The Critical City
for Wolfgang Lehrner
> deutsche Originalfassung
The critical city is a city in a state of crisis. Like an injured animal, it moves, transforms, reanimates itself on the edge of its precipice. It is in danger, if not of crashing, then at least of falling. The crisis heralds its collapse. We must imagine it as a patient whose condition is sufficiently critical to confront him with his mortality. Cities are finite creatures too. They fade as they near their end. Sometimes they explode, immediately falling into decline. A city can lose itself without disappearing. It wears away into tatters at its own periphery. It frays. It disintegrates. It ruins itself, rises up as a ruin through which its past shines.2. CRISIS
In the splendour of the ruin lingers the promise of a future. Ruins live longer as they imply forsaking integrity. That is the defining characteristic of everything that is alive: forsaking integrity, the willingness and the capacity to expand beyond oneself, to hide away within oneself, to violate and redefine one’s own limits. One might also speak of the plasticity of the city, its power of continuous reconstruction. Except that this is a resurrection aimed at the future. The crisis is the moment at which a glimpse of the future is revealed in destruction. The image of an indeterminate hope is glimpsed at again in the image of the ruin. What is new about the new is that it remains irreducible to the past without losing contact with it. The crisis is the moment that demands a decision. It is equally the critical moment of decision when the future crosses paths with the past.3. INVENTION
The subject of the decision that implies a jumble of unfathomable judgements may be the city itself. The city as the scene of the decision whose subject and object it is in equal measure. The critical city is the scene of its continuous self-invention. As we all know, invention implies destruction. One may also describe this scene as infinite self-deconstruction, as a locus of incessant self-complication. The critical condition of the city is its normality. There is not a city which does not call upon its inconsistency. It is a system of its opening to its boundaries. It moves along these boundaries and beyond. It reconfigures itself as its own plasma. It is moulded or sculpted. All niches, nooks, lines, paths, directions, openings, boundaries, indentations and courses that go to make up the city, sewing it together with the earth, the sky, the sea, the desert, the animals and people that coexist in it, constitute it as a vast transformer, a kind of breathing machine whose repair is never-ending, just as its breathing cannot be ceased. A big, breathing animal, as awake as it is asleep. Now leaping into its future, now, sleeping, spread broadly over its present.4. SUBJECT
The subject of the city is a situational subject. It does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it belongs to a zone of facts that is multifariously determined and that exerts an influence on it as a determinant. Societal, cultural, economic, political, institutional and other such parameters structure its world. Real dependence belongs to the reality of the subject. It is never free of codings that determine its objective being in the world. Consequently, nothing remains but to behave as attentively as possible towards its world, which entails a certain criticality, the willingness to question the world context to which it belongs in order to understand it better. Questioning that demands a maximum of critical sensibility to the extent that it requires both engaging with and separating itself from the situation, a certain distance.(1) Except that this is a distance that operates within the given situation. Distancing itself actively from the accepted parameters of established reality while confronting its factual existence head on. A critical stance towards its own situation requires that it examine it continuously. The subject is also situational in the sense that its situation is constantly changing. Hence, thinking and analysing this situation must change as it changes. There is no ultimately valid final outcome. Engaging with one’s situation also requires maintaining a certain detachment from it. The subject intensifies contact with its reality by investing it with resistance.(2) What Gilles Deleuze calls the “fundamental affinity between a work of art and an act of resistance”(3) articulates the rift between the subject and its world.5. CHAOS
Only by engaging in a dialogue with chaos, by cooperating with it, if one may put it like that, does the subject constitute itself as a subject without subjectivity. Without subjectivity means: without substantial safeguards, without fixed nature, without God. “The order of God”, Deleuze writes in The Logic of Sense (1969), “includes the following elements: the identity of God as the ultimate foundation; the identity of the world as the ambient environment; the identity of the person as well-founded agency; the identity of the bodies as the base; and finally, the identity of language as the power of denoting everything else. But this order of God is constructed against another order, and this order subsists in God and weakens him little by little.”(4) The order that subsists in the order of God is chaos, against which it is constructed without ever being able to make it disappear. Making chaos disappear would imply nothing short of making disappearance disappear, which Nietzsche and Deleuze call becoming. The aim is to come to terms with disappearance or becoming. The whole concern is to define the nature of this arrangement = this assimilation of chaos. By no means is it about liquidating the subject in chaos. One must understand that a subject untouched by chaos always only exists as a fantasy. Such a subject would be the subject of a purity = inviolacy that would completely remove it from the world. Subject as beautiful soul, subject of innocence and unworldliness. For Nietzsche and Deleuze the chaos subject may be a Hyperborean subject of extremes – a tropical and catastrophic subject – at the same time it is a subject in its whole normality.(5) The subject borders on chaos, is pervaded and contaminated by it, whether it likes it or not.6. FUTURE
