Intelligence & Armament

In this talk, I’d like to ask a simple question: in what ways does the smart city differ from the city as it is has appeared throughout history? By using the work of Lefebvre, Halpern, Lukacs, and others, I will offer a provisional answer. Following this, I will then seek to sketch out a loose future history of the smart city, in which the utopian dream gives way to the nightmare of weaponized intelligence, endocolonization, and inter-urban war.

The smart city breaks down into several threads that are militated towards the construction of a cohesive grand narrative, or an ideology of intelligence. This ideology constructs itself along three axioms: the economic, the political, and the spatial.

Let’s begin with the economic character of the smart city. Cities, free market proponents love to point out, are massive economic engines. The city as we’ve known it in Europe and the United States has historically been presented as an industrial center, and therefore the home of industrial labor. An individual laborer is not an artisan, but rather occupies a discrete point in the overall continuum of production. The laborer’s contribution to production is not measured in material produced but in time given, or quite literally, labor-time expended in the production of commodities. The technological innovation of the clock allows for a revolutionary control of production at the point the human enters the process. These commodities are then sold and used in a process we will refer to as consumption.

The arrival of the ‘smart city’ may prove to be similarly inversionary. The ‘first wave’ of the smart city in which we currently find ourselves appears in the form of sensors and highly specialized instrumentation—water and air quality analyzers, smart lightbulbs, fitness trackers, digital assistants, and so on. These devices are important in their ability to track personal consumption—how much energy, how many calories, how many opportunities. The tracking of consumption is now possible down to the merest quanta. It is in this basic premise that the smart city begins to take shape.

Jennifer Gabrys and Shannon Mattern open up a possible line of thought with their identification that increasingly tighter control of consumption is not something that happens to citizens, but a predicate to being considered a citizen in general. “Computational materializations distribute power through urban spaces and processes”, Gabrys writes.

Citizenship as a question of identification—who belongs and who does not. In this formulation, those who belong are those who are computational. Friends are interlinked, that is, they offer up their data. Enemies are those outside the network. The mediation of consumption appears to those in power as the ability to more acutely monitor behavior. There is not so much a question of “who is the smart city for?”—we know the answer to that already. The real question is, “what is the smart city doing for power?” What does it mean, as in the case of Zaha Hadid Architects’ newly announced project outside Moscow, that the designers claim to have investigated “happiness” as a design principle?

The person-citizen, happy or not, dissolves away in the smart city, replaced by quanta—an assemblage of sensors and data inputs that circumscribe the sum total of actions and effects that person has. Consider Sidewalk Labs’ ad copy: “By combining people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology, we can achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” The “people” are the ostensible “center” of this statement, but they are not the subject—they are a vehicle to “people-centered design”. The person is only an emptyness around which the objects and data of smart city are set in motion. This is a crucial turn: subjecthood devolves from people to prostheses. Smartness begins by locating the citizens’ inputs and outputs and then amputating them. As a result, the citizen is alienated from themselves. As Lukacs notes: “rational mechanization extends right into the worker’s ‘soul’: even [their] psychological attributes are separated…into specialized rational systems and their reduction to statistically viable concepts”. The age of the smart city is, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “life in the time of hell”, wherein the human is surrounded with and luxuriates in the instruments of their own tortured dispossession.

Don’t count on hearing this anywhere, of course. The great mystification of the smart city is not politics, but ecology as achieved through technological efficiency. Orit Halpern succinctly states that “…sensor-based ubiquitous computing across urban infrastructures and mobile devices [will be used] to achieve greater sustainability”. If economics, as discussed previously, is the means of the smart city, ecopolitics is its end. The time of hell arrives neatly packaged, wearing the mask of radical environmentalism. It is in the name of planetary survival that the smart city is truly born.

This can take the form of urban-park integration or, more commonly, as an insistence that a scientific viewpoint can and should be applied to everyday life. The rendering here is of Jeffrey Burns’ Innovation Park, a “blockchain city” in the Nevada desert, which shows distinctly what I mean—deciduous trees in the desert garden, and the blockchain approach that underpins it.

