Urban Theory and Schizonomadology

Everybody’s doin’ it! No, not schizonomadology, but posting their papers from the Deleuze Studies conference (Mark’s is here, Cheryl’s is here). This is also a draft of what I will be working into a book chapter for a volume that should come out in 2014 (more info on that as it develops).


By way of introduction I would like to refer to a recent debate in the journal City that has captured my attention and highlighted something like a schism in the realm of urban theory. On the one hand, there was an article by Colin McFarlane, who argued that the notion of assemblage could contribute to the critical study of cities, and illuminate potential avenues for creating progressive, if not radical, alternatives to current patterns of urbanization. On the other, there was a response – penned by Neil Brenner and two of his associates – that began as what I understand to have been a particularly thorough peer review. Brenner et al argued that the notion of assemblage is in fact useful methodologically, but that that as an ontology for urban studies, it does not address “the key concepts and concerns of radical political economy – for instance, capital accumulation, class, property relations, land rent, exploitation, commodification, state power, territorial alliances, growth coalition, structured coherence, uneven spatial development, spatial divisions of labor and crisis formation, among others.”[1] This list is indeed exhausting, but I actually think they are right about McFarlane’s rendering of assemblage neglecting these issues, and I have been keeping myself busy elsewhere trying to bolster his ontological argument for assemblage urbanism via a return to A Thousand Plateaus. However, today, I will instead be adding to the list and, conjuring Eugene Holland’s conceptual approach in his recent book Nomad Citizenship and elsewhere, argue that a schizonomadological analysis would consider the interrelationships between the political, economic, and psychodynamic registers of urban space and its human producers and users. By definition, schizonomadology – or affirmative nomadology – both uses the refined concepts developed in A Thousand Plateaus to bolster schizoanalysis as it is presented in Anti-Oedipus, and “takes up and modifies concepts from other thinkers as well – notably Freud and Marx.”[2] However, due to time constraints, I will primarily be focusing on the schizoanalytical dimension, as it is typically defined in A Thousand Plateaus: that is, making maps, drawing lines, and marking mixtures and distinctions between the elements under investigation, in an effort to reveal some of the potential dangers.[3]

Though the point of this essay is to sketch out a direction my own future inquiries into the dynamic engine of urbanization, I will be using one particular urban redevelopment project as a case study for my argument. South Lake Union (henceforth SLU) is one of the largest redevelopment projects in the United States, and is currently under construction to the north of Seattle’s central business district. Over the last decade, SLU – which has been primarily developed by Vulcan, the real estate investment arm of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – has grown from a sleepy light industrial neighborhood to the home of Amazon.com, a burgeoning biotechnology research hub, a center for Global Health research and advocacy, and an emerging residential enclave.

At its peak, Vulcan owned about 60 acres in the neighborhood and while other developers and interest groups are becoming increasingly active in the area, it continues to be the primary manager of activity in SLU. As such, Vulcan has also undertaken a comprehensive public relations campaign, which is centralized in the South Lake Union Discovery Center. Under the tagline “Rethink Urban,” the Discovery Center proffers information about the neighborhood’s history, Vulcan’s vision for its future, its central design tenets, publicity about some of the newly constructed buildings, as well as a bookshelf where one can find familiar books by urbanists such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida interspersed with books on wine, art, food, design, and sustainability. The Discovery Center essentially doubles as a crash course in the values of modern urbanism and a sales center for the neighborhood.

It is this confluence of the political, economic, and psychodynamic spheres that makes a schizoanalytical approach a promising way to understand how the redevelopment works. In the preface to Baudelaire and Schizoanalysis, Holland writes, “Schizoanalysis insists on restoring the full range of social and historical factors to psychoanalytic explanations of psychic structure and proclivities…At the same time, schizoanalysis insists on including the psychodynamic factors in historical materialist explanations of social structure and cultural change.”[4] The parallel movements between these distinct registers depends on the social processes of decoding and recoding – both which are driven by the capitalist process of axiomatization. My claim is that in SLU we are witnessing the emergence of a new set of axioms that I am calling the conscious capitalist axiomatic. With this in mind, I will now step through three key sets of dynamics occurring in SLU.