The critical city is a catastrophic body that grows through its inconsistency and collapses, finally manifesting itself in the chaos of its incompletable being. A substance modulating itself in itself out of itself: cracked, fragile, transformable and yet at the same time stable, stony, immovable. It occupies the place now as a living organism flowing in all directions, now as an almost dead, sleeping animal hardly moving. It is an open system, but a system nevertheless: that is to say, a composition of the elements that constitute it. There are cities that merge with other cities. Others pull together like a clenched fist. They increase their density and resistance. There is not a city that is not political per se, polis = public space. Every city constitutes a public sphere, is a sphere of shared interests whose negotiation easily drives its subject denizens into conflicts. Intrinsic to the catastrophism of the city is its continuous redefinition. It shifts against itself, both losing and winning in the process: space, mass and weight. Intrinsic to its criticality is the fact that it remains open to the future, open to change to the point of being unrecognisable to itself. At the beginning of the 1990s, Heiner Müller diagnosed that it is part “of our conditioning that there is only present, but no past, and thus no future.”(6)Conservative adoration of the past and progressive worshipping of the future have been replaced by an absolutisation of the present that rejects the conservatism/Europeanism of the origin and the progressivism/Americanism of the horizon, declaring itself true realism. In any case, the aim (of free-market capitalism) is “to prevent future”.(7) The authoritarianism of the present works towards immuring the subject in its present. Not only does it close the door to the cellar of the past, it also locks the door to the future (envisaged as an alternative to the present), thus depriving the subject of its trust in what has been and its hopes for what is yet to come, and therefore having a paralysing effect when, all too often, it fails to go beyond an apologia for the existing order, as Adorno & Horkheimer put it, i.e. beyond affirming the sociopolitical status quo. By obliging them completely to this, it neutralises the subjects’ capacity of critically reflecting on their present, depriving them of the last vestiges of imagination. “To live in the present is to live unconsciously”(8), Müller observes. One drifts on the current of the existing order, as if in a world devoid of alternatives. Depriving people of a future deprives them of more than its vacuous utopianism and naive hopes, when the future disappears, so too does its present as an element of active life management and political innovation. 7. INNOVATION
Reinventing itself in permanence is a characteristic of the critical city in that it recognises its death in reactive self-enclosure. In order not to die, it must live. It is this living that both constitutes it and makes it fragile. Zones of redefinition, recomposition and reconstitution open up along its cracks. Through them blows the waft of history, as does the cold breath of the economy. As much as “innovation” has deteriorated into a neoliberal slogan, it nevertheless indicates the essential. A city that buries itself in its past serves as a tourist attraction at best. Andy Warhol was aware that the only city with a future is the city that speeds into the future out of its past. His thoughts on the ideal city are legendary:1 The subject must escape from itself in order to be itself. Its self lies not within like an inside or treasure. It is realised and constituted in the moment of self-transgression and desubjectivisation. “An experience”, says Foucault, “is something that one comes out of transformed.” (“Interview with Michel Foucault”, in J. Faubion (ed.). Power / The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, pp. 239–40.) The moment of experience is thus linked to crisis and failure. But also to surprise and unforeseen luck. Foucault therefore speaks of “boundary experience” and “desubjectivisation”. In experience, the subject drives itself to its limit. It touches on its boundary as if on nothingness. Only in this way can it liberate itself from the temptation of narcissistic self-affirmation. By opening itself to the other of its self. By venturing on a journey from nothingness to nothingness.
“My ideal city would be one long Main Street with no cross streets or side streets to jam up traffic. Just one long oneway street. With one tall vertical building where everybody lived with:
One washing machine
One garbage can
One tree out front
One movie theater next door
Main Street would be very very wide, and all you'd have to say to someone to make them feel good is, "I saw you on Main Street today."
And you'd fill your car up with gas and drive across the street.
My ideal city would be completely new. No antiques. All the buildings would be new. Old buildings are unnatural spaces. Buildings should be built to last for a short time. And if they're older than ten years, I say get rid of them. I'd build new buildings every fourteen years. The building and the tearing down would keep people busy, and the water wouldn't be rusty from old pipes.“ (9)
2 It is intrinsic to the critical power of thought to distrust all realities that present themselves as evident and immediate. The cult of immediacy – that, as Adorno and Derrida have demonstrated, combines with a metaphysics of presence along with the accompanying idealisms – threatens to stifle all thought by supplying it with pseudo-evidences. Yet to think means eluding the obvious. Thinking tears holes in the existing order. Instead of assimilating to the prevailing evidences, it furnishes proof of their inconsistency. This is only possible by momentarily losing the ground beneath its feet. The critical moment of thinking is that of a certain loss of reality. In this the subject experiences the instability of all facts. The analysis of the relative consistency of the domain of fact proves it to be a dimension of conflicting stereotypes, whose function lies in disguising its ontological inconsistency. Thinking means affirming the inconsistency of the fabric of reality as its truth.
3 Gilles Deleuze, “What is the Creative Act?” in Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness. Texts and Interviews 1975–1995, New York, p. 327.
4 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, New York 1990, p. 292.
5 No subject will succeed in being with itself simultaneously. There is always a kind of quasi-ontological incongruence with itself. It always stands athwart itself. It never completely agrees with itself. This is the free space that is left to it. The space of a certain liberty, that is the liberty to not be itself. A problematic or critical liberty in that it is inseparable from its objective lack of freedom qua entanglement in the present. Instead of moving in freedom, the subject is free to be unfree. It betokens nothing but the distance that it keeps to itself. Spatial distance and temporal difference to itself that make up its precarious present. The subject after the death of the subject is a subject of heightened fragility.
6 Heiner Müller, “Das war fast unheimlich. Ein Gespräch mit Stephan Speicher für Der Tagesspiegel”, in: H.M., Gespräche 3: 1991-1995, Werke 12, Frankfurt a. M. 2008, p. 100.
7 Heiner Müller, “Geschichte geht immer auf Umwegen. Interview mit Heiner Müller”, in: H.M., Gespräche 3: 1991-1995, Werke 12, loc. cit., p. 76.
8 Heiner Müller, “Das war fast unheimlich. Ein Gespräch mit Stephan Speicher für Der Tagesspiegel”, in: H.M., Gespräche 3: 1991-1995, Werke 12, loc. cit., p. 100.
9 Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), New York 1975, p. 36.
Translation: Richard Watts