planning that failed. To be drawn from this is that the spatial configurations of the site, for all the intentions of the planners and post-Olympic committee suggestions, is too prescriptive, too bulky, and too rigid, to enjoy easy reintegration into the space of the city. In a neat example of spatial repurposing contra-legacy, Sinclair explains that it is not the Olympic running track that locals take their weekly exercise on, but the path leading to it.[75] Through the words of a local, Aristotelis, it is suggested that the Greeks are historically ‘used to living among ruins’ but that the buildings of the Olympic Park, the developments of a modern capitalism, are ‘just ruins, they were never anything else.’[76]

We might claim that Sinclair’s account, like Adorno and Horkheimer’s description of the culture industry, is necessarily hyperbolic. If this is levied as opposition alongside the claim that the Olympic Park does, in its architectures and spaces, have something to offer, where might we find this? Are the sites of modern capitalism to be read solely as prescriptive ruins? Or is there a manner in which capitalism can be built out of?

Undoubtedly Benjamin kept faith in new technologies as modes of potential liberation.[77] But this faith was placed, firstly, in a technical architecture, and secondly, in its effect on proletarian subjectivity. In this manner the technical construction of the iron and glass architecture of the Parisian arcades, with its emphasis on the interpenetration of the interior and exterior, top lighting and shaping of a social environment that refuted prescriptive behavioural logics, were places to glimpse utopia. However, Fourier’s Phalanstery, a utopian community – a city of arcades – Benjamin condemned as reactionary and stifling.[78] The Eiffel Tower in particular, left unclad, Benjamin used as an example of the production of unforeseen constellations, because its frame acted as a fragmenting lens for spatial montage. Paris, viewed through the Eiffel Tower, was distorted, fragmented and recomposed in a near endless series of frames. Benjamin’s claim on the power of montage finds itself, through iron construction, as Mertins notes, engendering a new way of viewing spatial aesthetics.[79]

To make this claim for the constructions of the Olympic Park may be to stretch the argument, such that a critical negativity may be retained for two key reasons. Firstly, as we have covered, the site is steeped received capitalist ideology in its mobilisation of myth, maintenance of existing narratives and binaries and modes of exclusion. Secondly, while the might point to superficialities such as the lighting gantries on the Olympic Stadium (Figure 6) as reminiscent of the structure of the Eiffel Tower, they do not represent either a new form – they exist as a well established template of architectural tropes – or a technical architecture as such. Indeed, we might make the claim that the Olympic Park privileges artistic architecture as a whole. Understood in this way as an embrace of a postmodern sculptural form conceived as iconic image. That is, as a structure readily translatable to image for consumption or as a way of advertising the park. This is seen in both Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre (Figure 7) with its sloping roof, and the proposed form of the privately sponsored Mittal Tower.[80]

Figure 7: Rendering of the Aquatic Centre. [81]

What Benjamin suggests is to be taken from an embrace of the technical form of architecture – over its contemplated, artistic counterpart – is a means of bringing the immanent politico-aesthetic potential of construction to bear.[82] It is the constructors of this new architecture, the ‘engineers and proletariat… alone at that time provided an opportunity to recognise the decisive, new spatial feelings of these iron constructions.’[83] These feelings offered the proletariat the opportunity to develop a subjectivity radically disengaged from capitalism’s narratives. But is this enough? The idea that the spatial feelings accessible to the constructors of this architecture are, in some way a refutation of the bourgeois perspective, perhaps does not hold. The embrace of the industrial aesthetic, the technical form as stylistic trope – whether through personal, commercial or public building – and its accessibility as touristic pursuit – stadium tours, backstage trips to places where once only construction would have access – renders it the path finding of the avant-garde.

If Benjamin holds that the immanent critique – that is, built form – of architectural construction contains the potential for emancipation then Manfredo Tafuri is far more pessimistic. Tafuri’s interest in a dialectic of production and recuperation (something best understood as the power of capitalism‘s image-hegemony to appropriate as image, that opposed to it), under capitalism expands Meyer Schapiro’s critique of the treatment of Modernism in The New Architecture.[84] If Schapiro’s claim to the inseparability of form and use in architecture so that aesthetic reflects social arrangement, and social arrangement informs aesthetic, his criticism of the ‘International Style’ as a style derived from an aesthetic form without the social content requires consideration.[85] While Meyer, like Benjamin, may have claimed that the development of aesthetic and built forms that accurately reflect a social relations at odds with the dominant mode structuring society is possible, Tafuri extends the scope of the argument to reject such notions. Interpellation within a system necessarily complicates attempts at being against that system.[86] So that an aesthetic that anticipates a changed form of social relations cannot be built within the constraints of a society that rejects liberation from capitalism.

Tafuri, taking Benjamin’s engagement with history as the basis of his project of architectural critique, looked to engage with a counter-hegemonic, constructed history.[87] He sees the ideological imperatives of modern architecture – as we have identified in the Olympic Park – as complicit with capitalism. There is, he claims, an eclipse of history, in which the historical relevance of construction is sacrificed for a spot in a bourgeois historical account.[88] While Benjamin’s belief in the power of montage is itself an advocacy of the avant-garde techniques of Surrealism, Tafuri insists that avant-garde behaviour is not a genuine refutation of capitalist processes, but instead, their path finding. The interrelation of production, consumption and distribution with industrial design and artistic practices ensures the transmission of ideology. So that ‘ideology was not imposed on artistic operations… but had become an internal part of the operations themselves.’[89] The techniques of the avant-garde thus become the testing ground of the ideas of capital and where they are employed for radical purposes, are those which ‘capital used in the first phases of its development, but has since rejected.’[90] For Tafuri, there cannot, as there can for Benjamin, be immanent developments of a potentially redeemed social form in capitalism. For Tafuri, ‘there cannot be founded a class aesthetic, art or architecture, but only a class criticism of the aesthetic, of art, of architecture, of the city itself.’[91]

Tafuri’s negativity is, one might claim, a response to a capitalism that folds everything into its own horizons. But if Tafuri’s insistence that the dominant logics of capital cannot be built out of prior to social transformation, there may be localised refutations, even subterranean examples of what Brecht, as cited by Benjamin called umfunktionierung.[92] Umfunktionierung is translated in the Theory of Distraction as ‘refunctioning’.[93] In The Author as Producer it is referred to as a ‘functional transformation’.[94] Meaning a refutation of exchange in favour of use value. This ‘functional transformation’ of place – a détournement of place – or the materials of place, beyond the encoded capitalist ideology of a Tafurian critique of architecture, is a functional or ludic disengagement with exchange.[95] If the Olympic Park provides us with the regimented encoding of capitalist function – the space of national competition, sponsorships and merchandise – then its ludic counterpoint may be found on its periphery. A détournement, a transformation of material, and consequently the spatial characteristics of the liminal spaces surrounding the Blue Fence, could be seen (until its theft and sinking) in the sailboat moored on the canal behind the Counter Café in Hackney Wick. Constructed by Henry Stringer, Director of Practice Architecture and Hackney Wick resident, from Olympic blue-board reclaimed from the fence that surrounds the site.[96] It offered itself as a form of transport; object of recreation and enjoyment, it encapsulated a sentiment of playful resistance in turning a material used exclusion and restriction to travel, into a form of travel.

Here the debate, which has broadly covered building, may meet claims for the non-transformative nature of built space. If Tafuri suggests that a building aesthetic cannot transform life – that ‘class’ architecture is impossible – and, as we will come to see in the next chapter, we may make the claim that Benjamin, through the immanent developments of new technologies, holds this transformational aesthetic is possible, we may ask a question of the role of action. Space, as Lefebvre claims, takes on the form of reality as it is ‘neither a “subject” nor an “object” but rather a social reality – that is to say, a set of relations and forms’.[97] What’s suggested, on one hand, is that building has the potential to be transformative. After all, as Foucault claimed of heterotopias, it works for one system – that is, capitalism – in modulating behaviour, leading us to ask whether it can work for another system by way of resistance.[98] On the other hand, the claim is that built environments are not exclusively transformative; they cannot shape life across the whole spectrum of human activity. In de Certeau’s terms, the built environment attempts to localise, but it is people that spatialise: there is a range of activity and behaviour inaccessible to the control of modulating structures.[99] While we may wish to accede ground to de Certeau as there patently are instances of spatialisation that refute capitalism’s logics – the détournement mentioned above may serve as a pertinent example – the suggestion is that this spatialisation is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Even more likely perhaps, is that it does not offer a critical entry point into a restructured society, but acts as a differing expression of an existing one. However, for our purposes the answer may lie with Lefebvre somewhere between the two poles: so that at once people are localised and spatialise, but there is a dialectical operation that constitutes this fluctuating relationship – the relationship of space – between people and place.

We may argue then that the problem is still of built form. This chapter attempted to illustrate one of the poles that bracket society: the space of explicit capitalistic construction. The next chapter will explore, by explicating the conceptual content of the arguments of Tafuri and Benjamin touched upon here, and with reference to the Situationist avant-garde, the attempt to imagine an architecture that reflects a changed form of social relations: an architecture for a liberated society.


‘The question of utopia would seem to be a crucial test of what’s left of our capacity to imagine change at all’ – Fredric Jameson [100]

On the ‘fulfilment of utopia – one cannot speak, only bear witness’ – Benjamin in a letter to Paul Scheerbert [101]

The two quotations that act as an introduction to this chapter are not intended to serve as an entry into a full discussion of utopia. While we must acknowledge the concept as necessary to our discussion of the possibility of non-capitalistic built forms, it is to be taken as a point constellated among many and not an engagement with it on its own speculative terms. That utopia is inherently immaterial or virtual – a homophonic coinage of Thomas More’s that plays on the Greek root ‘no place’ and its pronounced form ‘good place’ – is in effect politically irrelevant.[102] Its value is to be taken as a mechanism of motivation: a political end point framed negatively that illuminates the present. While utopia may not itself be realisable, as Jameson suggests, the ability to imagine change at all hinges on our ability to imagine the grandest change of all. Utopia shows its value in this discussion as a means of illustrating Benjamin’s claim to a new aesthetic, the power of rubbing history against the grain for its utopian fragments, and the recuperative power of capitalism.

