City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Benjamin Bratton

Benjamin Bratton’s talk was another absolute highlight for me, and indicated the value of having someone on hand to pick apart, delineate and articulate the theoretical landscape emerging around the event. I also value his saving me from what would’ve been a particularly tricky write-up by sending me the talk and letting us post it here in full (see below).

I hugely appreciated his contribution. Benjamin had spent a few days soaking up Postopolis! LA by the closing day, and so was well-placed to be performing a kind of ‘summing up’, speaking as a sociologist rather than a designer as such. But he went beyond that, placing the talks in a fundamentally important wider context, politically and theoretically.

Benjamin Bratton

Despite being prepared for it, I’d been fascinated by the quantity and ferocity of attention focused onto the ‘global financial crisis’ in the US, from the mainstream media’s news channels certainly but also as a pervasive topic of conversation and concern amongst most I met – it’s way more so than in Australia (which could be because it hasn’t hit Australia fully yet; or because it won’t to the same degree) and although I saw more signs of it in the UK recently, the concern in the US is more so than there too. It appeared to be gripping almost everyone and often with a paralysing effect. (Though there were also healthy signs of the apparently innate American drive to reinvent a way out of dead ends, fresh shoots in unlikely places, and Postopolis! LA was far from pinned down by gloom. Wandering around the city, too – rather than watching CNN – I feel more confident for its future. And in the context of Bratton's talk, the dizzying depth of the crisis here might actually be constructive.)

Bratton quickly and usefully outlined some broad brushstrokes of what this all means, exploring the vocabulary of ‘post-’ in numerous contexts, and then went at least one better by outlining a few key ideas that might move us forward. I was drawn to three in particular. Firstly, that of using subtraction as a design principle rather than addition (a theme that LA is well-placed to explore, having both an over-abundance of macro-scale infrastructure in the first place, which could be pared back in interesting fashion, as well as an endemic informal creativity at a micro-scale). This alongside an openness to accidents and informal improvisation (something I’ve explored over the years around the idea of adaptive design). Secondly, that we should “resist the recovery”, as ‘recovery’ necessarily implies going back to something, trying to recreate conditions which would then merely set us up for the fall again. So we need a new way of thinking about moving forward from this place, rather than looking backwards or thinking we are post- yet. Thirdly, that the political – including governance in all its forms – is something we cannot allow to simply disintegrate, but we must actively engage with, including (perhaps especially, though he didn’t emphasise this) from a design perspective.

Benjamin Bratton

His talk was deeply serious – perhaps we’ll soon be post-irony, and not before time – without being soporific or sanctimonious. It was also deeply learned, and pinned up on a complex latticework of useful references, yet accessible and entertaining in a fashion that’s often beyond academics. This, despite his laconic performance comprising of simply reading out his printed-out talk, leaning against the lectern in the late-afternoon sun – “I want to be precise” he said.

(Somewhat interestingly, in addressing the ‘post-’ in the Postopolis! title, he became only the second person out of over 50 speakers across both events so far to take on this idea, along with James Sanders in NYC. Although as Geoff later pointed out, the Postopolis! name is derived from the ‘posts’ that bloggers produce – almost imagining a city composed of so things – rather than implying it necessarily concerns a condition ‘after the polis’ as such. I personally like the ambiguity of the title, and both Sanders and Bratton took the idea for a walk in interesting directions, and both quite differently, amidst different global conditions.)

Bratton later said modestly that there’s an “inherent advantage in batting last”. Well, you still have to step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the ground. Which he did.

Benjamin Bratton

So here below and in full is Benjamin Bratton’s talk from Postopolis LA!, entitled Pre and Post, and which he’s releasing under a Creative Commons ‘attributions no derivatives’ license. I've added contextual links where I felt appropriate.

Post and Pre
Benjamin H. Bratton
U.C. San Diego
Written and first presented for Postopolis! LA, Los Angeles, CA, April 4, 2009

"Thanks very much to Regine and Geoff, and the Storefront, all the organizers for the invitation to speak to you today. I think it says a lot about what 2009 is, that a group of blog editors could arrange what is arguably the year’s best gathering of rigorous, serious design voices, and local universities, museums, galleries couldn’t, wouldn’t, or just didn’t. On behalf of the speakers I’d like to thank them for the curation of an occasion that is truly an event for design culture in LA and beyond.

