On the Mode of Existence of Smart Urban Object

On the Mode of Existence of Smart Urban Object

Lukáš Likavčan takes us on a rich and satisfying philosophical journey. From Agamben's apparatus, through Hegel's positive religion (in contemporary robes), on to its materialization in Graeber's fetishes, the author reads the smart objects that are at the basis of the smart city paradigm as fetishes of sorts. In this perspective, it is necessary to redefine the autonomy of humans through an act of reverse prostheticization: what position should humans occupy in the technosphere? And what kind of relationships are emerging, or are being consolidated, between us (humans) and them (objects)? By accepting a collective vision of intelligence as a product of human and non-human data, it is possible to move away from the notion of fetish, towards an anti-narcissistic condition that sees humans as one of the entities having agency in a universe that has moved far beyond the phenomenological.  

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.

1. The saints are coming

In cities across Italy, something quite unusual has been happening in 2004 – the figure of a new holy person known as “San Precario” occurred here: “the patron saint of precarious, casualised, sessional, intermittent, temporary, flexible, project, freelance and fractional workers.”[1] San Precario begins as a secular and ironic appropriation of religious cults, typical for many Catholic countries, but at the same time, it transcends its arbitrary, artificial origin: it becomes an effective tool to educate people around Italy about the poor conditions of the precarious workforce, to spread awareness of collective solidarity, and to mobilize workers in strikes and upheavals.[2] One can observe here a peculiar revival of religiosity – a figure of the saint becomes a publicly recognized and effective mediator of the culture and politics. Awful enough to the secular mind, the saints are coming; painstakingly kept in quarantine far away from our everyday lives, these saints knock on the doors, invading our secular world.

However, it is important to note what kind of religiosity these saints bring about. Drawing from Giorgio Agamben’s notes on Hegel philosophy of religion, one can distinguish between natural religion and positive religion: “While natural religion is concerned with the immediate and general relation of human with the divine, positive or historical religion encompasses the set of beliefs, rules, and rites that in a certain historical moment are externally imposed on an individual.”[3] The positivity in the concept of “positive religion” denotes for Hegel those historical elements that condition philosophical thinking in a given epoch.[4] These “historical elements” are “the set of institutions, of processes of subjectivation, and of rules in which power relations become concrete.”[5] According to Agamben, the idea of positivity is then translated into the work of Michel Foucault as the notion of dispositif, i.e. an apparatus: “anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.”[6] Hence, while speaking about San Precario (and other saints), it is not that much a figure of hermetic mediation between God and the Church: it is on contrary a simple, earthly crystallization of new material-semiotic apparatuses – of the positivities (or dispositifs) endemic to given socio-historical constellation, the becoming of yet another positive religion.

2. Fetishes are gods under the process of construction

The curious case of San Precario belongs to a very wide class of practices of social creativity, related to objects known to social anthropologists as “fetishes”. According to David Graeber, “a fetish is a god under the process of construction”[7] – it is an object that serves as a singularity mediating and petrifying cultures. An invention of a fetish equals Graeber to an institution of a new practice, and thus it is an expression of social creativity, defined “as the creation of new social forms and institutional arrangements.”[8] There is a long philosophical and anthropological tradition of thinking about fetishism. One notable example is Karl Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism”,[9] which according to Graeber falls victim to a misreading of fetishism as the production of illusions, when “[w]e create things, and then because we don’t understand how we did it, we end up treating our own creations as if they had power over us.”[10] Graeber believes that instead of seeing fetishism as a mode of alienation from products of our own creative activity (the Marxian approach), we should simply approach it as a very profane practice of the invention of new rules and social institutions mediated by objects. In this perspective, one arrives at a very simple understanding of fetishism as a design practice, where things we make in turn re-make us.

Cities are collective design objects: material concentrations and compressions of positive religion. They are the sites of deployment of Agambenian apparatuses, creating layered infrastructural settings constantly conditioning movements of bodies in space. They are also primordial sites of social creativity. However, with arrival of smart cities discourse, our usual understanding of the social collapses – the smart urban objects (autonomous vehicles, robots, sensing surfaces, recording devices etc.) populate the social sphere in increasing numbers, rotating the social towards its more-than-human future. In this sense, a smart urban object becomes a fetish of the future – an object that enters social relations, formatting these relations with its power to institute new rules. After all, it is exactly the capacity for self-determination – or self-legislation – that is a theoretical kernel of what we use to call autonomy.[11] Thus, thanks to smart cities, it might be clear that fetishism is a practice of conspiring the social realm with objects in the world, which has always been the case: culture and sociality inevitably involve objects that gain a certain degree of autonomy.

