At the end of last year Belfast City Council launched its Smart Belfast Framework. Information from the event describes a ‘Smart Belfast’ as, “a city that exploits the transformative power of data and technology to empower residents, businesses and city agencies to create a liveable, workable and sustainable future for us all.” One speaker at the event asked the following question: “Digital disruption, IoT and artificial intelligence will forever change our lives, but could it also make Belfast more human?”Read More
Rigged with a perpetual built in obsolescence theology must eat itself. Theology always eats itself. The abstract — impossible to prove, easier to disprove — always preceding the concrete and the concrete, always, on bended knees, hands clasped, desperate wrinkled frown, beads of sweat and blood, seeking permission ‘to be’ from abstract ideas. Repeat to fade.Read More
A version of this piece was published by Inside Housing magazine
Across Belfast, red brick chimneys stand to attention, in memoriam to a Victorian past, when smoke from dock workers wives cooking soda bread on the embers of the day filled the city skyline. Typical of an industrial city, long rows of ‘workers’ terraces line Belfast’s streets. Built for the dockers and millworkers, these compact houses — front doors off pavements, small yards to the rear — provided affordable housing, in a community setting. Over the past 30 years many have been demolished, replaced by less efficient, suburban style, semi-detached houses and dead-end cul-de-sacs. But, 26% of Northern Ireland's housing stock is still the two-up two-down, five by eight metre, terrace house. Making efficient use of inner city space, they are, perhaps, the 19th century equivalent of what we now call micro-housing.Read More
First published at The Guardian.
Never far beneath the surface of day to day life, the undercurrent of Northern Ireland’s troubled past remains strong and has, once again, manifested itself in the issue of housing allocation.
Catholic families living in a shared neighbourhood in Belfast, designed to create mixed communities, have recently been told that due to threats of violence, they are no longer welcome and must leave the area. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has confirmed that four families have already moved.Read More
The story of four families, intimidated from their homes, in an East Belfast shared neighbourhood, by Loyalist paramilitaries, has unfortunately taken its place in the continuing narrative of our troubled past. The part that housing has played in that past is worth remembering.Read More
Surprises are fun. They are even more fun when there is a sense of anticipation.
"I've got a surprise for you!"
"Oh what is it?"
"You'll have to wait and see."
"Wait until when?'
"About 54 days or so."
And over the next 54 days the sense of anticipation lingers: What is it? How much did it cost? I wonder if it is x y or z.
This kind of surprise presupposes something — a knowledge of the person to whom you are giving the surprise; so that you might give them something they really want, but hadn't asked for. Or, knowing that there was something that they really wanted.
To surprise someone you don't know is much more difficult.
What a strange thing that in 54 days, 11 hours, 10 minutes and at the time of writing 29 seconds, Belfast is getting a surprise.
You can read about the back story here in this great post by Alan Meban.
Stickers and posters plastered all around Belfast's Cathedral Quarter — elusive and enigmatic, and a little outdated; the type of thing I would see a lot of in London in the early 2000's.
Vandalism? Well, yes, I guess so. But eventually the stickers will fall off and go (if they are not picked off first). Damaging property? Well, possibly, temporarily, yes. But no long term damage really.
What, I think, has really got people taking about this (and not in the way that the marketeers would have wanted), is that this marketing campaign, by a London based firm, presupposes something (that's how surprises like this work right?).
It presupposes that they and their client have a knowledge about the place that they are surprising. Or, they think they know that there is, unbeknown to us, something that we really want.
This is what perturbs me most.
A marketing campaign like this is presumptuous — don't surprise us with something that we never wanted anyway. Why not just ask us what it is we want.
This is how late capitalism works. It creates desires that you never knew you had, probably because you didn't, and then sells them back to you at a premium, with built in obsolescence.
We will wait and see ...
First published at View Digital
In North Belfast, Catholics “continue to face inadequate access to affordable housing.” These are words not of politicians, activists, lobbyists or residents, but from a 2013 United Nations Report, echoing a previous report from 2009 which called for action to be taken on the issue of housing inequality. In her preliminary report, UN Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik writes, that she remains “concerned that full equality has not been achieved yet.”
Conservative Housing Minister at the time, Kris Hopkins dismissed the report as "a misleading Marxist diatribe.” However, figures obtained from the Housing Executive, by Participation and the Practice of Rights, under the Freedom of Information Act, show that in North Belfast there is a ‘residual need’ of 938 additional units of social housing required to meet the current need in Catholic areas, while in Protestant areas there is a need for 38 additional homes — a significantly less but nonetheless equally concerning figure.
In the Markets area of the city a similar story is told, with 106 applicants for housing and 86 households in housing stress; the area is designated as having a critical housing need.
Belfast City Councils decision to grant planning permission for an office development on the adjacent Gasworks Northern Fringe site, designated entirely for social housing, has understandably angered local residents.
The issue of housing need transcends religious or political divisions — homelessness cares not of what or who you call your God. All of Belfast’s inner city neighbourhoods, in varying degrees are categorised as areas of multiple deprivation and have significant housing needs — as a city this should concern us greatly. Yet, the issue of housing provision, as it was back in 1968, continues, in some areas, to be defined by religious division.
After that fateful Saturday in October 68 — arguably the beginning of the troubles — The Times, reporting on the inequality of housing provision in Northern Ireland, saying — quite controversially for a British newspaper at the time — that Catholics were being treated as “second class citizens”. That was 1968. In 2017 the provision of housing must be protected as a fundamental human right that transcends religion or tribe. Ignoring the echoes of the past, leaves us in danger of repeating its errors.
Shame is the inability to live up to the narrative that you think society requires of you in order to be able to fit in. Shame perpetuates individualism and individualism perpetuates consumerism. Shame: If only you knew, you wouldn't like me — thus individualism. Consumerism: what do I need in order to be able to fit in. The emotional undercurrent that carries these three along on its tide is fear.
This leads me on to thinking about the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. In it, Belfast, out of 64 cities across the UK was ranked the least entrepreneurial — number 64. According to the report (based on number of business startups), 4.8% of people in Northern Ireland engage in enterprise activity compared to 10% in the South of Ireland, with the 18 - 24 age group ranked as having the lowest entrepreneurial activity.