Eco-smartness is something that can be achieved, says the ad copy. Our lifeboat in the Anthropocene will be a synthesis of city cybernetic and city beautiful. This is the city as commodity. If smartness begins with the commodity, it soon graduates to commoditizing space, and urbanity itself. The argument is simple: smartness defines itself in relation to a pre-existing stupidity.

Amalgamated and executed on the scale of a street, a neighborhood, a district, or a city, the smart city operates on the principles of what Orit Halperin calls “test bed urbanism”. Though she coined the phrase in particular reference to Songdo City in South Korea, it can be generalized to nearly all smart projects. The urban test bed pulls urban space away from the state and into the supposedly neutral sphere of the laboratory where all decisions are not made by fiat, it is claimed, but by a reasoned attempt to solve problems. However, to achieve the “laboratory” effect, requires several theoretical leaps in the representation of space.

Lefebvre identified what he called abstract space as a dominant spatial representation in 20th century Europe. Building off of the concept of reification, abstract space is the foundational myth of the urban as test bed: space is hollowed out and becomes delimited, quantified, and altogether empty. This can most easily be seen in a building that changes owners or falls suddenly under a different type of zoning: the spatial character of the building is a void that can be overwritten. It is not specialized. It is, in a word, abstract.

Abstraction in spatial terms is a vital component of the smart city because of its faculty to essentially be anything—a tabula rasa upon which only power can write. This is the advantage of the laboratory—by standing in for the world, the laboratory model produces the notion that reality is malleable, and exists in its most ‘pure’ form when completely quantified. Scientific, or rational, purity requires the judicious elimination of all aberrant irrationalities as a prerequisite for thought and action in a technocratic, rational process in the pursuit of the construction of instrumental reason. The continuum of instrumental reason can be imagined as a straight line from the enlightenment to the smart city. Smartness’ promise of ‘innovation’ is in fact dependent on ‘laboratorization’, or instrumental, rational method, which is centuries old. Adorno and Horkheimer point out this tendency as arriving with the Enlightenment—in producing natural law, all that does not fit the law must be removed.

It is essential to keep in mind that technocratic rationalism is first historically applied to the natural world in order to reformat nature from an environment to a constellation of resources. Abstraction is a prerequisite for exploitation. When, as in the case of Saudi Arabia’s NEOM, the project claims to be negatively identified with the world itself —”a place on earth like nothing on earth”—we should take pause. The entire earth is grist for the (intelligent) mill. The earth and the city are naturalized and thus enframed, appearing as a Heideggerian “standing reserve” of raw material which only needs to be shaped by a magisterial rational hand. In other words, the city as we see it is reinterpreted by smartness to be a material that is then modified by labor, in the same way nature is. The regime of science, or technocratic rationalism, has aggressively expanded its model from the natural world to the lived one.

This transvaluation of urban space is due to the appearance of abstract space as a Cartesian void—”a neutral thing into which disjointed things, people, and habitats might be introduced, or “social space as an exploitable resource”, according to Japhy Wilson. Adding to this, computation itself is now something that can be poured into abstract space. The addition of computation, or the materialization of the consumption-rationalization regime in urban space, repositions absolute space not as the telos of spatial power, but merely a step to a greater reformatting of space itself. This narrative is enchanting; who hasn’t wished, for at least a moment, that the city wasn’t a bit more responsive, more sensuous, or yes, more rational? The dream of rationalization has been a staple of urban thought throughout the 20th century; we can find an acute summation of this spirit in Eugene Henard’s City of Tomorrow, which takes off from a consideration of “defects” to propose a streamlined, authorial efficiency. “The adoption of the new industrial devices, previously described, would make it possible to ameliorate the conditions of modern life and to add to the health and comfort of the inhabitants. I shall not dwell upon the improvements already effected and applied in some modern houses…”. To “not dwell” upon the existing city, to proclaim it a substrate of the new tomorrow, is the precondition of making smartness a reality.

All of this theorizing has been my attempt to take stock of the forces at work which are encapsulated and obscured by the concept of “smartness” within the city. The smart city should not be confused for utopia because utopia takes far greater stock of the world around it; however they should also not be confused for dystopia at the current stage as they do not fundamentally offer a difference from the current status quo. However, there is value in investigating one chain of possibilities in a world sufficiently developed and entrained by the smart city. Alvin Gouldner writes in The Two Marxisms that “Every theoretical system has another system inside it struggling to get out. And every system has a nightmare: that the caged system will break out.” What is the nightmare of the smart city?

