City as Battlesuit / Criticism and Enthusiasm

Prawn-suit-District-9

Kind of late to the party here, but an interesting discussion based on this piece by Matt Jones at io9 is nicely signposted by Rob Holmes at mammoth. Jones’ piece groups together a collection of thoughts about science fiction and the future of cities, with particular reference to invisible infrastructure. His clearest proposition is that Archigram was influenced by comic-book cities like Megacity One from 2000AD, but the post is really held together by an enthusiasm for future cities as sprawling, amorphous prosthetics. The assertion that he makes in the title of his post, ‘The City is a Battlesuit for Surviving the Future’ is repeated at the end, but I have to confess the proposition seems underthought to me. Why see the future as a hostile environment to be confronted by a conceptually weaponised city? Battlesuits express the fantasy of being in a powerful body, specifically a body with destructive power (cf. the Prawn battlesuit worn by van der Merwe in District 9, or the demigod robots of Neon Genesis Evangelion). If Jones is suggesting that the city of the future needs to be understood prosthetically, I think he is right, but of course cities have always been prosthetic. Delanda points out that from a planetary perspective, cities can essentially be seen as a mineralisation of human populations, parallel to the evolution of biological exoskeletons.

In a follow-up discussion at Kazys Varnelis’ site, the discussion turned towards an apparent conflict between enthusiasm and criticism. Varnelis suggests that Jones’ piece reflects an enthusiastic but uncritical approach to its subject-matter. Geoff Manaugh joins in with a great comment on the way Archigram’s ideals were co-opted by naked capitalism; and he takes issue with the idea that criticism, rather than enthusiasm, is needed.

I’m not sure I can accept Geoff’s premise that criticism is negative (based on picking things apart) and enthusiasm positive (based on amplifying something you respond to positively). I don’t see pure enthusiasm as particularly liberating: for me, it too easily slips back into the most airheaded post-modernism (a kind of enthusiasm that seems to feel any systematic or rigorous approach is a throwback to discredited aspects of modernism), and plays into an increasingly cynical entertainment culture (not that this extreme form of the argument in any way resembles what I take to be Geoff or anyone else’s position). Nor does a return to the capital-C Criticism of previous generations (that seemed to want to drag everything off to it’s own particular hermeneutic lair) sound particularly attractive. I think everyone in the discussion seems to recognise that what is needed is a new sense of criticism, one that is capable of accommodating enthusiasm, but isn’t reduced to it. So what is criticism, then – or more importantly, what does criticism need to be?

To hazard a suggestion, perhaps criticism could be best conceived as the probing of limit states. This doesn’t necessarily mean the establishing of limits, as if criticism was all about putting walls around things; but it does mean trying to trace out the interfaces between things, and discover as-yet undetected surfaces of connection.

We can’t do without criticism or enthusiasm; but we can certainly live without Criticism or Enthusiasm.

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3 thoughts on “City as Battlesuit / Criticism and Enthusiasm

  1. Carl,
    A nice summary. I think that the city should be read bodily more, the book The Eyes of the Skin by Juhani Pallasmaa springs to mind it doesn’t require a battlesuit, but more body centred understanding based on all our senses.
    Also the second point of enthusiasm vs criticism I agree with you wholeheartedly, I think that critical thinking whether positive or negative is what separates good writing about the city from mere copy ‘n paste.
    P.S.This is the first time I’ve come across your blog and I’m enjoying it!

  2. thanks, lewism. pallasmaa’s body-focused idea of architecture seems like good sensible architectural thinking to me – except for the fact that his idea of body is unnecessarily conservative, and it does make for a very anthropocentric, perhaps even isolating, world.

    glad someone’s enjoying the blog!

  3. Pingback: an assortment of links relevant to previous conversations - mammoth // building nothing out of something

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