Now, it probably isn't surprising that the 18 - 24 age group ranked where it did. If you are lucky enough, and can afford it, you are in further education. If not, then you are either working or unemployed — all of which mean you are channeling any entrepreneurial spirit elsewhere or nowhere.
What is interesting is that 43.5% of people surveyed in NI said that “fear of failure” would prevent them from starting a business — the highest percentage across the whole of the UK. According to a report in the Telegraph, this fear may be unjustified, because despite these statistics; more young businesses reach £1m in sales in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK.
That being said, there appears to be a culture of fear in Belfast. Which, given what I proposed in my opening paragraph should not surprise us. Religious systems of belief are predicated on perpetuating an unhealthy level of shame (they don't tell you this but they are). It works like this: here’s the rules. Fear the rules. Do not break the rules. Break the rules feel shame. Believe in x, y or z and be ‘free’ from your shame — repeat to fade.
Given Belfast’s deeply, conservative, fundamentalist, religious past; its rigid familial structures; highly academic education system; and calvinistic, protestant working class ethic (all rooted in religion) it should not surprise us that we are haunted by fear of failure; the prying eyes; pointing fingers; hushed tones; shame-tweets …..
In her essay, Nomadic European Citizenship, Rosi Bradotti seeks to redefine the terms around which the discourse of citizenship orbit. She writes,
First published at the Belfast Telegraph
Northern Irelands biggest infrastructure project, the York Street Interchange, asks serious questions of First Minister, Arlene Foster’s DUP pledge to build “prosperity for all” and invest in “deprived communities.” Architect and campaigner, Mark Hackett, tells me that the complex network of flyovers, junctions and underpasses will punch its way through an already blighted area of Belfast, leaving some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city even more disconnected than they already are.
The scheme attempts to address the congestion problems and peak time delays for traffic travelling between the Westlink and the M2 / M3 motorways. It is on this controversial project that around £150m of the £400m infrastructure budget agreed in the £1.5bn Tory-DUP agreement, will be spent. To put that figure in perspective, that’s 10% of the entire £1.5bn budget. Significantly more than the £50m allocated to much needed mental health services.
“Residents affected by the new wider road crashing through their neighbourhood and back gardens have fought hard to have their concerns listened to” says architect Mark Hackett, who has been working with local residents to help them understand what the often “complex and unintelligible” plans produced by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) actually mean for their communities. Around 300 houses in the New Lodge and Lower York Street area will be affected.
“There is currently no funding in place to repair the damage to the local community that this scheme will create.” In an area with no green parks or spaces, Mark tells me that the DfI initially promised resources to help the local community, but none has been made available. “There are not even plans for a health survey to monitor dust levels during the construction work.” A significant concern for local residents.
Residents feel disempowered by the lack of willingness displayed by the Department for Infrastructure to engage with them on the impact that the scheme will have for the local community. In 2015 a public inquiry was held, but residents found it difficult to engage with what was a highly technical and legal process. “No thought seems to have been given to deal with the social upheaval during this period. Many old people will be trapped in their houses and there are no green parks anywhere in this area, parents and young kids have few green spaces to go to.” Walking around the area I am immediately struck by how fragmented it is with barriers and fractured spaces in all directions.
Frustrated with the workshops the residents feel disenfranchised from the process. One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told me; “I feel we are entirely forgotten, and we are only a short distance from the city centre. It is like we will be walled in on three sides below this road. It would not happen in [affluent] South Belfast.”
“Single function planning such as roads development” like YSI “has largely ignored the broader spatial needs of the city.” Dr Ken Sterrett, former Senior Planning Lecturer from Queens University tells me. The focus on individual schemes “celebrating the value of individual projects sidesteps the civic and collective needs of the city. Such needs are so important in the Belfast context where exclusive ethnic and social spaces more often than not triumph over the civic.”
Mark has been helping local residents find innovative solutions to some of the problems that the scheme will create. The proposed York Street bridge “can easily be improved to make the street better and more safe for walkers and cyclists.” Given that connectivity and access to the city are central to the proposals laid out in Belfast City Council’s 2015 Regeneration and Investment Strategy, it is hard to see how disconnecting lower York Street from a newly regenerated end of the city can be justified.
Mark has also been identifying potential development sites that the scheme creates. “Better design in this area will actually save money” he says; “because the surplus public sites created by the scheme will have a greater development value.” Not only does he believe that his proposals will create better conditions for the local residents, but they will also generate income which in turn could be used to fund the scheme and release money to be used elsewhere.
In Mark’s view, through a “poverty of city vision and planning,” the YSI is an infrastructure solution to a problem created by past inadequate traffic planning that will only serve to create significant future problems for inner North Belfast. For Mark, and many of the residents he works alongside, “it is time that advocates of a better city speak up and support the process of getting a better resolution. Now that funding is readily available, it is incumbent on the promoters of the interchange to do the best by the city and by the residents who will have to live beside this road and endure three years of disruption as the scheme is built.”
In spite of their party pledge to tackle “poverty and social exclusion, protecting families and the most vulnerable within our society,” Alliance party infrastructure spokesperson Kellie Armstrong MLA, believes that the scheme must be a priority for Belfast. A spokesperson for the party told me that they are “in support of the infrastructure project.”
Chair of the Infrastructure Committee, and DUP MLA for North Belfast, William Humphrey, told me that "the securing of funding for the York Street Interchange by the DUP, as part of the “Confidence and Supply” arrangement with the Conservatives, is great news for Northern Ireland in general and Belfast in particular. The Westlink, M2 and M3 are the busiest roads in Northern Ireland and they are vital to our economic life, linking Belfast with the airport and to the West.”
Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, Carál Ní Chuilín said: "Sinn Féin supports the construction of the York Street Interchange as a crucial improvement in the infrastructure connection the M1, M2 and M3 following consultation and in partnership with residents affected to ensure the development design incorporates their concerns."
How all three parties reconcile their support for the scheme with their party policies and negative affect on the surrounding area remains to be seen.