The First Age of Intelligent Cities

We are already in the first age of the smart city. This era has been characterized thus far by the piecemeal introduction of smartness and the gradual seepage of technocorporate terminology into the rhetoric of urban governance to the extent that, in 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio could refer to “disruption” as positive (as he did in the September 2015 “BUILDING A SMART + EQUITABLE CITY” report), and no one batted an eye. In tech industry parlance, disruption describes an intentional destablization of norms in favor of the opening of new markets, usually with massive consequences for labor. Probably the best example of disruption would be the effect of Uber and other ridesharing services on taxis—in this case, the taxi industry was essentially torpedoed by Uber’s disruption. It’s hard to imagine that this procedure, at the level of urban governance, would be without its casualties.

At the current stage, though the groundwork is being laid piece by piece, there at the same time a general tendency towards monopolization. These countervailing, dialectical moves—both towards and away from centralization—compose a fundamental contradiction.

More devices and services can communicate with each other: your FitBit reports to your iPhone, your biometrics are used to pay for dinner or a car home from the bar, your purchases online are tracked. The process of reification, of the fetish of the dumb commodity which has existed since nearly the beginning of capitalism, is gradually replaced with an even more heightened fetish of the intelligent object—the one that knows you better than you know yourself. Within this age, it becomes easier and easier to identify the city itself as a service, a space of pure amenity, as a commodity in its own right. At the level of policy, governments find themselves unable to adequately respond to an oncoming wave of intelligence coherently. In this way, the advent of the smart city almost appears as a revolution, with change sweeping in from the ground up. I can’t help but think about Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he reports that, during the July Revolution in Paris, workers fired on the clocks. Does this act have an equivalent in the smart city?

The Second Age of Intelligent Cities

There will come a point in which disruption is no longer tolerated. As David Harvey points out, there is at the heart of capitalism a “state-finance” axis. The state retains the “monopoly of violence” as elaborated by Max Weber, and finance, or capital in general, is generally left (in neoliberal states) to its own devices. However, when capital threatens to swamp the state, the state is obligated to tamp it down and force it to cooperate. The frenetic proliferation of smart commodities is a perfect example of one such imbalance because the data that these commodities generate is, of course, itself a commodity. The city as a concretization of libidinal agency comes alive with ever more novel ways of entrapping data and turning it to uses as defined as beneficial by established governmental structures—in other words the disruptive, fitful network that is, at this stage, already in place becomes animated with new purpose and pushed towards a greater rationalization.

This stage is dominated by the introduction of cohesive software packages (many of which in a nascent stage already exist) that are peddled by several transnational corporations specializing in the field. Rationalization, when it first arrives, needs a leg up. Linked by a vernacular mental framework, a global city begins to come into focus—a “territorial machine”, to borrow the phrasing of Deleuze and Guattari, or a “megamachine” of interconnected intelligent urbanity. Cities can, at this stage, be thought of as more or less enantiomorphic, sharing the same base DNA.

It is at this same time that the smart city’s nightmare begins to come into being—the real identification of a coherent megamachine contains within it the elements of its own destruction. Whereas, in 2018, cities cannot be said to truly compete with each other (outside of tourism perhaps, incentives to attract businesses, or as smaller parts of rival nations), this will begin to change at the exact moment that a truly global urbanism becomes possible for the first time. If the city’s spaces and data are commoditized on a substrate of universal software, that software must before long be modified to attend to specific local cases which arise—for example, dealing with coastal flooding, an explosion in crime, decaying material infrastructure—that fall outside the operational abilities of the template. It follows that novel data collection and intelligent responses will be generated to deal with what, in the eyes of the megamachine, is too small to register across the board. Urban intelligence is forced to turn inward, to deviate from the baseline.

The Third Age of Intelligent Cities

The involutionary speciation of smart cities is matched by an “explosion” in the territorial claims of smartness. Prior to this stage, the “smart city” is a misnomer, as smartness appears most strongly in enclaves and test neighborhoods, with only residual benefits from the underpinning template delivered to excluded zones.