Benjamin, writing to the utopian fantasist Paul Scheerbert, insisted that utopia cannot be spoken about, but must be born witness to.[103] To contrast this with Jameson’s proclamation is to bring out a disjunction between the power of speculative imagining and the impact of the materialisation of these images. If utopias exist as immaterial contrast to distinctly material expressions of capitalism’s dominant logics, can we simply draw out the conceptual and structural characteristics that inform capitalism’s spaces and render a built utopia as their dialectical opposite? The answer is patently no. To reduce the dialectic to simple negation – in this case the negation of an inflexible space as space of flexibility – will not do.

What Benjamin saw in his dissection of cities, was the power of porosity, through the collisions of the dialectical image – in its interpenetration of the public and private, architecture and engineering, new and old – to combat static configurations. Here, as we will come to claim, is the basis for the aesthetic of potentially redeemed space. Simple petrified binaries are dissolved in favour of the processual characteristics of a dialectical movement. Through an aesthetic grasped in allegorical representation, or the creation of a space for the realisation of the hitherto unrepresentable: utopia, if it cannot be confronted head on, may be glimpsed from the corner of the eye. This is the second of the poles: not the built space of the Olympic Park, but utopian frame to the space in between.

If the idea of utopia as ‘no place’ is the counterpoint to explicit places of capital – to the non-places of supermodernity, steeped, in semiotic mediation and ideological transmission – can it, through critique and aesthetic consideration, be productively speculated on?[104] Can, if indeed there are, utopian kernels amongst the fields of capital, they bear witness to their status as potential building blocks of an alternative society? To return to Benjamin is to return to the idea that we are not witnessing, in the monuments of the bourgeoisie, the ruins of utopia, but that we may find utopia among the ruins.

The spaces of capital, informed by myth and expressing the ideological imperatives of an architecture of dominance – shaped by explicit engagements with capital and the profit motive – exist, for Benjamin, as built constraints to the potentially transformative power of new technologies. Benjamin, in the Exposé of 1935, dealt with the use of new technological forms in two important ways. Firstly, he recognised the strictures inherent in the mobilisation of myth to inform the aesthetics of new building technologies. And secondly, he linked ‘artistic’ architecture to the phantasmagoria of a bourgeois capitalism, and engineering – in the use of iron and glass architecture in particular – to the progressive power of social change. As Mertins stresses, the resulting tension of these new structures of iron and glass results in their Janus-like characteristics.[105] The dialectic of structural development at once impels building forward through the new possibilities of improved technology, and throws it backward through insistence that it must follow the historical mode of construction.[106] The resulting dream-image of capital thus expresses two tendencies, one toward social change, and the other toward the maintenance of the status quo. Reflected in the Janus-like visage, are the future potentials of the reworking of a pre-capitalist classless society, and its counterpart in the realisation of this dream-image without the social substance: what Buck-Morss terms the dream-image without the dream. Benjamin’s response is the attempted politicisation of the dialectic of architecture and engineering. By linking the former to artistic contemplation – as Tafuri rightly criticises in architecture that expresses the eclipse of history – and the latter to the development of an immanent new aesthetic brought about by the possibilities of new technologies, Benjamin enforced and radicalised the opposition inherent in building, into an ‘overarching dialectical struggle between the classes, the new and the old’.[107]

What is to be drawn from this politicisation? Benjamin, as Mertins tells us, admired Giedion’s Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferro-Concrete as it charted the development of iron and glass architecture to its self-reflexive and purified realisation.[108] This was important because it expressed both the potential critical content of a self-reflexive and thought architecture as immanent critique – read, counter to the Tafurian claim, as being both in and against capitalism – and the idea that a pre-emptive aesthetic form of a new society was possible.

The technology that facilitated public buildings – bridges, train stations, factories – proffered the development of a new aesthetic based around transparency, interpenetration and exposure. In The Arcades Project Benjamin stated that the technical forms of architecture measure ‘their progress and their success [in proportion] to the transparency of their social content’.[109] This content, derived from the form of technical construction, is not overtly marked by mythologised or ideological design. It allowed the possibility of the development of the self-reflexive and importantly, critically thought, aesthetic principles – transparency, response to social use, and the visibility of the pulse of life as social cohesion – without necessitating their transposition into a style. [110]

Running counter to this, Manfredo Tafuri, wrote in the Italian Second Edition of Theories and History of Architecture that: ‘one cannot ‘anticipate’ a class architecture (an architecture ‘for a liberated society’); what is possible is the introduction of class criticism into architecture.[111] [original emphasis] As we have already seen, Tafuri explicitly rejected the attempts of the avant-garde to change life through the built form. Although the acknowledgement is that life and space are necessarily linked – to change life one must change space, but concurrently one must change life to change space – like Benjamin, Tafuri held that the utopia of ‘liberated society’ cannot be spoken of, but born witness to. The question then becomes one of emergence. If the rejection of utopian imaginings, or even architecture conceived as classed, is a necessary part of the condition for the realisation of a liberated space, the conditions of this emergence are as yet unknown. To make this claim is to combat recuperation in advance, but to undermine a politically useful utopian mechanism. Tafuri’s project of critique becomes a writing of a politically committed history, one that draws into relation the past to the present. It’s critical function is composed in its form. Like Benjamin, Tafuri invests in the composition of counter-hegemonic, fragmentary histories, in the formation of constellations, but unlike Benjamin, he sees no opportunity for the development of the illuminating moment of an anti-capitalist aesthetic, within capitalism.

That Tafuri advocates critique of architecture over the attempted formulation of class architecture is – reminiscent of Debord’s claim that preceding avant-gardes had withdrawn to ‘the very doctrinal positions whose inadequacy had just been revealed’  – a result of witnessing the failures of avant-garde groups.[112] He states, that the ‘“radical” opposition (including portions of the working class) has avoided confrontation with the highest levels attained by capitalist development’.[113] In short: a misplaced focus on the ‘secondary contradictions’ inherent in design, rather than the primary conditions of the system.[114] To return to the earlier quotation, the implication is that capitalism must be swept aside before building can be started for the society beyond. Anticipating a post-capitalistic form within capitalism, for Tafuri, is impossible. Built environments produced under capitalism by virtue of their inclusion within a wider network are assured of their ideological complicity, no matter the claim for resistance.

But what of ‘anticipation’? Surely Benjamin shares the sentiment? After all, he rejects the utopianism of Fourier’s Phalanstery and states that utopia is not to be spoken of. What we can draw from this is a shared concern for Benjamin and Tafuri, of recuperation. However, Benjamin’s positivity over built forms as immanent critique and the nuances of his historical method, suggest there is a retained possibility in unknown anticipation, a notion to which we will return.

If recuperation through image is a pertinent problem for the production of visible modes of resistance under capitalism, we can appeal to Debord to further its description. If, as we might suggest, the spectacle is a totalising ontological claim that nothing lies beyond the image, that a reconfiguration of society rather than an unmasking becomes necessary to change it, then images of utopian futures produced within it are themselves reduced to part of the spectacle. Resistance, or the imagining of possible worlds, becomes a behavioural counterpart to the logic of complicity. Indeed, the premise of numerous forms of advertising sited within urban contexts hinges on a culturally recuperated image of utopia. Barclaycard’s 2007 ‘Welcome to the Future’ campaign, for example, provided illustration of a future London that – depending on the dreamer – plays on utopian visions, if not utopia itself.[115] The images took the form of illustrations of a London in which rooftops are littered with golf courses, and structures reconfigured as theme park rides. In doing so they played on received ideas of utopia: ludic attitudes, elements of leisure and play. However, each image’s orientation around capital was made explicit through the inclusion of an in-image advert for Barclaycard (on a blimp, or billboard) that monopolised the skyline: the leasing back of the utopian dream-image on credit.

In joining Tafuri’s critique with the work of Debord and the Situationist International we can illuminate both the utopian claims of a spatial revolution, and the counterclaim that the transformation of life is not something to be anticipated in built structure. The Situationist International, a French avant-garde group effectively led by Debord between the years of 1957 and 1972 encapsulate a number of key ideas. In a broad sense, the trajectory of the Situationist group is roughly as follows. Ivan Chtcheglov’s early battle cry that ‘we are bored in the city’ pointed to an interest in spatial and artistic concerns.[116] The group’s pursuit of unitary urbanism, détournement and psychogeography (in association with artists and architects such as Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys), then gave way to a more overt politics of denunciation, and a rejection of exclusively artistic and spatial projects in favour of analysis of spectacular culture.[117] As Lefebvre, one-time friend and collaborator of the Situationists noted of their early utopian imaginings, referring to Constant in particular, and the wider (tactical) program of unitary urbanism and psychogeography in general, they acted as a method of uniting, artistic practice, city spaces and everyday life.[118] The later rejection of these programs – Debord called urbanism ‘ideology’ – on the grounds of ideology critique moved the group away from speculative future imaginings and projects grounded in urban space, to an explicit criticism of the image characteristics of space: that is, the spectacle of urbanism.[119] The Watts riots of 1965 provided a pertinent example. The rioting in Watts, attributed to race in mainstream media, to class by Martin Luther King, were read as a riot against the spectacular commodity by the Situationists.[120] Thus, and not without irony, the Situationist journal published a picture of a burning Watts building, with the caption ‘critique of urbanism’ – the image of urbanism – underneath it.[121]

The dispensing of the urban programs by the Situationists is not entirely surprising. Conscious of the stigmatism of artistic labels, Debord was keen to reject stereotyping that fitted the group into a history of avant-garde movements.[122] Achieved through the expulsion of artists operating under a ‘Situationist’ banner, claims through détournement were made for the repurposing – the umfunktionierung – of existing forms but not production ex nihilo. Thus, one aspect of the Situationist contribution to avant-garde legacy is defined through the ‘Situationist use of art’ but with the insistence that there is no such thing as ‘Situationist art’ itself.[123] Although Tafuri would argue for the inclusion of Situationist techniques – in particular the widespread use in the Internet age of détournement in advertising – in the arc of capital-avant-garde developmental complicity, the Situationists were aware of the problem of recuperation by capitalism. History would suggest that the overt work the Situationists did to set themselves against recuperation – denying collectivism qua ‘avant-garde’ label, decrying doctrine, or production of art under a banner – has failed: they now inspire exhibitions and huge amounts of academic study which Debord would have vigorously opposed. But, this is not to fully invalidate their ideas.

