First published at Worldarchitecture.org
The work of Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Psychoanalyst Felix Guattari is complex. I’ve been reading them for years and feel that I am still only beginning to scratch the surface of their ideas. But the more I have engaged with their work, the more I have become convinced of the importance of their work for urban theory and architecture.
I 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.
Hélène has kindly agreed to me publishing the whole interview.
1. Your work proposes a new way of thinking about urban theory: What do you see as the failures of the dominant urban theories and how do these differ from your approach, which is influenced by D&G?
I would be wary of claiming that the use of Deleuze and Guattari’s work opens up a ‘new’ way of thinking about urban theory, it is simply another way, one that might allow an urban theorist to consider a problem from a slightly reframed point of view. While the legacy of their thinking (and practice) has greatly impacted on urban theory, Deleuze and Guattari’s work, specifically their construction of concepts, should only be picked up where they prove useful or somehow inspiring. There is always the risk of becoming dogmatic when picking up their concepts. I like Isabelle Stenger’s advice here, who suggests that a concept is like a tool, and as such it must be passed from hand to hand, and in being passed along, both the tool and the one who handles the tool are likely to be transformed, likewise the situation in which they apply the concept-tool.
One of the most oft-cited concepts appropriated from Deleuze and Guattari by urban thinkers is agencement (see Ash Amin’s edited book Urban Assemblages 2009, or else see the work of feminist economic geographers J.K. Gibson Graham), which is usually translated as ‘assemblage’. This is a concept that helps the urban thinker to create a complex diagram of a dynamic situation on the ground based on the mobility and stasis of human and non-human components (or actors), which are inevitably embedded in specific milieu, entangled in infrastructures, caught up in flows of information and capital. It is possible that to speak of the city today, especially where we assume that it is a discrete unit, is to miss the point of complex global networks that allow some things to flow with great speed (information and financial instruments of various kinds) and other things to stop and start and be held up or held captive (migrants, those who are less wealthy, etc). Concepts like agencement help the urban thinker to consider how complex a conundrum a city might be (though, just quietly, because the concept is so well-circulated amongst those spatial thinkers who read D&G we also tried to avoid it a little bit and pay more heed to some of their other concepts, and there are many to choose from…at your own risk!).
I also want to stress that Deleuze and Guattari are best thought alongside other thinkers, especially as to read their work is by necessity to think with the multiplicity of thinkers they make reference to. It is not that their work offers a new answer to an established (a priori) problem, rather their work helps to articulate problems, as we hope to have demonstrated in our edited collection Deleuze and the City. They stress, for instance, that concepts are only invented so that we can grapple with problems, that is to say, concepts (or what I prefer to call concept-tools) must be put to use in response to the labour of articulating specifically situated problems. ANT (Actor Network Theory) (Bruno Latour, John Law); new materialism (DeLanda, Rosi Braidotti); and Nigel Thrift’s non-representational theory are just some of the theoretical frameworks that have drawn on the work of Deleuze and Guattari. The late geographer Doreen Massey also frequently makes reference to Deleuze and Guattari in her work (see For Space, 2005). ANT in particular has been used to think through problems at the scale of urban conglomerates (see more recently Isabelle Doucet and also Albena Yaneva’s work).
I should also add that it was important that the editors of Deleuze and the City (and the authors too) came from a number of disciplines: Where my background is in architecture and philosophy, Catharina Gabrielsson has been developing work on urban economics for years, and Jonathan Metzger is more of a social scientist, and has also had hands-on experience with Swedish municipalities working with local communities. I’m probably the least ‘practical’ of us all.
Finally, I am less interested in how reading Deleuze and Guattari suggests any kind of paradigm shift, and more interested in how their concepts are used to think with contemporary situations; how to undertake this intellectual labour by recourse to other thinkers too. The stress here should be laid on thinking with, rather than about, or even against.
2. Guattari called for 'transversal action' as well 'transversal thinking'" How have you put these ideas into practice? or how have you seen others implement these ideas?
Transversality is a helpful concept that Guattari developed in practice at a psychiatric clinic called Le Borde south of Paris (though the concept is actually signed by a woman called Ginnette Michaud who visited the clinic). First thing is that (transversal) thinking and action can be assumed to operate in relay (practice and theory are distinct modes but we should never get caught up just with one or the other; practice and theory, action and thinking need to operate conjointly… and the movement between them can also be called transversal).
Transversal suggests a radically relational movement that catches a number of disparate things up in its zig-zag, non-linear path, allowing an urban thinker to witness encounters and create relations where they might not have been observed before, and thus to frame another point of view on a situation, or a problematic field, to articulate a problem, to invent a concept that helps them work with a problem. Importantly for Guattari it is a concept that rearticulates individual problems with societal structures and environmental concerns (Guattari’s three ecological registers being mental, social and environmental).
So, I suppose, if we assume (simple-mindedly) that a city is made up of buildings and roads, and constructed infrastructures, central business districts, residential zones, (post)industrial zones, and so forth, to think transversally allows other elements to be added to this description such as flows of traffic and labour and populations and information and capital, including service and experience economies, to which can be added local weather conditions, air quality, pollution: In any specific city-composition these different components form different kinds of relations that prove better for some, and worse for others.
Increasingly, and worryingly, the ‘human’ component seems to service the urban conglomerate, its flows of information and capital, rather than being able to discover amenable habitation there, or ways to express living together. Here I am thinking of Saskia Sassen’s well known argument about global cities, and how an over-paid professional class working in finance is supported by an under paid dispensable class who service their needs, surviving on a gig-economy, or precarious work contracts and conditions.
Who, for example, can afford to live in London today? A prominent architectural edifice like Renzo Piano’s Shard is empty and financially in accessible, while elsewhere in the city a social housing block burns to the ground because no one paid sufficient heed to what cladding and insulation materials were specified: These distinct problems need to be placed in conjunction as they form part of the same composition, and this connection is what transversal thinking allows. Deleuze and Guattari have contributed to how we think with ‘minoritarian’ peoples.
3. So much regeneration seems disconnected and disparate: 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.