Archives for the month of: February, 2014


‘Post World’s End Architecture’ 

Let’s build our own houses!  I find it strange that there isn’t more of this in the UK – especially as it’s so common in other countries. Of course, I have no idea how to build a house.  But, for various practical and theoretical reasons, I think it’s exactly what should be happening at the moment. Self-build seems to be very well aligned with so many other tendencies in the way the state wants to govern us, and our own expectations of how things should happen in society. In its own small way, furthermore, it may help shape the contours of the as yet unimaginable world to come.

To make my case, I’m going to begin with a lengthy diversion.  My starting point is that there seem to be big structural changes afoot in the world.  We seem to be developing a new sensibility about our place on the planet. As the world gets ever more interconnected, and change accelerates, its very complexity appears to be overwhelming us; we no longer feel we understand what causes what.  Our liberal institutions of governance don’t really know how to respond to problems that they struggle to define.  We sense that they are no longer up to the job, and that some kind of fundamental change is in the air.  We have a sense of impending catastrophe (of which we have so far only had a foretaste), but have little idea of what will come afterwards. The certainties of the modern world have long since dissolved, but we still look for ‘leaders’ and ‘plans’ to ‘take us forwards’.

I’m really talking about what seems to be the beginning of the end of the ideal of the ‘liberal state’. Liberalism is, after all, only a fairly recent ideal.  I see it as essentially describing a clear division between the limits of state authority and the ‘private’ world lying beyond; the state established to protect private interests, but with no right to intervene in these, such that, fundamentally, “any form of liberalism must be concerned with the freedom of the individual” (Graham, 1992). The liberal state makes a particular effort to protect the autonomy of the private property owner, through an elaborate legal and institutional apparatus. The market is valorised as emancipating humans from the dominance which characterised older feudal models of social organisation; in classical economics, the market thus appears as an ordre naturel (Habermas, 1989:79).

But aren’t we now in a ‘neoliberal’ world? Yes – although I accept that the term is typically used as a form of abuse (Hartwich, 2009), I understand neoliberalism as referring to a series of tendencies over the last few decades, which constituted a reaction to the expansion of the state in the post-WWII period – what Jessop (2002) calls the ‘Keynesian welfare national state’ (KWNS).  The nineteenth century liberal laissez-faire model had appeared to lead to cycles of boom and bust, with disastrous social consequences internationally; KWNS aimed to curb these excesses by expanding the role of the state. By the 1970s, however, this approach didn’t seem to work too well either (the alternative, as adopted in the Soviet bloc, of expanding the state even further, and denying the private sphere altogether, seemed worse still).  Neoliberal thinking was then raised to prominence. This involved shrinking the state, in an attempt to facilitate the workings of the ‘distributed intelligence’ of the unfettered market – an idea usually associated with Friedrich Hayek (1945). That’s the theory at least; in practice, the state hasn’t been shrunk so much as become “selectively active” (Connolly, 2013:21). It “takes a very active role in creating, maintaining, and protecting the preconditions of market self-regulation” (ibid.). The uneven application of neoliberal thinking has been characterised by various types of interventions which may have benefited certain groups more than others (see, for example: Crouch, 2011). The term ‘neoliberalism’ has come to be used more or less interchangeably with the idea of ‘the interests of big business’, or to suggest the ideological work done to conceal these interests.

But whether we understand neoliberalism as a coherent approach to managing our societies, or an ideology, or a set of practices, its potency and legitimacy seems increasingly undermined by various outcomes in the real world: we vaguely sense that we are facing some kind of looming environmental crisis (our uncertainty is such that this is even widely denied); rather than greater efficiencies in markets, we seem to face an ever growing disparity of wealth; and the recent economic crisis questions the ability of this approach even to defend the interests of the establishment.  Our institutions, and the core principles upon which they rest, are still liberal ones; but they now need to find a new way of protecting themselves.