Recuperation in relation to the Situationist International is a decidedly intertextual narrative. The strands consist of their own future recuperation, the recuperation of earlier avant-garde techniques – in particular those of the Surrealists, by the Situationists for their own use – and the application of these techniques against an already recuperated Modernism. Indeed, the Surrealist tie informed the early utopian spatial preoccupations through Debord’s fascination with the Palais Ideal – a space of non-use but the location of Surrealist inspired dream imagery – and the authoring of the Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris, themselves a playful rethinking of the Surrealist program.[124] However, this early embrace of Surrealism was limited by the knowledge that previous avant-gardes returned to ideologically defensive positions they initially refuted. If the tactics of the Surrealists were self-limiting in the manner that Lefebvre suggests – there is, through an overloading of meaning, ‘no way, by virtue of language alone, to make the leap from exchange to use’ – they at least provided an early method by which to engage with a bigger threat.[125]

If the Modernist project of the 1920s and 1930s had contained within it the willingness to shape lives for the better, the divorce of social content from aesthetic – in the instantiation of an ‘International Style’ – had returned to help reshape post-war Paris through the automobile-embracing urbanism of Le Corbusier in particular, in a manner that ran counter to the Situationists.[126] The proliferation of the automobile began its full Parisian realisation in 1958 with the start of the construction of the Boulevard Périphérique. This road, that encircles the historic centre of Paris and isolates the banlieues of its metropolitan periphery, is at once liberator and oppressor. Though the promise of the automobile was based on freedom and movement, its fragmentary and isolating effect as individual fortification in the urban environment struck back at the possibility of meaningful collective relationships within a city space. The Situationists, in the thrall of the immigrant populations of a then pre-gentrified Left Bank, decried the spell of isolation over a collective unity.

The repurposing of Modernism, and by extension of the principle of the speculative imaginings of an aesthetic for a changed future – the dream-image without the dream – is then evident (in a Tafurian manner) in the culture of today. Thus the Taylorism of the Frankfurt Kitchen, or the flexible living of the Corbusian house, both designed to liberate time through a production of spaces ostensibly flexible and responsive, are found to be without the pedagogical counterpart, restrictive and prescriptive. The Frankfurt Kitchen in particular, designed by Schütte-Lihotzky, for one person in a galley style, and representing the ur-form of the modern, fitted kitchen, found itself a visual success in its reproduction in the magazines and media of the day, but resolutely non-practical for those who used it. It was, in its processes, a domestic factory for food, but without the explanatory and educational training, one that was reluctant to divest the built-in timesaving measures.[127] Another example is found in the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart. Though the housing building designed by Le Corbusier in 1927, emphasises communal social space, the flexible interiors – notably a living area that turns into a bedroom complete with fold down bed for adults, and a pull out bed for children – offer up limited open-shut binaries.[128]

Figure 8: Conceptual drawing of New Babylon[129]

While this may be an advance over the traditionalism that, for Baudrillard, continued to inform domestic domination and patriarchy, it finds itself as a (slightly more) flexible accommodation for a flexible capital.[130] In the same manner, Constant’s New Babylon (Figure 8), designed around flows and ludic interaction through technical liberation, finds its theoretical counterpart in the deterritorialising and reterritorialising logics of capital that Deleuze and Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus.[131] Consequently, a spatial reorganisation that promises flexibility, play; one that responds to flows, finds itself, under capitalism, organising, directing and modulating these flows. Though the intention of flexible design is to liberate time – and time, as Marx states, is the basic constituent point of political economy – it finds itself recuperated.[132] Thus flexible living or spaces, as McDonough and Cunningham suggest, find themselves as the organising principle of the commodity form of capital: in short, the Ikea critique.[133] Simply put, the pronouncements and projections of a flexible, responsive form of living are not the realised imaginings of utopia, but built in to the productive, distributive and consumptive processes of contemporary capitalism. Consequently, the same vigilance and critical distance applied to overtly capitalistic sites should be applied to those purporting to represent a radical break.

If the recuperation, or indeed, pre-empting of capitalism by avant-garde processes is, as we might suggest, unavoidable, how is it possible to produce a new space beyond the use of détournements or short-term tactics? After all, as Lefebvre suggests: ‘a revolution that does not produce a new space has not realised its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses.’[134] The linking of a new space to the construction (the building as relationship between place and action qua life) of a new space is then, not to ask questions with explicit reference to styles, tropes or received aesthetic forms as de facto expressions of an ideological mode of this construction.

The production of a new space – in order to keep Benjamin’s concepts in mind – is perhaps best read as the production of a new aesthetic of space. Firstly though, we must make clear that an aesthetic is not equivalent to an advocacy. Thus the concern in light of the conceptual apparatus worked through previously, is an aesthetic that locates its primary or meta-aesthetic touchstones as ‘time and place’.[135] The production of an aesthetic is then paramount for two reasons: for one, it allows the rereading of space in alignment with a revised optic thus refuting the necessity of a radically new constructed place as the only means of engendering a new space. And secondly, as Benjamin holds, it allows for an emergence from processes – of action and place – that may have wider traction when acknowledged as process, that is, as something in constant development, rather than in the catastrophic linearity of a closed system based on a strict aesthetic style. The goal is an encounter between action and building as a production of an aesthetic: one that interacts with structures through what they do – their response to action – rather than through contemplation.

To return to the question of ‘anticipation’, we may ask questions of intent. Deliberate anticipation in image hints at prescription: but what of unknown anticipation? At stake is the use of the past without fear of recuperation – with its moments of utopian promise and construction – rather than its eclipse through bourgeois history.

As with his rejection of a bourgeois account of history, Benjamin’s treatment of space privileges the ideas embedded in the fragmentary over the dominant whole. If the analysis of the cultural sphere occurs through a primarily aesthetic account – and it must if we acknowledge a wider sense of what aesthetic means: etymologically as derived from the Greek for ‘perceptible things’ and ‘perceive’ as given to the senses, and, given a present grounded in catastrophe, analysis of the image hegemony of reality – Benjamin’s aesthetic, or perhaps, the optic of his aesthetic, is founded on a process of controlled ruination.[136] Given the goal of the dialectical-image is a ‘temporal constellation, in which the archaic and modern are woven together’ in order to reveal new possibilities, the process of creating the dialectical-image, as Buci-Glucksmann suggests, is grounded in a negotiation – one of baroque complexity – of past and present temporalities.[137] This ‘baroque reason’ produced through Benjamin’s interests in the mourning play, motifs of library, catastrophe and ruin, is what allows us to suggest that Benjamin’s anticipation of future architectures can be employed to find spaces that Tafuri, and wider concerns over recuperation, make impossible.[138] What’s to be drawn from this aesthetic in the investigation of space is as follows. Firstly, that it is a necessarily processual account. Secondly, that controlled ruination is an optic of engagement. And thirdly, its value resolves itself in politico-aesthetic potential.

How is this so? This aesthetic is necessarily processual because it is grounded in the dialectic. Although Adorno, in the letters contained in Aesthetics and Politics is quick to criticise Benjamin for not being dialectical enough in his approach, we may suggest that this is not entirely accurate.[139] As we have seen, the Exposé of 1935 grounds itself in the politicisation of the dialectic between architecture and engineering. The generation of dialectical images as the goal of The Arcades Project then set themselves as images resolved in process. The dialectic, necessarily predicated on movement, while frozen, still exhibits the tension of contradiction. While synthesis or higher resolution is the goal of the image, this is only achieved through the exhibiting of primary contradictions in the dialectical image’s crystallisation of capitalism. What it requires and divests is an understanding of process, of capital itself. Consequently this understanding requires engagement. It requires a critical reflexivity beyond surface apprehension.

This aesthetic engagement is informed by the idea that ‘allegories, are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.’[140] The claim being made here on the value of allegory is through the corresponding value of ruin. That ruins divest information by being in time but out of their time is because they contain the sediment of history. Allegory can then be used in analysis as a method of ruination. It takes the gradual processes of physical ruin and supercharges them, encouraging analysis by blasting objects out of their temporal continuum; effectively ruining them in apprehension. Thus allegory allows Benjamin a form where ‘opposites join up and cancel each other, with no unitary hierarchy of the whole. Reality proliferates in all its dissonant exuberant details, without the form of the ‘grand style’ ever being able to contain or dominate it.’[141] The rejection of a ‘grand style’ is best read not as the rejection of a totality of relations, but of false accounts of social reality. What is preserved is the whole, but in a reconfigured form, not as narrative, but interrelation of parts.  Here then, is the political value of an aesthetic grounded in ruination. The refutation of dominant logics, of an overarching or over-structured narrative in favour of fragments is levelled as the politico-aesthetic refusal of the homogenising effects of capitalism.

Through ruination as an aesthetic engagement informed by the new structures of engineering and in turn, given back to them, one finds political purchase. However, we should be careful to delineate what is meant by this engagement. Firstly, the aesthetic immanent to construction should not be understood merely as a stylistic form, but an ongoing process of aesthetic development. To restrict it to a stylistic template to build from or to is to close the process of development and betray subsequent, unforeseen resolutions. Secondly, it must, if we are to make the claim for a wider spatial dialectic, be linked to a social process as the relation between action – experience – and building, understood as ‘porosity’.

If this political purpose is the creation of a space for a re-engagement with social relationships beyond the reified nature of those under capitalism, it requires an immediate engagement with the present beyond that of the ‘distracted’ or habitual nature that Benjamin posits in The Work of Art… essay. It requires, as Leach suggests, an engagement with architectural space on its own theoretical terms.[142] That is, through an aesthetic based on actualities over mediated representations. We find hints as to what this may look like in Benjamin and Lacis’ 1925 writing on the city of Naples.[143] Naples evinces as a city the processes that inform an aesthetic of ruination. It is a place where ‘one can scarcely discern where building is still in progress and where dilapidation has already set in’, offering a model of a fluid relation to building.[144] From this, Benjamin and Lacis develop the concept of porosity. Porosity is derived from the complex set of interrelationships and interpenetrations that compose Naples. The city, they state, is architecturally as ‘porous as [the] stone’ on which it is built.[145] However, beyond the structural or built characteristics of the city and its foundations exists the interpenetration of ‘building and action’ in ‘the courtyards, arcades, and stairways’.[146] It is a place in which the fabric of the city, both social and physical is in a constant state of flux. It preserves in everything ‘the scope to become a theatre of unforeseen constellations’ and the ‘stamp of the definitive is avoided’.[147]

Porosity, as Andrew Benjamin claims, is responsible for the dissolution of simple oppositions and binaries.[148] It is an aesthetic refutation of the strictures of capitalism through processes of flux, and interpenetration. In avoiding the stamp of the definitive, the unforeseen constellations preserved take the form of a de-alienated social engagement. We see this in Benjamin and Lacis’ description that a ‘living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so, only much more loudly, the street migrates into the living room’.[149] Families share spaces, children are looked after to a non-rigid timetable, areas exist so that ‘each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life’.[150] Porosity thus marks a set of social relations in which interpenetration as opposed to opposition and alienation mark the ‘inexhaustible law of the life of the city’.[151]

Of course, this is not to claim that this account of Naples is a description of a wholly revolutionary space. It is a claim that it offers processes – and here it should be remembered that Italy in 1925 was under the rule of the Fascism and Mussolini, a place of limited freedom and dogmatic conformist inflexibility – which make plastic or set in motion frozen social forms. The importance of interpenetration in the porosity of action and building is the manner in which it sets in negotiation localising and spatialising characteristics. In this manner porosity may help inform construction by providing space in which unforeseen constellations – as revolutionary project – can emerge: the goal is perhaps not the construction of a revolutionary space, but to make space for a revolutionary space to materialise.