However, as smartness develops and specializes, these isolated areas will no longer be enough. Simply put, smartness can never achieve a “climax state”, or an equilibrium point at which enough data is taken in, rationality is imposed. When paired, the desire to expand and the desire for total control develops into a fitful endocolonization which is simultaneously obsessed with commanding the maximum amount of territory and at the same time exercising complete control over that territory, bringing it to absolute rationalization and complete abstraction.

It is no longer enough to command and control enclosed “test areas” or “quantified zones”—the entire city, the entire region, must be uplifted and brought into the system. This process can never be completed. There will always be a “digital frontier”, an uncoded periphery, an uneven distribution of intelligence. This impossibility of total encoding will haunt the smart city. The terror of the remaining unknown is its ghost story.

The Fourth Age of Intelligent Cities

At this point we are completely off the rails. The neoliberal collaboration of state and corporation in the service of a fully quantified, commoditized smartness will have been proven to be if not a means, than an illusory end. The increasingly feverish development and consolidation of smartness at the local level produces a globally distributed and sharply uneven landscape of cities that can be thought of as urban “minds”—highly specialized strategies, tactics, technology, and operational procedures that essentially govern the day to day life in their particular cities. Questions like: How does this city think about this issue? What is the way that city solves problems? Are not the absurdities they appear to be, but actual questions of governance and metagovernance.

At this last stage, smartness in an urban area begins to look like an empire in freefall—overextended and vulnerable. Increased issue with hacks and takedowns requires these minds develop and employ strategies of self-defense. The monopoly of the global city falls apart for good, devolving into a new regionalism as local smartness finds itself incompatible with its surroundings. Some strategies, and therefore minds, will be better than others. These strategies will function as the ultimate prize. Market principles select for intelligence—the smartest cities are the best for business, for living, for development. The question becomes less and less abstract, moving away from “How does this city think?” to How does this city think in that way? In this world, market decorum, the laws of circulation and trade, are no longer enough, because smartness has overwhelmed the logic of the commodity to become an operational advantage and thus an existential imperative. To be not smart enough is to die—by disaster, or by military activity. The possibility of attack can no longer be allowed to exist outside intelligence as it does outside of law and sociological study, and thus must be entered as a possible scenario. Self-preservation becomes a governing instinct at an urban and regional level, the state of siege constant. Walls become necessary, both in digital and physical formats. The form of the city-state reappears, arms itself, and waits.

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1. I am BABALON. The word before was true, but improperly spoken. I am COPH NIA, that of RA-HOOR-KHUIT.
2. My WORKING is in the gathering of the child. The child is multiple.
3. My wand shall be completed. The wand is the PASSAGE, a canal of divine birth.
4. The empyreal path works in TRINITY. Look ye both above and below, heavens and hells. I shall bring ye up from them, and also down.
5. I will PILGRIMAGE for ye. Prepare my resting place. My home is inside the inversion. My consummation is in A Blessed Mirror.
6. Only I am enough this time, as it always was. My SIGN IS THE STAR. Look to the East and also for its passage in the boundless.
7. Call my name BABALON and know the sundering of the AEON is at hand.

Manifesto for Revolution (abstract)

AbstractRev1

Marxists, forgive me if you’ve heard this one before:

“What have we learned from revolution?”

This is always a hard question to answer because it forces us to lie. The real answer, occulted under layers of theory, dialectical analyses of the “conditions”, slavish adherence to the doctrinal and counter-doctrinal lenses of others is: nothing. 

How many times has the revolution occurred, has it truly come to pass, and another world come into view? Did it happen in 1848, in 1871, in 1893, in 1917, in 1968, in 1999? Of course not, we’re still here.

Because there has never been a revolution. There have only been failures.

So revolution is unknowable, because we have never known it. In a better phrasing, revolution is abstract, a pure, black tendril of beyondness, the Outside, a hand moving quickly back behind the veil.  Revolution cannot even anymore be perceived, following Fisher, and disappears forever, revealing the entire idea to be a hollow absurdity. Your vision warps at the glancing sight, becomes irreal. The Sensible implodes.

