Thursday, December 1, 2011

Carnelevarium


What's the difference between spectacle and carnival? Showy revolt and revolutionary freedom?

It is along the knife-sharp edge of this narrow distinction that we "win the energies of intoxication for the revolution," as Benjamin said of surrealism.

"What form do you suppose a life would take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?"



"Don't like what you do / Won't take the abuse / Move to the truth / Before... come on that means you!"

We took an empty Wells Fargo building last night in Santa Cruz, raising the stakes of the occupy movement. With news cameras rolling, a line of riot cops was overwhelmed by a small group of committed oocupiers -- the banner hung across the entrance to the building read OOCUPY EVERYTHING -- who linked arms and demanded to know why the men with batons were there. The space was defended and cops retreated. I've never seen anything like it. More interminable "general assembly" meetings followed, and the crowd began to drift away.

A party and a police raid are planned for tonight in Santa Cruz.



The occupies are convinced that "freedom, which on this earth can only be bought with a thousand of the hardest sacrifices, must be enjoyed unrestrictedly in its fullness without any kind of pragmatic calculation, as long as it lasts." We consider, as fact, that "mankind’s struggle for liberation in its simplest revolutionary form (which, however, is liberation in every respect), remains the only cause worth serving." Will the occupy movement be successful in welding this experience of freedom to the other revolutionary experience that we have to acknowledge because it has been ours, the constructive, dictatorial side of revolution?

The limits of our present struggle? Property and police. Wherever these limits are superseded, the occupy everything movement will begin to morph into a programmatic struggle to reorganize everyday life, "dictatorial" in the positive constitutive sense.

"There is a residue. The collective is a body, too. And the physis that is being organized for it in technology can, through all its political and factual reality, only be produced in that image sphere to  which profane illumination initiates us. Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto."



For the moment, the occupies understand its present commands. "They exchange, to a man, the play of human features for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds."


Come out tonight and dance to defend the occupation.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Memento mori


Some of the signs were covered in the notorious occupation "filth" with which municipal authorities  are so concerned in all their eviction orders. He had rescued them in the heat of a police raid of the Oakland Commune at Oscar Grant (re: Frank Ogawa) Plaza moments before they were trampled by a herd of cops.  He guarded them like relics from a lost occupy civilization bound for museums someday.

Each sign, a utopian wish someone brought to a demonstration.
A collective has awoken and begun recording its dreams,
It's only demand? GIVE US OUR WORLD BACK!
It's only injunction? OCCUPY EVERYTHING!

Who knows how many other precious dreams have been trammeled by police at occupies all over the world? Given such high stakes, how could the magnitude of such a loss be registered?

Perhaps the liberated societies of our not-so-distant future will look back upon people like this man as having built an ark on par with Noah's. They would, in that case, deeply respect him for having had the foresight to imagine a human civilization in which these signs would be precious.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Día de Muertos


Above: Jan van Bijlert, Heraclitus and Democritus, ca. 1640

The atmosphere suggested a dress rehearsal for a production of “Revolution: the Musical.”  In the warm afternoon of Indian Summer, a black-clad anarchist splashed paint on the windows of a Whole Foods. The General Strike pantomime began. One section of the crowd began to chant, “Peaceful Protest.” The anarchists responded: “Union Busting is Disgusting.” Everyone seemed to have lost grip on reality. The worse the actors play their roles, the more questionable the social script that lends the roles their substance becomes, the more potent the theatre.

As millions tune in on their preferred Internet-enabled device, we turn to an ancient dilemma. What face should the critical mind adopt when it ventures into public? Should we follow the laughing philosopher, Democritus, who “found the human condition to be ridiculous and vain, and wore only a mocking smiley face in public”? Or should the same human condition render us “full of compassion and pity,” like the weeping philosopher, Heraclitus, who wore “ a perpetually sad face with eyes full of tears”? The old is new again for a movement that photographs itself on its iPhone, that logs in to Facebook every morning to compare the masks it wears in the light of day with those it puts on at night.

For a moment, let’s abandon the predictable political lessons or denunciations for a fragmentary montage of juxtapositions and antagonisms, a few flights of fancy and conversations with the dead. After all, the All Souls’ demonstration unfolded as much in the misty realms of human imagination as on the cold hard concrete of the Port of Oakland.



Handicapped Vietnam vets marched alongside able-bodied sixteen-year-olds at their first protest. A stroller brigade of moms linked arms with hipsters wearing skull paint. Labor activists, community leaders, communist intellectuals, old hippies, liberal Obama defectors and members of the Black Panther Party USA had all celebrated, according to every account, a fabulous carnival at sunset, todos santos. After dark: a shadow theater played out its drama: clashes between riot cops and black bloc, both hiding behind shields of various insignia. Shattered windows, graffitti, rocks and broken bottles lined the streets. How to react? What is the meaning of peace and violence, and who gets to decide?