Fig 1: Labour Hong Kong, image by the Author.
Fig 1: Labour Hong Kong, image by the Author.

3. Autonomy and communal rationality

What is important to keep in mind is that fetishism involves dynamics of subject/object reversals – the object is suddenly treated as an autonomous agent. Benjamin Bratton calls these dynamics reverse prostheticization, when “the subject becomes an object, the self becomes substance, the body becomes metabolic reserve, food machines consume you.”[12] In these uncanny reversals, we humans can gain an outside view on ourselves, following Reza Negarestani’s work on the philosophy of artificial intelligence.[13] This outside view becomes a new stage of Hegelian communal self-reflection of humankind.[14] Throughout history, fetishes serve as instruments of this self-reflection, whether in the form of religion or in its other modalities, thus contributing to the institution of new types of communal rationality. As an example, consider the proliferation of technical objects that condition the way how we think in the 21st century – our ways of accessing and processing information are rapidly formatted by platforms that navigate communal intelligence, such as search engines, online databases and so on. For this reason, one might claim that the history of rationality is technically mediated, and the project of artificial intelligence – realized in the form of smart urban objects – is a continuation of this history.

The stage in which we occur now marks a redistribution of rational competences, shifting its focus from humans to more-than-human agents. The advent of artificial intelligence reveals that we have always been surrounded by autonomous objects – or fetishes, if you will – working with us in the acts of thinking. As Matteo Pasquinelli says: “Artificial intelligence is animism for the rich, we might say. Or alternatively: animism is a sort of artificial intelligence made in the absence of electricity.”[15] In this process, we see how thinking itself has always been external to the human: we “merely” mediate thought, and we do so while surrounded by an ensemble of fetishes. This insight is central to the outside view on ourselves: we are only a part of a metabolic nexus of thinking.

4. Ethics of metabolic multitude

As autonomy becomes property of smart urban objects, we can simultaneously observe a slow take-off of an independent evolutionary trajectory of this technical ensemble, creating a kind of a general ecology of the technosphere, of which cities are intermediary articulations.[16] In this not-so-human version of the city-to-come, Paul Virilio’s vision of metabolic multitude and habitable circulation is enacted and updated[17] – humans become not only temporary media of architectural innovation and urban development but of intelligence itself: intelligence which otherwise exists in many forms and genres, from mineral to biological, from sub-individual to collective. With the advent of this technosphere, questions related to when to treat ourselves as autonomous individuals, and when to approach our existence as a part of a larger torrential force-field, stands at the forefront of future ethics (and politics) of urban design. In a way, old modernist dilemmas are revived, while divested of the humanist teleology at their core – ensembles of smart urban objects reveal that the condition of autonomy is to mobilize the inhuman in the human, echoing words of Jean-François Lyotard: “What if human beings, in humanism's sense, were in the process of, constrained into, becoming inhuman (that's the first part)? And (the second part), what if what is 'proper' to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?”[18] 

The process of becoming inhuman might have at least two results, and I hope for its latter version – either we copy-paste existing urban borders and environmental injustices from architecture of built environment to digital infrastructures and protocols of smart urban objects, or we substitute this regime of governance by division of urban space for the regime of generic universality.[19] While the former simply stands for investing the mirror image of existing lines of division into the public realm – a project which is already pursued in urban design – the latter seeks to establish a lowest common denominator for sharing the urban realm. This denominator is not any kind of old ethical (or political) value, but the simple position in an abstract address space of an urban ecosystem. It does not strip the elements of a metabolic multitude of their value, but it makes their value relational and situated – just as each biological species in the forest contributes to the general choreography of the forest as an ecosystem (metabolizing different products of those species related to them in their respective region of the network), the generic universality of urban space sees each genre of intelligence as valid input into communal rationality distributed over a manifold of agents and their modalities.[20] Here lies also an opportunity to learn from those ontological imaginations outside of the scope of Western modernity.

Fig 2: Hong Kong immigration robot, image by the Author.
Fig 2: Hong Kong immigration robot, image by the Author.

