Can a collective agency, or mind, be traced across the urban condition? And how should we map its effects on the physical matter of our cities? A specific representation of a specific type of ‘home’ is employed as an exercise in defining the impact of a “logic of thinking that is both embodied and distributed, singular and collective.” Hélène Frichot’s proposal for “Noourbanographies” was written as a response to the call for papers of the “Eyes of the City,” well before our domestic interiors became the new public. Looking at the distance between hegemonic collectives and ecologies of subjectivities as space for action, the essay opens up to an articulate range of issues that involve matters of care, diagrammatic thinking and spaces of control.
For the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB), titled "Urban Interactions," (21 December 2019-8 March 2020) ArchDaily is working with the curators of the "Eyes of the City" section to stimulate a discussion on how new technologies might impact architecture and urban life. The contribution below is part of a series of scientific essays selected through the “Eyes of the City” call for papers, launched in preparation of the exhibitions: international scholars were asked to send their reflection in reaction to the statement by the curators Carlo Ratti Associati, Politecnico di Torino and SCUT, which you can read here.
A New Community
Noopolitics, which could easily be mistaken for ‘new’ politics depending on your pronunciation and who is listening to you, designates the politics of thinking at the scale of a population. The logic of thinking collectively, whether wittingly or unwittingly, is called noology, also defined as the logic of mind (noo designating nous, from the Greek for “mind” or “intellect”). Mind here must be imagined as scaled-up multiplicity. It must be understood less as an individuated, embodied attribute belonging to a specific, self-same, phenomenological subject than as a distributed effect. The effect of the collective process of thinking together, for instance, can express itself across a vast urban milieu. As you plunge into the seething data flows of advanced information societies your collaborative impact manifests as material admixtures across urban milieus from the container technologies of living apartments all the way to the character of neighbourhoods, as editorialized in the weekend papers, inflight magazines and on Trip Advisor. Amidst the flows and stoppages of information you are data augmented, you are a process of individuation and “dividual” both. You are rendered fleetingly sensible in relation to where you are, your environment-world. You participate in a new community. Effects, by their nature, are fleeting, an effect of the light, an after-effect, likewise, the effects of provisionally delimited processes of individuation rendered as emergent (post)human subjectivities. To map the collaborative, if unintentional, effects of thinking together, to glean the passage of effects, their concomitant spatialities and material relationalities, some kind of method is required, a method that allows you to slow down. To follow the material impact of thinking together across an urban milieu, noourbanography will be offered here as a method, or rather, an unruly, non-exhaustive diagrammatic attempt at surveying something that appears to unfurl at near infinite speeds.
Takes You Directly to Sea World
Sea World, Shenzhen is: ‘An awesome place in China. There is a good place for relaxing and spending time on a holiday afternoon. The boat is actually a hotel and a bar. There’s a small fountain show every 30 minutes or so. Its [sic] good for family and couples’ . (Google Search)
The urban milieu in question is Shenzhen, a megalopolis, and this immediately presents innumerable problems because as a researcher I am located at a geopolitical and socio-cultural distance. But does it really matter anymore who or where I am? To take the brief of the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale at its word, with the information age, with networked societies, the anthropocentric perspective has become radically augmented if not rendered redundant. Rather than multiple human eyes trained on the street securing its safety and well-being (which sounds rather panoptically ominous), a posthuman condition prevails. The “eyes of the city” predominate as buildings and streets themselves observe and react to urban life as it unfolds, just in time for your daily occupations. At least this is how a near future is imagined. Machines watching over machines of loving grace, and in the interstices, plugged-in, human subjectivities. I want to take this reorientation seriously by turning to the urban interiors that are exposed as so many spatial products across Shenzhen, so many portals into a multiplicity of lives, human and non-human. Processes of subjectivation are exposed across these interiors as the bare life of data: square metres, location, aspect, access, view, cost per calendar month. We cannot humanize these spaces any longer under the anachronistic signifier ‘home’, they are merely the spaces through which humans and non-humans pass, each reciprocally shaping the other. And yet…
This is not to assume that the human subject has been cast aside as so much unnecessary meat. Life, after all, is at least minimally facilitated here. In Signs and Machines, Maurizio Lazzarato explains the situation like this: Individuals – and here it is important to register that individuals are processes rather than ready-made and stabilized units – and “dividuals” a concept signed by Félix Guattari, work concurrently. Two entwined registers, individual and dividual: Where individuals are biopolitically organized or managed as populations according to their lives and their deaths, dividuals own a “statistical existence.”  Bound up in noology is the construction of subjectivity. Noology and biology, noopolitics and biopolitics, must be conceived in a continuous variation like the right and reverse side of the cloth of contemporary landscapes of digitalisation, informing a “cognitive architecture.”  The distinction Lazzarato makes between individuals and dividuals is presented in similar terms in Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data, where she argues that networked communication from the postwar period onwards produces increasingly individuated (human) units. Space has become a new interface “radically individuated and simultaneously networked.”  The individual and dividual operate in what can be called disjunctive synthesis, differentiated as modes and yet developing in an intimate relay. What we have is the strange collaboration of networked dividuals and co-isolated individuals performing less according to imperatives of meaning and identity than process and environment, affect and behavior. 
