Matthew Kaney at ITP

Week 2 Reading Response

Ecology of Space


I had a bit of understanding of the Situationist International before this, but these two readings helped clear things up a bit. As a practice, I think dérive holds a lot of potential for interesting spatial exploration.

Debord is clearly developing his ideas in the context of the urban environment. He contrasts the urban dérive with the Surrealists’ project of wandering in the open countryside in 1923. Dismissing that project, he says, “Wandering in open country is naturally depressing, and the interventions of chance are poorer there than anywhere else.” Buy what about the rural space is “natural depressing”? I think there are two aspect of the city that appeal to Debord: its information density and its human-made nature.

On the one hand, I think that the “interventions of chance are poorer” in the countryside not because one has fewer options (in general, you have greater freedom of movement in the countryside), but because the choices one can make have very little effect on one’s environment. In the city, each block might be very different from the next, while in the countryside, the landscape can stretch on unchanged for miles. In terms of the total number of specific, memorable images and sounds that one might experience, the city offers a much higher density of this type of information than that countryside. This is partially physical (i.e. skyscrapers and buildings occupy space that in nature might be occupied by air), but I think it’s also due to the fact that we don’t generally interpret the details of the natural environment, such as differences in plants, rocks, and water formations, as meaningful in the way we draw meaning from human creations.

To this point, the fact that the city is a human construction seems crucial to the Situationist agenda. As argued in Critique of Urban Geography, Debord’s objective is for people to understand the psychological forces in the city that determine our habits. With an understanding of how the city functions, we can then intervene, with the ultimate goal of revolutionary societal change. In this context, it’s helpful to know that the city is already an accumulation of decisions made by people with specific intensions. By understanding the nature of the city as it exists now, perhaps we’ll be empowered to make our own decisions and reshape the city.

In this way, it’s clear to see how the Debord is drawing on the work of Marx. Marx (by way of Joseph Stalin’s reading) is similarly interested in how the practical foundations of a society, especially the production and circulation of goods, determines the lives of those living within it. Capitalism often seems such a thorny, abstract quantity, but at the roots of Marx are very basic questions: as a human, how can I work to get food, shelter, etc? The focus on dialectic materialism grounds this. Also, given that questions of capitalism/socialism are often discussed in terms of ideology and abstraction, it’s striking how much Stalin is working to lay out a practical historical argument for socialism as the next form of societal organization. Given the failure of the Soviet state, his historical formulation seems optimistic and maybe oversimplifying. Even so, it’s difficult to argue that the issues and conflicts Marx raises are at all irrelevant in our contemporary society.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a harder time getting a handle on Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space, although I think it will be important to revisit as I continue working on virtual computer-generated space. Lefebvre sets up distinctions between space as it is perceived in our day-to-day existence and space as it is conceived in abstract terms. Does this hold true with the move towards virtual reality? Lefebvre writes a length about the move toward abstract space in capitalist society. What about spaces that take as their foundations geometric ideas and abstract, symbolic representations? Does our representation and experience of these spaces collapse into a point?


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