If porosity grounds the claim for a spatial dialectic based on interpenetration and movement it must exist in constant negotiation with the conceptual apparatus that informs it. To take the ideas that inform this dialectic – the political process, porosity, ruination – and apply them to built structure may be to meet the Tafurian counterclaim for recuperation. That is, the aesthetic template of a liberated architecture is something to be avoided. But, grasping an aesthetic based on porosity, requires extending the ground to the integration of a certain plasticity or flux as a processual claim. To bear witness to process, to moments of spatial porosity that refute capitalism as a space of domination, is in part, the goal of the creation of a space for the realisation of these moments.

Porosity must be more than a claim for flexible living. It demands a fluidity of the relations of building and action that compose space. In short an environment that responds to social relations and the actions derived from this metric over the shaping of them. Returning to East London and the Olympic Park we may look at the history of the site. To rub its history against the grain would be to be bring moments of its past into contact with the present. To suggest alternatives, or unearth possibilities latent but unrealised. Two of these moments, one built, one non-built, constellate with the location of the Olympic Park now. We will look at the plans for Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, as well as the architectural forms of the Manor Garden allotments that were cleared in order to allow the construction of the Olympic Park.[152]

Figure 9: Conceptual drawing of the Fun Palace.  [153]

Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (Figure 9) bears resemblance to the form of Constant’s New Babylon: a space predicated on the use of flows and movement. [154] It was to be ‘non-formalistic, abundantly porous, unenclosed and non-permanent.’[155] In structural terms it finds itself composed of a system of gantries, non-fixed places, escalators able to be relocated, visible service points and so forth. A space of improvisation, it was planned to serve the function of educational and creative development. Communal activity was encouraged by its structure but this is not to say that it ruled out isolation, contemplation, or simply doing nothing at all.

Of course, the criticism of New Babylon by McDonough could still be levied at the space – that it presents itself as site of play but reinforces existing logics. What may allow us to read it more politically positively are four things. Firstly, its purpose: it is a site of creative development, rather than pure ludic indulgence. Secondly, that it was designed to be self-limiting. Price, keen to avoid the institutionalising of such a design, was adamant that it be disassembled after a period of ten years – although we may claim that this is an arbitrary period – or after it had lost its use value. In this manner, it realises itself as a self-reflexive architecture, precisely because it is predicated around an awareness of the problems that confront its very existence. Thirdly, that its open structure suggested an embrace of nature, a porous relation to nature as the dissolution of an inside-outside binary, not its domination, exhibited in the way that New Babylon’s raised and enclosed construction hovers over an existing space. And fourthly, that it was mooted for an area near existing transport interchanges or a coalescing of flows, but not intended as a destination in itself.[156] That is to say, that it avoids the direct reshaping of space around it but attempts to set itself in and against the existing space. What we see in this built form that responds to improvisation, is a structure derived from a set of aesthetic principles correlative with the idea of porosity.

Figure 10: The Fun Palace in its proposed location. [157]

The open-sided structure encourages the interpenetration of the city and the space of the Fun Palace. It at once delimits its area but pushes itself beyond those limits. Imagining the space of a built Fun Palace one may, for example, engage with activities within its structural boundaries while being in sight and the site (Figure 10), of the city around it. One may, as one might when waiting at a street crossing or intersection of public spaces, find one able to see, hear, and smell, activities and spaces to which immediate access is not possible. As a constantly shifting city would require negotiation – and consequently engagement beyond the mimetic – so would the Fun Palace. What we see in its embrace of technology is an updating of the porous form of Naples that so enchanted Lacis and Benjamin. In its constant readjustments and rearrangements it refutes its recuperation into a pattern of mediated or fixed responses and allows unforeseen constellations. If the space of the Fun Palace is brought under criticism for its utopian elements, the response may simply be that it is not a utopian imagining. What the Fun Palace expresses is the achievable and technologically realisable aesthetic and structural projection of a built form that rejects capital’s dominant logics. In short, a mode of building based around a ‘group-form’ in Metabolist terms, that attempts a collective and porous social (through action) expression of technological (built) possibilities.[158]

Figure 11: Pompidou Centre.[159]

The imagined but non-built form of the Fun Palace finds aesthetic but not compositional elements integrated into the structure of some built work. The Pompidou Centre bears a strong stylistic resemblance; at least superficially, to Price’s conceptual drawings. What it fails to do is adopt the responsive and improvisational structural arrangements in its interior. Oddly, the spirit of the Fun Palace is perhaps found outside, in the shadow of the exterior escalator that apes its aesthetic form (Figure 11). The gently sloped Place Georges Pompidou, the public square that provides access to the Centre, encourages the kind of playfulness and environmental improvisation that the building itself lacks. By virtue of its sloping form – the suggestion is that if the square was level it may not provide the spatial characteristics that engender improvisational behaviour – it forms a porous amphitheatre. It is, at once, a public space, a site of performance, a thoroughfare and so on. This space then strikes a balance between localising – it draws people in to its space – but responds to the spatialising characteristics of people: dialectically, it is at once transformative and transformed.

If the Fun Palace represents the immaterial expression of a porous and flexible architecture, then the built form was found in the Manor Garden Allotments that were cleared to make way for the Olympic Park.[160] The aesthetic disjunction between the non-built form of the Fun Palace as a model of techno-centric architecture, and the distinctly rustic or dilapidated form of the Manor Garden huts, serves to illustrate the claim that moments of porosity are found in what may appear to be radically different stylistic forms united under the same conceptual-aesthetic apparatus. That is, that the aesthetic is founded on process rather than stylistic template to build from or to.

Figure 12: Manor Garden hut. [161]

Figure 13: Manor garden hut.[162]

The huts of the Manor Garden Allotments (Figures 12 and 13) provided the dialectical complement to the structures of the Olympic Park that have taken their place. In the photos above we see built forms (greenhouses, tool sheds) constructed from reused doors, frames, pieces of wood and other scavenged and gleaned materials. What they offer is a representation of the nature of the community established around the allotments themselves. Again, they take the porous form, blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, between private and collective space. In doing so they can be read as both in (through their allocation) and against (through their use as refutation of exchange) capital. Working as a détournement or reuse of existing materials and space, and in their use for the production of sustainable foodstuffs, they express a personal and intimate form of building grounded in collective action. As opposed to the Olympic Park which offers the promise of collectivity, but delivers isolation in a group form: that is, as one of the crowd. One only has to look at the passion and conviction of the campaign to save the allotments to illustrate a community beyond the atomised individual.

One might claim that the project of ‘’ is a distinctly Tafurian history, that it is this ‘fragmented yet immediate knowledge’ of a past – the history of the allotments – that was exchanged by the London Development Agency, responsible for the purchase and clearing of the Olympic land, for a loaded and linear account of the area centred on an Olympic telos.[163] Through the production of a set of social relations grounded in actualities instead of the mediated and phantasmagoric, the space was created for the realisation of communal activity – at once the individuation in built huts, and collectivisation through group construction – as a mechanism for the spatial rejection of capitalism. That the allotments were cleared in order to construct the Olympic Park is perhaps a reminder of capitalism’s hegemonic operation, but to be drawn from this history of community is acknowledgement of a moment of integrated critique and construction.


To conclude with an advocacy of an aesthetic as style would, in light of both the differing forms proposed as examples of a porous aesthetic, and concerns over recuperation, be to miss the mark. Perhaps, if there is to be a ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’ it may be through entering into a dialectic of possibility and impossibility.[164] That is to say, a strategy that holds to both Benjaminian excavation of utopian moments of the possibility of the spatial unfolding of a new aesthetic, and Tafurian critique as the impossibility of generating this form under capitalism. Dialectical composition is the suggestion of a non-closed system open to speculative possibilities but grounded in self-reflexive critique. A porous process whereby conceptual apparatus informs aesthetic, and aesthetic informs conceptual apparatus: which is to hold that built space is both a means of action and of knowledge.

To engage with the poles that frame the ‘messy, ill constructed and jumbled’ form of society, is to attempt to illuminate the whole. [165] The dissection of capitalistic spaces, while maintaining the claim for the preservation of utopian instants, is to acknowledge the political value in these moments. To do so is to ‘merely show’ possibilities restricted by the relations of production.[166] That we can see both the expression of an ideologically informed capitalist architecture in the Olympic Park, and the suggestion of its porous refutation in some instances of its constellated past and present, is not to suggest a program based solely on these moments, but to draw them into a wider and more complex constellation of possibilities. In doing so we may inform the construction of an aesthetic and space, not as the prescription or anticipation of what is to come, but one open to possibility: to the emergence of unforeseen future constellations.