It is worth returning to Lieven de Cauter’s eight concise laws of capsularization, where the apartment counts as an exemplary case. An inverse existential ratio takes hold, as described above: the more individuated, the more connected: “Closed off and plugged in entities.”  Or, to put it bluntly “the degree of capsularization is directly proportional to the growth of networks.”  What Cauter had to say fifteen years ago has only become more acute today. Peter Sloterdijk can be deployed to complement the analysis of capsular (non)relations, which he argues operate according to the paradoxical logic of co-isolation.  At least you share your cell wall. Pronouncing in his polemical style that the apartment and the stadium are the “most successful architectural innovations of the twentieth century” Sloterdijk asserts that the apartment can be situated as the individuated cell extraordinaire, supporting the creation of solitary dwellers “via individuated housing and media techniques.”  The spatial insistence of the cell or the capsule demonstrates that the disciplinary society is still at play amidst the newly emergent “control society.”  It is not as though you progress historically from one to the other. You share your cell walls and depend on their infrastructural interconnections. Even though you are bound up in your own ego-spherical containers, should the infrastructure fail you, you would be exposed to grave environmental peril.
In terms of what he identifies as the full-blown establishment of the capsular society Cauter proffers the extreme choice between Theme Park and Camp.  Your neighbourhood is prepared in advance of your arrival depending on the means available to you. 12.5% of spatial products available on one real estate website in October 2019 noted their proximity to Seaworld, either explicitly or in terms of access to the closest metro stop. Advertisements for rental apartments proclaiming the benefits of being in proximity to Seaworld speak of the allure of themed worlds within worlds. Enfolded hyperrealities. Not only do you live in a city whose population has expanded over 400 fold since the 1970s, but there are heterotopic zones within zones at work here expressing what Keller Easterling would call “dispositions”  that is to say, environmental encouragements to behave collectively in certain ways: Much as a ball rolls down an inclined plane, or a small child unselfconsciously expresses a happy or sad disposition.
This remote survey of Shenzhen residential real estate, undertaken in the month of October 2019 and reduced to that suite of products available to an Anglophone expatriate marketplace, will be necessarily partial, and certainly not impartial.
This means that warnings are required. There is the risk of imposing my western style on a non-western milieu in organizing the available data. How am I apt to categorize the interior motifs I deem worthy of remarking upon from the privilege of my provisional stand-point (more or less white, Euro-Australian itinerant, second-generation migrant, researcher, pedagogue, woman, mother)? What will I not see? You must assume that for the most part the situation will remain obscured. So it goes: the enduring ignorance of partial vision.
No agent fees!
“We work with the newest technology to make the search and renting experience as seamless as possible.”  Much as the city thinks itself in more-than-human ways, it would appear that the city also sells itself across a proliferation of web-based platforms promising the seamless enjoyment of the property.
Lazzarato argues that it is perhaps property rights that “form the most successful individualizing apparatuses of subjectivation.” He argues that “Property is not only an apparatus for economic appropriation but also for the capture and exploitation of non-human subjectivities.”  Here, beyond the human, or with consideration for the more-than-human, environmental relations must be considered. A logic of property rights radically transforms environmental ecologies (constructed and otherwise).
100% real picture! 100% real price!
A general statement can be ventured: The home is a spatial product mobilized en masse. This real estate product is manufactured and mass-customized, but according to a delimited set of parameters.
The ways in which the interior is composed according to an “organisartorial”  logic presents the conceit of individual taste, where in fact the dressing of the interior, once analyzed across a larger data set of products, reveals recurring motifs, spatial platitudes, comforting signifiers you are bound to recognize.