It is clear that a traffic solution for Belfast is much needed, but local designer and urbanist Fearghal Murray asks; “when so many cities across Europe are being designed for pedestrians and cyclists why are we, in Belfast, continuing to preference cars?” MMAS, based on the Falls Road are a young architecture practice passionate about a community focused architecture.
Talking to Fearghal and his business partner Gareth, I am reminded that the future success of Belfast depends on how successfully we navigate the next few years. The York Street Interchange is not the only significant project happening in the city. In the next few years Europe's biggest regeneration project at the Sirocco Quays will begin and planning permission for the controversial Cathedral Quarter regeneration is imminent. While permission was recently granted for an office development at the Gasworks site previously designated social housing — much needed by the adjacent Markets community. Fearghal tells me that “the future of our cities depends on how we deal with projects like these.”
Here's a review I wrote of the book How Societies Remember by Paul Connerton. I am reminded of how important this book is for the times we are living in.
In How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton seeks to answer the question: “how is the memory of groups conveyed and sustained?” (1). Breaking with the idea that memory is solely an individual faculty he, along with Maurice Halbwachs, Zygmunt Bauman, Eric Hobsbawm and others believes in what he calls “a collective or social memory” (1). Connerton however differs from these thinkers “as to where this phenomenon, social memory, can be found to be most crucially operative” (1). Throughout the rest of the book he systematically explores this idea by embarking on an “analytic quest” (4) which forms the three sections of the book: social memory, commemorative practices and bodily practices. The structure of the book is laid out in short sections which are easy to follow, carefully constructed, and present his arguments in a clear and systematic way. However, as I will outline below, an area that in my opinion forms a central part of Connerton’s thesis, namely the intersection of myth and ritual, suffers as a result of the books brevity in its lack of engagement with the potential power of myth in the ritual performance of commemorative ceremonies.
Social memory is the idea that we do not just constitute ourselves in the present by simply cognitively recalling the past as an ordered set of mental images. Rather we recall knowledge of the past, and perform knowledge of the past by sustaining what he calls “(more or less ritual) performances” (4). It is the performative nature of “commemorative ceremonies” enacting “social memory” through habitual practices of “bodily automatisms” that offers, what at the time of publishing in 1989, was a new an radical way of accounting for social structure. This more holistic approach, rejecting the reductionistic tendencies of Descartes, Wittgenstein and post-structuralist semioticians who turn the body into an “etherealised form”, with a tendency for “a markedly cognitive tilt” (104), brings the “human body as an object domain” (104) back into social theory. Working within the boundaries of hermeneutic theory from Schleiermacher to Gadamer via Heidegger, we are reminded that we are always someone, somewhere, saying something to someone. That we are new historical beginnings that are “absolutely new [and] inconceivable” 6). That in “all modes of experience we always base our particular experiences on a prior context”.
And, that we are always already basing our “particular experiences on a prior context” (6), and to do otherwise would render them unintelligible. Yet, there are moments when the historical rupture of significant magnitude breaks into the existing context and quickly become part of the social consciousness through performed, habitual, commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices, assuming “the status of a modern myth” (6). For Connerton there is no better example than the French Revolution where, very quickly after the historical event, bodily practices in the form of dress codes, certain ways of wearing clothes and even ways of walking became powerful political, social and ideological performances enacting a remembrance — along with formal state ceremonies — of the event of the revolution. This learned “concrete, coherent manner of living” (11) as an act of social memory served to establish a new historical beginning. Unlike “personal memory claims” which serve to bring to remembrance acts which take place in ones own personal life, or “cognitive memory claims” which “covers uses of ‘remember’ where we may be said to remember the meaning of words, or lines or verses, or jokes, or stories” (22), it is “habit memory” (25) or “social habit-memory” (36) that is the “essential ingredient in the successful and convincing performance of [the] codes and rules” (36) of personal and cognitive memory. Breaking with the idea of a cogito-centric Cartesian anthropology, Connerton proposes that “our memories are located within the mental and material spaces of the group” (37). It is here, through many differing expressions, that social memory is formed. But it is through commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices that the ritual element of societal remembering is, for Connerton, best displayed.
Through the reenactment of commemorative ceremonies an act of remembering takes place. A past event incarnates though performative ritual action, but this is more than just ritual. Commemorative ceremonies of this kind, be they state, religious or personal, while involving the ritual use of symbols — flags, music, uniforms etc, — are not simply the continual re-appropriation of certain symbols, they are “felt” (44). They are “felt by those who observe them to be obligatory” (44), and therefore to stop someone form enacting a certain commemorative ceremony, or force them to “pay lip-service to an alien set of rites, incompatible with their own vision of the ‘truth’”(44), is to devalue them. For, “rites have the capacity to give value and meaning to the life of those who perform them” (45). Connerton proposes that this value and meaning comes not by simply forging a connection with the past through their repetition, but by positioning the participants in continuity with the event being commemorated, thus playing a “significant role in the shaping of communal memory” (48). For Connerton, central to understanding commemorative ceremonies as an act of remembering is to make a move away from the psychoanalytic, sociological and historical ways of understanding ritual. He sees these as putting too much emphasis on the symbolic nature of ritual. That which seeks to try and “understand the hidden ‘point’ that lies ‘behind’” (53) the ritual act. To go behind ritual is to understand the form of ritual as a performative act, constituting the community and bringing to memory the “fact of its constitution”. There are echoes here of Foucault and the disciplining of the body through certain gestures and acts. Here memory is not simply a hidden neurological chemical flow, but is an incarnated act present in the “substance of one’s body” (59).
