Future Tenochtitlan?

File:Tlatelolco Marketplace.JPG

Tlatelolco Marketplace, Wikimedia, Joe Ravi, Creative Commons License CC-BY-SA 3.0

There’s an interesting piece in this year’s Nebula Awards Showcase, a lively short story about an alternative future premised on Aztec culture, “The Jaguar House, in Shadow,” by Aliette de Bodard.  One of the biggest challenges to those of us trying to imagine and evoke alternative futures is precisely what animates de Bodard’s story: can we come up with futures that aren’t already colonized by Western modernity?  As she writes (185):

“Part of the challenge (and what had frustrated me with the earlier attempt) is making sure that “modern” doesn’t end up equating “twentieth-century Western culture”; and equally making sure that the Aztec culture doesn’t turn out to be an ossified version of what the conquistadors saw.”
De Bodard struggles with this premise, ultimately sketching a future Tenochtitlan that is at turns archaeological speculation and Aztec steampunk.  Maglev stations, nanotechnology, religion, traditional drugs, Aztec ball courts.  It all pushes the story forward, and beyond: the ending makes me suspect that there’s a novel in the works.

But is this really an alternative future?  Or is this just Western sf playing in the ruins of Tenochtitlan?  De Bodard’s protagonist, Oballi, breaks into the house of her own Jaguar order in order to rescue her friend, a feat enabled by various physically extending drugs and technologies, including nanotechnologically enhanced finger-nails.  “She extended, in one fluid, thoughtless gesture: her nails were diamond-sharp,  courtesy of Atcoatl’s nanos, and it was easy to find purchases on the carving” (192).  It’s that juxtaposition of Aztec carvings and nanotechnology that gesture to the limits of this “alternative” future.

Contrast this to Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain (2010), a decidedly non-fictional evocation of an “alternative future” that is premised on what Pickering calls (after the work of Bruno Latour) “nonmodern” ontologies.

“What I want to suggest is that the ontology of cybernetics is a strange and unfamiliar one, very different from that of the modern sciences. I also want to suggest that ontology makes different—that the strangeness of specific cybernetics projects hangs together with the strangeness of its ontology (17).”

In the performative ontologies evoked in cybernetics, the world appears less as the transparent workings of a Cartesian universe than as a series of black boxes that we interact with in a performative way–with frequently surprising results.  Examples of cybernetics as an alternative epistemology for knowing this black-box ontology abound, but one of my favorites (and, I think, also Pickering’s) is Gordon Pask’s 1950′s work on Musicolour.

“Materially, the music was converted into an electrical signal by a microphone, and within Musicolour the signal passed through a set of filters, sensitive to different frequencies, the beat of the music, and so on, and the output of the filters controlled different lights.  You could imagine that the highest-frequency filter energized a bank of red lights, the next-highest the blues, and so on.  Very simple, except for the fact that the internal parameters of Musicolour’s circuitry were not constant.  In analogy to biological neurons, banks of lights would only be activated if the output from the relevant filter exceeded a certain threshold value, and these thresholds varied in time as charges built up on capacitors according to the development of the performance and the prior behavior of the machine” (316).

Rather than treat music, sound, cognition, perception as divisible parts rendered knowable by science as discrete data, Pask developed a machine that encouraged the adaptive coupling of diverse systems to each other, a kind of performative epistemology that was, as Pickering points out over and over, both a “theater” and an example of what might be called a non-modern ontology: the world construed not as divisible, objectified parts, but as complex systems loosely coupled to each through feedback, where the goal is not to dominate and exploit but to interact, cope–to negotiate a truth rather than command one.   The point, of course, is that this is ultimately an alternative modernity (or, as Pickering writes, a “nonmodern” epistemology).

It’s all interesting, and Pickering hits on what excites me most about cybernetics: it’s capacity to interrogate the assumptions that have guided technological development up to now, and possibility for “lines of flight” within the hegemonic discourse of objectivist science and the domination of nature.  Indeed, Pickering reflects on cybernetics in the wake of Deleuzean “nomad science,” and finds the work Beer, Pask, Bateson and others to anticipate much of the Deleuzean turn. Of course, Pickering uses that problematic “nonmodern”–I am not nearly so sanguine that we can escape the modern by emphasizing a performative ontology, since the message here is that it was implicit in the cybernetic modern all along.