5. Non-narcissistic theory of alienation

Another productive aspect of this emergence of communal intelligence mediated by a technical ensemble of smart urban objects is related to an opportunity to highlight those alienations that can actually move us completely elsewhere – outside of the confines of simple dialectics of fetishism, where the objects we produce simply mirror ourselves. Both Marx’s and Graeber’s view on fetishism relies on these dialectics. For this reason, they both fall under the rubric of what I would call a narcissistic theory of fetishism. In the Greek myth of Narcissus, a young and beautiful male investigates his own mirror reflection on the surface of the pond, falls in love with this image and eventually falls into the pond. Yet, we might interpret this tale not only as a parable about self-congratulatory egoism, but also as a story about the discovery of a portal to the great outdoors of planetary reality – the diagram of an escape of the human into the inhuman that Lyotard’s question provokes. The pond stands in such an interpretation for an abyss that lurks just beneath the safe space of things intimately mirroring ourselves. Falling into this abyss means entering a realm that in its general indifference towards human beings brings an opportunity to develop a sense of generic universality. Perhaps the assemblage of smart urban objects brings this challenge to our contemporary situation: a promise of transporting ourselves into a realm where we are not the phenomenological centre of the universe, but a collective of silent agents co-curating the torrents of the planetary matter and intelligent processes, contributing to epistemic diversity of the universe itself. A potential credo of future ethics and politics of urban design thus goes as follows: Woe to those who seek to model the complex reality of urban ecosystems by an image that privileges their endemic culture of intelligence and creativity. On the contrary, carefully mixing and aligning different cultures of intelligence in multistable assemblages is the premise of this design genre.


  • 1 -  Marcello Tarì and Ilaria Vanni, “On the Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives”, The Fibreculture Journal 5, 2015.
  • 2 -  Ibid.
  • 3 -  Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? (Stanford University Press, 2009), 4 [emphasis LL].
  • 4 -  Ibid., 5-6.
  • 5 -  Ibid., 6.
  • 6 -  Ibid., 14.
  • 7 -  David Graeber, “Fetishism as social creativity: or, Fetishes are gods in the process of construction”, Anthropological Theory 5(4), 2005.
  • 8 -  Ibid.
  • 9 - Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (Penguin, 1992), 163-177.
  • 10 - David Graeber, “Fetishism as social creativity: or, Fetishes are gods in the process of construction”, Anthropological Theory 5(4), 2005.
  • 11 - James Trafford and Pete Wolfendale, “Editorial Introduction: Alien Vectors. Accelerationism, xenofeminism, inhumanism”, Angelaki 24(1), 2019, 7-8.
  • 12 - Benjamin Bratton, The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2015), 274.
  • 13 - Reza Negarestani, Intelligence and Spirit (Urbanomic, 2018), 123-129.
  • 14 - Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology. The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge University Press 1994),221-268.
  • 15 - Matteo Pasquinelli. “Abnormal Encephalization in the Age of Machine Learning”, e-flux journal 75, September 2016.
  • 16 - Gilbert Simodon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (Univocal, 2017), 18; Erich Hörl, “A Thousand Ecologies”, in The Whole Earth. California and the Disappearance of the Outside, eds. Anselm Franke and Diedrich Diederichsen (Sternberg Press, 2013), 128.
  • 17 - Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics (Semiotext(e), 2006), 106
  • 18 - Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman. Reflections on Time, (Stanford University Press, 1991), 2.
  • 19 - Bogna Konior, “Generic humanity: interspecies technologies, climate change & non-standard animism”, Transformations 30, 2017.
  • 20 - The forest emerges as an important design template out of the work of Jennifer Gabrys or Paulo Tavares. See Jennifer Gabrys, “Becoming Planetary”, e-flux architecture, October 2018; Paulo Tavares, “In The Forest Ruins”, e-flux architecture, December 2016.

About the Author

Lukáš Likavčan is a researcher and theorist, elaborating on topics of philosophy of technology and political ecology. He studied philosophy at Masaryk University (Brno), where he is currently concluding his PhD studies in environmental humanities, and sociology at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul). As a researcher, he was based at Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien (Vienna), The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Hong Kong), and BAK, basis voor actuele kunst (Utrecht). He teaches at Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU (Prague) and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow), where he also graduated from The New Normal education program in 2018.

"Urban Interactions": Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) - 8th edition. Shenzhen, China

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

About this author
Cite: Lukáš Likavčan. "On the Mode of Existence of Smart Urban Object" 19 May 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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