We’re haunted by the question whether or not there is a constant force of progress within human history. How could we tell? What might be a sign? Maybe enthusiasm is all that counts -- maybe the emotional and intellectual excitement that drives us towards revolutionary events is itself the sign of human progress.  Maybe “what matters is the way the revolution creates a spectacle, the way it’s welcomed by spectators who don’t participate, but who see it, who witness it and who, for better or for worse, allow themselves to be carried away by it.”

Some have criticized the occupation movement for being long on childish spectacles and short on programs. However, its youthfulness may also be its greatest strength.  Perhaps “what is truly revolutionary in effect is not the propaganda of ideas that here and there excites actions that cannot be consummated, and which are dismissed at the theater exit in the first sober moments of reflection. What is truly revolutionary in effect is the secret signal of what will come to be, which speaks from the gesture of children.”

Kids climbed on top of shipping containers. The port became a jungle gym, production a playground.  “Just as the first act of the Bolsheviks was to raise the red flag so their first instinct was to organize children.” At the Port of Oakland, youth did both to the tune of a ukulele.


“I’m streaming this live to twenty thousand people around the world,” shouted a tall, wide-set African-American man with a contagious laugh and a big grin. “Go ahead. Gas us again. Your audience is getting bored!” Someone among the crowd didn’t understand that such provocations were a joke. His eyes, tearing up from police gas attacks, were full of fury. How could someone possibly encourage police violence?  “Shut up you stupid fuck!” he screamed. “If you provoke them, they’ll only hurt more people.”

The police are afraid. You can see it in their puzzled faces and nervous gestures. Walking the line early Thursday morning at 15th and Broadway, I watched hands shaking, feet shifting, and eyes growing wide with uncertainty.  Have they outlived their function in society, they’re wondering. Is someone tweeting an image of their front doors? How real is their uniform?

“Would you shoot rubber bullets at this crowd if your own mothers were in it?” a young Arab-American man screamed at the cops that night. He later told me he was studying political science at UC Berkeley and wanted to attend law school at NYU. “Would you fire gas into a crowd with your grandmothers in it?” The line of riot police stood still, refusing to answer his questions. “Don’t you have wives who you can go home to and make love with?”  

Why are some gatherings declared unlawful assemblies and others celebrated as valid expressions of free speech? Why do both outcomes seem so predictable? Why does force continue to decide?

What does it even mean, as one communique promoting the General Strike read, “to take occupation to private property itself”? Oakland would, in the words of another, “stop the flow of capital” by smashing a few ATMs downtown and disrupt work shifts at the port. Such are the solipsistic hallucinations of the occupy everything movement  -- communism realized at Frank Ogawa plaza, the “totality” appearing like Godzilla to do battle with occupiers at the port of Oakland --  as if the wheels of commerce could be allowed to stop, as if fixing up a fixed gear bike were the same as running a globally integrated food production and distribution system.

Each moment of a political sequence is an education. Blockading a major transshipment point for international trade is a factory tour for people who have never really noticed shipping containers or the tools of intermodal transport, never given much thought to how “made in China” gets on trucks.  The sham parliaments of the “general assemblies” that convened in front of the isolated individual gates of the Port of Oakland at seven and eight at night, as a union arbitration deadline approached and an unprepared crowd got hungry and thirsty and started to drift away, with their twinkle fingers and people’s mic and irrelevant elephant -- an arm gesture signaling that the speaker’s comments are not germane to the matter at hand -- are an educational theatre, a democracy game for people who have no experience of deliberation or decision, agenda or committee.

On the other hand, perhaps a general strike can only ever be an “energizing myth,” instilling a revolutionary élan among those who experience the effects of protracted economic decline the most -- the global poor, the unemployed, semi-employed and youth.  


A friend posted photos of five rubber bullet wounds to his chest on his Facebook profile, as evidence of the sort of less-than-lethal force being deployed to evict occupiers from a Homeless Shelter closed due to budget cuts.


If only Michelle Malkin had it right, and the mobs in black were made entirely of professional agitators (if you can call unemployed kids from Portland professional anything) and leftists, if only the people being gassed did not worry about their 401ks, if only none of them were engineers and programmers and literate, the outcome of all of this would be far more certain and unambiguous.