My talk will be a bit different in that it will be a more macro-commentary on this moment in design rather than a portfolio of my design work, or images of amazing instances of design.

I am an out of the closet theorist, and in fact I’m not going to show any images at all.

It’s also then some reactions to what I’ve heard in person and online over the last few days of this event. Forgive me as well for reading to you in this casual setting but I want to be precise.

"Postopolis" …  I’ve been thinking over last couple of weeks what that might mean other than blogging: the after city, after the city, a city of afterness.  Really I want to say a few things about this one specific thing, about what Post is, may be, and its possible usefulness for us today, when we very precariously don’t know what we are Post and what we are Pre.

We use "post" to name a particular state of things that is somehow eclipsed but not entirely done with. Post-War period, Post-Watergate, post-modernity, post-fashion, Post-humanism … post-bubble, post-finance, post-production, post-consumption.

Post implies that that something is gone, that it is in the past but that its residue, its after image in some way haunts us. It is behind, but it still organizes and supervises the period that comes next.

In any historical moment, we are in this post-something and pre-something else. That is is how the temporality of society works. But it seems to me that this particularly precarious moment is one in which it is both much less clear what is post and what is pre, and that it is much more important what is post and what is pre.

We are, we assume, we hope in a way, post-bubble. I don’t think we should presume to decide so quickly what went wrong. I think we will be surprised with future perspective, horrified perhaps, what it was all about.

This now is itself, pre-something that we don't know and can barely visualize.  It's a matter of real concern what is and isn’t 'post'? post-American, post-leverage, post-abundance, post-secular, post-social, post-urban? What stays and what goes? What is already gone? What is only an after image? What appears to be gone but is really permanent?

After the bubble, after the financial meltdown, if we are in fact actually after it, if not still at the beginning of it, has the 500 year old America bubble burst? or just a Kondratievian real estate cycle? Is this accident permanent?

1946 was post-war. fine. 1989 was post-communism. probably. We don’t know what we are post, and what we are pre, but simply that we are in some historical interstitial.  With 9/11 it was just named by the date because we didn’t know what it was, were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now we are waiting for the anti-event – the bottom – or holding our breath to wait out the event, or simply for whatever happens next to get it over with and happen.

That is, we don’t know what we know and what we don’t know, and we know it!

We experience the present as something like a gap, but is the gap a void into which things fall, or it is more a newly cleared tabula rasa? More beginning or end?

That is why the question of the Post matters – and I ask it as a question not as a declaration – because now we have, it seems to me, no choice but to focus attention on the conception of the Pre-. We are now, we can and should hope, Pre-other things, and some of the things we do now will scale into epochal institutions. Eric and Ben from Stamen will make maps for Olympic committees but their real interest is in how a informationally-enabled modes of a cognitive urbanism can make space more permanently adventurous not just more transparent. They are card carrying Situationists, our Constant and Vaneigem. Their project is a new city. Their mandate is of the Pre, not so much the Post.

Because design was a symbol of the bubble it is also a symbol of the bubble’s collapse.  Think of OMA’s burned out Mandarin Hotel as the anti-Bilbao. Think of Ambra Medda and Rick Santelli as two sides of the same coin. Apologies to Jeffrey.

But what also seems clear at least to me, is that very many ways of doing things, of designing things, of consuming things, of consuming design are very likely, to sample Paul Krugman, zombie ideas. Design as money laundering bon-bon. The destiny of the post-Bilbao coke high of Dubai, seems be a psychotic desert ruin. Ozymandias as themed space.  Dubai died before it was completed and is scheduled to deteriorate into some Islamic J. G. Ballard scenario. One expects new species of desert wolf to take over the fleets of abandoned Mercedes strewn about the airport, and roving gangs of unemployed architects, mid-level finance flunkies and scion jihadists to turn the empty malls into bunkers for their secret private wars of revenge and purification. In the desert where no city should logically be (like LA) they attend to an inverted cargo cult now of orphaned luxury goods hoping for the tribes of customers to come back. It’s not so much that the party is over, but that now the party goes feral; even and especially if those cranes come back to life.