Key to understanding Connerton’s idea of ritual is how he is careful to distinguish between the structural difference of ritual and myth. It is the excess of meaning, the “reservoir of meanings” (56) inherent in myth that Connerton appears to see as having a fluidity that ritual does not. Thus, over time, myths may develop and change, but ritual practices centred around performative utterances, like the Catholic Mass change very little. As in the historical view of ritual, it is obvious that rituals are “invented at some point” (57) — although this for Connerton is not how we get behind them to their hidden meaning — but they change “only very slowly” (57). This is where ritual gains its power. If one reads myth as plastic, containing a surplus of meanings, that over time, through narrative re-telling may change then it is easy to see why a structural separation between myth and ritual is necessary. If though we understand certain myths as being more sedimentary, changing less, or as having settled after a period of time, as Connerton himself admits is possible, then it would have been helpful to see a more in-depth analysis of the relationship between the two. Although he doesn't explicitly define what he means by myth, given the examples that are given, we can assume that myth, as meant by Connerton, is a kind of narrative that remains part of the consciousness of a person or community over a sustained period of time, shaping and forming that community.
Alternatively with Roland Barthes, we could say that myth is a kind of speech (Barthes, 2009: 109), a ‘something’ going on behind the narrative, furnishing our daily lives with additional layers of meaning. Barthes’ most famous example of this, is the magazine image of the black solider, looking patriotically towards the french flag (Bathes, 1792: 125). On the surface we can see how the meaning of this image can be easily decoded. “On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on the fold of the tricolour” (1972: 125). But there is something going on behind the image, a deeper level of meaning. All France’s sons, “without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag … there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors “(1972: 125). It is this subterranean level of ideological meaning that Connerton doesn't account for, which should form an important part of his argument. For the props that he talks about as playing an important role in performative, ceremonial, ritual acts of commemoration, are potentially powerful symbols that mediate myth into the very fabric of the ritual act of commemoration. The importance that flags, colours and images have played and continue to play in, for example, Northern Ireland are an example of the symbolic mediation of myth in the form of ritual performance. The Union Jack or the Irish Tricolour, when used as part of ritual commemoration, represent certain sedimentary myths, that are deeply imbedded in the structure of the ritual and are not separate from it. It would be unthinkable for certain commemorative ceremonies to take place without these symbols as the myths that they tarry are deeply integral to the ritual acts of remembering.
In the final chapter of How Societies Remember, Connection using the ideas of Michel Foucault introduces maybe the most interesting idea in the book; that “the past, as it were, [is] sedimented in the body” (72). When reviewing a book, first published over fifteen years ago, we of course have the benefit of hindsight. It is certainly interesting to see how the idea of embodied memory, central to the work of thinkers like Lacan, Foucault, Freud and then Connerton, has begun to find its way into therapeutic practices such as counselling through the work of Dr Daniel Siegel and others.1 The question for Connerton though is one of social practice: what are the practices that we perform as acts of ritual remembering. Connerton distinguishes between two different types of practices: “incorporating practice” (72) and “inscribing practice” (73). Incorporating practice being “a smile or a handshake or words spoken in the presence of someone we address” (72). These are ways of communicating; messages, “occurring only during the time that” the bodies of the one acting are present (72).
Secondly, inscribing practice is the use of certain devices for recording or transcribing information that is not necessarily dependent on a person being present to transmit that information. Connerton gives a detailed analysis as to how these two types of practices are different but also how they intersect. The kind of analysis that would have been helpful with his distinction between myth and ritual. There are two important points to mention here. Firstly, how a culture transmits its memories is of great importance. “When the memories of a culture begin to be transmitted mainly by the reproduction of their inscriptions rather than by ‘live’ tellings, improvisation becomes increasingly difficult and innovation is institutionalised” (75). And secondly, what is being learnt in an inscribing practice, such as writing, is itself a practice of incorporation as the one being taught to write is having their body positioned; muscles strengthened; movements coordinated; in such a way that the practice of inscription is inseparable from the practice of incorporation.
In a logocentric culture Connerton reminds us that we are ‘here’, we are present, and are present not just as Platonic Cartesian flesh negating mind-sponges. We “must not lose sight of the human bodies as an object domain” (104), not just an object domain upon which social forces are at work in a Foucauldian sense but that our “bodies are culturally shaped” in their “actual practices and behaviour”(104). How Societies Remember provides a clearly written, systematic, analytic provocation: not to forget; to remember; we are creatures who remember with more than our brains.
Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print. Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Mindful Therapist. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. Print.
Sometimes I forget I started writing something and then find it hidden among hundreds of other files on my desktop. Here's something, not finished, that I started about my experiences of being unemployed...
In those days, when I became numbers, the paint peeling off the wall at the back of the kitchen became a metaphor for the pain of sitting in coffee shops and listening to the sound of other people laughing — Presbyterian smiles sipping their skinny latte’s. The pain of watching the vibrating, deep cut jowls of pasty faced Ulster men talking loud; mouths full of bacon and sausage —important matters of business. I decide to stay at home instead, searching the internet for jobs. When I had a job I had a fantasy of not having a job and having time to do other things. Now I don't have a job and have fantasies of having a job and stand in the kitchen resting my forehead on the glass of the patio door watching pigeons. A small elliptical sweat stain marks the spot — and the paint peeling off the wall.
We tried to fix the wall, but the wall persisted, and so giving up left it to give up its paint, and every morning — in what I imagined was a kind of cruel penance for my circumstances — in pyjamas and slippers, swept up the small flakes of ‘Skimming Stone White’ into a pile and put them in a jar on the window cill to be looked at, and thought to myself about, every time an email arrived containing the words ‘unfortunately’; ‘unsuccessful’; ‘unable’; ’unqualified’, and on signing day being number ‘620.
With my head resting on the glass I consider the subtle nuances in the differences between the possible answers for the online, multiple choice, screening process for the night shift job at the local supermarket. I fail to achieve the correct score. A computer algorithm deems me unsuccessfulfor interview and, while sweeping up flakes of paint, I experience the paradox of simultaneously being able both to laugh and cry at the same time.
I change out of my yellow, box fresh, Nike air trainers into my old and well worn gardening shoes. I am embarrassed; because at half past one, I will become, for as-long-as-it-takes to say “yes I have been following my three steps” and sign the A5 sized card, a number among numbers; waiting for the automated voice to summons me to my selected booth. I am a number. I am a number among numbers I feel the need to clarify that they were — and let me be very clear — a ‘birthday present’.