One of the protesters offered me a toke from his pipe. “Shit is fucked up. The police just shot a homeless man on the other side of the plaza. I carried him to a medic tent.” I asked if he was shot with a bean bag. “Yeah man, the thing got him in the ankle and shot right up his leg.” How could police set themselves up, deploy the same weapons they’d critically wounded a veteran with the week before? “I guess they’ve learned not to shoot us in the faces,” I said. “That’s progress.”

A shouting match broke out in the street between a young white woman and a young black man, both wearing masks, and the crowd rushed in to break it up. The woman fled the huddle and collapsed into the arms of a Cal student, sobbing. “I told him to stop throwing rocks at the cops. It only makes things worse. He accused me of being a rich white bitch from the suburbs. He told me to get out of his city.  But I’m a poor college student. I’m on SSI. I’m about to fail my classes because I spend all my time here. I want an education, but I believe in this movement and I’m desperate.”

If History (capital H) is a nightmare, then the process of coming to terms with its contradictions is that of waking up from this terrifying dream. How do we separate the phantoms and slippages in roles from what is real?

Just before sunrise: a group rapping over the beat of a bass drum. The flow quickly turned introspective, autobiographical, about broken homes and lost childhoods, failing to measure up to societal expectations, and the personal struggle to grasp hold of a broken world without losing your mind. Without turning into the monsters that you claim to fight.


The crowd spotted an officer with a beanbag gun among the cops assembled. Shouts for someone with a camera to be sure to photograph his name and badge number. Demands to know where this man pointing a gun at the citizens of Oakland was from. Others circulating to calm the crowd. After five minutes, the man with the gun retreated from the police line.  

A game plays out. “Anarchists”: handicraft riot gear, shields, gas masks, all black outfits, weirdly fashion-forward. Vandalism is important, despite everything -- both ways. It teaches people to be outlaws cheaply, and it shuts off the sympathy of the great Mittelstand.

Not all who wear the clothes are sabbateurs. Masking tape crosses mark the medics, tending to the wounded, breaking up fights, dispensing water and vinegar to neutralize gas. They wear black in solidarity with those who are willing to do battle with police.

When you don’t have health insurance, that takes real courage.




Then, finally, there was the building, 520 16th Street. (Because the Indian summer passed with the beauty of that day, and it is cold in the East Bay in November.) Presented without comment:

The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect one landlord's right to earn a few thousand every month. Why is this? Whereas the blockade of the port – an action which caused millions of dollars of losses – met with no resistance, the attempt to take one single building, a building that was unused, met with the most brutal and swift response. The answer: they fear this logical next step from the movement more than anything else. They fear it because they know now how much appeal it will have.

A second serviceman is reported to be in intensive care after being beaten by police. Kayvan Sabeghi served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a small businessman in El Cerrito. He will undergo surgery for a lacerated spleen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Against the Planetary Work Machine

"Three thousand years of civilization and 200 years of accelerated industrial progress have left us with a terrible hang-over. "Economy" has become a goal in itself, and we're about to be swallowed by it. This hotel terrorizes its guests. Even when we're guests and hosts at the same time...

...It is a Planetary Machine: it eats in Africa, digests in Asia and shits in Europe. It is planned and regulated by international companies, the banking system, the circuit of fuels, raw materials and other goods. There are a lot of illusions about nations, states, blocks, First, Second, Third or Rourth Worlds, but these are only minor subdivisions, parts of the same machinery. Of course thera are distinct wheels and transmissions that exert pressure, tensions, frictions on each other. The Machine is bulit on its inner contradictions: workers/capital; private capital/state capital (capitalism/socialism); development/underdevelopment; misery/waste; war/peace; women/men; etc. The Machine is not a homogeneous structure; it uses its internal contradictions to expand its control and to refine its instruments. Unlike fascist or theocratic systems or like in Orwell's 1984, the Work Machine permits a "sane" level of resistance, unrest, provocation and rebellion. It digests unions, radical parties, protest movements, demonstrations and democratic changes of regimes. if democracy doesn't function, it uses a dictatorship. If its legitimation is in crisis, it has prisons, torture and camps in reserve...Not even in the remotest parts of the Gobi Desert can you be assured of an unobserved shit."


bolo 'bolo, 1983

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nothing Lasts Forever (especially power)


"The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.  Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perpsectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will one day appear in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects -- this alone is the task of thought."


-Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 247.

According to art historians, the vibrant and teeming city-scapes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) are, in fact, pencil drawings filmed using a stop-motion camera technique.  Thus, the impression of a city in motion was made by filming the subtle erasure and re-drawing of the lines of an urban landscape on paper without ever capturing the hand of the artist at work.  Lang has therefore given us a truly utopian image of the metropolis. It is his genius to have conceived of cities and their inhabitants as works of art in the process of being unmade and remade, accounted for and erased.  Here, the polis is literally figured as a Gesamtkunstwerk [1] without an artistThis is how the politics of our era would seem, if we could consider them from the standpoint of redemption.