Christopher Hawthorne’s photo essay last night was a good report card on architecture as courtesan of the real estate bubble, and we can imagine another on graphic and industrial design as co-dependent enablers of the credit bubble. But we can also afford, must afford, some ambivalence if not actual amorality even in this verdict, because the comical ruin is an afterimage which because it remains, and not because it disappears, becomes the conditional substance of another emergence, or another medium for something that survives that death. The form of old becomes the content of the new.

Let me change tone a bit and say that like perhaps never before and perhaps never again the opportunity is potentially at hand to redesign many of the fundamental social, cultural, economic institutions that govern our lives, and not just design the content that would fill these forms.

That is to say, postmodernity turned out to be not the cessation but  the radical extension of Modernization on a more global scale: in China, in biotech, in IT, etc. all without the burdensome presumption of progress or historical destiny that hamstrung the first Modernity.  Nokia claims to sell 16 cell phones a second. There are more Modernities per sq. foot since Postmodernity (which was not really antithetical to Lyotard’s early definition).

But as our moment makes clear, as as Ulrich Beck clarified a co
uple decades ago, radical complexity becomes the inevitable failure point of the global society just as inflexibility and scale were the failure points of Fordist economies. Speed replaces progress, logistics replaces history, liquidity reigns and all that is solid melts into vapor

That said, the fatal moment, the phase transition, the breaking point is how something gives say to something other than itself. Nicholas Bourriaud asks, perhaps naively, that we focus on the development of an alternative modernity, the altermodern as he calls it. That now we need not to complete the modern project but to start another one.

To me that means that means first mapping the emergent in advance of itself, to use the Post as a code to the Pre.

So listening to the talks of the last few days, I made some notes on this …

If media innovation in the 20th century meant new content: movies, stories, music, then the 21st media innovation has been in new ways to resort and redistribute that archive. From content to form, as it were.  Will Los Angeles, the company town so configured around content production that we simply call it "The Business" survive post-cinema? Do video games, cinematic interface design, motion graphics, vblogging, media architecture, even surveillance footage add up to a new image substance, a post-cinema era? Does the interfaciality of the image ultimately overwhelm the economies of production that built this city? Will P2P networks, like planetary termites, erode not just the business, but  LA  until it becomes just another desert port city? The next Detroit? Or will post-cinema revitalize a new phase of imageology, is it already?

Does the bubble collapse mean we need to imagine post-Market economics, we are already post-State economics, so what would be the space of the new form?

Does the consummated  merger of art and speculative finance mean an eclipse of either? Does the guise of art as the purified avant-garde of commodity fetishism relieve it of some historical duties? Or does it send one form of art into outerspace while allowing another, art as in bird calls, mating dances, cave paintings, fur patterns, funeral dirges, etc. to reappear front and center. Both are implied by a post-Art condition.

Our cities are our most important technologies, but they suffer today from a kind of auto-immunity disorder by which we ourselves disfigure them, attack them with defensive measures in the inverted image of a potential threat of future criminal or terrorist violence. The Mumbai terror attack was a coming out event for GPS, Google Earth and satellite phones on the one hand, but also for the capacity of platforms like Twitter to allow civilian multitudes to swarm faster and better than state security apparatuses. We learned clearly that the lock down city prevents civil society from smothering terror and crime. Can we, with a policy civilianization as best defense in mind, look forward to an urbanism based on truly open interfaces, not because they are more democratic but because they are more safe? What is the program for that post-security design policy?

Does the computational intensification of the material of the world, ubiquitous computation, nanotechnology, biotechnology, mean that buildings, bodies, objects, surfaces, substance lose some of their metaphysical specificities? A differential aura? Post-thing? Post-program? Post-jewel?

Does the integration and activation of new and old information through which we have been governed, the Open Government model inaugurate a post-opacity condition that is in the long run more powerful than who is in office? Will the processes of  governance become as transparent as the making of Krispy Kremes and as user-regulated as a backyard garden? Or will post-opacity just mean the spectacularization of transparency? Turning infrastructure into show business?