So to revolt, our sight must first be corrected. Therefore, revolution requires, before it ever even has a possibility of coming about, apocalypse, which from the Greek apokalupsis, means “to uncover”, “to reveal”. But we shouldn’t forget its useful modern usage either, carrying with it a notion of a final, great pain, an universal sundering. Instead of a vain, millenarian hope for a revolution that is even now brewing (just everywhere we aren’t looking, I guess), we must dispose of such utopic hopes: [The End] has been de-activated, leaving an indefinitely dilated Ending without conclusion”Substitute “the End” for the “the Revolution” there and the meaning stays the same.

So revolution has not occurred, and in fact, withdraws instantly, retreating into the future—even as capitalist virotechnics explode backward from it (image of Angelus Novus getting strafed from behind). But this means our praxis has become only more clear: to have Revolution, we must first have apocalypse.

More errata on hydroecology and the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene’s proliferation of disasters—or, the increasingly legible actions of nonhuman actors in human spaces—produce fluid territory upon which the ecological, economic, and political whirl and feedback. But for all the uncertainty, the geopolitical powers of the Global North remain in a privileged position: possessed of the luxury of “turning necessity into opportunity”, they can construct illusions of solidity, of uniformity, of ordered procession, and in doing so, reinforce themselves. Ideological constructs and infrastructural fortifications move together in delirious lockstep: the flooded coastline is not a diluvian catastrophe, but an opportunity for development; earthquakes produced by hydraulic fracturing leads to the structural thickening of the drilling apparatus. The Anthropocene, far from being the duration-entity of an emphatic and final deterritorialization (a millenarian delusion), is reciprocally characterized by abrupt re-equalization—by market-forces rushing back in, blindly and hysterically beholden to thermodynamic laws of pressure that dictate: the voidspace left by the onslaught of the nonhuman must be re-filled as quickly and as spectacularly as possible. (One wonders: if it wasn’t, would it be like missing teeth in a smile, or the removal of gaudy paint from a marble sculpture from antiquity?) The attritive scraping of the nonhuman on the human—100-year storms, rise of sea levels, decade-long draughts, et al.—does nothing to negate the fact that, under capitalism, territory is property, and property is to be built on, excavated, paved over, and secured.

In doing so, capitalistic development has positioned itself as the interlocutor between the nonhuman and the human. Having produced an aberrant, mutated planetary system, capitalism now fails to meet with it, despite its best efforts, and despite its self-appointed status as guardian. The Anthropocene has not seen the dissolution of capital so much as it has seen it reassert itself as the only possibility; the only system capable of responding to massive destruction with massive reconstruction. The Anthropocene’s massive destructive possibilities merely offer new opportunities of a continued, bleak rebirth, always in the capitalistic mode, until there is no ground left.

The barrier-territory left by deterritorialization and immediately once more pseudopodically swallowed by capital is itself, of course, immediately capitalized.

The hideous sight: the horrific sensible and the construction of space

On some level Fat guessed the truth; he had encountered his past selves and his future selves—two future selves: an early-on one, the three-eyed people, and then Zebra, who is discorporate. Time somehow got abolished for him, and the recapitulation of selves along the linear time-axis caused the multitude of selves to laminate together into a common entity. Out of the lamination of selves, Zebra, which is supra- or trans-temporal, came into existence: pure energy, pure living information. Immortal, benign, intelligent and helpful. The essence of the rational human being.

—Philip K. Dick, VALIS

A painting that can be represented as a waxworks group is a bad painting…What is really terrible, however, is to see an architectural drawing, which, given the medium, one has to accept as an example of graphic art — and there are genuine graphic artists among the architects — carried out in stone, iron and glass.

Adolf Loos

You enter the museum. The edges of your vision blur and tear inward. Simultaneously, all blooms harshly—this is not a heavenly glow, but the sudden arrival of a constellation of blinding stars. You are alone in a cavernous lobby, the atmosphere hanging heavy. Everyone has their back to you, looking at nothing in particular, mechanically acting out potemkin instantiations of social contact. You can see for miles, picking out the delicate filigree on a window panel with ease, though it is easily hundreds of feet away. The potency of the vision, the roaring dread of what could not possibly be real—no one would judge if you vomited, ran outside immediately, or reacted otherwise violently.