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[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p.667

[2] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (John Hopkins University Press Spring, 1986) 22-27, p.27

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.474

[4] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.473

[5] UN, ‘Peering into the Dawn of an Urban Millennium’, <; [accessed 21/09/2010

[6] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (AK Press, 2005), p.1

[7] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Verso Books, 1997), p.126

[8] Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto <; [accessed 21/09/2010]

[9] Anselm Jappe and Donald Nicholson-Smith, ‘Sic Transit Gloria Artis: “The End of Art” for Theodor Adorno and Guy Debord’ in SubStance, Vol.28, No/ 3, Issue 90: Special Issue: Guy Debord (1999, pp.102-128), p.107

[10] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.458

[11] Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings, (Verso, 1997), pp.45-104

[12] Walter Benjamin, From ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings, (Verso, 1997), pp.293-346

[13] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, < > [accessed 03/09/2010]

[14] Margaret Cohen, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Phantasmagoria’ in New German Critique, No.48 (Autumn, 1989) pp.87-107, p.88

[15] Walter Benjamin, ‘Exposé of 1939’ in The Arcades Project (The Belknap Press University of Harvard Press, 2002), p.26

[16] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008) p.19

[17] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, <> [accessed 03/08/2010]

[18] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’, p.20

[19] Rolf Tiedemann, ‘Dialectics at a Standstill’ in The Arcades Project, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p.941

[20] A. G. Düttmann, ‘Tradition and Destruction’ in Destruction and Experience, (Clinamen Press, 2000), pp.31-32

[21] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, (Vintage Books, 1977), p.127

[22] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.476

[23] Theodor Adorno, ‘On Jazz’ in Essays on Music edited by Richard Leppert, (University of California Press, 2002) p.479

[24] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp.43-80

[25] Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, (Cambridge Polity Press, 1996), p.107

[26] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, (Pimlico, 1999), pp.245-255

[27] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.249

[28] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.249

[29] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.471

[30] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.473

[31] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, (Verso Books, 2003), p.92

[32] Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, (Verso, 2009), p.20

[33] Theodor Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ in Prisms, (MIT Press Paperback Edition, 1983), p.233

[34] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, (MIT Press, 1991), p.158

[35] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.460

[36] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.255

[37] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.254

[38] Howard Caygill, ‘Non-Messianic Political Theology in Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’’ in Walter Benjamin and History edited by Andrew Benjamin, (Continuum Publishing, 2005), pp.215-250

[39] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.245

[40] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.255

[41] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, p.252

[42] Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time, (Verso Books, 1995)

[43] Howard Caygill, ‘Benjamin, Heidegger and Tradition’ in Destruction and Experience edited by Andrew Benjamin, (Clinamen Press, 2000), p.10

[44] Howard Caygill, ‘Benjamin, Heidegger and Tradition’, p.10

[45] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.460

[46] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century’ in The Arcades Project, (The Belknap Press University of Harvard Press, 2002), p.13

[47] David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’, <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[48] Peter Osborne, ‘A Sudden Topicality: Marx, Nietzsche and the Politics of Crisis’ in Radical Philosophy, (No.160, March/April 2010), p.20

[49] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, (Verso, 1999), p.164

[50] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, pp.204-206

[51] David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’ <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[52] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

[53] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, pp.192-193

[54] Staff and Agencies, ‘Legacy loses exclusive dome bidding rights’ in The Guardian <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[55] Louis Borges, ‘The Immortal’ in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, (Penguin Classics, 2000)

[57] Photo by author, taken 05/09/2010

[58] Screengrab from <; [accessed 09/09/2010]

[59] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (Verso Books, 2006), pp.223-263

[60] Photo by author, taken 05/09/2010

[61] Photo by author, taken 05/09/2010

[62] ‘Legacy planning’ has been a key component of the London 2012 bid but exactly what this comprises is still under contestation. What is evident is that the legacy of the Olympic games is based around privatisation of space orientated toward profit. From the Westfield Mall (‘Stratford City’) to the Olympic Park Legacy Company’s Baroness Ford and Andrew Altman’s claims that the vision of a ‘great London estate’ based on Grosvenor and Cadogan’s holdings (see Paul Norman, ‘Exclusive interview with OPLC chiefs’, The Estates Gazette, <; [accessed 06/09/2010]) who between them own huge chunks of West London (see <; [accessed 06/09/2010]). Indeed, the debate surrounding the Olympic legacy as played out in the press puts the as yet undetermined future of the site in flux. With suggestions of buried radioactive waste affecting redevelopment, £400 million conversion costs for infrastructure (see Dave Hill, ‘At the 2012 Olympics, we’re playing for keeps’, in The Guardian, <; [accessed 06/09/2010[) the current odds at the time of writing on the main Stadium’s post-Olympic future suggest its demolition.

[63] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century’, p.13

[64] Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, p.107

[65] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.41

[66] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.42

[67] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.34

[69] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.17

[70] Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, (Penguin Books, 2009), p.574

[71] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ in the London Review of Books, (27 May 2010), pp.32-33

[72] The Greek response to austerity measures is detailed here: Corrina Jessen, ‘Entering a Death Spiral? Tensions Rise in Greece as Austerity Measures Backfire’ in Der Spiegel, <,1518,712511,00.html&gt; [accessed 06/09/2010]

[73] David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’ <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[74] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, pp.32-33

[75] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, p.33

[76] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, p.33

[77] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’ in The Optic of Walter Benjamin edited by Alex Coles, (Black Dog Publishing, 1999), pp.196-200

[78] Howard Caygill, The Colour of Experience, p.145

[79] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.202

[80] Felix Clay, ‘Anish Kapoor unveils Orbit tower for Olympic site’ in The Guardian, <; [accessed 22/09/2010]

[82] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008)

[83] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.156

[84] Meyer Schapiro, Felicity D. Scott, Sarah Ogger, ‘Looking Forward to Looking Backward: A Dossier of Writings on Architecture from the 1930s’ in Grey Room, No. 6 (Winter, 2002)

[85] The ‘International Style’ was brought, in its now widely accepted aesthetic form, to an American audience through the 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name, organised by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. A book, derived from the exhibition, entitled the International Style contains, in its preface to the 1966 Edition, a note from the authors accepting the inaccuracy of their predictions of its widespread adoption. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, (The Norton Library,1966)

[86] Althusser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, (1970) <; [accessed 06/09/2010]

[87] Carla Keyvanian, ‘Manfredo Tafuri: From Critique of Ideology to Microhistories’ in Design Issues, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 2000)

[88] Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and Histories of Architecture, (Granada Publishing Limited, 1986), pp.11-78

[89] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, (MIT Press, 1976), p.98

[90] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, pp.170-171

[91] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, p.179

[92] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p.85

[93] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Theory of Distraction’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p.57

[94] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, p.85

[95] Détournement is used here in the Situationist sense. That is to say, it is defined as the playful repurposing of existing objects. Understood not solely as the preserve of art, but an attempt, through ‘ultra-détournement’ as the subversion and transformation of the spaces and practice of everyday life (see A User’s Guide to Détournement <; [accessed 07/09/2010]). In particular the User’s Guide mentions détournement of space derived from the ‘Plan for Rational Improvements to the City of Paris’.

[96] See <; [Accessed 13/09/2010]

[97] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Blackwell Publishing, 1991), p.116

[98] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, pp.22-27

[99] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), p.97

[100] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Verso Books, 1992), p.xvi

[101] Mertins, Detlef, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.219

[102] Thomas More, Utopia, (Penguin Classics, 2004)

[103] Mertins, Detlef, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.219

[104] Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (Verso, 1995)

[105] Mertins, Detlef, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, pp.198-202

[106] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’ pp.193-219

[107] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.200

[108] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, pp.204-205

[109] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.465

[110] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.211

[111] Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture, p. xv

[112] Guy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957) in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006),pp.25-43

[113] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, pp.170-171

[114] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, pp.170-171

[116] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), p.1

[117] David A. Ross, ‘Preface’ in On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL 1957-1972, (MIT Press, 1989)

[118] Henri Lefebvre, ‘Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International’, Interview conducted and translated by Kristin Ross (1983, published in 1997), <; [accessed 31/08/2010]

[119] Henri Lefebvre, ‘Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International’

[120] Unattributed, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.194-203

[121] Unattributed, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’

[122] Unattributed, ‘Questionnaire’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.178-183

[123] Unattributed, ‘Definitions’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.51-52

[124] Lettrist International, ‘Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris’, in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.12-14

[125] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p.19

[126] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, p.2

[127] Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Domestic Modernity’ in Practicing Modernity: Female Creativity in the Weimar Republic edited by Christiane Schönfeld, (Verlag Königshaussen & Neumann GmbH, 2006), pp.44-46

[130] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, (Verso, 1996)

[131] Gilles Delezuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Continuum, 2004), pp.1-28

[132] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, (Penguin, 1973), p.173.

[133] Dave Pinder, Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism, (Edinburgh University Press, 2005), pp.245-255

[134] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p.54

[135] Andrew Benjamin, ‘In What Style Should We Build? The Style of Cosmopolitan Architecture’ in Style and Time: Essays on the Politics of Appearance, (Northwestern University Press, 2006), p.80

[136] Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’ in October, Vol. 62 (Autumn, 1992), pp.3-41

[137] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, (Sage Publications, 1994), p.46

[138] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, pp.22-23

[139] Theodor Adorno et al, Aesthetics and Politics, (Verso, 2007), pp.110-134

[140] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.178

[141] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, p.140

[142] Andrew Leach, ‘Manfredo Tafuri and the Age of Historical Representation’ in Walter Benjamin and Architecture edited by Gevork Hartoonian, (Routledge, 2010), pp.18-19

[143] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’ in Reflections, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)

[144] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[145] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[146] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[147] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[148] Andrew Benjamin, ‘Porosity at the edge: Working through Walter Benjamin’s ‘Naples’’ in Walter Benjamin and Architecture edited by Gevork Hartoonian, (Routledge, 2010), p.42

[149] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, p.171

[150] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, p.170

[151] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.167-168

[152] Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’ in The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 12, No. 3, Architecture / Environment (Spring, 1968), pp.127-134

[154] Cedric Price’s files on the Fun Palace project can be found at the Cedric Price archive. <> [accessed 01/09/2010]

[155] Arata Isozaki, ‘Erasing Architecture into the System’ in Re:CP, (Birkhäuser – Publishers for Architecture, 2003), p.34

[156] Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’, p.133

[158] Florina Urban, ‘Talking Japan’ in Architecture and Identity edited by Peter Herrle and Eric Wegerhoff, (Transaction Publishers, 2008), p.94

[160] <> [accessed 01/09/2010] provides a particularly good account of the struggle of allotment holders with Olympic planners.

[163] Andrew Leach, ‘Manfredo Tafuri and the Age of Historical Representation’, p.10

[164] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.254

[165] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, p.27

[166] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.460


July 22, 2010

not quite as good Bentham thought?