And this gets me back to de Bodard’s story.  Can we evoke a truly non-Western future?  Is there a “nonmodern” modernity?  Can we simultaneously imagine a future and escape from that future’s overdetermination by, perhaps, the most central characteristic of modernity itself: “futures thinking”? We can see de Bodard’s writing as part of the answer–imagining non-Western futures–although I wish she had spent some time looking at actual Aztec futures, as in the Mexican environmental groups and sustainability techniques that have been developed off of insights into Aztec irrigation and farming. Or even at the interesting (and tumultuous) world of Mexican sf (see Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz’s Biografias del Futuro: La ciencia ficcion mexicana y sus autores (2000)).

The other part, though, must be examining Western futures themselves as multiple, or, more precisely, as a virtual field of difference through the potentialities Pickering sketches.  Perhaps we can approach that alternative future through multiple estrangements.  First, undermining our own assumptions about the future by excavating “roads not taken”–cybernetics, Bergonism, etc., while struggling to understand non-Western epistemologies.  Second, the fuzzy coupling of alternative futures, non-Western futures, sublimated utopia: in other words, the performative ontology Pickering lionizes performed on a grander temporal and spatial scale.  Ultimately, the goal is less prediction and control than adapting to these shifting, swirling, Musicolour constellations.

There’s a story about his time working in a VA hospital that Gregory Bateson told in a 1971 Naropa Institute lecture that I explore in a 2010 article (Collins 2010: 60):

“At the request of the ward superintendent, he invited a new patient to his office and, in way of initialing conversation (and building rapport) offered him a cigarette. The patient took a few puffs and then, looking Bateson straight in the eyes, dropped it on the carpet. The next day, he again met with Bateson, took a cigarette, lit it, and dropped it on the carpet. Only this time, he decided to take a walk. Bateson followed him for 100 yards or so, and then couldn’t take it any longer. “Look, man, I’ve got to know what that cigarette is doing!” They turned back to retrieve it. On the third day, the same thing, only this time, when the resident got up to take a walk, Bateson palmed the cigarette and followed behind. A few yards out the door, Bateson said, “Ed, I think this is your cigarette, isn’t it?” Ed laughed, and Bateson felt that he had been admitted in (if only fleetingly) into the resident’s world.”

What is the point here to Bateson’s enigmatic parable?  First, that understanding here is not premised on control.  It’s not about forcing the patient into the Bateson’s cognitive schema.  Instead, it’s about creating cybernetic couplings that interact along “lines of flight” that gesture to something else entirely.  Could this be a metaphor for strange (and estranging) futures?

References

Collins, Samuel Gerald (2010).  “‘An Electronic Buzzer is Laughing’.”  Cybernetics & Human Knowing 17(3): 45-64.

Pickering, Andrew (2010).  The Cybernetic Brain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Originally posted on cities@manchester:

Image from Elentari86 via flickr

25th April, 4-6.30 pm,  Cordingley Lecture Theatre, Humanities Bridgeford Street

Presentations by:
Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, University of Manchester
Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Department of Geography, University of Manchester
Neil Smith, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography, CUNY Graduate Center, New York

Play audio recording 

A conversation among three geographers exploring the relationship between contemporary political movements, symbolic and material spaces of the contemporary city, and strategies for radical social change in an era defined by consensual party politics.  The presentations and audience participation extend from theoretical considerations of politics and urban society to speculations on what contemporary political manifestations might mean, and how they might be interpreted and encouraged.

This event was organised by:
OpenSpace:  An interdisciplinary forum for doctoral and postdoctoral research supporting dialogue on cities and beyond, initiated by PhD researchers in the Department of Geography

And was supported by:
The Leverhulme…

View original 19 more words

City as Museum / City as Instrument: new possibilities for sound and the city

Originally posted on cities@manchester:

Image from Manchester's Sonic Meta-Ontology Project

Image from ‘Manchester’s Sonic Meta-Ontology’ Project

 

See end of article for details of Locative Audio event on 29th June.

It’s an exciting time to be a composer or sound artist. Innovations in and new connections between methodology, technology and creative practice are creating a host of new possibilities for the sonic exploration of experience. NOVARS, the Research Centre for Electro Acoustic Composition and Sound Art at the University of Manchester work at the cutting edge of this new territory. So what are these developments? To keep it simple here we will talk about two, both of which relate to space.