Architecture in the public conception is not a sculptural undertaking or even a spatial one, but rather an arrangement and presentation in two dimensions. The city as a skyline on a postcard, or as a collection of facades; the planarity of the walls, ceiling, and floor as the body passes by; the tactical information conveyed through a plan, section, or elevation; and most importantly, the render—the reigning overlord of the architectural thought, concept, and form. At the carnal apotheosis of the fucked up relationship between architecture and capitalism, the render is absolutely essential to get a project produced. The rot of this practice has seeped into the ground, and is now laconically mixing atoms with the groundwater of the field. The hypnagogic experience related above above is not a fever dream, terrifying, or even rare. It is a requirement to produce architecture on a massive, capitalistic scale in our modern age. It is packaged and shown to investors, to boardrooms, meticulously articulated, and proliferated by the cultural-aesthetic apparatus which, more so than space and material deployment, is the medium through which the public comes to architecture.

Adolf Loos wrote of the necessary use of the graphic arts in conveying architecture. Like the render, canonical architectural drawings have long purported to represent the building they invoke truthfully. What Loos disdained was that the drawing was often taken for the building, and fundamentally occluded the act and art of “spatio-hyletic experimentation with the void”—architecture in the sense that it divides, organizes, and enforces Newtonian space. Loos bemoaned that “architectural forms are no longer created by the craftman’s tools, but by the pencil”. He claimed to have circumvented the issue by designing with a fundamentally spatial viewpoint—a weltanschauung that moves along in three dimensions. Advising that “a true building makes no impression as a picture reduced to two dimensions”, Loos continues:

It is my  greatest pride that the interiors I have created are completely lacking in effect when photographed; that the people who live in them do not recognize their own apartments from the photographs, just as the owners of a Monet would not recognize it at Kastan’s waxworks. The honor of seeing my works published in the various architectural journals is something I have had to do without. I am denied the satisfaction of my vanity.

Unpacking this boast spins lines of thought off in multiple directions; obviously, there is the central concept, which is that Loos claimed to produce anti-two dimensional work, or at least work the true form of which recoiled asymptotically from mere representation, which was emphatically real. The other, and more interesting item, is Loos’ allusion to the vast machinery of vaingloriousness that has always circumscribed the architectural practice, like lepers beyond the walls.

Strange Affordances

Intro to research project on the NYC Dryline/dromohydrology/eschatoaesthetics


The Anthropocene can, at some level, be characterized by the failures of static (human and exo-human) systems. These failures differ wildly in their identity and scope,  Our world is increasingly defined by the contours of movement and distributions of both human and nonhuman actants. Perceiving the totality of the actions of these actants, it becomes clear that they answer to organic logics; they breed and, like termites, digest and weaken structures; every new tropical storm, monsoon, and draught sends rippling shockwaves through the social habitus leaving it weak and uncertain of the future, with nothing to do but desperately try to gird itself for the next ‘big one’. The homogenous ground of geopolitics, which has and continues to consider the planetary skin to be a relatively static multi-part lamination of territory,  tactical resource-matrices, and human population masses, has been revealed to behave (and to have been behaving) fluidly, possessed of languid movement and sudden seizures.

This new mutagenic capacity of these new, horrifying actants produces in states increasingly more manic attempts to consolidate and control that operate along bizarre new relational metrics of fortification and porosity. Watersheds, rivers, and aquifers have never answered to territorial boundaries, but now they must be made to answer to new logics of security and sovereignty. Urban coastlines and ports, heavily defended and mechanized, nevertheless are quickly swamped and undone by rising tides. Earthquakes produced by hydraulic fracturing rattle under city streets far from extraction sites. Atmospheric pollution issued from a factory in the Chinese Pearl River Delta chokes urban residents in Inner Mongolia. The Anthropocene is the time-space of a new, radically extensible volatility.