Everyone knows by now that the real estate image is stage-managed. This is a well established contemporary Image of Thought. Spatial products facilitate the departures and returns of the “sedentary nomad”  that you are. Wide-angle lens photography and off-white walls offer a sense of space, beds are mussed, cushions are thrown, just the right amount of things – knick-knacks – are casually composed. This is what Helen Runting and I have called “white, wide, and scattered,”  which in the end only produces a kind of derangement of the indebted subject. All the mussing in the world will not relieve the anxiety and anticipation that plague you when you go in search of a real estate commodity.  Could this be real? Could this be me? Immediately processes of subjectivity collapse into the arrangement of the interior as you attempt to project your life into the comforts of the container. Is it possible to see through the cell wall? Or are you cursed to receive continuously varied feedback of your ego-broadcasted self-image? How will this life tally with your monthly income? And what, finally, of the environment outside?
High Floor, Low Floor
Socio-economic hierarchies are an inevitable part of the real estate game. Where are you on the ladder? Early in your career, or well developed? The search criteria locate you in advance of yourself: single, couple, older, with family. Location, location, location! The cost per square meter nearly always corresponds to what you get. Sometimes, curious exceptions occur. The 1 bedroom apartment that boasts a magnificent view and a large floor area (over 100m2) or the 3 bedroom apartment that is filled with someone else’s dirty laundry.
Of the 96 spatial products available in October 2019 on flatinchina.com, 39 were located in the proximity of the Dongjiaotou Metro, begging the question: What’s happening there? A ‘stub’ on Wikipedia explains that Dongjiatou was formerly an industrial area and is now largely residential. It can be found between Shekou (a free trade zone) and Houhai. Where Trip Advisor suggests there are at least 97 things you can do in Houhai, in Dongjiatou there are at least 144 things you can do, including visiting Seaworld, which is about 2km away.
Nice, nice, nice…
Real Estate arouses a collective affect. The mood of the market not only influences the circulation of spatial products, but where affect is defined as capacity the market ‘affectively’ enables some and disables others. While the logic of the real estate interior would appear to follow the inexorable drive toward keener individuation and co-isolation, at the same time when you multiply these units, affective effects – a capacity to affect and to be affected – are produced across the urban milieu. The interior, even if seemingly hermetically sealed off, produces a material impact on its surroundings, and the relationship is reciprocal. The material semiotics of the situation must be acknowledged. Donna Haraway explains that “material semiotics is always situated, someplace and not noplace, entangled and worldly.”  Even though it is tempting to survey these serial real estate images as disembodied effects, they are pegged to the mundane realities of daily life, alerting you to complex support systems, of which you too often remain ignorant.
The adjective “nice” plays a crucial role in the noourbanographical sample survey undertaken, numbering 96 apartments available in October 2019. Nice apartment, nice view, nice furniture. While etymologies are an old academic game, a sleight of hand even, when it comes to the anodyne word “nice” etymological play is irresistible: Nice reveals an Old French root as “simple, foolish, ignorant” and a Latin forbear in “ignorant, not knowing.”
Photographs of the one-bedroom apartments sometimes appear as though they have been taken with a mobile phone. The compositional framing is off-kilter, extraneous details come into focus, the lighting is murky. Also, beds are stripped of their dressing. Out of necessity refrigerators are positioned beside couches. At the same time, much is shared with the 2 and 3 bedroom apartments with respect to the interior accouterments. Pillows are thrown, potted plants and flowers are arranged.
Once you arrive at the three-bedroom apartments the recurrence of designer and faux designer furniture pieces is worth remarking upon. Feature ceiling lights. Brand name kitchen fittings. There are signs of more concerted and declarative styling. The apartments not only promise a “nice view” but visibly display an outside framed for landscape consumption. Mountains visible here, the sea there.
A survey of 2 and 3 bedroom apartments reveals a proliferation of black patches on living room walls. Flat screen televisual devices where the “nice view” flickers when you channel surf. Co-isolated, plugged-in.
The “nice view” can be further categorized under “sea” or “garden view”. In most cases the view is simply “nice”, but on rare occasions, it is “wonderful”, as in, a “wonderful sea view”. And on one occasion, at least, the quality of the view is rated as “fantastic.”
It is nearly twenty years ago now that Zoe Sofia (aka Sofoulis) published her essay Container Technologies in the feminist theory journal Hypatia, named for an ancient Greek philosopher, a woman who dared to think. She tells the story of the technologically augmented human expectation of endless supply, smoothly delivered amidst “facilitating environments.”  Her aim is to realign habitual associations of technology with what Cauter calls “hot machines” , projectile, fast, destructive. Instead, she draws attention to the container, the bowl, the preservative jar, the gunny sack, and relates containment to supply. Containment and supply provide support to (human) organisms, because: “The organism cannot be considered apart from the habitat that houses it.”  Drawing on the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, and framing a noological thesis of her own, Sofia argues that the mind is immanent both to the body and to the ecological pathways and messages circulating outside the body. Individual minds collaborate forming a larger Mind or system, drawing attention to the fundamental role of the environmental milieu.
