These days, I often find myself reflecting on our problematic times, especially the way so many people seem to be overwhelmed by fear and anger. This emotional state is driving politics in many parts of the world toward a desire for autocratic leaders who promise to fight a present they term as destabilising in order to restore to the future a mythical wonderful past. Many thinking citizens correctly recognise this as a threat on multiple fronts threatening democracy, secularism, constitutional rights, inclusivity and ecology. The consequent response to these threats is to seek new political mobilisations that will resist this trend.
The question is whether this is a purely political challenge, or whether it is also a philosophical dilemma. Our current polity is largely derived from philosophical models of the 17th and 18th century: the period in European history known as the Age of Enlightenment. This is not the space to go into the details of that period, its philosophy and developments since then. But it is worth thinking whether the Enlightenment model needs major critique and overhaul, not only because times have changed substantively since then, but because even the original model had certain shortcomings. So my purpose here is to speculate on new philosophies that we need to search for. Perhaps my training as an architect has created a bias, but I cannot shake off a conviction that the spatial dimension is a highly neglected aspect in philosophy; and this has directed the thoughts below on five philosophies on scale, third place, memory, space-time and human rights. While each of these philosophies are explored separately below, their integration is a key element in the quest, so one could say they are five dimensions of a master philosophy.
1. Scale: Nancy Fraser has pointed how the word “scale” has two possible connotations when applied to the question of justice. One is rooted in the conventional image of a blindfolded Lady Justice holding scales to weigh both sides of an issue, and is aimed at how the processes of justice can achieve fairness. But the other connotation, much neglected, refers to the map, and recognises that space occurs at a hierarchy of scales, and each level in the hierarchy has to achieve a certain autonomy that is insulated from other levels. Fraser draws attention to the structures of injustice that are perpetrated today at a global trans-national scale, where there is no effective remedial mechanism at that scale for delivering justice.
This is exacerbated by the disproportionate growth of some parts of the hierarchy of scales to the level where they are driven by their own internal logic rather than any ‘real world’ issues: and we see this in realms such as financial services and real estate. Digital technology has been leveraged by these sectors to grow at an unheard rate. An example, brought to our attention by Bernard Lietaer, is global currency exchanges. As recently as the 1970’s, close to 80% of the transaction volume was tied to the real world economics of moving goods, services and people across national borders, and only 20% was linked to speculative trading. Now, estimates vary on the percentage of transaction volume captured by speculation, but the range is between 96% and 98%. Similarly, as Saskia Sassen’s research has shown, in many large global cities concentrations of wealth are occurring in a way where it is no longer necessary that a real estate asset be used in order for it to be profitable. The tail is now wagging the dog.
All this is tied to some way of getting broader recognition to the principle of subsidiarity, which argues that the lowest level should form the foundation and do all it can, and what it cannot is delegated upward to the next level. This is in contrast to the conventional model of top-down delegation one finds in most planning models.
What is the philosophy that states what the hierarchy of scales should be, defines the foundational importance of lower levels in the hierarchy, and proposes what is most effectively done at each level in the hierarchy?
2. Third Place: Ray Oldenburg proposed the theory of ‘third place’, that all of us have a first place of home and a second place of work, but also need a third place where we go to build community. Traditionally, these place were of two types: (a) community-based, such as churches and community halls, and (b) activity-based, such as pubs, taverns, coffee shops, barber shops. Both kinds of third places have diminished in recent times. The community-based places have fallen in popularity affected by the distractions of consumerism and digital media, and those that still survive tend to develop a tribal circle-the-wagons attitude. And the economic model of traditional activity-based spaces has not survived in a global economy where they must compete with national and international chains who have economies of scale that allow them to mitigate risk to a far greater extent. The economics of these large chains does not allow either the low prices or slowness that the serendipity of third place thrives on.
What is the philosophy that proposes a new model of third place relevant to today’s times? How can these new third places take root in an attention-starved and globalised world?
3. Memory: There was a time where the construction of memory required face-to-face interaction. Then came printing, and memory could also be placed in a book and reproduced. But books were physical objects, and the rootedness in physical space was still substantively there. Now, with digital connections, memory has become destabilised and largely placeless. The alienation resulting from this is described wonderfully by Buadrillard in his work ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’, where he points out that the nature of alienation has changed. Earlier, alienation was characterised by distance and isolation; but now it is characterised by an overwhelming proximity to everything. Thoughtful reflection requires the construction of distance; and while distance came easily as a way of life, its construction now requires a deliberate effort that is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. Deprived of the reflection, we can no longer produce our autonomous sense of being, and are reduced to mirrors, pure screens, switching centres for the networks of influence.
The connection with memory is delightfully drawn by Milan Kundera in his novel ‘Slowness’. Early in the novel, he proposes the thought experiment of imagining the everyday situation of a man walking down the street. He tries to recall something but the memory escapes him: he automatically slows down his walk. Imagine the converse, he remembers something disagreeable that he desires to forget: he automatically speeds up his walk. Kundera then defines the laws of existential mathematics: the degree of slowness is proportional to the degree of remembering, and the degree of speed is proportional to the degree of forgetting. Toward the end of the novel, he revisits these laws and inverts them by claiming that as a society we have become addicted to speed because we do not wish to confront the fact that we no longer know how to remember.