[1]. Gesamtkunstwerk -- Wagner uses this exact term only once in his long essay "The Artwork of the Future." The most literal translation is probably "total work of art," and refers to a genuinely utopian moment -- at some point in the not so distant future -- in which art will realize its oneness with life and seize hold of this possibility.

But it must also be noted that this standpoint is impossible and potentially escapist.  The most utopian of thoughts risk being given over -- unconsciously and therefore calamitously, Adorno writes -- to the world as it actually exists, emancipated only to to be enslaved to necessity.  This is the danger of all properly speaking utopian perspectives, all attempts to redeem this or that artifact of culture.  Utopian thinking and works of art are not, for all that, worthless. On the contrary, as thought approaches the limit of its own impossibility, it discovers what is possible.

It is in the spirit of the above remarks that I would like to share my favorite work of art from Burningman 2010.  It is not out of some attempt to promote or defend the event, or to convince you that Black Rock City is some sort of utopia, that I will offer a humble criticism of the brilliant installation, Ein Hammer.  Rather, it is with something like the relish of a novice laboratory technician, who recorded his errant thoughts concerning some great mad scientist's experiment in a spiral-bound notebook, that I share some photos, video and thoughts about this project.  As any good lab tech knows, the atmosphere and excitement of such a thing cannot be recreated in any sort of prose.  You'll have to take my word for it when I claim that it was truly awesome.

First, a video introduction to give you the basic concept.



Taken on its most basic level, the installation is clearly only a modification of the ubiquitous "strongman" carnival game (also called "the high striker").  According to the traditions of this game, participants (usually male) line up to take turns smashing a hammer upon a spring loaded lever, which, if struck with enough force, propels a puck up a tube or grooved track.  Participants strength is measured by the distance traveled by the puck up the length of a tower, the pinnacle of which being a bell that when rung ensures that the participant walks away with some cheap trinket like a big fluffy teddy bear.  The game was usually attended by a huckster who goaded participants to prove their masculinity by testing their strength before an group of spectators.  According to the social scripts surrounding this game and others like it, the victorious male participant would give the prize to his female date amidst a round of applause from spectators.  In other words, as it is typically played, the game is nothing other than a pissing contest between men, who compete with one another to prove to their strength and masculinity to a crowd.

However, most carnival games -- and the high striker is no exception here -- were susceptible to slight mechanical modifications which could "rig" the game.  A simple carnival game involving a huckster and player became a means of defrauding an individual or crowd through gaining their confidence. Hence, so-called "confidence games" with a confidence man (con man, con artist) and his "mark" (or sucker) who was so called because carnival men would mark any individual who they could successfully trick into playing a rigged game by patting him or her on the back with a chalk covered hand.  Other con artists would then be able to recognize the mark and entice such individuals to play their rigged games.

I stumbled across an interesting description of the way in which the high striker was rigged in the Popular Mechanics archive from Febuary of 1935.
Ringing the bell of the “high striker” at the county fair appears to be easy when the operator, frequently a small man, tries it. On the other hand strong men find it difficult. The explanation is simple. At some fairs, the machine is “fixed” so that the operator controls the tension of the wire on which the counter block rides. If the wire is tight, the counter block slides freely to the top of the machine, but if the wire is slightly slack, it vibrates sufficiently to retard the progress of the block. The vibration is set up by the player’s mallet striking the trip arm. A trick lever, sometimes hidden under a loose board in the platform at the side of the machine, may be depressed by the operator by standing on the loose board. By depressing this lever, the showman forces a steel pin against the bottom bracket holding the guide wire. This causes the bracket to bend slightly and reduces some of the tension of the wire. Thus, the operator may control the play permitting the bell to be rung or preventing a strong man from ringing it.

Through a trick mechanical device, a simple carnival game, which plays off men's vanity concerning their masculinity and strength,  became a means for playful hucksters -- "frequently a small man" according to Popular Mechanics -- to frustrate big man fantasies.  Accordingly, each "strong man" who failed to bring the puck to the bell would motivate other men to step up and take a swing.  It is this psychological mechanism which sustained the crowd's confidence in the con artist's rigged strongman game.  Thus, failed masculinity provided the proving ground for an impossible "real true" masculinity.