I sit, and wait, and imagine my future as the man who sits in the park at the back of my house, shouting anticapitalist conspiracy theories at the pigeons; watching as through revolving doors and clouds of vape others appear. Like a dystopian remake of Stars in Your Eyes; “tonight Mathew I’m going to be a number on a ticket.” I’m going to be pigeon man. I’m going to be resting my head on the patio door. I’m going to be the paint flake sweeper.
First published at Slugger O'Toole
All history is biography. It is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of the world; our place in it, and, those we share it with. Stories shape our world and the storyteller shapes the story. One of the ways our stories find expression is through the manifestation of symbols — flags, images, colours, statues. By pledging allegiance to a certain flag, adopting a particular colour or memorialising a hero in the form of a statue we embed ourselves in a story.
We only truly understand the power of the stories we live in when they collide with other stories; sparks fly, and the world that gave us sense and meaning is challenged. From minor disagreements with friends in a pub, to a senseless act of violence perpetrated by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, driving his car at speed into a crowd of peaceful protesters; the power of stories runs deep — we are narrative creatures.
By now we are familiar with the story —the removal of a potent symbol; a confederate statue in Charlottesville. A lone confederate statue in a town square is an edited version of history. Those who edit history do so to create a narrative which works in their favour. Removing this statue from the town square is no less an act of editing history than those who put it there in the first place. The statue told a lopsided version of the past — the defeated so-called ‘hero’ fighting for the continuation of slavery in the southern states. Perhaps a better solution would have been to tell the whole story. Imagine the symbolic power of a confederate statue, a black slave and a Union solider.
To forgive is not to forget but to remember. To remember is an act of imagination; to imagine a future world that learns form its past mistakes and builds on its success. To remember is to be part way along the journey to understanding the stories of those we might oppose — even though, like the neo-Nazi sympathisers in Charlottesville, we might find those stories deeply abhorrent.
As I walk with my children through the grounds of Belfast City hall, we look at the statues —I tell them a story. My storytelling requires that I provide information about the story of our nation that is not immediately apparent. Queen Victoria, opposer of the slave trade, but ignorer of the scores who died during the Irish famine. The ‘famine Queen’ takes her place in a redacted storyline. Eliza Ward, murdered saving the life of her boss in the city hall cafe, rightly has a plaque, and the Titanic memorial statue sculpted as the female personification as death, but Queen Victoria remains the only woman among men; all white; predominantly Unionist, or from a Protestant background.
According to Belfast City Council’s website the grounds around the City hall “contain a wealth of memorials to the history, people and events associated with the City.” This is true, but only in part. The city has never been predominantly male, Protestant or Unionist and between the famine years of 1845-51 the population of Ulster fell by 340,000, with harrowing accounts of emaciated families queuing at soup kitchens — the governments inadequate response to the crisis.
An Irish famine memorial alongside the statue of Queen Victoria would presumably be telling a better, more accurate version of the story of our City. Why not add a statue of one of the first women elected to the Northern Irish parliament, Julia McMordie, next to the statue of her husband MP RJ McMordie? What about non Unionists? Nationalists? Activists? Peacemakers? Or, perhaps an empty plinth like the one in Trafalgar Square which can host different statues reflecting the diversity, not just of our past, but of our present.
We edit the past to the detriment of the generations who will follow us. The ability to tell the stories of our pasts (intentionally plural), however difficult, can help us navigate the complexities of the present. This is not an easy path to navigate, but a path that gives us no choice except to journey along it. How we decide to make that journey matters.
If each of us can accept that we are the strangers, then there are no
strangers — only others like ourselves. — Richard Kearney
An invisible border is a visible ruse, cloaked in idealistic and wishful thinking that the future will be nothing less than a seamless continuation of the present order of things. Put differently; as Fintan O’Toole wrote in a recent Guardian piece, the governments plans for a seamless, invisible border are little more than a “hymn to the way things are now. We don't have a hard border, and we wont after Brexit…the position paper takes existing realities and repositions them as a distant mirage, a fantastical possibility: less emerald isle, more Emerald City.” There will be no invisible border.
The idea of an invisible border is just that: an Idea. The Idea of an invisible border is symbolic; a representation of an idea that things are ‘quite fine as they are thank you very much, and we’d rather not talk at all about the real underlying issues that the border itself presents.’ The meanings of the border are many, and beneath the Idea of an invisible border, there is, what Roland Barthes called, a “second-order semiological system”.
Perhaps Barthes’ most famous example of this, in his book Mythologies, is that of a young black solider pictured on the cover of a magazine looking proudly towards the french flag (125). He suggests that at a surface level the meaning of this image can be easily decoded. “On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on the fold of the tricolour” (125). But beyond this denotive level of meaning a mythological meaning emerges. Barthes suggests that something else is signified and that something is the empire of France,
that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve
under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of
an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving
his so-called oppressors (125).
Barthes analysis breaks meaning out of the image and its referent systems and connects it with the political, historical and ideological modes of meaning operative in society. In short; Barthes analysis offers up the potential of a reading of images which tap into the ideological systems which they may be supporting — the message that France is a racially inclusive empire, to the point that a young black man is prepared to fight for his country.
The question is: what ideological systems of thought are expressed in the idea of an invisible border, and who do they serve?
There may be, we hope, a border without physical expressions — other than the existing road markings and miles changing into kilometres — but this absence will itself denote a presence; the presence of the ‘other’. There may be, we hope not, physical manifestations — checkpoints, barriers, searches and such like; but this presence will be a signifier of deeper, longstanding ideological undercurrents. Invisible, visible, electronic, physical, whatever kind of border we end up with there will continue to be a ‘them’; the ‘others’; monsters scapegoated on the altars of our deepest fears.
Either way; there will be no invisible border; there will simply be a border. And this border, for many, is a comforting thing indeed. It marks out their world, gives them their territory, reinforces their identity — there is a ‘them’ and there is an ‘us’. For others it acts as a reminder; that things are not the way they want them to be — it divides and it cuts. Either way; the question really is, not what the physical manifestation of the post-Brexit border will be, but rather, what images, ideas and ideologies — like the Wizard of Oz, with his levers, smoke and fire — does it mask.