The new policy discourse of ‘resilience’ seems to be closely connected to this project. David Chandler (2014) interprets resilience – as mobilised by policy makers – as a way not just of setting preconditions for markets and other complex spheres to work by themselves, unfettered by the state, but actually to bring this complexity into governance. In other words, “governance is no longer a matter of intervening in an external problematic but of self-reflexive understandings of entanglement” (5). I would argue that this attempt is somehow futile: we might expect unruly creative forces of unpredictable complexity to be welcomed only up to the point where they begin to suggest the possibility of radical transformation. Paradoxically, then, the transformative potential of the complex ‘outside’ seems to be limited precisely to the extent that it is institutionalised.  Furthermore, I am not convinced that we – as citizens in the complex private world that is out there – necessarily react well to attempts to institutionalise our complexity in this way.  Governments can’t take our compliance for granted. We didn’t like David Cameron’s idea of the ‘Big Society’ much, after all.

stop calling me resilient

There are alternative takes on resilience which highlight its potential as a force of transformation outside the state; that its decentralised concept of power suggests a way of resisting the state; that it provides a way for communities to turn their back on neoliberal globalisation (see, for example, the Transition Network); or that the idea needs to be rescued from ‘neoliberal capital’ (Nelson, 2014).  Meanwhile, and not unrelatedly, Occupy London adopted Hayek’s idea that “distributed intelligence in a voluntary co-operative is a hallmark of a real economy”, claiming that “we work more like a market than business does” (Occupy, 2012). There seems to be a problem, then, that the liberal, centralised state is by definition incompatible with decentralised emergent transformation. It seem unclear how it can bring this distributed ‘DIY’ intelligence into its fold without undermining itself.

At this point, we could overlay Zygmunt Bauman’s (1991) understanding of the nature of modernity.  For him, modernity is all about the endless attempt to classify, to delineate the orderly from the chaotic which lies ‘outside’ – the stranger, the ‘other’ (whose otherness defines the ‘inside’).  This attempt is futile because the chaos beyond always returns to challenge the categorisation; this creates ‘ambivalence’, anathema to the modern mind, but spurring it into further ‘legislatory’ action. But the newer governance approaches I’m hinting at seem to invite the stranger into the house – on a temporary basis – while still attempting to regulate the stranger’s behaviour.  But a still centralised liberal government makes for an unhappy bedfellow with the decentralised potency of the outside; the invitation looks rather like an act of desperation at a time when all other defensive strategies seem to have run their course, and our faith in the institutions of our ‘political economy’ seems to be dissolving year by year.

The implications of inviting this unruly stranger in are hinted at in Marc Stears’ contribution to a recent report by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (Cooke & Muir, 2012). He is responding to an essay by Geoff Mulgan, who calls for a new type of ‘Relational State’ to replace expectations of the ‘delivery state’. Here, Mulgan seems to be elaborating on the idea, outlined in an earlier report, of ‘Social Innovation’, which is “all around us” (Mulgan et al., 2007:4), often unrecognised and even stifled by the state, but which the state should encourage within its policy making. Mulgan suggests that social innovation often occurs among hybrid groupings of social actors, and is therefore

not unique to the non-profit sector. It can be driven by politics and government (for example, new models of public health), markets (for example, open-source software or organic food), movements (for example, fair trade), and academia (for example, pedagogical modes of childcare), as well as social enterprises (microcredit and magazines for the homeless)” (ibid.:4-5).

Stears, however, counters that “The state…is unlikely ever to be the primary agent of a relational revolution. The primary agents will lie outside. They will be those who pressurise the state, who make demands of it, who are unwilling to be told what to do” (Cooke & Muir, 2012:43).

Mulgan’s reference to ‘open-sourcing’ is significant. The media heralded this new mode of software development in the early 2000s as a revolutionary approach to business management, confounding assumptions that effective action depends on hierarchy and, as a type of ‘gift economy’, challenging the dominant self-interest economics paradigm (which fails to explain why would people voluntarily contribute).  Wikipedia is often cited as an example of collaborative knowledge made possible in a similar horizontal way, though for non-commercial purposes. Thrift (2008) suggests that the idea of open-source programming has inspired various other business approaches; he points to the growth of ‘user-centric innovation’, blurring the distinction between consumption and production, including the encouragement of online feedback and discussion forums where “interchange takes place around a co-created commodity experience” (42), and “consumer communities” (41) evolve, beyond a company’s control. He sees information technology as acting “as a system of distributed cognition which is also a means of capturing new potential” (43).

I was interested to read an article (Lerner & Tirole, 2001:819) which concluded that, actually, the open-source approach is “relatively well accounted for by standard economic theory” (821). Similarly, it can be argued that Wikipedia is not free of hierarchy and regulation; it is in fact rather prescriptive in the way knowledge can be structured and framed, and in the types of knowledge that are allowed.   And yet there is still something curious going on here: why have these new decentralised, internet-facilitated approaches captured so many people’s attention?

Why, I wonder, do I hear of new restaurants opening in London by being first ‘beta tested’; their menus are first developed and refined at small market stalls (Courier, 2014). Perhaps there’s nothing new here (it’s really just a sort of ‘pilot test’) – and yet, again, they are borrowing the language of computing. There is something in the idea (or at least the edgy potential) of open-sourcing that seems to have inspired us.  It contains the scent of an as yet poorly understood mode of social and political being, where older notions of government and governed – and even ‘governance’ – make little sense.

A wide variety of other ‘open-sourced’, ‘crowdsourced’ and ‘crowdfunded’ initiatives seem to have taken inspiration.  Some of these clearly take the form of resistance movements. I read of ‘open-sourced agriculture’, for example. But others are initiated by government institutions. A couple of years ago, just to take one example, Camden Council (in London) held a competition asking for ideas for spaces underused at certain times; the proposals received in response were themselves generally DIY projects. This is markedly different from a council simply deciding ‘on behalf’ of the people, or just reacting to public opinion: it represents an active attempt to tap into bottom-up thinking. Nobody is really talking about ‘rolling back the state’ here: it’s all about temporary decentralisation of power, letting things emerge from the bottom up in unpredictable ways.

In my own research, I’ve been looking at the EcoDistricts initiative in Portland, Oregon (USA). This aimed to explore the idea of making neighbourhood units sustainable – as a stepping stone to the as yet poorly understood concept of transitioning a whole city to sustainability. Their idea was to provide seed funding for groups of key actors in 5 locations across the city to develop their own ideas – without predefining the types of goals they would set, who precisely would be involved, or how they would govern themselves.  By tapping into this bottom-up innovation, they planned to see what worked and what didn’t, reflect on it, and they try to apply the results elsewhere in the city.  Whether or not this will succeed, it represents a rather novel way of governing for change – a long way from experts or representatives deciding things in rooms in city hall – but neither simply expressing the goal to simply let things be decided by some idealised notion of the ‘market’.

This new approach to political action even affects questions at the heart of statehood. I recently went to a talk about constitution making, by Eirikur Bergmann.  He suggested that the recent ‘crowdsourced’ (though as yet unadopted) constitution in Iceland was typical of new wave of projects variously related to fundamental principles of how the state should operate, in countries including Canada, Belgium, Holland, Australia, Ireland, and Estonia.  A student I’m teaching, meanwhile, wants to look at the process through which the new Hungarian constitution (2012) was created.  This has been received badly by many in Hungary specifically because many citizens feel excluded from its development.  Now, I would imagine that constitutions throughout history have been written by ‘experts’, politicians and presidents – they wouldn’t have brought laypeople into the equation throughout the process (except perhaps via the odd referendum at the end).  The interesting thing, then, is that the people now expect to be included – exactly at the time that we seem to be losing confidence in our representative institutions of governance.

At international level, too, something analogous seems to be going on, again in a slightly confused way.  I heard two papers recently by my colleagues Elisa Randazzo and Pol Barguès Pedreny, about newer approaches to post-conflict statebuilding. These approaches aim not to predefine particular outcomes or directions so much as to encourage a context-sensitive ongoing adaptive process.  And yet, Elisa argued, this new approach reveals itself in many ways still to be stuck in a liberal mindset, in its valorisation of ‘change’, ‘emancipation’, and so on. There seemed to be little disagreement in the audience that we hadn’t advanced beyond a type of ‘liberalism in disguise’.