Political dynamics

In his essay, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance In Late Capitalism,” Marxist geographer David Harvey highlights the ways in which local governments have shifted from managing urban growth – through “the local provision of services, facilities, and benefits to urban populations,” for example – to a more entrepreneurial position, in which cities compete with one another to create the conditions for economic growth.[5] Anticipating Holland’s recent claim that both the liberal and conservative regimes of national governance in the United States are but “variants of neoliberalism,”[6] Harvey writes that the impulse toward urban entrepreneurialism is remarkable, in that it “seems to hold across national boundaries and even across political parties and ideologies.”[7] In Seattle, where there has not been a Republican mayor since 1969, and where nine Democrats comprise the officially nonpartisan city council, the propensity to adopt entrepreneurial urban governance is in full effect.

After two failed grass-roots attempts to transform the area that is now SLU into a central park, Vulcan re-envisioned it as a home for biotechnology research and mixed-use development. To accommodate such uses, both infrastructure improvements and changes to existing zoning were required. In Recapturing Democracy, Mark Purcell notes that the amount of public funds directed toward infrastructure improvements ranges from $420M to $1B, depending on whether you listen to the official city line or the Seattle Displacement Coalition.[8] The latter provides a detailed list which includes the city’s contribution to a streetcar line, major road improvements, multiple electrical substation upgrades, parking infrastructure, waterfront park improvements, upgrades to water, wastewater, and solid waste services, and so on.[9]

Zoning changes supporting Vulcan’s vision also show a clear movement toward cultivating the growth of the neighborhood. In 2003, the city council amended building codes to allow greater heights for biotech and biomedical research buildings in the neighborhood; in 2004, it was designated an urban center, a designation created in the early 1990s to funnel 75% of Seattle’s projected growth into specific urban areas rather than increasing sprawl. In 2005, it was rezoned to allow residential construction to proceed, and in 2008, studies began that recently resulted in increased building height limits.[10] The city’s consultant estimates that over the period from 2001 to 2022, the tax revenue from development in the neighborhood will exceed $500M, most of which will be directed to the city’s general fund.[11]

The dynamics of the recent rezone are also notable. A growing concern about the availability of affordable housing in the heart of Seattle led the mayor and city council to propose multiple schemes for requiring either a set-aside of newly constructed space for such housing, or an in-lieu fee that the developers could pay into a fund for the construction affordable housing. In the end, the city settled on a requirement of a set-aside of 5% or a fee of almost $22 per square foot of space built over the current building height limits. I mention these numbers for comparison’s sake: Boston, Sacramento, and San Francisco require 15 percent set-asides…while New York and Boulder, Colorado require 20 percent.[12] Moreover, for the city to provide affordable housing at a rate to reach its own goals for keeping pace with similar cities, the in-lieu fee would need to be almost five times as much.[13] Such concessions reinforce Purcell’s assertion that “the agendas of the City and Vulcan are converging around the desire to create…densification and a steep rise in property values in SLU,” and highlight the degree to which this densification is taking the form of high-tech, high-cost enclave.

Despite the fact that the city has to assert a nominal amount of control over Vulcan, the two institutions are indeed dependent on one another. In a report on the public-private investments in the neighborhood, the city’s consultant notes the serendipity of finding a developer inclined to take on such a large project: “Having this amount of land control, investment capital, and a vision for the area that aligned with market demand is extremely uncommon.”[14] The rhetoric of Vulcan’s vision aligning with market demand notwithstanding, this statement summarily captures the necessary de- and re-coding movements in the political register to make SLU a reality. Moreover, the success of Vulcan’s work in SLU has also resulted in their being named the Seattle Housing Authority’s partner in the $300M redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, the city’s first and most centrally located public housing project.