If the aesthetic of the pre-industrial world was rooted in the traditional craftsman, and the aesthetic of the industrial era was rooted in the avant-garde artist, the aesthetic of the informational age is no longer tied to any definable notion or image, but rests in the adrenalin-surge of the surfer, poised with exhilaration on the crest of the wave of speed. As Manuel Castells has told us, we live in a world of flows rather than a world of places. The problem is that very few can afford surfboards, and the rest stay helplessly buffeted by the currents below the surface.
What is the philosophy that offers a framework for the meaningful spatialisation of memory as a method for building the local? How do we go about designing the tools that will allow us to do this?
4. Space-Time: For a long time, physicists have recognised that space and time are not separate entities and are dimensions of the same thing. But the social sciences and philosophy still tend toward separating them, and that has affected the popular imagination of our polity. Doreen Massey articulates three types of problems arising from this schism:
a. Spaces are separate from time: Massey cites the 16th century example of Hernán Cortés poised with his army to invade the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. To Cortés and his army, the space in front of them was one that was devoid of time, for it was one perceived to be devoid of any history, desire, or life that merited recognition. Emptied of significance, the space was reduced to phenomena on a surface, and therefore open to appropriation without feeling any ethical conflict. While all this may seem to be an imperial project that modern democracy has eschewed, this emptying of time from space is still foundational to much of contemporary planning.
b. Spaces are differentiated by time: This applies to current neoliberal discourse on globalisation that argues for a common global economic order for all nations. If it is argued that countries like Mali or Mozambique have conditions that warrant a different system, the response is that they are only behind in time, so if the space of this neoliberal order is protected that will enable them to eventually catch up and enter it. The structural barriers that sustain a geography of marginalisation and effectively prevent their ever ‘catching up’ receive scant attention.
c. Spaces are fixed in time: This is the conceptual foundation of fundamentalism which posits an era of an ideal and divine world or of a mythical past, and once a space finds its roots in this era it can remain in it forever. The responsibility for this era not existing in the present is placed on an obstructive other, requiring the perpetuation of hostility toward this other.
Massey argues for a recognition that space is not a fixed entity and must continually be reconstructed in time. This finds an echo in the proposal by Charles Taylor that we must rethink our notion of authenticity and the consequent ethical foundation of society. Historically, we have had changing notions of the source of authenticity. At one time it was believed to come from the wisdom of inherited tradition. Then modernity, founded in the Enlightenment model, rebelled against the repressions of tradition and argued for the freedom and autonomy of individual will. The foundation for this freedom was felt to be in instrumental reason, as every person was born with the capacity to reason, and this implicated a potential that must not be denied. Post-modern doubt has since undermined the certainty of reason, and Taylor suggests that we find a new source in spaces of engagement. He argues that authenticity is like language: the capacity for it lies innate within us, but that capacity remains unknown and unutilised if we do not engage in dialogue.
As soon as we place our faith in spaces of engagement as the new source of authenticity, there is a concomitant ethical demand that these spaces be inclusive. This immediately raises the question of participation. Majid Rahnema’s essay on this subject in ‘The Development Dictionary’ outlines how we tend to have a limited perspective on participation, and do not touch on its most important dimensions. He defines four dimensions of participation: (i) a cognitive dimension, where the vision of development is constructed through participation; (ii) a social dimension, where community is constructed and stabilised through participation; (iii) a political dimension, where a defined development project seeks validity through participation; and (iv) an instrumental dimension, where the development project can be more effectively implemented through participation. Where the ideal of participation is included in development (and it is, unfortunately, more the exception than the rule), it tends to acknowledge only the political and instrumental dimensions, with negligible attention paid to the social and cognitive dimensions.
What is the philosophy that will lay out how space and time are interwoven, and how space is continuously reconstructed in time? How can space-time be institutionally structured in an inclusive and participatory manner?
5. Human Rights: We tend to think that the philosophy of human rights is an established notion, without realising how recently it was proposed as a universal ideal. The Magna Carta (1215) is often held forward as a first doctrine of rights but was only aimed at a set of English barons. The US constitution (1789) is often upheld as a beacon in the foundations of constitutional rights but was only directed at white males, making no attempt to aim for gender equality or the abolishment of slavery. The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote only in 1920. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but did not do enough to abolish racial segregation, and the framing of legal statutes to resist this took another century, and even now the process is felt to be incomplete.
When the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, this was the first time that human rights were defined as intrinsic to the human condition and were characterised as universal. It is very easy to grant rights to those who are similar to you; rights are truly universal only when they are equally and unhesitatingly granted to those who are most unlike you. But UDHR was only the first step: the subsequent distinction between negative and positive rights led to two further covenants: one on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social and cultural rights. The drafting, signing and ratification of these covenants took a further 28 years till 1976, and even today these covenants have not been signed and ratified by all countries.
We are clearly in a nascent stage in a philosophy of rights. UDHR and its covenants do not constitute a legally enforceable framework, but serve to define the beacon of rights. These rights remain abstract without a spatial entity that enforces them, and in the current model this entity is the nation state. The challenge is that, with the exception of a small handful of city states, the nation state is a complex entity that stands abstracted from the routines of daily life. Rights are defined at the scale of the nation state but must be negotiated and claimed at the scale of the city or village. This transfer of scale does not happen easily. Rights are predicated on citizenship, and at the scale of the nation state citizenship is an entity held relatively stable by the protocols of immigration. But at the scale of the settlement, especially the city, life thrives on migration and mobility and this causes a crisis of inclusive recognition. One commonly finds, especially in the cities and villages of the developing world, models of planning that fail to adequately recognise large segments of the population.
What is the philosophy of human rights that can be applied at the scale of city or village? What new models of citizenship need definition at this scale?