Michael Dear spoke about a post-border condition at the membrane between the USA and Mexico. Is this symptomatic of a larger reterritorialization of geography, where place matters more and space matters less, where the pragmatics of flow and movement overwhelm the niceties of cartography, geography, jurisdiction? It’s not so much that such movements are “illegal” though they are outside the legal code, so much as they are translegal, diagonal to the legal code because necessary to the maintenance of the society the code purportedly governs. Do zombie jurisdictions beget post-crime? It is worth bearing in mind that what comes next, whatever it is that we are pre-, may be things that are today, technically illegal. the arrival of the next may illegal, or may like global cloud computing territories simply envelope all jurisdictions by linking every entry point together outside of governmental supervision.

What should design make of all this? Well perhaps that’s the wrong question. Perhaps the design model to which we should pay more attention is not productive, but subtractive. Perhaps there are enough things already and we need to make better use of that objective archive. Rather than assuming that information is expensive and your business is to generate it, assume instead that information is ambient and your job is to give it form by carving away. To me that is a better connotation for Post-production.

Design Politics
Was 2008, as Saul Griffith suggests, the year of not of "Peak Oil" but of "Peak Waste," the crest point of some ocean of molecular inefficiency?

Many of the talks I have been able to follow via video and twitter feeds have provided important models and templates for an image of design as politics, and not simply political design, though some went there too. We can talk offline about which I think will work and which will vanish but having said this, I would also caution against anyone presuming that we are merely orbiting around a dense ethical core of sustainability. Sustainability is not a bad thing or a good thing per se, because it is an empty conceptual model than can be filled with any politics, regressive or progressive. Design as politics should conceive of sustainable systems but should do so because they will organize improved, more kinetic, charged relationships between humans, spaces, environments, not because they will save our broken inherited systems from any fundamental change portended by an externalized eco-crisis.

That is, sustainability is at its worst a signal not of design as politics but of the post-political, of what Jacques Rancière calls "the annulment of dissensus, and the 'end of politics'"

Difficulties and problems, such as environmental concerns that are generally staged and accepted as problematic, need to be dealt with through compromise, managerial and technical arrangement, and the production of consensus, in the annulment of dissensus is the end of politics,. However, consensus does note equal absence of fundamental conflict, but in the absence of real politicization, the only position of real dissent ends up being that of the traditionalist or the fundamentalist. That is truly unsustainable. (Swyngedouw.).

The post-political as a political formation that actually forecloses the political, that covers up the constitutive agonistic splits that delineate the anatomy of the social body. Post-politics rejects ideological divisions, and in fact any “explicit universalization of a politics of recognition, of naming, and of counting.” Instead a consensus has been built around the inevitability of capitalism
as a social and economic system, parliamentarism as the political ideal, humanitarianism and inclusive, but ‘de- caffeinated’ cosmopolitanism as a moral foundation.

The sustainability desublimation points us then not to a reformation of the infrastructure that has generated our shared precarious position, but a safety valve recalibrating the mechanism so that no actual change might undermine or overwhelm it.

Post-political sustainability models also misdirect the political imaginary of design. At stake is not "designing like you give a damn" to smugly clean up the mess that inherited systems have caused; it's not even then just design with positive political implications. It is the design of the political. The political space, medium, territories, institutions, constitutions, conditions of sovereignty, citizenship. These are being thinned out by the erosion of the nation-state that had guaranteed. The forms and contents then, the form of the political as a metadesign problem is opened up for redesign, a highly risky situation but one that we must enter into directly. We have to well define now what anatomies of the political we are now Pre.

What we haven’t figured out, haven’t designed, are appropriate ways for a digital society to govern itself.  As it stands today, we have no idea what terms and limits of a cloud based citizenship of the Google Caliphate will entail and curtail. Some amalgam of post-secular cosmopolitanism, agonistic radical democracy, and post-rational actor microeconomics, largely driven by intersecting petabyte at-hand datasets and mutant strains of Abrahamic monotheism. But specifically, what is governance (let alone government) within this?