Economic Dynamics

Per Deleuze and Guattari (henceforth D&G)’s universal history in Anti-Oedipus, the capitalist machine’s primary function is to destabilize the previously dominant social machines via deterritorialization and decoding: “Its sovereign production and repression,” they write, “can be achieved in no other way.”[15] And while the capitalist machine is incapable of providing a stable, universal code, it nevertheless constantly recodes in an effort to capture and organize the relations of production and consumption in a way that maximizes private profit.

In his essay “The Anti-Oedipus: Postmodernism in Theory” Holland asserts that “the most pervasive and widely-recognized form of recoding is bureaucratization,”[16] and in the case of SLU, the bureaucracy at work is primarily constituted by the City and Vulcan, as well as the latter’s network of fellow developers, public relations experts, architects, designers, and contractors. Holland also schematically locates recoding processes in three domains: the family, the sphere of production, and the sphere of consumption. Here I will only focus on two aspects within the sphere of the production of SLU: first, and as previously noted, the role of the developer has shifted to that of a visionary manager, and second, and more broadly, the market is presented as having an increasingly moral dimension.

The Discovery Center and the DiscoverSLU website both contribute to this discourse. Upon entering the Center, one is invited to sit in a small theater to watch a highly stylized informational video about the neighborhood. Skipping over the myriad details of its multimodal composition, I would like to highlight the closing quotation by the founder of an artisanal pizzeria located in the neighborhood: “We had an opportunity to start from scratch, and we have, and we have a thoughtful developer, who has that same vision. If we can continue to challenge ourselves, and to work towards a common goal of creating this wonderful, world-class neighborhood, then it all comes together. And nowhere is more poised to do that than South Lake Union.”[17]

A similar theme is present on the website, which in itself, is a veritable clearinghouse of information about the neighborhood, ranging from its history to feature stories about new commercial tenants, press covering the neighborhood, local events, available residential units, and so forth. Under the “Who’s involved” tab, Vulcan acknowledges its “major role” in the life of SLU, but reminds visitors of “countless other developers, community groups, business owners and involved citizens who take an active, informed role in the future of their neighborhood.”[18] Nevertheless, Vulcan reminds the reader that their “role is not the usual one between a developer and a neighborhood. While most developers are content to build and move on, Vulcan has and will remain involved in the South Lake Union neighborhood for decades to come.”[19]

With its focus on environmentally sustainable construction, dense urban living, alternative modes of transportation, Vulcan is indeed showing a more considerate version of capitalism, and they seem to be doing it in earnest, but they are not the only players in SLU.  PATH, for example – an acronym for the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health – is an international Global Health NGO whose operations rely on contributions from philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (whose headquarters is located just west of SLU and from whom PATH has, in the period up to 2007, received $949M in grants).[20] Such collaborations have essentially positioned Seattle to become the dominant cluster of the Global Health industry and, consequently, the city of Seattle is increasingly marketed as what Matthew Sparke calls a curative city. In both these instances, the city in general, and the SLU neighborhood in particular, are recoded as locations where capitalist endeavors, or non-profits operating in a philanthro-capitalist regime, are improving the world in different ways.


The content of the previous two sections is mostly presented in a way that does not stray too far from contemporary critical geographical explanations of the city, but it is here, with the introduction of the psychodynamic dimension, that the potential of schizoanalysis for urban studies emerges. Beginning with Melanie Klein’s conception of the psyche as a disorganized flow of partial objects and reworking Lacan’s subsequent developments into a conception of the psyche that is both fully semiotic (instead of structural-linguistic) and more responsive to larger socio-historical shifts than localized familial relations, D&G describe a world where parallel de- and re-codings occur both outside the psyche and within. In Holland’s reading, this decoding process puts the psyche – now unprotected by the Symbolic and Imaginary orders – in direct contact with the meaningless Real, thereby potentially inducing trauma. Hence the necessity of the recoding process for protection: it both gives meaning to events of the surrounding world and coherence to the disorganized flows of partial objects via the Symbolic and the Imaginary registers.