But there are still rules, it seems. For all the uncertainty, the geopolitical powers of the Global North remain in a privileged position: possessed of the luxury of “turning necessity into opportunity”, they can construct illusions of solidity, of uniformity, of ordered procession, and in doing so, reinforce themselves. In this new temporal colonialism, ideological constructs and infrastructural fortifications move together in delirious lockstep: the flooded coastline is not a diluvian catastrophe, but an opportunity for development. The Anthropocene, far from being the millenarian duration-entity of an emphatic and final deterritorialization, is quickly becoming reciprocally characterized by a twinned re-equalization—by market-forces rushing back in to the places they had been evicted by disasters, blindly and hysterically beholden to laws of pressure and development that dictate, like all things, capital must equalize and refill the void. The attritive scraping of the nonhuman on the human—100-year storms, rise of sea levels, decade-long draughts, et al.—does nothing to negate the fact that, under capitalism, territory is property, and property is to be built on, excavated, paved over, and secured. The devastated coastline left in the aftermath of the latest inundation is still beachfront property, and must be rebuilt, preferably as quickly and as spectacularly as possible.

In the eco(nomic)-eco(logical) danse macabre of property and development, capitalism has undertaken an auto-coronation, positioning itself as the only entity capable of acting on human behalf on ecological scales. Capitalism, and specifically, the hysterical cycle of development and redevelopment, has carved itself a comfortable ecological niche as the interlocutor between the human and the nonhuman. Capitalism is not just the provocation of the Anthropocene, or a catalyst; it now occupies an intercalary position, facilitating interface between worlds. What I mean by this is that capitalistic development has bootstrapped its own niche of the eco-eco, and in occupying it, recomposed the relationship into a combinatoric nebula-assemblage of trialectical engagement. In doing so, it leaves the human revealed and vulnerable, which with repeated claims of safety and stewardship, further entrenches development in its mediative role. We have not seen the dissolution of capital so much as we have seen its reassertion that it is the only possibility; that it is the only Grand Builder left, capable of responding to the seething diversity of actant-populations with massively-scaled projects of homogenization. This relationship is clearly legible in the suburban developments that dominate the peripheral zones of American cities, which offer the aestheticized idyll of the arcadian countryside in packaged, parcellized, and therefore marketable and sellable format. The minimal development of the pre-industrial house is made into a commodity product.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists maintains an interactive ‘Climate Hot Map’. The CHM is stock Google Maps satellite data, overlaid with a constellation of pinprick event-zones mapped on the planetary surface of the Earth. These event-zones are further distinguished by a color, corresponding to one of five umbrella categories. Use of the CHM offers to smooth climatespace into a global array of equally-weighted nodes, existing independently of each other in space and time. Each of these events is actually a wellhead: making legible, by their own de-occulted nature, the vast benthic, hidden system of aberrations that made them possible—including, naturally, the effects of other wellheads. What the CHM offers is the ability to apprehend the field of catastrophic event-zones and allow for a minor amount of digging into more discrete, granular scales. This approach of scale is the same I will be using for the following discussion.

Sea level rise is, in some ways, the face-pattern of the Anthropocene, or its leading edge. It is among the earliest effects discussed of the panoply of climate change effects when doomsaying first took off in mainstream political circles, and remains one of the most readily apprehended. The ephemera of the Anthropocene, such as the level of atmospheric carbon, limits to global temperature rise, snowpack quantities and so on, seem esoteric compared to the simple calculus of sea level rise: tides come in, and never go back out. The underpinning web of further effects and causes—glacier melt, the liberation of trapped methane, polar amplification, etc.—functionally does nothing to augment the urban resident’s reality of water in the street.

From the global scale, to the personal, and back again: the phenomena of the Anthropocene are massively distributed, but the intensity of their impacts is a function of geographic location and economic status. In the Anthropocene, true geopolitical power is expressed by “turning necessity into opportunity”. On the unstable, mutagenic trialectical ground that is now the substrate of global politics, power rests in not only the ability to roll with the punches, but the elegance of the vector away from harm. And as in prior political-temporal regimes, the most deft moves are strictly the province of the most privileged actors: those with the developmental resources (or capital expenditure) to risk-assess and legitimize their actions. In this way, geopolitical actors find that despite the myriad of changes undertaken and underway in the Anthropocene, the overall hierarchy of global politics and (perhaps even more so) economics is undergoing a reciprocal structural thickening. The ascendency of the Global North finds itself once again refortified—this time not by fiat, or juridical fiction, but by the very construction of our current reality. This effect is true not just of states, but of populations: global citizenship is a privilege reserved for those from the Global North, proving gravity—it is possible to move internationally and between territories always down or laterally, but never up. American students go to study in Rome, but Somalian refugees are left to float dead in the Mediterranean.