The first concerns the composition and performance of sound in relation to space. Composition tools and performance environments are becoming increasingly sophisticated through collaboration and feedback between composers, musicians, researchers and engineers. For example, virtual 3-dimensional environments and multi-speaker matrix diffusion sound systems mean that composers and sound…

View original 1,056 more words

Tempelhof Park: pioneering and interim use in Berlin

Originally posted on Urban Studies:

It’s a surreal experience to step out onto an airport runway, surrounded by 300 hectares of grassland, and see thousands of people enjoying the sunset. Tempelhof Airport in Berlin was shut down in October 2008, but was opened to the public as a park while a planning process was ongoing. It is an innovative and refreshing decision on the part of the City to allow interim uses to inform and be integrated into the planning process for the space.

For several years spontaneous and informal temporary use of undeveloped land has been typical in many parts of Berlin. Tempelhof Park marks the first time pioneering and interim use will be specifically integrated into a planning process – as the driving force behind a procedural and participatory approach to urban development.

- Notice board in the Park

Tempelhof Airport and Park (tempelhoferfreiheit.de)

Tempelhof Park in the evening (photo: Andrew T Jones)

View original 328 more words

Tempelhof Park: pioneering and interim use in Berlin

Andrew T Jones:

It’s a surreal experience to step out onto an airport runway, surrounded by 300 hectares of grassland, and see thousands of people enjoying the sunset. Tempelhof Airport in Berlin was shut down in October 2008, but was opened to the public as a park while a planning process was ongoing. It is an innovative and refreshing decision on the part of the City to allow interim uses to inform and be integrated into the planning process for the space.

For several years spontaneous and informal temporary use of undeveloped land has been typical in many parts of Berlin. Tempelhof Park marks the first time pioneering and interim use will be specifically integrated into a planning process – as the driving force behind a procedural and participatory approach to urban development.

- Notice board in the Park

Tempelhof Airport and Park (tempelhoferfreiheit.de)

Tempelhof Park in the evening (photo: Andrew T Jones)

Tempelhof Airport Terminal (photo: Andrew T Jones)

The airport terminal, originally built in 1927 and later reconstructed in 1941 by the Nazi Government, is an imposing structure that curves around one end of the park. Tempelhof played a key role during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and the Cold War period as the primary point of access to West Berlin.

Today, little has changed since the airport ceased operations in 2008, and people are free to wander pretty much anywhere in the 303 hectare space. It’s an incredible place to get some exercise – there were people on bikes and rollerblades using the perfectly flat runways – and certain grass areas have been designated BBQ and picnic zones.

Main runway at Tempelhof (photo: Andrew T Jones)

Runway with Terminal building in distance (photo: Andrew T Jones)

What I found fascinating was that people, given the opportunity to participate, pioneer and use, were peacefully and creatively doing their thing. A entire section between two runways was being developed into community garden plots.

Garden plots in Tempelhof (photo: Andrew T Jones)

Fresh greens growing in Tempelhof (photo: Andrew T Jones)

Others were using the opportunity to go for an evening walk. Or camp out with the family for an afternoon.

Tempelhof and Fernsehturm in distance (photo: Andrew T Jones)

All of this represents the epitome of participatory planning, in which interim and creative uses are directly integrated into planning the future of the park.

The new usage concepts and forms have strategic importance, either as temporary activities or programmes that will eventually give way to a long-term planned usage, or to projects that become permanently established at the site.

Pioneering uses at Tempelhof

The following drawing is the outcome of the process thus far, and indicates the park will not remain in its relatively bare state. Anyone interested in learning more about the redevelopment and planning process at Tempelhof can visit the Tempelhofer Freiheit website here.

Future vision (tempelhoferfreiheit.de)

Originally posted on sustainability and spanish:

For the first time in history most people on the planet live in urban settings.   There are few places left in the world more than a day’s travel from a city.  The growth of cities, both in population and area, will be a creative challenge for this and future generations.  So it makes sense when covering a unit on “cities” or researching Spanish-speaking countries to engage students in considering what makes a place livable and how to achieve it.

The Green Map system (available in five languages) provides a set of internationally recognized icons to map the places in a city that make it sustainable, inclusive and healthy or that, conversely, detract from these goals.

A few ideas:

Map where you live.  One way to use the Green Map icons is to map the community where you live or even map your school campus.  Students choose the icons…

View original 579 more words