The Olympian chronique scandaleuse

June 1, 2010

In what is a delightfully Benjaminian turn: the material and immaterial improvisational architectural forms of the Lea Valley. The huts of the (now cleared) Manor Garden Allotments, and the Fun Palace of Cedric Price. Both a lot more interesting than what’s slowly coagulating there now.

Improvised and adaptable architecture, built, above. And imagined, below.

Explosive aesthetics: adorno & the art of detonation

May 7, 2010

A presentation which I gave last night. It probably makes more sense in my head than in the note form here – there are sections that I didn’t write but did deliver – so I’ll tidy it up soon. Essentially about the realisation of the sublime in art through a sort of technical transposition that takes it from natural to art beauty. Trajectory goes Kant, Adorno, Mutually Assured Destruction, auto-destructive art: in a loose sense to do with non-present presences.

The picture above is of a tower built to test a nuclear device that is vaporised in the explosion. Interesting temporary architectural form.

By way of context: This presentation, and I apologise for this now, is non-deliberately open ended. It’s intended as drawing together a few threads that I intend to explore further in the dissertation, based, primarily, around an exploration of Benjamin’s interpretation of ruins in light of a dual reading of catastrophe, as a disastrous event, and in his terms as ‘missed opportunity’. So, for example, how we get from [image hiroshima pre and post] to [image lea valley pre and post]. If we leave aside the issues of Benjamin’s interpretation, what I wanted to focus on here, was how we get to the status of ruin, explosive imagery and the sublime, and its transposition, as Adorno sees it, from nature into art.

I just wanted to show this clip to start with, which, is I am informed, of the test of the Tsar Bomba. The Tsar Bomba is the largest nuclear device in terms of yield to ever have been tested. It was detonated by the Soviet Union over the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, located in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia, in 1961. The estimated yield – measured in tons of TNT – was 50 megatons (50 million tons), to contextualise that, Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima had yields of around 20 kiltons (20 000 tons).   The scale of this is illustrated rather nicely, but in a manner I find entirely incomprehensible in this image. [image of blast cloud] The reason for mentioning this is not just by way of process – so how we get from this (pic of thing) to this (ruin) – but that it allows us to deal with the concept of the sublime.

The sublime, for Kant, is an expression of beauty. It is one of the parts of the judgement of beauty. The sublime, is then further reduced into two categories. The first, as related to the mathematical, the second, as related to dynamics. For Kant the sublime is the ‘shudder’ of alternation between two instances of recognition of an overwhelming. It is, in the sense of the person to the object, the overwhelming of an inability to intuit, in mathematical terms, the scale of something – a mountain – or to grasp the force of something – a storm for example. Although Kant states that these are instances when we feel the sublime, he holds that the objects they relate to are not actually the objects of the sublime. What is constituted is the second instance of overwhelming, not of us to the object, but of the object to the idea of absolute totality or freedom. The shudder of the sublime, is then the alternation between the overwhelming of us by the object, and the recognition of the overwhelming of the overwhelming object in its relation to absolute totality or freedom.

As Kant holds that beautiful objects express a purposiveness without purpose – beauty does not pertain to a concept as the knife does to the knife maker’s idea of it – a dual process is instantiated. The first layer provides the admittedly counter-intuitive exhibition of the non-purpose of the sublime object: its size or force as end, rather than means. But the second layer, the alternation to the idea of a purpose in the recognition of the sublime object in relation to the idea of absolute totality or freedom qualifies the judgement.

Caveat: *moral culture needed for judgements: we can only recognise the sublime because we recognise our rationality*

What we then see in Kant is an attribution of the sublime to nature. What we see in a nuclear blast is the unnatural expression of a natural reaction. The technically prompted excursion into uncontrollable nuclear fusion. Of course, the parameters of the reaction can be roughly set through the material used in the bomb, but the reaction once started, unfurls within and up to its own limits. In the fleeting form of the fireball and mushroom cloud that develops out of it, we see the intermingling of the mathematical and dynamic sublime. The overwhelming scale combined with destructive force. As Jeremy Bernstein writes of witnessing a nuclear test:

‘What I saw defies description. The photograph… gives some sense but not of the scale. [image of cloud from the test ‘smoky’ that Bernstein describes] At first there was no noise. Then came the shock wave that made a disagreeable click in my ears and finally the rolling thunder of the noise. The Joshua trees were aflame as if in some obscene pagan rite. The bomb had evaporated the tower.’1

In this intermingling of overwhelming scale and force that illustrates the sublime potentiality of the destructive act. The consistent description of mushroom clouds as beautiful points to some overwhelming transcendence of the technical possibility expressed in nuclear power beyond its destructive purpose. We should be wary of the fetishisation of the mushroom cloud as solely aesthetic object outside of its historical context, but it points towards the critical aesthetic potential – the explosive quality of this potential – that Adorno holds that we find in art.

The treatment of the Kantian sublime in Adorno runs, both in and against aesthetic tradition, as a continuation of the project of de-alienation. The sublime takes its form in aesthetic works under which the ‘pressure of truth content, transcends itself’ to ‘occupy the position that was once held by the concept of the sublime.’2

While Kant holds that the sublime is found in nature, Adorno notes that the sublime was co-opted during the enlightenment so as to be the ‘historical constituent of art itself’.3 What this points to is the move of the sublime from its defining of natural to art beauty. As such, art becomes ‘in itself what was previously attributed to it as its cathartic effect on another spirit: the sublimation of nature.’4

What this means for the potential of art to convey the sublime – and through this the ideas of totality and freedom – is in its interpretation as ‘an art that shudders inwardly by suspending itself in the name of an illusionless truth content, though without, as art, divesting itself of its semblance character.’5 But for Adorno the object of the sublime, the mountain or storm, are not the representations of an overwhelming force, but the image of a ‘space liberated from fetters and structures, a liberation in which it is possible to participate.’6  This space, free of the alienating forms of dominance that society under capitalism – under a dubious relation to nature – structures, is the goal of the negative dialectical project of Adorno.

If this is then the goal of art: to inform us of a space beyond that which is presented to us as one of liberation, freedom, beauty realised in a capacity beyond that of the negation of the present, then its important to ask just how does Adorno get to the pronouncement that ‘art is profoundly kin to explosion’? 7

Given Adorno’s striking – and necessary – negativity towards the social relations that constitute the functioning of society under capitalism, the explosive quality of art is realised in a number of ways. Dialectically, Adorno exploits the antagonistic unity of the artwork as a constitutive factor of the artwork, so that it exceeds its limits, its semblance, exploding and at once unifying itself against the idea of an organic whole. So while the artwork’s success can be measured in truth content – the manner in which it sets itself against society to reveal a structural arrangement that could be – its power is expressed through its explosion of the generalising effects of the categories that it inhabits.

The explosive power of the artwork is thus derived from the inherent antagonism of the dialectical constitution of its form and content. This antagonistic unity speaks to the intimate relationship that informs, and obfuscates the nature of the form and content of the artwork, in that the two are not easily drawn into separate strands, but necessarily enmeshed in the whole. So while Adorno states – following Rimbaud – that art must be absolutely modern, that is, heterogenous, it is not enough for the form to merely change if the content is retrograde or derivative. The reverse is then also true. The artwork then plays on this dialectical unity in order to provide it with the explosive qualities that allow it to extend beyond itself, the ‘monadological’, to quote Adorno, structure of both the dialectic and the artwork.

Given the Marxist content of Adorno’s aesthetic theory it is not enough to deal with the artwork qua artwork, as an isolated entity devoid of its historical context. It’s here, in what approaches a prompt or actualisation of critical thought, that we again see recourse to explosive imagery.  In the same manner that Benjamin tried to instantiate messianic time as a mode of seeing history as more than the pacifying linearity of the bourgeois account, Adorno holds that the artwork has the power to ‘explode’ the ‘undialectical, gapless continuum of tranquil development’. 8

The continuum here has as its referent the organic composition of a history of artistic development, but in the monadological quality of the artwork, is extended out of this to society. To refer to this continuum as undialectical is to cede to the accepted, bourgeois, notion of history as it is, to ignore the potentialities of new modes of living, of changed social relations. The artwork thus responds to its historical context – in its truth content – by aggregating, by ossifying the sediment of history in its core. For Adorno, the dialectical process inherent in the artwork is one that constructs its own inner time, so that when Adorno writes:

‘What appears in the artwork is its own inner time; the explosion of appearance blasts open the continuity of this inner temporality. The artwork is mediated to real history by its monadological nucleus. History is the content of artworks. To analyse artworks means no less than to become conscious of the history immanently sedimented in them.’9

We see that the explosive quality of the artwork is thus its power to actualise consciousness. To offer us the awareness of an society orientated around spaces of liberation – an orientation once glimpsed in the natural sublime, but transferred to the language of the artwork.

I’d like to read Adorno’s pronouncements on the explosive power of art through the work and theory of Gustav Metzger, the Polish-Jewish artist who came to Britain as part of the Kindertransport programme prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Metzger, was and is, a committed political activist and early proponent of the need for positive action with regards to the threat of climate change. I’d like, because I think that it approaches the overtly political response that Adorno decries, to leave aside his more recent work including the Flailing Trees installation, and instead, focus on the period from around 1959 to 1980. We must bear in mind that the ambitions that Metzger held for auto-destructive art were perhaps not fully realised, that the works that we have, especially in the period mentioned, are the first tentative steps towards a wider realisation.

Metzger, is known as developing the concept of auto-destructive art and the art strike. The former, first devised in 1959 as ‘primarily a form of public art for industrial societies’10 and issued in manifesto form in 1960.11 The significance of industrial societies for Metzger, revolves around the (misused) capacity of technology. Coalescing as a dialectical response to the ‘chaos of capitalism and of Soviet communism’, the ‘co-existence of surplus and starvation’ and ‘the increasing stockpiling of nuclear weapons’12, auto-destructive art plays on the technical absurdities of a society predicated on waste, productive and consumptive coercion and miss-articulation of technical capacity

We can locate two threads in Metzger’s work that perhaps speak to the formulation of the artwork – the successful formulation of the artwork in Adorno’s terms – as well as a  response to a society dominated by a culture industry that maintains that ‘the outside world is the straightforward continuation of [the world] presented on the screen.’ 13

Situating Metzger’s work in the context of Cold War logics of inexorable escalation allows us an insight into both, the auto-destructive tendencies of his art, as well as the potential effectiveness of the notion of the art strike. Returning to the Tsar Bomba, we see the absurdity of a nuclear device escalated in scale to a point of tactical uselessness. While it exhibits a bizarre inverted logic of non-deterrent as deterrent, precisely because the Russian weapon was so large as to require a semi deconstructed plane to drop it for testing. The tactical results of this escalation amounts to a weapon that would have been easily intercepted because it required slow moving bombers to transport and deploy it. The scale of the detonation is then a strategic response to its tactical ineffectiveness. By realising its status as non-deterrent deterrent in its political purpose: that is, in the expression of an escalation towards an unrestrained bomb based on destructive size, the bomb ensures its non-use, but the effectiveness of its non-use. The symbiotic reinforcement of an American-Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction leads us to a diversion of capital, of technology, beyond any meaningful end. The threat then is both non-present and omnipresent.