Royce A. Nookes and William W. Gordon filed the first U.S. patent for a "striking-machine" in 1908. Their patent application references the pre-existence of other such devices, so we can reasonably assume that the strongman game was actually a late nineteenth century, fin-de-siècle invention.  This historical point seems important to me for the following reason: the game can only function within a social world in which one's individual strength needs proving.  It is sustained by a libidinal fantasy that strength is individual rather than collective.  In this respect, the strongman game is truly an invention of the fin-de-siècle bourgeois subject, a fact which is in no way diminished by the popularity of carnivals among the working class.  The spectacle provided by the machine also creates a crowd of spectators who are either impressed or disappointed by an individual's strength.  The strongman game could only sustain the interest of spectators so long as there was an anxiety concerning the status of prospective participant's masculinity; otherwise, an angry crowd could demonstrate their collective might by tearing down a rigged machine and setting upon the con artist.  This is the originary dramatic mis-en-scène of the high striker.

How does Ein Hammer, which I will assume most of you did not have the privilege of experiencing, displace or estrange the original social world of the strongman game?  Does it reveal the cracks and crevices of that world -- which is to say those of our own world -- or expose it to be warped and impoverished?  To ask these questions is to ask whether or not the installation opens up a standpoint of redemption for considering a century old carnival game.  It is to ask whether or not people "played" with Ein Hammer as children play with disused objects and long forgotten games, not in order to restore the object or game to its cannonical use, but in order to free this game from that use for good.



To achieve this redemptive standpoint on an old carnival game, Ein Hammer would have to affect a radical process of unlearning the original rules and social scripts of the strongman game, and through this process of unlearning create new rules and social scripts.  This process of unlearning and re-creation must also be fun because, after all, no one wants to play a rigged game or submit themselves, grim-faced, to some miserable social experiment.

Observe the magnificence of Ein Hammer in action and decide for yourself...



Observe the dancing fraulines...and the line to participate




Für das wörkers!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

god burning

Barbies clutched in one hand,
skyscraper in the other --
by smoke and mirror --
celluloid behemoth slain.

Reminder: gods aren't dead
until we burn them;
metropolis, capital's mis-en-scène
for mischief to come.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What Is Metropolis? III: Urban Militancy

According to Eyal Weizman's account in a paper titled "Lethal Theory," [download here] the Israeli Defence Forces employed a radically new tactic during the attack on Nablus in 2002. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between smooth and striated space in Thousand Plateaus the IDF deployed a tactic of "walking through walls" to avoid engaging directly with enemies in hostile urban streets. In the words of Eyal Weizman,
Rather than submitting to the authority of conventional spatial boundaries, movement became constitutive of space, and space was constituted as an event. It was not the order of space that governed patterns of movement but movement that produced and practiced space around it. The three-dimensional movement through walls, ceilings, and floors across the urban bulk reinterpreted, short-circuited, and recomposed both architectural and urban syntax. The tactics of “walking-through-walls” involved a conception of the city as not just the site, but as the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid matter that is forever contingent and in flux. ("Walking Through Walls")
I am drawn to the work of those who are thinking about "New Military Urbanism" -- the ways in which the urban is not only a place in which contemporary wars are increasingly waged, but becomes an actual means by which war is waged -- but I have deep suspicions that there isn't anything new, postmodern or innovative about Military Urbanism.  Flux, contingency, fluidity etc: these are all very familiar themes; however, in this case, transgressive postmodern spatial practices are not being celebrated, but are seen as increasingly totalizing exercises of military might.  The mobilization and reconfiguration of urban syntax is an interesting feature of both Israel's 'architecture of occupation' in a colonial context, and the growing 'occupation movement' in response to home foreclosures and University privatization across the world.  The tactics and strategies of occupation and urban militancy seem to be polyvalent: that is, they can be mobilized by either side in the battle for the control of urban space.  But I wonder whether or not the resurgence of the theory and practice of what Gramsci once called a "war of maneuver" -- urban warfare and armed insurrection against capitalism -- is a sign that the issues of cultural hegemony and cultural "subversion" are being outpaced by the current reality of a long-term stagnation within the advanced capitalist world.  The symptoms of this passage from the cultural dominant to the primacy of urban militancy are everywhere, and the spectacular narratives of the metropolis appear to be unevenly anticipating this shift.