The nice view assumes a point of view on things, on a landscape, on what can be called a posthuman landscape of things.  This is not to assume the passing away of the human species (even though this is a highly likely future scenario) but the technological augmentation of the human subject as enfolded process of subjectification plugged into urbanized milieu.
Your point of view is your opinion, and when we survey you, when a poll of a body politic is taken (like taking its temperature), we secure a read-out on a noopolitical situation: Populism, the rise of the right, terrorism, insecurity, interleaved with daily bouts of voracious consumption-production. Individuation processes spell out the collapse of social relationalities. Experiments in participatory forms only prove how incompetent you have become at getting along with each other.
This noourbanographical survey is but a sample, an “irrational section cut”  through an immediate present. Each empty apartment awaits its next subject; they are capture devices that captivate and yet en masse they provide the necessary support systems for the endurance of a life. Noopolitics manifests as the bare life of data in the unholy hybrid of individual and dividual hooked into a reticulated network of stoppages and flows. “The network obscures the capsule…We don’t live in the network, we live in capsules.”  And yet, can it be stated with such ease where life is supposed to be located? Is it not rather more distributed? Container technologies speak to the reticulated distribution of life, any life whatever, both containment and supply.
In closing, it is crucial to acknowledge a debt to other noourbanographical experiments. I also note in passing by way of explanatory remark that I have deliberately deployed the singular/plural personal pronoun ‘you’, for it carves out a vacated subject position. Who are you?
First, I acknowledge what I have learnt from the work of Helen Runting, also with the design studio Secretary International (Karin Matz, Rutger Sjögrim, Helen Runting). The critical design experiments they have been undertaking include the compilation of architectural data to make an account, for instance, of the “continuous surface of the welfare state.”  and before that – in an earlier studio formation called Svensk Standard – a cross-section through plans for multi-residential high-rise developments in Stockholm, Sweden in the year 2014. In Bygglovsboken the Svenk Standard team compiled what they call an “uncurated catalogue” of “Unfiltered raw data, cross-sectional exposé”  revealing the organization of the life of the interior. They construct architectural data-bases to render evident the outcomes of collective thinking at the scale of a local population. In such undertakings, including my own, the challenge of how best to ‘follow the material’ is a crucial consideration.
Second, in their recent critical design experiment commissioned for the 2018 Venice Biennale of Architecture, Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg, and Ani Vihervaa speculate on views of the distinctly Swiss “unfurnished interior”, which they artfully mash together in a multi-scalar fun-house spatial collage. The popular and award-winning Svizzera 240: House Tour project includes in its documentation an index of interior images, a database compiling a cross-section through the unfurnished interiors of the Swiss context. Ceiling heights range around a 240cm average, hence the title of their project, with two exceptions to prove the rule, ceilings of 360cm and 544cm. Drawing on amassed data their approach is one of critical demonstration. With this data, as they explain, “instead of representing building, they build representations.”  Beyond visualizing they manufacture spatio-material condensation machines of the contemporary (Swiss) interior. In the database of images of the unfurnished interiors, from which their spatial collage is derived, there is expressed a predominance of white walls, low ceilings, and a resounding emptiness. These qualities present the conceit of a blank canvas upon which to compose your life. But the key observation concerns the homogenous consistency, and the prevalence of the 240cm ceiling height: “what sort of norms, of preconceived ideas and feelings, are such images intended to convey?”  Less than any intention, there is simply effect produced, the unwitting spatial thinking-together of a localized population.
Even if adopted with regional variations, you can assume that such effects are globally multiplied. They are effects we are now obliged to environmentally contend with. Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers often repeats the Deleuzian imperative: You must think by the milieu.  But what happens when the milieu begins to think you? Stengers warns of a coming barbarism in terms of our unthinking together.  Against this tide counter-moves are required that are environmental as well as cognitive: Think we must!
- 1 - Google Search, Seaworld Shenzhen. Accessed 15 October 2019.
- 2 - Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity, Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2014, 37.
- 3 - Deborah Hauptman and Warren Neidich, eds. (eds) Cognitive Architecture: From Biopolitics to Noopolitics. Architecture and Mind in the Age of Communication. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2010.