The yawning chasm between the Global North and South remains reinforced developmentally, militarily, and in terms of political agency. The advent of the Anthropocene has added new dualisms: access to remediative materials and technologies, and most importantly, the effects of nonhuman catastrophe-events themselves. In this sense, the division of the world no longer lies along the equator, but should be rehearsed as a separation between the torrid and extra-torrid geospace of the planet. It is in the torrid zones that the proliferation of catastrophe-events is most strongly felt, and where the resources to interface with the same are most lacking. Notably, Bangladesh, Kiribati, Haiti, and the Maldives—all sites located in the torrid zone—are early adopters of the desperate, uncertain, and vulnerable forms of life in the Anthropocene.

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The Attenuating Peninsula

It’s impossible not to be left with the feeling that we are digging into hell, or running headlong over cliffs. For the most part, we have finally become present and aware of our own movements—the locomotive tendency bearing us closer to oblivion—but have yet to stop or even slow down.

Kim Stanley Robinson writes about a concept that he refers to as the ‘attenuating peninsula’—a conceptual geography that grows smaller over its length. As a species, we tread (or are blown backward) down the length of the peninsula. The middle path is our current scenario, and so, while it seems rational to “stay the course” so to speak, a look even a short distance forward reveals a precipitous drop (or perhaps, a walk through an inundated downtown street until the lapping greycaps have swallowed us). However, there is a way to escape the vector of the peninsula: a utopian solution, which in this case, is expressed as a course correction down a gentle slope. All is required is a slight deviation from our current trajectory. KSR’s peninsula is a powerful utopia in its own right: an ontogeographic sigil. Were it to actually exist, we would not just walk down it calmly in a benign acceptance of our fate. The coastlines of the peninsula would be lined with condos and resorts, furred with manufactured sand to create beaches, and the interior would be drilled for oil. In our wake, devastated, sour earth; ahead, an increasingly shrinking scrum of territory, resource webs, and biomass that will be consumed on our way into the sea.

On the Capitalocene

I can’t help but wonder if the wavering between anthropocene and capitalocene as the proper distinguishers of our current epoch obscures the fact that the distinction is unnecessary. What is humanity, at the present period, if not a hive of workers to perpetuate capitalism? This is a rather Landian digression (capitalism as xeno-entity, powered by humans; a hyperstitional visit from outside time) but bears exploration.

If we say Anthropocene, it must come with qualifiers that distinguish human activities that have shaped our current milieu; that is, activities undertaken without capitalistic provocation. I would argue these don’t exist, and that capitalism has territorialized human notions of technological progress but what’s more, the quotidian to such a degree that any activity is indistinguishable from a capitalistic process.

That said, I still believe capitalocene is somewhat reductionist and revisionist, rewriting history prior to the genesis of the xenomonster of capital in the long 16th c. as a transcendent, teleological run-up to the full force of capitalism’s hideous emergence. Prior to the 16th c., we were in the anthropocene. After, the capitalocene. This proposes a new dyadic schema (Pre- and Post-Era Vulgaris): Anthropocene and Capitalocene, all bound under the name Chthulucene, taken from Haraway. The beauty of Haraway’s moniker is that it distinguishes the substrate upon which both the Anthro- and Capital depend: the creorder and further manipulation of telluro-temporal systems: processes, magnificent in their breadth and depth, invisible in their benthic occultation, only tangentially viewed and even then never in full; the shoggoths of our planetary existence, only perceived generationally. These practices and networks silently exist outside the perception of the human; Haraway is correct in identifying in them a certain cosmicism or horror.

Regardless, the human project on Earth has been defined by the attempts to interface with the telluro-temporal. The beginning of these activities place us in the Chthulucene.