This renewed interest in the problem of military urbanism is not the symptom of some postmodern hyper-space of total war.  Rather, this revival is a symptom of the decline of prevailing postmodern architectural dogmas and cultural/spatial figures, which have tended to neutralize class conflict. This is a return to politics not as some sphere of human action with anxieties about fusion and proximity on the one hand -- with corresponding resurgences of nativism and xenophobia -- and cosmopolitical ethics and civic republicanism -- the heated cultural debate over competing value systems --  on the other. These are doubtlessly the prevailing media narratives of the politics (The Tea Party, BNP, Le Pen, etc) of our era, but I would argue that the strategic terrain of struggle for hegemony is shifting from the cultural to the urban.  We have the reappearance of man as a zöon politikon, in the most literal sense: man as a city-dweller, and the city as the site and means of new social struggles.

I plan to return to this contemporary conjuncture in a future post, but for now, I'd like to trace a history of military urbanism and urban militancy in 19th century Paris.

Haussmann and Strategic Embellishment

Those who have argued that we are living in some sort of postmodern hyper-space of total war in which military planners are tripped out on Deleuze or Baudrillard would do well to return to Walter Benjamin's notes in The Arcades Project on urban militancy in Paris during the 19th Century, the 'capital of modernity.' Of particular interest is the implicit notion in Benjamin's archival fragments and marginal commentary of a spatial dialectic: the processes by which revolutionaries appropriate urban space in a struggle against the interests of capital and the counter-movement in which capital then appropriates this urban syntax in cycles of speculative accumulation (housing bubbles) and military urbanism. What follows is my attempt to reconstruct the unfolding of this spatial dialectic in the revolutionary struggles of Paris from Benjamin's fragmentary analysis.

[Left: Jean Victor Schnetz, Combat devant la hôtel du ville]

Unemployment spikes in Paris during the summer of 1830, and by July, a full-blown insurrection against the Bourbon monarchy swept the city. For three 'glorious days,' the people took to the streets, and according to one 1831 account cited by Benjamin, "Fewer [soldiers] were felled...by bullets than by other projectiles. The large squares of granite with which Paris is paved were dragged up to the top floors of the houses and dropped on the heads of the soldiers." Barricades were built and reinforced with the bodies of dead soldiers, "I saw a group of Swiss, who had been kneeling and begging for their lives, killed amid jeering, and I saw the stripped bodies of the gravely wounded thrown contemptuously onto the barricades to make them higher" (Arcades, 138). Revolutionaries appropriate the paving stones and height of buildings as weapons against soldiers.  Barricades are strategically constructed around the city in worker's quarters.  The demographics of sympathetic neighborhoods and the architecture of narrow streets paved with flagstone are both appropriated as weapons in the struggle.  Similarly, hostile soldiers themselves become defensive and offensive weapons as their dead bodies are stripped of guns and ammunition and used as a raw material for the construction of more fearsome barricades against other soldiers.


[Left: Horace Vernet, Painting of Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot Street on 24 June 1848]

The July Monarchy was established after the overthrow of the Bourbons, and Louis-Philippe introduces wooden paving to the city to prevent future uprisings from having such easy access to stone projectiles.  But in the midst of a protracted economic crisis of 1843-1848 radical Republicans, whose meetings were banned, began holding "dinner parties" which turned into riots when police tried to shut them down in the early months of 1848. Overturned omnibuses, uprooted trees, and fires were used to build barricades in the streets, at which point Louis-Philippe abdicated the throne and the Second Republic was established with universal male sufferage, freedom of the press and the abolition of slavery.  The rich fled the city, over half of all businesses closed shop, 479 newspapers were founded, and 100,000 people were employed in national workshops to guarantee the droit à travail and ameliorate unemployment.  However liberal voices displaced radical republicans in the Second Republic and moved to close the national workshops on June 21, 1848.  Demonstrating the power of radical media to rapidly galvanize the population of Paris, the workers of the city take to the streets on the following day in an open revolt that lasts until the last barricade fell to General Cavaignac's troops on June 26th. 1,500 workers were killed and 15,000 prisoners were deported to Algeria. This was the beginning of counter-revolutionary architecture and the tactic of 'walking through walls' to avoid street fighting and barricades. Sigmund Engländer writes in 1864: "Already at the time of the June Insurrection, [Cavaignac's troops] broke through walls so as to be able to pass from one house to another"  (Arcades, 135).

In December of 1848 Louis Bonaparte is elected the first president of France, and stages his famous coup d'état on 2 December 1951 becoming dictator before ascending to the throne the following year as emperor and king Napoleon III on the anniversary of the coronation of his uncle, Napoleon I, in a series of events ridiculed by Marx in 18th Brumaire. Napoleon III rules for just under two decades (until 1870) and has the curious historical distinction of being the first president and last monarch of France.