The modernist impulse to organize the built environment in a coherent manner finds it ground in the writings of Le Corbusier, among others. He writes: “Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going. He has made up his mind to reach some particular places and goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.”[21] In this conception – which is the beginning of a call for rationally ordered urban spaces – the organization of the built environment is directly linked to the psychic order. Moreover, for Le Corbusier, the decoding of traditional urban space necessitates a subsequent recoding in order to correspond not only to the certitude of the ego but also to the demands of the machine age. Or, in Holland’s words regarding modernist architecture writ large, “the aesthetic domain is emptied of its conventional, social content and reorganized in according to a new and more abstract master code”: that of rationalization and efficiency.[22]

SLU utilizes this same sort of rational approach, though the recoding effort takes on a more specific and local character. A photo on the DiscoverSLU website of Alley 24 – one of Vulcan’s premier mixed-use developments – speaks directly to this claim; its caption reads, “Alley 24 epitomizes the development philosophy of SLU. What’s old and historic is renewed. What’s new and innovative is built. And everything is in visual and environmental harmony.”[23] Recalling D&G’s assertion that “urban flows” are one of “the four principal flows that torment the representatives of the world economy, or of the axiomatic,”[24] we can see how these harmonious striations within SLU, such as municipal zoning, a rectilinear street layout, uniform signage, and a distinct neighborhood identity defined by the innovation economy and its supporting infrastructure – namely banks, opportunities for self-care at spas, gyms, yoga and pilates studios, and access to healthy and local food at Whole Foods (the neighborhood’s only supermarket) – constantly strive to organize flows in a particular manner.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this sort of protection against psychic dissolution is also being erected in the service of capitalism itself, via the call to recapture its allegedly moral, beautiful, and heroic essence. In Conscious Capitalism, John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and his co-author argue that Adam Smith’s ethical system, based on empathy, has been largely ignored. Citing Marc Gafni, the cofounder and director of the Center for World Spirituality, Mackey expresses the necessity of providing a “richer, more holistic, and more humanistic philosophy and narrative about business.”[25] Quoting Gafni at length:

“The majority of people on the planet work in some form of business. But the dominant narrative about business is that it is greedy, exploitative, manipulative and corrupt. The majority of human beings…thus experience themselves as furthering [these negative characteristics]. When people experience themselves that way, they actually begin to become that way. But the true narrative is that by participating in business, they are creating prosperity and lifting people out of poverty. They are creating stable conditions for families to be raised, they are helping build communities that can create schools, they are creating places for people to exchange value, find meaning, build relationships and experience intimacy and trust.”[26]

Bringing together, on the one hand, the modernist discourse of rationally organizing space in a way that bolsters psychic coherence and, on the other, these new age spiritual musings on an emerging capitalism that simultaneously elevates self-perceptions and creates an improved world helps us to sketch out the new “socio-symbolic order” – to use Holland’s phrase – that serves as the historical Other by which producers and users of spaces such as SLU can attain a semblance of psychological unity. Moreover, mapping this recoding alongside the recodings in the political and economic registers helps us outline the recent modulations of capitalism as it is expressed in the urban landscape. This is, I maintain, the first task of urban theory.

[1] 230

[2] xxix

[3] 227

[4] xiii

[5] 3

[6] x

[7] 4

[8] 117; John Fox of the Seattle Displace Coalition: $1.017B per his website, 6/25/13

[10] “Shaping the future of SLU,” 2

[11] SLU Public Private Report, 21

[13] ibid

[14] SLU Public Private Report, 23

[15] 33

[16] “The A-O,” 299

[17] Video, at ~3:50

[19] ibid

[20] McKoy et al, cited by Sparke, 51

[21] 11

[22] “The A-O,” 300

[24] ATP, 468

[25] 7-8

[26] 23-24

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One Response to Urban Theory and Schizonomadology

  1. Mark Purcell says:

    Reblogged this on Path to the Possible and commented:
    My colleague Keith Harris’ talk from the Deleuze Studies Conference in Lisbon…

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