Of course, I’m most interested in thinking about cities of the future. I’m looking forward to an event later this year at the University of Greenwich, at which the idea of ‘Reflexive Urbanism’ will be launched. This “proposes that cities of the future are not made but evolved”.  The blurb explains that Reflexive Urbanism “works with the messiness of cities, their vibrant natures and their inherent subversion, to identify new solutions for the practice of the built environment in a resource constrained world.”  The idea, then, of working with ‘messiness’, rather than treating this as the enemy without, or hopelessly trying to tap into its power from the centre.  So what? You might dismiss this as just some kind of academic conference – and yet academics often explore ideas which are still only on the periphery of general understanding – they look out for this kind of thing.

Anyway, if we’re thinking about how to design our cities of the future, then part of the task must be an openness to innovations in our living arrangements. Housing, in terms of units and how they relate to each other, might be very different in ways we can’t yet imagine. Will we live more communally?  Will housing be modular, or movable? Might the ideas of the ‘house’ or ‘flat’ even become redundant?  New innovations here won’t necessarily come from politicians – or from large firms of housebuilders constrained by market pressures and conservative by default. Perhaps they are more likely to come from individuals, and novel combinations of individuals and experts, doing it for themselves.

Provision of housing in the UK is currently seen as problematic.  While the government has good political reasons to encourage more housing to be built, and doesn’t seem to have abandoned the quintessentially liberal idea that the protection of private property rights is at the very heart of the state’s purpose, it seems undecided about how exactly this might be achieved through existing institutional mechanisms. The shortage of (affordable) housing is widely understood to be a social problem; we might see housing as a public good – the right to shelter is, after all, recognised as a human right – and yet it is developed and then bought and sold in markets. Since we know that ‘open-sourced’ approaches seem to work well when market success is our criterion, then this would seem like a good sphere of life in which to launch an experiment. By encouraging localised innovation, and a sense of personal agency, investment, and creativity, the state would meet its citizens’ growing expectations of decentralised involvement, without appearing to be abnegating its responsibilities, as well as potentially achieve a series of political goals in its own defence.  Who, in other words, would object?

Over a decade ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (Barlow et al., 2001) found that self-build was growing over time, but tended to be in non-urban areas, and was the sport of older, wealthier enthusiasts. They also outline the main practical and political barriers, commenting that “the political environment does not favour self-build.  Self-builders are too fragmented to constitute a political force” (32). And yet, they argued, it could have significant economic and environmental benefits, as well as freeing up the housebuilding process, if done properly. And things might be changing. We now have a National Self Build Association (formally launched in 2008); the Government now endorses its ‘self-build portal’ website. Since few individuals have enough knowledge either of construction methods, project management, or planning processes, they now promote the idea of ‘custom build’: hybrid arrangements where individuals work alongside professionals and specialists. And I read that the idea of providing self-builders with relief from the ‘Community Infrastructure Levy’ is being debated in Parliament this week.

There are models abroad for how the government might encourage this sort of thing. The most famous is the expanding town of Almere in Holland. Hundreds of plots are available in its Homeruskwartier district.  Infrastructure is provided, and some very broad guidelines are in place – but people are free to build whatever type of house they want, without worrying about planning regulations.  One of the key people behind this initiative comments:

“What I like most is the way people develop their curiosity and skills – they bring ideas and test construction techniques more than any developer would. We don’t insist on sustainability requirements, but it’s amazing how much people just do it themselves” (Collinson, 2011).

almere self-build houses

Homeruskwartier, Almere1

This wouldn’t resolve the paradox at the heart of all such schemes initiated by the state: it represents an attempt to organise from above what Connolly (2013) calls ‘self-organising systems’.  But this might be a good thing for all; while proceeding legitimately within the existing framework and agendas of the liberal state, the process of experimentation may contribute in its own small way to our collective ability to begin imagining whatever it is that lies beyond.

So – get your spades and hammers out.  Build yourself a house to prepare for the future. Unless, that is, you are still hoping that your local council will do it for you.

21 February 2014, London


1. Sources: Collinson (2011),, and wikimedia commons

Thanks to Daniel Tomozeiu and David Chandler for alerting me to the ‘beta-testing’ restaurant model and the Marc Stears essay, respectively.


Barlow, J., Jackson, R. & Meikle, J. (2001). Homes to DIY for: The UK’s self-build housing market in the twenty-first century. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Bauman, Z. (1991). Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Chandler, D. (2014). Beyond neoliberalism: resilience, the new art of governing complexity. Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. 2(1):47-63.

Collinson, P. (2011). Self-build: it’s time to go Dutch. The Guardian, 25 November. Available from: <;.

Connolly, W. (2013). The Fragility of Things: Self-Organising Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Action. London: Duke University Press.

Cooke, G. & Muir, R. eds. (2012). The Relational State: How Recognising the Importance of Human Relationships Could Revolutionise the Role of the State. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

Courier (2014). The Beta testing model powering food startups. Available from: <; [Accessed 19 February 2014].

Crouch, C. (2011). The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. Cambridge: Polity.

Graham, G. (1992). Liberalism and Democracy. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 9(2):149–160.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hartwich, O. (2009). Neoliberalism: The Genesis of a Political Swearword (CIS Occasional Paper 114). St Leonards, NSW: Centre for Independent Studies. Available from: <;.

Hayek, F.A. (1945). The Use of Knowledge in Society. American Economic Review, XXXV:519–530.

Jessop, B. (2002). Liberalism, Neoliberalism, and Urban Governance: A State-Theoretical Perspective. Antipode, 34:452–72.

Lerner, J. & Tirole, J. (2001). The open source movement: Key research questions. European Economic Review, 45(4–6):819–826.

Mulgan, G., Tucker, S., Ali, R. & Sanders, B. (2007). Social Innovation: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Be Accelerated. Oxford: Oxford Said Business School/The Young Foundation.

Nelson, S.H. (2014). Resilience and the neoliberal counter-revolution: from ecologies of control to production of the common. Resilience, 2(1):1–17.

Occupy (2012). How Hayek helped us to find capitalism’s flaws. Financial Times, 25 January.

Thrift, N. (2008). Non-Representational Theory: space │politics│affect. Abingdon: Routledge.

space and language

There’s something I’ve wondered about over the last three years. If others have written about the same thing more competently, please let me know, and I will immediately delete this post.

I am curious about one particular parallel between ways of thinking about language and space, and what its implications might be. I’m trying to work out how it might be useful in thinking about transformations in urban space.

I’m not thinking exactly about the debates over the relationship between natural language and spatial cognition (although I might be); nor about the way people talk of things like the ‘language of architecture’ (although there’s no reason I might not be). Descriptions of space sometimes do borrow linguistic terms: we talk of ‘urban morphology’; there’s an urban design company called ‘Space Syntax’; and so on. My starting point is somewhere else….

Let’s simplify the field of linguistics into three areas of enquiry: semantics, syntax, and – to lump a few fields together – language as actually spoken or written. This third category I will refer to as ‘performance’. What has caught my attention in the past is the structural similarity between this and tripartite models of spatial analysis. These spatial models label their three dimensions differently, but, for the purposes of my loose thinking here, I will crudely simplify them to: meaning, form, and performance.1 Putting the two frameworks side by side gives us the following:

linguistic and spatial analysis

By the ‘form’ of space, I mean its formal characteristics – its raw shape and materiality – that which exists prior to, or beyond, our perception of it. I’m happy enough to accept both that reality will always exceed what we can know about it, and that things have a ‘thingness in themselves’. If, though, you tend towards thinking that there is no reality outside our perceptions, or that external reality is just a shapeless soup, or simply that speculating about this sort of thing is futile, then you might still accept that the ‘form’ of space describes its abstract qualities: its geometrical aspect.

The ‘performance’ of space, meanwhile, describes what we perceive: its sensory appearance, and what seems to happen ‘in’ it. This includes the goings-on of organic life; humans are also part of the perceived material world – objects as well as subjects, if you want to talk in those terms. The performance of space cannot be directly read off its formal qualities, though is constrained by these – just as actual performed language is enabled and constrained by syntax. Performed language, just like performed space, may be playful or transgressive, and not entirely predictable. At this point I’m obliged to make reference to de Certeau’s (1984) famous metaphorical use of walking through a city to evoke the idea of (potentially transgressive) agency within structural constraints. The connection with language is made clear by de Certeau: he talks of the ‘poetry’ of urban walking (to suggest its creative, improvisational, and rule-bending character); and explicitly refers at one point to Chomsky’s (1965) distinction between, on the one hand, the ‘performance’ of language – that is, utterances or texts as actually produced – and, on the other, idealised ‘competence’ in a language. Yes, I know I’m dipping in and out of different contestable ideas here – and, as will become clear, I specifically don’t want to think in terms of hierarchical causal structures – but I’m just seeing where it might take me.

The ‘meaning’ of space, meanwhile, describes our interpretation of what we perceive. This is the realm of affect, theory, emotions, and so on. Since the meaning of space will always be endlessly multiple, this is where contestations and politics spring from. Space may of course have ‘dominant meanings’ to which we may be blind, but they may be challenged by various alternatives. This aspect of space, therefore, is the site of ideological struggle. The meanings of space, in turn, affect the way that the formal qualities of the space are shaped in future, and constrain their performative qualities. This does not leave space in a state of shapeless flux. The different meanings that emerge from our entanglement with materiality (ie performed space) may coalesce into discourses, neither evanescent nor permanent, given voice through possibly self-conscious ‘publics’ of different types. Similarly, the performative qualities of a given space may be at least broadly predictable in the short-term, and the form of the built environment in particular has a lot of ‘friction’ built into it; it contains relatively permanent structures, each of which represents the outcome of a particular struggle of meanings at a particular time, but none of which are eternal.

There is no causal linearity here, then. Everything affects everything else, rather unpredictably. What we seem to have is an iterative triangularity:

spatial analysis

Thinking now about my three linguistic dimensions, let’s start with meaning. I’m comfortable with the idea that we can only see meaning as located within, or as a part of, language. This is the case whether we tend towards a post-structuralist view of meaning as only ever relational, or if we imagine, alternatively, that ‘pure’ thoughts (ideas, comparisons, decisions, responses, insights…) bubble up electronically from somewhere in the pre-consciousness, and are then translated, via semantics and syntax, into actual words. In the latter linear scenario, it is tautologically the case that meaning is created only at the point where our cognitive linguistic software kicks in.  Whatever ‘pre-meaning’ is beyond that is, self-evidently, unknowable in terms of meaning. Simultaneously, though, we might conversely see meaning as shaped by the formal constraints of language (syntax – and even metaphor – though I’m interested to think about what the spatial equivalent of a metaphor would be). We can accept that meaning is to some extent shaped by form without adopting a wholesale belief in the older ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis that our cognitive processes are delimited by the particular ways that phenomena are categorised in our own language.  Even more importantly, we develop deeper interpretations of the perceptual world precisely through the performance of language (clarifying and exploring meaning by, for example, writing and discussing things with others); in this way, meaning emerges from performance. Meaning in language (as in space) seems to be both emergent and generative.

Syntax, similarly, seems to be both structured and structuring. I see it as having an ontological ambivalence. On the one hand, syntax might be said to exist, in that it affects the world.  On the other, where actually is it?  Is it something that can only be inferred from our performed speech? Like the formal qualities of space, it might be understood in itself as, variously, an abstract model, an illusion, or as something which is ‘there’ but unknowable on its own terms. We also need to account for how syntax changes over time – even if this process (as is the case for the built environment) is slow and uneven; syntax is affected by the ongoing co-evolution of performed language and its meanings. There is a further problem if we think of syntax as an inferred abstraction (which also applies to a conceptualisation of formal space in abstract terms): abstractions are representations – and representations perform ideological work.