If MAD provides the globalised specter of a non-present presence: that of the bomb. Then the art strike provides the non-present presence of the emancipatory potentials of Adorno’s artwork. In construing the non-work, the non-production of artworks as an artwork, we can read both the absurdity of a society mired in a sclerotic response to a non-present presence, and extrapolate beyond it to a wider sense of social structures that facilitated the absurd relation. It is then, a legitimate artistic response – in a society in which Adorno questions arts ability to even exist anymore – to the omnipresence of the image: the, in Debord’s terms, spectacular society. To construct art as the image of the non-image, is to provide the same explosive logic of the threat of MAD.

That then is the first thread of Metzger’s work. The artstrike, or non-production of artworks, proferred, in itself, as an artwork.

In terms of specific artworks we can read Metzger’s acid paintings, created at the South Bank demonstration, [image] as what a typically Adornoite artwork may look like. Given that the artwork itself was ephemeral and that document now exists as record of the act, one may question the relevancy, but perhaps not its truth content. The acid paintings consisted of chloroform sprayed onto sheets of hanging nylon which corrode at the point of contact within 15 seconds. What we see here is an embargo on images, non-representative artwork, and the creation of the radically heterogenous, in spite of its inherently fleeting nature. It is then, a work that points to the freeing of the particular from the general, an appreciation of the location of its moments in relation to its form, as Adorno attributes to the twelve tone structure of Schoenberg’s compositions. In allowing the mechanico-technical potentials of readymade materials to realise themselves auto-destructively, Metzger points to the conception of the artwork that Adorno praises. Here we see the space of liberation, freedom from modes of domination, and a political response to an aesthetic content that does not explicitly situate itself as political. What remains of the artwork is nothing, the nylon is dissolved, but it situates itself as non-present presence.

Aesthetics of time travel

January 6, 2010

After a long time doing nothing but writing essays I celebrated – in the most minor way – by watching the first Terminator movie last night. I hadn’t seen it for years and a couple of things struck me about it. Firstly, you can see Schwarzenegger’s penis when he initially appears from the future. Secondly, that the film is loving immersed in 80s music culture until Sarah Connor disappears off to Mexico at the end, at which point the perm goes and the bandanna / jeep / aviator combo of the future revolutionary leader appears. And, thirdly, it borrows a huge amount from La Jetée.

Following La Jetée’s aesthetic of a time travelling minimalism in which the apparatus needed to hurl someone through time looks like the following picture, Terminator’s resolution of the end point of time travel – the arrival – consists in some lightning and lack of clothing. It’s easy to imagine that the time travelling apparatus in Terminator shares an aesthetic similarity with La Jetee because they’re both created out of necessity. In that the conditions of the emergence of time travelling technology is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the end goal is not so much the changing of history to change the future-present, but a preservation of it on its own terms.

If this minimal aesthetic is derived of necessity – of the sparse conditions of emergence – it evolves because of the eventual primacy of a military-industrial complex that induces catastrophe. Compare this to the representation of time travel as developed, not out of necessity, but curiosity, and the opposite aesthetic emerges. Not a stripped back minimalism of a lone time travelling man. But one of cluttered, accidental emergence, where pieces of trash, clapped out bits of machinery and odd cogs and gizmos are stuck on to a basic container for transportation. See the DeLorean of Back to the Future and H G Wells’ time machine.

There’s surely more instances of representation but I can’t currently think of any that sit between these two poles. This leaves us between the forced minimalism of aesthetic representation beyond the catastrophic triumph of the military-industrial complex, and the cluttered junk-machines of the accidental inventor. The wider implications of this I’m not so sure about. But the lack of space between the two poles, of a time machine available in the supermarket that looks something like a dirt devil, seems like a missed narrative opportunity.


December 10, 2009

The Sacrifice

December 1, 2009

The Sacrifice


‘Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.’

Deleuze and the crystal-image

October 30, 2009

Just found this in my Google documents. Written about 3 years ago. But, it means I can put some more pictures here.

vertigo poster

Deleuze’s crystal-image purports to offer us an insight into the operation of time. In order to explore this claim I will provide a synopsis of Bergson’s though on time and memory, which informs Deleuze’s work concerning the crystal-image. The crystal-image is a logical culmination of a trajectory that Deleuze sees in cinema. This essay will deal with this trajectory that operates through the movement-image, time-image and into the crystal-image: the Second World War providing the paradigm shift in underlying cinematic style. Finally, and in order to determine how the crystal-image is delineated visually I will look at its portrayal in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In each moment that we inhabit in the present there exists, for Bergson, a split between a present that passes, and a past which is preserved. Bergson’s description of time is derived from Xeno’s paradoxes of movement, and seeks to explain how we move through time. In order to make sense of this, Bergson ascribes to our subjectivities ‘duration’. “Pure duration is the form taken by the succession of our inner states of consciousness when our self lets itself live, when it abstains from establishing a separation between the present state and anterior states.”1 This notion of duration provides the basis of Bergson’s work on memory and features in Deleuze’s analysis of the crystal-image; itself a portrait of duration, a depiction of “the foundation of time, non-chronological time”.2 It is only through looking at Bergson’s work on memory that we can fully make sense of duration (and thus the crystal-image); though it is itself, a concept that superintends the memory schema.

In order to explain how the past survives in the present, and how the splitting of time is facilitated, Bergson divides the operation of memory into two distinct aspects. The two forms that memory takes are of spontaneous memory and habitual or automatic memory. Spontaneous memory deals with the past in images and representations; it is entirely virtual.3 Habitual memory, unlike spontaneous memory, engages with the present. In elaborating on Bergson’s work, Guerlac uses the example of driving a car and then failing to acutely remember the journey afterwards.4 The mechanism of habitual memory, through the learned skill of driving, engages with the present. The practical collaboration of the two types of memory can be referred to as actual memory and is necessarily expedient in dealing with the world.

Bergson illustrated this interaction between spontaneous and habitual memory, and perception through his inverted cone. What we see is a distinction between the virtual – that which is pure memory, and the actual – pure perception, involved with the present. This gap is bridged through the use of memory. The ellipse AB at the base of the cone is totality of memory. Point S is the body, the self, in contact with the present (shown as the plane P). What needs to be considered is that the diagram is not meant to convey stasis; point S is in constant motion, engaged in a perpetual surge towards an immediate future and linked with an immediate past. This is how time is experienced, through the mechanism of memory Bergson describes. Time is not linear, but amorphous and in flux. The past exists concurrently with the present and each point in the future splits into a present that passes and a past that is preserved, without this there could be no motion through time: time would not move if the present could not pass.

Memory cone

Deleuze suggests that Bergson’s philosophy has often, pejoratively, been reduced to the maxim that “duration is subjective and constitutes our internal life.”5 While there is no denying the truth of the statement it can only be made sense of in the wider context of Bergson’s philosophy. Through the schema of time and memory that Bergson outlines it is the constant production of ‘internal circuits’, the linking of present and past, which contribute to the subjectivity of duration. It is these internal circuits that Deleuze finds exemplified visually through the medium of cinema.

Deleuze argues that these internal circuits when delineated in cinema give us a picture of how we inhabit and move in time. 6 It is this that he terms the ‘crystal-image’ – a representation of the splitting of time, the movement of past and present reflected through these images. Deleuze states that “cinema does not just present images, it surrounds them with a world.”7 He goes on to elaborate that cinema seeks to provide bigger circuits in order to link actual images with those of the past. This is the basis for what Deleuze sees as the cinema’s exposition of time. However, the purest form of the crystal-image, the manner in which we exist in time, constitutes the smallest possible internal circuit.8 What Deleuze seeks to provide is a taxonomy of the crystal-image. To look at the crystal-image in film we require its context in Deleuze’s cinematic trajectory.

For Deleuze the state of pre-war cinema is characterised by a portrayal of the movement-image. The movement-image arises from Bergson’s critique of cinema. Cinema “misconceives movement” in the same manner as natural perception. What it does is break down movement into a series of successive images, a misgiving that natural perception and cinema share.9 For Bergson a model in which things “constantly change, a flowing-matter in which no point of anchorage nor centre of reference would be assignable” would be preferable.10 It is this that leads to a plane of immanence, a universe, which is comprised in a set of movement images; everything reacts with everything.11 It is this that Deleuze adopts as the basis of the movement-image.

The movement-image is fundamentally reactionary. Its archetype is in Hollywood genre cinema, built upon placing characters into situations in which they can immediately act and react.12 Deleuze also states that the narrative of pre-war film, steeped in movement-image, carries little central to the main tenets of the plot. The construction of films is done with ease of accessibility firmly in mind. Cuts are made in order to advance in time towards the next stage of the story, which inevitably unfolds in a linear fashion, often signposted by elucidating flashbacks. It carries a sensory-motor schema through which action unfolds.13 The link between sense and motor, between perception and action, is unassailable. This is the basis of the movement image, the emphasis being firmly on spatial rather than temporal action.

The break with movement-image cinema originates in post-war cinema. The time-image is introduced. A method in which film-makers no longer sought to portray only the movement-image, a format that Deleuze asserts, exhausted itself of original content. It must be noted that the validity of Deleuze’s assertion – that the Second World War signalled a break in the ethos of filmmakers – is questionable. It is difficult to see just how a historical event (regardless of its size) could produce identical outcomes in a diffuse set of filmmakers spread globally. We are inclined to think of the time-image as born fully developed. This, perhaps, is a misconception. The Second World War can be said to have provided the catalyst for the development of the time-image, but this itself was a process that developed gradually: through the French new-wave, and the importation of an aesthetic from Japanese cinema. Post-war cinema did not suddenly lose its emphasis that had traditionally been placed on the movement-image, but embraced a blossoming new direction concerned with time over movement.