A version of this article appeared on Slugger O'Toole
As fingers point towards the Markets community of Belfast they do so perpetuating a forty year long narrative that began, in the name of ‘regeneration’, with the unpicking of the grid street system, that since the 19th century had knitted the inner city together. “They started to disconnect the communities and build a wall around the area” says local Councillor Deirdre Hargey showing me a historic plan from the 1800’s when the Markets, were built. A stark contrast with the wall of housing that bounds the site today. ‘The wall’, with its back turned to the city, punctuated by a series of narrow alleyways leads into cul-de-sacs of rear facing housing and a network of more narrow passages.
Lost in a maze of cul-de-sacs, alleyways and dead-ends I begin to understand what Deirdre means when she describes how in the 1970’s, the Markets area was “redesigned in partnership with the British army so they could contain and close down the area.” It is now widely accepted in urban planning theory (see for example the work of the Forum for an Alternative Belfast) that large parts of the city were redesigned as a response to the challenging urban conditions that the troubles created — segregating, separating, zoning. The Westlink is a good example. After about ten minutes trying to find the community centre where the MDA are based I emerge through an alleyway back out onto the main road, only fifty yards from where I began.
Since the redevelopment in the seventies “the residents have always had a sense that they are being contained.” As I walk around the community it’s easy to understand why the residents feel this way. To the north and west the area is bounded by two main arterial routes into the city centre. To the east a series of new office developments and the river Lagan, and to the south, the Gasworks site.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, there are now more so-called ‘peace walls’ dividing communities across Belfast than before. “Initially the residents were contained for political reasons”, explains Deirdre pointing to a model of the area that shows the long continuous wall of housing around the site. “Now they see a sense of containment for economic reasons; there are physical and economic boundaries that completely contain the area.” Dr Conor McCabe from University College Dublin calls this a ‘double transition’. The move towards peace has been coupled with a move towards an aggressive economic neoliberalism. This pincer movement is now affecting vast areas of the city as Belfast sees an unprecedented level of redevelopment. Including Europe’s largest urban regeneration scheme at the former Sirocco works site.
“This is a very real issue for us” says Deirdre as she shows me plans to help reconnect the Markets to the surrounding area through the conversion of eight vacant tunnels into an access route and a number of community uses. The success of the project is now under threat from a large office development on the adjacent Stewart Street site. “The local community would have loved this site for housing and mixed use development, something to compliment the tunnels” says Fionntán. The undercurrents of mistrust that flow from the cities past continue to run deep and wide. A local resident is about to begin a legal challenge to the scheme.
Housing for the Markets area, as it is for many inner city communities in Belfast is a major issue. The area — classified, like nearly all of Belfast’s inner city communities as being in multiple deprivation — currently has 106 applicants for housing and 86 households in housing stress and is designated as having a critical housing need. With Belfast City Council’s target for 37,000 new homes to be built by 2035 and the adjacent Gasworks site designated for social housing the residents were hopeful that this need was being addressed. But, showing me a masterplan of the Gasworks site, Deirdre tells me that “the council are just trying to push through office developments”. I ask if there will be any housing on the site at all. Fionntán shows me a cardboard model of the Councils current proposals and points to a small block of around nine houses, which the Council are yet to confirm are actually going to be built. “All the community wants to know is a guarantee of houses. The fundamental issue is that the community knows that no firm commitment is no commitment at all.”
“There’s definitely the belief among many residents that if developers could irradiate the community in the morning and move them out of the city they would do that.” There is no excuse for violence, but there is a context in which these acts take place. Remove them from their context and we fail to understand the complex, interconnected narratives that weave their way throughout the communities of our city.
Deirdre sums up the situation by quoting her father, one of the founding members of the MDA; we are “redeveloping the area for future decay”. The prescience of these words is not lost on me.
First published at Slugger O'Toole
On the face of it even the hardest critics of the DUP’s deal with the Conservative party would find it difficult to argue against an extra £1bn investment for Northern Ireland. Even if it is only a small ripple of 0.12% in the vast ocean that is the £770 billion budget that the government spent last year. Small change behind the back of the sofa? Maybe, but £1bn of small change nonetheless. £1bn that will — assuming the money goes to all the right places — benefit deprived communities, provide faster broadband, increase education investment, assist local business and fund NHS services; a list, by now, that we are probably all familiar with. This is good news for Northern Ireland. Right?
Over the past week’s commentators have been scouring every word, and sentence of the DUP/Tory list trying to discern what might really be lurking behind that small ripple of investment that took nearly three weeks to agree. Indeed, quite what it means that the DUP will support the Conservative government on “other matters on a case by case basis” remains to be seen. This may be less of a closed deal and more the beginning of an open ended one. A worry for Nationalists and centrist’s Tories alike — assuming of course that the minority Conservative government remains in power for the foreseeable future. Which even the bluest of the blue Conservatives would not dare assume.
Whether or not there are hidden political secrets lurking between the words and sentences of this agreement remain to be seen. What is most worrying about the DUP’s shopping list is that which is perhaps most obvious; hidden in plain sight behind the words “investment in infrastructure” is the York Street Interchange. It is on this controversial project that £150m of the £400m infrastructure budget will be spent. To put that figure in perspective, that’s 15% of the entire £1bn budget, fractional less than the 20%, proposed for NHS services.
The York Street Interchange is an infrastructure project that attempts to address the congestion problems and peak time delays for traffic travelling between the Westlink and the M2 and M3 motorways. The proposals, that in one form or another have been around for many years, and seek to solve the historical problem of what to do with the botched motorway system around the city, will provide a new bridge linking York Street with the city centre and will also include a number of other tunnels and flyovers.
The ‘drive through’ animations on the Department for Infrastructure project website effortlessly glide over a network of empty roads, painting a picture of how much better the new layout will be. Which, if like me, you have spent many a blood-pressure-peaking hour sat in a car full of screaming and fighting children, queuing to get onto the Westlink looks and sounds like very good news.