As Zizek was fond of saying, quoting Jameson talking about blockbuster sci-fi movies featuring exploding aliens and cities, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Perhaps that is less so today. We can perhaps imagine a new genre of disaster blockbuster, the economic disaster. Instead of Will Smith fighting across the apocalyptic precipice of history against robots, aliens and monsters, we’ll have compassionate FDIC agents seizing overextended regional banks, later falling in love with suicidal Circuit City clerks giving them both a reason to go on after the car chase …

By way of conclusion, it is good to keep in mind Virilio’s axiom, that the invention of any new technology is also simultaneously and inevitably, the invention of a new accident. The invention of the train is the invention of the train wreck. The invention of the boom is the invention of the bust. the invention of the solution is the invention of a new problem. There are attendant accidents built into the system the day it went online. But this should be understood, I would argue, as not only a hidden anti-history of technology, but that the accident is also, potentially, a needed productive condition. The accident also invents a new technology.

I mentioned the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November and the use of Twitter by those caught up to mobilize their escapes. Strangely the US govt. almost figured this out in advance. The Army issued a report the month before warning the terrorists might use Twitter to coordinate an attack, was spot on but backwards. Twitter became a way to mobilize a response to terrorist violence –reconnaissance, C3, logistics– to the attacks not on civil society but by civil society!   

It is well known now. In response, official channels were misdirected. They didn’t know what was happening, where, when, why, by whom? And yet you had a strange situation where someone in CA reading the #mumbai feed (even though it was striated by rumor) had an apparently equal or perhaps even better raw intelligence feed that the official Indian response unit, sluggish, hierarchical cadres of men with guns, critical to fight it out, but where, how, when? I’m sure some of you in this room tracked the event this way yourselves:

    "Hospital update. Shots still being fired. Also Metro cinema next door,"
    "Blood needed at JJ hospital,"
    Vinu, post-attack pictures to Flickr, etc. hundreds and hundreds of tweets.

These are definitely not a use-case that Evan Williams concocted in advance of the technology … A potentially important accident generated by the accident of Google Earth and sat-phones and GPS. Will the mispartition of Kashmir indirectly, one thing leading to another to the emergence of a new mode of civil society? Which accident will win out? Which scales better?

I am simply insisting that meta-assignment of the Pre of designing what comes next is based in an appreciation of productive accidents of this sort of accidental civilianization, of accidents of openness …

And lastly, in thinking about the Pre in the afterimage of the Post, we don’t want a recovery.

"Recovery," to recover a past state condition, is not an option. Strike the word from your vocabulary. Absolutely the wrong word. Networks like strawberries are parthenogenic, they can replicate fixed DNA asexually when things are OK and stable, or mix DNA sexually to ensure variation when things are scary and changing. We NEED more variant material, not the recovery of the condition to which our present material is not even well suited. To secure the Post from the Pre’s life-giving capacities into a frozen simulation, to freeze the kinetic energy of transaction and transference, of improvisation, reducing public activity to a regulated ritual, however shiny and luxurious.

We already well past the threshold where the strategy is recovery, to recover a state of things, a lost state condition, like hard drive data recovery.  Don’t waste our interstitial chasm hoping that it is somehow historically bilaterally symmetrical, a cup, that its end is the mirror image of its beginning, and that if we just hold out long enough, 2011 will look like 2005.

We do not want to design our way back to the bubble. We want to undesign the bubble, by subtracting and subtracting until new things thrive in the new breathing space.

Last thought: In a recent interview with Hans Obrist, Damien Hirst said that his art is preoccupied by one overriding question: “what are you wearing tomorrow.”  Damien Hirst is a pork belly, an empty speculation, he is fucked, Pre-nothing. My only real counsel to you then: don’t be fucked."

The above was a talk by Benjamin H. Bratton at Postopolis! LA, and is re-published here under Creative Commons ‘attributions no derivatives’ license.


One response to “Benjamin H. Bratton (Postopolis! LA)”

  1. annonymous Avatar

    clap clap clap clap


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: