A Subject of Action

When we call for collective action in the public realm today we are often evoking a certain type of political actor — a street protestor — and a certain type of political space — the public square and the public street. While recent events imply that such actors and spaces are still relevant in some political cultures — dictatorships in Kiev, Cairo and Istanbul for example — it is unclear the extent to which they remain key to political action in the rest of the world. In advanced democracies there is a palpable sense that “manning the barricades” (which stretch credibility in the "popular uprising" of May 68), desperately needs an upgrade. Kiev and Istanbul notwithstanding, it is altogether possible that the last decade has seen the end of street theatre as a social force. At this juncture we must acknowledge that molotov cocktails have been effectively replaced by keyboards; street mayhem has been effectively replaced by source code. You don't have to gauge the effectiveness of Occupy Wall Street against the effectiveness of, say, Edward Snowden, in order to grasp that the man on the street has of late been replaced by the man behind the laptop. The importance of this shift from a spatially empowered crowd to a spatially empowered individual cannot be ignored.

This paper will argue that the shift from an empowered crowd of the past to an empowered individual of the present has yet to be digested by the discourses of architectural and urban design. While we well know the urban implications of the man on the street, we do not yet fully grasp the urban implications of man behind the laptop. What we do know for certain, however, is that the public venues of the street and the square have not been reproduced in any city anywhere in the world for the past half-century. In Asia and Europe as well as in North and South America, the production of the open and public street grid of the Metropolis has long given over to the production of closed and private cul-de-sac or spine form of Megalopolis. The public space that exists in the city today is inherited from the past rather than created by our own urban production. And, as any anthropologist knows, the objects and subjects of political action are not defined by what we inherit from the past, but by what we actively produce. 

Needless to say, a correlation between the rise of the politically empowered individual — the man behind the computer — and the unwillingness or inability to produce a contemporary public infrastructure is not a coincidence. As always, subjects and objects align even of that alignment is not readily apparent. This paper will discuss how the recent move away from a spatially empowered crowd and toward a spatially empowered individual lines up with contemporary subject positions articulated in both the human sciences and philosophy. Peter Sloterdijk's conception of social “Foam” or Paolo Virno's conception of the empowered knowledge worker of the “Multitude” are two of the most important and most celebrated models that articulate the rise of an empowered individual and its role in the formation of an unprecedented collective subject — a real alternative to the exhausted image and agency of the revolutionary street crowd. What is principally at issue is how these newly empowered individual subject positions match up to our present urban models — both theoretical and actual. 

The argument will begin with an assessment of contemporary conceptions of the political objects and subjects and then review alternative objects and subjects in turn. These alternatives will then be applied to contemporary urban case studies, with an emphasis on Sha Tin, a Hong Kong New Town. Images and Drawings of the case studies to follow.


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