- 4 - Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.
- 5 - Ibid.
- 6 - Lieven de Cauter, The Capsular Civilization: On the City in the Age of Fear. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2004.
- 7 - Ibid.
- 8 - Peter Sloterdijk, Foams: Spheres III. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2016, 537.
- 9 - Ibid, 529.
- 10 - Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies.” In Negotiations, 177–82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Cauter, The Capsular Civilization, 2004.
- 11 - Cauter, The Capsular Civilization 2004, 82.
- 2 - Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. New York: Verso, 2014.
- 3 - Flat in China. https://www.flatinchina.com Accessed 11 October 2019
- 4 - Lazzarato, Signs and Machines, 2014, 35.
- 5 - Hélène Frichot and Helen Runting, 2016.
- 6 - Cauter 2004, 79.
- 7 - Helen Runting and Hélène Frichot, “White, Wide and Scattered: Picturing (Her) Housing Career.” In Teresa Stoppani, Giorgio Ponzo, and George Themistokleous (eds), This Thing Called Theory, 231–41, London: Routledge,
- 8 - See Hélène Frichot and Helen Runting, “The Queue” in Overgrowth, e-flux architecture, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/overgrowth/282654/the-queue/ 2019.
- 9 - Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 4
- 20 - Zoe Sofia [Sofoulis], ”Container Technologies” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2000, 181.
- 21 - Cauter, 2004, 79.
- 22 - Sofia, “Container Technologies” 181.
- 23 - See Hélène Frichot, Creative Ecologies: Theorizing the Practice of Architecture, London: Bloomsbury, 2018.
- 24 - See Miriam von Schantz and Hélène Frichot, ”On the Irrational Section Cut” in
- 25 - Cauter, The Capsular Civilization, 2004, 85.
- 26 - Secretary International (Karin Matz, Helen Ruting, Rutger Sjögrim), The Continuous Surface of the Welfare State, 2017-2018. http://www.secretary.international/tcsotw.html Accessed 18 October 2019.
- 27 - Svensk Standard, Bygglovsboken: Flerbostadshus, Stockholm, 2014. svenskstandard.org.
- 28 - Alessandro Bosshard, Li Tavor, Matthew van der Ploeg, and Ani Vihervaa, “Svizzera 240: House Tour.” In Adam Jasper ed. House Tour: Views of the Unfurnished Interior. Zurich: Park Books, 2018, 152.
- 29 - Marianne Burki, “Epilogue” in Adam Jasper ed. House Tour: Views of the Unfurnished Interior. Zurich: Park Books, 2018, 154.
- 30 - Isabelle Stengers, “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices” Cultural Studies Review, 11 (1), 2005. 183–96.
- 31 - Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: The Coming Barbarism, Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press and Meson Press, 2015.
About the Author:
Architectural theorist and philosopher, writer and critic, Professor Hélène Frichot (PhD) is the Director of Critical Studies in Architecture, School of Architecture, KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) Stockholm, Sweden. Her research examines the transdisciplinary field between architecture and philosophy, with an emphasis on feminist theories and practices. In 2020 she joins the Faculty of Architecture, Construction and Planning, University of Melbourne, Australia as Professor of Architecture and Philosophy. She is the author of Creative Ecologies: Theorizing the Practice of Architecture (Bloomsbury 2018) and How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool (AADR 2016).
Opening in December, 2019 in Shenzhen, China, "Urban Interactions" is the 8th edition of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The exhibition consists of two sections, namely “Eyes of the City” and “Ascending City”, which will explore the evolving relationship between urban space and technological innovation from different perspectives. The “Eyes of the City" section features MIT professor and architect Carlo Ratti as Chief Curator and Politecnico di Torino-South China University of Technology as Academic Curator. The "Ascending City" section features Chinese academician Meng Jianmin and Italian art critic Fabio Cavallucci as Chief Curators.
"Eyes of The City" section
Chief Curator: Carlo Ratti.
Academic Curator: South China-Torino Lab (Politecnico di Torino - Michele Bonino; South China University of Technology - Sun Yimin)
Executive Curators: Daniele Belleri [CRA], Edoardo Bruno, Xu Haohao
Curator of the GBA Academy: Politecnico di Milano (Adalberto Del Bo)
"Ascending City" section
Chief Curators: Meng Jianmin, Fabio Cavallucci
Co-Curator: Science and Human Imagination Center of Southern University of Science and Technology (Wu Yan)
Executive Curators: Chen Qiufan, Manuela Lietti, Wang Kuan, Zhang Li