What the developed time-image does it to place characters in situations to which they are unable to react. The sensory-motor schema is dissolved, and prompt action and reaction consequently rendered unfeasible. Deleuze terms this type of image the opsign, and through it we gain cinematic glimpses of time in its pure state. Deleuze credits Ozu’s languorous style with the first major depictions of time in its purest essence. He notes that places devoid of people, lingering camera shots (prominently for Deleuze, of a vase in Late Spring) convey pure time.14 With time cinematically delineated, it is the work of the crystal-image to show us how we inhabit and operate within time.

Crystal-images, formed by the collision of the actual and virtual, allow us to see time. The limpid, actual image and the opaque, virtual, become accessible in the crystalline form.15 What constitutes the purest crystal image is when the “actual optical image crystallizes with its own virtual image”.16 This image that consists of the smallest internal circuit, where the actual image finds its own ‘genetic’ element, forms a pure crystal. The image becomes irreducible to the actual and virtual, the present and contemporaneous past. The image cannot be broken down into its constituent parts because they become indiscernible from each other. Deleuze even suggests that in the light of the actual, the virtual becomes the actual and the actual, virtual, in the crystal.17 There is fluidity in the crystal that means its parts cannot be demarcated.

The crystal-image is the present and past, co-existing. Bergson holds that this is evinced in the form of déjà-vu.18 The phenomena of finding a place familiar, of feeling as if we have been somewhere or done something before, is the simultaneous existence of the past and present: where the pure-virtual image interacts fleetingly with present. This virtual image, in its pure form, exists outside of the consciousness in time. In the crystal-image, in déjà-vu, we glimpse this vision of an anterior state in collaboration with the present. This, is for Deleuze, how we operate in time, time holds us in its interior and we move through it as such.19

There are only three films that Deleuze attributes with showing us how we move in time; of forming crystal-images composed of the smallest interior circuits: Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora, Resnais’s Je t’aime je t’aime and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.20 It is telling that there are only three examples of the crystal-image for Deleuze. It is an image of unrivalled specificity whose potential we can see in many films, but whose existence is only available to us in few. The theory of the crystal-image and the intricacy of its composition, often lead to situations where a lacuna is required to complete the crystal. This means that although the theoretical apparatus of the crystal-image can be applied to many films, we can rarely use it as an explanatory tool. Indeed, for Deleuze, it is not the crystal-image that can be used to further our understanding of specific films, but that these films further our understanding of the fundamental metaphysics of time and memory.

In Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, in the Casablanca bar, the memories of Elle are projected onto Lui, so that in conversation he becomes her German lover. The crystal though is not quite completed, as it lacks the synchronous unity of a moment shared through past and present. Similarly, Lynch often offers us images of a virtual past imposed upon the present (think of line “Dick Laurent is dead” in Lost Highway) that leads to an exploration of a fugue state with continual references to events both present and past. What Deleuze does not allow for in the crystal-image is the construction of an implicit state of reference that has the same temporal significance. What the crystal-image requires is an explicit exposition; a full visual representation of the workings of memory in time. It is for this reason that I shall focus exclusively on the portrayal of Deleuze’s crystal-image in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Chris Marker puts forward the idea that Scottie’s acrophobia in Vertigo is a “clear, understandable and spectacular” metaphor for the vertigo of time.21 What Scottie tries to overcome through his makeover of Judy into Madeleine is time itself. His obsession, born from his love for Madeleine realises itself in his project to makeover a small town Kansas girl into the lady he covets. It is this fight against time that Vertigo portrays. It shows how Scottie inhabits time, and the function of his memory in his interaction with the present.

Vertigo is constructed in a manner that betrays its ostensible fascination with spatial vertigo. Vertigo contains multiple instances of repetition, semiotics, mirror images and duplicitous appearances. Dialogue is repeated, most notably the line about ‘power and freedom’, first uttered by Elster as a lament for a San Francisco past. These are the concepts that underline Elster’s machinations. What we are witness to is an elaborate plot to rid himself of his wife, thus gaining freedom, retaining her money as a key to power. In the Argosy bookstore the line is repeated alongside the rather portentous statement from Pop Leibel (‘he threw her away’) about Carlotta Valdes. Something that Elster manages to do literally, discarding his wife from the bell tower while Judy stands complicit.

The spiral of the opening credits, Madeleine’s hair and the stairs of the bell tower symbolise the circular nature of time in Vertigo. Things are brought back to approach their origins but the circuits can never quite be completed: the death of Madeleine prevents the logical culmination of the love she shares with Scottie, a situation that repeats itself with Judy’s death in the finale of the film. All symbols for Deleuze, of the operation of time. Indeed the prevalence of ‘mirror’ shots and the duplicitous nature of Madeleine further blur the distinction between the actual and the virtual. A technique used in the construction of the film as a whole. The ending mirrors the start, Scottie hanging once literally and then metaphorically in grave danger, the first physical and the second psychological. The pattern of following Madeleine and her death mirrors that which occurs, in the second half of the film, with Judy.

As Bergson saw, time is often viewed as secondary in function to space: in noting that we count in space, not time; that each object requires juxtaposition with another to make sense of them numerically.22 It is this reversal that constitutes metaphor of acrophobia that Marker uncovers in Vertigo. Indeed Deleuze states that the crystal-image “does not abstract time; it does better: it reverses its subordination in relation to movement”.23 This is what Scottie is seeking in making over Judy, to reverse this spatiotemporal hierarchy in order to recover what has been lost; Madeleine, but survives outside of his consciousness in time, in the realm of the virtual. The pure crystal-image – where the actual: the reshaping of Judy into Madeleine, meets the virtual: Scottie’s memory of Madeleine – is the zenith of time’s representation in Vertigo.

The pure crystal-image, where the actual meets its virtual image occurs in Vertigo, after Scottie has successfully remade Judy into Madeleine. In Judy’s room at the Empire Hotel, as her hair is twisted into Madeleine’s spiral, the transformation is completed. What follows is a kiss between Judy and Scottie. As they embrace in the room the camera begins to rotate around them, Scottie opens his eyes and the scenery changes. He is no longer in the Empire Hotel, but in the livery stables at the mission, with the memory of the kiss he shared with Madeleine before her perceived death. As the camera completes its circuit Scottie is returned to the hotel room.

It is this image, this pure crystal, which portrays time so effectively for Deleuze. What we are presented with is an irreducible image. The actual (the room in the Empire Hotel) and the virtual (the kiss in the livery stable) cannot be separated; there is no longer a distinction between the present and the past for Scottie at that moment. The virtual image becomes actual and limpid, while the actual becomes opaque.24 This is evinced in Vertigo. As the camera rotates, the virtual is shown to us; Scottie’s memory becomes actual, while the present, the actuality of the hotel room, disappears into the realm of the virtual. What we see in the crystal-image is the “gushing forth of time”. 25

It is through Scottie’s obsession and “thanks to the most magical camera movement in the history of cinema” that Vertigo portrays the crystal-image.26 This image is a product of Deleuze’s wider philosophy and a belief that through art we are able to reconcile ourselves with an alienated world: to come to terms with our position within it, and attempt to understand it more fully. In film – through the crystal-image – we are able to see the “most fundamental operation of time”.27 In Vertigo, we are shown time’s operation, how Scottie is positioned in time, and thus, how we inhabit time.


Barr, Charles, 2002, Vertigo, British Film Institute.

Bergson, Henri, 2001. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Data of Immediate Consciousness. (Pogson Translation) Dover Publications.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 (first published 1983), Cinema One: The Movement-Image, Continuum Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books.

Guerlac, Suzanne, 2006. Thinking In Time – An Introduction To Henri Bergson. Cornell University Press.

Marker, Chris, 1995 ‘A free replay (notes on Vertigo)’in John Boorman and Walter Donohoe (ed) Projections 4 ½, Faber and Faber Ltd.

Pearson, Keith Ansell, 2002. Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual. Routledge.


Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais, Alain. 1959 Argos Films.

Lost Highway. Lynch, David. 1996. Asymmetrical Productions.

Sans Soleil. Marker, Chris. 1983. Argos Films.

Tokyo Story. Ozu, Yasujiro. 1953. Artificial Eye Film Company Ltd.

Vertigo. Hitchcock, Alfred. 1958. Universal.

1 Bergson, Henri, 2001. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Data of Immediate Consciousness. (Pogson Translation) Dover Publications. P. 100.

2 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 79.

3 Guerlac, Suzanne, 2006. Thinking In Time – An Introduction To Henri Bergson. Cornell University Press. P. 125.

4 Guerlac, Suzanne, 2006. Thinking In Time – An Introduction To Henri Bergson. Cornell University Press. P. 126.

5 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 80.

6 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 80.

7 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 66.

8 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 68.

9 Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 (first published 1983), Cinema One: The Movement-Image, Continuum Books. P. 59.

10 Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 (first published 1983), Cinema One: The Movement-Image, Continuum Books. P. 60.

11 Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 (first published 1983), Cinema One: The Movement-Image, Continuum Books. Pp. 61-63.

12 Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 (first published 1983), Cinema One: The Movement-Image, Continuum Books. Pp. 145-154.

13 Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 (first published 1983), Cinema One: The Movement-Image, Continuum Books. Pp. 159-163.

14 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. Pp. 13-16.

15 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 69.

16 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 67.

17 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 68.

18 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 77.

19 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 80.

20 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 80.

21 Marker, Chris, 1995 ‘A free replay (notes on Vertigo)’in John Boorman and Walter Donohoe (ed) Projections 4 ½, Faber and Faber Ltd. P123.

22 Guerlac, Suzanne, 2006. Thinking In Time – An Introduction To Henri Bergson. Cornell University Press. Pp. 61-63.

23 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 95.

24 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 68.

25 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. P. 80.

26 Marker, Chris, 1995 ‘A free replay (notes on Vertigo)’in John Boorman and Walter Donohoe (ed) Projections 4 ½, Faber and Faber Ltd. P. 124.

27 Deleuze, Gilles. 1989 (first published 1985), Cinema Two: The Time-Image, Continuum Books. Pp. 78-79.

Spiral hair

It’s all in the spiral.