An appendix

by craigepplin

I have a new post up on Urbanities, this one on urban grids. Check it out if you have time.

Also, I’ve been thinking about some questions that came up a few weekends ago at the Latin American Studies Association conference, in particular with regard to a talk I gave on the work of the Mexican video artist Fernando Llanos. I’ve written about Llanos on here before, and my little comments on his use of the palimpsest (video projected on buildings, the content and the architecture dating from the same period) were very much the seed of what I ended up presenting. In just a few words, I wanted to advance the notion that Llanos allows us insight into how the city thinks–not how a human mind might comprehend the city, but how the mesh of human and nonhuman materials itself thinks, and in particular how it remembers.

The question matters to me because we often ascribe all sorts of cognitive agency to collectives. We talk about nations remembering their pasts, for example, or of families reminiscing. And yet, at the same time, when a philosopher like Andy Clark seeks to show how thinking is something that goes on beyond the strict limits of the brain (humans are “cognitively permeable,” in his words), he does so somewhat conservatively, leaving the individual brain at the center of the scene, and is nevertheless critiqued for overreaching, in spite of his caution. If we cannot even all agree that thinking always happens through a “smorgasbord of heterogeneous elements,” to quote Clark again, then it seems difficult to establish what exactly we mean when we talk about, for example, collective memory.

As I think about this more, I become less interested in making claims about who or what actually thinks (a taxonomical question) that I am in understanding the platforms on which actions (among them, thought, whatever we mean by that) take place. One very generous question that I received after my paper was how the idea of the thinking city related to other subjective formations in philosophy–Kant’s, Hegel’s, or Lacan’s, for example. I’ve been mulling this over, and it seems to me that the difference depends on where emphasis lies. Rather than the formation of the subject being a central scene in a historical drama, my idea of the thinking city (or other collective) allows for many instances through which subjectivity emerges, but none of which is primary for the actions of that collective. The subject is not a central actor in this play. It’s an epiphenomenon of spatial delineations and material folds. It follows on enclosures, which emerge without teleology and outside of human agency.

I’ll follow this up here or on Urbanities with a post contrasting the ways that the formation of cities is understood differently in, on the one hand, Henri Lefebvre’s Hegelian-Marxist model of space and, on the other, in Manuel DeLanda’s Deleuzian system of emergence.