The slick fly though animation looks like very good news indeed. But gliding gently over the newly surfaced empty roads fails to show the actual urban conditions that the scheme will create for local residents; like those on Little George Street or Great George Street. For them the scheme will mean more noise; possibly create issues around levels of air quality; dark underpasses; more dead spaces; more empty, uninhabitable sites, dead ends, and a greater fragmenting of an already disconnected area of the city.
“Residents affected by the new wider road crashing through their neighbourhood and back gardens have fought hard to have their concerns listened to” said Belfast based architect Mark Hackett who has been working, pro bono, with local residents to help them understand what the often complex and unintelligible plans produced by the DFI actually mean for them and their communities. “It is very clear to me that such a road design would never be proposed through an affluent area in this manner, nor with this poverty of city vision and planning.”
Mark has been passionately arguing the case of local residents, spending hours of his time preparing images and drawings to show the actual effects that this scheme will have. “Now that funding is readily available, it is incumbent on the promoters of the interchange to do the best by the city and by the residents who will have to live beside this road and endure three years of disruption as the scheme is built.” But as is often the case in instances like this, the residents, for whom this scheme will have a real and negative effect, feel that their voices not being heard.
Mark believes that some relatively simple changes to the scheme could make a significant difference. Changes such as the design of the proposed bridge on York Street; “this can easily be improved to make the street better and more safe for walkers and cyclists”. Given that connectivity and access to the city are central to the proposals laid out in Belfast City Council’s 2015 Regeneration and Investment Strategy, it is hard to see how disconnecting lower York Street from a newly regenerated end of the centre can be justified.
Mark’s approach to the scheme has been innovative, as well as identifying the areas where road layouts can be adjusted to lessen the impact on residents he has also been identifying development sites that the scheme creates. “Better design in this area will actually save money” says Mark, “because the surplus public sites created by the scheme will have a greater development value.” Not only does Mark believe that his proposals will create better conditions for the local residents, but they will also generate income which in turn could be used to fund the scheme and release money to be used elsewhere.
So, as the DUP reach down the back of the Conservative governments budgetary sofa, the small change they find will, we hope, in some areas have a positive effect. But for Mark, and many of the residents he speaks for, “it is time that advocates of a better city speak up and support the process of getting a better resolution.” So, if she is to be true to her words, that this deal is about “building prosperity for all” and investing in “deprived communities” then Arlene Foster and the DUP must speak up and listen to those for whom their shopping list will have a real, tangible, and seemingly negative effect.
I [David] recently interviewed Dr Hélène Frichot for an article I am writing. Hélène is an Associate Professor and Docent in the School of Architecture, KTH Stockholm. She is the director of Critical Studies in Architecture, and the director of Research Studies in the School of Architecture, KTH. Along with Catharina Gabrielsson and Jonathan Metzger she edited the book Deleuze and the City.
I asked Hélène why so much regeneration seems disconnected and disparate, and how can we make sure that regeneration of our cities is connected?
Regeneration is my idea of an ambivalent concept; whether or not it destroys or ameliorates urban contexts will depend on how it is put to use in situ. If regeneration results in the displacement of a local population on account of that population being priced out, thereby resulting in the homogenization of a neighbourhood (gentrification), then regeneration benefits only a privileged minority. I’ve noticed the increasing use of the term ‘social cleansing’ for how neighbourhoods and inner cities come to be ‘regenerated’. The life of a city is made accessible to some and inaccessible to others.
And yet, if the infrastructures and the facilities required by a neighbourhood (school, child care, access to services from health to banking, not to mention jobs or the means of a livelihood) begin to dwindle, making life impossible for inhabitants then something needs to be done. This is where I have found the work of J.K. Gibson Graham interesting, as they spend time with marginal communities, working with them to understand the ‘goods’ that they do in fact share (without perhaps realizing it), by undertaking collaborative skills mapping exercises. Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou of Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée have also done this kind of work in and around Paris. Sometimes a situation may seem dire, but it just needs to be apprehended from a different point of view to see where relations might be rebuilt, and collaborations enabled. Nevertheless, the problem that persists with these examples is that the responsibility to solve an urban problem is returned to a grass-roots level, to a civic sector, rather than re-establishing structures at the level of governance, regulation and law (following careful processes of deliberation and consultation). The state continues to retreat and communities are expected to make do as best they can, to fill the gaps that are left behind.
When Jonathan and I wrote our essay for Deleuze and the City, and when I co-write my essays on feminist critical approaches to real-estate theory with my colleague Helen Runting (who has been a great inspiration to me) we are interested in how something like a well-thought-through state structure could intervene, slow things down as well as make other relations possible, or else, how, after all, populations might best organize themselves so as to creatively resist oppressive power take-overs (driven by greed, avarice, the relentless desire for accumulation, a great real-estate deal, etc). The ‘State’ is a concept that Deleuze and Guattari are wary of, but they did not live to see the outcome of decades of deregulation and the selling off of what should be common resources (public space, public housing, health, education, telecommunications etc). It is worth asking what kinds of institutional formations can help organise diverse populations, because a commons needs to be adequately organized and planned. Guattari would ask: how can we avoid either the complete disorganization rife in horizontal structures and the oppressive insistence of entirely vertical structures.
Global populations (including issues associated with aging populations) have grown so large and unwieldy, and, as is often remarked, the ‘polis’ can no longer support the full mass of a population in one ‘agora’ (ancient Greek public space of appearance and political representation), leaving aside the fact that such a political gathering excluded so many anyway (women, slaves, outsiders). How, after all, can a diverse population be adequately represented in an urban context? All the signs increasingly suggest that the concerns of the greater proportion of populations remain suppressed, implicitly and explicitly, in terms of how basic access to necessities (shelter, health, education) are being rendered inaccessible. Who can afford to attend university today (in the UK, US, and Australia…for instance)?
‘Regeneration’ when cited as an assumed ‘good’ (by local municipalities, by developers, by real-estate agents) must be carefully interrogated, and understood in relation to its immediate local context of application. It may sound like a great concept – suggesting how an urban environment might be suffused with new life – where instead it turns out to be a clever branding idea deployed by a strategic property developer to make the transformation of a neighbourhood palatable.