Again, then, no definitive causal linear model of language seems possible. Again, we end up with an iterative triangularity:

linguistic analysis

It’s difficult to think in terms of open-ended looping systems where cause and effect are endlessly diffused. We lose our sense of self as humans.  It’s tempting at least to try to retrieve the idea of agency by locating it within performance. Surely, at least here we are free to make choices about what happens in our material surroundings, and how we use our language. Can we look to de Certeau’s urban walk metaphor for salvation? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can. As Thrift (2008) observes, de Certeau’s perspective is itself a humanistic one. What if instead we can only identify shifting assemblages of things and people in space; and what if our conscious actions and words are at the mercy of our preconsciousness? As Thrift reminds us, quoting Lakoff & Johnson (1998:13): “Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 per cent of all thought…the 95 per cent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought”.

Perhaps I’m trying to force a case here that doesn’t need to be made, using selective arguments superficially to solve a curious puzzle that only exists in my imagination. Certainly, the parallels between my two triangles are incomplete and rather shabby in places. They also keep leading me into philosophical jungles for which I have no map.  Time therefore to head back to the main road and drive home to safety. My original (and ongoing) aim was to think about how all this might help me think about urban spatial transformation. So, then, are any useful conclusions possible?

First, it’s important to remember that the spatial triangle is not my own; what I’ve done here is simply to transpose it onto language. My triangular thinking does not allow us to escape from the traditional ‘prisonhouse of language’ – in fact, if my parallels are of any value, they point to an analogous ‘prisonhouse of space’. Equally, though, I have no desire simply to portray our sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals as a delusion, by asserting that instead we are blindly entrapped within the ‘prison’.  Rather, that it makes no sense to think about our own individual agency as such precisely because ‘we’ and the prison are co-constitutive. If linguistics at least alerts us to the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of language, might it have some lessons for us about the nature of the walls of the prisonhouse of space?

I can’t see how this might teach us about how urban environments might be better governed ‘from above’; the notions of ‘above’ and ‘below’ stop making sense. But even if the search for agency is pointless, we are still left with power, relative and shifting; its distribution never inevitable. And even if our individuality is an illusion, illusions are powerful forces in the world. As illusory individuals, might we learn better decode to the space around us? Might linguistics somehow help us with this? That might at least give us a practical sense of purpose, allowing us to think more confidently about how space might be reconstructed (or re-co-constructed) from within, rather than leaving us resigned to claustrophobic impotence. Which is another way of saying that we shouldn’t try to choose between being either ‘planners’ or ‘planned’; the first move is to accept not only that we are within the plan, but that the plan is also within us.

5 February 2014, London


I make no claims to have more than a vague awareness of the historical debates in and around metaphysics. I am also aware that the blogosphere provides a haven for armchair-based pseudo-philosophers to peddle half-digested ideas, much to the disgust of professional philosophers. In the explicit spirit of dreaming vaguely about the nature of reality and objects, though, and without wanting to align myself pompously and uniformedly with the idea of ‘speculative realism’ (particularly since it seems fashionable to do this in the blogosphere), I do like Graham Harman’s provocative observation that “there is already a long list of anti-object-oriented standpoints from which one can choose, which suggests that objects have a certain potency as philosophical personae that provokes reactive operations” (Bryant et al., 2011:22). He then usefully sketches out the different ways in which objects in themselves have been dismissed by philosophers through the ages, beginning with Anaxagoras. Interestingly, he points out that even in Latour’s ‘flat ontologies’, the object is significant only in terms of “what it modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates… [It] is not an autonomous substance” (23).

2 There’s an established tradition of writers who have developed or drawn on this three-way analysis of space, for different practical, critical, or philosophical purposes, including: Cassirer (1944); Lefebvre (1991) [1974]; Canter (1977); Harvey (eg 1990; 2006); Punter (1991); Soja (1996); Montgomery (1998); and Franck and Stevens (2006).


Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman, G. (2011). The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:

Canter, D. (1977). The Psychology of Place. London: Architectural Press.

Cassirer, E. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press.

Franck, K.A. & Stevens, Q. (2006). Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life.

Harvey, D. (1990). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. London: Verso.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1998). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

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