However, what concerns me here isn't so much the history of Napoleon III, as much as that of his chief architect, Baron Haussmann, who was commissioned to "modernize" the architecture of Paris from 1852-1870. Concerning this massive 19th century housing and construction boom in Paris, which is now called Haussmannization, a contemporary, André Cochut, wrote in 1868, "The financial policy of the Empire has been consistently guided by two main concerns: to compensate for the insufficiency of normal revenues and to multiply the construction projects that keep capital moving and provide jobs...With the gathering of this enormous subsidy, whether by direct loans (on which it was necessary to pay interest) or by putting to work available capital ( on which revenues were lost), there has resulted from these extra-budgetary operations an increase of debts and liabilities for the state" (Arcades, 135, emphasis mine). In other words, the French Empire inflated a housing bubble to compensate for falling revenues and provide opportunities for capital investments and job creation. Because real estate was a speculative investment without high rates of profitability, this massive subsidization of housing increased France's sovereign debt and led to private sector losses. There was, however, a brief period of a little over a decade, where the rising tide lifted all ships.

In addition to setting off a wave of fraudulent speculation, the reconstruction of Paris also had an explicit military objective: to make urban revolt in Paris more difficult. Benjamin writes in his "Exposé of 1935,"
Haussmann tries to shore up his dictatorship by placing Paris under an emergency regime. In 1864, in a speech before the National Assembly, he vents his hatred of the rootless urban population, which keeps increasing as a result of his projects. Rising rents drive the proletariat into the suburbs. The quartiers of Paris in this way lose their distinctive physiognomy. The "red belt" forms. Haussmann gave himself the title of "demolition artist," artiste démolisseur. He viewed his work as a calling, and emphasizes this in his memoirs. Meanwhile he estranges the Parisians from their city. They no longer feel at home there, and start to become conscious of the inhuman character of the metropolis...The true goal of Haussmann's projects was to secure the city against civil war. He wanted to make the erection of barricades in Paris impossible for all time...Widening the streets is designed to make the erection of barricades impossible, and new streets are to furnish the shortest route between the barracks and the worker's districts. Contemporaries christen the operation "strategic embellishment."  (Arcades, 12)
These two imperatives, to make streets more difficult to barricade by widening them and by displacing workers from the city core to the peripheral "red belt" and to plan the boulevards so as to ensure the circulation of soldiers from barracks to the remaining worker's districts are perfectly clear on a map.

Below is the 1760 plan of Paris by Vaugondy.


Below is an overlay of Haussmann's  major streetwork (in red) and the newly constructed, or expanded military barracks of Napoleon III (in pink) from 1852-1870.




With the emergency powers invested in him by Napoleon III, Haussmann had achieved what no other Parisian architect had ever come close to: he split the city in half, connecting a renovated Rue de Sébastopol in the north to the renovated blvd. Saint-Michel in the south, burrowing though a densely clustered network of alleys and dead ends.  The geographic center of the city, Île de la Cité (home of Nôtre Dame) was largely demolished and converted into a fortified military garrison. Other important connections are the two striking horizontal boulevards along Rue de Rivoli and St. Germain on the Right and Left Banks respectively. Rivoli would now extend from barracks at the Louvre Palace and Châtalet straight to the Bastille. A newly constructed barracks at Place de la République was connected to the strong north-nouth axis of Sébastopol.  These long and, in some cases, 100 ft-wide thoroughfares replaced narrow streets and required the demolition of many neighborhoods that were predominantly working class. They also opened up very long sight lines: both aesthetically pleasing (as in the Ave. de l'Opéra) and useful from a military perspective for surveillance.

Below are some late-19th century post cards of these new "perspectives"




After all these strategic embellishments, France goes to war with Prussia in 1870; Napoleon III surrenders and is captured on the battlefield; the Third Republic is founded in a bloodless coup d'état, and the Prussians lay siege to Paris in 1871. Without getting too much into the military history of this conflict, which resulted in the defeat of France and the election of a largely conservative bourgeois government, the point that I'd like to make is that the French state had already accumulated massive amounts of public debt due to Haussmann's projects, and Paris shouldered a large amount of the indemnity payments made to the Prussians.  In this sense, the Long Depression of 1873 began in Paris before it occurred in the rest of Western Europe, and the conjunctural situation of a conservative government and economic chaos -- for instance, the Third Republic demanded the repayment of all rents and public debts, which had been postponed during the war, in 48 hours, with interest -- Paris again became the site of urban revolutionary militancy.  Many of the military units and population mobilizations, created to defend Paris against the Prussian siege had essentially armed working class men as heads of militia units, and permitted them to appoint their own officers.  Thus, a real military urbanization of Parisians diffused decision making power and military prowess throughout the working class, and once the conflict was over, these bodies of armed men began to turn against the government of Versailles.