The ‘Image of Thought’ we have of a specific city, urban context, neighbourhood, was something Jonathan and I were struggling with. The Image of Thought is something like an idée fixe, a fixed idea of a city as something stable, something reliable, something that is maintained in picture postcard perfection, pinned and secured to a map with permanent boundary conditions. Rather than ever assuming that we know everything (or anything) about a city, and what it is, we argued that we have to understand in each case how a city operates, what it takes in and spits out, what it consumes and rejects, and how it is rarely or never disconnected from movements and hold-ups at larger global scales. Be wary of how Monocle and similar mags ‘review’ cities; be wary of your inflight magazines promising you the best holiday locations; be wary of how cities are ranked according to the most liveable, the most happy: all these ‘Images of Thought’ take us further away from how to think and practice amidst our local urban contexts.
In his essay The Right To the City David Harvey writes the following.
"Even the incoherent, bland and monotonous suburban tract development that continues to dominate in many areas now gets its antidote in a ‘new urbanism’ movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyles to fulfill urban dreams. This is a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.7 The defence of property values becomes of such paramount political interest that, as Mike Davis points out, the home-owner associations in the state of California become bastions of political reaction, if not of fragmented neighbourhood fascisms.
We increasingly live in divided and conflict-prone urban areas. In the past three decades, the neoliberal turn has restored class power to rich elites. Fourteen billionaires have emerged in Mexico since then, and in 2006 that country boasted the richest man on earth, Carlos Slim, at the same time as the incomes of the poor had either stagnated or diminished. The results are indelibly etched on the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly consist of fortified fragments, gated communities and privatized public spaces kept under constant surveillance. In the developing world in particular, the city is splitting into different separated parts, with the apparent formation of many ‘microstates’. Wealthy neighbourhoods provided with all kinds of services, such as exclusive schools, golf courses, tennis courts and private police patrolling the area around the clock intertwine with illegal settlements where water is available only at public fountains, no sanitation system exists, electricity is pirated by a privileged few, the roads become mud streams whenever it rains, and where house-sharing is the norm. Each fragment appears to live and function autonomously, sticking firmly to what it has been able to grab in the daily fight for survival.
Under these conditions, ideals of urban identity, citizenship and belonging—already threatened by the spreading malaise of a neoliberal ethic—become much harder to sustain. Privatized redistribution through criminal activity threatens individual security at every turn, prompting popular demands for police suppression. Even the idea that the city might function as a collective body politic, a site within and from which progressive social movements might emanate, appears implaus-ible. There are, however, urban social movements seeking to overcome isolation and reshape the city in a different image from that put forward by the developers, who are backed by finance, corporate capital and an increasingly entrepreneurially minded local state apparatus."
We all see the city differently.
Think about it like postcards. Postcards that you have written from different times and places, images on the front capturing something memorable — a special, important place. On the back, a description; “having such a lovely time, beach amazing, visited old church, saw ruins.” But these postcards are different. They are projected onto a screen; one on top of the other. Over time an image builds up of all the places you’ve sent postcards from.
Think about it like a geographical cross section through layers of earth. Layers of time and history; one on top of the other. But over time some of the layers have moved — slipped, sediment shifting, animals burrowing… — and in parts it is not clear which layer you are looking at. It is not quite clear where one layer ends and another one begins. The layers; one on top of the other, form something of a history. Not a linear history — one thing after the other; a history where things get missed, people get forgotten and memories fade. Rather, a history; one on top of the other. A bit like a genealogy, not the family tree type, more of a archeological type — one layer discovered doesn't close a door but opens several more; one on top of the other.
This is a bit like how we see the city. We all come to the city with an image(s) — one on top of the other — of how we think the city should be, how it should look, what should go in it, the kind of people we want to see there. But not everyone's images are the same right? We’ve all written different postcards and we are all part of different layers.
And we can feel quite passionately about our images of the city cant we? We can spend a lot of time asking the question: which image is the right image?
But here’s the thing.
When an image is turned into bricks and mortar the image reveals what it is capable of, what it can do. It is this question that I think is the most important — what does it do?
Today, in Belfast, an important process ends; the public consultation for the Cathedral Quarter Development. There is an excellent piece that you can read here if you want to find out more.
As it comes to an end, and, at some point in the next month, the planning application is submitted I have been thinking about what affects this image of our city will have. It’s an image born out of a certain way of seeing the world. A way of seeing the world as a space for the accumulation of capital wealth, of money. While this is not always bad thing it is an image that we must be very wary of. Who does this image serve? At what altar does it sacrifice? At what cost?
Here’s the thing. This image of the city does not just use space — like the Cathedral Quarter — to build bricks and mortar in its own image; it actually creates space. It dictates how we will use, experience and inhabit space; and I don't like the idea of someone with a very limited perspective doing this in the city that I love.
Yes, I must interrogate the images I have of the city, they too can be limited and restricting. But, and perhaps most importantly we must ask not simply what is it but what will it do? Who will it remember/ Who will it forget? Who will fall through its cracks? Who will benefit?
The deadline to object to the proposals is 5pm today. You can object here.
Urban theory, rooted — somewhere along the way — as it often is; in transcendence; the transcendental or Platonic idealism, is a sparkling lure drawing us towards a future that may be nothing more than a figment of our imaginations; an idea, picture, image of thought that best suits us, our tribe; race; nation; politics or vision of the 'good life'. These 'zombie categories', with their "mobile army of metaphors" blunt our imaginations with a "belief in the hidden order of things that is neither experienced not capable of being experienced." This is a false consciousness, because it only requires that one believe in the beyond while never needing to actually go beyond it and "meet the gaze of the other."
The transcendent beyond of Platonic idealism is a hall of mirrors, into which we gaze looking for a a legislative principle, a framework, a justification. But if we took the time to gaze long enough we would see that what we thought was a 'beyond' is nothing more than a distorted image of the present. A multiplicity of our images of thought reflecting back at us. For the image in the mirror is our image. No wonder the lure of the 'future' is so attractive.