During the conflict with the Prussians, the Hôtel du Ville had already been established as a target for revolutionary activity -- though the building's revolutionary history goes back to the 1789 Revolution -- when on 30 October 1870, revolutionaries occupied the building and captured the Government of National Defense, demanding the establishment of a communard government. Napoleon had recently fortified the barracks adjacent to the Hôtel du Ville which were connected to one another by an underground tunnel built in 1807. Soldiers rescued the government by making use of this underground tunnel, and the memory of this episode is doubtlessly the reason for which the government moved its headquarters to Versailles.  When the Paris Commune was established in 1871, the communards chose this strategic building as the site of their headquarters and as troops from Versailles moved in to crush the commune, the communards set the building on fire leaving behind only a stone shell.

What is at stake in this spatial dialectic is the way in which strategic embellishments and military urbanism can be seized by revolutionary militants and made to serve other ends.  The state-sponsored militarization of the Parisian population during the war, led to a diffusion of arms and strategic knowledge that was turned against the state itself.  The construction of fortified military positions as a part of the urban syntax of Paris created strategic positions on a map for communard occupations.

The creation of wide boulevards paradoxically led to the construction of stronger and better secured barricades. The tactic was perfected. Benjamin writes that the barricades stretched across the great boulevards, sometimes reaching a height of two stories. In other words, strategic embellishments had the effect of emancipating "the forms of construction from art." Architecture becomes "engineered construction." The bourgeoisie conceive and re-configure the city as a battlefield for class warfare and this new urban syntax becomes the site and means of revolutionary insurrection.




Towards a New Urban Militancy

This Imperial housing and construction boom is strikingly analogous to the contemporary creation of what my friend and comrade Maya Gonzalez has characterized as the "post-war state-driven housing market" in the United States. She argues that the "policy of the fiscal state facilitated a monetary and credit revolution that both enabled and actively promoted a new kind of economic growth based on the mass production and consumption of consumer durables. The end of World War II provided the material for this revolution, both in the form of the requisite consumers returning home from war, and in the key commodity which enabled the boom to take shape in its magnitude — housing."

In other words, the state created an explosive housing market that shaped a new working class of homeowners/consumers. Gonzalez writes, "At Fed-controlled interest rates — kept low throughout the expansion — investment could take place in products that accompany growing homeownership, such as cars, washing machines and other expensive appliances. The home became a concentrated node of the creation of new needs for the American working class — a space that needed to be filled with household commodities, that usually necessitated car ownership, and that could be infinitely improved and renovated. Finally, it represented an investment, a debt to be repaid, and ultimately an asset, and thus consistently produced a more compliant working population." Thus, the production and ownership of housing and consumer durables were absolutely crucial to the post-WWII boom in capitalism.  Under the pretext of national security and interstate commerce, superhighways would quickly dominate the American urban syntax, linking up bedroom communities on the urban periphery with jobs at the core.

Bush-era attempts to stimulate the economy through home ownership and by providing access to easy credit, however, are strikingly similar to the projects of Haussmann, in that declining profits and wages were compensated for by speculative housing investments.  But these actions only inflated a speculative housing bubble.  Many developments in the sprawling American metropolitan space lay abandoned and overgrown with weeds, a visible architectural blight reflecting the toxic financial assets that fueled the most recent construction boom in the US. Families are being increasingly evicted from their homes, and incipient forms of resistance to such evictions are beginning to take shape.  However, the particular form of urban alienation in this metropolitan space is largely de-politicizing.  Financial ruin is still considered to be a private or individual affair, the moral failure of Americans who lived beyond their means. The everyday life of traffic jams, supermall kiosks, cable television, diet fads and selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors ensures that forms of collective revolt are difficult to foment.

What sort of urban militancy could take root in this context? If the space of the metropolis is the product of a spatial dialectic between a military urbanism and urban militancy, how do we elaborate forms of struggle that would seize hold of this new spatial and political conjuncture of late capitalist decline?  How does the Left shift to an analysis and practice of a "war of maneuver" after so many years of concern for cultural hegemony? Venturing an answer to these questions would be a bit premature, for this is the unthinkable horizon of the current political conjuncture. It is in this precise dialectical sense that the project of thinking communism today is analogous to the moment in which the young Marx began his analysis of political economy in the early 1840s.

If, as Benjamin writes, "dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening" and the  "realization of dream elements, in the course of waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking," then perhaps we are still within the epoch of postmodernity, dreaming of the epoch to come, precipitating our awakening however weakly.  However, there is little doubt that with "the destablizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled." (Arcades, 13)